Tech Employees Demand Accountability for Health Impact of Social Media Use

By Victoria Kim 02/07/18
“The thought process [behind Facebook was]... ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while."
using phone in bed
These are still relatively new technologies.

Large tech companies have come under scrutiny as of late for not doing enough to address the social impact of their technologies. Now, a group of former Facebook and Google employees has joined the growing movement dedicated to holding those companies accountable, reports The New York Times.

“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president for user growth at Facebook, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business last November. Palihapitiya expressed “tremendous guilt” about helping build Facebook as we know it today.

Based on the growing concern that these companies are not doing enough to examine the potential negative effects of long-term, pervasive iPhone or social media use, the former employees have formed the Center for Humane Technology.

“We were on the inside. We know what the companies measure. We know how they talk, and we know how the engineering works,” said Tristan Harris, a former Google ethicist who is leading the new effort. Being in the unique position to challenge the very companies they helped to build, the coalition—which include former Facebook and Google executives, investors, and technologists—will focus on lobbying efforts and educating the public about the risks of using certain technologies.

Its public awareness campaign (“The Truth About Tech”) will target 55,000 U.S. public schools that will educate students, parents and teachers about the potential risks of these technologies.

The Center will also lobby state and federal legislators in the hopes of influencing the legal limits of technology. And to help guide developers of new technologies, they will publish a Ledger of Harms online to provide data on how different technologies affect health, and to guide engineers who may not be comfortable with creating certain new technologies.

In January, two Apple stakeholders sent a letter asking the company to take responsibility for the potential negative effects of its products. “Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do,” read the letter. The shareholders warned that if Apple does not take action now, for introducing and promoting relatively new technologies with little thought to the long-term consequences, the company may face backlash in the future.

Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, is another who has turned against the company he helped build. In a 2017 interview with Axios, Parker explained the troubling thought process behind Facebook’s creation. “The thought process was all about, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever, and that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments,” said Parker. “It’s a social validation feedback loop… You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who is a part of the Center for Humane Technology, said he’s disgusted by his role in growing the company. “Facebook appeals to your lizard brain—primarily fear and anger,” he said, according to the New York Times. “And with smartphones, they’ve got you for every waking moment… This is an opportunity for me to correct a wrong.”

In January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a feeble attempt at addressing concerns about the social media giant, by announcing a shift in focus to prioritizing “personal connections” that bring people together. However, critics say it will take a lot more than just re-arranging people’s News Feeds to address the potential long-term impact on people’s well-being.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr