During his testimony before Congress Tuesday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg mentioned artificial intelligence 10 times. It first came up when Senator John Thune asked Zuckerberg about “the line between legitimate political discourse and hate speech,” wondering what steps Facebook takes when deciding “what is and what is not hate speech?”
Artificial intelligence, Zuckerberg replied, before noting its current limitations. Hate speech, he said, is more difficult for A.I. to find and manage than, say, terrorist content, which has more easily identifiable markers. For an A.I. program to crack down on hate speech, Zuckerberg said, it would need to understand “what is a slur and… whether something is hateful not just in English, but the majority of people on Facebook use it in languages that are different across the world,” Zuckerberg said.
But, “over a five- to 10-year period, we will have A.I. tools that can get into some of the nuances — the linguistic nuances of different types of content to be more accurate in flagging things for our systems,” Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg’s desire to point us toward the next phase of Facebook’s development is notable. Because Facebook isn’t just hoping to use artificial intelligence. Facebook is a leading developer of artificial intelligence. And while Zuckerberg espoused the possibilities of powerful A.I. that recognizes the difference between hate speech and civil debate, he neglected to mention how Facebook is creating it: with more of our personal data.
Facebook saves every word, photo, and video we upload to its platform — even, apparently, the stuff that we think we’ve deleted. Using this massive trove of images and words, Facebook has set about developing computer programs that will recognize one thing from another without human intervention. Artificial intelligence can do great things, like stop impending suicides, but it can also help in other, less altruistic, areas — like advertising. Powerful A.I. that understands images as well as language might, for instance, one day make targeting ads or messages possible based on what surrounds you in a photo, or what you say in a video.
But not one of the senators pressed Zuckerberg on any of that Tuesday. None of them asked him to explain how that A.I. was built or how it works. Or even if it works. And certainly none of them seemed to grasp the deeper, more disturbing meaning or implications of Facebook’s A.I. and Zuckerberg’s faith in it — even when he gave them an opening. If they had, they might have come closer to figuring out what they — and we — are really grappling with: the totality of the attention economy Facebook has helped create.
It’s important to understand that, when Facebook started down this current path, it wasn’t necessarily by design. In the beginning, it would not have been completely clear that personal data might be used in the way its been alleged that Cambridge Analytica did (ie. to profile people in order to target them with divisive political ads and swing an election). Instead, the goal was more likely to simply accumulate user data, knowing it had some value, and in the hopes that a new kind of market for it could be created.
Facebook then found a way to create that market.
Facebook’s massive influence and hold on information has not only helped shape the internet, but by extension, our entire economy — giving small businesses a platform they might never have had; offering people a way to connect in a way never before possible; and completely transforming fields like advertising, retail, media, and government.
In the meantime, it has been allowed to operate beyond the scope of regulations that might have in the past curtailed its monopolistic tendencies. And so it has come to pass that much of the internet now operates around rules created by Facebook, in how information is spread (likes, shares, retweets) and how personal data is collected and monetized, but also aesthetically — the site’s minimalist look and infinite scroll are now ubiquitous. Of course, what this influence has also meant is that many of Facebook’s worst attributes — trolling, shit-posts, memes, hoaxes — are now everywhere else, too.
“Those who benefit from the death of privacy attempt to frame our subjugation in terms of freedom, just like early factory owners talked about the sanctity of contract law. They insisted that a worker should have the right to agree to anything, from sixteen-hour days to unsafe working conditions, as if factory owners and workers were on an equal footing,” web developer and entrepreneur Maciej Cegłowski said in a speech last April.
“Companies that perform surveillance are attempting the same mental trick,” Ceglowski explained. “They assert that we freely share our data in return for valuable services. But opting out of surveillance capitalism is like opting out of electricity, or cooked foods — you are free to do it in theory. In practice, it will upend your life.”
We can never leave Facebook. It’s permeance has made it permanent. Even if somehow it were shut down, what it helped create would remain.
This is why Zuckerberg’s insistence that the only solution to a problem caused by technology he helped build is still more technology he is helping to build, is not just glib; it’s telling of the deeply horrible hole we’ve all dug ourselves into.
Even if you successfully quit Facebook and all other forms of social media, the structures it has helped create still follow you. Because of Facebook, wherever we go online we are not only monitored and traced, with our every action mined for monetary potential, but we’re also susceptible to that same hate speech that so worries Senator Thune — the targeting by trolls, bots, or bigots spreading messages that are at the very least offensive and at the very worst designed to hurt us personally. The language of the internet is, in more ways than one, the language of Facebook.
This is Zuckerberg’s infinite loop. Facebook helped create the internet and the society we feel we must now fix. And conveniently enough, according to Zuckerberg, Facebook is already working on that fix. The dark reality of our situation means that we cannot dismiss Zuckerberg’s desire to discuss A.I. as a mere deflection. We have to listen, because unfortunately, he knows best the truth at the heart of his machine: The only solution ever to Facebook is more Facebook.