If you want to see whether Google and Facebook are serious about fixing their mutual problems with privacy and misinformation, watch what happens at their upcoming annual showcases.
A few weeks from now, Facebook and Google will hold their yearly developer conferences, massive events meant to celebrate their platforms and visions for the future. They're typically packed full of grand pronouncements, flashy demos, and Google Glass-wearing skydivers or CEO-impersonating celebrities. Bands play. Drinks flow. They are spectacles, intended to ignite enthusiasm and burnish the Facebook and Google brands. But after a year in which Facebook and Google played pivotal roles in spreading misinformation and were exposed as data-greedy growth goblins, there should be little cause for celebration.
If the platforms are serious about healing themselves, you should be able to see it in a show that's more about fixing what's broken rather than building something new. And if they aren’t serious? Expect the same shiny, happy-fun wow-fests. If the onstage apology is shorter than the post-show afterparty, it will make clear that the contrition tours of 2017 and 2018 have been little more than lip service, and we can expect more of the same old fuckups and same old promises to do better.
In 2018 spending millions on rah-rah promotional spectacles for platforms like Facebook’s and Google’s is particularly unseemly when set against the conga line of travesties they’ve enabled.
What might 2019 look like if instead of dumping a manure spreader of money to rent out Mountain View, California’s cavernous Shoreline Amphitheatre and trick it out with 1,000-foot earth harps and other Burningmanalia, Google directed those resources towards developing moderation solutions that might have prevented the propagation of exploitative videos aimed at and starring children on YouTube — or prohibited mass shooting conspiracy theories from showing up in Google's “top stories” search results? Or if instead of hiring Chvrches or Chance the Rapper to serenade developers, Facebook redirected those resources to repairing a massive, global platform that clearly incentivizes users to spread fake news faster than credible, verified reports?
This year instead of promising to “continue to look at ways to improve,” as Google did when it and YouTube spread fake news and propaganda about a Texas mass shooting suspect (just one month after the latter announced reforms intended to prevent such things from happening), just improve.
This year instead of promising to “work to fix the product,” as Facebook did when it inadvertently promoted conspiracy theories shared by users following an Amtrak crash, it should just fix its broken product.
The counter-argument is that these conferences are developer events. Google and Facebook need to entice devs to build apps for their platforms! That’s the business! Apps translate to utility and utility brings people. And people equals money. The more apps, the more people. The more people, the more money. It's all one big virtuous capitalistic circle, the kind of thing that spurs innovation. Uber, Lyft, Instagram, Snap — they were all built on someone else's platform.
True! But equally true is that fake news outperformed real news on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election. And that YouTube suggested videos promoting conspiracy theories in its Kids app. And there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And Texas shooter hoaxes on Google. And the spread of the misinformation over Facebook Messenger that’s contributed to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. And extremists in Sri Lanka who used Facebook to organize deadly violence against Muslims.
Recently, BuzzFeed News asked Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg this:
Over the years Facebook has had a number of privacy and security missteps. After each one it's apologized and promised to do better. Brexit. The 2016 election. Myanmar. Cambridge Analytica. Last week you took out full-page ads in a number of major publications saying "We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can't, we don't deserve it. ... I promise to do better for you."
Why should we trust you?
“What we think is really important is the actions we’re taking. It’s not about what we say, it’s what we do,” Sandberg replied.
The next day, the company admitted to secretly using a private tool to delete old messages from CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Look, Facebook, to use your own metric: It's not about what you say. It's time to do something.
Instead of touting the next big thing, Facebook and Google might do well to focus on the current thing and solve the problems that they have so far failed miserably and repeatedly to address. And perhaps instead of pushing developers to rally around a seventy-dozenth new messaging client, augmented reality experiences, and AI-powered personal assistants, Facebook and Google should own up to their mistakes and get developers excited about their platforms by fixing them.
What good can come from introducing a new suite of world-changing products without first repairing the glaring, gaping holes inside ones that have already changed the world?