Is Facebook a psychopath?

Everyone’s favorite boogeyman is in the news again...

Everyone’s favorite boogeyman is in the news again: Facebook.

Here, even Republicans and Democrats seem to agree—as they share photos of cute animals over group chat.

By now, news have quickly spread that a Facebook whistleblower has testified that the company is well aware that the platform is being used to spread misinformation and content that can harm young people, in particular, by exploiting negative emotions to keep them engaged longer, but refuses to make changes that would hurt its bottom line.  

Basically, data scientist Frances Haugen has testified to what we already knew for years via…common sense—no special studies or leaks required. But, cue the outrage anyways.

Here’s the thing though: Legally a company isn’t required to care about its consumers. A corporation by its nature always acts in its self-interest. That self-interest is generally cold hard cash. To expect for a public corporation to truly care about ethics or display empathy is rather naive. It’s a corporation, after all, not a human.

A corporation may pretend to care about social issues, or, say, the environment, but at the end of the day it only does so if it serves its own self-interests in some way. In a way, it can be likened to a psychopath.  Actually, back in 2004, when I interviewed former Rhodes Scholar and Oxford/Harvard graduate Joel Bakan, who wrote the bestselling book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, which was later adapted into a documentary—that’s exactly what he had suggested:

“As a law student, when you learn about the corporation, you learn two fundamental things,” he told me, “You learn that the corporation is a person and deemed a person by the law, and you also learn that the fundamental operating principle of the corporation is that it has to serve its own self interests. So it is kind of an obvious connection that a person that is incapable of being concerned about other people, that's a psychopath…a metaphorical illustration of the fact that the corporation is an institution that is legally mandated to serve its own self-interest.”

Consider this: General Motors at one point was knowingly making cars that would blew up due to the positioning of the fuel tank and the absence of a metal brace. They had estimated that this would result in approximately 500 yearly fatalities and to settle such lawsuits would cost $200,000 per fatality. But it was still cheaper than placing a metal brace in each vehicle to fix the issue. The cost-benefit analysis was done and they’ve decided to go ahead and release those vehicles, uncorrected, despite knowing it would cost lives. Were it not for a leaked internal memo, we wouldn’t have even known. If that’s not psychopath level behavior, I don’t know what is? (UPDATE: a reader shared the following New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell arguing that GM didn’t actually do anything wrong. You be the judge).

Over the years, corporations have only gained more power, to the point that the most ginormous amongst them are able to exalt tremendous power on the very institutions that are supposed to govern them: Governments.

So the question then becomes: How does one make it in the interest of the corporation to act in the best interests of its customers and society?

There’s a few ways this can be achieved:

  • Consumer behavior: If a large enough group of people decided not to support a company, through its actions, it can influence the company since it might hurt its profits.

  • Similarly, shareholders in a company may attempt to influence executives by voting against them when they take a position they don’t approve of.  That said, only very few shareholders have enough shares to truly directly impact the behavior of a corporation. You’re also relying on the goodwill of these shareholders, and they may be more motivated by profits themselves.

This brings us to…

  • Legislation and regulation.

This is always a tricky subject because while governments may even have good intentions as to why they legislate, their attempts often result in negative consequences. That said, since the corporation due to its inherent nature cannot be relied on to “care” about its impact on things like human health and rights, environment, etc, it’s impossible to avoid regulation fully. The billion dollar question, of course, is: How do you do it right? How do you balance allowing a level of corporate freedom and opportunity, while protecting citizens.

That isn’t to say that all corporations, or even social media platforms, are bad. They have the capacity to do much good. Yes, even Facebook. The platform allows us to stay in touch with family and friends we may not see so often, share interesting information, buy and sell furniture, belong to professional groups, and so much more. If it was all negative, it’s doubtful many would log in.  And, if we’re honest with ourselves, even as we praised the outage on Monday, many of us missed it. We need to acknowledge this.

But, of course it has its issues too.

Privacy is one. And then there’s the matter of Facebook studying you to such an extent that it might be more familiar with your habits and choices than many of your friends. And it uses that data to influence your decision-making. It’s all about algorithms and cold calculations. It creates thought bubbles because it wants to give you more of what you like in the hopes that you’d linger around a bit longer. It ranks posts not on quality, but rather on engagement. So if you live in a world where a bikini photo will be ranked higher than a deep analysis of some scientific discovery…well…you can see where this rabbit hole goes.

Haugen, your friendly neighborhood whistleblower, has some suggestions on that front: Sorting posts in chronological order and requiring an extra click before sharing (sort of like what Twitter recently implemented when they ask me if I am sure I want to share an article I haven’t read). These changes are actually rather sensible and easy to implement.

Facebook, however, has no incentive to make these changes on its own since this might halt growth and engagement, making it less profitable. A public company’s allegiance is after all, as we’ve gone over, to profit, above anything else. That’s how it’s designed.

That’s why, to protect the interests of the public, it would appear that there is no other tool available to us but regulation. It’s time to rethink the rules of engagement. The trouble is: How do we do this in a way that is not corrupt, serves society and not the agenda of politicians, and does not trump the rights of individuals and our ability to engage openly?

But that’s a conversation for next time.