Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.
This is not a mutually beneficial relationship, as the platforms like to say; it’s a parasitic one . Social media hoovers up our energy and most intimate data, and in return we get anxiety and the destabilization of democracy .It’s gotten to the point where the tech giants know more about you than the government does. Take it from Yael Eisenstat, who served as a CIA officer, a diplomat in East Africa, and an adviser to Vice President Biden before joining Facebook in 2018 to tackle its election meddling problem. “I get to make this joke—not everyone does, having been in both places—but Facebook knows you better than the CIA ever will,” she says. “Facebook knows more about you than you know about yourself.”Terrifying, sure, but the platforms that manipulate us for profit may not do so unchecked for much longer. WIRED sat down with Eisenstat to talk about why that is, why she quickly left Facebook, and why lawmakers aren’t as clueless as you think they are.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.WIRED: So going to work for Facebook after working for the CIA is an ... interesting career move. Why did they bring you on board?
Yael Eisenstat: The role on paper was actually right for me. My understanding was that I would be building a brand-new team within the business integrity division, whose responsibility would be to figure out how to keep the platform from being exploited for political purposes or to manipulate elections around the world.
That was just never what the job turned out to be. On day two, my manager let me know she was changing my title from Head of Global Elections Integrity Ops to manager. She basically said she was rethinking what I'm actually responsible for and what I'm not. I did not get to talk about hiring my own team. Everything was chipping away at putting me in a corner and not letting me engage or do the work I was there to do.
WIRED: So why hire you, then? A PR stunt?
Eisenstat: I don't think it was a PR stunt. Honestly, it was the most confusing professional experience of my life. Some people have asked, do you think they hired you to silence you? I wasn't this huge critic of Facebook, but I was starting to headline events and be interviewed more and more. And I actually don't think it was that either. I don't think it's that they don't think they can fix it. I wanted to do way more than they were going to do. That I'm sure of. But again, not on day two. That's the part I can't fully wrap my head around.
Once I walked in that door, I was never once empowered to do the work I was hired to do. And in fact, more than not being empowered, I was purposefully sidelined. It's Facebook, everyone talks about it being a flat organization—everybody talks about how anybody can go talk to anybody. It was never that way for me. My boss intentionally never let me participate in any of the meetings that were specifically about the job I was hired to do. I would ask constantly: I hear you're having a meeting about political advertising, and what we're going to do about it ahead of the midterms. That's what I was told I was going to be leading, and she would not even let me come to those meetings.
WIRED: I assume you had a few ideas for solutions? You were there for six months.
Eisenstat: I do feel like most of the stuff we were doing there was the bare minimum that we could get away with, and I was pushing the envelope, asking questions. What about this, what about that? And I don't think they wanted me to push the envelope. I can't explain why they treated me the way they did.
The foreign interference part—this might sound odd—but that should be the easier part to fix. Of course people can always game it, but there are basic tools you can put in place. There were advertisers who paid in rubles. Those are things that shouldn’t have been that hard to figure out.
Every single solution we were trying to come up with was (a) the bare minimum for the company to be able to check that box, and (b) was still putting the responsibility on someone else. For me, the question is more the systemic underlying issue that's allowing all of this stuff to happen. It is because these are companies whose entire existence depends on keeping us engaged. Keeping our eyes on their platform, keeping our time spent on their products.[In a comment provided to WIRED, Facebook says that as part of its elections work, it blocks millions of fake accounts each day and is expanding its third-party fact-checking program. “We have hundreds of staff working day and night on these important issues,” says Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director of global elections. “We are developing smarter tools, providing greater transparency, forging stronger partnerships, and building better defenses. We learn from each election, and more than anything we are committed to doing everything we can to prevent bad actors from interfering in the democratic process."]
WIRED: That’s the fundamental problem with a free platform like Twitter or Facebook or YouTube: They’re trapped in a business model that requires them to manipulate our attention.Eisenstat: The business model is to keep you engaged. It's not even a question of whether advertising is bad or good. It's a question of, what do they have to do to keep you engaged long enough to get those ads in front of your eyeballs? Their tools are doing what they can to keep us engaged, which is taking us down more and more extreme rabbit holes, which is polarizing us more and more because the salacious talking points and salacious click-baity headlines are what keep people’s eyeballs on their screens. And the more and more you can keep us outraged, keep us angry, keep us polarized, it just makes it that much easier for a Russia to come in and exploit that division.For me the biggest issue to fix is a business model that intentionally feeds on the worst parts of who we are as humans. And yes, people can say, isn't it just human beings? Is it Facebook’s or Google’s or Twitter’s or YouTube’s fault that people love this stuff? It's not their fault, but they are absolutely manipulating it and exacerbating it and getting into our psychology in order to keep us on their screens. So I can't buy the "Isn't it just human nature" argument.WIRED: I think of this relationship as parasitic . When you pick up your phone and check social media you're not thinking, "Welp, that's the dopamine talking, it's just my human nature." They've done this intentionally to capture our attention.
Eisenstat: I think the more that human beings start to realize they're being manipulated, the more this relationship is going to come under pressure. I don't remember Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or YouTube ever asking me what it is that I actually care about, and actually what I want to see when I go on these platforms. They like to use this excuse of, but we're giving you a better user experience, we're making the ads more relevant to you. They're deciding for me, and unfortunately the human mind is not as strong is we all want it to be. I can see when I'm being manipulated.
"The business model is to keep you engaged. It's not even a question of whether advertising is bad or good. It's a question of, what do they have to do to keep you engaged long enough to get those ads in front of your eyeballs?"
Yael EisenstatYour example of the parasitic relationship, I think more and more people are talking about it. Even when we were on the Hill, when Tristan [Harris] was testifying for this Senate hearing on persuasive technologies, he spoke about a lot that really resonated with the senators, this asymmetry of power. This is not just some equal relationship where you're giving them your data and they're serving you more products that make your life easier, including better advertising that's more relevant to you. That's their selling point, but there's a complete asymmetry of power, because they actually have so much information on you that at this point they can even predict your behavior.
WIRED: But are the behavioral aspects informing discussions about regulation? It's easy to say, OK these platforms are powerful, Facebook has billions of users, let's reign them in. But are regulators really starting to look at this as a manipulative, parasitic relationship?Eisenstat: I think some are. Yes, we all remember the Zuckerberg hearing, and we remember how it looked like nobody on the Hill understood Facebook. There are perfect sound bites like the senator asking Zuckerberg how they make their money. Sure, there were some senators who didn't sound brilliant on that stage. But I think we've come a long way since then, actually. The hearing we were just at, the title was Optimizing for Engagement: Understanding the Use of Persuasive Technology on Internet Platforms. What a very interesting title in and of itself for a Senate subcommittee meeting! It already shows they're thinking about this issue. There were some really sharp and insightful questions.There is a talking point in Silicon Valley that I hear over and over again: We better figure this out before government regulates us, because they won't do it right, they're too stupid to figure it out. I'm not saying it's everyone in Silicon Valley, and maybe they don't use the word stupid, but it's this they they they. Government can't figure this out. While it's true that senators aren't all engineers or data scientists, it doesn't mean they're stupid. They're actually thinking about how this affects their constituents, the country, our children, our democracy.
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