Critics warn that Silicon Valley may be undermining democracy and stifling independent thought

Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Larry Page needn’t panic — yet. But alarm bells are ringing across the land, alerting Americans to the fact that almost every aspect of their lives has been captured, catalogued, digitized and monetized by Google, Amazon and Facebook. Not just what we buy and where, but what we think and with whom we share those thoughts. Those very personal predilections have become data the Big Three can use to target and manipulate individuals and industries in order to gain more control and bigger profits. They already control much of our access to knowledge, entertainment and social media, and they’re branching out from there.
No one can dispute the intoxicating ease and speed with which we can now buy things (Amazon), acquire information (Google) and communicate globally (Facebook). But the very titans of tech who’ve made all this wonderful stuff possible now head the globe’s three largest and most powerful monopolies. There are no regulations curbing their bigness or business practices, and some observers liken them to sovereign nations. Known abroad as GAFA (when Apple is included with Google, Amazon and Facebook), they are accused of diminishing democracy and actually messing with our brains by invisibly eroding free will, individuality and the capacity for independent thought.
Critics blame them for narrowing our intellectual options and stifling human creativity in various ways: Facebook is under fire for disseminating fake news (as is becoming clearer with media investigations of Russian ad purchases to sway the 2016 election) and its manipulation of which news and posts users are allowed to see; Google does it by using algorithms to curate what is presented when we search for information of any sort; and Amazon has an overwhelming hold on the retail market for books and much more.
Their concentration of power has overtaken online life, and in the process has deflated entire industries. Since 2001, newspaper and music revenues have fallen 70 percent; film and television profits have also taken dramatic downturns. Jonathan Taplin, an author, film producer and director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC’s School for Communication and Journalism, writes about the phenomenon in his recent book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy (Little, Brown & Co.). He argues that the Big Three have tolerated piracy of books, music and film while at the same time subordinating the privacy of individuals “to create the surveillance marketing monoculture in which we now live.” Intellectual property and the written word have been devalued in this culture, say critics, who point to the decline of principled journalism against the rise of news stories and blogs written not to inform readers but to titillate as clickbait that produces revenue for Facebook and Google. The tale of a Minnesota hunter who killed a lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe, for example, resulted in 3.2 million Google News results while many more important issues were thinly covered.
If all the above sounds like overwrought hyperbole, you’re right. It does sound that way. But just look at where those companies began, and where they are now. And consider several new books on the subject: Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things is described by the publisher as a “stinging polemic that traces the destructive monopolization of the Internet by Google, Facebook and Amazon.” World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (Penguin Press) by Franklin Foer was reviewed by tech scholar Tim Wu as “nothing less than an examination of the future of humanity and what we like to call free will.” And Scott Galloway’s The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google (Portfolio) discusses how “these four most influential companies on the planet are unlike the altruistic image they project and are gross manipulators of the fundamental emotional needs that have driven humans since our ancestors lived in caves.”
How could such seemingly benevolent companies wreak such havoc? Here’s a short, surface overview: We live in an era of big data and algorithms. Data is the new oil — it’s how the Big Three fuel their businesses. We give information away for free with every click, tweet, post, selfie, “like” and card swipe. Every time we do anything online, on any device, we leave a digital trace that is stored and becomes data about each of us. Even offline, the motion sensors on our phones reveal where, how often and how far we travel. These kajillions of pieces of information form a psycho-demographic profile of our lives — what we believe, what we like, where we go, what we buy, how we are likely to vote. The companies collect the data invisibly and harness it via algorithms they design. The algorithms sort and organize the data automatically, selecting what content should be displayed to a user, what should be hidden and how it should be presented. We don’t always choose what we see online. It’s frequently chosen for us.
Facebook, for example, reportedly bases its algorithms selecting which news stories to feature most prominently in a user’s feed on data harvested about that user — such as the brands he or she follows and the content of posts from his/her friends. Amazon recommends books based on data about you and what you’ve read before, and there are dozens of other examples of algorithms leading toward what has been called a hive mentality. That occurs when people gravitate (or are pushed) to smaller and smaller spheres of opinion and intellect because they only get more of the kind of content they’ve already shown a preference for. Or, as Franklin Foer writes in World Without Mind, “Our era is defined by polarization, warring ideological gangs that yield no ground…Facebook has nurtured two hive minds, each residing in an informational ecosystem that yields head-nodding agreement and penalizes dissenting views…Facebook mines our data to keep giving us the news and information we crave, creating a feedback loop that pushes us deeper and deeper into our own amen corners.”
None of this is totally new. We all seem to have decided to ignore the seemingly small incursions because these three behemoths have brought us so much that is good. But lack of regulation has decimated many rights and privileges we’ve always taken for granted. Facebook has already bragged it can get out the vote by simply urging users to go to the polls, according to The New York Times. Combine that with its ability to misinform via fake news planted by agents hostile to one political side or the other, and the potential for a manipulated outcome becomes clearer. Facebook can invisibly influence its 2 billion users in other ways, as well. In 2014, for example, it announced it had done a psychological experiment on half a million randomly selected users, without their knowledge or consent, to determine if emotions can be spread. The company said it had altered the number of positive and negative posts in the newsfeeds of those selected. Half the users received more positive posts, the other half more negative ones. Results indicated that moods are contagious. Those who saw more positive posts responded by writing positive posts of their own. Those who saw more negative content responded with negative posts. Ponder the implications of that.
Google was also bruised in 2016, when news surfaced that searches using certain words — such as African-Americans, Jews and Hitler — with the company’s autocomplete system brought up racist and anti-Semitic sites; top entries included pages claiming that black people were not as smart as white, the Holocaust never happened and Hitler was a good person. Google blamed it on hate groups that had gamed its algorithms and said it had fixed the problem, according to The Guardian.
U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA.), vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russia’s ties to the 2016 election, has said, “Facebook knows more about each of us than the U.S. government. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” The same could be said of Google and Amazon, say big-tech observers who claim that the companies probably know more about us than our own parents, siblings and spouses. Maybe even more than we know about ourselves.
Should they have access to all our information, to use as they choose? Should they be regulated as monopolies by the government, as some have suggested? Is it possible that ongoing revelations about how they operate will turn users toward smaller, newer online entities with different operating procedures? Time will tell, experts say. Here’s some brief information about where the big three began and where they are now. (Net worth figures are from Forbes):
Amazon started out selling books and is now the globe’s biggest online store for nearly everything. It also powers a cloud storage system used by Netflix, the CIA, Unilever, Dow Jones, Harvard, NASA, Spotify and dozens of the biggest corporations. Amazon also owns Whole Foods and the influential Washington Post. Its founder, chairman and CEO, Jeff Bezos, 53, is worth $86.3 billion.
Google started out with a goal of organizing and making available all the earth’s knowledge. In 2015, it was restructured as a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., a multinational corporation which is parent to Google and a host of other entities making drones, phones and driverless cars; also in Alphabet’s portfolio is Calico, a biotech company that aims to eliminate aging and conquer death, among other ambitious aspirations. That’s a goal of Google cofounders Larry Page, Alphabet’s CEO, who is 44 years old and worth $45.7 billion, and Sergey Brin, Alphabet’s president, also 44 and worth $45.4 billion.
Facebook was famously started in a Harvard dorm room as a college networking tool. It now owns 50 tech companies that deal with everything from facial recognition to market analytics. Facebook owns Oculus VR (virtual-reality hardware and software), Instagram (a photo-sharing website) and WhatsApp (a messaging app that’s bigger than Facebook in India and other emerging markets; it reportedly has 450 million users, with 1 million new ones signing up daily). Facebook has 2 billion users worldwide; WhatsApp and Messenger each have 1.2 billion users. Founder Mark Zuckerberg is 33 and worth $70.6 billion.