Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.


Are Google, Facebook good for America?

For Facebook and Google: How good was 2017? In my industry, we follow what they do closely — and I’ve had the opportunity to visit both headquarters to learn from their management. Whip smart, impressive, creative people work there. And, financially, they’re soaring. In 2017, the two companies accounted for 84 percent of all digital advertising (outside China), including 96 percent of its growth, according to industry forecasts by Magna and GroupM.

On the other hand, the brands of both companies were severely tarnished by a range of bad publicity: from abetting fake news (for their own profits); to their self-serving, anti-competitive and constantly changing hegemonic rulemaking (again for their own profits); to simply being socially destructive and unhealthy, including the use of techniques (Facebook), intentionally akin to drug addiction (for its own profits).

Not quite 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to dig deep into Priceline’s business strategies, spending good time with its founder Jay Walker. At the time, part of the design for the site was how to make the experience feel to consumers like winning at a slot machine. Facebook makes so much of what went before it seem quaint.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here is what Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, said in a November interview at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (found via a link on The Verge):

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse. No cooperation. Misinformation. Mistruth. And it’s not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

Palihapitiya went on to say he is so concerned that his children aren’t allowed to use Facebook (though he also said later, “Facebook is a force for good in the world.”)

Similar comments were recently made to the media site Axios by former Facebook president Sean Parker (who was portrayed by Justin Timberlake in the film “Social Network” and who is reportedly worth $2.6 billion, according to Forbes). “[Facebook uses] a social-validation feedback loop that is exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… The inventors, creators, it’s me, it’s Mark… it’s all of these people understood this, and we consciously did it anyway… God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

For several months now, negative stories about Google and Facebook have been bubbling up everywhere, from NPR podcasts on the left to Fox News on the right. Maya Kosoff touched upon the topic in Vanity Fair on Dec. 28, outlining what Facebook is doing to redeem its image:

“It’s impossible to say what the next phase of Facebook’s damage-control operation will look like. Presumably, besides product fixes, [CEO Mark] Zuckerberg could mobilize Facebook’s lobbying forces in D.C., making nice with politicians who have sought to regulate the company. But even if Zuckerberg can find ways to police his platform without stifling speech, larger existential questions loom over the half-trillion-dollar company. As Tim Wu noted on a recent episode of the Inside the Hive podcast, Facebook may be a hegemonic force in our world, but people simply don’t seem to enjoy the product the way they once did. While users and profits continue to grow, the conversation within media and tech circles has already turned to the details of disengagement: how to limit exposure to social media, when to take breaks from the Internet, whether even small amounts of engagement have harmful mental effects.”

In a Dec. 19 Wall Street Journal column, Mark Epstein tackled another troubling aspect about the two behemoths, their overwhelming power combined with business methods that diminish quality journalism:

“When virtually all online advertising goes through two companies … they have the power to harm websites arbitrarily… If executives at a Silicon Valley monopoly believe that censoring certain content will push the world in a positive direction, market pressures cannot sufficiently restrain them,” Epstein writes.

“Journalists also argue that tech companies are pushing media toward the lowest common denominator. Social media rewards clickbait — sensational headlines that confirm readers’ biases. Google and Facebook’s advertising duopoly bleeds traditional publishers of the revenue needed to produce high-quality news. At the same time, Google’s search engine is biased against subscription content, depleting another source of funding.

“The bottom line is that Google’s and Facebook’s advertising policies and algorithms make it less profitable to produce high-quality journalism from any perspective,” continues Epstein. “Their duopoly also gives tech executives the power to defund and block content they personally object to without taking a major hit to the bottom line.”

As more and more people realize how problematic some of today’s technology can be, expect these topics to become even hotter in 2018. I know in my own family, my wife doesn’t let our daughters spend time transfixed by smart phones, websites or other technology. Originally, I might have resisted her impulse. Reading the news, hearing Facebook founders talk, and seeing what’s happening around me by people (and kids) who seem to have no control over their social-media habits, I’m no longer arguing with her.

If you’re still looking for a New Year’s resolution, here are some ideas: Cut down the Facebook. Read a newspaper. And go outside and spend time with real friends, in person. You’ll be happier for it.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian.