As a subject, ethics has occupied the thought of moral philosophers for over 2,000 years. And it doesn’t appear to get too much easier.
But there are certain events, certain moments in time that we can point to, where we can see the stark difference between right and wrong. And our behaviors should be guided accordingly. For example, just today, the Chairman of House Homeland Security Committee summoned the chiefs of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook & Microsoft to Capitol Hill over their response to the New Zealand attack.
The question is: are we holding others accountable for their behavior as well?
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
– Edmund Burke
The world saw the impact of a terrorist unleashed in two mosques in New Zealand late last week. Rather than try to describe the situation in my own words, I’ll borrow from The New York Times:
“On Friday, a gunman strapped on a helmet camera, loaded his car with weapons, drove to a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and began shooting at anyone who came into his line of vision. The act of mass terror was broadcast live for the world to watch on social media.”
The original video was removed within the first hour, but by then, the damage was already done. Around the world, people copied and uploaded the horrific video to their own accounts and to additional platforms. And the tech companies had difficulty in taking them all down.
The A.I. that they’ve developed was too slow in flagging and shutting down violent videos. Some will say, “That’s just how A.I. works. It’s easier to match to known and expected things.” Maybe so. But share a nipple on Instagram or a copyrighted song on YouTube and it’ll get yanked immediately. Not to mention that Facebook says it can now detect revenge porn automatically.
And YouTube is notorious for letting nonsense and conspiracy theories flourish, through its recommendation system. For years, concerned employees raised flags and even demonstrated how popular such videos were. And they were met with the same response: don't interfere with our cash cow (more bovine references below). YouTube is powered by ads that run on popular videos.
The sad reality is this:
Tech companies don’t care enough about curbing hate speech and violence. If they did, they’d have made this a priority.
“The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”
– Albert Schweitzer
Tech companies have engineered a reality in which conspiracy theories and hate are allowed to fester and then go viral, both online and in real life. The power they have unleashed is beyond their comprehension (or at least their expectation). But hate and anger is what fuels the social web. And that drives clicks. And clicks drive revenue
We’ve long believed that with great power comes great responsibility. And yet Mark Zuckerberg— who has operated Facebook by apology — wants to control the encrypted conversations of nearly a third of the world’s population.
At some point, we need to hold such companies to account — not from a regulatory perspective, but from an ethical and human angle. Where is their moral compass?
At this point, their True North seems to be profitability and user growth. They worship at the altar of the golden calf. Sadly, the only way they may pay attention is from an exodus of users and advertisers.
Speaking of exodus, that just happens to be the book in the Torah and Old Testament that includes a story about the people worshiping a golden calf while waiting for Moses to return with the Ten Commandments.
Update (4/3/2019): The New York Times agrees that it's all about greed.
Image credit: The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Gerrit de Wet, first half of the 17th century (Wikimedia Commons - public domain)