Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: Selling out to tech

By
Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Finance and consulting interns have long been the subject of jokes about selling out. The eager, inspired first-years who often walk in through the Van Wickle Gates praising democratic action sometimes cringe to find themselves after graduation joining institutions that fundamentally undermine it. Wall Street spent $2 billion trying to influence the 2016 election, often slanting toward GOP candidates. Money rolling in from billionaires and hedge fund managers undoubtedly influences our democracy.

For a while, those who seek employment at tech companies have remained absent from the sellout mockery. Companies like Facebook and Google have imbued their employees with the idea that they are going to make the world a better place, all while making upwards of $100,000 in starting salary, too. And while eating free lunches every day and coding a small part of a giant product, it’s easy for recent graduates to feel like they’re doing good while they’re doing well for themselves. As Franklin Foer writes in his recent book “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech”, “Big tech considers the concentration of power in its companies — in the networks they control — an urgent social good.”

The world-changing language is even reflected in Facebook’s mission statement: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Google democratizes knowledge. Twitter democratizes how people communicate. But as more and more information comes out about how Russia used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to intervene in the 2016 elections, students pursuing employment in tech must realize that they are complicit in undermining our democracy, too.

Posts disseminated by Russian agents reached 126 million users on Facebook, the New York Times reported Monday. Additionally, these agents sent out more than 131,000 Tweets and uploaded over 1,000 videos to YouTube. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has admitted how tech faulted. “Things happened on our platform in this election that should not have happened,” she said in an onstage interview last week with journalist Mike Allen. Yet Facebook, which like so many other tech companies has remained unscathed and unaccountable for its actions, offered up no real specifics about the platform’s missteps that led to the interference.

Companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have claimed “neutrality” in an effort to protect free speech. But these policies are dangerous: Google News populates its feed with stories from the Russian government-backed outlet RT, normalizing a source that federal intelligence officials have called “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.” In profit-seeking, Facebook and Twitter sold ads to operatives connected to the Russian government. And beyond that, Mark Zuckerberg has denied that the spread of fake news on Facebook at all influenced the election.

There’s no doubt that by joining tech, graduates will make an impact, but let’s not be naive about what that influence entails. Certainly, one could argue that the benefits tech companies have brought to our democracy outweigh the sacrifices they may have made in doing so. But so long as these tech companies claim neutrality, University graduates cannot take their job offers without understanding that they are a part of a platform that has refused to be accountable when our democracy is at stake. It’s not just Wall Street anymore: When lured to Silicon Valley with multi-thousand dollar signing bonuses,  new graduates should weigh whether or not the company they may be choosing to join is one whose work they are comfortable being complicit in.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s 127th Editorial Board: Kate Talerico ’18, Lauren Aratani ’18, Matthew Brownsword ’18 and Rebecca Ellis ’18.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Sheryl Sandberg is the CEO of Facebook. In fact, she is the COO. The Herald regrets the error.