BROOKE GLADSTONE: Facebook seems to be feeling the heat because on Thursday afternoon, founder Mark Zuckerberg took to the friendly precincts of Facebook Live to assure us that change was a comin’.
MARK ZUCKERBERG: …maybe the most important step we’re taking is we’re going to make political advertising more transparent. Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser's page and see the ads that they're currently running to any audience on Facebook. We will roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, Mark, this time we’ll be watching you.
BOB GARFIELD: What inspired Facebook’s sudden burst of sunlight? Why, love of democracy, of course.
MARK ZUCKERBERG: Facebook’s mission is all about giving people a voice and bringing people closer together. Those are democratic values, and we’re proud of them. I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for.
BOB GARFIELD: But this year in Silicon Valley, oligarchy seemed the operative word. I’m not referring just to the Russian ad sales but to the recent revelation that Twitter, Facebook and Google have all allowed advertisers to use racist language in their ad targeting. And then there's the proliferation of fake news and propaganda and the ongoing surrender of our privacy. What is to be done?
Well, according to Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, it’s not nibbling at the edges but a fundamental restructuring of these juggernauts. And he believes the solution begins with properly naming the problem, monopoly. Matt, welcome to OTM.
MATT STOLLER: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Where we see tech companies behaving badly, you see classic Monopoly behavior.
MATT STOLLER: Right, they are controlling entire branches of trade and industry. In this case, it's the advertising industry and what is called, in Silicon Valley, the attention economy. The consequences of this are actually what one might call absentee ownership. So it's not like Facebook is planning to undermine democracy.
BOB GARFIELD: They’re not in a hollowed-out volcano in Silicon Valley trying to figure out how to destroy the world.
MATT STOLLER: No, no, these aren’t villains, right? I mean, the engineers in Silicon Valley, the product managers, many of the executives are really trying to improve the world. I love Google, I use Google. Facebook is incredibly useful. I use Twitter all the time. These are amazing technologies. The problem is the way that we've let this attention economy totally unregulated, and we -- the way that we've done no antitrust investigations has caused all of this sort of collateral damage, and it's actually undermining our democracy. It’s undermining social cohesion. They are, effectively, private governments and, if we don't get ahold of them, then they will increasingly govern us.
BOB GARFIELD: Is Mark Zuckerberg John D. Rockefeller? Is he a robber baron?
MATT STOLLER: He is a robber baron, there is no question. There’s an argument that he's more powerful than John D. Rockefeller was in his day, just because John D. Rockefeller could organize communities and companies but he couldn't go down to the individual level, whereas Mark Zuckerberg can actually manipulate people’s minds. It sounds kind of crazy but this is what insiders are coming out and starting to talk about. The attention economy is organized to just grab hold of your brain, using all of these manipulative techniques, to keep you using it. What we’re seeing is it's breeding all of this sort of divisive behavior.
When you use a lot of Facebook services, you get jealous, you get angry, you debate in unproductive and hostile ways. It keeps you using their products, but you’re becoming a angrier, less happy person. It’s threatening community bonds. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this.
BOB GARFIELD: But you don’t believe that a little regulation at the margins is really the solution.
MATT STOLLER: What we need is investigations of these business entities. We need to know how they operate. The advertising market is incredibly complicated and it has turned from a sort of Madmen style agency-based model to a complex financial marketplace, where your eyeballs are bought and sold like stocks or bonds or credit instruments, and there’s all sorts of market manipulation going on there. These are very complex marketplaces, and regulators and enforcers need to actually start looking at them so that we can actually address it, whether that's with antitrust enforcement lawsuits, regulatory tools or structural separation of parts of these companies, public utility regulations. I mean, there’s a whole suite of antimonopoly tools that we can use to get ahold of these institutions.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about public sentiment. There was a time when trust busting was a populistic notion, and those days seem to be behind us. Why?
MATT STOLLER: The way to understand kind of regulation and political economy is that you have sovereignty. Someone's gonna be in charge. And in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, for a variety of reasons, people were essentially persuaded that we should move sovereign power away from public institutions and vest it in private companies. And so, you saw deregulation, you saw union busting and you saw merger waves and you’ve seen, ultimately, the growth of these institutions, like Amazon, Facebook, Google, who are governing our society. They are regulating our society. It’s always amusing to hear people talk about deregulation when, of course, everybody knows that we are heavily regulated. We are just regulated by private actors, not public ones.
And so, this was an intellectual revolution that people didn't really fight, for a whole lot of reasons, ‘cause it came both on the right and the left. And now, we’re in a place where people are recognizing that there is something seriously wrong with our institutions. They are not managing risk effectively. They are not delivering productivity. And democracy itself and our survival is, actually, increasingly at risk. So we're returning to what you pointed out was a more populist type of error and we’re saying, you know what, we need to bring sovereignty and vest it back in public institutions, in democratic institutions. And that's what antitrust rules and public regulation actually means.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, smart guy, [LAUGHTER] you are suggesting that what we need is public sentiment to coalesce against the kind of monopolistic powers we have vested in these two or three companies. However, considering the current administration, considering the view that jobs are the godhead and business should be left alone, considering the utility that these companies afford, I mean, all the forces seem to be arrayed against any kind of citizen revolt. I mean, the villagers are not running through the streets with flaming torches.
MATT STOLLER: It is happening and we are all having these debates now, which we weren’t having even a year ago. It’s happening among Republicans, it's happening among Democrats, it’s happening in the business world. You know, as the entire retail sector gets savaged by Amazon, as we see foreign influence in our elections and this incredible secrecy, people are waking up and actually debating the structure of our political economy for the first time in a really long time.
BOB GARFIELD: And maybe you cocktail in different places than I do, but I don't think there's any evidence that the electorate cares one whit about a lot of this stuff. I mean, FTC, consumer welfare, monopolies, these are the kinds of subjects that make the public's eyes glaze over.
MATT STOLLER: I'm tired of hearing from people that the public doesn't understand. People interact a thousand times a day with corporations. People understand monopoly. When that guy in United got beaten up, they understood what that meant. Everybody gets billed by their cable companies every month, and they know where they're getting ripped off. There's private polling showing that they get it. It's actually kind of offensive, at this point. People are not stupid.
The thing that people don't understand is the gibberish in DC about all the dumb micro scandals that don't matter to them. The messages that work are the ones that attack Wall Street, that attack powerful interests, and the reason they work is ‘cause people know that they’re screwing them. People on the beltway think that voters are stupid, but voters are not stupid and they understand what is happening.
BOB GARFIELD: But there is a difference, is there not, between understanding, even at a visceral level, and demanding action? You can understand but if you dismiss things with a shrug -- you can't fight City Hall and you can't fight Facebook, I’ve got to worry about my car payment this month -- the understanding gets you nowhere. My question is, how do you get rid of that shrug?
MATT STOLLER: That's a really important question. There was a change election in 2006, a change election in 2008, a change election in 2010, a change election in 2014, a change election in 2016, so my conclusion is people want change. The problem isn't, actually, communicating with the public and having the public vote for change. The problem is that the policymakers keep lying.
The way that you have to fix that, and this is what we do at Open Markets but it’s also what’s happening at large, is you have to develop new economic models, new legal frameworks, new policy tools to allow policymakers to take the anger that the voters are showing, the desperation, the desire for change that voters are showing and actually translate that into policy action. And I'm really hopeful. I mean, we've had crushing disappointments, just in terms of a willingness of our public officials to actually govern, and now we’re starting to see the beginnings of a movement of people in politics who are saying, enough is enough and we are going to take back our society and take back our democracy.
BOB GARFIELD: Now Matt, I’m going to do something that I've never done but I hear it all the time on cable news and I’ve, I’ve kind of always wanted to say this.
MATT STOLLER: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, we’re gonna have to leave it there. [LAUGHS] Matt, thank you very much.
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MATT STOLLER: [LAUGHING] Thanks, man.
BOB GARFIELD: Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Open Markets Institute.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, do the tech giants need a code of ethics?