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  • Around five years ago,

  • it struck me that I was losing the ability

  • to engage with people who aren't like-minded.

  • The idea of discussing hot-button issues with my fellow Americans

  • was starting to give me more heartburn

  • than the times that I engaged with suspected extremists overseas.

  • It was starting to leave me feeling more embittered and frustrated.

  • And so just like that,

  • I shifted my entire focus

  • from global national security threats

  • to trying to understand what was causing this push

  • towards extreme polarization at home.

  • As a former CIA officer and diplomat

  • who spent years working on counterextremism issues,

  • I started to fear that this was becoming a far greater threat to our democracy

  • than any foreign adversary.

  • And so I started digging in,

  • and I started speaking out,

  • which eventually led me to being hired at Facebook

  • and ultimately brought me here today

  • to continue warning you about how these platforms

  • are manipulating and radicalizing so many of us

  • and to talk about how to reclaim our public square.

  • I was a foreign service officer in Kenya

  • just a few years after the September 11 attacks,

  • and I led what some call "hearts and minds" campaigns

  • along the Somalia border.

  • A big part of my job was to build trust with communities

  • deemed the most susceptible to extremist messaging.

  • I spent hours drinking tea with outspoken anti-Western clerics

  • and even dialogued with some suspected terrorists,

  • and while many of these engagements began with mutual suspicion,

  • I don't recall any of them resulting in shouting or insults,

  • and in some case we even worked together on areas of mutual interest.

  • The most powerful tools we had were to simply listen, learn

  • and build empathy.

  • This is the essence of hearts and minds work,

  • because what I found again and again is that what most people wanted

  • was to feel heard, validated and respected.

  • And I believe that's what most of us want.

  • So what I see happening online today is especially heartbreaking

  • and a much harder problem to tackle.

  • We are being manipulated by the current information ecosystem

  • entrenching so many of us so far into absolutism

  • that compromise has become a dirty word.

  • Because right now,

  • social media companies like Facebook

  • profit off of segmenting us and feeding us personalized content

  • that both validates and exploits our biases.

  • Their bottom line depends on provoking a strong emotion

  • to keep us engaged,

  • often incentivizing the most inflammatory and polarizing voices,

  • to the point where finding common ground no longer feels possible.

  • And despite a growing chorus of people crying out for the platforms to change,

  • it's clear they will not do enough on their own.

  • So governments must define the responsibility

  • for the real-world harms being caused by these business models

  • and impose real costs on the damaging effects

  • they're having to our public health, our public square and our democracy.

  • But unfortunately, this won't happen in time for the US presidential election,

  • so I am continuing to raise this alarm,

  • because even if one day we do have strong rules in place,

  • it will take all of us to fix this.

  • When I started shifting my focus from threats abroad

  • to the breakdown in civil discourse at home,

  • I wondered if we could repurpose some of these hearts and minds campaigns

  • to help heal our divides.

  • Our more than 200-year experiment with democracy works

  • in large part because we are able to openly and passionately

  • debate our ideas for the best solutions.

  • But while I still deeply believe

  • in the power of face-to-face civil discourse,

  • it just cannot compete

  • with the polarizing effects and scale of social media right now.

  • The people who are sucked down these rabbit holes

  • of social media outrage

  • often feel far harder to break of their ideological mindsets

  • than those vulnerable communities I worked with ever were.

  • So when Facebook called me in 2018

  • and offered me this role

  • heading its elections integrity operations for political advertising,

  • I felt I had to say yes.

  • I had no illusions that I would fix it all,

  • but when offered the opportunity

  • to help steer the ship in a better direction,

  • I had to at least try.

  • I didn't work directly on polarization,

  • but I did look at which issues were the most divisive in our society

  • and therefore the most exploitable in elections interference efforts,

  • which was Russia's tactic ahead of 2016.

  • So I started by asking questions.

  • I wanted to understand the underlying systemic issues

  • that were allowing all of this to happen,

  • in order to figure out how to fix it.

  • Now I still do believe in the power of the internet

  • to bring more voices to the table,

  • but despite their stated goal of building community,

  • the largest social media companies as currently constructed

  • are antithetical to the concept of reasoned discourse.

  • There's no way to reward listening,

  • to encourage civil debate

  • and to protect people who sincerely want to ask questions

  • in a business where optimizing engagement and user growth

  • are the two most important metrics for success.

  • There's no incentive to help people slow down,

  • to build in enough friction that people have to stop,

  • recognize their emotional reaction to something,

  • and question their own assumptions before engaging.

  • The unfortunate reality is:

  • lies are more engaging online than truth,

  • and salaciousness beats out wonky, fact-based reasoning

  • in a world optimized for frictionless virality.

  • As long as algorithms' goals are to keep us engaged,

  • they will continue to feed us the poison that plays to our worst instincts

  • and human weaknesses.

  • And yes, anger, mistrust,

  • the culture of fear, hatred:

  • none of this is new in America.

  • But in recent years, social media has harnessed all of that

  • and, as I see it, dramatically tipped the scales.

  • And Facebook knows it.

  • A recent "Wall Street Journal" article

  • exposed an internal Facebook presentation from 2018

  • that specifically points to the companies' own algorithms

  • for growing extremist groups' presence on their platform

  • and for polarizing their users.

  • But keeping us engaged is how they make their money.

  • The modern information environment is crystallized around profiling us

  • and then segmenting us into more and more narrow categories

  • to perfect this personalization process.

  • We're then bombarded with information confirming our views,

  • reinforcing our biases,

  • and making us feel like we belong to something.

  • These are the same tactics we would see terrorist recruiters

  • using on vulnerable youth,

  • albeit in smaller, more localized ways before social media,

  • with the ultimate goal of persuading their behavior.

  • Unfortunately, I was never empowered by Facebook to have an actual impact.

  • In fact, on my second day, my title and job description were changed

  • and I was cut out of decision-making meetings.

  • My biggest efforts,

  • trying to build plans

  • to combat disinformation and voter suppression in political ads,

  • were rejected.

  • And so I lasted just shy of six months.

  • But here is my biggest takeaway from my time there.

  • There are thousands of people at Facebook

  • who are passionately working on a product

  • that they truly believe makes the world a better place,

  • but as long as the company continues to merely tinker around the margins

  • of content policy and moderation,

  • as opposed to considering

  • how the entire machine is designed and monetized,

  • they will never truly address how the platform is contributing

  • to hatred, division and radicalization.

  • And that's the one conversation I never heard happen during my time there,

  • because that would require fundamentally accepting

  • that the thing you built might not be the best thing for society

  • and agreeing to alter the entire product and profit model.

  • So what can we do about this?

  • I'm not saying that social media bears the sole responsibility

  • for the state that we're in today.

  • Clearly, we have deep-seated societal issues that we need to solve.

  • But Facebook's response, that it is just a mirror to society,

  • is a convenient attempt to deflect any responsibility

  • from the way their platform is amplifying harmful content

  • and pushing some users towards extreme views.

  • And Facebook could, if they wanted to,

  • fix some of this.

  • They could stop amplifying and recommending the conspiracy theorists,

  • the hate groups, the purveyors of disinformation

  • and, yes, in some cases even our president.

  • They could stop using the same personalization techniques

  • to deliver political rhetoric that they use to sell us sneakers.

  • They could retrain their algorithms

  • to focus on a metric other than engagement,

  • and they could build in guardrails to stop certain content from going viral

  • before being reviewed.

  • And they could do all of this

  • without becoming what they call the arbiters of truth.

  • But they've made it clear that they will not go far enough

  • to do the right thing without being forced to,

  • and, to be frank, why should they?

  • The markets keep rewarding them, and they're not breaking the law.

  • Because as it stands,

  • there are no US laws compelling Facebook, or any social media company,

  • to protect our public square,

  • our democracy

  • and even our elections.

  • We have ceded the decision-making on what rules to write and what to enforce

  • to the CEOs of for-profit internet companies.

  • Is this what we want?

  • A post-truth world where toxicity and tribalism

  • trump bridge-building and consensus-seeking?

  • I do remain optimistic that we still have more in common with each other

  • than the current media and online environment portray,

  • and I do believe that having more perspective surface

  • makes for a more robust and inclusive democracy.

  • But not the way it's happening right now.

  • And it bears emphasizing, I do not want to kill off these companies.

  • I just want them held to a certain level of accountability,

  • just like the rest of society.

  • It is time for our governments to step up and do their jobs

  • of protecting our citizenry.

  • And while there isn't one magical piece of legislation

  • that will fix this all,

  • I do believe that governments can and must find the balance

  • between protecting free speech

  • and holding these platforms accountable for their effects on society.

  • And they could do so in part by insisting on actual transparency

  • around how these recommendation engines are working,

  • around how the curation, amplification and targeting are happening.

  • You see, I want these companies held accountable

  • not for if an individual posts misinformation

  • or extreme rhetoric,

  • but for how their recommendation engines spread it,

  • how their algorithms are steering people towards it,

  • and how their tools are used to target people with it.

  • I tried to make change from within Facebook and failed,

  • and so I've been using my voice again for the past few years

  • to continue sounding this alarm

  • and hopefully inspire more people to demand this accountability.

  • My message to you is simple:

  • pressure your government representatives

  • to step up and stop ceding our public square to for-profit interests.

  • Help educate your friends and family

  • about how they're being manipulated online.

  • Push yourselves to engage with people who aren't like-minded.

  • Make this issue a priority.

  • We need a whole-society approach to fix this.

  • And my message to the leaders of my former employer Facebook is this:

  • right now, people are using your tools exactly as they were designed

  • to sow hatred, division and distrust,

  • and you're not just allowing it, you are enabling it.

  • And yes, there are lots of great stories

  • of positive things happening on your platform around the globe,

  • but that doesn't make any of this OK.

  • And it's only getting worse as we're heading into our election,

  • and even more concerning,

  • face our biggest potential crisis yet,

  • if the results aren't trusted, and if violence breaks out.

  • So when in 2021 you once again say, "We know we have to do better,"

  • I want you to remember this moment,

  • because it's no longer just a few outlier voices.

  • Civil rights leaders, academics,

  • journalists, advertisers, your own employees,

  • are shouting from the rooftops

  • that your policies and your business practices

  • are harming people and democracy.

  • You own your decisions,

  • but you can no longer say that you couldn't have seen it coming.

  • Thank you.

Around five years ago,

Subtitles and keywords

B1 INT facebook democracy social society people fix

Dear Facebook, this is how you're breaking democracy | Yael Eisenstat

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