Senator Mark Warner has released (or leaked) a comprehensive plan to combat fake news and foreign manipulation of the American electorate through Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, however appealing or appalling some of Senator Warner’s proposals are, it’s likely that he may just be expanding the game of whack-a-mole that Silicon Valley loves so much. We’ve seen the whack-a-mole movie before and we know how it ends. They won’t help, you spend money to fight them, and if you ever look like you might be winning, they outspend you on lobbying to create a new safe harbor.
Senator Wyden Can Help Solve the Fundamental Problem With Social Media
There is a more fundamental problem with Silicon Valley that the Congress is actually well-suited to address, probably needs no new laws, and if fixed would go a long way to addressing some of Senator Warner’s issues—the problem of addiction and how Silicon Valley profits from creating that behavioral addiction to smartphones, likes, views, retweets and other fakery that turns the science of addiction on its head.
And the really good news is that there is one currently serving U.S. Senator who is the perfect person to take on this issue, one Senator who has shown his chutzpah in the past, and one Senator who above all others is well suited to deal with the problem of behavior addiction for corporate profit—Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon.
It was Senator Wyden who created that classic exchange in 1994 between the heads of the Big Tobacco companies which you’ve probably seen where Senator Wyden got each of them to say that nicotine was not addictive, only to discover that these companies used biological and behavioral research to make their product as addictive as possible (see The Insider, a film about Big Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand portrayed by Russell Crowe).
The tobacco class actions resulted in a $3.4 billion payment over 25 years–in 1997 dollars. We know how much Big Tech hates real class actions they don’t control, but face it–a comparable settlement today would be chump change for the most valuable companies in commercial history.
This is why Ron Wyden is the perfect Senator to reprise his role of champion of public health by holding Silicon Valley’s feet to the fire. And let’s face it—there’s lots of material to work with in the business of social media that is founded on fakery, well beyond Senator Warner’s recommendations.
YouTube’s Fakery on Display Again
It’s not surprising that fake YouTube views are again in the news in what is becoming a series of exposes on the fakery in social media. The latest deep dive into the skullduggery behind fake views is by Michael H. Keller in the New York Times and is recommended reading by Artist Rights Watch.
Everyone in the record business who has been paying attention has seen a version of this story play out many, many times for many, many years. Remember the radio promotion exec who always seems to get the same adds at that same stations for a few weeks? And when the plays stop, the exec says “the record is not reacting”? Fake YouTube views are essentially the same scam—with two exceptions. The scale is vastly bigger at YouTube and no DJ has the motto “don’t be evil.”
Mr. Keller’s post ends with this provocative conclusion:
View-selling sites continue to advertise with apparent impunity. A post on the YouTube Creator Blog warning users against fake views has numerous comments linking to view-selling sites.
“The only way YouTube could eliminate this is if they removed the view counter altogether,” said Mr. Vassilev, the fake-view seller. “But that would defeat the purpose of YouTube.”
That’s an interesting proposition. Why would removing the view counter defeat the purpose of YouTube? Aren’t we told that artists can’t reach an audience without YouTube? So isn’t the purpose of YouTube to reach an audience rather than produce public views information? Granted, the person making that assertion is a fake view seller and not a YouTube representative, but a YouTube representative would likely never say such a thing even if they knew it to be true. Why not?
Behavioral Addiction Additives
One reason might be that the view counter, friend counters, the likes, the retweets, the various measurements that demonstrate the re-enforcement of acceptance by “friends”, are an important component of what makes YouTube addictive, just like tobacco companies added ammonia and other chemicals to tobacco to increase its addictive powers. And the evidence is starting to come in suggesting that it is that addiction that is the real purpose of YouTube and other social media sites.
One source of that evidence is from Professor Adam Alter of the NYU Stern School of Business whose book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked describes in shocking detail just how devious sites like YouTube and Facebook are in delivering the dopamine fix to our brains, and worse yet to our children’s brains. As Professor Alter told the New York Times:
Today, we’re checking our social media constantly, which disrupts work and everyday life. We’ve become obsessed with how many “likes” our Instagram photos are getting instead of where we are walking and whom we are talking to….
We are engineered in such a way that as long as an experience hits the right buttons, our brains will release the neurotransmitter dopamine. We’ll get a flood of dopamine that makes us feel wonderful in the short term, though in the long term you build a tolerance and want more.
And of course those buttons include YouTube subscriber and view counts, Facebook friends and likes and the various other feedback mechanisms that enforce a measurement of popularity. So far, social media is good business as Spotify billionaire Sean Parker tells us:
“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” Parker said.
Of course, as one Silicon Valley entrepreneur who also survived the Dot Bomb Implosion once told me, there’s something really wrong about a world in which Sean Parker is a billionaire.
Do Fake Views Produce Fake News?
Here’s a couple thoughts about the fake view issue. First, why doesn’t Google refund the sums spent on fake views? Maybe not to the repeat user PR firms but at least to the individuals who were lured in by the promise of fake views who didn’t know any better? Or would they prefer to put together one of their pre-packaged fake class actions that funnels money to their favorite shills in cy pres awards?
But going forward, what is so unusual about getting rid of view counters, friend counters, like counters, follower counters, and so on? Twitter did something similar when they stopped the counter on Twitter linking buttons. If YouTube is really such a great tool for consumer engagement, do we think fans are going to stop watching videos of the artists they love just because they don’t have a counter telling them what’s popular when there’s a better than 50/50 chance the counter is a fraud to begin with?
Let’s face it—one reason YouTube music videos are popular is because artists and labels drive traffic to YouTube. That helps the view count as much as anything else.
Also, it’s not like there’s no ranking going on. Google can rank YouTube videos in search with no problem. Of course, they’re so good at ranking in the background that they are being fined for it by the European Commission.
Senator Wyden, Where Art Thou?
While I appreciate Senator Warner’s effort, the real rock star in taking on Silicon Valley could be Senator Ron Wyden. The addiction issue would be a perfect opportunity for his consumer protection legacy with tobacco addiction to enter the digital age.