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The next 24 months are 'critical', we 'don't have any more time to waste': MIT Prof. on social media misinformation

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Sinan Aral, author of The Hype Machine, MIT David Austin Professor of Management, Marketing, IT and Data Science joins the On the Move panel to discuss his new book and the role that social media plays in the 2020 elections.

Video transcript

JULIE HYMAN: Well, social media is under fire once again. The latest news on this is that Facebook is under scrutiny. BuzzFeed obtained a memo from a Facebook data scientist named Sophie's Zhang that said "I know that I have blood on my hands." She talked about scrutinizing misinformation campaigns around the globe, talked about that some the company took down, some it did not or took too long to take down. And so she was watching events around the globe result from those misinformation campaigns.

Sinal Aral is someone we have talked to frequently on these issues. He's the MIT David Austin Professor of Management, Marketing, IT and Data Science. And he is also the author of a book that's out today. It's called "The Hype Machine" and it looks at companies like Facebook and other social networks and how they draw us in with their systems, right? So Sinan, first I want to ask you to react to that memo and what we heard about the goings on at Facebook around these misinformation campaigns.

SINAL ARAL: Well, thanks for having me. As you know, I have worked extensively with all of these social media platforms over the last 20 years, be it Facebook or Twitter, Yahoo, WeChat, and so on. I know these data scientists intimately.

Some of my former PhD students have been data scientists in the core data science group at Facebook. They are incredibly dedicated technologists. They are ethical people. They are wicked smart.

And I was on a news program yesterday. And they asked me, what would you do if you were on the board of Facebook? And my first answer, before this news even broke, was I would have a private conversation with my employees, because we have seen walkouts and boycotts and we have seen backlash from people who work for Facebook for months now. And it has just been ignored over and over again by the CXO suite, largely ignored.

And I think that there is a reason for this. And the reason is because this rift is really showing a difference in opinion about ethical behavior and in terms of really putting societal values before profit values. And I do think that the leaders of the new social age that realize that the long-term profit maximizing strategy of these platforms is to align with societal values are the ones that are going to win.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Hey, Sinan, congratulations on the book. There was a time when people could joke about this kind of stuff, the old Monty Python "burn her, she's a witch." We can't joke anymore. I mean, this is a threat to democracy and to our global society. How do you put that genie back in the bottle? You can't, can you?

SINAL ARAL: I think that there are a lot of things we can do. And my book, "The Hype Machine," is designed to get beyond the techno dystopian and techno utopian views of either it's going to save our planet or it's going to destroy our planet and get to what can we do to achieve the promise and avoid the peril? And that's really the point of the book.

It's not going away. When I started studying this 28 years ago, people used to say why are you going to waste your time studying pictures of chihuahuas that look like blueberry muffins? And I said no, this is going to have a big impact on our markets, on our democracies, on everything that we do. And now the chickens are coming home to roost. And we're going to continue to see this in the headlines every day until the election, after the election, and going forward.

MELODY HAHM: Sinan, I want to pick up on a point you mentioned earlier talking about the employees, right? That's a lot of emotional labor and tumult for employees to feel like they have to be whistle blowers to even highlight a problem that I think many folks are aware of. But unfortunately, the CEOs themselves are not being held accountable, even when they're in front of Congress, right?

So if you think about the kind of dynamic there-- and we at Yahoo Finance cover these big tech stocks every day. And they're the ones that really have led this recovery out of this coronavirus pandemic. What can you advise to these employees who are saying, hey, I need to go where the salary is, I need to go where the benefits are. And those are the companies that are able to do that, so it's really a tricky sort of moral dilemma right now.

SINAL ARAL: This kind of whistle blowing should not be their burden. This is way too much of a burden for any employee to bear. It should be the leadership of the company that learns to align societal values with profit values and shareholder values.

And society is also responsible. In my book, I call for a national commission on democracy and technology, where we would bring experts, scientists, policymakers, as well as the platform leaders together to discuss what are obviously very clear threats to our democracy and our society. In addition, the book goes on to describe very concrete things that not just employees of Facebook, but the platforms, policymakers, and people can do to solve some of the problems that we have. Many of these topics we've talked about on this show over many months and years now.

DAN ROBERTS: Sinan, Dan Roberts here. To piggyback off of Melody's question about employee whistle blowers, I guess the cynical question to ask about all of this, the various political issues that we've been talking and talking about for months with a lot of these companies, whether they're media companies, how much the burden is on them to do the sifting around with political posts and what's real and what's not. What does all of this amount to in terms of real change?

Because we've seen hearings. We've seen testimony. We've seen various mini-scandals. But I guess I'd ask you, especially with the book out, if you look at three to five years from now, do you see anything changing in terms of the power that these biggest tech names have?

SINAL ARAL: I'm hopeful, Dan. It's good to see you. I think the next 24 months are critical. We don't have any more time to waste.

We do see antitrust hearings becoming heated up. We do see reasonably better questions in Congress than we saw a year ago. The questions that were asked in Congress a year ago were laughable, almost embarrassing in my opinion. I think that the questions that are being asked today are a lot more pointed.

We need experts to be advising the policymakers. That's why we need a national commission. We need experts to be testifying. And I think that you're seeing a number of things come to a head.

The Delete Facebook movement turned into the Stop Hate For Profit movement. You see antitrust hearings. There's going to be a conversation about federal privacy legislation. You're seeing executive orders around Section 230, which I don't think are the right way to go, but at least we're having the conversation.

We're a lot further along than we were a year ago. But we need to be much further along 24 months from now. Hopefully a lot of oars will start pulling in the same direction.

DAN ROBERTS: Has it hurt Facebook's stock, though, of course?

SINAL ARAL: Well, part of the reason Facebook stock has not been suffering is because they're breaking records during the pandemic. Mark Zuckerberg was quoted as saying we're just trying to keep the lights on over here. Everybody is stuck inside. Everybody is on social media. They are essentially providing life-saving information, community, connection, et cetera, and a healthy dose of misinformation, election meddling, et cetera.

And this is all covered in the book. The problem is-- not the problem, but the point of it is they are part of the fabric of society. We have to start taking this seriously.

JULIE HYMAN: Sinan, the irony, of course, is that there has been a lot of government scrutiny of one of the social networks-- TikTok, right? I mean, and now you have this partnership with Oracle over concerns about Chinese involvement, about security. Do you think those concerns are misplaced when it comes to TikTok? Do you think that the Oracle solution is a good one? Or do you think it's just that in addition to the issues that you're talking about?

SINAL ARAL: I mean, it is-- I do think the concerns are relevant. They're not misplaced. Anybody who's ever studied a network knows that separating one part of it from another is nearly impossible. So the security aspects of data, the legal aspects of data protection in this region or that region, where you have people that are connected to people all over the world-- because there's so much integration between followers and following across the Chinese-American border on TikTok, as well as other borders, that the legal security and other issues are very real, very difficult.

I think that we're going to have to see how this unfolds. But I don't see this as being a very simple integration in any way. I see it as being one of the most difficult integrations that we've seen in a long time.

JULIE HYMAN: It looks that way. Sinan, thanks so much. Congrats again. The book is called "The Hype Machine." Sinan Aral is the MIT David Austin Professor of Management, Marketing, IT, and Data Science. Thanks again.

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