WIRED: I assume you had a few ideas for solutions? You were there for six months.
Eisenstat: I do feel like most of the stuff we were doing there was the bare minimum that we could get away with, and I was pushing the envelope, asking questions. What about this, what about that? And I don’t think they wanted me to push the envelope. I can’t explain why they treated me the way they did.
The foreign interference part—this might sound odd—but that should be the easier part to fix. Of course people can always game it, but there are basic tools you can put in place. There were advertisers who paid in rubles. Those are things that shouldn’t have been that hard to figure out.
Every single solution we were trying to come up with was (a) the bare minimum for the company to be able to check that box, and (b) was still putting the responsibility on someone else. For me, the question is more the systemic underlying issue that’s allowing all of this stuff to happen. It is because these are companies whose entire existence depends on keeping us engaged. Keeping our eyes on their platform, keeping our time spent on their products.
[In a comment provided to WIRED, Facebook says that as part of its elections work, it blocks millions of fake accounts each day and is expanding its third-party fact-checking program. “We have hundreds of staff working day and night on these important issues,” says Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director of global elections. “We are developing smarter tools, providing greater transparency, forging stronger partnerships, and building better defenses. We learn from each election, and more than anything we are committed to doing everything we can to prevent bad actors from interfering in the democratic process.“]
WIRED: That’s the fundamental problem with a free platform like Twitter or Facebook or YouTube: They’re trapped in a business model that requires them to manipulate our attention.
Eisenstat: The business model is to keep you engaged. It’s not even a question of whether advertising is bad or good. It’s a question of, what do they have to do to keep you engaged long enough to get those ads in front of your eyeballs? Their tools are doing what they can to keep us engaged, which is taking us down more and more extreme rabbit holes, which is polarizing us more and more because the salacious talking points and salacious click-baity headlines are what keep people’s eyeballs on their screens. And the more and more you can keep us outraged, keep us angry, keep us polarized, it just makes it that much easier for a Russia to come in and exploit that division.
For me the biggest issue to fix is a business model that intentionally feeds on the worst parts of who we are as humans. And yes, people can say, isn’t it just human beings? Is it Facebook’s or Google’s or Twitter’s or YouTube’s fault that people love this stuff? It’s not their fault, but they are absolutely manipulating it and exacerbating it and getting into our psychology in order to keep us on their screens. So I can’t buy the “Isn’t it just human nature” argument.
WIRED: I think of this relationship as parasitic. When you pick up your phone and check social media you’re not thinking, “Welp, that’s the dopamine talking, it’s just my human nature.” They’ve done this intentionally to capture our attention.
Eisenstat: I think the more that human beings start to realize they’re being manipulated, the more this relationship is going to come under pressure. I don’t remember Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or YouTube ever asking me what it is that I actually care about, and actually what I want to see when I go on these platforms. They like to use this excuse of, but we’re giving you a better user experience, we’re making the ads more relevant to you. They’re deciding for me, and unfortunately the human mind is not as strong is we all want it to be. I can see when I’m being manipulated.
Your example of the parasitic relationship, I think more and more people are talking about it. Even when we were on the Hill, when Tristan [Harris] was testifying for this Senate hearing on persuasive technologies, he spoke about a lot that really resonated with the senators, this asymmetry of power. This is not just some equal relationship where you’re giving them your data and they’re serving you more products that make your life easier, including better advertising that’s more relevant to you. That’s their selling point, but there’s a complete asymmetry of power, because they actually have so much information on you that at this point they can even predict your behavior.