01 Feb 2018 18:36 IST

Facebook’s Frankenstein and other social concerns

Billionaire investor George Soros said Facebook and Google have become obstacles to innovation

A Frankenstein for FB?

Yes, but before we get to that let me take you to what billionaire investor George Soros said about social media giants such as Facebook and Google just last week.

Is he betting on them?

Not at all. On the contrary, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25, Soros said Facebook and Google had become obstacles to innovation and are a “menace” to our society. He didn’t mince words when it comes to criticising the way these social media companies are “exploiting” the social environment, much like the way oil and mineral companies exploit the physical environment. Their “days are numbered”, said Soros, surprising analysts, policymakers, technologists, researchers and many millions who consider FB and Google as poster boys of the post-modern techno-revolution.

Interesting! But what made Soros get on this track?

Soros feels the way these social media giants function damages democracy because they “deceive” their users by “manipulating” their attention and directing it towards their own “commercial purposes”. Interestingly, this is not the first time such allegations have been levelled against Google or Facebook, and Soros is not the first one to lambast them in this fashion. Last November, Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, said Facebook and Google were threats to public health. But what makes Soros’s comments more interesting is their timing.

I’m all ears!

Well, they come just a few days after Facebook itself admitted that the social media platform could be harmful to users’ well-being and founder Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to set things right. David Ginsberg, director of research, and Moira Burke, a research scientist at Facebook, had sort of agreed to scientific research linking social media to negative impacts on human well-being. Later, Zuckerbeg came up with his statement and said 2018 would be a “serious year of self-improvement” and that he was looking forward to learning from working to fix the issues together.


Such statements can be interpreted as admission that at least some things have gone wrong with their product. Chief among the concerns is the spread of fake news, a lion’s share of the blame for which is shared by Facebook. Equally important is how Google has monopolised search engines and how that impacts the way news is disseminated across the world. Activists and researchers are concerned that the way Google uses data from users can have damaging impacts on individual privacy and social interactions. Commercialisation of such data by social media companies and other players have invited the wrath of data scientists as well as privacy activists.

Can’t agree more.

That’s why Soros says such tendencies may result in a web of totalitarian control much like Aldous Huxley or George Orwell had predicted in Brave New World and Animal Farm, respectively. Such practices can be seen as examples of the unintended (or not) consequences of new technology, which Neil Postman (Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology) called Frankenstein technology decades ago. Remember Mary Shelley’s scientific horror Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, which delved into the life of scientist Victor Frankenstein and the aftermath of his bizarre scientific experiments that end up creating a monster? Interestingly, 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein’s arrival.

So it’s all doom again?

To be fair, Zuckerberg says he will make FB more personal by diluting the media in social media. It will prioritise the feed by making posts from users’ friends and family appear more frequently on the timeline. So, watch your timeline.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)