By Scott Thomas Anderson
What’s the best nonfiction read you should dig into this fall? It’s not actually a book, but rather a massive civil complaint that was just filed by the attorney generals of more than 40 states, including Rob Bonta in California. This lawsuit was slapped against Mark Zuckerberg’s company Meta, alleging that it intentionally created “dopamine-manipulating” effects within its social media algorithms, and then refined those neurological tentacles so that they’d net billions – even as they caused a mental health crisis among youth.
Kris Mayes, the Democratic Attorney General of Arizona, is the prosecutor whose name is at the top of the suit. Whether she wrote its opening statement or not, the first paragraph is a masterclass in direct, economic and powerful writing.
“Over the past decade, Meta – itself and through its flagship social media platforms Facebook and Instagram – has profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans,” it reads. “Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens. Its motive is profit, and in seeking to maximize its financial gains, Meta has repeatedly misled the public about the substantial dangers of its social media platforms. It has concealed the ways in which these platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable users.”
Throughout the complaint, the AGs repeatedly refer to Meta’s “scheme” against the public. They break this stratagem down into four components: Meta developing a business model based on maximizing young peoples’ attention; Meta designing its platforms to elicit “compulsive” behavior from those same youngsters; Meta hiding internal data regarding the dire impact of its tech on kids; and Meta intentionally deceiving lawmakers and the public as it continued with these highly profitable practices, knowing it was to the determent of everyone else.
In a way, the suit reminds me a lot of another civil action that was launched in 2018, one brought against Big Pharma by 31 California counties, including Sacramento and Amador. Attorneys and investigators working on that case asserted that five of the world’s largest pill manufacturers engaged in a willful conspiracy to hook vast swaths of the public on opioid painkillers, all while concealing just how addictive and deadly those drugs actually were. The plaintiffs were attempting to charge these pharmaceutical companies, on a civil level, with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as the RICO Act – i.e. the same law that was used to decimate the power of the American mafia.
SN&R covered that suit extensively in our piece, “Corporate Cartel Logic.”
This new legal action treats Meta as if it’s been operating as a cartel in the online attention economy. But another thing that’s interesting about it – and this is also true of the one against the pharmaceutical companies – involves how long it took authorities to act. In the case of the California counties going after Big Pharma, they found evidence that the opioid distribution gambit and cover-up went all the way back to the early 2000s. So, the snowball of accountability took over 15 years to start rolling downhill for those corporations. Similarly, with Meta, its Facebook platform was unveiled in 2004, meaning it took 19 years before state law enforcement caught up with its most harmful practices. Worse yet, none of these corrective actions were taken by the federal government. Meta, particularly, still nets billions of dollars while being wholly unregulated by the nation’s capital.
These two stories should be the proverbial canaries in the coal mine when it comes to Artificial Intelligence. Just three years ago, when Congress finally compelled Mark Zuckerberg to testify before it, all the public really learned was that many lawmakers hadn’t the faintest clue about how social media platforms work or make money. The Congressional members may have thought they’d shame old lip-licking Zuck on CSPAN, but they ultimately just embarrassed themselves by revealing their ineptitude about one of the most fundamental forces in daily life.
Now, we’re supposed to believe these same incurious, intellectually lazy and technologically stunted “leaders” can determine the proper timeline for regulating Artificial Intelligence before it decimates our economy, destroys our democracy and potentially kills everyone alive?
When it comes to what A.I. means to jobs and the dignity of work, there are plenty of concerns already on Sacramentans’ minds. That was clear earlier this week when Valley Vision held its annual Livability Summit at the Downtown Convention Center. Valley Vision used the occasion to release a survey that it conducted of Sacramento workers. In it, a majority of respondents said that they view A.I. as a force that could ultimately hurt their ability to make a living. But is anyone on Capitol Hill really listening? And will their eventual response, as with opioids and Meta, come long after the damage is done?