#deletefacebook, chant the critics

Last Updated 22 March 2018, 18:47 IST

As Silicon Valley experiences a wave of criticism, even some former colleagues are becoming adversaries.

Another prominent sceptic spoke out this week, as a creator of one of Facebook's top products waded into criticism of the internet giant.

"It is time. #deletefacebook," wrote Brian Acton, one of the founders of WhatsApp, wrote on Twitter. His company was bought by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014. The deal made him a billionaire.

Acton's anti-Facebook message, retweeted more than 10,000 times, captured a moment in the tech industry when even some of its best-known people are publicly calling for change. The chorus has grown louder this week, as Facebook faces questions over how it allowed a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, to obtain data on 50 million users.

"The question is, 'What are you loyal to?'" said Tristan Harris, a former Google employee who has started The Center for Humane Technology, an organisation for Silicon Valley workers who want to change corporate culture. He has been critical of social media companies for creating addictive products that inflame cultural tensions.

"Are you more loyal to your company," Harris said. "Or are you more loyal to protecting the fabric of our society?"

The tech defections have accelerated in recent months, especially for Facebook. Justin Rosenstein, the creator of the Facebook "like" button, deleted the product from his phone and spoke out about the industry using psychologically manipulative advertising. Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook's former head of user growth, said in December that the company was "ripping apart the social fabric of how society works."

And Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook platform operations manager, wrote on Tuesday in The Washington Post that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, must "be held accountable for the negligence of his company."

Loyalty to a company is beginning to crack because many tech workers are being asked to build or defend products they question, Harris said. His centre is making resources for engineers on how to build more ethical products and starting an educational campaign, called "The Truth About Tech," in 55,000 US schools.

"More people are speaking up because they feel like they've been told lies," Harris said. "You can't just repeat, 'We're making the world more open' over and over and over again while democracy is burning."

Silicon Valley companies have long prized secrecy and loyalty among their workers, who often exercise, play sports and eat three meals a day together. Facebook especially is known for its tight-knit community. Each employee has an annual "Faceversary" on his or her hire date, a ritual that within the company is seen as deeply meaningful and is usually accompanied by balloons.

"Until very recently, it was taken as a given that tech equaled progress and tech equaled good and tech equaled economic strength," said Leslie Berlin, the author of Troublemakers: Silicon Valley's Coming of Age. She said the defections she sees now are historically unique.

"The Valley was founded on this notion of, 'We're very open,' " Berlin said. "But the secrecy has always been there." "It's been pretty much a straight line since the start of the Cold War until now," she said. "This is something new."

Employees may feel the freedom to rebel because of Silicon Valley's success, both technologically and financially. The technology platforms have become more powerful - and the fortunes much bigger - than the programmers ever expected.

So while the industry's power disturbs them, the wealth allows them to speak out without fear of retribution, Berlin said. "It's the shadow of the success," she said. "You have to understand them together."

Certainly, not everyone is critical. Acton's WhatsApp co-founder, Jan Koum, is on the Facebook board of directors and remains deeply active on the platform, regularly posting pro-President Donald Trump and anti-immigration news.

And when former leaders have spoken out with criticisms of Facebook, the company has often responded aggressively.

"They do yell," said Roger McNamee, an early investor and adviser to Mark Zuckerberg, referring to Facebook leadership's approach.

But the culture of fear that the company has fostered among employees is not working anymore, he said. "Facebook is at one of those moments where everybody who works there has to ask which side of history do you want to be on," McNamee said. "The facts are not only indisputable, they're not even complete. It's going to get worse."

Other voices

Alexandra Kleeman's first experience with fake news - a Facebook post claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump's candidacy - altered the way this writer in Staten Island, New York, looked at Facebook. "It changed the psychological and emotional feel of the platform for me. I don't have a great feeling when I log in."

The Cambridge Analytica scandal led Kleeman, 32, to remove the Facebook app from her phone. But she is keeping the messaging function open for professional purposes and will continue using Instagram.

She doesn't mind the idea that some personal data can be made public - she used to have a blog, she said. "But the idea that my data could be used for purposes that I expressly don't want, that freaks me out."

Twitter makes Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor in Amherst, Massachusetts feel depressed about the world, but Facebook is the social media platform he is trying to abandon.

As a political science teacher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Facebook was more valuable to Musgrave, 36, as a "low-key, offstage networking tool," a "replacement for end-of-year family newsletters" that allowed him to "passively keep up with people," he said.

But in 2016, while helping his mother during her campaign for a government position in Indiana, Musgrave discovered a "poisonous swamp" of content on the site. The Cambridge Analytica findings were even more disturbing, he said.

"This is a company that has Orwellian levels of data about us, truly Big Brother-level, but it's behaving as if it has no social responsibility and is a purely neutral medium of communication," he said. "That's what's really been scary."

Having deactivated his Facebook account, with plans to delete it completely, he now worries about connecting with people who use the social network as their main conduit of communication.

"I watch my own students try to navigate the world of apps and smartphones, and even they don't really know how the internet works outside these enclosed garden spaces," he said.

Once Ben Greenzweig, an entrepreneur in Westchester, New York, confirms that the 1,195 photos and 85 videos in his Facebook profile have downloaded, he plans to delete the account he has maintained for nearly a decade.

Greenzweig, 40, said the Cambridge Analytica news was "the last straw."

"We have surpassed the tipping point, where the benefit now fails to outweigh the cost," he said. "But I will definitely miss what the promise of Facebook used to be - a way to connect to community in a very global and local context."

A year ago, Greenzweig was an "extraordinarily active" Facebook user who juggled conversations with friends, managed several groups, took out ads for his business, maintained professional contacts and even developed a trial chatbot function on the platform.

But Tuesday night, in his final post, he asked his network to connect with him through email, LinkedIn, Twitter or phone.

"See everyone in the real world," he wrote.

(Published 22 March 2018, 18:26 IST)

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