The scenes from the U.S. Capitol on January 6 were surreal for the insurrectionists too, I imagine.
After all, consider what they thought they were looking at: The theft of the presidency before their eyes, with the complicity of the traitorous vice president.
The motley mob looked familiar, only out of place—like a far-right Facebook group superimposed on a Capitol green screen. All the regulars were there: Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, QAnon adherents and Boogaloo Bois, anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and anti-Semites.
As one news anchor after another expressed shock, I kept involuntarily muttering, then yelling, the same thing: What did you think was gonna happen?
For months, President Trump and his allies told millions of devout followers that the election—the country—had been hijacked. As the Big Lie cascaded across social media, his supporters began openly organizing in Facebook Groups to #StopTheSteal, swapping pictures of weaponry and finalizing plans to “invade” Washington.
For years before that, Facebook and YouTube had helped nurture extremist movements like QAnon, whose adherents eagerly await the execution of prominent Democrats in the reckoning they call ‘The Storm’, and Boogaloo, which agitates for a second Civil War.
For the better part of a decade, Trump and the tech giants at the center of our information ecosystem have been fueling tribalism, spreading conspiracy theories, radicalizing people, and ultimately eroding the shared reality upon which democracy depends.
Trump, of course, did it purely to advance his own interests. But here’s what you need to understand about the tech giants: So did they.
The insurrection has rightfully been seen as an outgrowth of dark forces that Trump accelerated for political gain–racism, truth decay, political sectarianism. Yet it’s worth examining the violent siege also as an outgrowth of an unchecked industry with a financial incentive to exploit our worst instincts; an industry that has been an accelerant of those festering evils in its own right.
The world’s most profitable corporations don’t become what they are without unflinching commitment to a business model. And while social media platforms may shape the global public discourse, they’re also free for us—which is to say, we are not their customers. We are only valuable insofar as our attention and data serves their actual business: surveillance advertising.
Surveillance advertising is the practice of tracking and profiling individuals and groups, and then microtargeting ads at them based on their behavioral history, relationships, and identity.
Facebook, which earned a record $86 billion in 2020, made 98 percent of its revenue from selling these ads. Combined with Google (which owns YouTube), the two tech giants control over 60 percent of the entire U.S. digital-ad market, and their dominance rests on mountains of data they’ve extracted from users.
These companies track our every move to build digital dossiers—everything you’ve ever clicked, what you’ve done on other apps and sites, even your offline behavior. Then they curate the content you see—not just ads, but your newsfeeds, recommendations, notifications, and trends, using profit-driven algorithms that determine what will keep you clicking, so they can serve you more ads and collect more of your data.
The algorithms disproportionately amplify hate and disinformation, because that’s what generates the most engagement. They introduce us to increasingly extreme content and communities to capture our attention. The more of our attention they capture, the more of it they can auction off to advertisers, who bid in real-time to microtarget us, impression-by-impression. That’s the business model.
Echo chambers, radicalization, and viral conspiracy theories are features of these platforms, not bugs. Each user—and our entire discourse—is constantly manipulated to pad Big Tech’s bottom line. Your doom-scrolling is their doom-profiteering.
The real costs of the business, however, are incalculable, as we saw on January 6. The deadly siege didn’t begin in the heat of the moment, but after a process of nurturing collective delusion. Make no mistake: thousands of rioters truly believe they were the heroic patriots at the Capitol that day. Many proudly posted incriminating content during and after their siege—posts that surely generated exuberant engagement well before being sent to the FBI.
We cannot deplatform our way out of this information crisis. This is not a content problem, but a deep structural one. And if we don’t fix it, the consequences will only worsen.
While more than enough lawmakers agree that change is necessary, they are divided across three main schools of thought—antitrust action (break ‘em up), Section 230 reform (hold ‘em liable) and privacy legislation (keep ‘em out). Each of these approaches has merit, yet there is no consensus around which is best.
Ideally Congress would advance on all of these fronts, in recognition that no single action will likely be sufficient to rebuild democratic culture steeped in shared reality.
But given that the surveillance-advertising business model sits at the nexus of these divergent paths, one step that should appeal to all factions would be a ban on surveillance advertising. It’s a unifying call-to-action—one that four-in-five Americans support, and that has united a sweeping coalition of national and international advocacy organizations. Silicon Valley’s own Congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) is apparently on board too, teasing forthcoming legislation at Thursday’s Big Tech hearing.
There are plenty of ways to advertise effectively that aren’t designed in ways that cause profound harm to society. It turns out placing ads next to relevant articles or search terms works just fine. That was the norm until quite recently—and until quite recently, America had enjoyed an unbroken streak of coup-free elections.
In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg explained, “One of the biggest issues social networks face is that, when left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content… At scale it can undermine the quality of public discourse… This engagement pattern seems to exist no matter where we draw the lines, so we need to change this incentive and not just remove content.”
For once, Zuck was right—we need to change the incentives. Let’s start by banning surveillance advertising.
Jesse Lehrich is a co-founder of Accountable Tech and former foreign policy spokesman for Hillary Clinton.