THE ‘man who saved Twitter’ has told a conference in Cork that social media companies are damaging democracies and harming society.
American Dave Troy was the opening speaker at Ireland’s biggest Internet of Things (IoT) conference, attended by hundreds of people at Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday.
Mr Troy has been called ‘the man who saved Twitter’, because he was the first developer to utilise the Twitter application programming interface (API), but he is critical of some of the impact social media giants and their use of data.
“Social media data has been used to influence our political processes in western democracies and some of the effects have been quite damaging,” he told the Evening Echo.
He singled out Facebook for particular criticism, following damaging revelations about attempts to use Facebook to influence major democratic votes, including the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. He said the company has still not properly addressed the issues.
“I think Facebook are doing irreparable harm to their brand, particularly amongst young people who do have a more idealistic sense of where things might go and simply don’t want to have anything to do with companies that they think are not responsible,” he said.
“A really clear signal they could send would be to replace Mark Zuckerberg as chairman and put in somebody else, and reassert their ethical position.”
Mr Troy said the company should be doing this for the good of society, but may be motivated to do so by the benefit to their bottom line.
“I think having a strong moral and ethical compass is a competitive advantage; consumers will actually seek out companies that operate in that way,” he said.
“Over the course of the last year, we have seen Facebook’s stock take roughly a 30% to 40% hit, mostly because of situations arising out of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“So, to some extent, you can make the statement that businesses can do well by doing good and that is proven by the fact that not doing the right thing is bad for business. Why would you choose that approach?”
“What does doing good mean for a platform like Facebook, what does success look like?” he asked.
“People might say letting everyone have a voice or giving both sides equal weight, which sounds intuitively correct. But it doesn’t answer a deeper question, which is what is the effect these tools and platforms are having on society.
“Poisoned information changes social networks. Rather than worrying about sides, we need to ask, are we improving society as a whole? That is something that has not been thought through at all.”
He believes companies may have been naive in their earlier days, assuming that their products were being used for good.
In part, this may be because the innovators in many companies may all be of a similar background.
“One reason why they didn’t see it coming was there is very little diversity of thought in the makeup of the leadership of these companies,” he said.
“You get young males of a certain age group, interested in certain things, it can lead to a monoculture that isn’t very resilient.
“Maybe they had blind spots that were similar that wouldn’t have been there if there was a little bit more diversity of leadership, be that culturally, geographically, age, sex or background. That may be the reason we have seen this happen repeatedly.”
Mr Troy believes more thought needs to be put into trying to foresee and then addressing consequences. It is for this reason he said education is crucial.
“If you have a mostly engineering-based education, you mightn’t haven’t read much philosophy or history,” he said.
“Say if you don’t know very much about the history of 20th-century Russian propaganda or spycraft — things like that — you might not be alert to those kinds of threats. I really think that is something that has been a problem.
“Part of it boils down to educational priorities. In the US we have been talking a whole lot about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and people should know how to do that stuff, I am all for it.
“But we also need to make sure we have people who are versed in humanities — in ethics, and philosophy, and the arts, in history,” he added.
“You need well-educated well-rounded people that understand humanity and the world. No-one should be graduating high school without some sort of grounding in humanities and the arts. I think that is what it is going to take and that is going to be a decades-long realignment. It is going to take us a while.”
Mr Troy was one of many Silicon Valley tech stars speaking at the sold-out conference, which explored the latest innovations within the Internet of Things and provided insights on how this new technology is impacting on commerce and industry.