If there’s one thing Silicon Valley clings to, well past the point it’s been disproven, it’s the idea that what they build are just neutral “platforms,” tools people can use or misuse as they like, and the guys who made the tools often argue that they’re not at fault. In some instances, users have led a mass revolt over site administration, ads have appeared advocating outright genocide, and an abuse team has protected Nazis while banning people who fight them, all of which led platforms to initially claim that even when they’re profiting from these episodes, it’s not their problem. They’re just the platform. And Facebook has illustrated this problem with a survey about pedophilia.
The problem was a survey done in the United Kingdom asking how users felt about content. It asked users how they felt about an adult asking a 14-year-old for nude photos. The first option was “This content should be allowed on Facebook, and I would not mind seeing it.” Nowhere in the question is there anything about contacting the police:
Users, of course, were furious that such a question would even be presented, and Vice reports that Facebook admitted its “mistake” and discontinued this survey. It’s not clear yet why Facebook would ask about this; the question could either be a specific poll, or just one entry on a long, computer-generated list.
Yet this is only the latest incident of Facebook appearing tone-deaf, at best. The company’s abuse policy leaked last year and revealed it treats “white men” as “protected” on its platform. The company’s advertising tools notoriously value granularity over sense, driving it to violate the Fair Housing Act and making it the target of age discrimination lawsuits in its job ads. It has yet to acknowledge ongoing protests from the trans community over its “real name” policy. And then there’s the matter of fake news, as it’s become increasingly clear that Russian actors bought ads to inflame racial and social divides in America, a problem that runs deeper than Facebook wants to admit.
What has happened here? Perhaps, at root, Facebook refuses to admit it can’t be absolutely neutral on everything. Silicon Valley has a relentless optimism, a belief that literally nothing it builds can even possibly be used for wrongdoing. In 2017, Kumail Nanjiani, a core cast member of HBO’s Silicon Valley, took to Twitter to discuss an ongoing problem he ran into, speaking with his real-world counterparts.
Therein lies the fundamental problem. Nobody, at Facebook, at Twitter, anywhere else, has asked the question. Whether they’re afraid of the answer or don’t realize there’s a question to ask is beside the point. They expect users to ask it for them, and as this survey indicates, the problem has grown to absurd heights.