As a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol last month, they were cheered on by a crowd of supporters gathered in front of the Minnesota Capitol that directed threats at Gov. Tim Walz. These events were the culmination of conspiracy run amok and a poisoned public square. As policymakers both here and in D.C. launch efforts to hold fellow elected officials accountable for the despicable actions of that day, it has overshadowed the bigger threat to democracy, Big Tech.
Companies like Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) have built massive surveillance structures that amplify hate, division and conspiracy for profit. This content is not a defect that an internal team of fact-checkers can fix, because it is core to Big Tech’s business model. Relying on these companies to ban users only strengthens their outsized power to shape our discourse. While tech platforms pretend to be neutral arbiters, simply providing a platform to share content, what you see on your screen is by design.
For example, YouTube recommended videos from Alex Jones — the right-wing conspiracy theorist behind InfoWars — to viewers more than 15 billion times, significantly more than the combined traffic of leading media outlets. A recent study by Accountable Tech demonstrates how the company’s algorithms send users down rabbit holes of ever more extreme content. The companies might not have created conspiracy and hyperbole, but they are aggressively pushing it to billions of users worldwide and cashing in on our growing hatred for one another.
Built through anti-competitive conduct
Amplifying divisive content increases user engagement and allows Facebook and Google to harvest more data from you, which they use to draw in advertisers. While one could question the effectiveness of targeted advertising, advertisers are not, as digital advertising has supplanted print and television. Facebook and Google account for 70% of digital ad revenue and in recent years they have captured nearly all new digital ad dollars. These massive advertising empires were not built through incredible innovations, but anti-competitive conduct.
According to the American Economic Liberties Project, Facebook has acquired 86 companies since 2005 (a year after it launched) while Google has gobbled up 255 companies since 2001. Facebook’s acquisitions have been about entrenching its position as the only social media game in town, choosing to purchase potential rivals like Instagram and WhatsApp instead of competing. Google, meanwhile, has taken control over nearly every stage of digital advertising outside of Facebook. The company earns billions from its domination of search, thanks in part to anti-competitive agreements that set Google as the default search engine. Advertising on YouTube requires usage of other Google ad products and the Google Display Network controls access to display ads on more than 2 million websites, videos and apps.
While using divisive and extreme content to strengthen their monopoly business models, Facebook and Google have simultaneously destroyed one of the most powerful checks on that destructive content: local newspapers. Newspapers were adjusting to the online landscape as advertising revenue for outlets hit a high of $49.2 billion in 2005, before taking a nosedive and falling to just $14.2 billion in 2018 as the tech giants rose to power. Facebook and Google have also taken steps to ensure that you can consume news content while never leaving their platforms, profiting from stolen content. It is no wonder that in Minnesota we have lost 22% of our local newspapers since 2004.
What can be done?
The good news is we can do something about this. Existing antitrust law can be used to curb the immense power Big Tech has amassed and end their anti-competitive conduct. The Federal Trade Commission has launched an antitrust suit against Facebook as has a massive coalition of state attorneys general. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has inherited an antitrust investigation against Google while several states are also pursuing antitrust charges against the company. Moving forward, Congress could ban targeted advertising and curtail Big Tech’s section 230 immunity.
But Minnesota lawmakers also have plenty of power at their disposal. California has taken innovative steps to protect privacy and give people more control over their data, and Florida has proposed joining the mix. North Dakota recently introduced legislation that would end Big Tech’s grip on app developers, and Maryland just passed a tax on digital advertising. Now would also be a good time to end Minnesota’s tax giveaways to data centers.
But for any of this to become a reality, Minnesotans must reacquaint themselves with our tradition of fighting monopoly power. We were the birthplace of the Antimonopoly Party in 1873 and today we have a U.S. senator in Amy Klobuchar who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Competition Policy along with an attorney general in Keith Ellison who helped launch the Congressional Antitrust Caucus. Our state can lead a renewed anti-monopoly movement that helps heal our wounded democracy, but we must demand it from policymakers first.
Justin Stofferahn lives in White Bear Township and is a public affairs professional who has worked on a variety of tax and economic development issues. He was a candidate for the Minnesota State Senate in 2020 and can be reached at www.justinstofferahn.com.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)