We’re three weeks away from Christmas. For many, this time of the year means taking a trip back home to see their family and friends. This also applies to Facebook employees, only, unlike the rest of us, they’ve been trained to answer the inquisitive, sometimes impolite questions that we all receive when spending more than an hour with close ones.
Facebook only recently introduced its employees to the Liam Bot, a chatbot that teaches employees what to say if friends or family ask tricky questions about the company over the holidays, after some Facebook employees shared with their managers that they were concerned about answering difficult questions about their workplace (the kind of questions Mark Zuckerberg regularly faces in congressional hearings).
Listening to its employees’ worries, and, probably, concerned that this could lead to yet another public controversy, Facebook launched the Liam Bot just before Thanksgiving. Talking to the New York Times about the chatbot, a Facebook spokeswoman said, “Our employees regularly ask for information to use with friends and family on topics that have been in the news, especially around the holidays.” This is far from surprising, seeing as the social media’s reputation has plummeted in the last two years.
After Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing in October, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other lawmakers grilled him about anything they could, it was clear that Facebook would need to prepare its employees against the same type of questions. That’s what the Liam Bot, a simple software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to create a fake conversation, is here to teach employees.
According to the New York Times, the chatbot gives answers such as, “Facebook consults with experts on the matter,” or “It has hired more moderators to police its content,” and, “It is working on AI to spot hate speech,” and also, “Regulation is important for addressing the issue.” The answers, even though they don’t sound as groundbreaking or convincing as they should, were put together by Facebook’s PR department. The Liam Bot is simply reciting what has been publicly said many times before him.
Some of you might wonder how Facebook employees dealt with difficult questions before the chatbot was introduced to them. Well, the company used to do the work by itself, with the help of humanpower. The social media giant used to provide employees with ‘guidance’ by sharing news releases in internal groups or sometimes directly sharing them with those who asked for advice in the first place. This year, Facebook obviously felt like it had to be more efficient in ‘coaching’ its employees.
But the Liam Bot can do more than recite PR answers deemed acceptable by the social media platform. It goes as far as linking its answers to actual blog posts as well as helping with less inquisitive questions, such as questions about Facebook’s practical technology use. So, who knows, perhaps a day will come when the Liam Bot will be available to anyone, and, hopefully, it will be able to answer your grandma’s annual Christmas question: “How do I post a picture of my dog on Facebook?”
In the meantime, if any of you have a friend or family member who works for Facebook, please feel free to test their training by asking them how exactly the company targets audiences when it comes to political ads, or what it does with our data, or ask anything that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez previously asked Mark Zuckerberg. I can almost guarantee they won’t have the right answers, with or without the Liam Bot’s help.
Happy holidays, and good luck deflecting criticism to any Facebook employee. After all, it’s never a good sign when your company needs to train you to say something nice about it.
Imagine a private organisation with more social influence and money than many governments; an omnipresence that transcends national territories and a tentative plan to start its own currency. It sounds like an Orwellian nightmare, right? And yet, Facebook has achieved all three. So why is there so much faith that the corporation won’t attempt to influence the world for its own gain? And why are we still using the platform?
The last few months have revealed a myriad of Facebook’s growing shortcomings. The announcement of Libra’s looming entry into the cryptocurrency market was met with curiosity and excitement, but soon after, major backers PayPal, Visa and Mastercard near-simultaneously withdrew from the project, encouraging a wave of doubt in the currency’s legitimacy. The Libra plan has since been changed, with the project being rebranded as a payment system, rather than a currency, but the US inquiry into the project and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s unfaltering series of questions for Mark Zuckerberg resurfaced Facebook’s misdemeanours—their refusal to fact-check politicians’ ads, the Cambridge Analytica scandal—and the platform’s trustworthiness was once again heavily scrutinised.
With US and UK elections approaching, it’s hard not to see why Facebook would be viewed with suspicion. Since the influence of Facebook on both nations’ 2016 elections was proven, Facebook has gone to lengths to make amends. According to Zuckerberg, he has no interest in influencing democracy. In his recent speech at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg said, “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.” This was his excuse for why they don’t fact check politicians’ ads.
But other than well-crafted public statements that act only to make excuses for Facebook’s actions, Zuckerberg isn’t doing much to allay the public’s fears, with his penchant for private dinners with conservative politicians causing a wave of concern among liberals. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Zuckerberg is wining and dining politicians at this point, though. Facebook’s interests lay in increasing profits and keeping taxes minimal, so it pays off to sweet-talk neoliberal politicians and governments.
With neoliberal ideals supporting free-market trade, the deregulation of financial markets, and the shift away from public welfare, corporations—not society—are the first to benefit. Socialist Bernie Sanders introduced a bill aimed at curbing corporate tax avoidance in the US, pointing out that “the truth is that we have a rigged tax code that has essentially legalized tax dodging for large corporations.” If socialist politicians were to obtain power, large corporations would be subject to further accountability. For politicians, a strong relationship with Facebook could, in theory, mean the difference between winning or losing an election, and socialist politicians aren’t winning any brownie points in that arena.
Facebook’s interest in creating its own cryptocurrency is also highly controversial. A corporation having control over currency without any democratic accountability leaves reason to be concerned. Both France and Germany moved to block Libra when it was first announced, saying in a joint statement that “no private entity can claim monetary power, which is inherent to the sovereignty of nations.” While Bitcoin also removed the necessity for government and banks’ control over currency, the difference lies in the decentralised and permissionless nature of Bitcoin, compared to Libra, which will be controlled by a consortium of mega-corporations, who will be subject to regulation.
Facebook’s scale and influence are unique, leaving governments scrambling to create regulations as answers to the questions the company is creating. Never before has the world seen a corporation so extensively impacting psychology and public choice, and this is what’s at the heart of the issue: Facebook makes decisions that impact the lives of millions of people. Most of the users would likely believe that decisions of this scale should be made through a democratic process.
For Facebook, it always comes back to a question of trust. And despite the tech conglomerate proving time and time again that it’s not trustworthy—with our data, with its advertisements and with the news we’re fed—the social networking site has most people feeling as though there’s no alternative. Hopefully, their move into the finance sector won’t end the same way.