This essay accompanies the Evil List, Slate’s poll of experts on the most worrisome companies in tech.
Jordan Weissmann: Ashley, I feel like we should start by putting our cards on the table. We’ve been asked to discuss whether Amazon or Facebook is causing more damage to society. Beyond the philosophical difficulty of ranking companies based on their evil quotient, I’m a guy who writes about health care and interest rates and that economy that Amazon is supposedly destroying.
Ashley Feinberg: I worked at Gizmodo for about three years, a job I acquired by falsely claiming to know what Android is. But I do write about internet culture so I am vaguely aware of “tech” in general, and I did once try in an interview, mostly in vain, to get Jack Dorsey to say something specific. Like Jordan, I also don’t really believe I’m qualified to judge morality, but I do firmly believe that Facebook and Amazon are both objectively evil, which is what brings us here today.
Weissmann: See, after spending enough time mulling this, I think I’ve convinced myself that Facebook is fundamentally evil. Amazon, not so much.
Feinberg: I’m curious why you think workers peeing in bottles and passing out in un-air-conditioned fulfillment centers is not objectively evil.
Weissmann: Believe it or not, I have an answer for that. Here’s the thing: I think you can divide problematic companies into two basic camps. In one, you have companies like Amazon, where it actually provides a good and useful service that we want in the world but goes about it in a sometimes-horrifying way (see: the peeing in bottles, which we’ll get to). And then you have companies like Facebook, where its actual service—basically acting as an addictive disinformation and propaganda engine that turbocharges all of our most damaging communication habits—is flat-out bad and probably shouldn’t exist. To me, the latter is evil. The former is redeemable with some hefty regulations and union organizing.
Feinberg: Right, that’s my thinking too, and also why I was hesitant to put Amazon as No. 1. But the thing is, we also don’t really need Amazon, or at least we wouldn’t have needed Amazon in a world where it hadn’t already been allowed to completely annihilate the market. I agree that Facebook is less redeemable in that the service it provides is in itself basically an evil that comes with a side of facilitating genocide.
Weissmann: You’ve just poked at one of my big pet peeves about the way we talk about Amazon. Yes, it is a beast in online retail, but it has by no means annihilated the competition.
Feinberg: Are you kidding? Do you remember bookstores? I barely do!
Weissmann: We’re talking about a company that makes up about 5 percent of all U.S. retail sales, which makes it smaller than Walmart. Online, you’ve seen competitors like Walmart’s Jet crop up. Google Shopping exists, which will direct you to all sorts of big online merchants. It’s not as if consumers have zero choice here. Amazon is a behemoth. It’s got a ton of market power over merchants. But it’s not a monopoly.
Feinberg: Amazon is like 50 percent of online retail sales, isn’t it?
Weissmann: It is close, yes. Like I said, big.
Feinberg: That’s by virtue of the fact that it’s hard to monopolize “buying everything,”
Feinberg: But it still has a huge outsize market share and is enormously powerful. Which would all be fine if it weren’t treating workers like subhuman slaves. The fact of its enormity makes the labor record more troubling in the sense that it has the power to essentially ignore complaints and very effectively bust union activity. But again, I don’t know that it’s necessarily worse than Facebook, because to make that call you basically have to choose which human lives are more important.
Weissmann: I don’t want to downplay Amazon’s labor issues. It busts unions. People leave its warehouses with debilitating injuries. I know of at least one case where a worker died.
But even though Facebook’s evils are more nebulous, they are quantifiable. And they’re really fucking grim.
Feinberg: Abetting the mass slaughter of the Rohingya, for one.
Weissmann: I wasn’t even going to start with Myanmar, but we might as well. Facebook basically became the vector for the military’s anti-Muslim propaganda campaign as it engaged in ethnic cleansing that led to the displacement of 700,000 people. It got to the point where Reuters reporters found 1,000 different posts advocating violence or dehumanizing Muslims there, and brought them to Facebook, and only then did the company take them down. The company wasn’t even trying to police what was happening on its own site in a country of 54 million. For a while, it didn’t even have moderators who spoke the language.
Meanwhile, researchers at Oxford found that political parties and governments in 56 countries used Facebook for propaganda campaigns in 2019. As they put it, “Despite there being more social networking platforms than ever, Facebook remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation.”
And that doesn’t even get to garden-variety bullshit that circulates on Facebook—the fake news articles, anti-vax nonsense, everyday outrage bait, even after Facebook has invested in dealing with these things.
It’s not that this stuff wasn’t a problem before Mark Zuckerberg came around. We didn’t need Facebook for Rwanda to happen, or for China to bombard its people with propaganda. But Facebook is basically built to turbocharge these kinds of things.
Feinberg: Right, and Facebook (and Twitter, and pretty much every other social platform except for Pinterest, which is actually pretty responsible about these things) likes to feign neutrality and pretend it’s simply a neutral platform for people to do what they would do anyway. But Facebook’s news feed is not a neutral piece of equipment. It favors certain things and, like you said, turbocharges content and rumors that directly lead to violence.
But if we’re talking about “evil,” specifically—like, which one is more inherently evil—I honestly don’t know if there’s an answer. Both think they are just using the tools capitalism gave them and following their God-given right to infinite growth.
If we’re talking about which one inflicts more damage on the world at large, it is probably Facebook, because Amazon is basically doing what every business does, just on a massive scale and with such all-consuming power that it can inflict the horrors lesser companies can only dream of. And taking advantage of that is of course evil, but again the real problem is that our laws allow this to continue.
Weissmann: See, again, I’m not sure I’d really go that far with Amazon. Reveal found that the rate of workplace injuries there is about 9.6 per 100 workers, at least in the warehouses where it could find data. Which is bad. Real bad. It’s double the rate for the warehousing industry as a whole. You’re talking about a lot of people blowing out their backs and shoulders who might have trouble ever working again. That said, you have industries in the U.S. where the average injury rate is actually above 10. Now, they tend to be, like, steel foundries. There’s a lot of needlessly dangerous work in this country. Amazon isn’t, like, an order of magnitude worse than everybody else.
Feinberg: Sure, that’s why I’m saying the problem is the laws that allow this, and that Amazon is basically doing what every business does or would do given the opportunity.
Weissmann: Right. It just doesn’t strike me as the same kind of galactic evil as, like, using free speech as a cover to let your platform be turned into a playground for the world’s most Orwellian forces. And, again, Facebook’s existence has almost convinced me that there’s really no good version of a company like this. Like, information gatekeepers are actually good.
Feinberg: We should probably discuss some of the nightmare shit Amazon owns, like Ring.
Weissmann: I admit, Ring is not great.
Feinberg: They’re extremely gung-ho about enabling vigilante racism à la Nextdoor, and actively working to involve cops. The Intercept has been doing great stuff about how insane it all is.
Weissmann: It is basically a machine designed to turn white suburbanites into insane neighborhood-watch types. (There’s this show on Netflix, Easy, that actually has an episode about it. Aubrey Plaza is in it. It’s good.) But yes, I agree that a high-tech home security system that allows people to film the people wandering their neighborhoods and share the info with police promises some disturbing possibilities. Most of my votes on my Evil List ballot were actually for companies that are building out the high-tech security panopticon in China. And Ring seems like a sort of soft, dry run for that in the U.S.
Feinberg: Not even that soft!
Weissmann: But as of now it’s not core to Amazon’s business.
Feinberg: That doesn’t make it any less bad. Just because Amazon isn’t making a ton of money on allowing law enforcement to bypass traditional legal hurdles doesn’t mean that a) it won’t down the line, and b) this isn’t setting us up for some even worse nightmare shit in the future.
So it’s possible Amazon is incubating a truly evil company—which happens to tie into its expertise in A.I.
I also just have this vision in my head of Amazon’s fabled delivery drones getting hooked into the Ring network and attacking package-thief suspects as it goes about its deliveries.
Weissmann: But we’re talking about a 2020 poll, and while that vision is in fact horrifying,
I’d still argue that the tech isn’t widespread enough to counterbalance the fact that Facebook is currently a popular platform for state-based information warfare.
Also, we haven’t even gotten to the child porn. I know this is going to tick off infosec types. But just about every law enforcement agency in the world has begged Facebook not to start using end-to-end encryption on all of its messaging services, because it’s just going to make tracking the trade in child abuse images even harder. And Facebook is just, like, sorry! Privacy! Which might be mildly compelling if this company, in its ever-loving history, had ever shown an inch of genuine concern about privacy before.
Feinberg: See, I’m not convinced there. I mean, Facebook is wholly insincere. But I do think authoritarian countries having a harder time getting into their citizens’ Facebook messages is good and important.
Weissmann: This strikes me as just part of the same, anything-that-leads-to-growth ethos. I kind of think you need to make some allowances for law enforcement when you’re operating in a democracy. But that’s me.
Feinberg: Back to the subject at hand: I don’t know that I’m comfortable saying one is more evil than the other, but if I think about which one I’d remove from the world to make everything slightly less bad … Facebook wins.
Weissmann: On the one hand, you have a company whose core business model lends itself to eroding any meaningful public notion of truth by bombarding its users with constant sensationalism, outright lies, and government propaganda. On the other, you have a company with some notoriously shitty labor practices that, at least in theory, could eventually be alleviated.
Feinberg: Amazon treats its workers like cattle and shows no signs of ever stopping, especially as it continues to expand and build more and more warehouses. It’s also actively working to combine cops, racist neighborhood-watch apps, and an ever-growing network of cameras that are watching both in and outside homes 24/7. And it’s doing all this as it receives billions in government subsidies. But on the other hand, Facebook helped facilitate a genocide.
So, ideally, dissolve both!