Computing, You Have Blood on Your Hands!

How did the technology that we considered “cool” just a decade ago become an assault weapon used to hurt, traumatize, and even kill vulnerable people?

CACM Senior Editor Moshe Y. Vardi

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” goes an old children’s rhyme. That rhyme’s end must now be revised to “and words can hurt me too.” Consider hate speech. Elon Musk became the owner and CEO of Twitter (now X) in 2022. His stated intention was to turn “the de facto public town square” into a place for unfettered free speech. Social media experts worried that without content moderation Twitter would allow for the proliferation of hate speech. Within three months of taking over the platform, Musk tweeted, “Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged.” That same day, Musk fired, via email, most of Twitter’s trust and safety staff, the team responsible for keeping content that violates the company’s policies off the platform. Evidence is now accumulating that the worries were not unfounded, and hate speech has now surged on Twitter. The problem, however, is much bigger than Twitter. Hate speech is prevalent on the Internet, and hate speech has consequences.

The Rohingya conflict is an ongoing conflict in the northern part of Myanmar, characterized by sectarian violence between the Rohingya Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist communities and a military crackdown on Rohingya civilians by Myanmar’s security forces. The conflict has led to mass migration of Rohingya people from Myanmar, starting in 2015, and several massacres of Rohingya people by the Myanmar Army and armed locals in 2017. In 2022, Amnesty International accused Facebook’s parent company Meta of having “substantially contributed” to human rights violations perpetrated against Myanmar’s Rohingya people.a undefinedAmnesty claimed that Facebook’s algorithms “proactively amplified” anti-Rohingya content. It also alleged that Meta ignored pleas from civilians and activists to curb hate mongering on the social media platform while profiting from increased engagement.

Another crisis, of a different nature, is brewing in the U.S.—the youth mental health crisis. In 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory report titled Protecting Youth Mental Health.b undefined“The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate”, wrote the Surgeon General, adding, “the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating.” Several factors may have contributed to this crisis, notably the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis preceded the pandemic. The U.S. Center for Disease Control reported that in 2019, the suicide rate among children aged 10-14 nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017. I gasped when I read that.

Apple introduced the iPhone at the end of June 2007 and Facebook introduced its iPhone app in July 2008. Coincidence? “When not deployed responsibly and safely,” wrote the Surgeon General, technology tools “can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve.”

In the fall of 2021, whistleblower Frances Haugen released a massive set of Facebook internal documents to Congress and news outlets around the world. The documents revealed that Facebook was well aware of the adverse societal impacts of its technology. Direct quotes from the documents include:

  • “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”

  • “We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly.”

  • “Misinformation, toxicity and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares.”

  • “An unfortunate side effect is that harmful and misinformative content can go viral, often before we can catch it and mitigate its effects.”

It is no wonder that dozens of U.S. states are now suing Meta, accusing it of contributing to the youth mental health crisis.

How did we get here? How did the technology that just a decade ago we considered “cool” end up becoming an assault weapon used to hurt, traumatize, and even kill vulnerable people? Looking back at my past columns, one can see the forewarnings. Our obsession with efficiency came at the expense of resilience.c In the name of efficiency, we aimed at eliminating all friction.d In the name of efficiency, it became desirable to move fast and break things.e In the name of efficiency, we allowed the technology industry to become dominated by a very small number of mega corporations.f

It is time for all computing professionals to accept responsibility for the current state of computing. To use Star Wars metaphors, we once considered computing as the “Rebels,” but it turns out that computing is the “Empire.” Admitting that we have a problem is a necessary first step towards addressing the problems that computing has created.

See “Myanmar: The social atrocity: Meta and the right to remedy for the Rohingya,” Amnesty International, Sept. 2022; https://bit.ly/46iaEaH.
See “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” U.S. Surgeon General, 2021; https://bit.ly/3N7QERp.
See “Efficiency vs. Resilience: What COVID-19 Teaches Computing,” Communications of the ACM, May 2020; https://bit.ly/3ufWZU9.
See “Fricative Computing,” Communications of the ACM, May 2020; https://bit.ly/3MKyWTP.
See “Move Fast and Break Things,” Communications of the ACM, May 2013; https://bit.ly/46f8S9Z.
See “The People vs. Tech,” Communications of the ACM, Mar. 2012; https://bit.ly/47eIBdh


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