Conspiracy theories or no, there's a good reason not to trust tech companies
For any good conspiracy theory to work, it needs a grain of truth. The controversies at Facebook have offered plenty of fodder.
Ian SherrFormer Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Despite Facebook's insistence the theory is false, it's a devilishly stubborn urban myth that's held on, since even before CEO
testimony to Congress last year. CNET's own tests couldn't find any evidence of the supposed eavesdropping, and security experts have dismissed the claim.
What makes many of us believe Facebook is spying says as much about the
as it does about the world's largest social network. Popular myths tend to have a tinge of truth that grounds them in reality, experts say. Tech companies constantly invade our personal lives --
and Facebook send us targeted ads; phone apps literally track us around stores. That adds plenty of fuel to the conspiracy fire.
More than 3 billion phones have been sold over the past two years alone, according to industry watcher Gartner, enough to give one each to half the people on Earth. And more than 2.38 billion people log in to Facebook each month too.
Watch this: Is Facebook spying on you?
Facebook's growth has come in part because of its prolific
technology, designed to learn and infer everything about you, from your politics to your religious beliefs to your circle of friends. But Facebook isn't the only company closely tracking you. Some firms have advertising technology that targets ads by listening in the background while you're watching TV.
So why wouldn't a company like Facebook go the extra step and just listen in on our conversations through our phones?
It hasn't helped that Facebook, for example, has failed to protect people's data. At the same time, it's tracking users in ever more detail to deliver ads so well targeted it can feel creepy.
Even if the companies attempt to dispel the conspiracy theories that swirl around them, they may not be able to resolve people's discomfort. "This anxiety we're seeing now is tapping into something more fundamental than Silicon Valley, than something they've done or not done," O'Mara said.
If nuggets of truth help to make an effective conspiracy theory, Silicon Valley has provided plenty of nuggets.
People who believed
purposely slowed down
to nudge us to buy newer models may've felt vindicated when, in 2017, Apple admitted that its
software did indeed slow down some older phones. It wasn't some nefarious money-grubbing plot, however. Instead it was an effort to stop a phone from crashing when its battery was too worn out to provide enough power.
Facebookitself has been at the center of near-endless screwups lately. Last year, we learned it lost control of as many as 87 million people's profile data, which was sold to a political consulting firm in the UK called Cambridge Analytica. Then we learned Facebookmay've attempted to cover it up.
Still, no matter how successful Facebook and other tech companies may turn out to be at rebuilding our trust, it's unlikely the conspiracy theories that surround them will go away anytime soon.
Researchers including Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, have found that half the population has a personality trait that makes them more susceptible to conspiracy theories.
"These people are predisposed to thinking in this way," he said. "Different theories keep popping up because people are always looking for explanations."
It's not enough to believe that despite Apple's battery brouhaha, its big annual software updates are often just slow when they're first released, despite offering new features like Animoji, the TV app,
and a low-power mode. It's also not enough to believe Facebook and Twitter are more focused on violations of their hate speech rules than they are on politics or on censoring people some of their employees disagree with. Nor is it enough to consider that Facebook's advertising tools may simply be so effective that they serve up ads that feel almost too relevant.
Though conspiracy theories appear to be in vogue right now, rapidly spreading online from both your friends and government leaders, it turns out conspiracy theorists have been here all along.
And it's tough to convince people the theories are wrong. For believers, "it comes down to, 'I know the truth and everyone else are idiots,'" Uscinski said. "There isn't much you can do."