As the proliferation of misinformation and hate on social networks has grown during the pandemic and in advance of the 2020 election, NYU professor Scott Galloway has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of Big Tech and large social networks. Galloway, who teaches brand strategy and digital marketing to second-year MBA students, is the author of “The Four,” which tells the unvarnished story of how Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google became four of the most influential companies on earth.
As part of the data analysis firm CB Insights’s yearly tech conference, I Zoomed with Galloway to discuss how “The Four” are reacting to and benefiting from the pandemic. I was hoping for a spicy exchange, and Galloway didn’t disappoint.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Fast Company: Like everybody, my friends that work for big tech companies are working from home right now. What are your thoughts about how work culture might change after this, and do you think this new work-from-home revolution might make big tech companies stronger in some ways?
Scott Galloway: I think the work from home trend is a double-edged sword, but it’s mostly good for them. I’m not sure it’s good for their employees. What I think big tech workers fail to realize is that if your job can be moved to Denver, there’s a decent chance it can be moved to Bangalore. I think Mark Zuckerberg’s greed glands are going to say, yeah, by all means, let’s figure out how we can move your job to Chicago. And then we’re going to keep moving it further and further east and cut costs.
I think [remote work] will be a means of increased income inequality. So for example, if you make over a hundred thousand dollars, only 10% have been laid off and 60% of those jobs can work from home. If you make less than $40,000, 40% of those people have been laid off and only 10% can work from home.
FC: What do you think about Mark Zuckerberg’s relationship with Donald Trump?
SG: Everyone kind of figured out that Mark Zuckerberg is the biggest oligarch in the history of mankind, and that he is leveraging his proximity to power in corrupt ways just to increase his wealth. And I think the Trump-Zuckerberg story is going to have a big impact on the way political speech happens on social networks.
These companies constantly prostitute the notion of the First Amendment. And whenever they say First Amendment, what they really mean is they want to pretend that they shouldn’t be the arbiters of truth, such that they can let their supernova business models run unfettered. This has nothing to do with the First Amendment. They are private companies; they are not obligated to the First Amendment. There is nothing in any of their backgrounds that shows any reverence or respect for free speech.
And this isn’t about letting people with viewpoints that you or me might find offensive have a platform. What these companies have done is created a business model where the most incendiary, upsetting, controversial, and oftentimes false and damaging things get more oxygen than they deserve because we are a tribal species and when people say things that are upsetting we tend to engage. Engagement equals enrichment. The more rage equals the more clicks equals the more Nissan ads. So these algorithms have figured out that if you promote the flawed junk science of anti-vaxxers, it increases shareholder value. There is a population of people out there that believe vaccinations are bad, and they should be heard. But they should not dominate health news so that you start getting these stories from your friends on Facebook. It starts adding legitimacy, and then there’s a trend around anti-vaccination, and more two- and three-year-old boys and girls have their limbs amputated because of an outbreak of measles which we thought we had conquered 30 or 40 years ago.
These [social media companies] are some of the most damaging organizations we’ve seen on the planet. Mark Zuckerberg is the most dangerous person in the world. He has absolutely institutionalized sociopathy, and he has a $2 billion beard in Sheryl Sandberg who runs around wallpapering over the actions of one of the most damaging organizations in the world.
Monopolies are the best investments
FC: It’s a joke within my industry that whenever Facebook misbehaves, when they go one step too far spreading misinformation or harvesting personal information or whatever they do, the next day their stock goes up, not down. I think this is an appropriate setting to ask how this cycle of bad behavior and reward can ever be broken.
SG: Well, first off, tobacco companies have been fantastic investments. I think Facebook as we sit here today, given that they have had a heat shield [against] regulation, is still a great stock. I owned their stock until recently. And finally I said, “Okay, if I’m going to be this angry all the time I probably should sell their stock.”
But the reason why we pay 21 cents on the dollar to the government is we expect them to think long term for us. General Motors stock would be higher if they were allowed to pour mercury into the river, and if they had no emission standards on their cars. But we’ve decided that is bad for America and Americans long term. So we elect people that say, okay, emissions are bad. Pouring mercury into the drinking water is bad. We’re going to have an EPA. And we’re going to tell General Motors, you can’t pour mercury into the river. It hurts their stock price, but we like to think that over the long term we’re better off.
We have not imposed a similar sense of discretion, judgment, or long-term thinking on these [Big Tech] firms as we have on every other firm. If Fast Company all of a sudden started defaming people, ripping at our elections, creating misinformation around pandemics, if people started bringing their grandmothers into emergency rooms with symptoms of COVID-19 saying that my daughter believes COVID-19 is a hoax because of the articles she read in Fast Company, Fast Company would be out of business. But because of Section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act], because of our idolatry of innovators, because these companies have so much money, because they’re able to deploy an army of regulators, because they’re able to deploy very likable people, we have effectively been overrun.
I have two criteria for stocks. There’s no reason to buy a stock except to invest in a company that has a monopoly and is unregulated. I’ve owned four stocks the last 10 years—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. So if we’re waiting for shareholders to revolt, don’t count on it. We also shouldn’t count on consumers, on their better angels. People want that little black dress for $9.99, and they’ll talk a big game about an unethical supply chain but they still want that dress for $9.99. This is where government and regulators have failed. It’s been a failure of leadership. And it’s been a failure of our citizenship to elect people with the sack and the backbone to treat these companies like we’ve treated every other company in American history.
The capitalist’s case for breaking up Big Tech
FC: In general, is Washington capable of the job of thoughtfully regulating tech?
SG: Elegant regulation does a couple things. One, it reduces the externalities, the mercury in the river, the perversion of our democracy, the weaponization of these platforms to sow chaos. But at the same time, it doesn’t hamstring [value]. Maybe it even unlocks more shareholder value. When we broke up AT&T we ended up with seven companies that in aggregate were worth a lot more than the original. So the question is what elegant type of regulation . . . would create more innovation, more competition, and more shareholder value? I think shareholder value is a wonderful thing.
FC: Much of the discussion in Washington about how to rein in Big Tech has centered on antitrust, and the possibility of breaking up tech companies. Is that the right approach to the problems we’re seeing?
SG: I think a lot of these problems—not all of them—would be solved if these companies were broken up. I think if you had two search engines overnight, if you forced YouTube to spin off, they would decide to get into text-based search. Google would decide to get into video-based search.
And one of them might raise their hand and say “Hey P&G (Proctor & Gamble), advertise with our video search engine because we’re not going to radicalize young men,” or “Hey Unilever, advertise with us on our search engine because we’ve made the requisite investment to ensure that when someone types in ‘overthrow the government,’ they get a voter registration form and not instructions on how to build a dirty bomb. Right now there’s absolutely no incentive for them to do anything but create an algorithm that will result in more clicks, more addiction, and not really give a good god-damn about the Commonwealth. Because there’s no competition. So I think we break these guys up—not because they’re evil, not because they don’t pay their taxes, not because they destroy jobs—we break them up because we’re capitalists. And I think that there will actually be a lot of shareholder and stakeholder value released.
We have let these companies . . . grow unfettered well past where we broke up the aluminum, the oil companies, well past where we began investigating Microsoft. They absolutely have monopoly power, whether it’s a [30%] tax on every app that Apple [sells at its App Store], whether it’s 93% of decisions being influenced by one search engine, whether it’s that one company has become the arbiter of our truth globally and has become the biggest prostitute of hate in the history of mankind—of course, that’s Facebook. We have blown by any reasonable sense of when the FTC or the DOJ, who have consistently had their budgets cut, typically decide to move in and break up these companies. And meanwhile [tech companies’] lobbying budgets have jumped dramatically. Amazon now has over a hundred full-time lobbyists in Washington. The government is no longer a countervailing force to private power. It’s a co-conspirator.