By Asha Rangappa
If I gave you three guesses to think of a company that: 1) has deliberately created a highly addictive product; 2) uses aggressive tactics to get more and more people “hooked” on it; 3) has directly contributed to a public health crisis in America; and 4) knew about the dangers of its product but deliberately concealed it from the public, what would you say? Most Americans’ minds would go immediately to a company like Philip Morris, or R.J. Reynolds, two of the top tobacco manufacturers in the U.S. and part of the larger corporate industry known as “Big Tobacco.” But they might be surprised to discover that these same features are shared by Facebook, which admitted two weeks ago that an article claiming that the COVID vaccine causes death was the top-performing post on its platform from January to March. The finding, which was included in an internal report, was kept from the public by senior executives who feared that it might hurt the company’s image. The uncanny parallels between Facebook and Big Tobacco ought to make us reconsider how we think of “Big Tech” and its role in society.
Big Tobacco is a unique industry in American society, primarily because its own success – meaning, profitability – is at odds with the public good. In other words, increasing the companies’ bottom line is ultimately a net loss for society – more people hooked on tobacco means more cancer, more deaths, and more public health costs. Few other industries have such a stark contrast between the benefit of what they produce and the costs they impose on society at large. Sure, the automobile industry has cut safety corners in the past, and the fast food industry is a key factor in America’s obesity epidemic, but in the end, we do need cars, and drive-throughs, used in moderation, ultimately make the average American’s life a little easier. Smoking, on the other hand, is just plain bad, even according to the smokers themselves: The CDC estimates that almost 70% of adult smokers want to quit. It might be more accurate to refer to Big Tobacco as a “sindustry” – an industry that makes money off of reducing its consumers’ collective well-being.