Sucking Faster:  Is the Tech Backlash Happening or Not?

At the launch of this blog in the Summer of 2012, in the intro to a podcast interview with journalist Christopher Dickey, I cited a print ad from the 1990s for a video post-production facility. In the center of the ad was an old vacuum cleaner, and the headline read:  Without the right talent, high technology just helps bad creative suck faster.  It was a damn good ad that continues to resonate with me in considering the many challenges imposed by the effects of the digital age.  Especially its effects on democratic principles.

While everybody was being self-congratulatory over the “direct-democracy-in-action” defeat of SOPA in 2012, I argued that this alleged triumph was folly in disguise.  The same tools and methodologies employed to deceive the public in that campaign, I asserted, could easily be used by another manipulator to a more deleterious effect on the true foundations of American democracy. I even suggested that Citizens United was child’s-play compared to what that campaign had revealed was possible.  Then in September, Mark Zuckerberg had to issue a mea culpa in response to mounting evidence that Russian agents used Facebook to manipulate the American political process. “We will work to do better,” he said.  Though I wonder if they can.

In the wake of the 2016 election and the sudden discovery of fake news, the mainstream media finally showed up and started criticizing Big Tech.  Most recent examples include articles like “Silicon Valley is Not Your Friend” by Noam Cohen for The New York Times and “Is the Sun Really Setting on Silicon Valley?” by Maya Kosoff for Vanity Fair.  On a range of subjects, from foreign infiltration to advertising integrity to anti-trust and even the election of Donald Trump, numerous reporters have written about, or contributed to, what is broadly being called the “tech backlash” against the industry.

While there may be specific areas in which these platforms are being made out as scapegoats—and it’s me saying that—it is at least encouraging to hope that the public may finally begin to see these corporations as entities deserving scrutiny like any other industrial giant—and not viewed as the front-line defenders of democracy itself.  Just a couple years ago, no matter what underlying issue warranted criticism—copyright infringement, harassment, privacy invasions, etc.—the response was generally the same:  that these platforms are too essential for democratic progress (namely, free speech) to mess with.

I’ve always thought this premise was utter bullshit and still do, but inasmuch as I broadly disagree with this defense of Silicon Valley by Matt Rosoff for, there’s an instructive element of truth in one thing he says.  Rosoff points to polling data, which allegedly reveals that Facebook, Google, Amazon, et al still enjoy high favorability with the American public (i.e. that there is no tech backlash).  These data may be accurate, but they do not justify Rosoff’s generalization that “These companies’ products have helped society more than hurting it.”

Here, Rosoff addresses the topic of fake news, about which he writes, “Facebook was built to make the spread of ideas as frictionless as possible. If those ideas are angry, polarizing, ill-informed, ignorant (call them whatever you want) it reflects the people who are spreading them, not the platform on which they’re spread.” In other words, social media doesn’t make people idiots, people make themselves idiots.  True. But not entirely.

Rosoff is wrong to suggest that a platform like Facebook is an extension of the norm—that the medium itself does not substantially alter the manner in which we consume and relate to news, information, politics, and one another. And just because Mark Zuckerberg did not set out to upend the role of quality journalism in American democracy—he never intended to become a “news” site—that does not mean his platform has not had this effect on society. So, I would make a distinction between blaming Facebook per se and recognizing any number of its unintended consequences.

It is certainly well past time for the major platform owners to put away their childish mantras of disruption and behave like citizens.  They’ve moved fast enough and broken enough things.  Ironically, though, this vogue drumbeat of anti-tech reporting seems overly focused on areas where the major platforms are actually justified in saying there’s only so much they can do.  For instance, Cohen writes, “Facebook has endured a drip, drip of revelations concerning Russian operatives who used its platform to influence the 2016 presidential election by stirring up racist anger. Google had a similar role in carrying targeted, inflammatory messages during the election ….”

Recognizing that social media can be a centrifugal force is a step in the right direction, but we also cannot blame Facebook, or the Russians, for racism in America. That’s a cop out.  At best, we can recognize the ways in which these technologies help racism and other forms of hate and ignorance suck faster.  At the same time, it is insufficient to end the discussion, as Rossoff seems prepared to do, with the tired cliché that these platforms are neutral—that they’re only as good or bad as the people using them.

It isn’t quite that simple because in one way or another we’re all idiots—all ignorant about something and all capable of bias and anger, and certainly not all skilled in expressing ourselves through writing.  So, if the axiom remains true that medium is message, it should be little wonder that Facebook or Twitter is always one comment away from making enemies out of neighbors.  Then add the bots, the trolls, the manipulators, criminals, and the bonafide haters, and of course these platforms are the ideal fora for undermining the principles on which a democracy like ours is founded.

This doesn’t mean we should necessarily turn away from these platforms.  They can fulfill promises like connecting people and provide peer curation of useful news and information.  But it does mean that a new, digital-age literacy is required—one that remains vigilant to the manipulative nature of these platforms and, yes, one which holds the platform owners responsible to the extent that this is possible and effective.  To achieve that, however, requires taking them down off the pedestals of innovation and freedom and treating them like what they are—businesses.

In this regard, the concern should be that while the press has a good time plucking low-hanging fruit (like this story about Google serving fake news to fact-checking sites), the larger policy narrative may remain unchanged—the one which has thus far insisted that internet companies can and should operate outside the normal boundaries of law.  Whether the issue is online support of human trafficking, counterfeiting, fake news, harassment, revenge porn, or mass copyright infringement, the major internet companies continue to insist that their statutory liability shields (written when Zuckerberg was a pre-teen) are essential to our enjoyment of the many benefits their platforms provide.

What each of these individual stories in the “tech-backlash” narrative add up to, though, is the observable truth that these platforms yield plenty of results that are quite hazardous—even to the democratic values they claim to foster.  And as the rule of logic goes, if a premise is false, the conclusion doesn’t follow.  The premise that these platforms produce a net positive for democracy is, so far, proving to be false. Therefore, the conclusion that they must remain eternally shielded from legal liability and social responsibility does not follow.

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