To put it mildly, the last ten days have been tough to watch. Following the news triggers anger, and it makes me feel ashamed. At the same time, I am encouraged by a new generation working hard to break the status quo, attempting to save their future from what the nation’s collective past would foist upon it. It’s hard not to wonder if the pandemic gave people the chance to step away from their daily distractions and realize that one must fight for what they value.
The past week has also shown us the power of the third eye — the camera on our phone. Hundreds of thousands of videos, photos, and voices have been recorded and shared on social platforms. These same social platforms have been the source of much consternation, raising questions about who we are trusting to decide what and how we get to view information.
So far, the response of those in power has largely been a denial of what the eyes can plainly see for themselves. We may not have a complete handle on whether the information being fed to us by our algorithmic masters is fact or half-truth, but it is easy enough to see what’s happening in a short clip of an old man pushed to the ground and bleeding. It is difficult to refute the brutal and repeated beating of a young black woman. It is hard to ignore that.
As I sit here and reflect, I can’t help but get a feeling of déjà vu. Regular readers of the newsletter (and the blog) are already familiar with the increasing dichotomy of technology and its hold on us. Here are three pieces from the past to give you some context.
- Tech’s Dual Reality: What has failed us human beings is our inability to understand the unintended consequences of our actions.
- Amplification and the changing role of the media: As more sources of news start to go direct by posting their thoughts to their blogs, Twitter, and Facebook pages, a journalist’s role becomes more about deciding what to amplify and what to ignore.
- Why do social networks focus on the wrong platforms? Adding labels is not the answer. They need to be stopping the spammers and spreaders of fake news and misinformation at the platform level.
It is good to see that Snapchat, a platform for younger people, gets it. In a memo, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel was clear enough when he stated: “We will not amplify voices who incite racial violence and injustice by giving them free promotion on Discover.” Because Discover is an editorial product, it should be an easy decision to not promote dubious information on it.
But things get gnarly with the other social media platforms. What can they do in order to make sure that the platforms maintain their fidelity? If our social platforms are going to be gatekeepers, then they need to acknowledge their role in the information ecosystems. It is knowing what to boost and what to ignore that makes a good platform.
The battle of good email versus spam email has taken a long time, but it has been worth fighting. The struggle between real information and fake information is no different. Unfortunately, what we have is ambivalent algorithms on our social platforms that blindly amplify both hope and hate.
This gets complicated pretty quickly. Without access to the same platforms currently being used to gaslight our country, we won’t see the awful videos of police in conflict with the people they should protect. Without the same platforms, it would be harder to tell that the media just glorifies the titillating stuff, whether it is the opinion page of the old Gray Lady or the fake looting of a non-existent Rolex store.
I am the first to admit that this is one hard and messy problem. The challenge we face today is that technology’s supreme commanders fail to fight the real monkey on their back — how the modern internet works. Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, or Google, the core principle of these companies is engagement and growth. More engagement means more growth, and that means more attention and thus more money.
If Facebook removed news from your feed and just restricted it to social items, like baby pictures, ravings of a crazy uncle, and event announcements, there is a good chance that engagement on the platform would decrease. Twitter would be a lot less engaging if it reverted back to its original premise of showing the latest, not the loudest. And what if Google stopped rewarding frequent visits as one of the measurements for showing the results on its search engine? I think you know.
All these words — engagement, growth, attention — are Silicon Valley speak for what I would describe to my mother as “popularity.” Whether it is likes, retweets, shares, or loves, these are the frictionless tools of algorithmic popularity. They keep the crowds coming back. But the real world is not a high school cafeteria. An information ecosystem driven solely by popularity fails to recognize what truly matters and makes it exceedingly difficult to see what’s really going on.
As a final thought for this week, I share these lines from Vogue editor André Leon Talley’s memoir, The Chiffon Trenches:
The struggle for black equality is a constant challenge; it takes daily individual skirmishes to survive by hope and faith, to conquer all the inbred race problems through the power of love.
Let’s remember these words when the current protests have died down, and the world has moved on to the next thing. That will be the test of really means it — as opposed to who is just jumping on the bandwagon — when they say #blacklivesmatter.
The post is adapted from my weekly newsletter for June 7, 2020.