There may be no more galvanizing center of gravity for the tech community than South By Southwest, affectionately known as SXSW., in Austin, Texas.
It’s tricky to do a serious subject among the alluring draw of beer and BBQ, but with
the rising tide of hate overtaking civility on the internet, it seemed like a topic that needed a public conversation. So I signed up for a panel.
Brian Stelter, the former anchor of “Reliable Sources” on CNN, served as our moderator. Other participants were Jade Magnus Ogunnaike from Color Of Change, and Lauren T. Krapf from the Anti-Defamation League, along with me, representing the Sustainable Media Center. We had agreed to take the question “Can we fix it?” seriously, and worked to both raise issues and seek solutions.
Ogunnaike took on the platforms with pointed criticism. “Today, a lot of us get our news from Facebook and Twitter, long before we open The New York Times or The Washington Post. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, there were marches planned to support Black Lives Matter, and a militia group had posted an event on Facebook and they had invited members of this militia to come and counter-protest and to bring guns. This is a great example of how these tech platforms are a new form of media.”
Kyle Rittenhouse learned about the call to come armed, and did so, fatally shooting two people. Ogunnaike says Facebook should be held responsible. “Who's to say if that event hadn't been on Facebook, maybe Kyle Rittenhouse wouldn't have heard of it at all? Facebook had a duty and a responsibility as a technology company, as well as a media company, to take down what was advertised as a violent event -- and it didn't.”
Krapf agreed. “We are today facing normalization and mainstreaming of extremist ideologies like never before. We are being served up hate and extremist content at the top of our mainstream news feeds because it's profitable, because certainly for social media, hate and extremism and salacious content drives engagement.”
Here I joined in: “I think the question is going forward, how do we figure out
where the money is moving? And that's when we talk about solutions, it's who's benefiting economically from amplifying fringe ideas."
Ogunnaike didn't pull her punches. "Facebook is just one of these giant tech companies inflicting civil rights abuses virtually every single day," she said. “They're not interested in building a sustainable media culture or a sustainable world. They're interested in making money."
If that is the business model of outrage, then where are the interventions for hope?
“So I think we have to talk about who has the power to fix it. There are two pods of power that I think have not yet been implemented,” I said. “One is all the people in this audience. Few of us are paying for news they trust. That means platform winner are turning readers into the product, and using outrage to gin up audience. They are selling your attention by the pound,” I said to the Austin audience.
“The second thing, and I think this is maybe the one that we can start to really make change around is, there are enormous, enormous, powerful piles of money that are funding this current
state of affairs, from brands. So consumers are beginning to say to brands, ‘Hey, you know what, we don't really want to fund hate.’”
Krapf had a third pod of power to add to the mix. “This might be an unpopular opinion, but the government has a huge role to play here,” she said. “The laws and regulatory frameworks that underpin our online lives are from 1996. The Internet looks very different now than it did in 1996, and those laws were meant to spur innovation... We need to compel transparency because self-regulation is not working. We need to push the government to create and update internet frameworks.”
The power to make change will come from internet users brandishing their economic power.
“The fight is coming to all of us, because it's a fight for dignity, it's a fight for humanity, and it's something that we're all involved in,” said Ogunnaike. “You need to pick a side.”
The problem of social sectarianism is a complex one. Articulating it as being the result of techno-robber barron capitalism is it risks rendering the problem a simple one consisting of the same kind of "us vs them" binarism symptomatic of the current zeitgeist. Instead of imagining oligarchs twirling their mustaches in a smoke-filled room figuring out how to make their next billion by furhter destroying society, let's try looking at the unintended consequences of the technology itself. Neil Postman argues in "Technopolgy" that we tend to always think of what a technology will do and not what it will undo. To call out civil schism as a byproduct of adtech might be a better place to lay our critique. What started as a quest to make the nearly innumerable transactions of impressions easier to handle has resulted in an algorithmically-driven media ecosystem that optimizes for engagement, riding on a dragon of data science. As Dan McQuillan, University of London wrote a few years ago, “[d]ata science does not affect by argument alone but acts directly in the world as a form of algorithmic force. It is machinic, that is, an assembly of flows and logic that enrolls humans and technology in a larger, purposeful structure.” That structure, unfortunately, uses enragement as its material. Media is a business, but it’s product is not content; it’s attention. To capture and harvest that attention, it uses content as water and fertilizer. When the algorithm calculates optimization for engagement, it finds a collection of highly non-randomized and decontextualized negative facts produce the most. It is engagement through enragement. At the same time, the need for segmentation was driven by the need to ostensibly uncover more markets so that there could be ever-increasing levels of targeting to feed the adtech beast.
To do anything about it, we’d have to sever the algorithm from time of attention metrics. But that toothpaste is never being put back into the tube. The only way to change things now is to find a fiscally viable alternative. Maybe that's demonstrating the benefits of targeting what is the same between audiences rather than what is different about them. The current system attempts to engineer reach by aggregating differences. Synchronizing reach across asynchronous segments is useful, but can be divisive if the messaging focuses on those differences. Instead, building reach across what’s in common might be a better way to go.
Agree with Jim above "The current system attempts to engineer reach by aggregating differences". While I applaud the idea of the panel, getting three like minded individuals is as far from the starting point of "debate" as you can get - and really indicative of the problem at large.
What makes you think it was presented as a debate? Don't think that was ever how the conversation was framed.