This week’s Senate hearing on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has prompted a number of good pieces on technology, politics, and media. Here are some of the essays and articles that have stuck with me.
Tyler Cowen, “Don’t blame Facebook for our own failings”
Overall, one reason Facebook is such a scapegoat is because so many individuals don’t want to admit that Trump simply won the election. To the extent you can pin his victory on some kind of conspiracy or wrongdoing, that gives you something to rail against, something to blame, and also a way to feel better about parts of your country.
I suspect this sentiment has been popular among many people I know. But the raw numbers of how much Russia allegedly spent on propaganda pales in comparison to the amount the presidential campaigns, PACs, and other political organizations spent.
But while Russian meddling is a serious problem, the current sentiment toward Silicon Valley borders on scapegoating. Facebook and Twitter are just a mirror, reflecting us. They reveal a society that is painfully divided, gullible to misinformation, dazzled by sensationalism, and willing to spread lies and promote hate. We don’t like this reflection, so we blame the mirror, painting ourselves as victims of Silicon Valley manipulation.
Like Cowen, Parker argues that it’s much more convenient to blame tech giants than to look at what our fellow citizens believe.
Farhad Manjoo, “The Upside of Being Ruled by the Five Tech Giants”
But another argument suggests the opposite — that it’s better to be ruled by a handful of responsive companies capable of bowing to political and legal pressure.
“Being ruled” is perhaps too strong, but I thought this article introduced some useful perspectives for thinking about how these firms’ market power might actually be a good thing. Because they compete so fiercely with one another and are so highly scrutinized by regulators, they may feel more pressure to act responsibly. I don’t have great evidence to back this idea up, and there are lots of potential problems with increasing concentration. But it’s an interesting thought to keep in mind.
Ben Thompson, “Tech Goes to Washington”
I added up the numbers in Trustworthy Networking, estimating that Facebook served 276 million unique ads per quarter, and my entire point was the same as Kennedy’s: there is no way that Facebook could ever review every ad, much less investigate who is behind them, without completely ruining their revenue model.
Thompson highlights three important lines of questioning during the Senate hearing. They show how little some of the Senators appear to understand tech and the companies in question, and how tricky it is for these companies to monitor the ads served on their platforms. The ad networks on Facebook and Google, for example, are so powerful in large part because it is so easy for an ad to be purchased, targeted, and analyzed without ever having to talk to another human being. Policing who buys ads and what they put in them raises a lot of tough questions: How do you monitor lots of small transactions? Who gets to decide what political content is ok, and what is over the line?
Ben Thompson, “Inspired Media”
This has profound implications for products and politics. First and foremost, it is fundamentally misguided to simply view “digital” as another channel that you layer on top of traditional marketing/campaign tactics like TV advertisements. In fact, products and politicians designed for the TV age — that is, meant to be palatable to the greatest number of people — are at a fundamental disadvantage on platforms like Facebook. The products and politicians that win inspire passion, stirring up a level of engagement that breaks through on a scale that far exceeds an ad buy. To put it another way, above I mentioned “paid” media and “earned” media; what matters on the Internet is “inspired” media.
I’ve been thinking about this piece from January a lot. The nature of these tech platforms changes the relationship between advertisers and content producers on the one hand, and consumers on the other. Whereas content on “traditional” media was pushed out to consumers and not easily shareable, most of the content on social platforms is driven organically by consumers. This has profound implications for the type of content is seen, changing the incentives for brands, politicians, and anyone else who uses media to promote their work.