Optimizing for outrage: ex-Obama digital chief urges curbs on massive tech | Know-how

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A former digital strategist for Barack Obama has called for an end to the for-profit optimization of outrage by big tech and called on regulators to curb disinformation and divisions on the internet.

Michael Slaby – author of a new book, For All Humans: Keeping the Broken Promises of Modern Media and Reclaiming Our Bourgeois lives – described technology giants Facebook and Google as “two gorillas” destroying the very creativity used to combat the conspiracy theories spread by earlier ones US President Donald Trump and others are required.

“The systems are not broken,” the 43-year-old Slaby told the Guardian by phone from his home in Rhinebeck, New York. “They work exactly as they were designed for the benefit of their designers. They can be designed in different ways. We can express and promote other public values ​​related to the public goods that we need from our public. “

Facebook has nearly 2.8 billion monthly active users worldwide, of whom a total of 3.3 billion monthly use one of the company’s core products – Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger. Revenue for the fourth quarter of last year was $ 28 billion, up 33% year over year, and profits rose 53% to $ 11.2 billion.

The first amendment concerns the government’s suppression of language. It has nothing to do with your access to Facebook

However, the social network founded by Mark Zuckerberg is accused of poisoning the information well. Critics say it polarizes users and allows hate speech and conspiracy theories to flourish, and that people who join extremist groups are often guided by the platform’s algorithm. The use of Facebook by Trump supporters involved in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol has drawn a lot of attention.

Slaby believes Facebook and Twitter were too slow to remove Trump from their platforms. “Here I think they are hiding behind arguments like the first amendment,” he said. “The first amendment concerns the government’s suppression of language. It has nothing to do with your access to Facebook.

Michael Slaby. Photo: John Halpern

“They don’t want to restrict freedom of expression for economic reasons, and so there is a very cynical view: yes, sure, they fired President Trump just before President Biden’s inauguration, after making all the money they did with and with Earning him would be less influential.

“He had knowingly lied and promoted misinformation for a long time before. Could you have made that choice sooner? Yes. Was that choice very difficult because he was an elected leader of the most powerful democracy in the world? Yeah, that’s a really tough choice, like a crazy fist bargain.

“But this is a place where the fact that they have been alone as private entities and have to think about how to make that choice, with no public moral guidance or regulatory framework to help them, is actually a big problem. This is a purely private decision over a very public area. That’s a problem – but something we can fix. “

Slaby calls for a combination of moral leadership, public advocacy, engagement from politicians, new legal frameworks and collective action from users to curb some private companies that are currently exerting a massive influence on the public.

Slaby was Chief Technology Officer of the Obama campaign in 2008 and Chief Integration and Innovation Officer in 2012. Their revolutionary approach to online organization helped them achieve two wins in the presidential election. It was an optimistic era when Democrats cultivated a warm relationship with Facebook and Google, and social media promised community, democratization, and a variety of votes.

Slaby, whose book examines how the technological revolution has instead undermined civic life, commented, “My experience with executives within Facebook is that many of them are smart, well-intentioned people who recognize that the systems are imperfect and have to change. They are in an economic system that has no incentive for them to get healthier, and that is difficult. You are not a B-Corp [a firm certified for its social and environmental performance]. You are a for profit company with shareholders who require them to be for profit.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, appears on a monitor behind a stenographer as he testifies remotely during the Senate committee hearing in October 2020.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, appears on a monitor behind a stenographer as he testifies remotely during the Senate committee hearing in October 2020. Photo: Getty Images

“It’s not always easy for the best actors on Facebook to make good decisions. Well, that is, they make a lot of decisions that look good in public, but don’t really move the needle about the basic mechanisms of attention and outrage within the system. What is really needed is some fundamental reshaping of how we interact with one another and what these systems are optimized for if we are really to recapture healthy bourgeois discourse. “

Facebook’s defenders are sure to object to persistent government intervention. But regulation now seems inevitable.

Ultimately, the answer is transparency, transparency about how we make decisions, the ability to override decisions, especially how algorithmic decisions are

Slaby claims: “There is nothing we can do. What we do doesn’t work for us. There is legitimate concern that government censorship is becoming the dictator of what is valid – the tyranny of the majority – but it has also been used as a justification for maintaining racism in America since that country’s first damn day. So we also have to adjust to what we are protecting.

“Ultimately, the answer is transparency, transparency about how we make decisions, the ability to override decisions, especially such as algorithmic decisions, and meaningful public dialogue that helps to express a value-based moral framework for considering how we should civic discourse want to work. It’s about a public statement that is then enforced and codified in the regulation – but it’s not just about President Biden telling me what to believe because I don’t want to either. “

Earlier this month, Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced laws to update antitrust laws, strengthen regulators, and enable greater competition for large technologies. The need to confront and review the power of companies like Facebook and Google is a rare area of ​​bipartisan agreement. Slaby thinks it’s important.

“It’s not just about power and control, it’s also about innovation,” he said. “We live in a world where creativity and innovation are falling dramatically due to the weight and strength of these two gorillas.”

Donald Trump supporters hoist a U.S. flag with a QAnon symbol on it as they gather outside the U.S. Capitol before their fatal attack on Jan. 6.

Donald Trump supporters hoist a U.S. flag with a QAnon symbol on it as they gather outside the U.S. Capitol before their fatal attack on Jan. 6. Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images

Conspiracy theories are not new, but they have been charged by social media with the anti-Semitic QAnon movement, identified by the FBI as a potential domestic terrorist threat among the most notorious examples. QAnon’s acolytes were seen at the Trump campaign rallies and the riots in the U.S. Capitol. But Slaby warns of widespread demonization.

“I don’t think we can paint with the same brush as all of Movement and everyone who’s ever been ‘QAnon curious’. These people are looking for something and we have to be honest about what they are looking for.

“And by the way, what do they not get from other executives or other political institutions or other cultural, civil or social institutions that they get there? How do we not manage to give people a sense of belonging and security that makes them searching and prone to exploitation and misleading? “

You can’t start with “You are crazy and stupid” and then say. “But we want to be friends”

One of the biggest challenges Biden faces is bridging the gap and reaching the millions who have voted for Trump’s election lies, QAnon, or other conspiracy theories. Slaby, now chief strategist for the nonprofit Harmony Labs, suggested, “It starts with not calling them all stupid. You can’t start with “You are crazy and stupid” and then say. “But we want to be friends.” It just won’t work.

“I agree with the reality you hear to the left of ‘We don’t want to join with white supremacy’. So I say we have to shout real extremism, but call people who are involved in something that they didn’t understand or that they didn’t want to be a part of.

“This distinction is difficult, but in the end the Biden administration and the left in a broader sense are concerned not to get into an argument about QAnon, but rather to formulate a vision for the future that gives people this feeling of belonging and security and solves the problem of futility, that gives people a reason to be part of something else. “

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