Image: Mari Helin on Unsplash

Tech Has an Obligation to the Truth

Last summer, I found myself on the phone with a man whose son had been murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Several times, Mister Pozner had asked Wordpress…to remove the manipulated image of his slain six-year-old son. He received only automated replies. The image remained.

These children were once again, asserted the blog’s author, being portrayed as the victims of a brand new incident of mass violence, this time in Pakistan. This, he declared, was proof that the 27 people killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School were, in fact, paid crisis actors, all alive and well.

Mister Pozner’s experiences speak volumes about the state of ethics in the U.S. tech industry: there aren’t any.

After hearing his story, I emailed several executives at Wordpress and Automattic including Wordpress CEO Matt Mullenweg. I asked if the company planned to address the issue of Wordpress-hosted websites maliciously using images of minors. I received no response.

When tech CEOs portray themselves as the benevolent champions of free speech or the creators of neutral tools, they’re clinging to a bygone age of tech utopianism.

As a cohort, social media CEOs tend to be vocal proponents of free speech. In October, Mark Zuckerberg gave an entire commencement speech at Georgetown about the importance of free expression. He said “I believe in giving people a voice because, at the end of the day, I believe in people.”

When you enforce an ethical code only in response to immense public pressure, it means you don’t really have one.

It’s telling, for instance, that despite all we now know about the state-sponsored interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, neither Google nor Facebook will make a full throated commitment to refrain from disseminating false information through political ads in 2020. Twitter, by contrast, decided to ban political ads altogether, citing the “significant risks” associated with the Internet advertising’s power.

Don’t tell us what brilliant innovators you are for a quarter century then declare basic ethics to be beyond the tech industry’s reach.

Tech CEOs like to talk about how they couldn’t possibly take on the responsibility of being arbiters of truth. How would they know? Most have them haven’t yet begun to try.

We need tech leaders who feel a passionate commitment to the truth.

Regulation could solve some of these problems, but I think we also need a big cultural change in the tech industry itself. It’s incredibly worrisome that Zuckerberg is out there talking about his passion for free expression at this late date. He should be acknowledging the ways in which unchecked free expression has damaged democracy and the lives of people like Mister Pozner.

Imagine tech companies competing on how committed to the truth they could be.

Can you imagine ABC News accidentally broadcasting a mass shooting live for 29 minutes? Can you imagine it airing a story about the Sandy Hook shooting never having happened?

President of Grab Your Wallet Alliance, a non-profit that helps people flex their economic power in ways that promote an equitable, democratic society.

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