Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion on The Great Hack at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The director of the documentary, Karim Amer, and the writer/producer, Pedro Kos, were joined by journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who broke the Cambridge Analytica story for The Guardian, and Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford. The panel was moderated by John Markoff of the New York Times. It was a wonderful discussion and I am grateful to the participants and to the Computer History Museum for hosting this event. At the same time, I’m troubled that they left me with the lesson that fixing social media was the essential challenge to democracy in our times. It would be convenient if it were that simple, but what if it’s not? What if the drama around the menace of social media is just a distraction?
Like the documentary, the discussion last night was largely focused on the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It explored the questionable roles of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in delivering deceptive advertising and content to a naive and credulous public. Excerpts from the film were interleaved with back-stories from Amer, Kos and Cadwalladr and policy insight from Schaake. The discussion gave even more depth to characters from the film. It seemed perfectly in character that the initial phone interview between Cadwalladr and Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christophe Wylie would be an eight-hour marathon. The panel’s comments also left me wondering how Brittany Kaiser’s role would have evolved if Amer hadn’t brought a film crew pool-side to confront her in her resort refuge in Thailand. This is the kind of drama that makes for award-winning journalism. It can make reality even more engaging and entertaining than fiction. It can also make people very successful. Ironically both Wylie and Kaiser released books in October, with their roles as whistleblowers qualifying them to participate in the commercialization of the public flogging of these companies.
To conclude the discussion, Markoff led the panelists through a Computer History Museum tradition, asking each of them to offer a single word of advice to future technology leaders. Cadwalledr’s word was “Subversion,” emphasizing the incurable evil of big tech. She closed with a call to action for future whistleblowers to expose their employers, complete with an 800 number which was maybe just a joke. Amer’s word was “Fragility”, recalling his experience in Tahrir Square and citing Egypt as a reminder that democracy is not inevitable. The crowd dispersed quietly when the evening concluded and the bashing of the social media giants was done. But as I drove home, swaddled in the safety of my automobile, I found myself converging on an impression that democracy’s biggest challenges had not been exposed.
While the drama of democracy’s failures finds an eager public, the news of its successes can be harder to find. Nobody last night talked about Ukraine. While Britain was flustered with Brexit and America tribulated over Trump, Ukraine elected a television personality of its own, moderate president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy was largely neglected by America until our Commander in Chief of Reality TV drew him onto the world stage, amidst accusations of treason and extortion. Meanwhile, in Italy, the involuntary retirement from public service of burger chomping neo-nationalist Matteo Salvini demonstrates that moderates still have a role to play in Italian politics, with the Partito Democratico cooley choosing compromise with the quasi-anarchist M5S over a surrender to Salvini’s pro-Russian nationalism. Somehow these democracies appear to have escaped the menace of social media. Moderates also prevailed this summer in Greece and Turkey. And yet I do not expect any documentaries or panel discussions on how social media didn’t corrupt their elections. Perhaps these Europeans have learned to deal with new media, just as they learned previously to deal with television and radio and newsprint. That would be good news for democracy, even if it’s not a great headline. Whether you see these stories as a comforting sign of the inevitability of democracy or as the latest democratic catastrophe, they seem to be a big nothing for new media.
As a manager of Trust and Safety engineering at YouTube, I’m the first to admit we have a ton of work to do. When I give recruiting talks I like to tell the candidates we have an uncommon opportunity to prove that it is possible to do a world-class job at protecting our community. Personally I find that challenge highly motivating, but suppose hypothetically we succeed? There wouldn’t be much for Cadwalladr’s whistleblower to do. Would she give us any credit for that? Even if she didn’t resent our denying her a juicy story, she would likely prefer to invest her time in something more salacious. At a personal level I’m fine with her writing about something else, but I’m also worried about the implications for democracy. What if bad government sells newspapers, and good government is boring?
As long as we condition the public to demand news as entertainment, we risk reinforcing a system that promotes extremism over moderation and bad government over good.
I treasure responsible professional journalism. I believe it is essential to robust democracy. But as long as we condition the public to demand news as entertainment, we risk reinforcing a system that promotes extremism over moderation and bad government over good. In her reporting on Cambridge Analytica, Cadwalladr has done a tremendous service to our democracy, and I am deeply grateful for her work. But I fear the fixation on social media distracts us from a more fundamental challenge. Just as forest fires are more interesting than trimming trees, bad government has an asymmetric advantage over good. If so, then maybe we need more stories about Italy and Ukraine. Maybe we should be looking more critically at cable news and talk radio. Maybe the public needs to demand more from journalism than entertainment value. Maybe we have bigger problems to solve than fixing social media. Now would be a good time to figure this out.
Brad Chen is an engineering manager at YouTube.