A theme of my writing over the past ten or so years has been the role of data in society. I tend to frame that role anthropologically: How have we adapted to this new element in our society? What tools and social structures have we created in response to its emergence as a currency in our world? How have power structures shifted as a result?
Increasingly, I’ve been worrying a hypothesis: Like a city built over generations without central planning or consideration for much more than fundamental capitalistic values, we’ve architected an ecosystem around data that is not only dysfunctional, it’s possibly antithetical to the core values of democratic society. Houston, it seems, we really do have a problem.
If Twitter’s countermeasures fail in the run up to the mid-term election, they should prepare a nuclear option.
Russian intelligence distorted the democratic process of the 2016 Presidential Election by manipulating social media, and perhaps more. A tech backlash is in full swing, where the power of unintended and intended (ads) consequences wielded by platforms will be curbed. The management of these platforms has failed to self-regulate to date.
Twitter’s countermeasures have reduced the number of bot fakesters, and it does feel like there is less toxicity in the personalized feed. But in this information war there will always be new attack vectors on the attention and divisive outrage of the electorate. The same hacks are already happening to ready disinformation dumps.
Last Sunday was Father’s Day, and I never thought I’d say this, but I was glad to get a tie, because my wife knew I would need it (it’s been literally over a decade since I’ve worn one). Today I was called to testify before a Senate Commerce committee hearing on Facebook and the role of data in society. Apparently they’ve been reading my work and, well, that landed me in DC. My full written testimony, replete with dozens of links to my previous work and coming in at 2500 or so words, is published on Searchblog. Below is what I read into verbal testimony before the Senators got into a couple hours of questioning, which, by they way, I found to be well informed and enlightened.
God, “innovation.” First banalized by undereducated entrepreneurs in the oughts, then ground to pablum by corporate grammarians over the past decade, “innovation” — at least when applied to business — deserves an unheralded etymological death.
It’s somehow fitting that today, May 25th, marks my return to writing here on Searchblog, after a long absence driven in large part by the launch of NewCo Shift as a publication on Medium more than two years ago. Since then Medium has deprecated its support for publications (and abandoned its original advertising model), and I’ve soured even more than usual on “platforms,” whether they be well intentioned (as I believe Medium is) or indifferent toward and fundamentally bad for publishing (as I believe Facebook to be).
Now that digital platforms drive physical consequences, what does “free speech” really even mean anymore?
It’s the first amendment to the US Constitution, but it’s also deeply misunderstood. Free speech seems an inviolate right, but when practiced at public institutions like UC Berkeley, or within private corporations like CloudFlare or Starbucks, the concept of free speech is both tested and proven. Join UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn, and moderator Nellie Bowles of the New York Times for a challenging and timely conversation on the role of speech in our roiling democracy.
Nellie Bowles: Hi. We are here today to talk about free speech and the corporation, a nice, relaxing topic for a Tuesday afternoon. [laughter] I know you two both have a lot of interesting things to talk about. To just jump right in, when we talk about free speech right now, that term and that concept, it feels like it’s changing radically. I don’t really understand if the shift in how the term “free speech” is being used is political or it’s about platforms or if it’s generational. If you could both just give me a sense of what has changed in the last year with this concept?
Two rising stars talk politics, Trump, and how to win in a post truth era
Continuing our tour through the political conversations at Shift Forum 2018, John Heilemann interviews Rachel Payne, running for a hotly contested congressional seat in southern California, and Jason Kander, one of the youngest elected officials in the history of his state. Below is an edited transcript and the full video interview.
John Heilemann: We have two bright, rising stars in the Democratic Party here today. Rachel Payne, who is a perfect person for this crowd, a CEO in the tech sector, is also one of many, abundant, like 500, Democrats who are running for Congress in the 48th District in California, down in Orange County, running against Dana Rohrabacher.
Three political veterans ponder the future of the Republican Party
One of the most fascinating portions of the 2018 NewCo Shift program was its focus on US politics. In this conversation, veteran political journalist John Heilemann spars with two of the most seasoned veterans of presidential campaigns — Republican strategist Mike Murphy and Democratic strategist Jennifer Palmieri. The topic: The future of the Republican party in an age of Trump.
John Heilemann: We have a panel that was going to be a conversation about the future of the Republican Party with Mike Murphy, master strategist and political guru. Yesterday, she couldn’t make it, but now she’s here.
One year after the Shift Forum convened one of the very first conversations around the role of Russia in disrupting the US electoral process in 2016, moderator John Heilemann once again convenes a panel of experts to plumb what we know about the story. What was revealed is both fascinating and deeply disturbing.
John Heilemann: All right, guys. We have the third in our series of political policy-related panels this morning. This is the one that I have been most looking forward to, because I think it gets to one of the issues that everybody in this room has been thinking about. Everyone in the country’s been thinking about, and the one that no one in the country was thinking about.
Its most significant business crisis to date fails to tarnish Facebook’s earnings. Perhaps it’s time to admit something about ourselves we don’t want to face.
Facebook earnings just came out, and as it has nearly every quarter, the company crushed it. Many (including myself) were expecting at least some measurable effect on the company’s performance from the Cambridge Analytica train wreck, but the company seemed instead to pick up steam, booking a 63 percent increase in earnings year on year and beating Wall St. estimates by an astounding 34 cents a share. “Up yours, haters!” may not have been overtly stated on the earnings call, but I am quite certain there was plenty of that sentiment going around One Hacker Way today. In America — particularly Trump’s America, nothing washes away sins like unmitigated success. Oh, and money — lots and lots of money.
Facebook stock is already trading more than five percent up in after hours, and will likely pop on the open, as the investing public hastens to ride it back up to its pre-Cambridge Analytica highs. And why not? It’s Facebook’s time, after all. The company has taken its licks, apologized, and promised to do better. Zuck went to Washington, and new features seems to roll out almost daily — each promising one more “fix” for whatever was originally broken about the service.
It’s not Facebook’s fault that capitalism works the way it does. The bare truth is simply this: Facebook works for advertisers, which is another way of saying it works for business. And as long as it keeps doing that, business people aren’t going to stop using it. Period, end of sentence. The executives at Facebook know this, and as much as they’ve claimed they’re willing to impinge their business to “fix” their service, there’s simply no way they’ll actually going to roll out any changes that significantly change how their advertising model works. Regulation could “fix” it for them, but after Congress’ laughable performance earlier this month, that’s highly unlikely.