Kara Swisher: Resisting the Worst of the Web Is Not Futile

From a New York Times  column by Kara Swisher headlined “Resisting the Worst of the Web Is Not Futile”:

For my first column in The New York Times, nearly four years ago, I wrote about a topic I thought everyone desperately needed to hear at the time, using one of the world’s most important media platforms, pretty much because I knew it would make a lot more people pay attention.

The gist: the increasing dangers from the amplification and weaponization of social media platforms by malevolent players and — more important — the sloppy management of these powerful systems by their creators, who hid behind flimsy excuses for their abrogation of responsibility. That all may seem obvious today, but it was anything but just a few short years ago. The fact that it’s arguably worse now is a sad bookend to my time with The Times.

Central to my argument was showing how Facebook — the company hiding in plain sight behind its new name, Meta — was the most egregious perpetrator of this worrisome trend. Even then the huge company was still growing, so it was playing a key role in the metastasizing problem. Facebook was being used at the time to sway elections by some digital thugs. “We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too,” Facebook claimed.

That gave me the perfect in, which I took and ran away with:

The arms race metaphor is a good one, but not for the reasons Facebook intended. Here’s how I see it: Facebook, as well as Twitter and Google’s YouTube, have become the digital arms dealers of the modern age.

All these companies began with a gauzy credo to change the world. But they have done that in ways they did not imagine — by weaponizing pretty much everything that could be weaponized. They have mutated human communication, so that connecting people has too often become about pitting them against one another and turbocharged that discord to an unprecedented and damaging volume.

They have weaponized social media. They have weaponized the First Amendment. They have weaponized civic discourse. And they have weaponized, most of all, politics.

I thought what was happening and what would continue happening was obvious, but it caused a stir nonetheless; I was accused of being needlessly alarmist. The notion of social media’s toxicity seems almost quaint today, especially against the backdrop of the congressional hearings now underway detailing how the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol unfolded.

Most of the blame for that tragic event is the fault of men (we seeyou, Donald Trump) and women (thanks to emails and texts, you’re not invisible either, Ginni Thomas) acting egregiously and possibly illegally in real life. But there is also the matter of how much online communication tools have supplanted and turbocharged all others that came before them, like the telephone and the fax machine, to organize, to conspire and, mostly, to propagandize.

It all feels like the TV show “Scandal,” except even stupider, more dangerous and less believable — yet here we are hearing daily tales of skulduggery that are profoundly damaging to democracy. No surprise, these tales contain a major toxic dollop of tech to help facilitate the “American carnage” (not my phrase but Trump’s, and it works here).

The progression was also entirely predictable. In fact, in a piece in late 2019, I noted my worries about the increasing dangers of allowing a demagogue like Trump to break the rules of online discourse persistently and without consequence, using free speech as a fig leaf for whatever dangerous nonsense he felt like typing out and vomiting onto the public square.

So I made up another scenario I thought plausible:

I have been testing my companions with a hypothetical scenario. My premise has been to ask what Twitter management should do if Mr. Trump loses the 2020 election and tweets inaccurately the next day that there had been widespread fraud and, moreover, that people should rise up in armed insurrection to keep him in office.

Most people I have posed this question to have had the same response: Throw Mr. Trump off Twitter for inciting violence. A few have said he should be only temporarily suspended to quell any unrest. Very few said he should be allowed to continue to use the service without repercussions if he was no longer the president. One high-level government official asked me what I would do. My answer: I would never have let it get this bad to begin with.

Without taking on the mantle of Cassandra over and over, Trump’s constant playing of the gullible tech moguls began when in 2016 he summoned them to his New York tower — with a major assist from tech’s reliable consigliere Peter Thiel — just after he become president. It was the defining study in bootlicking by the world’s most powerful people.

As I wrote then for Vox of their inexplicable toadying:

You’re opting to sit in that gilded room at Trump Tower to be told fake news is a matter of opinion and that smart people aren’t so smart and that you need to sit still and do what they say and take that giant pile of repatriated income with a smile.

Or you can say no — loudly and in public. You can resist the forces that are against immigrants, because it is immigrants who built America and immigrants who most definitely built tech. You can defend science that says climate change is a big threat and that tech can be a part of fixing it. You can insist we invest in critical technologies that point the way to things like new digital health inventions and transportation revolutions. You can do what made Silicon Valley great again and again.

Instead, over those four years, while they became ever richer and more powerful, these titans of industry did the bare minimum to stop or even slow the freight train of misinformation, ill will and rage, let alone help to bring on reasonable legislation to protect consumers and their data and make sure we have the purportedly healthy civic discourse that the Twitter co-creator and former chief Jack Dorsey so extravagantly bragged about.

Well, it’s been all words and no action from the once-thoughtful Dorsey, who opted to decamp from the company (and his longtime and loyal employees) once Elon Musk came calling and move on to the supposedly greener pastures of cryptocurrency, including his recently announced “Web5” project.

That effort certainly sounds good on paper: a combination of Web3 — which Dorsey identified as becoming captive of powerful investors and “ultimately a centralized entity with a different label” — and Web 2.0, all built on the Bitcoin blockchain. Its promise is to secure personal data and take the reins of the web out of the hands of a powerful few companies, which would presumably remove the ability for all that is wrong with the current system to proliferate.

“On the web today, identity and personal data have become the property of third parties,” says the Web5 site, which promises the return of “ownership of data and identity to individuals.”

The thing is, the internet and its successors like the metaverse were always meant to be ours, originally designed as a public trust. The public paid for it to be created too. Those savvy entrepreneurs simply hijacked it, took it for a spin and gave us very little in return — some email, texting, a swipe-left dating service, a whole lot of loony tweeting — compared with what they made off with. Which is to say: All the money. All the control. All the power.

So, as I head out on my next, and probably final, chapter of covering tech (and much more, since this industry has invaded all aspects of our lives), you might wonder: What am I going to do next?

Resist, because, as it turns out, it is not futile. And oh yeah, take back what’s ours.

This is the final edition of the Kara Swisher newsletter.


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