Feeding Us Poison
Like many others, I have been disturbed by the events in Charlottesville this past weekend. Growing up, Nazis were something that we defeated in WWII, and ne0-nazis were relegated to a five minute segments on Dateline or 20/20, sandwiched between a segment on some child molester in Duluth, and some rare disease affecting field mice in Africa. It never seemed real, but over the past year, and especially after this weekend, it has never felt more real.
I’ve seen explanations from economic uncertainty to sexual frustration to explain what happened/is happening, and while many may be factors, it struck me that many of the leaders and large voices and participants of these movement are young and digitally native.
It’s time for us to examine the digital products we all use on a regular basis, made by companies that we not only love, but which have some of the most popular products in the world, and some of best performing stocks of the last few years, yet have gotten away with feeding us poison for years.
Facebook is the most obvious and has caught the most criticism post-election for “fake news”, and has been exhausted at length, so I won’t dive too deep here. It is not surprise to anyone who has ever logged in, that they have not only happily been a platform for your racist cousin to spew hatred, but for hateful personalities and pseudo publications to post and gain massive followings.
Currently Facebook is smart enough to know if I’m sharing something positive — wishing someone a happy birthday, congratulating them on a baby, or asking for a recommendation. They should be smart enough to know if I’m posting something awful.
It should be simple, don’t feed us poison and definitely don’t let our friends and families do the same.
To their credit, and probably because they have received the most criticism, they have been acknowledging the problem and addressing it.
Apple is the supposed bastion of quality product. They pride themselves in an app store that is a walled garden. You can’t even push an app with properly utilizing UIWebview, but on their bourgeoning media platform, Podcasts, they are feeding us poison.
Currently, Alex Jones , who has said that Sandy Hook shootings were not real, is ranked 53rd on top News and Politics podcasts, with a 4-star rating(!!). It has even been ranked higher in the past.
Even better, if you like Alex Jones, Apple is so nice to recommend other poisonous podcasts you may like
This would never happened on terrestrial radio, and if so it would was bottom of the dial content in really remote areas, not mainstream radio platforms.
Letting anyone can host their own radio show is amazing and exciting, but it is not without consequences, and Apple should not let crap and poison on its network (nor let apps that do in its app store).
I will give their search product a pass since they do not host or control the content posted on the internet, and if they serve up poison, it is generally to people looking for it (although tempted to take a harder stance here).
I will not be nearly as easy on them when it comes to YouTube. Unlike their search business, they own the platform and host the content posted to Youtube. This means they could, if they want, control the quality of content being posted there. They do this all the time for copyright owners.
On YouTube it’s pretty easy to binge all day on hate-filled content
Compare this to the old guard, the cable box, where it would be nearly impossible to find content such as this. In the past, unless you were really serious about watching hate videos and were part of some weird underground VHS swap, you would never even be able to see this.
YouTube wants to be the future of television but doesn’t want the responsibility of making sure it is not feeding you poison.
With Twitter, it has never been so easy to see what the rest of the world is saying and thinking, and that includes Nazis. They have recently received a lot of pressure to suspend President Trump’s account, which I understand is a complex decision, but why not start with more black and white accounts inciting hate?
Today you can go and follow David Duke, and Twitter will not only let you do that, but suggest more hate for you to consume!
Communities should not be built upon hatred and Twitter is making it even easier for people to build hate-filled communities and relationships that start digitally and move analog. Why?
They have chosen not to be some decentralized protocol, presumably for their business value, and with that centralized decision comes more responsibility. They own the content and own the dialogue and should go to great lengths to ensure that they are not feeding you poison.
When I sat down to write this, I did not immediately think of Amazon, but it turns out they are not just feeding us poison, they are selling it to us.
As they have killed the local bookstore, they have not replaced it with the same level of quality control and judgement that those stores exercised. Imagine walking into Barnes and Noble and asking for this book, and not only would they have it, but suggest 5 other books like it that you might like:
That would be fucking insane!
What’s even better is they will also sell you something that allows you consume this poison in public without any fear — a Kindle! In the past to find these types of books you would have to go to some really underground bookstore, or be part of some fringe club, but now anyone can buy this poison with a credit card and instantly consume it 2 minutes later.
Since many people will immediately jump to First Amendment/Freedom of Speech, let me be clear — I have no problem with these people’s right to publish and/or say whatever they want. Publish a book, give a speech, write a blog, build a website. I do, however, have a problem with major platforms and corporate institutions feeling that they do not have responsibility to society at large for allowing this type of hate speech on their platforms. They are private companies, with their own freedom of speech, which they can choose to exercise or not. The “both sides” argument that we are now hearing as an excuse from many defending these events, is no different than the “we are a platform where good and bad things happen” excuse you hear from these CEO’s.
Also, please understand that I am a huge proponent of these types of platforms, I have devoted my life and career to one, and also have a unique understanding of the difficulty in enforcing it. I believe the democratization of media in general is a good thing, however, it is not without negatives. If you own or manage these platforms, you need to understand the downsides, and address them.
These digital platforms and storefronts are impersonal by when comapred to their analog counterparts but, as a steward of this platform, every follow, like, purchase, and view should be thought of as delivered personally, sold personally, recommended personally, or personally approved by you. Publicly denouncing what happened with a tweet, but not doing anything about it on your own platform is just the tech equivalent of “Thoughts and Prayers”.