Big Tech's Impact on Public Purpose: How Recent Decisions Will Shape Society

Big Tech's Impact on Public Purpose: How Recent Decisions Will Shape Society

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LAURA MANLEY: Welcome, everyone, and  thank you for joining today's discussion.   My name is Laura Manley, and I'm the director of  the Technology and Public Purpose Project at the   Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center  for Science and International Affairs.   The TAPP project works to ensure that emerging   technologies are both developed and managed  in ways that serve the overall public good.

[00:01:08] In today's session,   Big Tech's Impact on Public Purpose, we're  taking a closer look at the potential short-   and long-term impacts of the recent decisions  by big tech firms to enforce stricter   content moderation policies in the  wake of January 6th's Capitol riots.   For years, social media companies have avoided  taking a harder stance on moderating political   content in the name of free speech. They have  resisted locking or outright banning prominent   politicians, like President Donald Trump, despite  claims on mis- and disinformation and hate speech.  

But when the President incited a mob to attack  the US Capitol, big tech wielded its power. Following the January 6th attack, Twitter  permanently banned President Trump. Facebook froze   his account for at least the remainder of his  term. YouTube suspended the President's account,   citing the ongoing potential for violence.  Google, Apple and Amazon have taken action   against Parler, a social network which  rioters used to help plan the attack.

[00:02:05] Trump and other politicians weren't   the only target though. Facebook has removed all  content that uses the phrase "stop the steal."   YouTube has accelerated a policy to issue  strikes on any accounts that post videos   making false claims about election fraud. Twitter  deleted over 70,000 accounts dedicated to sharing   QAnon conspiracy theories. and Reddit banned  the popular subreddit r/DonaldTrump, one of  

the platform's largest political communities  for repeatedly violating the platform's rules. The decisions to enforce these stricter content  moderation strategies have welcomed polarizing   responses. Some applaud the decision,  while others claim it is an unacceptable   form of political censorship. There is a central  question across the response spectrum, though;   and that is: What kind of precedent does  these decisions set? And more specifically,   what does this mean for online speech, private  sector power, democracy and, ultimately, society? [00:03:01] Before moving   into the speaker intros, I want to caveat  this discussion with two key points. First,   Trump's actions have catalyzed a more serious  conversation about mis- and disinformation,   hate speech, extremism and  violence on digital platforms.   But it's important to remember that these issues  did not start with him and will not end with   him. They're much larger and more systemic than  this President and recent actions of big tech.

Secondly, hate speech, extremism and racism  are, of course, not limited to the online world.   Although our conversation today will focus on  the realization of these risks within digital   platforms, we must also remember that these  are societal issues that must be addressed in a   multifaceted way, not just through tech-focused  solutions, but also through individual and   institutional change. And they're, of course,  related to larger public purpose concepts   of truth, trust, democracy, freedom,  private sector power, and more.

[00:04:01] So with that,   we are very happy to welcome today's four leading  experts on this topic. Today we have Joan Donavan,   the research director of the Shorenstein Center on  Media, Politics and Public Policy, and an adjunct   lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy  School; Leslie Miley, a tech engineering leader   who's previously held leadership roles at Google,  Slack, Twitter, Apple and the Obama Foundation;   Kathy Pham, co-founder of Fix the Internet  incubator at the Mozilla Foundation; and   Jonathan Zittrain, professor of international law;  vice dean for library and information resources;   and faculty director of Berkman Klein Center for  Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School. [00:04:42] Each of our panelists   will provide a unique perspective on the social  implications of the decisions by big tech to act,   whether it's through the lens of mis-  and disinformation, tech and the law,   or responsible project development. I'll kick  off the conversation with a few questions  

regarding timeliness, the Constitution and the  potential impacts of big tech's decision to act.   And then around 4:10, we'll open the floor to  give you all in the audience an opportunity to ask   specific questions. If you have a question for our  panelists, please use the Zoom Q&A chat feature. Thank you, again, to Joan, Leslie,  Kathy and Jonathan for joining us today. Let's kick it off with a  question about constitutional   concerns around the recent big tech  bans. This may be a question for you,   Jonathan. How credible are claims that Twitter,  Facebook and other social media platforms   violated the First Amendment right to free speech?  And is this something that could hold up in court? JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: Thank you  for bringing us together today,   Laura. What a great group of people to be  among. I'm very excited to talk this through.

[00:05:44] So your question was, does the First Amendment   protect user speech on a platform like Twitter or  Facebook? And the short answer, which lawyers are   incapable of, but here we go, is, no. The  First Amendment, part of the Bill Rights,   generally targeted to protect citizens from  people under the jurisdiction of the United States   against the actions by the government; first,  federal government and later state and municipal   governments. And as much as Mark Zuckerberg has  at times invoked Facebook as a global government,   it is not. And therefore, there's no way  in which the First Amendment protects. [00:06:23] One interesting case   to mention: Marsh v. Alabama in the '40s found  that a company town, private property, but  

the Gulf Shipbuilding Company owned  all of it. A company town might be   [6:37] government. Then when a Jehovah's  Witness came into Chickasaw, Alabama, into   private property, but it sure felt like sidewalks  and streets, and starting distributing literature,   when she was arrested for trespass on private  property, she had a First Amendment claim.   But that is an unusual case, and it  has not been followed generally since.

[00:07:02] Another question about   whether First Amendment values are something that  a private platform should, in the name of public   spiritedness or good business, subscribe to. And  that's a separate question. And I think certainly   you see along the years the kinds of elements of  the terms of service of a Facebook or a Twitter   very much drawing from the language and the  spirt of the First Amendment, but, for example,   none of them tends to allow indecent material,  which adults have a constitutional right to see   as against the government preventing it,  but we don't think of that exactly as   some horrible infringement  in spirit of users' rights. So those are the sorts of questions that the  platforms have to confront if they want to be   guided by the spirit of the First Amendment. But  the literal First Amendment does not [7:51] them. KATHY PHAM: Can I add a perspective on that? LAURA MANLEY: Yes, please, Kathy. KATHY PHAM: My training is not law; it's computer  science. And Jonathan, as you were talking,  

all I kept thinking about was, so often in tech,  whether it's some of the startups we've funded or   some of the big companies I've worked at – I would  love to hear Leslie's perspective on this since   he's led so many engineering teams – we're often  not well educated in law and not well educated   in the social sciences and how, let's say,  information travels and what speech should   be governed and not, and that's legal and  what's not, what's a policy versus a law and   all the complexities around that. And  sometimes there's this belief that you   don't have to worry about it. Or maybe  you don't have to worry about it until   you have to where someone brings you to  court or people stop using your product.

[00:08:46] And I think that's   an important thing to think about, too, as we  have these conversations. There's actual law   and then there's these groups of engineer  and product people and designers who will   continue to build, despite what those are, until  we have to confront them sometimes. So how do we   think about how we build differently or  incorporate all these values, like the   First Amendment values that you mentioned, into  what we build, and what might that look like. LESLIE MILEY: That's really interesting, Kathy.  I think there's something that happens inside   tech companies that is not acknowledged  explicitly, which is societal context.  

People build products based on societal context.  And when you look at the monoculture that   big tech is, you're going to get societal  context that looks a lot like our society,   which is fairly racist, fairly sexist, fairly  patriarchal. So this is what gets built. [00:09:48] And so, when we talk about First Amendment,   you can just throw that out the window. The First  Amendment only really works for white men in this   country. It hasn't really worked for anyone else.  And so, when they try to trot out this argument,   I'm like, look at who's making the decisions.  It's the most privileged people on the face of the  

planet. So the policies that you decide to enforce  are going to reflect your societal context,   not people of color, definitely not women. And I  think these are the questions that we have to ask. And then we have to ask, when harm is being  done, based upon these platforms, what are these   companies' responsibilities? And what are the  executives' responsibilities? And that's something   that's really not being talked about because  there is actual harm; people are being radicalized   and they are committing acts of violence  based upon the microtargeted amplification   of content that is being disseminated at  the speed of light on these platforms.

[00:10:47] So I know I just said a lot.   [laughter] But I really think these  platforms are a mirror of our society   and in order to, I think, start looking at  how to properly, or even begin to mitigate   the damage that they're causing, you have to look  at society and say, they're just mirror images. LAURA MANLEY: So building on that concept and your  thoughts, Leslie, was this the right time to act?   Is this something that should have been  worked on a long time ago? I think many people   can agree that they waited for too long to act,   but other people can say, actually they have  been making small changes along the way, over   the past few years especially. Was this the right  time to act? And what precedent does this set? [00:11:37] LESLIE MILEY:   Was this the right time to act? No! [laughter] The  right time to act was five years ago. The amount   of damage that's been done to people who have been  threatened, who have had to leave their homes, who   have to have security guards, whose children are  harassed is– I honestly don't understand how they   sleep at night, I really don't. Because people  are being immeasurably harmed. I think it came   to this point because they saw the harm that was  being done was really going to reflect upon them.  

There's going to be a straight line you can  draw from tweets and posts on Facebook and   posts on Reddit that ties directly to the Nazis  and the white supremacists and the QAnon folk   who did all this damage, who tried to foment a  revolution, essentially, a week-and-a-half ago. So that's the only time; that's when they're  like, "Oh, now is the time to do it." Well,   it was time to do it because it was going to  hurt their business. And I really want to draw   something out, which is, tech companies aren't  brave, they're not courageous. They're looking  

after their own best interests. And the reason  that Twitter, in my mind, the reason that they   finally banned Donald Trump is that they would  not lose any of his eyes to another platform,   any of his people, any of his supporters to  another platform. They had nowhere else to go.   And then it was like, hey, they can't go  anywhere else; now we can do it with impunity. [00:12:58] And that's a very cynical view,   but it just makes sense. If you haven't  done it after he's called people's races,   after he targeted people, after they got threats,  after "there are good people on both sides," if   you haven't done it by then– what? It took a  bunch of white supremacists? Well, we saw white   supremacists years ago in Charlottesville.  So no, it was a business decision. And so, I think it was way too late. And if we  are brave enough as a society – and I really  

hope we are – we start to deconstruct Section 230  and hold them civilly and criminally responsible   for this type of behavior, and this type of  profiting. Because they have profited off of this. [00:13:36] KATHY PHAM: Doubling down that, you mentioned   five years, but even before that. There are lots  of communities that experienced trolling online,   misinformation, particularly communities of  color and women. And when the issues really   started affecting the Western world, the majority  of people who are building tech, that's when,   at least five years ago, things started  to kind of become more of a conversation. But imagine if at the beginning of  building our products we had Joan   Donovan and Dr. Safiya Noble and Ruha  Benjamin all on these teams to help   us understand how information travels, and Jon  Zittrain to understand the First Amendment law,   and early from the beginning, to  put some of these safeguards or just   these product decisions or these engineering  features in right from the start.

I just finished reading Ellen Pao's Reset,   and she talked a bit about even Reddit's  culture, when it decided one day that   child porn and revenge porn was no longer  okay. But it took them a while to even get   there. And so, what does it look like? And it was  too late. If we just did this from the beginning. [00:14:38] LESLIE MILEY:   I'd like to touch on this. Please,  other people jump in. There were people   of color, there were people who understood this  at the table at one point in time, and they were   marginalized, they were fired. We watched that  play out last year with Timnit at Google. We   consistently get marginalized when we bring these  issues up. There were issues about child porn  

and inappropriate images and terrible images  on Google properties as early as 2006.   I don't know if people remember Orkut, but Orkut  just became the cesspool of offensive content.   And google let it sit there until the Brazil  government said, We're going to shut this down.   And then they put it on their employees –  yours truly included – to help clean it up.

[00:15:31] JOAN DONOVAN:   I'm being patient, but I'm just loving to listen  to people support a point of view that we've   really tried to bring with our research to this  moment. And Leslie, I don't know if you remember   meeting me, but I remember meeting you at an  Obama Foundation event where me and Nabiha Syed   were discussing how Breitbart used Facebook and  Obama actually showed up and was like– he was mad,   too. He was just like, Yeah, it was remarkable  the way in Breitbart was able to use Facebook as a   distribution system to reach out and really spread  its wares across such a wide swath of people. And   we all knew back then that Facebook had been  permitting and profiting from widespread   hoaxes and, quote/unquote, what became known  as the phenomenon of fake news. But we should  

also call it for what it was, which was a kind  of partisan propaganda attack on the election. [00:16:40] And some of that's   been papered over by blaming Russia and then  academic debates about, can we even know the   basis on which someone made a decision to decide  to vote for So-and-So. But through it all, I think   one thing that we know is true, I've been joking  about Donovan's first law of disinformation,   but if you let disinformation fester, it will  infect the whole product. And this is a problem,  

which is Reddit was strategic early on,  trying to get rid of some of the QAnon stuff,   and we don't see them as a place in which  that kind of content was allowed to grow. And so, it shouldn't be beyond our imagination  that platform companies have reached a level   of scale in which they're not able to provide a  minimum standard of safety to the users of their   products. And as such, their products are now  being used for political oppression. And it's   very similar and the same kind of techniques  we saw in the past of people impersonating   black women online, people hiding their intentions  using the actual features of the platform. [00:17:59] And one thing's   really interesting about what Leslie was saying  about Twitter. It acted because it knew it wasn't   going to lose this massive market share because  Trump really didn't have somewhere else to go   and to bring those people with him. But I also  it's really important– I was just listening to,  

I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio,  and today they were saying, Let's not give up   the field. Let's stay on Twitter. Let's fight as  hard as we can to get back. Why give that up to   the left, or liberals, or even they were calling  people communists and things. And I'm just like,   there's something about the  terrain of networked communication   that is broken. I think the business model  is what's broken in "growth at any cost,"   which, Leslie, you actually mentioned at that  meeting that left quite an impression on me.

And if we do allow "growth at every cost,"  what is the public interest obligation,   then? What is the flip side to that, the  requirements of companies that bring together   this many people for this much connectivity?  And so, for our research and our purposes,   of course, we focus very closely on  media manipulation, disinformation   tactics. But that allows us to see what's  really broken in the infrastructure   of our communication technologies, and then  potential points of leverage and ways of not   just tweaking the technology, but also bringing  a whole-of-society approach to the problem. [00:19:35] And so, it's hard though, even from the   perspective of Harvard, being in such a position  where, of course, we enjoy so much voice in this   debate, but at the same time, unless academics  come together and figure out what the research   program and agenda is going to be for getting  the Web we want, then we're going to continue to   surface the wrong problems and then, of course,  downstream of that are the wrong solutions. JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: I'd love to attempt a snapshot  of where the conversation is so far. My sense is  

that over a course of years – the internet isn't  so new anymore; there was a time when it was,   late '90s/early '00s – what the mainframe brought  to bear in the public eye and among academics   talking about was one of rights, with First  Amendment-style thinking most prominent within it. [00:20:35] I think   coming off of a time in the United  States when First Amendment rights   were thought of as just being so central. I think  of the march on Skokie by neo-Nazis in 1977, for   which a permit had been pulled. They didn't end  up marching, but they fought all the way up to the   Supreme Court, the ACLU behind them for the right  to march. And the permit was granted. And the  

impact on the residents of Skokie, tens of  thousands of whom happened to be Holocaust   survivors – no coincidence; that's why they wanted  to march there – was seen as a sort of "that's the   price of freedom," like, "yep, guess we have to  bear it," with "we" being [21:16] for the people   saying it versus the people in Skokie. And that  rolled right into the early days of thinking about   the responsibilities of internet platforms, also  at a time when there wasn't the scale that Joan   has referred to a few times, of just a handful  of companies channeling so much of the speech. [00:21:36] What has arisen next to this rights framework,   which still persists today, and on some terms  can be persuasive, is what I call a public health   framework. And that's the sort of thing that I  feel that Leslie was really referring to about the   kinds of harms that can come about and the harms  at scale. I think it was easy back in the day  

to fool one's self into thinking, this I just like  a parade, like a march, it's purely expressive.   And it's at a distance. If you don't like  what you see on your screen, turn it off.   And the border between the online and the  offline, of course, is just evaporated. Somebody described the watching the videos, the  various user-generated videos of the insurrection   at the Capitol as Facebook made flesh. [laughter]  It's like Facebook literally transforming into the   real world. And that's what brings me full  circle, is something Kathy said, which was   the benefit that some computer science folks might  have in dwelling on the law. There's ways in which  

lawyers and people who think about institutions  could really dwell on the malleability of the   tech. And if our tech happens to be these atomized  collisions of short sentences to include threats   that amplified when shared and repeated, it's more  than just a customer service or public interest   issue. We need to figure out how to deal with  that and say, Well, what's the architecture of   this tech? And why is this what everybody's  spending their tie doing for a half a day? [00:23:21] LESLIE MILEY: I think the   issue for me isn't the content on the platforms;  it's the targeted amplification of the content.   That's what's key here. And that's what Breitbart  learned to do on Facebook. And having been at  

Twitter and been deep inside of, I call it a  global game of Whac-A-Mole against spam and   anti-spam, and that type of content, you see that  people learn how the algorithms work, and they   learn to create content that gets picked up. They  learn to create content that gets disseminated   and targeted. And how the algorithms work, some  of them work, is that slightly negative content   gets higher engagement. So guess what you're going  to see more of? You're going to see more of that. And these are the things that we should be talking  about. It's not whether the content can be on the   platform, but whether the content should be– the  company should not be liable for its spreading   and amplification of that content, regardless  of how much harm it's doing. And they've had  

noticed that this was harmful. They knew that  it was going to get spread. And they just said,   We're just the platform, they were  saying, We can hid behind Section 230. [00:24:30] And I sat in the room   when we were doing Periscope and Vine at Twitter  and said, Someone's going to rape, kill, murder,   assault, lie. And how are we going to stop  this? And people just, We're just a platform,   that's not our job. And yes, they need to learn  a little bit about the law, but they also need  

to learn a little bit about humanity. Because I  can't sit there and say, Well, no, I don't want   to build a platform that will allow people to do  this with impunity. And if we're going to do this,   we need to talk about our responsibility. And this  is something that, well, you know, I come back,   doesn't exist because it's a growth-at-all-costs  and there's no accountability. They can go   and take all the money off the table, tens of  thousands, millions of people can be impacted,   hundreds can be killed, and they just show up and  apologize every year like Mark Zuckerberg does. [00:25:19] JOAN DONOVAN: I want to jump in and say a little   bit about my team's experience on January 6th  as people who research this. We watched a woman  

die in real time; we couldn't look away. That was  our job, right? Like content moderators who spend   an enormous amount of time watching people  torment animals and decapitate people.   This is not fair to the people  who have to do this work. And   my team, who I love very dearly, feel a  sense of duty to this process, to this vision   of a world that cares about each other. And  when we break it down to abstract values, like,  

oh, well, this is just free speech; this is  just technology; we don't look at the users,   we don't look at the content, the  reason why this whole thing really   matters is because this is a workplace now. This  is people's livelihoods. This is an industry. [00:26:49] Alongside us,   there are children, there are teenagers, there  are activists, there are– every strata of society   is plugged in. And when events like that happen,  it just reveals what we already know. For us,   it's just another day at the office. But  the consequences of that in the repeated  

abuse that people are made to witness by virtue  of this openness, by virtue of this scale,   I don't think we even capture it in a public  health framework. Because I know what happened to   women, women of color, Spanish women  when we apply to public health or   we apply a health rights framework to medical  malpractice, which was, You just sign this form   and you sign away your rights, and if  they sterilize you, that's cool, too. [00:27:52] And so, as we approach this and as we   imagine this work that we do, we have  to consider that these are humans,   these are human beings. We need to reduce the  scale to get back to human-centered design.   Leslie's saying they're sitting in a room saying,  Hey, we know that people are going to use this to   film crimes, to assassinate people. And then at  the same time to say, Well, you know what, that's  

just how it's going to have to work because we  don't believe in culpability, we don't believe in   the rights of others not to have to go  through that, not to happen to see a murder. It's different when it's like every once in a  while these things happen, but there are ways   in which this stuff has become so commonplace that  as an employer, even, I question if it's ethical. KATHY PHAM: Joan, thank you for  sharing that. I know I say this to you   almost daily, but thank you for all the work  you and your team constantly do. And for folks   that don't know, Sarah T. Roberts has done really  amazing work around content moderators as well. [00:29:19] You touched   on something that Jonathan first made me think of  and Leslie expanded upon, which is this idea that,   whether it's the law or social science or how  information travels, these are sometimes seem as   these customer service extra parts of tech. And  you're in these meetings and I've been in some  

of these meetings at these tech companies,  too, or been in meetings with startups, and   it's all extra, and it's not part of the core  design of the tech. And like Leslie said early,   there have been people inside some of these  companies, sometimes maybe hired to be the token,   I don't know, and you speak up or they speak  up and those voices just aren't as respected.   There's a hierarchy that is at least well  known inside tech, known by some outside,   around engineering and non-engineering,  or tech and non-tech, which is crazy. [00:30:10] It's complicated,   but it gets to all these deep, deep fields where  people like Joan's team go and really deeply   understand the content that's out there and how  people use the technology and the negative effects   it has on people. It doesn't always get taken  very seriously but some of these teams – by the  

leadership, by your fellow peers. And that's  an area that we have to think about as well,   in addition to the laws and policy and Section  230, and all of the high level law parts as well. LAURA MANLEY: I know we can have a conversation  about all of the different elements of this topic,   but I want to make sure that we get a chance to  open it up for the live Q&A. One last question   I'll ask before we do that at about 4:10.  How can individuals meet this moment and help   enact more long-lasting change for the broader  issues highlighted through the recent events? LESLIE MILEY: I want to jump in  and maybe touch upon something,   the last part that you said,  Kathy, and tie it to this,   which is, the executives at the company  know the harm that's being caused.  

Do not give them an out. They know. They know.  They've done research, they have people in the   room. They know the content on the platform. And  we – and when I say we, I mean society overall,   and specifically the press does  not hold them accountable to this.  

Their shareholders don't hold them accountable.  And so, we don't hold them accountable. [00:31:43] And when we try to   hold them accountable, we let them do their parade  in Washington, and the press just fawns over it.   And they need to start asking more –  you're apologized every year for 11 years;   what's going to be different now? They need to  start asking Jack Dorsey – You're off on vacation   while your platform is encouraging people to kill  your Senators and your Representatives. You were   on vacation a few years ago in a place  where there was a genocide happening   less than two hours away from your  vacation spot. How do you sleep at night?

We have to start holding people accountable.  Part of it is rewriting Section 230, calling   your Congresspeople, calling your Senators.  Signing petitions online. Getting involved.   Because if we don't get involved, they're going  to keep doing it. Because it's profitable.   Look at how much market cap both Twitter  and Facebook have added in the last year.   Look at how much market cap Twitter has  added since it has essentially been Trump's,   up until recently, preferred method  of getting his message out. I mean,  

hundreds of billions? Tens of billions? I don't  know. Tens of billions of dollars in market cap? [00:32:56] So their incentive is very clear. And   we're just not holding them accountable. And we  know the damage that's being done. And I think we  

can start to surface that more and say, Yes, your  content moderators are being damaged. The videos   that kids see on YouTube that get recommended  to them– Facebook's own research said that,   was it like 67% of, I can't remember the exact– it  was like this large proportion of people joining   these violent groups on Facebook were  recommended by Facebook's own algorithms.   [laughter] They're feeding it to people!  And it's like, how are you not responsible?   And they say, Because the law  doesn't make me responsible? JOAN DONOVAN: I have had the same feeling about  that. I often joke with reporters about, Well,   my computer thinks I'm a white supremacist.  I often think if I were to turn this computer   back into Harvard IT, oh, man [laughter],  the horror show! We call them reinforcement   algorithms for a reason in the sense that  they reinforce the things that you see. [00:34:10] In broad strokes,   I'm very afraid of this moment where people  might be casually now interested in QAnon.  

But through their entrance into the media  ecosystem, be it either through YouTube or   Facebook, they are more than likely going  to get a much larger dose of that content   because of the way the system works than they  would if they were to say, Oh, I saw this. There's a great Financial Times explainer about  QAnon. Watch that, move on. If you want to know,   look, and then move on. However, everywhere  you travel then on the Net, you're going to   see recommendations for these things. There's  no system in place that said, I've had enough   and I want to erase this data history and move  on. Unless you're to do some stuff, you have to   know how to work the tech a little bit if you  want to get into incognito windows and whatnot.

[00:35:12] But when we think about it   from that perspective, where if people just have  a passing interest in understanding something, but   the way the system is designed is to draw you back  in over and over and over. That's where we have   to worry. We also have to worry about that profit  model that sanctions that kind of behavior around   engagement and trying to get people to engage  more and for longer term within these platforms.

As we think about what could change or  what needs to change, especially around   230– which I know we've been saying it, but maybe  people don't often know what it is. It's known   as the 26 words that created the internet.  And it's basically permission– according to   Danielle Citron, it's actually permission to  do content moderation. But at the same time,   as we've thought about earlier, there's only  very small buckets of information that they're   willing to take action on, as Jonathan was  saying – pornography and a few other things.

[00:36:17] And so, when we think about, then, what are the   really important aspects of information that are  really life or death; like, you needing to know   what are the symptoms of COVID-19. Why  should somebody be able to hoax that?   Why don't we have a system for timely, local,  relevant and accurate information online that   has these public interest obligations that we  insist radio stations and television have? And so,   I think it's really important that we understand  that there are many other models to think with. And then, the last thing I'll say before we turn,  tech has a way of moving the goalposts on us.  

And there is a shift happening where they  want us to blame Comcast now, they want us   to blame Xfinity for Newsmax and OANN. And yeah,  they're parts of the problem, but if we shift the   goalposts and we say, Oh, Parler did it, for  instance, which is what Sandberg was trying to   say the other day in explaining Facebook's role  in this. I know, Leslie, it was a whole thing;   I'm watching this and I'm like, how are you  just giving her the microphone to say this? But that kind of maneuver is really  about offloading responsibility. And so,  

for us as researchers, accountability has  to be at the forefront of how we understand   the true costs of misinformation and how we  move forward with a research program that   understands this devastating impact  of disinformation on our society. [00:38:00] JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: I   think one thing the conversation has made just  powerfully, devastatingly clear so far is how high   the stakes are. If you tried to create a ten-year  experiment subjecting a huge swath of humanity to   what the modern social media construct is, just  to see what would happen, there would be nobody   signing off on that experiment; it would be way  to intrusive and dangerous. And yet, here we are,  

collectively, having built it and just sort of  run away with its effects, which include effects   on the political system itself. So the  stakes are absolutely through the roof. [00:38:38] I think it might be helpful to distinguish,   especially as 230 has been mentioned a few  times now, between activities online that are   sufficiently beyond the pale already, that they're  unlawful in some way. It's just really hard at   scale to find the person behind that awful tweet  or that lie that has certain harmful effects,   such as telling somebody the wrong protocol  for how to deal with an illness, and then   they hurt themselves. Those sorts of things are  covered by the law, and the question then is,   under what circumstances do the platforms that  convey, amplify and target that, recommend it,   stand in the shoes of the original person issuing  the lie. And 230 is a big part of that debate. The  

general impact of 230 is, at least at the state  level, not wanting the platforms, not allowing   the platforms to be placed in the shoes of  any given user who does something unlawful. And that would be what a conversation  around tweaking 230 would be. Well,   under what circumstances is it bad enough that  the platform should be responsible without, maybe   without the platform having to shut down because  out of a million comments a minute, three of them   are going to be unlawful and then they'll pay for  it later. But there are ways to adjust standards,   as the law does, and as policy does,  to whatever you want the outcome to be. [00:40:10] But I think there's another category of stuff here   that we're talking about that collectively is part  of what is so crushing that isn't even unlawful   for a person to do. If people want to get in a  group and say that the moon landing was faked,   they're entitled to do that  and it's not breaking any law.  

And there is a real question about  whether nevertheless a platform should   not be pushing that. If somebody says moon  landing, maybe that shouldn't be the first   group they're offered or persistently  offered day after day for them to join. But that's a category of content  that is lawful, but awful, for which   thinking about interventions at the policy level  is really tricky. And you mentioned the 1776   Project; it's just so interesting to see that put  in a wrapper of "our kids are being proselytized   and indoctrinated into false stuff, now we finally  offer the 1776 Project as the corrective." It's  

how to handle, at a governance level, who is going  to be in a position to decree what's the outlying,   surely wrong, view and what isn't. I don't think  that's just a dodge. I think that's a really deep   project when you're trying to design something,  and a deep problem, and one we have to confront. [00:41:37] JOAN DONOVAN: I have one addendum to that,   which is that platforms are not just placeholders  for speech. They coordinate people. You can't take   credit for black Lives Matter, you can't take  credit for Standing Rock, you can't take credit   for Occupy, and then not take credit for the alt  right and then have to build systems differently. So the hard part is when we think of these  as speech machines, we run into this 230   problem. But if we actually think of them  as broadcast and amplification machines,  

then the entire rubric of policy shifts  to, how many people do they reach,   and are they using that privilege responsibly?  And that, to me, is where we're headed. [00:42:24] LESLIE MILEY: I'm going to try to draw this   map. After 9/11, we ramped up surveillance  of mosques all over the friggin' world.   Our intelligence, counterintelligence,  United States counterintelligence and   intelligence agencies sprung into action.  People were bugged, people were followed,   people were surveilled – their bank accounts,  their apartments, their homes were searched.   Because we were afraid of radicalization.

We now have scaled radicalization. The people  who showed up at the Capitol were radicalized   on 4chan, 8chan, Parler, Reddit– well, maybe  not Reddit, but Google, YouTube, Facebook,   and Twitter. They were radicalized in the same  way that many people who joined ISIS and ISIL were   radicalized. But they were done at scale.  It wasn't the ones, the twos, the fives,   the tens; it was the ten thousands, the  twenty thousands, the hundred thousands.

[00:43:18] And we're not deploying the same types of   countermeasures to stop this. In fact,  we're trying to keep it going. Like,   Parler's running around shopping for  some place to keep doing their thing.   Twitter, who years ago– and I helped build  some of the tools to stop this kind of content   and to stop– not the kind of content– let me  change that. To stop the dissemination of this  

kind of content. And here we are arguing about  something that the technology exists to actually   start to make an impact on. And they'll  make an impact on it when they want to.   And our government will do something; now they're  doing something. We've got 25, 50,000 troops in  

DC. They're running around the country arresting  people who I'm seriously enjoying watching on TV   on a daily basis; it's like, please arrest  all these Karens, I am so happy about that. [00:44:04] But it's like we didn't   have to get here. And we got here because  we didn't hold the companies responsible.   And this is what I mean. And I've seen  some comments about, it's censorship,   censorship. No, it's not censorship. I'm  not saying to decide what should be out   there. I'm saying decide on what you want to  amplify and distribute. That's a difference.  

So people can put out there what they want, but  they should not expect to have that amplified.   And right now they've learned how to do it so  well that the tech companies, or won't, stop it. LAURA MANLEY: Kathy, I'm going to give you  the final word and then we'll turn to Q&A. KATHY PHAM: You had asked what can we  all do at least on an individual level,   and I'm still thinking about what Leslie said  about making sure we hold the leaders of the   tech companies accountable. And something else  I think about a lot – and this maybe draws from   my years in tech, but also the four years I spent  in government, and maybe some optimism sprinkled   throughout – is a call of action for a lot of you  is, yes, email your Congresspeople, reach out,   speak up. The tech companies now are unionizing  and, regardless of what we think about the unions,  

for the most part there's some really great  thought around the unions are quite different   than unions of the past, which were organized  around their own working conditions. These are   people unionizing because they want to push their  companies and leadership to do better for society. [00:45:30] And in addition to that,   in order to hold people accountable, at least  by law, we need laws that make sense. We need   people at the FTC, even if it's a small team  of technologists, that really understand tech,   understand what antitrust even is to enact and  to make policy and to hold people accountable.  

And we have a huge slack in that right now,  at least in the government side of things. So a big call to action is,  Congress has a callout for tech   folks. And there are different areas of  government that are really open and have   called to people to come to bring that  tech expertise to help us figure out how   to hold these groups accountable, in a meaningful,  long-term kind of way that is long, long-lasting. LAURA MANLEY: All right, great. So we  have a question that's come up from   several people that I'd like  to have a discussion about.  

It says: We often discuss misbehavior  or inaction in the tech industry,   but is there a company that's doing this right?  What does a north star look like in reality? [00:46:39] JOAN DONOVAN: For a while,   I thought Spotify was going to get it right,  and then they weren't into podcasts and it   kind of all fell apart. But for a while,  Spotify was working with community and   a civil society, community-based organizations,  civil society organizations to spot hate music,   hate rock on the platform, and remove it when  they could, or not serve it in recommendations.   There are some rather esoteric black metal that,  I get it, you can't actually even understand what   they're saying anyway, and they need all the other  criteria, but it doesn't mean you need to put in   "recommend." But then when they got into podcasts,  some of the rules seemed to shift and there was a   particular episode, of course, of Joe Rogan, where  he had the famously deplatformed Alex Jones on.

[00:47:35] And so, there's going to be some issues with the   way in which some of these purveyors of hate are  going to utilize the star power of others that are   helping make profit for these tech companies. And  then we're going to get into different kinds of   trouble around deplatforming. If you saw even in  the midst of trying to get Trump to stop using   Twitter, he hopped over to @Potus; like, "oh,  yeah, I forgot, I got a backup account." This is   typical. That kind of strategy is typical of the  people we look at. I have no doubt in my mind that   some of these militant groups are just reorganized  on Facebook. For instance, Straight Pride Parade  

in Boston is organized by Super Happy Fun America.  And the leader of that group lives in Malden   and organizes and everybody knows who he is.  He's not hiding. But he certainly isn't "super   happy fun America"; he's a white supremacist  that organizes hate events in our own city. [00:48:42] And so, it's important to   realize that they don't always say who they are.  They don't always show up in the hashtags. They   utilize the anonymity and the lack of transparency  on these platforms in order to grow and grow and   grow. Which is why I think I love Kathy's point  of view because she's been in government, she's   been in these companies, she can speak to the two  levers of power. But unless we get a broad tech  

union that forces change from the inside,  including efforts at Tech Won't Build It,   and I'm thinking about the group Coworker  here that really has helped organize tech,   unless the people who are building these things  say "no more," then it's not going to change. Facebook is now about to enter   a culture of sabotage, where people are  going to stay on the inside of that company   in order to leak materials to the press. That  is the worst position to be in if you were   a company shareholder because that means casual  conversations that you had in text messages might   become public fodder. This is not a good situation  to be in. It puts everybody at a different kind of  

professional risk. But that's what happens when  culture has to stand in for process and justice. [00:50:10] JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: I wanted to take a quick crack   at the same question – is there anybody who's done  this right – and just say, what's the "this" being   done right? If it's, is there anybody who's done  Twitter right, I'm not sure you can do Twitter   right. For all of the problems my colleagues  have been talking about – the scale, the pace,   the unfilteredness of it – is there a way to not  actively recommend horrible things? Sure. You   could just get out of the recommendations business  entirely. And that might not be a bad idea. But   I find myself focused on, well, what are we  trying to do? And what is our goal when we go   to do it? If your goal is to learn facts about  things, whether it's about health or history,   there are lots of places to go online to learn  stuff. Wikipedia does things pretty well.  

Although that's its own conversation. The fact that we're not even  sure what we're online for,   what it is we're trying to do right when 10  or 15 years ago these things didn't even exist   in their current form, that I think  gets us tied in knots a little bit. If you're asking, are there ways to  have people in extremely staccato ways   follow one another and emote at one another  without it becoming a big mess once it's   more than 400 million people, I'm not  confident there's any way to do that. [00:51:43] KATHY PHAM: I think in addition to that,   Jonathon, is– I actually get this question a lot  from my students in my product class as well –   who's doing it right and how do I do it right?  And another way I like to think of it is, you   actually might not even know what you're trying to  do right or what it is until sometimes you shift   your product and you're like, Oh, no, I didn't  know what was right around it, but now I know that   this actually is wrong. And to build a culture  or mechanism where you do something about it,   I mean, security has thought about this for a long  time. You don't know all the security breaches  

you might have, but you know that when it does  happen, you do something about it; versus, "I'm   sorry, it's just the platform, my bad!" And wave  your hand for about ten years and not do anything. [00:52:22] So I think one example is–   again, this is a small sliver of Airbnb, but  when they had a huge – it's not solved yet,   I want to proceed with that – when issues  first surfaced with issues of racism on   Airbnb, #AirbnbWhileBlack, #AirbnbWhileAsian was  trending on all sorts of places, they hired Laura   Murphy from the ACLU, who was actually an expert  in the topic, embedded her within product teams,   had buy-in from executives, and built in  features to try and shift the product. And that's, I think, an example of recognizing  partway through that something is awry   and having mechanisms for bringing  people in, and respecting those people   on the same level as your  product and engineering folks,   and building those features. And leaving room for  that, versus just "this is how we do things, we're  

not changing, this is just the way we do things."  And that's a different way I think about that. [00:53:19] LESLIE MILEY:   You said, is there anyone doing this right,  or is it even possible to do that type of   moderation? And it actually is possible  to do. And it is possible to do at scale.   We had a saying at Twitter, that  Twitter was eventually consistent.   There's something called the fanout. The fanout  of tweets and the dissemination of information  

doesn't happen immediately. Recommendations  don't happen immediately. Yes, you want them   to be timely. So there are things, and  there are technologies that I worked on–   this is six years ago, so I'm sure the  state of the art has moved much further. I tell the story because it is so ironic.  When I was at Twitter, I discovered several  

hundred million accounts that had been created  in the Ukraine and Russia. And we audited some   of these accounts and said, There's no reason  for them to be here. And I was like, we should   just kill them all with fire because we don't  understand what their purpose is, and so they   don't need to exist. And when we did that, guess  who we ran into? It ran into the growth team;  

the growth team shot it down. Because they could  run resurrection campaigns on those accounts.   These are the incentives that you have to  stop. People understand, people get it,   people know what it would take, but there's  this tension that will always tilt towards   capitalism, which will always tilt  towards the "growth at all cost." [00:54:43] Kathy, you said something that really   resonated with me, and I've worked with a company  that was about to push out a product that would,   could have been, and probably was going to be  harmful to people of color. And it took several   times of bringing it up to the right levels before  the company finally took a pause. The thing is to  

build that into your product development process  and to bring in people who have experience. Which   means they can't look like you. They can't be  from your same backgrounds. They can't go to your   same schools. They need to have had experience, a  different life experience than you have. And tech   is terrible at doing that. Which is why things  are still screwed up in so many places, because   the people in policy, the people in  product and the people in engineering   who need to be making those decisions generally  all look alike and have gone to the same school.

[00:55:35] JOAN DONOVAN: Are you talking about Stanford?   [laughter] There's an obligatory dig at Stanford  in every Harvard event. And so, I think we just   had to do it. [simultaneous conversation]  There's just competition for everything. The reason why I think it's important  that we also understand this   intimately as a Silicon Valley issue is because of  the way in which these systems tend to propagate   and the vision of what is possible with technology  has a lot to do with who you interact with.   At Harvard Kennedy School, we're a policy school  and we know that certain ideologies mean that   certain kinds of policy are just not going to be  possible under specific political administrations.  

And so, we have to face that as well, thinking  about our technological development isn't   path-dependent, it's not innovation that is solely  driving the tech that we get. That's actually a   deterministic argument. It actually stops us  from thinking about what else is possible. [00:56:46] And so, I just want to really think about,   with everybody here, as you endeavor to go about  your work in this world, realize especially   that the tools and the technology we build are  actually of our own design, of our own creation.   But they're extremely powerful and they're being  used by people in power to foment, in this case,   an insurrection, which feels a  lot like political oppression. [00:57:13] I also want to give a shout   out to some books because this is education.  Gabriella Coleman's Coding Freedom; get that.  

Black Software, Charlton McIlwain; get that.  Artificial and Unintelligence, Meredith Broussard;   buy that. Design Justice, Sasha Costanza-Chock;  get it. Distributed Blackness, Andre Brock;   killer. Behind the Screen, Sarah Roberts;  another midnight read. Oldie, but a goodie,  

Frank Pasquale's, The Black Box Society. And  I don't have Safiya Noble's Algorithms of   Oppression in front of me because I memorized  the cites; I've got the citations all up here. But I say that just because there's plenty  of alternative histories of the Net.  

And we have to learn them now  so that we don't fall into this   complex of thinking that the way it is  built is the way that we should continue. I yield my time. LAURA MANLEY: Thank you so much for that, Joan.  And we'll put all those book titles that Joan   shouted out in the chat so attendees can see them  if you didn't get a chance to write them all down.  

I'll give the rest of the panelists just  30 seconds, unfortunately given the time,   any closing thoughts on, what now? [00:58:29] KATHY PHAM:   One of my main thoughts: One, just listen to  everything Joan says. And two, big tech is big   and it can seem that way, but having been in the  room at some of the highest levels of government,   like the White House, or big executive people,  fancy people in tech, sometimes a really small   group of people can really push tech to act  differently, whether it's unionizing, whether   it's finding other people to push the company,  whether it's just getting yourself into the room   in the West Wing so you can help with an  executive order or help a Congressperson   do something. It can really help shift the  trajectory of some of these topics we talk about. So I'm just going to leave you with that note.

[00:59:12] LESLIE MILEY: I think that   when I watched the attempted coup last week  and watched people being escorted out of the   Capitol – after they defaced it, after people  were killed – as if they were guests, I see no   difference between that and when Zuckerberg or  Sundar or Dorsey go to Capitol Hill and do their   talk and get escorted out. They're all doing the  same type of harm; it's just viewed differently. And I think it's important for all  of us to start to– [alarm goes off]   I gave myself 30 seconds to talk. I'm sorry I'm  past 30 seconds now. I think it's important for us   to really begin to get more involved, civilly and  politically, and really start to push on companies   and hold them accountable for what they're  doing. And that means withholding our labor,   like the unions are doing. I'm all for that, and  I support every union who's trying to do that.   Because that's the only bargaining tool  that tech employees have, is their labor. JONATHAN ZITTRAIN:   I just want to emphasize the thread that all  three of my colleagues have emphasized around   trying to find the humanity within this technology  and how to help that technology bring out our   humanity to one another. I'm thinking of that  as such an important goal, and one for which  

there are ways in which the 25-year run of Section  230 has just sort of [01:00:49] a lot of those   conversations, and it's, I think, very  valuable to be having them right now. [01:00:55] And I think also this is   a bookmark – this is maybe our next gathering; we  should make this a weekly thing – the question of   centralized versus distributed. And I've generally  over the years been on Team Distributed myself.   I've seen the threat model as  being in position from legacy,   non-representative authorities on the little folk.  I think the threat model is much broader than   that now, so it makes things more complicated.  I'm mindful of the fact that Jack Dorsey, in   doing a short Twitter thread in the wake of  Twitter's deplatforming of @realDonaldTrump, said,   with a quick shoutout to Bitcoin, a foundational  internet technology, that Bitcoin demonstrates   is not controlled or influenced by any  single individual or entity. This is what  

the internet wants to be, and over time more  of it will be. And then retweeted a link to,   Twitter is funding a small, independent  team of up to five open source architects,   engineers and designers develop an open and  decentralized standard for social media. [01:02:08] And I would just be so curious to know what Kathy,   Leslie and Joan think about, if we had all this,  but somehow in a distributed way which would   make it harder for a moment of deplatforming  to happen, how does that relate to the kinds   of interactions, the goals that you have  for tech that lifts us rather than crushes   us. And I just ask that as somebody who's  really trying to think that through myself. LAURA MANELY: So I promise that we will  do another one of these because we have   literally just scratched the surface of  this issue, and I can imagine having at   least ten more of these and having all of  them be as interesting as this first one. I really do want to thank all  four of you for taking the time   and really bringing up some important  issues. We have a lot to think about. [01:03:06] Hopefully recent events will continue   to challenge us to think more deeply about public  purpose values like information, truth and trust,   private sector power, democracy and freedom.  With intentional effort, I really do believe  

that we can leverage this momentum and institute  positive change, whether that's through reforming   Section 230, public accountability, antitrust  enforcement or other types of mechanisms. So again, thank you all for coming and joining  this conversation. Thank you to the audience for   tuning in. To keep up with our research and  to stay tuned for more events like this,   which I have now promised on  air that we would do more of,   follow us at @TAPP_Project, and we'll see you  all soon. Thanks again, so much. Bye, everyone.

JOAN DONOVAN: Thank you, everyone. And thank you,   Laura and TAPP. I really love working with  you. Can't wait to get back in the office. LESLIE MILEY: Thank you, all. This  was great. Have an amazing afternoon.

LAURA MANLEY: You all, too. Bye, bye. KATHY PHAM: Wonderful, thank you, bye.

2021-01-27 20:37

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