Will Big Tech Take Us Down? Or Will The Children Lead Us?

On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, a mass shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. 17 people were killed and 14 more hospitalized, making it one of the world’s deadliest school massacres.

A terrible tragedy, to be sure. A seemingly avoidable tragedy. And sadly, a tragedy that has become mired in politics, media exploitation and pure hatred.

To be clear, I will not be writing about the pros and cons of guns. Suffice it to say that 17 more people are dead because someone who should not have had access to weapons did…and worse, was able to procure near-Army grade automatic weapons designed to protect soldiers in war zones and inflict maximum pain and destruction to an enemy. It’s hard to understand what could separate anyone’s values on this point…and yet we are divided. Maybe this time the “Children will lead us,” as Isaiah says. And that is, in fact, my jumping off point.

The students of Parkland, the survivors, if you will, quickly channeled their fear and grief towards trying to ensure that they would be the last mass murder of this kind.

They rallied. They spoke out. They organized. They protested. They lobbied. They saw the President of the United States.

They were impressive. Articulate. Smart. Idea driven. Solution-oriented.

And then the backlash began.

In “How the internet’s conspiracy theorists turned Parkland students into ‘crisis actors’,” NBC explained:

“In the fever swamps and extremist fringes of the internet, the outspoken student survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are depicted as mouthpieces of the FBI, pawns of left-wing activist billionaire George Soros, stooges of the Democratic Party — or all of the above…The speed with which these groundless claims spread points to a troubling digital ecosystem in the era of fake news. In this shadow media network, unfounded information shows up on dubious sites, churns through the news aggregation site Reddit, and works its way into Facebook feeds — and to the mainstream media.”

The accusation that the students are paid “crisis actors” has gained the most velocity online, trending on YouTube at one point and racking up tens of thousands of shares on Facebook. The spread of disinformation comes as Silicon Valley faces increasing pressure to crack down on propaganda and fake news.”

The channels where fleeting fame is bestowed on the likes of overweight Korean Pop Singers and vacuous reality stars gave trending eminence to manufactured stories that drove hatred, further separating any possibility of real and intelligent discussion around finding a viable solution.

And of course, the Bots were out in force…spreading the lies, deepening the confusion and sowing hatred. Wired reported:

“In the wake of Wednesday’s Parkland, Florida, school shooting, which resulted in 17 deaths, troll and bot-tracking sites reported an immediate uptick in related tweets from political propaganda bots and Russia-linked Twitter accounts”

I recommend reading the entire Wired piece:

“Bret Schafer, a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says the spike in shooting-related posts from Russia-linked bots is in line with what his group observed after last year’s shootings in Las Vegas and Texas. The Russia-linked bots weigh in on any attention-grabbing news event, but seize on shootings particularly. “Because of the politicized nature of them, they are perfect fodder to take an extreme position and start spreading memes that have a very distinct political position on gun control,” he says.”

And here is, in my opinion, the nexus of the issue:

“Ash Bhat, one of the project’s creators, says the bots are able to respond quickly to breaking news because they’re ultimately controlled by humans”

Yet once again, the blame for the spread of misinformation is being placed on some nebulous creation of financial markets called Big Tech. CNN Money explained:

“To use Silicon Valley’s preferred parlance, it’s now hard to escape the conclusion that the spreading of misinformation and hoaxes is a feature, not a bug, of social media platforms — and their business models.”

A bug? A feature? How about, simply put:

“Facebook and Google built incredibly profitable businesses by serving content they don’t pay for or vet to billions of users, with ads placed against that content. The platforms developed better and better targeting to buoy their ad businesses, but not necessarily better content moderation to buoy user discourse.”

It’s time to put an end to the foolish categorization of media channels as Big Tech. As much as I search I can find no similar language used around Radio or Television, in their early days. They were quickly understood for what they were…we learned to use them…regulate them fairly…and most importantly how to decode what we saw and heard.

Imagine if in the days of Father Charles Edward Coughlin, whose hate-filled radio broadcasts reached 30 million people at a time in the 1930s. Think about that number, and look at what we consider to be trending today. By the way, time for digital social media babblers to take a pause: Coughlin was also receiving some 80,000 letters a week.

Imagine if they’d said, ‘Radio is Big Tech, how do we stop this guy?’ Instead, he was regulated out until he fell into oblivion on the sheer weight of his vitriol.

It’s not Big Tech—only people can solve the problem. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg has made that clear himself, despite the fact that the pundits keep ignoring what he’s really saying. A statement on Zuckerberg’s Facebook wall explained:

“The hard question we’ve struggled with is how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division. We could try to make that decision ourselves, but that’s not something we’re comfortable with. We considered asking outside experts, which would take the decision out of our hands but would likely not solve the objectivity problem. Or we could ask you — the community — and have your feedback determine the ranking.
We decided that having the community determine which sources are broadly trusted would be most objective.”

It’s about all the people they have to add, and how they will impact profits.

As I have written before, Fake News and all its associated extensions are as old as mankind. Perhaps they go as far back as Cain’s “Who, me?” or his father Adam’s, “It was her.”

However, the era we really need to study, both for its abuse and progress, is the age of Yellow Journalism. I quote from a great blog post, “To Fix Fake News, Look To Yellow Journalism,” by Alexandra Samuel from November 2016:

“Click journalism has plenty of precedents in the history of mass media, and particularly, in the history of American journalism. That history includes a period of journalism so disreputable that it coined a term: “yellow journalism.”

Samuels cites Joseph Patrick McKerns, in his 1976 History of American Journalism:

“The yellow journalism of the 1890’s and tabloid journalism of the 1920’s and the 1930’s stigmatized the press as a profit motivated purveyor of cheap thrills and vicarious experiences. To its many critics it seemed as though the press was using the freedom from regulation it enjoyed under the First Amendment to make money instead of using it to fulfill its vital role as an independent source of information in a democracy. The Commission on Freedom of the Press, chaired by Robert M. Hutchins, issued a report in 1947, A Free and Responsible Press (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947) which urged the press to be “socially responsible.””

She further shares a paragraph that could come out of any contemporary report:

“Thomas Arthur Gullason enumerates the features of yellow journalism as a dependence on “the familiar aspects of sensationalism—crime news, scandal and gossip, divorces and sex, and stress upon the reporting of disasters and sports”; “the lavish use of pictures, many of them without significance, inviting the abuses of picture-stealing and ‘faked’ pictures;” and “impostures and frauds of various kinds, such as ‘faked’ interviews and stories.””

And adds:

“In her 1910 critique of the newspaper industry, Frances Fenton quoted President Theodore Roosevelt’s own accusation that contemporary newspapers “habitually and continually and as a matter of business practice every form of mendacity known to man, from the suppression of the truth and the suggestion of the false to the lie direct.”

The author also points out how an early media outlet took the initiative, on its own to put a stop to what we often call “Click Bait”:

“In 1910, W.E. Miller proposed the industry’s first code of ethics, as adopted by the Kansas State Editorial Association.

Lies. We condemn against truth:

(1) The publication of fake illustrations of men and events of news interest, however marked their similarity, without an accompanying statement that they are not real pictures of the event or person but only suggestive imitations.

(2) The publication of fake interviews made up of the assumed views of an individual, without his consent.

(3) The publication of interviews in quotations unless the exact, approved language of the interviewed be used. When an interview is not an exact quotation it should be obvious in the reading that only the thought and impression of the interviewer is being reported.

(4) The issuance of fake news dispatches whether the same have for their purpose the influencing of stock quotations, elections, or the sale of securities or merchandise. Some of the greatest advertising in the world has been stolen through the news columns in the form of dispatches from unscrupulous press agents. Millions have been made on the rise and fall of stock quotations caused by newspaper lies, sent out by designing reporters.

I looked hard but could not find any quote from Mr. Miller that warned his investors he might limit his profits. Facebook…take note.

Clearly, the issue of Fake News is as wide as it is deep. And as I always caution, what I deem real you might see as fake, and the reverse is of course just as true. We all need to embrace that as fact.

However, one thing I do know: obfuscating behind the wall of Big Tech will only create more confusion and divisiveness, and ultimately lead to regulation that will please no one.

The Father Coughlin story, to me, is a critical nexus. You stop what you can stop and let the remaining hatred and evil destroy itself. And needless to say, the “Kansas Code” should be studied by all.

But most importantly, let’s not make this about digital. I fear that in the swirl of Digibabble we will continue to miss the real issues.

Listen:

“We all know that yellow journalism didn’t just happen a week ago or a month ago, that yellow journalism has probably been with us as long as journalism has been with us.”

 Errol Morris

The children of Parkland deserve more than, “It’s the fault of Big Tech.” Big Tech didn’t hunt them down.

Imagine if we were actually able to disseminate accurate information…yes, opposing views obviously, but without the veneer of purposeful falsehood that limits and even kills real dialogue.

If we can do that, we will go a step further in realizing the transformational power being afforded us that today we are squandering. And who knows? Maybe then the children could really lead us.

What do you think?

 

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