Big Tech, Political Polarization, and the Assault on Democracy

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Zuboff and Why We’re Polarized by Klein

I’ve been catching up on some reading over the holiday break and two books that caught my attention are proving to be quite helpful to understanding the recent events in our nation’s capitol. What we’re witnessing is shocking, but not surprising, to those who have paid attention to the ever-increasing power exerted by Big Tech over every detail of our lives, including our political identities.

Big Tech is shorthand for the companies that control much of our everyday lives through their use of software and hardware designed to capture and hold our attention. And speaking of attention, if I were to add another recent title that addresses this concern it would be The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu.

By gathering the massive amount of data generated every minute of every day by billions of users, these companies have tapped into a resource that they have turned against us to predict and control our future behavior. Siloing, creation of filter bubbles, nudging users towards certain behaviors, shadow-banning (and now more overt actions to disenfranchise users) are just some of the ways that Big Tech is meddling in the political process. If that sounds like a radical conspiracy theory to you, I urge you to read these books and then we can have a conversation.

And while all of us can agree that what transpired this past week in the halls of congress was both dangerous and disgusting, reasonable people continue to disagree about how to respond to controversial political speech on the leading tech platforms. The ban of the President of the United State by numerous platforms, regardless of your opinions about Trump himself, is cause for concern and should not be taken lightly.

Similarly while the attack on right-wing alternative platforms, e.g. Parler, by Amazon, Apple and Google, may feel like a reasonable and perfectly legal response to unhinged speech that calls for political violence, the danger is to further marginalize and force underground a movement that has enormous popular support.

I’m not suggesting that racists, white-nationalists, and anarchists should have a seat at the table, but I am suggesting that unelected leaders of a few massive tech companies cannot be trusted to make decisions about who gets to participate in our political discourse. This time they may appear to be on your side, but what about when the tables are turned? We’ve given these tech platforms enormous power over the future of our democracy…and that makes me very concerned.

The times, they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan, one of the most iconic singer, songwriters of our era, is cashing in. Today it was announced that Dylan was selling his song library to Universal Music Group for upwards of $200M (some are reporting closer to $300M). With more than 600 songs spanning a career of nearly 60 years, Dylan’s prolific contribution to folk, pop, and rock music is unmatched. You don’t have to take my word for it: Dylan is the only songwriter in history to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The massive deal is a great example of why copyright of intellectual property exists. Without copyright protection, Dylan’s musical accomplishments would be worth a mere fraction of its market value. And without the financial incentives provided by copyright protection, artists would be less motivated to create original work.

It does seem counter-intuitive that the counter-culture icon would sell out to a corporate media conglomerate. Universal Music Group is owned by French media oligopoly Vivendi. According to NPR, “[the company] will collect money any time another musician covers any of those songs, and it will earn revenue for allowing the songs to be used in commercials and movies as well as when the songs are streamed, sold commercially on such formats as CDs, or broadcast.” But Dylan has always resisted labels…even the label of non-conformist.

Again according to NPR, citing Universal, “Dylan’s songs have already been recorded by other artists more than 6,000 times, including such famous versions as Jimi Hendrix’s cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower‘ and Guns N’ Roses’ version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.‘”

Big Numbers for Democracy, and Baby Shark

It is Friday morning, November 6th, and we still don’t know who the next President of the US will be. Several states have razor-thin margins and will likely require recounts before the lawsuits can be resolved. According to all estimates, the total number of votes cast is higher than any presidential election in about 100 years (as a percent of the population).

In other news, and I do mean OTHER, Baby Shark has now had more views on YouTube than any other video. With more than 7 BILLION views, the catchy tune has delighted preschoolers (and annoyed more than a few adults) all over the world. As reported by the New York Times, the video bumped Despacito from the top spot.

These facts may be unsurprising to anyone with young kids: The children-focused parts of YouTube are among its most lucrative. A Pew study found that videos featuring children received nearly three times as many views on average than other types of videos posted by high-subscriber channels.

The Times continued…

Repetition is one reason. Children do not get tired of watching the same video over and over. Four of the top 10 most watched YouTube videos are children’s programming. And last year, the highest earning YouTuber was 9-year-old Ryan Kaji, who reviews new toys and games on his channel. He earned $26 million in 2019

The Coronavirus “Infodemic” and Social Media “distancing”

What travels faster and farther than a new virus that causes sickness and even death? Answer: Fear and panic about said virus. Below is a chart that illustrates our current situation.

And guess what viral story about Covid-19 generated the most engagement (likes, comments, shares): a story from Vice about how some people think the virus has a connection to Corona beer. Just for the record, the article’s premise does not appear to be supported by data and is, sadly, another example of hype outperforming credible reporting. And don’t even get me started about ingesting bleach or colloidal silver as a remedy.

Here’s what we do know. The new virus, which is related to the common cold and flu, was first discovered in Wuhan province in China at the end of 2019 and has since spread to dozens of countries, including the hard-hit nations of Italy, S. Korea, and Iran. Because of global trade and travel, the virus quickly began spreading illness, and even death, around the world. The most vulnerable populations are seniors and those with underlying health conditions. But unlike the seasonal flu, with which we’re relatively familiar (even comfortable), this new virus “feels” much more dangerous and has incited widespread panic.

Because of the fact that this coronavirus appears to spread rapidly via droplets (sneezing and coughing), and that a vaccine is likely 12-18 months away, people are justifiably concerned. However, the fear and panic that has accompanied the outbreak is frequently driven by the mis- and dis-information spread via social media.

But here’s where we can have a positive effect. Instead of paying attention to speculation and rumors, and instead of sharing headlines that may be misleading, let’s try to be as careful with our social media behavior as we are with our personal hygiene.

Bottom line: 1) engage in personal hygiene and social distancing to minimize spreading the virus, and 2) on social media take care to “distance” yourself from fear mongering and misinformation. We owe it to each other to do the right thing.

Here are a list of websites providing reliable information:

Parasite With the Win

If you watched the Academy Awards, aka Oscars, last evening you know that the Korean film Parasite was the big winner. With four Oscars, including Best Picture, the social comedy thriller will be sure to attract movie-goers who may have missed it when first released. And because it is the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, Parasite is attracting a lot of attention from the global filmmaking community. Also, it is important to note that the Best Foreign-Language Film label was changed this year and from now on it will be known as the Best International Feature Film.

In other Oscar news, Steve Martin and Chris Rock were pretty funny in their roles as “non-hosts” as they poked fun at Bezos and pointed out the lack of female nominees. The very touching Hair Love won Best Animated Short and Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature. Musical performances included: Janelle Monae, Eminem, Billie Eilish, and Elton John, and Elton got an Oscar. And in what some will consider a major upset, The Irishmen went 0 for 10 (although director Scorsese received quite a few shoutouts from winners). One of my personal favorites, Ford v Ferrari, picked up a couple of technical awards early on. The best actor winners were fairly predictable: Renée Zellweger, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern. And as expected, 1917 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did pretty well despite not winning the big awards.

The Academy Awards are both a celebration of what Hollywood does best (storytelling and the manufacturing of culture) and a cringe-worthy spectacle of decadence, hubris and self-importance. It’s hard to imagine it being anything else.

The Cost of Personal Privacy and Security

If you’re the richest man in the world you would think that you could afford the highest level of security for your personal data and information. And if you’re Jeff Bezos, you would hope that your phone would be safe from hacking by enemies wanting to expose your secret affairs.

According to allegations by United Nations investigators, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may be behind the hack of Bezos’ iPhone gaining access through the WhatsApp messaging service. Possible motivation for the hack is the fact that Bezos owns the Washington Post newspaper, who employed writer and columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a staunch critic of the Crown Prince. Despite denials by the Saudi Prince, the alleged murder of Khashoggi in October of 2018 is believed to have been carried out by hit men employed by bin Salman.

There are multiple stories and plot lines of interest to Hollywood producers, but also for those of us interested in the intersection of media, politics, and technology. As our phones become more and more intertwined with our moment-by-moment activities and our most private and intimate actions, they leave us vulnerable to commercial manipulations and privacy violations. No one is safe. WhatsApp, one of the most popular encrypted messaging apps in the world, prides itself in a high level of security. According to their website, “Privacy and security is in our DNA.” 

According to Vox, “The alleged hack shows that security online is never guaranteed, even on this very popular Facebook-owned encrypted messaging app. And that’s something to keep in mind even if you aren’t a billionaire.”

Internet at 50

50 may be the new 35, but it still looks like middle-age to the younger set. On this date in 1969 an attempt to send the message “login” from a computer at UCLA to another computer at the Stanford Research Institute was thwarted by a computer crash. But that was just a speed bump on the Information Superhighway. Here we are, 50 years later, with not only a fully functioning global computer network, but an interactive means of communication that has literally taken the world by storm. Amazon, Alphabet (parent company of Google) and Apple, among others, owe their fortunes to this network of connected computers and devices. ARPANET gave way to the Internet, which gave way to the World Wide Web, and then Web 2.0, a more interactive service that relied as much on user-generated content as it did on corporate media content providers. Social media and online gaming have become huge consumers of our time and attention, and streaming video, (much of it delivered via YouTube), consumes most of the bandwidth. And the Internet of Things (IoT) coupled with AI may be the most disruptive update yet.

Leonard Kleinrock standing in front of the computer where it all started. See more at https://www.netflix.com/title/80097363

Anniversaries are typically a time to remember beginnings and celebrate accomplishments…of which there are many. But on this 50th year anniversary we’re also left to wonder what will come of the next 50. As Samuel Morse said on the birthday of the telegraph, “What hath God wrought?” Indeed.

With $B at Stake, NBA Not Sure Freedom is Worth It

How much is freedom and free speech worth to you? You may never know until it costs you something. That’s what the National Basketball Association and star players are discovering in the wake of a tweet-storm that began with a statement by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of the Hong Kong protestors. Because of the nearly 300 million NBA fans, political statements about China come with a price-tag.

First a little background. Hong Kong was a British colony for 99 years and was returned to Mainland China in 1997. China, known for its record of authoritarian rule and suppression of human rights, has been criticized by much of the Western World for imprisonment of dissidents and persecution of religious and cultural minorities. The current protests in Hong Kong have been widely embraced by those around the world who want China to end its battle against human rights.

In response to the tweet from Morey, the NBA issued its own statement calling it “regrettable.” A few days later LeBron James said that Morey spoke too soon, that he “wasn’t educated on the situation.” What situation exactly James was referring to is unclear.

LaBron has a history of speaking out about social issues here in the USA. If he believes that human rights deserve world-wide respect, he owes it to his fans, and to the people of China, to stand for the protestors in Hong Kong. Yes, standing up for human rights and free speech does come at a cost…in this case the cost is more than lucrative contracts and endorsement deals.

According to an editorial in Slate,

The league has certainly not covered itself in glory in its handling of the blowback over the Morey tweet and, in the process, reminded fans across the U.S. that the NBA is, at its core, still a profit-seeking international organization serving multiple constituencies of which the most important one is money.

Elliot Hannon

LeBron was right about one thing…before you wade into politics on social media you need to consider the cost.

No Universal Right to be Forgotten

Alphabet, parent company of Google, won a legal victory this week. According to The Guardian newspaper, “in a landmark ruling on Tuesday, the European court of justice said search engine operators faced no obligation to remove information outside the 28-country zone. It however said search engines must “seriously discourage” internet users from going onto non-EU versions of their pages to find that information.”

The Right to be Forgotten is a concept that gained legal traction in 2014 when the European Union supported the request of an individual who wanted the search engine to scrub old, unflattering information from showing up in search results. Advocates for privacy argue that individuals should have the option to move on after an unfortunate experience or to be protected from false information that others have posted on line. But digital footprints are not easily swept away, at least not without the help of the big search engines…of which Google is the world leader.

“Google says it has received 845,501 ‘right to be forgotten’ requests in the past five years, leading to the removal of 45% of the 3.3m links referred to in the requests. Although the content itself remains online, it cannot be found through online searches of the individual’s name.”

The Guardian

According to the court’s ruling, “The balance between right to privacy and protection of personal data, on the on hand, and the freedom of information of internet users, on the other, is likely to vary significantly around the world.”

If You Build it They Will Come

If you build the most powerful propaganda platform in the history of communication and make it available for free to a global audience, don’t be surprise when anyone and everyone shows up to use (and abuse) your platform. That’s what social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google are discovering as yet another attempt to manipulate users has been revealed.

According to recent reports, Twitter said it will no longer accept advertising from from “state-controlled news media entities” after it was discovered that China was attempting to use Twitter and Facebook to engage in orchestrated misinformation around the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. This comes on the heels of repeated reports of Russian use of social media to influence political campaigns and elections in the USA and elsewhere. 

The question now is whether these huge tech companies can put the genie back in the bottle. Or will regulation, new AI technology, or some other solution have to appear before we can feel confident that freedom and democracy are safe from the actions of nefarious state actors?