It has been a fascinating week for the tech industry. The mainstream news media, the U.S. legislature, and most of the of the questionable outlets of online information have all set their sites on some of the giants of technology to determine if the most recent Presidential election was compromised by Russian influence.
This week I watched lawyers for Google, Facebook and Twitter get raked over the coals because they failed to recognize that a foreign government, known for clandestine propaganda campaigns, decided to use their highly sophisticated communication tools to pump false information into the American political sphere.
The responses from the these tech giants were fairly consistent: “We missed it. Our bad. We’ll do better next time. We had no idea our systems could be compromised in this way.”
Of course I don’t believe that for a second — as Sen. Al Franken pointed out, political ads were being purchased in rubles.
All these outlets knew what was going on. These are some of the best and brightest in Silicon Valley. But in their defense, was it really their job to police this behavior? In the end, all three companies are advertising companies, and all have gone to court at some point to defend the concept of net neutrality and fair use. The Internet is supposed to be an open conduit to information. In my opinion, whether that information is factually correct or morally defensible should be determined by the consumer of that information.
I don’t remember any ad agencies getting sued for running cigarette ads, or Corvair commercials.
The medium is not the message. If you decided to vote for Donald Trump because you read online that Hillary Clinton was running a clandestine child sex ring out of a pizzeria in Washington, and you believed it, I can’t fix your stupidity. But I can defend your right to vote however you wish, for whatever reason you wish. And blaming Facebook or Google is missing the point.
The problem comes down to this: Google, Facebook and Twitter are not legitimate news sources. They are companies whose primary mission is to capture eyeballs and sell advertising based on the number of eyeballs they manage to capture. Whether they capture those eyeballs with fake news, or nude celebrity photos or scandalous allegations that can’t be proven, they have done their job.
I’ve asked this question a lot in the past few years but I will ask it again: “When the hell did Americans get so stupid?”
As a journalist this is a sticky subject for me. Inaccuracy is poison to a reporter. And reporting willful untruths is morally reprehensible. But I am a realist and have come to understand that the easier it is to get your message out there, the easier it is to willfully misrepresent the truth.
It’s why politicians have their own websites, and thousands of political PACs rose out of the weeds to deliver their own messages … free from pesky fact checking. It’s why Nigerian princes want to pay me for moving funds for them and why phishers and scammers can spin a tale and steal my identity.
Is this the fault of the engineers who invented the computer, or the cellphone? Should I be suing Al Gore for inventing the Internet?
Ethically, I believe our culture has hit a new low. There are plenty of people out there who just suck. They make a living feeding off the most vulnerable, the gullible, the defenseless. But I can’t pin the blame on the technology that makes this behavior possible.
What I can do is raise savvy kids who understand that the truth is rarely easily apparent and that just because their friend read something on the Internet, that is not a good enough reason to believe it.
We can’t fix stupid, but maybe we can prevent it.