The Phoney War We're Living Through
Lambasting Big Tech for undermining democracy is confusing a symptom for a cause. Plus, more on how cars spy on their owners, deep fakes going mainstream, and never-before-seen footage of Hiroshima.
The Phoney War was the period between September 1939 and May 1940, when Great Britain and France were technically in a state of war with Germany after its invasion of Poland, but when the two Western powers did little to actually confront the Nazis. The analogy is imperfect, but the pessimist in me thinks that’s what we’re living through right now in America, a period of Phoney War.
Yesterday, the top executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was the first time that any powerful figures in American life were asked about their role in the January 6th insurrection. Unfortunately, the wrong people were on the hot seat.
I think I’ve finally gotten my head around why the whole super-charged conversation about fighting disinformation by focusing on the role of the Big Tech platforms in amplifying it, or failing to better prevent its spread, is misguided. We are mistaking symptoms for a cause. Sure, if Section 230, which immunizes the companies from lawsuits over the content they host, is modified, that may change company behavior. But it’s not going to change our underlying problem, which is that many leaders of one of our two major political parties are committed to using disinformation, racism, anti-Semitism and hate speech to garner and keep power.
It’s nice that Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, was willing to admit that Twitter bore some responsibility for January 6th, as opposed to his counterparts Mark Zuckerberg and Sunder Pichai. But a majority of the Republican members of the House committee grilling the tech execs had themselves voted to reject President Biden’s electoral college win. Seven of those 26 Republican members tweeted baseless claims about election fraud and in support for the Stop the Steal movement, The Washington Post’s Cat Zakrzewski reports.
We really have to stop looking past the fact that about one-third of Americans are in thrall to a fascist political party.
I’m indebted to my friend Ethan Zuckerman for crystallizing this for me in a post he wrote in mid-January that I only stumbled on recently. Responding to a reporter’s query about what it would take, post-The-Former-Guy, to dampen public support for conspiracy theories, Ethan wrote, “Blaming social media is too easy an explanation for the terrible situation we collectively find ourselves in as a nation….For many Republican politicians, there is little incentive to challenge this false narrative: due to gerrymandering, winning their primary is equivalent to winning re-election, and no one wants to alienate 70% of their voters. Whether we ‘fix’ Facebook or YouTube, whether or not we deplatform more QAnon folk or drive militia members into encrypted chat spaces, two more years of elected leaders repeating disinformation is going to hurt us as a society.”
Most critically, Ethan adds, “I think we’re trying to fix social media in part because it’s too hard and too scary to fix our political system. The problem is that even if we build better, more thoughtful, more careful media systems – as I thoroughly believe we should do – they may not be able to help us through a moment where many of our leaders embrace a demonstrably false narrative.”
Thus the recent surge of energy to “ban surveillance advertising,” as a new coalition of 38 privacy, human rights and anti-monopoly organizations put it in their launch letter, is drawing attention to a reform we need but one that won’t really fix what ails us. “Big Tech’s toxic business model is undermining democracy,” the coalition declares. Hmm. So when the Republican party, practicing an earlier version of its Big Lie politics of domination, drove America into an unnecessary war against Iraq, one that has cost more than $2 trillion, what did Big Tech have to do with that? (Obviously little to nothing.)
I don’t think it’s too scary to fix our political system, as Ethan puts it. (It’s scary to talk about fascism in America, but we’re stuck with that problem right now.) Lots of people are trying, including the big coalition backing the For The People Act (HR 1/S 1), which would reduce the role of big money in politics, weaken gerrymandering and increase voter participation. All of these changes would tend to reduce the ability of the white nationalist version of the Republican party to continue to thrive. But there’s a big pile of philanthropic money going to fight disinformation in fundamentally apolitical ways.
Meanwhile, the Phoney War goes on, with the German side of this somewhat tortured analogy continuing to attack the underpinnings of democracy in America by passing legislation like Georgia’s Act 9, which in its most obnoxious provision makes it a crime to provide food or water to voters waiting in lines. The bill’s authors did allow for “making available self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote." Lovely. I know it’s exhausting to have to face this, and we’re all enjoying the respite from The Former Guy dominating the news every day, but America’s cancer isn’t even in remission. It’s not a coincidence that Governor Brian Kemp signed the voter suppression law in front of a painting of a notorious slave plantation.
Related, kind of: Despite more self-regulation by the Big Tech platforms, the Anti-Defamation League’s annual survey of hate and harassment on social media finds very little improvement in the experience of Americans online. Forty-one percent of Americans said they had experienced online harassment over the past year, comparable to the 44% reported in last year’s “Online Hate and Harassment” report. Severe online harassment comprising sexual harassment, stalking, physical threats, swatting, doxing and sustained harassment also remained relatively constant compared to the prior year, experienced by 27% of respondents, not a significant change from the 28% reported in the previous survey. Asian-American respondents have experienced the largest single year-over-year rise in severe online harassment in comparison to other groups, with 17% reporting it this year compared to 11% last year. (Full disclosure: My smarter younger brother David Sifry is the head of the ADL’s Center for Tech and Society.)
I’m continuing to dig into how my new car may also be a surveillance machine, and all I can say right now is that they don’t make it easy for consumers to understand the computer they are sitting inside while they drive it. I get far better customer help and explanation from Apple, for products that are far less expensive than cars. As I mentioned in Tuesday’s Connector, our new Toyota RAV4 Prime offers a slew of intriguing features, but their implications for our privacy are confusing.
My second call to Toyota customer service was more productive than my first one. I learned that the only way to easily get to my car’s usage data was by signing up for Toyota’s app, which means I have to assent to all of their surveillance choices. Not going to happen. I also learned a bit more about the "Safety Connect" feature that we can access directly without using the Toyota app. The good news is that is opt-in (free for the first year, $80/yr after that). If I activate it, then if we have a road emergency we can hit an SOS button, they can find the car via GPS, speak to the people in the car via the ?? and send help, they say. Hmm, how is the car findable, I wonder. And how do they speak to its passengers?
Well, it comes with something called DCM (Data Communication Module) already turned on. You can see how strong the connection is (up to five bars) in the car screen. This apparently is a data service from Verizon, which offers a bit of free data at the beginning and then you have to pay them. The car has an IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number assigned to it, which means if I want, my car is also a phone with its own unique identifier, and I can also use this to turn the car into a WiFi hotspot.
I’m not a security expert by any stretch, but it seems to me that the car is already trackable because DCM is turned on. Toyota’s customer service rep insisted that they don't track the car's location if I have haven't opted in...but the connection from the car to Verizon is already there. Confusing to say the least.
There's also a third-party service on the car called Gracenote (there's an option to "update the Gracenote database" on the screen) which apparently is a voice-recognition system for my entertainment requests. In case I say, "Play Jefferson Starship" and they think I said "Play Jefferson Airplane"? Again, not clear if Gracenote is working by default or only once something else has been activated. The rep had no idea. But if you want to know what songs a driver likes so you can better target ads to them, I bet Gracenote is selling that data out there. Lastly, there is something on the car screen called "Convenience Services" which is not mentioned in Toyota’s owner manuals and which the customer service rep could tell me nothing about. The screen says they are turned on. How convenient!
Related, kind of: Facial manipulation tools are hitting the consumer marketplace, Geoffrey Fowler reports for the Washington Post. He notes that the makers of these apps—Avatarify, Wombo and MyHeritage—are trying to make sure they’re used for positive purposes. That’s good, but as Israeli artist Eyal Gruss demonstrated during a hands-on session at Mozfest last week, it’s now become easy to make generic versions of these tools, as he did here. If you follow that link, you’ll find a set of pages which will walk you through the steps needed to run a virtual server and make your own full-body re-enactments, lip-syncs and the like.
Odds and Ends
-Atomic Coverup, Greg Mitchell’s new documentary about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which is built around footage collected by Japanese and American cameramen that was suppressed for decades by American military censors, is currently having its virtual world premiere through March 30.
-Congrats to Zeynep Tufekci, who will be joining the Columbia Journalism School’s faculty as a visiting professor next fall to help shape the school’s new Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security.
-Say hello to the Stronger Democracy Award, a $12 million prize for organizations working to “address systemic barriers and advance structural reforms in voting and elections, policymaking, and/or civic engagement to help the US government fully and competently represent its citizens.” Applications are due in 3 months. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the evaluators.)
-Yes, lots of overworked Amazon employees frequently pee in bottles (and more) to meet the giant sweatshop’s relentless productivity demands, Ken Klippenstein reports for The Intercept.