Welcome to episode 182 of the Digital Life, the show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
The podcast this week, we’ll be discussing digital influence in the wake of this election cycle. From WikiLeaks, to Hillary’s email server. Fake news on Facebook, to digital online tribes of like thinkers, in this election cyber communication has matured into a mammoth force. I think that’s putting it lightly. Facebook has been accused of helping to spread misinformation and fake news stories that may have influenced how Americans voted, and the social network is internally having discussions about what their responsibility is to vet news items that come across their site.
WikiLeaks of course released thousands of hacked internal DNC emails right before the Democratic National Convention, and those emails showed that officials in the DNC were actively undermining Bernie Sander’s campaign in favor of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and then later on WikiLeaks also published hacked emails reportedly from John Podesta, who is the Clinton campaign chair person. Of course these emails included transcripts of Clinton’s controversial speeches before Wall Street firms, ALA, Goldman Sachs, and of course the timing on all of that, those transcripts were of course released just a month before election day.
We can see here that information warfare, or cyber war hacking, this ebb and flow of information and misinformation is all making it a very hazy picture of our online digital lives. As American’s are consuming more and more media online, this is a serious concern I think because it says that not only are we not able to discern necessarily what’s real and what isn’t, there’s sort of parties actively creating propaganda, or at least trying to push our thoughts in one way or another. We’ve spoken about this in the past, but I’m completely startled by the fact that sort of the cyber punk novels of William Gibson seem to get this down to a tee decades before any of this became real.
I think this election is notable so far as the influence of online information has never been stronger.
For better or for worse, the information online has definitely come of age. Dirk your thoughts on that mess?
Yeah, I mean it’s certainly true. What the examples you sighted all have in common is that they impacted or said to have impacted the election. The examples themselves are pretty far flung, so maybe let’s take them sort of one at a time. Is there one you’d like to start with?
Sure, let’s start with WikiLeaks just because it’s sort of fascinating what’s possible when you start seeing the sort of dirty underwear of our electronic communication. I think the question in part is, “Are we really all that interested in total transparency, or does that become just another political tool in the toolbox?”
Yeah. No, we’re not interested in total transparency because we have created these myths and legends around reality that simply aren’t true. The fact is the human fight for power at scale is ugly. It’s ugly. If you are trying to be the leader of a nation, of hundreds of millions of people, that is not going to be a fair fight. It wasn’t in 1790’s when the first U.S. presidents were being elected, and it isn’t today at the much larger scale. The people in power want to keep power. The people going for the power will do whatever they can to get the power. From a more primitive viewpoint, I would take the position of saying, “They should,” right? I mean, the stakes are high. If you’re the president of the United States you can do a lot. A lot to the world, a lot to your personal and families financial position, a lot to forwarding the beliefs that you have. Look, I mean we can’t … I don’t know that we can culturally approve dirty dealings, and fighting, and so forth.
Those things are going to happen. I mean unless the transparency is so bright that there’s no dark corners in which we can plot, and scheme, and do underhanded things. I take for granted the democratic national apparatus is trying to knock the lens out of Bernie Sander’s, the outside upstart as they change the system and help Hillary Clinton, the ultimate insider. To carry on with the propaganda messages from the campaign. Don’t kid yourself, I mean republican’s are doing the exact same thing, the exact same thing. Different people, different agenda’s, different power sources, but everybody’s doing it. Its sort of ridiculous when either party, from my perspective, is exposed and call out on it that we have this sort of Victorian moral shock about what’s going. Of course it’s going on. If you think Bernie Sander’s was getting a fair shake, you don’t understand how the world works. Point blank. Yeah, going on a little bit different direction with the WikiLeaks stuff, the people, liberals, were aghast that the Russian government would influence U.S. elections. “Oh my God, Trump is in Cahoots with the Russians.” Shock … first of all, do I think Trump is in cahoots with the Russians? I don’t. Is it possible? I guess, but I don’t think so. What is possible is that major nations influence the internal workings of other major nations all the time.
The U.S. has influenced, and it’s a known fact that the U.S. has influenced elections in a variety of nations. In the America’s, in other places in the world many times in the history of this nation. Again, there’s this shock, “The Russian nation is influencing our …” of course. There’s this whole espionage layer to how major nation states interact with each other, and the Russians are going to be taking advantage of those tools as we do. When, in this case the democratic party, the supporters of Hillary Clinton, however we want to bucket them, are the victims of it. Again, the Victorian moral outrage goes up.
Come on people, I mean this is the world. This is power at scale, it’s just the way it is.
Yeah, I wasn’t too particularly shocked by any of the WikiLeaks stuff. I think from the standpoint of sort of the maturation of sort of cyber espionage coming of age, I think there could not have been a bigger stage for these events to unfold.
Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).
Perhaps the real lesson of the 2016 elections is not so much that yes, we have a Game of Thrones sort of struggle going on for power in the United States, but rather that there’s another layer, this digital leg has also become incorporated into that fabric in a way that it is completely integrated into our lives now. We all carry around our mobile phones, and spend inordinate amounts of time starting at them. They are, as much as they are for entertainment and for helping us in our daily lives, they’re also great propaganda delivery mechanisms if you’re willing to sort of let that happen. The maturation of cyber as an influential tool is, without question now. You could only suppose what’s going to happen in two years at the midterms, and what’s going to happen in the next four years.
I will say that WikiLeaks had an, “Ask me anything,” on Reddit, and one of the things they said in defense of these very well timed leaks against the sort of Clinton campaign was that they didn’t have similar information to release on Trump, or else they would have done that. I think that’s kind of an interesting statement to make. It makes me wonder what’s going to be turning up now next on WikiLeaks and how that story will unfold. Let’s move onto Facebook, which is our apparent window the world, at least for an inordinate amount of regular Facebook users.
There’s this idea that the very best news organizations can provide editorial advice and filtering that helps sort of deliver factual informed news to you, whether it’s via the newspaper, or radio, or the television. You trust, you have a certain level of trust for the news organizations that you choose to follow, whether that be New York Time’s or Fox News, right? Depending on your flavor you have that trust. Now, when news is being delivered via a social network like Facebook, you don’t have that editorial layer or … supposedly you don’t have that editorial layer. When you see trending news topics in Facebook, your level of trust, I guess is in Facebook’s system, and their algorithms and nothing else, I’m not sure.
Ultimately Facebook sort of stands accused of allowing all sorts of fake news, and hoaxes to pervade it’s news feed, which undermines that trust and ultimately makes it questionable as to whether or not you should be consuming any news on that site. They’re so highly influential, Facebook is, that it is going to be a huge problem for them going forward if you can’t trust what you’re seeing on their site.
Yeah, I mean to me this is not a Facebook issue, it’s an internet issue, right? We do have the New York Time’s, or any number of editorially curated organizations that have … I don’t even want to say a higher level of credibility because there’s other issues, but some semblance of editorial guidance. The ability to project, we as consumers to project a level of trust that approximates what things used to be like in the print days, in the old media days. Now, they’re still making errors are all over the place, making retractions, yadda, yadda, yadda. There’s something, that’s something more.
The internet at large, the technologies, whether it be social networking technology, or Wiki technology, or whatever the different online communication technologies are have done a very poor job at editing, at having that layer of authentication. Wikipedia’s a good example of it. Wikipedia is actually quite well edited as these things go. As a relatively heavy Wikipedia user, I’ve found a number of errors. They are generally of the trickster variety, right? A little bit of a tangent, but just to frame just how sort of insidious this is. My father was a big fan of boxing, so one of the things he and I would do together was watch some boxing. I was a big fan of the boxer Lennox Lewis, a British guy.
During Lennox’s career there was a fellow he fought named Henry Akinwande, who for a brief time was the number one contender, the next big thing. Then Lennox Lewis beat him, and that ended. For whatever reason I’m jumping around done one of my Wikipedia jumps where I’m reading about lots of different things. I end up on Henry Akinwande’s page, and in his little biography there’s a few sentences talking about this key fight he had against some boxer I had never heard of. It just stunk a little, the way it was written. I researched, and there was no boxer of the name that the Wikipedia page Akinwande fought. As I researched more it was some trickster who had just put himself into the narrative of Henry Akinwande. He had this big key fight in the career of this boxer, so I edited it out.
It was up there for a long time before I saw it. I identified it, I edited it. That kind of stuff is all over Wikipedia. Wikipedia has a tremendous, to the point of almost fascist editorial process to keep things clean and keep things out. That’s sort of at the most extreme case of how editing is being handled in sort of the open transparent web.
Companies like Facebook and those sort of technologies have absolutely none of that. If you have a trickster who’s on Facebook, who’s doing things, there’s not people catching it. Additionally, and I think crucially, we have to think about used cases and what people are doing on the web. When people go onto Wikipedia, for the most part people are going there to learn. It’s not a place where you’re rewarded for being a trickster. This guy probably thought it was really funny putting that thing about fighting Akinwande, but it was meaningless in the big picture of things.
However on Facebook if you can put a fake story out there that forwards a political agenda that you have and it takes off, not only are you having real impact on pervading your political agenda into society, but you’re also getting social reinforcement feedback. You’re getting liked, and up voted, and you’re becoming more important in the culture. That’s not great, and it’s rewarded by Facebook and by the very behaviors. You don’t go on Facebook to learn, I don’t think. It’s a social kind of learning-ish I guess. You’re going on there to connect to amplify, to blow off steam, to do human emotional things that often can be negative, or not well thought.
The design of Facebook allows those things to take off, and be treated as truth, and build on a lot of social dynamics, even getting into sort of crowd … the sort of thing that leads to riots and that kind of crowd behavior. To me it’s not a Facebook issue … it is a Facebook issue as far as it’s an issue for everyone on the internet who hasn’t solved it well, which is pretty much everyone. I don’t think it’s native to Facebook, it’s just the size of Facebook, and the influence of Facebook allows it to have more of an impact.
How much those things impacted our election, I’m not qualified to answer. I mean maybe we should be upset with Facebook about it, but to treat it like this is some problem that Facebook has created. It’s just kind of Facebook participating in this Zeitgeist of openness, transparency, freedom of information, not oppressing it or holding things that has led to that. That’s an internet problem.
Yeah, I think there’s going to be, overtime the development of … call it a set of trust tools, or curation and editorial tools that we need to sit over top of at least some of the internet. So far as, it’s fairly obvious that it’s very difficult to filter so many information sources just by sort of you read something, you research it, you try to verify it. People don’t have enough time in their day to deal with those sorts of things. I do think there is a challenge there, a well identified opportunity to provide that, we’ll call it, “Editorial guidance,” that might have been easier to do in the days of print. That’s definitely something that cyber will need to contend with moving forward.
It’s all about context, right? I mean, politics … there’s this ideal that Mr. Smith goes to Washington, of voting for the best person. It’s all bullshit. I mean, at the end of the day in our current system, the way we’re structured now. The democrats can get 40 something percent, the republicans getting 40 something percent. It doesn’t matter if the republican, or the democrat, I don’t think … although I think the criteria are probably different. Let’s use the concrete example we have with Donald Trump. The republican goes out there, says a lot of ridiculous things. Says a lot of things, like if you look at one of the big voting blocks within a republican party, their conservative right is talking about these very immoral things those people should be horrified by. They’re going in a republican camp for other reasons regardless of the specifics of that candidate.
Politics, there’s this sheen of truth, idealism … I know I sound really cynical today but I think these things are true. It’s all shit, right? It’s all crap. People are just voting for their thing. Whatever that trigger is. The gun side, the abortion side, whatever it is, the candidate can go out there and be a total zero and they’re going to put their vote in that camp. On the democratic side, we could I think also come up with very unflattering examples of the candidate. Maybe we could even do it with Hillary Clinton if we step back and thought about it and tried, but who really in some sort of objective humanistic way isn’t a great person, isn’t a great candidate. Same things that shouldn’t be appealing to that base, but at the end of the day they’re going to tick the box, whether it be for one reason or another.
That’s also part of it. On Facebook it’s not about truth, it’s not about, “Oh, I’m trying to learn something, I’m trying to.” It’s, “I have this agenda, I’m slashing away at it.” It’s people with agenda’s pushing it up, and other people share the agenda. They don’t care if it’s true or not, they’re like, “Ah, Ah, Ah,” you know? Then it takes off. A lot of this, it comes back to human nature and it comes back to really understanding … I think we just need to be more honest about what we are as an animal, as a species, and operating in more honest ways. I think a lot of this is just, it’s just dishonesty.
Truth, nobody cares about truth, people just wait it their way. We’re big, spoiled, tantruming children at the end of the day. We try and act like we’re these wise, smart, considerate people but we’re not. I mean we’re checking our box every damn time no matter what, and this election just proves it.
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You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thank you so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 182 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.