The Trustworthiness of Social Media, Walter Duranty, and Tommy Tutone

by Jim Geraghty

Today’s Morning Jolt looks at the latest accusation against Senator Al Franken (D-Not For Long) and whether we should heed Andy McCarthy’s advice to reserve judgment on the FBI’s Peter Strzok. Also, an elaboration about how easily disinformation can enter the public debate, and the responsibility of the tech giants…

The Naïve Tech Masters

Over on the home page, I have a column arguing that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google have grown to encompass duties to the public trust — duties that these companies were never intended to handle in the first place.

Facebook began as “FaceMash” in 2003, when an apparently-inebriated Mark Zuckerberg created a site to allow Harvard students to compare students and rate which one was hotter. These world-dominating Internet tools were created by technical geniuses whose wisdom and understanding of human nature is way behind their ability to design and program an algorithm.

These companies and apps weren’t built with journalism or political communication in mind, and no one really thought through that empowering everyone to send short messages, post videos or create online communities meant it would empower terrorists, criminals, hate groups, garden-variety nut-jobs and child predators to do the same things.  

No system will ever be perfect, and any system can be “hacked” with enough time, effort, and resources. For example, the 2016 election was not the first time Russia was able to fill the minds of some Americans with propagandistic nonsense. In the good old days of professional journalism and old media, the New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty “shrugged off the Ukrainian famine of 1930-1931 as ‘mostly bunk,’ and in any case, as he admonished the squeamish, ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’” He won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. The Times more or less apologized for his coverage of the Soviet Union in 1990, conceding, “having bet his reputation on Stalin, he strove to preserve it by ignoring or excusing Stalin’s crimes. He saw what he wanted to see.”

In the old days, the Russians had to find and influence, flatter, court and seduce a Western media correspondent in order to get their preferred messages and viewpoint before the American public. Today social media allows them to eliminate the middleman. (Insert sarcastic slow clap here.)

I offer two possible solutions. The first is that we get it into Americans’ heads that without verification, what’s posted on social media is as reliable and verified as graffiti or what’s written on the wall of a bathroom stall. Sadly, it turns out Jenny is not eager to show you a good time if you call her at 867-5309.

The second option is that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google realize that whether or not they intended to be media companies or want to be media companies, they have become media companies, and they need to take responsibility for what appears on their platforms. This means temp workers can’t have access to the president’s Twitter account and shut it down for eleven minutes. This means you shouldn’t have the option of selecting ‘Jew hater’ as a target demographic for advertising on Facebook. This means the criteria for shutting down a Twitter account has to be crystal clear and based upon non-ideological criteria, not the complaints of celebrities. It probably means fewer algorithms making decisions and more human judgments – and more openness about how those humans reached those judgments.  

ADDENDA: My Three Martini Lunch podcast co-host, Greg Corombus, reminded me of this 1991 Saturday Night Live sketch of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. In it, the assembled senators (Joe Biden, Edward Kennedy, Howell Heflin, Strom Thurmond and Paul Simon) come across as sex-obsessed creeps who can’t even begin to understand why harassment is wrong. One of the particularly ironic moments, in light of recent revelations, is Phil Hartman’s Ted Kennedy offering advice to Thomas: “Have you ever tried coming out of the bathroom nude, and acting like you didn’t know someone was there? … Well, that’s too bad. Because that works, too.”

The man playing Senator Paul Simon, asking Clarence Thomas if women weren’t into him because of his bow tie, was… current senator Al Franken. I’ll bet that back then, Franken thought that he would never be like those senators, so tone-deaf and out of touch about sexual harassment.

If you don’t want to get caught watching the sketch at work, a transcript can be found here.

The Corner

The one and only.