Virtual Roundtable: Technology and Politics

Tuesday, November 2, 2021
Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS
Joan Donovan

Director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project, Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics & Public Policy

Clay Shirky

Vice Provost of Educational Technologies, New York University


Mary and David Boies Distinguished Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Threats to American Democracy Roundtable Series, U.S. Foreign Policy Program, and Renewing America

ROSE: Hi everybody, and welcome to another session of our CFR roundtable on threats to democracy. This project is part of the The Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy at CFR. And I'm the Mary and David Boies Distinguished Fellow in US foreign policy, in the studies department at the Council. We have a great session today. We've already explored inequality and partisanship and social stratification and now we're on to technology before next time getting to technology and the economy. Today we're going to do technology and politics. We have two of the world's leading experts on the subject Clay Shirky and Joan Donovan with us. We are extremely fortunate to be able to talk with them about stuff that literally is in the headlines every day. The stuff of our lives and, perhaps really interestingly, the most contested, I would say, of all the subjects that we're going to be discussing, because you can make a strong case for how crucial it all is and a strong case for how completely irrelevant it all this, and I will get into that today. If we have the same kind of group thing we've had occasionally among speakers and past sessions, I will play devil's advocate to push them.


Clay is the author of Here Comes Everybody and a professor at NYU. By the way, my son took a course on the internet and politics last spring, and he said to me after, he says, “Dad, Clay's book was the best thing in the entire syllabus, it was so great.” So that's a measure of it. And Joan is the, let me get this exactly right, the Director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy. Both of these wonderful experts are knowledgeable about the stuff that all of us yammer about, but don't actually know anything about and supposedly, they have some social science, or at least for what passes for social science backing for the grandiose generalizations I will try to elicit from them. With that, let me get right to it. Clay, let me start with you. We've been debating this stuff for... oh 25 years.


And over the course of those 25 years, you have utterly and totally convinced me that your subject matter, which was extreme fringe wax stuff in the early '90s is indeed central to everything in modern life. And over that same time period, our entire culture, politics, everything has gone to hell. Does correlation equal causality? Are you and yours i.e., the stuff you study, write about and talk, the problem? Are you the cause of our giant national winter of discontents?


SHIRKY: I mean yes, it was us and me in particular, I apologize for that, we're getting around to fixing it. I would say, obviously yes, in part. There are certainly other kinds of things, and certainly not a world in which new communications technologies have replaced all of the other forces, but they do channel them differently. And when I look back, particularly Here Comes Everybody, particularly the book that I wrote in the middle of the oughts, about social media and with an emphasis on political change. And then I look at the landscape today. I missed two, I think really critical things that I...


ROSE: What did you say?


SHIRKY: So first of all, what I did say was, the addition of the internet to any given situation changes the ability of people to coordinate in larger groups faster. And that because so much of society has been about how you coordinate, the scale at which you coordinate, the speed at which you coordinate. Previous technology revolutions like the printing press and the telegraph, changed the societies that adopted them. I was predicting that the same thing was going to happen as the internet spilled from a small group of users to a large and ultimately global group of users. What I got right, I think in that thesis is that the disproportionate benefits to any new coordinating technology go to the people who are previously not well-coordinated. The incumbents are obviously coordinated, they obviously have their hands on whatever any given air as communications tools are. The insurgents, the outsiders don't.


And so even if both groups use these new tools equally, the disproportion benefit goes to insurgencies. What I missed in the US context that I think we all have seen in the last two election cycles, is that the insurgency inside in particular inside the Republican party, there are insurgencies in both parties, but the insurgency in particular inside the Republican Party was most right for that new style of coordination, what everyone was looking at in terms of things spilling over from Fourchan into mainstream political discourse, which is not something I would have, I mean, it's not something I would have been able to predict. Given the previous view I'd had of the US, that I think was the big surprise where the insurgency was and in particular, white men without high school degrees were a big part of this local insurgency. And then on the international stage, I think that the thing, it wasn't even so much that I got wrong because I didn't make predictions about it, but the thing that I wished I'd understood is that there are a number of countries, and especially Russia although others as well, that don't have the resources to create an alternate world order, but do have the resources to use these tools to create an alternate world disorder.


And that Russia in particular, prefers chaos to a world order they don't control. And so their preference, I think, would be a more orderly system that had Russia closer to the center, but absent that, their preference for chaos was not something I'd understood. So I understood that these tools could be used by insurgencies and it not accrued to me where the insurgencies might come from, and that for me has been the big set of surprises and the time that we've been discussing it.


ROSE: Fascinating, and I want to do a quick follow-up on one point there before going to Joan, in that you said inter alia, that where it came from and how it's expressed itself in the American scene, at least, has been a surprise, not so much because of the Internet, but because of it challenged your view of American society...


SHIRKY: My problem is that I was reading in a National Review and I believe that I was looking at the reviews of Republicans as channeled through their...


ROSE: Okay, so this is my follow-up to you then, the real follow-up, which is: Are we seeing something new or are we simply seeing the reflection of something that was always there and wasn't able to be voiced? So is your technology changing us or is it simply revealing who we always were, that the nice little metropolitan bubble types refused to acknowledge?


SHIRKY: The biggest mistake Aristotle ever made was, introducing difference of degree versus difference in kind as a pair of alternate choices. What I think the internet has showed us all is that big things are different than small things, fast things are different than slow things, and dense things are different than sparse things, which is to say it's possible to have entirely the same group of people and actors in society, and if they can coordinate in larger, denser groups, faster, something has changed. So I would say in the a grandmotherly way the answer to your question, Gideon is it's both. These elements were not created, the right the dissatisfaction with the way the US was operating after the civil rights movement among a large number of evangelical whites without created by the internet, but the addition of that set of concerns and anxieties plus the ability to coordinate at this scale and speed does indeed create a new situation.


ROSE: Okay. Joan, over to you. What's wrong with what Clay said first?


DONOVAN: Well, I must confess that probably one of the most instrumental books in my graduate career was reading, here comes everybody during the Occupy Movement, because here you saw a manifestation of people really believing that living in public parks and creating all of this process around decision-making was going to have some political effect... Right, yeah, Twinkle fingers and hard blocks this whole new participatory governance that seems to have leapt from the internet and then was mimicked across all of these places, and one of the things that I wrote my dissertation about and had had several involved conversations with Clay about was, What do you do when you have a movement where people think it's highly coordinated, and nobody in LA is talking to anybody in New York is talking to anybody in Poughkeepsie, no one knows anyone in Miami, but somehow it holds together and it looks like the same thing everywhere, but really you just have a lot of people experimenting with how to coordinate and using different platforms, different spaces and places on the web, some Occupy encampments were much more united around Twitter or other ones around Facebook, others around Reddit, some with SMS texting.


But that moment where Facebook really had thought its initial user base was going to be students, it really opened the gates for many more people to begin using social media in a very different way, and I don't think institutions at that point we're really ready for it, and Clay sort of points this out quite a bit throughout his career is that the institutions are very slow to adapt, and politicians just thought, Well, we can co-op the energy of a group like this, which just wasn't true at the time, it just really... You had people like John Lewis show up to an encampment and people say, Hey, get in line, you're no different here than anybody else, and so if the labor union show up, and as McKenzie Wark has pointed out, they show up and say, Oh great, I'm here to lead you... And people just push back on it like, No, this is something different, but as my career studying the internet evolved, I really did switch to looking at right-wing movements during 2015 and 2016, I was looking at how white supremacists think about DNA ancestry testing, but this was during the rise of Donald Trump at the very same time.


And what you have with Donald Trump is also Steve Bannon, who not a lot of people know this, but... Made a movie with Andrew Breitbart called Occupy Unmasked. And Bannon was really a student of Occupy. He studied how populist movements utilize the tools of the internet to his, as Clay has pointed out, coordinate differently and much quicker. And so the relationship between Breitbart and in the formation of the alt-right and in the alt-right's use of keywords and their ability to really trade that name up the chain into the lips and mouths of Hillary Clinton and other politicians made the media the more mainstream media have to pay attention to them. And it also, at the very same time, brought them into being, because if you looked at more traditional right-wing movements, their use of the internet was much different, they were much more anonymous, they were much more diffuse, if they had meetings, they were... They took care to be very secret, but once the alt-right became a household name, you saw much more organizing in public of white supremacist groups who were getting a lot of attention, and as a result, you would see these street movements develop in a very similar fashion that Occupy developed, but with these very sinister intents and very violent intents. And so Clay is not wrong.


But I do think that had he predicted this, I don't know if anybody pays that much attention to academics until this stuff jumps up and punches them in the face, literally, so I can forgive you, Clay, for not seeing around the bend, but it was surprising to me studying this in 2015, because a lot of people are saying to me, Oh, fringe right-wing, white supremacist movements online. It's not a big deal. Like they're so few of them. But once they moved into more public spaces and started getting people to come out using their real names and their identities, they weren't ashamed anymore. Really, all hell broke loose.


ROSE: Okay, so let me follow up to you, Joan. You talked about Occupy and the new right-wing groups around the sort of Trump... Right. Where do you sit, you and the implication, is it involved from a spontaneous legalist resistance type thing that was coordinated online, partly and through various social media things to something that was also that but manipulated and used by various actors and weaponized in various ways. Talk about the Me Too movement and BLM were those like Occupy. In the sense that we seem to have other social movements popping up, which are also national, even transnational, which are also loosely coordinated and said to be coordinated, but not actually coordinated, and did things like... Did the Me Too movement and BLM, especially BLM. Has that followed the Occupy model?


DONOVAN: Well, I think one of the main things that my research has shown is that it's different when we're talking about movements that have this wires to the weeds effect that they foment online, but then they really are about being in public space. The Black Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King didn't need a computer right. So with Black Lives Matter, you do have a very well distributed infrastructure of black activism, and what the social media component ads is exactly what Clay pointed out was the ability to get big fast and to mobilize very quickly, but you did see from city to city with Black Lives Matter, fairly well-known activists that are at the core of organizing, stepped up to use social media in these new ways, of course, new leaders emerged, especially during a moment like Ferguson, where you had someone like DeRay McKesson step in and really try to push policy work forward and so not to say that new people didn't figure out how important social media was, but by and large, local activism continued as it had been, Me Too has got a very different structure in the sense there was a first wave of Me Too that wasn't very big at all.


And the second wave of it that was offered up by celebrities had much more media attention, and there were different waves at different times, particularly in media, and then another in the gaming scene. And so you saw that idea or that meme of Me Too have these different important resonances with people where they sort of what they needed to do in terms of making some kind of major public impression, and there wasn't really a big way to stop Me Too... From growing... Because it wasn't really attacking any specific institution, it was going after individuals, and so I think it must have, I think Me Too really peaked during the Kavanaugh moments though, I think that what seems to happen... I'd be interested in Clay, your opinion on this, is that these movements will have a lot of energy, there'll be a lot of mobilization up front, and then there seems to have this fatigue set in... People get arrested, not a lot of people remember that 8,000 people got arrested during Occupy. That's not tiny.


And so, that kind of fatigue of battling the police and battling government and making only small gains does seem to set in in these movements and it's really hard unless they turn to building infrastructure and bringing people together and doing the hard work of organizing that... These issues tend to have these flash points and then really fall off the radar very quickly or become much smaller cause with the new blood infused into it, but it never stays large for long.


ROSE: Many things we could pick up. I want to go back to you guys both with a... A question that says, or a bit of a challenge, which is everything you're talking about sounds utterly intuitive, we've all watched this play out, these are the clothes in which modern social movements garb themselves because this is the technology of our day. And so it seems intuitively obvious to associate the technology with the movements, the technology with the politics, the technology with whatever trends are happening, and yet, the very terms we use and references we make suggest that there were previous social movements, there were earlier civil rights movements, there were earlier social revolutions of all kinds, which took place without the internet, without Mark Zuckerberg and so forth.


And leaders sprang up out of nowhere and there were some that were loosely coordinated and there were something that were more controlled from Moscow and others, and they were it... How different is all of this and how... From what has happened in the past and what is... How can you say that technology is driving this stuff now when similar things have happened in the past when the technology wasn't there? It was like the same kind of way I would tell and ask my friend during the Arab Spring. You say that the internet is driving this. Khomeini got the same effect with cassette tapes of sermons passed around and there's been radio over a long time. Marshall McLuhan was saying the stuff you've been saying for generations. Why is it only now starting to screw up our politics?




ROSE: If it's in fact, there were responsible.


SHIRKY: Yeah, I would not say that... Certainly, from the point of view of the Shah of Iran, and it is not only now, in fact, that it's starting to screw up our politics, I think two things are different now. One, fast is different than slow. And in the examples of the black civil rights movement, the movement in the mass listening to the Ayatollah tapes and so on, that took years to arrange, in some cases. Between the strike in the shipyards of Gdańsk and the fall of the Communist party in Poland was a decade. Occupy was thought up in early 2010.


They were parallel with the Arab Spring. The speed with which these things happen changes the institutional response. The other thing I'd say is the point made by Anne-Marie Slaughter which is that the press was working on Xerox machines and mimeographs and hand copies in... Behind the Iron Curtain was adequate when the governments they were facing only had typewriters. Which is to say the internet is showing up on both sides of the equation. So a world in which there was a much, much higher degree of electronic surveillance and legibility of the population, but not broad internet access, is the world in which these movements would probably not have been able to happen because the imbalance would have been so much on...


That interestingly is the situation that China is now trying to create within its own firewalled environment, which is, every time they let public opinion congeal, they are then forced to go back and unwind some of what they allowed to happen. My own personal view having lived in Shanghai for several years and taught many young Chinese students, is that the greatest threat to Xi Jinping right now is feminism. It is not, in fact, geopolitical at all. It is the demands of a very large, in fact, the largest group of people in that country, for a set of life changes that the current government cannot deliver on and remain in power.


And the crack down on both LGBTQ rights and on feminism in the country is frankly a much bigger deal for staying in power then cross-trades relations. So I think that China is this interesting case, where having engineered an internet that is much more favorable to the state, they are still playing Whack-A-Mole with dissidence.


ROSE: But wait a second, let me just press you with that Clay, is the gender stuff related to just normal development and modernization or does it have some special connection to the internet?


SHIRKY: Well, again, because I'm an upper and lower case P pragmatist, like "Richard Rorty was right about everything" kind of pragmatist, I think that those kinds of dualism are... They obscure what's going on.


ROSE:: Way too binary.


SHIRKY: Right, exactly, exactly. So, smash all binaries. So in the case of China, the fact that women are discovering common cause around hardships that were previously thought to be borne by them uniquely in their families or their workplaces, the discovery that in fact there is a common set of things oppressing or distressing them across the country is yes, just the sort of regular middle income development, what we would expect in a country in which people... Just getting enough calories in the day is no longer really a concern for the vast majority of the population. But the ability to look at your own life with reference to what you understand to be shared suffering and that reference comes from a medium that is not controlled, whose contents are not completely controlled by the government, that is a new situation for China.


ROSE: There's, again, so much I would love to follow up on...


SHIRKY: Yeah, no, no...


[overlapping conversation]


ROSE: Let me go to Joan for a side thing, which is, Joan, Clay talked at one point about speed and size and the density of crowds, so I want to follow up on the density of crowds. We have some pretty damn dense crowds in America right now. And an interesting theme during these roundtable sessions has been what I call the rat and cheese problem. We have like communities where the rats are addicted to the bad information they're getting online and TV and thinking very bad things because of the poisoned cheese they are constantly eating. And the question was, is it the providers of the bad cheese, the FOX News and the people who are manipulating disinformation or the people whatever, are they the problem or is the problem that the rats are just not very smart? And they... Because they can turn the channel if they want, they cannot become addicted to cheese. So my question to you is, the density of crowds, I want to actually press that... Does the technology make us stupider? Are we just... Were we always prone to be stupid and this is just another kind of thing that is revealing?


The madness of crowds, writ large, is this just what the internet does, it's showing us not just what people think outside our bubble, but how poorly people think? Or as Theda Skocpol was very strongly maintaining, "No, no, no, this is not a rat problem, it's a cheese problem, and if you would provide decent cheese things can be worked out." What is the relative weight of the gullibility of the mark versus the provider of disinformation in being responsible for our national miasma of poorly informed political discussion?


DONOVAN: Yeah, so there's a lot going on in that question, but let's streamline it a bit, which is to say that network conspiracy is different than just rumor and conspiracy before social media arrived. Network conspiracy is... If you think back to Alex Jones, before social media was here, before web, he'd be going to events with DVDs in his hand trying to get you to watch his movie. When Infowars was really doing high numbers on social media, he basically had a very simple business plan of saying, "Hey, you want to hear a secret? I have a secret that might save your life, and the government is doing something terrible to all of us. Click, like, subscribe."


 He was building an audience based on illicit information, this idea that he had something that nobody else did. And that kind of conspiracism has just spread like wildfire across the internet. So it's not the case that you get really new or interesting conspiracies. QAnon is very much typical anti-Semitic type movements, flat earthers... The minute you start talking to flat earthers about why the world... Everybody else thinks the world is round, they, too, start offering up a explanations that involve Jewish people.


 It's not the case that these conspiracists are somehow really getting the goods and have good investigative journalism. Project Veritas basically just makes videos that are, hidden videos and they wrap it in a lot of interpretation. But when we get back to this idea of large and dense and fast, these things, when we talk about misinformation, for instance, we're not talking about somebody's uncle is wrong online. We're talking about scale. Millions of people are getting the same information at the same time, and some of it has real world consequences. Like when you spread information that the pandemic, the government is getting ready for martial law and you should go out and buy all the toilet paper you might need forever, it leads to shortages.


When people spread a rumor to... A very local rumor, like in the Pacific Northwest, that Antifa was setting wildfires, people don't leave their houses. You have law enforcement having to go in and make people leave. And then other people in the town set up a barricade and were doing traffic stops, making people show their IDs that proved that they lived in that area. So people take action on this information. And back when Infowars was trying to ride the Occupy wave, it was really in the fed. They were trying to get people to buy silver and invest in Gold, which isn't... Like, it's not really going to hurt you if you invest in gold, but at the end of the day, those conspiracies started to get more wild, more outrageous. The other thing that happens online, especially on social media that we know is that things that are novel and outrageous travel further and faster than things that are truthful.


Things that are truthful are usually very boring. There's no incentive to share them. People will share, especially when it's in the form of illicit information, like, share this now to save your family, or share this because there's going to be martial law, people take care to do that very quickly. Sahana Upta talks about that as a kind of reciprocity, that sharing is an obligation to protect the people that you are in network with, and so not many of us think of ourselves as a broadcaster, but we do think of us as being part of a network on social media of friends and family so why would I withhold important information from other people? And so it's not the case that people are just these doofuses, it's that they're in this world where this information is circulating and they're being told the information is life or death, and it's being hidden from them.


The other thing I want to add about that, which makes it even more complicated is talk about these algorithms on these different social media platforms. When we talk about being pulled into a rabbit hole, it's really about these four Rs. One is repetition, you see the same message a bunch of times, it starts to feel more real. Redundancy, you see the same message across multiple platforms, so you start to say, "Hey, maybe there's something to this." Then there's responsiveness. You might post and say, "What is this thing? What is QAnon? What is the alt-right?" And people would reply, or you could just ask the search engine and you will get content. And then the last part is really about the algorithms themselves, which are largely reinforcement algorithms, are used to make what you would be recommended, either in a side bar or for the next video on YouTube, or for the next article that you might read on Facebook, or for a group you might want to join on Facebook. And, so those four Rs: Repetition, redundancy, responsiveness and then reinforcement are really how people get trapped into these... Some people call them filter bubbles, but they do change depending upon what you're looking for and what you watch. So, it's not a perfect filter bubble. But it does seem to say that the platforms themselves are playing a pretty big role in how people's information is sorted and then distributed to them.


ROSE: So, Clay... Thank you, Joan. Clay, I'm going to give you the last word before we turn to our fellow participants to ask some questions and engage themselves. But I listened to Joan, and again, it sounds remarkably contemporary and familiar, and it also strikes me as being another way of portraying history and life. The filter bubbles that you were in and that I was in, that caused us not to see the populist wave coming, weren't driven by online conspiracy, they were just normal cognitive and epistemic problems. The big lie was invented before Facebook, William Randolph Hearst used many of those same techniques to get us to go to war with Spain in the 1890s. So, my question to you, Clay is, once again, are we just sort of in a historical... Is this just history that is playing out in normal ways with the technology of the day, or is there anything new or different now? And are people just dense in crowds?


DONOVAN: You're muted.


SHIRKY: I'm sorry, thank you. To take the history angle for a minute, when you go back and look at the Federalist Papers, you see the anxiety of the density of crowds problem and the question of whether or not groups of people can be channeled into deliberative bodies or just people who amplify the worst tendencies. This is something that the founders were... And Madison, in particular, was extremely, extremely alert to. If my two options are, has everything changed or is everything same? I'm going to ask for a different question. Obviously, we're in a world where some things have changed and some things are on a background of the kind of historical status that you're talking about.


But listening to Joan talk about the #MeToo movement, I guess I'll end with this observation. When the Chinese... Not the Chinese, when the Catholic sex abuse scandal broke in Boston in the early 2000s, it was brought on to be open by The Boston Globe by a newspaper, but instantly went worldwide, because by that point the world was connected enough. And Robbie, the person who ran the investigative effort said, within four days of that story appearing in a local Boston paper, they were getting emails from people in Australia saying, "Can we talk to those reporters because we think we may have that problem with some of our priests as well?" So, that started in the newspaper and then went to become a global movement. #MeToo started as a hashtag and then it took the Weinstein takedown, the Ronan Farrow work. So there, the agenda was being set by the network population first and then moving into mainstream media. So, even with all of the same elements in place between 2002 and 2017, the directional arrow of where the agenda is set and who is following had flipped, with the mainstream press essentially following these movements rather than creating it.


So I would say we're not in a world made wholly new by communications technology, just as the printing press amplified a bunch of things that were already going on as far as in Europe, the telegraph increased what was already a globalizing set of empires. These things are in many ways amplifiers of existing movements. But in that amplification, they're also leading to these kinds of changes where previous people who were previously in the position of agenda setting in society, like the publishers of newspapers, now find that they're often chasing rather than setting public opinion.


ROSE: Excellent, thank you. And with that, let's turn to some questions.


SPEAKER: We'll take the first question from Audrey Kurth Cronin.


CRONIN: Hi, this is Audrey Kurth Cronin. I wrote a book called, "Power to the People" that talks about the implications of these dynamics for political violence. So, I want to ask you about not just mobilization and communications, which is what we've been mainly talking about, but also the intersection with new forms of accessible digital technologies and then new forms of insurrection and political violence. And my question is, what I'm seeing is a decreasing role of ideas and ideology and a greatly increasing role of simply tapping into anger and a desire for agency, so what you see, for example is... And this is really bizarre for me to see personally in my research, deep intersections between right-wing, anti-government, Racist groups, and great admiration for the Jihadist groups and their techniques, just for one example.


DONOVAN: Yeah, I can speak to that. I wrote a piece for MIT Tech Review right after what happened in Genosha with this quasi-militia that had put up a Facebook event, and people showed up in Genosha, rifles in hand really believing themselves to be an extension of the police that were there and that was really problematic, but it had been fueled by a summer of what activist call Riot porn. Which is to say that there had been a bunch of different precipitating events that, if you were in these groups or you were in these right-wing groups, you would have seen...


Several dozen, if not close to 100 videos of right where it's going to Black Lives Matter protests, post George Floyd and getting into fist fights using pepper spray on each other. If you had been a follower of the Proud Boys, there had been many street battles, hand-to-hand combat. And so, if you were in these movements, you were constantly being fed these videos through channels as well as on Twitter, and it was a very different phenomenon than what the left or center left, or even mainstream media was reporting on; but if you were in these circles, and you were watching this content, it made you feel as if you were under-siege by Black Lives Matter protesters, and therefore, people were taking up arms to fight back because they had also been given this narrative that the police weren't able to fight back, that mayors and other Democrats were getting in the way of police doing their jobs.


Fox had started to hyper-focus on Portland and in the Pacific Northwest, where there was also a very large contingent of Proud Boys organizing, and what we're called migrant caravans or Trump caravans, where people would essentially get in lines of cars with paintball guns and go down into these Black Lives Matter rallies and assault people, and then those videos would go up online. So I do think that just like in other movements, live-streaming has played an intense role in getting people out into the street, getting people to think that they have something that they can do; this kind of participatory protest model is definitely at work in the mobilization of the far right. And that movement from what's happening online to getting out and bringing your own rifle is getting... It's becoming eroded. More and more people are doing it. And so I don't think we're going to see less of that any time soon, I think that we're going to see those groups become more and more organized in the groups like the Boogaloo boys, for instance. And so, you have these very young...


ROSE: Sorry. Is the problem... Should we be more worried more worried about small extremist groups like the Proud Boys, or the Boogaloo Boys or the people who actually are the equivalent of Proud-shirt types out on the streets, who are obviously a tiny fraction, tiny fringe group, or the scores of millions of people who mow softer versions of many of the same things the activist types are saying: Is the problem that our general communication stream of political discourse in the country is now polluted beyond repair, or that there are increasingly... The number of complete looneys has gone from 0.1% to 0.5%, and that's actually going to get even number to that number? What is the... Is the problem, the soft fellow travelers of misinformation who sort of by-stop this deal, but don't go out and shoot a protester or is the problem the manipulator behind the scenes, or is it the actual street day? Either of you ...


SHIRKY: Well, I think that the problem is the interaction between those two things, and you use the Overton Window, use the sort of circles of acceptable...


ROSE: Explain the Overton window briefly.


SHIRKY: The Overton Window was just the idea that there's a window of ideas that it is possible to express in polite society, and that the window can shift, so the ideas that are considered completely beyond the pale now become part of mainstream discourse. You can see the Overton window at work in the last Virginia gubernatorial election, not the one going on today. And in with the Republicans' complain that they bought ads calling the Democrat a socialist and it didn't move the needle. That socialism went from being something that was just pure poison, you can put port into any well in the US, and it would change the political discourse to something that people were willing to consider. Around The Boogaloo Boys, the kind of coordinated small group that Joan is talking about, that makes the people who say, "Well, I'm not going to go out in the street with a gun," but more willing to move and coordinate and participate. And Joan's mentioned this a couple of times: to do so in public, under their real names. There have always been people shouting at their televisions in basements in relative anonymity or talking to their friends, but the moment where someone stops being on an anon. In 4chan and goes out on Facebook using their real name and expressing the same opinions, that is a big shift. And I do think...


ROSE: Isn't that what Donald Trump did for the whole country?


[overlapping conversation]


SHIRKY: That's exactly right. And I will say, in my own domain, in higher education, Republican opinion about higher education slips like a light switch from majority support to majority oppose between 2015 and 2017, because once Trump says, "I love the poorly educated." That's it. That became Republican orthodoxy. And again, as I said earlier, my mistake was reading National Review and believing that I was looking at the kind of intellectual engine room of the Republican party, in part because I think that's what they believe, that those kinds of changes are changes where the small coordinated group makes it easier for the larger collection of less radical, but at least willing-to-act population, more willing to do so, more than willing to coordinate, more willing to donate, more willing to do so under their real names. I also want to say, as an aside, and this is back more nearly to Audrey's question thesis.


There's a very interesting Richard Hanania piece... I think I'm pronouncing his name right. I've only... I've only read it, I have not... I have not heard it pronounced, called "Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV." I can't yet fully endorse it, it is very long and I haven't completely digested it. But it makes the point that liberal policing of boundaries tends to be around ideology, and conservative policing of boundaries tends to be around tribal membership, which I think intersects with some of the dynamics that Audrey was talking about earlier that are quite interesting. So.


ROSE: Is that connected to the talk radio stuff, which is also used differentially by the parties?


SHIRKY: Yes. Yeah, exactly.


ROSE: Okay. So, first of all, ask questions. Raise your hand and generate stuff, and we'll get to you. In the meantime, let me keep pursuing a line of thought here. Is there... Okay, if this stuff... Joan was just talking about how it's easy to provoke groups and inter-groups and tenses of threat, all this basically triggers our... Our fight-flight response, our in-group out-group tendencies which are hard-wired deep into our evolutionary biology. My question, given all that and given the structural similarities between all the bad stuff and all the good stuff and the abstract, a lot of the things Joan was talking about sounded like good educational strategies to me. I certainly want my kids to have redundant information drilled into them where they engage it and then follow up with good resources. So, my question is, is there any way out or are we just basically... Is "Here Comes Everybody" our world.


SHIRKY: Is it a threat, rather than a...


ROSE: And is the problem, this is everybody, this is us, we are seeing humanity in all its glorious splendor, and is that the problem? Like Pogo.


SHIRKY: Joan's probably better able to make a prediction there. I'll just say this, and then, Joan, I'll be curious to hear what you think about this. The dependent variable to that question, Gideon, I think is the advertising-supported business model. That meant amplification of anything that generates engagement was how Facebook... Twitter and Instagram to some degree, but especially Facebook made their money. And again, what it was hard to see in the beginning was that the engagement basically equals enragement. That of all of the emotions that it... It is easy to produce, and where... As Joan was saying about Alex Jones, it is easy to generate a "I must urgently tell everyone I care about this." Getting people enraged is very good business for Facebook. So, I would say, I don't know the answer to your question. I think many of us are looking at this, and saying, "We got ourselves into this, but that does not necessarily mean we can get out." History is filled with one-way transitions. But the presence of an ad-supported business model that maximizes scale, if that is altered, there may be a way to return to a more deliberative conversation. Not certainly a rollback to 1950s, '70s, '80s, whatever. None of that is going to happen. But we might be able to get a more deliberative internet if the incentive for scale and speed of anger moves away from the business models. The core of the business models to the largest players.


ROSE: Joan?


DONOVAN: Yeah. I mean, it's hard to say right now. Social media is still a very young industry, and it does... We, I think, perhaps treat technology with a little bit of magic and awe, where people expect so much more from it than is entirely possible. I was looking through those Facebook leaks, and there's this one study that Facebook did internally where they made a dummy user named Carol. And Carol followed a bunch of conservative... Legitimate conservative pages that they... They called them legitimate conservative pages, and conservative politicians, all people who were verified. And then, what the study came to show is that the algorithms that were... Facebook had developed, were... Within a few days, had started to show Carol conspiracy content, and within a week she was getting QAnon content. And that's not a user click, liking and sharing things with their friends, and being like... Like, going out and searching for stuff, that's the effect of the Facebook algorithm, because it's trying to find things that are novel and outrageous that other people who also follow those pages are looking at. And so, that effect alone is something that we should really consider as being an important way in which you start to see, not just this kind of polarization, but you start to see people believing these very problematic lies. But on the same...


At the same time, as I think about it: Why so serious? When did the internet become serious business, right? This idea that you're going to get some kind of anonymous information that's going to change your life and your finances, and why are people putting a lot of stock in anonymity or these fake doctors that just call themselves doctors but aren't really doctors going out saying that COVID's not real. There's something fundamental about the lack of access, I think, to knowledge, and to good information. So, one of the things that I've been really trying to advocate for is for social media companies to act more like radio companies in the sense of putting out information in the public interest. And so, for me, that means that they would ensure that people get local news, that they would ensure that people aren't just getting these crazy things that keep them on the platform. But that would be changing both the business model and changing the purpose of what these products first set out to do. And if they want to change, good. Let's work on a plan for that. But because they can't change on their own, there's been several years now, of self-regulation talk and 2020 was the worst I've ever seen it.


I think that there has to be some kind of regulatory intervention, that I think the... At the final instantiation, we actually have to split up, not social media companies, but actually the tech sector, and we have to separate advertising from other pieces of infrastructure. So that companies aren't so incentivized to collect so much data so that they can sell it back to these advertising companies.


ROSE: Oh. That's interesting. We can maybe get to that, but... Erica, we... You said we have a question.


SPEAKER: Yes. We'll take the next question from James Ryans.


RYANS: Hey. How are you doing? I'm a Visiting Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, and I just got a quick question. My feeling is that even what we look at as left and right now is not what it was anyway. That there are massive portions of the Democratic Party that were not the educated portions, they were the union portions. All this stuff swirled around and everything kind of changed. So, is this really a left and right issue? Is there not... Or is this more of a... Any time an ideology starts to develop an immediate apocalyptic kind of scenario, does that not generate what we're looking at for extremists and misinformation?


ROSE: Clay, you take that. You can talk anything.


SHIRKY: Sorry, I was muted. James, I'll say I think that that's absolutely right. I think to Gideon's point about history, it is never possible to have two ideologically coherent political parties. There are so many issues on which even mild variants among the represented population means that you can never have your own preferences adequately aligned with the preferences of the party you vote for. There are long periods in which people just tolerate that historical fact. They go along with the party they vote with. They get some kind of identarian pleasure out of being a Democrat or Republican. In parliamentary systems, all of the hard trade-offs are downstream of the election. In two-party systems, all of the hard trade-offs are upstream of the election. But the problem...


ROSE: Explain what that means very quickly. It's a good point. But can you just explain it?


SHIRKY: That if I'm... If I self-define as an environmentalist and I vote for the Green Party, my identity and their platform are tightly tied together. But the Greens will not be in power by themselves. Whereas, if my identity is as a Democrat, and I vote for the Democrats, I get some environmental stuff, but not as much as I want, and it's traded off against a bunch of other stuff that I don't like. So, I have to accept that I don't get what I want in the voting booth in the United States, whereas I have to accept that I don't get what I want in the making of laws in France. All of that is just to say, there's no way to make that problem go away. Left and right as a shorthand has been used to refer to utterly different things over the many decades that that phrase has been around. But what does sometimes happen are people whose policy preferences have been ignored for too long, such as the people who wanted an ethno-nationalist welfare state on the side of the right or the people who wanted a government-supported healthcare on the left or the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump insurgencies will occasionally see a moment where they can push for a realignment. And the Sanders realignment did not work to Sanders benefit. Although, the policy preference... The party changed to Trump obviously won.


But I do think we're in another period of resorting, and in this particular case, the resorting is very much around education. As a principal for the alignment in a two-party system. I think the fact that you could...


ROSE: But Virginia is a portent of the future?


SHIRKY: What is a portent of the future?


ROSE: So Virginia's... The Governor election is a portent of the future?


SHIRKY: I mean, it... Over and over, we see these environments... I mean, Thailand is my nightmare, where you've got two groups of 30% of the population willing to crash the system rather than collaborate.


ROSE: Okay.


SHIRKY: So, the 40% in the middle can never get any kind of stable trade-offs. We'll know more about Virginia this time tomorrow, so who knows whether it's a portent. But I do think that the realignment that James is pointing to is very much a part of this political moment, and I think the internet's making easier for those dissatisfactions to be manifested and become kind of rallying cries.


ROSE: Thank you. Joan, last word. Will things get better? Worse? Worse then better? Better then worse?


DONOVAN: Tomorrow will be different. Could be terrible. But, you know, I still maintain a smile every day. It's not the case that there hasn't been movement, right? If we had been doing all of this work and this research, and then nothing was happening... If you compare 2016 to 2020, it's not quite even apples and oranges, because the pandemic really forced people into an online world in a way that we have never really experienced it. And there was a huge vacuum of knowledge that was needed, which really allowed media manipulators and dis-informers to rush into that void.


But I do think that if the field of critical internet studies continues to grow, and there's a lot new... A lot of new researchers out in the field, a lot of new advocacy organizations pushing in different ways, eventually Congress and the White House will have to take notice. And I think the most pressing issue, for me, is how big can we allow these companies to get before we realize that the democracy that we envision is not possible anymore, because there is such a collapse around information distribution. And it's so siphoned and held in the hands of a very few individuals that we're unable to really come together on key points and move it along. And I worry a lot about Facebook buying up ISP companies. If Facebook were also our infrastructure, what would that look like? And so, at the end of the day, I think it's really important that we start to regulate the tech sector, so that we don't continue down this path.


ROSE: On that foreboding but perceptive note, I want to thank you... Thank both of you. Thank all of our participants. We always end on time, and with that, until next time.


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