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The Art of Dissent
When is disagreement healthy and when does it do more harm?
Earlier this week as I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed while waiting for my sandwich at Devon and Blakley I came across an illustration of the Facebook logo engulfed in flames as if it was the modern-day volcano destroying Pompeii. A friend had posted it along with a message about how he was quitting Facebook for a bit. Attached to that illustration was this piece by Jonathan Haidt in the Atlantic about “Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid.”
I was curious, but also sort of immediately turned off as I don’t think any argument or analysis that starts with calling anything stupid will be productive. But as I started skimming through it I realized that a lot of it tracked alongside the history of tech and democracy that I’ve been giving in speeches. He had some good points and others that I wasn’t so sure about. His point as I interpret it is that as a society we shut down dissent - both against those not like us (red vs blue) but also within our tribes and that social media helped accelerate that. He says this shutting down of dissent has hurt our democracy and that we’re all culpable. I didn’t have time to read it carefully right there and then so I did the old school thing of printing it out for my flight to California.
I didn’t read it on the flight, but this morning I woke up at 5 am (thank you body for still being on East Coast time) and decided I’d catch up on a few things. I watched Maria Ressa, Anne Applebaum and President Obama at last week’s Atlantic/U of Chicago Disinformation festival and I watched Elon Musk’s TED talk about why he wants to take over Twitter. I also read Haidt’s piece with my trusty highlighter in hand.
At first, I found myself struggling to grasp Haidt’s point and needing to get past my knee-jerk reaction when anyone says that the problems of today are only social media’s fault. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to say that having us all agree was bad or if having us all disagree was bad. Then, when driving to a coffee shop in Mill Valley which is where I’m currently sitting, it hit me. Both are bad. What we need is to restructure society to have a process that allows for fair debate, dissent, and rules and norms that help to resolve differences. President Obama said the same in his fireside chat at the Atlantic Festival.
Now, I won’t lie. I feel kinda dumb that this didn’t occur to me earlier. I’ve been struggling to articulate what success looks like when people talk about saving democracy. I feel like some people think it’s about their side winning and the other losing. Some don’t want to have dialogue at all. I was reminded of this book Kristin Soltis Anderson recommended called, “Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side” by Robert B. Talisse which basically says if we can’t figure out ways to engage with those who disagree with us democracy will diminish.
Read all of Haidt’s article. And don’t just do a speed skim, spend some time with it. It ended up bringing up a lot more thoughts and feelings for me as I let it sit for a bit.
Selfishly, I first thought of myself and how I’ve been struggling with how to be a constructive critic of the role platforms like Facebook have played in our society and their decisions and choices that got us here. I’ve talked a lot about how I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I’m also doing it out of care, not spite. It also made me think about Facebook Exec Andrew Bosworth’s latest piece where he says, “Infighting is far more damaging to progress than almost any technical or competitive obstacle. I value productive tension but sometimes the time it takes to address the part of the team pulling in the wrong direction is just not worth the value you gain from their additional perspective.”
I had a strong tendency when first reading those sentences to apply them to the challenges the civic integrity team had at Facebook, but that is pure speculation. Boz does caution later in the piece that his idea of selection bias must be applied carefully. So I can’t say when at Facebook he or other leaders have or haven’t applied this philosophy. I will say that while I can understand the desire to move fast and not have anything slow down the things you want to do, it also scares the crap out of me when I think about the next ten years.
This was the second thing that occurred to me while reading Haight’s piece. He does provide three ideas - many of which make some sense to me - about the changes our institutions need to foster healthy dissent. However, what it doesn’t address as much is how are those outside of tech going to learn from these lessons over the last ten years when thinking about the next ten. Politico wrote today about how lobbyists are jumping to the blockchain and that part of it is people in DC are learning to move faster when thinking about the future of tech. I sure hope this is the case, but what did Silicon Valley learn beyond building their DC presence sooner? I sure hope it’s more than that. I really wish more tech CEOs would be willing to reflect publicly about what they built and have enough confidence and humility to admit that they too are reflecting on their own choices and learning from them.
The third thing that I thought of was how if Musk gets Twitter - and that’s a big if - he is not at all ready for the challenges of actually having free speech. I thought of this graphic from last week about how there is this constant cycle of people getting mad about too much moderation, someone launches a platform with none, realizes their grave mistake, and works frantically to put some in place. I was also thinking about how Haidt’s article and President Obama’s remarks also helped me to reconcile a challenge I’ve been having around being a pretty strong free speech absolutist; yet, recognizing we need some sort of changes. Here’s what I realized (and again, I feel sort of stupid that I’m just getting my head wrapped around this now) bullies shut down speech. If you allow a platform, town square, or whatever online or offline venue you choose to just let people run wild, the loudest and most intense voices will drown out the rest. The “exhausted majority” as Haidt says just stop talking because they don’t want to be canceled, harassed, or deal with the extremes.
Ok, we should stand up to the bullies then! Ah, not so fast, because how do you define if someone is being a bully vs just very intense in their dissent? When is it coordinated harassment vs a legitimate protest? Alas, I don’t know that answer yet but we’re going to have to define those types of things if we’re going to figure out a way to work together vs just fight and be outraged all the time.
This made me think about Michael Slaby’s recent newsletter about his frustration with President Obama’s remarks in Chicago. He says, “Democrats are also seemingly preparing to blame disinformation for an ongoing lack of clarity and imagination, for an unwillingness to see their culpability in losing hearts and minds and failing to win them back, for an inconsistent ability to deliver for people. Failure of leadership is never the answer. The Russians, Trump, McConnell. And now disinformation. Never a lack of imagination, vision, organizing, effective long-term investment, being valuable to people, empathy.”
I’m always so grateful that Michael is willing to call stuff like this out. What he pointed out is one of my biggest pet peeves of the left. He and I worked on opposite sides of the aisle, but he continues to be one of the folks on the left I feel like truly gets what we need to move things forward.
Maria Ressa always asks, “What are you willing to sacrifice for Truth?” (By the way, pre-order her book, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator.” Comes out in September.) I think another way to put that is what are you willing to sacrifice to stand up to those inside and outside your tribes? What are you willing to put up with to respectfully dissent and try to prevent being pulled to either of the extremes? One of the MANY things I like about Maria is how even though she criticizes Facebook and social media her news outlet - Rappler - remains a fact-checking partner of theirs in the Philippines and she remains thankful for how Facebook helped Rappler grow in their early days.
I’ve always enjoyed discussions with people who disagree with me. The more we disagree the more I enjoy it - as long as it’s respectful. Haidt says that social media gave everyone a dart gun that they shoot at others and themselves to make them more stupid and closed off to dissent. I don’t think it made people more stupid, but I do think people are scared. The last ten years - especially the last five have been A LOT. People want some certainty and calm. They’re exhausted. So they’d rather retreat than engage. They don’t want to do anything that would disrupt the little certainly they have. I hope we can run that around so that it’s not just those still willing to be in the arena that gets to be in control.
What I’m Reading
TechCrunch: Disinformation demands a collective defense
Washington Post: TikTok's Russia strategy: Censorship, loopholes and propaganda
PublicTechnology.net: YouTube cites 'Covid misinformation policies' in removal of Tory MP's parliament speech
New York Times: Mark Zuckerberg Ends Election Grants
New York Times: Substack's Growth Spurt Brings Growing Pains
Adam Mosseri: TED Talk
Global Encryption Coalition: 45 organizations and cybersecurity experts sign open letter expressing concerns with UK’s Online Safety Bill
Australian Strategic Policy Institute: Understanding Global Disinformation and Information Operations: Insights from ASPI's new analytic website
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
April 24 - 27 - Public Affairs Council’s Advocacy Conference in Austin, TX
May 3 - Ohio Primary (Open Senate race)
May 9 - Philippines elections
May 17 - North Carolina and Pennsylvania Primaries (Open Senate races)
May 21 (On or before) - Australia elections
May 23 (tentative): World Economic Forum, Davos
May 24 - Alabama and Georgia Primaries (AL open Senate race, GA Warnock defending seat)
May 29 - Colombia elections
June 6 (week of): Summit of the Americas, Los Angeles, CA
June 6-10: RightsCon, Online
June 6 - 7: Atlantic Council 360/Open Summit
June 9 - 10: Copenhagen Democracy Summit, Copenhagen, Denmark
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
September 28 - 30: Athens Democracy Forum
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms