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I tried to be hopeful about the power of the internet. My colleague Charlie Warzel, a New York Times Opinion writer and a canny interpreter of how the internet molds our behavior, brought the doom.
I wrote on Monday that I was grateful for technology that showed the raw reality of protests provoked by the killing of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police. Again on Monday night, online hangouts were a place to witness the law enforcement crackdowns of protests that were sometimes marred by violence or looting.
Charlie and I talked about both the critical truth telling that is happening on forums like Twitter and Facebook, and the inescapable downsides of those same online hangouts to spread falsehoods and divide us.
Shira: First, do you agree that bearing witness in this moment of history feels like social media at its most essential?
Charlie: Yes. You’re hearing and seeing a lot from protesters — and it’s unfiltered, from the sources and without gatekeepers. When you see night after night that endless stream of videos online, you can’t hide from it. There’s a raw power in that, and it feels like exactly the point of these internet platforms.
We have had other social movements documented in real time online.
Yeah, I’m wary of casting this as a turning point. The Occupy Wall Street protests a decade ago, protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., and the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., were widely documented online by participants and observers. There hasn’t been a lot of large-scale change since.
But the collective experience of the last few days does feel new to me as an observer.
(Read Charlie’s latest column on this. “There are no other channels to watch, no distractions. We must bear witness,” he wrote.)
I feel like there’s another “but” coming from you.
Self-broadcast creates an important historical record and serves as a powerful tool to document systemic abuse. BUT, unfortunately, it goes in two directions. When you lose the gatekeepers, you can also lose context of any event or fact, making it easy for anyone to interpret it to fit their worldview.
What I see as hundreds of instances of righteous protest and police escalation might be seen by others as proof of lawlessness and chaos. They’re taking the worst of the protests and using it to sow further division. That’s the nightmare scenario: There are two versions of the world, about everything.
Why does the internet feel toxic?
Hoo boy. This could get dark. The problem is structural. I’m not sure that humans are supposed to be connected at such scale with such ease.
Documentation of the protests shows the upside of that connectivity, but incentive structures online are broken. It feels hard to imagine keeping a version of Twitter, for example, that still feels like Twitter but doesn’t also advantage the loudest, most prolific, shameless and bullying voices.
And these online hangouts, designed as fun publishing experiments, turned themselves into massive advertising platforms at the same time that we uploaded a sizable chunk of our public and political discourse onto them. That’s causing problems that are extremely difficult to fix.
Sounds like your point, essentially, is that there is no escape from seeing the world through a polarized lens — in the media, online and in our own minds.
When tech workers question the mission
It can be easy to characterize unhappy employees at big technology companies as entitled whiners. (I’ve done it.)
But pay attention to what’s happening at Facebook right now. Whether employees are right or wrong, many workers at tech companies now feel emboldened to speak out against their bosses and how their companies influence the world. That is the new reality of how tech companies function.
My Times colleagues reported that hundreds of Facebook employees virtually “walked out” of work on Monday to protest the company’s hands-off policies regarding inflammatory posts by President Trump.
Dissent inside of Facebook’s ranks isn’t new. Read this 2016 story by Mike Isaac, who also co-wrote this week’s article on the Facebook walkout, and you’ll see a familiar tale of some employees anxious that Facebook was contributing to divisions among Americans, and that their bosses weren’t doing enough about it.
Still, it has been stunning this week to see Facebook employees going public with their disappointment, not only with the specific decisions about Mr. Trump’s posts, but in some cases also broadly about the harm they believe Facebook is doing in the world.
Employee dissent is complicated. I suspect it can be both empowering and unsettling to work at a company where co-workers barrage one another with debates about their conduct, their political views or corporate policies. At the same time, worker revolts have trained necessary spotlights on sexual misconduct and other types of mistreatment of workers at companies like Uber and Google.
These debates probably wouldn’t happen at a lot of workplaces. But tech company founders never wanted their companies to be normal.
The ethos of tech companies was to encourage employees to feel they were part of a shared mission. When some workers believe the mission is going off the rails, no one should be surprised that they make those feelings known.
Before we go …
This is important, and difficult: The Times analyzed security camera footage, bystander video and emergency call recordings to reconstruct the timeline of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis. (Please be kind to yourself. The Times’s video analysis is incredibly difficult to watch.)
Your usual reminder to be careful about what you see online: A moment of heightened fear and uncertainty has created an opening to resurrect familiar conspiratorial patterns, the Times reporter Davey Alba wrote. On Facebook and Twitter, there are unsubstantiated claims that Floyd’s death was faked, and that a loose movement of far-left anarchists known as antifa has coordinated riots and looting. My colleague writes that such misinformation can undermine legitimate grievances among protesters.
Again, on the power and downside of connecting people online: The apparent suicide of a Japanese reality TV star after she was relentlessly harassed online has brought a call for crackdowns on online abuse from people behind anonymous posts. But, as my colleagues Ben Dooley and Hikari Hida reported, some free-speech advocates fear this could chill the internet activism in Japan that has become an increasingly powerful check on the government.
Hugs to this
Honey, there is a moose in the swimming pool. (Yes, this was in Canada.)
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