Facebook at SXSW
There are quite a few things I have done in my life that I’m not too proud of, but what happened today might have been one of the worst. I made a complete fool of myself in front of hundreds of people who had come to South-by-Southwest to have a good time, to hang out with likeminded folks and to celebrate tech. People assembled for the session “Can We Fight Fake News Without Killing the Truth?” had to witness how this one dude from Europe crashed the party by approaching the microphone after the panel, yelling at Shaarik Zafar, a Public Policy Manager at Facebook.
I know I embarrassed myself and made many people in the room feel uncomfortable and I sincerely want to apologize to all of you for losing my temper in such an unprofessional manner. In the German language we coined an expression for moments like that: “Fremdschämen”, i.e. cringing for someone who acts out crazy in the presence of other people. You know, like that one wedding guest who has had way too much of the Chardonnay. Well, today, I guess that awkward person was me.
No flux capacitor in sight
Have you ever had one of those moments, when you had a fight with someone and hours later, when everything is said and done, you come up with the right words and arguments that you actually wanted to say? Unfortunately, Elon Musk seems to be distracted with probably more important projects these days, like flying to Mars or digging holes into the ground, so the flux capacitator has yet to be invented.
So I use this text instead that I am writing here at 3 am at the kitchen table of our Airbnb-house in Austin, trying to express what I wish I’d rather said to Shaarik, if I had a DeLorean – or a time-traveling Tesla, for that matter.
Witnessing dozens of people to die
As I mentioned at the session, I am a TV journalist. Three years ago, my family and I witnessed a terror attack, when a man drove a truck into the crowds along the Promenade des Anglais in the city of Nice in Southern France. 87 people were killed that night. Although I was traumatized by this massacre, I did what a journalist is supposed to do at an event of such gravity: I reported for my news channel.
Only a few hours into the night, the first conspiracy theories appeared on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. At first, people wondered why a journalist happened to be present at the crime scene (among thousands of tourists celebrating a holiday). Later, when the hoaxers learned that my wife was from Israel, they claimed that we had to be Mossad agents and that the whole incident must have been a false flag operation.
What happened next, you can learn from a TEDx-talk that I gave much later. Although I’m used to speaking in front of big audiences, this talk was one of the hardest presentations I ever did. It felt like a coming out after a year of hiding, and I hoped that all the hate and the death threats would just go away. Apparently, they didn’t.
Welcome to the Post-Streisand-Era
Never feed the trolls, they say. This was true for a long time, when the Internet was still a happy and mostly innocent place with flying cats painting rainbows at the sky. What my family and I had to learn: We’re living in a post-Streisand-era, when remaining silent and hoping for the best is the worst you could possibly do.
I have been a techie all my life. I spent my childhood between Atari and the Commodore 64. Whether it’s fitness trackers or smart light bulbs, I love everything that eats electricity and is somehow connected to the Internet. Apple is kind enough to tell me that I use my iPhone seven hours a day. That’s more time than I spend sleeping. And yet my joy of technology has reached its limits. It’s time to get active, to get vocal:
Facebook, Google, Twitter – I am fed up with your hypocrisy!
How long are you going to say that it’s not your fault if society is getting more and more polarized and democracy is being undermined and eroded? Who gives you the right to knowingly spread hatred and lies, spy on us and sell our data just because you can?
I’ve held my tongue for a long time, telling myself that the extremes are all part of it if you move from a startup to becoming a global corporation. But my goodwill towards your irresponsibility is completely exhausted.
If I had my druthers, your every step would be regulated so thoroughly that it will make your servers go up in smoke! Your top management would be locked in a room and force-fed courses in ethics and humanism, preferably for life.
What kind of Internet do we want
“What kind of Internet do we want?” Sheryl Sandberg really had the audacity to put that question to her audience at the DLD conference in Munich, lately. Just as if WE had built this inhuman network of hate messages, trolling and surveillance. What hubris! It’s not US who have to stop these abnormal excesses – YOU have to! And because you don’t seem to be able to do that on your own, others will have to do it for you.
And stop the victim blaming, for goodness’ sake! How are customers to know that Google is secretly installing microphones in its Nest devices? How are girls supposed to come up with the warped idea that Facebook buys ovulation data from cycle apps and compares it with Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram user profiles? How are users to know which app passes which information on to whom and what sort of mischievous use can be made of seemingly harmless metadata?
Casualties of your networks do not have a chance in hell to stand up against people like you. Just like Shaarik Zafar, a well-educated lawyer with strong ties to Washington D.C. Or Mrs. Sandberg, who travels with a staff of 30 people, prepping and assisting her for her public appearances. Even if victims of hate crimes, like the parents of the Sandy Hook shooting – or the Parkland shooting – were to find the courage and the energy to speak up, they rarely have the connections and resources to make their voices heard.
Money is not the only challenge
My legal costs until today have added up to $50,000 and my struggle is far from over. But money isn’t the worst issue here. In many cases, victims of hate speech suffer a much bigger personal challenge. Because social media with all its effects is still a relatively new phenomenon, hardly anybody understands what constant, ongoing public harassment can do to a person.
People start disconnecting. At first from the Internet, later from life. They lose their jobs, friends turn their backs, families break apart. Nobody really knows how to deal with hate speech distributed and amplified by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The problem is: neither do Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
This is no Netflix drama
It’s like being part of a Netflix drama and we are way into Season Four, when Walter White has turned into Mr. Heisenberg (or Mr. Zuckerberg for that matter?). And although he is delivering crystal meth to the American people and to the rest of the world, he seems to think that he is on the right side of history, that the lives and families he is destroying are no more than collateral damage in his quest for the greater good.
I don’t believe Shaarik Zafar is a bad guy. He is a family person, just like Mark Zuckerberg, Susan Wojcicki of YouTube or Jack Dorsey of Twitter. But the people who created this drug market and continue to facilitate the trafficking need to understand that this is no Netflix drama. This is as real as it gets. This is happening. This needs to stop.