In the past month, we have been helpless onlookers to horrific mass shootings in Texas and New York that’s haunting the national consciousness. Over the same period, we were witness to Silicon Valley’s titans; Facebook, Google, and Twitter, wretchedly attempting to explain how their platforms became weaponized by governments hostile to American interests.
Normally these events would be compartmentalized with little in common on the surface. Yet as these two events tumbled over each other in the glare of the news, we see how similar the NRA and Silicon Valley really are. It is both startling and profoundly disappointing as we begin to connect the dots between these seemingly cultural ideological silos.
1) The dance of accountability denial
Hearing the NRA respond after every massacre with their well-rehearsed corporate speak explaining that more rules would not have prevented this particular incident numbs us. “Guns,” they argue, “don’t kill – people do” ignoring the obvious point that guns should be less accessible overall to reduce the occurrence overall.
The tech giants took a page from the NRA’s script post-2016 election actively disavowing any responsibility their platform had in enabling the deluge of politicized propaganda ads. “Our platforms don’t distribute bad content – people do” is as insulting as the NRA arguments when nearly 2/3 of all Americans get their news from Facebook. Never did Hate speech, cloaked in “news content,” have a better friend than in Facebook, Twitter, and Google. The dance of denial is, of course, what got Senator Al Franken’s, and the rest of us, so infuriated.
2) Profits over people
The profit motive for the NRA is easy to understand – sell more guns. The profit motive for the tech giants is equally easy to fathom - sell more ads. In the case of the latter, this is achieved through the “scale model” where technology delivers as many ads as possible with the barest number of people to provide minimal oversight. Facebook, in particular, excelled at the scale model with an astonishingly few 25,000 employees whereas GE, by comparison (with roughly equivalent market cap) employs about 295,000 people worldwide.
This is where Silicon Valley is as rapacious as the NRA because both put profits over people. NRA fights any reasonable limits on the gun sales, and Silicon Valley will resist any reasonable attempt to demand adequate human oversight. Today, in many cases, Silicon Valley outsources its content curation to distant lands who lack the context of local cultures. These shallow oversight efforts are not meant to provide any meaningful attempt to stem the tsunami of fake posts, weaponized ads, and hate videos. Rather, they are meant to augment automated platforms who do the vast majority of content curation. The problem is that machines suck at interpreting context; getting it “wrong” a lot. This well-documented gap was known for years, but in pursuit of profits, Silicon Valley refused to hire enough people to add human safeguards. It was most infuriating hearing Mr. Colin Stretch, VP and General Counsel at Facebook admit that the network could have done better - making it sound like all this was a surprise. This was a vulnerability ready to be exploited which is exactly what happened.
3) A legislative agenda that drives the corporate agenda
This less obvious but perhaps the most damaging similarities is revealed through an outsized political agenda that each culture believes they have a right to occupy. Starting with the NRA – the political agenda is clear – support pro NRA candidates. NRA cloaks its argument around free speech and the right to bear arms obscuring any linkage to profits or power. Similarly, Silicon Valley wraps itself in a gentler cloak of social ideologies to drive their legislative agenda too.
Let’s use Facebook to make the point as Mark has been quite vocal about his personal, social agenda. When titans like Zuckerberg declare a social agenda (health or education), they are subjugating the political will of the tens of thousands of “voters” with his personal agenda, admirable though it might be. The political will of the electorate (not individuals) is, at its heart, how democracy works and we didn’t vote for Zuckerberg’s agenda just as we did not vote for NRA’s hold on Washington.
So next time you become enraged at the NRA, save some of your rage for the tech giants who have put as dangerous a weapon as any gun in the hands of our adversaries. This is why we are a nation deeply divided because we are a nation bereft of shared truths – all courtesy of our friends at Silicon Valley and the NRA.