This piece was solicited by Ireland’s The Journal, asking essentially what the hell is happening in America. They first published the views of people of color, then ran mine yesterday.
What we are witnessing now in America is the last stand of the old, white man.
Four years ago, when speaking to groups outside the United States, I would apologize for Donald Trump. It got a laugh, until it didn’t. As an American, I must still apologize for what Trump has done to my country and what my country has done to the world by electing him. As an old, white man, I must confess it is people like me who got us here.
America’s paradoxes have come home to roost. Ours is a nation of freedoms built on the slavery and undervalued labor and lives of black people. Ours is a nation of equal opportunity that exploits the inequality of people of color and immigrants, of the poor.
The nation’s systemic racism has always been there, of course, but it becomes sorely evident in times of crisis. The COVID pandemic has disproportionately harmed communities of color — killed them — because as a group they have worse health care. Many of them are the “essential workers” doing thankless jobs, exposed to the virus every day. Many are poor people who cannot afford to lock down at home; they must work to eat. Too many of them lost their jobs. In my city, New York, they disproportionately live in crowded housing and must take long rides on contaminated subways to work and when they get sick the hospitals in their communities are underfunded and overcrowded.
Once it became clear that people of color and old people were COVID’s primary victims, calls came to reopen the economy, as if to say: These people do not matter.
And in the midst of that crisis, once again, a black man, George Floyd, was murdered by police for the crime of being black. Any African-American can tell you that they and particularly their young men live in peril every day of a white person calling the police on them for shopping, eating, walking, even bird-watching while black — and that the arrival of police can, as in the case of George Floyd, be a death sentence.
This everyday danger became evident with social media and the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #LivingWhileBlack. It was not evident in mass media because those communities and their stories were sinfully underrepresented in newspapers and their newsrooms. And so, as an old, white journalist and editor myself, my confession continues.
I was raised in the sixties and I feel as if I am reliving them — with reruns of political turmoil, racial strife, riots, police abuses, even a rocket launch — and we have learned no lessons in between.
As a child of those sixties, I was raised to believe in a colorblind America, in the great melting pot. I did not learn until much later how wrong and racist that presumption was: that the nation would reach racial harmony once the others acted like us, like the white majority (although we would do everything not to let them).
Soon, by 2050, the white majority in America faces the reality that it will become the white minority and that scares them. The most frightened are the uneducated, old, white men who hold privilege and power and realize how tenuous that hold is because it is based on what they had in the past — who they are — rather than what they contribute to the future — what they can do. These are the people who formed the concrete core of Trump’s so-called base. They exploited an unrepresentative democracy designed to protect slave states — in the institutions of the American Electoral College and Senate — to get Trump elected, to get old and white men to rule the Senate, and to fill our courts for a generation to come with their judges. It will take generations to undo their damage and even if we do, we’re only back at square one: at an America still undergirded by systemic racism.
The author and Professor Ibram X. Kendi argues in his book, “How to be an Anti-Racist,” that the opposite of a racist is not someone who claims to be not a racist but instead someone who fights racism, who is anti-racist. We need to become anti-racist in every American institution, starting with the political.
In this election, I first supported Sen. Kamala Harris. I was ashamed to see how political media all but erased her candidacy, for she is African-American and a woman. Then I supported Sen. Cory Booker, who is black. Then I supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is a woman. Now I am supporting former Vice President Joe Biden, who is an old, white man. He’s a good man. I pray for his election.
The only way Biden will win is if African-American women and men, Latinas and Latinos, the disenfranchised and the educated of this country come out to vote and fight for this change. He cannot take these constituents for granted. As Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., just said on TV, the scale of Biden’s response must meet the scale of the problem.
He must promise them a new America — not a return to any old America. He must offer a nation truly, finally built on freedom, opportunity, and equality with institutions — government, education, health care, employment — that right systemic wrongs. As an old, white man, I must learn how to share, to give up my power and privilege to those who have been deprived of them.
I pray for the president who follows Biden to lead this work, to finally end what we have now: the tyranny of the privileged, entitled, scared, angry, racist, fascist, old, white man, Donald Trump and those he represents.
But Donald Trump’s unfettered use of Facebook to sow division and encourage violence is not a matter of freedom of expression. There is no requirement that Facebook be his platform for noxious speech. This is a question of what Facebook stands for and what Mark Zuckerberg stands for. As I have asked before, what is Facebook’s North Star? Why does it exist?
Now is the moment for Facebook to convene its new Oversight Board — or for that board to convene itself to deliberate the issues raised and standards required to address this challenge. I don’t care that the systems and bureaucracy are not in place. This is urgent. Get on Zoom. If this independent Board does not meet on this issue of all issues, then why does it exist?
The Board has 20 smart and experienced members: leaders in freedom of expression and human rights, a former prime minister, a former Guardian editor (my friend, Alan Rusbridger), a Nobel prize winner. I would make a bad member of the Board (I was not asked) for if I were there I would be doing just what I am doing here: arguing in public for a public discussion at this critical time to deliberate Facebook’s public responsibility.
The Board isn’t necessary to do that. Facebook’s employees are starting to rise up to make their dissent heard. Zuckerberg can decide on his own or with the help of his Oversight Board, his employees, his users, and the public. But he can no longernot decide.
What is that decision? Perhaps to illustrate the choice it’s easier to take this out of the high-minded realm of freedom of expression and democracy, for that is where the company trips over itself. If Facebook did not exist tomorrow, we would find other ways to express ourselves.
Instead, try thinking of Facebook as a dinner at Mark Zuckerberg’s house. Let’s say that Donald Trump shows up. Donald starts insulting the other guests, shouting that he will bring violence down upon the heads of people who criticize him; blaming the troubles in this country on the Chinese; insulting African-Americans by insisting racists like them; attacking the journalists in the room, shouting that they’re all fake and enemies of the people. What is the host to do — and Mark Zuckerberg is undoubtedly the host? I would expect a host to ask rude Donald to leave. What are the guests to do? I would leave and never return.
So I repeat: Why does Facebook exist? Does it not have a vision for a better neighborhood, a connected world? How does it ever get there if it does not set an example? Does it have no norms of respectfulness? I don’t mean its statutes, its community standards; I mean an ethic, a moral foundation.
In disclosure, Facebook has contributed to my school to undertake various activities, including supporting others’ work around disinformation (I receive nothing personally from Facebook). I advocate that the news industry should work with Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other technology companies because I do not believe we can go our own way anymore; that is the path to obscurity. I defend the platforms against ill-conceived regulation for I worry about its impact on the net and our freedoms there. I think of myself as a defender of speech and thus a friend of the internet. Others call me a friend of the platforms. OK, then, friends tell friends when they’re screwing up. I’ve done that before and I’ll do it now.
Facebook: It is time to listen to friends and foes and reconsider what you are here to do. It is time to stop hiding behind freedom of expression, especially as Donald Trump threatens that very freedom. It is time to have the courage to stand for something. What do you stand for?
I was glad that Medium killed an ill-informed post about COVID by an armchair epidemiologist. I support Twitter’s decisions to begin to add warnings to, not promote, and add fact-checking to Donald Trump’s tweets. Those are just starts, but they are starts. I will not let Google off the hook, for YouTube has much to do as well.
Facebook needs to take a stand against Donald Trump’s racism, incitement, and lies. It cannot stand apart any longer. Our nation is burning. Yes, I am saying this now that it’s my nation on fire. Should I have raised my voice sooner and louder when other nations burned: Myanmar, the Philippines? Yes.
What do I want Facebook to do? Not much, actually. I don’t think Facebook should necessarily kill Trump’s account, for Zuckerberg has a point that citizens should see what their head of state is saying. I don’t think the internet is media nor do I believe that Facebook is a publisher or editor responsible for his words; I say it’s pointless to fact-check Trump. What I do want is for Facebook to separate itself from his vile behavior. Facebook should say: We do not agree. We do not approve. We say this is wrong.
If it does not, by its silence and with its power, it endorses what Trump is saying and becomes his willing agent — every bit as much as when a major newspaper quotes Trump’s posts and tweets without telling its users when he is lying and calling on his racist allies, and every bit as much as Republicans enabling him for their ends.
Trump attacked women and you did not protest. Trump went after immigrants and you did not stop him. Trump came for African-Americans and you stood back. Now Trump is coming for you, technology companies. He is attacking Section 230, the best protection we have for the freedom of expression you all say you hold dear. Will you stand up for that and your users? That should be easy. Will you then stand up for your users who are women and immigrants and African-American? What will you stand for?
Be careful what you clamor for. You demand that platforms deal with harmful speech. Then he whose speech is thus affected unleashes the dogs of Trump. They harasstheplatform and its employees for exercising their freedom of speech. They threaten to limit freedom of expression for everyone on that platform and the net — including you.
Thus efforts to control noxious, right-wing speech have backfired as the right-wing exploits every tool used against them. The weapons Trump brandishes — regulating social platforms, limiting or repealing Section 230, redirecting government advertising, blaming algorithmic “bias,” demanding “neutrality,” defining the net as media and platforms as publishers — are things proposed by those who want to limit harmful speech online. In his so-called executive order, the Troll in Chief is using them all for his ends. Have we learned nothing from bad actors online— that every function, every lever, every precedent that can be gamed and exploited by them will be? Now Section 230, our best protection of freedom of expression on the internet, is in peril.
The more I study net regulation, the more of a free-speech absolutist I become. To think that speech is harmful is almost inevitably a third-person effect: believing that everyone else — but not you — is vulnerable to bad words and ideas and that protecting them from it will cure their ignorance. There is but one cure for ignorance: education. The goal of education is to prepare the mind to wrestle with lies and hatred and idiocy … and win.
It is worthwhile to remind us of that very argument made long ago by Franklin, Milton, and Wilkes. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine.
In 1731 Benjamin Franklin was fed up with people complaining about what came off his press — not just in his newspaper, but even in advertisements — and so he wrote an Apology for Printers, which was nothing of the sort. I’m going to take the heart of that essay and substitute modern words like platform and social media for old-fashioned words like printer to make my point: that Franklin’s point still stands. Let me be clear: I do not believe the internet is a medium. It is a platform, a platform for facts and opinions and conversation about them. That is how Franklin viewed his press, as a platform. He wrote:
I request all who are angry with me on the Account of serving things they don’t like, calmly to consider these following Particulars
1. That the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces; an Observation general enough to become a common Proverb, So many Men so many Minds.
2. That the Business of Social Media has chiefly to do with Mens Opinions; most things that are posted tending to promote some, or oppose others….
4. That it is as unreasonable in any one Man or Set of Men to expect to be pleas’d with every thing that is posted, as to think that nobody ought to be pleas’d but themselves.
5. Technologists are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they chearfully serve all contending Twitter or Facebook users, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute.
6. Being thus continually employ’d in serving all Parties, Platforms naturally acquire a vast Unconcernedness as to the right or wrong Opinions contain’d in what they serve; regarding it only as the Matter of their daily labour: They serve things full of Spleen and Animosity, with the utmost Calmness and Indifference, and without the least Ill-will to the Persons reflected on; who nevertheless unjustly think the Platform as much their Enemy as the Tweeter, and join both together in their Resentment.
7. That it is unreasonable to imagine Platforms approve of every thing they serve, and to censure them on any particular thing accordingly; since in the way of their Business they serve such great variety of things opposite and contradictory. It is likewise as unreasonable what some assert, That Platforms ought not to serve any Thing but what they approve; since if all of that Business should make such a Resolution, and abide by it, an End would thereby be put to Free Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming and TikToking and YouTubing, and the World would afterwards have nothing to read but what happen’d to be the Opinions of the Technologists.
8. That if all Platforms were determin’d not to serve any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little posted.
9. That if they sometimes serve vicious or silly things not worth reading, it may not be because they approve such things themselves, but because the People are so viciously and corruptly educated that good things are not encouraged….
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” — John Milton, the Areopagitica
In 1638 Milton visited Gilileo, who was under house arrest for what authorities decreed were his dangerous ideas and harmful speech. Milton paid tribute to Galileo, including him in Paradise Lost, and the visit helped inspire the Areopagitica, Milton’s 1644 polemic against the licensing of books in England and in defense of freedom of expression.
The abolition of the Star Chamber in 1637 had led to the effective end of censorship and a flowering of publishing — too much publishing for the taste of authorities. In 1643, Parliament passed a Licensing Order “for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and Government.” Might as well add tweets and Facebook comments to the list. Parliament argued, as unfortunately some do today, that there was too much speech. Bad actors, they said, “have taken upon them to set up sundry private Printing Presses in corners, and to print, vend, publish, and disperse books, pamphlets and papers, in such multitudes, that no industry could be sufficient to discover or bring to punishment all the several abounding Delinquents.”
Speech scaled and control did not. In England, the Stationers Company — a private, industry organization for printers — had been deputized to regulate this speech, just as Twitter and Facebook are expected to do today. The Order decreed no publication could be printed unless it was first licensed.
In the Areopagitica Milton rose up in righteous, eloquent anger in defense of speech, of debate, of learning, and of this less-than-200-year-old art of printing.
“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life … of that living intellect that bred them.” Thus, Milton said, one might as well “kill a man as kill a good book…. he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God.”
But what of bad books? Well, who is to decide the difference? A Star Chamber? The Stationers Company? Twitter? Facebook’s Oversight Board? The White House? Courts? Or readers? “Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter.” That is God speaking to Pope Dionysius of Alexandria in 240 A.D., according to Milton.
We learn by testing ourselves, Milton argues. “That which purifies us is trial and trial is by what is contrary…. Our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise.” He acknowledges the authorities’ fears that bad speech is “the infection that may spread” — just what we hold this fear today about internet disinformation. But he contends that “evil manners are as perfectly learned without books” and so eliminating bad books will not staunch the infection. So: “A fool will be a fool with the best book, yea or without a book; there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool, that which being restrained will be no hindrance to his folly.”
This is Milton’s article of faith: “See the ingenuity of Truth, who, when she gets a free and willing hand, opens herself faster than the pace of … discourse can overtake her.” And: “And though the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple.”
Yet he adds a caution: ‘Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks.” Truth is not a product to be packaged. It is a choice.
He makes two key arguments: that citizens need to learn by facing and rejecting sin (“When God gave him reason,” Milton says of Adam, “he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing”) and that no small group of men is capable of making decisions to protect citizens from those choices: “Who shall regulate all the mixed conversation of our youth, male and female together, as is the fashion of this country? Who shall still appoint what shall be discoursed, what presumed, and no further? Lastly, who shall forbid and separate all idle resort, all evil company?”
Milton warned of the precedents licensing would set. If we license printing, must we not then license dancing and lutes and lyrics and visitors who bring ideas? And what does Adam teach us about forbidden fruit? “The punishing of wits enhances their authority… This Order, therefore, may provide a nursing-mother to sects.” To forbid it is to spread it; that is another lesson of disinformation on the net.
Milton, like Franklin, recognizes the value of the public conversation: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” I cannot help but also call on James Carey, who said: “Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places.” In the development of the net I have come to see that what we are witnessing is a society relearning how to have a conversation with itself.
But what of nasty, hateful conversations with trolls? Should we not be protected from them?
I give you John Wilkes, the urtroll, who is also, in the title of Arthur H. Cash’s biography, The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty. Wilkes was, by every description, unattractive, a cur, a libertine, a smartass. He feuded with the prime minister, Lord Bute, and published anonymously a newspaper that mocked him, which “proceeded with an acrimony, a spirit, and a licentiousness unheared [sic] of before even in this country,” said Horace Walpole.
In the first issue of the North Briton, Wilkes called a free press “the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country … the terror of all bad ministers.” Says Cash: “Wilkes was in constant danger of having his ironies taken literally by humorless or stupid men.” Indeed, Wilkes and his printers were arrested and his papers seized and there were attempts to rob him of his seat in Parliament.
But he persevered and in the process, according to Cash, set many legal precedents: the end of general warrants, the establishment of a right to privacy, an enhanced right to sue the government for false arrest, in addition to a right to transparency of Parliament and freedom of the press. Wilkes did it by nastily trolling, because that was the power he had at hand. Wilkes is a hero of mine, not as a troll, of course, but as a defender of liberty.
Larry Kramer, who died this week, was also a hero of mine. He was also a troll, a power he used when it was all he had to save lives at the start of the AIDS epidemic. Hear Dr. Anthony Fauci about their relationship:
“How did I meet Larry? He called me a murderer and an incompetent idiot on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner magazine.” …
Addressing Dr. Fauci in the letter, Mr. Kramer wrote: “Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers. Your present inaction is causing today’s increase in HIV infection outside of the Queer community.”
“I thought, ‘This guy, I need to reach out to him,’” Dr. Fauci recalled. “So I did, and we started talking. We realized we had things in common.”
How better to tell the story of the power of listening?
So what speech is it you want to control? Hate? I hate our president and say so. Lies? Who wants an official truth but the officials who set it? Trolling? We risk losing the righteous power of Wilkes and Kramer and the opportunity to learn from them.
Donald Trump is a hateful, lying troll. So what should Twitter do with him? Whatever it wants to. That is the point. That is its right as a private entity in the United States. That is its freedom of expression. It has the freedom to do nothing, to delete his tweets, to add fact checks and warnings to them, to not promote them. I think it is now doing the right thing.
Above all, what Facebook and Twitter and every technology company should be doing is deciding why they exist. I have complained that in establishing its Oversight Board, Facebook has not set a North Star, a raison d’être for the platform. Why does it exist? What behavior on it is beneficial and welcome and what is not, for what reason? They are asking the 20 wise members of the Oversight Board — its Stationers Company — to enforce a set of statutes without a Constitution. Twitter, by its actions, is beginning to write its Constitution, to decide what is acceptable and not and why. Those are their decisions to make.
So what of Trump’s people, those whom he eggs on? Well, what are the characteristics we know of his so-called base: they are uneducated, white males. White, male entitlement matters. But uneducated, that is the key. To update Milton as I updated Franklin: “A fool will be a fool with the best Twitter, yea or without Twitter.”
If we try to use official power to restrain speech on social media, we give fools the power to restrain wisdom there. That is what Trump is trying to do. We must recognize it for what it is: not a legal but a political ploy, an unconstitutional one, also unAmerican. We must fight to protect the freedom of expression, even for fools, so we protect our own. We must fight for the net.
I didn’t realize how affected I have been by the trauma of COVID-19 until today, when the death toll in America passed that of 9/11, when the cumulative stress of seeing medical workers suffer and scientists wonder and politicians bungle piled too high, when I found myself snapping for no good reason, when the pain of uncertainty returned.
On 9/11, I was at the World Trade Center, feeling the heat of the jets’ impact, seeing lives lost, overcome by the debris of the towers’ fall, barely surviving — because I didn’t step two feet this way or that — and witnessing my mortality in the moment, the result of my bad decision to stay and report … for what? for a story.
Now that moment of mortality is every day, fearing the wrong moment in a grocery story or touching a surface or rubbing a nose will do any of us in, jeopardizing ourselves, our families, our communities. It is 9/11 in slow-motion, repeated every day for everyone: a morning that will last a year or two; evil groundhog day.
One of my last trips into Manhattan before the shutdown was to Bellevue Hospital, to the World Trade Center Health Program, where I finally went after many years of denial to have them prod my body and memory. I thought it would be therapeutic. It was more bureaucratic, to certify me for treatment that doesn’t really exist for my two cancers (both lite: prostate and thyroid, each on the List), for my heart condition (atrial fibrillation, not on the List), for respiratory issues (sleep apnea; I’ll get a machine), and — here was my surprise — for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Me? I’m fine. Just fine. I have been for 19 years, not just coping but always cognizant of my privilege, having survived the day and prospered since, lucky to have my family and home and work.
And then, 19 years later, comes COVID-19 (as if numbers were self-aware of their irony) to remind me again of my fragility, my mortality.
I am still fortunate and know that well. I live out in the country with much social distance around me. I have a wonderful family and thanks to my wife am safe at home. I have a rewarding job working with dedicated deans and teachers who want nothing more than to help our students not just weather this crisis but learn from it and become wiser and more resilient for it. Thanks to the internet, I can keep my job and income and my connection with the world. I am privileged still.
I look at the numbers on charts, deaths and death rates daily, and think we are not doing a good job of seeing the humanity in them. The so-called president acts as if losing 100,000 or 200,000 people is a job well-done and deserving of credit. His flags are not at half-staff; never. The news is just beginning to fill with the names of the lost, the stories of their lives buried under slopes on charts. So many of the first we lose are selfless medical workers, gone for no reason, gone because of our feckless government’s denials. God knows how the doctors and nurses do this, facing the mortality of so many, including themselves, every moment. God bless them.
I am not them. We do not have to be among them. We do not have to be if we pay attention and stay inside and don’t breathe the wrong air and touch the wrong thing and scratch our eyes at the wrong moment and hang on until science — blessed science — gives us a vaccine. I bury myself in science. That is where I find hope.
But we are vulnerable. We always are, always have been, always will be. It’s just that most of the time, we manage to ignore that fact.
Especially us New Yorkers. Our city is so strong: The center of the fucking universe, as I delight in telling students and visitors, a fortress of spirit and will, intelligence and effort. But here it is again, under attack, brought down and brought silent this time by a mere virus for which we — the nation — were criminally unprepared.
And so my anger does me in. I cannot bear watching him on television every fucking night, that tower of ego and unself-aware fragility exploiting the vulnerability and suffering and his citizens and spewing falsity and hate and ignorance to his cult. That is too much to bear. I am ashamed of my own life’s field, media, for giving him this platform, for not calling his lies until they are spread like a virus across the land, for failing to diagnose the disease that he is. This depresses me.
But writing this is its own form of self-indulgence, I must confess. I haven’t shared emotions like this since some long-gone anniversary of 9/11. For I was healing or healed, I thought. But now I see my weakness again. The emotions are bare.
I told the psychiatrist at Bellevue (a phrase I use with no irony) that I saw few lasting effects of 9/11 on my psyche. I became phobic about bridges and there are many I will not cross. I find my emotions can well up at the most idiotic moments, when a manipulative twist in a TV show or even a goddamned commercial can peel me back and reveal my gooey center. But all that’s not so hard to control. I just find the nearest tunnel or a shorter bridge and shake my head to wave off the storytellers’ manipulation of my heart.
Yet today that is harder. The emotions are rising again. I wouldn’t name them fear. I’d name them apprehension and worry and anger and stress and empathy for the numberless and nameless who go before us, too soon.
So there. Nineteen years ago, when I started blogging after that day, I found it helpful to share so I could connect with others and learn I was far from alone. That act itself — linking with people here, online — changed my perspective of my career, of journalism, of media, of society. It taught me that properly considered my life and profession should not have been about writing stories but about listening and conversing; that is what I believe now. That gave me a new career as a teacher.
Now I don’t tell my story so much as I confess my weakness in case someone reading this feels the same: vulnerable but fortunate, worried but wishing, just uncertain yet not alone.
This post has been translated into Spanish here and Italian here.
In defending targeting, I am not defending Facebook, I am attacking mass media and what its business model has done to democracy — including on Facebook.
With targeting, a small business, a new candidate, a nascent movement can efficiently and inexpensively reach people who would be interested in their messages so they may transact or assemble and act. Targeted advertising delivers greater relevance at lower cost and democratizes advertising for those who could not previously afford it, whether that is to sell homemade jam or organize a march for equality.* Targeting has been the holy grail all media and all advertisers have sought since I’ve been in the business. But mass media could never accomplish it, offering only crude approximations like “zoned” newspaper and magazine editions in my day or cringeworthy buys for impotence ads on the evening news now. The internet, of course, changed that.
Without targeting, we are left with mass media — at the extreme, Super Bowl commercials — and the people who can afford them: billionaires and those loved by them. Without targeting, big money will forever be in charge of commerce and politics. Targeting is an antidote.
With the mass-media business model, the same message is delivered to all without regard for relevance. The clutter that results means every ad screams, cajoles, and fibs for attention and every media business cries for the opportunity to grab attention for its advertisers, and we are led inevitably to cats and Kardashians. That is the attention-advertising market mass media created and it is the business model the internet apes so long as it values, measures, and charges for attention alone.
Facebook and the scareword “microtargeting” are blamed for Trump. But listen to Andrew Bosworth, who knows whereof he speaks, as he managed advertising on Facebook during the 2016 election. In a private post made public, he said:
So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period….
They weren’t running misinformation or hoaxes. They weren’t microtargeting or saying different things to different people. They just used the tools we had to show the right creative to each person.
I disagree with him about Facebook deserving full blame or credit for electing Trump; that’s a bit of corporate hubris on the part of him and Facebook, touting the power of what they sell. But he makes an important point: Trump’s people made better use of the tools than their competitors, who had access to the same tools and the same help with them.
But they’re just tools. Bad guys and pornographers tend to be the first to exploit new tools and opportunities because they are smart and devious and cheap. Trump used it to sell the ultimate elixir: anger. Cambridge Analytica acted as if it were brilliant at using these tools, but as Bosworth also says in the post — and as every single campaign data expert I know has said — CA was pure bullshit and did not sway so much as a dandelion in the wind in 2016. Says Bosworth: “This was pure snake oil and we knew it; their ads performed no better than any other marketing partner (and in many cases performed worse).” But the involvement of evil CA and its evil backers and clients fed the media narrative of moral panic about the corruption and damnation of microtargeting.
Hillary Clinton &co. could have used the same tools well and at the time — and still — I have lamented that they did not. They relied on traditional presumptions about campaigning and media and the culture in a changed world. Richard Nixon was the first to make smart use of direct mail — targeting! — and then everyone learned how to. Trump &co. used targeting well and in this election I as sure as hell hope his many opponents have learned the lesson.
Unless, that is, well-meaning crusaders take that tool away by demonizing and even banning micro — call it effective — targeting. I have sat in too many rooms with too many of these folks who think that there is a single devil and that a single messiah can rescue us all. I call this moral panic because it fits Ashley Crossman’s excellent definition of it:
A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fueled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.
The corollary is moral messianism: that outlawing this one thing will solve it all. I’ve heard lots of people proclaiming that microtargeting and targeting — as well as the data that powers it — should be banned. (“Data” has also become a scare word, which scares me, for data are information.) We’ve also seen media — in cahoots with similarly threatened legacy politicians — gang up on Facebook and Google for their power to target because media have been too damned stubborn and stupid, lo these two decades, to finally learn how to use the net to respect and serve people as individuals, not a mass, and learn information about people to deliver greater relevance and value for both users and advertisers. I wrote a book arguing for this strategy and tried to convince every media executive I know to compete with the platforms by building their own focused products to gather their own first-party data to offer advertisers their own efficient and effective value and to collaborate as an industry to do this. Instead, the industry prefers to whine. Mass media must mass.
Over the years, every time I’ve said that the net could enable a positive, I’ve been accused of technological determinism. Funny thing is, it’s the dystopians who are the determinists for they believe that a technology corrupts people. It is patronizing, paternalistic, and insulting to the public and robs them of agency to believe they can be transformed from decent, civilized human beings into raging lunatics and idiots by exposure to a Facebook ad. If we believe that and believe our problems are so easily fixed then we miss the real problems this country has: its long-standing racism; media’s exploitation and fueling of conflict and fear; and growing anti-intellectualism and hostility to education.
We also need to fix advertising — in mass media and on the internet in the platforms, especially on Facebook. Advertising needs to shift from mass-media measures of audience and attention and clicks to value-based measures of relevance and utility and efficacy — which will only occur with, yes, targeting. It also must become transparent, making clear who is advertising to us (Facebook may confirm the identity of an advertiser but that confirmed information is not shared with us) and on what basis we are being targeted (Facebook reveals only rough demographics, not targeting goals) and giving us the power to have some control over what we are shown. Instead of banning political advertising, I wish Twitter would also have endeavored to fix how advertising works.
I hear the more extreme moral messianists say their cure is to ban advertising. That’s not only naive, it’s dangerous, for without advertising journalists will starve and we will return to the age of the Medicis and their avissi: private information for the privileged few who can afford it. Paywalls are no paradise.
What’s really happening here — and this is a post and a book for another day — is a reflexive desire to control speech. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the spread of printing in early-modern Europe and I am struck by how every attempt to control the press and outlaw forms of speech failed and backfired. At some point, we must have faith in our fellow citizens and shift our attention from playing Whac-a-Mole with the bad guys to instead finding, sharing, and supporting expertise, education, authority, intelligence, and quality so we can have a healthy, deliberative democracy in a marketplace of ideas. The alternatives are all worse.
* I leave you with a few ads I found in Facebook’s library that could work only via targeting and never on expensive mass media: the newspaper, TV, or radio. I searched on “march.”
When you eliminate targeting, you risk silencing these movements.