On October 16th, Georgetown hosted journalist Franklin Foer for the Core Pathways event “A World Without Mind.” GJIA sat down with Mr. Foer to discuss big technology as it relates to journalism and government.
GJIA: Given how social media is used as a mass distribution channel for journalism, what do you think are ways journalism can live sustainably within social media?
FF: This may be counterintuitve, but if you look at Twitter, it has actually bolstered journalism. You have incredible control over your curation, you’re not surrendering totally to an algorithm even though that influences it. It’s easy to add and subtract what you’re looking for, and I think it’s a pretty effective way of staying smart about what you’re interested in. It’s a shame that it can also be a platform for certain people to spat off at will. In terms of advertising, I feel like it’s pretty well submerged within the Twitter platform. Consciously, I decided not to bracket Twitter in my critique, because it doesn’t have the same scale. There’s a lot of problems with it, but it’s also counterbalanced by a lot of good.
What is the right balance between what platforms control in terms of algorithms, the value they provide for curated content, and the consumer having the ability to change?
I think it’s almost unsalvageable. Facebook is constantly changing its mission, and about a year ago, they announced they were retreating to the original mission of being a way to stay in touch with friends, and sharing information with your networks, which I think is valuable and I would enjoy being a part of that, despite the fact that it’s not without cost. It would still breed envy and anxiety, but it would not serve the primary use for huge parts of the polity, and I think that’s the primary problem for Facebook. I don’t know how they can salvage that without serving their mission.
You alluded to GDPR, CCPA, and other recent laws that impact data privacy, and how they’re flawed. What would be the right type of policy for data privacy?
I think they’re half-steps in the direction of control and having a sense of agency as we navigate the internet, but they don’t really allow for full control. If you actually had the ability to opt out, then I think they would be effective. Ultimately, that’s the only solution I can think of that would actually meaningfully preserve and protect privacy.
Much of the value these platforms provide is in their size and capacity to interact across borders. Therefore, what would effectively breaking up one of these companies look like?
Is it that hard to imagine the unwinding of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram? That would create a lot of competitive pressure, and two new platforms that can develop their own business models. Currently they co-evolve in a way to intentionally not compete with each other. Right now, Facebook is trying to roll their messaging platforms together so there’s not that level of competition. It’s not that hard to imagine Amazon Web Services breaking off from the rest of Amazon, resulting in two different companies; you would then have less concentration of data, and less cash for Amazon to invest in fixed costs that allow it to surmount its competitors.
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Franklin Foer is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including How Soccer Explains the World and World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. He is a former editor at The New Republic and is a fellow at New America.
Core Pathways is a program at Georgetown University that allows undergraduates to fulfill core and elective requirements through an interdisciplinary collection of courses that address a complex global challenge. Launched in 2017, the focus of the first pathway was “Climate Change,” and a second pathway was later introduced on “Humanity and Technology.”