I was struck by the words of Twitter’s new CEO, Parag Agrawal, in a 2020 interview with Technology Review.
Our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation. The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed. One of the changes today that we see is speech is easy on the internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard.
The scarce commodity today is attention. There’s a lot of content out there. A lot of tweets out there, not all of it gets attention, some subset of it gets attention. And so increasingly our role is moving towards how we recommend content and that sort of, is, is, a struggle that we’re working through in terms of how we make sure these recommendation systems that we’re building, how we direct people’s attention is leading to a healthy public conversation that is most participatory.
The sheer insouciance, the deliberate downplaying of one of the fundamental pillars of democracy and Western society, is staggering.
- “focus less on thinking about free speech”
- “our role is … who can be heard.”
- “our role is … how we recommend content”
- “how we direct people’s attention”
In all this, I see no mention of people having the right to choose for themselves what they want to say, what they want to hear, what they want to “consume” and where they direct their attention. No, all that has to be dictated to them, so that their tastes are subject to the direction of those who presumably know better.
(Of course, such arrogance from media companies and executives is nothing new. To cite just one well-known example, remember William Randolph Hearst‘s instruction in 1897 to his artist, Frederic Remington, concerning the crisis in Cuba prior to the Spanish-American War? Remington reported nothing going on, and said he wanted to return. Hearst retorted, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” So much for journalistic integrity!)
I can’t think of anything worse for an educated society, but clearly I – and, I presume, most of the readers here, who presumably share my views – are in a minority. By insisting on our right to read, and write, and sell, and consume, whatever we wish, without being subject to a Big Brother-like dictatorial direction of what’s appropriate and what isn’t, we’re clearly out of step with today’s powers that be.
That’s a frightening thought, and one that our children will have to deal with in even greater measure.