On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist for the New York Times, joins Kara onstage in front of a live audience at UC Berkeley’s journalism school.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the screenwriter of the hit horror movie “The Frightful Five,” but in my spare time, I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network. Today, we’re going to play an interview I did back in March at the University of California Berkeley. I was sick at the time, I think with pneumonia, which is why my voice is going to sound a bit off.
This interview is part of a week of classes at Berkeley’s journalism school. I talked to the New York Times tech columnist, Farhad Manjoo, about being a journalist in 2018 and the growing power of the Frightful Five, which is his term for the five most-powerful tech companies right now: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Alphabet and Microsoft. Let’s take a listen.
Let’s start about this idea. How many years ago did you write this column about the Frightful Five?
Farhad Manjoo: I think it was two years ago. It was after that “Hateful Eight” Tarantino movie came out.
Right, okay. Right.
I had that in my head, so 2015 I think.
Okay, explain the Frightful Five to the people who didn’t read the column.
Yeah, so it’s Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook — and Microsoft is in there for a special reason that I’ll talk about. I wrote a story in Fast Company in 2013, a long time ago. That turned into this book deal that I got. It got delayed, because I got a job at the Times and stuff, but the idea then at the time was there were these four companies, Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook that seemed to be ... One of them seemed to be becoming the next Microsoft. I was going to write about which one of them it would be, kind of a standard business story.
Then in 2015, in the last couple years, it seemed to me that the real story was not which one of them would win, but what if all of them win? What if they all kept growing, and their powers seemed limitless? Many of them have the powers now that we used to associate with governments, basically. Facebook can determine or has a role in national elections. Companies like YouTube, the same way. Amazon is basically building national infrastructure at this point. Apple fought with the FBI over ...
... encryption, details on people’s phones, major national terrorism cases. The other thing is that they’re international, and they’re informed. They’re American tech companies based here and in Seattle. They have sort of worldwide global powers. They can determine the news that people in Africa see, and in India. It seems like they were getting the kind of power that we didn’t associate with corporations in the past.
Absolutely. I’ve always thought of them as nation states. I always think of them that way, and that they have powers that they don’t understand. Let’s get into that. You called them the Frightful Five, wrote this column — which they hate, by the way. They’re always like, “That Farhad,” whenever I ... I’m like, “Calm down, you people.”
Yeah. The reason they hate it, each of them believes that they shouldn’t be there, except Microsoft, which likes to be included.
It’s so sad. Microsoft used to be so scary, and now it’s not scary. They want to be scary, but they’re not.
Right, so that’s the reason I have them in there, because I think they’re a good example of what can happen to a company. They’re still big and powerful and make a lot of money, but they’ve been tamed. There’s an argument about this, a long argument, but one of the theories is that they were tamed because the government acted against them. That could be a potential future for the others.
For the others. Okay. Let’s talk about that, because I covered the Microsoft trial for the Washington Post, and I recall at the time, Bill Gates, and I’d written a lot about him threatening ... He threatened companies continually. It seemed like he just went around and threatened companies all the time, but they were amassing power through the operating system. The government came in and declared them a monopoly essentially, and their behaviors on that, and that the operating system was so compelling that it did ... the government came in and did this case.
One of the things I’ll never forget was Bill Gates, before this trial happened, came to the Washington Post. I’ll tell this story very briefly. I invited him there to talk to the editors of the Washington Post. We had these dinners and lunches and stuff where they would come, like you guys have at the Times. I invited him, and I was waiting outside the Post for him, and this giant limousine pulls up, which I was like, “Bill Gates never takes a limousine.” At the time, he rode coach, and he was that Bill Gates. He doesn’t do that anymore.
This limousine comes up, and this guy gets out. It turns out he’s the premier of Nigeria or something, and he gets out of the limousine. I’m like, “Hi, you’re not Bill Gates.” I look across the street, and pouring out of a cab — a really ugly D.C. cab, those cabs are really vile — was Bill Gates by himself. He hadn’t showered, which was what he used to do quite a bit in those days, which wasn’t pleasant. He was sort of a mess.
He came up to the top — Mrs. Graham’s dining room, essentially — and we had a meeting with the editorial staff. At the time, it was starting to seem like he was gaining enormous amounts of power over the computing arena. He kept going on and on about, “I don’t have lobbyists. I don’t need them. I don’t need Washington power brokers. I don’t need this. I don’t need that.” Very cavalier, in a really cavalier way.
I kept raising my hand, and I said, “Well, this is a city of ex student body vice presidents with subpoena power, so you better start thinking really hard about that.” I’ll never forget, he turned to the ... The arrogance was so deep, and how he could not be tamed, essentially, was that he turned to the editor of the Washington Post, and it wasn’t Ben Bradlee, it was Len Downie at the time. Len asked him some question. I don’t remember what the question was, and Gates turned to him, and he goes, “That is the stupidest question I’ve ever heard,” which he’s done to you, right?
“That is the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.” This was a time when the Post was enormously powerful as an institution. It still is, but it was a different kind of power. I literally didn’t know what to do. I was like, “The stupidest? Was it the stupidest question? Really? The whole, absolute stupidest question you’ve ever heard in your life? Come on. There’s got to be stupider questions,” because this was my boss and stuff like that.
I’ll never forget his tone and his tonality about what they were doing. Then the government came in. They had the same tone throughout the trial, and then were killed, were killed by the federal ... The federal government shut down that ability of Microsoft to do that.
Right, completely changed the company. For a while, it was really struggling. Still, it’s not a company that consumers think of and reach for. Lots of other things happened.
Of course. They missed a lot of internet turns.
Right, right, but you could argue that if the government hadn’t stopped them, they could have used that browser monopoly to ... They could have used the OS monopoly to win the browser war, shut down everyone, and then stop Google, for example. That same sort of thing sort of happens now with the other tech companies.
One of the things that I think is interesting is that I don’t cover or think about or feel like there’s a lot of competition to the giants from startups. Obviously there are huge startups, but in a lot of them ... Look at, for example, Uber is a good example. Uber’s had all of its own problems, but Google is sort of going to win, whichever way the car market goes. They have an investment in Uber, in Lyft. They’re suing Uber.
Sued. Sued. Sued.
Yes. They sued Uber, and they have this car program of their own. It’s that kind of thing where it’s hard to imagine any startup beating any of these companies, pushing them sort of ... For a long time, that was kind of the story of Silicon Valley, like you’d be at the top, and then you’d get hit by ...
Unseated, right, by two guys in a garage.
Right, by the guys in the garage. Now they’re fighting amongst themselves, and those fights are interesting and worth paying attention to, but they don’t change the sort of overall structure of the business.
That these are these most powerful companies.
Then say a Google, which did start, by the way, in Susan Wojcicki’s garage, of all things, again, the snake eats itself, that you could not do that today. You couldn’t have a company that pops through like a Facebook did, like any of them did.
Yeah. It’s much harder, and any startup now sort of has to pay actual money to these companies, or in other ways make deals with these companies. They run all the cloud services. They run the app stores. They run all the marketing channels.
They run the phones.
They run the phones. They run the operating systems. They sort of run all of the major platforms for other tech companies, but for the entire economy.
What is the implication of that? Let’s go through each of them. Facebook — which I think is getting most of the attacks right now, and many of them deserved, almost all of them deserved — talk about them, because they have affected news the most. Here’s a company that was very similar to AOL in a lot of ways, was going to help publishers, and then turned on them and started charging them and started manipulating. AOL did the same thing in a really odd way. Talk about their power right now, because my feeling is that they have ... I think 60 percent of news distribution happens on Facebook right now. Is that something ... It’s some number.
It’s some number like that. I think there was a survey from PEW that suggested that close to half of all Americans consider Facebook a primary source of news, not the only source, but a big part of how they get news. If you think about the size of their audience and their reach, they’re bigger, not just in sort of every other newspaper you can think of, most TV networks, but in a lot of cases, all the newspapers in the U.S. combined reach a smaller audience than Facebook.
Right, and when you get into other countries, like the Philippines or Southeast Asia, it gets really problematic, because they’re the only source of information, including the source of bad information.
Right. In those countries, there’s the additional problem of they don’t have a lot of people there. They don’t really monitor what’s going on there. There was a lot of stories about misinformation in Myanmar on Facebook leading to all of the problems we’ve seen in the ethnic cleansing there. Facebook has half a dozen or so people, and put them in late, and sort of can’t monitor that. Just thinking about how journalism works, the idea that engineers in California are deciding the news ecosystem of countries very far away where they don’t have people, it’s just kind of a bizarre world.
It’s a bizarre and disturbing one. Do you think they fabricated their response? Because what you get from Facebook, which has been an ongoing argument I have with all of the executives all the time, I had an interview with one of them onstage at a conference a year ago, more than a year ago talking about their responsibility to monitor these programs and control these programs, platforms. Most of what you get out of people from Facebook is it’s a benign platform of which we are just a platform. We are not a media company.
They’re very insistent on not calling themselves a media company, when I think they are a media company, or they’re a kind of media company. Therefore, they abrogate the responsibility that comes with being — the New York Times cares if it’s wrong, Recode cares if it’s wrong and fixes it — to being this place where anything gets dumped in and you can all sort it out, essentially.
Right. Yeah. Lately they’ve been sort of talking about being more responsible and have hired journalists, unclear exactly what the journalists they’ve hired are doing, it’s unclear to me in an overall way if the fixes they’re trying to make are going to work, and even if they know what the problem is and how to fix it.
They’re trying to be responsible, but I think that their major problem is that to be a responsible media company, you have to take positions. You have to decide what’s factual and what’s not. They want to be popular. They want people to use them. They don’t want to be seen as deciding what’s fact and what isn’t in a polarized country here in the United States, but also just for the entire globe.
That’s not the position that a company like Facebook, a platform that sees itself as more of a piece of technology than a new service, wants to be in. It’s a very tricky thing for how they see themselves, for the kinds of people who work there. They’re a company of engineers, like all tech companies. To transform into something like the New York Times just doesn’t work for them.
But it’s not like the New York Times. It’s a new kind of media company. What’s really interesting around ... I don’t know if you all have followed this, but the very last year when Mark was asked about this, so about a year ago, he said that Facebook had no impact on the ... No. No. He said zero.
Yeah, he said it was crazy.
What a crazy thing that it would have any ... When he said that, it was very clear that they did, that there was some meddling by the Russians on this platform or using the platform both in the ad area, but more importantly in the content area. A weekend later, he wrote a thing saying, “Maybe we have a little.” There was a sort of slow roll forward. “Maybe we have a little.” Then he put it through in a number, 1 percent I think. Some number I think they just made up.
I actually texted him, I said, “I think you just made up this number. I’m sorry. Can you explain it to me? You better not say 1 percent if it later becomes 7 or 10 or whatever. Just stop lying, because you’ve obviously changed your story.” Then over the course of a year, he has sort of moved into, “Oh okay, maybe it was more important than you think.” Then he wrote a giant 6,000-word essay, which was in desperate need of editing, about ... It was. He showed it to some journalists, including me. He goes, “What do you think?” I said, “I think you need an editor is what I think.” “What? What? It’s very good.” I’m like, “You didn’t finish college.”
You know what? After he showed it to us, it got longer.
It got longer, I know. I literally was like, “You didn’t finish college, right? Okay.” He’s not used to being told he’s bad at what he does. Farhad and I aren’t worried that he’s going to get into journalism.
He rolled that forward. They rolled it forward again, and then it continued just to be one re-explanation after another. When they first said, “Oh yeah, Russians are on the platform and have abused it, malevolent actors have abused it.” They again did the same thing where they said, “It’s only a little.”
I remember talking to one of the executives, I said, “Don’t say it if you don’t know. If there’s one cockroach, there’s 50 cockroaches,” kind of thing. “Please just don’t say it. Don’t say anything, because I’m going to call you a liar next week if I have to.” What is in the ethos of this particular company from your perspective from covering it? I have some thoughts, but why do you ... Because they don’t understand their power?
Yeah, I think it’s ...
Are they ignorant, willfully ignorant, or are they just secretly evil and love getting paid for it? What do you think?
I don’t think they’re secretly evil and love getting paid for it. I think at first it was ignorance and denial. I think Mark himself, I’ve spoken to him, you’ve spoken to him over the last year and a half, he does seem to have gone through some kind of evolution about what he thinks the power of his platform is, and is trying to do stuff about it. It’s like the old George Bush Senior message, “I care.”
Right. I remember that.
He does seem to care, and he wants to tell people that he cares. He puts out these blog posts often saying that he cares, but I still don’t think that he appreciates the power of his platform. The other thing is the executives around him still seem very determined that Facebook, the role that Facebook played in the election was smaller than everyone says, that they’re under siege from the media.
I do think some of the Russian influence storyline has been over-hyped. I don’t think that it’s true that the Russians using Facebook alone affected the outcome of the election, but Facebook is such a huge source of news that it seems unquestionable to me that they played a part in changing the entire news ecosystem that made it both easier for propaganda to work and scrambled how politics is done in a way that nobody could predict what happened.
The election was determined by fewer than 100,000 votes in a few places. It’s plausible that something happened that was either sort of foreign actors, or just propaganda, or a very good Trump campaign thing that Facebook was involved in.
Right, but I feel like that they didn’t have control of their platform or know how it was being used.
Malevolent people ... They built a platform that malevolent people could misuse very easily.
Right. A lot of the stories that we’ve seen from Facebook, YouTube, is mostly a story of unintended consequences. You build a huge system that lots of people use ...
I’m going to push back on that, because when they did Facebook Live — and we’re going to get onto Google and YouTube in a second and Twitter, and we’ll talk about Apple and the others very briefly — but when Facebook started Facebook Live, they showed journalists the product. I was in a meeting with some of them, and pretty high up at Facebook, and I was looking at it and I said, “So, what are you going to do about when someone murders someone?”
That was my first thing. They said, “What?” I said, “Yeah, and suicide. Someone’s going to kill themselves on this, or someone’s going to bully and beat someone. What are your tools?” They’re like, “Kara, you’re so negative.” They’re like, “This is a beautiful platform for Chewbacca Mom,” or whatever. I don’t know. I was like, “Don’t you even think ...” What was fascinating to me was that it never even ... They even had to say, “It never occurred to us that human beings would do bad things.” I was like, “Have you not met a human being?”
No, so when I say unintended consequences, I mean sort of blindly. Facebook especially has done this. Throughout their history, they sort of put things out, and then months later realized that something bad has happened, or people don’t like it, and then there’s the Mark Zuckerberg apology post.
But it’s not to say ... Apology post. It’s such a good apology post he always does. It’s not as if it’s like a ... See, the thing is, it’s not a product that if you buy it and your fingers fall off, you know what I mean? Then there’s lawsuits, but your fingers fall off. Democracy dies. It’s not something you see, or people get worse with each other. There are consequences that maybe aren’t physical, but they’re to the society.
We’re going to take a quick break now for a word from our sponsors. We’ll be back in a minute with the New York Times tech columnist, Farhad Manjoo.
Let’s move to Twitter. Same thing, you didn’t include them in your Frightful Five, but when you think about a company like Twitter, they allow bullying, sexism, all kinds of attacks, trolling all over the place. It’s being used by President Trump in a really unusual way.
Yeah, they’re not in my ...
I’m being nice, because I know you said you like Trump. I heard you like Trump, but he’s using it, right? He’s using Twitter in a certain way. He’s taking control of the message, and he’s messaging people directly, which is incredibly powerful. Frankly, I think he’s the best tweeter, one of the best tweeters. I don’t like what he tweets, but he’s real good at it. He’s used it properly, as far as I can tell. Him and Kim Kardashian are the best tweeters.
I think she’s great.
I think Twitter is way smaller than Facebook. I think it is the worst social network. I use it all the time. You can’t not use it if you’re in our business. That’s why it’s the worst social network. It has this influence that most of the public doesn’t understand, and the influence is, it’s like the place where cable news is formed. It’s the place where all the narratives that you hear on CNN and Fox @ Night are formed. Like every dumb hot take, or troll-y thing, or just all of the talking points are formed and are disseminated.
It’s the place where people who want to take over the media narrative, change the media narrative. It’s where the alt right really got a lot of its power ...
... by talking to journalists, trolling journalists there, and changing the media narrative in a real way. That’s why all of the talk about bots has been important, because on Twitter, you don’t really know who’s real and who isn’t. They have a completely different policy from Facebook, in terms of determining ...
Who’s a real person.
Yeah. Because of those policies, and also because they’ve been completely negligent in a way that Facebook seems to, even if it’s reactive, they do put people behind their platform and try to fix things when people call them on it. Twitter, the Senate called them, and they just didn’t respond.
They didn’t provide documentation to a Senate committee. They have been called on ...
Well, they were busy.
Yeah. They’ve been called on harassment, trolling, all the anti-Semitic stuff that you find on there. You can report terrible stuff that happens on Twitter, and they will either take it down late or not take it down at all. Instead of the Mark Zuckerberg apology posts, you get the Jack Dorsey “We’re trying” tweetstorm that then never materializes into actual policy.
Right, so what happens to a platform like that when it’s like that? Twitter to me is a cesspool. I just don’t know how else to put it. I think when Facebook is not monitoring a lot of stuff, it’s like a suburb where all of a sudden you have a lot of glass on the ground. It’s starting to get a little messy kind of stuff. How does that affect news then?
You and I rely on Twitter. We get a lot of our traffic from Twitter. I’ll tell you, it’s one of our biggest ... We don’t rely on Facebook as much as others. We rely on Twitter. What happens then from news organizations having to deal with Twitter?
You get a lot of misinformation out there. One of the things that ... After the school shooting two weeks ago, there was just so much completely false conspiracy theories being peddled that then sort of gained wider audience, because people on Twitter sort of ... Because people were talking about it on Twitter, that then leaks out into blogs and other places or on cable news. There were lots of either Russian or otherwise bots pushing stories. You get the kind of news ecosystem that we see now, which is just a mess for any normal person ...
Which is insane.
... to kind of figure out what’s true and what isn’t.
And professionals too. I’m a good friend of Maggie Haberman’s at the New York Times. She was responding to one of her critics. She gets a lot of critics on Twitter. She’s responding, and I texted her. I’m like, “Maggie, that’s a Russian bot. Stop. Stop talking to the bot. Stop arguing with the bot.” She was arguing with a bot and she didn’t even know it. I was thinking, “This is taking up precious time. She should be reporting.”
But it was an interesting ...
But if you’re Maggie, you can’t not be on Twitter. You sort of have to be. It’s become ... Part of being a journalist is to report news and then also sort of watch the story of how your reporting is evolving on Twitter, because you want to make sure that people aren’t distorting what you say. You have two jobs. You have to report, and then follow the fighting about your story on Twitter.
Is that fair as a reporter to have to do that?
It takes up your time. It also becomes a job where you have to sort fact from fiction constantly throughout your day.
Right. Is that a good thing?
I don’t think it’s a good thing.
It’s just a thing.
It’s just a thing you have to do.
You have to do. It feels like a communicable disease or something.
What to do about it? What would one do about it? What would you imagine would happen? It can’t go on forever, or could it?
What do you imagine it morphing into?
I think that for Twitter specifically ...
Well, you know the government’s not going to shut it down, because Donald Trump loves it, but go ahead. What do you imagine happening?
I can’t think of a good fix for Twitter. You can think of ways for Facebook to fix its problem. Facebook could not easily, but Facebook could hire a lot of journalists. Facebook could whitelist news sites, could figure out ways to make ... Or just sort of what they’ve done recently, which is remove a lot of news from the News Feed.
Twitter has kind of gone the other way, which is they’re deeper into news than before. While Facebook and Snapchat and others have kind of decided we’re going to separate news from how people are talking about news, Twitter is just kind of very integrated into it. I don’t know. I can’t think of how you remove the journalism business from Twitter, because now it’s become part of how newsrooms work.
Let’s move on to Google and YouTube, which I think are two separate things. Google has sort of remained the same as a search engine. Tends to do a pretty good job about surfacing stuff. They clean out the algorithm to surface better news and stuff like that, or do you not think that? Or do you think ...
They do an okay job. I think they also have been ... One of the things that’s happened is that people have figured out how to game every platform. People have figured out how to game Google News, which then rises up to the top of Google search results. Google News used to, and I think they still do, they have a pretty good policy of deciding what’s news and what isn’t, but part of Google News is Info Wars, is conspiracy sites now. Sometimes, especially after big things happen, it’s possible for bad actors to put out misinformation that then rises to the top of Google.
Google says that that’s kind of over-hyped, because people aren’t searching for the name of the guy who did the bad thing. It’s not like a high-traffic search, which I kind of believe. I don’t think it’s the hugest problem, but I do think that it’s one of the problems.
But much ...
I think YouTube is ...
Yeah, YouTube is ... YouTube’s a mess. I just had Susan onstage talking about this.
I think YouTube is amazing. I think YouTube could be a force for good in the world. One of the things I like to do is I try various kinds of hobbies. I was doing pottery recently, and you can just learn how to do pottery on YouTube.
You can learn anything on YouTube. If you want to be a cook, you can learn how to be a better cook on YouTube. It could be great, and I think that for many people, it’s amazing, but it’s huge. It’s so big that it seems difficult to police, and it’s video. You can’t police it in the same way that Facebook can look at status updates or something.
Right, right. What’s interesting with YouTube, years ago when Chad and Steve and the other founder was at one of our events, I also had George Lucas there, and they were huge Lucas fans, and they wanted to meet him. He came in late, he walked in the door, and I said, “George, this is the founders of YouTube.” He turned to them and he said, “You’re ruining all of media. I just want to say that. It’s like throwing puppies on a highway is what you do.” I was like, “Okay.” They of course, they were thrilled. They’re like, “Great to meet you.”
”We love you anyway.”
I was like, “I think he just told you you’re assholes.” I think his point was right today. Some of it is like throwing puppies or whatever crazy things you do. Here we are at Logan Paul. Does everyone know who Logan Paul is? You should be glad you don’t know who ...
He was a Vine star at first, right?
Then he became a huge YouTube star. I think the phenomenon of YouTube stars is interesting, because they’re huge. They inspire so much love.
Yeah, but the kind of connection that ... My kids are fans of other kids who are YouTube stars, and these kids on YouTube mostly just open toys and play with them and get paid by toy companies. My kids are watching like basically a long commercial, but they love these YouTube stars so much to the point that when ... I don’t know, I think they’re like the Beatles for my kids. That kind of devotion ...
There is an enormous fan base. Logan Paul is a YouTuber who YouTube has tried to tame, but has not been successful in it. He does a lot of wacky things, mostly tasteless crap, but what he did is he went into a place where Japanese teenagers hang themselves, a forest, and took a video of a dead body and thought it was funny.
And then kind of made jokes about it, yeah.
Made jokes about a dead child standing there. It took them a bit to throw them off, but they finally threw them off the platform. I just recently interviewed Susan at our Code Media conference, and I said, “When are you going to get the vile Logan Paul off of the thing?” We had a really interesting discussion about what they are and whether they should ... Again, the same argument, are they just a platform? “We’re a platform who happens to have media,” I think that’s what Susan ended up saying. Or are they more than that? Should they do more?
One of the things she announced recently was adding 10,000 human beings to the mix to vet stuff. I feel like 10 million aren’t enough, because of the enormous load of videos that come onto that platform from across the world. I think it’s four trillion. It’s some number that’s just astonishing. Again, you have videos of things, pottery or whatever your kids like, you have news, you have all kinds of things, but it’s being flooded by hate speech.
Again, the alt right, once again, has invaded it really beautifully, using the platforms beautifully. I just was at a conference where I interviewed the head of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, and I pulled up the YouTube videos, and the Google search for ADL will find the regular things, ADL, home site for ADL, here’s some news stories. It was all what you’d expect, what you’d know if you were searching, the correct stuff came up. When you searched on YouTube, there were 25 anti-Semitic videos before you got to a video that was somewhat related to the ADL. Then 100 more anti-Semitic videos, which was astonishing.
I said, “Susan, I know it’s crazy, but there’s this search company that’s really famous that owns you. I’m really not getting what’s going on on this platform.” She took it in good humor, but she understood the thing of it. One of the things, this was at an event at YouTube I was at, and one of the employees said, “You’re right. We used to only worry about cat videos. Now we’re in a college ethical debate every day of our lives. What should we take off? What should we put on? What should we censor?” They’re very low with the censoring. Do you think it’s censoring to say, “We have values, and you’re violating them, and we’re going to toss you off?”
I think that that seems sort of in line with don’t be evil. You should have values and stop the kinds of things that are obviously ...
So why aren’t they doing it? Because I think they live in a perpetual state of teenagerhood or something where they don’t want to be adults about it.
I think that YouTube, like Facebook, now seems to want to do something and now it’s sort of deciding a technical matter and a business model matter. I don’t know if they’ll solve it. The other thing is that this problem for YouTube is going to get much harder, because one of the things that’s happening is it’s much easier, it’s becoming much easier to create fake videos that look like real news. You can create now, using very easy technology, videos of Barack Obama saying things that he didn’t say or Donald Trump saying things that he didn’t say.
We’re entering this period where technology is going to make the fake-versus-real problem very difficult for normal human beings to figure out. Then video has such power that people are going to see this stuff and believe it. A company like YouTube is going to have to figure out how to ...
So what do they do? What do they do? They have the AI is the thing they always throw at you. “AI’s going to fix it,” or, “We’ve got algorithms that are going to work it out,” or something like that. What do you imagine fixing it? Because one of the ... I had this argument. I interviewed Hillary Clinton last year at Code, and she didn’t know about this. There was a story on Facebook. It was a fake story. It was a fake news story in which discussed her being a lizard, that she was actually a lizard, and under her skin, she was a lizard. It was not factually correct.
I kept writing Facebook like, “Why can’t you take this down? She’s not a lizard!” They’re like, “Well, you know ...” I was like, “Not a lizard. Take it down. Why isn’t that going ...” “Well, people posted it.” I’m like, “They can’t post that she’s a lizard. You can’t let them do that.” It wasn’t a joke. It was a fake. It was an absolutely beautiful fake news story. It had millions of views, which was fascinating to me. I’m sitting here like a crazy person saying, “Hillary Clinton’s not a lizard.” It’s crazy-making to me. Then obviously the Russians did it. This agency in St. Petersburg was super adept at it.
But it’s complicated, right? One of the things we talk about is how powerful these companies are. The solutions to these problems often involve kind of giving them more power, giving them the power to decide the kinds of speech that’s allowed could in the long run be more dangerous. I don’t know if I want Mark Zuckerberg to decide what the Times is allowed to say on Facebook. I think that there needs to be some responsibility and perhaps a lot more responsibility from these companies, but at the same time, asking them to exercise that responsibility is asking them to exercise a greater degree of power.
So who does it? Is it government? How can you ... Because they’ll only get more powerful, presumably.
In other countries, in Europe, it seems like it will be government. One of the things you’re seeing in Europe is European regulators are even more concerned, because it’s not just big tech companies, but it’s big American tech companies that are determining business and culture and news, and kind of everything else over there. You see a lot more activist regulators.
Right. There, it could be government. Here, it seems like the First Amendment won’t allow that, various laws that we have about technology won’t allow that.
Who does here? Who controls them? I don’t think the government is going to intervene at all. I had a huge argument with President Obama in an interview saying the government needs to step in. They never stepped in with Google. They never stepped in.
No, the tech companies got huge under the Obama administration and were given very, very good access to the White House.
Very light, very light. Very good access to the White House and very light regulation.
We’re going to take another break for a word from our sponsors. We’ll be back with Farhad Manjoo, tech columnist for the New York Times, after this.
All right, I want to finish up, and then we have questions from the audience. We have a few minutes for questions from the audience.
Amazon and Apple, how do you look at them as? Do they need taming? Apple seems like a bunch of adults. I always enjoy going over there because it’s ...
Apple, a bunch of adults. They mostly think about the consequences of their products, and they’re not in any way a monopoly. They charge a lot for their products. Even in the U.S., the share of the iPhone is like 150 percent. You don’t see them ... They’re huge, and they’re the most valuable company on the planet, but they seem to run the company in a different way.
Because they don’t rely on advertising or the slot machine of attention, which is what the others all ... That’s what it is.
Right. The advertising business is one of the incentives that kind of changes how companies operate. That’s why Google and Facebook are different from Amazon and Apple.
Because their businesses are predicated on addiction and usage and constant stimulation.
Yeah. Amazon is going through, I think, an interesting transition, like a public image transition. A few years ago, I think Amazon was regarded as kind of like going to be something like the digital Walmart. People who used it loved it, but a lot of people in America thought that it was going to devastate retail and ruin a lot of people’s jobs. I think people still worry about that, but they’ve been masterful about their PR recently.
The headquarters thing, the announcement that they’re going to do something on health care. Nobody knows what, but everyone was overjoyed about the idea that Amazon would fix health care.
They’re really good at delivering my books, but go ahead. Anyways.
Yeah, I think that they seem to be ... Jeff Bezos himself is doing things like saving a journalistic institution that needed saving, and is doing it in a way that is inspiring. I think they’re seen now as a perhaps not totalitarian force for evil and getting more interested in ...
But which of the Frightful Five do you think is most frightful then? I think Amazon is.
I think Amazon could ... I think you could see a future where Amazon is that Microsoft-type company that owns everything. The way that Amazon operates, its business structure is to spider out into lots of different ... Create products, and then offer them to everyone, become this platform. You can imagine all of us at some point paying some kind of Amazon tax on every product we buy, every shipment we get, every food order you get could be part of Amazon, but perhaps not in an evil way.
Well, not today. Not today.
One of the things I’ll never forget, I wrote a piece when Google was trying to take Yahoo’s search business, which would have meant they had all search, almost all search at the time, but it’s pre Bing. I wrote a column saying I don’t want them to do this. The government needs to step in. The Google people are like, “We’re good people,” that story you hear from all of them. I think I wrote a line that said, “At least Microsoft knew they were thugs,” which they didn’t like, which Larry didn’t like, and he called me and said, “I’m not a thug.” I said, “Well, you’re not.” He goes, “Why do you think bad things?” I said, “Well, you seem okay, but I don’t know who’s going to run Google in 20 years. I don’t know who that person ... It could be a terrible person.”
I think a lot of these companies with so much power over Amazon, over our commerce, over our interactions, I give much of my salary to Amazon at this point. I feel like I do.
Me too. Amazon and Disney. Those are ...
In ending up, and we’ll get to questions from the audience, do you think they do now see the tide turning as in the effect on jobs of AI? We didn’t even get into self-driving. Self-driving, AI, robotics. I saw an Amazon warehouse that terrified me and fascinated me at the same time.
Because nobody worked there?
No need for them. You know what I mean? No need. They’re right. They’re correct. Why should I have someone do something that a robot can do? Except for just having the people, just because they’re quaint or something like that. Robotics, automation, AI, self-driving, there’s going to be job loss because of all these technologies coming. Problem?
Yeah, that is the big worry with Amazon. You can think of them as an infrastructure company that’s remaking most of commerce in America, either directly or by inspiring competitors to do things like that. It’s going to have vast consequences for ...
Not just Amazon, but all of them together, as you say, really are going to determine jobs. They’re going to determine everything.
Right, jobs, the news environment, politics. One thing that’s super interesting to me is we talked about how the government is not — at least the current government — is not going to stop them. I do think it’s interesting that these tech companies have mostly given, sort of aligned themselves with Democrats. I wonder, there’s becoming this sort of ...
... a schism, I think, in the Democratic party. Are Democrats going to fight the tech companies? On the other hand, there are some who get a lot of money from Democrats.
No. I know, but I think Democrats are going to come for tech companies if they are turned off. I do. Cory Booker, we’ve done some interviews, is quite amazing.
Yeah. I think it’ll be interesting in the next Democratic primary. Do we see a big anti-tech push? Does that affect ... It will affect how much money they get from tech, but tech’s political power, it’ll be different under the next Democratic president than it was under the last Democratic president.
All right, so questions from the audience? Right here?
Questioner #1: Do you think that Google and Amazon should be broken up?
Do you think that Google and Amazon should be broken up?
I think there’s a good argument for that for Google, but I’m not an antitrust lawyer. The case for breaking up the tech companies is best against Google for reasons that ... For Google search, there was kind of a long-running question of are they suppressing other companies that are providing information on the web.
Yelp was the classic example, right? Yelp is a restaurant review site and complained to the FTC that its reviews were being downgraded, given lower impact in Google search because Google had its own product. Sort of systematically, if you look at Google search results, they favor Google’s own products. That you could say is classic what happened in the Microsoft case.
Google and Facebook are the biggest digital ad companies. They’re on their way to becoming the biggest ad companies of any kind. Google is the biggest search engine. There’s a lot of kind of clear ...
The ad market is particularly just ...
Yeah. Amazon, the case is much harder to make. They’re not the biggest retailer. They’re not even the biggest digital retailer. They’re the biggest digital retailer, but they’re not the majority of digital retail at this point. At some point they will be very soon, but they’re under 50 percent of that. I think that with Amazon, people worry about their just crazy growth, and that at some point, they will be, and so you should be worried in the future, and also their ... kind of the obvious scope of their ambitions. They’re going to be in physical retail, digital retail, and all ...
Yeah, the entire chain of retail.
They’re going to take over the post office.
There’s this re-examination now of antitrust law and whether it can be changed, and how people should think about antitrust with regard to the tech companies, because they don’t fit.
A lot of them don’t fit the kind of classic model that we thought of with AT&T and even Microsoft.
What’s happening in Europe is what you should watch. Margrethe Vestager, we did a couple really good interviews with her, she’s been really on them in a way that no U.S. regulator has done. The U.S. regulators have passed and passed and passed again. The FTC, the FCC, all of them.
Yeah, and Trump, when he was campaigning ...
Was quite anti-tech.
Right, he was saying often he was going to go after Amazon. He was going to shut down various tech companies, but has not done any of that. The people he’s appointed to the FTC aren’t likely to do that.
No. I don’t think he’s going to follow through. Next question over here.
Questioner #2: I got very concerned. A lot of things you’re saying is anti-press, anti-free press, because it’s saying control. China is controlling everything and their people. Europe wants to control certain kinds of media. I think what you need to do, maybe if you create a rating system or ranking system, something you can inform at the bottom, but taking away my chance to see that video that I want to see now because the Japanese thing, because it was such a controversy.
Yeah, that’s an argument for it. My argument against it is that this is their platform. This is not what they stand for. You can get that video other places on the internet, by the way. It’s all over the place. It’s just they want it as an example of their platform, of their business.
Right. I also think that part of it is not just that it’s on their platform, but the question of whether they’re encouraging it. Logan Paul posted that video, because there’s a monetary system in place for him to make money from that video. I think that’s the question. A lot of the fake news also before the election was like people who created entire sites that seemed like news sites, but weren’t, but were getting ad money from it, like Google AdWords money from it or Facebook money from it. It was just kind of a monetary thing. That kind of system, that sort of encourages misinformation and other sort of bad stuff that might not have been there if the kind of platforms hadn’t been there.
Also, even though you pretend we don’t censor things, we censor radio, we censor television. There’s certain things that can’t be on television. There’s-
Questioner #2: We censor those two medias because they’re accessible to everybody in a public sense. If you’re turning something on, you can’t control it. You can go through and listen to something, and you get an offensive word, that is a large audience, whereas if you go on the internet, you’re actually searching for something and trying to find. You can create filters for that. What also differentiates ...
From the audience: Videos auto-play on Facebook.
Videos auto-play, they do. They do do that.
Questioner #2: What differentiates your video of Hillary Clinton and the lizard and a “Saturday Night Live” parody?
No, this was meant to be a real article. It wasn’t meant to be a parody. It was like a fake news organization. What it is is that my argument to them is that it’s bad for their business to have this crap on there. It’s like a cesspool. I don’t think it’s good. It’s like having a store, like a Target, and over here is the adult porn section. Target doesn’t have an adult porn section. It’s just not their business. I think the problem is that they have so much control. They’re the only game in town, really. YouTube is really the only game in town, in terms of video right now.
Questioner #2: Right.
Is there anything else?
If you want to make video, you would have to put it on YouTube.
I think the other thing is it’s hard to call it censorship when their entire systems are already kind of ranking content and are based on algorithms that give you preferential content. Facebook doesn’t show you everything from all your friends. It shows you what it thinks you’re going to like.
One of the arguments for Facebook to kind of clean up its platform is to change its algorithm to show you things you’re going to like that are true. If it already is making some judgements about what you like, and ...
It is making judgements. Now their new thing is to have the people of Facebook decide what are the real news organizations.
Which seems crazy. They cannot just pick. Come on. Pick a New York Times, pick a Breitbart, pick a this. You could pick. They don’t want to even pick, so they’re going to let the people pick, which seems ...
Questioner #2: What about just labeling fiction or nonfiction?
Okay, I’m going to with someone else who has ... They tried that. They tried that. They had labels on it. It didn’t work. You can’t keep up.
Yeah, they tried ...
The amount is so big that you don’t even understand how enormous the loading of information onto these platforms are. The computers can’t handle it. People certainly can’t handle it. It’s just a monster that grows every day. Another question over here?
Questioner #3: First of all, thank you so much for being here.
Questioner #3: The media as sort of writ large since the election has followed Kara’s lead and started criticizing the tech companies. I’m wondering whether you think the media has been a leader in this area, driving public opinion, or whether it’s been a follower sort of reflecting an undercurrent that’s been there for a while, and that we’re just sort of now seeing reflected in things like opinion polls?
I think the media has been ... I don’t think there’s wide public discontent with the tech companies. You look at surveys. You look at how much people are still using Facebook and the others. I think people generally love these companies, generally keep using them, weren’t ... Maybe people were ... The one thing that’s interesting is lately there’s been talk of tech addiction and people worry about their kids using it. I think there is genuine worry about that.
I think there’s genuine feeling about that.
But in other ways, a lot of Americans still sort of see these companies as being ... are proud of these companies, I think.
Except I think the stuff coming, they’re not going to be so proud. This automation, AI, automation, self-driving, when those things start to really kick in, the tech companies are not going to be beloved. The people who bring ... Self-driving cars eliminate all these driver jobs. Automation eliminates all these warehouse jobs. Mining is done by robots. You’re going to start to ... By the way, mining probably should be done by robots, because people die of black lung and everything, you know what I mean?
My feeling is that ... We’re doing a series on MSNBC about this, talking at tech companies about it, because I think there’s some technologies coming that are disturbing to jobs. I think it’s very much like the farming to manufacturing shift, except it’s going to happen in a compressed time period, and there’s so much social unrest during that farming to ...
The problem with Americans is we’re so freaking ignorant of our history. We’ve been through this farming to manufacturing, and the reason I got the idea for it is Marc Andreessen acted like it was no big. He’s like, “It’s like farming to manufacturing. It was so much better with manufacturing.” I was like, “No, it really wasn’t for those 70 years. All these people lost their jobs.” I said, “What happened to the blacksmiths?” He goes, “Who cares what happened to the blacksmiths?” I go, “Well, the blacksmiths had a family, and they vote now.” I was like, “There’s populism, there’s dangerous populism. There’s all kinds of things you have to think about.”
I do think people will begin to care when they start to see real job ... When an accountant ... I’ll get to yours in a second. Let me just tell you, if your son’s a radiologist, don’t let him be a radiologist. You’re not going to need him with computers. Accountants, lawyers, high-paying jobs are going to be moved. I’m not a luddite. I love technology, but anything that can be digitized into a job is going to be digitized, period. You’re going to see it happen really quickly in ways that I think you’re not going to be ...
The thing you should have your kids do and I want my kids to do is just become AI scientists.
AI scientists or have a job that’s creative. Creative, or some health delivery. This, right here?
Questioner #4: Thank you. You talked a lot about how big corporations are able to really take down startups and defeat them, but do you see the rise in startups combating this disinformation, like Verrit, which is the Hillary Clinton-endorsed social media platform? Do you see those as solutions for this disinformation, or will it come from big companies instead?
Facebook’s got to fix it.
Yeah, it’s hard to see how a company or a force outside of the tech companies can solve that. The companies that kind of run the platforms have to do it.
Yeah, Facebook and Twitter, there’s nobody over there at Twitter, so I don’t know if it’s ever getting fixed. Really, you just are like ... That company, sort of, we’re like, there’s nobody there.
They seem over their heads.
They seem over their heads. They’re overwhelmed by this situation. Right here?
Questioner #5: If you had a Democratic president or a Democratic Congress and all this, what do you think actually could be done by government?
I don’t know, because I think they’re incompetent as can be. I just don’t want the ... We are leading in innovation. We have the most innovative companies in this country, technology companies. They’re all here. But guess what? China is moving fast and moving hard like a lot of those companies. I don’t know, I think they just voted in a guy for his life just the other day. Not the kind of government I’m interested in.
I think that’s one of the issues is if China starts getting ahold of this and they are doing real well, and they’re not copying us, they’re innovating, that’s a problem. I’ve always found it a problem that our phones are made there. I don’t think that’s a particularly good thing for us.
I don’t know what you can do to stop these companies from growing and becoming more powerful, but I will say, one of the reasons that Google is a leader in AI is because the American government is not a leader in AI. The American government has sort of stopped funding the kinds of things that became the internet.
That was created by the government. That was funded by ... The kinds of things that China is doing with AI, where you have huge public money going to start technology, and then you don’t have it owned by one or two or three or four companies. We don’t really have that anymore. The reason that Amazon is building national infrastructure is because no one else is.
It helps their business. Elon Musk has been the critic of AI. We had him at Code a couple years ago, and he was attacking Google and Facebook, because they really do control all of AI, let me just say. You don’t understand. It’s, by the way, all white guys doing it. Just clear, so crap in, crap out. But you’re going to get the same thing. No insult, but that’s the way it goes. Same thing with cryptocurrency, by the way. That’s a whole other week of lectures.
What you have is you’ve got a situation where the government intervening, and that these companies really have the power. Elon was talking about it quite ... He’s sometimes a little kooky on a couple of things, but he’s 100 percent correct that these companies can not ... He has a thing called open AI they’re trying to get it so it’s open for everyone, and so it was developed for everyone. I think his worries are ... You can debate them or not, because he also thinks we live in a simulation, and that none of this is real, which would be so great.
He feels that AI will advance so much that it will start ... It’s not going to be like in “Terminator” where they’re going to kill us, but we’re going to be like house cats. He said the computers will treat us like house cats, and that’s how they ... They don’t care. They’ll feed us maybe. Maybe they won’t. Anyway ...
Right, it’s worrying that this kind of technology with that kind of potential power is owned by for-profit companies.
Two. Two of them. Three, maybe Amazon.
Yeah, and a small number of them. Yeah.
Yeah, maybe Amazon. Well no, Microsoft’s not that far ahead in this. Okay, very last question. Okay, right there. Right there. Sorry.
Questioner #6: I have a question. Why do you guys think these big tech companies are so bad at foreseeing the negative consequences of their platforms? Like you were saying, you saw Facebook Live ...
I can tell you why.
Questioner #6: You immediately saw it. Is it a diversity problem? Is it a moving-too-fast problem?
Well, that’s one thing.
Questioner #6: What is it?
All right, I’m going to answer mine, and then he’ll answer his, and then we’ll finish. Let me go to the MeToo stories that were written recently. I’ll use that as an example. Do you think it’s any coincidence that the two big MeToo stories this year from the New York Times and Ronan Farrow written by all women and a gay man? You know why? Because they know about discrimination. They know about these things, you know what I mean? They saw it when nobody ... Everybody knew Harvey Weinstein was an asshole. No one wrote about it until ... You know what I mean? It was fascinating to me that it took people who had empathetic ... There was a link there. They would pretend it’s not there, but it was, because they saw it differently.
I think lack of diversity is one thing, is that they don’t have enough in the rooms. I think there’s not enough irritants in those companies. One of the things I argued with a Facebook executive recently, I asked him, I said, “Are there enough irritating people working for you? Because it seems like you all agree with each other. You need irritants in there saying, ‘What?’ Like, ‘What? What did you just say, Mark? Come on.’” They’re aggressively agreeing with each other, and there’s such a cohesive group of people. It’s a problem when they have this much power. I don’t mean to say they’re evil at their heart, but they just can’t see outside their little group thing. I think lack of diversity is at the heart of it, really. Lack of diversity is always at the heart of these kind of things.
Then lastly, they have a personality, which is a great personality trait, which is optimism and opportunity. They see opportunity and optimism all the time, and they don’t see the obstacles. It makes them great, and that’s what’s going to kill them, I think. You go ahead and finish.
Yeah, no. I agree with everything you said. I can’t add a lot, but the kind of person who decides in college that they’re going to start a thing that’s going to change the world, and then actually manages to start a thing that changes the world, has a particular worldview. Obviously has that kind of worldview, an optimistic worldview. Everything that’s happened sort of confirms that worldview. You come to a point where you release a new product, and optimism is the lens through which you view that.
Yeah, and so I’m a really irritable and negative person, so I’m good in that way, but they don’t have a lot of that. I like that about them, and I really want to slap them hard.
I agree. I like that about them. It’s like ...
I just want to slap them.
It’s one of the fun things about this industry, but it’s also one of the irritating things about the industry when they don’t notice sort of obvious things that could happen.
Yeah. I’ll finish on this story. I was at Google, and they had those bicycles that are now in all the cities, the colorful bicycles. Sergey was the one that was really pushing them. Years ago he said, “I’m going to drop 100,000 bikes in New York City, and this many will get stolen.” He had the whole calculation worked out, like 82 percent will get stolen. “Then I’ll buy another 100,000.” They put the bikes around Google to try those colorful bikes around Mountain View.
He’s like, “What do you think of our bikes?” I said, “All I want to do is take my car and run them down. I hate them. I hate the whole bike idea.” He was like, “What?” Like horrified. I’m like, “It’s so optimistically horrible, what you’re doing.” He just looked at me like I was like a serial killer. But in any case, it’s an attitude. It’s a mental attitude. I would never have created Google, let me just say.
Anyway, Farhad, thank you very much.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.