From left: New York Times journalists Farhad Manjoo, Nellie Bowles, Sheera Frenkel and Katie Benner discuss big tech at UCLA on Nov. 13. (Photo: Adam Amengual for the New York Times)
The ubiquity of social media and its weaponization during the 2016 presidential election have caused wrenching changes in the perception of the platforms, according to four New York Times journalists who participated in a forum at UCLA on Nov. 13.
More than 200 people attended “Big Tech in Our Lives: Elections, Markets, Culture, Cities” at the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center. The event featured technology writers Katie Benner, Nellie Bowles, Sheera Frenkel and Farhad Manjoo.
They said that companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google — once lauded as vehicles of cultural connection and positive social change — are increasingly seen as malign or flawed forces.
Much of the shift, panelists said, was driven by the 2016 election and subsequent evidence that Silicon Valley is not immune from challenges including workplace harassment, data breaches and other intrusions on personal privacy. With Russia using social media to attempt to influence the election, and with President Donald Trump’s prominent and controversial use of Twitter, even people within the industry have begun to question the impact of their work.
Frenkel, who covers cybersecurity, reported that some tech industry workers are going to great pains to keep their children off of social media. Other panelists compared the desire to be on one’s phone all the time to addiction to television, sugary foods or narcotics.
Bowles said that “if TV is sugar, then [social media] is crack.”
Though the 2018 midterms seem to have gone off with less foreign interference than the 2016 presidential election, actors now seek to influence political opinion by identifying legitimate American activists and driving them to support certain messages and themes.
For example, Benner said that Saudi Arabia and others are adept at tapping the vast amounts of data made available by the millions of users of Facebook and Twitter “to game our personal psychology as individuals and Americans.”
Panelists added that Silicon Valley has become steeped in politics in recent years.
Benner recalled a high-level 2013 gathering in Silicon Valley during which tech leaders and venture capitalists she spoke to were unaware that a government shutdown was taking place at that moment. In contrast, Manjoo noted that today tech giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook are among the most influential and active companies lobbying in Washington, D.C.
Frenkel emphasized that despite public demands that social media companies be socially responsible, they are corporate giants like any other, driven by growth and profits. Why, she asked, put these companies to a moral or political test when we don’t do that with, say, oil companies?
“Because they are not as interwoven into our lives,” answered Manjoo, who pens a regular column on technology. “They don’t have our baby pictures, or the voices of our friends.”
Jennifer Steinhauer, the New York Times’ editor of live journalism, offered opening remarks, as did UCLA School of Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin, who played a key role in bringing two Times events to UCLA this year. Just before the panel discussion, Manjoo led a separate Facebook Live interview with Kristen Eichensehr, an expert in cybersecurity and an assistant professor at UCLA Law.