Tim Cook said this past week at a privacy conference that he, and Apple, are “in full support of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States.” I’d like to take a look at one point in his argument.
In support of this position, he stated:
Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies," said Cook. “Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy.
Specifically I am interested in the assertion that governments have done the things that he’s claiming. It’s obvious that they tried; we are aware of the Internet Research Agency in Moscow. What they did was to organize & promote rallies, create memes, and post on Twitter. None of these things would be considered unacceptable if they were done by American political groups. When these actions are considered criminal activity, we are in danger of setting up a situation in which we ask the government to step in to regulate what are clearly speech acts. Free speech is the cornerstone of liberal society; if you can’t talk, you can’t make change. Sometimes you won’t like what’s said. This is an expected part of living in such a society. The narrative in which the Internet Research Agency did something criminal is incompatible with this.
I also disagree with the idea that the source of an argument matters. It may help to figure out their motivations & their biases, but an argument should stand on its own. If it’s unsound, this will be borne out regardless of if it was said by an American or a Russian. A set of (terrible) memes is a weak argument no matter who does the posting; were it an American who had created them we’d just consider them bad at argument (and bad at making memes), not an enemy combatant in an information war. An argument should stand on its own and these don’t. And if they did, that would just show that they were right, not that they were evil.
There’s another implication here that we citizens aren’t quite smart enough not to be swayed by such lame attempts at persuasion. This is where the real risk of division comes in. It’s too easy to assume that our side is enlightened and found the truth. It feels charitable to say the other side is just misled, or uninformed, or not quite as smart; we’ll just have to step in and show them the way. The dirty truth is that we’re all pretty dang similar. We’re all humans and our intelligence levels fall along a predictable distribution, and the gap from the bottom to the top (ignoring outliers) is not so large. Let’s resist the temptation to dumb down the other side. They’re people. They’re complex. They’ve developed their opinions over time the same as we have, and they’ve got reasons for thinking what they do.
We’ve got to treat each other as human beings. That’s how you stop the division we’re experiencing today.