Tech Ethicist Tristan Harris Talks Council For Responsible Social Media, TikTok, Twitter, and More
Harris is part of a bipartisan group that is aiming to reform social media for good.
The Council For Responsible Social Media
Tristan Harris, the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, understands why many people view TikTok as a harmless app with jokes and dances. Harris, however, sees the Chinese-owned platform as a national security risk.
“During the Cold War, would you have allowed the Soviet Union to control television programming for the entire western world, including Saturday morning cartoons, the ‘Teletubbies’ and ‘Sesame Street?’” he said during an interview with Rogue Rocket.
That’s what he argues is happening with TikTok. The app, which is the most downloaded in the world, is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech company with ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Harris says we are “effectively outsourcing our media environment to, in the case of the United States, the number one geopolitical competitor.”
National security issues with TikTok, the extreme polarization caused by Facebook and Twitter, and a slew of other issues are among the reasons Harris and several other bipartisan leaders formed The Council For Responsible Social Media last month.
Co-Chaired by former congressman Dick Gephardt and former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts Kerry Healey, the group was made in partnership with the nonprofit IssueOne. Other members include Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, former Sen. Claire McCaskill, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Harris.
It aims to pressure tech companies and politicians to make social media less harmful in every facet.
“What are the wins we can get on the scoreboard?” Harris explained. “Things like, frankly, banning TikTok or otherwise forcing a total sale of TikTok?…Can we do things like pass the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act?”
The TikTok Problem
When it comes to TikTok, the idea of banning it is not new. Former president Donald Trump attempted to do so in 2020, and earlier this month, a Federal Communications Commission official urged the U.S. to do away with it.
In Harris’ eyes, the threat posed by TikTok looms much larger than just mindless entertainment.
“When we outsource our media environment to a CCP-controlled company, we are effectively outsourcing our voting machine to the CCP,” Harris said. “How do you know who to vote for? Why is it that you know more about Marjorie Taylor Greene and [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] than the other hundreds of members of Congress? Because the attention economy rewards certain people to rise to the top.”
Social media apps, TikTok included, favor people that are more likely to be divisive, on either end of the political spectrum. Harris referred to this as “amplifiganda,” something the CCP can use to interfere with another nation’s political and cultural happenings.
“It’s strategically amplifying who are the voices I want to hear from and who are the voices I don’t want to hear from,” he added. “Without firing a single shot, without creating a single piece of new propaganda, I can simply amplify the politicians and videos that I want you to be seeing.”
In China, domestic users receive what Harris calls the “spinach” version of the app, that largely includes educational content, science experiments, and patriotism videos. He says it is very different from the scroll-for-hours version the U.S. and other international markets receive.
Harris, however, does not think this was part of “a deliberate plan” or that there’s a “large mustache that’s being twirled somewhere in China.” Rather, this is just an after-the-fact consequence of TikTok succeeding at being highly addictive, and China simply regulating it for itself.
Banning the app is not the only solution, Harris noted. Officials could also attempt to force a purchase of TikTok. A similar case happened in the past with Grindr. After a U.S. foreign investment commission said the app’s Chinese ownership was a security risk, the dating app was sold to a U.S.-based group.
“And now it’s not that the company is partially in China or partially in the U.S., or the data is on an American server while the design decisions are made in Bejing, it’s not like that,” Harris explained. “They forced the entire sale.”
“Anything less than that with TikTok would be insufficient.”
Despite the numerous issues posed by nearly every social media platform, enacting meaningful change will be no small feat. The Council For Responsible Social Media has outlined several steps it plans on taking, including awareness campaigns and hearings that could inspire action.
On the legislative front, this could involve the passage of the aforementioned Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, which was introduced by bipartisan senators last year and would “require social media companies to provide vetted, independent researchers and the public with access to certain platform data.”
Harris does not think this bill is a cure-all, he does think it should be a no-brainer for politicians to pass.
“It won’t change the DNA of the cancer cell that is social media, it’ll be more like the cancer cell is printing quarterly reports about what it is doing to society, but that’s still a better world than having a cancer cell where you don’t know what it’s doing,” he said.
Many advocates believe transparency is key when it comes to reforming social media, as it educates the general public about what these apps are really doing.
The Future of Twitter
Harris thinks education about social media has inadvertently grown over the last several weeks as billionaire Elon Musk took over Twitter. The process has proven to be quite chaotic, but it has also forced people to learn about Twitter’s problems.
“Twitter has already been a chaos-making, inflammation-for-profit machine. Elon buying Twitter doesn’t change that, he’s just running the inflammation-for-profit machine,” Harris said.
Musk’s acquisition has created a substantial financial bind and forced the mogul into a position where he has to turn engagement and revenue up. This has involved cutbacks on content moderation and laying off staff that worked on trust and safety.
“He has to figure out a way to lower costs and increase revenue, which unfortunately basically moves the whole system into a more and more dangerous direction,” Harris claimed, though he did say he does not view this as a character flaw on Musk’s part, rather just the reality of how these apps operate.
When it comes to fixing the root problems at Twitter, Harris thinks Musk has his eyes on the wrong target by focusing on censorship and free speech.
“It has to do with Twitter being a bad video game in which citizens earn or score the most points by adding inflammation to cultural fault lines,” he explained.
“If we’re playing a video game, and you earn the most points by finding a new cultural war faultline and inflaming it better than some other guy, you’re an inflammation entrepreneur,” he continued. “Turning citizens into inflammation entrepreneurs for profit is how we destroy democracies.”
Harris said that if Musk wants to change Twitter for the better, he has to “change the video game of what Twitter is” so that people are not rewarded for inflammation, but for consensus.
TikTok to Require Labels on Manipulated Media, Ban Deepfakes of Children
The social media platform says it wants to embrace the creativity AI can offer while being cautious of the “societal and individual risks” that come with it.
TikTok is rolling out a slew of limitations regarding synthetic deepfake videos, including a ban on deepfake content of children.
In an update on Tuesday, the social media platform said it wants welcome “the creativity that new artificial intelligence and other digital technologies may unlock” while also being careful of the “societal and individual risks” that come with it. To mitigate those risks, TikTok will require users to label manipulated media depicting “realistic scenes.” Users can do so in stickers, captions, or other means that make it clear the video is “synthetic,” “fake,” “not real,” or “altered.”
On top of that, there are new restrictions about who can be the subject of these manipulated videos. TikTok will not allow deepfake media that shows the likeness of a “young person” or any private person, including adults. It is also barring deepfakes that depict adult public figures giving political or commercial endorsements, as well as deepfakes that violate one of the platform’s other rules.
“While we provide more latitude for public figures, we do not want them to be the subject of abuse, or for people to be misled about political or financial issues,” the company’s updated guidelines say.
As TikTok’s policies previously stated, synthetic media that has been edited to mislead audiences about real-world events is also not allowed on the platform.
As far as what kind of deepfake media is allowed on TikTok, the company said videos showing adult public figures in “certain contexts, including artistic and educational content,” get the green light. This can include a video of a celebrity doing a TikTok dance, or a historical figure being depicted in a history lesson.
The rules will be enforced starting April 21. Between now and then, TikTok says it will be training its moderators to better implement the guidelines.
See what others are saying: (The Verge) (The Associated Press) (TechCrunch)
Adidas Financial Woes Continue, Company on Track for First Annual Loss in Decades
Adidas has labeled 2023 a “transition year” for the company.
Adidas’ split with musician Kanye West has left the company with financial problems due to surplus Yeezy products, putting the sportswear giant in the position to potentially suffer its first annual loss in over 30 years.
Adidas dropped West last year after he made a series of antisemitic remarks on social media and other broadcasts. His Yeezy line was a staple for Adidas, and the surplus product is due, in part, to the brand’s own decision to continue production during the split.
According to CEO Bjorn Gulden, Adidas continued production of only the items already in the pipeline to prevent thousands of people from losing their jobs. However, that has led to the unfortunate overabundance of Yeezy sneakers and clothes.
On Wednesday, Gulden said that selling the shoes and donating the proceeds makes more sense than giving them away due to the Yeezy resale market — which has reportedly shot up 30% since October.
“If we sell it, I promise that the people who have been hurt by this will also get something good out of this,” Gulden said in a statement to the press.
However, Gulden also said that West is entitled to a portion of the proceeds of the sale of Yeezys per his royalty agreement.
Adidas announced in February that, following its divergence from West, it is facing potential sales losses totaling around $1.2 billion and profit losses of around $500 million.
If it decides to not sell any more Yeezy products, Adidas is facing a projected annual loss of over $700 million.
Outside of West, Adidas has taken several heavy profit blows recently. Its operating profit reportedly fell by 66% last year, a total of more than $700 million. It also pulled out of Russia after the country’s invasion of Ukraine last year, which cost Adidas nearly $60 million dollars. Additionally, China’s “Zero Covid” lockdowns last year caused in part a 36% drop in revenue for Adidas compared to years prior.
As a step towards a solution, Gulden announced that the company is slashing its dividends from 3.30 euros to 0.70 euro cents per share pending shareholder approval.
Adidas has labeled 2023 a “transition year” for the company.
“Adidas has all the ingredients to be successful. But we need to put our focus back on our core: product, consumers, retail partners, and athletes,” Gulden said. “I am convinced that over time we will make Adidas shine again. But we need some time.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CNN)
Elon Musk Bashes Disabled Ex-Twitter Employee, Gets Blowback
After Musk claimed the former employee “did no actual work,” the staffer calmly directed passive-aggressive insults right back at the billionaire.
Excuse Me, Do I Still Work Here?
Elon Musk brawled online with a former Twitter employee who didn’t know whether he was fired Tuesday, accusing the staffer of exploiting his disability.
Haraldur “Halli” Thorleifsson, who has muscular dystrophy, joined Twitter in 2021 after it acquired the creative agency he founded: Ueno.
He said on Twitter that he was unable to confirm whether he was still a Twitter employee nine days after being locked out of his work computer, despite reaching out to the head of HR and Musk himself through email.
At the time, Twitter had laid off at least 200 workers, or some 10% of its remaining workforce.
In search of an answer, Thorleifsson tweeted at Musk, who responded with the question: “What work have you been doing?”
After being given permission by Musk to break confidentiality, Thorleifsson listed several of his accomplishments, including leading “design crits to help level up design across the company.”
“Level up from what design to what? Pics or it didn’t happen,” Musk replied.
“We haven’t hired design roles in 4 months. What changes did you make to help with the youths?”
Thorleifsson reminded Musk that he couldn’t access any pictures because he was locked out of his work computer.
Musk stopped replying to the tweets, but hours later he returned to the platform to lob invective at his former employee.
Musk Vs. Halli
“The reality is that this guy (who is independently wealthy) did no actual work, claimed as his excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing, yet was simultaneously tweeting up a storm,” Musk tweeted, apparently referring to Thorleifsson. “Can’t say I have a lot of respect for that.”
“But was he fired? No, you can’t be fired if you weren’t working in the first place,” he added.
In a later Twitter thread, Thorleifsson said he could type for one or two hours at a time before his hands cramped, but that in pre-Musk Twitter, that wasn’t a problem because he was a senior director.
He added that despite his crippling disability, he worked hard for years to build Ueno.
“We grew fast and made money,” he said. “I think that’s what you are referring to when you say independently wealthy? That I independently made my money, as opposed to say, inherited an emerald mine.”
Thorleifsson made several more passive-aggressive jabs at Musk.
“I joined at a time when the company was growing fast,” he wrote. “You kind of did the opposite. The company had a fair amount of issues, but then again, most bigger companies do. Or even small companies, like Twitter today.”
Thorleifsson said that immediately following his back-and-forth with Musk, Twitter’s head of HR confirmed that he had indeed been fired from the company.