Telepath "Ask Me Anything" with Justin Hendrix, Editor of Tech Policy Press

Justin Hendrix / Feb 12, 2021

Recently I was invited by Marc Bodnick, cofounder and Executive Chairman of social media startup Telepath, to do an "Ask Me Anything" with Telepath users. Here are the questions and responses I gave.

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective. Is social media just a bad idea at its current scale? Or are the architects of our current social media infrastructure just too inept to handle the responsibility of global networking? Or are the big social media companies getting a bad rap? Finally, what can we, the average consumer, do about it?

I am definitely of the camp that believes our current social media ecosystem is damaging to democracy and built to satisfy incentives that promote an unhealthy information ecosystem. Some of the companies in that ecosystem are more honest with themselves and with the public than others are about that reality. But while I’m a pessimist in the short term, I’m an optimist in the long term, for a few different reasons. The problems we face are now much better understood than they were a few years ago. Investments in research, the efforts of journalists and activists, and the bravery of individuals across the world in raising awareness of the real violence and damages they have experienced have created the conditions for a renewal I believe is just getting underway. Look at the excellent ideas that just came out of the New Public festival, for instance, or the new partnerships forming to build an alternative, or the many thinkers pushing for a different way of thinking. Another reason I’m so optimistic is because I teach. There are great ideas coming out of the young people I work with. Look for something to fix and connect with these various movements that are pushing towards a more just, equitable, democratic information ecosystem.

  • Whenever Facebook makes some claim related to disinformation on FB, invariably company executives are lying. (Maybe "invariably" is too strong; often?) Why doesn't the media explicitly acknowledge this systematic dishonesty? Even after years of watching FB mislead, it still feels like the media gives FB the benefit of the doubt when it makes public statements.

I agree. Justin Sherman, who is senior fellow at Ethical Tech at Duke University and a cyber policy fellow at the Duke Tech Policy Lab, wrote a great piece for Tech Policy Press about this the other day. The latest report from Forbes underscores the duplicity- while Sheryl Sandberg claimed the opposite, “Facebook was far and away the most cited social media site in charging documents the Justice Department filed against members of the Capitol Hill mob, providing further evidence that Sandberg was, perhaps, mistaken in her claim.” David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor had an interesting post on this in 2018 during the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, on whether Facebook was “simply completely clueless or actually venal.” I think by now we have enough evidence to say what Vladeck comes very close to saying based on the company’s status as a “serial offender”- it is a corrupt enterprise. All coverage should start from that factual premise.

  • Hi Justin! You were sounding the alarm bells in the months leading up to the Jan 6 insurrection and you were pretty clear/confident that there would be violence. What were you tracking, who were you talking to, what were you looking at that made you so sure in the lead-up?

You might find this kind of crazy given my response to the last question- but one of the things that scared me the most in the runup to the November 2020 election was a statement from Mark Zuckerberg. With his eyes on more real time data about US political discourse than any person in the world, he said in September he was worried about violence and unrest. I wrote about the set of announcements he made at that time to try to shore up challenges of disinformation on his platform and to buy forgiveness for his role in destabilizing the country. But beyond that, the alarms were many. Trump’s disinformation campaign- his very dangerous false statements about election fraud and unwillingness to commit to a peaceful transfer of power- started in earnest last summer. Add to that urgent warnings from people like my friend Melissa Ryan, who runs the excellent Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter chronicling the rise of far right extremism- were clear, and echoed similar concerns from law enforcement agencies going back years. We are still in a very dangerous period.

  • Hi Justin- I'm so glad you are doing this. You've been such a powerful voice in the discourse about disinformation. Do you have a concrete view about how important Facebook was to the January 6 attack on the Capitol? Facebook says that it didn't play a significant role. What policy / regulatory actions do you think the Biden Administration should take with respect to social media? And what can we realistically expect them to do?

This report from Forbes journalist Thomas Brewster and this one from the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Horwitz begin to paint a very disturbing picture. The Biden administration has a lot of priorities around tech. It is unclear what will happen. This week Section 230 celebrated its 25th anniversary- we talked about the prevailing arguments about it in this week’s Tech Policy Press podcast- and we just saw a proposed reform bill from Democratic Senators, that while problematic, has some ideas that are worth preserving to create more liability for the platforms for the worst that happens on their networks. I’d point to people like Karen Kornbluh and Ellen Goodman, who are leading a “Digital New Deal” initiative. They have proposed a variety of priorities- including clarifying “that what happens online is subject to the same legal standards as what happens in real life, update regulations and increase enforcement,” insisting “that the industry make a high-level commitment to democratic design — a so-called digital code of conduct,” and creating “a new ‘PBS of the Internet’ to strengthen our civic infrastructure and ensure a strong online supply of trustworthy, nonpartisan scientific and election information.” There is a great deal to be done- these are good ideas to start.

  • Do you think there’s an attainable balance between free speech and disinformation? I struggle with how we can fight disinformation without limiting the free speech of certain people or platforms.

I do not believe addressing disinformation requires us to limit free speech, but it does require limits on reach for certain types of statements, especially on major social media networks that can channel dangerous speech and incitement to violence instantly to millions. Look at experts like Jameel Jaffer at Columbia’s Knight First Amendment Institute, who found the decision of the platforms to suspend Donald Trump justifiable, because “to incite violence is causing harms that can’t be countered by speech and can’t be undone,” which should be an obvious line we draw on free speech rights. Even now, Donald Trump’s speech is not in any way limited, even if some companies have decided to limit his reach utilizing the privately owned platforms that they control. We need to think about the true harms to people when we think about these issues. (Renee DiResta had an excellent piece on this back in 2018).

  • Thanks for your dogged efforts. What do you think are the limits of purely social media mediated disinformation with respect to determining political activity such as voting, party formation/transformation/dissolution, and mass non-voting actions. In other words, what factors other than social media disinformation facilitate or limit the passage from pure distribution of disinformation over social media to political effects. Big question so I’m just asking for some general thoughts on this. Background here, if you care, is that someone might be skeptical whether, in the absence of a certain distribution of wealth, or weak/strong political parties, or some other factor, a social media driven can disinformation campaign can shape the polity.

I’m thinking about one of the best books I ever read about social media and politics, written way back in 2012 by José Marichal, Facebook Democracy: The Architecture of Disclosure and the Threat to Public Life. Marichal argues social media “technology challenges our conventional understandings of public and private, by creating mediated publics that have characteristics of publicness but are not quite public in that they are filtered, be it through shared interest in a subject or by kinship or some other factor.”

As users we embrace these ‘mediated publics’, and because the transactional cost of engaging in them is so low and the user experience is maximized to increase the time we spend on platforms, we run the risk of convincing ourselves participation on social media is the same thing as democratic participation. There are only so many hours in the day. We have to be careful we make more time for democratic participation where it counts- not on Facebook, but at our local school board meetings, our city councils, our state legislatures. One way we can fend off disinformation’s effects on society is by participating in actual democratic institutions. It should give us a little bit of hope that this past election saw such huge turnout- maybe we’ve turned a corner in terms of participation.

  • Hey Justin- Thanks for doing an AMA! What do you think are the best methods and opportunities (strategies maybe a better word?) to tackle dis- and misinformation? (Also, is it important to make a distinction between the two?)

Thank you! It is important to distinguish them- disinformation usually communicates an intent to deceive. I’ve addressed some ideas for tackling disinformation above. I am heartened to see so many groups forming across the country to address disinformation at the community level- and I’d commend you to the Pen America and Reframe resource, or the START framework developed by Joan Donovan. These tools offer real advice on how to think about and tackle disinfo in your community.

  • Hi Justin! I’m so glad you’re doing this. About dis- and mis-information on social media platforms: do you think it is possible to limit the spread, in current technology and maintaining free speech? I’m not asking this very well, but I’m interested in your views about the current situation, and possible improvements. Thank you!

Thank you! I want to emphasize I really do not believe our problem right now is maintaining free speech. I think there is plenty of free speech in the United States and generally in the West. Most people complaining of challenges to free speech are disingenuous and the evidence does not back them up. This is not to say there are not important things we need to do to shore up free speech- again, see the Knight First Amendment folks- but we need to focus more on the incentive structures in our media ecosystem and more broadly in the political economy and, very importantly, race issues in this country that are driving disinformation. Sadly these are not easy to fix, and technology is only a part of it. It’s going to take us a decade to right the ship- but we have to do it. COVID19 is the first of a series of profound challenges we will face this century- if we can’t come to some agreement on how to move forward we will be toast. We will literally fry the planet.

  • I’ve pondered the idea that there should be an “independent” body comprised of journalists from a range of news networks/organizations that fact checks reportage. “News” organizations would have to recognize the decisions of this body as factual and report as such, issuing retractions when necessary. It would not prevent a Newsmax or Fox News from initially promoting disinformation, but it would limit the extent of coverage and within days require a retraction, curbing the growth of conspiracy theories such as Obama’s birthplace or the Seth Rich conspiracy or mass voter fraud. Also it could serve as a trusted version of Snopes whose verdicts are accessible online. Adherence would be a requirement for having an FCC license as a “news” station. Perhaps this could restore public’s trust in “the media”? What do you think about such an idea?

The platforms have put a lot of thought into how to collect “signals” of credibility. Look to the work of the Credibility Coalition to see a collective of experts who have committed a lot of time and thought to this problem. There are also private sector companies like NewsGuard trying to build such systems. It seems to me we will make progress in these areas, but that the demand side is more problematic than the supply side when it comes to facts. I’m more interested in how we recapitalize local news- we’ve seen billions depart the news industry, and we need to look for creative ways to push billions back into it.

  • What should we do about Facebook? It is a disinformation machine available via an API to anyone with money.

I agree. This is the last question so I’ll go out on a limb- I’d urge people to invent a replacement. Maybe it's Telepath. I wish I could spend less time thinking about how to fix Facebook and more time imagining what comes after it! I’d point to Siva Vaidhyanathan’s recent article in the New Republic: “Democracy is also about a citizenry that is willing and able to converse frankly and honestly about the problems it faces, sharing a set of facts and some forums through which informed citizens may deliberate. Clearly, none of that is happening in the United States, and less and less of it is happening around the world. Facebook’s dominance over the global media ecosystem is one reason why,” he wrote. Indeed, “if we can take the overlapping system failures of Trumpism and Facebookism as an opportunity to teach ourselves to think better, we have a chance.”

Try Telepath here. Thanks to Rodericka Applewhaite.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...