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New York Encounter, Day 2: Defenseless? A Conversation on the Power of Big Tech

by Letizia Mariani

Ultimately, no matter which side of the political spectrum one belongs to, what is at stake is democracy itself and, at a deeper level, free conscience and individual liberty.

The words from the New York Encounter’s preview, virtually projected for all to see, provided a topical framework for the rich conversation that followed. Moderated by Brandon Vaidyanathan, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at The Catholic University of America, “Defenseless?” featured Matthew Taibbi, New York Times best-selling author and award-winning columnist for Rolling Stone, and Matt Stoller, Director of Research at the American Economic Liberties Project and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Columbia University. The issues at hand: media, big tech, and personal freedom.

Stoller delved to the core at the start, tackling big tech’s monopolized power. “Traditionally Americans have seen [monopoly] as a political system,” he said, noting that corporations like Facebook or Google indeed do not function as businesses but as sovereign entities. “What this is really about is who has power in our societies. Are we self-governing societies? Are we free?” Stoller’s questions rang pressing as he urged his listeners to consider Silicon Valley’s colossal display of authority in banning Donald Trump from social media platforms; “That’s an enormous amount of power, whether you agree with the decision or not.”

In tune with Stoller, Taibbi chimed in to explain how the internet has brought about a shift in the realm of media consumption by facilitating the collection and sale of consumer data. “The news consumer is both a consumer and a product that is itself sold,” he explained, adding that this dynamic has supplemented the identification and domination of target demographics on behalf of news outlets.

"Most people will never even see news that is not designed specifically for them,” he went on. “We have multiple separate news universes, and most of us don’t see what the other groups are watching or listening to, and so we have no commonly accepted set of information, which is one of the reasons America I think today is so divided.” Indeed, according to Taibbi, news outlets have grown to invest in argumentation and divisiveness, flattering their audiences and addicting them to sentiments of anger and superiority, thus causing a rift in the social fabric.

But how did we get here? Stoller pinned the origin of this move on a philosophical change in the way society is organized. “It was the idea that we shift the basis of political power from thinking about ourselves as citizens to thinking about ourselves as consumers.” It is this very misconception of the self that, according to him, must be undone.

Taibbi tracked the public’s shift in attitude regarding censorship: while free speech was once valued as a fundamental element of democratic citizenship, the modern consumer has cast big tech companies as moderators of information. “It’s really a partnership between government, the intelligence community, and these companies,” he said. “And I think they’ve managed to marshal public support for this because there’s this overwhelming sentiment among a lot of people that the failure to do this previously is what gave us Trump.”

Comparing the current state of the First Amendment with its past, Taibbi went on to say that while an informed public was formerly understood as one exposed to a variety of ideas and consequently exercising its better judgment, presently the masses are altogether prevented from even accessing potentially harmful or erroneous information. “The only deceptions that are going to flower are official deceptions, which happen to be the most dangerous,” he commented. “The same people who are going to be in charge of moderating the content are going to be the ones deceiving the public.”

Prompted by Vaidyanathan, Taibbi proposed that a way forward would have to be in service of the common good. “We’re going to have to come up with some kind of mechanism that supports public interest in reporting,” he said, adding that, while we live in a society that operates under the assumption that the public cannot discern fact from fiction, “among [America’s] positive qualities over the years has been its devotion to this idea that we all seek the truth together in this open forum. I think that’s the way to go. We shouldn’t let this tradition recede.”

“After World War I, Americans were just docile, didn’t believe in democracy anymore, didn’t believe in justice, and became very cynical, and it’s a really dangerous thing to do,” added Stoller in his concluding remarks. “Every generation gets to make the choice about what kind of country we want to live in. America is not good or bad, America is a battle. Every generation decides who wins that battle. . . . I think America can be a great place and I don’t think we should give up on it.”


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