Earlier this year, we wrote about how ridiculous the federal government's view of Silicon Valley seemed to be, in that they had this weird belief that by nerding a little harder, we could somehow "disrupt" ISIS
. The thinking seemed confused, and somewhat typical of people who don't understand technology or how Silicon Valley works. It's "magic wand" thinking. People who don't understand technology tend to view technology as a sort of magic -- and thus, they assume it can do anything. And, right now, a bunch of those people in the White House want that magic wand to make ISIS disappear from the Internet
Buzzfeed's Sheera Frenkel has a great detailed report looking "inside" the administration's attempt to have Silicon Valley help
in the fight against ISIS. The main focus of a (not very secret) meeting held on Wednesday seemed to be entirely about fighting ISIS propaganda with American propaganda. As if that ever works. And, from the sound of it, the meeting was equally clueless about why ISIS propaganda is effective, while American propaganda flops.
“They wanted to figure out how to fight ISIS online, how to understand the psychology of those who support ISIS, and they invited almost no one who speaks for those of us in the Arab world, and from Arab communities, who have everything to lose from ISIS’ growing popularity,” said one Arab attendee, who estimated that less than 10% of the attendants were of Middle Eastern descent. “They don’t understand this community. That has been proven time and time again with their tone deaf messages. Why hold an event like this where there are ten white men outnumbering every Arab?”
Instead of taking on the real challenges
and understanding why
ISIS propaganda is effective (or even recognizing that it's likely not nearly as effective as they fear), the White House officials went for the pointless superficial plan: maybe try to make Google and Facebook change their algorithms to play up anti-ISIS stuff and play down pro-ISIS stuff. This is a profoundly ignorant idea, and thankfully one that both companies told the White House was not in the realm of reasonable:
Tech executives who have met with the Pentagon team told BuzzFeed News that some of their requests have been “jarring.” In at least one case, the Pentagon spoke with several companies — who asked not to be named as a condition of discussing the meeting with BuzzFeed News — about tweaking their algorithms to promote certain types of content. Both Google and Facebook have made it clear that they would not make changes to their algorithms to bury results supportive of ISIS.
“That’s something that is always brought up in meetings. And it shows how little they understand us,” said the Google representative. “This is a pandora’s box we won’t open, because if we answer a request by the U.S. government to feature one search result over another what’s to stop other countries from requesting the same? What’s to stop each country from tailoring the search results of their citizens to their agenda? It’s not a path we are willing to explore.”
Of course, to be fair, Google already cracked open that Pandora's box when it allowed its search results to be impacted by copyright takedown requests
Even so, as the quote above notes, even suggesting this to companies is profoundly pointless. Not only is it a bad idea for the precedent it sets, it's unlikely to work at all. It's magic wand thinking of desperate people who don't want to actually confront the real reasons why ISIS has been successful.
Oh, and of course, the decision to force Apple to hack into the iPhone isn't helping matters at all if the federal government wants Silicon Valley to "work" with the government on this issue.
“It’s like, you’ve been asked to partner up and dance with the bully at school who keeps trying to trip you in the hallways,” one attendee told BuzzFeed News after the event. “And even though you want to learn to dance there isn’t a lot of trust to build on.”
An attendee from the government side told BuzzFeed News by phone, “We need help, but it’s like, one part of government keeps fucking this up for other parts of government. We can’t seem to get it right.”
We keep hearing from the White House how Silicon Valley has to stop treating the government like an adversary, and the only proper response to that needs to be: you first.