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Catherine Cusick
Catherine Cusick is the audience development editor of Longreads. She was previously a rep at the American Booksellers Association, as well as the social editor for IndieBound, a nationwide local-first movement.

If Tim Russert Could Interview Trump Today

Tim Russert during a live taping of 'Meet the Press.' (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty)

“When I run for president,” Tim Russert would tell candidates who tried to turn his interviews back on him, “I’ll answer all your questions.”

If Russert was anything, he was skeptical. As the longtime moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, Russert gave viewers the impression that he’d both heard everything before and that this kind of thing — no matter how unique any new movement may have seemed — had already happened. Every event had a historical precedent, and so did every tactic and every lie and every political sidestep. Russert had a long memory, and he knew what questions to ask.

Russert died ten years ago today, on June 13, 2008. A decade on, journalists and moderators are still trying to live up to his legacy for asking the right questions. Whenever I try to think of who is carrying his baton today, with the same rigor and acuity, I’m overwhelmed by the memory of how much we trusted him.

Fans of Meet the Press feel Russert’s absence daily, perhaps never more so than throughout the 2016 election. Russert was a walking fact-checker, with the ability to recall just the right detail to rebut false statements immediately with truthful, well-sourced evidence to the contrary.

So many of us wish Russert could interview Trump today — that he was still alive to ask him serious questions, to surround all of Trump’s responses with truthful context, and to guide so many political discussions that have gone so far off the rails.

Watching their October 24, 1999 interview, I have so many questions of my own. How did Russert take a Trump presidency this seriously in 1999 when, more than one year into his first term, much of the electorate still hasn’t? How is it that, nearly twenty years later, Trump is saying so many of the same things? When did American audiences lose respect for asking any of these questions, let alone for the people who insist on asking them?

If Russert could interview Trump today, would this interview change at all?

RUSSERT: Let me show you what you said about women in your book and give you a chance to respond. This is helpful.

TRUMP: All right.

RUSSERT: “Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they’re real killers. I’ve seen women manipulate men with just the twitch of their eye — or perhaps another body part.”

TRUMP: Well, you know that. I mean, you’re married to an incredible woman. And I’m sure she manipulates you beautifully.

RUSSERT: When women see or hear that on the screen, however, don’t they say, “Donald. Donald Trump. Isn’t that a little bit over the line?”

TRUMP: I think they respect it. I’m saying women may be beyond us, you and I. I mean, they’re smart, they’re cunning.

RUSSERT: “They’re killers.”

TRUMP: They’re killers in many respects.

RUSSERT: That’s what you said.

TRUMP: Absolutely. I’m not saying all, but I’m saying in many respects. And I’ve seen women that are so tough they make us wince.

RUSSERT: Let me move on to some issues. But first —

TRUMP: You haven’t met any of those women?

RUSSERT: When I run for president, I’ll answer all your questions.

TRUMP: Okay.

RUSSERT: One of your former wives — Marla — had this to say and let me put it on the screen, give you a chance to respond: “If Trump is really serious about being president and runs in the general election next year, I will not be silent. I will feel it is my duty as an American citizen to tell the people what he is really like. But I can’t imagine that they would really elect him, would they? … His drug is attention.”

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Before We All Teach Someone a Lesson

Students dressed as the video game Tetris, shaking hands cooperatively
Students dressed as Tetris blocks shake hands with their team. (Photo by Andrew Hancock / Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

“Trashing is insidious. It can damage its subject for life, personally and professionally. Whether or not people sympathize, the damage has been done.”

— Laurie Penny, Who Does She Think She Is?

In the right context, moral outrage can be justified and effective. When marginalized or less-empowered voices leverage a moral megaphone to remedy systemic injustice — when hate suffers consequences — those social repercussions help bend the arc of the moral universe in the right direction. In communities where we can all see each other in person, correcting bad behavior in judicious, measured proportion serves everyone in the long run.

Yet even justified social consequences can get out of hand quickly when they’re exacted by waves of anonymous online strangers. Constructive criticism tips over into merciless abuse that undermines whether transgressors can learn any semblance of an appropriate lesson.

In Mosaic, Gaia Vince examines how our first impulse offline is usually to be generous and kind to each other, but those instinctual wires get crossed online depending on how a social network is set up. Even just one bad experience with a jerk can set a formative precedent that leads to less cooperative behavior.

“You might think that there is a minority of sociopaths online, which we call trolls, who are doing all this harm,” says Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, at Cornell University’s Department of Information Science. “What we actually find in our work is that ordinary people, just like you and me, can engage in such antisocial behaviour. For a specific period of time, you can actually become a troll.”

The good news is that this also works the other way around: well-timed, well-meaning interventions can encourage us to bring more of our evolved prosocial habits from offline communities into our online discourse.

Here, Vince visits Yale University’s Human Cooperation Lab to explore how we can redesign social networks in ways that help “further our extraordinary impulse to be nice to others even at our own expense.”

“If you take carbon atoms and you assemble them one way, they become graphite, which is soft and dark. Take the same carbon atoms and assemble them a different way, and it becomes diamond, which is hard and clear. These properties of hardness and clearness aren’t properties of the carbon atoms – they’re properties of the collection of carbon atoms and depend on how you connect the carbon atoms to each other,” [Nicholas Christakis, director of Yale’s Human Nature Lab] says. “And it’s the same with human groups.”

“By engineering their interactions one way, I can make them really sweet to each other, work well together, and they are healthy and happy and they cooperate. Or you take the same people and connect them a different way and they’re mean jerks to each other and they don’t cooperate and they don’t share information and they are not kind to each other.”

In one experiment, he randomly assigned strangers to play the public goods game with each other. In the beginning, he says, about two-thirds of people were cooperative. “But some of the people they interact with will take advantage of them and, because their only option is either to be kind and cooperative or to be a defector, they choose to defect because they’re stuck with these people taking advantage of them. And by the end of the experiment everyone is a jerk to everyone else.”

Christakis turned this around simply by giving each person a little bit of control over who they were connected to after each round. “They had to make two decisions: am I kind to my neighbours or am I not; and do I stick with this neighbour or do I not.” The only thing each player knew about their neighbours was whether each had cooperated or defected in the round before. “What we were able to show is that people cut ties to defectors and form ties to cooperators, and the network rewired itself and converted itself into a diamond-like structure instead of a graphite-like structure.” In other words, a cooperative prosocial structure instead of an uncooperative structure.

But as I’m watching the game I just played unfold, Christakis reveals that three of these players are actually planted bots. “We call them ‘dumb AI’,” he says.
His team is not interested in inventing super-smart AI to replace human cognition. Instead, the plan is to infiltrate a population of smart humans with dumb-bots to help the humans help themselves.

“We wanted to see if we could use the dumb-bots to get the people unstuck so they can cooperate and coordinate a little bit more – so that their native capacity to perform well can be revealed by a little assistance,” Christakis says.

Much antisocial behaviour online stems from the anonymity of internet interactions – the reputational costs of being mean are much lower than offline. Here, bots may also offer a solution. One experiment found that the level of racist abuse tweeted at black users could be dramatically slashed by using bot accounts with white profile images to respond to racist tweeters. A typical bot response to a racist tweet would be: “Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of language.” Simply cultivating a little empathy in such tweeters reduced their racist tweets almost to zero for weeks afterwards.

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Area Man Knows All About Fake News

Bodybuilder reading the Paper Upside Down
Harold W Nall Jr / Getty Images

Funny fake news is fake. But what’s news?

When readers are unfamiliar with the old-school characters and local news stories that satirical newspapers send up, humor sites that specialize in fake news headlines aren’t reading as funny. Now social media algorithms are treating them like any other fake news source and throttling their traffic.

In “Dying Laughing” at The RingerAlison Herman and Victor Luckerson examine how fake news crackdowns are hurting satirical news sites, along with so many lost points of shared reference that make their humor work:

For The Onion in particular, divorcing an article from its context can prove troublesome. The outlet began as a satirical newspaper, and still hews to the stylistic conventions of old-school journalism as a mainstay of its dry, faux-factual house style. In an era when fewer people than ever read newspapers, that’s a problem. “The reference point is becoming lost for some people,” Nackers acknowledges.

And in an era when fewer people are aware of a site as a persona rather than the other side of the occasional Facebook link, decades-long in jokes can get lost, too. “We’ve been doing Area Man stuff for the entire existence of The Onion,” Nackers observes, but recently he’s encountered more and more readers who don’t understand that the banality of The Onion’s observational humor is the point — probably because they’re not regular readers. “It’s the classic local news story, but instead of it being about something more important, it’s just about some mundane thing in life that happens. Some people get it, but the other half is like, ‘So they’re just doing real articles now?’”

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Jared the Menace

Jay North and Jeannie Russell illustrate how the 1959 television series of 'Dennis the Menace' references the original newspaper cartoon. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

After never knowing a moment’s privacy, Sloane Crosley finally moves into the one-bedroom apartment of her dreams in the city that never sleeps.

And then she never sleeps again, because all of her windows face Jared:

The real draw of the neighborhood was the quiet. And not just any kind of quiet. Here, in the heart of Manhattan, was a pod of that suburban silence that had eluded me as a child. You could hear a pin drop in my bedroom—on the bed. Early mornings, I listened to the heckling of seagulls that had strayed inland from the Hudson River. On warm evenings, a cellist sat on the street corner with his case open. When it rained, water pelted the leaves outside my enchanted tree house.

And then one day the leaves dropped and Jared came out. Jared lived in the town house directly behind my apartment. He must have been on summer
vacation or touring Europe by colonial rickshaw when I moved in. Jared was between fifteen and eighteen years old. It was impossible to tell. I could never get a good read on his height, as his resting state was slouched in a lawn chair,
watching viral videos on his phone at full volume. And I never heard him say stuff like “Looks like I can be legally tried as an adult now” despite being someone for whom the distinction was clearly relevant.

How do I begin to explain my relationship with this creature? Is it a relationship if you’ve never met? Certainly this is an acceptable dynamic online, but played out in real life it’s called stalking. All five of the windows in my apartment faced Jared’s house. And, for as many years, I heard every word this kid said.

I started keeping a notebook by my bed:

Jared spits grapes into the air and tries to catch them in his mouth.

Jared feels like he’s seen some pictures of your dick from the eighth grade.

Jared has decided tequila gives you diarrhea. Jared thinks this is some Cheech and Chong shit. Jared has discovered jazz.

By documenting his activities, I thought perhaps I could trick myself into thinking I had signed up for this. Like a scientist observing a nocturnal creature. Or I’d try to offset the hot rage coursing through my veins by envisioning scenarios in which Jared’s existence served to bolster mine. You know what I need? I need to Windex every surface of my apartment at 4 A.M. Thanks, Jared, for saving me the trouble of setting an alarm or buying drugs of my own.

The woman who lived in the apartment next to mine did not have the box seats I did, but she did have a four-month-old baby. I asked her if the people in the back ever bothered her.

“Oh, you mean Jared?” she groaned. “When we moved in, he was still a little kid. I thought he was so cute, playing in the back yard. But you know what they say about tiger cubs.”

“What do they say?”

“Don’t adopt tiger cubs.”

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The Best Food Is Somewhere Else

A handicapped Chihuahua dog is dressed up as a taco truck
A handicapped Chihuahua is dressed up as a taco truck that covers his harness. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

My favorite food truck in Austin was closed last Sunday.

This particular truck is a neighborhood mainstay. (DM me if you are wildly curious about my taste in trucks. I’ll reply in the form of a koan, like a fortune cookie. May we all selfishly hoard the best things in life for as long as we can keep them secret.) It’s open every day; it’s been there for years. It is usually up and running, rain or shine, weather be damned. But last Sunday it was closed.

Look, it’s a truck. It was purposely designed to drive off into the sunset. But this one is supposed to be a food truck only in name. It was present and closed, crucially, as opposed to absent and lost to time. (Although the window was boarded up, and the grain of the wood was ominous.) It could disappear, but it doesn’t. It’s been stationary for at least five years.

Did someone die? Was someone sick? It might’ve just been a peculiar forecast situation, but I just don’t really know. And the not knowing hurt.

Apparently, I metabolize (get it?) disappearing restaurants differently than people who know insider things about roving food options. If the limited-edition dishes at a truck or a pop-up are insanely good, I figure the foldable version was always intended to serve as a low-overhead test kitchen. If there are regularly lines snaking around the block, I just assume the plan is to size up locally, secure a larger space, and graduate gracefully into sustainability and permanence. Good food is good! I like good things to stay.

But no! This is only a thing sometimes! It’s true that a number of temporary dining operations start out as low-risk test runs to prove or disprove long-term viability, but now a great many more are specifically designed to flame out. There are city-block queues of eaters out there who live for limited time offers, for trick candle food that’s here one day and gone the next. They’re tickled by the vanishing acts that fill my stomach with so much dread.

The entire point of pop-ups is to expire. That limit then feeds into a ticking time-bomb of popularity that is as temporary as a wet nap at a hipster barbecue. To get to the bottom of this evaporating attraction, GQ sent Ryan Bradley to eat his way across Los Angeles to help us all digest why pop-ups and ephemeral dining experiences have become the fastest-moving craze in food:

As attention spans shortened and experiences became the new status symbols, disappearing restaurants gained more cultural capital than their stodgily static alternatives.

This shift has created entire multimillion- and even billion-dollar real estate interests (malls, mostly) with spaces devoted to pop-up restaurants at New York’s South Street Seaport, Platform in Culver City, and Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, among others. A company based in San Francisco, called Cubert, manufactures purpose-built pop-up stalls. High turnover is now a virtue. Which means the latest food trend isn’t an ingredient or a cuisine; it’s a length of time. The most successful pop-up operations are those that can burn brightly, then quietly (and quickly) disappear to make room for something new.

Chefs have adapted to the churn. Time was, an accomplished chef would rarely up and leave a restaurant for something else. Now it happens all the time. Michelin-starred chef Dan Barber decamped from his idyllic Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley for an international jaunt making luxury meals out of food waste. Chad Robertson, of San Francisco’s cultishly loved bakery Tartine, has done so many collaborations that his sourdough starter is everywhere from New York to Stockholm, as iconic as a gurgling blob of yeast can be. René Redzepi has taken Noma (and its dedicated fans) on the road from Copenhagen to Sydney, Tokyo, and Tulum. At Lalito in New York, Gerardo Gonzalez hosts regular pop-ups that often turn into dance parties you see on Instagram the next day and wish you’d been at. I recently ate ramen from Oakland’s Ramen Shop without having to leave Los Angeles, which was honestly very convenient. A few years ago, Google hired a whole crew of chefs to run a “world” café pop-up for the tenth anniversary of Google Translate. And last summer, Jessica Koslow, of L.A.’s now iconic breakfast-and-lunch spot Sqirl, started cooking out of the Food Lab, that space in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport built specifically for pop-up restaurants. And eaters, well, we lined up around the block, flew halfway around the world, and paid premium prices just for a chance to say we were there.

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Bernadette Peters Is Not a Child

Bernadette Peters at microphone
Walter McBride/Getty Images

Even Bernadette Peters, as talented and beloved and powerful as ever, has been underestimated for decades as eternally cute and impossibly naïve.

In honor of Peters’ 70th birthday, Victoria Myers — editor of The Interval, a website dedicated to promoting gender parity in theatre — celebrates Peters’ unparalleled career in Hollywood and on Broadway by lovingly recreating her extraordinary life story in one definitive profile.

In early 2005, when Peters was 57 years old, Linda Stasi, writing in The New York Post about a Happy Days reunion show, opened with the following: “With the possible exception of Bernadette Peters, not everyone stays young and cute forever.” It’s a pithy line, and one that encapsulated the box Peters had been put in for her entire adult life, even while being considered the premier interpreter of the work of contemporary musical theatre’s most sophisticated, most lauded, most game-changing composer.

Stephen Holden, in The New York Times, wrote of the Carnegie Hall concert, “The chemistry between the voice of the wise child and the lyrics of Broadway’s ultimate sophisticate filled the hall with a profoundly bittersweet feeling of lessons learned on roads long traveled.” She had worked hard at her job for over three decades and had fought for her accomplishments, and at 46, it all congealed around the same language that had been used to describe her since she was 18.

It didn’t occur to me to ever label her as innocent or childlike or cute — even at thirteen I knew that calling an adult woman any of those things was degrading — as that simply wasn’t what I heard or saw.

Re-watching her 1976 performance now I see no marks of childishness. For all of the number’s absurdity, it is not without sophistication. The stillness, the lack of self-consciousness, the way she never seems to ask anyone for approval. To me, then and now, this is the opposite of being a waif. I revisited a number of her older performances and practically all of them are free of those characteristics.

And maybe this is something Bernadette Peters learned early: how people put women in a box and want them to stay there, and act the way that type of woman is supposed to act and look the way that type of woman is supposed to look and say the things that type of woman is supposed to say. And people have never liked it when women break out of those boxes and break the rules that have been set up for them, because it forces people to change the stories they’ve been telling not only about those individual women, but the stories they tell about themselves.

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Move Slow and Break Less

"Fragile" stenciled onto wooden box
Marka/UIG via Getty Images

Today’s designers move too fast and break too many things.

In Fast Company‘s Co.Design, Mike Monteiro advises the next generation of designers to slow down: to unionize, pursue licensing, raise standards, embrace regulation, and care more about the consequences of sacrificing ethics for speed.

There are two words every designer needs to feel comfortable saying: “no” and “why.” Those words are the foundation of what we do. They’re the foundation of building an ethical framework. If we cannot ask “why?” we lose the ability to judge whether the work we’re doing is ethical. If we cannot say “no” we lose the ability to stand and fight. We lose the ability to help shape the thing we’re responsible for shaping.

There’s no longer room in Silicon Valley to ask why. Designers are tasked with moving fast and breaking things. “How” has become more important than “why.” How fast can we make this? How can we grab the most market share? How can we beat our competitors to market?

Today’s designers have spent their careers learning how to work faster and faster and faster. And while there’s certainly something to be said for speed, excessive speed tends to blur one’s purpose. To get products through that gate before anyone noticed what they were and how foul they smelled. Because we broke some things. It’s one thing to break a database, but when that database holds the keys to interpersonal relationships, the database isn’t the only thing that breaks.

Along with speed, we’ve had to deal with the amphetamine of scale. Everything needs to be faster and bigger. How big it can get, how far it can go. “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool?” You know the rest of the line. When we move fast and break things and those things get bigger and bigger, the rubble falls everywhere.

You will sometimes lose your job for doing the right thing. But the question I want you to ask yourself is why you’re open to doing the wrong thing to keep your job. Without resorting to the level of comparing you to guards at Japanese internment camps, I’d argue there are paychecks not worth earning. An ethical framework needs to be independent of pay scale. If it’s wrong to build databases for keeping track of immigrants at $12 an hour, it’s still wrong to build them at $200 an hour, or however much Palantir pays its employees. Money doesn’t make wrong right. A gilded cage is still a cage.

You’ll have many jobs in your life. The fear of losing a job is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Fear makes it less likely that you’ll question and challenge the things you need to question and challenge. Which means you’re not doing your job anyway.

The first part of doing this job right is wanting to do it right. And the lost generation of designers doesn’t want to do it right. They found themselves standing before a gate, and rather then seeing themselves as gatekeepers they decided they were bellhops.

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An Education in Doubt

Cover art for Roald Dahl's novel 'Matilda' / Illustration by Quentin Blake

Catherine Cusick | Longreads | February 2018 | 12 minutes (2,900 words)

We need to scream and argue about this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair, one or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if we cannot, then the success of homeschooling shows a different road that has great promise. Pouring the money we now pour into schooling back into family education might cure two ailments with one medicine, repairing families as it repairs children.

— John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down

I stood and, still shaking, tried to pry loose the small length of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter. I leapt aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, “Don’t throw them here! I’m here!”

Dad looked up, surprised. He’d forgotten I was there.

— Tara Westover, Educated

When I was 9, my dad brought home a copy of Matilda on VHS. Every time I watched Matilda best her unfit parents and take down the unforgivably violent Trunchbull, something would swell in my heart.

“Daddy,” Mara Wilson pleads up to Danny DeVito, one of the only actors ever to plead at him in that direction. “You’re a crook.”

“What?” DeVito says, turning away from training Matilda’s brother in the junk tricks of his trade at the auto shop. He’s teaching his son how to fudge the mileage on used cars by rewinding an odometer with a hand drill.

“This is illegal,” Wilson says, stomping an indignant little foot.

“You make money?” DeVito asks a 9-year-old. “Do you have a job?”

“No,” Wilson replies. (Of course, Wilson does have a job. We are watching her do it. She’s hard at work headlining a major motion picture that ends up grossing $33 million at the box office.)

I, too, am 9 years old, watching Wilson back in 1996, crossing my gangly legs one over the other on the beige carpet in my family’s den.

“But don’t people need good cars?” Wilson-as-Matilda asks. “Can’t you sell good cars, Dad?”

“Listen, you little wiseacre,” DeVito begins, launching into one of those custom-made lines for movie trailers. “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Wilson takes one decisive look around. She sees her father’s signature hat next to some superglue.
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You Don’t Have to Eat It

Digital Light Source/UIG via Getty Images

It’s maddening enough when your kid won’t eat anything unless it’s white or orange. It’s even more maddening when, once upon a time, you were that kid.

In Serious Eats, Irina Dumitrescu continues to confess to imperfections that so many adults have in common, yet so often refuse to admit. (She did this last year, too, in an endearing Longreads essay about learning beginner ballet as an adult.)

Despite their inexperience with mealtime negotiations, parents of adventurous eaters are long on advice for the parents of picky eaters, but short on understanding. Experienced parents tend not to understand their child’s eating habits, either — sometimes forgetting or denying whether they themselves ever struggled with growing out of a childhood food aversion.

Do picky children never age? If they do age, did they all refuse to procreate? So many adult hands are still going up in frustration, as though each individual kid invented this monochromatic conspiracy. Dumitrescu proves that at least one parent out there actually remembers being one of these kids, and gets what it feels like on the other side of all those shame-ridden battles around what she would and wouldn’t eat.

Here Dumitrescu embraces her son’s habits with the same warmth and understanding she brings to her own adult flaws, admitting that she, too, once had a hard time stomaching food that was unfamiliar or unappetizing.

Watching my son refuse food sometimes feels like payback for the trouble I caused my family. He is not polite in letting us know how revolting he finds a dish he has not even deigned to taste. I have lost much of the pleasure I used to take in cooking, frustrated by having my efforts in the kitchen treated with reliable disdain. His kindergarten teachers rave about his creativity and kindness, but then, with a lowering of the voice, remark on how poorly he eats compared with the other children. His grandparents prepare him meals out of special children’s cookbooks, and look on with barely disguised concern as he rejects the spinach lasagna or broccoli bake the author assured them would be a hit. My husband and I have taken to opening kids’ cookbooks, staring at the photos of Things That Are Not Plain Pasta, and laughing the hollow laugh of the defeated.

Still, the boy grows. He has boundless energy. He is clever and fun and loving. There is nothing visibly wrong with him. His doctor is unconcerned. When I see people try to cajole him into acting like a normal hungry child, I feel like I am the only person who really understands him, his one ally in a world of robust and unquestioning eaters. I know the frustration of being browbeaten into eating something with a texture or smell I couldn’t bear, of staring down a plate of unfinished food for hours. I recognize his stubbornness, the way he turns down even a food he loves if he feels he is being coerced. I resent that his eating habits so often overshadow his many good qualities, as though this one flaw weighed heavier in the balance than his curiosity, empathy, or devilish grin.

I, too, was defined by what I didn’t eat, by the one area in life in which I was not perfectly obedient. I, too, was encouraged to ignore my instincts and preferences at the table, urged to continue stuffing myself even when I felt full. I was taught to feel guilty about what I didn’t put in my mouth, and now I often feel guilty about what I do. As hard as it is to see my son turn down the food I want to share with him, I do not want the family table to be a battleground for his bodily autonomy.

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Distraction is the New Censorship

Statues of men wearing headphones
Monument to the Bandeiras, International Noise Awareness Day in Brazil. (Dario Oliveira/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In today’s attention economy, ideas don’t need to be deleted or redacted to be silenced. They can be drowned out privately, screen by screen, by unchecked noise from decoy bots, doxxing campaigns, and filter bubbles.

In WIRED‘s Free Speech issue, Zeynep Tufekci describes how so many of the “most noble old ideas about free speech simply don’t compute in the age of social media.”

The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself. As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out. They look like epidemics of disinformation, meant to undercut the credibility of valid information sources. They look like bot-fueled campaigns of trolling and distraction, or piecemeal leaks of hacked materials, meant to swamp the attention of traditional media.

These tactics usually don’t break any laws or set off any First Amendment alarm bells. But they all serve the same purpose that the old forms of censorship did: They are the best available tools to stop ideas from spreading and gaining purchase.

John Stuart Mill’s notion that a “marketplace of ideas” will elevate the truth is flatly belied by the virality of fake news. And the famous American saying that “the best cure for bad speech is more speech”—a paraphrase of Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis—loses all its meaning when speech is at once mass but also nonpublic. How do you respond to what you cannot see? How can you cure the effects of “bad” speech with more speech when you have no means to target the same audience that received the original message?

Freedom of speech continues to be an important democratic value, Tufekci writes, “but it’s not the only one.” The First Amendment isn’t even the only amendment to the Constitution, let alone our only vision for a functioning democracy. Ideally, we’d also have a knowledgeable public, a capacity for informed debate, an atmosphere of honesty and respect, and a transparent system for holding powerful people and institutions accountable to their constituents.

But constituents aren’t users, and today’s giants of search and social are hardly bastions of free speech. Algorithms promote democratic ideals about as often as they safeguard friendships from advertisers. While social media platforms may feel like vibrant public spheres, they’re more like operating theaters. Procedures are expertly monitored in a controlled environment, and the glass only goes one way.

“To be clear, no public sphere has ever fully achieved these ideal conditions,” Tufekci reminds us, “but at least they were ideals to fail from. Today’s engagement algorithms, by contrast, espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.”

But we don’t have to be resigned to the status quo. Facebook is only 13 years old, Twitter 11, and even Google is but 19. At this moment in the evolution of the auto industry, there were still no seat belts, airbags, emission controls, or mandatory crumple zones. The rules and incentive structures underlying how attention and surveillance work on the internet need to change. But in fairness to Facebook and Google and Twitter, while there’s a lot they could do better, the public outcry demanding that they fix all these problems is fundamentally mistaken. There are few solutions to the problems of digital discourse that don’t involve huge trade-offs—and those are not choices for Mark Zuckerberg alone to make. These are deeply political decisions. In the 20th century, the US passed laws that outlawed lead in paint and gasoline, that defined how much privacy a landlord needs to give his tenants, and that determined how much a phone company can surveil its customers. We can decide how we want to handle digital surveillance, attention-channeling, harassment, data collection, and algorithmic decision­making. We just need to start the discussion.

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