Two court cases; multiple sexual harassment accusations; a 200,000 #DeleteUber campaign; and an exodus of senior executives. To say Uber’s had a bumpy start to the year is an understatement. You’d think the leadership at Uber would be curled up in a fetal position by now, gently whimpering. And yet, as Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues reports for the BBC World Service, the fight for ride-sharing and self-driving car supremacy continues full tilt. This week, Uber confirmed it’s hired a top AI expert tasked with rapidly building a self-driving car team in Toronto, Canada. Alison spoke with Professor Raquel Urtasun (pictured above) yesterday and reported on Uber’s ongoing challenges for the BBC World Service earlier today.
Listen to the BBC Click radio show podcast here
Or to the 5 minute Uber segment below:
Here’s a transcript of my report and conversation with Click’s host Gareth Mitchell (edited for length and clarity):
Gareth Mitchell: Today, more controversy at Uber. Has Uber been taking the regulators for a ride? According to the Reuters News Agency, the U.S. Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into Uber software that helped evade the city transport officials. The tool, called Greyball was originally designed to foil would-be fraudsters from using Uber services. So protecting your drivers by deterring undesirable passengers, that’s one thing, but now the suspicion is that Uber has also been “Greyballing” city officials investigating unlicensed Uber cars. Portland, Oregon said Uber used Greyball to evade 16 of its transport officials in 2014, before Uber was officially authorized to operate there. I’ve been hearing more from our Silicon Valley reporter, Alison van Diggelen. We started by talking about Uber’s other woes…Uber and Google’s Waymo are not getting on very well…
Alison van Diggelen: No, not at all.
WAYMO VS UBER
Alison van Diggelen: Waymo – Google’s self-driving car spinoff – has accused Uber of stealing 14,000 files – including trade secrets. It concerns blueprints for Lidar, the spinning laser you see on top of self driving cars. At a hearing in San Francisco last week, the judge said Waymo didn’t yet have “a smoking gun” i.e. enough evidence to prove its technology was being used by Uber. We’re still waiting to hear whether the the judge will issue an injunction – that could impact Uber’s ability to use or develop this Lidar technology – and impact its entire self-driving car plans.
Uber’s Anthony Levandowski is accused of stealing Lidar secrets from Google’s Waymo, Photo credit: Quartz/Mike Murphy
There’s also a criminal court case at the early stages investigating the software tool – Greyball – that allowed Uber to evade and deceive regulators in several cities. Software was used to analyze profiles and credit card information of potential Uber users, to avoid it being available to law enforcement officials. All this is piling on uncertainty to Uber’s existing challenges -it puts its long anticipated IPO on hold indefinitely. (Uber may miss a good “window of opportunity” to go public, while the bull market endures. It’s been valued at about $70Bn, that’s $20Bn more than Ford!)
Gareth Mitchell: This Greyballing software. Initially, this was just a way for Uber to protect its drivers from dodgy customers and the allegations go that they’re using it this more evasive way when it comes to regulators.
Alison van Diggelen: That’s exactly right. When regulators tried to use the Uber app in places that it was forbidden at the time – like Portland, Paris, Las Vegas – They’d just get a fake site. It looked to them as though it wasn’t available.
Gareth Mitchell: Uber lawyers have told authorities in Portland, Oregon that the Greyball technology was used exceedingly sparingly….But what other challenges does it face, Alison?
HIGH PROFILE HIRING
Alison van Diggelen: Given the court cases; and a series of sexual harassment accusations and an exodus of executives recently, you’d think Uber would face huge hiring challenges. But yesterday Uber announced it’s hiring a high profile Artificial Intelligence expert – Raquel Urtasun, so a little bit of good news for Uber. She’s a professor at the University of Toronto. She’ll lead the expansion of Uber’s self-driving team in Canada.
I spoke with her yesterday and she told me she thinks the negative stories about Uber are overblown. She plans to build a team of several dozen within a year to develop what she calls the “perception algorithms” for self-driving cars … Basically, they’re building the brain of the car so that it can transform what it “sees” – via sensors and cameras into an explanation of “what” it is seeing.
She acknowledges that competitors (like Waymo) are still ahead – they’ve been working on the technology much longer (since 2009), but she insists that Uber is getting closer every day. But Uber has a long way to go: Recent reports show its self-driving cars travelled on average of 1 mile before a human driver had to take control. Google’s Waymo cars disengaged at a rate of once per 5,000 miles.
Gareth Mitchell: OK. That is Alison van Diggelen, talking to me just before we came on air.
Alison van Diggelen: I also spoke with Anton Wahlman, a Silicon Valley Tech Analyst
He concludes that if Uber’s reported $3 billion loss last year is accurate, the company is operating at negative gross margins – ie subsidizing fares – to drive out competitors. Wahlman anticipates that as soon as prices rise to produce profitability, new competitors will simply enter the market. If Uber were a public company today he says he would short the stock.
There is mounting pressure for CEO Travis Kalanick to resign or step back from his leadership role. Since Uber began, he’s created an aggressive, “bad boy” culture at Uber and it’ll be hard to reboot that culture, but it’s still possible.
After all, replacing a founder (or founders) with a well established and experienced CEO is not unprecedented. Google appointed a “grown up” leader in its early days, not to change a “bad boy” culture but to drive rapid growth. Eric Schmidt, a veteran of Novell software, served as Google’s CEO for 10 years and passed the CEO position back to cofounder Larry Page in 2011. For now, it seems that Kalanick is holding tight to the steering wheel at Uber, but the pressure is growing for a co-driver to take over and navigate a safer, less turbulent road ahead.
The election of Donald Trump stunned the majority of people in Silicon Valley, but it also awakened many from their apolitical slumber. Today, leveraging technology is a key part of the national resistance movement. Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues found that Silicon Valley may be the epicenter of high tech, but old-school methods still have their place in the tech resistance, and techies are less partisan than you might expect.
(Photo credit: A young women protests at an immigration rally, by Chris Shipley/The First 100 Days Project)
“Good is going to come out of this difficult time. Too many people in Silicon Valley stood back from politics…it’s the context in which we’re building our businesses. We can’t continue to build democracy as if it’s all about capitalism and we can’t build capitalism without the context of democracy,” Chris Shipley, Founder The First 100 Days Project
In the same week that Hillary Clinton formally joined the resistance movement, the BBC World Service aired this report.
Listen at Click on the BBC’s World Service (@3:26 ) or to the short segment below:
Here’s a transcript of the report and discussion with Click’s host Gareth Mitchell and tech commentator, Bill Thompson (edited for length and clarity).
Gareth Mitchell: After 100 days (of Donald Trump’s presidency), what’s the view of the tech community? As Alison van Diggelen has been finding, attitudes aren’t quite as straightforward as you might think.
Mario Savio: There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part…and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, and upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop!
Alison van Diggelen: That was Berkeley student activist Mario Savio in 1964. Once again, Berkeley has become a flashpoint of political protest. The election of Donald Trump left many people in Silicon Valley shocked and outraged. Coder, Nick O’Neill was dumbfounded last November. But by inauguration day, he’d found his voice. He launched an app called 5Calls that makes it easy for citizens to become political activists. His app has enabled over 1 million phone calls to members of Congress in all 50 states. In US politics, old fashioned phone calls are still the most effective leverage. Here’s O’Neill:
O’Neill: People have tweeted us: I’ve never called my representatives before…but because we made it so easy… we put the phone numbers, and the scripts and issues together in one place, that helped them get over that hump. They know exactly what the process is.
van Diggelen: O’Neill is just one of hundreds of Silicon Valley techies leveraging tech skills, and a startup mentality to create a resistance movement against the anti-immigration, anti-environment, anti-globalization stance of Trump’s administration. Apps and projects include: Tech Stands Up, Track Trump, Swing Left, and the Tech for Campaigns Project…
What made the tech community wake from its apolitical slumber?
(Photo: “President Trump…therefore we resist” Interview with 5Calls Founder, Nick O’Neill at the Thinkers Cafe in San Francisco)
O’Neill: All these people feel disenfranchised, a little bit helpless, and so we’re all trying to build things to see what sort of change can make….The tech approach is to jump first, build things and see if it sticks. It’s the ethos that runs behind tech…
van Diggelen: But not all tech reactions are partisan. At the Free Speech Movement Cafe on Berkeley’s campus, I met with Ash Bhat, a 20-year-old student. He explains how Trump’s rhetoric felt personal for many, especially his Muslim and undocumented classmates. But it was a violent demonstration against a right wing provocateur on campus that inspired him to act.
Bhat: It was depicted as a group of Berkeley students destroying their own school and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Anarchists came in, breaking windows… I remember being in my rhetoric class, going to WhiteHouse.org …looking through the source code and I was like: hey this looks pretty scrape-able.
van Diggelen: Bhat found he can “scrape” or extract data updates from the White House every time an executive order is signed. The Presidential Actions app launched and his team now boast of tens of thousands of users across the political spectrum. They’ve resisted partnerships with partisan groups.
(Photo: Ash Bhat and I discussed the power of resistance in the Free Speech Movement Cafe in Berkeley. It’s dedicated to Mario Savio, whose passion inspired thousands of students and activists worldwide)
Bhat: As someone in tech, it’s a responsibility for us to build software that helps inform the public… be compassionate towards both sides and provide unbiased bipartisan information. There’s a lot of talk about the resistance…my worry is being too tied to a polarized side just feeds the echo chamber. The people who’re afraid of tech will no longer listen to it…
van Diggelen: How will he ensure Presidential Actions information is unbiased?
Bhat: We’re taking the actual docs from the White House, first hand primary documents, we’re looking at summarization algorithms as opposed to subjectively summarizing contents… We want to be able to present the news to our users so that they can come to their political conclusions completely by themselves.
van Diggelen: But the tech resistance isn’t all bits and bites. Remarkably, old fashioned ink and paper is part of its arsenal.
Chris Shipley has advised over 1500 startups in Silicon Valley. After the Women’s March in Washington DC, she was inspired to create “The First 100 Days Project” to chronicle citizen activism in stunning visual images. Her Indiegogo campaign aims to make commemorative postcards and a book. Why so old-school?
(Photo: Chris Shipley’s project aims to support “at risk” organizations such as Planned Parenthood, The Environmental Defense Fund and arts organizations)
Shipley: There’s something ephemeral about digital media – it a wonderful expression, a wonderful reach, but then we go to the next url and we’re on to something else. A book, a postcard, something you can hold in your hands has this reminder effect..a book can sit on your table, someone can pick it up, flip through it and come back to it again and again, and be reminded of the conversations happening in DC, in SF and Seattle, one march after another…
van Diggelen: But of course she’s leveraging technology via social media:
Shipley: Text msgs, IMs, Twitter, all social channels are ways of building awareness…allow the message to be amplified. It’s very gritty, hand to hand combat. If there’s a tech to get the message out, we’re going to use it.
van Diggelen: Shipley admits that her project is aimed at progressives, but is emphatic that they want to be heard and listen to the other side too…
Shipley: We’re in a really pivotal time. I’m a casual optimist, good is going to come out of this difficult time. Too many people in Silicon Valley stood back from politics…It’s the context in which we’re building our businesses. We can’t continue to build democracy as if it’s all about capitalism and we can’t build capitalism without the context of democracy.
Bill Thompson: A certain sector of the tech community has been enlivened by the election of Trump to deploy their skills. It’s always good when people get engaged in politics, but I’m reminded of Evgeny Morozov‘s book “To Save Everything Click Here” and part of me wonders how much real engagement these apps will get. There’s a danger of it descending into “clicktivism.” The app that encourages people to phone their representatives about issues that matter to them – on whatever side of the political fence you are – is a really important development there.
Gareth Mitchell: It’s a bit more active than clicking on something you agree with…you have to take some action…
Bill Thompson: Exactly. It’s not just “liking” something. It’s designed to take you through to be really engaged with politics. At a time when the U.S. does seem slightly fractured, it’s good to have things which encourage people to be politically active and argue for the things they believe in.
Gareth Mitchell: Yes, and follow people on Twitter with whom you don’t agree!
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Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard calls himself a “benevolent dictator” who levies a 1% “Earth Tax” from his company to fund environmental activism. Currently Patagonia is funding a campaign to protect Bears Ears National Monument, now under threat from President Trump’s executive order this week.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with this revered pioneer of environmental responsibility. Chouinard explains how a Scottish rugby shirt inspired his Patagonia business; why he believes regenerative agriculture could save the planet; and what he’s doing to ensure Patagonia’s environmental mission continues after he dies. Chouinard’s book: “Let my people go surfing” is an attempt to challenge business as usual and the culture of conspicuous consumption. The interview took place at the Heritage Theater in Silicon Valley in October, 2016.
Listen to this special Fresh Dialogues “Uncut” podcast:
Here are some highlights of the conversation:
On his 1% for the planet “Earth tax”
Yvon Chouinard: Your typical large corporation is out to make as much money as they can for the shareholders. And what the shareholders do with their profits is their business. We believe it should be done in the business as well. I believe in taxes. Especially the kind of taxes where you get to decide where the money goes. I think that’s called taxation with representation… So we just tax ourselves 1% of our sales – not our profits – 1% of revenue is given away to 900 different small activist organizations working to save our planet.
On Private vs public ownership
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve said that your stock holders are ‘the people of the planet’
Yvon Chouinard: That’s right. When you’re CEO of a public company you have no power. Your board, your stockholders tell you what to do. I can do whatever I feel like. We’re sole owners. We can make quick decisions, be a lot more efficient, move quickly. I would never think of becoming a public corporation….I’m a dictator…
Alison van Diggelen: A generous dictator?
Yvon Chouinard: The most effective form of government is probably a benevolent dictator. Things get done. Look at American politics. The best you can ever achieve is a compromise. And compromise never solves the problem. It leaves both sides feeling cheated.
Alison van Diggelen: What else have you been able to do because you’re a private company and you have this “dictatorship”?
Yvon Chouinard: [Laughter] It’s all through the company. There’s no boss looking over your shoulder. It’s a level society throughout the whole company. Outside the company we’re getting to be very visible. I can’t believe the power we have. We’re getting invited to the White House all the time to advise on policy (under President Obama).
On Patagonia’s business conflict: making money vs saving the planet
Yvon Chouinard: I’d say buying a jacket from us causes less harm to the environment than buying a jacket from another company that doesn’t put all the thought and processes causing the least amount of harm. For instance, we only use organically grown cotton. That’s fine. Growing cotton organically causes less harm but it doesn’t do the world any good. It still causes the world a lot of harm. That’s why I decided to go into the food business. I want to go beyond organic foods, organic cotton to what’s called regenerative agriculture. The difference is, regenerative agriculture builds soil and captures carbon.
And so now I have to go to my cotton farmers – who supply us with cotton – and say: you can’t plow any more because every time you plow, it releases all the carbon you’ve captured back into the air. So agriculture is one of the biggest causes of global warming so it’s probably the biggest thing we can do to save this planet. I’m really excited about this. I think it’s our only hope to regulate the climate. We’re not going to do it any other way. Agriculture has a chance of sequestering so much carbon out of the air through changing our grazing practices and our farming practices; and basically going back to the old way of doing things. And that’s what gets me excited.
On Being a Reluctant Businessman
Yvon Chouinard: I never wanted to be a business man. I was a craftsman. I just happened to come up with ideas that people wanted. I love working with my hands. I slowly got trapped…I had no desire to get rich. I’ve done a lot of climbing on every continent and became aware of all the destruction to natural world…I decided to use my resources, which is my business, to do something about the natural world. That’s the reason we’re in business.
On the Scottish inspiration for Patagonia
Yvon Chouinard: I was in the business of making climbing equipment…I came to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis and saw a rugby shirt in department store in Edinburgh. Back then, active sportswear was basically grey flannel sweatshirts and pants. Men didn’t wear colorful sports clothes. It had a blue body, yellow stripes. I was wearing it around Yosemite, everyone said, ‘Woah!’ A light went off…I imported a few. I said, maybe I’ll get into the clothing business.
On Steve Jobs, Apple and influencing businesses to be green
Yvon Chouinard: We’re influencing small companies, not large companies. A lot of the green stuff is green washing
Alison van Diggelen: Do you feel Apple’s efforts are green washing?
Yvon Chouinard: Absolutely – it’s like that with every large corporation. They’ll pick the low hanging fruit, but when it starts getting a little tougher…They’ll do the things that turn into more profits, but when you really have to knuckle down and be truly responsible, they’re not going to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: What’s been your biggest influence in greening the world? Business side or consumers?
Yvon Chouinard: Young people. I wrote this book “Let my people go surfing” – that has gone around in 9 languages and that has influenced a lot of young people and small companies are really paying attention. The idea of changing large corporations is pretty naive of me.
On Patagonia’s business philosophy
Yvon Chouinard: I never liked authority, I never liked telling people what to do. We decided to do it in our own style. That’s the title of my book “Let My People Go Surfing.” I don’t care when you work as long as you get your work done. You go when the surf’s up. Not next Tuesday at 2 o’clock. So it’s affected our management style. It’s created a way of managing a business so that we’re not tied down. We don’t drag our butts to work every day. We skip up the stairs two steps at a time. You don’t have to do it like everyone else. We don’t hire MBAs; we don’t have advertising agencies. We do most things ourselves because we can’t trust other companies to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: Beyond your lifetime, how will you ensure Patagonia keep the environment central to its mission?
Yvon Chouinard: We’ve become a B-corporation company… In a B-corporation you can put down what your values are and they have to be values that are good for the planet, good for society.
Alison van Diggelen: Will your son or daughter stay at the helm?
Yvon Chouinard: I don’t know…I have no idea what’s going to happen after I’m dead.
Alison van Diggelen: Are you grooming them to do so?
Yvon Chouinard: Yeah, they are slowly taking over more responsibility, absolutely. My daughter is head of sportswear design right now and my son is on the board. They both have the same values that my wife and I have.
Alison van Diggelen: One last question: going back to Scotland – John Muir, I know he’s been an inspiration to you. Do you have a favorite quote or inspiration from him?
Yvon Chouinard: [laughter] When I was a climber, it was John Muir and Emerson, Thoreau and the transcendentalists, philosophers which had a different attitude to climbing mountains than say the Europeans did, which was to conquer the mountains and our attitude was: you climb them and leave no trace of having been there.
Listen to my report on Chouinard and consumerism on the BBC World Service (starts @16:00 on the podcast)
Here are Fresh Dialogues Transcript & Highlights of my BBC Report
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This is the second in the series: Fresh Dialogues Uncut
The “Uncut” series launched with an in-depth interview with Google’s Dave Burke
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Irish immigrants have been in California since the gold rush days. On assignment for the BBC World Service, I went looking for the Irish in Silicon Valley and found that you can take the people out of Ireland – you can even take their pubs – but you can’t take Ireland out of the people….
Nevertheless, a new generation of Irish tech immigrants are less nostalgic for the past, and are redefining what being Irish means. They bond over mindset, not heritage; big dreams and an openness to new ideas and cultures. I started my quest at Trinity Cathedral in San Jose where a celebration of St Patrick’s Day and the San Jose-Dublin Sister City program was in full swing….
Here’s my report for the BBC’s Business Matters:
Listen to the podcast at BBC World Service or to the program excerpt below:
Here’s a transcript of my report (edited for length and clarity):
The report opens with traditional Irish singing by the Black Brothers Band “Green Among the Gold: “They played their jigs and reels beneath the skies of their new homeland, For Irish hands have woven strands of green among the gold.”
33 million U.S. residents claim Irish ancestry, that’s over four times the population of Ireland. With 2.5 Million, California has the highest Irish population of any state. It’s not surprising then that the Irish are making their mark on Silicon Valley…Is it the luck of the Irish, or something else?
Meet Eoghan (Owen) McCabe, CEO of Intercom, a fast-growing startup for business messaging. He and his three Irish cofounders have found a sense of belonging among the software and silicon of the valley.
Eoghan McCabe: One of the most magic things about this place is it does allow you to think big. We’re social beings, we’re all looking for the appreciation, respect, if not love of the people around us…
As well as working on something you’re passionate about, McCabe has this advice:
Eoghan McCabe: Work with people you love and know and respect…don’t try to rush the relationship.
He admits to a chip on his shoulder, an urgency to prove himself. How has being Irish helped him recruit, attract capital, and grow the business?
Eoghan McCabe: The humility goes a long way in the valley…there’s a lot of hubris, people are damn good at selling themselves. So it’s a breath of fresh air when people admit they’re flawed and they can’t predict the future and they might not succeed. That natural humility, that vulnerability, that honest approach goes a long long way…They want to be successful on the basis of their merits. What you don’t find often is people trying to play that Irish card.
Dave Burke, a Dubliner who’s now a VP at Google says his formula for success is seeking out challenges that are “uncomfortably exciting.” But does he seek out Irish techies for his 1000-strong team?
Dave Burke: We’re looking for not really the country culture, but the outlook and perspective culture: the energy, interest in making an impact, being smart. In tech… we want the best and brightest from all round the world, we want diversity…that’s antagonistic to the nationalist perspective. Nationalism looks backward, it looks unsustainable, it’s frightening… It doesn’t readily compute with people. Why wouldn’t you be open to new ideas and people?
But Burke acknowledges that some old traditions endure, especially on St Patrick’s Day.
Dave Burke: A meal of Guinness? Yes! [laughter]
Talking of drinks…Some immigrants were so determined to bring a wee bit of old Ireland to California, that’s literally what they did.
[Audio: Irish pub…] I’ve come to the O’Flaherty Irish Pub in San Jose to meet the owner, Marie O Flaherty.
[Audio: Guinness pouring….Barman: Guinness… 8 dollars ….]
That looks good….
Marie O’Flaherty: This is an authentic Irish pub – it came on a boat from Ireland everything you see – the signs, pictures, the bar, the stools, everything….
Over 15 years ago, her late husband Ray O’Flaherty bought the pub in Dublin on a birthday whim. Today, it’s a landmark in Silicon Valley, and ground central for St Patrick’s Day festivities in the South Bay.
Alison van Diggelen: Is fearlessness part of the recipe for success?
Marie O’Flaherty: You have to have a lot of guts to take it on, self confidence to know whatever it is, you can do it…
Being open to new ideas, like embracing craft beers, keeps the pub popular with the “young uns” she says. The family business nurtures connections with Ireland and the world, through tourism, close links to the Silicon Valley Innovation Center & sporting ties…
Marie O’Flaherty: All the rugby teams…New Zealand did the haka up on the bar here…they drank 11 kegs of beer that night.
Having a heart of gold is also part of the Irish success story…
Marie O’Flaherty: See this poor soul here…He’s a homeless…they give him a drink and send him on his way…You have to just look out for everybody…
Marie O’Flaherty and Mark Finn singing:
Oh Dublin can be heaven, with coffee at eleven, and a stroll down Stephen’s Green
No need to worry, no need to hurry…
If you don’t believe me:
Come and meet me there
In Dublin on a sunny summer’s morning…[laughter]
END of Report
Listen to the BBC Podcast or the audio above for a lively discussion with the BBC’s Roger Hearing and Bloomberg’s Nisid Hajari about the tech community in Silicon Valley; and how the President’s proposed travel ban is already having an impact on business and academia in the United States.
Check out the Fresh Dialogues Silicon Valley “World Series”
Mexicans in Silicon Valley
Africans in Silicon Valley
China in Silicon Valley
Last night, Donald Trump delivered his first address to Congress. For the first time, Trump actually appeared both presidential and optimistic as he delivered an upbeat message that called for unity and bipartisan action. But was it just a facade? Can Trump possibly deliver on his ambitious promises of generous tax cuts, massive infrastructure investment and immigration reform? After all, just hours before his speech promised “clean air and clear water” for all Americans, he signed an executive order dismantling EPA protections for lakes and waterways in the U.S. There are already cracks in the facade and many unanswered questions.
The BBC’s 5 Live asked me to share my perspective as Britain woke in sleepy amazement to this presidential performance.
Report by Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Listen to the BBC Podcast (starts at 21:36) or to the 4 minute clip below:
Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Colletta Smith: In the last few hours, the U.S. President Donald Trump delivered his first speech to Congress. He covered some familiar themes like job creation and infrastructure investment….The Silicon Valley journalist Alison van Diggelen is on the line this morning. Good morning Alison!
Alison van Diggelen: Good morning, great to join you.
Colletta Smith: Thank you for joining us again. You’ve been helping us with this whole story over the last year of Trump’s (campaign and) election. This would not normally make the headlines: a president outlining potential budget negotiations. Yet it has with Trump, because we were expecting a surprise. And perhaps the surprise is that there wasn’t really a surprise in the speech that he gave?
Alison van Diggelen: His performance tonight was a sharp contrast to the chaotic first 40 days of the Trump presidency. He was very presidential tonight. He stuck to his script and he had a much softer approach. He had a lot of “gifts” for everyone. He’s proposing what he calls “massive” tax relief for the middle class, cuts to corporate tax; $1 Trillion in infrastructure spending and a military spending increase of $54 Billion, which to put in perspective is the entire annual budget for UK military.
Colletta Smith: When it comes to adding up those sums…do we have any more details as to how he plans to finance those extra boosts?
Alison van Diggelen: That is the big question. It’ll be interesting to see how the markets respond. There are so many outstanding questions:
- How is he going to pay for these tax cuts and infrastructure spending?
- Can he get these measures through Congress?
- Will the Federal Reserve undermine his actions by increasing interest rates?
- Will he start a trade war with his tariff plans and threats to renegotiate multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA?
There are so many questions unanswered, so many details unanswered. There’s a big question mark over what the future holds.
Colletta Smith: At what point does the electorate, his supporters demand that detail?
Alison van Diggelen: The stock market is on a roll right now. The market is up 10% in the ” Trump rally” since the election. Who knows if that can continue? As we all know, the stock market can turn on a dime. It depends on optimism and if the market keeps that optimism. One analyst said, “The market likes to trade on hope,” and all these issues – tax cuts, deregulation, infrastructure spending – they’re all boosts to economic growth, but at some point if he’s not able to push ahead and make progress in Congress, there may be an adjustment of that optimism and people will say: these wonderful (economic stimulus) “carrots” are not going to happen, and then things could take a nose dive.
Colletta Smith: Alison van Diggelen, Silicon Valley journalist. Thanks as ever for joining us and giving us your analysis this morning.
Read more on Trump’s speech from the BBC and The Guardian
“According to a CNN/ORC poll of about 500 speech watchers, 57% said they had had a very positive reaction to President Trump’s Congress address, with seven out of 10 saying they believed his policies would move the US in the right direction.
His popularity, however, has hit a historic low for modern presidents after a month in office – just 44% of Americans think he is doing a good job, according to RealClearPolitics.
Mr Trump’s young presidency has been overshadowed by missteps including a high-profile court defeat to his controversial travel ban and the firing of a top aide.” BBC News
It’s beginning to feel a lot like 1984. Today, some politicians routinely use the term “fake news” to discredit any news they don’t like, or any news organization that asks hard questions. The term “alternative facts” is even being pushed by certain White House advisors. Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues investigates for the BBC World Service.
Online, how big is the actual fake news epidemic? No one knows for sure, but the the scale of the problem is potentially huge. Facebook has almost 2 billion users, Twitter has over 300 million; and according to Pew Research, about 60% of Americans get some news from social media. Assuming even a small percentage of users have nefarious intent, eliminating fake news and online abuse is a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. But after accusations of Facebook turning a blind eye on its rampant fake news and potentially impacting the U.S. election; the pressure to effectively and transparently root out fake news and online abuse is likely to intensify, especially with upcoming national elections in Europe.
“I think fake news impacted the election, just by the sheer volume… It can change your perception of the world…Even people who understand news and research can be tricked by fake news.” Adam Schrader, one of 25 former editors in Facebook’s fact-checking team. The entire team was fired by Facebook last summer, just before the election.
At the recent Watermark Women’s conference in Silicon Valley, I spoke with Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, CEO of Cell-Ed, an online education startup. Here’s the report I filed with the BBC’s Click Radio. It aired today on the BBC World Service.
Listen to the BBC’s “Fake it or Leave it” podcast here (first story in the program lineup) or listen to the 8 minute clip below:
Here’s a transcript of my report, edited for length and clarity.
Click Host, Gareth Mitchell: Misinformation is nothing new, as we heard last week from classics professor, Mary Beard. Today fake news has become a news story in itself. It’s becoming political, it’s undermining social media organizations, and mainstream media. Twitter and Facebook are taking action, but with so much being posted, isn’t it a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tide, trying to monitor and correct fake news? Our Silicon Valley reporter Alison van Diggelen has been seeking some answers from the big social networking companies and catching up with CEOs of startups, people like this:
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: Technology has always been a source of incredible opportunity, unlimited potential pathway and it’s always been destructive.
Alison van Diggelen: Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami is just one of many critics who argue that social network platforms are not doing enough to curb the dark side of the internet.
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: I work in community technology access centers…Everybody tells me worldwide, if you have 100 countries…with all these community access centers, isn’t that wonderful? You can bring digital media, books to that village. I say: it’s always double sided – by day maybe it’ll be used for education, and health access, and how to get a better job. But by night it becomes a digital brothel…
Alison van Diggelen: What should be done about that?
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: Own it! Twitter not taking a stand around the blatant misogyny and hate language… strange politeness in the face of atrocity is very frustrating.
Alison van Diggelen: What do you feel people like Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, the Twitter board should do?
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: There’s a responsibility to – at the very least – do one or two steps. Untruth is seen as truth because it’s relayed over a screen with a picture. You believe somebody’s story…If that story is a blatant lie, have a way to say “untrue.” Hashtag untrue.
Kara Swisher interviewed Sheryl Sandberg about why she didn’t attend, or even post, about The Women’s March. Sadly, Swisher didn’t ask Sandberg what she’s doing about fake news on Facebook. Next time, let’s hope!
Alison van Diggelen: I took Rothenberg-Aalami’s complaints to Twitter who gave an off-the-record account of their completely new approach to abuse online. Twitter’s VP, Ed Ho, is leading the online safety efforts (via @TwitterSafety) and last week demonstrated his “test-fast, fail-fast, adjust-fast” mantra by rolling out a new feature – eliminating user list notifications – and then promptly reversing it within hours, after an avalanche of user complaints. Last year, Twitter formed a Safety and Trust Council, partnering with over a dozen organizations to tackle online abuse. One of the members, Emma Llanso, a director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, cautions against a one-size fits all solution.
Emma Llanso: The same tools that can be helpful in protecting against harassment by blocking abusive content and taking down accounts can be weaponized themselves if you don’t have the right safeguards in place.
Alison van Diggelen: Without careful protections, trolls can use blocking tools to silence their victims. Although Twitter has promised an open dialogue, Emma Llanso is concerned about lack of transparency.
Emma Llanso: If I had my druthers, we’d be getting a whole lot more reporting from Twitter about the numbers…what is the scope and scale of the content moderation? What is the level of content that gets removed, what are biggest issues? It would help people pin down: harassment, terrorists content, hate speech…How are these moderation processes affecting public discourse?
Alison van Diggelen: As for fake news, why can’t Twitter and Facebook simply flag or censor what they deem fake? Llanso has this advice:
Emma Llanso: That puts way too much power in the company’s hands…Having one centralized decider is a really risky dynamic to set up…
Alison van Diggelen: I asked Facebook to comment and was directed to Mark Zuckerberg’s first post on fake news: We do not want to be arbiters of truth, he wrote.
Last week Zuckerberg wrote this update:
“Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information, including that fact checkers dispute an item’s accuracy.” Mark Zuckerberg
(To me, this sounds like an endorsement of the Orwellian concept “alternative facts.” – AV)
But Facebook fired its entire fact-checking editorial team after criticism last summer that it had a liberal bias and targeted right-wing fake news.
Adam Schrader was one of those 25 editors.
Adam Schrader: I think fake news impacted the election, just by the sheer volume of it that appears… Facebook has a bubble problem. It can change your perception of the world…Even people who understand news and research can be tricked by fake news.
Alison van Diggelen: Schrader told me he routinely flagged between 50 and 80 fake stories a day. He questions Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that fake news on Facebook is less than 1%.
Adam Schrader: I would question that statistic. I think it would be much higher…in the 5-10% range.
Alison van Diggelen: Since December, Facebook has begun partnerships with five media outlets, including the Associated Press and Snopes, that flag “suspect” stories…. But the AP’s Lauren Easton, told me that it’s only fact checked 36 stories since the project began. Facebook recently announced fact checking collaborations with German and French media. With national elections there this year, the pressure for Facebook and Twitter to tackle the deluge of fake news and abuse will only intensify.
Gareth Mitchell: So Bill Thompson, misinformation is nothing new is it?
Bill Thompson: I have a problem with the term “fake news” but the issue’s been around for a long time. In 2010, my Wikipedia entry was hacked to declare that I’d had a heart attack and died. I corrected it. (Today) it seems to me that there are actually four different things going on:
- There’s the thing that was fake news, which is overt lying by people who want to get clicks on their website and make money.
2. There’s fake news which is propaganda, designed to promote a particular ideology.
3. There’s just out and out lying, like Bill Thompson is dead…May be a joke? For whatever reason.
4. And then there’s stuff you don’t want people to read, which they* call fake news to distract you from what they’re really saying.
(*Donald Trump routinely calls unfavorable news stories “fake news” – AV)
The problem that Facebook, Twitter, and everyone have is that no single tool, or approach or set of practices can possibly deal with all of those, so there will always be some material that fails to get stopped or fails to get flagged. We do need to be a better educated and more aware population to look out for these sorts of things, and not instantly believe everything we read on a screen, just because it’s on a screen.
Gareth Mitchell: I absolutely agree and that extends to things that people listen to on this radio program, any information you receive. Check it out for yourself.
Bill Thompson: Learn how to check it.
Gareth Mitchell: It’s always been an important skill…all the more pertinent given what’s going on in these times.