As befits a talk about fake news, the last tech-related South by Southwest keynote for 2017 was a big bait-and-switch. Yasmin Green, director of research and development for Alphabet’s Jigsaw division, was the speaker and she could have spoken about the many real-world problems her startup within the Google/Alphabet empire is trying to solve with technology, from hate speech to censorship to fighting injustice and corruption on a global level to make the world safer.
Instead, curiously, Green decided to take the Tuesday SXSW audience on what she called a “Field trip,” the way all major Jigsaw projects start.
“We don’t think you can design meaningful technology without talking to the people in danger,” Green said at the start of the keynote.
Or if not in danger, at least you can talk to the people who are major contributors to the problem or challenge: the keynote became an interview with two purveyors of fake news with Green as the intellectually curious, often bemused interviewer. She spoke with Jestin Coler, the man behind the fictional Denver Guardian news site, which spread whoppers last year including the idea that microchips would be implanted into Obamacare users and that food stamp recipients were using them for marijuana.
Green also interviewed Jeffrey Marty, the man who created the wildly popular and totally fake Rep. Steven Smith Twitter account and who claims to have created the “Bernie Bros” narrative during the 2016 presidential election.
It wasn’t a talk for everyone: once it became clear that this was the talk and that these were the individuals who’d be sharing their stories and tips, some attendees of a conference themed this year to creativity and inspiration started streaming out. Before the talk was over, only about a third of those in the room were left, with many coming in for seats for the next talk as Green was wrapping up the conversation.
But for those who gave the two guests of Green’s a chance, it was a fascinating look at the “#FakeNews” problem, how it originated and what motivates those who spread false narratives. For Coler, it’s been profitable, but in the case of Marty, who is a Donald Trump supporter but only in the mess-with-the-establishment sense, there’s been no money to make. He’s been motivated by the humor of what he’s doing, by seeing establishment politicians have to react to Trump and fake news, and by having influence.
Of Trump, he said, “I thought he was the one guy who could say what he meant and maybe actually do it. And force these other guys, push them in the direction where they have to do something that matters,” Marty said.
It was a lot to unpack, and if Green was at all hesitant about giving these guys a platform, it didn’t show in her interview style, which sought understanding without passing judgment on the long-term consequences (if indeed there are any) of what Marty and Coler did last year, actions they both said were not meant specifically to swing the election.
Green could have turned the focus on her own work and explained how Jigsaw would tackle a problem like Marty and Coler (are they a problem? That may be debatable) and how technology could do that. Maybe it’s that this is a new case study and Green’s not that far along.
Whatever you think of the fake news phenomenon, Green’s decision to use a SXSW keynote to drill down with such focus on one topic was bold, to say the least.
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