Pando

As 2017 gets ever more horrific, Silicon Valley is now at war with itself

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 2, 2017

From The Guns Desk

Tech hasn’t just lost soft power the world over, having put itself at new risk of global regulation, it’s increasingly becoming embattled within its own ranks.

This past weekend, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone Tweeted this:

Yeah, it must feel awful to have abuse hurled at you via Twitter simply because of who you are. I haven’t heard such a self-unaware statement since Secret’s head of marketing complained that journalists were saying mean things about the company’s execs without accountability.

A billionaire white man whose platform has facilitated the bullying countless women and people of color-- even putting them and their families in very real danger-- claims he’s the real victim here. What was that we heard about all those white “economic anxiety” Trump voters…. They felt a “loss of agency”?

You only have to look at the replies to see how Biz’s complaints went over, and not just by people who have been subjects of Twitter abuse, but by other members of the tech world.

Yonatan Zunger who worked on policy issues at Google+ and YouTube dismantled team Twitter Tweet-by-Tweet, saying Twitter had clearly never taken abuse seriously, and became infatuated by its role with Arab Spring, always coming down on the side of “free speech,” not caring if unchecked bullying impugned the free speech of others.

Meantime, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg tried his best at a sincere apology in honor of Yom Kippur, writing "For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness." Some in tech were not having it, given everything that has unfurled since.

And all that was before we woke up to a mass shooting, and a government that will do even less than was done in the Barack Obama era to curb gun violence.

I was reading Hillary Clinton’s new book “What Happened” this past weekend, and she writes about the tactics the NRA used to combat her candidacy.

A 2017 Quinnipiac University poll showed that 94% of Americans are for comprehensive background checks, including 92% of gun owners. And yet, she writes, “it became conventional wisdom that it was safer for Democrats to say nothing at all about guns and hope the NRA stayed away.”

Clinton was not in that camp. And before she got into the presidential race officially, the head of the NRA vowed he would “fight with everything [they’ve] got” against her becoming President, saying her victory would be “a permanent darkness of deceit and despair forced upon the American people.”

The gun lobby kept its promise. It spent more than $30 million supporting Trump, “more money than any other outside group and more than double what it spent to support Mitt Romney in 2012.” A lot of the tactics? Fake news spread through social media and on TV in battleground states that misrepresented Clinton’s actual position.

Once again, thanks Facebook and Twitter.

For all the talk that the NRA’s lobbying power holds this nation hostage, it’s tech that is the largest lobbying group in America, tech that controls the flow of information, tech platforms that people turn to in times like these.

And, as many on Twitter have noted, Facebook and Google had fake news and conspiracy threads at the top of their news feeds this morning.

It’s hard for me to remember a time that I’ve seen and heard so many people inside the tech industry, openly disgusted with the tech industry.

So what comes next, tech leaders? Another open letter in the New York Times? More talk about “smart guns”? More thoughts and prayers?

Two years ago, I did a Q&A with Huffington Post co-founder, Buzzfeed Chairman and LHV partner Ken Lerer [disclosure: a Pando investor] in the aftermath of another mass shooting. Lerer has spent a good deal of his career, personal time, and money trying to build platforms and support non-profit groups to combat the NRA.

I re-read the interview this morning, and it captures my sense of frustration, anger, heartbreak and hopelessness that our government and people in our industry more powerful than me will never do anything to solve this problem.

Excerpts of it are below...

Ken Lerer: I have nothing intelligent to say. All I have is emotion. It’s such a ludicrous situation the country has put itself in by being bullied by the NRA for so many years. There’s a myth that exists that every Republican and way too many Democrats believe, that they will not get reelected if they go against the NRA. They are putting their own selfish views above what many of them believe in their hearts. They are all voting based on their pocketbook.

This is an issue that is never going to change unless it comes from the bottom up. Other issues over the past…. well, since forever… all major changes come from outside not from Washington out. Until people and corporations and the populace decides enough is enough the NRA will win because they only have to convince 535 people that they will beat them up in an election.

Sarah Lacy: Why is this the issue that we don’t see change on? I’m stunned we saw change on gay marriage quicker than gun control.

KL: The only hope is what you just said: At some point issues flip. They just do. And once they flip, they don’t flip back. I incorrectly thought the tragedy in Connecticut would be a tipping point, and it wasn’t and that is still mind-boggling to me. We had Obama and leadership on this issue and it’s still so confusing why nothing happened.

But the NRA brought the hammer down. They are the most obnoxious, controlling, horrific lobbying group in Washington and people are just afraid of it. It has to start from the bottom up. Bloomberg and his organization are doing spectacular work. If the horrific news stories on a weekly or monthly basis won’t change it… it’s just going to be a long slog.

It’s about the most frustrating thing I’ve seen in my life.

SL: Do you think the frequency of these attacks is starting to numb people to the horror of it?

KL: You mean are people getting immune to it because it’s endless? I don’t know. Moynihan had a theory about the homeless 40 years ago -- I’m probably going to screw this up-- but that there were so many homeless people that everyone became immune to it. I think that maybe at some point this will be looked at as an epidemic and then maybe something will happen. Crime in New York City streets became an epidemic thirty years ago and people got together and said “This has to be stopped,” and it was turned around.

I don’t know that people are becoming immune, it’s just those 535 people in Washington that are scared of the NRA. I don’t even believe the polls. I don’t think they are asking the right question. They are asking for a ban, no one is talking about a ban, we are talking about gun laws that make sense. People who are mentally ill shouldn’t be able to own guns. The NRA is a horrific organization that has scared the bejesus out of Washington.

SL: What makes the NRA so effective?

KL: They’ve been at it a long time, and they have a very small and very vocal constituency and they take credit for elections when they give even a little money to the campaign. They are probably the best lobbyists in Washington right now.

SL: So what can anyone do to fight them?

KL: I don’t have any good thoughts on it. Bloomberg’s organization is doing amazing work. At some point maybe this will flip. If it flips, it flips. It’s going to be a lightswitch. Like seat belts or smoking or gay marriage. Whether it takes -- God forbid-- another tragedy or series of tragedies or a Democratic president or the Senate going Democratic...I don’t know.

SL: You’ve spent your whole Internet career pretty much fighting the NRA… has digital media accomplished anything meaningful in this fight?

KL: I started an organization called StoptheNRA.com, that’s how I first got into the world of the Internet. The whole point was to start a guerilla digital content company. We signed up 150,000 people back then and that was a lot, I think it was like 2001. We had petitions and we made great progress and were even a part of defeating a bill about assault weapons.

SL: Has social media helped or hurt?

KL: Social media plays both ways. You just have to go onto any social feed and see all the horrific things going on about this issue, and then see very positive things. Each constituency takes what they can take from it. I don’t think it’s been meaningful either way.

SL: So what are you doing? Are you just done? Do you have another attempt to fight this in you?

KL: I’m on the board of the Bloomberg group and working with them. Every once in awhile I say to myself, “Kenny, you should go do this full time again.” I guess I’m always thinking about and looking for an opening, and I haven’t seen an opening.

After Connecticut I did it nonstop for a time. We took out that full page ad from the New York Times and a bunch people signed on and we made some noise. We were on the cusp of getting legislation done and then it just pooped out.

I think about it all the time. I’m racking my brain for an opportunity to step back in in a big way, but timing is everything. It’s depressing.