Kara Alaimo: Tech CEOs should stand up to Trump with plans to rein in misuse of the internet and social media
She says Facebook should team with Politifact to tag Trump's comments, shut down bullying, push back at any plans for 'Muslim registry'
Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She served as spokeswoman for International Affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
In a widely shared article this week, Recode’s Kara Swisher argued that the tech CEOs who were to meet with Donald Trump Wednesday – including Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Alphabet’s Larry Page and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella – “should be ashamed of themselves for lining up like sheeple” after the president summoned them.
True, tech CEOs have a right to be angry. Trump misused social media during the presidential campaign to lie to the American people and bully his opponents. His campaign was also boosted by the hackings of email accounts of Democratic operatives.
But giving him the silent treatment would have been sophomoric and counterproductive. Instead, tech leaders would do well to stand up to Trump.
While Trump reportedly wanted to discuss job creation, they should have their own agenda, one in which they band together. Ideally, it would include the following:
1. Facebook should partner with the Pulitzer prize-winning website Politifact to begin fact-checking all statements that Trump, his cabinet secretaries, and his top White House aides post on the platform.
This is particularly necessary because, according to Politifact, just 14% of Trump’s statements to date have been true. The American people won’t be able to participate in our democracy if we don’t know the truth about what’s going on.
As Founding Father James Madison explained, the “right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon … has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.”
So anytime senior Trump administration officials post on Facebook, Politifact’s team – fortified with new funding from the social network – would get to work. As soon as they reached a verdict on where a statement falls on Politifact’s scorecard – true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” – they would post an icon next to the Facebook post, along with a link to a longer explanation.
Ideally, Sandberg would be in a position to notify Trump of such a new initiative Wednesday. Better still, she’d be able to notify Trump on behalf of Twitter – whose CEO was strangely, and notably, not invited to today’s meeting – that they would be doing the same.
2. The CEOs publicly pledge that they’ll never voluntarily share user data with him and they’ll never build, or hire anyone who works on, a registry of Muslims or illegal immigrants.
Trump transition adviser Peter Thiel, who helped convene Wednesday’s meeting, is co-founder of Palantir, the big data company that already has a contract for a database that could help the Trump administration crack down on these groups. Thiel’s closeness to Trump has led to fears that he’ll expand such deals.
Many tech engineers have already signed a pledge to never work on a Muslim registry. But for those on the fence, knowing that doing so will foreclose future employment opportunities at some of Silicon Valley’s most attractive employers would likely make the decision to decline easy, starving Palantir of top talent for such assignments.
Cook must also reiterate that Apple won’t help federal law enforcement officials crack encrypted communications. Those requests could well be used to target critics of Trump, who has a history of lashing out at his detractors.
3. Google’s Page and Microsoft’s Nadella must plan to implement new security measures to protect individual email accounts — and put Trump on notice about such a plan. This is necessary because Russia hacked the Gmail account of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, Democratic and Republican National Committee email servers, and email addresses linked to the Republican National Committee. More recently, a foreign government has been attacking the Google accounts of liberal journalists and professors, including me.
There is no evidence that Trump had any involvement in the attacks – though he did publicly call on the Kremlin to hack Clinton’s email address. But he certainly benefited from them, because the hackers released only the emails of Democrats.
Tech CEOs must let Trump – who has already said he plans to be president for eight years – know that he won’t be able to count on such help when he runs for re-election.
4. Facebook should plan to block fake news sites altogether, and announce this to Trump.
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Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed found that the influence of fake news was so great in the election that, by the end of the campaign, the 20 fake news stories that received the greatest engagement – measured in shares, reactions and comments – outperformed the 20 biggest legitimate news stories. Seventeen of the 20 fake stories favored Trump, such as those claiming he was endorsed by the pope and the one headlined, “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide.”
Trump must know that henceforth social media users will judge him based on facts.
5. Finally, Sandberg’s job will be done only after she warns Trump that Facebook’s Community Standards will ban hate speech, which includes content that “directly attacks” people because of their religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or other characteristics.
This is necessary because, during the course of the presidential campaign, Trump called for a national ban on Muslims, called Mexicans rapists and criminals, and mocked a journalist who had a disability. His supporters have regularly sought to amplify his remarks on social media.
Sandberg should inform Trump that, according to the social network’s rules, “organizations and people dedicated to promoting hatred against these protected groups are not allowed a presence on Facebook,” and that Trump and his supporters will be in danger of having their accounts shut down if they engage in such attacks on social media.
Sandberg should also tell Trump that she won’t allow him to single out ordinary Americans for attack on Facebook – like the 18-year-old college student he bullied on Twitter who later received rape and death threats.
Because such cyber threats are almost always leveled by men against women, University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron says they can be considered hate crimes. While it’s fine for Trump to fight about issues or argue with people who have actively chosen public life, Sandberg must let him know that his future attempts to cybershame individual citizens will be deleted.