We’re not as divided as we think we are

The United States is not as polarized and angry as you think it is. The shrill voices that dominate discussions online and in the press are actually a very small percent of the US population. Unfortunately, social media and the press accidentally amplify the voices of the angriest people, giving us a twisted view of society. It’s like we’re all trapped in a funhouse, staring at the mirrors 24/7, believing they’re real.

The way out of the funhouse is to spend more time listening to average people, the ones who aren’t trending on Twitter. If you do, you’ll find that most of your neighbors are far more reasonable and willing to compromise than you expected. We don’t all agree on everything, but there’s a lot we can do to work through our differences. To help make that happen, some of my coworkers and I are setting up a new website, called the Human Empathy Project (link). We’ll bring you video of regular people talking about the country’s problems. The stories you hear may surprise you, and give you some cause for hope.

Here are the details on what we’re doing, and why…

My employer, UserTesting, helps companies get super-fast public feedback on just about anything: websites, apps, marketing messages, etc (link). You specify what you want to test, and within a few hours you get video of your customers reacting to it. UserTesting processes more than 130,000 of these feedback videos every month.

This year we’ve experimented with using that system to get feedback from average people on hot-button national issues, starting with the pandemic and branching out to include the election and racial justice.

We learned two important things:

•  First, it turns out regular people are very willing to speak candidly in a video test. Most of them welcome the opportunity to be heard.

•  Second, the stories we heard from regular people were strikingly different from the narrative we all see on social media and in the press. The people we heard from were far less polarized, more thoughtful, and more willing to compromise than the voices that dominate the national debate. It was like we’d slipped into a parallel universe in which Americans were still willing to listen to one another and work together to help the country. (That doesn’t apply to everyone, of course, but the really polarized people are a small percentage, at most about one person in ten.)

This was a puzzle. The UserTesting platform is designed to gather feedback from average people chosen randomly, so we couldn’t understand why we were getting results so different from the things we see online. We investigated further, and it turns out there was nothing wrong with our methodology — we were hearing from the true mainstream of the country, one that is vastly under-represented online and in the press.

We also found that we’re not the first people to notice this disconnect. For example, a nonpartisan research organization called More in Common did a very extensive survey of Americans in 2019 and concluded:

“Today, millions of Americans are going about their lives with absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other. Partisan media consistently elevates the most extreme representations of ‘them’…. This creates a false impression that outliers are somehow representative of the majority….Despite America’s profound polarization, the middle is far larger than conventional wisdom suggests, and the strident wings of progressivism and conservatism are far smaller…. Yet both sides have absorbed a caricature of the other.”

--Hidden Tribes report by More in Common, 2019 (link).

How did we get so out of touch with each other?

There’s a toxic feedback loop between social media and the news media. It works like this:

Behavior in online forums is driven by something called the 1% rule: The vast majority of the content posted to a forum is created by about 1% of its users (link). That’s just a basic fact of human behavior, and everyone who runs an online forum knows about it.

What many people don’t understand is that those 1% are not a representative sample of the rest of the forum’s membership. Something unusual has made them far more motivated than the average visitor. It may be that they’re more interested in the subject, or they may be trying to become influencers, or they may be working through other issues that make them want to talk. Whatever the cause, they’re not average.

In most online forums, this self-selection bias doesn’t have a big negative effect. It means the reviews on a travel or restaurant review site will be written by people who are especially enthusiastic about traveling or eating out, but usually that’s OK. However, in a mass social network like Twitter or Facebook, it has a profound effect on discussions about social issues and politics. The people who post heavily on those subjects tend to be extremists, the angriest and most polarized members of society.

For example, just 2% of the US population writes 97% of the Twitter posts on national politics, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center (link). Those 2% “political tweeters” are not representative of the country as a whole. Pew found they’re more extreme in their politics and are more likely to be hostile toward members of the opposing party.

This is not a conspiracy theory. I’m not saying 2% of the population got together and decided to hijack the country. It’s just the way people behave on online. Similar biases happen in every social media platform. Add them together, and the voices we hear on social media are systematically far more polarized, shrill, and confrontational than the population as a whole.

But I don’t think social media alone could create the divisions we see in society. Huge chunks of the population don’t pay attention to social media. About 78% of Americans don’t have Twitter accounts, and only 4% of Americans say social media is their main source of political news (link)

This larger problem is that the mainstream press, which far more people do rely on for news, too often treats social media as an opinion poll and source of stories. The things that reporters see online often shape news stories and drive the selection of what gets covered. We’re bombarded with reports about issues that are trending on social media, or quotes from someone who posted something offensive online. Let me give you a couple of examples of how pervasive this problem is…

Here’s a screen capture of the top story on the Fox News website on the day after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died:

If you read the story, it tells you that several people online threatened to protest violently, and a Canadian lawyer and a Fox news host both said that’s a bad thing. I agree, it is a bad thing, but how did it become the top national news story? Given who writes most posts, the real news would have been if no one said anything offensive online (link).

Lest you think I’m picking on the right wing, check out the New York Times’s coverage of the Pence-Harris vice presidential debate. On the home page, above the fold, there was an article describing online comments about the debate. Before quoting from a bunch of Twitter posts, the reporter described the Internet as “that insular, blue-check-verified version of the proverbial diner in a steel town” (link).

The trouble with that sentence is that the Internet actually is nothing like a diner in a steel town. If you went to a diner in a steel town you’d get a random sample of working class people in middle America. When you go to Twitter you get a self-promoted sample of angry people and celebrities, all looking to get noticed by saying something snarky. It’s not a survey, it’s performance art. 

I’m not saying the press is evil. Most reporters are trying to be professional and are under huge stress from the changing economics of the news. But social media is seductively convenient to a reporter. You feel like you’re in touch with the mainstream of society when actually you’re soaking in a hot tub with a bunch of fanatics. I think many reporters are spending way too much time in the tub.

When we make the things that people say online into news, we’re missing what’s really happening in the country. We amplify the voices of the extremes, and play them back as if they represented the center of society.

Our constant diet of anger and division are breaking down the dialog that makes a society livable. More in Common found that about 77% of Americans are in an “exhausted majority” caught between the extremes. They are willing to work together and compromise to solve the country’s problems, but feel intimidated and shouted down by people with extreme views. More in Common wrote:

“We don’t seem to disagree anymore without perceiving another person’s views as stupid, wrong or even evil. We’re being played off each other; and told to see each other as threats and enemies, not Americans just like us but with separate experiences and views. The loudest and most extreme voices get heard, and others just feel like tuning out altogether.”

We need to change the dialog

If the problem is built into social media and the press, how do we solve it? We can start by getting more exposure to regular people. If we heard from each other more often, the extremists couldn’t make their caricatures stick.

My coworkers and I are launching a project to help regular Americans listen to one another. Called the Human Empathy Project, it’s a website where we share the voices of regular people discussing their views and problems (link). Through videos in which they get to do the talking, you’ll understand where we actually agree and disagree, and the reasons why. Sometimes we’ll dig into the reality behind an issue that’s generating controversy. Sometimes we’ll just feature people talking about their lives and challenges, so you can get a better understanding of other Americans.

We’re launching the site with three sets of videos:

•  The views and concerns of undecided voters in the 2020 Presidential election (they’re far more nuanced and informed than the stereotype) (link)

•  Messages that regular Americans want to send to the country (we asked a balanced mix of Republicans, Democrats, and independents, and I bet you’ll have trouble telling the difference between them) (link)

•  A look at the hardships being caused by the pandemic (they vary tremendously from person to person) (link)

In the weeks to come we’ll post additional videos on other important issues. I think you’ll find that your real neighbors are far more reasonable and thoughtful than you realized. We sometimes disagree deeply, but there are usually understandable reasons for those disagreements, the sort of things you could work through over a cup of coffee. And I promise we won’t take sides against anyone — except maybe the people who tell you that the other side is evil and that you have to destroy them.

Please join us, listen to each other, and get to know the real America.

Note: Although we used the UserTesting system to collect these videos, the opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the company.

Q. Are the big tech companies guilty of antitrust violations? A. It doesn't matter, they will probably be punished anyway

In a previous post, I wrote about the big tech companies’ tin ear for public relations, and how that’s feeding mistrust of the whole industry (link). More than a year later, we’ve made little progress on public mistrust, and that’s feeding a legal and regulatory attack on the industry. Today I’ll talk about that attack, and why it should worry all of us, not just people who work in tech.

If you grew up in a democracy, you were probably taught that the rule of law is essential to a free society. It’s supposed to work like this:
     - The law describes clearly what's illegal
     - If you're accused of breaking the law, you'll be tried by an objective judge or jury who protect your rights
     - If you're innocent you'll go free
     - If you're guilty your punishment will be comparable to that of others who committed similar crimes
     - The law can't be changed after the fact to make you guilty

None of those principles apply to the antitrust actions being proposed against the big tech companies. For those companies, actions that were previously legal are now being made illegal. This change is being made without the enactment of new laws, but rather by reinterpreting existing laws to give them dramatically different meanings. Many of the people accusing the tech companies are not objective; they are also the ones who will judge them. And the punishments are being made up as we go along.

Don’t get me wrong, I'm not here to excuse the actions of the big tech companies. As I’ve said before many of them have done things that are morally reckless, stupid, and bad for society. You may think they deserve to be punished. In some cases I agree.

But let's all be clear about what’s going on right now: The crusade against the tech companies is much more about emotion than rationality, and it’s eroding the rule of law that protects us all from arbitrary action by populists.

If this doesn’t scare you, it should.

Here's why:

Fun and games with the federal government

In my career, I've had a lot more involvement with competitive law than I wanted. Specifically, I had a front row seat to four cases:
     - When Apple sued Microsoft for stealing parts of the Macintosh interface, I was working in Apple's competitive analysis team. I saw the runup to the suit, gave a deposition, had a lot of in-depth interaction with Apple's lawyers, and saw how the legal system worked.
     - When I worked in the Visual PC group at Silicon Graphics, I saw firsthand how Microsoft and Intel manipulated their products and licensees to keep control over the PC market.
     - While at Palm, our legal team had me travel to brief the Federal Trade Commission on what we believed were deceptive advertising practices by Microsoft. I saw up close how the government handled that case.
     - Also while at Palm, I was subpoenaed to testify in the states’ antitrust suit against Microsoft. That involved many more  trips to Washington that I wanted, a deeply unpleasant time in federal court, and another inside look at the system in action.

In all four cases, my side, the people and companies I thought were in the right, lost. My painful experiences being beaten up by big competitors ought to make me rabidly enthusiastic about the charges against today's tech titans. But I’m not, because there’s a double standard in play. The courts and government decided the behavior of the “Wintel” duopoly was generally legal, and those companies escaped serious punishment. I didn’t always agree with that outcome, but there was a logic to it, and it set out some fairly consistent rules for what tech companies could and could not do. Apple and Google and Amazon and even Facebook have generally followed those rules; their behavior wouldn’t have even gotten you charged in the 1990s, let alone punished. So why are we now talking about breaking them up?

How competitive law used to work. Traditionally, regulation of big companies has focused on one central principle: Are you hurting customers? If the answer was yes, the government would act aggressively against you, on the assumption that individual customers didn’t have the ability to defend themselves against a corporation. But if there was no customer harm – in particular, if prices weren’t being jacked up – the government left companies to duke it out in the market, with the idea that the public should be allowed to choose the winners and losers rather than a government bureaucrat. Here are a couple of examples of how it worked:

Example 1: Deceptive advertising. When I worked at Palm, Microsoft was late in focusing on mobile, and did a lot of misleading promotion for Windows CE (the mobile version of Windows). In particular, it made claims in ads that overstated its features outrageously. We were so mad about it that we complained to the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising. The FTC asked us to give it a briefing. That seemed to go well, and we thought the government was going to protect the good guys (us) from unfair advertising by the beast in Redmond.

Imagine our surprise when, months later, the FTC accused both Palm and Microsoft of misleading advertising. Ads from both companies, we were told, had failed to disclose that if you bought a wireless device you'd need to pay for a service plan. We thought that was kind of obvious, but it was the early days of wireless data and the FTC said our ads might deceive customers. Palm and Microsoft were both forced to sign consent decrees, legal agreements with the government committing us to add text to every ad, for many years, saying that a service plan was required for wireless data.

It was a slap in the face for both companies, but we got the FTC's message: Don't come to us whining about your competitive problems; we're here to protect consumers. I was not happy at the time, but gradually I’ve come to respect the government’s behavior. Companies have lots of money and many different ways of defending themselves; they should not expect the government to do them favors. Individual consumers have much less power. So the priority is to protect consumers from predatory behavior by companies.

Example 2: Tying products together. At several places where I worked, one of our biggest complaints against Microsoft and Intel was that they manipulated the Windows-Intel standard to protect their other businesses. For example,
     - Microsoft threatened to withhold its Basic programming software from Apple unless it licensed the Mac interface to Microsoft
     - When Silicon Graphics tried to enter the personal computer market with a computer that had supercharged graphics, Intel withheld its latest processors from SGI until Intel’s own competing graphics accelerators reached the market
     - When Palm had its most momentum in the market, Microsoft threatened and manipulated our ability to sync Palm handhelds with MS Office, in order to discourage IT managers from standardizing on us

I complained bitterly to our lawyers about this "tying" together of unrelated products. But I was told blandly, "the courts don't view tying as illegal unless you can show that it's increasing prices to consumers." Once again, the standard was not complete fairness between companies, but avoiding predatory behavior against consumers.

Today’s tech leaders are not breaking traditional competitive law

The big tech companies are being threatened with all sorts of new regulations and lawsuits, but by the standards of previous decades, it's almost impossible to make a case that they've broken the law.

Has Amazon's e-commerce business hurt consumers? It’s hard to find the damage. Amazon has almost certainly lowered prices and increased availability of goods, especially for people outside the big cities. Yes, it has taken money from a lot of other retailers, but there’s a long tradition of competitive change in retail. What’s happening in online commerce is just a continuation of a trend that’s been going on at least since the first mail-order catalogs took on general stores in the 1840s (link). More recently, in the late 20th century Walmart devastated the shopping districts of small towns across America (link), and nobody broke them up. On the contrary, Sam Walton (founder of Walmart) was a folk hero.

Has Google increased prices on anything? Considering that it gives away most of its software, it's really hard to make that argument. Even the things Google charges for are usually cheaper than the alternatives. For example, Android is incredibly less costly to license compared to Microsoft’s old OS pricing, and Google Docs is far more economical than traditional Microsoft Office was. Google has definitely hurt the advertising industry, and other tech companies, but remember that hasn't been illegal in the past unless it raised consumer prices.

What about Apple? They definitely charge a premium for their products. But nobody I know of is being coerced into buying an iPhone. There are very good, lower-priced alternatives in the market. People choose to buy the iPhone and Macintosh because they like the brand, because of peer pressure, and because they admire their design and features. Nothing about that is illegal. The App Store is definitely a monopoly, but having a monopoly isn’t illegal unless you use it to raise prices, and the way Apple manages the store has driven down app prices, not raised them. The one time Apple did conspire to raise prices, in ebooks, the feds slapped them down promptly (link).

Meanwhile, Apple’s tight control over iOS applications has kept many viruses out of its phones. All those controls suck for software developers, and I don’t really like them, but they haven’t been predatory against consumers.

Then there’s Facebook. It’s an arrogant and reckless company that’s pathetic at public relations. But that’s not illegal, it’s just stupid. The time Facebook did break the law is when it failed to protect consumers’ privacy after promising to do so. For this it has paid huge fines and agreed to a consent decree that puts its privacy policies under an external monitor (link). Good. To me, that showed the system was working – when Facebook broke the law, it was punished, and it’ll be punished a lot more severely if it does so again.

The real motivation behind the attack is emotion

There are many more charges against the big tech companies, and I don’t want to go through all of them here. But in my opinion, none of the situations would have, in the past, justified the extreme act of breaking up or deeply regulating a company. So the people who are advocating heavy regulation are trying to reinterpret the law.

There was an article about the process in the NY Times last year, headlined “To Take Down Big Tech, They First Need to Reinvent the Law” (link). The article explains many of the arguments being made by the re-interpreters, and it makes the point that there’s a history of antitrust law evolving. (If you want to read a much more detailed article on that subject that covers both sides of the issue, check out the article here).

But that’s not the most important part of the article. I think the key phrase in it is this one near the start:

“Big technology companies work on artificial intelligence that threatens to create a world where human beings are eternal losers.”

Think about that for a second. It’s an amazingly sweeping assertion. I know the reporter is trying to summarize the public mood, but the fact that the paper put it in a news article without any attribution or supporting evidence is shocking to me. Unfortunately, this is a common pattern in much of the recent coverage of the tech industry. At its heart, the campaign against the tech companies isn’t really about antitrust law, it’s about fear of the future and distrust of the people running tech. We’re making decisions emotionally, and then trying to rationalize them by cherry-picking the evidence.

The legal system (and the professional press) is supposed to protect us from this sort of hysteria. If you're reporting on an issue, you're supposed to cover it in a balanced way, and to fact-check every assumption. If you want to change the law, you’re supposed to propose a bill, debate it, pass it through Congress, and get the president to sign. It’s an intentionally complex process, designed to force us to pause, think about what’s happening, and listen to arguments on all sides of the issue.

Re-interpreting the law bypasses all of that process, and puts us at risk of creating new rules that do more harm than good. To give you a couple of examples:
     - One proposal is to prohibit tech companies that have marketplaces, like Amazon, from selling their own branded goods. But if you make that a rule, what’s to stop it from eventually applying to Trader Joe’s, or to the discount house-branded products in every grocery and drug store in the country?
     - Another proposal says tech companies should be prevented from buying startups that might threaten them. But if you cut off the possibility of selling a startup to a big company, you reduce the incentive for VCs to fund those startups. You could end up crippling the creation of startups rather than increasing it.

But my biggest concern is that if we give in to hysteria in this situation, what’s to stop us from doing it again and again, every time a group or an industry becomes unpopular?

Who’s to say the next reinterpretation of the law won’t be used against you?

In an age of general fear and populism, eroding the rule of law is the last thing we should be doing. If you really believe that tech needs to be reined in, write a bill and let’s debate it. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.

That’s my take on the legal situation; I welcome your comments, including disagreements. There’s also an underlying issue we should be discussing: Why have we all become so angry and afraid that we’re willing to sacrifice the law this way? Until we’ve dealt with that underlying situation, society will continue to be at risk from hysteria and the bad decisions it produces. I think the tech industry bears some of the blame for this mess, and also can help to help fix it. I’ll cover that next time.