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2017 was a year of scrutiny for social media and other tech

Technology in 2017 may have inspired more skepticism than the awe or optimism it has in the past. Such defining moments, from harassment allegations to hacking exploits, may have cast the tech industry in a much harsher light. Hari Sreenivasan takes a look back at the year's major tech stories with Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times and David Kirkpatrick of Techonomy.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Technology has traditionally been seen by the public and many in the media in a more hopeful light.

    But 2017 felt different, a year that frequently cast technology, and its unintended consequences, in a much harsher light.

    In a moment, we will have a conversation that I recorded last week in New York, but, first, a quick reminder about some of the major problems this year.

    Russia used Facebook and social media to try and influence the 2016 elections. The revelations reverberated throughout the nation's capital this year.

    As congressional committees detailed, Russian operatives bought ads that sought to capitalize on racial, religious and political divisions in the U.S. Just 120 fake accounts posted on Facebook 80,000 times and reached as many as 126 million Americans.

    Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, initially doubted that the platform could have influenced the election, but later pledged to make political advertising more transparent.

  • Mark Zuckerberg:

    Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser's page and see the ads that they're currently running to any audience on Facebook.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Members of both parties were angry at the company's slow admission, but the focus grew beyond just one company to other tech giants, since Russian agents used Twitter, Google and YouTube too.

    The Senate Intelligence Committee grilled top lawyers for the companies.

  • Sen. Mark Warner:

    Many of us on this committee have been raising this issue since the beginning of this year. And our claims were, frankly, blown off by the leaderships of your companies, dismissed, so there's no possibility nothing like this happening, nothing to see here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Hacking, a perennial problem, took on new urgency this past year.

    The ransomware cyber-attack called WannaCry temporarily crippled computer systems in hospitals, banks and companies around the world. More than 230,000 computers in 150 countries were affected. Just a week ago, the Trump administration named the country it says was responsible.

  • Tom Bossert:

    After careful investigation, the United States is publicly attributing the massive WannaCry cyber-attack to North Korea. We do not make this allegation lightly. We do so with evidence, and we do so with partners.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Hackers also tore into Equifax, one of the largest credit bureaus, stealing the personal information of more than 145 million people. They got Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and driver's licenses.

    The tech industry faced a new conversation on inequality by race and gender.

    Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber, published a damning account of a harassment-filled workplace culture. Uber fired 20 employees and it eventually helped lead to the CEO's resignation.

    She told "TIME" she was amazed by the reaction to her essay.

  • Susan Fowler:

    I expected it would be like a 24-hour, like, viral thing, but it didn't slow down at all. And I was reading through all of these things. And I thought like, oh, my gosh, like, I'm not alone.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Others, like Ellen Pao, who filed and lost a gender discrimination case against a powerful venture capital firm, said change was needed.

  • Ellen Pao:

    Well, I think if playing along means participating in sexist and racist jokes, that expectation has to change.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The year ended with a divisive decision by the FCC that many fear will lead to the end of net neutrality, the idea of treating all content on the Web equally without charging more or blocking your ability to see other content.

    For a closer look at the potential turning point that 2017 is shaping up to be for the most well-known tech giants, I'm joined by two people who follow that world closely.

    Farhad Manjoo is a New York Times columnist who writes on how technology is changing society and business. And David Kirkpatrick is the founder of Techonomy. He's a technology journalist and author of "The Facebook Effect."

    Thank you both for joining us.

    So, Farhad, let me start with you.

    How did tech shift in our perception this year?

  • Farhad Manjoo:

    Yes, I think we got, justifiably, a lot less optimistic about tech, and a lot more worried about the implications of a few big tech companies kind of taking over much of the world, much of our communications, much of how we kind of learn and experience the world, all of our personal information.

    And I think the tech companies responded to that. They started to notice. I mean, after the questions about the Russia hack, after questions about sexual harassment, they started to respond to these criticisms.

    And I think the key change they made was a lot of these — a lot of the big tech companies started, at first grudgingly and then more willingly, I think, they started to accept that they have some responsibility to the rest of the world, that their technologies aren't necessarily kind of neutral platforms, and that they have some responsibility to kind of police what happens there.

    How that plays out, I think, will be the big question of 2018. But this year, I think that the big change is that, in the past, technology companies sort of thought of themselves as kind of neutral. And I think that started to change. They are less neutral now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But, David Kirkpatrick, what happened to make Silicon Valley less the sort of darling of, well, Washington, D.C., as well as Wall Street?

  • David Kirkpatrick:

    Well, if there is one single thing that changed the situation, I would say it's Russian fake news affecting the election, in the opinion of — and the desire of Russia to alter our electoral process, and using Facebook and Google, but Facebook in particular, as a key means of doing that.

    And I think what that concern at a national level did was draw attention to the extraordinary social, cultural and informational weight of these companies, and then caused a lot of people to start asking bigger questions about what it meant that these very small number of tech giants have had such a monumental impact on our social dialogue and have, in effect, become the central platform for social dialogue, and increasingly in many ways for political behavior as well.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mark Zuckerberg famously said it is a crazy idea that they would have had any impact on the U.S. elections.

    And then, since then, he's made several statements that walked that back.

  • David Kirkpatrick:

    Right.

    He said that to me on my Techonomy stage in 2016 two days after the election, in which, by the way, I also asked him if Facebook had special responsibilities because of its scale. And he essentially demurred on that.

    So, again, while I agree with what Farhad said, it is really notable how much he has changed since then.

  • Farhad Manjoo:

    I think David is right.

    Mark Zuckerberg has changed in a way that I have been surprised by. When he started Facebook, the main sort of idea behind Facebook was that he wanted to kind of connect the world. Connecting the world, he argued, was enough.

    And that was kind of the general feeling among others in the tech industry, that just sort of building the technology, the technology itself would kind of help people, would democratize the world.

    And now the thing that Mark Zuckerberg talks about is not just connecting people, but creating meaningful connections. This is a — meaningful is a word he has been using more often lately. And what that means exactly is not clear.

    But they plan to change the Facebook news feed to address some of these concerns, both the fake news concerns, but also this idea that Facebook may be kind of putting us into echo chambers, kind of splintering much of our dialogue.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Well, Farhad, how much of this has to do with who is designing the underlying technology in the first place?

  • Farhad Manjoo:

    This is a big problem for them to solve.

    The big tech companies are all based on the West Coast of the United States, several here in California and then a couple in Seattle. Their sort of work forces kind of look the same. They are not very diverse. They are not gender-diverse. They don't have a lot of minorities. They are not kind of class-diverse or geographically diverse.

    And they are increasingly gatekeepers for information for not just the United States, but the entire planet. And so you really have this question where there are a small number of people who are essentially homogeneous kind of making decisions for the rest of the world.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    David Kirkpatrick, what is the likelihood, then, of these technologists attacking the problems that are underlying this, the diversity, the lack of transparency, and the ultimate consequences of the tools that they build?

  • David Kirkpatrick:

    Well, I think there is no question that there is a major shift under way in the mind-set of the Silicon Valley work force and the leaders of these companies that they have to do that.

    However, as Farhad has written, and as I firmly believe, it is an extremely challenging project to understand the true weight of these massively important systems in our society, and how to actually more effectively manage them.

    I mean, it is a question of governance, in effect. And the reality is when the public square is, in effect, dominated by commercial enterprises, who should regulate that is entirely undetermined. Clearly, these people are starting to recognize, if they don't take actions that appear to be in the public's benefit, they will become regulated by a government, both in the United States and abroad.

    And that process is happening much more in Europe already. They want to desperately avoid that. On the other hand, the ideas aren't really even there on their part as to what really could be done to properly regulate the flow of information, given their fundamental goal of selling advertising to make money on these services, because advertising effectively requires eyeballs and attention.

    And they still are more in the mind-set of drawing attention than they are of doing the right thing, in my opinion.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, David Kirkpatrick of Techonomy, and Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times, thank you both.

  • Farhad Manjoo:

    Thanks. Good to be here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Thanks.

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