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Ellen Pao has seen people at their worst. A tech investor and co-founder of Project Include, an advocacy group for equality in the tech industry, Pao is most widely known as the former CEO of Reddit. She was there for its most tumultuous era, when the company began a crackdown on involuntary pornography, otherwise known as "revenge porn." It was, at the time, an unthinkable reckoning—a company moderating its most toxic communities from the top down on an unprecedented scale, the kind of public intervention that Facebook and Twitter have only recently started doing after years of sustained pressure.
Pao's involvement in this, and other moderation efforts—as well as being one of the few women at the head of a major tech company—made her and other Reddit employees the target of some of the internet's worst and most motivated trolls, the sort that the rest of the world would not be acquainted with for several years.
Pao, in other words, is someone who knows what it's like to make a tough call in spite of a volatile internet audience. This is why she spent election night finding it particularly rich that, after years of trepidation, the cable news set suddenly took care to push back against Donald Trump's consistent claims of voter fraud.
It seems that, when President-Elect Joe Biden begins his tenure in the White House, the media apparatus—from cable news networks to social media platforms—are ready to stop making exceptions they made from Trump's lies, and Pao had some thoughts.
GQ: Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like, just seeing the national news media suddenly exhibit a responsibility towards disinformation as the election was underway?
Ellen Pao: I mean, there's a sense of relief. Like, Oh, finally these changes are happening. You know, I think the New York Times for the first time used the word "lies"—they had so many euphemisms! (Note: The New York Times frequently uses "lie" in its opinion section, but rarely in its reporting.) Falsehoods, false claims, misleading statements, false statements, baseless claims, you know, like all these super awkward phrases. And all of a sudden they found the word “lies” in their thesaurus and started using it! [laughs]
And it's like, it's a relief to see people no longer scurrying to find ways to dampen what was actually happening. But it's also super frustrating because, you know, we got here because you didn't do this earlier. And that's why we've got, you know, a quarter of a million people dead from COVID, we've got white supremacy flourishing and we've got all sorts of hate and harassment online and in real life, because you spent so much time trying to, um, you know, cover for him.
Re-alignment seems to be too strong a word for this —
Right, because that implies a deeper, core value shift.
Do you think that the incentives then, for more moderation and less euphemism, have started to shift already?
I'm curious to see how long this lasts. Are they going to say, “Oh, this is an exception for one outlier that's now been defeated, thanks to our efforts?” It's amazing to see people take credit for some of this late-breaking behavior.
Or: if they say, you know, we need to change our values. We need to be more grounded in truth. We need to change our processes. We need to follow our rules. We can't have these blanket exceptions. You know, to say like, “Hey, we cannot tolerate intolerance, we can't both-sides hate and white supremacy.” Right? Like these are the things that require real change. And I don't know if that's going to happen.
How do you think the symbiosis between Trump and media platforms is going to pan out? I know Trump has been very good for TV news ratings, and it seems like he is for social media platforms too.
Kevin Roose for The New York Times has a Twitter account that just tweets like the 10 most popular or highest-engagement posts on Facebook, you've seen that, right?
It's outrageous, the links that are most shared on Facebook! I mean, it's embarrassing, I think, to Facebook management that this is the stuff that their platform is best at sharing and best at amplifying.
I think the same thing goes for Twitter. Trump has how many millions, tens of millions—I think it's close to 100 million followers. And that's what the most effective use of the Twitter platform has been for the past four years. And not just on Twitter, but it also gets pulled by the mainstream press and shared in articles and shared online. And it's so toxic and it's been so harmful.
The argument for letting Trump and his surrogates spew misinformation on Facebook and Twitter has usually been "he's the president, so it's newsworthy," and that won't be the case anymore under a Biden Presidency—do you think there's a sense that won't matter?
I think it'll be interesting to see how they treat people and rule-breaking going forward when it's not the leader of the country, and whether they take deep look at what happened, what their role was in it, and what they want to see happen going forward and change their rules, change their approach, and really think about what they want their company to stand for.
One of the things you've been trying to make clear for the past few years is how media platforms are wholly focused on engagement, and it doesn't matter what kind of engagement it is—unless regulation is imminent. Do you think this election is changing the temperature at all? Or is moderation just happening because lawmakers are looking at tech platforms?
It feels like they're thinking, “All right, let's do the minimum to get through these PR crises.” And then, you know, [they] just go back to normal because it's not just that they only care about engagement. They want engagement that has conflict. That is the kind of engagement that drives a ton of traffic. Like at Reddit, when there was something controversial, our numbers spiked, huge amounts. That's where we had our growth, when there was something controversial.
When we had those unauthorized nude photos, our growth spiked so much we almost couldn't run the platform anymore. We couldn't run the site and we had to take down huge sections of the site. To our credit, we got rid of that, but it was a hard decision. We banned revenge porn and nude photos. And it was like, we were the first platform to do it. It was super controversial at the time. Like you look back and it's like, “Oh, it's really dumb that we allowed somebody to post stolen nude photos or to have revenge porn.” But six years ago, that's what everybody was doing.
To what extent is it even worth it for companies like Twitter to kowtow to bad actors who are always going to react the same way no matter the infraction? The goalposts just get moved further the longer you wait.
Because they're now stuck. They're public companies, they have numbers they have to hit. There's a lot of pressure on Jack Dorsey from investors and from board members. So he doesn't have a level of freedom to clean up everything, and that's just going to make it hard for him to put in changes.
I saw Margaret Sullivan's piece on how like, “Oh, the press is doing some good stuff now, and they've always done some good stuff”—but I'm like, now you're awarding the arsonist firefighter. Sure, they put out a couple of small fires, but they caused this five-alarm blaze for the past four years.You don't get a cookie for that. They shouldn't just get rewarded for doing the right thing when there wasn't as much of an impact. And when all the bad things that they did cause the problems.
You once wrote about how most of these tech companies were started by wealthy white men who couldn't imagine experiencing the worst of what these platforms have to offer —
And often they don't have friends who experience it either. So even if it doesn't happen to me, but I have a good friend and they tell me like, "Oh, this it's happening to me and it's important and you need to help make it stop.” Like then maybe I would do something about it. If it's somebody I trust, somebody that I want to understand, and that I, you know, value. But there's this whole segment of the population that it feels like people are completely out of touch with, and their problems aren't prioritized.
I keep thinking about moderation as deference. It used to feel like platforms were afraid of their audience, and now it seems like they're afraid of power — like the president. Is that a change you've observed over the last four years?
We were definitely scared of the audience when I was at Reddit. Like they might get really upset, or how are they going to respond? And are they going to harass employees, are they going to dox us (which they did). At one point they harassed an employee's sister like how far is the impact going to reach and how negative is it going to be?
Just reading some articles over the weekend, it struck me how afraid people were of the access to Trump. Like, is he going to give you information? Are people in his team going to give you information? Are you going to be able to scoop everybody else? And then the second part was, you know, Trump would actually call individual reporters, then have all of his, you know, all his followers and his own supporters go and harass them.
Laura Gómez and I wrote in January 2017 that Twitter should take Trump off for violating all of their rules. And there was an example of a girl that got targeted by a tweet from Trump and, you know, and then she just got incredibly harassed. And you look at [Michigan governor] Gretchen Whitmer being a target of kidnapping plans. There's a direct connection and it's not hard to make.
And in your experience, having banned toxic subreddits, does taking these measures improve things?
It was something that did have the positive impact that we were looking for, so it's doable and we've shown that you can do it. I'm always curious, like we got rid of revenge porn, we got rid of unauthorized nude photos—if Reddit hadn't had done that, would it still be there today?
The revenge porn?
Yeah. Like, if Reddit were still allowing it today, would it still be on Twitter and Facebook? Like would any other platform have gotten rid of it first? I don't know. It seems dumb. Like, it's so obvious, it's terrible content, but nobody had done anything up until 2015. I don't know.
Do you think we'll just see a renewed interest in rules and norms simply because we'll have an administration interested in them?
I talked to some activists this weekend and they were breathing a sigh of relief that, you know, we don't have four more years of this, but there's also a sigh of resignation. There's still so much work to push for change, to push the Biden administration to really move in a more aggressive way. The question is, are the media—both social media and, you know, publications— going to help with that, or are they going to hinder that?
I think It will be interesting to see if they can stick to this and call Biden out when he does things—I'm sure they're not going to be as bad and it's not gonna be as frequent, but are they going to, are they going to be able to do that, considering how haven't done it for four years.
Originally Appeared on GQ