Prince Harry & Duchess Meghan Warn of a “Global Crisis of Misinformation” During Time100 Talks

Omid Scobie
·13 min read
Photo credit: Time
Photo credit: Time

From Harper's BAZAAR

Continuing their focus on rebuilding a humane and compassionate digital landscape for the world, Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan gave deeper insight into their soon-to-be-launched nonprofit organization after holding a series of online talks addressing the need to drive change for communities both online and offline.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who have become increasingly invested in holding tech companies accountable for the spread of misinformation on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, curated a special lineup for an episode of TIME magazine’s Time100 Talks series, which was streamed across multiple online platforms on October 20.

The couple spent two months working to put together a series of topics and issues for the two-hour online event that would also reflect the work they are currently doing—and conversations they are currently having—to create a healthier digital environment. The digital experience, they feel, has taken a huge toll on the world’s emotional and mental well-being, on trust in the information society consumes, and on the way people treat one another. “They believe that can change and needs to change,” a source close to the couple tells BAZAAR.com. “The Duke and Duchess believe that the critical issues we’re collectively facing—like racial justice, gender equity, climate change, our own health, and the strength of our democracies—are at the precipice of progress. That belief reflects a core element of their organization, Archewell.”

Speaking to TIME’s editor in chief, Edward Felsenthal, Meghan explained, “Both of us realized that we can continue to champion these things that we’re passionate about. We can continue to do this work to try to affect change and help the people who need it most or the communities or environments that need it most, but it’s almost like you’re taking two steps forward and five steps backward if you can’t get to the root cause of the problem. Which at this point right now we see in a large way as a lot of what’s happening in the tech space.”

The duchess also gave further insight into how the couple began their journey on the issue, which was propelled to life after a visit to Stanford University in February to meet with researchers and professors specializing in the field. “It can feel really overwhelming to try to understand all the nuance of what happens online,” Meghan said. “It is all-encompassing and it affects us at a multifaceted level. And so we started with professors and experts in the field, with defectors from some of the largest platforms, neurologists—people to really help us view it through a holistic approach. And in that there have been relationships, and now friendships, that we have formed with a lot of these people who have a shared goal of wanting to make this space healthier and better for all of us.”

Added Harry, “What our job is, especially throughout these conversations, is to get people to listen to the experts and for them to explain how what’s happening in the online world is affecting the world. It is not restricted to certain platforms or certain social media conversations. This is a global crisis: a global crisis of hate, a global crisis of misinformation, and a global health crisis.”

In a one-on-one conversation with Reddit cofounder and close friend Alexis Ohanian, the duchess heard the entrepreneur talk about his decision to step back from his role at Reddit so his spot could be filled by a Black candidate, something he is still receiving hate mail over. “I thought about the role that [Reddit] plays and the role that all social media companies play in our society and the world that it’s shaping for everyone including people like my daughter, like my wife, I knew that I had a responsibility to be able to answer her when she asked me in 10 years when she’s a snarky teenager, you know what I did to help be a part of making things better for her,” he said.

Since Ohanian’s career move in June, the company has focused on clamping down on hate-based communities on the platform and has begun enforcing stronger policies that reject hate in a more effective way. “I know there’s a lot more work to be done, and I hope that this is really a first step for me to try to just be more deliberate in the work that I’m doing and frankly more effective in the work that I’m doing to create a better future for my daughter and lots of other people who look like her,” he said.

“You are leading by example,” Meghan told Ohanian, who is married to tennis icon Serena Williams and shares a three-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr, with her. “And I think, you know, I’m sorry to hear that you’re still receiving hate mail. I know we have shared experiences in being in interracial marriages and you know raising small children who are of mixed race and how that plays into that.”

Ohanian went on to call out the homogeneity of the Silicon Valley founders and early employees at tech and social media start-ups, which created “blind spots” that 15 years on are still a core part of the landscape. “We’re finally connecting the dots as an industry I think we’ll start to see more change, but it hasn’t happened fast enough,” he explained. “And frankly it’s sad on the one hand that it’s had to become a business decision. But the fact that it is now sort of tied to the key drivers of the business, it means that it can’t be undone. We now have to think of the trust and safety of our users, just as importantly as we think about growth and just as importantly as we think about revenue.”

As the pair discussed the need to safeguard users and employees of the platforms, including the well-being of the growing teams who are in charge of moderating user-generated content (a former YouTube content moderator has sued the company after developing PTSD), the former Reddit CEO stressed the importance of building tools to ensure that small vitriolic groups don’t have a platform to spread their beliefs and hate.

Photo credit: YouTube
Photo credit: YouTube

Meghan added, “The good outweighs the bad, but my goodness the bad can be so loud, the damage that happens as a result of that is just—I think you’ve talked about and you tweeted recently that we haven’t yet begun to realize the legacy and the effects that all of these platforms and what social media and what the online space is doing to all of us on a deeper level. … We’re in it now, but we have a chance to get ourselves out of it.”

Embracing his new role in the tech world, Ohanian added, “I just can’t help but want to create a world that is just fair to my daughter. And I know that that’s lofty, but it’s a thing worth striving toward. And you know, I’m gonna work every day to get a little better.” Smiling, Meghan responded, “Thank you for doing the work and leading the way and finding solutions, not just for all of us, but for your little girl, for our little boy, for all of us.”

The Sussexes sat together when they interviewed Tristan Harris, the Silicon Valley veteran who cofounded the Center of Humane Technology and a prominent speaker in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, and Safiya Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression, which offers an in-depth look at how negative biases against women of color are embedded in search engine results and algorithms.

During the discussion, Noble referred to Meghan’s own experiences of being the target of online hate. The University of California professor explained that if one is part of a community “targeted with hate, disinformation, calls for genocide, calls for racist violence against you, misogyny, as Meghan I know you know so profoundly, the technologies are able to ... amplify those kinds of messages and those kinds of harms. The harms don’t just live in the platform. They often extend to shaping behaviors that people also act upon. This is why we have to understand the power and potency of these technologies.”

Both guests agreed that the most damaging content flows through platforms too easily, causing untold damage along the way. Racism and sexism, said Noble, is “big business” on ad-driven platforms and social media. Harris added that tech companies have created a business model that thrives on disinformation, controversial opinions, and fake news. “They are competing to seduce us with that promise of virality,” he said, using the hashtags that promise billions of views on a single TikTok video as an example. “But of course that doesn’t reward what’s true, what’s credible, or what is really good for society.”

For Meghan, she revealed her worries about moderating content, questioning whether it’s enough for platforms to be self-policing. Both guests admitted that they have doubts as to whether the tech companies can be trusted to self-police: Noble believes that they have already failed to do so, likening the situation to “foxes guarding the henhouse.” All four agreed that it shouldn’t solely be up to the user to drive change or put their devices down. “To make it a personal responsibility for a systemic, oppressive issue is what’s inhumane,” said Harris.

What users can do, Noble recommended, is to vote for policies and people “who are aware of what’s happening and are able to truly intervene.” Harris also suggested following practical advice shared by the Center for Humane Technology, which includes turning off notifications, removing “toxic” apps, and not supporting sites that pollute the cultural environment with vitriol via clickbait and outrage.

“I love talking to you guys in a way that anyone, anywhere can understand it,” Harry said. “It is really confusing, especially if you’re coming in cold. So much of [today] is about awareness.”

During the next conversation, Harry discussed the issue of misinformation online with Renée DiResta, a research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, and Maria Ressa, a journalist and founder of the Filipino news site Rappler—Ressa is currently facing six years in jail in the Philippines after a court found her guilty of “cyberlibel” in June due to the site’s criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ressa and DiResta both agreed that the rise of algorithm geared toward increasing online engagement has led to “a collapse of shared realities” within democracies. “What we see are the things that are curated for us,” DiResta said. Ressa called the issue “an erosion of democracy,” adding, “When you have a democracy, and an algorithm that is meant to exploit your weaknesses to keep you on the platform, when that is what determines the context of the messages that give meaning to your world, you’re really reduced to meaninglessness. The designs of the platforms themselves actually encourage ‘us’ against ‘them.’”

Nodding his head in agreement, Harry—who himself has also been critical of clickbait culture and the British tabloid press—said the need for instantaneous information is a “natural conflict” for reporting. “As a journalist, that must be incredibly hard because there’s competition that is now being created where you have to get something online first,” Harry stated. “And if you don’t then you lose out by however many millions of clicks, and then commercially you lose out as well. And then surely the pressure that’s coming from above to get that story online as quickly as possible, all of a sudden the importance of facts is sort of pushed to the side, so invariably there’s this struggle to get the story first, and even if there isn’t a story, 24 hour news cycle, you gotta fill the space. You’ve gotta create the news.”

The duke added, “Media is a huge responsibility and a huge power, and it’s a privilege. But the moment that it gets taken out of responsible hands, then you have uncharted territory—chaos, one might describe it as.”

For the TIME100 Talks livestream, the Sussexes also invited other individuals they have been in recent discussions with to share their thoughts on other key issues. The five teenagers who founded Teenager Therapy, the podcast focused on teen struggles that Harry and Meghan recently appeared on, spoke about the need to create safe spaces online.

Rachel Cargle—founder of The Loveland Foundation, which connects Black women and girls to therapy support—spoke about “showing up” for mental health after first connecting with Meghan earlier this month for a talk about the importance of destigmatizing and promoting access to mental health resources, particularly for communities of color. And Naj Austin, CEO of Somewhere Good, a social platform centered around people and communities of color, shared an impactful message on her vision for the future of social media.

Earlier in the presentation, Felsenthal asked the duke and duchess about how they were doing amid the coronavirus pandemic, a question Harry explained has changed in meaning this year. “When people ask, ‘How are you?’ I sense, you know, it’s a case of ‘Really, how are you?’” he said. “Before this year, I think everyone sort of throws that term around and everyone’s satisfied with a ‘Yeah, I’m good. I’m fine, thanks.’ And then it’s moving on to something else. But I think you’re quite right. This year, more so than ever, it really is a question of ‘No, no, no. Actually, how are you?’”

For Meghan, she smiled when she said they’re using the extra time at their California home to connect with their one-year-old son, Archie Mountbatten-Windsor. “All things considered, everyone is grappling with a different version of the same thing,” she said. “For us, we’re trying to embrace all of the quality time we get with our son right now and to not miss a single moment of his growth and development, which has been really special.”

Reflecting on the series of talks, Meghan said she hopes that every viewer “comes away with one action item that they … can do in their own home.” For Harry, “I hope people come away with a sense of optimism. There are a huge number of experts that really know their stuff and that have done the research and have got the statistics that prove firstly the problem, but also have a part of the solution.”

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