With our politics increasingly polarized and democracy in retreat, worried Americans are responding in all manner of ways. Some, such as former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, have mounted a fight against voter suppression. Others, such as Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, are lobbying social networks to change their products and policies to promote transparency and accuracy in political advertising.
And then there’s the actor Chris Evans, best known for playing Captain America in 10 Marvel movies. According to an earnest new cover story that came out today in Wired, Evans is doing …….. this:
He would build an online platform organized into tidy sections—immigration, health care, education, the economy—each with a series of questions of the kind most Americans can’t succinctly answer themselves. What, exactly, is a tariff? What’s the difference between Medicare and Medicaid? Evans would invite politicians to answer the questions in minute-long videos. He’d conduct the interviews himself, but always from behind the camera. The site would be a place to hear both sides of an issue, to get the TL;DR on WTF was happening in American politics.
The origin story of A Starting Point, as the site will be called, is as follows. One day during a break from filming Avengers: Infinity War, Evans was watching the news. He heard an unfamiliar acronym — NAFTA, or maybe DACA. He Googled the term, and was met with headlines that took multiple, competing points of view. He clicked on the Wikipedia entry, but found that it was very long. “It’s this never-ending thing,” Evans told Arielle Pardes, “and you’re just like, who is going to read 12 pages on something?”
I don’t know — someone who cares?
In any case, Evans was crushed by the realization that to answer his question, he might have to read for several minutes. And so he decided to solve his problem in the next-most-logical way: by flying to Washington every six weeks, recording more than 1,000 videos of members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates, and posting them on a website that he built with an actor friend and “the founder and CEO of a medical technology company called Masimo.”
And when all the videos are posted, what then?
If Evans got it right, he believed, this wouldn’t be some small-fry website. He’d be helping “create informed, responsible, and empathetic citizens.” He would “reduce partisanship and promote respectful discourse.” At the very least, he would “get more people involved” in politics.
Of course, all that assumes that people who won’t read a Wikipedia entry will watch videos instead. I would always rather read a few sentences about an unfamiliar subject than listen to a congressman filibuster about it until the camera shuts off, but maybe you’re a big fan of C-SPAN.
Still, there are a few obvious problems with Evans’ brainchild. One, it presumes that citizens can best be informed by hearing directly from politicians. Certainly politicians have a privileged viewpoint when it comes to some subjects — primarily their own opinions. But on most subjects, the median member of Congress can only repeat what they were told in briefings by staffers and lobbyists. To suggest that they have a monopoly on the truth is naive.
Two, A Starting Point assumes that you can reduce partisanship by exposing people to multiple points of view. In fact, the opposite is true. Human beings are fact-resistant, never more so than when a fact contradicts a closely held belief. Earlier studies found a so-called “backfire effect” in which seeing a fact contrary to your opinion would make you believe your erroneous opinion even more. Later studies have struggled to replicate that finding, but at the very least it seems fair to say that changing people’s views is extremely hard to do, especially with mere facts.
Finally, A Starting Point begins from the premise that voters are all basically the same, and differ primarily in how much information they have about candidates and issues. In reality, politics is tribal. As Ezra Klein explains in a book coming out later this month, Americans are increasingly polarized around their identities, with partisan affiliation representing a large and growing portion of that identity. Thus the inclination to dismiss what members of the opposing political party say out of hand, based on what they represent.
I don’t want to come down too hard on Evans here: there are worse ways to spend your time than trying to increase participation in the political process. (For example, Evans’ Avengers co-star Chris Hemsworth has a subscription-based fitness app.) But if you’re worried about democracy, you’re probably better off banding together with existing civil society groups, activists, and political scientists than you are going it alone. Defeating Thanos required that the Avengers work together with heroes even stronger than themselves. Captain America knew that. It’s a shame Evans doesn’t.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Facebook launched a new security feature that sends users a notification when their account is used to log into a third-party app. It’s both an added layer of protection and a way for people to gain more control over their information.
⭐ The National Security Agency announced that it alerted Microsoft to a vulnerability in its Windows operating system, rather than following the agency’s typical approach of keeping quiet and exploiting the flaw to develop cyberweapons. Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger at the New York Times explain the significant change in protocol:
The warning allowed Microsoft to develop a patch for the problem and gave the government an early start on fixing the vulnerability. In years past, the National Security Agency has collected all manner of computer vulnerabilities to gain access to digital networks to gather intelligence and generate hacking tools to use against American adversaries.
But that policy was heavily criticized in recent years when the agency lost control of some of those tools, which fell into the hands of cybercriminals and other malicious actors, including North Korean and Russian hackers.
By taking credit for spotting a critical vulnerability and leading the call to update computer systems, the National Security Agency appeared to adopt a shift in strategy and took on an unusually public role for one of the most secretive arms of the American government. The move shows the degree to which the agency was bruised by accusations that it caused hundreds of millions of dollars in preventable damage by allowing vulnerabilities to circulate.
California’s new privacy law gives consumers the right to see and delete their data. But getting access often requires giving up more personal details. (Kashmir Hill / The New York Times)
Network security giant Cloudflare said it’s going to give its security services to US political campaigns for free. The move is part of the company’s efforts to secure upcoming elections against cyberattacks and election interference. (Zack Whittaker / TechCrunch)
The person tasked with creating and enforcing Twitter’s rules is the company’s top lawyer Vijaya Gadde. She says CEO Jack Dorsey rarely weighs in on individual enforcement decisions. Oh, well in that case! ( (Kurt Wagner / Bloomberg)
⭐ Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the company will probably never launch the edit button. In a video interview with Wired, the executive crushed the idea that the feature could go live in 2020. The Verge’s James Vincent explains:
[Dorsey] notes that the service has moved on since, but the company doesn’t consider an edit button worth it. There are good reasons for editing tweets, he says, like fixing typos and broken links, but also malicious applications, like editing content to mislead people.
“So, these are all the considerations,” says Dorsey. “But we’ll probably never do it.”
Twitter is preparing to launch pinned lists for Android. Already available on iOS, the feature allows users to create a list of topics or accounts and then pin them to the main feed. (Ben Schoon / 9To5Google)
YouTube launched new feature called profile cards that show a user’s public information and comment history. The feature has been touted as a way for creators to more easily identify their biggest fans by offering easy access to their past comments. It’s currently available on Android. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
YouTube introduced filters to the subscriptions tab on its iOS app to help you decide what to watch next. The filters, which include “unwatched” and “continue watching,” will be coming to Android “in the future.” (Jay Peters / The Verge)
There’s now a tool to mute VCs on Twitter. The website urges people to “silence VC thought leadership and platitudes from your feed.”
Less investor tweets means less content to consume and more time to do literally anything else.
Reading The Interface, for example.