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Using Technology for the Public Good

  • May 2nd 2019

Craig Newmark is a self-described nerd, pioneer of the Web, speaker, philanthropist, and a strong advocate of the use of technology for the public good. He founded craigslist, which has become a leading classifieds service, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. In his work, he advocates for trustworthy journalism, gender diversity in tech, voter protection, and veterans and military families.

At the 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival, he discussed trust, media, and democracy. We spoke with him about the role of ethics in the internet industry and entrepreneurship.

You started craigslist in 1995 and it has since become one of the world’s most visited websites. You haven’t been involved in the day-to-day running of the company since 2000 but tell us about its origins. What drove you to create this service, and how does it relate to your current work as a philanthropist?

In 1995, I started emailing friends and colleagues lists of arts and tech events happening around San Francisco. Many people had helped to let me know what was going on in the city when I first moved there, so I wanted to return the favor. Then, the project began to grow, and people started calling it “Craig’s List.”

In many ways, my philanthropic work is just an extension of what drove me to create craigslist in the first place: my desire to make a positive impact in people’s lives. My goal is to find good people who are doing good work in areas I care about and then provide funds and other support, like lending my voice, and get out of the way to let them do their jobs.

Is craigslist an example of using technology for the public good? Why is it important to utilize tech in this way?

When I officially turned craigslist into a company, I monetized it minimally. My goal was never to become rich, just to help people put food on the table, get a table, and find a roof under which to put that table. I figure that ‘doing well by doing good’ is a solid business model, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Technology has the potential to serve the public interest, if created and wielded in good faith. We engineers must understand the importance and impact of new technologies and embed ethics into our products. We should aspire to create tech that is fair to and respectful of people of all backgrounds, tech that makes life better and does no harm.

You advocate for back-to-basics reporting, what you call trustworthy journalism. Increasingly, people are doubting truth, whether it’s delivered through technology or news organizations. How can journalists and the internet industry earn back public trust?

Dan Gillmor has pointed out that some news outlets give a lot of air time and print space to people who they know are lying – all in a misguided attempt to give the other side a say. In that way, they amplify disinformation. And to be clear: we're not talking half-truths or gray areas but the "pants on fire" stuff. The biggest issue is that repetition creates the illusion of truth. As several researchers have shown, the more a lie is said, the more it seems true. So, repeating a lie, even while debunking it, can mean a person is helping that lie live on.

I have a feeling that, moving forward, news organizations will start to put in place new reporting methods to avoid being complicit. Their tactics may include adopting the “truth sandwich.” That means reporting on a lie by presenting the truth first and then following that lie with a fact-check. I also believe we’ll see news orgs and social platforms make clear that deception and disinformation, like fraud, are unethical, and that these things violate their terms of service. Repeat offenders will no longer be considered credible sources. They’ll be banned from coverage, and their accounts will be suspended.

Disinformation is partly to blame for the loss of public trust. How can journalists and people working in tech fight untruths?

Strategic and effective communications about the profession of journalism will go a long way in increasing trust among news consumers. When journalists don't fight back against attacks on their industry, the average news consumer assumes journalists are conceding that they're biased. Journalists can increase trust in the news by publicly defending their profession and doing a big amount of fact-checking.

Americans are losing their faith in technology, media, and politics. Underlying this distrust is a crisis of citizenship. Why is a strong sense of citizenship essential in a healthy democracy?

A democracy can only thrive when the entire public participates, and is included, in a society. That means we need people to be informed about what’s going on around them, so they can be thoughtful voters, citizens, and neighbors. A key part of this work is ensuring that Americans have reliable sources of comprehensive local news coverage so that they have a good, working knowledge of their government, their communities, and more.

Tell me about your entrepreneurial journey. How did you get to where you are today, and what advice do you have for aspiring tech entrepreneurs?

Well, early on at craigslist, the people around me let me know that, as a manager, I sucked. And, they told me about Founder’s Syndrome. That’s when someone who has started a company doesn’t know when to let go to allow that company to reach its potential. So, I figured I’d learn from other people’s mistakes, and I passed on the reins to Jim Buckmaster. In the end, that’s really what has allowed me to commit so fully to philanthropy. I’ve taken my goal of serving the public interest and applied that to a number of causes that I’m really passionate about.

One quality that all leaders and entrepreneurs need is the ability to know their limitations and surround themselves with smart people who can help to fill in those gaps. No one is good at everything. As a philanthropist, there’s a lot I don’t know. So, I find people who know a lot more than I do about the issue areas I care about and then provide them with the support they need. It makes much more of an impact than trying to go at it alone.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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