From online privacy to misinformation to competition, tech policy issues are increasingly front-page news. As such, more and more people are thinking about these issues and sharing their views. While it used to be a rather small group of policy wonks and technical experts who shaped these debates, in today’s age of social media, many of the people influencing public opinion about these complex topics are celebrities. While some have done their homework, others are offering up hot takes that miss the mark. Either way, their opinions can end up having an outsized impact on policy.
With the film award season in full swing (and thus more celebrities likely to be talking to press), it’s worth looking back at some of the actors, directors, and other Hollywood stars who have weighed in on hot-button tech policy issues this past year.
Let’s start with the losers…
Selena Gomez Blames Facebook for COVID-19 Misinformation
One of the most popular topics this past year was online misinformation and what to do about it. Actor and singer Selena Gomez (Spring Breakers), placed the blame squarely on Facebook, echoing similar comments made by President Biden who had said “they’re killing people.”
She wrote in July on a Twitter thread: “In December I asked @Facebook and @Instagram to take action on lies about COVID and vaccines…@Potus and @Surgeon_General have finally called for action by @Facebook. So why do they still refuse to act?”
The company had already responded, before her tweet, with a detailed post rebutting the claim of inaction, showing that the company had removed millions of posts about COVID-19 misinformation and taking action on all of the Surgeon General’s recommendations.
The Borat actor and comedian has become an outspoken critic of social media companies. This past year he called for social media companies to be liable for speech by their users.
Speaking to the New York Times, Sacha Baron Cohen said: “I think there needs to be regulation. In virtually every other industry, you can be sued…But these companies can’t be sued, right? Because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Currently, Facebook and companies like it cannot be held liable for the death they cause…Social media companies, as you know, they can be held liable for hosting content related to criminal conduct like copyright infringement, sex trafficking, prostitution, and child pornography. So my point is if they could be held liable for enabling pedophiles who use their site to endanger kids, then why can’t we hold these companies responsible for those who use their sites for advocating the mass murder of kids because of their race or religion. If your actions online cause harm or death in the real world, you should be liable.”
Ironically, Sacha Baron Cohen has been sued for defamation by individuals portrayed in his videos, but he has avoided liability by successfully arguing that his films were either jokes or newsworthy. He has also avoided liability for his false portrayal of Kazakhstan as a racist, sexist, and backwards country.
Lending his voice to the hipster antitrust movement, Mark Ruffalo came out in favor of stronger antitrust action against big companies.
Commenting on an article about the likely nomination of Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission, Mark Ruffalo wrote on Twitter: “Hiring a strong Anti-Trust person is somewhere the left and right can definitely meet. Trusts are bad for the economy, paychecks, competition and services.”
Unfortunately, his hot take ignores the dynamic interplay between competition and innovation and assumes anything big is bad. Or as the Hulk might say, “Big Tech Bad. FTC Smash!”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt Denounces Ad-Supported Internet
Joseph Gordon-Levitt joined the anti-“surveillance capitalism” bandwagon when he argued that ad-supported business models incentivize social media platforms that allow conspiracy theorists and hate groups to flourish.
Speaking to the New York Times, Joseph Gordon-Levitt said: “And I think things like Cameo or Patreon or Substack, to me, feel like wonderful antidotes to the mass-surveillance-advertising business model. And this is the way forward, is having a direct billing relationship between the person who’s consuming the content and the person who’s creating the content. If you have this man behind the curtain who’s the advertiser, and the whole platform is set up not to benefit the consumers, but rather these advertisers, that sets us off on these weird incentive structures where we get a white nationalist in the White House, and we get flat Earth conspiracy theories, et cetera, et cetera. So I think that we need to, yeah, move away from that kind of advertising and move towards the models you’re talking about, with Patreon and others.”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt apparently did not realize that the New York Times podcast he appeared on, or its website, are funded, in part, by ads.
Jeff Orlowski Blames Social Media for Political Polarization
Social media is blamed for all sorts of societal ills. Director Jeff Orlowski, known primarily for The Social Dilemma, not too surprisingly attributes social media to political polarization.
Speaking on a podcast, Jeff Orlowski said, “Political polarization has become the de-facto output of this [social media] technology and is a threat to our democracy. We can’t have this country operate in a functional way if people just listen to things that most satisfy their whims and ideology…we are hearing more and more that politicians are extremely worried about this. They feel and they see the polarization on a daily base. It’s harder and harder to build consensus. It’s harder and harder to work on anything in a bipartisan manner.”
Of course, there are many factors that contribute to polarization in the United States, including the media and political environment, and attributing the problem to social media is both misleading and an oversimplification of a complex issue.
And now on to the winners…
Jon Stewart Opposes Platforms Becoming Arbiters of Truth
Not everyone has embraced the idea that platforms should be the arbiters of truth. Jon Stewart, known not only for hosting The Daily Show, but also as a film writer and director (Rosewater), defended controversial podcast host Joe Rogan against calls for Spotify to silence him.
Speaking on his own podcast, Jon Stewart said: “But my point is, these are shifting sands, and I think I get concerned with, well, who gets to decide? In the Iraq war, I was on the side of what you would think, on the mainstream is misinformation, I was promoting what they would call misinformation, but it turned out to be right years later and the establishment media was wrong…There’s no question that there is egregious misinformation that’s purposeful and hateful, and that being moderated is a credit to the platforms that run them. But this overreaction to Rogan, I think, is a mistake.”
While not everyone will agree with his defense of Joe Rogan, his point about the importance of protecting minority viewpoints, even when unpopular, is noteworthy.
Ashton Kutcher Criticizes EU Law That Prevents Tech Companies from Fighting Child Sexual Abuse
Ashton Kutcher, who along with Demi Moore co-founded Thorn, a non-profit organization focused on stopping sexual exploitation of children, spoke out against privacy laws in the European Union that would limit tech companies from using automatic detection tools to scan emails and messages for child pornography.
Speaking on the American Optimist podcast, Ashton Kutcher said: “This legislation has to be created with a scalpel and not a hatchet…Some of the kickback has been around an error rate on identifying this content. If it’s your family photo at the beach and there’s one of those against 5 million that are accurately detected as CSAM, I think most people are okay with somebody seeing their family beach photo…And this is where super aggressive pro-privacy advocates say, ‘yeah, but you give an inch and then they’ll take a mile.’ And what we are trying to is create legislation that is specifically for this issue, specifically to find these images.”
Ashton Kutcher offers a rare balanced view, arguing that privacy should not come at any cost.
Angelina Jolie Lobbies for Technology Grants in Violence Against Women Act
Academy Award-winning actor Angelina Jolie came to Washington, DC to advocate for Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. She specifically called for reforms, including creating technology grants to better detect bruising across different skin tones.
On Instagram, Angelina Jolie wrote: “Honored to visit Washington, DC, with Zahara, working with advocates and lawmakers to modernize and strengthen the #ViolenceAgainstWomenAct to include protections for children’s health and safety, communities of color, tribes, LGBTQ survivors, rural areas, and all survivors. We need reforms including judicial training, trauma-informed court processes that minimize the risk of harm to children, grant programs for technology to detect bruising across all skin tones and create non-biased forensic evidence collection, and protections for the most vulnerable.”
Reese Witherspoon Says the Future Is Crypto
While a number of Hollywood celebrities, from Gwenyth Paltrow to Matt Damon, spent the past year hawking various cryptocurrencies, perhaps nobody made as much of a splash as Reese Witherspoon who has made various pronouncements about the importance of the underlying technology and encouraged women creators to seize this opportunity.
In one viral tweet, Reese Witherspoon stated: “In the (near) future, every person will have a parallel digital identity. Avatars, crypto wallets, digital goods will be the norm. Are you planning for this?” And in another, she wrote: “Crypto is here to stay. I’m committed to supporting creators who have pioneered the NFT space, and encouraging more women to be a part of the conversation.”
Prince Harry Offers Proposal to Address Online Misinformation
Prince Harry, whose company Archewell Productions signed a multi-year programming deal with Netflix, joined the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, which published a number of proposals to address misinformation, including new requirements for platforms to disclose data to researchers and more transparency.
Prince Harry noted in a statement: “For the better part of a year, we at the Aspen Commission have met regularly to debate, discuss, and draft solutions to the mis- and disinformation crisis, which is a global humanitarian issue. I hope to see the substantive and practical recommendations of our Commission taken up by the tech industry, the media industry, by policymakers, and leaders. This affects not some of us, but all of us.”
Some of the ideas have merit. Hopefully this proposal will go further than his Netflix deal, which generated initial headlines, but so far has failed to produce anything of real substance.
Many celebrities will continue to discuss the issues of the day—and sometimes they even have a direct line to policymakers—so whether they are right or wrong, their voices will likely shape many of the tech policy debates in the future.