Ashley Feinberg, senior reporter for the Huffington Post and an incendiary presence on Twitter in her own right, had the opportunity recently to interview Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, a character much mocked for his New Age-y personal habits and his evident cluelessness about the nature and value of his own company. This interview touched a nerve that needed touching.
Feinberg asked Dorsey very simple, obvious questions of a kind rarely posed to billionaire tech titans, eliciting exchanges like the following, which revealed almost inadvertently the sycophantic nature of ordinary North American press coverage when it comes to big business.
So I contacted Feinberg to talk about her interview with @jack, and about the value of Twitter more generally. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Maria Bustillos: You made a comment in your interview with Mathew Ingram about how the tech press has to worry about access. But can you break that down for me a little bit, because why? Don’t the Jack Dorseys of the world just seem cowardly if they don’t talk to us? I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be like a Marty McFly thing? They have to talk to us!
Ashley Feinberg: They don’t, though, because there’s however many tech outlets out there with huge amounts of leverage who’ll still kiss their ass, basically. It’s the same reason outlets follow embargoes, because all the other outlets also follow embargoes, which is insane. The practice of embargoes is itself a totally absurd, unethical practice, but they all just… do it.
To what degree do you think this kind of journalism has played into the generalized deference that first created the tech oligarchy we have now, this wildly unaccountable monopoly power at the heart of the surveillance state?
When there is a tech story that is challenging to any degree, it’s like a revelation; everyone freaks out over it because it is just such a break from the norm, but—that should be the norm, but we’re conditioned to see absurd and gross as the default, so that’s what’s considered objective. So there’s been relatively little to stand in the way and hold them accountable.The hope is that they’re actually going to start reporting on these companies realistically, and actually describing how things are, versus like—
Stenography? Yet there was this huge interest in what you had done in your interview with @jack; everyone was so stunned that you had like… done your job.
I don’t think I’m going to get another interview with Jack, or another tech CEO like anytime soon, if ever. I never really had to do it in the first place, so it’s not a problem for me; but if that’s what your entire job revolves around? Then it’s an issue.
But yeah, to be honest, I was and actually still am extremely surprised at the reaction. When I was typing it up, I thought it was a fine interview, but nothing particularly revelatory. And I still think the response is probably a little overblown, but I think it’s just because it’s such a break from the norm. It’s very weird!
Have you tried to get any others? I mean… it seems like a good idea to ask them all right now, you know?—just to see if they have the balls.
Yeah. I will, but yeah. I mean—I just hadn’t asked before because I had just assumed it would be an automatic no. Because they are always all so guarded and skittish on that shit.
And they hire so many people around them, to make sure they say no, it seems like.
With Jack, if I had gone through PR it would definitely have been no. But for whatever reason… he likes to think of himself as eccentric, I think. But it would be harder to get a direct line to like Zuckerberg, for instance, or whoever else.
It’s also a macho thing? You’re sort of viewed as a no-bullshit type person, so to refuse you would be I think to admit to cowardice. So, yeah. I hope you ask them all.
Did you hear from them after?
I thought I would, but no, I didn’t hear anything from them.
So… let’s talk about Twitter more broadly, because you’ve often said that it’s just a hellscape and I totally disagree with you.
Yeah, because my thing is to use the internet to try to look at the world as a larger place, and right now, almost anywhere in the world, we can find out right away what is going on from someone who is there. Twitter is still the best way for journalists to achieve direct, immediate contact with people abroad.
When you look at what’s happening to our colleagues in Turkey—I’m not even talking about Jamal Khashoggi, I mean the press in Turkey has basically been kneecapped—in Hungary, Egypt, Russia, China and everywhere else where journalists are being muzzled, jailed and worse—
Right, yeah. I mean, when I say I’d like to leave Twitter, and it’s a nightmare—it is, but also I obviously wouldn’t care so much about Twitter if it wasn’t integral to what I do every day, and how I function. It’s more that, despite all the great things it’s created, and fostered and allowed, it’s also a nightmare, every day.
If it’s a hellhole it’s because it’s covered in so much fakery, so that the real, valuable part of it is occluded. This is I think deliberate.
Mmmhmm. Well it’s reflective of who you’re following; Twitter is exactly as bad as the opinions of the people you are following; it all sort of depends on your timeline. And my timeline consists of all these terrible media idiots, so it’s awful. But then if I really wanted to, I could follow different people and use it in some totally different way. The issue is with me is that it’s largely self-inflicted. I crave all these idiots and their bad opinions. It’s sort of my fault.
Oh yeah. Well. Reading your feed is so essential to so many of us who work in this industry. A guilty pleasure, sometimes it feels like rubbernecking, almost.
All these terrible opinions and people make me want to die, but then also I love it.
Same… okay so you really dive into the mud, every day. But how much of what you’re reading every day, though, do you think is fake?
What do you mean by fake?
I mean like, confected by the Internet Research Agency, or some shit like that.
Uh, I don’t know. I try not to get too caught up in that? I think it’s really easy to conflate bots and paid Russian trolls with people who just have very bad opinions, because there are a lot of those as well.
For example, a lot of times when there’s all those numbers after someone’s name, that’s not necessarily a sign that it’s a bot; that’s just Twitter’s automated username protocol. It’s very easy to confuse the bots or trolls with very dumb people who don’t really know how to use the site but are out there spreading their bad opinions, in addition to whatever orchestrated campaigns to elevate those bad opinions there are.
So when you’re evaluating what you look at, you’re not really thinking about the orchestrations of any Arthur Finkelsteins or Cambridge Analyticas or any of that; it doesn’t form any part of how you experience Twitter on a daily basis.
Yeah. I never really consider it unless someone comes out with some analysis or proof, like, they did this analysis and discovered that these hundred accounts were promoting some specific thing. But even then, there is always a chance that that is just a natural occurrence and not necessarily the work of larger forces.
I would submit to you that this idea that there are so many terrible stupid people is exaggerated, though, by, uh. Bad. Finkelsteinian forces.
Well like… I view my stepdad as a stand-in for like the average person, and he could very easily sound like a member of one of these alleged bot mobs, if he were on Twitter. And that is honestly how I gauge how likely it is that someone is real or not, is whether my stepdad would say that.
Right, because we have had many real exchanges with real people like that, that are mediated by the funhouse mirror of Fox News or something. But when the tools are available to in secret, amplify those voices, whip them up into a frenzy?
Like for example the Maga Hat Teen guy scene—the spread of it on Twitter was originally orchestrated, apparently. Artificially juiced.
I’d need to look into it more. But my sense is that it’s really easy to conflate orchestrated campaigns with these issues that kind of naturally whip up people’s emotions. This had all the ingredients. A dumb kid, white kid, the Black Israelites, indigenous people, the dramatic confrontation, there was everything that you could possibly need to create this online frenzy in this moment. Maybe it could have been helped along by whatever bizarre thing that was orchestrated, but I think that there’s as much of a chance that it just happened to hit all the right buttons.
Absolutely, it was a combustible mixture. But I’m starting to think that also, I took the bait by paying too much attention to it. There is shit like that going down between idiotic individuals everywhere, every day. And it’s like—there is really important fuckin’ stuff going on! Why am I looking at this?
You’re in a position where you’ve got a professional reason to be involved in the worst elements of it, but if you didn’t have to, what would the difference be; how would you use Twitter?
[laughs a little ruefully]
I wish I knew.
I don’t know… I mean, I certainly wouldn’t need to use it as much as I currently do. I wouldn’t follow, like, I imagine I wouldn’t follow all these like fringe, right-wing cult figures that I do.
Sometimes I try to think of how… even if I like cleaned up the people I follow, I really can’t even begin to imagine how I’d use the site in a way that is not… awful.