When void of ethics, modern advertising and attention-based media in the internet age may lead to disinformation, extremism and a lack of privacy, said Derek Thompson, staff writer for The Atlantic, Monday night in the Jepson Alumni Center to an audience of mostly non-students.

“Advertising is like nuclear power,” Thompson said in an interview with The Collegian. “It's efficient. It's powerful. And without ethics, it's unbelievably dangerous.”

Thompson spoke as the second of five guest speakers for the 2019-20 Jepson Leadership Forum, the topic of which is “Digital Dystopias: Truth and Representation in the Internet Age.”

Thompson – who was born in McLean, Virginia, and lives in Washington, D.C. – is a paid contributor to CBS News and a news analyst for NPR. He also hosts “Crazy/Genius,” a technology and culture podcast for The Atlantic, and authored the book “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.”

“I write about ideas that don't necessarily belong together, about media business strategy and U.S. demographics and entertainment economics and philosophy,” Thompson said.

Thompson discussed topics ranging from moon hoaxes and algorithms to online dating and the anxieties of the internet age.

Leadership studies professor Julian Hayter – co-organizer of the speaker series with leadership studies professor Kristin Bezio – said after the event that Thompson had been one of the better speakers they had had in the last several years.

“His range was unbelievable,” Hayter said. “His ability to traverse not just history but contemporary politics, business culture and its relationship to the internet was par excellence.”

After opening remarks from Sandra Peart, dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, and an introduction from senior and leadership studies and political science student Sara Milano, Thompson took the stage.

Thompson – energetic, fast-talking and charismatic – explained how companies such as Facebook and Google that charged nothing were collectively worth $1 trillion. 

It is no mystery why these companies are profitable, Thompson said. At companies such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and TikTok, the business model is about making products that absorb and sell people’s attention.

“They sell our time and our behavior to advertisers who pay them tens of billions of dollars a year in exchange for our attention,” Thompson said. “But while the fact of advertising is not mysterious, its significance to the modern economy is without precedent.”

And in recent years, a number of these companies have been the subject of controversies, including the spread of false news stories, hate speech in Myanmar on Facebook and large followings of extremists and child predators on YouTube, Thompson said.

Advertising in news and media is important for the accessibility of news media, Thompson said.

“It helps readers who cannot afford the full cost of that media,” Thompson said. “And development of ethical advertising standards has been – and I want to be clear about this point – absolutely critical to the growth of journalism in the U.S. and abroad.”

But without ethics and proper safeguards, advertising in news and media – and the “race for attention” that follows – will naturally give rise to false stories and sensational lies because of consumers’ media preferences for entertainment over knowledge, Thompson said. 

Attention-based media platforms also tend to benefit extremism, Thompson said. He cited how YouTube’s algorithms and hands-off attitude led to the spread of content and personalities that propagated conspiracies, extremist alt-right ideologies, anti-vaccination information and predatory behaviors, thereby creating the “perfect petri dish for extremism.”

The third implication of advertising and attention economies is about privacy, or rather, the lack of it. Thompson explained that for advertisers to get information, technology watched consumers as they browsed online, tracked them, predicted their behaviors and categorized them based on preferences.

In the face of these issues, the solution was better people, not better technology, Thompson said.

Citing the New York Sun’s Great Moon Hoax of 1835, Thompson said that the fix to fake news had come from publications of the time that had been “founded by editors who were more devoted to the truth” and combined an advertising-based business model with “a reverence for facts and decency.”

Thompson also discussed another aspect of the Internet: connectivity and online dating. 

For U.S. heterosexual couples, online dating has surpassed and displaced other avenues for meeting romantic partners, such as family, friends, bars and work, Thompson said, citing 2017 data collected by Stanford University sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld.

Online dating freed young people from limitations posed by location and their surrounding community, allowing for easier connections, Thompson said. Meanwhile, traditional offline social networks were underserving people, especially gay people.

“The rapid adoption of online dating among the LGBTQ+ community, I think, speaks to a deeper truth about the internet: that it is most powerful for better and for worse as a tool for helping minorities of all stripes – political, social, cultural, sexual – find each other,” Thompson said.

Richmond local and UR alumna Nancy Cox, ’73, said the talk had been informative for her.

“I thought he was a wonderful speaker,” Cox said. “And the information was new and enlightening and cutting edge as far as our knowledge of what's going on currently in a lot of arenas.”

Attendee Brent Stansbury, a Richmond local and progressive liberal, said the talk had been enlightening but that the speaker series needed more balance and that mainstream media tended to lean toward being more liberal. He cited how Thompson spoke about white nationalism but not extremism from the political left.

Thompson also took questions from the audience. In response to a request to discuss corporate dominance over smaller companies, Thompson explained how large technology companies such as Facebook – which do not charge consumers – defies traditional determinants of monopolies, namely raised prices, and have prompted changes in thinking about market concentration and anti-trust policies.

Another audience member asked whether, in order to improve what they saw as decreasing disclosure in journalism, reporters should disclose information such as their stock portfolios.

Thompson rebutted, saying such a practice “essentially requires that journalists not become a protected class but a dramatically unprotected class, where, in order to have an opinion about Amazon, I have to give you access to my entire stock portfolio.”

But Thompson said disclosure was indeed an issue in the profession, particularly for financially struggling local news outlets that were bought by private equity firms and forced to run “sponsored advertising as actual journalism.”

There is an anxiety that looms over people in the internet age, Thompson said, an anxiety that applies to online dating and modern life at large.

Because of the myriad of opportunities and choices people have nowadays because of the internet, no longer do people inherit their lives, jobs, faiths and identities from their families, Thompson said.

But this “great freedom” comes with great dizzying anxiety, Thompson said, for people were now given sole responsibility of “the full-service construction of their careers, lives, faiths, public identities and the most important relationships in their life,” all the while having technology to see the perfect lives of everybody else online.

“They can see all the roads never taken and they are asked to constantly wonder if they should be walking all of them simultaneously,” Thompson said. “We are perhaps more free than ever to become our full selves. But perhaps that's exactly why we are all so dizzy with anxiety.”

Contact managing editor Arrman Kyaw at arrman.kyaw@richmond.edu.