Social media algorithms’ “complete moral vacuity”, Techfugees, politics & more – interview with tech-for-good pioneer Mike Butcher

Besides his ‘day job’ as London-based Editor-at-large for TechCrunch, it is above all Mike Butcher’s side gigs that have made him one of today’s most prominent tech-for-good actors. As well as founding Techfugees in 2015 — this major organisation now uses startup skills to help millions of refugees worldwide, as we covered last year — he’s also co-founder of responsible tech magazine and events series PathfounderThe Europas AwardsTechForUKTechVets, and TechHub. We spoke just after Brexit, against which Butcher has campaigned tirelessly, became a reality with Boris Johnson’s UK general election victory late 2019. And discovered that despite this setback, there’s plenty to be optimistic about when it comes to tech for good


Did the UK general election campaign at least prove that Cambridge Analytica-type voter manipulation is over?

There’s been a study to say the Tories lied a lot more than the Labour Party in their online campaigning (88% of the Conservatives’ social media ads included lies, versus 7% for Labour, according to this report by First Draft). Plus there’s anecdotal evidence suggesting the Tory Party piled enormous amounts of social media (ad spend) into Northern seats, claiming that (Labour leader) Jeremy Corbyn was fraternising with terrorists, would tax people in the North more, et caetera. It’s very different from Cambridge Analytica, as they used stolen profile information. But we do know for this election that the Tories were doing a lot of (Facebook ad) targeting based on email addresses.


When did you first decide to start using technology for good?

There have always been ‘tech for good’ initiatives ever since the web was invented. The irony is that social media can be used for good stuff; Techfugees wouldn’t have taken off without the Facebook group I created on a Sunday night in 2015. It grew exponentially after that because the issue of refugees was so high profile in the media. The tech industry’s response was: “we’re good at design thinking — coming up with solutions to problems — so let’s try and apply our brainpower to this subject.” So social media was instrumental in helping that take off. 


Why did you choose refugees, as opposed to other causes?

I’d been involved in other things before that, but before Techfugees, noone had encapsulated the the idea that technology was going to have to be part of the solution to the refugee crisis. It was such an intractable issue in terms of numbers. You had millions of people moving around and having to be fed, clothed, watered, given internet access, had their phones charged…NGOs (non-governmental organisations) were built in a 1950s world where none of this stuff existed. The only way to be able to deal with such a massive issue — and one that happened so quickly — was by employing tech’s product- and design-based thinking, not normally found in NGOs.

Getting an app’s users from five to a million people requires the same kind of thinking you need to scale solutions to a problem where, suddenly, 11 million people have been displaced in just a couple of years.

I didn’t have any solutions (myself), but I just thought that if we can get all the smart people in one room, maybe we’d come up with some ideas.


What is Techfugees’ achievement you’re most proud of today?

It’s the attitude change (we’ve provoked) that technology people can and should get involved in a big cause like this; there’s no reason why they shouldn’t bring their skills to a big, big issue like the refugee crisis. And then also directly meet and engage with people who’ve been become victims of the crisis as well. So the biggest achievement is TechFugees’ creating a gateway to helping on an issue like this. And that’s partly because we use the language of the technology industry to make people interested in the cause: hackathons, entrepreneurship and so on. 

At our hackathon in Oslo, highly-skilled young tech people met refugees and worked with them meant that those people’s lives were improved on both sides. That was a really big win.

And there are lots of other obvious ones: companies and products have been launched; plus refugees directly, and refugee NGOs, have benefitted from engagement with the tech industry; that’s been a fantastic byproduct of the whole initiative. Moreover, many refugees, once they’ve settled somewhere, have become entrepreneurs themselves

Not to mention these specific wins:

      A team in Australia won a Techfugees hackathon, then went on to raise money and launch a product, and is now a full-blown startup, called Refugee Talent 

      Bureaucrazy, a German startup discovered at a hackathon organised in partnership with Techfugees and which later pitched at our 2018 Global Summit, helps asylum seekers fill in forms, and now also finds them work with two municipal governments in Germany

      In Paris, (Techfugees CEO) Josephine Goube is running a programme to help get women refugees jobs.


What’s next for Techfugees?

The next step is one where we can reach thousands of people, all around the world. We have lots of organic local chapters worldwide, and we’ve got a lot of tech people involved in the issue. Now, we want to shoot a bit higher, and go to some of the top people in the NGO, technology and governmental worlds. We’ve convinced the technologists; can we convince the people who make the big decisions next? In terms of either using technology better, or more. Or engaging in taking a different approach to get refugees themselves involved in the tech industry. So we need to take that messaging higher, whether at the government level, or a supranational, institutional level such as the EU.


You mentioned using technology better. What is your take on the responsible tech movement, represented by people like the Center for Humane Technology’s Tristan Harris?

It’s a very welcome addition to the whole debate about the impact of technology in our daily lives. As someone who had to build addictive products, it’s great to see people like him come out and say they’re designed to be addictive. Without Harris, Apple would probably have not introduced Screen Time (the functonality which counts and limits the time we spend on our iPhones). 

We need a lot greater awareness about the fact that social media is designed to make us addicted.

Regulators need to figure out whether that’s having a positive effect on society or not. There’s nothing wrong with keeping up with your loved ones and contacts. The question is whether the algorithms are taking us in directions we’re not aware of. This has become increasingly problematic with the rise of far right extremism and radicalisation; almost everybody you know has been through the experience of clicking on one, then several YouTube videos, and reaching something actually quite problematic. The algorithm built to make you like funny clips from friends is also nudging you towards terrorist videos. And the technology companies that produce these algorithms are washing their hands of the consequences, because of their advertising business model. That really does need to be looked at by regulators in the future, if not now.

(The problem is) regulators are always one step behind. It seems the grilling that Facebook has had recently is making no change whatsoever to their policies. Otherwise, they’d have stopped political advertising, as Twitter did.

Documentaries like The Great Hack have demonstrated Facebook’s role in the election of Trump and Brexit. They’re the largest social network, but not the only one generating ill effects. Twitter does too; and Tik Tok, a Chinese app, supresses videos of Hong Kong protests …all because these platforms’ algorithms are designed to keep you connected for longer. And that’s where there’s a complete moral vacuity. That’s how disinformation and radicalisation spreads

Facebook, for example, say they don’t have a (political) stance, but they do. In particular, they don’t want to annoy the Republicans in an election because they don’t want to be broken up between into different parts (Instagram/WhatsApp/Messenger). 

Twitter’s stopping political advertising is just them washing their hands of the problem, because those ads will just appear on other platforms. And politicians will end up having to act in a more populist manner (to get noticed organically) on Twitter.

The problem is that social media tends to aid populist politicians more than middle-of-the-road politicians, as the latter don’t come up with easy answers like populists do; and easy answers always play better on social media.


What about Twitter’s latest project, Bluesky, which aims to make social media algorithms more open?

Twitter wants to become a protocol like (email’s) SMTP, which means anyone could host a Twitter platform. I can see some advantages. But it also means bots and disinformation services can run their own servers. There will be no real control over what algorithms people use.  

It might be better to make Twitter more open source, so you could have a “tech for good Twitter”, for example; but equally, ISIS could run its own platform. We’ve already seen alternative Twitters, like GAB, which is considered far right. There is also a decentralised Twitter, called Mastodon. It hasn’t taken off, because those (open source) people don’t think about user experience/branding/marketing all the time. (BlueSky) might be a good thing. But it’s largely a tactical move on Twitter’s part to wash its hands of having to police a highly viral social network.


What about mocking the responsible tech movement, as HBO’s Silicon Valley did, by calling it “tethics”?

It’s great to have a debate, but it reminds me of the whole recycling movement. For years, the onus has been put on us as consumers and individuals; but the fact is, it’s the big companies that are polluting the most.

So big tech companies saying we should use tech more responsibly is massively one-sided. Billions and trillions of dollars go into producing tech which is not producing great effects for the planet, but it’s us who have to regulate ourselves?! It’s up to us to change our screen time and YouTube settings?

Billionaire tech CEOs telling us what we can and can’t do… they’re benefitting from the stability of hard-won human rights movements, regulatory platforms, laws to reduce conflict, UN committee meetings, EU summits… all of these things have produced an era of relative peace, which business has benefitted from. 

In last few years, billionnaires like Mercers and the Koch brothers have decided to weaponise platforms like Facebook to tell us that we need to get rid of regulation, and we should all be able to go around carrying handguns, and we should ban refugees. On the flipside, supposedly progressive billionaires who have benefitted from the international regulatory context — Bezos, Zuckerberg — are not doing anything, they’re quiet. Richard Branson famously said the Brexit decision was terrible; where is he now?

(Pro-Brexit UK business leader James) Dyson has a big research facility in the UK; he also started his own university. Who’s going to come to a UK university when people are subject to racist abuse in the street? Private universities like his don’t solve the problem of wider racist abuse in wider society.


What can we as individuals do to make tech more responsible?

I can use my platforms to push causes I’m into — I’ve also launched TechVets, to get ex-soldiers into the cyber security industry — but I really do sympathise with the average person who doesn’t want to get RT’d by Piers Morgan and get lots of abuse. You may decide today not to get involved because you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to blow up in your face. Yet for every troll, there are also many people who are supportive.

The greatest crisis we face now is the climate, as in, if we don’t have a working planet, we won’t be able to do anything. It’s going to be an enormous issue over the next few years. I don’t think you’ll get too much trolling for supporting the environment. I get that it’s not easy to get involved, but as the saying goes, it just takes one good person to do nothing for evil to win. So if you can’t get involved, donate.

As we’ve seen with Brexit, if you can’t change the politics, you can’t change much. My hope is that the environment becomes the non-political issue everyone can agree on. We do know for a fact that the progressive side of politics has put the environment high up; conservatism has not. In the US, we have a climate-denying president, mainly because he’s funded by polluters.  So they have their own fight on their hands. If you want to do anything, then get involved in the movement.
Top photo: © Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media

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