Adam Conner founded Facebook’s office in Washington, D.C. He was responsible for communicating with lawmakers and advocating policy changes on Facebook’s behalf. Conner later joined Brigade, a startup focused on using technology for civic engagement. He also worked as the first D.C. employee for Slack Technologies, Inc.
Harvard Political Review: What were some of the biggest challenges you had explaining new technologies to politicians?
Adam Conner: All new technologies operate in a curve. You have these early adopters, people who are predisposed to try something new because they like that energy and excitement. Once you get enough of those, there is the first wave of people who want to get the first smartphone or try the new app once it has been released. Those are the two audiences that are pretty easy to convince to try something new.
But the vast majority of people are not people that want to change everything they do everyday. They want to understand that what they are using is going to benefit them; they want to understand how it works and how they can integrate it into their lives. So much of [working]—particularly with busy people like elected officials or political candidates—was about having them see the advantages of using new tools: how it could benefit them and how it was not as mythical or hard as they might have imagined it to be. [Many] of these tools were relatively simple to understand if you took a step back from the hype: here is something that allows you to connect with more constituents, that allows you to communicate with people you are trying to talk to.
HPR: Were there any specific regulatory changes or policy changes that had to be made in order to incorporate new technologies?
AC: Generally, there has not been a tremendous amount of legislative change when it comes to new technologies because they are still trying to get their heads around it. There were a tremendous [number] of hearings about these things, and hearings are really the tool that Congress uses to explore new issues, to bring in multiple sides of a discussion. Certainly on what we called the ‘agency’ side, or the executive side, there were actions taken by states’ attorneys general, by the U.S. [Federal Trade Commission], and others that we worked with on a more case-by-case basis. But when it comes to legislation, there has not been a ton in this space in the last decade. That might change in the future, but a lot of this has been first about educating.
Now, there is the conversation about impact. These tech platforms like Facebook have grown relatively large, the conversation has shifted to impact, and with impact comes questions about what steps government may take. That is the phase in which we find ourselves now, whereas when I was there from 2007 onward it was much more about the education phase.
HPR: What does “civic technology” mean?
AC: Civic tech is a phrase that gets thrown around to mean [many] different things. Generally, it is about an ecosystem that is meant to engage in our civic dialogue or our civic responsibilities. This can be anything from going to a town hall meeting, to writing your Congressperson, to voting, to making sure that you are able to communicate with your local elected officials or government agencies.
At Brigade, we focused on two things: one was engaging people to take positions on issues they believed in; [the second was] giving them scaled and easy-to-use smartphone solutions to take further actions. [For example], you might say that gun control is a position that is important to you. Based on that information, we would say, ‘here are some organizations that you can follow or join; here are some actions they would like you to take to move this ball forward.’ When I was at Facebook, we focused on other parts, like getting people to know where they could go look up their polling place on election day or telling their friends they had voted.
HPR: What is the incentive for Facebook, a for-profit company, to take on civic engagement projects?
AC: There [are] a couple incentives for why private companies engage in civic activity. One of them is that people’s lives are multifaceted, and we believe that civic engagement is a huge part of people’s lives. People talk about politics, they talk about elections, [and] they increasingly represent their views about that online, as we have learned over the last couple of years.
The other thing about elections in the United States on the national level is that it is an activity that a large portion of the country can participate in on a certain day and time. If you think about a whole country, there are very few activities that you can participate in at a certain time and place. [People] can cast a vote; they can tell their friends they vote; they can see who got elected. It is one of the unique things that is contained and allows people to take action and participate and view. That is one of the reasons why it is such a great opportunity for civic engagement. You could call your congressperson any day of the week, but you can only vote on election day. It was really about harnessing the opportunities where there was action that many people could take.
HPR: A lot of those projects were relatively uncontroversial, but what incentive do you think Facebook has now to do things that might not be as positively reflected or could actually cut into their revenue?
AC: The conversation since the end of 2016 has not been a positive one for social media companies and technology companies. As I think Mark Zuckerberg has said, that is going to require an investment and is essential to the continuing survival and health of the business. So there is a short term perspective, but then there is a longer term perspective. The conversation is important for them to try and regain trust as best they can with users by taking the steps that they can take within their powers as companies and organizations. For some of the broader things like election interference from nation states or disguised nation states, that is something that the companies alone cannot shoulder by themselves and certainly requires a national, or transnational, response from institutions. Unfortunately, [we have] seen that to be lacking due to a lack of prioritization among the administration.
HPR: Do you think there is anything older media companies, like the New York Times and Fox News, should be doing to adapt to social media platforms to reach a wider audience?
AC: What you see now is a realignment in reaction to the power that Google and Facebook and Twitter have over news distribution. You see [the media companies] moving away from some of the earlier bets they made that had very tightly yoked themselves to and their livelihoods to these platforms. One of the benefits, for instance, of the New York Times building up a subscriber base [of] people who pay them is that they do not need to be solely reliant on traffic from one of these websites. When the dial is turned on an algorithm and traffic goes down, they still have a sustainable base for them to continue to be financially viable, whereas websites that did viral videos or viral headlines have suffered as things have been tweaked. It is a conversation about financial viability and survivability that is beyond just these platforms because these platforms are a positive in that they can increase distribution and a negative in that they take away some of the agency.
HPR: Do you think it is concerning that the education of policymakers could become advocacy on behalf of large tech companies to increase their power?
AC: I do not see that as anything that is particularly different from any industry in this country. We know all sorts of industries have corporate power and use it in Washington, D.C. If anything, it becomes a more traditional story with all of the pros and cons of larger corporations that these have become. Let’s not pretend there have not been corporations that went to Washington, D.C. to exercise that influence. As these companies are becoming large parts of our economy—the top five publicly traded by market capitalization are all American tech companies right now—it is not a particular surprise that they are exercising the influence that large organizations have always tried to exercise over governments both here and around the world.
HPR: Do you think there is any way that policymakers can better adapt to technological changes in the future?
AC: Part of it is certainly a lack of expertise on subject technical matters in the House and the Senate, for instance, in the United States. There are some programs underway to help improve that: folks like the Tech Congress Fellowship, which aims to bring technologists into Congressional offices to help bolster their understanding of things like engineering and science related topics, cybersecurity, that sort of thing. There are efforts underway that will help that, and a focus on staffers who understand that is a critical piece.
The other part of it is the revolution has caught up to some extent with the day-to-day experience. Every lawmaker I know has a smartphone and [understands] how it works. They can start to visualize some of the more complicated policy implications because they can see this thing on their device everyday. That is not to say they realize all of the context, but as compared to where things were on desktop computers ten years ago, having a computer in your hand has changed the way they start to think about some of these things.
HPR: What can people do to educate themselves more on technology policy or get involved in technology policy?
AC: One of the things that is a very strong net positive of the Internet is it gives people access to information and experts that they have not had before. If you are interested in technology and the business of tech companies and the policy implications, then through podcasts, through Twitter, through Medium posts, through these organizations, you can learn as much as some of the experts sitting in think tanks. All it takes is a little bit of interest to dive deep into it and you can get a great education on how to follow these things. In the past, it might have been more difficult. You might have had to go to a library [or] tune into one program every week. There is a plethora of information out there. They might have different perspectives than me, which I encourage, and it is just a great opportunity for us to better inform ourselves to the extent that we can. That will be our challenge: [we] will rise [by] informing ourselves as we navigate through this new world.
Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Feinberg
This interview has been edited and condensed.