Cyrus Krohn was once an internet pioneer and an online optimist who spent years helping Republicans win political campaigns, but now he’s warning that the web must be tamed before it destroys democracy.
“Our digital world isn’t working,” Krohn writes in his recent book, “Bombarded: How to Fight Back Against the Online Assault on Democracy.”
Krohn oversaw the Republican National Committee’s digital efforts a decade ago and helped Sen. Mitch McConnell win reelection in 2014 through online advertising and messaging. He has a colorful and varied history: as a producer on CNN’s “Crossfire” in the mid-’90s, a stint at Yahoo in the aughts, and as a publisher of Slate magazine, where he helped build one of the first web-only long-form publications.
“I walked into the internet naively in 1995, thinking that it was all altruistic and going to create a better society,” Krohn said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.
But the Seattle native now is sounding the alarm about the web’s threat to a functioning country.
Krohn maintains that he is still hanging on to optimism, but his warnings in the book are also dire. “Massive digital forces are corroding the fundamental pillars that support American social and political life. The damage seems illimitable. The endgame toward which we hurtle is terrifying,” he writes on the book’s second page.
“I entered digital life believing in the internet’s great potential as an equalizer ... I now believe the internet is one of the most disconcerting, damaging elements in our democratic process. ... [It] heartens fringe actors — cranks, eccentrics, and extremists,” he writes.
Trust in each other and in a shared reality has been so degraded that we are headed to a point “where there is no positive trajectory,” Krohn told Yahoo News.
Krohn’s book explores the causes of what he calls a “manufactured” state of confusion, and blames a broad group of actors: Big Tech companies; foreign governments; politicians and dark money groups; data firms that collect and sell massive troves of information about individuals; advertisers and marketers and data analytics firms — and a journalism industry that, he argues, has yet to find a business model that incentivizes quality over quantity.
While Krohn clearly rejects the conspiracy theories of anti-vaccine activists and former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, he doesn’t spend a lot of time blaming one political group more than another. The most specific partisan criticism Krohn makes is of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2008. Krohn, who considers himself a loyalist to that year’s Republican nominee for president — the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona — writes that Palin showed that “tone and attitude counted for more than mastery of facts” and that “lying worked.”
But largely, Krohn keeps his focus at a more structural level.
His book is thick with potential solutions. Short-term, Krohn said that one change being made by web browser companies is going to make a fairly dramatic impact. Spurred on by competition from browsers like DuckDuckGo, he noted, Google has said it plans to phase out third-party cookies, which “allow marketers to track users around the web.”
“I think as the internet’s strengthened and gotten more refined in its ability to target, the creep factor has risen to a point where people can’t stomach anymore. So it’s like, ‘We’ve got to stop,’” Krohn said. “When Google flips the switch, call it 12 to 18 months from now, we’re going to be back to a more rudimentary form of targeting. You can call it the late 1990s, when you knew a minimal amount of information about the end user.”
Krohn spends a lot of time in his book talking about government regulations that he says should be considered. He is adamant that tech companies should lose liability protection currently afforded them under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 — which essentially says internet platforms can’t be held liable for the third-party content they host — is Big Tech’s “get out of jail free card,” Krohn writes.
“What if the platforms became as liable in the U.S. for poison content as NBC is to the [Federal Communications Commission] when an SNL sketch player blurts the f-word?” Krohn writes, although deciding what constitutes “poison content” will be a thorny challenge.
In the end, though, Krohn writes that companies would adjust to the new regulations. “I’m sure Big Tech would figure it out. Just as broadcasters figured out the seven-second delay.”
But in his interview, Krohn talked less about regulation and more about the need to make civics education much more robust in American schools.
“From kindergarten on up, we have to create a structure around civics in the classroom and help everyone understand the role that they play in society and what set of ideals we adhere to,” he said. “I think that we are looking at a 20-year remedy.”
Krohn also argues that if the government cannot move quickly enough to address problems and rebuild trust, then private sector companies must fill the void.
One example of this, potentially, is Krohn’s idea to match former journalists whose jobs disappeared this century with the need for more civics education.
“What if we put all those people to work by getting them into the education systems and teaching journalism through the lens of digital media, but with the core tenets of what journalism students learn in school?” Krohn said.
“When you couple civics with local news and information, you’ve now begun to create a citizenry that cares about their community, their peers, what’s important in their backyard and how it affects them. And then that will broaden itself regionally, and then nationally. And I think that’s the easy stuff that we can do.”
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