- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Information overload is a real problem these days. Internet trolling, fake news stories, information “echo chambers,” and the dark side of social media have headlined discussions on the future of politics and culture, particularly after the U.S. presidential elections. Perhaps no one is better suited to address this challenge than the man behind Google.
“We, and I personally, believe very strongly that more information is better, even if it’s wrong,” said Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, Inc.
“Let’s start from the premise that more information, more empowerment, is fundamentally the correct answer” to the world’s most pressing challenges, Schmidt said Thursday after accepting Foreign Policy’s Diplomat of the Year award.
Google is facing scrutiny in the aftermath of a presidential election season headlined by hacking, falsified news, trolling, and hateful rhetoric on the net. On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said fake news sites bankrolled by Google-served ads could have swung the election results in President-elect Donald Trump’s favor. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pushed back against similar accusations, saying it was “extremely unlikely” that his social media platform swayed the election, despite new findings indicating fake news performed better than real news on Facebook during the election.
Pichai said Google has already taken steps to confront the fake news phenomenon. “From our perspective, there should just be no situation where fake news gets distributed, so we are all for doing better here.”
In a discussion Thursday night with FP CEO and Editor David Rothkopf, Schmidt touted Google’s recent tests to combat trolling. “I’m absolutely convinced that these questions about validity, good information, bad information, will be sorted out,” he said. On trolling, Schmidt said “there’s a straightforward technological solution to an evil behavior. It’s easy to do, we did it, it can be replicated. And there’ll be more such solutions.” Google announced a new project to automatically fact-check news in ‘real time’ earlier Thursday.
Schmidt also stressed the positive impact of information on the world. “It’s amazing how powerful the need for information is and how information-starved everyone is. So let’s start by celebrating…that we are busy empowering people in a way that is fundamentally different,” he said, citing the economic, educational, and security benefits a person in the developing world gains from just a cell phone.
Schmidt joined awardees Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Hafsat Abiola, founder of the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) on stage at FP’s awards dinner. Tech talk wasn’t the event’s only agenda item. Climate change also dominated the evening’s discussion.
Hidalgo, receiving the Green Diplomat of the Year Award on behalf of C40 Cities, called climate change “the most important challenge humankind has ever had to face.” In December 2015, a landmark international climate change deal was brokered in Hidalgo’s city. Now that deal may be under threat as Trump, a vocal skeptic of climate change, steps into the Oval Office.
“Climate change is not just a bad movie or a bad reality show,” Hidalgo said, a tacit poke at the real estate mogul and reality TV star who just won the U.S. presidency.
Amid talks of cyber war, fake news, and climate change, Abiola gave a message of hope and optimism at FP’s dinner when she received the Citizen Diplomat of the Year award.
“What we hope depends on who is in our corner,” Abiola said, speaking of the optimism she shares for the future of her native Nigeria and the United States, despite the reality of each country’s political challenges. “The distance between hope and reality is partnership, collaboration, solidarity,” she said.