Oct 12, 2021 - Podcasts

Big Tech’s Big Tobacco moment

Senators at Facebook’s hearing last week used an analogy we’ve heard before — that Big Tech is having its Big Tobacco moment. But it took decades to enact meaningful regulations with Big Tobacco, and we could see the same happen with tech companies.

  • Plus, the challenges of permanent housing for Afghan refugees.
  • And, the abysmal rate of female biographies on Wikipedia.

Guests: Axios' Ina Fried and Linh Ta, and Women in Red founder Roger Bamkin.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Alex Sugiura, Lydia McMullen Laird, and David Toledo. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday October 12th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: the challenges of permanent housing for Afghan refugees. Plus, the abysmal rate of female biographies on Wikipedia.

But first, Big Tech’s Big Tobacco moment is today’s One Big Thing.

Senators at the Facebook hearing last week using an analogy we've heard before, that big tech is having its big tobacco moment. Well, it took decades to put real regulations on big tobacco and Axios’ technology correspondent Ina Fried is here to tell us what could be next for big tech companies. Hey Ina.

INA FRIED: Hi Niala.

NIALA: Let's first start with, is this a fair comparison? Why are people making this?

INA: I think it's a somewhat fair comparison. I think it's not totally apt. It's fair in the sense that, you know, you're talking about a product that's widely used, that also has some harms that are reasonably well understood, but that the companies have researched and known, but tried to hide.

I think one of the things that's super important to keep in mind is, when you talk about tobacco, you were talking about companies that were largely producing the same thing and then they didn't change a whole lot over time either.

So it was a pretty static target to go after. And even still, it took decades to go from understanding that cigarettes were harmful to meaningful change through regulation and litigation and legislation.

NIALA: What other challenges do you think there are in terms of quantifying the effect of social media in terms of just gathering data about this?

INA: Well, again, you know, it was hard even in the tobacco days to say, yes, you know, this person got lung cancer, they probably got it from smoking, but how do you prove it. It's much tougher when we're talking about technology, because how do you say that someone was radicalized by social media or, you know, how do you quantify the harms of anti-vaccine or COVID misinformation? With tobacco, it was a mix of regulation from the FDA laws from Congress and private lawsuits. And I think we will see the same combination of all three with tech, but I do think we're likely to take longer. And then the other piece that we've talked about is tech is a moving target. Oftentimes legislators in particular are looking at kind of tech as it was yesterday, not today and certainly not tomorrow. nAnd I think that's going to be another real hurdle.

NIALA: This whole conversation is making me realize that it's sort of the hindsight of history that we think there was or is uniform consensus around cigarettes, and that's because it's been all of our lifetimes. What stage are we at with big tech?

INA: Yeah. So if you think about it, I mean my whole lifetime, and I'm not that young anymore, we knew cigarettes were bad for you. Like there wasn't a question. And there was still in my childhood. You know, people smoked on planes, there were ashtrays in restaurants. It was a long time, not just to settle on the fact that there was clear harm, but to do something about it. We're still in a different stage with social media.We're still having debates of, is it more harmful than helpful? What are the harms? And I think that the piece of the big tobacco analogy that's most sobering is just how long it took to regulate tobacco, which had pretty clear harms. Again, the product wasn't changing very fast and it was pretty much the same in terms of its health impacts.

NIALA: So, you know, what are you expecting to see next, when it comes to government regulation of Facebook?

INA: I think the thing that's most in our future is more hearings. And the reason hearings are so attractive to legislators is they don't actually have to agree. In order to have legislation in order for them to move forward, they'd have to agree on what the problem is and today they don't even agree on that. And more tricky, they'd have to agree on a solution. And lots of people who know big tech has a problem, who know social media has its problems aren't real clear on what the right solutions are, especially if you're going to do it through legislation, again, where you've got the first amendment and other things.

NIALA: Axios’ chief technology correspondent, author of the daily Axios Login newsletter, Ina Fried. Thank you, Ina.

INA: Thanks, Niala

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with why a housing shortage in Iowa is creating difficulties for refugee families.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I'm Niala Boodhoo.

A shortage of housing in Iowa is making it harder for nonprofits trying to find homes to help resettle about 700 Afghan refugee families. And they're not alone as cities and states work to resettle and house the 37,000 Afghan refugees across the U.S. Linh Ta is a reporter with Axios Des Moines and has the latest on what's happening in Iowa. Good morning, Linh.

LINH TA: Hey, thanks for having me.

NIALA: Linh - first, how are we helping Afghan refugees find permanent housing?

LINH: Yeah, so there's a number of nonprofit organizations around the country that are working to help resettle the families. And really they're trying to find them permanent housing so they, they can have a safe and also stable situation, but the issue at the moment is that there just isn't housing available.

NIALA: So Linh, if the housing inventory is terrible, how are these nonprofits trying to get around that and house these families?

LINH: Yeah, so the nonprofits are working with different extended stay hotels - trying to get them places that have kitchens available so they can prepare their food however they see fit. The other thing that they're doing is they're just asking for money, you know, especially with rent prices going up along with housing prices.They're saying that people may want to donate clothes or different things like that, but really the most useful thing right now is just cash to be able to help pay for rent.

NIALA: So this housing shortage, is this fair to say that this is happening all across the country, as we think about the fact that Afghan refugees are being resettled in 46 different states.

LINH: Most definitely, Iowa is not unique in this situation, and this will likely be a problem across the entire country, as nonprofits in different states try to help resettle everyone. You know, we've seen it from Charlotte, North Carolina, over to, to DC. This is expected to be a nationwide issue.

NIALA: That’s Axios Local reporter in Des Moines. Linh Ta. Thanks, Linh.

LINH: Thank you.

NIALA: Less than 20% of Wikipedia biographies are about women. Yes, I will repeat that. Less than 20%. Which is why the volunteer Wikipedia group Women in Red is hosting a global 24-hour editing marathon today to improve coverage of women on the site. It coincides with Ada Lovelace Day, which celebrates women in stem and is named after the 19th century British mathematician regarded as the world's first computer programmer. Women in Red co-founder Roger Bamkin joins us now from Scotland. Hi Roger.


NIALA: Roger, why is the number of Wiki biographies of women so low?

ROGER: Some people think that it's due to the fact that we've only got male editors. But actually, if you look back 20 years, it was 5% in paper encyclopedias. When we started looking at it, about six years ago, it was 15 and a half percent. And since then, we've moved it up to be 19%, which is quite a horrendous amount of effort when you consider that there are about a million and a half biographies. So actually creating enough to make that percentage change is quite a considerable effort.

NIALA: So what will happen today as people are doing this editing marathon, what does that mean?

ROGER: Well, we've got people starting off the editing in New Zealand. It then moves over into Australia. And as the time zone moves, we go through Pakistan through Kenya. And then finally back into New Zealand at the end of the day. So for 24 hours, it's like a 24 hour zoom session, but luckily, no one person has to be there for 24 hours.

NIALA: Why do you think this is so important?

ROGER: Because I've got a granddaughter and my granddaughter is sitting there looking at some mobile phone, thinking that to be a notable person, it'd be a good idea to be a bloke. I don't like that idea. I'm getting rid of this historical patriarchy and the remains of it. We can't do it this year, but we can certainly mitigate it. We can certainly make sure that the woman hosts of podcasts maybe get a Wikipedia article just a few weeks before their male bosses.

NIALA: Mine could definitely use updating. So that's a good point. Thank you, Roger.

ROGER: Thank you very much.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today!

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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