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Award-winning journalist Kara Swisher visits U-M to talk misinformation, need for tech regulation

A photo of Kara Swisher and Mary Barra sitting on the stage, with Andrea Forte standing behind a podium
Photo: Leisa Thompson

Thursday, 03/21/2024

Award-winning journalist Kara Swisher, whose new memoir “Burn Book: A Tech Love Story” is a New York Times bestseller, visited the University of Michigan on Monday, March 18, to discuss media, misinformation and the need to regulate the tech industry. She was joined in conversation by Mary Barra, chair and CEO of General Motors, who has been widely recognized for driving innovation while prioritizing safety. 

“I’m interested in two things,” Swisher told the audience in Rackham Auditorium. “One is media, as it evolves over the years from carrier pigeons to the Gutenberg Bible to radio, television. And [the other is] the impact it makes.”

Swisher said media technologies have rapidly transformed society over the past century, starting with the political implications of the radio. From the early days of the internet, she has been concerned “about the possibilities of usage,” including propaganda and misinformation. 

Her visit came as part of the Democracy in Crisis Series, which brings respected journalists to U-M’s campus to share insights about the forces threatening and protecting American democratic structures and systems. The School of Information co-sponsored the event, which was presented by the Wallace House Center for Journalists and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. 

Swisher’s memoir offers an insider’s perspective on the tech world and its key players. In her conversation with Barra, she shared anecdotes about billionaires’ baby showers and poked fun at the excessive freebies doled out at tech companies’ headquarters. But her analysis of the tech world was as sobering as it was humorous. 

She spoke about a 2018 interview she did with Mark Zuckerberg, in which he infamously defended Holocaust deniers’ right to post on Facebook. It would be another two years before Facebook would ban posts that deny or distort the Holocaust.

“He is unelected, he is unaccountable, he is unfireable,” Swisher said of Zuckerberg. “And he has a profound effect on our society.”

An Evening with Kara Swisher and Mary Barra

A photo with Kara Swisher talking on stage. Andrea Forte listens from behind a podium
Kara Swisher responds to a question during a student Q&A moderated by Dean Andrea Forte. (Photo: Leisa Thompson)
A photo of Mary Barra, Paul Resnick, Kara Swisher and Andrea Forte
From left: Mary Barra, UMSI associate dean for research and innovation Paul Resnick, Kara Swisher and Andrea Forte (Photo: Leisa Thompson)

Barra asked Swisher what one thing she would change about the way social media is regulated ahead of the upcoming presidential election. She answered swiftly: “Like they do in Europe, shut it down for a month, two months, before the election.”

Much of the discourse about free speech misses the mark, Swisher noted. “If you understood how many malevolent players are manipulating you, you’re not getting free speech. You’re getting something else,” she said, referring to the failure of platforms like Facebook and X to control hate speech, misinformation and disinformation. “Why is there no regulation on the one industry that is the most powerful industry in the history of the world?”

UMSI PhD candidate Jane Im, whose research focuses on designing social computing systems that are grounded in consent, posed a question to Swisher during the student Q&A about the future of social media. “Currently, there are many attempts to reimagine social media, in industry and in academic research,” Im said. “What do you think is the most important angle for us to think about … which hasn’t been discussed enough?”

Swisher emphasized designing social media with safety in mind. She also stressed the need for regulations around privacy, data and algorithmic transparency. 

Andrea Forte, dean of UMSI, gave closing remarks. “This really resonates with what we do at UMSI,” she said. “We’re researching and teaching about how we can build and use technologies in ways that make information a force for social good.” 

— Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer

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Watch a recording of Swisher's talk here