Rick Perry's embarrassing case for tech literacy in government
Former Texas Gov. and current Energy Secretary Rick Perry has deleted his embarrassing Instagram post from Tuesday night, but, as of this writing, the tweet it automatically generated for his @governorperry account still stands. "Feel free to repost!!" it cheerfully offers, adding "#nothanksinstagram" and what is now a link to nowhere.
That link once led to Perry's share of a classic social media hoax. (A number of celebrities fell for it too, and Perry has since put up a parody post poking fun at his own mistake.) You've likely seen this before: a breathless announcement that the website is changing its terms of service to reduce user privacy or allow unwanted use of user content, followed by a promise that if you just share this image, your account will be protected. There's often a faint legal gloss to the language — a reference to some law, possibly nonexistent or, as here, irrelevant to the matter at hand — which is error-laden to the point of incoherence. And though Perry did not go this route, it's usually captioned to the effect of, "I don't know if this is real, but better safe than sorry!"
Someone should probably look into the fact that there's basically nothing boomers won't fall for on the internet. Maybe between now and the next election? Oh well! pic.twitter.com/g80sBAL0G3
— Patrick Monahan (@pattymo) August 21, 2019
It's never real. The barest moment of consideration makes obvious that it's never real. Seeing through this sort of hoax is tech literacy at its most basic. Evidently, it is also tech literacy our energy secretary does not possess.
This is a problem. As much of the coverage of Perry's flub has noted, he is the "official in charge of securing the country's nuclear arsenal." It seems safe to assume there are institutional safeguards in place which will keep the secretary's internet incompetence from accidentally launching us into nuclear Armageddon — WarGames can't come true, right? — but that does not make this ignorance okay.
The hazards in having high-level officials who are clueless about the internet are several. The one Perry exemplified this week is about information: It is risky when extremely powerful people can be fooled by content they should easily be able to identify as fake.
It's not good when your grandfather drops an "INSTAGRAM DOES NOT HAVE PERMISSION TO SHARE MY PHOTOS OR MESSAGES" post or shares a fake news story under the impression it is true, but the consequences of grandpa's bad internetting are limited. When Perry or other Cabinet secretaries or members of Congress are fooled by online claptrap, that influence can have major deleterious consequences.
In this case, Perry realized his mistake. "OMG ... seriously, you mean this is fake!!" he wrote in the comments of his post. In other cases, who knows? Who knows what he's reading and believing on the internet? If he doesn't share the content like he did here, we have no way of knowing whether the energy secretary has been successfully trolled, including on matters pertaining to public policy and national security.
Given both this incident and his age (69) — research has found old age is the single demographic factor consistently linked to sharing fake news — we can be reasonably certain Perry is being tricked by false or satirical content if he's spending much unmonitored time online. The same is true of President Trump, as open source analyst Jack Nasetta recently detailed here at The Week: Trump's habit of browsing replies to his tweets creates a worrisome opening for policy manipulation of an elderly president who aside from his love of Twitter is the opposite of a digital native.
The other big risk with the type of tech illiteracy Perry displayed is that Washington increasingly has an appetite for regulating the internet, which too often means lawmakers and administrators seek to control something they do not understand.
This confusion is on display every time Congress holds a hearing with tech titans like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. When Zuck appeared before Congress last year, for example, members had him clarifying the meaning of the slang term "pipes," explaining whether "Twitter [is] the same as what you do," and reiterating that Facebook shares user content with other apps at the user's own consent. In perhaps the most painful moment of the hearing, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked how Facebook can "sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service." "Senator," Zuckerberg answered after a beat, "we run ads."
— Jeremy Miller (@jjeremymiller) April 11, 2018
It's true that members of Congress should not be expected to be experts in every subject matter their legislation touches, but they've got to do better.
Congress once had an Office of Technology Assessment to help with this sort of thing; it closed in 1995, three years before the founding of Google. Perhaps it's time to bring something like that back. Some remedy, at least, is needed. This pairing of power and ignorance will only grow more dangerous in our digital age.