“Everything is a marketing campaign now, even policy ideas” – Renee DiResta Connecting Politics, Anti-Vaxxers & Social Media

Badass. Renee DiResta is badass. Not self-proclaimed badass. But like seriously badass. Click on that bio link in the previous line. Look for yourself. Then read the below. Seriously badass. Enjoy Five Questions with Renee. 


Hunter Walk: You went from Wall St Trader to VC at OATV to operating side now at Haven, a logistics startup. Is there a consistent attribute underlying those different roles, or do they reflect changing perspectives on what interested you?

Renee DiResta: Some of it is changing perspectives, but the common thread is marketplaces. I started at Jane Street as a clerk, writing code to automate myself out of the boring parts of my job (basically, writing scrapers because there were no APIs). When I freed up time, I asked the partners if I could start attending the trading classes even though I hadn’t been hired into that role, and that’s how I became a trader. I was a market maker, so it was my job to build models to derive fair value for certain types of emerging market equity derivatives; it’s a fast-paced environment with incomplete information. I loved it…did it through the financial crisis and the European debt crisis. In 2011, the market became less hectic and I started getting interested in pricing private companies—even less information! This was before the Facebook IPO. I was really interested in Second Market and idea of a market to trade pre-IPO shares. So I switched careers into venture capital because I wanted to learn the ways of valuing private companies. I guess I kind of did, as much as one can; it took me awhile to get my head around the ad hoc nature of seed deal pricing. I started focusing on hardware because it made more sense to me, mathematically.

I would never have helped to found Haven without these experiences. I saw our hardware portfolio companies struggling with their supply chains; they were overly reliant on expensive air freight because the ocean freight market was so opaque. I saw them literally calling freight forwarders on the phone—basically the brokers of the freight industry—getting charged some unknowable markup. There’s no transparency, and a lot of variability, and as I started doing research I learned that this affected even the largest shippers. Matt, Jeff, and I believed that there was an opportunity to bring market dynamics and workflow automation to the freight markets…better visibility into prices, access to a broader network of providers, eliminating the human error component in order entry, etc. All things that happened on Wall Street while I was a trader, as tech became more prevalent in trading. And I love being on the operating side. I can personally make an impact in a way that I was one degree removed from as an investor.

HW: When you dove into the world of anti-vaxxers you encountered some really interesting conclusions about how extreme groups use social media effectively, and how traditional voices are getting drowned out. Can you share an overview of what you discovered?

RD: After the 2016 election this is going to sound obvious but: our social network framework has created an easily-manipulatable environment that allows the loudest voices to get the most attention, facts be damned. And plenty of people have known this for years. In 2015 when we started working on the law to eliminate vaccine opt-outs in California, it became pretty obvious that there was an asymmetry of passion on social channels that was pretty much the opposite of actual public opinion (which is 85% in favor of vaccination requirements for school). I reached out to Gilad Lotan and we decided to map the network, to look at message dissemination techniques. On Twitter, we saw a very small minority of prolific users who spent their days shouting about vaccine conspiracy theories, changing the specific thrust of their messages over time to appeal to other communities.

These accounts were longtime pushers of the “vaccines cause autism” trope, but as it became clear that was a failing strategy, they started to reach out to Tea Party-dominated Twitter hashtags, to cloak their true objections under more relatable concerns about “parental choice” and “government overreach.”  We saw specific verbatim message coordination across networks, including automation—bot and cyborg accounts. Some of it was of course real grassroots, but there was a fair amount of manufactured consensus, overrepresentation of certain niche points of view. 26% of the tweets in the overwhelmingly anti-vaccine Twitter conversation were sent by .05% of the participants (literally, 10 people, five of whom didn’t live in California). That’s not representative of reality, but most regular people aren’t on social channels talking about how they vaccinate their children. They just do it.

The other piece of the problem is harassment. After 2016, I think attitudes on that have changed too, because now it’s affecting all types of people. Twitter let some pretty terrible stuff slide as “free speech” out of some combination of idealism and laziness, and as a result, they allowed free speech to stifle free expression. A subset of the people opposed to our law, for example, turned to extreme harassment as they realized they were losing; they went after our families and children, started doxxing legislators and lobbyists, etc. This is not conducive to healthy conversations about ideas, or growing real grassroots activism on either side of the political spectrum. It makes speaking up a liability, and that’s terrible for democracy.

HW: And this “manipulation” is becoming more pervasive across sectors by groups who have different goals (financial gain, electoral influence, and so on). Are the platforms like Twitter just caught in the middle or is there more of a role for them to adjudicate?

RD: Everything is a marketing campaign now, even policy ideas—they’re just marketing campaigns for an issue. The power to influence opinions lies with those who can most effectively disseminate a message. We’ve democratized propaganda, and created dissemination channels in which it can be effortlessly delivered by fake people (bots, sockpuppets, etc). State actors and terrorist groups realize this, and so do political parties and corporations. We’re in the midst of an arms race; no one wants to be the one not using all of the tools at their disposal.

For some reason we continue to let our tech platforms pretend that they bear no responsibility for the current dismal state of affairs, and that’s just not true. They are responsible. As long as they monetize attention and prioritize engagement above all else, as long as their recommendation engines push people further into echo chambers and down conspiracist rabbit holes, nothing is going to change. At the same time, I believe that the engineers and creators of these products are fundamentally good people. This was not what they built for. Engineers and designers have a lot of power here, and I think design ethics is going to be an increasingly important priority for tech companies.

HW: Post-2016 elections you’ve also gotten involved with some campaigns to assist their tech efforts. How did that come about and did being “on the ground” make you more or less encouraged with regards to the way Democrats/Progressives will use tech in 2017, 2018?

RD: I’m a centrist—in San Francisco, that makes me the most conservative person in the room—and I’ve been disappointed by the rise of the extreme fringe on both sides. I think it’s directly related to what I’ve described above, a system designed to engineer virality, which is basically a rage machine at this point. We have to do better, and that includes doing a better job reaching all Americans with real, accurate policy messages about the issues that matter to them, giving them better ways to connect with their representatives and moving beyond sensationalist, expensive TV ads.

The 2016 election really galvanized the tech community and as a result, there are dozens of new entities that help people be meaningfully active—using their talents in marketing, engineering, design. I led digital teams for the Thompson and Quist special elections for Tech for Campaigns. The Thompson campaign in particular was incredibly tech-savvy; James Thompson really leveraged Facebook Live and Twitter to connect on an individual level with the people in his district. With these special elections, we’ve been able to try out new and innovative tech-mediated strategies that will be useful in 2018. There are also campaign-agnostic communities like Data for Democracy, which has projects on everything from race ranking to policy analysis to exposing disinfo campaigns. The DCCC and DNC are receptive to what we’re sharing back with them. They’ve made some powerhouse hires. It’s not a quick fix, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

HW: Is Silicon Valley now serious about increasing diversity, improving the experience for women in the community? What metrics would you look at to understand if change is real or just posturing?

RD: I’ve been amazed by the tech industry’s willingness to take an unvarnished look at itself. I think that folks who do the hard work on diversity in tech are having a meaningful impact in changing attitudes, particularly around sexual harassment. Lots of women in groups I belong to were DMing articles to each other after the recent stories broke, saying, “Can you believe this is actually out there now?” Going forward, it’ll be very difficult for firms that excuse bad behavior; I don’t think it’ll remain hush-hush any longer, and that’s a big deal.

Buzz and press coverage aside, picking the right metrics is important. Diversity experts have deeper knowledge of this than me, but I see it as a funnel, and it’s important to track trends at all levels, from top-of-funnel talent pipelines to increasing diversity in C-level leadership positions. In my early 20s as a trader (there are very, very few female traders), I once asked about industry outreach efforts to recruit more women and heard “girls don’t want to be traders.” I think Wall Street lags tech in awareness, though, and out here in SV I think that excuse is basically done. I’ve seen increasing numbers of women in venture capital in the six years since I’ve been in SV, including as partners at top firms. VC firms like First Round are building communities not just for their female founders, but for women in tech in general (which I hope translates to more women starting companies!). The benefits of diversity on the bottom line are inarguable. And on that note, Haven is hiring.

Thanks Renee! Follow her on Twitter