TikTok, Twitter and the war in Ukraine dominate Web Summit in Lisbon – USA TODAY

LISBON, Portugal – The future-of-tech conversations at Web Summit here could have played on a split screen. In one frame, fraught forecasts of ill-used technology leaving real-world damage; in another, glowing predictions of a digitally-enhanced future that once filled more of the schedules of talkfests like this.
Disclosure: I moderated four panels at Web Summit, with the organizers covering my airfare and lodging.
The session that opened the 71,033-attendee conference Tuesday featured an especially stark reminder of how high tech can be applied to low uses.
“Russia puts technology at the service of terror,” said Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska before showing photos of the destruction left across Ukraine by Russian attacks with Iranian-made drones.
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“For 150 years, what we have seen is technology increasingly put civilians in harm’s way,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said at a press conference Thursday after announcing that the company would continue all of its digital aid to Ukraine through 2023, adding $100 million to its $300 million in help so far.
Sitting beside him, speaking through an interpreter, Ukraine Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov thanked Microsoft for its assistance in thwarting cyberattacks against civilian infrastructure, a weaponization of networking technology Smith decried in previous Summit talks.
Social media, often a punching bag here, took more hits this year. In a Thursday panel on the state of journalism, speakers lamented how many younger would-be readers instead rely on TikTok for news but had no good answers about how to get them back.
“This is what happens when you abandon audiences,” said James Ball, global editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
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Thursday, TikTok security head Will Farrell touted the company’s cybersecurity transparency.
Like many tech firms, it runs a “bug bounty” program to reward confirmed reports of flaws. But that talk unavoidably underscored how opaque its ranking algorithm looks in comparison, even if Farrell ended the panel by saying TikTok was now working to open that system to misinformation and other researchers.
Web Summit’s organizers earlier faced accusations of elevating misinformation merchants when the program listed a session featuring Grayzone, a fringe blog that has run debunked storylines from such dictators as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
The conference yanked that invitation last week, but CEO Paddy Cosgrave sounded regretful over the retreat at a press conference Thursday: “I want to remain a Switzerland, a big tent.”
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Attendees following the #WebSummit conversation on Twitter could not miss that service unraveling as new owner Elon Musk made massive layoffs and denounced advertisers for not spending there as if nothing had changed.
In an interview Friday, Alan Rusbridger, a longtime journalist and member of Facebook’s Oversight Board, asked pointed questions about Musk’s plan to set up a content moderation council akin to the quasi-judicial body he joined in 2021.
“Is it going to be global or is it going to be American?” he asked. “How independent is he going to make it? How much money is he going to give it?”
Warned Rusbridger: “If it’s going to be global, it’s not going to be cheap and it’s not going to be quick.”
But on other stages, tech sales pitches went on as usual. Amazon’s Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa, told attendees Wednesday to make more room for that digital assistant in their routines and maybe their hearts.
“It’s not just an AI assistant,” he said. “It’s also a trusted adviser and a companion.”
Maybe we could use more cybernetic companionship. However bad things get in the world, if you ask Alexa to tell you some good news, she, unlike many Summit speakers, will do that.


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