Two readers tell me that Facebook will not let them post a link to yesterday’s entry here in which I criticize LGBT rights groups who are trying to get all those who oppose their goals labeled as haters and bigots. All my post does is criticize them as trying to shut down free speech and open discourse by calling dissenters bigots. But this is apparently too much for Facebook (or its algorithms) to tolerate.
This put me in mind of Nicholas Carr’s blog post from a few weeks ago, in which he criticized FB founder Mark Zuckerberg’s most recent “message” to the world. Carr begins:
The word “community” appears, by my rough count, 98 times in Mark Zuckerberg’s latest message to the masses. In a post-fact world, truth is approached through repetition. The message that is transmitted most often is the fittest message, the message that wins. Verification becomes a matter of pattern recognition. It’s the epistemology of the meme, the sword by which Facebook lives and dies.
Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?
It’s a good question, though I’m not sure there is any world that we all want, and if there is one, I’m not sure Mark Zuckerberg is the guy I’d appoint to define it. And yet, from his virtual pulpit, surrounded by his 86 million followers, the young Facebook CEO hesitates not a bit to speak for everyone, in the first person plural. There is no opt-out to his “we.” It’s the default setting and, in Zuckerberg’s totalizing utopian vision, the setting is hardwired, universal, and nonnegotiable.
Right. Who is “we,” Kemo Sabe? Carr continues taking apart Zuckerberg’s message, pointing out its author’s assumption that all communities share the same values. Zuckerberg says that “churches” and “sports teams” are examples of local groups that help build social infrastructure. Carr remarks:
Zuckerberg’s conflation of religion and sports is odd but illuminating. In his view, the tenets of a religion matter no more than the rules of a game; what’s essential about a church and a sports team is that they both form social infrastructure that serves to “bring us together and reinforce our values.” It’s only by separating individual beliefs from community formation, and then pretending those beliefs don’t really matter, that Zuckerberg is able to sustain the fantasy that all sub-communities share a set of values — values that derive from community itself, independent of the members’ motivations in forming a group. These common values play the same role in building a global community that common standards play in building the internet: they enable seamless interconnectivity.
Zuckerberg remains oblivious to the fact that a sub-community, particularly a religious one, may be formed on a foundation of belief that is incompatible with, and in opposition to, the beliefs of the surrounding community. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Ian Lovett writes today in an article on a traditionalist Catholic community that has grown around a Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma, “The 100 or so people living here are part of a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians. Feeling besieged by secular society, they are taking refuge in communities like this one, clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life.” Such communities are very different from sports teams. Their formative beliefs aren’t some sort of standardized Lego infrastructure that enables the expression of universal community values. The beliefs of the individuals in the community are the values of the community, and they are anything but common standards.
One more passage from Carr, highlighting the techno-utopianism in Zuckerberg’s worldview:
Tension and conflict, then, become technical problems, amenable to technical solutions. And so, rather than questioning Facebook’s assumptions about society — might global community-building, pursued through media structures, end up encouraging polarization and tribalism? — and the role the company plays in society, Zuckerberg ends up back where he always ends up: with a batch of new hacks. There will be new algorithmic filters, new layers of artificial intelligence, new commenting and rating systems, new techniques for both encryption and surveillance. The bugs — bad actors and bad code — will be engineered out of the system. Zuckerberg’s program, as Ars Technica’s Annalee Newitz points out, is filled with contradictions, which he either won’t acknowledge or, thanks to his techno-utopian tunnel vision, can’t see. He makes a big deal, for instance, of a new initiative through which Facebook will provide management tools for organizing what he calls “very meaningful” communities — groups characterized by passionate members under the direction of a strong leader. The example Zuckerberg offers — a group dedicated to helping refugees find homes — sounds great, but it’s not hard to see how such tools, deployed in the context of Facebook’s emotionalist echo chamber, could be used to mobilize some very nasty groups, of just the sort that Facebook is hoping to purge from its network. “The best communities in the world have leaders,” Zuckerberg said in an interview promoting his so-called manifesto. So do the worst, Mark.
Read the whole thing. Carr is correct, obviously. But one has to wonder: do you really want people with a Silicon Valley view of the world determining the boundaries of discourse for a global community?
Remember the 2014 revelation that back in 2012, Facebook conducted an experiment to control what appeared in the newsfeeds of 700,000 users, to see if it could manipulate their moods (it could)? Facebook gives the illusion that the only curators of what appears there are its users — but this is not so. I would be pleased if Facebook banned neo-Nazi propaganda and suchlike, and I presume that it is either doing so or working towards doing so. But when Facebook is administered by Californians who cannot tell the difference between conservative Christians defending free speech and open discourse, and Hitlerians dedicated to ethnic cleansing, how can you trust their judgment about what constitutes “meaningful” communities, versus those that need to be pushed to the margins and exiled from the greater community?
Last year in The New York Times, Jonathan Taplin warned about Facebook’s (and Google’s) growing monopoly over information delivery. Excerpt:
The former editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, estimated that Facebook had “sucked up $27 million” of the paper’s projected digital advertising revenue in the last year by essentially keeping Guardian readers on Facebook, rather than linking them to the Guardian site.
“They are taking all the money,” he noted. “They have algorithms we don’t understand, which are a filter between what we do and how people receive it.”
But the problem isn’t just for musicians, authors, filmmakers or even the phone company. As the former Google “design ethicist” Tristan Harris wrote, “If you control the menu, you control the choices.”
We have ceded much of our freedom to choose by giving networks like Google and Facebook control of the menu (Google’s search rankings and Facebook’s Newsfeed). How that menu is determined by these black box algorithms isn’t known by anyone outside those companies. As more and more of our lives become digital, these new algorithms will assume more power over our lives.
Next week, I will be writing much more about Taplin’s new book on this topic, Move Fast And Break Things, which is set for April 18 publication. Taplin’s cultural politics are very different from my own, but we share concern over what this monopoly means. Last December, an ACLU lawyer wrote about his concerns over Facebook’s censorship policy. Excerpt:
But for Facebook to assume the burden of trying to solve a larger societal problem of fake news by tweaking these algorithms would likely just make the situation worse. To its current role as commercially motivated curator of things-that-will-please-its-users would be added a new role: guardian of the social good. And that would be based on who-knows-what judgment of what that good might be at a given time. If the company had been around in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, how would it have handled information about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, gay rights, and women’s rights? A lot of material that is now seen as vital to social progress would then have been widely seen as beyond the pale. The company already has a frightening amount of power, and this would increase it dangerously. We wouldn’t want the government doing this kind of censorship—that would almost certainly be unconstitutional—and many of the reasons that would be a bad idea would also apply to Facebook, which is the government of its own vast realm. For one thing, once Facebook builds a giant apparatus for this kind of constant truth evaluation, we can’t know in what direction it may be turned. What would Donald Trump’s definition of “fake news” be?
The ACLU’s ideal is that a forum for free expression that is as central to our national political conversations as Facebook has become would not feature any kind of censorship or other interference with the neutral flow of information. It already does engage in such interference in response to its commercial interest in tamping down the uglier sides of free speech, but to give Facebook the role of national Guardian of Truth would exponentially increase the pitfalls that approach brings. The company does not need to interfere more heavily in Americans’ communications. We would like to see Facebook go in the other direction, becoming more transparent about the operation of its algorithms to ordinary users, and giving them an ever-greater degree of control over how that algorithm works.
In related news, students at Duquesne University, a Catholic college, are upset because Chick-fil-A might bring some of its bigot Christian chicken nuggets to campus:
At the March 26 Student Government Association meeting, Senator at Large Niko Martini proposed that the SGA pass a resolution asking the university to reconsider the inclusion of Chick-fil-A as a dining option for students.
Martini is on the Lambda executive board. He clarified that he made the proposal on his own behalf and not Lambda’s.
“Chick-fil-A has a questionable history on civil rights and human rights,” he said in a statement to The Duke. “I think it’s imperative the university chooses to do business with organizations that coincide with the [university’s] mission and expectations they give students regarding diversity and inclusion.”
The SGA Senate did not pass any resolution but agreed to consider an alternate resolution to vett the Chick-fil-A Express, which senators tabled for the April 9 SGA meeting to allow time to research the concerns.
Lambda President Rachel Coury personally said she worries the safety provided by Gay-Straight Alliance might be in jeopardy.
“I’ve tried very hard within the last semester and a half to promote this safe environment for the LGBTQ+ community,” Coury said. “So I fear that with the Chick-fil-A being in Options that maybe people will feel that safe place is at risk.”
So now chicken nuggets are kryptonite for the Social Justice Warriors? As ridiculous as this sounds — as ridiculous as this is — the people running Facebook are far more likely to trend SJW in their worldview. And as Jonathan V. Last reports in the Weekly Standard, regarding the Human Rights Campaign and its Jesse Jackson-style shakedown of health care institutions, this stuff is not about fairness, but about power. Remember, the most potent manifestation of media bias is not in the stories themselves, but in what the media allow to be published or broadcast.