All posts filed under: Social Media

Weaponizing Social Justice to Protect School Administrators and Discredit Whistle-blowers: A Canadian Case Study

On March 6th, I published a Quillette article describing how Robyn Bourgeois, the newly installed vice-provost for Indigenous engagement at Canada’s Brock University, had been seeking to mobilize her peers against the anonymous operator of an obscure (and by then, defunct) Twitter account called @BrockCivis. On her social-media channels and at the university’s “Two Row Council” (a body tasked with managing Brock’s efforts at “Indigenization, reconciliation, and decolonization”), Bourgeois accused the account of operating a racist and “criminal” program of “cyber harassment” that targeted her in particular, and Indigenous people more generally. No one at Brock would feel “safe,” she said, in a world where @BrockCivis is still “allowed to dehumanize the highest-ranking Indigenous person at Brock” (by which she meant herself). At a February 22nd Council meeting, a recording of which was subsequently made available to me, school officials brainstormed with Bourgeois about how they might investigate the nefarious account. The contents of @BrockCivis, one participant suggested, were a threat not just to Brock, but to Indigenous people all over Canada. Later in the …

Who Is the Real Threat to Autonomy and Flourishing Online?

Is the web out to get us, or is it a force for autonomy and flourishing? Is it another instrument for the governing elite to channel the masses for political or business purposes? Is it a means for our baser nature to entrench everlasting fake news stories, political narratives, and even whole ideologies? In her 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff details what she regards as the dangers of losing our freedom, dignity, and democratic control to business by being “conditioned,” “tuned,” “nudged,” and otherwise shaped in unconscious ways to serve Big Tech and its business associates. Echoing many of her fears, the popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma portrays algorithmic tracking of our behaviour by Facebook and Google as a Frankenstein’s monster. The documentary has the endorsement of the historian Yuval Noah Harari, best known for his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He argues that the web has become a tool to further reinforce the survival of fake news, to which he thinks humans already have a strong proclivity. Who …

Does Suffering Provide Meaning and Purpose in Life?—A Reply to Freya India

A recent article in Quillette by Freya India raises the age-old problem of how to understand the connection between suffering and meaning in one’s life. India’s argument is that some suffering is unavoidable, but more suffering may be beneficial if one is able to understand its advantages. Generation Z—those born since 1997—are historically unique insofar as they arrived in the Internet and social media age. But is suffering experienced differently according to a person’s circumstances? And are today’s under-25s that much different from earlier generations in the way they respond to stressors? A key characteristic of the social climate in which today’s under-25s live is that they cannot afford to ignore the pressures of creating and maintaining an identity on social media, and of trying to avoid the many hazards presented by aggressive activism and what has become known as “cancel culture.” This environment brings its own anxieties, because what is done on the Internet is very difficult to undo. Arousing serious and/or widespread antipathy from others may ruin one’s life-chances with no means of …

Beating Back Cancel Culture: A Case Study from the Field of Artificial Intelligence

It’s easy to decry cancel culture, but hard to turn it back. Thankfully, recent developments in my area of academic specialty—artificial intelligence (AI)—show that fighting cancel culture isn’t impossible. And as I explain below, the lessons that members of the AI community have learned in this regard can be generalized to other professional subcultures. To understand the flash point at issue, it’s necessary to delve briefly into how AI functions. In many cases, AI algorithms have partly replaced both formal and informal human decision-making systems that pick who gets hired or promoted within organizations. Financial institutions use AI to determine who gets a loan. And some police agencies use AI to anticipate which neighborhoods will be afflicted by crime. As such, there has been a great focus on ensuring that algorithms won’t replicate their coders’ implicit biases against, say, women or visible minorities. Citing evidence that, for instance, “commercial face recognition systems have much higher error rates for dark-skinned women while having minimal errors on light skinned men,” computer scientist Timnit Gebru, formerly the co-lead …

Big Tech and Regulation—A Response to the Quillette Editors

Donald Trump has been permanently suspended from Twitter. And Facebook, Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, Snap, Stripe, Discord, and—most crushingly of all—Pinterest. This was swiftly followed by a swathe of account purges across various platforms, ostensibly on the grounds that terms of service had been violated. Bizarrely, conservatives reacted to this development by lamenting the lack of arbitrary government intervention in private enterprise, while their liberal opponents celebrated corporate squashing of individual expression. If you don’t like it, build your own app. Arguably more important, if less sensational, has been the coordinated nuking of the efforts of those Trump fans who did, in fact, build their own app. Google and Apple banned conservative social media aspirant Parler from their app stores, effectively throttling its only viable distribution channels. Amazon then went a step further and revoked Parler’s right to host its site on its web service, AWS. For good measure, authentication service Okta and internet-to-telecoms interface platform Twilio withdrew their infrastructure too. If you don’t like it, build your own internet. The fallout has been intense and …

Social-Media Oligopolists Are the New Railroad Barons. It’s Time for Washington to Treat Them Accordingly

In 1964, an Ohio Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg told a Cincinnati-based reporter that his hate group would soon be holding a rally in a rural area of Hamilton County. In the filmed portions of that rally, which later became the focus of legal prosecution, robed men, some with guns, could be seen burning a cross and making speeches, infamously demanding “revengeance” against blacks (they used another word, of course), Jews, and the white politicians who were supposedly betraying their own “caucasian race.” They also revealed a plan for an imminent march on Washington, DC. In American First-Amendment jurisprudence, Brandenburg’s name is now a byword for the test that is used in assessing the validity of laws against inflammatory speech—especially speech that can lead to the sort of hateful mob activity that played out at the US Capitol last Wednesday. When details of the Hamilton County rally were made public, prosecutors successfully charged Brandenburg under Ohio’s criminal syndicalism statute, a 1919 law that, in the spirit of the first Red Scare, criminalized anyone …

To Expower the People

“Reckoning” is a new word in food-media vocabulary. For decades, food journalism flourished as a safe, G-rated corner of publishing, an agreeable refuge from the strife of politics and the passions of fiction. In the extended family of literature, gastro-journalism blossomed as the approachable younger sibling to the fiery op-ed and the moody novel. Slick journals like Gourmet or Bon Appétit projected a dinner-table fantasy ideal for suburban daydreams. Recipes, travelogues, and restaurant reviews allowed readers to escape their world without leaving their living room. The field’s rare ventures into the political usually took the form of culinary cheerleading: “Tacos are My Resistance” or “The Vietnamese Sandwich Shop Teaching Dallas how to Hire Differently.” Then George Floyd died. The residual anger from the protests hit the sheltered cradle of food media with blistering volley of accusations about racial inequity. And the reckoning was immediate. In the course of one month, the top editors of both Bon Appétit and the LA Times Food Section (Adam Rapoport and Peter Meehan respectively) were forced to resign, and culinary …

What Is #DisruptTexts?

Lorena Germán is an award-winning Dominican-American educator and author. On November 30th, she posted this on her Twitter feed: “Did y’all know that many of the ‘classics’ were written before the 50s? Think of US society before then and the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books. That is why we gotta switch it up. It ain’t just about ‘being old.’ #DisruptTexts.” That tweet caught the attention of Jessica Cluess, a successful author of Young Adult (YA) fiction, who responded with a lengthy and scornful thread, in which she pointed out that many of those classics were written in defiance of then-existing power structures: “Yeah, that embodiment of brutal subjugation and toxic masculinity, Walden. Sit and spin on a tack.” And, “If you think Upton Sinclair was on the side of the meat-packing industry then you are a fool and should sit down and feel bad about yourself.” Cluess’s novels have been praised for their “strong sense of social justice” but during the ensuing Twitter mobbing, she was excoriated …

The Flawed Reasoning of the Techlash and Progressive Movements

Around the globe, governments are looking for ways to tax, fine, regulate, or break up Big Tech—part of a reaction against companies like Google and Amazon that has become known as the “techlash.” This represents a huge shift in economic policy thinking, potentially the most significant in the West since the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. Although they may seem unrelated, there are striking parallels between this techlash and progressive activism (so-called “woke” culture) that attempts to radically alter Western social norms. On their own terms, both movements rest on similar reasoning concerning moral responsibility, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable from the powerful. In other words, even though their proponents only partly overlap (the techlash has notably gained significant traction on the Right), similar underlying forces appear to be driving both movements. Tales of oppressors and oppressed Both progressive activism on the Left and the techlash on the Right view the world as one in which privileged individuals or corporations unfairly oppress an unfortunate minority (the works of Hegel and Marx loom large).  Consider the following self-descriptions. …

Why Do Progressives Support the Unfettered Use of Private Property?

In mid-October, Twitter took the unprecedented step of preventing its users from sharing a link to a New York Post story reporting allegations about the Biden family’s foreign financial interests. Whenever controversies about social media censorship arise, a mantra is repeated in their defence, usually by progressives: these are private companies and, as such, they can regulate speech on their platforms however they wish. Notice that this claim does not simply maintain that companies can restrict information in pursuit of specific policy aims (like thwarting criminal activity such as human trafficking efforts or combating terrorist networks). Instead, they can restrict expression on their platforms simply because those platforms are company property. Among the most familiar responses to this argument is the view that, even though these tech giants are private entities, they function like public forums in which free expression should be upheld. Here, I spell out a different approach: that while social media companies are indeed private entities, they should nevertheless be unable to regulate non-criminal activity on their platforms for a variety of moral …