All posts filed under: Social Media

Facebook Already Controls Our Information. Don’t Let It Control Our Commerce

In recent years, not a month has gone by without yet another unsettling exposé of Facebook’s content-moderation policies and corporate machinations. One report from February explained how Facebook moderators can end up believing the conspiracies they’re hired to weed out. In another case, Facebook’s top executives hired lobbyists to present some of its critics as extremists. Facebook’s platform and subsidiaries have even been linked to the incitement of genocide in Myanmar and deadly lynch mobs in India. Not so long ago, in the days when using proto-social media meant dialing up to a CompuServe or AOL chat room, we never could have imagined (those of us old enough to remember that time, at least) that the name of a company like Facebook would appear in the headlines of breaking stories about geopolitics. But in 2019, it’s an everyday occurrence. Facebook runs the world’s biggest social media platform. It also runs Instagram, the world’s second biggest social media platform, and several large messaging platforms, including WhatsApp. It has become perhaps the most important de-facto news-delivery platform …

Knitting’s Infinity War, Part III: Showdown at Yarningham

This is my third report for Quillette on the shockingly vicious social-media wars that have erupted in the world of knitting. My first, written in February, described how knitters’ blogs and Instagram accounts have become weaponized over the issue of racial representation after a knitting designer gushed publicly about her forthcoming trip to India. I concluded with the hope that “the world of knitting can return to a focus on designs, colors, and the value of something that’s unique and handmade, rather than the nationality or race of whoever made it.” This proved to be extremely naïve. In my second article on the subject, published last month, I described how this subcultural farce had descended into a full-blown tragicomedic soap opera, with knitters seeking to destroy one another’s livelihoods because of arguments about whether certain yarn colors might be racist, or whether yarn-related publications profile enough black women. I was surprised that such an esoteric subject would stir up so much reader interest. (My editors tell me that both articles went viral.) And I honestly …

Culture War Churn and the YouTube Rabbit-Hole

The New York Times recently profiled a man named Caleb Cain who had been radicalized by far-Right videos on YouTube. It’s easy to dramatize this familiar story with statements like, “I fell down the alt-right rabbit-hole” and “I just kept falling deeper and deeper into this…” and ultimately, “I was brainwashed.” But the brainwashing didn’t stick. Cain was eventually de-radicalized. The NYT, and most other commentators besides, painted Cain’s journey as a redemption story and a cautionary tale about the dangerous influence of YouTube algorithms. However, it’s worth lingering on the fact that Cain is not the only person who was radicalized and then de-radicalized in relatively quick succession. In reality, Cain’s story is simply one case study in the context of an overlooked phenomenon: churn in the culture wars. Churn is the business concept that some percentage of service subscribers will fall away after a certain period of time. In order for a business to grow its clientele, it must have a higher client acquisition rate than a client loss rate. This concept maps …

Deplatforming Won’t Work

Last year Robert Bowers shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing eleven people. Before committing this atrocity he wrote on Gab: “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Gab is a Twitter alternative used by many neo-Nazis and alt-righters who have been (or know they would be) banned from actual Twitter. The unintended—but entirely predictable—consequence of throwing extremists off Twitter has been to create a large community of exiles on Gab. In Gabland, it is people who question Jewish conspiracy theories or the idea that the US should be a white ethnostate who are considered “trolls.” A similar community is developing on the YouTube alternative BitChute, whose Alexa ranking is rising quickly. Bowers’s threat of imminent violence (“Screw your optics, I’m going in”) didn’t alarm any of his fellow extremists on Gab. What if he had written the same thing on Twitter? Someone would have been much more likely to contact the …

How Free Speech Dies Online

Last year, I explained why it is wrong to consider weakening speech protections to allow bans on speech by the alt-right, neo-Nazis, or other far-Right groups: it is safer to let Nazis speak in a society that places high value on individual rights and has strong legal protections for those rights than it is to risk letting Nazis take control of institutional power in a society where protections on individual rights have been eroded. I explained, with specific examples, how easy it would be for a far-Right regime to turn restrictions on violent or hateful speech against its enemies. However, since then, while free speech has remained a controversial topic, the focus of the debate has moved away from restrictions on speech by state actors, and toward the question of how corporate entities that privately control the platforms which host a great deal of our speech and debate should regulate and moderate their users. These platforms are not bound by the US Constitution or by other legal regimes that protect private speech from state coercion, …

What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?

There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific dictatorship should ever be overthrown. ~Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited The recent movement to investigate, and even break up, the current tech oligarchy has gained support on both sides of the Atlantic, and even leapt across the gaping divide in American politics. The immediate concerns relate to such things as the control of key markets by one or two firms, the huge concentration of wealth accruing to the tech elite and, increasingly, the oligarchy’s control over and manipulation of information pipelines. What has not been discussed nearly as much is the end game of the oligarchs. What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit. Almost 40 years ago, in his book The Third Wave, the futurist Alvin Toffler described technology as “the …

A Black Eye for the Columbia Journalism Review

Ideological polarization has become a growing problem in many sectors of society. But it is especially corrosive to public discourse when it infects organizations whose traditional role has been to hold everyone else to account for the integrity of their reporting. We need those organizations to act as a sort of referee when journalists of any description—including those at Quillette—fail to exhibit high standards. This becomes impossible when they instead act as combatants in the culture wars. Earlier this month, for example, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), which describes itself as “the national voice of Canadian journalists,” “committed to protecting the public’s right to know,” and “dedicated to promoting excellence in journalism,” signed on to the claim that Canada is perpetuating an ongoing “genocide” against Indigenous people, and encouraged journalists to take on an activist role by promoting “decolonizing approaches to their work [and] publications in order to educate all Canadians about Indigenous women, girls & 2SLGBTQQIA people.” It hardly needs pointing out that this sort of explicit activist agenda—however well-intentioned—is completely incompatible with …

Happiness and Academic Malpractice

In two popular books about happiness, Professor Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics has established himself as a public scholar. Dolan writes very clearly—an unusual attribute for an academic—and brings a fresh approach to the study of happiness. Quillette founder Claire Lehmann captures it well in a review of Dolan’s first book, Happiness by Design: When we think about our “happiness” we may think about the goals we have achieved, how much money we have in the bank, or how prestigious our job is. We may not think about our commute to work, our dreary co-workers or the fact that days at the office seem to drag along, uninspiringly. In doing so, Dolan argues, we privilege our evaluative self over the experiential self. Dolan’s exploration of the experiential self isn’t intended just to be a theory: he presents statistical data from numerous sources in support of his hypothesis. Unfortunately, Dolan’s data provide very little support for his theory, and are marred by serious errors of both analysis and interpretation. Dolan first caught my …

Against Big Tech Viewpoint Discrimination

This week, YouTube decided American conservative “shock jock” commentator Steven Crowder broke the rules of their Partner Program. Since YouTube is privately owned, shouldn’t principled free market advocates support the company’s right to purge videos Silicon Valley finds triggering, even if a disproportionate number are created by conservative commentators such as Crowder? Well, imagine electric companies stood up for progressive values by cutting off power to homes with pro-Trump yard signs. Even staunch supporters of free markets would likely object to these restrictions on expression by privately owned enterprises. When we examine why power companies shouldn’t be able to make service contingent on not violating political sensibilities, we see that analogous arguments should stop social media giants from exiling political dissidents. If Burger King won’t sell you a hamburger, so what—buy one from McDonald’s. Competition among businesses normally protects you from harm if one refuses you service. Some markets, however, are characterized by “bigger is better” where size bestows advantage. It’s much cheaper on average to hook up electric power lines to homes if the …

The Moral Panic Behind Internet Regulation

This is a contribution to “Who Controls the Platform?”—a multi-part Quillette series. Submissions related to this series may be directed to pitch@quillette.com. In the present era of growing polarization, one thing that people from across the political spectrum now agree on is their dislike of Big Tech. The political Left complains that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Amazon have become “monopolies.” They also blame global technology platforms for Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, and white nationalism. It is much easier, after all, to blame online manipulation for the downfall of the center-left than acknowledge the disconnect between the intelligentsia and the working-class voters that the Left once represented. Meanwhile, critics on the Right blame Big Tech for a comparable shopping list of evils, including being biased against conservatives, giving a platform to terrorists, enabling pedophiles to groom children and distribute indecent images, and boosting populist figures on the Left and Right who threaten the center-right’s own electoral base. This is mixed, particularly in the U.K., with a traditional conservative refrain of “Please, won’t someone think of the …