Facebook leaks offer few revelations

By Ben Newman

A company values profit over all else, growing to a supermassive size by exploiting workers. It’s an age-old story, and a good way to describe many monopolies. But the Facebook monopoly adds another layer: they also exploit their users. So when the Facebook papers broke I said, “tell me something I don’t know.” 

For years articles, interviews and academic studies have shown that social media ruins mental health and spreads extremism. Summing up an academic study, a Harvard Business Review headline reads, “the more you use Facebook, the worse you feel.” Social media has been devastating for teenage users, who struggle with mental health at higher rates. A graph of teen anxiety and depression shows a startling increase since 2010, the year when Instagram became available.

People began accusing Facebook and Instagram of spreading extremism and misinformation especially during the 2016 presidential election. Democrats and Republicans could paint opposing partisans in a negative light without fear of backlash. On the extreme, closed groups of right wing voters stoked fear and conspiracy, crafting stories like QAnon, which fueled Trump’s rise and eventual downfall. The capital insurrection blurred the line between the Facebook world and the real world. Some of the people who entered the building were like living internet memes: out of touch with reality and wearing comical clothing asking for a punchline. Furthermore, foreign governments have used Facebook to push propaganda, influence elections and stifle dissent. 

Thanks to whistleblower Ms. Haugen, we got the unsurprising news: Facebook, like the rest of us, knows that social media is harmful.

The Facebook papers provide insights into the research the tech company has done to understand how it’s products impact children, online extremism and more. It’s a joint investigation between many different newspapers, based on information given from a whistleblower named Francis Haugen. The newsworthy story is more about Facebook’s lack of action, than the fact they know their product to be harmful. Despite the negative coverage they have gotten in the past month, they won’t move fast to change their system. At least, not without pressure from the U.S government

Our current laws protect Facebook at the expense of public welfare. Government was built to respect the freedoms of private companies while balancing other factors such as public safety, environmental welfare and maintaining a competitive marketplace.

Insofar, our government has taken a backseat on protecting it’s citizens from the harms of social media. Here are a few recommendations of regulations the government could pressure Facebook to implement.

Facebook needs a health warning. They have demonstrated they know the harmful effects of their product to consumer health. So, like a cigarette box or alcoholic beverage has a physical health warning by law, Facebook should have a mental health warning. If, for example, research suggests that more than 20 minutes of social media a day can induce depression, then Facebook should have a warning pop up at 20 minutes of use. 

Facebook needs to beef up it’s content moderation. The government should force Facebook to grow it’s content moderation team, so that it can crack down on extremists and bad-doers who use the platform for malicious purposes. This practice is both in the interest of government and collective security.

Facebook must open up it’s algorithm to independent eyes. The algorithm drives much of what a user sees on their feed. Based on factors such as prior interests, hover time and clicks, one of Facebook’s own investigations found that the algorithm often serves people extremist content. With 1.1 Billion users, Facebook has a larger user base than most countries. So why are they run by an oligarchy, without oversight?

Many will say given our powers that reigning in Facebook is impossible. But, our government has significant leverage. Facebook is protected by laws dating back to the phone line which deem it a public square. In other words, Facebook is merely the carrier of information, so it is not responsible for what anyone on the platform says. Certainly, Facebook is more than a forum and is a more potent vehicle for societal maladies. In most towns, a Neo-Nazi would be ridiculed or ignored in public. In Facebook, algorithms help Neo-Nazis find each other and create their own closed town-squares full of like-minded people. The U.S could threaten to amend this law, opening Facebook to extreme legal liability, unless they institute things to protect the public. 

In the meantime remains to be seen whether the Facebook files will change anything. But if there were a time for the government to step in, it would be now.

The Kansas City Star investigates it’s racist past

Great writing is enjoyable to read and covers important topics. I’m reflecting on an article from the Kansas city star. The Kansas City Star, a large newspaper in Kansas for 140 years, investigated itself for racism and reckoned with an ugly past in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The article debuted on the front page of the newspaper. In it, editor Mike Fannin apologizes for decades of coverage misrepresenting or failing to acknowledge the city’s black residents. 

The story begins with a classic feature lead which serves as a brilliant hook. Fannin illustrates a picture of an influential local business which has done damage to the city by aiding systems of Jim Crow and segregation which demonized black residents. The description painted a damning picture and the omission of the business name left me wanting to read further. The Nut Graf quenched my curiosity with three words and the name of the business: “That business is the Kansas City Star.”

What struck me was the honesty of the piece. It is decisively direct in showing how it’s actions were racist and biased. Fannin discusses the newspaper’s past headlines which stoked ire towards black people and it’s white-male newsrooms which catered to white-only audiences. He discusses times in which news that affected the black population was ignored. For example, In the 70s, the local river overflowed into parts of Kansas city. Journalists covered the flooding of country club plaza, a white area, while neglecting to cover the deaths in the black neighborhoods downstream. 

The investigation takes a systemic outlook, thinking further about how the actions of the Star actions promoted systems and policies which entrenched racial division and marginalization. Fannin notes that the newspaper promoted all-white developments by giving ad spots to local developers. And, the newspaper stayed on the ‘sidelines’ of the civil rights movement. 

Emotional anecdotes are woven throughout the article, prompting readers to identify with those who lived in the city but could never have their voices heard. These stories angered me, and left me wanting something different from the past. Of course, we will never have the chance to go back and change it. 

The story progressively pivots to discuss how the newspaper has changed, how that road has been rocky and the work that still has to be done to improve . A story like this is a P.R piece backed by investigative journalism. And it performs well at this. The Star had to balance talking about its racist past with a story of how it has transformed. When discussing how it has become better, it still takes an honest tone rather than one which is self aggrandizing. Still, I imagine that many people, especially those marginalized or underrepresented by the star, will not accept the apology as genuine.  

Total War.

Mensches ready for battle

As I walk the neighborhood this Saturday, I try to articulate the unsaid to myself. The skies cast a steely sheen across everything and the sidewalks are eerily quiet. The sellers on the street below my apartment no longer joke and laugh, for there is no joy in losing profit. The tattoo parlor we live above is closed, and to my surprise, I find myself missing the constant laughter and banter coming from people relaxing and smoking on the patio. The party store beside our apartment no longer blasts music all day and the only comparably loud sound now is a garbage truck. The shuk (market), once filled with wandering tourists, is now only of service to cautious Israelis with a mission. The coffee shop which usually has a line out the door now has only a collection of people, all warily standing two meters apart. If I speak English in a store, they ask how long I’ve been here, taking caution that I may be a traveler who is breaking the mandatory two week quarantine.

People walk around with various face-masks and rubber gloves which is quite amusing; I saw a woman wearing a full gas mask, and many people wearing common paint masks which don’t do anything… nor is it clear that a medical face-mask does anything also. I guess it is an outward expression of the fear and anxiety hanging heavy in the air.

I walked into the moadon the yesterday to get a guitar to play, which is the meeting room where our program hosted talks, classes, and activities. I was there nearly every day, but I haven’t been since the government outlawed gatherings of more than 10 people over a week ago. I heard echoes of a time past, hit with that sunken feeling of never getting them back. I guess walking around the neighborhood feels like going after a breakup to that special place you and your ex went to; you recognize it, you loved it, but it’s loaded with a past rosy view which clashes with a duller present. Yes, It feels like i’m living in a parallel universe. Further contributing to my feeling of loss, many of my closest friends are leaving for home to be with their parents. I can’t leave a community behind here and crazy as it sounds America, my place of birth, one of the mightiest powers on earth, is less safe than Israel.

Amit and I shopping for doomsday

As I write about my Saturday morning walk, I see a connection to some of the greatest war accounts from the Homefront perspective. My mind went to how Anne Frank felt in the early parts of her Diary about transitioning from freedom to lack thereof. This is the first total war not just for my generation but for my parents too where the public is key to the war effort.

Rach, Jono, and I doing online classes

Despite, I’m trying to keep my spirits high and all of these limitations has spawned a burst of creativity from all creators. My program is coming up with solutions for activities with under 10 people or online. At Koolulam we are dreaming about online events. The international artist community is converging over social media to help each other. Last night I did a livestream concert from my couch for the people on my program. About 25 people engaged over google hangouts, sharing song suggestions, giving applause and laughter. I sang the Beatles, Elton John, Maroon 5 and of course my hit Sunsets Past. It made me so happy to sing and bring some happiness to my friends who are like me, cooped up in their apartments. In times like these we could let the rain drown out our voices. But I choose to be like Gene Kelly, and sing in the rain.

Me playing to a livestream audience