Tag Archives: facebook

The Good, Bad, and Scary of the Banning of Donald Trump, and How Decentralization Makes It All Better

It is undeniable that banning Donald Trump from Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites is a benefit for the moment. It may well save lives, perhaps lots of lives. But it raises quite a few troubling issues.

First, as EFF points out, these platforms have privileged speakers with power, especially politicians, over regular users. For years now, it has been obvious to everyone that Donald Trump has been violating policies on both platforms, and yet they did little or nothing about it. The result we saw last week was entirely forseeable — and indeed, WAS forseen, including by elements in those companies themselves. (ACLU also raises some good points)

Contrast that with how others get treated. Facebook, two days after the coup attempt, banned Benjamin Wittes, apparently because he mentioned an Atlantic article opposed to nutcase conspiracy theories. The EFF has also documented many more egregious examples: taking down documentation of war crimes, childbirth images, black activists showing the racist messages they received, women discussing online harassment, etc. The list goes on; YouTube, for instance, has often been promoting far-right violent videos while removing peaceful LGBTQ ones.

In short, have we simply achieved legal censorship by outsourcing it to dominant corporations?

It is worth pausing at this point to recognize two important princples:

First, that we do not see it as right to compel speech.

Secondly, that there exist communications channels and other services that nobody is calling on to suspend Donald Trump.

Let’s dive into those a little bit.

There have been no prominent calls for AT&T, Verizon, Gmail, or whomever provides Trump and his campaign with cell phones or email to suspend their service to him. Moreover, the gas stations that fuel his vehicles and the airports that service his plane continue to provide those services, and nobody has seriously questioned that, either. Even his Apple phone that he uses to post to Twitter remains, as far as I know, fully active.

Secondly, imagine you were starting up a small web forum focused on raising tomato plants. It is, and should be, well within your rights to keep tomato-haters out, as well as people that have no interest in tomatoes but would rather talk about rutabagas, politics, or Mars. If you are going to host a forum about tomatoes, you have the right to keep it a forum about tomatoes; you cannot be forced to distribute someone else’s speech. Likewise in traditional media, a newspaper cannot be forced to print every letter to the editor in full.

In law, there is a notion of a common carrier, that provides services to the general public without discrimination. Phone companies and ISPs fall under this.

Facebook, Twitter, and tomato sites don’t. But consider what happens if Facebook bans you. You might be using Facebook-owned Whatsapp to communicate with family and friends, and suddenly find yourself unable to ask someone to pick you up. Or your treasured family photos might be in Facebook-owned Instagram, lost forever. It’s not just Facebook; similar things happen with Google, locking people out of their phones and laptops, their emails, even their photos.

Is it right that Facebook and Google aren’t regulated as common carriers? Perhaps, or perhaps we need some line of demarcation between their speech-to-the-public services (Facebook timeline posts, YouTube) and private communication (Whatsapp, Gmail). It’s a thorny issue; should government be regulating speech instead? That’s also fraught. So is corporate control.

Decentralization Helps Dramatically

With email, you get to pick your email provider (yes, there are two or three big ones, but still plenty of others). Each email provider will have its own set of things it considers acceptable, and its own set of other servers and accounts it’s willing to exchange mail with. (It is extremely common for mail providers to choose not to accept mail from various other mail servers based on ISP, IP address, reputation, and so forth.)

What if we could do something like that for Twitter and Facebook?

Let you join whatever instance you like. Maybe one instance is all about art and they don’t talk about politics. Or another is all about Free Software and they don’t have advertising. And then there are plenty of open instances that accept anything that’s respectful. And, like email, people of one server can interact with those using another just as easily as if they were using the same one.

Well, this isn’t hypothetical; it already exists in the Fediverse. The most common option is Mastodon, and it so happens that a month ago I wrote about its benefits for other reasons, and included some links on getting started.

There is no reason that we must all let our online speech be controlled by companies with a profit motive to keep hate speech on their platforms. There is no reason that we must all have a single set of rules, or accept strong corporate or government control, either. The quality of conversation on Mastodon is far higher than either Twitter or Facebook; decentralization works and it’s here today.

How the Attention Economy Hurts You via Social Media Sites like Facebook

There is a whole science to manipulating our attention. And because there is a lot of money to be made by doing this well, it means we all encounter attempts to manipulate what we pay attention to each day. What is this, and how is it harmful? This post will be the first on a series on the topic.

Why is attention so important?

When people use Facebook, they use it for free. Facebook generally doesn’t even try to sell them anything, yet has billions in revenues. What, then, is Facebook’s product?

Well, really, it’s you. Or, more specifically, your attention. Facebook sells your attention to advertisers. Everything they do is in service to that. They want you to spend more time on the site so they can show you more ads.

(I should say here that I’m using Facebook as an example, but this applies to other social media companies too.)

Seeking to maximize attention

So if your attention is so important to their profit, it follows naturally that they would seek ways to get people to spend more time on their site. And they do. They track all sorts of metrics, including “engagement” (if you click “like”, comment, share, or otherwise interact with content). They know which sorts of things are likely to capture your (and I mean you in specific!) attention and show you that. Your neighbor may have different interests and Facebook judges different things are likely to capture their attention.

Manipulating your attention

Attention turning into money isn’t unique for social media. In fact, in the article If It Bleeds, It Leads: Understanding Fear-Based Media, Psychology Today writes:

In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, with fairness, balance, and integrity. However, capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today’s television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring, and the controversial as news stories. It’s no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it’s to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.

News programming uses a hierarchy of if it bleeds, it leads. Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention. In the news media, this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story. If a teaser asks, “What’s in your tap water that YOU need to know about?” a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety.

You’ve probably seen fear-based messages a lot on Facebook. They will highlight messages to liberals about being afraid of what Trump is doing, and to conservatives about being afraid of what Biden is doing. They may or may not even intentionally be doing this; it is their algorithm predicts that those would maximize time and engagement for certain people, so that’s what they see.

Fear leads to controversy

It’s not just fear, though. Social media also loves controversy. There’s nothing that makes people really want to stay on Facebook like anger. See something controversial and you’ll see hundreds or thousands of people are there arguing about it — and in the process, giving Facebook their attention. A quick Internet search will show you numerous articles on how marketing companes can leverage controvery to get attention and engagement with their campaigns.

Consequences of maximizing fear and controversy

What does it mean to society at large — and to you personally — that large companies make a lot of money by maximizing fear and controversy?

The most obvious way is it leads to less common ground. If the posts and reactions that show common ground are never seen because they don’t drive engagement, it poisons the well; left and right hate each other with ever more vigor — a profitable outcome to Facebook, but a poisonous one to all of us.

I have had several friendships lost because I — a liberal in agreement with these friends on political matters — still talk to Trump voters. On the other side, we’ve seen people storm the Michigan statehouse with weapons. How did that level of disagreement — and even fear behind it — get so firmly embedded in our society? Surely the fact that social media shows us things designed to stimulate fear and anger must play a role.

What does it do to our ability to have empathy for, and understand, others? The Facebook groups I’ve been in for like-minded people have largely been flooded with memes calling the President “rump” and other things clearly designed to make people angry or fearful. It’s a worthless experience, and not just that, but it’s a harmful experience.

When our major media — TV and social networks — all are optimizing for fear, anger, and controvesry, we have a society beholden to fear, anger, and controvesy.

In my next installment, I’m going to talk about what to do about this, including the decentralized social networks of the Fediverse that are specifically designed to put you back in charge of your attention.

Update 2020-12-16: There are two followup articles for this: how to join the Fediverse and non-creepy technology purchasing and gifting guides. The latter references the FSF’s page on software manipulation towards addiction, which is particularly relevant to this topic.