Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Pointless Feel-Good Madness of the Rising Facebook Fury

Wow. Everybody hates Facebook, and they'd like something bad to happen to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, because - um - some bad stuff happened, and nobody's doing anything, and we really need to BLAME somebody or something for the bad stuff that happened. Here's the key question: What did Facebook do to earn such bitter enmity and loathing? If you can't explain it in a couple of sentences, and instead fall back on shouting "Privacy!" or "He SOLD our data" or "FAKE RUSSIAN NEWS", you need to go back, do some serious research, and think about it a little harder. Perhaps I can help.

There are two issues here. One is the Facebook business model. When you run the largest multi-datacenter consumer internet site in the world, your growth models are premised on offering billions of dollars of technology services for free, and you base your revenue models on advertising, you need to deliver effective advertising. The way to do that is to understand as much as you can about every user, so that you can deliver the ads they are most likely to click on. Those advertisers will recognize the higher response rates on your platform and pay you correspondingly higher advertising rates. Let's be very clear - THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS. Companies have ALWAYS sought to know as much as they could about their customers - when you use your loyalty card at the grocery store, they give you a discount, because the information they are collecting about your purchasing habits is valuable to them.

The key to this discussion is that there are two kinds of data. There is PII - Personally Identifiable Data - and there is masked or aggregated data, where the trends and characteristics of a user or group of users can be analyzed and shared without exposing WHO those users are. Every company has PII in their internal systems. Whether it's payment data, address, banking, age, health, financial status, home ownership etc - it's impossible to work with people without collecting information about them. Social media is it's own thing - people, in the course of using the platform, tell the system a great deal about themselves, both directly (I have two kids and another on the way, I have four dogs, I live in Cleveland etc) and indirectly (Likes, Emojis, Quizes etc).

Google uses the information they collect to provide ad targeting services too. But there's ONE big difference. Google provides the targets themselves - no PII every leaves their possession to go to the advertisers. Facebook has at least one program where they will provide PII to the ad networks to do their own targeting. This is 100% of the problem, and will likely be reduced in light of the firestorm. But that's it - all the screaming about privacy and data protection and "selling" data comes down to nothing more nefarious than who is using the data to target the ads. It's not optimal, but it's really not the end of the world. And if you think it's sufficient reason quit using the Facebook platform, or if you think it makes Zuckerberg uniquely evil, you really should look hard at the other online platforms and tools you use.

The other issue is the ad content itself. How can they rapidly identify those ads that are problematic, that represent foreign electoral influence, for example? And is it even desirable for them to take it upon themselves to filter ad content? This gets really dicey. Yes, as a private company they are not obligated to provide unfettered speech a la the first amendment. But as a content and messaging company, they MUST retain credibility. If people feel their voices are being silenced, the platform itself will lose credibility, and thus users. And make no mistake, this would be a 'both sides' problem. If we demand that Facebook silence certain kinds of content, they're going to make absolutely certain that there is NO hint of political bias in the decision. That means they're going to silence at least one liberal for every conservative. And because content guidelines can never cover every eventuality, these decisions are going to be seen as crude and arbitrary, and there's just no way that a company the size of Facebook could provide sufficient resources to arbitrate every complaint.

The argument about "Fake News" is just a complete red herring. Yes, the Russians used Facebook (and Twitter and Instagram) to attempt to influence the 2016 US Presidential election - and they did so with both paid advertising and straightforward user postings. If you want to prevent foreign money from paying for these kinds of ads, great, but don't pretend that money can't be moved around in such a manner as to conceal its source. Russians won't purchase the ads directly, Americans will. The question of where the money actually came from, as with all campaign finance questions, will ultimately go unresolved. And, once again, if you want to empower Facebook to arbitrarily silence controversial users, don't get all weepy on me when they silence YOU too. They don't want to be in the censorship business, and if we force them to take on that role, they're, once again, going to make sure it doesn't look slanted, and that means silencing voices we want to hear.

At the end of the day, all consumers of political and public policy news should be skeptical. If you read something, and it's something you REALLY want to believe, that's the moment you should be extra-cautious about just accepting it at face value. Do your due diligence or accept that you're being lied to and used. Pizzagate was a stupid, irrational conspiracy theory with zero evidence to support it. People who believed it WANTED to believe it. People who took a moment to check other authoritative and primary sources quickly discovered the truth. This is called 'motivated reasoning' and it has NOTHING to do with Facebook or social media. Fox News is the greatest example of a propaganda outlet that KNOWS it's audience only wants to hear certain things, even if they are untrue.

So, does this mean there are no problems with Facebook and the larger social media ecosystem? Of course not. What it DOES mean is the current hysterical freak-out has much less to do with Facebook policies and processes and much more to do with our own frustration and sense of helplessness. I would think that the spittle flecked hatred of all things Zuckerberg will die down after the midterm elections, when there are more actual functional checks on Trump's madness. But ultimately, don't expect much to change, because there's really not very much to BE changed.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Kevin Williamson Saga - Ur Doon It Worng

So, at long last, our long national nightmare has come to an end. Kevin Williamson is no longer employed as a writer at The Atlantic. Your children can come out of the safe room and you can all sleep sound tonight.


I find this whole thing to be distasteful, and I am particularly disappointed with the behavior of so many of my fellow liberals. What Williamson said was foul, but I have two important reasons why we should have attacked his content (and encouraged him to produce more of it) rather than screaming for his head. The first is based in values I believe are critical to the American experience - values that are rapidly disappearing from both sides (yes, I said it) of the political spectrum. The second reason is more calculated, more pragmatic, and more important in the specific sense of women's rights and the abortion argument.

First, let's talk about writing. Williamson hasn't been silenced, exactly. He can still write a blog, and offer pieces as a free lancer. It was The Atlantic that was silenced, shouted down by a mob for doing what they believed was best for their commercial organization. They might have been wrong about that in the long run, but we'll never get to find out. Williamson was pushed out of a professional writing job. As someone who views himself as a writer first, I find that simply unacceptable. In America we have always believed that you have a right to sell your services to the highest bidder, and if that resulted in content that we found offensive, we had the option of not patronizing that particular purveyor of ideas, or of even writing our own piece denouncing the positions offered. Too often I see my fellow lefties shrieking in fury over a writer with whom they do not agree getting offered a job by a major outlet. I can only imagine how awful they would feel if some conservative hate mob ran them out of THEIR dream job for offering a political position that they found offensive. I guess I can't speak for all the people I thought I knew, but I don't want to do that.

Which brings us to the more pragmatic argument. There is NO reason why we should be arguing about women's reproductive rights in 2018 - Roe v Wade was decided almost fifty years ago. But one of the more 'powerful' (to some) arguments on the right is that abortion is murder. Indeed, they often compare abortion in America to the Holocaust or genocide. This is a stupid, specious argument, but we keep letting them get away with it.  Why? Just like this instance. What Williamson said - that a woman who had an abortion should be hanged - is really nothing but the logical outgrowth of this kind of rhetoric. In that sense, it's both logically consistent and brutally honest. In the Summer of 2016, the politically ignorant Donald Trump said the same thing on the campaign trail. Why? Because it's OBVIOUS, and he had no grounding in the tactical political messaging of the anti-abortion rabble. They KNOW this is toxic - they can go as far as suggestion some limited punishment for doctors, but the logical consequences of their "abortion is murder" stance is something that will kill their movement almost instantly.

So Williamson put it out there. It was a HUGE opportunity for the pro-choice community to engage and put other conservatives on the spot. "Is Williamson wrong? If abortion is murder, isn't he actually RIGHT?" The big, ugly secret behind criminalizing abortion would out on the table for all to see. Religious nutjobs would agree with him, politicians would run from him, but they all would have to explain how to adjudicate the mother in a world where abortions were criminalized. I would have encouraged him to speak out further on how women should be prosecuted and executed for a medical procedure. He'd do more damage to their neanderthal misogynist views on women's rights then anybody would have imagined. And for that matter, I KNOW The Atlantic quite well. I've been friends with James Fallows for over a decade, and they welcome engagement from both sides. Williamson's pieces would have opened up a major debate in their pages, and thoughtful people would have had a chance to speak to women's rights in front of an audience prepared to consider what they have to say.

So congratulations, fellow lefties. You took a major opportunity to advance the dialog on women's reproductive rights and threw it in the dumpster, all while you took an unnecessarily illiberal, authoritarian approach to speech. And in the battle to get ideologues fired from writing jobs, I suspect the Conservatives will be coming hard after this. We got our scalp, shot ourselves in the foot and ended up silencing ourselves.

It's just not a good look...