David Sacks Says Facebook Isn’t the Bad Guy Here

Craft Ventures general partner and former PayPal COO David Sacks tells Emily Chang that, for all the bad rep Facebook has been getting, Facebook should not be uniquely to blame – and that the media, Hollywood, and the fashion industry all create more body image issues for teens and adults than the social network. (Source: Bloomberg)

Source: David Sacks Says Facebook Isn’t the Bad Guy Here

To sum up: The government is trying to do an end-run around the First Amendment, which prevents them from infringing the right to free speech, by getting private companies to do what they can’t do. Of course, we’ve known that for at least a decade now, but it’s interesting to see how they’re actually implementing the idea.

This guy points out that the “Facebook whistleblower” has been working with a Congressional committee for weeks, and the people on that committee are already on record as wanting censorship on social media. If you watch this, don’t be lulled into thinking that he’s excusing Facebook in the first half. He’s just setting up the ultimate point in the second half.

I posted this to Facebook. While I understand that not a lot of people in my circle would be into it, I got ZERO engagement with it. I’m wondering if Facebook didn’t shadowban the post.

Leo Morris: News ‘philanthropy’ is a bad idea

Now, advertisers seek targeted audiences rather than broad coverage, and savvy consumers read online reviews of everything before making a purchase. People glimpse the news in their Facebook feeds and find amusements through social media forums. They complain bitterly on Twitter, then look around and wonder where the sense of community went.

Source: Leo Morris: News ‘philanthropy’ is a bad idea

The problem has been debated for about 20 years now. But I think history will look back and find one point he made to be the most-compelling problem: “the sense of community.” The internet has eliminated the “gatekeepers” or the “arbiters” or the “curators” of common knowledge. There was a guy who became famous for describing “the long tail,” and that people could find anything they wanted with the modern internet, and people could make money filling those desires, no matter how obscure or arcane. The internet has allowed each person to radicalize along intensely-individualized lines, and be virulently opposed to anyone who differs in any way. This is the problem. It’s just that Twitter found a way to capitalize on this virulence.

We can’t get along any more, because we all presume ourselves the final authority on everything. So there’s very little room in the market for a journalistic publication that’s supposed to offer a wide swath of “important” stories. No one agrees on what those stories are, let alone why they’re important, and what they infer. The entire idea of a publication has been (almost) destroyed by the internet. Only a few bigs will remain. It has much less to do with how to monetize it as it has to do with people’s desire to consume it. I guess what I’m saying is that I think what people really wanted all along was Facebook, but the closest thing we had was the local paper. I mean, look at the orchids and onions in The Republic. It has always been a “compelling” reason to get it. Facebook is just that, times a million.

While linking my local paper, I see that there are twenty-seven trackers and ads on that page, and this is another thing to talk about in the future.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act | Electronic Frontier Foundation

Tucked inside the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 is one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet: Section 230.This comes somewhat as a surprise, since the original purpose of the legislation was to restrict free speech on the Internet. The Internet community as a whole objected strongly to the Communications Decency Act, and with EFF’s help, the anti-free speech provisions were struck down by the Supreme Court. But thankfully, CDA 230 remains and in the years since has far outshone the rest of the law.

Source: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act | Electronic Frontier Foundation

I just read a TechDirt article condemning CBS’ 60 Minutes for disinformation regarding Section 230, which led me to the EFF’s page and infographic.

I respect the EFF immensely, but I remain unconvinced.

The EFF claims that if we didn’t have Section 230, places like Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter would effectively be sued out of existence. Or, even if they don’t get sued out of existence, they’ll have to hire an army of people to police the content on their site, the costs of which will drive them out of existence, or which they will pass on to users.

I don’t see what’s so valuable about Reddit, Facebook, or Twitter that these places should be protected like a national treasure. All three are proof positive that allowing every person to virtually open their window and shout their opinions into the virtual street is worth exactly what everyone is paying for the privilege: nothing. It’s just a lot of noise, invective, and ad hominem. And if that were the extent of the societal damage, that would be enough. But all of this noise has fundamentally changed how news organizations like 60 Minutes work. Proper journalism is all but gone. In order to compete, it’s ALL just noise now.

The EFF compares a repeal of Section 230 to government-protecting laws in Thailand or Turkey, but this is every bit as much disinformation as TechDirt claims 60 Minutes is promulgating. Repealing Section 230 would not repeal the First Amendment. People in this country could still say whatever they wanted to about the government, or anything else. Repealing 230 would just hold them personally accountable for it. And I struggle to understand how anyone — given 20 years of ubiquitous internet access and free platforms — can conclude that anonymity and places to scrawl what is effectively digital graffiti has led to some sort of new social utopia. The fabric of society has never been more threadbare, and people shouting at each other, pushing disinformation, and mistreating others online 24×7 is continuing to make the situation worse.

Platforms are being used against us by a variety of bad actors. The companies themselves are using our information against us to manipulate at least our buying behavior, and selling our activity to anyone who wants to buy it. There was some amount of alarm raised when it was discovered that AT&T tapped the overseas fiber optic cables for the NSA, in gross and blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment, but once discovered, Congress just passed a law to make it legal, retroactively. Now the NSA and FBI doesn’t need to track us any more. Literally every company in America which has a web site is helping to collate literally everything we do into a dossier that gets amalgamated and traded by 3rd-party information brokers. Our cell companies and ISP’s merge location tracking into the mix, and the government picks this information up for pennies on the dollar for what it would take for them to collect it themselves.

I don’t like this situation. I think it should stop. I think anything that would put a dent in Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit being able to collate and track everything anyone does on the internet, and sell it to anyone with a checkbook, needs to go away. If repealing Section 230 forces these companies out of business, I say, “Good.” They want to tell me that the costs to deal with content moderation in a Section 230-less world would put them out of business. I call BS.

If Facebook and YouTube can implement real-time scanning of all video being uploaded to their sites, and block or de-monetize anything containing a copyrighted song within seconds, they can write software to scan uploaded content for offensive content too. Will it catch everything? Of course not, but it will get the load down to the point where humans can deal with it.

There are countless stories of how Facebook employs a small army of content moderators to look into uploaded content, and how it pays them very little, and the job of scanning the lower bounds of human depravity is about as grinding a job in the world. But if they can create filters for pornographic content, they can create filters for gore and violence, and, again, stop 90% of it before it ever gets posted.

Don’t tell me it’s impossible. That’s simply not true. It would just cost more. And, again, if it costs so much that it puts them out of business? Well, too bad. If the holy religion of Capitalism says they can’t sustain the business while they make the effort to keep the garbage off their platforms, then I guess the all-powerful force of The Market will have spoken. The world would be better off without those platforms.

I remember an internet that was made of more than 5 web sites, which all just repost content from each other. It was pretty great. People would still be free to host a site, and put whatever they wanted to on it. It couldn’t be any easier, these days, to rent a WordPress site now, and post whatever nonsense you want, like I’m doing right here. You could even still be anonymous if you want. But your site would be responsible for what gets posted. And, if it’s garbage, or it breaks the law, you’re going to get blocked or taken down. As so many people want to point out in discussions of being downvoted for unpopular opinions, The First Amendment doesn’t protect you from being a jerk.

Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Imgur, and Google are all being gamed. As the last two Presidential elections have shown, world powers are influencing the content on these sites, and manipulating our national political discourse. This needs to stop. It seems to me that repealing Section 230 would cause those platforms to get serious about being transparent about where that content comes from, and be held accountable for it. Again, don’t tell me that they can’t. They just don’t want to spend the money to do so. In fact, they’re making money on the spread of such propaganda. Tell me why Americans should put up with these mega-companies making billions providing a platform to be used against us politically? Not just allowing it, but being financially incentivized into providing it? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

In summary, I don’t see how repealing Section 230 hurts any of the scenarios that folks like the EFF say that it does, and it would seem to hold all the right people accountable for the absolute disgrace that social media has become.

How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, a New Book by Cory Doctorow | OneZero

But Zuboff also claims that surveillance literally robs us of our free will — that when our personal data is mixed with machine learning, it creates a system of persuasion so devastating that we are helpless before it. That is, Facebook uses an algorithm to analyze the data it nonconsensually extracts from your daily life and uses it to customize your feed in ways that get you to buy stuff. It is a mind-control ray out of a 1950s comic book, wielded by mad scientists whose supercomputers guarantee them perp

Source: How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, a New Book by Cory Doctorow | OneZero

Like Andrew, Cory Doctorow attempts to demystify a complex situation, and succeeds with a precision that only other liberal intellectuals can sympathize with. He mocks the idea that Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Twitter, et. al., can cause us to change our behavior. And, sure, no one from those companies are holding a gun to our heads to get us to press buttons. But these companies are enormously successful in provoking people to commit to decisions they were already considering. So successful, in fact, that — en masse — there is no practical difference between this persuasion and literal mind control. Like Eric Raymond arguing against calling Jeffrey Epstein a “monster,” Cory has lost sight of the forest for the trees. At scale, it is mind control.

This has been critical to the rapid crystallization of recent political movements including Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street as well as less savory players like the far-right white nationalist movements that marched in Charlottesville.

But not “less savory players” like all the Antifa Marxists which destroyed and looted local businesses, and burned down car lots. Noted.

Cory references LBGT stories to support his argument that Big Tech can’t convince you against your personal interest, but you can easily cherry-pick this anecdata. I’ve read several accounts that tell an inverse version of the story: that people came out because peer pressure enticed them, and they later became confused with their lifestyle because it didn’t actually fit who they were. I’m not saying that these cases are the majority. Rather, I bring it up to point out that Cory’s example is incomplete and one-sided, and it actually makes an unintended case against his stated position.

Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism a “rogue capitalism” whose data-hoarding and machine-learning techniques rob us of our free will. … Controlling the results to the world’s search queries means controlling access both to arguments and their rebuttals and, thus, control over much of the world’s beliefs. If our concern is how corporations are foreclosing on our ability to make up our own minds and determine our own futures, the impact of dominance far exceeds the impact of manipulation and should be central to our analysis and any remedies we seek.

Again, Cory references Zuboff’s position, and tries to show that it’s wrong, but, at the end, the net result of the situation is the same. Zuboff says surveillance capitalism robs me of my free will, but if Google black-holes the information I need to chose a non-endorsed answer, how is that any different? Google has robbed me of my ability to choose an alternative as surely as the mocked idea of a “mind control ray.”

It can make it easier to find people who share your sexual identity. And again, it can help you to understand that what you thought was a shameful secret that affected only you was really a widely shared trait, giving you both comfort and the courage to come out to the people in your life.

This is another example of eliding the point which makes me wonder about the entire intent of the article. It would seem to me to be hard to argue that non-binary, non-heterosexual lifestyles are a “widely shared” trait, given that, even by most optimistic estimates, the combined percentage of the population is something like 5%. More likely, I suspect the fact that the number is 10% in San Francisco, pulling the number up from the rest of the country sitting at 1-2%, which gives people steeped in the counter culture a false sense of the numbers.

But monopolies are incompatible with that notion. When you only have one app store, the owner of the store — not the consumer — decides on the range of choices. As Boss Tweed once said, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” A monopolized market is an election whose candidates are chosen by the monopolist.

Fantastic point! Now, let’s talk about the duopoly of the RNC and the DNC on American politics…

But it’s not mind control.

But it’s not brainwashing.

But it’s not an existential threat.

Cory argues these things, and then expends 100 pages of writing showing that Facebook and Google are, in fact, all three.

Twitter Decries India Intimidation, Will Press for Changes – Bloomberg

The social network reiterated its commitment to India as a vital market, but signaled its growing concern about the government’s recent actions and potential threats to freedom of expression that may result. The company also joined other international businesses and organizations in criticizing new IT rules and regulations that it said “inhibit free, open public conversation.”

Source: Twitter Decries India Intimidation, Will Press for Changes – Bloomberg

It is, perhaps, a little rich for Twitter to be complaining about inhibition of “free, open public conversation” after throwing conservatives off their platform after the last election, in fact, as part of a larger move, along with Facebook and Amazon, to simply cancel them from them from the internet entirely. You may or may not agree with the decision to do so, but you have to admit that the hypocrisy of complaining about pressure to do the same thing by a foreign government is a little too on-the-nose. The Indian government just wants some of the same social engineering and control that the political Left in America literally just demonstrated.

Either social media companies are common carriers, and free of any censorship (where affected parties can always sue for any and all illegal speech), or they are, by default, a platform in support and service of censorship, and fair game to be manipulated by anyone with the legal or financial pressure to do so on their behalf. You cannot have it both ways.

Peter Thiel: Competition Is for Losers – WSJ

I am woefully late in coming to this understanding that monopoly is the goal of all venture capital. Peter Thiel, of Paypal, Palantir, Facebook “fame,” literally said this was the goal, in front of God and everyone, in a WSJ op-ed, seven years ago. Like the PG article from the other day, Thiel tells some whoppers to try to make everyone feel better about monopolies.

Even the government knows this: That is why one of its departments works hard to create monopolies (by granting patents to new inventions) even though another part hunts them down (by prosecuting antitrust cases). Source: Peter Thiel: Competition Is for Losers – WSJ

If this isn’t the most-lopsided statement I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what would beat it. First of all, the patent office does not “work hard.” An awful lot of patents are given out like candy for trivial things. Further, software patents — which I’m sure Thiel loves — have been one of the most business-stifling things to ever happen in modern history.

Second of all, the government has only ever stopped the very biggest deals. It would seem that the current “gentleman’s agreement” is that anything under about $30B isn’t worth talking about. So Microsoft buys LinkedIn and Skype and GitHub, when it doesn’t really make much sense for them to own any of them. All the FAANG companies run around, picking up interesting toys in the flea-market bins marked “less than $1B,” and the government doesn’t even bat an eye.

And the government certainly hasn’t broken up any monopolies since AT&T. Given that the “baby Bells” have all since re-merged into the duopoly of Verizon and AT&T — which, mysteriously, line up almost perfectly in their cell phone contract terms — I’m not sure that even this was worth the hassle for the customer. What I am sure of, is that lots and lots of executives pocketed lots and lots of money for all that M&A activity.

If your industry is in a competitive equilibrium, the death of your business won’t matter to the world; some other undifferentiated competitor will always be ready to take your place.

This reveals Thiel’s cognitive bias. These “undifferentiated competitors” — in his terminology — are small businesses that would make their owners a comfortable living, and provide good job opportunities in their local market. Yes, if it folds, someone else may come along and take your place. I feel that’s a humane cycle of life. Thiel thinks this is a tragic notion, when he can be the guy who provides the capital to corner a market, and then extract all the profits that would have gone to those smaller businesses.

Monopoly is therefore not a pathology or an exception. Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.

Bullcrap. Utter VC narrative-spinning bullcrap. There are millions of small businesses being run out of business or bought up to further fuel multi-national corporate behemoths, who were too big decades ago, in this twisted game to become the largest companies in the world.

History is going to judge this period in human development as the time where we either decide how big is “big enough,” or whether we become a planet of corporations instead of governments. We’re running out of time to make the call, and if we don’t, we will eventually get the latter.

You can say that it’s unethical to tell Peter Thiel, “No, you can’t have any more,” but if we find the collective will to start doing that to the billionaires of the world, in another generation, it will matter more which company you work for, than what nation you are a citizen of. It already does in China, where working for Apple — as detestable as the working conditions are to Americans — it’s still one of the best jobs in the country. It already does in Alabama, where working for Amazon was seen to be so good — despite all the press to the contrary — that they overwhelmingly rejected the call to unionize. Those people would work for Apple or Amazon no matter what country they had to do it from.

(Makes you wonder who was running all the pro-union stuff in social media, huh?)

jwz: ENGAGEMENT!

Every time we post to our Facebook account, it immediately gets 2-5 one-word comments from random Indian dudes with locked accounts that are years old and have thousands of friends:

Source: jwz: ENGAGEMENT!

There’s never post about Facebook on “Hacker” “News” where the comment thread isn’t filled with people saying, “I hate it too, but what do you want me to do? Never know anything that’s going on around me? There’s literally no other option.” Even JWZ himself, who abhors Facebook, still uses the platform to promote is nightclub in San Francisco. That’s how deeply ingrained the service has become to society, and how irreplaceable it is to local businesses.

This is a pitch-perfect example of what I was talking about in my previous post. This irreplaceability is precisely what all tech investment is gunning for: total control of a channel. Eliminating all competitors in the space, and establishing a monopoly. If you want to advertise some local social event, at this point, Facebook is your de facto only choice.

Right now, Uber seems like a good idea. Door Dash seems pretty nifty. WeWork sounds great. But make no mistake, once those platforms have removed all the competition in their spaces, their services will start to experience the same sort of corruption that is being described here. Scammers will flourish, as they focus their efforts. All of these services will come to feel like shopping at Amazon, where you used to be able to trust the reviews and delivery times, and now it’s just a roll of the dice on both.

Liberals and Conservatives Are Both Totally Wrong about Platform Immunity | by Tim Wu | Medium

Everyone is, in short, currently asking for the wrong thing. Which makes it worth asking: Why?

One reason is that this area is confusing, and the idea of making tech “responsible” does sound good. There are, as I discuss below, ways in which they should be. Also, as described below, the mere threat of 230 repeal serves its own purposes. But I think, at its most cynical, the repeal 230 campaign may just be about inflicting damage. Repealing 230 would inflict pain, through private litigation, not just on big tech, but the entire tech sector.

We don’t like you; we want you to suffer. Very 2020.

Source: Liberals and Conservatives Are Both Totally Wrong about Platform Immunity | by Tim Wu | Medium

I’m not convinced by his arguments, but I can’t say his final conclusion doesn’t have a big part in my thinking about the issue.

Far-right Misinformation is Facebook’s most engaging content – Protocol — The people, power and politics of tech

Facebook, for its part, seems to be increasingly interested in limiting the rampant political polarization of its platform. Last month, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company was launching an experiment to limit the amount of political news in some users’ news feeds. “One of the top pieces of feedback we’re hearing from our community right now is that people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services,” Zuckerberg said.

Source: Far-right Misinformation is Facebook’s most engaging content – Protocol — The people, power and politics of tech

Interpreting for the gallery: “This is starting to impact revenues, so you bet your sweet bippie that we’re going to do something about it, but we operate our Almighty Algorithm in total secrecy, so you’ll just have to trust us that we’re fixing it. We have top. men. working on it. So you can calm down now. We’ve totally averted the impending declaration of ‘Marshall’ law you’ve been hearing about.”

Relatedly:

Videos of the convention, which was held for the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviours’ Day, are posted on the group’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube pages, despite the social media companies’ policies against vaccine-related misinformation.

Source: ‘Vial Of Death’: Louis Farrakhan Pushes Vaccine Conspiracy Theories In Videos Posted On Facebook, Twitter | The Daily Caller

So is Farrakan considered right or left in the American political spectrum? Would the researchers involved in the NYU study quoted in the first article consider his “misinformation” on vaccine to be right- or left-wing? As long as we’re considering censorship, these kinds of categorizations seem important while wielding the ban hammer.

My snarky point is that Farrakan is obviously considered hard, hard left in American politics, and it’s immediately clear to anyone paying attention that pseudo-scientific nonsense is rampant on both sides of the political isle, so a “study” like the one quoted in the original article only serves to disingenuously inflame the tensions of precisely the people it targets, and everyone knows that.

People are rightly waking up to the fact that ALL foreign nations are running disinformation campaigns on social media. All they’re doing is finally getting a seat at the table in America, alongside our own, esteemed media.

Facebook “Supreme Court” overrules company in 4 of its first 5 decisions | Ars Technica

As you can see, Facebook has to make decisions on a wide range of topics, from ethnic conflict to health information. Often, Facebook is forced to choose sides between deeply antagonistic groups—Democrats and Republicans, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, public health advocates and anti-vaxxers. One benefit of creating the Oversight Board is to give Facebook an external scapegoat for controversial decisions. Facebook likely referred its suspension of Donald Trump to the Oversight Board for exactly this reason.

Source: Facebook “Supreme Court” overrules company in 4 of its first 5 decisions | Ars Technica

This paints a picture of Facebook being very involved in picking what people can and cannot say about politics, and that’s a very disturbing picture to me. Before this article, I would have thought that they only stepped in on really egregious problems. I’m just not clear why Facebook should get involved in any of the censorings listed here. Let the software automatically block the boobs, and then let people say whatever they want about politics.

The boobs thing really shows why they’re always complaining about needing moderators, and they couldn’t possibly staff up to handle the load. Software has been able to effectively identify nudity for many years now. There’s only a problem because they want to allow some nudity. On a platform shared by, effectively, everyone with internet access, there really doesn’t need to be any. Lord knows there’s enough elsewhere. So I don’t think this isn’t something that they need to waste time and energy on.

The problem extrapolates. They don’t want people to quote Nazis, but they want people to be able to criticize Donald Trump, which oftentimes warrants parallels of speech. They won’t want people to post videos of animal cruelty, but they want PETA to be able to post their sensational, graphical protests, which look real. Facebook hires thousands of people in impoverished countries to filter out the gore and the porn, but none of that needs to happen if you just let it all go. The software can do that automatically. The problem is trying to find some happy mid-point, as if that needed to happen. And there are countless stories about how degrading and depressing the job of being one of Facebook’s moderators is, and I won’t rehash them here.

Things get real simple if you just pick one point of view. Instead, they’re playing the middle, and selecting what speech is “free,” what nudity is “tasteful,” and what gore is “fake.” So, yeah, if you’re going to employ people to censor things things, you’re going to need a lot of people. I have trouble finding sympathy.

As if on cue:

Source: Content Moderation Case Study: Twitter Removes Account Of Human Rights Activist (2018) | Techdirt

Manzoor Ahmed Pashteen is a human rights activist in Pakistan, calling attention to unfair treatment of the Pashtun ethnic group, of which he is a member. In 2018, days after he led a rally in support of the Pashtun people in front of the Mochi Gate in Lahore, his Twitter account was suspended.

Decisions to be made by Twitter:

  • How do you distinguish human rights activists organizing protests from users trying to foment violence?
  • How do you weigh reports from governments against activists who criticize the governments making the reports?
  • How responsive should you be to users calling out suspensions they feel were unfair or mistaken?

We’re constantly being told that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the one, gold standard by which all speech on the internet is “allowed,” and how we can’t ever touch it. It says that companies cannot be held liable for the things that people post to their platforms. So why are Facebook and Twitter bothering to pick and choose what people can say at all? They are legally shielded from any problems. Just let people say whatever they way to say! If it turns out to be illegal, or slanderous, the people who posted those things can be sued by the affected parties. If people don’t like what’s being said, they be ignored and routed around.

I find the whole thing completely disingenuous. Either you have protection, and are for “free speech,” or you don’t, and need to police your platforms. Facebook and Twitter are acting like they need to kick people off their platforms to avoid being sued, but they are not at risk of that. They’re throwing people off their platforms because enough people make noise about them. It’s become a popularity contest, and mob rule. There’s nothing genuine, legally-binding, or ethical about it. That’s it. If some topic or person becomes untenable, they’re going to get the boot.

In the old days, the mob would boycott advertisers, like, say, the ones on Rush Limbaugh’s show. But you can’t do that on a platform like Facebook or Twitter, which use giant, shadowy advertising exchanges and closely-guarded algorithms to show ads to people, and everyone gets a different view, according to their profile. Even the advertisers have a hard time knowing how their ads are served or working! The people who would protest an advertiser would never know what is showing up most often on people’s pages whom they don’t like, and Facebook and Twitter sure isn’t going to tell them. That’s the secret sauce, baby. They can’t know who to go after.

So these platforms are proactively de-platforming people, but I can’t see why. They have legal protection. They can’t be blackmailed by boycotts of advertisers. What’s the mechanism here? What’s the feedback loop? I suspect the answer would make me even more cynical than I already am.