Sunday 7 June, 2020

One man stands between Joe Biden and the US presidency – Mark Zuckerberg

This morning’s Observer column:

…my mind goes back to this time in 2016, when similar sentiments were the conventional wisdom about the chances of Trump defeating Hillary Clinton. And one of the most agonising questions in the aftermath of that election was: how could Nate Silver and co have got it so wrong?

The answer is simple: nobody, including opinion pollsters, knew about the Trump campaign’s astonishing mastery of social media, especially Facebook. Trump may not have known much about that at the time – he really only understood Twitter – but Brad Parscale and his team sure knew how to make use of Facebook’s micro-targeting machine. And they did.

Spool forward to now. Trump knows that if things continue as they are – with no party conventions or mass rallies and if the election is held in November (a sizable “if” IMHO) – then Biden will win. The only thing that could change that is – you guessed it! – Facebook…

Read on

The Protests Remind Us Why Social Media Is Worth Fixing

Very thoughtful post by Will Oremus arguing that while Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok are distorting our view of a crisis, they’re also countering the distorted view we had before. And the trouble is, that’s correct. We have to abandon the notion of a world without social media (though not the idea that it could have better, less societally damaging, business models). That genie is long out of the bottle. So the question is: how can we improve the current situation so that we have a less polluted public sphere? As Oremus puts it:

It’s on Facebook, Twitter, and even TikTok that shaky smartphone videos of police brutality are going viral, and once-radical demands such as defunding the police are picking up steam.

Without these platforms, we’d still be totally reliant on a press corps whose demographics and values skew white and upper-middle-class, and which for decades has helped to prop up — or at least failed to topple — a status quo of white supremacy. The problem with Zuckerberg’s framing of Facebook as a net positive, then, is not that it’s absurd, per se — although it is conveniently unfalsifiable, as the New York Times’ Kevin Roose points out. The problem is that, when deployed as a shield against criticism, it’s a red herring — a hand-waving thought experiment that’s irrelevant to the question of how Facebook should regulate its platform. What matters now is not judging whether social platforms are a force for good or ill, but figuring out what it would take to make them better.

In the essay (which is well worth reading in full), he points to a couple of significant ideas that Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, advanced in a remarkable public memo to employees following his decision to follow Twitter in taking a stand, saying it will no longer promote Trump’s snaps in its influential Discover tab. The relevant passage reads:

As for Snapchat, we simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform. Our Discover content platform is a curated platform, where we decide what we promote. We have spoken time and again about working hard to make a positive impact, and we will walk the talk with the content we promote on Snapchat. We may continue to allow divisive people to maintain an account on Snapchat, as long as the content that is published on Snapchat is consistent with our community guidelines, but we will not promote that account or content in any way.

There are two significant ideas embedded here, says Oremus.

The first is that ‘free speech’ does not equal ‘free reach’. Much of the poisonous impact of social media lies not in the fact that people can post all kinds of obnoxious content online, but that the algorithms that are calibrated to maximise engage (and revenue) effectively amplify that content by giving it massive reach. The world is full of cretins, but if one states on the street or outside his house spouting hatred or nonsense then his reach is limited by physical proximity. Much the same is true for any individual post on any platform. It just resides in the infinitely ‘long tail’ of posts which are read or seen by tiny numbers of people. And if it stayed that way, then the world would be a safer and a better place. It’s Algorithmically giving violent or divisive content exaggerated reach that’s the problem.

The second implicit idea in Spiegel’s post discerned by Oremus is, I suppose, more difficult for social media to handle — namely that platforms can (and should?) decide whether some people are inadmissible simply because of their off-platform behaviour. This would have barred Trump, for example, from ever being on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, if those platforms had the wit initially — and later the courage — to bar him.

Both essays — Oremus’s and Spiegel’s are worth reading in full. Spiegel’s is particularly wide-ranging and impressive. He sounds like an admirable young man.

Errol Morris: The Umbrella Man

If you haven’t ever seen this short film, then take ten minutes and draw up a chair. It’s beautifully crafted and shot, and it contains an important lesson about conspiracy theories that everyone should know.

Quarantine diary — Day 78


This blog is also available as a daily email. If that might suit you better, why not subscribe? It’s free. One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. And there’s a one-click unsubscribe button if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!