So Long Facebook (Mostly)

At a recent gathering of college alumni, a friend asked, “Is it me, or are you less active on Facebook these days?”  He was right.  I have all but bailed on the platform.  As a practical matter, it was just becoming a big time-suck; and as we all know from experience, engaging via social media doesn’t only occupy the measurable time spent reading, lurking, or discussing, but rather its reverb continues well into our valuable subconscious time while our brains continue to mull, resolve, or curse the impressions and interactions we experienced hours, days, weeks, or even years ago.  (In my case, it’s a lot of cursing of late.)

With regard to politics (the primary substance of Facebook), I feel amply-enough supplied with reasons to be angry at the circus we politely call the Trump administration that I really don’t need a steady litany of memes to keep feeding me variations on that theme—to say nothing of the occasional false narratives.  Sure, one out of every 20 or so memes is funny or clever enough to share, but whatever.  When the anti-copyright nuts in Europe declared that Article 13 of the EU Directive would “end memes,” it was a lie; but it was also a provocation to which I think the only sane response is, Who gives a damn? 

The under-examined psychological effect of constantly absorbing millions of impressions is just one reason to reject the historic—and until recently, popular—premise that social media platforms represent some previously-untapped genius of the demos (a.k.a. the wisdom of crowds).  But it was upon this crumbling rock that the major internet companies built their church, evangelizing the message that everything online is speech and, therefore, whenever an iota of content is removed, an angel dies.

Of course, this was a double-lie.  Not only because the premise was flawed and plenty of online “content” is not protected speech (even by U.S. law), but because the major web corporations are demonstrably not the harbingers of nascent democracy in authoritarian nations or even the champions of these values in extant liberal democracies.  Facebook, Google, et al comply with censorship in foreign markets; and domestically, they manipulate, remove, or prioritize “information” in an ongoing effort to retain user attention for as long as possible—all in the service of advertising revenue.     

In an older post, I wrote that we are like ants in Zuckerberg’s farm, but that metaphor isn’t right because ant farms are not experimental.  They’re just a way for a kid to observe ants being ants; they do not inherently change ant behavior.  More accurately, as Facebook users, we are voluntary lab rats in a grand experiment whose effects are not fully understood, although it is at last being discussed that perhaps the heightened volume of ugliness in our contemporary politics has something to do with this relatively new means of “connecting” to one another.

Doc Film Exposes Facebook’s Underbelly

A new documentary film called The Cleaners, first aired on PBS this week, provides a glimpse into a truly dark component of Silicon Valley’s ebullient—and arrogant— posturing as global champions of freedom and smiley emojis.  Far from the comfort of your laptop, and even farther from the glossy playground of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, a young woman walks among the garbage scavengers in her squalid Manila and tells us that scavenging would be her fate, too, if she were not a Facebook moderator.  She is just one of hundreds of worker bees to whom Facebook has outsourced millions of decisions per week as to what should or should not be seen on its platform.  As NPR’s Ari Shapiro in a story about the film puts it …

“Manila [capital of the Philippines] was a place where the analog toxic waste was sent from the Western world, has been sent there for years on container ships. And today the digital garbage is brought there. Now thousands of young content moderators in air conditioned office towers are clicking through the infinity [sic] toxic sea of images and tons of intellectual junk.”

With assigned quotas to process 25,000 posts per day, these Filipino moderators represent the majority of Facebook’s outsourced workforce tasked with rejecting content that does not comply with “community standards.”  They review and remove the most depraved material—the murders, child rapes, and tortures that would otherwise seep into our relatively benign feeds.  “I have seen hundreds of beheadings,” says one young man who spends most of his time sifting through terrorist content like ISIS videos. 

The filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Reiswieck, in just about an hour and twenty minutes, provide several points of view from which to consider this bleak cubicle of the world’s most populated social media platform.  Some of the moderators see themselves as crusaders, literally keeping “sin” off the web, with one young man comparing his mission to that of Philippine President Duterte’s alleged policy of slaughtering the nation’s drug addicts.  At the other extreme, some of the moderators suffer PTSD from chronic exposure to so many images of horror, leading to at least one suicide highlighted in the film.  

In one segment, former Googler Tristan Harris, now at the Center for Humane Design, describes how in Myanmar, Burma, “Facebook is their internet reality, and it’s literally feeding a genocide without any accountability.”  He explains how the circumscribed nature—the “walled garden”—of Facebook perpetuates hatred and violence against the Rohingya refugees in that nation as, perhaps, the most extreme example of what we comfortably refer to here as the “filter bubble.”  A self-fulfilling information feedback loop resulting in mass murder, torture, and rape. 

Harris says it is a misconception that these technologies are neutral at all.  The goal of their design is to grab and hold attention, “and outrage is really good at doing that,” he says.  “The whole environment is tuned to offer us the worst of ourselves.”  And though we are certainly not committing genocide in the U.S., it is impossible to believe that a much lighter version of this information “filter bubble” is not constituent to a bunch of idiot civilians loading up their weapons to confront the “invasion” of refugees heading toward the U.S. border from Central America. 

The Cleaners does an excellent job of balancing intersecting narratives—focusing at times on the individual moderators (arguably Silicon Valley’s version of foreign sweat-shop labor), and also on the broader subject of censorship and who is making these decisions.  For instance, the film briefly explores the social media excommunication of artist Illma Gore, who painted the “small penis” nude of Donald Trump that went mega-viral in February 2016.  (Gore was physically attacked by thuggish Trump supporters in L.A., and the image was the target of a wrongful use of the DMCA takedown process.)  

Technically a violation of Facebook’s terms of service and clearly offensive to many, Gore’s painting is also unquestionably artistic expression and undeniably protected speech in the United States.  So, if indeed a Filipino moderator made the decision to remove her image from the platform, as the film implies, that’s fine within the context of Facebook’s right to maintain its “community standards,” but we must then insist that these companies stop appealing to the First Amendment and pretending to be neutral providers of public fora.  

This is not to understate the reality that the current president overtly thrives on false narratives, but if the political stylings of Donald Trump appear to be an unprecedented shock to the system because they reject the norms of statesmanship, I recommend David Lowery’s latest post on The Trichordist reminding us how Silicon Valley giants, under the not so watchful eye of the Obama administration, managed to leverage “a strange mix of anti-establishment lefties, right libertarians, social progressives and lots and lots of corporate money,” into a coalition that fundamentally advocated the end of statehood itself.  Hence, the erosion of democratic principles as embodied in the Constitution hardly begins with Trump.  He has certainly exploited the hell out of this trend, but its origins may be found in the hippie/libertarian crucible of the internet industry.

More mundanely, for me personally, Illma Gore’s painting is also a pretty good example of why I can hardly look at Facebook anymore.  As I say, there are enough substantive, and very serious, reasons why I think everyone across the left-right spectrum should recoil at the politics of Donald Trump; and references to his alleged dick size are as counter-productive as they are obvious.   In this regard, a steady stream of non-informative, yet provocative, inputs has to have a psychological effect that is generally and collectively negative.  At the very least, it is exhausting and depressing. 

If the “cleaners” in Manila, suffer potent symptoms from exposure to high doses of truly hideous imagery, I suppose we must assume that a more subtle version of this psychosis occurs in our brains through low-dose exposure to the merely bad—or the misleading.  And so, as much as it can be fun to post comments (usually political) on Facebook and receive that little dopamine hit from “Likes” etc., I find it impossible to shed the awareness that, in very small way, I am playing the role of lab rat in an experiment that, from all available evidence, is not making the world better.

The problem is not how much or how little material is online—there are over two billion websites with trillions of files being constantly uploaded and removed every year—the problem is the distorted view of the world as seen through these mesmerizing kaleidoscopes of information.   And with that said, I shall publish this post and then, yes, share it via social media, including Facebook.  This irony is not only blatantly apparent, but it is the premise of a different discussion about the possible penalties for non-participation with social media platforms, which promote the active over the less active.  How this might affect market opportunities for people in the near future is a question worth asking, but in another post.

On related topics, see the cleverly titled blog The Illusion of Volition by Sarah T. Roberts, who also appears in The Cleaners.

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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