Social media platforms were practically designed to foster whataboutism. So, we should hardly be surprised that this lazy form of erroneous reasoning dominates so much of our contemporary politics. At least that was one thought that crossed my mind while reading the recent BuzzFeed article describing why so many Facebook employees are lately coming to grips with the kind of harm being done by their platform—the platform they earnestly believed was a force for good.
The headline “Hurting people at scale,” comes from a comment written by software engineer Max Wang, who, upon his departure from the company after seven years, left behind a 24-minute video that reporters Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman describe as a “clear-eyed hammering of Facebook’s leadership and decision-making over the previous year.”
But one comment stuck out for me in the fairly extensive article. It cites Yaël Eisenstat, who formerly led Facebook’s election ads integrity team. She describes a meeting in which it was discussed whether to remove a “conservative” group’s ad that contained material anathema to the platform’s community standards. She is quoted in the article thus: “But then a policy person chimed in and gave the both-sides argument. They actually wrote something like, ‘There’s bad behavior on both sides.’ And I remember thinking, What does that have to do with anything?”
This too common, tribalist refrain alluding to the “good and bad on both sides” is a sentiment that arguably attained idiot’s nirvana the day in 2017 the current president used those words to compare white supremacists to demonstrators opposing them at Charlottesville. Because, of course, there are not two sides to every story. Until quite recently, in fact, it was not up for debate as to whether the guy carrying the Nazi flag is the bad guy. Everybody does not get a seat at the table.
Except, of course, thanks to social platforms, the table was extended logarithmically so that everyone could have a seat. And for more than a decade, the industry promoted—and the public largely accepted—the premise that this cybernetic largesse would be a fillip to democracy worldwide. Now, as we watch the experiment fail, and platform founders like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey respond by removing even the president’s tweets (if they are considered hazardously misleading or inciting violence), it is easy to believe that this approach to moderation might be too little, too late.
Only in the last several weeks—and only in response to direct pressure from employees or major advertisers—has the leadership at Facebook taken any action to mitigate hatespeech or disinformation on its platform, preferring instead to dig in its heels on the ill-conceived premise that social platforms should strive for neutrality. Never mind that neutrality is not the default setting for Facebook, which manipulates what we see all the time, but neutrality can never be an option for any organization that intends to be a force for good.
“There’s a real culture within Facebook to assume good intent. To me, this was a case where you cannot assume good intent for a symbol that could be Nazi imagery.” – Anonymous employee commenting to BuzzFeed regarding the company’s hesitation to remove Trump campaign ads depicting a triangle symbol once used by Nazis to identify prisoners as political enemies of the Reich.
Good is not neutral. Good is a moral or practical judgment that an individual or organization defines. And then, having defined what constitutes good, sides must be chosen. Claiming to be a force for good can never reconcile the kind of adolescent fence-straddling espoused by Mark Zuckerberg when he makes public statements that he is “personally disgusted” by [incitements of violence, hate speech, white supremacy, etc..], but does not believe his platform should be “the arbiter of truth.” That is a statement of economic interest, and nothing more.
The zeal with which internet industry leaders maintained their belief in, or paid lip-service to, operating “neutral” platforms resulted in poor stewardship of their walled gardens. They sold the public on a policy of letting the weeds do their thing on the assumption that the good plants would win out in the end. At least that’s what they said to all of us and to the people they hired. In the C-Suites, though, it is more plausible to assume that its occupants did not (and likely still do not) care one way or another. The market value of Facebook depends on scale and volume of interaction, and an anti-Semitic page can be as valuable as a page dedicated to feeding the homeless. It’s all just data.
Social platforms did not create the “both sides” fallacy, the handmaid of whataboutism. But social platforms were (and are) the petri dish where the virus exploded into a different kind of pandemic, a pandemic of ignorance, incompetence, and a contempt for reason and propriety that infests the highest offices in government. When I watched Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s frank and clear-eyed response to Rep. Ted Yoho’s non-apology for verbally assaulting her on the Capitol steps, it struck me that the story was about more than the chronic sexism the congresswoman addressed. It was the art of the pwn (pone)—this is the gamer/internet culture word for “utter domination of an opponent,” often by insult alone—superseding the value of political debate.
After all, it was clear from Rep. Yoho’s floor statement that his conduct was not a lapse or an aberration. His inscrutable testimony that he could not apologize for his “passion or for loving my God, my family and my country” demonstrated that he believes he was fundamentally right when he called a colleague a “fuckng bitch” on the Capitol steps in front of reporters. And he surely knows that this conduct is exactly the kind of politics an increasingly self-righteous electorate wants to see now—a politics where even Congress mirrors the worst aspects of social media, and where unconscionable behavior will be rationalized by the fallacy of whataboutism.
That incident, more than just a dramatic side show to be washed away by the news cycle, is just one example of some very real battle lines being drawn in a fight for the soul of the United States today. The lines are not fuzzy, and neutrality is not an option. If next month, a Democratic congressman accosts a Republican Member in the same manner, he will be wrong. Period. When the president’s son tweets a COVID-related video of a (I guess we’ll call her a witch doctor?), who is known to have described a correlation between demon rape and medical conditions, and Twitter sanctions Don Jr.’s account, that is not “silencing conservative voices.”
There are not two sides to every story. So, it is good to read that many of Facebook’s employees have finally arrived, albeit late, at this conclusion. Though I would have thought that, of all people, computer engineers would have been among the first to recognize when something is binary.
Photo source: njnightsky