Using the Legal System Against Facebook and Other Titans of the Internet

Two Democratic members of Congress are trying to stop big social media companies from doing so much damage:

Imagine clicking on a Facebook video alleging that a “deep-state cabal” of Satan-worshiping pedophiles stole the election from [a horrible person]. Moments later, your phone rings. The caller says, “Hey, it’s Freddie from Facebook. We noticed you just watched a cool video on our site, so we’ll send you a few dozen more videos about election-related conspiracy theories. As a bonus, we’ll connect you to some people who share your interest in ‘stopping the steal’. You guys should connect and explore your interest together!”

The scenario is, of course, made up. But it basically captures what social media platforms do every day. In the real world, “Freddie from Facebook” is not a person who calls you, but an algorithm that tracks you online, learns what content you spend the most time with and feeds you more of whatever maximizes your engagement — the time you spend on the platform. Greater engagement means that users see more ads, earning Facebook more revenue.

If you like cat videos, great; you’ll get an endless supply. But the same is true for the darkest content on the Web. Human nature being what it is, the content most likely to keep us glued to our screens is that which confirms our prejudices and triggers our basest emotions. Social media algorithms don’t have a conservative or liberal bias, but they know if we do. Their bias is to reinforce ours at the cost of making us more angry, anxious and afraid.

Facebook recently played down the role of its algorithms in exploiting users’ susceptibilities and enabling radicalization. The company says that users, not its product, are largely responsible for the extreme content showing up in their news feeds.

But Facebook knows how powerful its algorithms can be. In 2016, an internal Facebook study found that 64 percent of people who joined an extremist group on the platform did so only because its algorithm recommended it. Recently, a member of the Wolverine Watchmen, the militia accused of trying to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), said he joined the group when it “popped up as a suggestion post” on Facebook because he interacted with pages supporting the Second Amendment.

Policymakers often focus on whether Facebook, YouTube and Twitter should take down hate speech and disinformation. This is important, but these questions are about putting out fires. The problem is that the product these companies make is flammable. It’s that their algorithms deliver to each of us what they think we want to hear, creating individually tailored realities for every American and often amplifying the same content they eventually might choose to take down.

In 1996, Congress passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says that websites are not legally liable for content that users post (with some exceptions). While the law helped to enable the growth of the modern Internet economy, it was enacted 25 years ago when many of the challenges we currently face could not have been predicted. Large Internet platforms no longer function like community bulletin boards; instead, they use sophisticated, opaque algorithms to determine what content their users see. If companies such as Facebook push us to view certain posts or join certain groups, should they bear no responsibility if doing so leads to real-world violence?

We recently introduced a bill that would remove Section 230 protection from large social media companies if their algorithms amplify content that contributes to an act of terrorism or to a violation of civil rights statutes meant to combat extremist groups. Our bill would not force YouTube, Facebook or Twitter to censor or remove content. Instead, it would allow courts in cases involving extreme harm to consider victims’ arguments against the companies on the merits, as opposed to quickly tossing out lawsuits on Section 230 grounds as would happen today.

Liability would incentivize changes the companies know how to make. For example, last year Facebook tested a new system in which users rated posts on their news feeds as “good” or “bad” for the world. The algorithm then fed those users more content that they deemed good while demoting the bad. The experiment worked. The company’s engineers referred to the result as the “nicer news feed.” But there was one problem. The nicer news feed led to less time on Facebook (and thus less ad revenue), so the experiment died.

This is the fundamental issue: Engagement-based algorithms made social media giants some of the most lucrative companies on Earth. They won’t voluntarily change the underlying architecture of their networks if it threatens their bottom line. We must decide what’s more important: protecting their profits or our democracy.

Unquote.

The authors of the article are Rep. Tom Malinowski, who represents a traditionally Republican district in suburban New Jersey, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, who represents the part of California that includes Silicon Valley.

Cable TV vs. Truth: A Case Study

Tucker Carlson is a bow tie-wearing creep who peddles right-wing nonsense to his Fox News followers five nights a week. This is from Judd Legum’s Popular Information newsletter:

Tucker Carlson has lost virtually all of his advertisers. A typical broadcast includes no national brand advertisers, a few direct response ads from companies like MyPillow, and house ads promoting other Fox News shows. 

Why have advertisers abandoned Carlson? In addition to the conduct described above, Carlson has:

Said that Black Lives Matter protests are “definitely not about black lives, and remember that when they come for you.”

Asserted that immigrants are making the country “poorer and dirtier

Called the Derek Chauvin verdict “an attack on civilization” and falsely claimed George Floyd died of a drug overdose.

Spread misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines.

Carlson has the right to say whatever loathsome things he wishes. And Fox News can choose to broadcast those views on television. But Carlson and the Murdochs do not have a right to have those views subsidized by millions of Americans who never watch Fox News. But that’s exactly what is happening. And those dynamics have allowed Fox News and Carlson to weather a near-universal advertiser boycott. 

Here’s how it works. Cable companies pay “carriage fees” to networks for the right to carry their channel. These fees are then passed on to users in their monthly bills. In 2020, Fox News made more money from carriage fees ($1.6 billion) than advertisements ($1.2 billion). 

Other channels, of course, also receive carriage fees for their content. But the Murdochs have negotiated exorbitant fees for Fox News that are far greater than any other non-sports programming. 

According to a survey conducted late last year, about 14% of cable TV subscribers watch Fox News regularly. But every cable TV subscriber pays an average of $1.72 a month to receive Fox News. In contrast, 31% of cable TV subscribers regularly watch FX (owned by Disney) but the channel adds just $0.81 to an average cable bill.

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This means, for every actual viewer, Fox News receives a $7.75 subsidy from people who never watch Fox News. This is a higher subsidy than other non-sports channels, like FX ($1.79), CNN ($3.18), and TBS ($2.79), receive. And none of those channels regularly spreads white nationalist talking points to millions of viewers. 

So how can Americans who don’t watch Fox News and find Carlson’s conduct repugnant stop subsidizing his $10 million salary? One option would be for major cable operators like Comcast, Spectrum, and AT&T to offer cable TV packages that exclude Fox News. This would allow people the choice of whether to pay for Fox News, just as people choose whether to pay for HBO. 

But, for the moment, corporate America seems loathe to take on the Murdochs or alienate Fox News’ passionate fan base. So the only way to stop sending cash to the Murdochs is to “cut the cord” and find a combination of streaming services that doesn’t include Fox News.

Unquote.

If you want to stop paying for cable TV but still want your local stations (which include ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and even Fox, but not Fox News), there’s a not-for-profit streaming service called Locast. It’s now available in 31 major TV markets around the country (plus Puerto Rico):

Get the local channels you love [note: or hate] without a monthly bill. Locast is a not for profit service offering users access to broadcast television stations over the internet. It’s time to shred those cable bills and contracts!

If you’re part of the international elite who rub shoulders with the odious, 90-year-old Rupert Murdoch and his evil spawn Lachlan, you can treat them with the disrespect they deserve. You might tell them to stop the propaganda and then spit in their soup.

Police Said

The Minneapolis Police Department issued the following statement after a man being arrested died on May 25, 2020:

On Monday evening, shortly after 8:00 pm, officers from the Minneapolis Police Department responded to the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South on a report of a forgery in progress. Officers were advised the the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence.

Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.

At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has been called in to investigate this incident at the request of the Minneapolis Police Department.

No officers were injured in the incident.

Body warn cameras were on and activated during this incident.

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“Police said”.

Why Infrastructure Is More Than Roads and Bridges

Merriam-Webster defines “infrastructure” as “the system of public works of a country, state, or region — also : the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity”.

Jonathan Cohn of Huff Post explains why improving the services that help people prosper counts as infrastructure:

Building roads and bridges is good for the economy, pretty much everybody agrees. But helping senior citizens stay out of nursing homes? Raising pay for child care workers? 

President Joe Biden says those sorts of initiatives can help, too. And he’s got a strong case.

Ever since the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden has talked about having the government spend a lot more on caregiving ― for children, older adults and disabled people. . . [He] pointedly included them as part of his economic agenda, arguing they would create better, higher-paying jobs and unleash untapped potential for growth.

Now Biden is president, and his approach hasn’t changed. On Wednesday, he introduced the first half of what he has called his “Build Back Better” agenda. And although he proposed big new spending on traditional infrastructure projects like bridges and waterways, he also proposed a dramatic increase in federal support for “home- and community- based services.” 

Those are supports and services for elderly and disabled people who need help with daily living to stay out of nursing homes or other types of congregant care settings. In practical terms, that means everything from personal attendants who help seniors with bathing to counselors who help people with intellectual impairments find jobs so they can live on their own.

More proposals are on the way. The second half of the Build Back Better agenda, which Biden plans to introduce later this month, is likely to include major new initiatives to make child care and preschool more widely available, as well as some kind of paid leave program.

And these do not appear to be token gestures. Wednesday’s home care proposals envision $400 billion in new federal spending, accounting for nearly one-quarter of the $2 trillion package Biden unveiled. A meaningful initiative on child care and preschool would likely require hundreds of billions of dollars more.

The primary case for these initiatives is that they make life easier on a day-to-day basis. That’s certainly true for the home- and community-based services Biden proposed on Wednesday to support.

Medicaid, the government health insurance program that states operate using federal funds and under federal guidelines, already pays for nursing homes and other forms of institutional care. And there’s no pre-set limit on that spending. The more people who need the help, the more funding Medicaid provides.

Medicaid also pays for services at home and in the community, but with limited allotments that don’t rise with demand. This disparate treatment is a legacy of the program’s history. When Democrats created Medicaid in 1965, during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, there was a much bigger push to keep older and disabled people in institutions ― and much less awareness of how many of them wanted to, and could, stay at home.

The lack of open-ended funding forces states to cut off enrollment and put everybody else on waiting lists. Nationwide, about 800,000 people are now on those lists, and some have been for years. It’s a well-known fact that deters many others from even trying. Most experts think the actual unmet demand for home- and community-based services is closer to 1.5 million.

For decades, advocates have proposed putting home-based care on an equal footing with institutional care. That way, the choice between whether to stay at home or to go into a congregant living setting would be about the preferences and needs of individual people and their families ― not because of a financial disparity rooted in a decision lawmakers made half a century ago. . . . 

Biden’s proposal “can help millions of Americans who live with disabilities or chronic illnesses receive needed care at home or on a human scale within their own communities rather than within institutional settings,” Harold Pollack, professor at the University of Chicago and an expert on long-term care, told HuffPost.

Other types of caregiving are just as sorely in need of extra federal support.

Quality child care in the U.S. is notoriously hard to find and financially out of reach for large numbers of working families. The U.S. is the only country in the developed world that does not offer paid leave, which puts a huge strain on workers whenever they have children or older family members battling medical problems ― and sometimes when they have medical problems of their own.

Caregiving has gotten more attention generally in recent years, especially from Democrats. The new twist, from Biden, is to place these proposals alongside traditional infrastructure projects as part of a broader economic agenda.

That’s bound to seem like an awkward fit, at least to some people, because infrastructure spending more commonly consists of front-loaded or one-time expenditures ― money for airport runway expansion or the construction of a pipeline that stops flowing once the projects are done.

But the economic benefits of caregiving initiatives are real. For one thing, caregiving is literally an investment in making individual human beings more productive. This is most obviously the case when it comes to early childhood programs. Research has shown repeatedly that, when infants and toddlers get good care, they are more likely to stay in school, remain employed and stay physically healthier as adults.

That logic applies just as surely to home- and community-based services, especially for disabled people, many of whom can go to school and join the workforce with proper support.

“It has a huge economic development component,” said Nicole Jorwic, senior director of public policy at The Arc, a civil rights organization for people with intellectual disabilities. “You’ve got all these people with disabilities who right now are on waiting lists, and can’t work because of services they need in order to … become part of the economy.” 

Another way government caregiving initiatives can help the economy is by providing the families of children, disabled and older people with more choices about how they spend their time. Many caregivers will choose to work more outside of the home, putting specialized skills to use, because they will be able to know their loved ones are getting the care they need. . . . 

One final way a caregiving agenda can help boost the economy is by improving the pay and working conditions for the professional caregiving workforce, which is another part of Biden’s agenda.

The median hourly wage for home health aides is barely more than $12, for example, which is about what retail workers and parking lot attendants make. For child care providers, the median hourly wage is even lower. Meanwhile, those caring for children and older people do some of the most intimate, difficult jobs imaginable.

“We place a high value on the work that [caregivers] do, and we don’t pay them in a way that’s consistent with that value,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) told HuffPost. . . . 

Doing this all at once ― helping more people to pay for caregivers while simultaneously requiring that caregivers get higher pay ― makes the project a lot more expensive. . . .That’s bound to be a hard sell politically . . . , perhaps even among some conservative Democrats . . . . That is undoubtedly one reason why Biden and his allies are talking about these proposals in the context of their potential to create a more dynamic economy. . . .

As Ai-jen Poo, executive director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, put it on Wednesday, “like our physical infrastructure — roads, bridges, green energy — our care infrastructure needs permanent investment to ensure our communities can thrive.”

They Asked If It’s Okay To Buy More Books

“Bibliophile” sounds better than “bookworm”, although it might be better to be one of the latter, not the former.

According to Merriam-Webster, a bibliophile is a lover or collector of books, while a bookworm is someone “unusually devoted to reading and study”. Those definitions suggest that a bookworm spends time in books — using them as tools for a greater purpose — while a bibliophile spends time on books — admiring or acquiring them without necessarily getting inside them.

Being a bibliophile tends to generate two questions. The first is asked by other people: “Have you read all these books?” This question has a simple answer, which should be obvious, even to people who don’t own many books.

The second is asked by oneself: “What am I doing with all these books?” This question comes in may flavors, like “Why do I have all these books?” and “Shouldn’t I get rid of some of these books?”, and no simple answer at all. 

This brings me to something from a site called HMM Weekly. They offer a series called “Ask the Sophist”. Here’s how they describe it:

THE SOPHIST is here to tell you why you’re right. Send your questions to AskTheSophist@hmmweekly.com, and get the answers you want.

The particular question I saw is a good one (that’s my opinion, for personal reasons):

Dear The Sophist,
I own a lot of books, and nearly enough shelves to fit them. I haven’t read most of them—has anyone with a lot of books read most of them?—yet I still get impulses to buy more. Can you please tell me why it’s OK for me to buy more books?

The Sophist replied (in part):

Dear Volume Purchaser,
Books are ridiculous objects to buy, aren’t they? For the sake of spending a day or two, maybe a week, with some author’s thoughts and words, you take custody of this physical item that sticks around, and around, as more and more others accumulate along with it. You look at them, almost unseeingly, day after day; the walls of your rooms press in; you pay extra money to the movers to drag the extra weight around from one dwelling to the next, all because you read an interesting review once or a cover caught your eye in a bookstore.  

You know what else is ridiculous? The sheer impermanence of thought. The constant yet ephemeral flickering of partial understanding across the synapses in our wet and mortal brains, and the dry circuits of the junky and even more short-lived electronic ersatz brains we rely on for backup. A book is an investment against forgetting and death—a poor investment, but it beats the alternatives. It is a slippery yet real toehold on eternity. 

Long after your question and my answer here will have been chopped to incompatible bits and decayed to a 404, the physical books will endure. I consult my nearest set of Ikea bookcases—many of their shelves double-stacked, some with books laid sideways, and with copies of Daniel Pinkwater’s Borgel, the first Dragonball trilogy, two Far Side collections, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and sundry other volumes spilled or scattered on the floor at their feet. . . . 

From the shelves proper, searching for something old-looking, I retrieve a copy of Brave Men—”The New Book by ERNIE PYLE,” per the front of the dust jacket; “Now in its 700th thousand, including the Book-of-the-Month Club,” per the rear. It is printed in double columns for economy, under wartime paper rationing. The inside front cover bears a slightly double-struck stamp reading “NAOMI GIESER / 2400 McELDERRY ST.” and on the endpaper opposite is handwritten, in ungraceful cursive, “Ernie Pyle killed in action in Pacific April 1945.” I have read this book, and I would guess so did Naomi Gieser of McElderry St. The internet tells me she was around age 20 at the time, and by the obituaries she was evidently still alive when the book made it to me.

Two shelves down is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask / A Link to the Past: Legendary Edition, displayed in a place of honor. I have not read this book, but its owner has. On the shelf in between is a three-volume set of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a richly decorated 1946 edition from The Heritage Press. . . .  There are two strips of torn-off blue-lined memo-pad paper tucked in it, one shortly after the beginning of the text proper, the other up at page 446, “Italy Under Maximian and Severus.” The latter, I think, marks my own deepest run into Gibbon, sometime in the 1990s. But I can get back to it right now and keep going, just as soon as I finish with—what was the question again?

Oh, yes, right. The books. Some of these books will surely outlast their easy-build Swedish bookshelves, which only have so many future moves in them. They have outlasted other readers and non-readers, and they will outlast me. And, sure, I will die without having read many of them, though it would be rude to write down which ones I consider myself the likeliest to miss. As long as they are there, there is the chance. 

My father subscribed to the Library of America for a while, and among the many shelves of books in our home, he left one entire bookcase filled with the results, soundly printed on acid-free paper for posterity. I have no real idea what fraction of them he read; he was a devoted and wide-ranging reader, but not the sort of fanatic or obsessive who would have plowed through them all to prove a point. I carry some off with me now and then, in a tiny contribution to my mother’s decluttering. Before the pandemic I helped myself to his copy of the volume of Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick, and I used it to finally educate myself on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Had he read it, too? If not, then I took care of reading it for both of us.  

If you stop the flow of new books, you stop this flow of possibilities. Still, . . . you sense that your household arrangements are a little out of balance. You have nearly enough shelves, you say, by which you mean that the books are creeping out into your living space. 

Given that, [you could] cull the truly hopeless or pointless part of your inventory . . .  The Sophist has done this, in the course of moving into smaller living spaces with increasing numbers of people. I’ve only regretted not having one of the castoffs once or twice. (More than zero times, though!) 

And then you may buy more books, with a clearer conscience, and carry on as a custodian of knowledge. You might also consider buying some more bookshelves. 

“The revolt of Maxentius immediately restored peace to the churches of Italy and Africa…”, The Sophist 

Well, that helped. 

So the question before the house is: What about The Hidden Springs: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness, by Mark Solms, “a revelatory new theory of consciousness that returns emotions to the center of mental life” (Norton, 432 pages)?

It’s true, there’s always Kindle. If only Bezos treated his workers better.