Escaping Facebook Hell

Charlie Warzel of The New York Times monitored two average people’s Facebook feeds. It was as bad as you’d expect, but his article suggests solutions to the problem:

In mid-October I asked two people I’d never met to give me their Facebook account passwords for three weeks leading up to and after Election Day. I wanted to immerse myself in the feeds of a type of person who has become a trope of sorts in our national discussion about politics and disinformation: baby boomers with an attachment to polarizing social media.

I went looking for older Americans — not full-blown conspiracy theorists, trolls or partisan activists — whose news consumption has increased sharply in the last few years on Facebook. Neither of the two people I settled on described themselves as partisans. Both used to identify as conservatives slowly drifting leftward until Dxxxx Txxxx’s takeover of the Republican Party offered a final push. Both voted for Joe Biden this year in part because of his promise to reach across the aisle. Both bemoaned the toxicity of our current politics.

Every day, Jim Young, 62, opens up his Facebook app and heads into an information hellscape. His news feed is a dizzying mix of mundane middle-class American life and high-octane propaganda.

Here’s a sample:

A set of adoring grandparents posing with rosy-cheeked babies. “Mimi and Pop Pop’s first visit since March,” the post reads.

Next, a meme of Joe Biden next to a photoshopped “for sale” sign. “For more information contact Hunter,” the sign reads.

After that is a post advertising a “Funny rude” metal sign displaying a unicorn in a tutu giving the middle finger. “Thought of you,” the post reads.

Below that is a screenshot of a meme created by the pro-Txxxx group Turning Points USA. “Your city on socialism,” the post reads, displaying a series of photos of abandoned buildings, empty grocery store shelves and bleeding men in makeshift, dirty hospital beds.

The feed goes on like this — an infinite scroll of content without context. Touching family moments are interspersed with Bible quotes that look like Hallmark cards, hyperpartisan fearmongering and conspiratorial misinformation. Mr. Young’s news feed is, in a word, a nightmare. I know because I spent the last three weeks living inside it.

Despite Facebook’s reputation as a leading source for conspiracy theories and misinformation, what goes on in most average Americans’ news feeds is nearly impossible for outsiders to observe. . . .

After years of reading about the ways that Facebook is radicalizing and polarizing people I wanted to see it for myself — not in the aggregate, but up close and over time. What I observed is a platform that gathered our past and present friendships, colleagues, acquaintances and hobbies and slowly turned them into primary news sources. And made us miserable in the process. . . .

Mr. Young joined Facebook in 2008 as a way to reconnect with his high school classmates from Illinois. He reunited quickly with old friends and neighbors. It was exciting to see how people had changed. . . .

It was a little voyeuristic, nostalgic and harmless fun. Before 2016, Mr. Young told me, he’d see the occasional heated disagreement. It wasn’t until the last few years that his feed really started to turn divisive.

He first noticed it in the comments, where discussions that would usually end in some version of “agree to disagree” exploded into drawn-out, conspiratorial comment threads. Political disagreements started to read like dispatches from an alternate reality. He didn’t enjoy fact-checking his friends or picking fights, but when a post appeared obviously untrue he had to say something.

His time on the site ticked upward.

“It’s like going by a car wreck. You don’t want to look, but you have to,” he said. He believes his feed is a perfect storm for conflict in part because he’s lived in both liberal and conservative areas of the country and throughout his life he’s lived, worked with and befriended all manner of liberals and conservatives. . . .

But then he noticed some of his friends start to post more political memes, often with no link or citation. When he’d try to verify one, he’d realize the post was fake or debunked by a news site. “Most times there’s no real debate. Just anger. They’re so closed-minded. Sometimes, it scares me.”

Scrolling through Mr. Young’s feed after Election Day, I found a number of these posts.

Many examples of misinformation came from Facebook text posts created and shared by Mr. Young’s friends repeating baseless voter-fraud claims, [for example, one claiming] the number of votes in Wisconsin exceeded the number of registered voters (with no links to these numbers or any authoritative news source).

On Nov. 5, one of Mr. Young’s friends posted about “something fishy” alongside a link to a Bing search. The link returned a page of information about voters having ballots thrown out after using Sharpies to fill them out, including a link to a Facebook post on #Sharpiegate with over 137,000 shares.

One featured a screenshot from a Fox 2 Detroit news broadcast with the banner “Detroit Voter Roll Lawsuit.” The screenshot alleged potential voter fraud. “And so it begins!” the friend wrote. According to a Snopes debunk, the segment actually aired in December 2019 and had nothing to do with the 2020 election.

Another text post suggested that people shouldn’t trust Facebook’s fact checkers. “When the fact checkers are controlled by the same people doing the lying, what do you call it?” the post read. Below, commenters sounded off. “Democrats,” one exclaimed.. . . .

Mr. Young’s feed stood in stark contrast to the other Facebook account I spent time in. That feed belongs to Karen Pierce, a 55-year-old schoolteacher from Virginia. Ms. Pierce described herself to me as a “middle-child peacekeeper who is uncomfortable with politics.”

Unlike Mr. Young, she is not politically active on Facebook and never intervenes, even when she sees things she thinks might be conspiratorial or fake. As a result, her feed surfaced less politically charged content. The day after the election, the first post I noticed from a friend in her feed was a simple, apolitical exclamation: “It’s official! I make a damn good pot of stew!”

The political posts that appeared in Ms. Pierce’s feed were mostly anodyne statements of support for the Biden-Harris campaign peppered in between comments from fellow teachers frustrated by remote learning and an avalanche of cute dog photos and memes. Occasionally, a meme popped up mentioning Hunter Biden’s laptop, but most lacked the vitriol or the contentious commenter debates of Mr. Young’s feed.

Yet, in my conversations with Ms. Pierce over the last month, she expressed just as much frustration with her experience on Facebook as Mr. Young. “It’s so extreme,” she told me in mid-October. “I’ve watched people go from debating the issue to coming up with the craziest thing they can say to get attention. Take the whole anti-abortion debate. People started talking, then started saying ‘if you vote for Biden you’re a murderer.’ Now there’s people posting graphic pictures of fetuses.”

When I told her I hadn’t seen anything that extreme on her page, she suggested it was because of a three-month break she took from the platform this summer. “It got to be too much with the pandemic and the politics,” she said. The final straw was seeing people in her feed post QAnon adjacent memes and content. “There was a lot of calling Biden a pedophile. Or Txxxx voters posting pictures with assault rifles. It made me very uncomfortable.”

Like millions of Americans, Ms. Pierce logs onto Facebook to feel more connected. “I use it to see how people are doing,” she said. “I believe in prayer and sometimes I check to see who is struggling and to see who to pray for. And then, of course, you see some news and read some articles.”

It was when she was using the platform for news that she started seeing disturbing, conspiracy posts from people in her network. “It was so disappointing to realize the hate that’s out there,” she said. . . .

She’s worried about the long-term effects of such a toxic environment. “I think it’s affecting the mood of everybody.”

Living inside the Facebook account of strangers — even with their permission — feels invasive, like poking around in their medicine cabinet. But it offered me a unique perspective. Two things stood out. The first is the problem of comments, where strangers, even in the most mundane of articles, launched into intense, acrimonious infighting. In most cases, commenters bypassed argumentation for convenient name-calling or escalated a civil discussion by posting contextless claims with no links or source. In many cases, it appeared that a post from one user would get shared by a friend into his or her network, where it would [attract] strangers.

The more I scrolled through them, the more comments felt like a central and intractable issue. Unlike links to outside articles, comments aren’t subject to third-party fact checks or outside moderation. They are largely invisible to those people who study or attempt to police the platform.

Yet in my experience they were a primary source of debunked claims, harassment and divisive rhetoric. I showed one comment thread to a colleague who doesn’t use Facebook and my colleague found it shocking. “Facebook created a town hall for fighting,” they said. “It’s almost like if you were building a machine to make a country divisive and extreme — if you were to sit down and plan what that would look like —- it would be this.”

[Facebook’s] evolution, from a friendly social networking site into the world’s largest information platform, is the source of its biggest problems.

Sifting through Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce’s feeds and talking to them about what I saw, it became clear that the two found themselves tormented as a result of decisions they made in their early days on the platform. Both explained that they joined to reconnect with old friends.

Like most of us, they gave little thought to the connections they made. Mr. Young added friends he hadn’t spoken to in decades. When Ms. Pierce joined a nonprofit organization she accepted dozens of friend requests — some from people she’d met only in passing. “I meet people on airplanes all the time and we exchange Facebook handles,” she told me.

But as Facebook evolved, these weak connections became unlikely information nodes. Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce were now getting their commentary from people they hardly knew, whose politics had once been unknown or illegible.

“When Facebook first started it made me feel so good. It feels like I signed up for one thing and it’s become something totally different,” Ms. Pierce said. . . .

Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy . . . , described this phenomenon as what happens when “social-networking sites transformed into social media,” creating “a digital economy built on engagement.” Dr. Donovan argues that this decision spawned the algorithmic echo chambers we now live in and created a fertile environment for our information crisis.

For Mr. Young, the fallout of these decisions is painful. After weeks of watching his feed, I presented him with some of the most notorious posters in his feed. When I read aloud the name of one Facebook friend who constantly shared debunked claims, often with language intended to provoke, he sighed. He described the person as a longtime friend and neighbor who was once so close they practically lived at each other’s houses. Now, he spends his time debating whether it’s worth the energy to stop the friend from sharing conspiracy theories. . . .

The psychological toll of watching friends lose touch with reality has both Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce re-evaluating their choice to spend so much time on the platform. Mr. Young, for his part, tried to stay off during election week; Ms. Pierce is heartened that her feed has become less toxic after her Facebook sabbatical and is planning another. “My emotional and mental state improves greatly the further away I get from this place,” she told me.

Even if both manage to stay away from Facebook for good, their stories are just two in a sea of billions. No story is the same because no feed is the same. And yet these same dynamics that tortured my two participants — a sea of contextless news and acrimonious comments revealing their neighbors’ worst selves — are on display for millions of Americans every day. . . .

Unquote.

So what can be done?

  1. CLOSE YOUR FACEBOOK ACCOUNT. IT’S THE EASIEST AND MOST EFFECTIVE SOLUTION.
  2. UNFOLLOW EVERYONE YOU AREN’T CLOSE TO OR WHO SENDS YOU CRAP.
  3. DON’T READ THE COMMENTS, UNLESS THE SUBJECT IS CATS OR DOGS.

One thing Facebook could do is close the accounts of the people whose lies are shared the most. Researchers have found that a small group of social media accounts are responsible for the spread of a disproportionate amount of false information [New York Times].

But since Facebook has no morality and Republicans revel in the lying, see the list above, especially item 1.

Avoiding Individual-1 for the Most Part

I’ve mostly blogged about politics since the beginning of the crisis (you know, the crisis known as “Individual-1”). Other topics haven’t seemed worth writing about.

But, even though Individual-1 is still happening, I haven’t posted anything lately. That’s because, two months ago, I took a break from American politics. At the end of June, I stopped reading the digital front pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times and the U.S. edition of The Guardian. I also stopped looking at New York Magazine‘s “Daily Intelligencer” and Twitter. I was sick of my mind being polluted by the latest Individual-1 “news”. 

Instead, I began looking at international or “world” news. (Even in the U.S., we’re part of the world, right?) I’m told my mood improved, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, even though some American news made it through. For instance, The Guardian puts selected American stories on their international page. And any other contact, direct or indirect, with the rest of humanity meant that I might be exposed to the latest turmoil and trouble.

Helped along by last week’s positive legal developments, I started looking at U.S. news again. I didn’t immerse myself in it as much as before, but this wasn’t a great idea. Even limited exposure has been depressing. This means I probably won’t be writing much until the November election — an event on which hope for America’s redemption rests.

Before going, however, I’ll mention a few articles I’ve come across that are worth reading.

First, philosophy professor Bryan Van Norden explains why people have a right to speak, but not necessarily to be heard. He argues that some people aren’t entitled to an audience:

Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole. There is a clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas. 

In other words, outlawing speech is a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean all opinions are equal or deserve equal time in the “marketplace of ideas”. Otherwise, (quoting the philosopher Herbert Marcuse) “the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood”. And it becomes far easier to produce a political crisis like Individual-1.

On a related topic, a former Prime Minister of Australia writes about “the cancer eating the heart of Australian democracy”. The cancer he’s referring to is Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire “operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view”. Murdoch and his outlets like Fox News are one big reason why politics is so screwed up in the U.S. (Individual-1), the United Kingdom (Brexit) and Australia (five prime ministers in five years). Contrast that with politics in two other English-speaking nations, Canada and New Zealand. Their politics is a much more rational affair. Is it a coincidence that Murdoch doesn’t propagandize in either of those countries?

This week, James Fallows pointed out that it would only take one or two Republican senators to “serve as a check on [Individual-1’s] excesses”. As of now, the Republicans have a mere one-vote margin in the Senate. They will be ahead 51 to 49 after the late Senator McCain is replaced. As Fallows says:

Every [Republican] swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, not simply their own careerist comfort. And not a one of them, yet, has been willing to risk comfort, career, or fund-raising to defend the constitutional check-and-balance prerogatives of their legislative branch.

On a related topic, Brian Beutler explains why there is a natural alliance between Individual-1 and Vladimir Putin (who, of course, is no longer a Communist):

For the white nationalists in [the Republican] coalition [including the president himself], Putin seeks a global alliance of white nationalist parties, and is meddling in elections world wide to help those parties gain political power. But … even more garden variety conservatives see their interests and Putin’s coming into alignment. Putin is deeply hostile to LGBT people, and frames his hostility in religious terms. The Russian economy is built on a broken foundation of fossil fuel extraction. American conservatives aren’t killing journalists and … opposition leaders, but they are hostile to journalism and democracy, and increasingly comfortable with both propaganda and exercising power through minority rule…. Russia’s political identity is shaped by its aggrievement over the crumbling of its once-vast empire. The American right is similarly revanchist—not over lost territory, but lost demographic dominance and privilege.

For now, the GOP’s congressional leaders remain nominally committed to the western alliance, and to treating Russia as an adversary. But they will not check [the president] as he advances the opposite view. Elite conservative opinion is already shifting on the Russia question, and should Trump ever convince a majority of Republican voters that he’s right about Russia, the congressional leadership will follow suit. Putin seems to grasp that, too. What we’re seeing, across several different plot lines, is that in many ways Moscow understood Republicans better than Republicans understand themselves. 

But let’s conclude with some good news. In an interview with The Atlantic, Senator Elizabeth Warren discusses “two aggressive proposals for overhauling American business”, i.e. making capitalism work the way it’s supposed to:

One [of her proposals] is the Accountable Capitalism Act, which would require the largest corporations to allow workers to choose 40 percent of their board seats. [This] is meant to provide an antidote to short-term thinking in the biggest businesses—and to short-circuit the ease with which CEOs make decisions that enrich themselves at the expense of workers and the underlying health of their firm. A similar system exists in Germany, and it goes by the name “codetermination.”

A second set of proposals is what Warren calls the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act. Warren has called for a frontal assault on lobbying, including a lifetime prohibition that would prevent federal officeholders (including the president, members of Congress, and Cabinet secretaries) from ever becoming paid influence peddlers. Her argument is that lobbying undermines the functioning of markets, by permitting corporations to exert outsize control over the regulatory state and use government to squash competitors.

It’s also good news that there are only sixty-nine days until the midterm election. On November 6th, we can quicken the demise of the Republican Party. We should make the most of the opportunity.

It’s Not “Dementia Don” Anymore. Now It’s “Very Stable Genius”.

This morning, a few minutes after the president watched his admirers at Fox News talk about his mental health, three messages appeared on the president’s personal Twitter account. Here they are, presented as one amazingly coherent (for him) paragraph:

Now that Russian collusion, after one year of intense study, has proven to be a total hoax on the American public, the Democrats and their lapdogs, the Fake News Mainstream Media, are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence. Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

It’s very hard to believe that the president still has enough of his marbles to have written that all by himself. It’s false to the point of delusion, of course, but well-written. I would have said someone else definitely wrote it, except that the peculiar way “T.V.” is written is one of the president’s stylistic quirks. (“T.V.” written as an abbreviation appears 32 times in the searchable Trump Twitter Archive; the simple “TV” appears much more often.) Perhaps the president dictated his response to somebody familiar with his unique style, and that person polished his ravings for  public consumption.

If the president did write that paragraph this morning (which I doubt), the explanation could be that he’s more competent after he’s had some sleep. We know he tires easily. (That new Fire and Fury book says he often gets in bed by 6:30 p.m.) His dementia probably gets worse as the day wears on.

At any rate, the president’s poor mental health is receiving additional attention, which is a good thing. Vox has an interesting interview with Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine, who strongly recommends that the president receive (or be forced to receive, if necessary) an emergency psychiatric evaluation. Its purpose would be to determine whether he is a threat to public health. Dr. Lee says it isn’t a question of diagnosing him. It’s a matter of determining how dangerous he is:

Assessing dangerousness is making a judgment about the situation, not the person. The same person may not be dangerous in a different situation, for example. And it is his threat to public health, not his personal affairs, that is our concern….

[Once] you declare danger, you are calling first for containment and removal of weapons from the person and, second, for a full evaluation — which may then yield diagnoses. Until that happens, physicians and mental health professionals are expected to err on the side of safety and can be held legally liable if they fail to act. So we’re merely calling for an urgent evaluation so that we may have definitive answers.

In doing that, we are fulfilling a routine, public expectation of duty that comes with our profession — the only part that is unusual is that this is happening in the presidency….

Those who most require an evaluation are the least likely to submit to one. That is the reason why in all 50 states we have not only the legal authority, but often the legal obligation, to contain someone even against their will when it’s an emergency.

So in an emergency, neither consent nor confidentiality requirements hold. Safety comes first. What we do in the case of danger is we contain the person, we remove them from access to weapons [Note: including nuclear weapons in this case] and we do an urgent evaluation.

This is what we have been calling for with the president based on basic medical standards of care.

We shouldn’t expect the president to be given a formal evaluation any time soon, of course. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo seems to think it isn’t necessary anyway, although he doesn’t distinguish between being diagnosed and being evaluated as a threat. That’s because we (including Republican politicians) already know there’s a very serious problem:

We are now back on to the feverish debate about whether or not Donald Trump is mentally ill or suffering from the onset of dementia. The most important thing to know about this debate is that it simply doesn’t matter. If the entire psychiatric profession got together and examined Trump and pronounced him entirely free of any mental illness, his behavior wouldn’t be any less whacked or dangerous in a President….

In common sense, everyday rather than clinical language, Trump is clearly unstable, erratic, impulsive. In a word, he’s nuts and not well. As citizens, we are entirely able and entitled to make these determinations. They are ordinary English language descriptors that the psychiatric profession doesn’t control and shouldn’t want to control. The entire debate over whether Trump is “mentally ill” is simply a diversion, premised on the idea that we need either permission or dictation to say he is not able to safely or competently fulfill the job of President. We don’t. The observed behavior is really all that is necessary and all that matters.

So where does that leave us? As the pressure mounts, the president will likely become more unhinged and more dangerous. Unless he goes totally batshit crazy, it’s unlikely that his staff or Congressional Republicans will do anything about it. Even then, they might cover up his incapacity. That’s what happened when President Woodrow Wilson had a series of strokes in 1919. His wife and the president’s associates secretly ran the government in his place.

Sometimes quietly, the Trump administration continues its assault on working people, the poor, immigrants and the environment. Republicans in Congress and the Department of Justice are increasing their efforts to protect the president and his co-conspirators, even as the evidence against them mounts. Now they’re even going after the president’s opponents (yes, let’s investigate the Clinton Foundation and her emails again). Fox News keeps broadcasting state propaganda. Puerto Rico is still suffering. War, either in Eastern Europe, East Asia or the Middle East, is probably more likely than it was a year ago.

Fortunately, we made it through 2017 without too many crises, aside from the disastrous effects of climate change on the weather. The various investigations now underway may interfere with the Republican agenda. January’s new Congress might provide some oversight of the executive branch. If we make it through 2018 relatively safely, there may be better times ahead.

In that positive vein, here are some words from Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister who influenced Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, among many others. Parker believed that slavery would be abolished one day:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Two Commentaries on the Current Crisis

Here are two articles on the current crisis that I think are worth sharing.

First, the education author Alfie Kohn summarizes what we know about the mind of the President-elect:

This is not someone who is merely narcissistic in the colloquial, casual sense of the term, meaning that he’s selfish or self-centered. This is someone with a psychiatric disorder in all its flagrant, florid particulars. To grasp its seriousness is to be staggered that someone too disordered and rancid to be a trustee of your condo association will be running our country.

Kohn describes him as:

  • given to boasting, preening and swaggering to the point of self-parody;
  • not merely thin-skinned and petulant but vindictive when crossed or even criticized;
  • restless, with the attention span of a toddler;
  • desperately competitive, driven to sort the world into winners and losers;
  • astonishingly lacking not only in knowledge but in curiosity;
  • given to uttering blatant falsehoods on a constant basis and apparently unaware of the extent of his dishonesty; and
  • possessed of a sense of absolute entitlement, along with a lack of shame, humility, empathy, or capacity for reflection and self-scrutiny.

Mr. Kohn wonders what we can do to protect ourselves. He mentions legal challenges, pressuring lawmakers, mass civil disobedience and “disciplined non-cooperation” with the new administration’s worst policies. Kohn doubts that trying to manipulate a mentally ill President by playing to his illness would have much success – although one possibility he doesn’t mention is that the White House Medical Unit will finally get their new boss the mental health treatment he needs.

The second article is by the Nigerian author (and winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s excellent and not very long. It deserves reading in full, but I’ll quote some just in case:

Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots…. Hazy visions of “healing” and “not becoming the hate we hate” sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators….

Now is the time to burn false equivalencies forever. Pretending that both sides of an issue are equal when they are not is not “balanced” journalism; it is a fairy tale—and, unlike most fairy tales, a disingenuous one….

Now is the time to recalibrate the default assumptions of American political discourse. Identity politics is not the sole preserve of minority voters. This election is a reminder that identity politics in America is a white invention: it was the basis of segregation [and slavery, of course]

Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion. Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. It does not have to be like this.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is ahead by 2% nationwide or 2.6 million votes. Her opponent is leading by 80,000 votes in the three decisive states. In Austria, a right-wing extremist lost by 6% and won’t become Prime Minister. Now if only the President-elect will do something so un-Republican in the next two weeks that 37 members of his party will vote against him in the Electoral College. It’s highly unlikely, but not impossible.