It's Time for the Great Facebook Logout
And even that act of protest probably won't move tech's worst CEO. Plus, why the January 6th insurrection isn't going away; distributed organizing challenges; good news at the FCC; and much more.
Welcome back to another weekly edition of The Connector, where I focus on news and analysis at the intersection of politics, movements, organizing and tech and try to connect the dots (and people) on what it will take to keep democracy alive. This is completely free newsletter—nothing is behind a paywall—but if you value it and can afford a paid subscription at any level, please hit the subscribe button and choose that option. Feel free to forward widely; and if you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please sign up!
Six months from now, which of these two meta-stories will matter more? The deluge of revelations about Facebook now coming out from Frances Haugen’s “Facebook Papers,” or the slow peeling-back of the veil around the organization of the January 6th attack on the US Capitol? As an American, I think the insurrection is the far more consequential story, though for the two billion other residents of Facebookistan outside of America, the destructive impact of the social media empire on their own societies undoubtedly matters more.
If you’ve been paying attention to Facebook for a while, then there’s little shocking in what’s being revealed. But here are a few details that jarred my jaded eye:
-Facebook bragged constantly about building a “voting information center” to promote factual information about the 2020 election, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg blocked doing so in Spanish on WhatsApp because he thought that would make the company look partisan. (As we now know, voting misinformation was rife across WhatsApp and in Spanish-speaking communities.)
-Facebook’s 2016 rollout of new reaction buttons in addition to its iconic Like button, including “love,” “haha,” “wow,” “sad” and “angry” fueled the spread of toxic feedback and misinformation, especially because it programmed the NewsFeed algorithm to rank the use of those emojis as five times more valuable than Likes.
-Facebook systematically under-invests in content moderation abroad. “As recently as late 2020, an internal Facebook report found that only 6 percent of Arabic-language hate content on Instagram was detected by Facebook’s systems,” Ellen Cushing writes in The Atlantic. “Another report that circulated last winter found that, of material posted in Afghanistan that was classified as hate speech within a 30-day range, only 0.23 percent was taken down automatically by Facebook’s tools.”
-In Vietnam, one of a number of countries where Facebook is practically equivalent to the Internet, Zuckerberg abandoned his oft-claimed commitment to freedom of speech and gave the country’s ruling Communist party near-total control of the platform.
-The company is aware of how its platforms are used to exploit foreign domestic workers, including the use of Instagram to buy and trade maids online, but it only acted to reduce its prevalence after Apple threatened to remove Facebook and Instagram from its app store.
If you can’t get your head around all the problems with Facebook and all the pretzel-logic choices it has made on how it handles content here and abroad, don’t worry, no one can. But here’s a simply algorithm for understanding the pretzel: Every decision ultimately gets made by, or in accordance with the wishes of, one under-educated, sexist, hyper-coddled white boy king. Who by all accounts understands coding far better than humans and values “engagement” above all (he used to say “domination” but the effect is the same). As Adrienne LaFrance explains in The Atlantic:
“Facebook workers are under tremendous pressure to quantitatively demonstrate their individual contributions to the company’s growth goals, they told me. New products and features aren’t approved unless the staffers pitching them demonstrate how they will drive engagement. As a result, Facebook has stoked an algorithm arms race within its ranks, pitting core product-and-engineering teams, such as the News Feed team, against their colleagues on Integrity teams, who are tasked with mitigating harm on the platform. These teams establish goals that are often in direct conflict with each other….Current and former Facebook employees describe the same fundamentally broken culture—one in which effective tactics for making Facebook safer are rolled back by leadership or never approved in the first place. … That broken culture has produced a broken platform: an algorithmic ecosystem in which users are pushed toward ever more extreme content, and where Facebook knowingly exposes its users to conspiracy theories, disinformation, and incitement to violence.”
Focusing on the US, which is what we usually do here at The Connector, it’s vital that we recognize one huge problem with the Facebook scandal. Which is our own impotence to do much about it. I thought this comment from one company vice president who left Facebook last year, Brian Boland, in Mike Isaac’s New York Times story on how internal researchers discovered the toxic effects of core features such as the “Like” and “Share” buttons was unintentionally indicative. “There’s a gap between the fact that you can have pretty open conversations inside of Facebook as an employee,” Boland said. “Actually getting change done can be much harder.” And as a result, a steady flow of Facebookers have been quitting, and as veteran tech journalist Steven Levy eloquently captured in Wired, their final “badge posts” often include harsh declarations of frustration at leadership’s lack of good faith.
We are now collectively all close to a par with Facebook employees, in terms of having access to a few megatons of internal research on how the giant platform warps the world and not having any power to get change done. (Here’s a growing Google Doc of nearly 100 stories that have been published on the Facebook documents across more than a dozen outlets, helpfully compiled by former Facebook VP Katie Harbath.) One person, Zuckerberg, has a majority of governing stock there, a unique concentration of power. The company’s real customers, advertisers, aren’t leaving it because its targeting tools are both cheap and extremely powerful. And right now I see no signs that last year’s successful Stop Hate for Profit advertising boycott is about to go back to the barricades. (The boycott is over, so it’s ok to hate for profit again?)
The only other current effort to organize Facebook users to hit Zuckerberg in the only part of his body that he apparently cares about, his wallet, is The Facebook Logout. That’s a project of the Kairos Organizing Fellowship that counts Action Center on Race and the Economy, Accountable Tech, Free Press, the Center for Media Justice, MoveOn, Ultraviolet, and DailyKos as its core partners and a small list of like-minded orgs (including this humble newsletter) as supporters. We’re asking everyone to pledge to log out on November 10th. Only real damage to the company’s user-centered ad model can get it to change.
Barring a miracle, like a change of heart that would be akin to Pharoah deciding to let Moses’ people go, I see little chance that the boy king is going to do the one thing that could lead to fundamental change, which is to resign as CEO.
Related: Emily Birnbaum reports for Politico on how Pierre Omidyar’s philanthropic arm Luminate is backing Frances Haugen’s rollout, and the role of Bill Burton, who runs public affairs for Tristan Harris’ Center for Humane Tech, in advising Haugen. Also, she reports that Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig has somehow made himself a Haugen legal advisor.
Also related: Several former Facebook staffers who worked on integrity issues in recent years have formed the Integrity Institute, seeking to provide lawmakers and the industry with advice on how big social media platforms could be better regulated. One of the founders, our friend Sahar Massachi, told Issie Lapowsky of Protocol, “Frances [Haugen] is exposing a lot of the knobs in the machine that is a modern social media platform. Now that people know that those knobs exist, we can start having a conversation about what is the science of how these work, what these knobs do and why you would want to turn them in which direction."
Speaking of those knobs, Ian Bogost makes a good argument in The Atlantic for legislators or regulators setting speed and volume limits on sites like Facebook. Getting the tuning right won’t be simple, but in the same way that we’ve come up with safety rules for all kinds of products, we need them for social media. I’d start by looking at what has worked for a platform like Front Porch Forum, and try limiting the size of people’s “friend” lists and the speed of comments, for starters.
Meanwhile, Back in the Phoney War
If only people of good will inside the Republican party were as courageous as Facebook’s whistleblowers. So far, we know very little about how the January 6th insurrection was organized, and in particular the role of GOP leaders in enabling it. But some details are starting to come into focus. According to Rolling Stone’s Hunter Walker, some of the planners of the DC rallies that fed the riot are cooperating with the House select committee investigation, and they say close to a dozen Members of Congress were in on the attempted coup, and that presidential pardons were promised in exchange. CNN’s Kaitlan Collins also reports that at least five former Trump administration staffers are cooperating with the committee’s investigation.
If the House select committee fails in its work—something that Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and the House Republican leadership appears ferociously focused on—then more January 6th-like activity is bound to follow. Impunity breeds boldness. That’s the message being sent by the thousands of New York City cops and firefighters who marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall yesterday to protest the new vaccine mandate. They’ve been told they will be placed on unpaid leave if they fail to get vaccinated. Assuming many of them do lose their jobs, what do you think they will be doing with their new-found free time? Playing golf or plotting revenge? This first-person thread from Talia Jane, an independent journalist who covers the far-right and who was in the crowd as its assaulted the Capitol, should give you pause. She senses the same feral energy that was on display on the steps of the Capitol now “in the faces of those trying to rush city council and school board meetings.” She calls it “indignation turned animalistic,” adding, “You see it in the steadily growing crowds at anti-mandate rallies.” Says Jane, “I saw a side of humanity that shouldn’t exist that day. and i see it building again, as do lots of researchers and people who monitor the far right. It is the same strategy, the same snake oil, the same intoxication.” Let’s hope she’s wrong.
—I’m a big fan of the distributed organizing model developed by Momentum and deployed by groups like the Sunrise Movement. It’s enabled the rapid growth of decentralized but focused strategic action for things like fighting climate change. However. Last week, a mini-controversy broke out when Sunrise DC, a local chapter of the movement, pulled out of a coalition pushing for the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act because some major Jewish American organizations (which it tagged as “Zionist organizations,” not recognizing their long involvement in social justice work in America) were involved. This illustrated a major problem with the Momentum model. A local hub with independent autonomy but using Sunrise’s valuable name managed to make the larger movement look pretty stupid. Here’s the original Sunrise DC statement; here’s Sunrise Movement’s equivocal response; and here, just for one example of the outcome, is progressive Democratic Rep. Jamin Raskin’s statement blasting Sunlight DC. And here’s Sunlight DC’s post walking back their original statement.
—Say hello to Good Information Inc., a new public benefit corporation led by Tara McGowan, the Democratic strategist who started ACRONYM. According to Sara Fischer of Axios, Good Information is being backed by billionaires Reid Hoffman and George Soros, among others, and will be acquiring ACRONYM’s Courier Newsroom as part of the deal. Its advisors include a number of familiar names, including former Obama White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, former White House chief digital officer Jason Goldman, New_ Public cofounder Eli Pariser, Check Your Ads co-founder Nandini Jammi, and Accountable Tech co-founder Nicole Gill. It will be interesting to see how Good Information develops.
Brave New World
Some investors have started using language pattern software that claims to learn and analyze the speech patterns and tones of CEOs and other company managers in order to spot hidden clues in their public pronouncements, Tommy Wilkes reports for Reuters. And the founder of the hedge fund Sparkline Capital says his natural language processing program has allowed him to develop “personality profiles” for companies, enabling him to discern between those with “idiosyncratic” cultures that tend to perform better on the market than others exhibiting “toxicity” for using terms like “good ‘ol boys club” and “dog eat dog,” which perform worse. You don’t say!
Odds and Ends
—Chris Horne, the founder of The Devil Strip, says the news cooperative’s apparent bankruptcy came as a complete shock to him. A GoFundMe started by one of the three remaining board members has raised $22,000 towards a $75,000 goal; many coop members are waiting for more details, apparently.
—New York congressional Rep. Adriano Espaillat has paid bloggers nearly $15,000 to post hundreds of flattering articles about him going back to 2016, Claudia Irizarry Aponte reports for The City.
—Good news if you’re a telecom nerd: President Biden has formally nominated Gigi Sohn and Jessica Rosenworcel to be FCC commissioners, and also nominated Alan Davidson to run the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. All three come from the public internet side of the Internet wars.
—Code for America has reached an agreement recognizing its staff union, CfA Workers United.
—Say hello to This is Civic Source, a new newsletter from Katya Abazajian focused on how local governments use data and tech to shape their communities.
—Star Trek actor William Shatner on the “wake-up call” he experienced on his brief journey to space last week is worth a listen.