Archive for the ‘Facebook’ Category
When young Bertrand Might was born, his parents at first thought nothing was amiss. But then they began to worry, as his body appeared to be constantly moving, a state they called “jiggly.” Then, he seemed to be constantly distressed, and the efforts of his father Matt to calm Bertrand “enraged” him. Matt and his wife Cristina had a series of tests done on Bertrand, which first indicated brain damage. Then that theory was ruled out, and more tests suggested Bertrand had a fatal “error in metabolism”. But that hypothesis got nixed too. The whole saga is told by Seth Mnookin in The New Yorker, and you should read it.
After what sounds like an unimaginably difficult time, the parents finally found a team of researchers who found the source of Bertrand’s ills–a mutation in a group of genes called NGLY1 that make an enzyme vital for recycling cellular waste. But the bad news, which the parents already basically knew, was that this was an incredibly rare disease, and nothing could really be done unless more patients were found.
The Mights took action. Matt authored a blog post about his son’s “killer” that went viral. This helped connect him with other patients around the world that also turned out to have NGLY1 mutations, and the Mights, along with another family who has a child with a similar disorder, the Wilseys, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars funding research on the topic. That culminated in a gathering of NGLY patients at a meeting of the Rare Disease Symposium at Sanford-Burnham earlier this year, which was solely devoted to NGLY1. It’s an inspiring story of parents’ willingness to do anything to help their children, and a demonstration of the immense power–and limitations–of science.
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed on the weekend that in January of 2012, Facebook manipulated the feeds of 689,003 English language users, making slight alterations to see if they could change the large scale mood of the populace. The answer was a resounding yes, a terrifying and appalling yes. The most obvious scandal here is that Facebook is willing, just to see how strong it really is, to experiment with its users’ happiness and sadness. But what is most troubling about the PNAS study is the simple fact that a new force for social control has emerged. It makes the powers of previous surveillance states looks negligible. Joseph Goebbels would have rubbed his hands in glee. What Facebook has revealed, with its little experiment, is that Facebook is too important to be left in the hands of Facebook.
Several critics have compared Facebook’s mood experiment with the Milgram experiment. In that famous series of tests, a group of psychologists proved the willingness of people to obey authority by creating scenarios in which subjects believed they were torturing their fellows under the directions of doctors. The Milgram subjects had never agreed to have their evil revealed, and because of the trauma they suffered a series of new protocols that were designed to ensure the ethics of future experiments. The parallels between Milgram and the Facebook experiment are obvious although the scale is much larger: Literally thousands and thousands of people were made to feel slightly worse without their knowledge in order to find out whether they could be made to feel worse.
What are the possibilities of this new reality in which a private company, responsible only to its shareholders, can change the mood of whole populations? The obvious question: Why advertise at all anymore? There is a direct and quantifiable way to change what society feels.
Steve should be happy.
Tech pundit Farhad Manjoo gives us this reason, among others, to rejoice.
Facebook’s latest study proved it can influence people’s emotional states; aren’t you glad you know that? Critics who have long argued that Facebook is too powerful and that it needs to be regulated or monitored can now point to Facebook’s own study as evidence.
This is like telling a woman who was startled by a Peeping Tom while she disrobed, “Aren’t you glad you know that men can see you naked through those venetian blinds? After all, there are some creepy men out there who would love to get a peek at your birthday suit.”
The voyeur could tell the judge, “I was just peering into her bedroom to confirm that she’s at risk of being seen in the buff. I was going to call her the next day to inform her of the threat, which is now much more than conjecture.”
After reading Steve’s piece, and then Farhad’s, I’d plunk down $59.99 on a pay-per-view bout to see Green v. Manjoo in a no-holds-barred debate on this topic…and then I’d put all the rest of my nickels on Green in 3.
And that’s when an odd thing happened. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “hours after a shooting rampage in this coastal college town that the alleged gunman said was ‘retribution’ against women who’d rejected him, a woman launched a conversation on Twitter about what it’s like to feel vulnerable to violence. ‘As soon as I reached my teens, I didn’t feel comfortable being outside in the evening on my own street,’ the woman wrote in one of her first posts under a Twitter hashtag called #YesAllWomen.”
#YesAllWomen immediately caught fire. Hundreds of thousands of tweets later, the hashtag emerged as the top trend on Twitter, dominating the Memorial Day weekend. Women from all over the world joined in. “It’s probably one of the most important tags on Twitter yet,” declared Cosmopolitan; on Sunday, Vox.com called it “the most important thing you’ll read today.” Over at the Atlantic, one article declared the #YesAllWomen movement a “sobering reminder of how commonly [women’s] full personhood is denied.” Time, NBC News, and the Los Angeles Times all took approving note.
For certain people, the Internet offers a compelling, powerful alternate universe in which to dwell. Press reports describe the accused murderer as living in a lonely world of YouTube videos, video games, and twisted representations of reality. In his mind, everything—every loss, every perceived failure, every tiny personal slight, real or imagined—was blown out of proportion. Everything was taken personally. Everything, in the end, was all about him and his imagined victimhood.
Scarily, many of the posters on #YesAllWomen, to varying degrees, seem to share the same problem. For all of his hatred of women, the crazed, lonely murderer and the impassioned “feminist” Twitter activists might have something in common after all. Yikes, ladies. Yikes.
“I am who the media says I am. I say what they say I say. I become who they say I’ve become.”—Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, 2006.
“The White House has effectively become a broadcast company,” says Michael Shaw, publisher of Bagnewsnotes.com, a site dedicated to the analysis of news images. Shaw explains how strategically composed photos, taken by official White House photographers, travel from social media sites that are controlled by the administration to the front pages of newspapers around the world.
The press publishes the official White House photographs because independent photographers and videographers are increasingly barred from covering the president. This practice has diminished the power of the independent media as an exclusive distribution channel while empowering official photographers such as Pete Souza, who are on the presidential payroll.
And so, says Shaw, the public has been fed a steady diet of whatever kind of president the news cycle demands. When conspiracy theorists questioned Obama’s patriotism, we saw images of Obama the American everyman. To celebrate the anniversary of Rosa Parks’ 1955 refusal to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, we saw Obama reenact her famous image. Time and again, we see Obama striking poses out of John F. Kennedy’s repertoire. The official White House photographers have created a presidential identity for every conceivable occasion—as long as the image is flattering, and almost always, larger than life.
Social media is an effective marketing and informational tool but terrorists are defeated by force, not sternly worded tweets. We’d all like to believe, as the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof does, that education would defeat Boko Haram in the long run. But an administration that waited years before designated this al-Qaeda affiliate as a terrorist group, and whose “lead from behind” tactics created the power vacuum in Libya that led to it being armed, cannot evade some of the responsibility for the fact that it now operates with apparent impunity.
Like it or not, the West is locked in a long war with Islamist terror. Retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan won’t end it. Nor will détente with Iran or pressure on Israel. It will require patience that democracies often lack and a willingness to maintain both vigilance and an aggressive policy that keeps America engaged even when we’d rather stay at home and tend our own gardens. But most of all it will require Americans, both the ordinary person in the street as well as the Hollywood elite, to understand that incidents like the Boko Haram abduction can’t be isolated from a conflict they would rather forget or pretend was merely a function of Bush administration policy.
So tweet about the girls all you want, Hollywood. But while you’re tweeting about the girls in between attending fundraisers for the president who has weakened our ability to influence events abroad, just remember that if you really want to help the girls and the countless other potential victims of Islamist terror, you need to also support a strong America and the use of force to defend the values we all believe in.
Just as the last floppo hashtag, #WeStandWithUkraine, didn’t actually involve standing with Ukraine, so #BringBackOurGirls doesn’t require bringing back our girls. There are only a half-dozen special forces around the planet capable of doing that without getting most or all of the hostages killed: the British, the French, the Americans, Israelis, Germans, Aussies, maybe a couple of others. So, unless something of that nature is being lined up, those schoolgirls are headed into slavery, and the wretched pleading passivity of Mrs Obama’s hashtag is just a form of moral preening.
But then what isn’t? The blogger Daniel Payne wrote this week that “modern liberalism, at its core, is an ideology of talking, not doing“. He was musing on a press release for some or other “Day of Action” that is, as usual, a day of inaction:
Diverse grassroots groups are organizing and participating in events such as walks, rallies and concerts and calling on government to reduce climate pollution, transition off fossil fuels and commit to a clean energy future.
It’s that easy! You go to a concert and someone “calls on government” to do something, and the world gets fixed.
There’s something slightly weird about taking a hashtag – which on the Internet at least has a functional purpose – and getting a big black felt marker and writing it on a piece of cardboard and holding it up, as if somehow the comforting props of social media can be extended beyond the computer and out into the real world. Maybe the talismanic hashtag never required a computer in the first place. Maybe way back during the Don Pacifico showdown all Lord Palmerston had to do was tell the Greeks #BringBackOurJew.
As Mr Payne notes, these days progressive “action” just requires “calling on government” to act. But it’s sobering to reflect that the urge to call on someone else to do something is now so reflexive and ingrained that even “the government” – or in this case the wife of “the government” – is now calling on someone else to do something.
I did a lot of research on human trafficking and modern slavery before Mike Kupari and I wrote Swords of Exodus. It is a horrible, evil, and surprisingly gigantic thing. One thing I’m fairly sure of about the kind of people who do that sort of thing for a living, is that they really don’t give a shit about a bunch of American movie stars taking pouty selfies of themselves holding up signs with hash tag give our girls back. The disapproval of fat, soft, Americans on Facebook really doesn’t move them. They care about getting paid or getting killed, that’s about it. The self-righteous pouting is useless.
U.S. courts have a structural bias against “guilty” verdicts, but when it comes to Facebook data the situation is reversed: Social media activity is more readily used to convict you in a court of law than to defend you.
That’s because prosecutors generally have an easier time than defense attorneys getting private information out of Facebook and other social networks, as highlighted in an ongoing Portland murder case. In that case, the defense attorney has evidence of a Facebook conversation in which a key witness reportedly tells a friend he was pressured by police into falsely incriminating the defendant.
Why, many of us wonder, don’t our children play on their own? Why do they lack the inner resources that we seem to remember, dimly, from our own childhoods? The answer seems clear: because, with all good intentions, we have over-devoted ourselves to our children’s education and entertainment and general formation. Because we have chipped away at the idea of independent adult life, of letting children dream up a place for themselves, in their rooms, on the carpets, in our gardens, on their own.
Facebook, of course, traffics in exhibitionism: it is a way of presenting your life, at least those sides of it you cherry-pick for the outside world, for show. One’s children are an important achievement, and arguably one’s most important achievement, but that doesn’t mean that they are who you are. It could, of course, be argued that the vanity of a younger generation, with their status postings on what kind of tea they are drinking, represents a worse or more sinister kind of narcissism. But this particular form of narcissism, these cherubs trotted out to create a picture of self, is to me more disturbing for the truth it tells. The subliminal equation is clear: I am my children.