“Don’t Shoot the Messenger” — A Defense of Social Media

So I’m watching “Morning Joe” on MSNBC this morning and Joe and Mika have concluded that Facebook and Twitter should be held accountable for promoting the violence of the alt right. This was somewhat sparked on by the story that Fox News had to pay out a legal settlement for misinformation they promoted that resulted in someone’s death. I don’t recall the details of the case I wasn’t paying that close attention to that part of the story.

The difference between Fox News and social media is that Facebook and Twitter do not actually create the content that their sites carry. Fox News creates its content and therefore is solely responsible for what goes out over its single channel of airwaves and cable. If guests on their programs provide misinformation of which Fox News does not approve, they have ample opportunity to rebut that information and to refuse to invite such guests back on to its programs. It can easily exercise editorial control.

Facebook is not a single channel nor is Twitter in the same way that Fox or other media outlets are. Facebook is a billion channels as is Twitter. It is a physical impossibility to monitor the billions of users that these platforms have. We hear daily how these platforms have shut down tens of thousands of accounts that are promoting hate and violence yet it only takes a few clicks to create another such account in such accounts can even be created automatically by software bots.

Another report said that lies about election fraud have dropped on Twitter considerably since Pres. Trump’s Twitter account was suspended. Twitter defended its policy of allowing Trump to post whatever he wanted in violation of their normal terms of service because they concluded that as an important public figure it was in the public interest to have his thoughts published unfiltered. When his content and the content of others included things such as misinformation about the virus which was clearly contrary to the public interest, Twitter and Facebook took steps to flag such content as false and/or misleading. It was only after his activities could be clearly and definitively linked to violent activity that the accounts were totally suspended.

One also has to ask if Facebook wasn’t doing anything to try to stop such abuse of its platform, why did so many of the alt right and conspiracy mongers moved to Parler?

One has to wonder what civil libertarians and progressives might have said had these platforms been more actively censoring content. While such censorship by a private company does not, as some claim, constitute a First Amendment violation, it still would have drawn criticism had it been overly aggressive.

Blaming Facebook and Twitter for the content posted there is like blaming the mail if someone sends a bomb through the mail. Or blaming the roads if someone drives a bomb somewhere.

Ultimately the responsibility for hate and violence comes from the perpetrators of those messages and those who actually act upon them. As I have stated in other blogs, the uneducated American public who is so gullible that they will believe anything that they read online is responsible for the situation. And again I blame our education system which is not creating people who can think critically and weigh evidence for themselves. If Trump told people that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east they would believe him despite the evidence of their own eyes. I’m reminded of the science-fiction novel written by the famous Isaac Asimov titled “The Gods Themselves”. Asimov’s inspiration for the title of the book was a quotation from the play The Maid of Orleans by Friedrich Schiller: “Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens” that is “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”.

Much of their criticism of social media is the algorithm that directs people towards hate sites. While no one (including Facebook and Twitter) really know how their algorithms work, in order for those algorithms to support their business model for advertising purposes, the algorithm has to analyze the content and the choices to read and like content of individual user. I’ve never been directed towards a hate site because I don’t typically post hate content. Facebook directs me towards sites that deal with hobby electronics, maker projects, science news, SpaceX and other space exploration news. It does so because it has correctly determined that those are the things that interest me.

Facebook also directs people correctly towards content that I create most importantly through my involvement in an organization known as ATMakers which is a group of hobbyists, makers, and other interested people who create assistive technology. It also provides a meeting place for users of assistive technology, therapists and other professionals to get information about AT resources. The activities of this Facebook group have transformed people’s lives. We have considered moving to a different platform that is less controversial than Facebook but in the end have concluded that no other existing platform provides the capabilities and the broad reach that Facebook provides.

More importantly Facebook directs me to groups and pages dealing with neuromuscular disease specifically my disease Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Tomorrow I will begin taking a new drug that will treat my SMA disease. I would’ve never heard of that drug had I not belonged to SMA related Facebook groups. And I would’ve never been directed towards those groups had Facebook not analyzed my interests and directed me there.

Didn’t social media critics ever hear the proverb “don’t shoot the messenger”?

The Piano Scarf Lady Changed My Mind

One of the things that bothers me so much about political discourse is the way that people paint large groups with such a broad brush. For example out of the tens of thousands of protesters this summer who protested police abuse and other social justice issues there were probably only a few hundred that only engaged in rioting, looting, and other acts of violence. Yet the entire group was characterized as lawless people.

As I watched the events of January 6 around the US capital I tried to apply my own standards to the Trump supporters. While I was appalled at the couple of hundred violent people who stormed the building killing a capital police officer, terrorizing those inside, and violating the sanctity of “the people’s house”, I tried to keep perspective that outside were thousands more who would doing nothing more than cheering, waving flags, and exercising First Amendment rights of protest. I wasn’t going to paint all Trump supporters as being violent thugs.

As I looked at the people outside the capital they looked like ordinary middle class citizens. Soccer moms and Little League dads who had been unfortunately duped into believing that democracy was under attack by progressives who had stolen the election. I had sympathy for them because I knew they would be characterized in the same vein as those who had actually stormed the building. These were not shirtless tattooed people with face paint and a Viking horned helmet on.

Then last night I watched “A Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in which he made fun of the Trump supporters who were stupid enough to identify themselves through social media posts and interviews. He then showed a video clip of a woman who appeared to be maybe 30 years old. Nicely dressed in a nice coat and a stylish scarf that looks like a piano keyboard. She was sobbing severely saying “They maced me!” I immediately had sympathy for her. Here was one of these innocently duped soccer moms who had gotten caught up in the crowd and had suffered being maced for trying to express her beliefs. She said she sat one foot inside the building and they maced her. She went on to identify herself as “Elizabeth from Knoxville Tennessee”. The fact that she had identified herself was part of the reason Colbert was making fun of her which I thought was kind of funny as well. Yet my heart went out to her. And then the reporter asked “And why did you want to go in?” To which she replied in a tone implying that the answer was obvious but she answered anyway “We’re storming the capital! It’s a revolution!”

Okay now I get it.

Even though she did attempt to step inside the building while thousands of others remain peacefully outside, it opened my eyes to the fact that this was not some gun toting, Molotov cocktail wielding, burn it all down, antiestablishment, militia member yet she still believed sincerely that she was taking part in a revolution against a duly elected government.

While it doesn’t say much for the strength of your “revolution” if a little spritz of mace is going to send you running away sobbing, it does tell me that you need not be an extremely radical antigovernment nut job to sincerely have believed that the government needed to be overthrown.

Granted she did try to enter the building while others stayed outside so there is that distinction. So I’m trying hard not to characterize the thousands who stood outside doing nothing but waving flags and chanting Trump with the same broad strokes of the shirtless, face painted, horned idiots who actually pranced around inside the building vandalizing the place and terrorizing Congress and the staff. But the idea that such ordinary looking people truly believes they were participating in a revolution is probably what scares me the most. Trump will be gone in another 12 days (or sooner). Congress completed its work. Democracy survived as I always was confident it would. But something is really, really wrong in America. Way too many people are too gullible and too willing to participate in a cult of personality.

In a previous blog here I said that Trump didn’t collude with Russia because he didn’t need to. Russia was completely capable of “interfering” in our election without him. And I also somewhat absolved Russia from blame for merely exploiting the gullibility of the American voters to believe such disinformation. I blamed our education system who has not taught us to be critical thinkers nor instilled in us a deep understanding of how democracy is supposed to work. I continue to think that it is a lack of education in these areas that is the real root cause of our problems. That is not to exonerate responsibility from those such as Trump, his co-conspirators in Congress, or even the Russians who are exploiting this weakness in American society.

The link below is the Stephen Colbert routine from January 7 that I spoke about above. I’ve queued it up to the “Piano Scarf Lady” about seven minutes in but you might want to watch the entire 11 minute clip of Colbert’s routine. It’s pretty funny.