Facebook Believes Americans Are Good at Evaluating Their Sources, And Other Comfortable Delusions

oh my god shut up

Mark Zuckerberg would like you to know that he cares a lot about disinformation and bots and propaganda. He is very concerned about this, and is also very aware that he possesses terrifying technological powers. (See, his brow! Consider how it furrows!) And so on January 19th, he made another one of his big announcements.  He’s decided, in his serene wisdom, to trust the people of Facebook to determine what is true. Nothing could possibly go wrong.  

“The hard question we’ve struggled with is how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division,” Zuckerberg chirped in his announcement (I always imagine him chirping in these, like a smug billionaire chickadee). “We decided that having the community determine which sources are broadly trusted would be most objective.” Users will be asked to rate the credibility of news sources, though only those that Facebook determines they are familiar with, through some mysterious and possibly eldritch method. These “ongoing quality surveys” will then be used to determine which news sources pop up most often in users news feeds. Will there be any effort to correct for craven partisan sentiment? No, apparently there will not be. Will there be some mechanism for avoiding another mass and gleeful ratfucking by 4chan and 8chan and whatever other slugbeasts lurk within the Internet? No, apparently there will not be. Everything will be fine! 

On January 19th, we learned that Facebook is the last organization in the entire world that still has great faith in the research and assessment powers of the average American. Is Facebook actually that unfathomably, enormously naive? Well, maybe. Or perhaps they are, once again, betting that we are stupid enough to believe that Facebook is making a legitimate effort to correct itself, and that we will then stop being so mad at them. 

Which is insulting. 

Any creature more intelligent than an actual avocado knows that Facebook’s user-rating scheme is doomed to miserable failure. Researchers  Alan Dennis, Antino Kim and Tricia Moravec elegantly diagnosed the project’s many, many problems in a Buzzfeed post, drawing on their research on fake news and news-source ratings. They conclude, as you’d think should be obvious, that user-ratings for news sources are a very different thing than user-ratings for toasters. “Consumer reviews of products like toasters work because we have direct experience using them,” they wrote. “Consumer reviews of news sources don’t work because we can’t personally verify the facts from direct experience; instead, our opinions of news are driven by strong emotional attachments to underlying sociopolitical issues.”

Facebook, if we are to believe that they are not actively hoodwinking us, legitimately believes that the American people have, in the past year, somehow become astute and critical consumers of the news. But this impossible.  Facebook’s magical thinking is roughly equivalent to putting a freezer burned Hot-Pocket in a microwave and hoping that it will, in three minutes, turn into a delicious brick-oven pizza. There is no transmutation and there is no improvement. The Hot Pocket of ignorance and poor civic education will remain flaccid and disappointing no matter how much you hope and wish and pray. 

there is some trippy ass clipart for Facebook on pixabay

This doesn’t mean there is no hope for the information ecosystem of the United States. It does not mean that this ongoing nightmare is permanent. As Dennis, Kim, and Moravec suggest, Facebook could grow a spine and start employing actual experts. Experts empowered to filter. Experts who are empowered to deem what is bullshit and what is not. But of course, this is what scares them most of all. See what Zuckerberg wrote in his Big Announcement: “The hard question we’ve struggled with is how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division. We could try to make that decision ourselves, but that’s not something we’re comfortable with.”

“Not comfortable with.” Consider that wording. They’re not comfortable with doing the one thing that might actually help to dislodge the cerebral-fluid sucking leech that is currently wrapped around the brainstems of the social-media using public. It would be so awful if Facebook was made uncomfortable.

And it will do anything to avoid discomfort. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are simply abdicating responsibility again. They know that these “checks” won’t work. They know damn well that hiring editors and engaging in meaningful moderation is what they haven’t tried, and what is most likely to work, and what is most likely to earn them the ire of the Trump cult that now squats wetly in the White House. Cowardice has won out, again: they’ve simply come up with another semi-clever way to fob off responsibility on its users. When these “credibility checks” inevitably fail or are compromised by hordes of wild-eyed Pepes, Facebook will, right on schedule, act surprised and aghast, then quickly pretend it never happened. You should be insulted that they think we’ll just keep falling for this. We have to stop falling for this. 

These so-called credibility checks are just Facebook’s latest milquetoast and insulting effort to pretend it is dealing with its disinformation problem.  Just a few weeks ago, Facebook announced that it would be reducing public content on the news feed. This is to social-engineer “meaningful social interactions with family and friends” for its users. This might sound well and good – if you are much more comfortable with being socially-engineered by blank-eyed boys from Silicon Valley than I am – or at least it does until you hear from people who have already undergone this change. Facebook is fond of using countries from markets it deems insignificant as guinea pigs for its changes, and in 2017, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Cambodia, Slovakia, Bolivia, and Serbia were shoved in the direction of “meaningful social interaction.” (One does wonder about the selection, considering the unpleasant history these nations share). The results were, to quote local journalists in Guatemala, “catastrophic.” Reporters in these countries suddenly found their publications – important sources of information in fragile political systems – deprived of their largest source of readership and income.

Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook’s News Feed, responded to these reporter’s anguish with the serene, Athenian calm that only tech evangelicals can muster: “The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content. We will hear what people say about the experience to understand if it’s an idea worth pursuing any further.”(Whoops, we broke your already-fragile democracy! Move fast! Break things!) Dripping a new shampoo line in little white bunny rabbit’s quivering eyeballs is also a test . The difference between the two? Testing your new product on embattled reporters in formerly war-torn nations is much more socially acceptable. 

Facebook has also recently attempted to socially engineer us into being better citizens. In late 2017, I wrote about Facebook’s ill-considered civic engagement tools or “constituent services,” which were meant to (in a nutshell) make it easier for you to badger your representative or for your representative to badger you back. Using these tools, of course, required a Facebook account – and you also had to tell Facebook where you lived, so it could match you up with your representative.  Facebook would very much like a world in which people need to submit to having a Facebook account to meaningfully communicate with their representatives. Facebook would, we can probably assume, very much like a world where pretty much everything is like Facebook. This is probably not going to change. 

Yes, I know: Zuckerberg furrowed his brow somewhere in his mansion and said that he might consider cutting his profits to reduce the gigantic social problem that he’s engendered. By that, he means doing things that might actually address the disinformation problem: these things might take a variety of forms, from actually hiring experts and editors, to actually paying for news (as, incredibly, Rupert Murdoch just suggested) to hiring and meaningfully compensating a competent army of moderators. But consider our available evidence.  Do we really believe that he’ll flout his (scary) board and do the right thing? Or will he and Facebook once again choose comfort, and do nothing at all? 

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” said John F. Kennedy, in a quote that I am deadly certain Facebook employees like to trot out as they perfect methods of micro-targeting underpants ads to under-25 men who like trebuchets, or perfect new Messenger stickers of farting cats, or sort-of-accidentally rupture American democracy. Perhaps someday Facebook will develop an appetite for dealing with things that are actually hard, that are actually uncomfortable.

I’m not holding my breath. 

DIY Drones and the FAA’s Drone Registration Plan

battle drone

The FAA has decided that drone registration may be its best bet for making sure drones don’t become a national nuisance after the Christmas gift-buying rush. But will it really work? And does it take into account DIY drones? I’m skeptical. You can read my take at Slate. 

A Major Problem With the FAA Plan to Register All Drones – Slate

“It’s all the drone world can talk about: The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday that all drones—not just those used for commercial purposes—would soon have to be registered, with the hope of providing a way to link badly behaved drones to their pilots. The new system, FAA representatives (optimistically) said, is hoped to be in placed by mid-December, to anticipate the hordes of underage children and overconfident dads expected to get drones for Christmas. There are lots of potential problems with this plan, which other experts have admirably described. But I want to focus on one particular obstacle. What should the FAA do about registering DIY drones—the flying objects that people make in their garages, instead of running out and buying?”

War correspondents of legend and song unveil memorial in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – GlobalPost



PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Many of the most prominent surviving correspondents who covered Cambodia’s civil war gathered in Phnom Penh on Wednesday for the unveiling of a memorial to the “at least” 37 journalists who perished on Cambodian soil between 1970 and 1975.

Buddhist monks performed religious rites and Cambodian information minister Khieu Kanharith arrived to help inaugurate the black stone memorial, which bore the names of correspondents killed in the field.

Read more from GlobalPost: Record number of journalists killed worldwide in 2012

Chhang Song, a former information minister under the deposed 1970s Cambodian leader Lon Nol, was also on hand to speak at the ceremony, as the “old hacks,” as some of them called each other, gathered to remember their fallen.

“Thirty-seven have died, but they have not died in my heart,” Song, who is now wheelchair-bound, said of the deceased correspondents.

“I have carried the names, the faces, the words of these people who died for their profession.”

Read more from GlobalPost….

The Times Picayune Dies When We Needed It Most – New Orleans Tragedy

The Times Picayune is dead.

Allow me to rephrase. The Times PIcayune will produce a “more robust” expanded print version three days a week. Many staff members who won’t “have the opportunity to grow with the new organization” will be fired. Those remaining staff members will be offered much smaller salaries, and will be expected to work more hours, for less benefits. A new corporation, the NOLA Media Group, will be formed, which will theoretically “develop new and innovative ways to deliver news and information to the company’s online and mobile readers.”

Remaining staff will be expected to spend at least part of their day “blogging.” Which is just the same as working a challenging beat, of course.

The hard-working Times-Picayune team were treated abhorrently by owners Newhouse Newspapers, who didn’t bother to inform them of the drastic change until after a New York Times story had already run. Many reporters found out about the move—and the probable loss of their jobs and life’s work—via the Gambit’s Twitter feed. Sadly, this treatment is indicative of the total lack of respect most in the corporate world seem to have for our not-very-easy profession.

So why do I care? For one thing, I’m more reliant on print newspapers than most 23 year olds. This is partially a function of previously working for one of the few papers still extant that doesn’t have a website. Hello, Cambodia Daily! In Cambodia, I bought both the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily every day. I felt like I was doing the community—and my profession—a big disservice if I didn’t at least read the local news from both sources every day.

I read the Times Picayune in print when I could access a copy – I’ll admit that as a Tulane student without a ton of money and an uncertain living situation, I never subscribed to the print edition. I regret it. Then again, the demise of the Times Picayune is less related to profitability than it is to the whims of its corporate overlords – who freely admit that the paper is still making money.

Which means that New Orleans, an American city internationally renowned for its corruption, crime, history and vibrant culture, now has no daily news source. I can think of few cities more desperately in need of an entire organization dedicated to honesty and documentation.

I imagine I’m going to be hearing something like this over the next week: Social media will jump in and pick up the slack, right? We don’t need newspapers and dedicated reporters anymore, right? What about the television news? 

Actually, dedicated reporters are needed more than ever. Do you really think that us bloggers are making enough money to support ourselves from our occasional posts covering a local event?

Well, we’re not. Seriously. We have to have jobs that relate to other things than local news to keep food on the table. Only a tiny, elite minority of bloggers can break even or support themselves. For the rest of us, journalism is increasingly becoming a rather punishing hobby, instead of a dedicated profession.

One also wonders what exactly morally suspect news aggregators and churnalists will repurpose when all the real-deal journalists have been pushed out of the industry. What will Ivy League college interns link to when all the newspapers are dead? How will anybody find out anything? 

As for TV, well, if you think local TV news can perform the same investigative reporting function as a dedicated, award-winning newspaper, you obviously don’t watch TV news very often. (It’s also worth pointing out that only hotties get jobs in TV journalism. Do we really want that?)

As for us young people who actually want to do investigative reporting instead of churnalizing, well, we should probably just forget about it. I remember reading a passage in Joel Brinkley’s “Cambodia’s Curse,” where he casually mentioned that the Louisville Courier-Journal sent him to Cambodia to cover the war in 1979.

Can you imagine a local paper from a smallish metro doing something like that today?

Circa 2012, these local papers are lucky if they can get an ass in the seat for the local city council meeting. (Which isn’t going to happen anymore in New Orleans). That trip to Cambodia was a milestone in Mr Brinkley’s life, and set him on the path to a successful career in investigative reporting. Nothing like that opportunity awaits myself and my fellow 23-year-old aspirant reporters today, at least in local American papers. We tend to feel pretty damn grateful if we’re not in food service.

And trust me, speaking as a blogger: dutifully taking down the minutes of city council meetings during normal working hours is not something that gets us ad money. It also doesn’t help with that nagging issue of paying the rent, either.

I’m very worried about New Orleans today. This is a city that loves its paper, and where you would regularly see folks reading the Times-Picayune in a public place. Nola.com – prior to this truly heinous “yellow journalism” redesign  – was a wonky but relatively useful site, one I looked to as a missive from home on my world travels. I don’t really give a fart about sports, but it was still nice to see the exuberant headlines from the latest major Saint’s victory.

The Times-Pic was filled with a lot of murder and doom and gloom and horror, as would befit a paper coming out of the US city with the highest per-capita murder rate. But it also did a great job of documenting New Orlean’s rebirth and redevelopment. This is a story that needs to be told. I’ll quote Micheline Maynard of Forbes, who wrote a very good piece on the Times-Pic’s demise:

“Even if the post-Katrina clean up story is now old news, the creation of a new southern city, with lingering problems from the past, layered onto its rich history, seems like enough to fill seven days a week of news hole, with plenty of opportunities for local and national publications. Everything that’s being written about in Detroit is happening here, too, and deserves to be looked at with just as much scrutiny.”

It does deserve equal scrutiny. And it’s an absolute travesty that Phnom Penh – where the native language is not even English – has two active papers. New Orleans can’t even muster one. Many of us like to joke that New Orleans is a third world city, but it’s becoming less and less of a joke these days.

This is a tragic day for New Orleans. We can only hope that someone, somewhere steps in to fill the gap. The city we love needs good reporting and honest journalism more than ever before.