From Russia with LikesSeptember 15, 2017
Excerpt from my book, The Four — 10/3 release.
Thought it was relevant given recent discovery the Facebook “platform” has opted to be Russia’s low-priced whore.
From Russia with Likes
Fake news stories are a far greater threat to our democracy than a few whack jobs wearing white hoods. But fake stories are part of a thriving business. Getting rid of them would force Facebook to accept responsibility as the editor of the world’s most (or second most) influential media company. It would have to start making judgments between truth and lies. That would spark outrage and suspicion — the same kind that mainstream media faces. More important, by trashing fake stories, Facebook would also sacrifice billions of clicks and loads of revenue.
Facebook attempts to skirt criticism of its content by claiming it’s not a media outlet, but a platform. This sounds reasonable until you consider that the term platform was never meant to absolve companies from taking responsibility for the damage they do. What if McDonald’s, after discovering that 80 percent of their beef was fake and making us sick, proclaimed they couldn’t be held responsible, as they aren’t a fast-food restaurant but a fast-food platform? Would we tolerate that?
A Facebook spokesperson, in the face of the controversy, said, “We cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves.” Well, you sure as hell can try. If Facebook is by far the largest social networking site, reaching 67 percent of U.S. adults, and if more of us, each day, are getting our news from it, then Facebook has become, de facto, the largest news media firm in the world. The question is, does news media have a greater responsibility to pursue, and police, the truth? Isn’t that the point of news media?
Facebook recently introduced tools to help combat fake news. Users can now flag a story as fake, and it will be sent to a fact-checking service. In addition, Facebook is using software to identify potentially fake news. However, with both of those methods, even if false, at most the story is only labeled “disputed.” Given the polarization of our political climate and the “backfire effect” — where if you present someone with evidence against their beliefs, they double down on their convictions — a “disputed” label won’t persuade a lot of people. It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.
We tend to think of social media as neutral — they’re just serving us stuff. We are autonomous, thinking individuals and can discern truth from falsehood. We can choose what to believe or not. We can choose how to interact. But research shows that what we click is driven by deeply subconscious processes. Physiologist Benjamin Libet used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected 300 milliseconds before a person feels they have decided to move. We click on impulse rather than forethought. We are driven by deep subconscious needs for belonging, approval, and safety. Facebook exploits those needs and gets us to spend more time on the platform (its core success metric is time on site) by giving us plenty of Likes. It sends notifications, interrupting your work or your home life with the urgency that someone has liked your photo. When you share an article that fits your and your friends’ political views, you do it expecting Likes. The more passionate the article, the more responses you’ll get.
Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist and expert in how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities, compares social media notifications to slot machines. They both deliver variable rewards: you’re curious, will I have two Likes or two hundred? You click the app icon and wait for the wheels to turn — a second, two, three, piquing your anticipation only makes the reward sweeter: you have nineteen Likes. Will it be more in an hour? You’ll have to check to find out. And while you’re there, here are these fake news stories that bots have been littering the information space with. Feel free to share them with your friends, even if you haven’t read them — you know you’ll get your tribe’s approval by sharing more of what they already believe.
The firm is being careful not to inject humans (gasp!) or any real judgment into the process. It claims that’s an effort to preserve impartiality — the same reason it gave when it fired the entire Trends editorial team. To involve humans would supposedly bring on implicit and explicit biases. But AI has biases as well. It’s programmed, by humans, to select the most clickable content. Its priorities are clicks, numbers, time on site. AI is incapable of distinguishing fake news, only at best to suspect it, based on origin. Only human fact checkers can ascertain if a story is fake or not, and how high on the scale of credibility.
A digital space needs rules. Facebook already has rules — it famously deleted the iconic image from the Vietnam War of a naked girl running away from her burning village. It also deleted a post by the Norwegian prime minister critical of Facebook’s actions. A human editor would have recognized the image as the iconic war photo. The AI did not.
There’s a bigger, if unpublicized, reason Facebook as of yet refuses to bring back human editors — it would introduce cost. Why do something the users can do themselves? You get to hide behind freedom of speech, even if you have a crowded theater and someone yells “Fire!” Fear and outrage? All the better. Facebook has good reason not to see itself as a media company. It’s too much work and would introduce friction to growth. And that’s something the Four don’t do.
Media platforms where you are the product have empowered, connected, and facilitated greater empathy among billions of people. The shift in value from old-media to new-media firms will result in job destruction and, as with any upheaval, risks.
The greatest threats to modern civilization have come from people and movements who had one thing in common: controlling and perverting the media to their own devices in the absence of a fourth estate that was protected from intimidation and was expected to pursue the truth. A disturbing aspect of today’s media duopoly, Facebook and Google, is their “Don’t call us media, we’re a platform” stance. This abdication from social responsibility, enabling authoritarians and hostile actors to deftly use fake news, risks that the next big medium may, again, be cave walls.
Belonging to a group has evolutionary roots — we’re safer and can accomplish more in the company of others. As we’ve evolved, or digressed, depending on your view, professional and social groups have proliferated. Key to many organizations is not who they let in, but who they don’t, rewarding members with self-expressive benefit stemming from scarcity. The previous sentence is the type of BS we puke out in the marketing department, but I digress.
I’ve been a member of a bunch of groups, but never really felt a part of one. I’m not sure any of us do. I’m uneasy at most any religious gatherings and find team affinity and sports generally stupid. Exception: Bruins, who are going to the Rose Bowl this year (see above: stupid). Clubs and organizations agree with me on not quite fitting in. I’ve never been successful at a firm unless I started it, and everyone else is forced to apply and figure out how to navigate me and the culture we’ve shaped.
As a family we’re members of a beach club in Florida. It’s wonderful. On Friday evenings we bask in the tropical night, catch up with friends, and let the kids run wild around a huge cross-shaped salt water pool. However, we’re Summer Members — only allowed in the club from May to November. We like the club so much we decided to go for it, and asked a nice couple to sponsor us for full membership. Yes, we wanted, and deserved, good burgers and mediocre rosé by the pool all year.
The full-time members hosted a “get to know you” for candidates. The members were impressive and easy to talk to. As is the case with most clubs in Florida, the membership was older — I thought the Night King was going to welcome everyone. Ninety minutes in, I could feel myself sobering up. Bad sign. Sober I’m what most people fear from drunk people — inappropriate and awkward. Drunk, I’m charming. A woman approached me and announced she was on the membership committee. She looked as if she had walked by a Betsey Johnson store as a bomb went off inside — shocked and splattered with non-organic colored fabrics. She asked who was sponsoring us. I paused (ughhh, I didn’t remember what I had for lunch, much less our sponsors), panicked, and, attempting humor, said, “I don’t remember, but I’m sure they’re lovely.”
Spoiler alert: we’re still Summer Members.
Some friends are for life, but most accessorize your life for a time and then fade. Work and family responsibilities, as well as geographic distance, take a toll on, and often end, friendships. In a digital age, it’s easy to start a lot of friendships based on work, shared interests, or common friends. But we have bandwidth for a limited number of meaningful, lifetime friendships. I used to think you had an obligation to stay friends with people because you were friends with them when you were younger. I no longer believe this and am comfortable pruning my circle of friends (realize how bad this sounds).
A decent definition of family is “people you wouldn’t otherwise hang out with.” Sort of a club you mostly can’t or won’t get kicked out of. However, with divorce rates at 50+%, each few years you reapply for membership with your spouse. And, depending on your principles / generosity / monogamy / options, each party decides if they want to renew, recognizing there is an enormous cost for cancelling. It’s a club that often may seem not worth the fees, but raising children without a partner is a bit like seeing Angkor Wat solo — great, but just not the same as with someone you care about. Raising me separately was much harder for my mom and a lot less rewarding for my dad. There is wonder, every day, in the little things your kids do. These little things are exponentially more rewarding shared with others who are also hopelessly fascinated with them.
Like most teens, when I hit 17/18 I became intolerable, making separation easier for me and my mom. However, similar to a third of males in the US, several years later I moved back in — the year between Morgan Stanley and business school. It was nice: my mom would cook for me every Thursday night and listen to stories about my dates and work. I would gas up her car on weekends (something I think all moms hate) and was much better about keeping my room clean.
The only club I know I’ll be in, and accepted into, for life is with my boys. I will be hopelessly fond and accepting of them for the rest of their lives. And will trust they’ll tolerate me for the rest of mine. Most of the other groups, clubs, clans, relationships … I’m a Summer Member.
Life is so rich,