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Rage against the Machine

If you stumbled onto this post because you think it's about the band, I'm sorry. You can leave - no harm, no foul. 

If you are here without reading the prior post, called Let them eat Twinkies, you should go back and read that now, since this is part 2 of a planned 3-part series.

And finally, if you're here because you've been waiting to follow the thread we pulled together in the prior post, then...Hooray! My plan worked! As you know, the last post looked at the origin and intent of the First Amendment and, specifically, the idea that the Constitution only really protects you from government censorship. It doesn't begin to guarantee any of us the right to speak our minds as we see fit. This is particularly interesting, and caught my attention, because recently several social media platforms banned any messaging originating with former President Donald Trump. 

Note: This is not an anti-Trump post. Pro-Trump or Anti-Trump, that's not terribly interesting to me right now. Rather, I am interested in the overarching concept of restricting free speech when the law that we expect to protect us does not apply.

So this segment explores: 

How do social media platforms change the rules?

In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the singing of the national anthem before an NFL football game, and the country lost their shit. Many Kaepernick defenders cited his First Amendment rights, but as we now know, those don't apply. The quarterback, whose job title is now "activist," as he never successfully returned to full time duty behind the snap, was an entertainer, privately employed by a corporation whose membership in the National Football League places additional, non-governmental guidelines and restrictions on behavior. 

In other words, it was ultimately up to the team owners and league governance how to respond to Kaepernick's silent protest against racial injustice, which was taken up immediately by a significant number of players across the league. But here's the cool part: It didn't freakin' matter. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Kaepernick couldn't get hired by another team; then Covid hit; then blah-blah-blah and people have a short memory and an even shorter attention span.
  2. With no legal and little organizational blowback from the incident, the great majority of the impact from the Kaepernick story actually played out on social media, where opinions are like assholes - everybody has one.

In a wonderful expose, the New York Times pointed out that, while Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the largest social media platforms, are performatively supportive of racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, the platforms themselves are by far the most dangerous weapons in the right-wing arsenal. The article was published in June, 2020, long before Presidential ballots were cast and a campaign was mounted to "stop the steal." Fully six months before social media was used to organize and promote the Washington, DC, demonstration in support of then-President Trump that ultimately morphed into a deadly assault on the Capitol building, in which elected officials were voting to certify the November election. 

Life would be so much simpler if bad people were stupid people. Alas, all too often, bad people are either fairly smart, ferociously committed, or have access to smart and committed people who are willing to do their bidding for money. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that the same platforms that gave widespread visibility into the public outrage that followed the murder of George Floyd and others gave even more visibility to groups of people seeking to discredit the protestors, defend the status quo, and prey on the fears of white, middle America. 

Consider this: On May 31, 2020, the day that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted he was donating $10 million to BLM causes, the most-viewed post on Facebook was an 18-minute video by conservative activist Candace Owens, who "railed against the protests" and called Floyd a “horrible human being.” Owens is black. 

You wouldn't be out of line if you asked yourself, "What the hell is happening?"

***

Remember, the whole point of this post is that social media has changed the rules. In the old days, you picked up your rolled-up newspaper from the dewy front lawn and took it with you to read on your commute to work. Some days you picked up the paper and didn't read it; other days you didn't pick up the paper at all. Point is, there were no consequences. You could get your news from the radio, network television or the water cooler. 

Your consumption of the news was completely voluntary and not at all connected to your interaction with family, friends and the world around you. You could abstain from news media altogether without impacting your close and casual relationships. 

Not so today.

Today, according to no less than the US Supreme Court (remember them?), social media makes up, "the most important platforms for the exchange of information and ideas and communication, not only among all of us as individuals with our friends and family members, but also between us and government officials and politicians." In other words, the same high court that declined to rule against a baker for closing his doors to gay customers (in the same year, by the way) basically ruled the First Amendment tangential at best as currently written, since the private sector is the de facto marketplace for ideas and information. 

Assuming this is true, it is "bigly problematic" in two ways:

First, one cannot simply decline to participate in social media without negatively impacting his or her relationships, including those with family members. Take it from me, I know. I do not go on Facebook, I look at Instagram on the toilet, and that's about it. I use LinkedIn professionally, and not very well. As a result, I miss things all the time and incur the wrath of family members and colleagues alike when I am caught surprised or uninformed. It's uncomfortable. 

I follow the news. I make the effort to go out on the Internet and look at various news outlets. I try and sort my reading by topic rather than by specific news outlet so as not to get caught up in the second problem, which is:

Social media decides in large part what you are going to look at next, and next, and after that. And they do it based on what you looked at last, and before that, and before that. Algorithms, sophisticated computer programs, actually learn about you based on your online activities and all kinds of other data that's amassed and sold and appended to your member profile, deep behind the curtain. 

If you thought for five minutes about what Facebook and Amazon and Google know about you, you would jump off a bridge. 

Then those algorithms tailor content to your "liking" based on all of that personal information. It's predictive, and it's presented as a benefit to you, the valued member! But understand, it's not for you. It's for the advertisers who pay to get their messages in front of you. You see, back in the day, if you wanted to reach affluent men, you advertised during televised golf or Sunday morning Meet the Press. Today that's kindergarten. No - nursery school! Today you can target people by beliefs, by net worth, by zip code, by religion, by ethnicity - by anything, literally anything, you can name. If it can be observed, it can be recorded. If it's recorded, you can buy access to it for targeting purposes.

All it takes is money.

***

So let's go back to the whole BLM thing, Colin Kaepernick and his supporters, and detractors. BLM protestors can - and did - use social media to get the word out about social injustice. They used social media to put faces to the pain, and images behind the messages, a tableau of faces and fire and fear gone sour. But over on the other side, those who would use the movement against itself learned from the system and figured out how to stand out. 

Learned how to make the system work for them.

The New York Times article said, "many of the experienced players have gotten good at provoking controversy by adopting exaggerated views. They understand that if the whole world is condemning Mr. Floyd’s killing, a post saying he deserved it will stand out. If the data suggests that black people are disproportionately targeted by police violence, they know that there’s likely a market for a video saying that white people are the real victims." 

And the algorithms do the rest, or at least a lot of the heavy lifting. A Wall Street Journal article reported an internal Facebook study as far back as 2016 found that 64 percent of the people who joined extremist groups were steered there by Facebook’s own recommendations. According to the article, despite uncovering this information, Facebook altered neither the practice nor the algorithms, choosing instead to look at the phenomenon as member-driven. 

***

Okay, full circle: Social media is inescapable, for the reasons discussed. Social media platforms, in search of profit, have automated the targeting of information based on demography and data. These platforms are protected by Constitutional free speech provisions, not held accountable to them. 

Wait. Go back and read that last sentence again. It is the only thing you need to remember from all this. The First Amendment protects the platforms and their right to operate, maybe even with little to no legislative oversight. It doesn't protect US from THEM.

And clever strategists, many of them nefarious, have figured out how to game the system to their, or their clients', advantage. 

I first started looking at this because of Donald Trump's ban from Twitter. It made me happy because it's Donald Trump; but it scares the hell out of me, now more than ever, because there appears to be no safeguard in place against the possibility - or likelihood - that someone I actually respect could as easily be silenced without due process, impartial review or consideration of law. The tech billionaires talk the talk, they say things I find reasonable and reassuring. But they are billionaires in large part because their product, their secret sauce, enables manipulation of large groups of people through the filtering and targeting of information most of us consider to be in the public domain.

If you're not scared, I haven't been clear. There's so much more, including how Facebook and others have been used internationally to support controversial, even fringe, campaigns in emerging and at-risk regions. 

Bummed? Concerned? Panicked? Want to know what our options are going forward? 

Me too! I'm working on it. Stay tuned.

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