Facebook & How We Form Opinions

Dear Group,

Facebook needs to police its content, right? Since the 2016 elections, Russian election interference, and Pizzagate conspiracy theory we all pretty much agree that needs to happen. None of us wants our kids or other vulnerable people (or ourselves, for that matter) sucked into crazy idea streams, wanton violence, or pornography while we’re cruising our grandkids’ photos or smiling at cat videos on Facebook. So, on a practical level, how does one weed out misleading, fake, or grossly objectionable content?

You can read a transcript or listen to the startling answer to that question in a podcast entitled “For Facebook Content Moderators, Traumatizing Material Is A Job Hazard” on on NPR’s Fresh Air. Filtering content sounds pretty high-minded, but, like so many other things, the details are a lot more gritty. Facebook subcontracts thousands of content “moderators” in the U.S. and abroad (at around one tenth the pay of the average direct Facebook employee). These people sit for hours in front of computer screens and are fed questionable content while they’re asked to make decisions about what to block and what to leave up on the site. 

The revelation that actual people are employed to endure this visual and mental beating on our behalf was striking enough (the interview is well worth the time spent to listen or read), but one aspect of it really caught my ear [the interviewee, Casey Newton, a reporter and writer for a tech site called The Verge, is speaking.]:

I remember one sort of chilling story where in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting – which is right when Facebook was starting to kind of ramp up its use of moderators in America. In the immediate aftermath, moderators were very upset by all of the videos that people were uploading of the violence. But then conspiracy sites started to create videos saying, well, that shooting never happened. These kids are crisis actors. And the discussion on the floor became, oh, well, gosh. I guess it didn’t happen. I guess it was all a big hoax. And I actually am empathetic to those moderators because that was the only information they were getting about this shooting. They were spending eight hours a day at work, and every time they clicked, you know, to a new post, they were seeing something saying that the Parkland shooting was all made up.

So, you know, I think in ways that we’re only beginning to understand, we really are shaped by our media environment and repeated exposure to the same idea. And so if all you’re seeing is fringe views, I think, eventually, some of that is going to seep into your belief.

We all like to imagine ourselves and principled and mentally resilient, able to critically evaluate and discard falsehood and bulls–t, but here are otherwise reasonable people subjected to a stream of falsehood as part of their employment, people who, purely as a result of the constant drip, drip, drip of bizarre content, experience conversion to a belief that most of us rightly consider absurd, even malignant.

Less obvious conversions occur again and again with less concentrated exposure. I have long advertised in the Reference box below this writing a documentary “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” (2015) It’s streamable on Netflix and Hulu. It provides a graphic example of the phenomenon.

A less concentrated but even more insidious example is the drip, drip, drip from the network of “think” tanks built and funded over the last half century by the mega-wealthy Koch donor group (read Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money”). The Washington Policy Center is the local example. The employed “experts” are selected and paid to push just one idea: there is a free market solution to every problem. The unspoken corollary to that idea is that government is part of the problem, and its only legitimate function is to meekly get out of the way (unless it is directly serving private, for-profit enterprise). To a man given a hammer and nails as his only tools, every problem must be twisted so as to appear fixable therewith. Health care? Free market, for-profit (even when the existing market was manifestly not free)! Climate change? Oooo. That’s inconvenient, we must minimize its importance, claim that any governmental intervention will endanger the progress of the free market. Crime? Incarcerate more people. Build more private, for-profit prisons. Education? Private, for-profit schools. Competition! Taxes? Perish the thought! Taxes will stifle the magic of the free market!

Decades of this well-funded drip, drip, drip fed us by print and visual media hungry for content, fed us with Guest Opinions and talking heads, has undermined our confidence that there is good in compromise and public action, the sort of public action that built the interstate highway system upon which commerce depends, the sort of public action that captivated our attention, spurred countless students toward careers in science and technology, and landed a man on the moon, the sort of public action that laid the basic science foundation for the transformation drugs now turning huge profits for unfree market pharma. 

It is past time to think hard about how far the pendulum has been pushed by well-funded free market ideologues. Pay attention to who wrote the stuff you’re reading. Who is paying them? What’s their gig? What ideology are they paid to push?

If we are going to have a functioning democracy we need to start paying better attention. We would do well to emulate Finland where teaching students to recognize and dismiss such propaganda is part of the basic public school curriculum, a curriculum designed to foster an informed electorate. We need a similar program here.

Keep to the high ground,