Features + The Weekly Edit

The Weekly Edit: #StopHateforProfit

Today, many celebrities are silencing their social media accounts to protest the monetization of hate speech for profit.  The campaign, however, isn’t really taking off.

Despite the star power, the reasons the campaign is falling flat are obvious: 1) the vast majority of us depend on Facebook, Instagram, etc. for our social interactions (esp. in a pandemic), and 2) most people don’t understand how or why social media companies are promoting hate speech (think QAnon conspiracies, viral anti-semitism, misogynist groups, etc.) for profit.

Enter The Social Dilemma.

This Netflix documentary discusses and illustrates how the technology behind social media works.  And it is terrifying.

First, the algorithms that control your feed and notifications are designed to maximize the amount of time you spend on the platform.  So they’re only going to show you the people, content, and information that will keep you scrolling away.  This is why I follow over 200 people on Instagram but only see posts from fewer than 50.  It’s only showing me the people whose content I’ve interacted with.

Second, the algorithms know everything about you.  Every one of us has had that moment where we’re sure our phone is listening to us because Facebook showed us an ad for a product that we’ve been thinking about buying.  That’s not spy craft, it’s the clairvoyant power of the algorithm.

Third, how many times in the last five years has a friend, family member or colleague expressed a political opinion and you were like, “How can she believe that?  Can’t she see how wrong that is?”  Well, part of the answer may lie in her social media feed.

Imagine you click on a #Savethechildren video discussing child trafficking because you’re a parent, and it seems like an issue you should be concerned about.  Facebook will now suggest more content that uses that hashtag.  Pretty soon, you’ve watched dozens of videos about cabals of wealthy people who traffic children for sexual exploitation. You might be skeptical at first, but there are so many videos and articles all saying the same thing.

Then come the videos about how this cabal opposes the Border Wall because it will make children more expensive to traffic. Followed by the videos about Deep State conspiracies and underground tunnels transporting slaves cross-country.  Then Facebook will suggest that you join groups where you’ll interact with thousands of people who believe exactly what you do.

Before long you’re a full QAnon believer, interacting primarily with other believers, consuming content that is showing you just one message.  Of course you believe that it’s true, you’re not seeing any contrary information!  But the algorithm that fed you all the #savethechildren content increased your time spent on the social media platform, where you consumed more ads that generated more money.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the algorithm could be programmed to do anything.  Silicon Valley is run by some of the smartest people on the planet.  If they wanted to make sure that you saw content covering both sides of a political issue, they could.  If they wanted you to see every post from every friend chronologically, they could.  But they don’t.  Because if your feed is filled with content you don’t interact with, you might sign off.  And if you sign off, they won’t get those sweet ad impressions.

The algorithmic process is elegant in its sociopathic pursuit of profit.  And the algorithm doesn’t care if the messages it’s showing lead to genocide in Burma or Ethiopia.  It doesn’t care if it feeds Russian-created disinformation into a U.S. election.  Because the algorithm did its job; the promoters of that genocide and that disinformation bought ads and targeted them to the “right” people. And those ads created more content, that created more interactions, that generate more profit from ad impressions.

Facebook knows that its algorithm is killing people, and it just doesn’t care.  It wants to put the onus on us to be good people, even when we’re bombarded with information that’s making us increasingly tribal and close-minded.  But Facebook needs us to collect all of the data that it sells in order to make those ads profitable, so we have the power to make Facebook change.

Want to learn more about #StopHateforProfit?  Watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix.  Then, visit the #StopHateforProfit website where they explain the myriad ways that Facebook and other tech platforms promote hate speech and conspiracies to maximize profits all while claiming that they’re blameless.  And then swing by the Center for Humane Technology to learn why it doesn’t have to be this way.

***

I could post a bunch of recipes and Amazon finds in this post.  But this is all I’ve been able to think about since I watched the documentary on Sunday.  As someone who has the blue-checkmark on Instagram, runs seven Facebook groups and pages, and uses those platforms to grow my blog and business, it’s a lot to consider.

While having the Kardashians and DiCaprio posting about #Stophateforprofit helps, it’s not enough.  Millions of us would have to simultaneously leave the platform for Facebook and social media companies to see that they need to change their ways.  But when we’re relying on tech so heavily during this pandemic, we’re not likely to walk away.

We need government regulation to stop this from happening.  So send a letter to your congressman and Senators.  Encourage friends to do the same.  Social media has the ability to destroy our democracy, we have to use that democracy to rein in their excesses before it’s too late.

***

P.S. Someone sent me this article from Hitha’s #FiveSmartReads, and it is just as damning as you’ve ever imagined.  It goes into how a whistleblower is saying that Facebook is very aware that it’s platform is being used for political manipulation on a global scale.

***

A commenter left this below and I thought it was so important that I wanted to add it to the post.

Thank you Abra for putting this out there, I really appreciate you using your platform
to speak out. I have been following your blog since My first job out of college and it’s been over ten years now.

I have so many thoughts on your post and for this community that I have been lucky to Be apart of but I am going to try to make them brief.

I am a founding member of a group called the Alliance to Counter Crime Online. We are forty experts in organized crime and criminal activity coming together to address crime on social media/the Internet. I also feel the need to say, no we are not QAnon believers and while we do talk about child trafficking and some of the trends our experts see, we also say wear a mask! .

The things happening in social media are absolutely terrifying. You are totally right, Facebook has everything from genocide to disinformation, from animal torture videos to ISIS selling antiquities to people selling Indigenous bones. And as pointed out in the movie, it is Facebook’s algorithms bringing these people together, creating silos for them to act, and in many cases providing payment systems and encrypted messaging.

I think the only way this stops is through legislation. We have already seen an appetite for CDA230 reform. From the first cutout of Sesta/Fosta to other draft legislation currently being kicked around. But we keep running into road blocks/misleading information shared by lobbyists or trade groups or non-profits all funded by google/Facebook/the like.

Most of the organizations, like mine, run entirely with volunteers or with minimal staff. Couple that with the fact that Google, Facebook, and the like are spending 4 times our annual budget on lobbyists each month. We are in a real David and Goliath situation.

If we want to change social media, disinformation to criminal activity, we need folks to act. Write your Congressional representatives, participate in black out days, and most importantly donate to the small guys fighting to make the Internet safe again. From AAVAZ to Tech Transparency to us at ACCO, we can all use your help!

Last two things, if you work on/near Cap Hill/lobbying and are interested in learning more or volunteering check us out. Also if you are interested learning more about Facebook and their PR playbook check out our new report: http://www.counteringcrime.org/timeline

LEAVE A COMMENT

    31 comments

  1. leela says:

    I really appreciate the thought you put into this. Thank you for making me critically think and giving an action to create change. Thanks Abra!

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  2. Aar1 says:

    One objection to the regulatory solution to this problem is that barely any platform could afford to conform to the regulations—probably causing Facebook to be the only entity that could afford it. There’s not much competition yet anyway but whatever there is will be driven away. Another (not great) suggestion is to repeal the communications decency act so that the platforms can be held liable. But that’s unlikely to gain much traction. Which kinds of regulations do you think would help? Thanks!!

    September 16, 2020/Reply
    • E says:

      I watched the Social Dilemma on Sunday as well and it is keeping me up at night. I quit FB years ago (one of the best decisions I ever made), but I do have an IG addiction–first thing I did after was silence all push notifications to my phone.

      I disagree with the commenter that all regulation would be so expensive to comply with that only FB would be able to comply. That’s a straw man argument that those seeking to avoid regulation put forward. Most industries of any type are governed by regulations and it’s just about adapting your business model to comply with those regulations. I am not trying to be flip here, but regulations at the end of the day are about health and safety and we actually have a HUGELY staggering health and safety issue that the Social Dilemma set forth extremely persuasively. Complying with health and safety regs are a cost of doing business and those that cannot comply then perhaps should not compete in that space.

      September 16, 2020/Reply
      • Meghan says:

        +1 for this. Companies can find a way to comply, especially with the thoughtful, smart options on the table from Center for Humane Technology. Think about how big Pharma (I know that’s not what it at issue here- just using it as a comparison) somehow manages to sell drugs in countries where pharmaceutical advertising is illegal? Stagnation is death, in this case sometimes literally, and they need to adapt or leave the market.

        September 16, 2020/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I think they’d come up with another way to make money. They’ve shown time and again an ability to greatly change their processes — remember when you used to see all posts chronologically?– in order to make money.

      So the Center for Humane Technology has a whole list of regulations they think would work. And these are tech people who built some of this shit, so they know how to change it and what change is possible. Some of their suggestions are for platforms to think more like newsrooms by giving equal time to both sides on an issue. Others are to target hate speech directly. I mean you can actually tune your ad to go to people who promote Jewish conspiracies or anti-BLM or pro-KKK content, and they’re saying that you shouldn’t be tracking those kinds of things in order to target ads to them.

      Check out their site. https://www.humanetech.com/policymakers?96319a5f_page=2

      September 16, 2020/Reply
  3. Monica T says:

    I’m seriously considering leaving the platform. Is that a crazy idea?

    My friend recently had to put her dog, who had cancer, to sleep and she documented his journey from diagnosis and limb amputation to the tough decision to let him go. I would have missed that, because it isn’t something she would have been texting her 100 closest friends about. I would feel that loss because it would have been something hard for her to share over coffee some time in the future and because I was able to be there for her in whatever nominal way a supportive comment is there for someone.

    But I feel like I’m a cog in their machine, and even though I try to operate outside of their algorithm, they keep redesigning it to make it impossible. Recently IG made it so as soon as you scroll past your unseen feed posts, you go straight in to “Recommended” — meaning I can’t even go back and look at the comments on my friends older posts without browsing directly to them?

    I remember a great line I read some time ago which went something like ‘If you aren’t the customer, then you’re the product.’ And since we use IG and FB for free, we aren’t really the customer. So there’s that to consider.

    September 16, 2020/Reply
    • Erica says:

      I’ve been off facebook for 5 years (not IG thought), and I had the same fear leaving. Now I think you can actually better support your friends when it is exclusively through real life interactions. When going through a hard time, I’d rather have a heart-to-heart coffee date with a friend than a ton of thoughtful comments. Another benefit is that now my friends know that I’m not hearing their updates through facebook, so they reach out to tell me individually and it often turns into a really nice catch-up conversation.

      The only thing in 5 years that has made me think about getting back on facebook is two friends posting wedding photos there (vs just one or two on IG), but it never actually pushed me back on.

      September 16, 2020/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I’ve been thinking about it too. The issue is what I do for a living — blogging and running political social accounts — requires I be on it. I did silence all notifications. I don’t use it to communicate with friends. And I stopped buying ads for the blog. If that doesn’t lessen the itching in the pit of my stomach, I’ll just quit FB. But I don’t know how I could even possibly quit Insta, and I’d have to find a different home for the Thirtyish community which seems tough. But I guess we could always go to Reddit.

      September 16, 2020/Reply
      • Mary says:

        I would happily join you on Reddit!

        I deleted FB 4ish years ago and haven’t missed it at all. It probably helps that most of my nearest and dearest were infrequent users who also ended up pulling the plug.

        September 16, 2020/Reply
      • Monica T says:

        I have never properly participated in the Thirtyish community because while I still have an FB account, I never sign in. I would love to be a better participant on a different platform, even though I don’t have any suggestions for which one!

        September 16, 2020/Reply
      • Kelly says:

        Thanks for including solutions/things to petition elected officials in with highlighting the doc. “Delete your account” doesn’t feel like a solution so much as walking away from the problem and hoping it goes away.

        September 16, 2020/Reply
        • Laura says:

          Yay! to the idea of Thirtyish on reddit! I have long wanted to take part in the group but left facebook years ago because it felt like it wasn’t adding anything positive to my life (and was adding a lot of negatives) and refuse to go back.

          September 17, 2020/Reply
    • Gina says:

      I’ve been off of Facebook for nearly a decade at this point, but still have an Instagram account (considering deleting the app to limit my use, but need access to a personal account for work reasons).

      Leaving Facebook during a time of high use with my friend group was hard, but the best decision for my health and safety. In all that time, I only have missed an invitation to one event because a friend forgot to text me as she organized it through a Facebook invite. All of my friends have always made sure to fill me in on any important news, share important photos, or pass along invites to me. Not because they are wonderfully thoughtful people (they are!) but because I simply don’t communicate on Facebook and as friends they want me at their events and to share good and bad times with me. I also gave up on Snapchat early in the game, so they simply shifted to texting me screenshots of funny snaps and whatnot. We group text mostly now as many more have moved off of Facebook or only use Instagram for work.

      All of this is to say: tell your friends why you need to step away from the platform (no doubt they will understand to at least some degree) and ask them to still communicate with you about what they share on Facebook because you genuinely want to be there for them in good times and bad. It’s been really healthy for me, has improved my personal relationships with friends and family, and served as a breath of fresh air when I met my now fiancé on Bumble and we realized we both don’t use social media.

      September 16, 2020/Reply
  4. Anonymous says:

    I heard Jill Lenore interviewed recently about her book on this subject, and it sounds terrific:

    https://wwnorton.com/books/9781631496103

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  5. Susan says:

    I gave up FB over 7 years ago and haven’t looked back. Not that I consider myself some kind of cool girl (can you be a middle aged cool girl?), but I have heard from my younger cool friends that FB has become the land of angry boomers and scary conspiracy theories…or stay at home moms that criticize other moms, sell in MLMs and think essential oils can cure cancer. I enjoy IG, but worry that IG is owned by FB and clearly is the younger person’s FB. As we all reassess our lives and look at things in a different light given the dumpster fire that is 2020, maybe this is the turnaround our culture needed? I also see the end of the Kardashian show as a good sign culture-wise. I keep trying to tell myself, “Good things come out of bad things. 2020 is leading us to change for the better.”

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  6. Rachel says:

    Just want to say thank you for so well articulating the slippery slope involved here. I was off FB for years until I joined an online boot amp/training group that only posts workouts on FB and I hate the pull it has on me again!

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  7. Lily says:

    I love you, I love this, I have no idea if it’s going to work but I will absolutely support legislation to limit the use of algorithms for engagement

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  8. Kim says:

    Thank you for sharing this! Will be reading/watching and thinking through this.

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  9. HMS says:

    Thank you for covering this. As someone who works in this space public education is key to solutions here. Most people just don’t understand the scope of how much data is amassed. I know Shoshana Zuboff was featured in the film and covered very basic pieces of her book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ but I HIGHLY recommend the public read it to fully understand how the platforms have been able to alter individuals’ behavior to increase monetization without regulation. It’s long, but so important to understand: https://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/titles/shoshana-zuboff/the-age-of-surveillance-capitalism/9781610395694/
    Thanks, Abra. Still the only blog I read on a daily basis.

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  10. Nicole says:

    Thank you for such a thoughtful article. I left FB (although didn’t deactivate it for work reasons) and I have seriously cut back on IG, including turning off notifications. It’s helped with my mental health. These companies try to drive our demand but they can react to demand too… but it’s so ubiquitous that it seems hard to get enough people to demand that these companies change. Change is definitely needed and I am glad this documentary came out because I worry and know that people aren’t aware of these things and therefore have no incentive to demand the change.

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  11. Sarah says:

    Uggh all this. I use it to network pets I foster and well. It would be so hard to give it up. It helps me get them adopted to people I know! And faster. How can it do so much good that I don’t want to lose but so much bad I can’t tolerate it.

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  12. pam says:

    I’m watching the netflix documentary – i feel gross, dirty and scared!!!

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  13. Staci says:

    I made a post today, letting everyone know I am deleting my Facebook app for a month. They won’t be able to use Facebook to contact me anymore. Facebook isn’t adding much value to my life. It’s sucking away my time and making me angry. Facebook is weird and scary nowadays.

    Everyone is announcing they don’t like pedophiles. I guess I never considered I needed to say this, because everyone feels this way. Now if I don’t post that I’m anti-pedophilia am I going to be accused of ordering children through Wayfair to drink their blood for eternal life with Tom Hanks!? As freaking crazy as that sentence would have sounded a few years ago, that’s the alternate reality some people are living in now. What’s worrisome is people I know are posting #savethechildren posts that a small amount of critical thinking would debunk.

    As someone who works in public health, I can’t stand the anti-science bs I see constantly. One “friend” wouldn’t shut up about how the CDC admitted that they inflated death numbers and only a small percentage of people died from COVID. Someone replied to her with a nice, non-snarky, explanation of how pre-existing conditions and COVID deaths worked. She deleted the explanation and continued to rant about how COVID is a hoax. People want to be willfully stupid. They encourage others to be stupid with them. An echo chamber of ignorance. Unwilling to learn. It’s dangerous.

    I’m hoping my month cleanse of FB improves my mood. Even trying the above complaining made me feel stressed out. Maybe I will decide not to go back to FB.

    September 16, 2020/Reply
    • Jo says:

      I deleted the app and use it only on an actual computer. Advantages: slightly less monitoring(?) + less wasting time / reflexive app-checking + if I actually *need* to get onto it for some reason when not at home, I can pull it up on my phone’s browser and manually log in. I have not once considered re-downloading it.

      As for the pedophile thing – I read The Future is History by Masha Gessen a while back, and there was a section on the contemporary political force in Russia that is, basically, an anti-(nonexistent)-pedophile-lobby movement. I was baffled as to how bizarre that was; how could people fall for that? It has been SO STRANGE to watch that start to form here.

      This is the book – I cannot recommend it highly enough, for this and other reasons: https://www.amazon.com/Future-History-Totalitarianism-Reclaimed-Russia/dp/159463453X

      September 16, 2020/Reply
  14. Kay says:

    Thank you Abra for putting this out there, I really appreciate you using your platform
    to speak out. I have been following your blog since My first job out of college and it’s been over ten years now.

    I have so many thoughts on your post and for this community that I have been lucky to Be apart of but I am going to try to make them brief.

    I am a founding member of a group called the Alliance to Counter Crime Online. We are forty experts in organized crime and criminal activity coming together to address crime on social media/the Internet. I also feel the need to say, no we are not QAnon believers and while we do talk about child trafficking and some of the trends our experts see, we also say wear a mask! .

    The things happening in social media are absolutely terrifying. You are totally right, Facebook has everything from genocide to disinformation, from animal torture videos to ISIS selling antiquities to people selling Indigenous bones. And as pointed out in the movie, it is Facebook’s algorithms bringing these people together, creating silos for them to act, and in many cases providing payment systems and encrypted messaging.

    I think the only way this stops is through legislation. We have already seen an appetite for CDA230 reform. From the first cutout of Sesta/Fosta to other draft legislation currently being kicked around. But we keep running into road blocks/misleading information shared by lobbyists or trade groups or non-profits all funded by google/Facebook/the like.

    Most of the organizations, like mine, run entirely with volunteers or with minimal staff. Couple that with the fact that Google, Facebook, and the like are spending 4 times our annual budget on lobbyists each month. We are in a real David and Goliath situation.

    If we want to change social media, disinformation to criminal activity, we need folks to act. Write your Congressional representatives, participate in black out days, and most importantly donate to the small guys fighting to make the Internet safe again. From AAVAZ to Tech Transparency to us at ACCO, we can all use your help!

    Last two things, if you work on/near Cap Hill/lobbying and are interested in learning more or volunteering check us out. Also if you are interested learning more about Facebook and their PR playbook check out our new report: http://www.counteringcrime.org/timeline

    September 16, 2020/Reply
  15. Nora says:

    Great post, Abra. I spent the last five years working in ad tech (alarming!) and AI (terrifying) and people should be scared.

    Just one factoid: four years ago, Facebook and Google were the biggest publishers of digital ads, but there were another 20 large publishers that played in the space and were big enough for us to track. By two years ago, Google and Facebook had captured 95% of the market that we tracked. The other publishers had been acquired or gone out of business. A good start in regulating them is just to rigorously enforce anti-trust regulations.

    Yes, we also need robust and flexible legislation regulating social media and big tech. However, we have to be very careful in crafting that legislation – it very well COULD drive more small players out of the market. For example, legIslation like GDPR seems great – but a company had to have a certain (high) level of legal and technical resources to comply. It’s common for investors in smaller companies to get nervous about the risk and push for them to be acquired.

    I barely post on Facebook or Insta but I stay on both to keep up with my nieces and nephews and close friends across the country. My recommendations for anyone who wants to fight the algorithm without giving up social media is never ever ever ever buy anything you see advertised on social media.

    The only place I actually post anymore is read it. I would love it if you started a sub-Reddit.

    September 17, 2020/Reply
  16. Grace says:

    I’ve always enjoyed your posts, but have especially loved the recent ones you’ve written about QAnon, social media, and civil rights. Some people may consider these topics to be too “political” and unfit for a style blog, but you’re writing about life and life is politics.

    Look forward to more! Thank you!

    September 17, 2020/Reply
  17. S says:

    Belle I think you could do a lot by having your content (in addition to the blog) outside of FB and IG even if you don’t quit those platforms and even if you try to keep your numbers up on those platforms in terms of followers. I’m off those platforms. Having a kid was a big part of the decision. I don’t want to force an online identity on my children before they can choose it, and folks are awful about not posting/tagging your kids. School friends are the worst. Any hacker would know my kids bday and a lot more from my friends tagging even though I was good about not posting my kid when I was on the platforms. I’m sure the info is out there regardless but FB and IG just makes it so easy for someone to know everything about you.

    September 17, 2020/Reply
  18. MM says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Abra, and all of your recent fantastic content. I’ll be watching this documentary this weekend.

    I deactivated my Facebook account probably a year ago and don’t miss it at all. When I needed to access Facebook recently for work, I created a new account with my work email and just use that – I think of it as analogous to a burner phone. Since I don’t have any friends on that account, I don’t get tempted to spend hours mindlessly scrolling through the news feed–something I absolutely do on Instagram.

    I actually decided at the beginning of August to take a month off of Instagram due to some recent mental health issues, and a month and a half later I’ve only opened up the app a handful of times. Once I feel like I’m in a better place I’ll probably start using it again more regularly. But even then I’ll probably unfollow or at least mute all but my closest friends. Truly scary to think of the long-term effects that social media will have on society.

    September 17, 2020/Reply
  19. Cait says:

    I watched this documentary also, and it is truly terrifying! I appreciate your thoughtful comments and suggestions to spark change.
    I live overseas, and instagram and facebook are a huge part of how I stay in touch with friends and family. It’s frustrating to see these platforms that could have such a pure purpose – like helping keep families connected – are being used to sow discord and disinformation, and all to turn a profit. I would happily pay to subscribe to instagram or facebook if it meant that I could just see family, friends, and cute cat videos.
    I agree with your call to action, and I would also suggest pressing our government to create a task force or improve interagency efforts to counter disinformation. I visited the NATO Strategic Communication Center of Excellence (https://www.stratcomcoe.org/)on a work trip a few years ago, and it was truly eye opening. I think our government needs to be more proactive in countering disinformation intended to sow discord and going after those who create it. Of course, needs to be balanced with the right to free speech, but I think more can be done!!
    Very thoughtful post – appreciate you starting this discussion on your blog, and please don’t leave insta!!

    September 18, 2020/Reply
  20. Caitlin says:

    This was a phenominal post. Thank you for sharing and razing awareness to this issue.

    September 18, 2020/Reply

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