A Million Little Big Brothers

Perhaps you’ve seen this scenario play out online: Someone says something outrageous on social media or does something that’s just wrong. Not criminal necessarily, but wrong from your point of view. The person usually isn’t famous, just someone whose social outburst has gone viral. They could be from anywhere on the political spectrum, right to left, but whatever they said ticked off everyone on the other side. So someone else does some digging into their background, finds out where they work, and announces, “I wonder how their employer feels about having an employee who says this?”, beginning a pressure campaign to get them fired from their job for the sin of saying something stupid in public.

The practice of finding out personal, real life details about people you have encountered online and then using that information against them in real life is called “doxxing”.1 It’s a form of social punishment, a message that if you anger the online mob, the online mob can reach out to hurt you. It has been used against liberals and conservatives, Christians and anti-Christians, people of all races and sexes and persuasions and ideologies. It has become a way to widen the split in our society that has grown, the division that makes everything about politics and impossible to have polite, civil conversations where we disagree.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Everybody says stupid things occasionally. Our duty, if we want to have a civil society, is to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially if (a) we don’t know them personally and (b) this is one statement/incident out of context. Perhaps even if the person has made a habit of saying or doing dumb things.

Most people I know have at least in their lives said something stupid? Would you want everyone at every time now and the future to be able to potentially use that against you?

I have seen Twitter accounts whose reason for existence is to find people who show up in photographs of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the summer and then try to get them fired for their jobs. No nuance, no understanding. If you were there and you are white, you must be a white supremacist Nazi and you must be stripped of any ability to feed or provide for yourself or your family. And if your employer thinks you have a right to be wrong and to say stupid things on your own time, then his business will be punished.

I’ve seen it used to attack a black woman on Twitter who said white women’s sons should be killed because they are likely to be criminals. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make any sense.) Someone figured out she’s a nurse and suggested she should be fired.

Was she actually calling for people to murder others or was she being outrageous for attention’s sake? I don’t know for sure, but I have seen the most upstanding people say some pretty crazy things in private conversations, not because they really believed it, but to elicit reaction from the people they are with. They’re not exactly joking, but exaggerating rhetorically to make a point or eschewing nuance to be more direct in a conversation with someone who knows them so well that the other person can fill in the context. The difference now is that Twitter and Facebook can trick us into thinking we’re having private conversations with a small group of friends … until suddenly we’re not and our post has gone viral and now the whole internet is attacking us.

A Self-Police State

We used to worry about a George Orwell “1984”-style totalitarian oppressive regime, a police state that monitored its people for any and all transgressions of the party line, no matter how small. It turns out that wasn’t what we should have been afraid of after all. Now we need to worry about an oppressive regime of a million supreme leaders.

Can you imagine a country where everyone has to police their every public and private utterance, no matter how dumb or off the cuff, lest the mob of those ideologically opposed to them find out and ruin their lives? Who needs Big Brother government when you have a million little Big Brothers?

Shake your head at the boorish and outrageous. Criticize them strongly. But don’t seek to destroy the lives of perfect strangers. That’s hardly either Christian or conducive to the building of a good society. And it’s a weapon that targets the good and the bad, the right and the left, those of every stripe indiscriminately.

  1. There are other definitions and perhaps a broader usage of the term, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick with this for now.

Facebook as Global Censor

The editor of a Norwegian newspaper has written an open letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg after Facebook removed a famous documentary photograph from the newspaper’s Facebook page.

The photo in question comes from the Vietnam War and shows a young girl, naked, running in terror from a bombing. It’s horrifying and disturbing and was a key to ending US involvement in that war. Facebook called it child pornography.

The newspaper editor says that Facebook’s standards, written in a California conference room, should not be applied in a blanket way to a global audience.

On the one hand, I can see that there is content that I would find highly objectionable that others would defend posting on the same grounds of diverse opinion and free speech.

On the other hand, I am afraid that a global communications platform used by more than one-seventh of the world’s population (and growing) unilaterally decides what is appropriate and what is not.

Whether it’s deciding that clergy and religious cannot be identified by their titles or declaring certain sensitive topics out of bounds, Facebook as a corporation has too much power.

We used to worry that Google’s control over search results could be used to manipulate the public (and still do). We should worry that Facebook’s censorship could be used to do the same thing.

Facebook Wants to Be the internet

The more you hear Mark Zuckerberg talk about the future of Facebook, the more you realize that his vision is not that Facebook become the biggest community on the internet or the biggest web site on the internet, but to become the internet itself.

The key point, and the one thing you really need to accept to understanding where Facebook is going, is that Zuckerberg sees internet access as key to making his company — and society — stronger. The internet creates jobs, brings people together, can educate those in underserved communities, and even allow for things like remote surgery to save lives. It’ll probably also make Facebook some money, too. If you take all of that as his starting point, the rest of Facebook’s initiatives begin to make sense.

Social Media Break

Last Friday, I resolved to take a short break from social media. I didn’t like what was happening to me there and I needed to step back and assess. As I come back, I’m going to be different.

I’ve been involved in Internet commentary of one kind or another for nigh on two decades now. I once said I started this blog in 2001 because I needed a different outlet than yelling at the TV news, and in that sense, it’s been a healthy outlet at times. But at other times, I’ve let my disgust or fear or insecurities show themselves in angry outbursts and unkind, uncharitable attacks. Unfortunately, social media did not improve that impulse.

Over the past year, as we’ve been bombarded by outrageous news story after story, I’ve found myself veering toward despair. There’s the Sophie’s choice between Trump and Hillary. There’s the Outrage of the Week, whether it’s Gorilla Mom or Stanford Rapist or the Orlando Shooting/Gun Control/Homophobia/Islamaphobia debate. My comments on Facebook have started to tend toward angry and mean and dismissive and abusive. My inability to convey my point in a logical manner was extremely frustrating. People just didn’t seem to get what I was saying.

A Brief Break and a Change

I knew it needed to stop. So I took a long weekend break. And I don’t know when or if I will return to writing on Facebook about contemporary events. In fact, I’ve begun to pare down my Facebook news feed to exclude those who post the sorts of things most likely to elicit my poor responses. That excludes friends who also write about the good things in their lives, sadly.

I’m not quitting social media. Just pulling back a bit.

Some might say I’m hypocritical, but I’m not going to stop writing about controversial subjects entirely. To cut down on the problematic interactions, I write here as much as I’m able, and not on social media.

I will reserve social media for more pleasant interactions. Pictures of the kids. Posts about places we go. Links to interesting stories about books and movies. That sort of thing.

Because in the other direction lies an ulcer and a bitter, old man. I don’t want to be him.

Facebook ruining another social network

In its efforts to ruin every social network it can get its hands on (or influence), Facebook is preparing to turn on a newsfeed algorithm for Instagram, which it bought for $1 billion a few years ago. This has led to an avalanche of Instagram posts from businesses, brands, and people who want you to turn on notifications so you will continue to see their images.

Why is Facebook doing this? As they said of their own site, most people have so many friends and so many brands they’ve followed that Facebook will now use the mind-reading software they’ve apparently invented to only show you what you really want to see. Because, if I was tired of seeing something, I couldn’t just unfollow the account I was tired of seeing. Thanks, Facebook, for treating us like incompetent boobs.