Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2018

I run afoul of Facebook Community Standards

Filed under: Internet — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

On October 22nd, out of the blue, I learned that my posting privileges to FB had been suspended for 24 hours as indicated below.

When I asked one of the FB censors what the problem was, he refused to reply that it was because I had included a picture of Adolf Hitler in a critique I had written of Mark Bray and other “anti-fascists”. In consulting the “Community Standards”, I could find no reference to Hitler photos being banned but surmised that this was the issue. I wondered if my violation rested in posting a hagiographic photo of Hitler. Perhaps if I had used one that showed him in his characteristically psychotic ranting pose as emulated by Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator”, there might not have been a problem.

In any case, it certainly took them long enough to act on it, a full year and 3 days in fact. I’m surprised that they didn’t act sooner if the intention was to squelch a fascist takeover in the USA. You’d think that the photo might have become a magnet to attract all the disaffected 28-year-olds in New York with Richard Spencer hairdos and serious Tucker Carlson habits to come looking to me for guidance by this point.

As a programmer, I wonder what kind of artificial intelligence they used to nail me. It must have been advanced enough to weed out anything that showed Der Fuhrer meeting with British royalty. After all, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were two of his biggest fans. But how could you stigmatize the kind of people who are featured in PBS Masterpiece Theater? That would be an abuse of corporate control.

Frankly, I came away from this experience unscathed. 24 hours was not even a slap on the wrist. It was more like someone wagging a finger at me. But long before this “Community Standards” bullshit became codified, Zuckerberg, Inc. was messing with totally legitimate accounts on FB. Four years ago, the Atlantic reported that “The Syrian Opposition Is Disappearing From Facebook”. It seems that dozens of opposition pages, including the Kafranbel Media Center, had been shut down. The article surmises that organized Assadist networks flooded FB with complaints in order to suppress news about government atrocities.

Sometimes the censorship is just idiotic. For example, there’s an iconic photo of young Vietnamese girl fleeing a village that has just been bombed. She is naked and wears a look of utter terror on her face. Her nudity got the photo banned as if it were pornography.

For the millenarian left at WSWS.org and their friend Chris Hedges, this is represented as a totalitarian move against the left. When Google changed its algorithms a while back, it forced someone using Google for a search on “Marxism” to go 3 or 4 pages deep to find a WSWS.org article. Frankly, if I had worked on the software, I would have found a way to put it 30 or 40 pages down or maybe jiggered it to come up on the first page doing a search on “anti-Marxism”.

This August, they reported on FB malfeasance. Reading it with a grain of salt, you do get the picture that something is going on. Perhaps their citation of the Washington Post (they’d be lost without the ability to cite the WP and the NYT) helps lend the article credibility. Dated August 21, the WP states that it had begun to assign its users a reputation score, predicting their trustworthiness on a scale from zero to 1. The Post sizes up this measure:

The reputation assessments come as Silicon Valley, faced with Russian interference, fake news and ideological actors who abuse the company’s policies, is recalibrating its approach to risk — and is finding untested, algorithmically driven ways to understand who poses a threat. Twitter, for example, now factors in the behavior of other accounts in a person’s network as a risk factor in judging whether a person’s tweets should be spread.

I find this all rather laughable. If you step inside social media, it is a bit like that scene in “Trainspotting” when the junky jumps into the worst toilet in Scotland to retrieve a bag of heroin that had accidentally fell out of his pocket:

I try to steer clear of the diarrhea by carefully scrutinizing every FB friend request I get to make sure that there are no links to WSWS.org or Global Research in the requestor’s timeline. Of course, the enduring mystery is why any of these people would have ever taken the trouble to become my friend in the first place. Everybody knows that I am on George Soros’s payroll. In fact, next week I am getting together with George and Leon Botstein at Per Se in order to strategize how to make a color revolution in Saudi Arabia that might be the next Syria. All this furor over Jamal Khashoggi getting chopped up in the consulate? After all, he had it coming by asking Osama bin Laden softball questions 35 years ago.

For all of the dark warnings about FB cracking down on the left, most objective analysts would agree that if there is any bias, it is for liberal causes and against the Republicans. Being liberal does not necessarily mean, of course, that FB would not give me the boot if it saw that as being in the interest of national security.

But I think the most accurate assessment of its bias comes from NY Times opinion columnist Zeynep Tukfeci, who was a co-moderator of the Marxism list that spawned Marxmail years ago:

FACEBOOK is biased. That’s true. But not in the way conservative critics say it is.

The social network’s powerful newsfeed is programmed to be viral, clicky, upbeat or quarrelsome. That’s how its algorithm works, and how it determines what more than a billion people see every day.

The root of this bias is in algorithms, a much misunderstood but increasingly powerful method of decision making that is spreading to fields from news to health care to hiring and even to war.

If these algorithms are not scientifically computing answers to questions with objective right answers, what are they doing? Mostly, they “optimize” output to parameters the company chooses, crucially, under conditions also shaped by the company. On Facebook the goal is to maximize the amount of engagement you have with the site and keep the site ad-friendly. You can easily click on “like,” for example, but there is not yet a “this was a challenging but important story” button.

This setup, rather than the hidden personal beliefs of programmers, is where the thorny biases creep into algorithms, and that’s why it’s perfectly plausible for Facebook’s work force to be liberal, and yet for the site to be a powerful conduit for conservative ideas as well as conspiracy theories and hoaxes — along with upbeat stories and weighty debates. Indeed, on Facebook, Donald J. Trump fares better than any other candidate, and anti-vaccination theories like those peddled by Mr. Beck easily go viral.

The newsfeed algorithm also values comments and sharing. All this suits content designed to generate either a sense of oversize delight or righteous outrage and go viral, hoaxes and conspiracies as well as baby pictures, happy announcements (that can be liked) and important news and discussions. Facebook’s own research shows that the choices its algorithm makes can influence people’s mood and even affect elections by shaping turnout.

For example, in August 2014, my analysis found that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm largely buried news of protests over the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., probably because the story was certainly not “like”-able and even hard to comment on. Without likes or comments, the algorithm showed Ferguson posts to fewer people, generating even fewer likes in a spiral of algorithmic silence. The story seemed to break through only after many people expressed outrage on the algorithmically unfiltered Twitter platform, finally forcing the news to national prominence.

From my perspective, relying on the “the algorithmically unfiltered Twitter platform” to serve as a detonator to breaking through FB’s algorithms indicates how fucked up things are. In some ways, despite my ubiquitous presence on the net, I mourn the loss of print media. When I was 6 or 7 years old, my parents read 3 newspapers a day. The rightwing NY Daily News and Daily Mirror in the morning and the liberal NY Post in the evening. They had subscriptions to these magazines and like more that I can’t remember: Look, Life, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, Pageant, Readers Digest and Coronet. This was before we got a television. In the evening, the radio would be on with news shows like Edward R. Murrow and H.V. Kaltenborn reporting on the Korean War.

Things went downhill once we got a boob tube in 1955. When my father finished eating dinner, he’d lie down in his bed and watch TV until 9:30 or so—totally zoned out as if he were in an opium den. I never saw him pick up another magazine from that point on.

The Internet has the promise of lifting up the consciousness of society or dragging it down. Frankly (as Donald Trump puts it), I think it is dragging it down at a breakneck pace. I can even see it in the posts of my FB friends who arguably among the most politically advanced in the USA. They spot some nonsense somewhere about the Pittsburgh killings being linked to Israel’s policies and post a link to it without even considering the possibility that Netanyahu is an alliance with Trump and the Christian right or that it is Muslims who are mostly the target of the alt-right.

I’ll continue to use FB since for the most part it puts me in touch with people who are on the leading edge of social change, especially the hundreds of people living in Idlib who are the 21st Century’s Communards. Long live their struggle!

 

2 Comments »

  1. None of the kids use Facebook. Maybe you can post your blogs at Instagram? Maybe you can record a podcast? Maybe you should read your Counterpunch articles on YouTube?

    Comment by Aaron — October 30, 2018 @ 1:21 pm

  2. Not to echo the sublimely paranoid “David North”–everything in the world revolving around the so-called Socialist Equality Party–but censorship might be the right word. Social media are far more easily controlled than people think.

    Print however is clearly dying. And the purge of broadcast media has been so subtle that it’s almost gone unnoticed. Witness the fate of the hardly revolutionary WNVC Fairfax–parent of MHz.

    There’s nothing on OTA nowadays but hot gospel, shopping, and reruns of Bonanza. Manufacturers AFAIK are ceasing to include the necessary tuner in new TV sets. What a waste!

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — October 30, 2018 @ 1:41 pm


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