Who Should Squelch Lies and Trolls on Social Media?

June 30, 2017 at 8:25 pm | Posted in Disinformation, Enemies of Freedom, Presidential election | Leave a comment
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John Bauer (1882-1918), artist, in 1915: "Look at them," troll mother said. "Look at my sons! You won't find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon."

John Bauer (1882-1918), artist, in 1915: “Look at them,” troll mother said. “Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon.”

By now you have read and seen the damage caused by the flood of misleading or harassing material on social media. Vulnerable teens have committed suicide, ordinary adults have become fearful and intimidated, fools have become enraged vigilantes, racists have infected those with weak mental immune systems, and President Chump has been elected.

Elizabeth Dwoskin’s recent article in the Washington Post describes how Twitter and Facebook and Google are trying to weaken the flood.

Colin Crowell is the Vice President of Policy at Twitter. Dwoskin’s article quoted something that Crowell had written recently, and it is worth discussing here, because it states a misunderstanding that is prevalent in all of the major social media companies.

Dwoskin wrote, ““We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth,” Crowell wrote earlier this month. He emphasized that Twitter users — “journalists, experts, and engaged citizens” — tweet side by side to correct public discourse every day in real time.”

The fallacy in Crowell’ argument is that the corrections are not really in real time. They are never soon enough. The misleading material reaches the public before any retractions or corrections appear, and sits out there, at least briefly unopposed.

Correcting misleading material is like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.

Only a tiny fraction of those who see the misleading material will ever see the retraction or the correction.

Even among those who do see the correction, the first-seen version often makes the deepest impression.

The timing is such that most of the simple-minded and all of the malicious will propagate the uncorrected version.

Sociopathic liar that he is, Donald Trump regularly exploits this weakness of all of the media: public appearances, TV, the print media, and the social media.


That the misleading material is seen first, and the stickiness of first impressions – those are inconvenient truths for the social media giants. The social media giants do not want the expense that would be required to pre-disinfect the stream that flows onto their platforms, nor do they relish the potential legal battles that any gate-keeper may face.

Good technical and legal solutions are not yet known. But at least the social media should drop the self-serving illusion that they can evade at least some gate-keeping role.

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The problem with ‘Stand Your Ground’

February 23, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Posted in Disinformation, Fairness, Judicial Misjudgment | 7 Comments
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2007 photo copyrighted by Jeff Dean, and uploaded by hime to Wikipedia, which describes it as a compact semi-automatic Smith & Wesson .45 ACP Chief's Special — Model CS45.

2007 photo copyrighted by Jeff Dean, and uploaded by hime to Wikipedia, which describes it as a compact semi-automatic Smith & Wesson .45 ACP Chief’s Special — Model CS45.

‘Stand your ground’ laws have figured in two recent cases in which young unarmed black men were shot and killed.
George Zimmerman killed Travon Martin, and Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis.

In both cases, the killer’s excuse was that he thought that the young black man had a gun.

The problem with ‘stand your ground’ laws is that it is too easy to claim that you feared that the person you shot had a weapon, and was about to use it on you.

You can claim this even if it wasn’t true.  You can make up your fear after the fact.

No one can ever disprove your claim, because it rests only on what you say you believed at the time.  Your claim need not depend upon on any externally confirmable matter of fact.

This is one of the most easily-abused legal ideas of all time.

One of the leading pushers of ‘stand your ground’ laws is ALEC.  Besides promoting ‘stand your ground’ laws, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) acts as a mouthpiece for those who see short-term financial gains in delaying recognition of human-caused global warming.  According to the Sierra Club, Mark Zuckerberg recently had Facebook join ALEC, because he wants its support for some of his own agendas.  (The Sierra Club is urging everyone to sign a petition asking Mark Zuckerberg to withdraw Facebook from that unscrupulous organization.)

Although it is obvious, it bears repeating: neither of the unjustified killings that were cited above would have occurred if the killer hadn’t happened to have a gun handy.

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Amazon and Facebook

July 12, 2012 at 9:30 am | Posted in Privacy | 1 Comment
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Recent unilateral changes by both Amazon and Facebook are dangerous for consumers.

Consider Facebook first.

Like a slaughterhouse, Facebook seeks to sell every piece of every cow and pig that enters its doors.  It even wants to sell the moo and the oink.  It does so by aggregating all the information about you on Facebook, and using it to enable advertisements to be targeted to you.

Recently Facebook unilaterally decided to post only your Facebook email address in your profile, instead of the email address that you prefer to post.  Emails that use the Facebook address necessarily have to be processed by Facebook.  That gives Facebook official access to what the email says.  Facebook can scrape sellable information about you from those emails.

(A counter measure, if you wish to use it, is to tell all your Facebook contacts to use only your non-Facebook email addresses.  Also, think about what personal information you want to post on Facebook, especially for information about your personal interests and activities.)

Now consider how Facebook’s trawling for your information, and its public display of almost everything on your Facebook pages, interacts with a recent unilateral action by Amazon.

Recently Amazon arranged with Facebook to post to your Facebook page, or to your Facebook friends, information about every item that you buy from Amazon.  When I first encountered this, there didn’t seem to be a way of opting out of this rather major invasion of privacy.

I immediately stopped buying from Amazon – electronics, books, everything.

This was a huge step for me.  For years I had bought many types of items from Amazon.  For non-food items it was often the first place I looked.  But Amazon’s no-user-choice linkage to Facebook now made me willing to accept the higher prices and slower delivery that might result from using other sellers.

Surprisingly, I haven’t noticed a cost penalty from the switch, and in many cases delivery is as quick as it had been from Amazon.  Competition with Amazon has caused other sellers to trim prices, and to often offer free shipping.  I’ve used Barnes & Noble, Alibris, and Abebooks, plus sellers of of other types of items who were found by using search engines.

The one thing to watch out for is that Alibris and Abebooks are based in Canada, so even for items that are priced in dollars, the card company imposes a small foreign transaction fee.  The foreign transaction fee is a fixed percentage of your purchase price.  It is twice as large for one of my cards as for the other.  So call each of your card issuers to find out their foreign transaction fees.

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