Anyone who saw, heard or read about Monday morning’s Open Mike Night at the Crazy Cabaret — more formally known as the Utah Legislature’s Business and Labor Interim Committee — might have been left to wonder just where all those nutty people got all those absurd ideas.
Lawmakers sat stoically through more than two hours of lies and misinformation.
The argument that vaccine mandates aren’t a basic aspect of any civilized society. The falsehood that having been exposed to the COVID-19 virus gives you more immunity than a vaccine would. The utterly goofy claims that vaccines cause miscarriages or make people sicker than the virus does. The anarchist beliefs that the government can’t set standards for workplace safety. The claim that vaccine mandates would exacerbate the widespread shortage of workers, ignoring the fact that low wages, high rents, lack of child care and educational gaps are what’s leaving so many jobs unfilled.
How can so many people who are intelligent enough to find the Utah Capitol and form full sentences in a public forum be so full of garbage ideas?
The answer presented itself the next day, before a hearing of a very different legislative committee.
That’s where the world heard from a woman who left Facebook with gigabytes of the goods told a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate that her former employer has designed a global web of dangerous misinformation.
Not because founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes dangerous misinformation, necessarily, but because the social media platform’s artificial intelligence algorithms have deduced that Facebook customers do. A lot.
As explained by Frances Haugen, who quit when she saw that Facebook didn’t really want her to fulfill her job description of finding ways to cut down on the damage social media does to civil society around the world, the platform is designed to give people harder and harder hits of whatever their reptilian brainstems want.
Sometimes, depending on the viewer, that might be puppies and kittens. But more often it is controversy and anger. False accusations about particular politicians or slurs of whole ethnic groups that stir people into a frenzy, which causes them to post more, read more, share more, like more and build the traffic that draws paying advertisers.
And moves people to storm the U.S. Capitol building.
Zuckerberg’s response to all that was, basically, no we don’t. He claims that fomenting hate and violence on Facebook would be bad for business, as big-time corporate advertisers don’t want to be associated with such stuff.
Sounds good. But, if that were true, Fox News wouldn’t have marked its 25th anniversary on the air the other day. Hostility sells. Even better, it seems, than sex. Certainly better than the truth, which is often dull, complex, nuanced and which frequently carries the burden of civic responsibility — you know, like newspaper editorial pages — rather than the cathartic release of blaming other people.
The Senate hearing was billed as an examination of how Facebook and other social media platforms can be harmful to children. Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee stuck to the program, asking good questions about whether Facebook was deliberately programmed to sell stuff, maybe harmful stuff, to teenagers.
Haugen’s answer was that there’s no human being at Facebook — or Facebook-owned services such as Instagram and WhatsAp — who sits around all day directing ads promoting alcohol or e-cigarettes to teenagers, or promoting messages that make young people feel crushingly, to-the-brink-of-suicide, bad about their appearance or popularity. But that it is the natural outcome of the software in use that such messages will be directed at those most likely to be harmed by them. Because everyone else is looking for something else.
The remedy for all of this, Haugen said, is not censorship but openness. Making the programs used by social media open to independent researchers who can at least cry foul at particular excesses and warn everyone from advertisers to parents to the FBI when stuff is about to get real.
There also might be fodder here for the Securities and Exchange Commission, if it can be shown that Facebook and its ilk hide the truth about their impact on society in a way that wrongly inflates their stock value.
As a First Amendment fanatic in a free-speech dependent profession, I’m always suspicious of any government action that even smells of telling anyone what they can and cannot say. I still cling to the promise of a free society, where lies are allowed because we have confidence the truth will beat them in a fair fight.
It would help if, say, leaders of the Utah Legislature would take on the responsibility of finding and propagating the truth, especially when it is in the service of public health and safety, rather than spend a morning letting people promote all the bilge they saw on Facebook.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, thought about deleting his Facebook account the other day, only to find out he couldn’t because the whole system was down. Fiendishly clever of them.