Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Language of the Times II

The Co-Opting of the term Faith

In a nation where religious affiliation is on the wane, now is a good time to look closely at the term faith. In politics, in particular, an increasingly desperate Republican party that has for years girded its loins with the mantle of superior “faith” is now completely losing whatever sense of prudence, decency, or ethics it might have had—if any. And as we watch these Republicans rightfully relinquish their grip on power, we realize that, at some point along the decades-long arc of their rise and fall, the term faith was co-opted. A perfectly useful term that had always been dependent on a definitive modifier (Christian faith, Muslim faith, Jewish faith, etc.) was seized by white male Republicans who branded themselves men of faith, without giving us the faintest idea what that actually meant. “We’re just better than those godless Democrats,” the phrase said. “Just shut up and follow us.” And of course, millions bought into the ruse and did just that, to disastrous effect.

This despite the fact that these supposed “men of faith” were not using the term faith to express their embrace of Christian teachings: of sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, of “thou shall not kill,” “thou shall not steal,” and “honor thy father and mother.” They were not using the term to be inclusive, they were using it to be exclusive—to declare themselves saviors, to apply the salve of justice onto the wounds of shame and fear their followers were suffering: the shame of incurable racism and xenophobia, and the fear of impending poverty slowly descending on their families and communities. And this has always been both the true crime and the genius of the Republican rise: these “men of faith” were never saviors, but were in fact, with their policies of austerity for the deserving poor and prosperity for the undeserving rich, the bringers of shame, and the bringers of poverty.

Which is why this co-opting of the term faith has been so insidious and so evil. It has not only manipulated the religious among us by making them feel special and exclusive, it has diminished the faith we are all at liberty to feel, each and every day, as participants in the American experiment. Because ours is a prosperous nation, founded on and governed by the rule of law, and given to fits of great compassion and ceaseless innovation. There are imperfections, certainly, as there are and will always be in any large human undertaking, but the vast majority of us, as citizens, can have faith, when we rise and go out into the world, in the people around us, in the safety of our streets, in the integrity of our customs and enterprises. Binding the term faith up in a religious context, and particularly, in a right-wing Republican conservative Christian context, in fact, binds all of us by denying us one of the best terms available for our national identify: our relationship to our communities, our system of government, and the public servants we all trust and rely on each and every day. Because, in America, the faith we have in our teachers, first responders, school boards, town and city councils, trash collectors, road workers, postal carriers, and cops on the beat, and, most importantly, the faith we have in each other, is much more important to our social fabric than faith in any unseen deity in the sky.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Greed’s New Playing Field

On Facebook, Russian Meddling, and the Corrupting Power of Profit 

In the wake of the massive social media meddling and manipulation that impacted the 2016 U.S. presidential election, all fingers are now pointing at Facebook, and for good reason. It was a year and a half ago that U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the Russians had used Facebook and Twitter to meddle in the election. Executives from the tech companies went to Congress to express contrition while assuming no accountability, which was fine until we learned that Cambridge Analytica—whose founder, Robert Mercer, a reportedly brilliant computer scientist and staunch far-right-wing Republican, is the closest thing we have to a real-life Dr. Evil—had obtained and used data on 50 million Facebook users in its own nefarious election influence campaign. Eventually, Facebook’s chief information security officer, Alex Stamos, resigned in disgrace, and now we face the horrifying possibility that Mark Zuckerberg himself, the last person anyone wants to see sitting before a Congressional committee, might indeed subject himself to such a grilling.

So, the world wrings its collective hands over the power and influence of social media platforms, but the fact is, we’ve known for decades that something like this would happen.

Long before the emergence of the worldwide web 25 years ago, researchers identified two key characteristics of what we then called computer-mediated communication—essentially, large-scale communication over devices like computers and smartphones—which were that this type of communication is asynchronous and anonymous. Together, these attributes result in human interplay that is radically different from the face-to-face conversations and phone calls that were the pre-internet norm. Freed from quizzical or stunned expressions, harrumphing or sighs over the phone line, or out-and-out verbal interruptions, and, in fact, freed from ever coming into contact or interacting again with one’s antagonist, participants in social media from the very beginning jettisoned basic tenets of human self-regulation: status, diplomacy, empathy, compassion.

In short, much of social media quickly became anti-social, and the flame wars of 1980s-era Usenet evolved into the bots, imposters, and trolls of modern Facebook.

That’s the temperament story, which explains the human capacity for nefarious deeds on social media. What it doesn’t explain is how social media attained the global reach that allowed it to change the course of a national election in the world’s largest and most well-established democracy. For that, you have to follow the money.

Mark Zuckerberg
In the early days of Facebook, there was reportedly a split between founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Severin on the subject of advertising. Severin, who had provided the initial seed money for the site, was in favor of selling ads from the get-go, while Zuckerberg clung to the idea of an online destination free of the stain of conspicuous profit-making. Severin created a media kit that he floated around potential customers and investors in New York while Zuckerberg managed his small team of nerds in Palo Alto. Lots of intrigue, conflict, and resolution later, Facebook now openly promotes its unique ability to deliver targeted ads, and an entire industry has arisen, largely supplanting the newspaper, magazine, and television advertising of the past, and now a company that had revenues of $78 million in 2010 has grown to over $40 billion in revenues today. All that money comes from owning the attention of 2 billion users globally, and all that attention leads to lots of new tech to gain even more attention, and with it, more revenue.

Internet Research Agency Headquarters
So, while nefarious behavior was always a built-in feature (or bug) of the social media paradigm, the scale and global reach of Facebook, and the temptation that gave to devious, creative, and well-organized perpetrators like the Russian Internet Research Agency, all flowed forth from an impulse that is all too American: that of unbridled greed.