Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Facebook can’t be reformed

Charlie Warzel writes:

“We know we have more work to do.”

That was the line from numerous Facebook representatives last week in reaction to the #StopHateForProfit advertising boycott campaign. Intended to pressure the company to curb hate speech and misinformation, the boycott has been joined by several high-profile brands, including Unilever and Verizon, and could make a rare dent in Facebook’s ad revenue.

The campaign seems to be having an effect. On Friday, Facebook announced that it would add labels to content about voting and expand its hate speech policies. The company also added a “newsworthy” tag for hateful content from political figures that violates rules but is allowed because of its news value. Facebook stressed that all these moves were part of a continuing cleanup. “We know we have more work to do,” the statement read.

We Know We Have More Work to Do (let’s call it W.K.W.H.M.W.T.D. for short) is the definitive utterance of the social media era, trotted out by executives whenever their companies come in for a public shaming.

In just eight words, it encapsulates the defensive posture that Facebook has been crouched in ever since the 2016 election, when it became clear that its tolerance of hate-filled communities on its platforms turned them into witting vectors for disinformation and propaganda.

The phrase is both a promise and a deflection. It’s a plea for unearned trust — give us time, we are working toward progress. And it cuts off meaningful criticism — yes, we know this isn’t enough, but more is coming.

In Facebook’s case, what is most dangerous about W.K.W.H.M.W.T.D. is that it glosses over the fundamental structural flaws in the platform. The architecture of the social network — its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, the advantage it gives to divisive and emotionally manipulative content — will always produce more objectionable content at a dizzying scale.

Facebook frequently uses its unfathomable amount of content as an excuse for inaction. “We’ve made huge strides,” a Facebook spokesman, Nick Clegg, said on CNN last Sunday. “But, you know, on an average day, there are 115 billion, 115 billion messages sent on our services around the world, and the vast, vast, vast majority of that is positive.”

But Mr. Clegg’s defense is also an admission: Facebook is too big to govern responsibly. There will always be more work to do because Facebook’s design will always produce more hate than anyone could monitor. How do you reform that? You can’t. [Continue reading…]

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