Facebook should not police “fake news”

I have been involved in political debate for over twenty years. Almost as soon as I said something, I was called a “liar” and accused of making things up by an anonymous troll. In any type of political discussion at any level, the L word starts getting tossed around almost immediately if the debate is even slightly contentious. Everybody calls everybody else a liar. Sometimes that is justified and sometimes it is not.

And this is why Facebook should not censor “fake news” on its platform. The obvious questions: How do we define what is fake and what is not? What happens when something dismissed as fake is eventually proven true, which has happened? What happens when a narrative everyone believes turns out to be false? Can that be retroactively deleted?

Consider this: There are 2 billion people on Facebook. If Facebook gets into the business of policing “fake” content, then that is all they will ever do. I have moderated small forums. It can be a pain in the neck. Even moderating comments on my own personal Facebook profile can be a pain. Moderation is a headache. It is not surprising that Facebook does not want to give its moderators more work to do.

The answer, then, is to have Facebook’s content standards be very limited. Ban things like porn, specific threats of violence and doxxing. Fake news is best left to readers and fact checkers. I suspect one of the reasons that fake news stories get more engagement is that people are debunking them in the comments. I have seen this many times. Even if you could banish all fake news from Facebook, you run the risk of giving it credibility because it is not getting debunked.

Facebook’s system and their mods are not perfect. There are some things that are on the platform which should be removed, and there have been things removed that do not violate user guidelines. But policing “fake news” will make things worse, not better – especially if those policing “fake news” are doing so from a partisan slant. All of us know this is exactly what will happen.

The mob will never be satisfied

If you have been online (forums, social media, blogs, and so forth) for any significant length of time you have said things that you regret. If you are a human being, you have absolutely said things in private conversation that you regret. Perhaps you regretted your words as soon as they left your mouth, and perhaps it took you days, weeks, months or even years to realize that what you said was wrong, stupid, immoral or wicked. Scripture tells us in James 3 that no man can tame the tongue, and that the tongue is set on fire of Hell.

This brings me to James Gunn, who said some outrageously wicked things on Twitter many years ago. He was fired by Disney after some folks on the Right decided to get “revenge” for Gunn’s celebration of Roseanne Barr’s firing. Now, I have said before that conservatives are idiots to celebrate Roseanne, who openly wished that people who eat at Chick-Fil-A should die a slow, horribly painful death. She is not and never was on our side. She is violently opposed to us. But some on the Right foolishly embraced her anyway, and Gunn’s words about her termination required VENGEANCE.

Megan McArdle was absolutely right when she wrote that the mob’s anger “long preceded the discovery of the offense, and they are overjoyed to have found a weapon that might destroy their hated enemy.” We should not be so naïve that we think people were actually suddenly “offended” when they “discovered” Gunn’s perverted “jokes” on Twitter. No one gives a plug nickel about the tweets. This was about collecting a scalp.

Given that we have all said bad things, we should be a little more forgiving and a little more self-aware when someone else’s bad speech is revealed. And no, this is not moral relativism. The things Gunn said, even joking, were pure evil. I am not excusing what he said. I am not arguing that the things he said were the same morally as the things we have all said that we regret. I am not minimizing the seriousness of child abuse and how completely depraved it is to “joke” about it.

But if we are going to start digging through things people have said that are ten, fifteen, maybe even thirty years old to play “gotcha” and ruin people’s careers, then it’s only a matter of time before the mob turns on us. The Internet has been around a while, so some of us have a two-decade long “paper” trail. Plus, it leads to a never-ending escalation of the culture wars. The Left collects a scalp, then the Right collects a scalp in retaliation, and then it goes on and on. The reasons to collect a scalp get more petty and farther in the past.

The mob – on either side – will never be satisfied. As more people are targeted for their past words, we will either all be hypocrites as we defend “our side” and go after the “other side,” or we will throw our own people under the bus for years-old or even decades-old transgressions.

People change. People get better. People learn from their mistakes and their sins. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul lists various sins and said “such were some of you.” That is why we should not cut people off from the opportunity to grow as a person, by constantly holding them to wicked things they have said or done in the past. In fact, that is a huge part of the problem with our criminal justice system, because people cannot escape their past even if they are living clean now.

Let’s be more magnanimous. Let’s be less vindictive. And let’s stop escalating the culture war.

Good, bad and neutral triggering

Following up on my post and tweet, it seems like the most important political objective for way too many people on the Right is to “own the libs.” The way to do that is to make sure they are “triggered.” Now, granted, some of this is mocking the more insane elements of political correctness, but triggering liberals should not be our main objective as conservatives. Our objective should be to advance good arguments, elect good candidates, and implement good policy.

Yes, I know the Left does it too. My point is we should examine our own behavior.

So when Leftists are “triggered” by something we do, is that a good thing? Yes and no. It depends on the context. There are ways to “trigger” people that are good, bad and neutral. The good triggering is something we should pursue regularly. The bad kind of triggering is something we should avoid doing.

First, let’s talk about neutral triggering. This is when you do something in the course of your political involvement or even in just living your life that causes someone to get offended. You have no intention of angering anyone, but some people are perpetually angry and offended no matter what you do. If what you did unintentionally caused legitimate offense, you should address that. Perhaps you should apologize. Perhaps someone is being a snowflake and should be rebuked for being hypersensitive. But in our culture today, neutral triggering is not something we can generally avoid.

Bad triggering is when you intentionally make someone angry for no reason other than to laugh at them for being “triggered.” You think you have “owned the libs” by making them angry. But if your only point is making someone angry, what are you accomplishing? If Bubba decides to shoot the jukebox because it is playing a song a Leftist likes, did Bubba actually advance conservative ideas and principles? Is Bubba helping advance conservative policies? No, Bubba is just being a jerk. Stop doing things like that.

Finally, there is good triggering. If I make an argument and/or present evidence for my position and someone is angered by it, then that is their problem. For example, a candidate for office might propose a new policy to make things better, and an incumbent might be irritated or even angered. He or she has been “triggered,” if you will. But is this a bad thing? No, it is a good thing. A problem has been identified and a solution proposed to make it better. The fact that the incumbent is “triggered” just shows you have hit the bullseye.

Missing the forest for the twigs

A Roman Catholic priest stirred up anger on Twitter recently when he advised parents to stop their children from using Snapchat. He was accused of everything from breaking confidentiality in confessions (which is absurd) to being an ignorant prude.

As a Protestant with two sons and a truckload of nieces, nephews, great nephews and great nieces, I say this: If you dismiss this wise, godly counsel out of hand you are a fool. It is common knowledge that Snapchat is used by teens to send nude pictures back and forth, and one of the reasons it is popular is that the pictures “self destruct.” Of course, people can take screenshots and those screenshots can be widely distributed.

You do not have to agree with Pastor Beeman’s conclusion to see the wisdom in his warning about the dangers of Snapchat, and why that warning applies to all social media services, texting, electronic mail, instant messenger programs, web browsing, video games and everything else we do that connects to the internet. The potential for sexual sin is enormous.

Come on people, can we please be adults here? Do we really need to debate the smallest details of the Snapchat platform to see this wisdom? We should not get bogged down in examining the grains in the bark of the twigs, while we miss the entire tree — to say nothing about the forest. Discernment is a fruit of the Spirit, and far too many Christians are determined to kill it in themselves and shame it in others. We are tossing our children’s souls into the fires of sin and death when we refuse to acknowledge real spiritual dangers.

John Hamilton’s lack of sensitivity to the opioid crisis

I agree with critics of Mayor John Hamilton that the city’s online database of opioid overdoses was a terrible idea. While death certificates are public record, dumping all of this information on an easily accessible website – including the addresses, names and ages of people who died of overdoses – is a serious imposition on privacy and shows a real insensitivity to the human cost of having this online.

The obvious question is this: How did this happen? The Hamilton administration said it “accidentally” posted the sensitive information. That means they were sloppy. The information was not properly reviewed before it was dumped onto the city’s website. Had the data been reviewed, it would have been edited and sensitive information would have been redacted. There was no emergency to post this website. This, of course, raises serious questions about how the city handles other sensitive data.

Think about this: someone is driving along and stops in front of John Q. Public’s house, and overdoes and dies. Now JQP’s house is going to be in the database, forever tainting him with that death, even though JQP did not know the person who died at all. The addict just happened to be driving by when he decided to park and get his fix. Was JQP the addict’s dealer? Is JQP also an addict? No, but people will assume things.

What will that do to JQP’s career prospects? Will a prospective employer toss JQP’s resume into the “circular file” without considering it, because someone overdosed on his property? What will that do to his standing in the community and his reputation? What if he owns a business? What will his customers think? If JQP is a leader in civic organizations, how will that impact those organizations’ reputation?

With all of the above, I do not agree with the planned (and then canceled) protest at John Hamilton’s home. The Mayor is wrong here, but harassing someone at home is a breach of civility that should not happen. We should respect public and private spheres. Protesting at the Mayor’s office is fine, but not at his home. Just because such a protest is legal does not make it right.

Trump, Russia, and election hacking

Donald Trump is very defensive on the subject of Russian hacking. Anyone in his position would be. Think about it: If you were being constantly accused of doing something nefarious for the last two years, you would be defensive too. Most of us have not taken one tenth of one percent of the heat that Trump has taken on this issue alone, so it is natural that he would be very defensive.

Trump has been reluctant to admit that the Russians hacked the Democrats’ e-mail servers in 2016 because he feels that if he does, that validates the narrative that Russia intervened to help him and that he colluded with Russia. Trump’s political instincts are not perfect, but he knows who his enemies are and how they will respond to what he says. He is therefore not willing to give even a yoctometer on the subject of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. He is wrong, but his perspective is understandable.

Note that interfering in the campaign by spreading information and interfering in the election itself are two very different things. There is not one shred of reliable evidence that the Russians hacked the voting itself.

Given that the intelligence agencies have been found to have worked against him, given the corruption within the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and given the Obama administration’s spying on the Trump campaign, of course Trump is going to have trust issues with the intelligence agencies that work under him. There is a reason the “deep state” narrative is so strong on the Right. This is not a case of Trump taking sides against his own country. This is a case of a man who is justifiably defensive reacting too far in the other direction.

Of course, the President should be able to separate the two realities. The Russians meddled in the 2016 campaign and there was no collusion between Trump and Russia. There was no motivation for Russia to help Trump because nobody (including the Russians) thought Trump had any chance of being elected President. Rush Limbaugh asked who we are supposed to please by admitting to Russian meddling. The answer: Telling the truth is its own reward. Plus, we should stand by our intelligence agencies where agents often put their lives at risk for this nation. Trump needs to be clear on this.

What are the limits of civility?

So what does it actually mean to be “civil” in political discourse? To be brutally honest, I do not know. That is actually why I am writing this blog post, to help myself clarify my own thoughts on what is and is not within the bounds of civility. There have been books written on this very subject, so I would not be so arrogant and foolish to expect that one blog post will be the answer. Nonetheless, It is helpful to go through a few general principles on what is and is not civil.

Respect the public and private spheres. The internet is a public sphere. If you say something online, then you may get heat for it. Government meetings are a public sphere and government offices are a public sphere. But someone’s private life should be respected. If someone is out and about conducting private business, leave him alone. Do not harass people in public, and do not harass someone at home because you disagree with him. Protesting a public place is one thing. Harassing someone at home or while they are acting as a private citizen is something else. “Doxxing” private information is also wrong.

Leave people’s employment alone. We have seen social media lynch mobs on both right and left get people fired because they said something foolish online. But unless the person’s employment is directly related to what he said online, that is not an appropriate line of attack. Consider this: We have all said stupid things and we have all said offensive things. Do you really want to encourage the same mob mentality that would turn on you if they knew about the stupid or offensive thing that you said? Do not destroy someone’s livelihood just because you disagree with him – or worse, because you disagree with his family.

Do not lie.There is never a justification for lying about someone. If you make an unintentional mistake and spread false information, correct it and apologize.

A corollary to that is it is not uncivil to call someone a liar, if he actually is lying. In fact, it is a breach of civility to not call out liars, because of how destructive lies are to our culture, to trust in government, and especially to the reputations of innocent people who are being falsely accused of things they did not do.

Mocking personal tragedies, such as the loss of a loved one, is evil and demonic.

Personal mocking is probably where the lines are most difficult. Parody and satire have always existed, and both politicians and people in the public square have always been targets of satire and jokes. However, there are lines to be drawn. Going after someone’s family – especially children – is absolutely wrong. Generally, mocking someone’s personal characteristics (such as appearance) should be avoided. It does not advance the argument and makes you look childish and petty. But in many cases it depends on the context and sometimes people (myself included) just need to grow a thicker skin.

That is just scratching the surface. Most of this basically comes down to common sense and how you would personally want to be treated by your own political enemies. “Fighting fire with fire” is not a good excuse to breach civility. If you want the political world to be more civil, then we all need to model it in our own lives. I know I have failed many times to live up to that, and that I need to be better. We all do.

“Shadow banning” on Facebook is a terrible idea

Last week, Facebook admitted shadow banning some Pages and accounts (such as InfoWars) so that fewer people see the demoted content in the news feed:

Facebook would push it so far down in everyone’s feeds that most of them would not see it.

Here is the obvious problem with this strategy: By doing this, Facebook is creating information ghettos and echo chambers. Since fewer people are seeing content from places like InfoWars fewer people are debunking it. Banning InfoWars from Facebook would only harden the determination of the users while ironically protecting InfoWars from users who could debunk their crap. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. By allowing InfoWars to use the platform and not shadow banning them, Facebook would actually weaken InfoWars.

There is also some obvious hypocrisy here: Shadow banning is effectively the same as banning. Sites like InfoWars are allowed to use Facebook to post their nonsense, but Facebook hides the content so no one sees it unless they go to the page itself. That would be like telling someone they can say whatever they want on the street corner, if they step into this soundproof room. Facebook cannot credibly claim to be in favor of “free speech” while shadow banning users.

I gave up on trying to figure out Facebook’s news feed distribution a while ago. There is simply no way to be sure you are seeing the content you want to see, even with the “see first” option for certain friends and pages. I am not confident that I see all of the content I want to see when I look at specific friend lists. Even the “most recent” option of the news feed does not put posts in chronological order.

The solution is simple: Either ditch the algorithm that demotes certain posts or allow users to customize our news feed so we see the content we want to see. Why is this so hard?