The Internet Is Fine. It's The Users That Are Broken.
Maybe we don't deserve the platforms we live on.
BY Luke O'Neil | May 24, 2017 | Culture
In terms of dreadfully wrong-headed predictions, you don't get much worse than Dick Cheney's line about how we would be greeted in Iraq as liberators, or the infamous Decca Records exec who told the Beatles guitar music was on the way out. But Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter and Blogger, added one of his own to the pantheon in a recent New York Times profile, albeit in retrospect: "I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place," he said of the Internet.
And then, his reassessment: "I think the Internet is broken… And it's a lot more obvious to a lot of people that it's broken."
This will not come as news to anyone who has spent, say, a single hour online. And while it is particularly true in this supersaturated political era of Trumpian dissonance, it is not unique to the time. This is merely a medium fulfilling its promise. Humans have a tremendous capacity for love, but only slightly more powerful is our tendency toward violence, hate, and abuse. The Internet, in that sense, is the most efficient machine for the delivery of invective ever invented, and Facebook, as a new report from The Guardian said Monday, is leading the revolution.
THIS IS MERELY A MEDIUM FULFILLING ITS PROMISE.
Internal documents about Facebook leaked to The Guardian show how the company allegedly policies certain types of violent, threatening, and otherwise offensive posts on the site, with explicit guidelines on misogyny, racism, self-harm, nudity, and abuse of children and animals, among other things. And while those rules are interesting on their own, it's the company's general acceptance of the way things are that is most dispiriting.
Last year, a study from the Data & Society Research Institute and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research found that nearly half of Internet users had been harassed online. Over 70 percent reported witnessing harassment against someone else, a number that rose to 78 percent among black Americans and neared 90 percent among LGBT users. Lest you write it off as harmless Internet banter, a further 30 percent reported having sensitive private information stolen or posted online, or their activity being tracked. For example, Buzzfeed reported this weekend that users on 4chan are busy accumulating personal information—including employment info, names, age, sex, and addresses—of those they consider political opponents.
While none of that may be exactly shocking, the report on Facebook—perhaps the most popular publisher of media in the history of the world—shows that the gatekeepers not only admit there is little they can (or will) do about it, but that Internet harassment is a de facto part of contemporary culture that they take as a given. But when so many millions of posts per minute are being put on Facebook, you have to draw the line somewhere on what counts as alarming, and the specificity with which Facebook has internally parsed such terms is downright shocking. Mark Zuckerberg either picked a really good or a really bad time to go hiking in the woods of Maine.
"People use violent language to express frustration online" one of the documents says, adding that users feel "safe to do so." It continues: "They feel that the issue won't come back to them and they feel indifferent towards the person they are making the threats about because of the lack of empathy created by communication via devices as opposed to face to face."
MARK ZUCKERBERG EITHER PICKED A REALLY GOOD OR A REALLY BAD TIME TO GO HIKING IN THE WOODS OF MAINE.
The report comes on the heels of Facebook's announcement earlier this month that it would hire an additional 3,000 employees on top of the 4,500 it has now to monitor sensitive and offensive posts, including its burgeoning Live video service following a spate of gruesome incidents, including the live broadcast of an Easter Sunday killing in Cleveland.
"If we're going to build a safe community, we need to respond quickly," Zuckerberg said at the time. "We're working to make these videos easier to report so we can take the right action sooner—whether that's responding quickly when someone needs help or taking a post down."
"Keeping people on Facebook safe is the most important thing we do," Monika Bickert, Head of Global Policy Management at Facebook, told Esquire in an emailed statement. "We work hard to make Facebook as safe as possible while enabling free speech. This requires a lot of thought into detailed and often difficult questions, and getting it right is something we take very seriously." (She did not confirm or deny that the manuals were real.)
A still from the leaked manual. Credit: The Guardian
Zuckerberg and Bickert's messages differs from that of what appears in the manuals obtained by The Guardian. These documents seem to take an almost cavalier stance on what is considered violence, abuse, and racist or hateful language:
-Racism and misogyny directed at groups at large is fine, as long as it is not targeting a specific person, the manuals direct.
-Violence directed at a specific person is considered verboten. A post that reads "Someone shoot Trump" would be deleted. But generally violent or sexist language would not, including this horrifying (but not all that rare) breed of posts: "To snap a bitch's neck, make sure to apply all your pressure to the middle of her throat," or "Little girl needs to keep to herself before daddy breaks her face," and "I hope someone kills you."
-Videos of child abuse are not removed, but rather marked as sensitive material.
-Videos of animal abuse might be okay, depending on the intent—celebration versus raising awareness, for example.
-And nudity is parsed by its context, an upgrade from last year when Facebook came under fire for censoring the iconic photo of the young Vietnamese girl running naked down the street in terror.
Elsewhere, the manuals justify the distinction by clarifying that the latter type of message isn't likely to lead to anything; it's just discourse as discourse goes. As the documents explain:
We should say that violent language is most often not credible until specificity of language gives us a reasonable ground to accept that there is no longer simply an expression of emotion but a transition to a plot or design. From this perspective language such as 'I'm going to kill you' or 'Fuck off and die' is not credible and is a violent expression of dislike and frustration... People commonly express disdain or disagreement by threatening or calling for violence in generally facetious and unserious ways.
In fairness, with a reported 2 billion users, it would be impossible for Facebook to remain completely violence- and threat-free, and it does attempt to "respond" to posts that are marked as sensitive by other users—to some extent.
The task Facebook has set for itself is a staggering one: to divine the intentionality of millions of users in real time, some of whom seem to have a bottomless appetite for hatred and spite. It may not be possible at all, at least not until Facebook rolls out its inevitable mind reading app. In the meantime, we, the Internet users, have shown that we do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. The Internet is fine, it's people that are broken.