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Wednesday, March 6, 2024

"When you need the job done right,

bring in the women."
A long-favorite riff of mine, that post title.

OK, I finished Barb McQuade's book the other day and have now plowed well into Kara Swisher's killer read. This stuff could not be more timely. I present below for your convenient edification one extended cite from each. You hardly need my take; these formidable women (like all of the many I cite here) are eloquent, logical, and clear (and more). Both of these books are must-reads.

I was visiting Ireland in the spring of 2018, when the country was considering a referendum that would end the nation’s prohibition on abortion. In a country with an official Catholic faith, I imagined that the debate would be raging with the passion of a blood feud. Instead, I was surprised to find that advocates on both sides of the issue stood on street corners, passing out literature and politely engaging passersby who expressed interest in learning more about the issue. To this day, I still keep on my desk a button that says “Tá,” Irish Gaelic for “yes”—the choice that would change the law to permit abortion and the side that ultimately prevailed in the election by an overwhelming margin. Irish feminist Ailbhe Smyth observed that the country was able to conduct the vote without becoming split. She attributed that success to “creating an empathetic framework of discourse so that people are not at each other’s throats.”

Combating disinformation is a massive undertaking, and defeating it will require the kind of empathy I saw in Ireland. The Irish people were committed to preserving their national unity above all else. As I saw in Ireland, I do not expect us to find unity on the substance of issues—we will always have differences of opinion on issues such as criminal justice and government spending—but we must be united in the process of how we solve problems. The ability to solve any problem requires a shared understanding of facts and truth.

What is truth? Philosophers and religious scholars debate the meaning of the term. There are some truths that may be unknowable to the human mind, such as the meaning of life or whether intelligent beings exist elsewhere in the cosmos. But truth is different from fact. Facts can be verified, even if our perceptions of them may vary. The color of the traffic light at the time of a car accident is often a knowable fact. So is the number of votes a particular candidate received in an election. Finding facts requires investigation, discovery, documentation, and testing. Scientists find facts. Researchers find facts. Ordinary people find facts every day. Are we out of milk? Did Dad take the car? These are facts that are knowable. Our opinions about facts may vary: Is the coffee hot? Do we need to fill the gas tank? Reaching conclusions requires interpretation, and reasonable minds may disagree. What I deem “hot” may be different from the preferences of others; the fuel level at which I think a car requires a refill likely varies from the risk tolerance of others. We can tell the difference between opinion and facts. And while we are all free to form our own views, we must commit to debating them from a shared set of facts.

Overcoming Fear

How do we preserve our democracy when political opportunists are willing to grab power through lies instead of adhering to democratic norms? I think the answer lies in the same strategy basic to every relationship: we need to care more about maintaining the relationship than getting our way. In American government, that means needing to care more about ensuring democracy than about imposing our will.

In How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine not only the demise of democratic governments but the factors that permit them to survive. They conclude that democracies thrive when leaders abide by “unwritten democratic norms.” In America, these norms have been “mutual toleration” and “forbearance.” They define mutual toleration as the acceptance of the opposing party as a legitimate part of our political system. In the United States, political candidates engage in mutual toleration when they concede elections to the winning opponent. Forbearance is the use of restraint in exercising power. Presidents exercise forbearance when they refrain from using their veto power over measures enacted by other branches of government.

In American history, both parties have been guilty of failing to exercise forbearance at times. Legislatures engage in gerrymandering to create voting districts that will give advantages to their party. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have granted ill-advised pardons. But in recent years, the Republican Party seems to have abandoned forbearance, perhaps because its leaders see their political power dwindling. While losing the popular vote for the presidency in five of the six elections between 2000 and 2020, the GOP nonetheless managed to capture five of eight open seats on the Supreme Court during that same period, in part by violating norms. Senator Mitch McConnell was unabashedly duplicitous in holding a confirmation vote for President Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett following the death of a sitting justice in an election year, after refusing to provide a hearing for President Obama’s nominee under similar circumstances.

And now, we have reached the point where some political opportunists have even sacrificed the democratic norm of mutual toleration, the acceptance of the legitimacy of political rivals. Is this the natural end of American democracy?

Sometimes democracies die. Perhaps ours has outlived its natural life. But the alternatives to democracy, as Churchill said, are inferior forms of government. Democracies protect the sovereign power of the people to choose who will serve and represent them. The people can hold leaders accountable and express their dissatisfaction by voting them out of office. Allowing decisions to be made in any way except by the will of the people risks creating preferences for one group of people over another, a far cry from the self-evident truth that all of us are created equal.

Demanding Leaders Who Speak the Truth

To preserve our democracy, we must commit to working together for the greater public good. That means choosing leaders who will reject the use of disinformation to achieve political gain. Democracy requires an informed electorate. While our pluralistic society will always contain differing opinions, we must start from common ground so that we may engage in meaningful debate and make decisions that are in the best interests of our country. The solutions suggested in the last chapter can help us reduce disinformation and blunt its impact, but defeating disinformation will require something more.

We have real problems to solve—climate change, persistent racial injustice, growing disparities in wealth distribution, a changing economy, public health challenges, global conflict, refugee crises, poverty, crime, cyber threats, and many more. To rise to the challenges we collectively face, we need leadership that can bring us together. Our abilities to solve problems have never been greater: Technology offers unimaginable advances in medicine, food distribution, and alternative energy. Distance learning presents opportunities for job retraining and access to higher education. Social media allow us to maintain relationships with family members and friends and to collaborate with people on the other side of the world. Certainly, we face significant challenges, but leaders who offer rational solutions give us our best chance to solve them. Navigating that world requires leaders who will bring out our best hopes rather than prey on our worst fears. As he took office during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appealed to people’s courage when he told them, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” assuring Americans that they could meet any threat that might come. At this moment, America needs leaders who can unite us to face our challenges with courage and optimism.

We the People

But leaders in a democracy, of course, are simply a reflection of the voters who elect them—all of us. In a time when we spend inordinate amounts of time and money on spectator sports, movies, and reality television shows, it can be argued that we get the leaders we deserve. In a democracy, a government of the people, we need responsible leadership not just from our elected officials but from our citizenry. We the people need to recognize that the use of disinformation as a weapon to exercise political power is a threat to democracy, and we must work to abolish it. We must use our voting power to insist on leaders who use facts to solve problems instead of lies to divide us. Voters must accept reasonable compromise from our leaders rather than demanding ideological purity at any cost. We can hold candidates and leaders accountable by refusing to elect or reelect those who knowingly perpetuate false claims and engage in deliberately divisive rhetoric. We should call out those who stand with any political party over country, who allow political ends to justify unscrupulous means. We should condemn leaders who glorify violence and bigotry. If we do not, we will be opening the door wider to greedy hucksters and power-hungry opportunists.

We must also exercise mutual tolerance and forbearance in our own lives. We need to do the work to verify facts needed to make informed decisions about significant societal issues, such as health crises and climate stabilization. We must avoid the temptation to go along with the con when our own side uses disinformation to advance its goals. We need to exercise restraint when we see a snarky comment online. Sharing, liking, and adding a mocking comment for cheap, fleeting laughs to “own” our opponents just exacerbate divisions and fuel disinformers.

Lasting Peace among Ourselves

An essential way to begin to heal our divide is by offering olive branches to people with whom we disagree. We must see people with different views not just as our political opponents but as our fellow Americans. People who have been duped by constant lies, as we have seen, will be reluctant to change their minds. The way to persuade them of the facts is not by mocking their foolishness or judging their enabling behavior. According to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, those who have followed duplicitous leaders “may feel ashamed and unwilling to admit their errors in judgment unless they are approached with the right spirit of openness, at the right time.” In a polarized society, people can “dig their trenches deeper, or they can reach across the lines to stop a new cycle of destruction, knowing that solidarity, love, and dialogue” can conquer political demagogues. Taking this approach requires grace.

According to journalist Anand Giridharadas, author of The Persuaders, a book on political reconciliation, we must meet people where they are. If we want to win over the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans, we can’t insist that everyone share all of our views. “In a time of escalating and cynical right-wing attacks on so-called wokeness,” he writes, we should all work to make space for “the still waking.” While we may have strong commitments to certain values like fighting hate and respecting personal pronouns, we should express “gentleness toward people who haven’t got it all figured out, who are confused or even unsettled by the onrushing future.”

This model is not a fantasy. It was at work in Ireland in 2018. It has worked in our own history. As president, Abraham Lincoln understood the need to welcome fellow citizens back into the fold, even after a bloody civil war. As the war ended, he delivered his second inaugural address, which ended with a plea for reconciliation:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Respecting each other means telling each other the truth. While we can never rid politics of spin and advocacy, we can insist on facts and refuse to perpetuate assertions we know to be lies simply to make a buck or somehow get ahead. Allowing public leaders, media, businesses, and institutions to propagate falsehoods assaults the integrity of our democracy. If we want to protect our rights from tyrants and con men, we must fight disinformation as unpatriotic, a betrayal of the American people. We must denounce as traitors the liars who use members of the public as their unsuspecting political pawns. To love America is to love the truth. We must make truth in democracy our national purpose.

Only an unyielding commitment to the truth can save us from the fate that met Rosanne Boyland, Ashli Babbitt, and Brian Sicknick. We can best honor their memory, and the memories of the service members who have sacrificed their lives for our country, by working to save American democracy from death by disinformation.

McQuade, Barbara. Attack from Within (pp. 308-315). Seven Stories Press. Kindle Edition.
Social media sites were built and monetized on engagement, and nothing, as I pointed out often, fueled engagement like enragement. Zuckerberg kept yammering about “creating community,” while forgetting that nothing pulls a community together faster than hating on another community. Zuckerberg once called me late at night in early 2017, to get feedback on an essay he wrote with the riveting title “About Community Standards.” In one of its first sentences, he asked: “Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: Are we building the world we all want?” Zuckerberg mused on this subject for six thousand words, finally arriving at the conclusion: “There are many of us who stand for bringing people together and connecting the world. I hope we have the focus to take the long view and build the new social infrastructure to create the world we want for generations to come.”

I dubbed the essay, “The Mark Manifesto,” and while I thought it was in desperate need of a copy editor, I appreciated his incessant need to virtue signal for a better experience, even when it never seemed to happen. Yet, I was also astonished at his inability to anticipate just how badly things on his platform could go. I told Zuckerberg that I did not share his hopefulness of creating a constructive community. In fact, I was certain that Facebook was moving toward becoming a mecca for those intent on destruction.

In our interview in 2018, Zuckerberg remained painfully simplistic, as if all he really needed to know about free speech that he learned from CliffsNotes. “Freedom of speech and hate speech and offensive content. Where is the line, right?” he said. “And the reality is that different people are drawn to different places, we serve people in a lot of countries around the world, a lot of different opinions on that.” You can still make choices, I told a man who did not want to make choices, other than the choice of capitalism over community.

What Zuckerberg wanted most was to wash his hands of it. “You know, what I would really like to do is find a way to get our policies set in the way that reflects the values of the community, so I’m not the one making those decisions. Right?” he said. “I feel fundamentally uncomfortable sitting here in California at an office, making content policy decisions for people around the world. But things like, where is the line on hate speech? I mean, who chose me to be the person that [decided].”

Well, Mark, you did. And what he was saying in 2018 was disingenuous since the hands-off attitude was already deeply entrenched at Facebook. That much was clear in 2016, when a memo titled “The Ugly Truth” was leaked to BuzzFeed just days after the 2018 FTC settlement announcement. Written by Facebook vice president Andrew Bosworth, one of Zuckerberg’s tight circle of advisers, the memo addressed the thorny issue explicitly: “Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still, we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”

Reaction to the memo was very fast and very furious. Zuckerberg said Bosworth got it wrong and clarified that “We’ve never believed the ends justify the means.” He added: “We recognize that connecting people isn’t enough by itself. We also need to work to bring people closer together. We changed our whole mission and company focus to reflect this last year.” Bosworth himself backed away from his own memo, deleting it once it was leaked and insisting he only posed this terrible scenario and immoral conclusion to start a debate internally. His how-dare-you-question-me defense was painful to witness. “If we have to live in fear that even our bad ideas will be exposed then we won’t explore them or understand them as such,” he wrote in his 2018 memo about his 2016 memo. “We run a much greater risk of stumbling on them later.”

But stumble Facebook had and stumble they would continue to do. Many began to question what role the company played in the 2016 presidential election and whether the Russian government manipulated Facebook’s platform to help elect Donald Trump. While I do not believe it was the only venue for the malevolent players of that country, initially Facebook tried to act as if it had no part. When he was asked in 2016 about possible Russian interference via spreading misinformation, Zuckerberg’s original reaction was to pooh-pooh the very notion. “The idea that fake news on Facebook—of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea,” he said in an interview with David Kirkpatrick at the Techonomy conference. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

While Zuckerberg was right that many underestimated the appeal of Trump, to then pole-vault that into an argument that it was crazy to ascribe any impact from Facebook seemed disingenuous verging on ignorant. The kneejerk dismissal of the assertion as “crazy” made me wonder if the company had tried to gauge the extent of the problem at all. As famed management guru Peter Drucker said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

In fact, Russian attempts to interfere and impact the election on Facebook were ongoing and persistent, which was no surprise since it was the biggest platform. Facebook engineers had already detected suspicious Russian activity months before that. Years later, the Justice Department would act against more than a dozen Russians and three companies “for executing a scheme to subvert the 2016 election and support Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign,” according to the New York Times. “While the indictment does not accuse Facebook of any wrongdoing, it provided the first comprehensive account from the authorities of how critical the company’s platforms had been to the Russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 election,” the Times noted. “Facebook and Instagram were mentioned 41 times, while other technology that the Russians used was featured far less.”

When I first heard the disturbing “crazy” quote from Zuckerberg, I dialed up Sandberg, who was politically savvy. Sandberg had spent time in D.C., including working at the Treasury Department as Larry Summers’s chief of staff. It seemed like she would understand my concerns about possible foreign influence and the need to investigate before speaking. I was trying to catch a flight to John F. Kennedy Airport, so when we connected on the phone, I was unable to take notes. Still, I remember clearly that I unloaded on her about Zuckerberg making statements about important issues that might be inaccurate. There was no way, I said, without a proper and deep investigation, for anyone at Facebook to know the extent of the potential manipulation by those seeking to misinform for political gains. I added, if this turned out to be true, even in part, who would take responsibility for allowing it to happen? As someone deeply concerned about propaganda and its impact on our democracy, I was intense, especially when I added, “This is going to end very badly for Facebook.”

Sandberg, for her part, listened and then said in her silky-smoothest of voices some version of “Calm down, Kara. We’re handling it.” Well, they didn’t handle the propaganda. Not from the Russians. Not in Iran. And not in Sri Lanka, where a Buddhist mob attacked Muslims over false information spread on Facebook, prompting a government official to tell the New York Times in the most perfect of metaphors: “The germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind.” More like a hurricane. There have been deeply reported and detailed stories about the misinformation that flooded Facebook and the platform’s weak efforts to stop it, full of examples from across the world.

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos put it best in a piece about the reckoning coming for Big Tech, most especially Facebook, writing, “Zuckerberg and Sandberg have attributed their mistakes to excessive optimism, a blindness to the darker applications of their service. But that explanation ignores their fixation on growth, and their unwillingness to heed warnings.” Bingo. Whether it was used to boost fears of Hillary Clinton or spread anti-vax nonsense, Facebook was a platform designed to create crisis and rage as the rubles rolled in. It was a system-wide problem and company execs continued to act as if it was easily fixable. If that were true, why didn’t they ever fix it? The truth is moderating the flood of information they facilitated was an impossible task.

What was particularly galling was that Facebook executives repeatedly made the argument that not many people were impacted, like it was a minor leak in its social network basement, and they might have mopped up the dampness while missing the large mold infestation. And when the mold flared up again, they would shift to saying their job was to just create tools and that they had no responsibility for what happened when people used those tools as weapons. Zuckerberg never seemed to deviate from this attitude, including in 2018 when I asked him if anyone at Facebook should have been fired for the Cambridge Analytica mess.

“Well, I think it’s a big issue. But look, I designed the platform, so if someone’s going to get fired for this, it should be me,” Zuckerberg said with a “mistakes happen” verbal shrug.

I naturally followed up. “But to be clear, you’re not going to fire yourself right now? Is that right?” I was not trolling him—I wanted to know what level of responsibility he felt for the unintended consequences of his creation.

It seemed to me that he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. “Not on this podcast right now. Do you really want me to fire myself right now? Just for the news?” he said. “I think we should do what’s going to be right for the community.” And what was right in his estimation, at least, was more Mark Zuckerberg since Facebook was born as and always would be a Mark Zuckerberg production. The rest of us would continue to pay the price for his education.

Into this mess and void, naturally, moved a master manipulator and chaos creator like Trump, whom Facebook and Zuckerberg would inevitably cozy up to, until he went too far on January 6, 2021. Trump—the greatest troll in social media, as I dubbed him—understood intuitively that much of his success would depend on connecting with his base, whether it was in person or, at scale, via social media. Which is why Trump—with a big assist from Facebook investor and board member Peter Thiel—summoned all the tech leaders, including Sandberg, to that gilded room at Trump Tower. He had needed and used the help of Silicon Valley to spread his propaganda. And now that Trump had squeaked out a win in three pivotal states, they needed him.

So, I didn’t even bother to dial up Sandberg either before or after that meeting, because she seemed long past listening and what was the point? I did call one person, though, whom I thought could make a difference.

Hello, Elon. It’s me.

Swisher, Kara. Burn Book: A Tech Love Story (pp. 208-214). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. 
See my Dec 2016 "TrumpleThinSkin" post, just fer grins.

It is to my indelible, wistful regret that I never got to meet Kara back when I was posing as a Silicon Valley Health IT Startup Photojournalist while doing my actual QIO gig. She rocks!
Personal note: Kara, your recounting of the loss of your Dad... Sister, there are no words.


So, Nikki Haley has reportedly dropped out ot the MAGA Party Primary race, eh? How long before her husband changes his name to Heidi? (arf, arf) Word is that Mitch is changing his name to Coco Chow. (arf, arf)
Interesting Substack piece:
Trump super fans are impossible to argue with because they don’t actually believe in logic
The far-right worldview is incomprehensible until you realize that devotees believe truth flows from authority rather than reality

Ever since Donald Trump emerged on the American political scene, many of his critics have sought tirelessly to raise many different arguments about his policies, rhetoric, and criminal actions to help his supporters see just what their unrequited loyalty is enabling. Occasionally, these efforts have yielded fruit, but overwhelmingly, they are unsuccessful.

Last September, the head of an anti-Trump Republican political action committee called Win It Back, formalized the despair of many critics in a memorandum summarizing what his group had learned after testing more than 40 different television ads on 12 in-person focus groups.

“All attempts to undermine his conservative credentials on specific issues were ineffective,” David McIntosh wrote...
The essay continues:
The roots of authoritarian morality extend deep into human history. Many ancient civilizations operated under theocratic or monarchic systems where rulers were seen as divinely appointed or even incarnations of deity. These systems established a precedent where the ruler’s will was equated with moral rightness, a moral order centered around authority and obedience...
Y'know, maybe I need to cash in on this stuff. Couple of minutes in Photoshop for starters...

Hardly an original idea. Search "Make America Godly Again" on Amazon. The swag is voluminous.

Our Father,
In Mar-a-lago,
Hallowed be Thy Game...
'eh? "2 Corinthians walk in to a bar..."
[And, yeah, I know, it's not really funny.]

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