Sen. Feinstein threatens to “do something” about social media

Photo by Camille Fine

The Senate Intelligence Committee held hearings today on Russia’s use of social media during the 2016 election, questioning representatives of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. These panels come on the heels of yesterday’s Judiciary Committee meeting on the same subject, where Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) was apparently frustrated by the companies’ failure to grasp the extent of the problem. Or she was mad they didn’t send their CEOs. Either way, the senator spoke sharply to the tech company representatives. I quote The Hill:

What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country…You have a huge problem on your hands. You have created these platforms and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.

Um…the federal government is going to do something about social media? Surely Senator Feinstein was not talking about censorship. Perhaps she only meant the government would do something about which foreign entities can post material on American websites. You know, like Americans can see tweets from friendly countries but not from Russia. Or maybe there could be some kind of system where we only see news the government has certified as real. Whatever it is, I’m sure the feds can find some way to prevent people from using social media to “sow conflict and discontent.”

Three problems leap to mind, here. The first is that we still don’t know to what extent Russia influenced the last election, and what portion of that influence can be attributed to social media. You can call phony news stories about Hillary Clinton “the beginning of cyber warfare,” but that doesn’t describe what happened; that describes how you intend to respond. So the first problem is that we’re starting from the assumption that Russia or some other hostile outside force is responsible for the bad consequences of social media, when we’re not actually certain they are.

The second problem is that Feinstein is talking about this presumed foreign meddling as though it were a war. The thing about war is that it justifies a lot of responses that are otherwise unthinkable. Normally, when the American public shows signs of “conflict and discontent,” we do not want the government to do something about it. But when conflict and discontent are the product of malevolent foreign influence, and we’re at war, then maybe the feds should step in to regulate a formerly free exchange of ideas. This country has already shown a willingness, in history and in recent years, to violate basic constitutional principles in the name of war. So the second problem is that the senator is militarizing this issue and, in the same stroke, suggesting that the government might regulate speech.

The third problem is that Senator Feinstein is 84 years old. I bet she’s a canny old lady, but I also bet she refers to each message she receives as “a Facebook.” When she tells executives from these companies that “I don’t think you get it,” she introduces the possibility that in fact she is the one who does not understand how these platforms work. This problem is potentially endemic to the senate. The average age of a US senator is 61 years old. Of all the 61 year-olds you know, how many have a keen grasp of social media and its relevance to American discourse?

Feinstein is facing a primary challenge next year, and it’s entirely possible she was only grandstanding. It doesn’t seem likely that the same Congress that couldn’t repeal Obamacare will agree on a comprehensive plan to regulate social media. Still, these remarks are unsettling. “Hostile agents have infiltrated our discourse to sow division” is a classic rationale for censorship. Show me a government that regulates speech, and I’ll show you one that’s protecting its people from the corrosive influence of foreigners.

Teens think Google is cool, Google reports

A typical teen between the ages of 25 and 40

Good news for brands: Google has released a comprehensive guide to what teens think is cool. Perhaps you’ve heard of Generation Z, the cadre of Americans younger than Millennials who will apparently be this country’s last generation. There are about 60 million of these 13 to 17 year-olds, and they spend $44 billion annually. “But it could be close to $200 billion annually when you factor in their influences on parental and household purchases,” Google’s new Coolbook assures us. It’s called It’s Lit: a guide to what teens think is cool, and it is every bit as edgy, disruptive and authentic as that title suggests. I quote page two:

Gen Z has an enlightened definition of what it means to be cool. Teens feel that being cool is about just being yourself, embracing what you love, rejecting what you don’t, and just being kind to others. The activities they think are cool reflect their generational struggle between technology and RL (real life.)

You know you’ve hit on a useful definition of cool when it contains the word “just” twice. Terrifying chart after the jump.

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Brexit voters don’t know anything, says media charged with informing them



The morning after Britons voted to leave the European Union, Matthew Yglesias posted a piece to Vox headlined Brexit: British people probably should have Googled this stuff before voting. It reported that as polls closed and Leave’s narrow victory became apparent, Google searches such as “what happens if we leave the EU?” increased more than 250 percent. After Brexit results were announced, “what is the EU?” became the second-most searched question on the subject.

The cynical explanation was too good to resist. Yglesias took this Googling of Brexit-related information as proof the Leave vote was motivated by ignorance, citing it as a reason to leave policy decisions to representatives and not the people themselves. Over at The Washington Post, Brian Fung ran a similar take on the same numbers headlined The British are frantically Googling what the EU is, hours after voting to leave it. Both of these stories offer an irresistible narrative: that voters made this evidently bad decision without understanding what they were doing. But there are two problems with that story:

  1. Although the volume of EU-related searches tripled, the total number of searches for “what is the EU” came to less than a thousand, and the others were comparably low.
  2. “Public Ignorant” is a funny headline to read in the newspaper.

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Friday links! How dumb are the fascists at my door? edition

Like so many photoshops, it really makes you think

This obvious Photoshop really makes you think.

As near as I can gather from the markets, Britain has voted to break off into the sea. The British pound sterling—or “kwat,” as the Cockneys call it—plunged to its lowest value in thirty years last night, after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. It was widely perceived as a victory for white nationalism, after pro-exit politicians stoked fear of Muslim immigrants streaming into England on EU passports. “Brexit,” as leaving  became known, was so popular among assholes and so vehemently opposed by those who understood it—market analysts and journalists, mostly—that it came to symbolize the destructive ignorance of nationalist populism. This morning, the Washington Post reported that The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it. They’re dumb, is what we’re saying here. But the events actually reported turn out to resemble what you’d expect from any major event:

At about 1 a.m. Eastern time, about eight hours after the polls closed, Google reported that searches for “what happens if we leave the EU” had more than tripled.

If such phenomena prove the stupidity of our neighbors, we’re going to run out of dunce caps. Also, our neighbors will eventually train dogs to smell books and find our secret hiding places. Today is Friday, and it’s the dumbs against the smarts. Won’t you assume which side you’re on with me?

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I was going to Google the Unabomber manifesto, but then I got scared


The quote on the picture above is not from Bernie Sanders. It’s from a manifesto by Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. I ran across it on Twitter, where Anne Thériault observes with inscrutable emoji that it has been shared 11,000 times on Facebook. But just because the Unabomber said it, is it wrong? The Unabomber is definitely wrong in his position on mailing bombs to people. But his position on antidepressants, at least in this quote, echoes an idea from Sartre, who argued that depression is the only sane response to modern life. It’s worth thinking about the fact that millions of Americans must consume drugs to tolerate daily life. On the other hand, context matters. If the next sentence after this one in the Unabomber manifesto is “that’s why depressed people should be allowed to die,” we should probably withdraw our tentative concession that the murdering Luddite has a point. I was going to look it up, but then I realized that if I type “Unabomber manifesto full text” into Google, I’ll probably end up on a list.

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