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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: social media

Our addiction to outrage only empowers the bigots

Stephen H. Provost

One unfortunate byproduct of the internet age is the rush to judgment: the pressure to decide – and boldly declare – just how despicable an act is before we know all the facts.

But if we can’t just blame the internet, not if we want to be honest with ourselves. The internet is a tool, one we use to justify our own laziness and focus our addiction to outrage. We want to be pissed off. We want to feel superior, to believe that we are best equipped to make decisions about other people’s lives.

When we aren’t.

That’s not the worst of it. Outrage is contagious, viral, if you will. Not only are people tempted into outrage by their own egos, they’re afraid they’ll be shamed shamed – right along with the original target – if they’re not outraged. If something isn’t condemned immediately, suspicion arises.

“You must be one of them. How could you possibly side with that (racist, sexist, homophobic ... fill in the blank) so-and-so? You must be just as bad yourself!”

It’s not hard to recognize the same kind of dynamic that led to communist purges in the McCarthy era. Supposed “sympathizers” were as bad the alleged communists. This isn’t far removed from grade-school scandbox mentality. Growing up in the 1970s, before advances in LGBT rights, kids on the playground were routinely shamed as “gay” if they failed to measure up to some social norm. And anyone who dared defend them was called “gay,” too.

The labels have changed, but the principle remains the same. The process has merely accelerated in the age of social media.

Mob ‘justice’

Mob mentalities weren’t built in a day. They were built in the amount of time it takes to film a video and post it on Twitter. It’s the psychological equivalent of arson: Drop a match by the side of the road and watch it incinerate everything in sight.

Case in point: CNN recently ran a story about Dominique Moran. I mention her name because it’s important, I think, to realize that people affected by our addiction to outrage are real people with real lives that can be turned to shit in the blink of an eye by nothing more than an accusation.

Moran is a 23-year-old woman of Mexican-American heritage, but according to the outrage culture, she was branded as “white” because it’s more convenient to be outraged at white people these days. We wouldn’t want to complicate the narrative, now, would we?

According to CNN, she was working at Chipotle when a group of black customers entered the store. Moran had seen video footage of the men “dining and dashing” in the past when a credit card was declined, so she required them to pay for their meal in advance. One of the men responded by accusing her of racism, then began shooting a video and later posted it online.

It went viral, complete with nasty name-calling and calls for her to be blackballed (“I hope you never get another job”) in the comment field. and She wound up being fired because, you know, outrage demanded it.

The outrage had taken on a life of its own.

Perfect storm

Modern outrage is the product of a perfect storm. On the one hand, you have a media culture built on the constantly shifting foundation of instant gratification. Social media enables it, and the news media perpetuates it. When you’re chained to a 24-hour news cycle, the pressure to be “first” in reporting accusations is immense – especially if it’s already trending on Twitter. If you’re out there “ahead of the story,” you’ll get more clicks, more viewers ... and more advertising revenue. The pressure inherent in “breaking the news” makes an earlier era’s rush to hit the newsstands first look like a walk in the park. And it makes mistakes all but inevitable. (For more on this dynamic, see my book Media Meltdown.)

On the other hand, there’s an understandable frustration with our legal system. When monied elites can run out the clock on justice by filing endless appeals, or use their resources to make legitimate accusations “go away,” is it any wonder mob justice becomes attractive? There’s a lot of truth to the old saw that justice delayed is justice denied, so it’s natural for social justice vigilantes to take matters into their own hands.

There’s just one problem. It doesn’t work. You wind up “winning” a battle with a straw man and losing the war against the monster.

At what cost?

The cost goes of our rush to judgment goes far deeper than Dominque Moran’s anxiety and lost job, or the other highly personal costs born by any individual who’s falsely accused. Because whenever we sacrifice an innocent victim on the altar of our outrage, it gives real racists, sexists and homophobes ammunition to argue that they’re being set up and persecuted. It uses real victims like Moran as an excuse to promote the kind of false victim mentality that attracts people to racist and sexist groups in droves.

If you’re a member of the outrage culture lamenting the rise in white supremacy, you might be part of the problem. When you point that finger to scapegoat Dominique Moran or some other person you’ve never even met, four others are pointed straight back at you. And if you refuse to admit it, the problem only gets worse – which will further fuel your outrage. And that of the racists on the other side. Vicious circle doesn’t begin to describe the damage.

In our rush to judgment against the Dominique Morans of the world, we give the real enemy – white supremacists, neo-Nazis, homophobes and their ilk – an excuse to dismiss credible accusations as merely another “left-wing conspiracy.” Worse, we give people on the fence an excuse to believe them. We can’t afford to do this.

The antidote to “justice delayed” is not “injustice imposed,” which is exactly what the outrage culture – fueled by media pressures and social media access – promotes. Our judicial system may be imperfect, and at times unjust or even corrupt. Still, that doesn’t mean we should turn the gavel over to social media vigilantes fueled by sanctimony, prejudice and their own fear of being demonized.

But that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Heaven help us.

Money grabs and pretty faces: 10 ways to spot a bogus Facebook profile

Stephen H. Provost

It’s a minefield out there on social media, and the spammers, bots and trolls are continually laying down new mines in new locations that are liable to explode on you if you aren’t careful.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot more bogus friend requests on Facebook. When I started out, I used to accept most requests that came my way, but lately, I’ve been getting an increasing number of suspicious or outright phony invitations.

So, I’ve learned to become more discriminating (in the positive sense of the word). These days, I reject close to half of the friend requests I receive.

It’s nothing personal, it pays to be but as I’m getting closer to 3,000 friends, and I’m sure not all of them are trolls. But it’s hard to keep track of so many people on a Facebook feed. As an author, I want to connect with readers and potential readers, but I don’t want my feed to be dominated by faces I wouldn’t recognize if I bumped into them at the local grocery store or names that look like random excerpts from a phonebook.

In identifying unwanted friend requests, I’ve noticed a few patterns, tipoffs, and things I’d just rather avoid. It’s not a foolproof filter, but it does cut down on the headaches of curating my social media presence.

  1. Check the profile picture. A lot of people like to put their best face forward online, using glamour shots, 20-year-old photos, soft lenses and the like to enhance how they appear. That’s one thing. But if the profile shot depicts a woman with stunning looks and a lot of cleavage or a bare-chested man who’d look at home on the cover of a romance novel, that should send up some red flags.
  2. Look at other photos on the profile (if there are any) to be sure they match each other and the profile pic. It’s not uncommon for spammers to sub out the photo of one attractive woman for another as their profile shot.
  3. Are you already friends with the person? A common hack is to duplicate someone’s profile and send out requests to people who are already friends of the original (legitimate) profile. The new profile typically clones the original’s picture, but beyond that, it’s often just a bare-bones copy. If you have a lot of friends, or the person doesn’t appear often on their feed, it’s easy to forget you’re already connected. Even more confusing: Some users have legitimate backup profiles, and others may be creating a new one because they’ve lost access to the original. If you see a face that looks familiar, search your friends list to see whether you’re already connected. If you are, study the new profile and shoot a message to the old one to find out what’s up.
  4. Is there a banner? A lot of bogus profiles are slapped together quickly with just the basics. Oftentimes, the user won’t bother to put up a banner. Maybe they’re just in a hurry, or maybe this is just the latest in a series of profiles that have been reported to Facebook as spam and removed. Fake profile creators often take shortcuts because they can’t afford to put too much time into a profile that’s likely to be taken down in a matter of days or even hours. Does a profile look sparse or slapped together quickly? Does it lack biographical information, interests, group memberships, check-ins and reviews? If so, that should raise a concern.
  5. What do the person’s friends look like? If it’s a woman whose friend are all male, for instance, the chances are much higher that it’s a spambot. You’ll also learn to recognize which of your own friends routinely approve these users, because they’ll appear again and again on the false profiles’ friend lists. Spammers make use of the “friends in common” feature to target users who only allow requests from “friends of friends.” I’ve gone so far as unfriending real people who accept too many requests from bogus profile users, because I don’t want such users sending requests to me.
  6. Look at the person’s timeline. If you see “lonely girl” invitations to hook up or visit a risqué website, hightail it out of there pronto. This is not a real profile. (This should be obvious, but the fact that spammers keep using this tactic indicates it must fool at least some of the people some of the time.) In the absence of such a clear red flag, check out the posts. Has the content been composed or merely copied? Are they in a language you can understand? This one’s tricky, because some very real people do have friends from around the world and write posts in more than one language. But if all the posts are in a language I don’t speak, there isn’t much basis for communication, even if the profile is legit.
  7. Is the gender consistent? Maybe the profile pic shows a woman, but the name is a man’s. Also, check the “about” section. Does a woman’s profile refer to “places he’s lived”? If so, there’s good reason to be suspicious.
  8. Two first names? That’s one too many. Yes, some people really do have two first names (Billy Joel, Kendrick Lamar, Shannon Elizabeth ...), but if you come across a profile that’s questionable in other ways, it’s not unusual to find names like Sheila Renee or Heather Holly on a scam profile.
  9. Is it a new profile? Not all new profiles are bad. Every Facebook user was new to the platform at some point. But the fact is that something like one-quarter of the planet is already on Facebook, so there are fewer people left to join. The chances are therefore higher, just mathematically speaking, that new users aren’t legitimate.
  10. Is the profile all about asking for something? The requests can take many forms. The most blatant is the aforementioned romantic come-ons (usually links to pay-for-porn sites). But there are also variations on the common Nigeria scams, promising more money at some later date in exchange for wiring financial “help” now. Some profiles aren’t fake, but they exist almost exclusively to promote a product. If most or all of the posts on a profile are ads, or if the user name is that of a company, I’m not interested.

I’m sure there are more telltale signs of bogus profiles, some of which may target women more frequently than men. If you know of any, feel free to leave them in the comments field. And as they used to say on Hill Street Blues, be careful out there.

Tyranny by algorithm: Facebook doesn't want you to read this

Stephen H. Provost

If you’re on Facebook, chances are you won’t see, let alone read what follows. Facebook’s latest algorithm will probably deposit it in the dustbin of oblivion.  

Facebook doesn’t want blogs like this cluttering up its precious feed. It wants you to watch videos. And more videos. And even more videos. It also wants to divert you from the news feed altogether so you’ll spend more time on its largely ignored “Facebook Stories” feature (an attempt to be more like Snapchat).

Hey, Facebook, if I wanted something like Snapchat, I'd use ... Snapchat. If I wanted to watch videos, I’ll turn on my TV or hop over to YouTube. At least there I can choose what I want to watch. 

This is the crux of my problem with Facebook, and I suspect others are having the same issue: Facebook is giving users less and less control over their experience on the platform and trying to force its own preferences down our throats.

Users taken for granted

This will end badly for Facebook, but it’s operating in full panic mode and isn’t interested in playing the long game. It’s obsessed with the two-front war it’s waging in the present moment. One one side, it’s on the defensive against charges that it unwittingly facilitated Russian election meddling. On the other, it’s trying to placate stockholders who are demanding continued growth – in spite of the fact that nearly 30% of the world’s population (2.23 billion) are active users of the platform.

In a world of 7.6 billion people, not all of whom are connected to the internet, there’s only so far you can grow. But you can increase engagement time, which is something videos do. So, naturally, Facebook is foisting more videos off on us. (Many newspaper websites are trying the same trick, ignoring the fact that a whole lot of people actually enjoy reading the newspaper, not “watching” it. As I mentioned, we have YouTube and cable news channels for that.)

On July 26, Facebook stock lost about one-fifth of its value, or $120 billion. No wonder the company is panicking.

But it’s so busy responding to stockholder demands and charges of Russian tampering that it’s forgotten about its users. In one sense, this is nothing new. Facebook seems to be continually tweaking its algorithm and periodically faces outcries for changes to its format. Those outcries tend to die down after a while because Facebook is by far the most widely used social media platform. It enables users to reach the most people, so users grouse, bite the bullet and keep on coming back.

Antisocial behavior

Consider this, however: The more restrictive Facebook becomes, the harder it will be to connect to so many people, and users will eventually get wise to this. Facebook recently announced it would be ending users’ ability to access custom feeds for different groups of friends on Apple devices, forcing us to rely on its main feed for everything from our iPhones.* This means it will be harder to choose whom to interact with online. We might have 3,000 friends among those 2.3 billion users, but we'll really have to work to get in touch with more than, say, a couple of hundred – and many of those not on a regular basis.

This might be good for advertisers, but it’s bad for users who want more options, not fewer. Instead of building bridges between users, Facebook is erecting walls. That's anti-social, which isn't what you're looking for on social media.

In contrast, other media platforms are boosting user choice while Facebook is restricting it. My cable TV package allows me to play shows on demand, record them to watch later and choose among hundreds of channels. I can freeze a show if I’m distracted and rewind it so I don’t miss a beat. I couldn’t even imagine doing that back in the ’80s or ’90s. But today, I have the choice.

Facebook users don’t.

Having endured criticisms from users in the past, Facebook may well be taking them for granted. That’s a dangerous game to play. Facebook has been at the top of the social media mountain for a decade now, which is an eternity in the world of social media. Remember when AOL ruled the internet? Netscape was the wave of a future that never arrived. MySpace was a two-ton gorilla for a couple of years before Facebook shot it off the Empire State Building. Google+ was the next big thing.

Offline, newspapers once seemed as integral to American life as highways and fast-food chains. Now they’re fighting for survival as they pursue a Facebookesque strategy of giving readers fewer choices (smaller sections with fewer pages and less comprehensive stories).

Not invulnerable

There are other options out there. Twitter, in trouble a couple of years ago, redesigned itself to look more like Facebook (or at least like Facebook did then). It’s possible that Trump and other celebrities’ continued use of the platform gave it enough of a reprieve to pose a challenge to Facebook in the future. Or something else may emerge.

If Facebook thinks its impervious to user concerns, it needs to think again. Users will find or build a better mousetrap for themselves, with a greater variety of cheese that doesn’t clamp down quite as hard.

Then those shareholders will be really unhappy.

* Note: Facebook’s announcement says: “Starting August 9, 2018, you won't be able to use friend lists to see post from specific friends in one feed using the Facebook app for iOS devices,” but it doesn't say this is because of a problem interfacing with iOS. Instead, Facebook’s stated purpose is “to focus on improving your main News Feed experience.” This story has been updated to reflect that the change applies to the Facebook app on iOS.

Stephen H. Provost is an author, historian, former journalist and media critic. His book Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump is available on Amazon. He's on Facebook (for now), Twitter (intermittently) and Instagram, waiting impatiently for something better to come along.