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Amor Mundi: Facebook’s Reckoning

Facebook's Reckoning

Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians for interfering in the 2016 elections shows how easy it is to manipulate the vast social media ecology within which so many people now experience reality and interact with the world. There are at least two related problems the indictment reveals. The first is fake news, done either for profit or simply for fun and in either case is an expression of nihilism.  Just this week we saw another example of this as 4chan members and alt-right trolls planted a fake story that Nikolas Cruz, the deranged and heavily armed student who killed at least 17 people at a Florida high school, was a member of white nationalist groups. It is unclear why the 4chan users—many of whom are white nationalists themselves—planted this story; it appears that they just wanted to take advantage of what one called a “Prime trolling opportunity.”  Shawn Musgrave offers a chilling account of the utter nihilism behind such “source hacking.”  The second problem is political, the subversion of one country by a calculated attack by an adversary.

Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein published a long inquiry into the way Facebook is, and is not, addressing the dangers of fake news and political espionage. Thompson and Vogelstein’s essay appeared four days before Mueller’s indictment. It is a long account of how Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg continued to deny the problems facing the social network, how they fail to understand the damage Facebook is doing to what Hannah Arendt called the common world, and how Zuckerberg is now trying to address such problems.  

“ONE OF THE many things Zuckerberg seemed not to grasp when he wrote his manifesto was that his platform had empowered an enemy far more sophisticated than Macedonian teenagers and assorted low-rent purveyors of bull. As 2017 wore on, however, the company began to realize it had been attacked by a foreign influence operation. “I would draw a real distinction between fake news and the Russia stuff,” says an executive who worked on the company’s response to both. “With the latter there was a moment where everyone said ‘Oh, holy shit, this is like a national security situation.’”

That holy shit moment, though, didn’t come until more than six months after the election. Early in the campaign season, Facebook was aware of familiar attacks emanating from known Russian hackers, such as the group APT28, which is believed to be affiliated with Moscow. They were hacking into accounts outside of Facebook, stealing documents, then creating fake Facebook accounts under the banner of DCLeaks, to get people to discuss what they’d stolen. The company saw no signs of a serious, concerted foreign propaganda campaign, but it also didn’t think to look for one.

During the spring of 2017, the company’s security team began preparing a report about how Russian and other foreign intelligence operations had used the platform. One of its authors was Alex Stamos, head of Facebook’s security team. Stamos was something of an icon in the tech world for having reportedly resigned from his previous job at Yahoo after a conflict over whether to grant a US intelligence agency access to Yahoo servers. According to two people with direct knowledge of the document, he was eager to publish a detailed, specific analysis of what the company had found. But members of the policy and communications team pushed back and cut his report way down. Sources close to the security team suggest the company didn’t want to get caught up in the political whirlwind of the moment. (Sources on the politics and communications teams insist they edited the report down, just because the darn thing was hard to read.)

On April 27, 2017, the day after the Senate announced it was calling then FBI director James Comey to testify about the Russia investigation, Stamos’ report came out. It was titled “Information Operations and Facebook,” and it gave a careful step-by-step explanation of how a foreign adversary could use Facebook to manipulate people. But there were few specific examples or details, and there was no direct mention of Russia. It felt bland and cautious. As Renée DiResta says, “I remember seeing the report come out and thinking, ‘Oh, goodness, is this the best they could do in six months?’”

One month later, a story in Time suggested to Stamos’ team that they might have missed something in their analysis. The article quoted an unnamed senior intelligence official saying that Russian operatives had bought ads on Facebook to target Americans with propaganda. Around the same time, the security team also picked up hints from congressional investigators that made them think an intelligence agency was indeed looking into Russian Facebook ads. Caught off guard, the team members started to dig into the company’s archival ads data themselves.

Eventually, by sorting transactions according to a series of data points—Were ads purchased in rubles? Were they purchased within browsers whose language was set to Russian?—they were able to find a cluster of accounts, funded by a shadowy Russian group called the Internet Research Agency, that had been designed to manipulate political opinion in America. There was, for example, a page called Heart of Texas, which pushed for the secession of the Lone Star State. And there was Blacktivist, which pushed stories about police brutality against black men and women and had more followers than the verified Black Lives Matter page.

Numerous security researchers express consternation that it took Facebook so long to realize how the Russian troll farm was exploiting the platform. After all, the group was well known to Facebook. Executives at the company say they’re embarrassed by how long it took them to find the fake accounts, but they point out that they were never given help by US intelligence agencies. A staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee likewise voiced exasperation with the company. “It seemed obvious that it was a tactic the Russians would exploit,” the staffer says.

When Facebook finally did find the Russian propaganda on its platform, the discovery set off a crisis, a scramble, and a great deal of confusion. First, due to a miscalculation, word initially spread through the company that the Russian group had spent millions of dollars on ads, when the actual total was in the low six figures. Once that error was resolved, a disagreement broke out over how much to reveal, and to whom. The company could release the data about the ads to the public, release everything to Congress, or release nothing. Much of the argument hinged on questions of user privacy. Members of the security team worried that the legal process involved in handing over private user data, even if it belonged to a Russian troll farm, would open the door for governments to seize data from other Facebook users later on. “There was a real debate internally,” says one executive. “Should we just say ‘Fuck it’ and not worry?” But eventually the company decided it would be crazy to throw legal caution to the wind “just because Rachel Maddow wanted us to.””


Francine Prose reflects on her novel Blue Angel, which is about to appear as a movie titled Submission.

In Blue Angel, a middle-aged novelist, who teaches creative writing at a small New England college, falls in love with (and ruins his life for) a talented female student….

Part of what still engages me about this story, and what makes it now seem riskier than ever, is that the female character—younger, more vulnerable—is the one who has the agency. She is the one who turns out to be in control, and who determines the way things proceed. This version of the familiar professor-student narrative is so rarely mentioned that it is likely to provoke a hostile reaction. But are we saying that these situations never exist? That woman are always the hapless innocents? Yes, Harvey Weinstein’s behavior was reprehensible. Yes, female students have been raped, pawed, bullied, and blackmailed into sex by their professors and mentors. But does that mean that we have a moral obligation to only create and consume art that follows those scripts?

At a Q and A that followed a festival showing of Submission, some audience members seemed to believe that I’d helped create a reactionary, anti-feminist, even misogynist work. That was the gist of a review that followed another festival appearance of the film in Denver, though there the critic gave me a pass for not having known any better, twenty years ago, when I wrote the novel.

Writing the book, it never occurred to me that the ambitious and determined Angela Argo was Ted Swenson’s victim, no more than a viewer of the German film would have concluded that the empowered, shatteringly sexy Marlene Dietrich was being victimized by Emil Janning’s meek, bumbling professor. Today, there is a fear that showing one woman with sexual agency, one situation in which the all-too-real narrative of male power was subverted, will take away from the other, necessary stories that women are coming forward to tell. But I would argue that we need to tell more female stories rather than fewer. Fiction celebrates the particularity of experience, the fact that each of us, and what happens to us, is as unique as our fingerprints. This has always been the role of art.

Obviously, it was not my intention to write a misogynist tract. Though the definitions of feminism are ever changing, I’ve been a feminist since before many of the readers/viewers/critics were born. And I believe that certain women, in certain situations, have the power, the agency, the will, and the intelligence to screw with some powerful guy’s head—to advance our own agenda, simply because we want to, or because we have decided that it’s our turn. In this current moment, there is an anxiety over depicting women with sexual agency. Of course, holding a man in sexual thrall is neither the highest nor the most desirable expression of female power. I’m not condoning the use of sex and seduction to get one’s way. But such situations have existed and continue to exist. To deny one portion of the female experience, one way in which women have historically subverted the patriarchy, seems a step backward rather than forward. As Patai says in her piece, no relationships are perfectly symmetrical. We are doing women a disservice if we assume that that “asymmetry,” in a love affair or sexual encounter, invariably skews in one, and only one, predictable way.

I hope that the film’s appearance will add some small degree of nuance and complexity to the cultural conversation. But I fear that nuance and complexity are no longer operative concepts. In today’s ferocious climate, where the rush to judgment is hastened by the dizzying speed of the news cycle, Ted Swenson would not only lose his job, he would have his book removed and his name erased from the college library catalogue. It will be interesting to track the response to a film that acknowledges the contradictions and ambiguities that, more and more, we are forbidden even to mention.”

Tough Talks

Tommy Curry gave a talk for the “Tough Talks” series this week, a student-curated series sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center. Curry’s talk, “They Mistook a Backlash for a Movement: Black Men and the Doom of Western Civilization,” was uncomfortable for many. He takes aim at feminism. He argues that feminism is and has been a white woman’s movement centrally motivated by racism committed to white supremacy. Curry’s problem with feminism is not simply its failure to include black women; he argues that it has promoted a racialized idea of black men as a way to promote advances for white women.

There are important historical points in Curry’s talk. Above all, he argues that the Suffragette movement led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others strategically deployed racism against black male bodies as a way of arguing that granting women the vote would help neutralize the dangerous enfranchisement of black men after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. There is a history of the racism of early feminism that Curry tells and needs to be heard. He argues that “overarching tendency of feminism from 1865 forward before you get to civil rights has been so closely associated with white supremacy and segregation that it is hard to disentangle that from pronouncements of equality.”

I have no trouble believing that some feminists were and still are racist. Or that feminist conceptions of the vulnerability of women have over time helped to shape the way our society sees and treats black men. Curry’s historical work helps us to better understand the history of race and gender in America. But when Curry suggests that liberal feminism imagines a gendered vulnerability of women that is inseparable from the demonization of black men (and men in general), he risks rejecting the reality lived by many women. It is precisely in such a claim that Curry opens up important and often suppressed conversations.

The premise of the Tough Talks series is to bring to an academic institution people whose ideas are outside the mainstream of thought on campus. At a time when colleges around the country are becoming echo chambers, we at Bard pride ourselves on regularly bringing to campus speakers who challenge our convictions. The Tough Talks series brings many conservative speakers to campus. We have brought Bret Weinstein to campus, who was forced to resign from Evergreen College for resisting a mandatory “Day Without White People.” Bill Deresiewicz argued against political correctness.  We brought Suzanne Venker, a Fox News correspondent and author who argues against feminism. We brought Laura Kipnis, who argues against Title IX laws. Next week we will welcome Chelsea Manning. All of these speakers provided students  an opportunity to see “in the flesh” someone who has taken deeply controversial actions and has since then promoted controversial political opinions.  None of these speakers received a red carpet at Bard. But all of them were treated respectfully, heard, and argued with.  I am proud of our students who insist on bringing unpopular and controversial speakers to campus.

—Roger Berkowitz

View a clip from the Q&A portion of Tommy’s talk below, or view the entire lecture and Q&A at the link above:

Sex and the Changing Landscape of Pornography

Over the past week, pornography has taken up a prominent spot in the news cycle. Pornography is being treated as a public health crisis in the state of Utah, which has been trying to lead an anti-pornography crusade for some time now. At one point, even appointing a “pornography complaints ombudsman” in 2000 who was fondly deemed the “porn czar.” According to an article in the Washington Post from Saturday, the nonbinding resolution to declare pornography a public health crisis was unanimously passed in 2016 by both chambers of the state Legislature citing: “this biological addiction leads to increasing themes of risky sexual behaviors, extreme degradation, violence, and child sexual abuse images and child pornography.” Kansas passed a similar resolution last year.

Sympathetic to Utah and Kansas, Ross Douthat penned an editorial titled “Let’s Ban Porn”. In it he responds to the New York Times Magazine’s profile of “porn literacy,” which is an expose on the pornographic education of young Americans. Douthat argues that,

“…the people teaching “porn literacy” have accepted a sweeping pedagogical defeat. They take for granted that the most important sex education may take place on Pornhub, that the purpose of their work is essentially remedial, and that there is no escape from the world that porn has made.

Which at the moment there is not. But we are supposed to be in the midst of a great sexual reassessment, a clearing-out of assumptions that serve misogyny and impose bad sex on semi-willing women. And such a reassessment will be incomplete if it never reconsiders our surrender to the idea that many teenagers, most young men especially, will get their sex education from online smut.”

In part, Douthat is arguing that pornography is to blame for bad men. He says that if we want better men, then we should view pornography as an obstacle and not a pedagogical tool.  

The feature essay written by Maggie Jones, “What Teenagers Are Learning From Online Porn”, follows several young adults as they are exposed to pornography and sex. Through an array of personal narratives the essay shows how the digitization of porn, its ready availability, is shaping the way individuals mature sexually. In the piece Jones chronicles a Porn Literacy course, which was designed to help reduce sexual and dating violence. The program is funded by Boston’s public-health agency:

Porn Literacy, which began in 2016 and is the focus of a pilot study, was created in part by Emily Rothman, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health who has conducted several studies on dating violence, as well as on porn use by adolescents. She told me that the curriculum isn’t designed to scare kids into believing porn is addictive, or that it will ruin their lives and relationships and warp their libidos. Instead it is grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rolling Stone featured an essay by Tina Horn on the AVN awards, “How Women and Tech Took Over Porn”, which wrestles with the transformation of the contemporary porn industry. She highlights how women are adapting to the mass availability of porn for their own benefit:

The mass availability of easily pirated streaming video may have decimated the porn economy, but it seems that women are the ones adapting, finding fresh ways to connect directly with consumers. As these models gain more economic influence, they are also raising the bar for consent conversations throughout the industry.”

To illustrate her point, she focuses on one dominatrix in particular, whose videos do not include sex or nudity. Just teasing monologues that she’s monetized into “fetish clips.” Self-made content, Horn argues, has given women a new level of control and freedom over the profession, opening up space for the porn industry to have its own #metoo moment.

And finally, Nona Willis, writing for the Sunday Review, discusses the “The Feminist Pursuit of Good Sex”, thinking about how pornography has shaped this current wave of feminism:

In my junior year of college, before I’d learned much about feminism, I became fascinated by what we now call the 1970s “golden era” of pornography. Porno chic! Clitoral orgasms! A little film called “Deep Throat”! Being a lusty, modern woman, I was enthralled. I resolved to write my senior thesis on the role of that period in changing sexual mores.

And then, pretty quickly, I was confused. Was pornography a vanguard of sexual freedom or a tool of the patriarchy? Caught in a dizzying tangle of opinions from Second Wave feminist writers, many of whom were deeply ambivalent about the fruits of the sexual revolution, I sought guidance from my mother, the journalist and critic Ellen Willis, who in a 1981 essay in The Village Voice asked a question that now looms over #MeToo 40 years later: “Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?”

—Samantha Hill

The Tyranny of Ease

Privacy is one of those things we all say we want, but we readily abandon in the name of saving time or money. It is just so easy to give up email addresses or phone numbers in return for a discount or the promise of better targeted advertising. We are, as Tim Wu argues, increasingly driven by convenience in ways that cheapen human lives.

“Given the growth of convenience — as an ideal, as a value, as a way of life — it is worth asking what our fixation with it is doing to us and to our country. I don’t want to suggest that convenience is a force for evil. Making things easier isn’t wicked. On the contrary, it often opens up possibilities that once seemed too onerous to contemplate, and it typically makes life less arduous, especially for those most vulnerable to life’s drudgeries.

But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.

It would be perverse to embrace inconvenience as a general rule. But when we let convenience decide everything, we surrender too much…

The paradoxical truth I’m driving at is that today’s technologies of individualization are technologies of mass individualization. Customization can be surprisingly homogenizing. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is on Facebook: It is the most convenient way to keep track of your friends and family, who in theory should represent what is unique about you and your life. Yet Facebook seems to make us all the same. Its format and conventions strip us of all but the most superficial expressions of individuality, such as which particular photo of a beach or mountain range we select as our background image.

Cancelling Classes

Lawrence Rosen, whose use of the n-word in a class on free speech at Princeton I discussed last week, has now canceled his course. Princeton defended Rosen and the decision to cancel the class was his own, but apparently the pressure was extreme. This week, Amy Wax, a Professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, reports that she is being pressured to take a leave of absence and cease teaching a mandatory course because of a controversial op-ed she wrote last summer with Larry Alexander. The essay suggested, among other things, as Wax writes, “that some cultures are less suited to preparing people to be productive citizens in a modern technological society, and we gave examples:

The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.”

Wax and Alexander mix meaningful truths with debatable claims. Is it true that working-class-single-parents are not suited to the 21st century? That seems like a claim in need of argument. It may be, instead, that single parents in the 21st century need childcare. But to dismiss Wax and Alexander without an argument is not only anti-intellectual, it is silly and counter productive. To brand them as racists, sexists, and white supremacists and attack them with ad hominem vitriol is wrong, mean, and small minded. It will, as Wax rightly argues, subvert the humility and openness upon which a meaningful republican democracy can flourish.

As for Penn, the calls to action against me continue. My law school dean recently asked me to take a leave of absence next year and to cease teaching a mandatory first-year course. He explained that he was getting “pressure” to banish me for my unpopular views and hoped that my departure would quell the controversy. When I suggested that it was his job as a leader to resist such illiberal demands, he explained that he is a “pluralistic dean” who must listen to and accommodate “all sides.”

Democracy thrives on talk and debate, and it is not for the faint of heart. I read things every day in the media and hear things every day at my job that I find exasperating and insulting, including falsehoods and half-truths about people who are my friends. Offense and upset go with the territory; they are part and parcel of an open society. We should be teaching our young people to get used to these things, but instead we are teaching them the opposite.

Disliking, avoiding and shunning people who don’t share our politics is not good for our country. We live together, and we need to solve our problems together. It is also always possible that people we disagree with have something to offer, something to contribute, something to teach us. We ignore this at our peril. As Heather Mac Donald wrote in National Review about the controversy over our op-ed: “What if the progressive analysis of inequality is wrong…and a cultural analysis is closest to the truth? If confronting the need to change behavior is punishable ‘hate speech,’ then it is hard to see how the country can resolve its social problems.” In other words, we are at risk of being led astray by received opinion.

The American way is to conduct free and open debate in a civil manner. We should return to doing that on our college campuses and in our society at large.”

Feckless Defenders

David Palumbo-Liu is another professor being widely attacked, this time by political forces on the right. Liu has received death threats for his membership in the Campus Antifascist Network.

“Today anyone can be accused of anything, without basis in fact or evidence, and that accusation can be instantly trumpeted over the airwaves unchecked by any journalistic standard. That is the painful lesson I have had to learn this year.

As a scholar-activist working on issues such as sexual assault, Palestine, and anti-fascism, I am used to receiving abusive messages and being publicly maligned. Now, however, attacks on me have reached troubling new heights.

Last month, the Stanford Review, a rightwing publication co-founded by Peter Thiel and based on my university campus, wrote that I have helped set up an “organization [that is] undeniably a chapter of a terrorist group” and demanded my resignation. Their article was picked up by groups like JihadWatch, Campus Fix, Campus Reform, Fox & Friends, and other rightwing media outlets.

The organization I belong to is called the Campus Antifascist Network. We advocate for organized resistance to fascist violence on campus, and for educating our communities and others as to the nature of fascism today. We claim solidarity with a proud tradition of anti-fascism dating back to the early 20th century.

The group was founded shortly after the election of Donald Trump, and responded to the steady rise of a well-funded rightwing campaign on college campuses. We do not – and never would – advocate – for initiating violence.”

Liu is very careful with his words, writing that the Campus Antifascist Network does not advocate “initiating violence.” It does advocate violence in response to what it considers violent rhetoric and protests. Still, Liu is correct, Campus Antifascist Network is not a terrorist organization and he does not deserve the death threats he is receiving. What is more, he needs the support of his academic employers who should be standing up for the free and open exchange of ideas in an intellectual community. However, Liu notes that “university administrators seem loth (sic) to aggressively protect their faculty. My own university has left it to me to press charges, and has chosen not to make any public comment on the Stanford Review’s defamation of my character, despite an open letter supporting me signed by nearly 700 members of the Stanford community.”

Posted on 18 February 2018 | 8:00 am

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