Tuesday, November 2, 2021


Is Omicron panic the beginning of the way we live now?

Perhaps this is what endemic COVID looks like: Occasional weeks or months of relative normalcy punctuated by sudden bursts of fear and panic, continuing on and on into the foreseeable future. 

I don't want to be a doomsayer, but a little bit of pessimism feels warranted after the emergence of Omicron as a COVID "variant of concern" over the [post-Thanksgiving] weekend. The development shut down a chunk of international travel, sent markets tumbling, and generally threatened a widespread-but-fragile sense that maybe this time the worst of the pandemic was over, or almost so, for many of us. It was difficult to know whether to be terrified because of Omicron's many mutations that could render the virus impervious to our defenses, or hopeful that existing vaccines might prove effective against the new threat. 

As always, separating good information from the bad proved to be a Herculean task--the flurry of online speculation quickly outraced the few facts we do have. There's so much that isn't known yet.

The thing we do know? Omicron is coming to the United States, if it hasn't already arrived.

"Inevitably, it will be here," infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Nov. 28 on ABC's “This Week.” "The question is will we be prepared for it? If and when--and it's going to be when--it comes here, hopefully we will be ready for it."

Hopefully that's true, and Omicron won't turn out to be a Delta-style disaster. But even if the United States and the world somehow duck this particular bullet, the new variant makes a few things clear:

The federal government must, must, must become more nimbleThe announcement of Omicron's arrival came just a week after the Centers for Disease Control finally approved vaccine booster shots for all adults. Plenty of observers believe it should have happened sooner.  "I think the confusing message around the boosters may end up being one of the biggest missed opportunities in this pandemic," Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, said earlier [in November].  Indeed, Democratic governors like Jared Polis in Colorado and Laura Kelly in Kansas stopped waiting and approved boosters in their states even before the CDC action.

Vaccine makers Pfizer and BioNTech now say they could ship variant-specific vaccines within 100 days, if necessary. It might be necessary--but it's difficult to have faith that the CDC and FDA will move with all due speed. The pandemic is nearly two years old, but Americans still don't have access to the kind of quick-and-easy COVID tests available to Europeans, largely because of U.S. agencies' laborious approval process. That obviously needs to change.

Anti-vax Republicans should shut up and get out of the way. 

Theoretically, lean-government conservatives ought to be great at streamlining cumbersome and outdated bureaucracies in order to keep Americans safe. That's not happening. Instead, Republican governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas have tried to block vaccine and mask mandates, while Fox News stars (and some Trumpist members of Congress) have spread conspiracy theories. That's why it was particularly galling last week when The Wall Street Journal--owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News--blamed President Biden for the rising COVID death toll. 

Delete joke about man who killed father and mother asking for mercy on grounds he is an orphan. Insert joke about newspaper editorial that blames Joe Biden for not doing a better job countering the anti-vaccine propaganda spread by the newspaper's owners.--David Frum

It has always been the case that unvaccinated people risk not only their own health but also the well-being of their neighbors--in part because they serve as potential breeding grounds for COVID variants. It's probably not a coincidence that Omicron was first detected in South Africa, where barely more than a third of the population has received the jab. Every Tucker Carlson rant that encourages vaccine hesitancy makes the next deadly variant a bit more likely. 

Worldwide vaccination efforts must be redoubled. 

 My colleague Ryan Cooper has been an insistent voice urging rich nations like the U.S. to ensure COVID vaccines reach poorer nations. "Obviously it's immoral to let people die by the millions because they live in places too impoverished or dysfunctional to obtain or distribute vaccines," he wrote in September. "But it's also bad for everyone because allowing the virus to circulate in the Global South risks new variants cropping up that could get around the vaccines and harm rich countries." It should now be clear that he is right. 

President Biden said [on Nov. 26] that "the United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined." Clearly, that's not enough. Biden has also called on the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights on vaccines and other supplies so that poorer nations can scale up their efforts, but wealthy countries like the United Kingdom and European Union nations are opposed. Omicron should force a rethinking of those priorities.

Even if all those things happen, though, Omicron is yet another reminder that the new normal might not look like the old one. We're all eager to move on. "When can the COVID masks finally come off?" the New York Times asked earlier this month. Right now--and perhaps for a very long time to come--the answer is: "Not quite yet." 

                                                                                                             --Joel Mathis, The Week

Overloaded:  Is there simply too much culture?

It's extremely difficult to keep up with a dizzying array of choices

There was a moment, back in, oh, 2012, when I thought I’d be able to keep up with it all. And by “it all," I meant all the good TV shows, all the good movies, all the good music. From my tiny studio apartment in Austin, Tex., I would read the Twitter feeds of the critics I loved, then consume what they told me to. I caught obscure documentaries at one of the local theatres. I BitTorrented the shows that fell under the ever-widening banner of “quality” television. Spotify meant that, for the first time, I really could listen to the Top 100 albums of the year, as advised by Pitchfork. I saw blockbusters on Friday nights in movie houses packed with teenagers. I listened to Top 40 radio. I read the latest Pulitzer winners and all four Twilight books. I was feasting, but not yet overfull.

Or, to use a different metaphor: I was treading water in what I saw as a glorious and expanding sea of media, such a contrast to the options of my rural youth, when my choices were severely limited by the options at the video rental store, extended cable and the one CD a month I could afford on babysitting money. Of course, elements of my access were either illegal (BitTorrent) or paid the artist very little (Spotify). But I also felt, very much like the 27-year-old I was, that I had finally achieved a sort of comfortable fluency, the kind that allowed me to always answer “Yes” when someone inevitably asked: “Have you seen/read/heard this?"

Soon, the definition and number of television shows that felt essential--or “quality” or part of the larger conversation­--began to grow. It wasn’t enough to have watched "The Wire" and "The Sopranos" and be caught up with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." There was "The Americans"­ and "The Good Wife," "Outlander" and "The Knick," "Game of Thrones" and "Homeland," "Broadchurch" and "Happy Valley," plus all the ongoing seasons of shows that previously felt very important (see: "House of Cards") but increasingly felt like a slog.

Maintaining my fluency was getting harder and harder: I was a media studies professor who was able to devote hours of my ostensible working day to the task of consuming media. I was still falling far behind, and more so every day. In discussing my struggle to metabolize what felt like a never-ending meal, I’m focusing on television. But television was just part of the larger, overwhelming feast. Around the time television­ options began to expand, so too did the supply­ (and our access) to so many other forms of culture­, from YouTube to digital mixtapes.

In 2009, for example, 7 million people worldwide were using Spotify, with its seemingly infinite musical access; by 2014, that number had ballooned to 60 million. Also in 2009, the teen YouTuber known as “Fred” became the first to have his channel hit one million subscribers. By 2014, a new YouTube channel was reaching that milestone every day. By 2012, 10 hours of music and audio were being uploaded every minute to SoundCloud, leapfrogging traditional production and distribution methods. In 2010, about 1,500 podcasts launched on iTunes every month. By 2015, it was nearly 6,000. But something about the way television consumption standards expanded made it seem more overwhelming.

Maybe it had something to do with how hard it became to have a shared conversation about a show: with my friends, who all seemed to be embarking down different pathways; or with my students, who didn’t seem to be watching anything at all; or even online, where the cherished art of the episode recap seemed less and less useful. Part of this phenomenon could be blamed on Netflix, which in 2013 began its now standard­ practice of releasing the whole of a season at one time. Another factor was the continued, slow-motion decline of media monoculture, first set in motion with the spread of cable in the 1980s. Technology made it easier to make more television and, through on-demand, for people to watch more of it. Cue: 389 scripted television shows airing in the US alone in 2014--compared with just 182 in 2002.

It was around this time that critics started asking if we’d reached “peak TV”. From the Guardian, in 2015: “Four hundred shows and no time to watch them: is there too much TV on television?” From the New York Times: “Is there too much TV to choose from?” And from NPR: “Is there really too much TV?” A survey commissioned by Hub Entertainment Research found that 42% of viewers who watched at least five hours a week thought there was too much television in 2014.

I’d watch two episodes of a show and bail, simply because I didn’t want to be responsible for the entire season

But that survey also found something fascinating: 81% of viewers reported that the time they did spend watching television, they spent watching shows they really liked. To anyone who grew up sharing a television with their family and choosing from anywhere between three to 15 good options, this is a real change. Instead of spending your Thursday night watching a rerun of a sitcom you never really liked in the first place just to have something on before Friends starts, you’re watching something you chose and, at least theoretically, continue to choose.

There are limits, however, to the pleasures of choice. When Hub Entertainment Research asked the question again in 2017, only 73% responded that they were spending their time watching shows they really liked--while the percentage of people who felt that there was “too much television” went from 42% to 49%. The survey didn’t ask respondents to dig into their reasoning, but maybe they were feeling something similar to what I felt at that point: like half the things I was watching, I was watching out of some odd completist tendency; and the other half I was watching because it felt as if I “should”, particularly if I wanted to continue to be part of some imagined online cultural conversation.

The result was a mix of resentment and paralysis. I would watch two episodes of a show and bail, simply because I didn’t want to commit to the entire season. Wading through the streaming menus felt akin to babysitting hundreds of small children, all of them clawing at me, desperate for my attention. Whenever I saw a poster in the subway for yet another new show that I’d somehow never heard of, I wanted to graffiti it. How dare these networks produce so many things, in so many forms, with so many seasons! How dare they produce so much content!

Of course, that sentiment was wholly irrational and entirely wrong. “Peak TV” meant more television shows, but it also meant more shows directed at people who weren’t me, also known as people who weren’t middle-class, straight white ladies. The history of television is, in some ways, the history of executives figuring out that people other than white people can spend. Black people spend money, for example, and would you believe that gay people spend money, too?

I delight in music that comes to me the old -fashioned way: by people I know telling me about it

But the thing about Netflix is that--unlike, say, a network--it wasn’t trying to attract a type of viewer that it could then sell to an advertiser, because there were no advertisers. Instead, Netflix was just trying to have enough content, catering to enough interests, that it could convince as many people as possible that they should continue to pay for its services every month. To make itself ever more valuable to ever more people, Netflix began employing their massive datasets, gleaned from the watch histories of millions of customers, to give flailing consumers a way to stay afloat. When you logged on, instead of feeling overwhelmed, you were supposed to feel comforted by the fact that the screen showed you what was popular, and what other viewers like you were watching, and what you had been watching. It was supposed to feel organized yet abundant; contained but appealingly infinite.

Maybe that’s how it felt to you. It’s certainly not how it felt to me. At the time, I was burning out hard at my job, working myself into the ground in an attempt to find the sort of stability I hadn’t really felt since that studio apartment in Austin. Back then, I would finish­ my day of writing with a movie, or a couple of hours of the latest show I’d torrented, or even live music. It felt like a bookend, like an exhale, like an actual break. By 2017, all that media felt like another item on my endless to-do list, as obligatory and joyless as picking up the dry-cleaning.

So I did what I’ve done when it comes to so many of the causes fueling a wider sense of burnout: I lowered the bar, then I lowered it again. I have stopped listening to most podcasts, save the ones that I really, really like. When I watch TV, it’s a mix of things I actually enjoy and give me comfort, regardless of coolness or quality ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"), shows that reactivate the anticipation and glory of the weekly appointment watch ("Succession"), and shows I arrive at a week, a month or a year late. I detest the Spotify algorithm, but delight in music that comes to me the old-fashioned way: by people I know telling me about it. I crave the escape of a movie theatre, and will come back to it soon--but I’ve also stopped feeling guilty about a pandemic aversion to movies. That love and hunger will return. Feeling bad about it won’t make it happen faster.

If someone were to give me that survey, today, asking whether or not there’s too much television, or even just too much media, I’d say no. I’m glad there’s so much out there to press other people’s buttons, to prompt them to watch and rewatch, to make them feel seen and celebrated. I hope there’s more weird and esoteric and experimental stuff that challenges our understanding of what art can do, and I hope there are more shows like "Ted Lasso" that remind us of our steady craving for tenderness. I hope, in other words, that there’s more, even if that more isn’t always for me.

                                                                                        --Anne Helen Petersen, The Guardian

There are no more dog whistles

GOP now shouting its underhanded messages from the rooftops

With Republican Glenn Youngkin successfully turning the Virginia gubernatorial campaign into a referendum on whether White students are being cruelly forced to think about racism, Democrat Terry McAuliffe is charging that Youngkin is deploying that most underhanded of rhetorical techniques, the “dog whistle.”

“He’s ending his campaign on a racist dog whistle,” McAuliffe said on “Meet the Press,, just one of many times he and his surrogates have made that allegation.

But here’s the reality: There are no more dog whistles in American politics. And this race shows why.

Youngkin has no secret agenda here. He isn’t using subtle hints to appeal to a subset of the electorate while everyone else remains blissfully ignorant. We all know what he’s doing.

Let’s remind ourselves of the origins of the term: Just as an actual dog whistle is heard by canines but imperceptible to the human ear, political dog whistles are understood by one group of voters but missed by everyone else. In the past, politicians used them when there was a position they were taking, a promise they were making or an appeal they were using that they wanted to keep hidden.

For instance, when George W. Bush was asked in 2004 what kind of justices he would appoint to the Supreme Court and he answered the kind who wouldn’t issue decisions like Dred Scott, the 1857 case that ratified slavery, to most listeners it seemed like just a weird non sequitur. Unless, that is, you were deeply immersed in the world of antiabortion activists, who believe that Roe vs. Wade was the moral equivalent of Dred Scott. By just mentioning the latter, Bush was sending them a signal: I’ll give you the justices you want. I just can’t say it out loud.

That was a dog whistle because the whole point was that most people wouldn’t understand it. And it’s why Republicans use dog whistles most often: Their positions on policy, such as overturning Roe, tend to be less popular than those of Democrats, so they find dog whistles more useful.

But dog whistles are a thing of the past, and there are three reasons for that.

The first is that polarization has made base mobilization a more appealing strategy than persuading voters in the middle--and if you’re less concerned with persuading anyone, you’re also less worried about alienating them. Mobilizing the base requires generating excitement. You don’t generate excitement with subtlety; in fact, that’s the last thing the Republican base wants.

The second reason is the Internet and the explosion of political news and commentary, which make it nearly impossible to send a hidden message to anyone that will not be immediately noticed, dissected and decoded.

The third and most important reason is that Republicans have transformed themselves, adopting Donald Trump’s political and rhetorical style as their own.

This was one of Trump’s key insights about Republican voters: They wanted to be loud and unapologetic, especially when saying things that are unpopular or simply offensive. And they want their politicians to be the same way.

In a previous era, a potentially suspect candidate such as Mitt Romney, who had been a moderate governor of Massachusetts before running for president in 2008 and 2012, would have to demonstrate their ideological bona fides to the party base by hewing emphatically to conservative policy positions. But the party no longer concerns itself much with policy. Now you demonstrate your reliability as a conservative by showing that you don’t care what liberals think of you.

Or more precisely, you care deeply about what liberals think of you; it’s just that you want them to loathe you, and the more they hate you, the more you’ve proved you’re a real conservative.

Here’s another example, which some mistakenly understand as a dog whistle when in fact it’s the opposite: The colorful political/cultural artifact that is “Let’s go Brandon.” It began a month ago when NASCAR driver Brandon Brown was being interviewed in front of a crowd that began chanting “F--- Joe Biden!”; the interviewer, either mishearing or sanitizing for TV, suggested they were chanting “Let’s go Brandon.”

It quickly became a meme on the right, slapped on bumper stickers and T-shirts and repeated endlessly by Republicans, even on the House floor. But while reporters sometimes say the expression is “code for a vulgar insult at the president,” it isn’t “code” at all. 

The people saying it aren’t trying to hide what they mean. They want everyone to know. They think it’s clever and funny, but they aren’t trying to fool anyone. Because of the speed of social media, the meaning of the phrase was hidden from the broader audience for just a brief moment; the fact that it’s now widely understood is precisely why it thrills the right-wing trolls who shout it. 

That’s how Republicans operate now, and they aren’t going back. 

--Paul Waldman, Washington Post

 Is our true-crime obsession doing more harm than good?

Stories about real-life murders are everywhere—and some think they’re rotting our brains

Take a look at the most popular podcasts or the most-watched documentaries on Netflix, and you might notice a pattern: A lot are about murder. Over the past few years, true crime--that once niche genre of storytelling that spins real-life crimes into entertainment--has become a national obsession.

But is all this true-crime content, and its tendency to romanticize the art of the scam and to sensationalize grisly murder, bad for us? Or does the genre shine a light on the horrors visited on society’s vulnerable and the flaws of America’s criminal justice system?

These are some of the questions I asked when I set out to find experts, enthusiasts and critics to debate with our self-professed true-crime fanatic, Jane Coaston, on our latest episode of “The Argument.” Here’s what they had to say.

The rise of true crime

In the American context, many point to Truman Capote’s journalistically questionable “nonfiction novel” “In Cold Blood,” as the origin of the modern true-crime era, and the hit 2014 podcast “Serial” as the most proximate cause for the genre’s current boom. But historian Joy Wiltenburg says the public has been fascinated by crime stories for centuries.

Before the Enlightenment, many thought human nature was inherently depraved and the most sinister threat was the devil inside you, not an assailant around the corner. But there has long been a thrill to witness morally transgressive behavior and a desire to protect oneself from harm.

What distinguishes contemporary true crime is its sheer ubiquity: Entire cable channels and an endless churn of documentaries and podcasts tackle every angle and flavor of crime and criminal, while social media offers fans a way to participate.

Consider the case of Gabrielle Petito, the 22-year-old who disappeared while on a road trip with her fiancé, prompting a torrent of media coverage that rarely happens for the hundreds of thousands of other people reported missing each year in the United States. It became the latest social media whodunit as online armchair detectives tried to solve the case themselves--and one may have ended up helping to locate her remains. 

Is all this attention to true crime rotting our brains?

Writer and stabbing survivor Emma Berquist thinks so. In a recent Gawker essay, Berquist argued that the genre makes women--who research suggests account for the bulk of true crime’s audience--inappropriately paranoid, comparing the way true crime primes aficionados for danger to how Fox News raises “our grandparents’ blood pressure, keeping them in a perpetual state of fear about roving gangs of MS-13.”

She points out that, with the exception of the rise in murders since the Covid pandemic, major crime has been steadily decreasing for decades. “Being in that state of sort of hyper-awareness, especially right now when we’re already so divided and distrustful of one another, I don’t think it’s healthy,” Berquist told me.

Berquist also fears that true crime’s entertainment value obscures the harm it can do to real people by inspiring vigilantism, citing Petito’s case: “I don’t think it’s a normal thing to comb through a murder victim’s Instagram. That’s such a violation.”

And when fans feel deputized to solve crimes, due process can become a secondary concern. With Petito, for example, the court of public opinion started to convict her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, long before the “true” story could be told by anyone who knew what happened.

“We’re a nation of crime experts now,” Jean Murley, a true-crime scholar at Queensborough Community College, told The New Yorker this month. After social media users rallied behind hashtags inculpating Laundrie, he disappeared, and has since been found dead--the cause inconclusive.

Critics of the genre also say it entrenches the flaws of America’s criminal justice system. Even though men of color are disproportionately the victims of violent crime, true crime retains an outsize focus on violence against white women. Lindsey Webb, a criminal defense lawyer and law professor, drew a line to that focus from older “danger narratives” that used white female victimhood to cast people of color as inherently criminal.

Today’s true-crime narratives have mostly white male perpetrators, but Webb still sees them as buttressing the prison system that expanded in the 1970s, and has since made the United States the world leader in incarcerating its own population, with Black Americans imprisoned at nearly five times the rates of whites.

“We can both see the power of the narrative and get why this is compelling to listen to, and also say, ‘Wait a second, what are we perpetuating here?’” Webb told me.

In defense of true crime

Like all genres of storytelling, there is good and bad true crime. Culture critic Emily VanDerWerff held up Netflix’s “Tiger King” as an example of the latter: “It’s very much like, ‘Oh hello, here’s some people who live outside the socio-economic standard that we think of in coastal America. Let’s gawk at the yokels,’” she told me. “I don’t know how useful that is, how artistically satisfying or journalistically satisfying that is.”

But the genre to which “Tiger King” belongs also includes the “In the Dark” podcast, which investigates the failures of law enforcement and miscarriages of justice. Nearly everyone I talked to praised it as a paragon of the genre, both aesthetically and journalistically; VanDerWerff called it “one of the best acts of journalism in the last 10 years.”

By shining a light on the criminal justice system in this way, some argue true crime has powerful reformative potential. “I think true crime has been a net positive for future defendants or existing defendants because the system is getting a lot of pressure because of what is being exposed,” Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and the host of the true-crime podcast “Undisclosed,” said on “The Argument.” “What are the laws that protect officers from accountability that basically make the entire system opaque?”

That true crime appeals primarily to women is one reason Chaudry says it’s unfairly tarred. “I always wonder is that the reason we get the most criticism of this genre, like romance,” Chaudry said. “Is it about the consumer and not about the content that’s really the target of the criticism?”

Just as some true-crime stories could be criticized for stoking paranoia, others could be praised for helping women to live in a society that is still violently misogynistic. “Some people learn how to protect themselves, situations to avoid,” Dawn Cecil, a professor of criminology, told me. “For other people, it helps them deal with their trauma.”

Where does true crime go from here?

After the social unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder, podcasts tried--sometimes clumsily--to confront the blind spots of their brands and audiences “after years of telling stories largely about white victims, based on uncritical accounts of police and prosecutors,” P.E. Moskowitz, a writer and self-professed true-crime addict, wrote in Mother Jones last year.

Moskowitz told me about the top charting podcast “Crime Junkie”: “The two hosts who started much more, ‘Rah rah, the cops always solve everything,’ now do entire episodes about how queer people are completely overlooked by the justice system, or how people of color are unfairly targeted by police, who let the real suspects get away.”

The sensationalism around Petito’s case also spurred a conversation about “missing white women syndrome,” a term coined by the journalist Gwen Ifill to describe the outsize media attention given in particular to mainly younger, able-bodied White American women who disappear.

Elon Green, a writer who has explored “The Enduring, Pernicious Whiteness of True Crime,” sees “small shifts on the margins” of the genre. “The fact that people are even asking these questions and talking about Missing White Woman Syndrome is new,” Green said. “I think it’s actually refreshing that people are questioning the nature of the racial aspects of crime coverage.”

--Phoebe Lett, New York Times

The evils of Facebook

The social media giant is under intense scrutiny. But can it be reined in?

Facebook--or Meta, as it has rebranded itself--is an enormously wealthy and powerful company, with nearly 3 billion monthly active users on its social media platforms and a market valuation of nearly $1 trillion. But these days it has few friends. 

Over the past few weeks, the world has gotten a glimpse inside Facebook and its all-powerful algorithm through a trove of confidential internal documents spirited out of the company by a former employee, Frances Haugen. Haugen gave the documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission, then the Wall Street Journal, and now more than a dozen major media companies around the world are sifting through the Facebook Papers. Haugen has publicly aired Facebook's dirty laundry on “60 Minutes” and in testimony before lawmakers in the U.S. and Britain. 

The gist of the revelations is that Facebook is doing tremendous social and political harm around the world, has known this in granular detail for years, has the tools to fix at least some of these societal ills, and yet time and again, despite congressional hearings, its own pledges, and numerous media exposés, the company didn't fix them, choosing growth and profit over safety, the Journal reports.

Facebook strongly disputes this characterization, arguing it has spent billions of dollars and hired 40,000 people to cull misinformation and harmful content off its platform. But the continuing stream of documents from Haugen and other whistleblowers shows that Facebook and its decisions are linked to body image problems among girls, the viral spread of vaccine misinformation, human trafficking, teen suicide, and increased rage, as well as brutal atrocities in Myanmar, festering extremism in Afghanistan, political violence in India, widespread abuse of domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates, and election manipulation around the world. 

Some of the problems at Facebook are shared by other social media companies. But Facebook is the giant, and this time it appears the public relations mess is so big, change is coming. But just how do you solve a problem like Facebook?

1. Regulation

Governments may be the only entities large and powerful enough to force Facebook to change, and since Facebook is an American company, the U.S. government arguably has a unique responsibility to act. Facebook now says it welcomes regulation--well, it wants Congress "to begin to create standard rules for the internet"--and there is bipartisan legislation that would require Facebook and other social media platforms to warn users about the algorithms that control what information they see, and allow them to opt out. Other proposals would strip Facebook of some of the legal protections it has for content hosted on its platforms.

Before Congress takes any meaningful action, the European Union is expected to enact its Digital Services Act, which would require social media companies to regularly assess risks on its platforms, with outside monitoring, and fine them heavily if they don't comply. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on an Online Safety Bill that would hang on social media companies a duty of care to protect users from harmful content--not just illegal content, as in the EU--though political ads, politicians, and publishers are exempt. 

2. Facebook, heal thyself

One of the biggest problems exposed in the Facebook Papers is how its central algorithms feed users rage-inducing junk content. The company has been reluctant to change this byway to fury and radicalization, Haugen testified, because content that elicits an emotional response keeps users more "engaged," meaning they spend more time on Facebook and Instagram, and "they make more money." But the leaked documents "are also full of thoughtful suggestions for how to correct those flaws," Wired reports.  

Most of those suggestions involve scrapping Facebook's fixation on engagement and instead feeding users their friends' posts in reverse chronological order, or ranking content based on quality--like Google's PageRank search algorithm--or, as one Facebook engineer suggested in late 2019, "optimize more precisely for good experiences." 

These suggestions have not been adopted, but Facebook has some of the world's best experts on its payroll, Samidh Chakrabarti, the former leader of Facebook's Civic Integrity team, argued on Twitter, and it should restructure its chain of command so the data scientists have more power to enact change, with their research made public "on all matters of societal import."

3. Dismantle Facebook, depose Zuckerberg

Ultimately, "the problem with Facebook is Facebook," says media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan. Dan Brahmy, an Israeli social media and disinformation expert, argues that it's unrealistic to expect a trillion-dollar company like Facebook to voluntarily change such a lucrative engagement-driven business model. And Politico chief technology correspondent Mark Scott says "no likely law in the U.S. would deal with this underlying issue" of Facebook prioritizing negative, viral content.

The Federal Trade Commission is pursuing an antitrust case against Facebook that could potentially break up the company, though at most it would likely split off Instagram and WhatsApp, leaving the main social network intact. If banning Facebook is off the table, "it's time for new leadership," former Facebook political advertising monitor Yael Eisenstat told Time. Zuckerberg is "a king, he's not a CEO," Eisenstat added. "He can't be fired. Normally in a publicly traded company, the board can fire the CEO, or shareholders can pressure the CEO to leave. But at Facebook, there's no pressure mechanism."

4. Laissez le Facebook faire

Maybe the free market will solve the Facebook problem. For all of Zuckerberg's power, he hasn't been able to reverse Facebook's waning engagement and stagnating growth in the key U.S. and European markets. "Worse, the company is losing the attention of its most important demographic--teenagers and young people--with no clear path to gaining it back," AP reports. "Unless Facebook can find a way to turn this around, its population will continue to get older, and young people will find even fewer reasons to sign on, threatening the monthly user figures that are essential to selling ads," its financial lifeblood. 

"Good luck with that," The Week's Joel Mathis writes. "Whistleblower revelations may lead Congress to regulate Facebook or even break up the company," he says. "But the real threat to Facebook's power and influence in our lives might be all those teens who think Snapchat is cooler."

5. Cut Facebook down to human scale

A tiny number of "super-inviters" make up a disproportionate amount of Facebook's spammy underbelly, Wired reports. Capping the number of invites and friend requests users can send out would help Facebook tamp down on dangerous movements before they go viral. Or maybe we need to think even bigger about making Facebook smaller, Ian Bogost argues at The Atlantic. After all, limiting social media is something we already accept--Twitter's 280 characters, or YouTube time limits--so "what if, for example, you could post to Facebook only once a day, or week, or month?" Bogost suggests. "Or what if, after an hour or a day, the post expired, Snapchat style? Or, after a certain number of views, or when it reached a certain geographic distance from its origins, it self-destructed? That wouldn't stop bad actors from being bad, but it would reduce their ability to exude that badness into the public sphere."

Facebook may resist the hit to its engagement cash cow, but "such a constraint would be technically trivial to implement" and it would be universal and politics-neutral, Bogost writes. "Wouldn't it just be better if fewer people posted less stuff, less frequently, and if smaller audiences saw it?"

Probably not for Facebook. But if the Facebook Papers are accurate, humanity might well be better off.

--Peter Weber, The Week

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