FOR 20 YEARS, Alex Jones, a radio show host and founder of the Infowars website, has been spreading one off-the-wall conspiracy theory after another, and, for the past decade, social media have amplified his voice and his reach to a level his predecessors on the “paranoid Right” could never have imagined. In early August, Facebook and Google-owned YouTube finally took measures to effectively ban Jones from their platforms. But the way they did it raises more questions than it answers about the possibility of restoring respect for truth to public life in the United States.
Way back in the dying days of the 20th century, Alex Jones started his career ranting about the old conspiracy standbys, such as fluoride in our drinking water. But then 9/11 happened, and Jones took his act to a whole new level, claiming that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were really “inside jobs” unleashed by the secret government to launch a global war and suspend civil liberties.
In days gone by, such a theory would have been passed around on mimeographed fliers, and mainstream journalism, shackled by considerations of fact, wouldn’t have touched it. But the social media era has freed us from all that. Now anybody can say anything, and everybody can hear it. Suddenly Alex Jones had an audience of millions for his Facebook pages, his YouTube channel, and his website; this success seemed to egg him on to ever more outrageous pronouncements. Finally, he hit rock bottom with the claim that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked (to provide a pretext for seizing Americans’ guns) and all those grieving parents were only acting.
TOWARD THE END of August this year, more than 100 million potential U.S. voters were exposed to a fake story about the presidential election that was disguised as hard news. The story, which claimed that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had endorsed Hillary Clinton, began on an ultra-Right website called endingthefed.com, but a link to it quickly appeared in the “Trending” box at the top of the Facebook screen. Not only did the fraudulent link slip through Facebook’s legendary screening software, but it stayed there for a full eight hours.
A couple of weeks later, the opposite problem struck when the Facebook robo-censor kicked out posts containing the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photograph of a young naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a U.S. napalm attack. The Facebook Machine didn’t see a gut-wrenching statement about the cruelty of war. It only saw a naked little girl. After an entire day of protests, Facebook finally announced that it would reprogram the software to allow that photo of a naked girl.
Facebook has been cajoled and scolded over the past year by various German officials about the company’s failure to preemptively remove racist material, as German law requires. But Zuckerberg insists Facebook is “a tech company, not a media company.” We build “the tools,” he said, “we do not produce any content.”
The through line in all of these controversies is a persistent question about the role of human decisions versus that of computer algorithms in determining what material appears on Facebook or other digital media intermediaries, including the Google News search engine. Are we just going to see the stories that are generating the most statistically measurable buzz? Or will trained professionals take a hand in guaranteeing that what we see is actually true? The answer has enormous legal consequences for companies such as Facebook. If their human staffs are making choices about the veracity and relative importance of news stories, then digital media platforms may be liable to lawsuits over the content of those stories. But the stakes are even higher for the future of journalism and the functioning of democracy.
RECENTLY, a Facebook troll accused me of liking country singer Carrie Underwood. The troll was ... me.
“I hate to admit it ... but in the interest of full disclosure, I kind of love Carrie Underwood’s ‘Cowboy Casanova,’” said 23-year-old me. Real-time me was horrified.
The indignities kept coming. College junior me: “I was impressed by Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul,” after a GOP debate in South Carolina in 2008. ( Mike Huckabee?!) College senior me, more inscrutably, presumably comparing President Obama’s first inauguration to Woodstock: “Back from Obamastock, living the dream.”
Of all the ways to be internet shamed, I hadn’t counted on my old selves.
Launched in March 2015, Facebook’s feature On This Day collects every status update and photo users have shared on that day, every year, all the way back to the beginning of (Facebook) time.
For a social platform, this function is oddly, endearingly private. Newsfeed and Pages and Groups are where we meet others, but On This Day is where we meet ourselves. The for-your-eyes-only digital diary delivers a daily string of our admissions from years gone by, betting on our appetite for nostalgia and navel-gazing. Sometimes, reading the morning roundup delivers an ego boost. (“I was funny!” I once announced to an empty home.) Other times, I’ve shared things that my present self flat-out refuses to believe.
Facebook is 12 years old and has been with me longer than most close friendships in my life. And it acts like it: On This Day is a best friend eager to remind me how desperately, and how often, I’ve tried to be cool. But it also reflects me at my most earnest, filled with unselfconscious observations on life and tentative explorations into new ideas of justice, identity, and belonging.
Facebook initially responded to the ProPublica report by removing the topics in question from its ad system. But other news reports, including from Slate, then discovered that hateful topics were more widespread in the ad system's targeting capabilities.
Musk urged a group of governors to proactively regulate AI, which he views as a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.”
“Until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal,” Musk said.
Zuckerberg shot back, saying fearmongering about AI is “irresponsible.”
YOU COULD SAY it’s been the best of times and the worst of times for Facebook Inc. This summer the social media platform’s number of monthly users reached 2 billion. That’s more than one-fourth of the world population, and Facebook has achieved that global reach while still off limits for more than a billion Chinese. More than half of Facebook users log in every day; in the U.S., one out of every five internet page views takes place on Facebook. The company is currently valued at $435 billion.
This success has come despite what should have been a truly dreadful year for the company’s image. Rapes, murders, and suicides have been live-streamed on Facebook. And at least some of those atrocities may have been provoked by the unparalleled opportunity Facebook offers to sociopaths and exhibitionists. In addition, in the past year Facebook was guilty of helping disseminate false information that helped elect Donald Trump. The social network has also been widely named as a major contributor to our increasingly toxic political culture, in which citizens never have to face facts that might contradict their prejudices. A 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh even found an association between social media use, including Facebook, and depression among young adults.
In Zuckerberg’s mind, the days of institutions like “churches and Little Leagues” are over. Using Facebook’s new artificial intelligence software, the social media giant can organize its users into groups that will serve the same purpose.
While Zuckerberg missed some important purposes a church community serves, he was right about one thing: Christians are leaving their traditional, brick-and-mortar churches — in droves.
According to several sources, the number 40 is used almost 150 times in the Old and New Testaments. Some examples: Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. There were 40 years of wilderness-wandering for the Jewish people fleeing bondage in Egypt. Noah and his family were in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights of the flood. There were 40 days and 40 nights of fasting while Moses was on Mount Sinai. Jonah was given 40 days to convert the people of Nineveh. Saul, David, and Solomon reigned 40 years each.
Religion is increasingly viewed as highly politicized, not least due to the way that it is frequently covered in the news. Numerous studies have shown that news stories with emotional cues tend to both gain audience attention and prolong audience engagement.
It may therefore come as no surprise that online debates about religion are packed with emotional cues that evoke strong reactions from those who participate in them. This sets the stage for passionate online debates.
An American missionary priest, killed in Guatemala in 1981, has moved a step closer to being named a Catholic saint, after Pope Francis declared him the first-ever American martyr.
The Rev. Stanley Rother, a priest from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, served for nearly 15 years in Guatemala before being shot dead, during the country’s bloody civil war that divided the country from 1960 to 1996.
For many Christians who observe the liturgical season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, an Advent devotional is a beloved companion.
Such devotionals typically include a short Scripture reading and reflection on the birth of Jesus.
But most are “crap,” according to the Rev. Jason Chesnut of Baltimore.
Pope Francis is the king of Twitter and other social media outlets but he’s still not on Facebook, the most dominant digital platform in the world.
Will that change following his meeting with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Aug. 29?
A COUPLE years ago, when net neutrality (the principle that internet service providers must treat all websites equally) was threatened by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Facebook stood firmly in its defense. Google, Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, and other high-tech giants took the same stand. Companies that make their money providing content or mining data from web users need net neutrality in order to function.
This February, India’s equivalent of the FCC, their Telecom Regulatory Authority, had to decide an important net neutrality test case there. A huge, U.S.-based multinational came into the Indian market offering an internet connection that limited users to the parent company’s own site and a severely limited menu of other pre-selected sites. This company spent millions on an advertising campaign against the principle of net neutrality in India. But finally Indian regulators stood firm and net neutrality was upheld.
The strange twist here is this: The U.S.-based Goliath fighting net neutrality in India was Facebook.
An obvious conclusion here would be that Facebook thinks net neutrality is only good for rich countries. Indians must be too poor, too ill-educated, maybe even too brown to handle the freedom and responsibility that comes with an open internet. That impression was confirmed when a member of Facebook’s board of directors, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, went on Twitter to proclaim: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”
The meeting comes as nations around the world fight a sometimes losing battle against the highly-skilled online outreach of the Islamic State, which has done a remarkable job of using social media to create recruitment and public relations materials to promote its efforts. Apple, Facebook, and Twitter said Thursday they will have representatives at the meeting.
The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics briefly used its official Facebook page on Aug. 26 to debate marijuana and the Bible. After two commenters posted references to the Bible in response to a story about the detrimental effects of marijuana on the brain, a bureau employee engaged them in a theological argument.
Joshua Lewelling, a medical marijuana legalization activist and retired Air Force veteran who lives in Inola, Okla., posted a reference to Genesis 1:29: “And I give you every seed-bearing plant to use for food for it is good.”
The response to Lewelling’s initial response rankled Lewelling because he believed the bureau was lecturing him about his own Christian faith.
Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Samaritan’s Purse charity, describes Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the subject of his latest post, as the daughter of immigrants who made good on the American dream.
“Unfortunately,” the post continues, “she is also an example of someone who seems to be very misguided on the issue of same-sex marriage. She voted to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2014, and homosexual advocates consider her an ally in their fight to make same-sex marriage the law of the land.”
In 1990, my father and pregnant mother packed up their life in suburban Illinois, bundled their four young children (including me) onto a plane, and landed in Romania to teach on a grant at the University of Bucharest.
The country was in the throes of revolution following the execution of ousted dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the transfer of power was by no means tidy or complete. The Securitate — one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world — proved difficult to shut down. All our neighbors operated under the assumption that their every move continued to be watched (one friend had taken apart his typewriter by hand and hid it so he could answer honestly that he did not keep a typewriter in the house). Being American, my parents were told to expect our apartment to be bugged.
Freedom had come, but the systems of omnipresent control proved psychologically hard to shake.
The specter of surveillance is an insidious tool. In the 1790s, British philosoper Jeremy Bentham developed a centralized prison model called the panopticon, in which every occupant is visible to a single guard. Most models, since adapted by prisons and schools around the world, leave open the possibility that there is no supervisor watching after all. Whether there is isn't the point — the mere promise of one is enough to coerce significant behavior change. Being constantly observable is the trap.
These days, Americans don’t need a formative year spent in post-soviet Romania to feel uneasy about omnipresent surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive secret surveillance programs operating under the NSA, with enormous access to private data from citizens not suspected of terrorism or criminal wrongdoing, rocked our understandings of data privacy and civil liberty. Now, as then, it’s reasonable to worry that we’re being watched.
Patricia Jannuzzi, the veteran Catholic high school teacher from New Jersey suspended for her anti-gay Facebook posts, will be reinstated immediately, school principal Jean Kline said in a letter.
Jannuzzi, a 33-year theology teacher at Immaculata High School in Sommerville, N.J., was forced to deactivate her Facebook page last month after several alumni started circulating screen shots of her sharply worded posts against gay marriage and gay rights. Two days later, the school placed her on administrative leave.
The letter to students and parents, quoting school director Msgr. Seamus Brennan states in part:
“Immaculata High School has reached an understanding with Mrs. Patricia Jannuzzi. It is the School’s position that a Catholic school teacher must always communicate the faith in a way that is positive and never hurtful. Tone and choice of words matter and I trust Mrs. Jannuzzi’s stated promise to strive always to teach in a spirit of truth and charity.”
God bless online media. Almost half of U.S. adults (46 percent) say they saw someone sharing “something about their faith” on the Internet in the last week.
And one in five (20 percent) say they were part of the Internet spiritual action on social networking sites and apps — sharing their beliefs on Facebook, asking for prayer on Twitter, mentioning in a post that they went to church.
“The sheer number of people who have seen faith discussed online is pretty striking,” said Greg Smith, associate director of religion research for Pew Research Center.
Megachurch pastors have mega-followings online. Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church streams his Houston services online. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has 1.8 million likes on his Facebook page. And Pope Francis has more than 4.6 million English-language followers, chiefly American, for his @Pontifex Twitter feed.
It was a gathering that would have been unthinkable just five years ago.
On a cool summer evening, in a borrowed classroom overlooking San Francisco Bay, about 150 men and women gathered to screen a short documentary about a Mormon family whose 13-year-old son came out as gay.
The Montgomerys, who accepted their son and his news, were ostracized by church members, some of whom refused to accept Communion distributed by the young man in church. Like many conservative Christian denominations, the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bans homosexual activity and considers it grounds for exclusion from Mormon rites, rituals and even the afterlife.