All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth …, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address, January 27, 1838
The question for me is this: Does Facebook provide anywhere near the social value to justify what this man suffered? Does it provide enough value to justify the suffering of the likely thousands of workers who Facebook employees to protect us from Facebook?
As you reflect on this, you probably want to check out The Facebook Files, an ongoing investigative series from the Wall Street Journal (articles are paywalled, but the related podcasts are free and worth your time and attention).
Plainly put, Facebook profits from hate and misery. Further reads:
- “People are more anti-vaccine if they get their COVID news from Facebook than from Fox News, data shows”
- “Social media platforms are failing to monitor anti-Semitism, two reports say.”
- Failure to Protect: How Tech Giants Fail to Act on User Reports of Antisemtism
- This report notes that, of the posts reported to them as anti-Jewish Facebook acted on less than 11%. By contrast, Facebook claims to proactively remove +90% of child porn without anyone (outside of FB mods) ever having to see it, let alone report it. The second problem—moderating images of abuse—is a lot harder than setting up a grep to flag specific hate terms (let alone having a moderator check a user-reported post to see what it says). And yet FB gladly pours the resources needed to do the harder thing. Why? Because, broadly speaking, the world abhors the abuse of children—and thus advertisers find it toxic. It hits their profit center, and so they act. (I leave it as an exercise for you, in your quiet hours, to consider why it is that the world doesn’t abhor Jew hatred. I assume it’s because they believe that we often have it coming.)
Brass tacks question: Given what social media companies like FB can and will do, in terms of exerting editorial control when it is in their interest to do so, I’m left wondering if they really deserve Section 230 protection?
FB, of course, is far from unique here—or, maybe, is uniquely awful only in the magnitude and clarity of their disfunction and viciousness. For a Twitter-centric rumination on the fundamental design aspects of social media that are making it so damaging to both individual humans and larger human societies, please read Noah Smith’s rational (and, in the case of the later, research-backed) articles “The Shouting Class” and “The Shouting Class 2: Last Refuge of Scoundrels”:
“In other words, society has always had about the same number of shouty jerks. But with the rise of social media, we have moved our society’s political discussions from spaces in which the shouty jerks were at least somewhat marginalized and contained to spaces that preferentially amplify their voices.…In pursuit of personal glory, bad people turn neighbor against neighbor.”Noah Smith in “The Shouting Class 2: Last Refuge of Scoundrels”
(N.B. I originally wrote this for my congregation, but I figured some of the rest if you might benefit from the message, too.)
You almost certainly heard about the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids shortly before the election,“TRUMP” and “MAGA” spray-painted over the names of the honored dead.
Maybe these pictures worried you. Maybe they frightened you. Maybe they embarrassed you—because, let’s be honest: it’s shameful to be bullied, to get the “Kick Me!” sign pasted to your back again and again, century after century.
Or maybe you didn’t feel much of anything. Maybe you’ve grown numb; one more slap in the face at the tail end of four years of unprovoked suckerpunches, it can all sort of blur together. I get that.
I don’t exactly have words for how it made me feel.
I saw these pictures of the Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids, and I immediately thought back to the swastikas spray painted on Temple Jacob last winter, way up in the Upper Peninsula town of Hancock. And I thought about the dozens of swastikas and slurs defacing our local skatepark back in 2017.
(I go to that skatepark a lot. It was hard not to take it personally.)
And I thought about the increase in anti-Jewish hate-crimes here in America over the past four years. I thought about the increasingly violent nature of those crimes.
I thought about the bomb threats. And the synagogue shootings. And the stabbings. And the rallies. And the men with guns in the capitol.
And so on.
And I felt hopeless. And I was afraid.
So I emailed the rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel (who maintain the cemetery in Grand Rapids that was desecrated on election’s eve). I wrote to voice our support and solidarity, and ask what they might need to restore the cemetery.
Rabbi David J.B. Krishef replied almost immediately:
“Hi Dave — the cemetery was cleaned by a small group of people who live around the corner and took it upon themselves to clean the stones without even letting us know what they were doing, and a few other people, including one from Ann Arbor, who drove in and decided to wash the paint off. We are grateful for all of the love and support and positive notes we’ve received.”
It dawned on me that this second half of the story is rarely reported, but often the case:
A lone jackass skulks around smearing his petty foulness in the dark; the whole community—not just Jews, but people from all over the community unwilling to let ugliness linger—return in the light to set things right.
That’s what happened in the cemetery in Grand Rapids. And when I went back and checked, I discovered it’s what happened at Temple Jacob in Hancock.
And that’s what happened here in Ann Arbor, too; I know, because I saw it: I went to the skatepark the day after it was tagged. The city had already power-washed away the paint. And unknown members of the community at large had come through with colored chalk and, evey place where there’d been a symbol of hate, replaced it with a message of welcoming and love:
What I saw in Ann Arbor was not the exception; it was the rule, even now, in this time of widely reported “unprecedented division and unrest.” And maybe it feels like we’re mired in a time of unprecedented division and unrest because we only report the first half of the story—the smeared paint, the thrown punch, the shots fired—and then move on to the next catastrophe, without checking back to see what comes after the paint and the screaming: a nation of folks ready to take it upon themselves to fix whatever any single angry loner chooses to break.