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This is the (very very late) thirteenth issue of The Discourse. All previous issues are here. We’ll start with an essay and end with essential reads and links. Shall we begin?

Forgive fast, block even faster (and other rules)

Are you a weirdo like me that breathlessly follows the tango between the U.S. government and the online platforms? If so, item #1 (“What Jack Dorsey and Sheryl Sandberg Taught Congress and Vice Versa”) is among the first cases for optimism we’ve seen. Congress is grappling with the complexity of the issue. The tech CEOs are listening. The platforms are getting every-so-slightly better at banning bad actors (see “The Department of ‘Oh yeah, what ever happened with that?’”).

But one thing I can’t shake: Some magical law from Congress won’t “fix” all of this. It will also take a fundamental remaking of our social norms. And I'm not sure we're ready for that. 

Think of the disruptive technology of the past. I could technically call and text your phone constantly to harass you. Or to spread misinformation. But I don’t. And this behavior rarely happens. Why?

It’s mix of incentives (harassing someone via phone takes a lot of work) and social norms. Additionally, entire generations are raised being taught these social norms and eventually they are codified into our society. (Consider the recent uproar over a man who was mocked for shaving on a train who was, in fact, homeless.)

I’ve started thinking about what are the “new rules” for navigating the online world? If you could get everyone to agree (implicitly or explicitly) to a set of rules, what would they be? Below is an early attempt at an “Rules for Online Sanity” list. I’d love to hear what you think I missed.

  • Reward your “enemies” when they agree with you, exhibit good behavior, or come around on an issue. Otherwise they have no incentive to ever meet you halfway.
  • Accept it when people apologize. People should be allowed to work through ideas and opinions online. And that can result in some messy outcomes. Be forgiving.
  • Sometimes people have differing opinions because they considered something you didn’t.
  • Take a second.
  • There's always more to the story. You probably don't know the full context of whatever you're reading or watching.
  • If an online space makes more money the more time you spend on it, use sparingly.
  • Judge people on their actions, not their words. Don’t get outraged over what people said. Get outraged at what they actually do.
  • Try to give people the benefit of the doubt, be charitable in how you read people’s ideas.
  • Don’t treat one bad actor as representative of whatever group or demographic they belong to.
  • Create the kind of communities and ideas you want people to talk about.
  • Sometimes, there are bad actors that don’t play by the rules. They should be shunned, castigated, and banned.
  • You don’t always have the moral high ground. You are not always right.
  • Block and mute quickly. Worry about the bubbles that creates later.
  • There but for the grace of God go you.
Reply and send me your rules for surviving online! I’ll publish the best ones in a future issue.

Welcome to The Discourse.


⏪The Department of “Oh yeah, what ever happened with that?”

You remember from last issue the plight of Infowars’ Alex Jones and the litmus test it posed for social media platforms. Now? The walls are closing in on Jones, who has been banned from Facebook, Twitter, and the Apple app store. And now, several of his court cases are threatening his assets while his business of selling supplements is at risk.

Commercial break: I was fortunate enough to take 5 months off to travel and recharge in 2016-17. But I couldn't find a good guide on how to make the most of a gap in employment. So I wrote a thing about how to take a sabbatical. I think you’ll like it!

(Subscribe to my personal newsletter to get a heads up every time I publish something like this)

Quick links:

#1: What Jack Dorsey and Sheryl Sandberg Taught Congress and Vice Versa
  • When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg took the stand in front of Congress earlier this month, it was easy to expect no progress and to be cynical.
  • But, for the first time, lawmakers seem to acknowledge the complexity of the issue.
  • “Contrary to much of what is happening in Washington these days, Wednesday’s tech hearings showed a political system earnestly wrestling with issues for which there are no easy answers”
The Takeaway: Nothing has been “solved” but that’s the wrong way to approach this. The truth scope of this problem is finally being grappled with (Facebook now has 7,500 moderators). This won’t be tempered with one law, or one policy change. It will take a combination of regulation, social norms (see the opening essay, above), and economic incentives to do the job. But I have optimism that the first amendment and online platforms will live in harmony. Eventually.

Go Deeper: Not present at the hearings? Google. Which has added to the questions surrounding the disappearance of Alphabet CEO Larry Page, who is said to often be on his Caribbean Island.

Go Subterranean: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been on a listening tour, appearing on shows from Sean Hannity, Jay Rosen, and many many more podcasts and interview shows.

Go International: “For all the recent hand-wringing in the United States over Facebook’s monopolistic power, the mega-platform’s grip on the Philippines is something else entirely.” A political opponent of the president there has been jailed for what many suspect to be just rumors spread via social media. And Facebook seems to think these issues can be solved via algorithms and machine learning.

#2: Nuance: A Love Story
  • A rare personal essay on The Discourse: the story how Meghan Daum found herself drawn to the counterculture of the “intellectual dark web” in the midst of a divorce.
  • It’s the rare self-aware story of a political awakening, one uniquely suited to our time
  • “Just as you can’t fight Trumpism with tribalism, you can’t fight tribalism with a tribe. Nor, I’ve come to realize, can I count on nuance in the public discourse to save me from the confusion inside my head.”
The Takeaway: This is my favorite piece of writing in the past two months. Set aside some time and read it.

#3: Well-Off Millennials Are All Julia Salazar. I Wish We Weren’t
  • New York State Senate candidate Julia Salazar has been caught lying about her background claiming she emigrated from Columbia (she was born in Florida) and that she had a middle-class upbringing.
  • This and several claims were disputed by her family.
  • However, lots of young people exaggerate their backgrounds. Why?
The Takeaway: This is part of the issue with the “oppression olympics” aspect of our discourse: authority is given to those who have struggled the most. So it creates an incentive for lots of (especially young people) to lie or embellish a troubling past.

#4: Why I Changed the Way I Write about Police Shootings
  • Responding to police shootings (like most issues) can be tremendously complicated. No shooting is the same.
  • Yet the issue is typically boiled down to “sides” who can always find edge cases to support their claims.
  • The author, David French, admits “when I look back at my older writings, I see them as contributing more to a particular partisan narrative than to a tough, clear-eyed search for truth.”
The Takeaway: A rare mea culpa, mixed with an impassioned defense, mixed with candid complexity. I wish more people wrote about issues the way French does here.

#5: Facebook’s idea of ‘fact-checking’: Censoring ThinkProgress because conservative site told them to
  • Facebook works with third-party fact checkers to mark stories as “disputed.”
  • This, of course, is fraught will complexity, conflicts, and tough choices.
  • For example, The Weekly Standard, a conservative-leaning publication flagged an article by ThinkProgress, a liberal-leaning publication. So how does Facebook manage this conflict of interest?
The Takeaway: This is being framed as Facebook “catering to [insert political side].” But that's only the surface. The larger issue? There are no objective rules for what is “allowed” or responded to on Facebook. Instead of having sound principles, Facebook is just fighting fires.

More context: Recode on Facebook when they started doing this in 2017.

#6: This Group Posed As Russian Trolls And Bought Political Ads On Google. It Was Easy.
  • Two years after a collective freakout about Russian meddling in our elections, several online platforms said they instituted measures to prevent foreign actors from influencing Americans.
  • But a group was able to purchase Google Ads using the credentials of a Kremlin-linked troll farm
  • The group “spent just $35 on its test ads, which generated more than 20,000 impressions and some 200 click-throughs”
The Takeaway: Maybe because it was such a small amount, but this… doesn’t engender any confidence.

📈Chart of the week

Most Facebook users don’t understand how the newsfeed works (via Pew)


🐦Tweet thread of the week

@matthewstoller is a good follow for you contrarians out there. Here, he details that the “privilege” dynamic is subtractive and often is more of a means of making (usually liberal) white people feel better. (Subscribers may remember this essay by Reihan Salam making a similar case).

A long twitter thread. Sorry.

🎨Cartoon of the week


Thank you for making room in your crowded inbox for The Discourse. The next issue will arrive fresh on 9/30, maybe. See you then!

— Sean

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