COVID Diary #6: Three discouraging updates on religious gatherings

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

Rather than writing a personal essay, I thought I’d follow up Diary #5 with some updates on religious gatherings during the pandemic. The early returns are discouraging.

In Mendocino County, California, a church that was apparently doing everything right has ended up fostering an outbreak of COVID-19. According to The Mendocino Voice, only three or four people were at the Redwood Valley Assembly of God Church for a live-streamed service that took place on May 10. Three, including the pastor, have been hospitalized, and the service has now been implicated in the infection of six people.

Ironically, the day after the service Pastor Jack McMilin posted on Facebook a photo of someone holding a sign reading “Why Can We Go to Walmart but Not to Church!??” Still, McMilin can’t be blamed for what happened. Live-streaming is the responsible way to hold religious gatherings these days, and we’ll be tuning in to our church’s service in a few minutes.

• Today’s New York Times — which has published a dramatic front page commemorating the nearly 100,000 Americans who have died — reports that 40 people who attended a service at a Baptist church in Frankfurt have become infected despite practicing social-distancing.

“We followed all the rules,” said a church leader, Wladimir Pritzkau. Ironically, the service was held on May 10, the same day as the Redwood Valley service. Based on the photo accompanying the story, the German service looks as safe as anyone could expect. But it wasn’t — something to think about as religious gatherings resume in Massachusetts.

• Finally, I don’t want to overlook White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s despicable performance at a briefing on Friday. Pressed repeatedly on President Trump’s demand that churches be allowed to reopen, she said, “Boy, it is interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.” Oh, those godless commies in the media.

Fortunately, Reuters reporter Jeff Mason pushed back, saying:

I object to that. I go to church. I’m dying to go back to church. The question we are asking you and would have liked to have asked the president and Dr. [Deborah] Birx is, is it safe? If it is not safe, is the president trying to encourage that, or does the president agree with Dr. Birx that people should wait.

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The Atlantic is growing. So why is billionaire owner Laurene Jobs gutting it?

Laurene Powell Jobs. Photo (cc) 2018 by TED Conference.

There are good billionaire media owners and bad. Laurene Powell Jobs has now crossed the line from good to bad.

The Atlantic on Thursday laid off 68 employees, amounting to 17% of its staff, because advertising and its lucrative events business have cratered. Twenty-two of those employees worked in editorial. At the same time, though, the magazine has added 90,000 paid subscribers (including me) since the beginning of March on the strength of its excellent COVID-19 coverage. To cut now strikes me as the equivalent of consumer fraud.

The big question is why Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, would buy a venerable media property if not to provide it with some runway during a crisis. I get that even billionaires want to build sustainable businesses. But that’s not what this is about. This is a short-term move and an insult to all those new subscribers that Jobs presumably wants to retain — not to mention the staff members who worked so hard to attract those new readers.

Another billionaire owner, the celebrity surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, recently started slashing and burning at the Los Angeles Times at the first sign of COVID-related trouble, tearing down what he had only recently built up. Again, it makes no sense. If they believed in their strategy before the pandemic, then owners should keep doing what they were doing, provided they can afford it. Jobs and Soon-Shiong can afford it.

Other billionaire owners have taken a different approach. Jeff Bezos has stayed the course at The Washington Post. John Henry has made some cuts here and there at The Boston Globe, but there have been no reports of full-time newsroom staffers being let go, even though ad revenues are down 35%. Then again, Henry wants to hold on to the Globe’s new digital subscribers. Glen Taylor, the billionaire who owns the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, has kept his newsroom intact as well.

There’s an old story that during World War II, when newsprint was rationed, the New York Herald Tribune decided to cut its news coverage so that it could keep its advertising. The New York Times did the opposite — it doubled down on journalism and cut advertising instead. After the war, the Times built a lead that it never relinquished, while the Herald Tribune entered a long decline and went out of business in 1966.

It’s a lesson that Jobs, Soon-Shiong and other billionaire owners ought to ponder. The pandemic will end at some point. If they’re unwilling to sustain their media properties through these bad times, you have to wonder why they bought them.

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Conspiracy Nation: Why Trump Jr.’s smear of Biden was even worse than it seemed

WGBH News illustration by Emily Judem.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. posted a shockingly offensive message on Instagram claiming that former Vice President Joe Biden is a child molester. Next to an image of Biden appeared the words “See you later, alligator!” Below was a photo of an alligator with the retort “In a while, pedophile!” (No, I won’t link to it.)

Outrage came swiftly. “The dangerous and untrue charge of pedophilia is the new marker — so far — of how low the Trump campaign will go to smear Biden,” wrote Chris Cillizza at CNN.com. Jonathan Martin of The New York Times called it “an incendiary and baseless charge.” In The Guardian, Martin Pengelly said “most observers” (was that qualifier really necessary?) regarded it as “beyond the pale even in America’s toxic political climate.”

What few analysts noticed, though, was that Trump Jr.’s vile accusation, which he later claimed was a joke, lined up perfectly with a conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Bubbling out of the darkest corners of the internet, the theory claims, in broad strokes, that President Donald Trump is secretly working to destroy a plot led by the Clintons — but of course! — and other Democrats who engage in child abuse and cannibalism. And in order to defeat these malign forces we must heed the cryptic messages of Q, an insider who is helping Trump rout the forces of evil and save the world.

QAnon, in effect, is the ur-theory connecting everything from Pizzagate to paranoia about the “deep state” to regarding impeachment as a “hoax,” as Trump has put it. The Trumps have dabbled in QAnon from time to time as a way of signaling their most wild-eyed supporters that they’re on board. But there’s no exaggerating how dangerous all of this is.

We are living, unfortunately, in a golden age of conspiracy theories. Some, like Alex Jones of Infowars infamy, claim that mass shootings are actually carried out by “crisis actors” in order to give the government a rationale to seize everyone’s guns. Then there’s the anti-vaccine movement, currently standing in the way of any rational response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Indeed, a widely watched video called “Plandemic” falsely claims, among other things, that face masks make you sick and that people who’ve had flu shots are more likely to get COVID.

There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories, just as there’s nothing new about so-called fake news. Never mind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the subject of a new, weirdly compelling 17-minute song-poem by Bob Dylan called “Murder Most Foul.” A century earlier, there were those who blamed (take your pick) Confederate President Jefferson Davis or Pope Pius IX for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

But conspiracy theorizing in the 21st century is supercharged by the internet, with a significant assist from Trump. Trump has indulged not just QAnon but also Alex Jones, the anti-vaxxers and all manner of foolishness about the deep state — the belief that the U.S. government is run by a shadowy cabal of bureaucrats and military officials who are seeking to undermine the president. At its heart, that’s what Trump seems to be referring to when he tweets about “Obamagate!,” a scandalous crime lacking both a scandal and a crime. And let’s not forget that Trump began his political career with a conspiracy theory that he made his own: falsely claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was thus ineligible to serve as president.

In recent days, the media have converged in an attempt to explain and debunk these various conspiracy theories. Last week, public radio’s “On the Media” devoted a segment to QAnon and “Plandemic.” The investigative website ProPublica has published a guide on how to reason with believers. The American Press Institute has offered tips for reporters. The Conversation, which brings academic research to a wider public, has posted an article headlined “Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking.”

By far the most ambitious journalistic effort is a special project published by The Atlantic called “Shadowland.” And the heart of it is a nearly 10,000-word article by the executive editor, Adrienne LaFrance, profiling the QAnon phenomenon and how it has infected thousands of ordinary people.

“QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them,” LaFrance writes. “But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end.”

What makes QAnon, “Plandemic” and other conspiracies so powerful is that believers have an explanation for every countervailing truth. Experts and others in a position of authority are automatically cast as part of the conspiracy, whether you’re talking about Dr. Anthony Fauci, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

“For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it,” LaFrance writes. This type of belief system is sometimes referred to as “epistemic closure” — the idea is that believers live in a self-contained bubble that explains everything and that can’t be penetrated by contrary facts.

What can the media do in the face of such intense beliefs? In all likelihood, the answer is: not much. There is a school of thought among some press critics that if only news organizations would push harder, prevaricate less and devote themselves more fully to truth-telling rather than to reporting “both sides,” then a new dawn of rationality would surely follow. But that fundamentally misunderstands the problem, because the mainstream, reality-based media are regarded as part of the conspiracy. Journalism is grounded in the Enlightenment values that LaFrance invokes — the expectation that false beliefs will give way when confronted by facts and truth. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today.

It should be noted that after Donald Trump Jr. posted his hideous attack on Joe Biden, Instagram neither deleted his post nor took down his account. Instagram, as you probably know, is owned by Facebook and is thus firmly ensconced within the Zuckerborg, which wants us all to believe that it is so very much concerned about truth and hate speech.

Thus does such garbage become normalized. You see a reference to Biden as a pedophile, and it seems off the wall. But then you remember he’s apologized for being handsy with women. And wasn’t he accused of sexual assault? And now look — there’s something on the internet about Democrats and pedophilia. Gosh, how are we supposed to know what to think?

Welcome to our nightmare.

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In a new book, political scientist Andrew Hacker argues that Trump can’t win

Nearly every poll says the same thing: Joe Biden is beating Donald Trump nationally, but it’s closer in the swing states, and by no means should we rule out a second term for Trump. For those of us who believe Trump represents an existential threat, it’s a nerve-wracking prospect, conjuring up nightmares from 2016 all over again.

But not to worry, writes Andrew Hacker in his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party.” Hacker, a political scientist based at Queens College who’s best known for his book “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” argues that 2016 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. He opens thusly:

There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term. Nor is this wishful thinking. Compelling evidence abounds that anyone the Democrats nominate will win the popular vote, and by a margin to easily carry the Electoral College. Republicans down the ballot will suffer a similar demise, losing even more House seats, and very likely the Senate.

Among other things, Hacker argues that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely unappealing candidate who combined arrogance with a sense of entitlement (I don’t agree, but I know plenty of people who do); that massive Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterm elections foreshadows a blue wave this November; and that the electorate continues to favor the Democrats demographically as it becomes less white, less straight and better educated.

Hacker wrote “Downfall” before the Democrats had settled on Biden as their presumptive nominee and before anyone had heard of COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether Biden was the best choice to do battle with Trump. But polling shows that the president’s cruel and incompetent response to the pandemic is harming whatever chances he had of being re-elected.

The argument that Hacker offers is in line with that of Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist based at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank. Bitecofer made a splash earlier this year with a new election model that said Trump has virtually no chance of winning, mainly because unusually high Democratic turnout this fall is assured.

“In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates,” Bitecofer was quoted as saying in Politico Magazine. “What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated.”

Another political scientist, Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School, argues in a new book that the Republican Party has guaranteed its demise by moving to the extreme right, by ignoring demographic trends, by taking dictation from right-wing media, by showering tax cuts upon the wealthy, and by disregarding democratic norms such as voting rights, through which “it has made lasting enemies and created instruments of power that can be used against it.”

In so doing, Patterson writes in “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?,” the GOP has abdicated its role as the necessary center-right counterbalance to the center-left Democrats.

All of this is encouraging if you want to see Trump leave office next January. And the data suggesting that he’ll lose is compelling. But we’ve all been here before, haven’t we? Patterson, after all, is also the author of the definitive analysis of how media malpractice contributed to Trump’s election four years ago — and, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan laments, here we go again. So let’s see how it plays out.

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COVID Diary #5: Gov. Baker gives the go-ahead for houses of worship to reopen

St. Nicholas Church, Transylvania, Romania. Photo (cc) 2014 by fusion-of-horizons

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

Every Sunday evening for the past couple of months, we get together with three other couples from our church via Zoom. Our church has been holding virtual services on Facebook Live, YouTube and local access. They’re doing a great job, but the audio is less than optimal and, needless to say, being together is the main reason why most of us attend services.

Last night we started talking about what church might look like as the shutdown starts to ease. Our 10 a.m. service tends to be cheek-by-jowl. How could we maintain social-distancing? Would we go?

A short time later we got a partial answer. According to new guidelines from Gov. Charlie Baker, houses of worship will be allowed to open as long as they are at no more than 40% capacity. Those attending will have to wear face masks and stay at least six feet away from anyone who isn’t a family member. I would imagine that singing and communion will be banned, too.

This strikes me as pushing the envelope. We attend an Episcopal church, and according to our diocese, churches will remain closed until July 1. I take that as a date when we will reassess, not necessarily reopen. My other denomination is Unitarian, and the Unitarian Universalist Association is telling congregations that they should be prepared to be closed until May 2021.

Through this crisis, Gov. Baker has taken a cautious, data-based approach, but this feels like giving in to loud voices among the religious community who want to reopen regardless of the health implications. I’ll be interested to see what medical experts have to say, but we’ll be sticking with Facebook Live for the foreseeable future.

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Follow the money

Two in-depth reports Friday rendered what was left of Tara Reade’s credibility in tatters.

The more important was a story by the PBS NewsHour. Lisa Desjardins and Daniel Bush interviewed 74 former Joe Biden staff members, 62 of them women. And though they said Biden sometimes had trouble keeping his hands to himself (something Biden acknowledged and apologized for last year), they emphatically denied that they’d ever heard of him engaging in sexual assault.

“The people who spoke to the NewsHour,” they wrote, “described largely positive and gratifying experiences working for Biden, painting a portrait of someone who was ahead of his time in empowering women in the workplace.”

Crucially, an on-the-record source told them that there were problems with Reade’s job performance that may have led to her termination. And the place where the alleged assault took place was entirely out in the open, making it nearly impossible for Biden to have done what she claims without being seen.

Also Friday, Natasha Korecki reported for Politico that Reade has spent much of her adult life as a grifter, lying and cheating people out of money — but never, in the recollection of the people she interviewed, saying anything negative about Biden.

“Over the past decade,” Korecki wrote, “Reade has left a trail of aggrieved acquaintances in California’s Central Coast region who say they remember two things about her — she spoke favorably about her time working for Biden, and she left them feeling duped.”

In the weeks after I wrote about the Reade case for WGBH News, I’ve gone from thinking there was a reasonable chance that she was telling the truth to now believing it’s highly likely that she made the whole thing up.

But why? Could it have something to do with her weird praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin? What should we make of the fact that her lawyer, who’s representing her for free, is a Trump donor? Or the fact that another lawyer who’s acted on her behalf has ties to Russian propaganda operations?

Ultimately Reade’s story can’t be definitively proven or disproven, but the media have done a good job of laying out the facts and showing how far-fetched it is. Now we need to know who, if anyone, was behind what appears to be a classic political dirty trick. Keep digging.

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The Boston Globe reaches a long-sought goal: 200,000 digital subscribers

Photo (cc) 2006 by MyEyeSees.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Boston Globe now has more than 200,000 digital subscribers, editor Brian McGrory said at a Zoom gathering of the Society of Professional Journalists’ New England chapter earlier this week.

Much of the recent growth, he said, has been driven by interest in the Globe’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a follow-up email, McGrory told me that the number of digital-only subscribers has risen from about 145,000 just before the pandemic to nearly 205,000 today.

“It took us 7 years to get our first 100,000 digital-only subscribers, and about 11 months to get to 200,000,” he said, adding: “The rise has been substantial, gratifying, and important in terms of supporting our journalism…. We’re the only metro paper that could support the current size of its newsroom through revenue from digital subscribers.”

That 200,000 mark has been a goal for a long time. When I interviewed McGrory in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” he told me, “If we got to 100,000 things would be feeling an awful lot better. And if we got to 200,000, I think we’d be well on our way to establishing a truly sustainable future.”

This week’s landmark comes with some caveats, though.

First, most of those new subscriptions were sold at a steep discount, generally in the range of $1 a month for the first six months. Given that the Globe’s profitability (pre-COVID, anyway) was built on an industry-high rate of $30 a month, the paper will presumably face a challenge in keeping those new subscribers.

Second, although we’ve been heading into the post-advertising era for quite a while, the pandemic has sent ad revenues across the newspaper business into a steep downward plunge. As the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor wrote for Nieman Lab in late March, “Advertising, which has been doing a slow disappearing act since 2008, has been cut in half in the space of two weeks. It’s unlikely to come back quickly — the parts that do come back at all.”

Nor has the Globe been immune from budget cuts. Co-op students, summer internships and freelance were cut right at the start of the shutdown. Don Seiffert recently reported in the Boston Business Journal that there have been an unspecified number of layoffs in advertising and other non-news operations, as well as reduced retirement contributions, in response to “significant” reductions in revenue.

Still, that’s minimal compared to what’s taking place across the newspaper business. The New York Times reported several weeks ago that some 36,000 news employees throughout the United States have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay cut. Many papers have cut back on the number of print days or eliminated print altogether. Some are closing. Poynter Online is keeping a list of cuts, and it is long and daunting.

The three leading national papers — The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — have been exceptions to the death-of-newspapers narrative for several years. But among the big regional papers, the Globe is doing better than all but a handful. In late 2018, publisher John Henry said the paper had achieved profitability. A year ago, Joshua Benton reported in Nieman Lab that the Globe had become the first U.S. regional paper to sign up more digital subscribers than weekday print subscribers.

But print still accounts for a lot of revenue in the newspaper business. Last week the Times reported that its shrinking print edition still accounted for more than half of its revenues. The Globe charges about $1,300 for seven-day print delivery. That’s a lot of money, but its print subscriber base continues to shrink. According to the Globe’s most recent filing with the Alliance for Audited Media, weekday print circulation is under 85,000 and Sunday print is about 147,000.

During the SPJ session, McGrory was asked why the Globe has kept COVID-19 coverage behind a paywall given that some other news organizations have made it free. McGrory responded that pandemic coverage is already free at two other Globe-owned sites: Stat News, which covers health and life sciences, and Boston.com. He added that he didn’t see cost as an obstacle in light of the discounts.

Via email, I asked McGrory about what steps the Globe was taking to keep all of its new subscribers once they were asked to pay $30 a month. “We’ve significantly ratcheted up the rate at which we’re graduating people from the low introductory rate into the full rate,” he replied. “We were doing really well with that retention before the coronavirus hit, and far better since.”

He added: “To keep the new subscribers who are part of this surge, we’re doing a lot of outreach — letters from notable staff members and the like. We’re also doing gifts, a possible loyalty program, virtual events for new subscribers…. There’s more. These readers are so vital to our future, and we want to let them know that. Of course, the most important thing is to feed them consistently strong and relentlessly interesting journalism. We will be in a huge news cycle for many, many months, between the virus and the massive economic disruption that it’s caused, inequality laid devastatingly bare, an epic presidential race, a reordering of so many things core to so many of our lives, condensed sports seasons, and on and on.”

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How the right-wing media weaponize unvetted science

Santa Clara, circa 1910. Photo via Wikipedia.

My Northeastern colleagues Aleszu Bajak and Jeff Howe have written a commentary for The New York Times about how the right-wing media weaponized a Stanford study that suggested COVID-19 infections in Santa Clara, California, might be far more widespread than had been previously thought.

The study showed the infection rate might be 85 times higher than the official estimate. What excited the right about this was that it would mean a much lower death rate — possibly as low as 0.12%. So, gee, let’s open up, shall we?

The larger point Bajak and Howe make in their commentary, complete with data visualizations, is the danger of unvetted science ripping through the media so that it can be exploited for partisan purposes. The Stanford study, a so-called preprint that had not yet been peer-reviewed, turned out to be flawed. That’s not to say there isn’t some valuable data in it. But, as Bajak and Howe write:

The instant sharing of valuable data has accelerated our race for vaccines, antivirals and better tests. But this welter of information, much of it conflicting, has sown confusion and discord with a general public not accustomed to the high level of uncertainty inherent in science.

As it turns out, I spent three hours watching Fox News’ prime-time lineup on April 20, a day when yet another not-ready-for-prime-time study was making the rounds. This one was from the University of Southern California, which suggested — according to a press release (!) — that “infections from the new coronavirus are far more widespread — and the fatality rate much lower — in L.A. County than previously thought.” The release went on to note that the data showed the infection rate might be 28 to 55 times higher than experts had estimated several weeks earlier.

Tucker Carlson touted it. So did Laura Ingraham. “They were predicting doom and gloom,” she asserted, claiming that the response to COVID-19 would have been completely different if officials knew the fatality rate was so low.

Healthline, a respected source of health-related information, analyzed both studies in some depth and took a measured approach in assessing their importance: “There are disagreements about one study’s validity, and experts point out the statistical models and manner that participants were chosen might have biased the results. Although there’s agreement that the findings are plausible.”

What isn’t changed by any of this is that more than 80,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 in just a few months. And that toll would have been much higher if not for the extraordinary actions taken by state and local governments.

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Why Facebook’s new oversight board is destined to be an exercise in futility

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is among the board members. Photo (cc) 2012 by Internaz.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

To illustrate how useless the newly unveiled Facebook oversight board will be, consider the top 10 fake-news stories shared by its users in 2019.

As reported by Business Insider, the list included such classics as “NYC Coroner who Declared Epstein death ‘Suicide’ worked for the Clinton foundation making 500k a year up until 2015,” “Omar [as in U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar] Holding Secret Fundraisers with Islamic Groups Tied to Terror,” and “Pelosi Diverts $2.4 Billion From Social Security To Cover Impeachment Costs.”

None of these stories was even remotely true. Yet none of them would have been removed by the oversight board. You see, as Mathew Ingram pointed out in his Columbia Journalism Review newsletter, the 20-member board is charged only with deciding whether content that has already been taken down should be restored.

Now, it’s fair to acknowledge that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has an impossible task in bringing his Frankenstein’s monster under control. But that doesn’t mean any actual good is going to come of this exercise.

The board, which will eventually be expanded to 40, includes a number of distinguished people. Among them: Alan Rusbridger, the respected former editor of The Guardian, as well as international dignitaries and a Nobel Prize laureate. It has independent funding, Zuckerberg has agreed that its decisions will be binding, and eventually its purview may expand to removing false content.

But, fundamentally, this can’t work because Facebook was not designed to be controllable. In The New York Times, technology columnist Kara Swisher explained the problem succinctly. “Facebook’s problems are structural in nature,” she wrote. “It is evolving precisely as it was designed to, much the same way the coronavirus is doing what it is meant to do. And that becomes a problem when some of what flows through the Facebook system — let’s be fair in saying that much of it is entirely benign and anodyne — leads to dangerous and even deadly outcomes.”

It’s not really about the content. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but what makes Facebook a threat to democracy is the way it serves up that content. Its algorithms — which are not well understood by anyone, even at Facebook — are aimed at keeping you engaged so that you stay on the site. And the most effective way to drive engagement is to show users content that makes them angry and upset.

Are you a hardcore supporter of President Donald Trump? If so, you are likely to see memes suggesting that COVID-19 is some sort of Democratic plot to defeat him for re-election — as was the case with a recent semi-fake-news story reporting that hospitals are being paid to attribute illnesses and deaths to the coronavirus even when they’re not. Or links to the right-wing website PJ Media aimed at stirring up outrage over “weed, opioids, booze and ciggies” being given to homeless people in San Francisco who’ve been quarantined. If you are a Trump opponent, you can count on Occupy Democrats to pop up in your feed and keep you in a constant state of agitation.

Now, keep in mind that all of this — even the fake stuff — is free speech that’s protected by the First Amendment. And all of this, plus much worse, is readily available on the open web. What makes Facebook so pernicious is that it amplifies the most divisive speech so that you’ll stay longer and be exposed to more advertising.

What is the oversight board going to do about this? Nothing.

“The new Facebook review board will have no influence over anything that really matters in the world,” wrote longtime Facebook critic Siva Vaidhyanathan at Wired, adding: “The board can’t say anything about the toxic content that Facebook allows and promotes on the site. It will have no authority over advertising or the massive surveillance that makes Facebook ads so valuable. It won’t curb disinformation campaigns or dangerous conspiracies…. And most importantly, the board will have no say over how the algorithms work and thus what gets amplified or muffled by the real power of Facebook.”

In fact, Facebook’s algorithm has already been trained to ban or post warning labels on some speech. In practice, though, such mechanized censorship is aggravatingly inept. Recently the seal of disapproval was slapped on an ad called “Mourning in America,” by the Lincoln Project, a group of “Never Trump” Republicans, because the fact-checking organization PolitiFact had called it partly false. The Lincoln Project, though, claimed that PolitiFact was wrong.

I recently received a warning for posting a photo of Benito Mussolini as a humorous response to a picture of Trump. No doubt the algorithm was too dumb to understand that I was making a political comment and was not expressing my admiration for Il Duce. Others have told me they’ve gotten warnings for referring to trolls as trolls, or for calling unmasked protesters against COVID-19 restrictions “dumber than dirt.”

So what is Facebook good for? I find it useful for staying in touch with family and friends, for promoting my work and for discussing legitimate news stories. Beyond that, much of it is a cesspool of hate speech, fake news and propaganda.

If it were up to me, I’d ban the algorithm. Let people post what they want, but don’t let Facebook robotically weaponize divisive content in order to drive up its profit margins. Zuckerberg himself has said that he expects the government will eventually impose some regulations. Well, this is one way to regulate it without actually making judgments about what speech will be allowed and what speech will be banned.

Meanwhile, I’ll watch with amusement as the oversight board attempts to wrestle this beast into submission. As Kara Swisher said, it “has all the hallmarks of the United Nations, except potentially much less effective.”

The real goal, I suspect, is to provide cover for Zuckerberg and make it appear that Facebook is doing something. In that respect, this initiative may seem harmless — unless it lulls us into complacency about more comprehensive steps that could be taken to reduce the harm that is being inflicted on all of us.

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How Google destroyed the value of digital advertising

New York Times media columnist Ben Smith reports on efforts to compel Google and Facebook to turn over some of their advertising revenues to the news organizations whose content they repurpose without compensation.

The debate over what platform companies owe the news business goes back many years and has come to resemble a theological dispute in its passions and the certainty expressed by those on either side. Indeed, longtime digital-news pundit Jeff Jarvis immediately weighed in with a smoking hot Twitter thread responding to Smith.

I’m not going to resolve that debate here. Rather, I want to offer some context. First, something like 90% of all new spending on digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook. Second, Google’s auction system for brokering ads destroyed any hopes news publishers had of making actual money from online advertising. How bad is it? Here’s an except from my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls”:

Nicco Mele, the former senior vice president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who’s now the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School [he has since moved on], explained at a Shorenstein seminar why a digital advertising strategy based on clicks simply doesn’t work for news organizations that are built around original (which is to say expensive) journalism. “Google has fundamentally shaped the future of advertising by charging on a performance basis — cost per click,” he said. “And that has been a giant, unimaginable anchor weight dragging down all advertising pricing.”

For example, Mele said that a full-page weekday ad in the LA Times, which would reach 500,000 people, costs about $50,000. To reach the same 500,000 people on LATimes.com costs about $7,000. And if that ad appeared on LATimes.com via Google, it might bring in no more than $20. “Models built on scale make zero sense to me,” Mele said, “because I just don’t see any future there.” Yet it has led even our best newspapers to supplement their high-quality journalism with a pursuit of clicks for the sake of clicks.

From $50,000 to $7,000 to $20. This is why the advertising model for digital news is broken, and it’s why newspapers have gone all-in on paid subscriptions.

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