I’ve been hopscotching around the essays at Quillette this past week and thoroughly enjoying myself. The platform seems largely dedicated to dissent-style pieces taking aim at a perceived loss of intellectual diversity in American political discourse and to tweaking centrist conventional wisdom. (Check out, “Who’s Afraid of Tribalism?” for example.) Quilette’s bent is largely, though not entirely, toward a more conservative view of things, one that is often refracted through the lens of its academic institution authors. Although I’ve found the majority of the pieces ultimately unpersuasive—that is, I’m not dissuaded from my usually progressive viewpoints—the reading has felt like a tonic for the closed-system echo chamber of my peer group and social media.
Speaking of social media, I missed this batch of stories from 2016 when investigative journalists at ProPublica found that Facebook’s system was letting advertisers exclude people by race from seeing certain ads:
When we showed Facebook’s racial exclusion options to a prominent civil rights lawyer John Relman, he gasped and said, “This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find.”
That was in October 2016. A year later, after the company promised repeatedly to fix the problem, ProPublica found that Facebook was still discriminating based on race:
Last week, ProPublica bought dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook, but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users, such as African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers. All of these groups are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act… Every single ad was approved within minutes.
The only ad that took longer than three minutes to be approved by Facebook sought to exclude potential renters “interested in Islam, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam.” It was approved after 22 minutes.
Needless to say, this practice is illegal, not to mention seriously immoral. Yet that was hardly the only problem that ProPublica reporters found in the company’s advertising model. In certain circumstances, Facebook’s ad algorithm actively prompted clearly racist topics:
ProPublica reported Thursday that it was able to use Facebook’s advertising platform to target users who had expressed interest in topics such as “Jew hater” and “German Schutzstaffel,” also known as the Nazi SS. And when ProPublica’s reporters were in the process of typing “Jew hater,” Facebook’s ad-targeting tool went so far as to recommend related topics such as “how to burn Jews” and “History of ‘why Jews ruin the world.’ ”
…when Slate tried something similar Thursday, our ad targeting “Kill Muslimic Radicals,” “Ku-Klux-Klan,” and more than a dozen other plainly hateful groups was similarly approved. In our case, it took Facebook’s system just one minute to give the green light.
I stumbled upon this when researching Facebook’s latest transgressions, which are both political and personal.
First, the political. As the New York Times reported, even at this late date and after multiple violations, Facebook is still failing to properly label and disclose political ads. The Stranger in Seattle has been reporting on this problem for at least a year, and now they’ve teamed up with reporters from ProPublica to track Facebook’s often unreported political advertising. It’s no wonder that Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson is suing Facebook for failing to disclose political ads. In fact, ProPublica reports that Facebook’s practice appears to be in blatant disregard of December 2017 rulings by the Federal Election Commission.
Second, the personal. The New York Times, and many others, reported that Facebook is grossly violating users’ privacy standards, probably also violating terms the company reached with the Federal Trade Commission:
Facebook allowed the device companies access to the data of users’ friends without their explicit consent, even after declaring that it would no longer share such information with outsiders. Some device makers could retrieve personal information even from users’ friends who believed they had barred any sharing.
I highly recommend putting your thinking cap on and getting reflective as you read David Kroman’s work about uncovering an ugly truth: Seattle residents are less willing to tax themselves to address homelessness than they were 1.5 years ago.
Glenn Harris, founder of ColorLines, analyzes how people can go beyond implicit bias training to address systemic wrongs. Not to thwart Starbucks, it’s a good start, but we all have some serious work to do.
“Fixing a crack in the floor is futile if the house was built on an uneven foundation—we must fix both. When it comes to race, it’s not just about biased individuals; it’s about biased systems”
Keep an eye on what Protect Washington is doing to get that “fee on pollution” through after a decade of failed carbon taxes, written by Kate Yoder.
Back in September 2017, a Black Lives Matter leader had the chance to speak to a giant rally of Trump supporters. He said:
“I don’t think my Bible is any different from yours when it says ‘love thy neighbor. . . . Black Lives Matter is not anti-cop, we are anti-bad-cop. If a cop is bad he needs to be fired like a bad plumber, like a bad lawyer, like a bad politician.. . . I am an American, and the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country you can mobilize to fix it. If we really want to make America great, we do it together.” Then he shook hands with the Trump supporters, took an American flag that was handed to him, and raised it high.
Listen to This American Life Episode 645: My Effing First Amendment. What happens when students and professors speak out on campus—who can speak, and who gets heard?
Barbara Kingsolver’s 2003 essay on genetic modification, “A Fist in the Eye of God”, has shaped much of my thinking on food and agriculture over the years, and I have yet to see any convincing rebuttal. Here’s a great analysis of it from a philosophy of science perspective.
Speaking of food and agriculture, here’s yet another research paper about the carbon and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet.
We're in our Spring Fund Drive—make a gift now to support more research like this!
As the struggle to get rich people to eat less meat illustrates, changing culture is hard. And hard work. And often, emotionally exhausting work. But every now and then we make an unexpected leap forward. The recent social evolution of Ireland gives me hope for humanity.
Speaking of culture change, here are some interesting thoughts on raising boys in the #MeToo era.
And MidAmerican Energy’s recent decision to become the first 100% renewable investor-owned utility gives me hope for Iowa. And maybe America. We’ll see.