Facebook Workers Ask: Did We Help Trump Win?

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Marcin Wichary | Flickr

Facebook is where a lot of the 2016 campaign played out, and it’s also where much of the election post-mortem is focusing. This is hardly the first electoral autopsy to raise issues like echo chambers, fake news, and media misfires — we had all of those in each of the last three presidential cycles, too.

What’s new about the debate this time is how it’s playing out among Facebook employees themselves. They’re beginning to ask a question that every NewCo worker sooner or later faces: Does the platform my company is building promote a mission and set of values that I believe in?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a statement Saturday that said, essentially: Facebook aims to give everybody a voice. People don’t always say things we agree with. But people are basically good! And less than 1 percent of the stories on Facebook are fake.

If that sounds a little simplistic to you, you’re not alone. (Paul Ford: “For Mark Zuckerberg to say that less than 1% of news on Facebook is a hoax is a little like saying that less than 1% of your brain is malignant cancer.”) Also: As Rick Webb points out, “less than one percent” at Facebook’s scale amounts to an enormous dirt-pile of misinformation — more than enough to have an impact on an election as close as this one (NewCo Shift).

Some of the smart steps Facebook could take are simple, and they’re already happening fast: If you don’t want Macedonian teenagers circulating ridiculous falsehoods on your network so that they can collect ad revenue, it’s easy enough to cut off their revenue.

But deeper flaws lie in the very structure and design of Facebook itself. There’s something about the news feed that disarms our skepticism and closes our minds, writes Mike Caulfield: “The process that Facebook currently encourages, of looking at these short cards of news stories and forcing you to immediately decide whether to support or not support them, trains people to be extremists.” By scrolling through the feed and thumbs-upping or -downing headlines without reading the articles, we grow susceptible to conspiracy theories and absorb untrustworthy information because it’s shared by people we trust.

In this field of concern, Facebook holds all the data. That’s why it’s so encouraging that some of Facebook’s own employees are rejecting Zuckerberg’s bland excuses and attempting to form a task force to take on the problems the election exposed (Buzzfeed).

Can Facebook reconcile its ideals of inclusion and tolerance and its role in helping Donald Trump win the White House? The answer could shape the company’s future — particularly its ability to keep attracting talented, passionate employees (Meshed Society).

Deport millions, lose billions

Put aside the human and moral cost of president-elect Trump’s plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants (hard as that is to do). Viewed purely as an economic proposition, it’s a disaster (The Washington Post).

A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the hardest-hit industries would be leisure and hospitality, construction, and business services, each of which would likely lose billions. A study by Goldman Sachs finds that, if Trump makes good on his threat to deport two to three million people, gross domestic product would decline by one-half to three-quarters of a percent. (That would take a huge dent out of recent annual increases, which have been in the one to two percent range.)

Plenty of observers doubt that any of this will happen. Then again, it was the most consistent theme of Trump’s campaign, and a failure to follow through could be hard to defend to his followers.

There’s No Silver Lining to this Environmental Cloud

We’ve only scratched the surface of coming to terms with just how bad the Trump administration is likely to be for the environment. Here is a top-line summary from Vox:

“Federal climate policy will all but disappear; participation in international environmental or climate treaties will end; pollution regulations will be reversed, frozen in place, or not enforced; clean energy research, development, and deployment assistance will decline; protections for sensitive areas and ecosystems will be lifted; federal leasing of fossil fuels will expand and accelerate; new Supreme Court appointees will crack down on EPA discretion.”

These changes aren’t necessarily Trump’s own priorities, but they are dear to the hearts of the newly empowered Republican majority in Congress. And with no Democrat in the White House to veto their wishes, only a filibustering Democratic minority in the Senate stands in their way. (The GOP could eliminate the filibuster, too.)

So don’t be surprised to wake up to a wholesale reversal of course on the environment — one that ends a half-century of progress toward cleaner air, water, and energy, and commences a new era of global climate disaster. Maybe China will save us?

You Will Never Face the Trolley Problem

Remember the trolley problem? That’s the hypothetical scenario that keeps coming up in discussions of self-driving auto technology — the one where you have to make a choice between saving a passenger’s life or saving multiple bystander’s lives. (Our editor-in-chief John Battelle wrote about it last month in NewCo Shift.)

There are many different versions of the trolley problem, a philosophical conundrum that dates back half a century. They’re all kind of fascinating. But they’re all dependent on assumptions that make them mostly useless in the real world (Nautilus). Most importantly: They assume that the person (or algorithm) making a decision can have absolute certainty of the consequences of each of the choices.

Life just isn’t like that. We always have to make decisions based on imperfect information and uncertain outcomes. The trolley problem, tantalizing though it may be, simply never comes up.

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