This week, we’re sharing stories from John Lanchester, Bethany Barnes, Stephen Kearse, Warren Ellis, and Soraya Roberts.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke publicly about the role Russian trolls and fake news on Facebook played in shaping public perception and influencing the presidential election. The company has since changed its mission statement from “making the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” The timing is no coincidence. The slogan’s also hogwash. Facebook is concerned with its brand, and with two billion monthly users (there’s 7.4 billion people on earth) and an 18% growth rate, Zuckerberg does not want bad publicity to disrupt the lucrative company’s continued expansion, which is based on the acquisition of free content from users, which it then uses to target users with advertising. Calling Facebook users ‘users’ is fitting, since it was always the public that was being used.
At the London Review of Books, John Lanchester examines three actual books to look closely at what Facebook really is on the inside and how it goes about its data-collecting business. It’s essentially an advertising business, which means, in Lanchester’s words, “Facebook is in the surveillance business.”
Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.
Now that the public knows how Facebook’s fake election stories have created more reader engagement than top New York Times stories, Zuckerberg has a social responsibility to use his powerful platform in a way that doesn’t further erode its users’ society. Instead of factoring in the social costs of social media, though, Facebook remains committed solely to growth and monetization. Google’s public maxim is “Don’t be evil.” Even if you doubt that maxim’s veracity, as consumers, we have to ask ourselves: when a company cares more about monetizing users’ data than about protecting users from a Russian misinformation campaign, why should anyone use their service? In Capitalist America, too many people see it as un-American to say that businesses have a social responsibility. But when it comes to capitalism, we consumers ultimately wield the most power: we can choose not to spend our money or time on businesses who ignore the social costs of their operations. If you’ve been on the verge of deactivating Facebook, now is a good time.
The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind. Much of the video content on the site is stolen from the people who created it. An illuminating YouTube video from Kurzgesagt, a German outfit that makes high-quality short explanatory films, notes that in 2015, 725 of Facebook’s top one thousand most viewed videos were stolen. This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t. It has two priorities, as Martínez explains in Chaos Monkeys: growth and monetisation. It simply doesn’t care where the content comes from. It is only now starting to care about the perception that much of the content is fraudulent, because if that perception were to become general, it might affect the amount of trust and therefore the amount of time people give to the site.
Zuckerberg himself has spoken up on this issue, in a Facebook post addressing the question of ‘Facebook and the election’. After a certain amount of boilerplate bullshit (‘Our goal is to give every person a voice. We believe deeply in people’), he gets to the nub of it. ‘Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 per cent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.’ More than one Facebook user pointed out that in their own news feed, Zuckerberg’s post about authenticity ran next to fake news. In one case, the fake story pretended to be from the TV sports channel ESPN. When it was clicked on, it took users to an ad selling a diet supplement. As the writer Doc Searls pointed out, it’s a double fraud, ‘outright lies from a forged source’, which is quite something to have right slap next to the head of Facebook boasting about the absence of fraud. Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter and founder of the long-read specialist Medium, found the same post by Zuckerberg next to a different fake ESPN story and another piece of fake news purporting to be from CNN, announcing that Congress had disqualified Trump from office. When clicked-through, that turned out to be from a company offering a 12-week programme to strengthen toes. (That’s right: strengthen toes.) Still, we now know that Zuck believes in people. That’s the main thing.
There are a number of suggestive parallels between [Elon] Musk and the Wrights, beyond the obvious ones to do with an interest in flight. The [Wright brothers’ father] had very high standards and set no limits on the intellectual curiosity he encouraged in his children; Musk’s father had the same standards and the same insistence on no limits, but was (is) a tortured and difficult presence, ‘good at making life miserable’, in Musk’s words: ‘He can take any situation no matter how good it is and make it bad.’ The Wrights were poorish, the Musks affluentish, but both grew up with an emphasis on learning things first-hand. ‘It is remarkable how many different things you can get to explode,’ Musk says about his childhood experiments. ‘I’m lucky I have all my fingers.’ One very odd thing is a parallel to do with bullies: Musk was set on and beaten half to death by a gang of thugs at his school in Johannesburg; Wilbur Wright was attacked so badly at the age of 18 – beaten with a hockey stick – that he took years to recover from his injuries and missed a college education as a result. His assailant, Oliver Crook Haugh, went on to become a notorious serial killer. Something about these very bright young men set off the bullies’ hatred for difference.
—John Lanchester, reviewing recent biographies of Elon Musk and the Wright brothers for the London Review of Books.
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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David Roth is a co-founder of, writer for and editor at the sports website The Classical. He writes columns for Sports On Earth and Vice, co-writes The Daily Fix blog-column for the Wall Street Journal online, and writes for The Awl, GQ and other places when there’s time and when they’ll have him. He’s on Twitter, a lot, @david_j_roth.
I don’t keep track, although I probably should, but I’m fairly certain that I read more words in 2012 than I have in any of the previous years of my life. Some of this is because I think that’s the best thing to do when presented with words and most of it is because I’ve read so much stuff for The Classical, which I started with some other people a little over a year ago; a really healthy (or unhealthy, depending) percentage of the words I’ve read have been for that site, and I’ve read a lot of them as an editor. I suppose I should recuse myself from mentioning any of these pieces, and I’ll do so after acknowledging that the majority of my favorite new writers of 2012 were people I worked with on essays written for The Classical. That’s all the plugging-of-site I can do without getting embarrassed.
Best Crime Story
The New Yorker is The New Yorker, and generally seems to operating at a level a tick or two above virtually any other magazine. I am always amazed at the way it turns itself into an ultra-fatuous luxury publication, all drollery about shopping and famous people’s kids and whatever, for a couple of issues a year, but the depth of the talent on that invisible masthead, and the quality of the work that all those people do, is astonishing. The stories that have stuck with me the most from the magazine over the past year, and which are thus pretty much the best thing I read in a magazine over that period, both have to do with crime. One is Sarah Stillman’s piece on the unconscionably irresponsible misuse and exploitation of wildly unprepared (and very much in danger) informants by law enforcement. The other is Nadya Labi’s story on the bleak, wild life of Detroit hit-man Vincent Smothers. (The latter is, sadly, only available to subscribers in the magazine’s online archive.)
There are several larger critiques embedded within each piece—the drug war and its warping effect on a wide array of priorities, in both cases—all of which emerge organically and forcefully through the simple forward movement of the stories. There isn’t necessarily a dazzling sentence or an image or anything similarly flashy that still sizzles in the memory months or even days after reading, but the stories stick all the same. So, yeah: two great New Yorker stories, in a year that had a great many.
Best Political/Media/Political Media Story
There was, certainly, a great deal of good political writing done during the endless election season. I don’t remember any of it, and what I remember I don’t remember particularly fondly, but given the number of words written—all those anonymous strategists and undermine-y underlings speaking tartly off-the-record; the reverent profiles and irreverent takedowns; the trends and themes and memes and so on—it would be surprising if some long piece or two in there wasn’t especially good. Much better and more illuminating, at least to me, was Alex Pareene’s essay for The Baffler on the pervasive and mostly pernicious influence of the repellent and vexingly influential Politico seemed to distill all the things that were infuriating, facile and otherwise wrong about the way we read the election, day by day. It was also a lot of fun to read. Which, about that:
Best Stylistic Trend
There’s no fixed way to write anything, of course. There’s a way that some types of pieces generally sound—a profile reads like this, a review reads like that—and many magazines have a house intonation and perspective, if not necessarily a house style. What I’ve enjoyed most about the essays I’ve most enjoyed over the last year, though, is the way in which they reflect an emerging style of colloquial, unpretentious, deceptively erudite writing that’s flourishing on the web. This is there in Pareene’s essay on Politico or John Lanchester’s consideration (it’s adapted from a speech) of Karl Marx at 193 years of age in the London Review of Books. It’s also in Adrian Chen’s dazzling piece for Gawker on Reddit, its troll culture and the man who was its foremost embodiment, or in the writing of Maria Bustillos at The Awl—start with her thumbnail history of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty and its weird afterlife, or on the deathless and wearying discursive concern with irony.
Of those, only the latter two live entirely on the web. They’re not about similar things, or written for similar publications or audiences, or really even written in ways that outwardly have much in common. But there’s an energy and vitality to all of them, a sense that the people writing respect their obligation to tell the stories they’ve chosen, but also that they’re intensely into those stories. There are some good jokes and striking sentences and a great deal of elegant (or infuriating) and illusion-free (or opinionated) thought in all of them, but there is not show-offery or grandiosity or stuffiness. They’re stories told and arguments made by people who seem impassioned and informed, and told in the voices—different-sounding, as they should be—of people alive in and engaged with the world and the ideas loose in it, and conversant with both in the fast, open way of the web. I don’t know, maybe it’s just good writing.