Facebook as a Regulated Monopoly

One of the central tenets of the Constitution is equal access to information. This flow was recognized as essential in the commissioning of the US Postal Service, which ensured the delivery of mail. With the advent of the telephone service, a later generation of political leaders recognized that every citizen required access to the system, regardless of their proximity to urban centers. AT&T was established as a regulated monopoly to ensure that urban subscribers subsidized service provision to rural subscribers.

AT&T’s last accomplishment before deregulation was completion of a portable billing service that allowed numbers to cross geographical boundaries. This was the foundation for diversification of telephone service into cellular and VOIP (voice over internet protocol) services. But the physical infrastructure of the phone system was also the foundation for the internet, empowering services like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to provide content to all citizens.

Those service providers live in a regulatory gray zone. To support service creation, early ISPs were exempted from the standards imposed upon publishers of magazines and newspapers. Most importantly, in recent days, were exemptions from fact-checking of content. Classical publishers hired reporters and were exposed to liability claims when stories damaged the reputation or finances of those covered. In claiming that they were merely providing access to information without paying for content, ISPs were considered exempt. When Facebook and others established social media platforms, they registered themselves as ISPs, and also claimed those exemptions.

This is not to say that social media platforms do not provide financial incentives to content creators. Far from it. Popular “channels” receive a share of advertising revenues. Now the lines are becoming grey: classical publishers do buy content from “freelancers,” but still retain responsibility for insuring the accuracy of reporting. Could social media creators be seen as “freelancers?” If so, the social media platforms appear to be appropriately seen as “publishers.”

One argument against this is that social media platforms do not package content as a publication. There is no “Facebook News” service. But a publication is simply a way of attracting attention to branded content. Social media services do attract such attention, by recommending “content you might like” that is headed by popular channels. Popular creators receive more attention, and thus crowd out less popular creators. As these “recommendations” come under the branding of the social media site, they are in effect publications customized for the individual user, but actually guiding the user into conformance with the views of others like them.

The concern is most heightened in regard to political content, which has always been a rough-and-tumble game. In the thirty years since the founding of the internet, it has become clear that many consumers expect to be entertained by their news. On the left, The Daily Show arose, but under that aegis of a classical media empire that monitored the accuracy of content. On the right, Rush Limbaugh and then Alex Jones did not honor such constraints. Their goal was to cater to the grievances of their listeners with outrage, and to maintain that fever pitch, their fantastical claims became wilder and wilder.

The most outrageous among these were the “PizzaGate” and “Sandy Hook Hoax” stories promulgated by Jones. As well as suffering the loss of their children, Sandy Hook parents have faced harassment and death threats, and PizzaGate drove a listener to an armed invasion of the property.

With Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, I agree that it is time to hold Facebook and YouTube responsible for financing such incendiary content. When creator earnings reach a level commensurate with freelance work, they should be responsible for validating the content, and subject to liability for failing to take action when victims signal that they are being harmed.

In that case of Facebook and YouTube, such moves may be a matter of “too little, too late.” They are effectively monopolies. At this point, it seems prudent to tax revenues to establish external review boards to police content. They must be regulated, as AT&T once was, by overseers to ensure that our information systems serve the public interest.

FOX Outed

Disgusted by the way Bill O’Reilly ran his cage-match shout-fests, I’ve scrupulously avoided FOX News for the last fifteen years. As TV has invaded our public spaces, that has come to require some discipline. Management often chooses to impose their political views on restaurant patrons. So at the local Jack in the Box, I turn my back to the FOX monitor and take the lesser of two evils: watching grown men ruin their bodies doing things that were intended to be forms of play.

Today it was the dual monitors that bracketed the bar at the Best Breakfast and Lunch in Port Hueneme. Confronted with the finishing counter, I couldn’t help but glance around for some visual stimulus. Much to my surprise, I found myself reading a FOX panelist explain that the reason America has a serious problem with mass violence is easy access to military-style weaponry.

Interest piqued, I kept on following along, and couldn’t help but burst out loud in laughter.

The response to sanity came a few minutes later, when another panelist retorted that America doesn’t allow easy access to guns, it protects the rights of citizens to protect themselves from tyranny. Now this is fatuous: a despotic government doesn’t need to wage war to subjugate a modern society – it only needs to turn off the water and power and stop collecting the garbage. But what brought on laughter was the unintended inference from a mouthpiece for a party that controls all three branches of the US government.

FOX admits that the Republicans are tyrants!

So I began to laugh, really heartily, and wondered why Trevor Noah can’t produce such hilarity. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe FOX isn’t shifting to the loony right to protect its brand from Breitbart, maybe it’s competing with Comedy Central.

But what would be the right byline?

The students in Parkland recognize the irresponsibility of Republican gun policy, as do some Republican Party donors. If the young and the sane recognize the need for sensible gun reform, that seems to leave only the senile as defenders of the gun industry. So should we think of FOX News as “Senility Central?”

That seemed to fit when Rush Limbaugh was brought on for the interview. I couldn’t help by think that Madame Tussaud’s had diversified into animatronics. The wavy pouf, painted face and elegant suit brought to mind a story by Horace Mann describing the antics of a senile man who encounters a beautiful boy while at a beach resort. Mann’s telling forces the reader to skirt the shadows of pedophilic sensibility. Limbaugh tends in a different direction, but perhaps no less offensive to the “forgotten men” that he claims to represent. It’s an implicit sympathy for entitled royalty.

Feeling that I was wandering into a Lewis Carroll novel, I listened in incredulity as Limbaugh intoned his support for full amnesty for all illegal immigrants, given a Democratic stipulation that that they not be allowed to vote for 15-25 years. Wow, Rush! Just throw all those jobless listeners of yours under the bus, why don’t you?

But wait, there’s more! The interviewer asked whether the Republican electorate wasn’t concerned that the recent tax bill was going to cause the budget to explode. Limbaugh countered that “not a single listener” had called in to complain. Again, I know that the young and the sane are concerned with the problem, so that leaves the senile as the patrons of Limbaugh’s blather – perhaps most prominent among them being Rupert Murdoch.

Tyranny arises when the political elite seeks to secure its privileges free from the discipline of responsibility to the public. That would-be tyrants take cause with a propaganda machine such as FOX is alarming, until we see how inept and clumsy the lies have become as occupants of the conservative echo-chamber wanders further and further from reality.

Rock of Egos

NASA’s New Horizons probe is flying through the Kuiper Belt (home of the Solar System’s comets) and about to survey a large rock. The rock is named “(486958) 2014 MU69“, which would sound nice when tweeted from R2D2, but is a terror for newscasters.

So NASA is running a contest to select a name to attach to the rock for their PR campaign. Recommendations include “Mjolnir” (Thor’s hammer) and certain mythical cities in the heavens.

My suggestion is “Ziggy Froid.”

The rationale? In honor of David Bowie, of “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Because “Ziggy” is a diminutive of “Siegfried” and “Sigmund” which ties in to the Norse mythology of the Arctic Circle through Wagner’s series of Ring operas. And because “Froid” – French for “cold” – is a near-homonym of “Freud,” evoking my sense that it’s crazy to attach names of power to the first rock that we happen to encounter in the Kuiper Belt.

Though there’s no purpose served, you can visit the contest site and vote for my entry.

What’s Your Medium?

Facebook, created by Mark Zuckerberg and other lonely undergrads as a distributed system to rate and stalk girls, is anti-social media. That may seem harsh, but while some use it to organize charitable events, that must be set against Facebook’s unregulated distribution of propaganda (such as Russia used to help Trump gain the White House) and monetization of every site and post through targeted advertising.

The Holy Spirit, the original world-wide-web, joins people in bonds of love. That is social media.

Allocate your time accordingly.


Donald Trump’s presidential reality show is finally hitting its stride. Rather than betraying his promises to his blue-collar loyalists, this blogger has learned that Trump’s cabinet of big-money, corporate-welfare advocates was carefully selected for a humiliating process of elimination. The juiciest moment yet was the Russian Foreign Minister’s sneering “Really? He was fired?” response to the news of James Comey’s elimination. Rupert Murdoch and his team of script-writers at Fox are preparing even worse for the rest of the team that Trump gulled into serving in his Cabinet.

Las Vegas odds-makers are setting up betting pools now. Who will be the survivor of the ultimate reality show? The reality show that is, in fact, reality?

My money is on Kim Jong-un.

But until then, of course, every week the voters that elected Trump will be able to cheer as another swamp-monster falls. Price, Mnuchin, Tillerson: the end is near!

To be Trolled, or Not to be Trolled

Trolling – posting a comment on a discussion forum for the sole purpose of creating hostility among the participants – is the most dangerous threat to the exchange of ideas on the web. The tech community is seeking to moderate the damage. Some new artificial intelligence engines profile accounts, others monitor for certain logical constructs (for example, any statements starting “You think…”).

Engadget reports that a site in Norway disallows a comment until the poster demonstrates knowledge of the main article. A script engine presents a multi-choice question generated from the article, and disallows comments until it is answered correctly.

What would be even better is if they would verify comment relevance against the original post and the previous comments in the thread. Given that a script is generating the questions, and a script is able to answer them, it seems that should be possible. Maybe that could be verified by a question posed to the poster?

Unfortunately, all of these solutions play into the hands of state-run trolls, such as the Russian “fake media” mills. By generating scripts that determine the correct answer, they can post far more efficiently than others, and thus come to dominate forum contents.

Here’s another option: build an AI engine that ranks the relevance of comments against the article and discussion, and allow readers to filter content against that ranking. That would enable those seeking serious discussion not just to be protected from trolls, but also to skip past comments that are just socializing. Offering “Good point!” is nice, but posted enough times and more substantial commentary falls off the bottom of the page.

American Myopia

So I’m listening to Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow going on and on about the nominating process here in America, analyzing the psychology, political ideology, fund raising and electoral dynamics in New Hampshire. It was all very loud and breathless.

And then comes a notice for the Academy Award nomination for Winter on Fire, documenting the Ukrainian revolution, showing footage of citizens in confrontation with security services, and an under-age youth describing the dead falling around him.

What’s happening in American politics is exciting, but it’s not the only important thing going on in the world. Try not to feed the beast.

Climbing the Mountain of Healing

After eight years of fear-mongering and greed under the Bush Administration, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I stood in the conference room at work to watch the proceedings. Breathing more easily, I felt the will of Christ stretch itself across the nation to join with that of our new president.

I caught a clip of the Tea Party responder to this year’s State of the Union (a motivational speaker named Root) warming up the crowd at a Trump rally. While I can’t call it a message, the energetic peak of his oration was the statement “This is war!” That is one way to look at society, as a struggle to the death of factions in a world where there is just never enough. To survive, we have to find that mythical figure epitomized in our history by Washington, Lincoln or FDR: a great general and leader to whom we can entrust our lives.

The problem is that fear is a deeply ingrained physiological habit. It is a way of relating to the world that destroys reason. When the enemy is gone, the habit remains and turns inwards. For some, the escape is into substance abuse, but for others it finds release in seeking enemies among their fellows.

Again and again, our society has raised up representatives to heal those divides, and those representatives suffer terribly for our sins. Jackie Robinson and the Central High Nine were all abused for the privilege of entering the lily-white citadels of baseball and education, and understood that they could not respond in kind. I heard one of the Central High Nine speak on his experience, and while my first reaction was outrage, it was closely followed by awe at the strength and discipline he had demonstrated.

Barack Obama spoke about this problem in his confrontation with the bigots in the federal legislature who declared early on their intention to oppose him at every step. His response was of the type. It was captured for me in a photo: During one of the budget stand-offs with the House, he invited the Speaker to play golf. The event was memorialized on one of the greens with Obama crouched low over his ball, pointing to lay out the line to the hole while looking over his shoulder at Boehner for agreement.

I write this today because I find myself dumbfounded by the political analysis of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Obviously among the Republican front-runners we find those parroting the legacies of FDR (Trump) and Washington (Cruz). Their are bombastic and shallow, but raise fervor in their frightened partisans. There is much to be alarmed by in this phenomenon – it was the root of fascism in Europe. I consider it to be a cancer in the body politic.

On the Democratic side, we were promised a different dynamic, a dialog informed by reason. After the first Democratic debate, one headline characterized it as “The Adults Take the Stage.” But there are significant differences between the candidates, and these are not just in substance but in tone. The pundits have tried to characterize these differences, and now tend to settle “forward thinking” and “heart” on Sanders while saddling Clinton with “hanging on to the past” and “head.”

Sanders earns these designations for his fiery railing against the monied class. This appeals to the youth of our nation, those whose disdain for politics has allowed the establishment to secure its privilege by buying the House and Senate in off-term elections. Sanders promises a radical departure from the past, a storming of the castle to take back the wealth of the nation. He yells and gesticulates, demonstrating a strong emotional connection to his program that promises dedication to its achievement.

I have already expressed my discomfort with the similarities with the Republican front-runners.

I see Hillary struggling with her characterization. The body politic does seem to want passion, but when she projects it in her campaign stops, it rings false. That is picked on by the pundits, who have now taken to comparing her to Bush. But I believe that comparison reflects a deep and systemic misunderstanding of the disease facing our nation, and the fact that the temperament that makes Clinton so attractive to me at this time is simply incompatible with the politics of the males in the field.

Consider this: if you had liver cancer, would you feel encouraged by an oncologist who said “This is war! Your liver is evil! I’m going to take it out and stomp on it! And – oh yeah – thanks for putting my daughter through college.” Or would you like to be given sympathy and encouragement with specific options for treatment along with a description of side-effects and costs.

In other words, would you want a warrior or a healer?

In Hillary, I see the latter. Although I see it in Obama, it’s typically a feminine proclivity. Have some sympathy for her as she struggles against the burden of the pressures that have kept women from full and equal participation in our body politic.