When my sons were young and I caught one of them doing something questionable (e.g. taking one more cookie than we had said he could have, or surreptitiously playing videogames on a school night) one of their go-to responses was always, “but [insert other brother name here] did [some other form of malfeasance] and you didn’t say anything when he did it!” The strategy being deployed by the son in question was obvious, but it was also effective: take the focus off of the specific transgression being discussed and raise the level of abstraction to supposed systemic injustices, with the implication that the rules were hopelessly random and unfair. The inconsistency of enforcement was presented as evidence of a clear parenting double standard.
This is understandable behavior for a four and a six year old. They came upon the strategy organically, and used it liberally. Fortunately, over time, they’ve pretty much grown out of it. But if I’m ever feeling nostalgic for the challenges of parenting kindergarteners, I can see the same strategy deployed on any cable news channel 24×7. For, my friends, we are deep in the golden age of whataboutism.
Whataboutism is the strategy of countering criticism by pointing to other actions supposedly more worthy of criticism. The Brits used to call it whataboutery, but by now the term “whataboutism” has taken over on both sides of the Atlantic. The Oxford Dictionaries define whataboutism as “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.” But at base, it’s a sleight of hand trick.
The fundamental element of whataboutism is avoiding a narrow criticism by escalating to a claim of hypocrisy. There is a logical fallacy known as “tu quoque” that describes the tactic of countering your opponent’s argument not with facts, but with an argument that it’s hypocritical of the opponent to make that argument in the first place. Whataboutism is the weaponization of tu quoque in the political sphere.
For example, Hillary Clinton supporters, when confronted with criticisms about Benghazi, say: What about the soldiers who died in Mali during the Trump administration? Where were the hearings on those deaths? Or, what about the soldiers who died in embassy attacks under Secretary Powell or Secretary Rice? Why weren’t those fatalities treated with the same degree of seriousness?
Or conservatives, when discussing Trump’s overtures to North Korea, say: what if Obama had met directly with Kim Jong Un during his Presidency? Progressives would be singing his praises and nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Or liberals, when discussing Trump’s continuing profits from donors paying dues at Mar a Lago, say: what if Obama was in office and he tried something similar? The Republicans in Congress would insist on impeachment.
Why does whataboutism work? Well first, it takes the focus off of the specific transgression in question. The debate migrates to weighing the severity of different imagined activities, which are nearly impossible to objectively compare. Second, because it relies on imagined scenarios instead of real world events, it plays upon the implicit biases of the listeners. If you think Republicans are unreasonable, then whataboutism that invokes scenarios of Republican hypocrisy will likely be persuasive. If you think Democrats are unreasonable, then it’s likely that you’ll find imagined scenarios of Democratic hypocrisy more credible. Because these are all imagined equivalencies, untested by reality, listeners can craft their own nefarious narratives in their mind’s eye, shaped primarily by their biases. Third, it is true that examining issues in a broader historical context can be helpful — and whataboutism seems initially to be about such context, even though it’s really about fogging up the discussion.
As I said, the strategy is depressingly effective. I’d be remiss in this post if I didn’t note that Russia is the world headquarters of whataboutism. It is Putin’s favorite rhetorical technique. Once, when asked about President Bush’s criticism of Russian democracy, Putin replied, “I’ll be honest with you: we, of course, would not want to have a democracy like in Iraq.” That’s what the sleight of hand trick looks like when demonstrated by a practiced professional. Whataboutism in Russia is primarily used for propaganda purposes, bludgeoning the opposing side with a barrage of arguments possessing only the flimsiest of relationships to the original concern expressed. The Guardian has even argued that whataboutism has been elevated to the level of national ideology in Russia. Let’s hope that’s not where we’re headed.
We have a truism in the dispute resolution field: in any protracted disputes, odds are, both sides are right. How is this possible? Usually people presume that the positions of people in a dispute are contradictory, so if one side “wins” the other must lose. But in reality, for most protracted disputes, each side focuses on the issues where they feel they are right, and they ignore the other issues where they may be on thinner ice. So if you’re mad that I let the dog outside and he dug up the tulips, you focus on the fact that I didn’t lock the screen door on the porch like we agreed I would. But I’m mad that you still haven’t taken the dog to the puppy class training to stop him from digging in the garden. Are you right that I didn’t lock the screen door? Yes. Am I right that you never followed through on the puppy class? Yes. But we can argue all night about it, each focusing on the part we’re right about, and ignoring the part we’re wrong about. This let’s us feel like we’re in the right and avoids a real resolution.
I see this in our current political dialogue every day. Debates on cable news become shouting fests where one side loudly trumpets the things they’re right about, while the other side ignores those comments and trumpets the points that advantage their perspective. Each side thinks: I’m right about the points I’m making, so I’m winning. The viewers of the debate (influenced by their own implicit bias) hear the person advancing the facts they are sympathetic to and conclude: “I knew it. I’m right. Man, the other side got schooled.” But the “facts” just fly by each other — they never connect. They aren’t mutually contradictory, so the debaters never engage on the substantive issues.
Take the false dichotomy of liberal and conservative politics. A quick Google search tells me, “Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense. Conservatives believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals.” Liberals, in contrast, “…believe in governmental action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all, and that it is the duty of the State to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Liberals believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need, and that people are basically good.”
So I’ve been told my whole life that, based on my beliefs, I’m a liberal. I do seem to vote Democratic in every election. But when presented with this list (e.g. “personal responsibility, free markets, individual liberty, American values, a strong defense”) I find it hard to disagree with any of it. I believe people need to take responsibility for themselves, that free market approaches are better than markets loaded up with tariffs and closed borders, individual liberty needs to be defended, American values (kind of a fuzzy concept, but I’ll presume the good ones) are worthy of promotion and adherence, and we have to have a strong national defense. Wait, am I a conservative? Well, no, because I also believe the government should work to ensure equality and equal opportunity, that government should help citizens when they’re in need, that civil liberties should be protected, and that government should work to alleviate the suffering of its citizens whenever possible. I definitely believe that people are basically good.
How can I believe all these things at the same time? Because they’re all true. Sure, we can narrowly define the dichotomy as “conservatives think government is good, liberals think government is bad.” But that’s a ridiculous oversimplification. I think (as I believe most Americans think) that government is good in some circumstances and bad in others. As is true in every area of life, the secret is in finding the balance. There are times when government needs to intervene (e.g. the financial crisis) and times when government needs to stay out (e.g. to let people live their lives as they like, so long as their choices don’t harm anyone).
The core tenets of conservatism are right. As are the core tenets of liberalism. The problem is that the way we debate them makes a false presumption about their mutual exclusivity. The truly important decision is in how we balance competing values in the choices we make. All our policies are dials, not on-off switches. Our debates should be about what levels we should set the dials to, not whether the switches should be on or off. This should be a component of a new kind of public deliberation, one that gets us past the positional theatrics and closer to consensus building and wisdom. Maybe we could call it eDeliberation.
On Reddit AMA (“ask me anything”) forums, a popular inside joke question is: “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck?” Redditor Reaverax even asked President Obama this question in an AMA on August 29, 2012. I’ve never done a Reddit AMA, but if someone asked me, I’d respond: as fearsome as a horse sized duck would be, the swarm of 100 duck-sized horses is probably the more worrisome opponent, especially if they know how to team up.
Think about taking on an angry falcon with a baseball bat. Nerve wracking, sure — but you’ve got a chance if you can land a swing or two. Now think about taking on a swarm of bees with a baseball bat. You’re toast.
I heard on a public radio interview yesterday that Putin controls essentially all the media outlets in Russia, and that’s how he convinces the majority of Russians that he is working in their interest (even though he and his oligarchs are robbing the country blind). The TV, the radio, and the newspapers all put out the official line from the government every day. The one outlet he can’t control is the internet, because it is so decentralized. But in that case, Putin’s administration just puts out so much nonsense (“fake news”) that it’s almost impossible to ferret out the truth from the lies.
That’s the challenge of our modern media landscape: defeating the swarm of bees with a baseball bat. If Churchill was right about the truth putting its pants on (as I discussed yesterday), the pace of the internet makes it impossible for the truth to catch up. Once stakeholders in civil society forfeit their commitment to the truth, then there’s a green light to release as many bees as you can to promote your side. And if your opponent is lying to mobilize their supporters, there’s a strong temptation to do the same so you can counter their energy. It may even seem foolish and naive not to.
But on the receiving end, how can we as individuals make our way through this blizzard of alternative facts? I saw a post on Quora today asking how people can still support this administration with all the scandals and revelations coming out on a daily basis. Those interested in exacerbating social conflict in the U.S. don’t have to write provocative content themselves — instead, they just have to find content that achieves their ends and then they promote that content. It may be that there aren’t really that many people in the U.S. who believe that the FBI is corrupt and compromised. But if there’s one person claiming that on social media, savvy players can promote the sentiment with re-tweets and search engine optimization, and boom: it’s at the top of everyone’s news feed the next morning. Next thing you know, parties who might have had a gut instinct along those lines feel vindicated, and they may feel motivated enough to start echoing the sentiment through their own channels.
When you’re caught in a blizzard it’s easy to get disoriented. You can’t tell you’re right from left. Once you lose a sense of which way is north you won’t be able to find it again. We need a GPS to help us get through the storm — a trusted foundation that we can utilize to reorient ourselves when we get confused, just like using instruments instead of visual cues to pilot a plane through a white out blizzard.
I remember a song I heard once about an idea that feels right even though it’s wrong — and even after the singer knows its incorrect, he finds himself returning in unguarded moments to it again and again, because it just feels so good to think it — even though he fully knows it is not true.
We all have a gut sense of the way the world works. Unfortunately our gut is often incorrect. Maybe it’s about race, maybe it’s about sex, maybe it’s about religion, maybe it’s about foreigners: a belief that is demonstrably untrue, but is almost impossible to extinguish. Social psychology has amply demonstrated how easily people can be manipulated, confused, and mislead — even when we’re convinced that we’re right. We want our worldview to be validated, so when we get new information contradicts our biases, our brains are very good at ignoring it. Which makes us fall back on our gut.
The news is supposed to help us overcome these shortcomings. We can’t do research on every topic of import in the news every day. We need writers and editors to do that research for us, and to tell us what they’ve learned. The news is supposed to be about facts, and it is supposed to enlighten us — and maybe even get us to change our minds on occasion. But it’s not fun to have one’s preconceptions challenged. It’s a lot more fun have someone tell you: “You know, you’re right. You’re gut is dead on. Don’t worry about the facts. It must be true, because it feels true. That’s more important than facts.”
It reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s definition of “truthiness” from the first season of The Colbert Report: “I know some of you may not trust your gut…yet. But with my help you will. The ‘truthiness’ is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news… at you.”
My Uncle, Av Westin, wrote a book in 1982 called Newswatch. Uncle Av had been Executive Producer for ABC News for more than a decade, and Newswatch was a memoir looking back over his time in the news business and looking forward to where the news was going. Av had worked in news bureaus when there were relatively few sources from which most Americans got their information. In his book Av spoke to the big three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) essentially picking what stories Americans would discuss the next day as they stood around the water cooler at work. The television networks watched the print media (primarily the major newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times) very closely, and often would follow up on print media stories with more in depth interviews and analysis. The news media was a pretty clubby business (which was, needless to say, dominated by white men on the coasts).
When he wrote the book. Av was worried about the blurring of the lines between entertainment and news at the major networks. News departments saw themselves first and foremost as journalists, and they had very strict ethical and procedural rules to follow in doing their work. Journalism schools specialized in inculcating these practices in budding journalists, and newsmen who didn’t follow them were unceremoniously pushed out of the business. Av was worried that the acquisition of the networks by for-profit companies would lead to revenue pressure that would weaken adherence to these rules. Media companies needs eyeballs, because eyeballs mean more money from advertisers, which means more profits. The arrival of 24 hour cable news made the situation that much worse. Every day required new scandal to keep revenues flowing in.
Av’s concerns were prescient. The newsmen who led the news divisions of the networks in the 1980s would be horrified by our current media landscape. Not only has hard news been essentially taken over by the 24-hour networks, it has become unapologetically partisan and opinion oriented. The nattering nabobs of MSNBC and FOX frame the supposedly centrist agenda of CNN, but they all know they’re in the eyeball business. The journalists still adhering to the old ethical codes have watched their audience drift away to opinion media and online news sources that play fast and loose with the old rules. Now content is king. Stories need to gather clicks. Ubiquitous reality programming now feels like news, even though it is far from actual reality.
Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Truth can take time, especially when there are powerful forces working hard to obscure the truth. Obsessing over the latest, breaking news sometimes is at odds with getting to the truth. The news is the first draft of history, and sometimes first drafts are wrong. If the pace of the news continues to increase, and there are new headlines coming out every day, then there’s no time to evaluate the truth of the last headline. And by the time the truth is uncovered, no one cares anyway, because it’s old news.
The journalists used to protect us from the lies. There was a small group of people who took their jobs as guardians of the truth very seriously, and they were committed to squashing the lies before they spread. Now control has been wrested away from that group by technology, and now everyone is broadcasting to everyone else 24×7. But if the guardians aren’t squashing the lies, who is fighting for the truth?
People fight. It’s what we do. As much as it would be wonderful for humanity to be enlightened enough to benevolently share all the good things in life, so we would all have enough, human history is a good object lesson in how unusual and unlikely that is. The reality of the human experience is that if there’s only one chocolate chip cookie, and either you get it or I get it — I’m going to want the chocolate chip cookie, and you’re going to want the chocolate chip cookie. Extrapolate that out to everything pleasurable in society (from penthouse apartments to clean water) and you see why fighting is part of the human condition. Each of us works in our own self interest.
People always assume that “making peace” entails urging people to resist their selfish urges and to become saintly and selfless, so they willingly give the cookie away. It’s true that some embrace that approach, as if we could just train the selfishness out of people and we’d all get along. But that strategy only goes so far. Sometimes groups will set rules that constrain selfishness and allocate the good things fairly — but as soon as a new entrant joins the group and flouts the rules to get more than he or she is entitled to, the arrangement can come unglued.
In fact, we love conflict. All our TV shows and movies are about conflict — the more dramatic the better. This has been true all the way back to Shakespeare. People getting along is boring. Stories about people fighting (maybe over a love interest, or money, or power) get our blood pumping. We want our entertainment to be exciting and stimulating, and conflict fits the bill. In fact, we all are subconciously writing the stories of our lives, and we need to see ourselves as the protagonist, overcoming obstacles and fighting for what’s right to get to the ultimate reward at the end. Conflict gives us energy and purpose, and we’ll invent it if we need to in order to keep things interesting.
Capitalism is designed in just this fashion. It says: people are selfish, so let’s leverage that selfishness for the benefit of society. I don’t want to work hard and then give away all my work for nothing. The market makes it so that I have an incentive to work hard, because then I can be rewarded for that work by others. I may stay up all night building chairs or minting bitcoins, and the next day I can trade those things I made for money, which lets me buy all the chocolate chip cookies I want. So long as people play by the rules (and the rules are well designed) this system turns out to work pretty well. It incentivizes us to innovate and create and work, giving us a satisfying narrative, while moving society forward.
The challenge is when conflict runs off the rails. Conflict between competitors over market share is fine. But conflict between rival gangs is not fine. When conflict boils over to violence, the benefits are undone. Sometimes people can get so caught up in a conflict that they justify immoral actions to themselves, as in: yes, I know it’s wrong to lie about my opponent in the student government election, but the impact would be so devastating if he (or she) won, that I really have no choice. The ends justify the means. And then the other side concludes that they have to match fire with fire, which justifies their immoral behavior.
This creates a race to the bottom. You don’t want to bring a knife to a gun fight (both literally and metaphorically). We may be high minded in the abstract, thinking that we wouldn’t sink to such despicable and immoral levels, but if we see the other side sinking, we may say to ourselves: we have to follow suit to avoid being pushed around or taken advantage of. It reminds me of the U.S. after 9/11, saying “now we have to take the gloves off” in dealing with terrorists — the implication being, yes, we know this violates our conscience, but our opponents are so terrible that we have to do it. Which, of course, justifies further outrages on the other side.
How can we keep the good parts of conflict (the energy, innovation, excitement, motivation) but protect ourselves from the bad parts (violence, demonization, unethical behavior)? How can we resist the temptation to demonize the other side, and use the evil characature we paint to justify our own evil actions? Our civic institutions were designed to constrain these tendencies: there’s no need to rile up a mob to exact frontier justice on someone who victimized you if the police can be relied upon to take care of the matter. But we’re losing confidence in our civic institutions to work as effectively as they have in the past, partially due to the dislocations being wrought by new technologies. So how can we restore that trust? Maybe algorithms can provide an answer.
I was a fan of Facebook from my first login. I registered right after it opened to the public in 2006, and I led most of my friends onto the platform. I uploaded pictures from my high school days and reminisced in comments about old classmates (not realizing that eventually almost all of them would join and see my posts themselves). I urged friends to join, especially around the time of each of our alumni reunions. I scanned in old photos and articles for us to joke about. I accepted all comers as Facebook friends. For me, as someone who works in technology, I loved the social part of social networking. My annoyance with all the spammy ads in my feed dissipated every year on my birthday, when I got congratulatory notes from all my friends, near and far. As I noted each year on my birthday, Zuckerberg probably deserved his fortune for letting me stay in touch with all the people I love. Multiply that by a billion and you’ve got a pretty good business model.
But things have changed in the past year or two. I don’t blame Facebook, at least not entirely. I worked at eBay and PayPal for eight years, and I know how a site can get so big you can’t really conceptualize everything that’s going on within it. At its peak during my tenure, eBay had about 250m accounts (though we learned later that a lot of those accounts were fake, set up by spammers and scammers). Facebook today has more than 2b accounts. We used to say at eBay, if you counted all our users as citizens, we’d be the fifth largest country in the world. These days, Facebook would be number one, by a long shot.
Imagine the challenge of policing a country with 2b people in it. You couldn’t do it. Facebook only has about 25,000 employees. Not even Facebook knows all the things that are happening within its website. At eBay, we had fraudsters who went to work every day in suits, in skyscrapers, with Ph.D.s in computer science, who were trying to defraud our users. We did more transactions on a daily basis than the NASDAQ, and we were expected to police all of them in real time. Can you imagine the same challenge, but for 2b users instead of 250m? All in different languages? At least when you’re dealing with ecommerce purchases you can look for anomalies in payments and buyer problem reports. When you’re dealing with people communicating with each other in free text, there’s no common structure to the information.
Facebook is running an ecosystem more than micro-managing all the different interactions therein. They can’t read more than .0001% of the communications passing through their platform every day. And now that their reach and influence is so global, big institutions (read: governments and corporations) are studying how to game Facebook’s rules to achieve their own ends.
I’ve started to feel how Facebook is manipulating me. And again, I’m not talking about some nefarious individual deciding how I should think and hand-selecting stories targeted to influence me. People want to personify the awesome power of technology, so they imagine Zuckerberg (or Jobs or Gates) as the actor, personally deciding what to do and when. But I’m not talking about Zuckerberg, or any employee or group of employees. I’m talking about the algorithms.
Facebook wants my attention. It wants my engagement. It wants my clicks and likes. And the sad reality is that, by playing on my anger and fear, it gets more of me. I want balance and peace in my life, but balance and peace don’t generate clicks. Anger is an energy. Fear is a powerful motivator. And I sense that the algorithms have discovered that. And what’s scary is that it works.
I am a strong believer in the core principle that people are good. Yes, people are capable of bad actions. And a very small segment of people, perhaps due to trauma or personal inclination, do act in intentionally harmful ways. But the vast, vast majority of people around the world want to be good, they want to do good things, they want to be a force for good in the world. And even when an individual does something that is hurtful, they usually rationalize it as being good (or just, or appropriate) in the larger scheme of things. This is why you can go to almost any country in the world and people will be nice and hospitable. It’s burned into our DNA from millions of years of co-evolution.
But kindness and empathy and understanding doesn’t get clicks. Outrage gets clicks. And the forces on Facebook who are gaming the platform for their own ends know that well. I can feel Facebook feeding my outrage. I can see how it corrals me into groups of similarly outraged people, where we stoke each other’s anger.
I can also see how complex discussions over hard topics, topics that touch on identity, security, safety — core principles for every person on the planet — are transformed into shouting matches on Facebook. I’ve had hundreds of political conversations on Facebook and I can’t think of a single one where someone has changed their mind. On the contrary, every political conversation plays out in front of all of one’s friends and family, so it’s rarely about listening to the other side and more about demonstrating to your social graph that you’re willing to fight for what’s right (an activity a friend of mine refers to as “virtue signalling.”)
I could see the seeds Facebook was planting in my brain. And even though it contradicts a lot of my work in conflict resolution, I saw that I was susceptible to it. If I posted a political link, my conservative friends from eBay and back in Texas would respond, with my progressive friends in New England and California replying back, and inevitably a fight would ensue. There was rarely any insight or empathy generated by the exchanges. The Facebook platform encourages communication in short, SMS-like bursts, which makes nuance difficult. If you write something longer than just a few sentences it’s even cut off, with a “see more” link.
It’s clear I’m not the only one feeling this way. The recent backlash against Facebook (mostly focused on privacy and data sharing) has sparked a #deletefacebook movement, and celebrities are announcing their departures from the platform in a steady stream. But it’s not easy to get off Facebook. It’s hard to say goodbye to the regular interactions with friends and family, as Sarah Jeong describes so well. It’s easy to miss the photos of graduations and videos of new babies. There’s a strong sense of missing out. But that’s the bait Facebook uses to keep us logging in.
For now, I’ve only deactivated my account. I could still re-activate. I see some people have written scripts to systematically go through Facebook and delete all their past posts. I’m not ready for that. But I am definitely going to take a break to get my balance a bit and to restore some perspective. I’ll think further in this blog about how Facebook might be able to change to address some of these issues, and if not Facebook, how other services might step into the breach.