Biting the Bullet: Truth and Consequences

I knew it would happen, and knew I wouldn’t like it, but I did it anyway.

The third “it” above was start a Facebook group called “Quakers,” about a month ago, after a previous one abruptly folded up: some internal hassle among the admins had spun out of control.

I wasn’t involved in the hassling, and didn’t like that there was suddenly no Facebook group called just “Quakers.”  I wondered if Facebook (FB for short), in its ineffable internet majesty, would permit the name to be taken up again; surprisingly, it did.

I didn’t really want to start the group, because I knew I’d need to be the admin (aka Pope), and would have to take up “moderator” duties there (the second “it” above).

Wait– Didn’t some version of that used to belong to us??

I’d been asked a couple times to join moderator teams on other FB groups, and had declined. Too lazy, but also it seemed like a big distraction, and I already had enough of those. But whatever.

And a couple days ago, that first “it” arrived, as the predictable, inevitable outcome of the other two. It was the social media syllogism in action:

Functional FB groups need moderators;
I’m the moderator of this group; therefore,
The day will come when I have to “moderate” it, by deleting a post (or posts) and blocking somebody.

Clearly there are folks in the FB world who get off on such “power.” I’m not really one of them. (My thrills come on the rare occasions when a reader writes to say, “Your last post was so completely convincing, that from this day forward I will never let another leaf of that infernal weed kale pass my lips.”)

Or words to that effect.

And the other day, I was scrolling through some new posts, and one seemed a little off, tho not exactly horrible . . .

But then,  Lo, the heavens split open
and a voice thundered from above
and the ground for a mile around shook
as from an earthquake.
And a voice said: “This post is hereby
Called OUT.”

Again, words to that effect. As for the voice, I exaggerate, but only slightly:

The “revelation” was a Notice from Facebook, Its Ineffable, Inscrutable, Internet Self, advising me that this odd post was not merely peculiar, but dubious as to its information, sources and recommendations.

Further that FB’s avenging angels were now on guard, like those proto-drones depicted in the Biblical book of Second Chronicles [16:9], “the eyes of the LORD [that] run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward Them.”

And furthermore, as Chronicles warns malefactors, “You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.”

Or in the FB Today translation, they are now doing some moderating themselves, hunting for groups in which misinformation, conspiracy, and the arch-demon of FAKE NEWS  are allowed to fester and spread. And they are smiting  such groups with their Terrible Swift Sword, to save the  Republic, their profits, and perhaps a few other planets.

Actually, despite the tone, I don’t really scoff at this. After all, keep in mind that this little new group’s name begins with the now highly-suspect letter “Q”; and I would not expect them to be impressed by a claim that we had it first. (That sure didn’t stop the oatmeal. Or the whiskey.) Given the option, I’d just as soon remain unsmit.

So I went back and looked over the challenged post again. It was health-related, and clicking on a link or three, I was indeed unable to find sources or evidence for claims it made. So, without reluctance, I deleted it. Then I left a note for the poster informing him of this. I didn’t remove him from the group, tho.

I’d quote from the post a bit, but because I deleted it so promptly, I can’t. Even so there are some caveats to be noted: the post IIRR, did not ask for money, use racist or sexist slurs, personal attacks, or even call for insurrection. So it wasn’t one that flashed red lights or set off the ceiling sprinklers.

Yet nevertheless, it was a relatively minor example of a phenomenon I’ve been reading about often in recent weeks that cumulatively is hugely disturbing. Namely that anyone who uses social media, or for that matter even many more traditional information sources (that would include me, daily), faces an ever-deepening “epistemic crisis.”

That is, it’s getting hard as hell, and every day harder, to tell what’s true and what isn’t. As Thomas Edsall, a columnist I respect (and want to still believe) said this morning in the New York Times (a source which in my experience makes fewer mistakes than most) that

in the aftermath of the Trump presidency, the consensus  [among thoughtful and reasonably informed citizens] has shifted to anxiety that online behemoths like Twitter, Google, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook have created a crisis of knowledge — confounding what is true and what is untrue eroding the foundations of democracy. [Emphasis added.]

Bryan Ford , a professor of computer and communication sciences in Switzerland, views all this as a “technopessimist,” writing that it gets

easier and easier for machines, and botnet operators to train algorithms to create progressively-more-convincing fake news and fake user profiles that before long will appear “more believable” to both machines and humans than real news or real user profiles. . . .

To which Edsall adds,

despite all the chatter, there is no significant public pressure to alter the practices of the digital industry. Insofar as these companies have transformed American politics, for a majority of the population it has been a slow, almost invisible process that has provoked little or no outcry. In a sense, this chain of events has resulted in the climate in which [recent] extraordinary false claims elicited no protest in half the country. Quite the opposite, in fact.

As long as truth can be disguised — and as citizens lose the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood — democracy will continue to weaken, ultimately becoming something altogether different from what we are accustomed to. And all of this is happening while most of us continue to be unaware of the transformation that has taken place during our lifetime, functionally oblivious to the “epistemic crisis,” both as a contributor to the problem and as an accelerant.

This points to another burden for a fledgling and reluctant FB group admin: The truth is not only fuzzy about issues and news; it’s also increasingly unreliable online about people.

Who else has received notice from FB friends that their personal pages have been hacked and “cloned” by unknown persons for unknown but surely nefarious purposes?

I get frequent “Friend requests” from “persons” who have almost nothing listed in their “About” pages, and little more in the way of posts that tendentious or commercial messages.

That has also happened with member requests for the new Quakers group: no mention of Quakers, sometimes not even a cat picture.

More than once a week I delete such requests, as coming either from people who have no lives beyond what reverberates in their little echo chamber, or are fakes, churned out by AI and algorithms that as far as I’m concerned are the spawn of hell.

No doubt I’ll make mistakes in such judgments. But even in our obscure little Quaker corner of the net, Friends — it’s a jungle in here.

5 thoughts on “Biting the Bullet: Truth and Consequences”

  1. Ha, does this mean that when you “moderate” me for all the lying and inflammatory things I am fully prepared to put on this page I won’t even know if it is really you? That sucks. I would much rather be angry at a person than an algorithm. They are well known for not taking things personally and I mean all my meanness quite personally. Oh well. Sharpening up my poison pen with a cackle.

  2. I just forwarded your so fascinating story to Great the Atlanta Friends Meeting’s new FB Administrator.

    Query for thee:
    If the truth will make you free where does Facebook belong in a Friend’s life?

  3. Friends have had difficulty with online communications for many years. I distinctly remember feeling called to drop off of one of the first Quaker listserves because I couldn’t moderate my own emotions enough to avoid demonizing supposed opponents. This particular problem has declined over time but the rapidity and lack of nonverbal cues in electronic communication still poses major obstacles to discerning the Divine in others.

  4. A friend and I discussed “truth” and perceptions of truth. We circled around the familiar optical illusion of the two faces, hag/young woman. There is no right answer.
    So we ended where we didn’t want to be, because we both believe some things are true, others untrue. Snopes did not help with this.
    Good luck in the moderator group.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.