A Philosopher's Blog

Social Media: The Capitalist & the Rope

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 3, 2017

Lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before congress at the start of November, 2017. One of the main reasons these companies attracted the attention of congress was the cyberwarfare campaign launched by the Russians through these companies against the United States during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

One narrative is that companies like Facebook are naively focused on all the good things that are possible with social media and that they are blind to misuses of this sort. On this narrative, the creators of these companies are like the classic scientist of science fiction who just wanted to do good, but found their creation misused for terrible purposes. This narrative does have some appeal—it is easy for very focused people to be blind to what is outside of their defining vision, even extremely intelligent people. Perhaps especially in the case of intelligent people.

That said, it is difficult to imagine that companies so focused on metrics and data would be ignorant of what is occurring within their firewalls. It would also be odd that so many bright people would be blissfully unaware of what was really going on. Such ignorance is, of course, not impossible—but seems unlikely.

Another narrative is that these companies are not naïve. They are, like many other companies, focused on profits and not overly concerned with the broader social, political and moral implications of their actions. The cyberwarfare launched by the Russians was profitable for their companies—after all, the ads were paid for, the bots swelled Twitter’s user numbers, and so on.

It could be objected that it would be foolish of these companies to knowingly allow the Russians and others to engage in such destructive activity. After all, they are American companies whose leaders seem to endorse liberal political values.

One easy reply is courtesy of one of my political science professors: capitalists will happily sell the rope that will be used to hang them. While this seems silly, it does make sense: those who focus on profits can easily sacrifice long term well-being for short term profits. Companies generally strive to ensure that the harms and costs are offloaded to others. This practice is even defended and encouraged by lawmakers. For example, regulations that are intended to protect people and the environment from the harms of pollution are attacked as “job killing.” The Trump administration, in the name of profits, is busy trying to roll back many of the laws that protect consumers from harm and misdeeds. As such, the social media companies are analogous to more traditional companies, such as energy companies. While cyberwarfare and general social media misdeeds cause considerable harm, the damage is largely suffered by people other than social media management and shareholders. Because of this, I am somewhat surprised that the social media companies do not borrow the playbooks used by other companies when addressing offloading harms to make profits. For example, just as energy companies insist that they should not be restrained by “job-killing” environmental concerns, the social media companies should insist that they not be restrained by “job-killing” concerns about the harms they profit from enabling. After all, the basic principle is the same: it is okay to cause harm, provided that it is profitable to a legal business.

Of course, companies are also quite willing to take actions for short term profits that will cause their management and shareholders long term harms. There is also the fact that most people discount the future—that is, they will often take a short-term benefit even it means forgoing a greater gain in the long term or experiencing a greater harm later. As such, the idea that the social media companies are knowingly allowing such harmful activity because it is profitable in the short term is not without merit.

It is also worth considering the fact that social media companies span national boundaries. While they are nominally American companies, they make their profits globally and have offices and operations around the world. While the idea of megacorporations operating apart from nations and interested solely in their own profits is considered the stuff of science fiction, companies like Google and Facebook clearly have interests quite apart from those of the United States and its citizens. If being a vehicle for cyberwarfare against the United States and its citizens is profitable, these companies would have little reason to not sell, for example, the Russians the digital rope they will use to hang us. While a damaged United States might have some impact on the social media-companies’ bottom line, it might be offset by profits to be gained elsewhere. To expect patriotism and loyalty from social-media companies would be as foolish as expecting it from other companies. After all, the business of business is now shareholder and upper management profit and there is little profit in patriotism and national loyalty.


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Social Media & Shaming

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2017

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While shaming was weaponized long ago as a means of punishment, social media has transformed it into a weapon of reversed mass destruction. Rather than a single weapon destroying masses, it is the social media masses that are destroying one person at a time. Perhaps the best known example of this is the destruction of Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” While Sacco is currently the best known victim of such shaming, the practice has become a common one and the list of casualties increases each day.

While it is tempting to issue a blanket condemnation of shaming, this would be a mistake. While shaming is abused, it can be a morally acceptable form of punishment. However, this requires that it be used properly and justly.

As with any form of punishment, shaming should only be used when the target has done wrong. Unlike with actual civil and criminal laws, there is not a codified set of rules specifying what actions are wrong in a way that warrant shaming. As with most social interactions, people are guided by vague norms, intuitions, traditions and feelings. As such, the practice of shaming can be rather chaotic. That said, it is certainly possible to consider situations rationally and assess whether they are shame worthy or not—though disputes are inevitable. Working out such guideless would be analogous to developing a hybrid between laws and etiquette and would presumably require at least a small book, which is far beyond the scope of this short essay. However, I do have some recommendations.

In the United States criminal justice system, there is a presumption of innocence on the part of the defendant. This is based on the ideal that it is better to allow the guilty to go free than to punish the innocent. The same sort of presumption should be extended to those who are accused of engaging in shame worthy actions. I would even suggest a specific sort of presumption, namely a presumption of error. This is to begin the consideration by assuming the accused acted from error rather than malice.

One common type of error that leads to excessive shaming is when a person attempts to be funny, but fails to do so because of a lack of skill. Sacco’s infamous tweet seems to be an example of this sort of error. A skilled comedian could have created a piece of satire using the same basic idea and directed attention to the issue of race in the context of AIDS. Because of a lack of comedic skill, Sacco’s tweet came across as racist—although all the evidence seems to clearly show that this is not what she intended. Another type of error is that of ignorance—a person has no malicious intent, but errs by not knowing something rather important. For example, a person trying to be funny might appear racist because they are unaware of the social norms governing who has the right to use which terms of race. The obvious example, is a white person imitating a black comedian’s use of the n-word without realizing that the word is essentially off limit to white comedians.

If a person is reasonably judged worthy of shaming, the next concern is how and to what extent the person should be shamed and the objective of the shaming. Since shaming is a punishment, the usual moral considerations about punishment apply.

One reason to punish by shaming is deterrence—so the shamed will not engage in shameful activity again and that others will be less inclined to behave in similar ways. Another reason is retribution—to “balance the books” by harming the shamed in return for the harm they did. While retribution strikes me as morally problematic (at best), both deterrence and retribution should be limited by the principle of proportionality. That is, the punishment should be comparable in severity to the harm done. If the punishment is excessive, then it creates a new harm that would require punishment and this punishment would need to be proportional or there would need to be another punishment and so on to infinity. As such, even if retribution is embraced, it can only be justified when it matches the harm inflicted.

Unfortunately, in social media shaming the punishment tends to be excessive. In fact, the punishments for such offenses can exceed those imposed for serious civil or criminal violations of the law. For example, Sacco’s failed attempt at humor cost her job and wrecked her life. One reason that the punishment can be excessive is that people are often insulated from consequences of their acts of punishment, and hence they are freed to be harsher than they would be in person. That said, shamers are sometimes themselves shamed for shaming, thus creating a vicious circle. Another reason for the excesses of punishment is the scope of social media. A person’s shame can be broadcast to the entire world and the entire world can get in on punishing the person, thus inflicting excessive harm. This also helps explain why people who are shamed are often fired—their employers fear the wrath of the social media mob and will fire a person to protect themselves.

Another, and what I think is the best, reason to punish is redemption. Such punishment aims to inform the person that their action is unacceptable, to give them a chance to atone for their misdeed and to allow them a chance to be accepted back into the social fold. This approach does have some limits. The person must be subject to feeling shame or vulnerable to the consequences of being shamed. A person who is shameless (or at least without shame in the matter at hand) will be rather resistant to attempts to appeal to their sense of shame. A person who can suffer little or no ill-consequences from being shamed will also not be corrected by shaming. Donald Trump is often presented as an example of a person who is either shameless or able to effectively avoid the negative consequences of being shamed (or both).

Punishing for the purpose of redemption does put a limit on the punishment that should be inflicted. After all, excessive punishment is unlikely to teach a person a moral lesson about how they should act (but it can teach a practical lesson). Also, excessive punishment can do so much damage that a person cannot effectively make it back into the social fold. Such redemptive shaming should be severe enough to send the intended message, but moderate enough that the person can achieve redemption. What is often forgotten about redemptive punishment is the important role of society—redemption is not merely about the wrongdoer redeeming themselves, but other people accepting this redemption. Those who engage in social media shaming all too often rush to punish and then move on to the next transgressor. In doing so, they fail in their obligations to those they have punished, which includes offering an opportunity for redemption.

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The Speed of Rage

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 9, 2014
English: A raging face.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of social media has created an entire new world for social researchers. One focus of the research has been on determining how quickly and broadly emotions spread online. The April 2014 issue of the Smithsonian featured and article on this subject by Matthew Shaer.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Beijing University found that the emotion of rage spread the fastest and farthest online. Researchers in the United States found that anger was a speed leader, but not the fastest in the study: awe was even faster than rage. But rage was quite fast. As might be expected, sadness was a slow spreader and had a limited expansion.

This research certainly makes sense—rage tends to be a strong motivator and sadness tends to be a de-motivator. The power of awe was an interesting finding, but some reflection does indicate that this would make sense—the emotion tends to move people to want to share (in the real world, think of people eagerly drawing the attention of strangers to things like beautiful sunsets, impressive feats or majestic animals).

In general, awe is a positive emotion and hence it seems to be a good thing that it travels far and wide on the internet. Rage is, however, something of a mixed bag.

When people share their rage via social media, they are sharing with an intent to express (“I am angry!”) and to infect others with this rage (“you should be angry, too!”). Rage, like many infectious agents, also has the effect of weakening the host’s “immune system.” In the case of anger, the immune system is reason and emotional control. As such, rage tends to suppress reason and lower emotional control. This serves to make people even more vulnerable to rage and quite susceptible to the classic fallacy of appeal to anger—this is the fallacy in which a person accepts her anger as proof that a claim is true. Roughly put, the person “reasons” like this: “this makes me angry, so it is true.” This infection also renders people susceptible to related emotions (and fallacies), such as fear (and appeal to force).

Because of these qualities of anger, it is easy for untrue claims to be accepted far and wide via the internet. This is, obviously enough, the negative side of anger.  Anger can also be positive—to use an analogy, it can be like a cleansing fire that sweeps away brambles and refuse.

For anger to be a positive factor, it would need to be a virtuous anger (to follow Aristotle). Put a bit simply, it would need to be the right degree of anger, felt for the right reasons and directed at the right target. This sort of anger can mobilize people to do good. For example, people might learn of a specific corruption rotting away their society and be moved to act against it. As another example, people might learn of an injustice and be mobilized to fight against it.

The challenge is, of course, to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted anger. This is a rather serious challenge—as noted above, people tend to feel that they are right because they are angry rather than inquiring as to whether their rage is justified or not.

So, when you see a post or Tweet that moves you anger, think before adding fuel to the fire of anger.


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Google + vs Facebook

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 12, 2011
Image representing Friendster as depicted in C...


I’ve belonged to most of the major social media things, but only because other folks have badgered me into it. When Friendster was the things, I was nagged until I made a Friendster account. I think it still exists. Maybe. But I do not care. I was also wheedled into joining Myspace, which quickly was revealed as a fairly icky sewer. I did make some interesting friends and was offered  one of the more unusual things in my life: a chance to wrestle in a vat of pudding (which I declined, despite being given my choice of flavors). When Facebook made the scene, I was cajoled into putting my face in that book. Now that Google + is starting up, I have been inundated with admonishments to join. Since joining these movements is always easier than relentlessly explaining to folks why I am not drinking their Kool Aid, I joined up to Google+.

Google+ seems to be rather like Facebook, only it uses circles to organize people. In some ways, it makes me feel like I am playing a video game and grouping units. I have been tempted to call my circles things like “Archers”, “Melee Fighters”, “Wizards”, “Cannon Fodder”, and “Space Marines” to really get into the feel of the thing.

When I started using it, I had expected that Google would have everything ready to go for me: all my photos, all my friends, and so on. After all, surely Google knows every damn thing about me that can be known via the internet. I had hoped that it would use this power to make things easy for me. You know, a big “+” button I could push and have the magic of Google just stock the Google+ for me. But, no such luck. It looks like I’ll have to do a lot of the work myself (although there are ways to siphon Facebook).

I did devote a few seconds, as an experiment, to try to care about Google+. I sort of did, then sort of stopped. After all, it is yet another social network site in an ever increasing list of sites. Maybe it will be able to live alongside Facebook, as great white sharks and killer whales dwell in the same ocean. Or maybe it will be a Highlander sort of thing: there can only be one social network mega-time waster. If recent history is a guide, if Google+ goes face to face with Facebook, then it seems that there can only be one champion. One of them will be the next Friendster and one will be the next (or current) Facebook. If Google+ wins, I’ll just use it like I do Facebook: I’ll log in every few days so people do not think I am dead. I’ll post some photos of my trips to Maine and look at running photos posted by friends. I’ll presumably throw in some witty remarks, just because that is expected of me. If Facebook wins, I’ll do the same thing.

Despite my cruel indifference, this is a big fight. If Facebook wins, it stays an outrageously overvalued company. If Google+ wins, Facebook deflates and Google inflates with the digital air it will have sucked from the balloon shell of Facebook.  Or maybe, as some say, the true enemy of Google+ is Twitter. Or maybe it is Mechagodzilla. In any case, a new competitor will emerge soon enough, perhaps one based on an glue coated ferret metaphor.

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Weiner & Tragedy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2011
Anthony Weiner

Image via Wikipedia

Congressman Anthony Weiner recently made headlines over a Tweeted photo of a groin. He denied that he had sent the photo and insisted that he had been hacked. However, his handling of certain questions led many to doubt his veracity. In a press conference on June 6, he admitted that he had sent the Tweet and that he had lied to cover this up.

The press conference was a rather interesting in four ways. First, he accepted full responsibility for his actions and did not try to shift the blame to anyone or anything else. Second, he noted that his actions were due to a weakness and flaw in his character. Third, he answered question for about thirty minutes, visibly taking a beating. Fourth, his wife was not present-which is something rather unusual when an American politician has been caught in a scandal involving a sexual element. Seeing this conference started me thinking about tragedy in the Aristotelian sense.

Briefly put, a tragedy has two main aspects: the nature of the action and the nature of the main agent. In terms of the action, a person has to go from happiness to misery via a mistake on his part. Second, the agent needs to be good, but not overly so. The fact that the downfall was due to an error on the person’s part enables people to feel fear-“there, but for the grace of God, go I.” The fact that the person is basically decent enables people to feel pity. After all, when bad things happen to wicked people, we are not generally inclined to feel for them. However, when bad things happen to decent people, this tends to elicit feelings of pity.

In Weiner’s case, he clearly has gone from happiness to misery. He has been revealed as a liar and his wife is certainly not happy with him. His chances of being re-elected have been diminished. This misery is, of course, self inflicted and the result of poor chocies: though he is married he was inappropriately  involved via Twitter and Facebook with women and when he accidentally exposed himself, he chose to lie about it.

Looking at things honestly, I think that most of us can easily imagine being in a situation somewhat like Weiner’s. After all, social media makes it very easy to communicate with people and engage in what might begin as harmless friend making that devolves into flirting. As Weiner himself pointed out, social media is not to blame for our failings-but it does provide a rather slippery social slope. Social media also provides an instantaneous way to be stupid, thus sometimes shorting out one’s better judgment. Email and blog commenting also have a similar effect: it is easy to dash off a thoughtless email or comment and then realize the full extent of the stupidity when it is too late.

When people make mistakes, especially shameful mistakes, they are rarely inclined to admit to these errors. Rather, people tend to do just what Weiner did: try to conceal the error and then resort to lying. This, as Weiner knew, merely makes things worse by compounding the original error with more poor and unethical choices.

As such, it seems quite reasonable for most of us, especially us men, to think “yes, I could have been a Weiner.” For the record, I have never sent a “junk shot” via Twitter. However, I have made decisions in life I regret and hence have some sympathy for Weiner. I do, however, have far more sympathy for his wife.

What is obviously more controversial is whether he is basically a decent man who made a mistake or not.  Obviously enough, Weiner is not morally outstanding. He was involved with women via social media in a way that he felt comfortable sending “junk shots.” He also lied to cover up his misdeeds. However, he does not seem to be a wicked man. Assuming he is not lying again, his relationships with the women allegedly did not go beyond the realm of social media. While this was hardly ethical, it was not wicked or evil. While his lying was also unethical, he did not violate his oath of office or break any laws. As such, the extent of his immorality was fairly minor-lies told to cover up something shameful and embarrassing. As lies go, his lies are rather low on the evil scale.Weiner also appeared (although it is hard to judge from a single press conference) to be sincerely repentant and remorseful for what he had done-especially the hurt he had inflicted on his wife.As such, Weiner does not seem to be a wicked man who was brought low by his wickedness. Rather, he seems to be a basically decent sort of person who chose poorly due to flaws in his character. As such, it seems reasonable to consider the situation as a minor tragedy-at least in Aristotle’s sense.

Naturally, if new information is forthcoming, my assessment might well change. If Weiner actually had “relationships” with one or more of the women or was faking his emotions during the press conference, then his status as a decent, but flawed, person would come under greater question.

In any case, Weiner is yet another example of why honesty is the best policy. Of course, an even better policy is to not do stupid stuff that one might feel tempted to lie about.

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