In this week’s newsletter, we decide what we should and shouldn’t forgive Mark Zuckerberg for (see editorial, below). We also, as usual, offer a pithy summary of Trump’s doings and their significance as well as background readings. But before you dive in, I wanted to call your attention to two pieces I recently wrote—one in Vox, on the meaning of mindful resistance, and one in Wired, on how meditation can erode the cognitive biases that underlie the “psychology of tribalism.”
And as long as I have your attention: (1) Feel free to use the “share” function at the bottom of the newsletter to email the newsletter to anyone you think might like it; (2) Feel free to email us with reactions and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. We don’t have time to reply to each email, but rest assured that we read each one (mindfully).
THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Iran Nuclear Deal Imperiled: Trump, who by congressional mandate must every 90 days say whether Iran is complying with the 2015 nuclear agreement, refused for the first time to “recertify” compliance—even though international inspectors and all nations that joined with the US in negotiating the deal say Iran is in compliance. Trump said that unless the deal is made tougher—something Iran is quite unlikely to agree to—he will terminate it.
Corker Back In Bottle? Republican Sen. Bob Corker roiled Washington with a startling interview in the Times, saying that the White House staff struggles every day to “contain” Trump and warning that Trump could put us “on the path to World War III.” Yet Corker is now working with Trump ally Sen. Tom Cotton to pass legislation that would do Trump’s bidding and would heighten tensions with Iran. The Cotton-Corker legislation would impose new sanctions on Iran unless Iran agreed to tighter constraints on its behavior than the 2015 nuclear deal requires.
Obamacare Imperiled? Trump is halting insurance subsidies that reduce healthcare costs for poor people. He says the payments were not authorized by Congress and are therefore illegal. Separately, Trump directed HHS to write rules allowing small business associations to offer plans that offer skimpier coverage than required under Obamacare. But Reuters reports, “the federal rule-making process … takes months [while] Americans next month are due to start buying their plans for next year…” Meanwhile, “Legal challenges from Democratic state attorneys general” are planned.
NAFTA Imperiled? “Washington has dramatically increased tensions in talks to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement by proposing [among other controversial things] that the lifespan of any new deal be limited to five years,” reports Reuters.
Threats Left and Right: Steven Bannon pledged to Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he will recruit primary challengers for every incumbent Republican up for re-election except Ted Cruz: “We are declaring war on the Republican establishment that does not back the agenda that Donald Trump ran on.” On the left, activists are looking for candidates to challenge California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
EDITORIAL: THE FACEBOOK PROBLEM
Two weeks ago Mark Zuckerberg, reflecting on the past year, wrote on his Facebook page, “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.”
Zuckerberg’s post was widely taken as a reference to the Russian use of targeted Facebook ads to influence voter behavior in 2016. And Facebook has indeed taken steps to address that kind of problem.
But to focus on how Russians used Facebook to divide Americans is to miss a big part of the problem. It is in Facebook’s nature to divide Americans, to deepen the country’s political polarization. There are two ways Facebook divides the country, and forgiveness is slightly easier to grant for one than for the other.
First, the easy-to-forgive part: Any social media platform, by letting people choose whom they affiliate with—who their “friends” are, in Facebook’s case—gives us the option of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people, thus providing a filtered version of reality and reinforcing, even intensifying, our tribal allegiances.
It’s a bit harder to grant forgiveness for this: Facebook’s “algorithm”—the secret formula that governs your newsfeed, determining which of your friend’s posts and shares you see and which you don’t see—is exacerbating this tribalizing tendency.
You may wonder how, if the algorithm is secret, we can know enough about it to blame it for anything. Well, you don’t have to hack into Facebook’s computers to discern one feature of the algorithm: It takes posts that lots of people seem to be liking and sharing and shows them to more people than it otherwise would. In other words, it takes posts that show early viral potential and makes them more viral.
So the question is: What kinds of posts show early viral potential? Emotionally powerful posts. After all, when you decide to share (or retweet) something, “decide” is typically a misleading term: you share it because it feels good to share it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with emotionally powerful posts. Sometimes the feelings that make you share things are wholesome—like, for example, the feelings that make you share puppy dog videos.
But sometimes the feelings are less reliably wholesome—like the urge to share news or opinions that reflect badly on your ideological enemies, an urge that can be so strong that you don’t pause to examine the accuracy of the news or the validity of the opinions. Or the urge to share posts that ridicule Trump’s followers, or paint them with a broad brush as racist or stupid—an urge that can wind up deepening the sense among Trump supporters that they are held in contempt by liberals and cosmpolitan elites, a sense that helped get Trump elected and that he tries to reinforce.
Obviously, such emotions would carry weight on any platform that permits users to amplify a message by sharing it within their network. But Facebook’s algorithm amplifies the amplification. (Twitter, whose algorithm was once a paragon of simplicity and transparency, has lately, alas, started moving in the same direction.)
Again, this isn’t always bad. (I love a good puppy video!) But, in an already polarized, even tribalized, America, it is often bad.
In one sense you can’t blame Facebook: It’s a company, and companies try to maximize profits, and no doubt Facebook’s algorithm, by amplifying emotionally resonant messages, and thus making Facebook a higher volume and more addictive platform, boosts profits. If you want to make a company do anything other than boost profits, you have two choices: (1) regulate it; (2) apply public pressure—for example, shame Facebook into revealing its algorithm, at least in broad contours, and giving users more power to fine tune the algorithm. The first option is unlikely in this case and, anyway, is probably unwise in light of, for example, the first amendment. The second option may have something to be said for it.
Meanwhile, our best hope for limiting the amount of damage done by Facebook’s algorithm is to use Facebook mindfully and encourage others to do that. Try to pause before sharing, or even liking, and examine the feelings that are encouraging you to do that. Are these feelings to be trusted? The longer you reflect on the question, the more likely that your answer will provide good guidance.
Factcheck.org reports that ending the “payments that help low-income people pay for out-of-pocket health care expenses … would increase the average benchmark silver plan by 20 percent in 2018, according to the CBO.”
NYT follows the money behind the sprawling anti-Trump resistance and describes “jockeying between groups, donors and operatives for cash and turf.”
Politico’s Zack Stanton explores the blue-to-red transition, since 1960, of Macomb County, Michigan, birthplace of politically divergent rappers Eminem and Kid Rock.
The Democrats’ leftward shift partly explains the backlash that fueled Trump’s election, argues Arc Digital’s Benny Belvedere. Belvedere notes sharp changes in opinion among Democrats on a number of questions between 2010 and 2017. For example: Do immigrants benefit the country?—50 percent of Democrats said yes in 2010, 84 percent in 2017. (Of course, shifts during that time frame may have come partly in reaction to Trump’s election.)
Republican voters have shifted against free trade, notes Vox’s Brian Resnick—and the timing of the shift suggests that maybe it wasn’t something Trump took advantage of so much as something he caused:
—by Robert Wright and Aryeh Cohen-Wade with contributions from Nikita Petrov and Brian Degenhart