The Reality Game : How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth .
By Samuel Woolley .
Public Affairs, 278 pages, $28 .
There’s a whole book of the Talmud dedicated to crimes that should be punished by lashes — Makkot. Allthough our early internet age is in many ways beyond the imagination of the Talmud, there are many aspects of it that are still mordantly relevant. And, according to the arguments of Makkot, Mark Zuckerberg deserves 40 lashes.
Indeed, being considered a “conspiring witness” — one of the “eidim zomimim” — is the least guilt that Zuckerberg should be working to avoid. According to Samuel Woolley in his new book, “The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth,” those in charge of social media have so far failed in their responsibilities to social equity. But the author — an expert in contemporary online propaganda who has been following bad faith actors on the internet since the Arab Spring — suggests a number of ways in which things could get so much worse.
Woolley is a young academic who works with some of the world’s most important research teams at the intersection of journalism and technology. He likens the use of online tools up to and including the 2016 election campaigns to “Cold War propaganda strategies… amplified by powerful technology.” Most of what has caused damage to open civil society in the west so far has been caused by simple bots and the commercial amplification of divisive domestic extremist speech. But these trivial automations are nothing compared to what could come next. Woolley warns that enemies of democracy could soon be using the far more powerful tools of deepfake technology, artificial intelligence and VR interfaces to fool users who have ever fewer resources or instincts to counter the spread of distraction and misinformation.
The last 5 years have seen an increasingly firm partnership between those who benefit politically from sowing social division and those platform owners who benefit financially from the clicks. Even when the leaders of Facebook have been repeatedly informed by unimpeachably neutral organizations that hate groups and conspiracy theorists are breaching community standards, Zuckerberg and his staff have refused to take down posts or groups. Instead they prevaricate or cite “free speech” as reasons that lies designed to broaden social division should be allowed to earn money for Facebook.
Vulnerable groups and minorities are direct victims of the unholy alliance between hate mongers and profit-reapers. Society as a whole suffers as hatred – perversely profitable online – becomes acceptable on the street. At every fault line of race, religion, gender, class and nationality, suspicion and distrust is weaponized and monetized.
Ironically, the proliferation of nonsensical yet seductive conspiracy theories has been enabled by nothing more sinister than this simple alignment of short-term interests. Unfortunately the collusion of these witnesses in the court of online interaction has grievous costs to society. Enjoyment of difference becomes tolerance, becomes incivility, becomes hatred, becomes violence. And, however we are empowered by success, we Jews live on the fault lines of identity.
And it’s not just the wonks like Woolley who worry. Sacha Baron Cohen, in his November address to the ADL, talked about how social media has sown violent distrust in civil society. Given the toxins that social media pours into daily social discourse he said, “Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which thrives on shared lies, is on the march.” Even in his own work, setting up the satirical series “Who Is America?” the barely stemmed tide of hate and lies made it simple to convince someone to murder three innocent women. (Editor’s Note: The author is a friend of Baron Cohen and has worked with him in the past, though not on “Who Is America?” or the speech to the ADL.)
The premise of Baron Cohen’s show was to take a variety of characters around the country and see what bizarre beliefs, confessions and actions he could coax from prominent or everyday Americans. For example, disguised as Erran Morad – a former Israeli army officer – Baron Cohen spoke to a state representative who repeatedly used the “n-word” while explaining how he wanted to enact anti-Muslim legislation. All Baron Cohen had to do was to push the already-established hate buttons.
Morad, in another scene, convinced a regular American that “murders” were necessary to prevent Antifa from putting “hormones into babies’ diapers in order to ‘make them transgender.’” The man convinced by Baron Cohen was no naive child or vulnerable mark; this was “an educated, normal guy who had held down a good job, but who, on social media, repeated many of the conspiracy theories that President Trump, using Twitter, has spread more than 1,700 times to his 67 million followers.”
Fortunately the explosions that the man triggered were as much a myth as the transgender hoax that he believed he was preventing, but the murders in Christchurch that were streamed on Facebook Live or the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh or the machete attack in Monsey were not hoaxes.
What distinguishes eidim zomemim from people who simply break the commandment against lying is that their action is collusive, defamatory and performed within a constructed context. That is, they support each other in a lie, within a context of trust, in a way that harms other witnesses and the third person who is the actual subject of debate. This situation is peculiarly analogous to the way in which agents of division and platform owners collude to discredit honest brokers on social media.
Intriguingly, given the “free speech” defense used by the CEOs of the biggest private companies in history, it doesn’t matter to the Talmud that the witnesses are not breaking a law. Just like colluding to preserve an inequitable algorithm, the punishment for conspiring witnesses is not for criminal transgression, it is for behaving badly.
In a talk at Berkeley in 2019, Alex Stamos – former head of information security at Facebook and currently a professor at Stanford – explains that online tracking of social media allows the platforms to do more of what its users are seen to like but not what helps society. What gets improved in business is what increases the bosses’ bottom line and brings in workers’ bonuses. But, if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t get improved. Sadly, social stability, democracy and tolerance are not instantly measurable. As Stamos further points out, if you ask a heroin addict how he’s liking the product while he’s using it, the addict will give it full marks.
In reaction to the totalitarianism and genocide of the twentieth century, real world legislation and social norms in the West mandate certain rules of behavior. These norms are largely unenforced on the internet where truth and decency can be sidelined as a result of the hastily assembled virtual infrastructure. Woolley, essentially, is calling for those governments and institutions that have set up the rules of a free, tolerant, democratic society to be included in online governance.
The Internet was not set up for Zuckerberg and his ilk to allow anonymous content, anonymous advertising and anonymous amplification but their lack of will to act means that hateful material makes them money with every click. These clicks – whether in solidarity with or in disgust at the content – continue to generate income even while the content falls short of the platforms’ meager self-imposed standards of hate and truth let alone social standards of practice or media regulation.
As with Climate Change we may have missed a tipping point, but it’s not too late to have an effect meaningful enough to save us. Indeed, though social media feels permanent and immoveable, it’s easy to forget that it is barely a decade old. One way or the other, this coming decade will be a defining one as Facebook, Twitter and the whole constellation reach some degree of maturity. The time to reverse the momentum of burgeoning, socially-acceptable hatred is now.
Woolley cites a finding in the 2018 report from Freedom House, an independent internet monitoring group, that “false news and lies spread significantly more quickly online than truthful information.” In a 2019 report, the group goes further, stating in blatant terms “we now face a stark reality: the future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.” The authors of the report continue, “Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression. The future of privacy, free expression, and democratic governance rests on the decisions we make today.”
With his announcement at Georgetown University in October that he will neither ban nor fact-check political ads on Facebook (a stance on which he later doubled down), Zuckerberg is proudly admitting that he is presiding over a company that, for a fee, will microtarget lies. And these are often not the harmless lies that the Talmud sanctions, like telling a bride or groom they look beautiful on their wedding day.
Directly attributable to social media, Russian lies and anonymous amplification of extremism tore open civil society in Britain and America in 2016. The subversion of those major elections deeply weakened bulwarks of global democracy such as NATO and the EU, arguably ending an era of Western power. Disinformation about HIV and vaccines caused fatal health epidemics. Hate speech in Myanmar caused the genocide of the Rohingya people.
We can’t look to the young, the so-called digital natives, to save us. Though they are natives, they have less history at their fingertips and have come of age as the firehose of misinformation has undermined epistemology. Woolley quotes research that shows that though older folks are more likely to share fake news posts, youngsters are more likely to share dubious images or be groomed for hate by numerous racist Facebook groups. The natives are also early adopters which means that their ignorance of basic facts (famously, two thirds of American millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is) could be exploited in new ways.
So why should we not carry out the talmudically mandated punishment on Zuckerberg, and the rest of the proudly conspiring witnesses in what Baron Cohen called the Silicon Six (“Zuckerberg at Facebook; Sundar Pichai at Google; Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google’s parent company, Alphabet; Brin’s ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki, at YouTube; and Jack Dorsey at Twitter.”)?
The reason is not that they are innocent.
It’s not immediately clear how to make users or platforms accountable for their actions. Among the reasons that the Talmud prescribes flogging for perpetrators is because either the provision of an eye for an eye doesn’t make sense or because flogging is a merciful commutation of punishment by exile or death.
The example discussed in the Talmud has conspiring witnesses testify that a man should be disqualified for priesthood because of a specific birth status that they say (mendaciously) that he hid. To punish the witnesses by somehow changing their birth status in return would be nonsensical: the accident of birth that they cite would be a meaningless punishment to anyone not wanting to be a priest. So, instead they prescribe 40 lashes as a deterrent to people maliciously spreading lies for themselves and others.
But, despite the harm caused by Zuckerberg’s deliberate and profitable inaction, we are more civilized than wishing him to be flogged or to fall victim to the same brutal, violent hatred for which, with every refusal to act, he is increasingly culpable. It would be against the spirit of contemporary Judaism to wish the same suffering on Zuckerberg that he has caused through Facebook.
For an alternative, we have to look to Woolley and Maimonides to see how to proceed. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides explains four principles of repentance: ask for forgiveness, make a connection with those you have wronged; express sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same error again; make restitution, using your power to put things right; act differently if you are put in the same position again.
With over 3.7 billion users online and “2.5 quintillion bytes of data created every day” there’s plenty of scope for the Silicon Six to make their platforms good for the world and still make money. As Woolley puts it, “They owe a debt to both democracy and the free market, and their allegiance to the latter doesn’t mean they can ignore the former.”
Woolley lays out three ways that the Silicon Six can make amends, satisfying Maimonides’s third and fourth criteria. The speed of technological response means that specific tools and legislative requirements can be quickly outdated. First, in the short term, the Zuckerberg can improve their “algorithms and social network structures” to be less easily exploited by bots and false news. From then, they must hold themselves responsible for the outcomes, not the processes, of their platforms. If they have the will to act, they can do this immediately.
Second, in the medium term the Silicon Six must help “build informational resilience in our society,” through promoting civic internet literacy movements and treating governments not as antagonists, but as allies in media literacy. By helping good faith actors online and internet researchers, the Silicon Six can show true remorse, strengthen society and, at the same time, make their platforms actually more, not less, valuable. This resilience involves “a kind of cognitive immunity,” along with a higher respect for “the values inherent in democracy and human rights.” If we can track ocean floor earthquakes to prevent tsunamis, we can track fissures in social media platforms.
The final step in Woolley’s plan is absolute common sense. We need to “invest in society.” That means Zuckerberg stepping up to “work to repair damage between groups” that he has caused. The virtual world and the physical world are in continual dynamic social tension. At the moment, the Silicon Six are presiding over a virtual world which is dragging the physical world apart. Woolley observes that “Nationally and internationally, polarization, nationalism, globalization, and extremism have created wide divides among people where once there were only small gaps.” Zuckerberg’s teshuva — his repentance — should be to lead his platform, not his foundation, to repair the world.
To harness social media for the sake of society we have to marry Maimonides’s four principles with Woolley’s timeframe for democratizing the internet and empowering human rights’ activists. If not, we might have to revisit the idea of lashes for the Silicon Six, because the alternative is, as Woolley’s title reminds us, an irrevocably broken reality.
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.