Tech Tyranny and Democracy: It’s Time for a Social Media Bill of Rights

Upon news that Robert Mueller III’s exhaustive special counsel investigation found no evidence of collusion between President Trump and Russia, I attempted to do what many Internet users have done over the past week: share my 2¢. One comment was contributed in response to a Yahoo news story: “Does the media owe Trump an apology?“. Another was submitted in response to the Breitbart headline: “Jeff Zucker: No Regrets on CNN’s Russia Hoax Coverage, ‘We are not investigators’.

What did my comments have in common? They were on topic. They were coherently written. They did not troll anyone. Yet they were deleted within minutes by what I can only assume are anti-SPAM/abuse algorithms.

Unfortunately, for me, this is nothing new. And perhaps some who are reading this — if by some miracle you are! — can relate.*

I have been aware that my voice has been shrinking for some time — long before the term “shadow banning” came into use to describe the practice of limiting Internet users’ exposure to others’ content without suspending the offending creator/contributor’s account. In the late 1990s I published an e-zine — that’s what they were called before the term “blog” was popularized — which was noteworthy enough to make it into an Internet archive known as the Wayback Machine. In fact, this blog, The Social Critic, is an outgrowth of the efforts I began in 1998.

Today, however, there is no evidence on the Wayback Machine that this blog’s predecessor existed.

Approximately 10 years ago, Social Critic posts stopped indexing on Google. I combed through WordPress and Google’s webmaster tools to no avail. I had no idea what happened and I was unsuccessful finding answers. As a result, this blog is but one of millions of obscurities online.

About two years ago, I noticed that my decades-long DISQUS profile contributions had all but been blotted off the face of the Internet: No matter the topic, no matter the website, no matter how thoughtfully-worded the content, it was yanked — often so fast that I came to conclude that I was being nixed not by any human intervention but by a DISQUS algorithm (“bot”). I reached out to DISQUS and was told that for all the comments “Detected as SPAM”, I would have to individually petition each website moderator to approve my comments. When I pointed out that over the past three years my comments have been pulled so fast that no human moderator could have been responsible for their removal, I was told that there would nonetheless be no effort to address how the DISQUS bot operates on my profile. When asked if the length of my comments or the fact that I sometimes edit them for typos could be responsible for the pervasiveness of the problem, DISQUS refused to be specific. Why, I asked, does DISQUS allow users to post an unrestricted number of characters or make use of an “edit comment” option in the first place — if in fact writing more than one paragraph or performing an edit can trip a SPAM bot by which to nullify any and all efforts to participate in a discussion? Again, DISQUS refused to elucidate. As a result, I am left with years worth of posts — including early contributions that had accrued numerous “up-votes” by readers — that are no longer visible because they have been slapped with a false SPAM designation.

Continue reading “Tech Tyranny and Democracy: It’s Time for a Social Media Bill of Rights”

Job Loss Breaks Social Ties — Starting Over

Don’t be a stranger.

That’s the message of a 45-year-long study according to US News and World Report in “Job Loss Has Long-Term Impact on Social Lives“.

Once someone in the prime of life suffers a layoff or is otherwise displaced from the workforce, community connections — anything from a PTA meeting, charity involvement, sporting team or church attendance — are severed for good at least 35 percent of the time, study results show.

Perhaps this comes as a surprise. It shouldn’t. How many of us have grown distant from someone simply because they left our school, workplace, club or church?

And how many of us, by the same token, have isolated ourselves because we fear that others will judge us when the chips are down?

“Social engagement often involves an element of social trust and a sense that things are reciprocal — that you give some support if you get some support, and you benefit from society if society benefits from you,” UCLA sociologist and lead study author Jennie E. Brand said in a university press release. “When workers are displaced, the tendency is to feel as though the social contract has been violated, and we found that they are less likely to reciprocate.”

Translation? Feeling ashamed, embarrassed or fearful of judgment causes far too many of us to retreat into our proverbial caves.

To extrapolate beyond the scope of employed vs. unemployed, any number of crisis — say a voluntary decision to become a full-time caretaker of an ill or disabled family member, or a medical condition that forces you to retrain for a new position or scale back career or social commitments — might be expected to produce similar, if not greater, impacts on one’s sense of community. These are the life circumstances where fair weather friends and superficial partners flee, where the tough keep on going — but too often go it alone.

Life is a journey meant to be shared.

Studies show that people who have safety nets and support systems tend to fair better mentally and spiritually, which in turn may translate into a longer, healthier life. If this latest study proves anything, it is that reaching out to others, whether we can personally relate to them at the moment or not, is no small gesture. It’s the reaffirmation that relationships are more important than circumstances; people are more important than things; connection is more meaningful than a fat bank account, and that real people are not put off by the twists, turns and upheavals of real life — theirs or others’.

Each of us are infinitely more valuable than our job titles would suggest. We are more than a parent. More than a spouse. More than a sister or brother. More than a student. More than a degree. More than a fancy car. More than a pair of designer jeans. Social barometers are just that — snap judgments that shouldn’t confine intelligent adults to narrow little boxes in which there is no room for new friends, different experiences and a broader sense of connectedness. To surround ourselves with people who are exactly like us is to find camaraderie in one sense, but with it the stress of competition (“keeping up with the Jones'”). More importantly, it is difficult to appreciate how truly blessed we are when we avoid those who no longer reside on Easy Street. Similarly, it is difficult to regain a sense of normalcy when we presume we are alone in our challenging circumstances and no longer make an effort to “reach out and touch someone”.

What can those of us who find ourselves or someone we know in tough circumstances do?

Don’t wait for someone else to meet your needs and expectations. Don’t be too proud to ask for help. Be the change you want to see in the world: Model what it looks like to be mature, compassionate and committed. And never let anyone or anything convince you that it’s too late.

From a distance, those who are too artificial to care and those who isolate themselves out of fear of rejection appear deceptively alike. Community, by contrast, is the understanding that both halves form a whole. In reality, the distance between two people is merely a phone call, email or “How are you?” away.

It took over 45 years for sociologists to gather enough data to confirm what we already know.

Don’t let a valuable reminder go to waste.

###