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The Chaos of Facebook

Screen Shot 2019 04 24 at 5 44 54 PM

It’s probably an understatement to say that Facebook has been in the news a lot in the past three or four years, and not in a good way. In the US, we’ve seen a long parade of issues just regarding Facebook and it’s part in the 2016 elections.

But Facebook is a global company. We are not alone in the their executives putting profits before the welfare of their “members”.

For part of that international perspective regarding Facebook’s impact on elections and democracy, watch this talk from the recently completed TED Conference. It’s presented by a UK reporter who went back to her hometown in the southern part of Wales to learn how Facebook had impacted the 2016 Brexit vote.

And this entire referendum took place in darkness, because it took place on Facebook. And what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook, because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it’s impossible to research anything. So we have no idea who saw what ads or what impact they had, or what data was used to target these people. Or even who placed the ads, or how much money was spent, or even what nationality they were.

But Facebook does. Facebook has these answers, and it’s refused to give them to us. Our parliament has asked Mark Zuckerberg multiple times to come to Britain and to give us these answers. And every single time, he’s refused. And you have to wonder why. Because what I and other journalists have uncovered is that multiple crimes took place during the referendum. And they took place on Facebook.

She ends her talk with a passionate challenge to the “gods of Silicon Valley”, many of whom were likely in that TED audience.

Because what the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. This is not democracy — spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where. It’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.

And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you. And it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right or “Leave” or “Remain” or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. Because as it stands, I don’t think it is.

I would argue that our own 2016 election also demonstrates that broken democracy.

If you can stand a deeper dive behind the more recent problems at Facebook, read the long but excellent cover story in the May issue of Wired.1 The reporter covers what they call “15 months of fresh hell” inside the company, based on interviews with “65 current and former employees”.

It’s ultimately a story about the biggest shifts ever to take place inside the world’s biggest social network. But it’s also about a company trapped by its own pathologies and, perversely, by the inexorable logic of its own recipe for success.

As I said, the story is long and is difficult to summarize in one post. But the TL;DR is that the leadership of Facebook either don’t think they’ve done anything wrong or they’re afraid to make substantial changes that will hurt growth and profits.

It’s excellent reporting and worth an hour of your time to read the whole thing.

The graphic is from the animated header of the Wired story. Seems an appropriate illustration given the chaos being sown by Facebook.

1. Wired Magazine offers some of the smartest reporting available on tech and its impact on society. It’s worth a few bucks to subscribe.

The Weekend Collection

A few good things to read, hear, and watch when time allows this week.

Read: Elizabeth II has been on the British throne for more than 60 years, but she obviously will not be Queen of the realm forever. So, how will the royal family, the government, and the BBC handle a transition to a new monarch? Each organization will play their part and have their own secret plans, and the story about them in The Guardian makes for an interesting read. (about 33 minutes)

Read: For those of us who regularly present to groups big and small (me: just small), any ideas to improve the experience is welcome. This post with ten tips (plus a TED video) is a few years old but it comes from the guy who literally wrote the book, Presentation Zen. (about 7 minutes)

Read: If you look at the most commonly used world maps, Greenland is represented as the same size as Africa, Alaska is larger than Texas, and Europe is right in the middle. Boston Public Schools has decided to replace that view, called the Mercator projection, with one that’s more accurate called Gall-Peters. If nothing else, watch the clip from The West Wing to understand why the change is necessary. (about 4 minutes)

Listen: Most of us here in the US are less than a month away from the date when we are required to file our taxes. But the process is more complicated for most people than it needs to be. Planet Money tells the story of one professor who has been working to make the standard return simpler for more than a decade, and why he has made little progress. (22:54)

Listen: If you’re a trivia nerd and Jeopardy! just doesn’t work for you anymore, give a listen to Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. A good place to start is with the episode titled Under the Hood, in which contestants and panelists Seth Godin, Faith Salie, and Nicholas Negroponte discuss things hidden from everyday view. (58:07)

Watch: You probably know that the internet is a network connecting millions of computers all over the world. But did you ever wonder HOW they are connected? Nat and Lo from Google are here to show you as they follow a project to lay a new cable between the US and South America. This would be a good one to show middle or high school students who think it’s all magic. (7:36)

We Just Need Better Ads

The BBC reports that the Education Select Committee of Parliament is concerned about “significant teacher shortages” in the UK.

The Education Select Committee has called for a long-term plan, as schools struggle to recruit enough teachers and pupil numbers continue to rise.

Teacherswanted 619x365

MPs want more active efforts to reduce the numbers quitting teaching.

The Department for Education said there were currently record levels of teachers.

A spokesman said: “We recognise there are challenges.”

As in most parts of the US, the greatest shortages are in fields like Physics, maths1, and computer science.

Also similar to the US, a large percentage of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

So what is the Department doing to address their challenges?

A £1.3bn2 recruitment campaign, “featuring a series of high-profile advertising campaigns for teaching”. Also, “financial incentives focused on attracting recruits into shortage subjects”.

Although the reporter found someone late in the piece to bring up a “lack of pay raises” for teachers, and had the requisite union rep quote about “distractions” in the classroom, there was no indication anything like better pay or working conditions was being considered by the government.

They just need better marketing.

Yelling at the Podcast

I had a four hour drive home from our state technology conference today and what better way to pass the time than an audio program that gets me into a one-sided shouting match with the speakers in my car.

That was provided by a debate from Intellegence Square, and organization that stages “Oxford-style” debates on various subjects. Having listened to many of them, I can tell you that these debates are nothing like the jokes staged by our cable news networks.

Anyway, this particular debate, recorded in London, began with the resolution “Let’s end the tyranny of the test. Relentless school testing demeans education”.

The pair arguing in favor of that statement made some excellent, rational points about how the apparently heavy regime of standardized testing in the UK is harmful to children and trivializes learning.

The pair on the other side, one of which is “chief executive” of a UK “free school” company (equivalent to a charter school company in the US), basically rattled off a long series of statements that testing, “relentless testing” was actually good for kids.

For example, while discussing the achievement gap between children in poverty and those from better off homes that “chief executive” makes the statement “… that regime of yes, relentless testing, is the best way make sure that all children leave primary school able to read and write, including the most disadvantaged.”

He also tried to make the case that “free schools” and “academies” (UK variations on charter schools) would be the solution to his country’s “dismal” showing on international tests, citing as an example children in Wales, where they have no free schools, and do poorly on those exams. The actual factors of children living in poverty, of course, are “irrelevant factors” when in come to learning.

His partner, head of education research for a charity in the UK and author of something called the Seven Myths About Education, declared in her opening statement: “I will explain how tests provide the most accurate information about how a pupil has has done at the end of their time in school.” She continued by stating categorically, “First of all, tests are accurate. They’re reliable. They’re fair. They are free from bias… If we look at the evidence, the evidence shows that tests are really good predictors of things that really matter in life.”

And my favorite, her declarative statement on the topic of using projects to teach (one of the seven “myths” in her book: “In actual fact, projects sound very seductive, projects sound very exciting when in actual fact, they overwhelm working memory, they make it hard for people to learn, they’re often very confusing and don’t have all the benefits their proponents say they do.”

There’s a whole lot more to the crap they had to say. Take an hour and listen to the whole thing. See if you don’t find yourself yelling at your headphones as well.

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