Dark days in America. What’s next?

Do you even remember how this week began? Do you remember that we are still in the middle of a deadly pandemic that killed more than 100,000 people in America?

What has happened in the last few days is scary, infuriating and sad. It blurred that happened before earlier this week or almost many events that occurred. A black man was arrested by four police officers in Minnesota and brutally killed after one officer put his knee on the victim’s throat for a few minutes. The offender, ironically a police officer in this case, continued his act even after George Floyd repeatedly pled for air. He died at a hospital shortly after. The whole episode was filmed by a few folks that happened to be at the scene and were kind and brave enough to ask the four policemen to stop. It sparked anger and riots across the country that called for justice for the victim. Violence took place. Destruction of properties happened. Police intervened. Politicians voiced opinions and of course, the President poured gas on the fire with his controversial tweets. The whole country is in chaos and suddenly, arguably the worst pandemic ever seems to take a back seat in people’s mind.

As I have been following coverage on this tragedy and the aftermath, I feel sad, angry, scared and worried about what comes next for America. The country is increasingly deep into chaos. The problems that America faces seem impossible to overcome. Let’s go over a few

  • The government is in disarray. The two parties are more willing to win at all cost than to do what’s best for the country. The current administration rolled back a lot of regulations that the previous one put in place. The next administration, if from the opposite party, will install back what was removed. The cylce may continue on
  • There is no longer a uniting, calm and compassionate leadership at the helm. Whenever the current leader gets involved in an issue, things tend to take a turn for worse
  • The trust in authorities is seriously eroded. Scandals, misinformation, corruption, cover-up, violence, ineffective policies, unkept promises
  • Courts seem to be politicized
  • Racism is still alive and well in America. What happened with George Floyd is just one of a few that were caught on camera. It’s 2020 and we still are having to deal with this
  • High unemployment rate amid a pandemic that doesn’t seem to end soon
  • Voter suppression
  • Income inequality

Those are just a few significant challenges that US faces. Can you imagine even with the new leadership and Congress things will change? Can you imagine the divisiveness that we have right now will be lessened with a new administration? Can you imagine racism will go away when it hasn’t after decades? Can you imagine the trust in authorities will be regained soon?

What’s next for America? I think about this a lot because this is where I intended to reside for a while in the future. While China is still growing as an economy and a global power with a less democratic yet effective and stable leadership, America has too many structural challenges to deal with. Do a quick research and you can see America’s standing in the world also slipped over the past 3 years. The anti-immigrant policies make America less attractive to foreign talents. A couple of my friends who wanted to do PhD in the US already ruled out coming here. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to study here any more.

Perhaps, I am being pessimistic. But if right in the middle of the worst pandemic the social and political issues can dominate everyone’s mind, and we know that given enough time (a few weeks) there will be a bigger scandal, what’s the future looking like for the country? I hope I am wrong, but I don’t see too bright a near future

A word on the fight between the President and social media

It started when the President sent out a tweet about mail-in ballots. Twitter put a note below the tweet to suggest other content to fact-check what the President put out there. Trump took issues with it.

He then sent out a tweet on the debacle in Minnesota with language that seemed to call for violence. Twitter warned users of the content, but didn’t take down the tweet (see below)

Trump, his fanbase and allies accuse the company of violating First Amendment Right and censoring him. He was supported by Mark Zuckerberg, who disagreed with Twitter’s approach. Trump signed an Executive Order to curb protection for platforms like Twitter.

Now, I won’t get into the debate whether First Amendment Right is infringed here. I do want to talk a bit about the fine line social platforms are walking now. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter want to do both:

  • Enable expression and access to information, including what politicians say
  • Promote an impression that they are a safe place for users and that they contribute positively to the world

The challenge is difficult, but it’s not impossible. It becomes much more difficult when bad actors want to distribute misinformation for their agenda. Leaving misinformation intact is detrimental to our society; which contradicts one of the two things platforms want to do. Censoring misinformation will cause outcry over infringement of First Amendment Right and contradict the other. As bad actors want to take advantage of social media to aid their propaganda, the disregard for truth intensifies. Platforms like Twitter are stuck in a dilemma between censoring harmful or false content and abiding by free speech and expression.

In the case of Twitter, they are doing the best they can. They didn’t take down the President’s tweets despite repeated requests from many other users. They did put a label on two of his most egregious tweets recently. But that’s not enough, from both sides. Concerned users want a complete removal of some of Trump’s tweets while Trump is using his popularity and power to arm-twist the company not to.

When the two sides cannot compromise, platforms like Twitter, as some sort of a middleman, will soon have to pick a side. Eventually. The walking-a-fine-thin-line will likely not work for much longer.

I left Facebook and am about to leave Instagram too

Ads prompted me to leave Facebook and probably Instagram as well

A little bit over a year ago, I decided to deactivate my Facebook account. At the time, it wasn’t mentally healthy for me to be on the application any more. It sucked me  into politically divisive posts, meaningless sponsored content, time-consuming endless rolling and jealousy from posts by those whom I know. At first, the change was tough, but it gradually got easier and now I don’t even feel like coming back to Facebook. (One tip: don’t sign in your Messenger app as you will be automatically signed in on your Facebook account as well)

The same scenario is happening right now with Instagram. I am not on it as often as I used to any more. It’s hugely annoying when you have to see one ads every three posts. The ads are not even relevant. I even took the time to complain to Instagram on the frequency and irrelevancy of the ads, but of course, they don’t listen. At this rate, I am probably going to leave Instagram as well soon in the near future.

Changing preferences

Personally, I have seen a change in how I consume these social networking apps. I no longer have the urge to know what people in my circle are posting on a daily basis. Usually, people post to share (boast) beautiful pictures of food, fancy places, travel or relationships. Of course, I am interested in knowing good things that happened to my friends. I am happy for them. On the other hand, I’d like to see more on their daily struggles and less fancy aspects of their lives. But of course, such stories are not told on Instagram or Facebook. Plus, we are prone to jealousy of others after their feel-good pictures. At this point of my life, I don’t need to muster any effort to avoid jealousy. I’d love not to have it in the first place.

Nowadays, I prefer individual conversations with friends either on Whatsapp, Hangout, iMessage or Viber. These conversations allow me to know more about them without distractions, annoying ads or jealousy.

Low expectation for Facebook

I think that Facebook needs to turn it down a bit in trying to monetize their apps. Pushing ads down users’ throats will destroy user experience and eventually, negatively affect the appeal of the apps to advertisers. So far, they haven’t done any of that. The crazy bombardment of ads on Instagram pisses me off. Additionally, after the recent departure of Instagram’s co-founders, all original founders of Facebook’s most notable acquisitions (Whatsapp & Instagram) left because of disagreements, reportedly, with Facebook’s executives and lack of independence. These founders prioritize products and user experience. Their departures speak volume on where Facebook is headed to.

Right now, Facebook is still the king. They own four apps, each of which has more than one billion active users. But when users’ behavior changes over time while they keep feeding us useless and irrelevant ads, I doubt that such dominance will be sustainable. On top of that, Facebook will have to deal with the issue of hate speech vs free speech, something that I don’t think can be fixed anytime soon.

 

 

Twitter, Facebook, Free Speech and Business

Today, two top executives from Facebook and Twitter met with the Senate. I haven’t checked the news yet, but my guess is that they talked about how to prevent future intervention into American’s elections by a foreign entity using social media and how to stop fake news while preserving the First Amendment right.

First Amendment is a huge issue in the US. It is touted as the bedrock of the country’s democracy and society. The Amendment refers to one’s freedom to voice one’s opinion without restrictions. Though it may sound inherently logical and simple, it is much more complicated in reality. We deal with people of different perspectives every day. It’s almost impossible to please everyone with our opinion or action. On an individual level, it may not be a big problem, but in some businesses, it is. Enter Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter and Facebook are essentially crowd pleasers. They want as many to use their platforms and for as long as possible. A big user base will attract advertisers and their dollars. To attract and keep users, these platforms feed users what they want to see based on their previous activities on (and off?) their sites.

The problem they are facing now is that when someone exercises their 1st Amendment by posting some false information, should it be taken down or should it be left there? Take it down and users on the other extreme end of perspectives will accuse these platforms of abuse of power and oppression of free speech. Leave it there and other users will be angry about the so-called “fake news”. How can a piece of content be classified as “purely false information” or “legit but controversial information”? Even if such classification is possible, will the management team at these social media firms have the courage to take actions?

This is a big problem for social media platforms whose monetization model relies much on their popularity. But trying to be popular with everyone is causing them trouble. Executives have to spend hours in DC. Users aren’t pleased with their actions or lack thereof. Reputation is tarnished. Personally, I don’t see how this issue can be solved for Facebook or Twitter. I don’t think AI will be of much help in this case. Mentioning AI just shuts down the conversation and stops further questions.