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Non-fiction day: The Divide and The Lucifer Effect

I’m not quite finished with Matt Taibbi’s new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, but I thought I’d review it now because, a.) I’m pretty sure of my impressions of the book and b.) it should be read in conjunction with another book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phillip Zimbardo.  I dunno, maybe I should read the Taibbi book to the end to see if he makes the connection but I’m beginning to get outrage fatigue, which is why it’s probably a good idea to read the more clinical prose in Zimbardo’s book to gain perspective.

So. Much. Morality.

The premise of Taibbi’s book is that the justice system is divided into two parts in this country.  If you are a member of the bonus class or oligarchy, your possession of the One Ring makes it nearly impossible for the justice system to prosecute you.  You’re invisible to the powers of accountability for one reason or another.  On the other hand, if you are a member of the working class, that is, anyone not living off their investments, the justice system can make your life a living hell.  Just breathing wrong can get you into trouble and that trouble is excessively punitive, relentless, expensive, arbitrary and seemingly endless.  It doesn’t take much to fall down the rabbit hole but it takes even less if your are a member of a minority population.

Sidenote: We have experienced this in our own family when a cousin’s persistent drug problem lead to direct interaction with the justice system.  He needed rehab- quickly.  What he got instead resembled Les Miz.  In the end, the legal system and it’s self-replicating fees, coupled with unmerciful punishment of every imaginable variation, put him in a hole he could not climb out of, made him homeless, broke and despondent.  He committed suicide.  So, you know, we definitely know what Matt is talking about. You don’t have to be black or hispanic. All that is required is that you have no money and live in a country where the public has been trained to be completely unsympathetic to what is happening to you.

Taibbi alternates the book with stories from each side of the divide.  We swing from bankers on Wall Street who got away with murder to “stop and frisk” detentions of young black men who are just standing outside their apartments at the wrong time.  Where the justice system seems willing to take a “boys will be boys” attitude towards the bankers, it comes down on the loiterers with a vengeance, depriving them of their dignity in the courtroom and subjecting them to endless hours of waiting around, mounting fees and coercion to plea to crimes they didn’t commit that ultimately deprive them of their right to public housing and student loans.

Taibbi doesn’t write with the same snap and clarity as Michael Lewis or Neil Barofsky  when describing the machinations of the Wall Street criminals.  His prose tends to meander, feels insidery (is that a word?) and it was difficult to follow who did what to whom.  This only pertains to the case studies in the upper justice system but I think his editor should have pulled him aside and asked him to tighten these sections up. He could never have gotten those case studies published in the kind of peer reviewed journals the science community is subjected to. Both Lewis and Barofsky have demonstrated that complexity doesn’t have to be confusing, even in an audio book.  But if you’re going to plow through Taibbi’s book, you’re probably better off getting the ebook version so you can make notes, leave book marks and create a flowchart.

On the other hand, Taibbi’s case studies of what happens on the bottom half of the justice system are easy to understand and  heartbreaking, probably because the infractions are so minor but the reaction is so severe.  It’s like the American justice system is chock full of turbo charged law and order types who carry out punishment with ruthless and brutal inefficiency.  And there was something about depersonalizing experiences of the victims and the anonymity of flawed computer systems of the justice system that reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment that Phillip Zimbardo carried out in the 70’s.

In case you aren’t familiar with the experiment, Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford, wanted to replicate the experience of prison in order to figure out how the accused reacted to incarceration and depersonalization.  So, he recruited a couple dozen students to take the roles of prisoners and guards.  He randomly assigned the students to one of the groups and had the prisoners arrested and processed by real police.  In the makeshift prison, the prisoners were stripped of their clothes and given numbers instead of names.  The guards hid behind mirrored sunglasses and were given very few instructions. The warden was hands off.  Well, it didn’t take long before the guards started exercising authority and the prisoners started to crack.  We’re talking days.  It turns out that when one group of people is given all of the power and another group of people is subjected to that power, depersonalization and lack of oversight, it can lead even the blandest guy on campus to become indistinguishable from one of the guards at Abu Ghraib. The guards imposed capricious, humiliating and sadistic punishment while the prisoners became more and more despondent and stressed.  Zimbardo went on to testify as an expert witness in the Abu Graib trials.  He concludes that even the most decent, moral people are capable of evil behavior when the situation is right.  Group dynamics, conditioning to authority and dehumanization contribute to the kind of evil we saw at Abu Ghraib and, it seems, the excessively punitive experiences of the victims in the lower half of the American justice system.

The more I read Taibbi’s book, the more I was reminded of Zimbardo’s book.  So, I recommend you read Zimbardo’s book first and follow it up with Taibbi’s.  In fact, that’s the only reason I would recommend Taibbi’s book.  Without a proper context, it lacks the force it needs to land a powerful blow.  And that’s why I’m going to finish it even though the stories of “getting away with evil” followed by “getting away with nothing” are somewhat monotonous.  Taibbi might make the connection in the final chapters and have that eureka moment that will make it all worth while.  But I’m almost done with the book and see no evidence of it yet.  I’m afraid that the lefty community will miss the larger point that could propel it out of its fecklessness.  Instead, it might fall back on the “Bill Clinton is to blame for all of this!” crap they’ve been mindlessly vomiting for the past decade (as if Newt Gingrich and his Contract On America never existed {{rolling eyes}}).  What a horribly wasted, missed opportunity to see the world as it truly is.

3 Sponges for The Divide

4 Sponges for The Lucifer Effect (it can bog down with too many details in the first part)

PS. The left should study part 2 of Zimbardo’s book to understand how to resist situational influences.  It’s going to come up again in 2016.  Let’s not get fooled again, m’kay?

Oh, and here’s a concept that we should all learn about: malignant narcissism.  Don’t throw it around indiscriminately though.  It’s the kind of thing that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh types will seize on and dilute.  (it’s what they do)  But the next time an oligarch whines about how the rest of us are mean to them and envy their wealth, think about malignant narcissism.  They’re on the spectrum.




A Warning to Facebook Users

Yesterday, Julie Zhou, a product design manager at Facebook, wrote a proposal in the NYTimes titled, Online, Anonymity Breeds Contempt.  This is the latest salvo in the Civility Wars meme that has been floating around the internet but this one has more severe consequences for free speech than any proposition passed by the righteous Christian voters of Oklahoma.

Zhou’s premise is that the online world is populated by trolls, which almost seems like an idea for a fantasy series world.  We all know what trolling is, although Zhou’s definition, “defined as the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums”, is rather broad.  Trolls come in many flavors.  Some of them definitely have an agenda and use carefully crafted tools of the marketing trade to manipulate readers, all of this without raising the voice.  Yes, trolls are nasty and unpleasant and sometimes downright creepy.  That’s what spam filters and septic tanks are for.

They are also anonymous.  Zhou has a problem with anonymity.  In Zhou’s world, anonymity is the scourge that must be eliminated so that we can all speak openly and harmoniously, where users can get a friction free experience and share their Farmville produce with each other.  All very *nice* and completely soporific.  But Zhou’s explanation of the perils of anonymity had my tinfoil antenna twitching:

Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

Many forums and online communities are looking for ways to strike back. Back in February, Engadget, a popular technology review blog, shut down its commenting systemfor a few days after it received a barrage of trollish comments on its iPad coverage.

Many victims are turning to legislation. All 50 states now have stalking, bullying or harassment laws that explicitly include electronic forms of communication. Last year, Liskula Cohen, a former model, persuaded a New York judge to require Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who she felt had defamed her, and she has now filed a suit against the blogger. Last month, another former model, Carla Franklin, persuaded a judge to force YouTube to reveal the identity of a troll who made a disparaging comment about her on the video-sharing site.

But the law by itself cannot do enough to disarm the Internet’s trolls. Content providers, social networking platforms and community sites must also do their part by rethinking the systems they have in place for user commentary so as to discourage — or disallow — anonymity. Reuters, for example, announced that it would start to block anonymous comments and require users to register with their names and e-mail addresses in an effort to curb “uncivil behavior.”

Some may argue that denying Internet users the ability to post anonymously is a breach of their privacy and freedom of expression. But until the age of the Internet, anonymity was a rare thing. When someone spoke in public, his audience would naturally be able to see who was talking.

Others point out that there’s no way to truly rid the Internet of anonymity. After all, names and e-mail addresses can be faked. And in any case many commenters write things that are rude or inflammatory under their real names.

I have a problem with the idea that anonymity on the internet should be denied to the casual user in a thread or that anonymity is a scourge on the internet, a necessary EEEEVVVVIL.  I suspect that few commenters who post to blogs or pages on sensitive subjects such as politics, religion, homosexuality or just sex in general, would feel that anonymity is a problem that needs a solution.  Without anonymity, many online personalities would stay trapped in their heads, unable to find an outlet to express their opinions, dissent or eccentricities.

And then there is the issue of what constitutes trolling.  One person’s harrassment may be another person’s vigorous attempts at debate.  Long time readers of The Confluence will recall that this blog was created as a result of being kicked off of DailyKos in the early stages of the primary wars of 2008.  The peaceful and genteel, law abiding citizens of DailyKos ran me out of town on a rail because I had the temerity to question their consensus reality about Barack Obama and challenged them to look at their behavior as moblike, forcing Kossacks to convert to Obama or die.  (See Obamaphiles carry out Jihad on DailyKos)

Zhou’s recommendations for *fixing* the troll problem are remarkably (uncannily?) similar to the DailyKos model.  She would have ‘trusted users’ among other tools:

The technology blog Gizmodo is trying an audition system for new commenters, under which their first few comments would be approved by a moderator or a trusted commenter to ensure quality before anybody else could see them. After a successful audition, commenters can freely post. If over time they impress other trusted commenters with their contributions, they’d be promoted to trusted commenters, too, and their comments would henceforth be featured.

Disqus, a comments platform for bloggers, has experimented with allowing users to rate one another’s comments and feed those ratings into a global reputation system called Clout. Moderators can use a commenter’s Clout score to “help separate top commenters from trolls.”

At Facebook, where I’ve worked on the design of the public commenting widget, the approach is to try to replicate real-world social norms by emphasizing the human qualities of conversation. People’s faces, real names and brief biographies (“John Doe from Lexington”) are placed next to their public comments, to establish a baseline of responsibility.

Facebook also encourages you to share your comments with your friends. Though you’re free to opt out, the knowledge that what you say may be seen by the people you know is a big deterrent to trollish behavior.

This kind of social pressure works because, at the end of the day, most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet.

I have to give her credit for admitting that social pressure is the goal because that is exactly what happened at DailyKos.  But in this case, the trolls gained “clout” through recommendations from other users, some of whom may have been brother trolls-in-arms.  After a certain amount of clout, those trolls became trusted users with the minor but utlimately significant power to upgrade or degrade another user’s clout.  This became a very effective method of social control, one that David Axelrod was going to use for all it was worth.  And he undoubtably did.

The result was a takeover of DailyKos through a very effective troll campaign.  Here’s how it worked and how it will work on Facebook:

1.) A user writes a conversion diary or page.  It has quasi religious overtones.

2.) The conversion diary is hit with massive mojo or “clout”.  The diary moves up the recommended or “like” list.  Those of us who were frequent DailyKos users couldn’t help but notice that the same people immediately recommended these diaries.

3.) Social pressure is used to reinforce consensus reality by rewarding the desired expression and by punishing undesirable expressions. The term used for this when referring to cultlike behavior is “love bombing“.  The good user is praised, told how smart and attractive he/she is and how different they are from the rest of the world. The undesired users become targets for a campaign of decremation of their trusted user status.  Yes, friends, I was a trusted user on DailyKos up until the day I wrote my last post.

4.) Bait Ball frenzies result where gangs of now motivated users decry the dissenters lack of civility, driving the user and entire modes of thought out of the public domain.

If this is the way Facebook is trending, and I see it in their ubiquitous “like” buttons, I don’t want any part of it.  Zhou’s piece reads like an attempt to exert social control.  But I don’t know whether Facebook will cooperate with the people who want to shape consensus reality.  To the Facebook user, these entities may remain ‘anonymous’.  But their force may be deployed throughout Facebook’s domain and that is where there is real danger.  Because for many people, especially older or less technologically savvy users, Facebook is the entry point and the internet space where they spend most of their time.  If they are exposed to the sophisticated marketing techniques that we saw in the 2008 election season, they may be unaware of how their views and opinions are being shaped and reinforced, all in the name of civility.

I don’t need Zhou to tell me how utterly obnoxious trolls are.  They can be particularly hard on women who are conditioned to take insults personally.  To female bloggers I have always emphasized that trolls are nothing more than black pixels on your monitor- they can not hurt you.  As a blogger, you have time to formulate a snappy response to bring them to their trollish knees.  But we have other tools to be used judiciously.  We can filter comments automatically using trigger words, throw people into moderation or the spam filter and moderate threads to keep people from harrassing other users.  But harrassment is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder.  The concept of bullying can itself be used to bully people into silence.  I don’t want any part of that.

I want the internet to be free to users whether they choose to remain anonymous.  I have found that anonymous users are no more trollish than the identifiable user.  It is through anonymity that unconventional but good ideas enter the public debate.  Anonymity gives users the freedom to express themselves without exposure to real world friends and families and without social pressure to keep their fcuking mouths shut.

(Hey! Leo Laporte!  this would be a great topic for This Week In Tech.)