Facebook Fail

New Orleans     Facebook’s constant unfulfilled promises to fix the problems with their platform and its role in offering voice to violence seems to have finally come to the “sell by” date.  Patience has been exhausted.  The evidence has mounted steadily and seems to have hit a tipping point.

First, their #2 executive, Sheryl Sandberg, leaned into the hearing before Congress, and rather than fixing anything, there seemed to be a collective yawn that emitted from capitol to cities and towns across the country.  Somehow, she has now moved from being the “adult in the room” to another apologist without a clue to the cure with her credibility shot.

Secondly, flipping channels before falling off last night, I stumbled onto the John Oliver show on HBO and a forever long piece that excoriated Facebook, held up Mark Zuckerberg to ridicule, and mounted a devastating indictment of Facebook’s impotence and incompetence in allowing Myanmar’s ethnic minority, the Rohingya, to become victims of genocide.  Even a few months ago such an attack and satire in the name of either news or humor would have been unimaginable.

Oliver and his team went point by point detailing how rapidly Facebook had grown in Burma in recent years.  They showed advertisements that Facebook had run in order to expand, arguing that most of the features of their platform were free and encouraging people to “get connected.”  They reviewed the fact that most people got their news from Facebook with the proliferation of smartphones, and, more tellingly, that most of the Myanmar population saw Facebook and the internet as one and the same.  Having established how successful Facebook was a growing its business there, they then point out that even as they became synonymous with the internet, they only hired two native speakers to monitor content.  They were warned about hate speech and ethnic smears by nonprofits and others continually during this period.  They then hired two more native speakers through a subcontractor.  Now, Zuckerberg claims to have hired 60 native speakers, though after all hell broke loose for the Rohingya and tens of thousands were killed and raped, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

Let’s have some context which the show didn’t offer.  Myanmar is not a small country.  There are more than 55 million people that live there.  Social media statistics indicate that 93% of the population is on Facebook, compared to say only 2.5% on YouTube as the next most popular site.  Under military dictatorship, it was effectively closed to the outside world for years until very recently.   There was no natural filter that would establish real facts from fake news.  What Oliver didn’t share, but that members of the Organizers’ Forum delegation who visited there several years ago would have noted, Burmese is not the only major language.  Quoting Wikipedia, “Aside from Myanmar (Burmese) and its dialects, the hundred or so languages of Myanmar include Shan (Tai, spoken by 3.2 million), Karen languages (spoken by 2.6 million), Kachin (spoken by 900,000), various Chin languages (spoken by 780,000), and Mon (Mon–Khmer, spoken by 750,000).”  The show did provide examples of mistranslations even in Burmese on Facebook’s website.  Oliver was careful to not say that Facebook did not cause the ethnic cleansing, but it was clear they abetted it through their indifference, greed, and incompetence.  What could Facebook have been thinking?

Finally, a new tech-journalism partnership, called Mark-up funded largely by $20 million from the founder of Craigslist, is rolling out and will pair journalists with coders to unpack the algorithms and mechanics of big tech’s claims with what they are really doing about privacy, content, and the rest of the mess.  The FANG companies, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google had better get a grip on a new reality because their game is up, and real police are coming.

For Facebook, the honeymoon is definitely over when there is blood on their hands and when HBO and Oliver’s show can end the segment with people in various countries in their own languages repeatedly say that Facebook is cow manure or words in the vernacular to that effect.

Facebook has a role, but from Russia to Myanmar to the rest, change is coming or they are a fleeting fancy for all of us and an out of control danger to the world and its people.


Whistle Help in Myanmar and Beyond

indexNew Orleans     A couple of years ago in Oakland, I ran into Rhoda Linton, who I’ve known since the late 60’s when both of us were welfare rights organizers with the National Welfare Rights Organization, she in Brooklyn and me in Massachusetts. She had been working on a brief documentary on an interesting campaign she was helping out on in Myanmar. Turns out before welfare rights and her participation in the famed Syracuse University community action training program featuring Saul Alinksy, Warren Haggstrom, and Fred Ross, she had been a Peace Corp volunteer in a rural area of what was then called Burma. Now having retired, she had gone back there and reconnected to that time in a new century.

She was talking about an interesting campaign. I tried, unsuccessfully to get her to write something about it for Social Policy, and to lure her into participating or helping when the Organizers’ Forum had its international dialogue in Yangon in 2013. Stumbling around though the other day, I found a copy of her film “Whistle Help” (see below) describing the campaign, and coincidentally, though she had only posted the film on YouTube less than six months ago, the film was finished around the same time we were in Myanmar. I wish we could have seen it in action! Rhoda may be reticent, but no reason for me to be, and it was an interesting mini-campaign of sorts and one that could roll a lot farther than Yangon and Myanmar.

The issue was simple. Women, as one interviewee said, “young, old, and middle-aged” in the sardine-packed bus system of Yangon often were groped, touched, and generally sexually harassed by men on a regular, everyday basis. They mostly endured it with some “shame” as another said, but it was all so common that most every woman interviewed seemed to have some experience with the problem, some as recently as last week, and all kept vivid memories of it.

Women started talking to women, no doubt with Rhoda’s help, support, and organizing, and over time an organizing committee of fifteen women, mostly young, started meeting directly and talking about the issue and eventually what could be done about it. From some of the camera shots the unmistakable footprints of her organizing workshops were everywhere, so it was easy to see Rhoda’s fine hand behind the scenes with flip charts here and there and diagrams of actions with targeted pressure.

What they decided to do was get on the streets at early morning bus stops, wearing their campaign t-shirts for Whistle Help, pass out leaflets, and, mainly, pass out whistles. Yes, whistles. The whole point was to encourage women to wear the whistles and keep them handy, and of course to use them liberally on the bus and let out as shrill a sound as they could to shame any man who messed with them again. The women on the film said this went well. One commented that some of the male hawkers even helped them unravel the whistles and distribute on their busses. This is an example of trying to use film as an organizing tool, so it was meant to agitate and promote, obviously and appropriately. A cut-line at the end of the film said that the campaign distributed 30,000 whistles. The campaign was trying for a culture shift, so here’s hoping!

Whistles are easily obtainable and cheap. This problem of sexual harassment on public transportation is also ubiquitous on jammed trains in Mumbai, Buenos Aires, London, and New York. Action is needed and women everywhere can identify with this and participate.

It’s too much to hope for a hula hoop kind of fad here, but it’s not hard to imagine women picking up whistles everywhere in the world where this is an issue, and letting their lungs blow loudly for help whenever and wherever this happens. That’s what Whistle Help could be about.

Whistle Help