What happens when the orange man comes back?
Plus the politician who let ChatGPT write his speech, the science ban, and more
A couple of weeks ago I looked at a study which examined the effects on Twitter users of banning the 45th US president from the network. It was unequivocal: removing him had made his supporters less abusive, and less active.
So what do we expect from his reinstatement on Facebook and Instagram, announced by Meta global affairs president and abuse sponge Nick Clegg, earlier this week? Clegg said that
Like any other Facebook or Instagram user, Mr. Trump is subject to our Community Standards. In light of his violations, he now also faces heightened penalties for repeat offenses — penalties which will apply to other public figures whose accounts are reinstated from suspensions related to civil unrest under our updated protocol. In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation.
So, all hunky dory, right? There are rules in place, and delightfully enough Mr Trump is subject to Facebook/Meta’s Community Standards. Which will be consulted!
Except.. how well did that work before? Through the reporting of the Wall Street Journal, we found out in September 2021 what we had long suspected: “Facebook Says Its Rules Apply to All. Company Documents Reveal a Secret Elite That’s Exempt.”
The article, by Jeff Horwitz, revealed the existence of an internal VIP list:
The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.
In June 2020, a Trump post came up during a discussion about XCheck’s hidden rules that took place on the company’s internal communications platform, called Facebook Workplace. The previous month, Mr. Trump said in a post: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
A Facebook manager noted that an automated system, designed by the company to detect whether a post violates its rules, had scored Mr. Trump’s post 90 out of 100, indicating a high likelihood it violated the platform’s rules.
For a normal user post, such a score would result in the content being removed as soon as a single person reported it to Facebook. Instead, as Mr. Zuckerberg publicly acknowledged last year, he personally made the call to leave the post up. “Making a manual decision like this seems less defensible than algorithmic scoring and actioning,” the manager wrote.
Mr. Trump’s account was covered by XCheck before his two-year suspension from Facebook in June.
The detail about the XCheck system came from Frances Haugen’s whistleblowing. But it also means that we have less reason than ever to trust what Clegg says about enforcement, or penalties. Facebook and Instagram are desperately thirsty for the engagement that they believe Trump can bring them. “At least the platform finally added a user,” was Charlie Warzel’s droll comment. As he points out at The Atlantic,
there is something underwhelming—stale, even—about the news. The story of Trump’s deplatforming feels cryogenically frozen, a 2020 narrative that seems to have lost part of its relevance now that it’s thawed out.
And he also observes:
There is also the mutual decay of both Trump and Facebook. Each thrives by hijacking attention and monetizing outrage, and they’ve benefited each other: The Trump campaign spent millions of dollars on more than 289,000 Facebook ads over the span of just a few months in 2020, according to an analysis by The Markup. But lately, both appear to have lost the juice. Many people still support Trump, and many people still use Facebook products, but the shine is gone—and that matters.
What has been really noticeable, and what seems to me a key point that helps us predict what will happen now, is what happened when Elon Musk reinstated Trump’s Twitter account:
Trump didn’t come back. Which must have been the most galling discovery for Musk: Trump doesn’t need Twitter, because he has his own social network—the barely-there Truth.Social—and the media will report what he says there just as if it were Twitter. Unfortunately, we know what he thinks of the discovery of documents in Joe Biden’s garage, what he thinks of Ron DeSantis, what he thinks of any old rubbish. What’s more, he has a contract with Truth.Social that in effect ties him to it. Plus it holds the potential of making him money, and if there’s one thing he really loves, it’s money.
The world has moved on since 2020. As the 2024 election approaches, it’s possible that Trump will return to Facebook and Twitter to broadcast his nonsense. But those were only ever write-only outlets for him—he didn’t care what peoples’ response was, because the media picked it up anyway. His ill-fated, short-lived (one month!) blog was simply an experiment but in the wrong format for our social media-wracked present. There’s nothing particularly different about what he’s saying on Truth.Social from what he was saying on the blog; it’s just poured into the right container for our times.
We’re also all a lot more familiar with how it all goes. We’ve learnt (or some of us have) not to listen to what he says. There’s a bigger discount put on the truth of words on a screen. The orange man may have been allowed back, but the world around him has changed. 2023 isn’t 2020, or 2016, and nor will 2024 be.
Glimpses of the AI tsunami
(Of the what? Read here.)
• US Congressman reads speech written by ChatGPT, a political first for a robot (as far as anyone knows. This excludes speeches by Theresa May, known as “The Maybot” for her Terminator-style delivery.) Only 100 words, but a significant moment where politicians’ aides might be able to do some useful work. Or get fired.
• Buzzfeed stock doubles after it announces $10m deal with Facebook, and that it will produce quizzes “and other content” using, yes, ChatGPT. Squeaky bum time for Buzzfeed journos, whose jobs have already looked a bit precarious.
• From December, but: Wolfe Research analyst Yin Luo produced a research note written “almost entirely” by you-know-what. (Are there no other AI engines out there?) The article’s in the (paywalled) FT but that’s a “gift link” which should work for free. (If not, well, shouldn’t have put off reading this.)
• How Voldemort will destabilise white-collar work. (OK, not Voldemort.) At The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey got That Machine to explain how it will take over those jobs. (Please, don’t give it ideas.)
“Before, progress was linear and predictable. You figured out the steps and the computer followed them. It followed the procedure; it didn’t learn and it didn’t improvise,” the MIT professor David Autor, one of the world’s foremost experts on employment and technological change, told me. ChatGPT and the like do improvise, promising to destabilize a lot of white-collar work, regardless of whether they eliminate jobs or not.
• OpenAI CEO Sam Altman says not to fret over plagiarism worries, and that we’ll adapt in teaching as we did for the arrival of calculators. (He’s probably forgotten—or never knew—that calculators took over from slide rules and log tables, which were slow but also quicker than doing stuff entirely by hand. ChatGPT has taken us directly from paper and pencil straight to programmable calculators in the course of a couple of months.)
• Science journals ban listing of ChatGPT as co-author.
• And many, many more. This is the tsunami of content about what’s going to happen.
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