Dear Facebook, This is How You’re Breaking Democracy: A Former Facebook Insider Explains How the Platform’s Algorithms Polarize Our Society

Is this what we want? A post-truth world where toxicity and tribalism trump bridge building and consensus seeking? —Yaël Eisenstat

It’s an increasingly familiar occurrence.

A friend you’ve enjoyed reconnecting with in the digital realm makes a dramatic announcement on their social media page. They’re deleting their Facebook account within the next 24 hours, so shoot them a PM with your email if you’d like to stay in touch.

Such decisions used to be spurred by the desire to get more done or return to neglected pastimes such as reading, painting, and going for long unconnected nature walks.




These announcements could induce equal parts guilt and anxiety in those of us who depend on social media to get the word out about our low-budget creative projects, though being prone to Internet addiction, we were nearly as likely to be the one making the announcement.

For many, the break was temporary. More of a social media fast, a chance to reevaluate, rest, recharge, and ultimately return.

Legitimate concerns were also raised with regard to privacy. Who’s on the receiving end of all the sensitive information we’re offering up? What are they doing with it? Is someone listening in?

But in this election year, the decision to quit Facebook is apt to be driven by the very real fear that democracy as we know it is at stake.

Former CIA analyst, foreign service officer, andfor six monthsFacebook’s Global Head of Elections Integrity Ops for political advertising, Yaël Eisenstat, addresses these preoccupations in her TED Talk, “Dear Facebook, This is How You’re Breaking Democracy,” above.

Eisenstat contrasts the civility of her past face-to-face ”hearts and minds”-based engagements with suspected terrorists and anti-Western clerics to the polarization and culture of hatred that Facebook’s algorithms foment.

As many users have come to suspect, Facebook rewards inflammatory content with amplification. Truth does not factor into the equation, nor does sincerity of message or messenger.

Lies are more engaging online than truth. As long as [social media] algorithms’ goals are to keep us engaged, they will feed us the poison that plays to our worst instincts and human weaknesses.

Eisenstat, who has valued the ease with which Facebook allows her to maintain relationships with far-flung friends, found herself effectively demoted on her second day at the social media giant, her title revised, and her access to high level meetings revoked. Her hiring appears to have been purely ornamental, a palliative ruse in response to mounting public concern.

As she remarked in an interview with The Guardian’s Ian Tucker earlier this summer:

They are making all sorts of reactive changes around the margins of the issues, [to suggest] that they are taking things seriously – such as building an ad library or verifying that political advertisers reside in the country in which they advertising – things they should have been doing already. But they were never going to make the fundamental changes that address the key systemic issues that make Facebook ripe for manipulation, viral misinformation and other ways that the platform can be used to affect democracy.

In the same interview she asserted that Facebook’s recently implemented oversight board is little more than an interesting theory that will never result in the total overhaul of its business model:

First of all, it’s another example of Facebook putting responsibility on someone else. The oversight board does not have any authority to actually address any of the policies that Facebook writes and enforces, or the underlying systemic issues that make the platform absolutely rife for disinformation and all sorts of bad behaviour and manipulation.

The second issue is: it’s basically an appeal process for content that was already taken down. The bigger question is the content that remains up. Third, they are not even going to be operational until late fall and, for a company that claims to move fast and break things, that’s absurd.

Nine minutes into her TED Talk, she offers concrete suggestions for things the Facebook brass could do if it was truly serious about implementing reform:

  • Stop amplifying and recommending disinformation and bias-based hatred, no matter who is behind itfrom conspiracy theorists to our current president.
  • Discontinue personalization techniques that don’t differentiate between targeted political content and targeted ads for athletic footwear.
  • Retrain algorithms to focus on a metrics beyond what users click or linger on.
  • Implement safety features that would ensure that sensitive content is reviewed before it is allowed to go viral.

Hopefully viewers are not feeling maxed out on contacting their representatives, as government enforcement is Eisenstat’s only prescription for getting Facebook to alter its product and profit model. And that will require sustained civic engagement.

She supplements her TED Talk with recommendations for artificial intelligence engineer Guillaume Chaslot’s insider perspective op-ed “The Toxic Potential of YouTube’s Feedback Loop” and The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think by MoveOn.org‘s former Executive Director, Eli Pariser.

Your clued-in Facebook friends have no doubt already pointed you to the documentary The Social Dilemma, which is now available on Netflix. Or perhaps to Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

Read the transcript of Yaël Eisenstat’s TED Talk here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Animated Introduction to Albert Camus’ Existentialism, a Philosophy Making a Comeback in Our Dysfunctional Times

When next you meet an existentialist, ask him what kind of existentialist s/he is. There are at least as many varieties of existentialism as there have been high-profile thinkers propounding it. Several major strains ran through postwar France alone, most famously those championed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus — who explicitly rejected existentialism, in part due to a philosophical split with Sartre, but who nevertheless gets categorized among the existentialists today. We could, perhaps, more accurately describe Camus as an absurdist, a thinker who starts with the inherent meaningless and futility of life and proceeds, not necessarily in an obvious direction, from there.

The animated TED-Ed lesson above sheds light on the historical events and personal experiences that brought Camus to this worldview. Beginning in the troubled colonial Algeria of the early 20th-century in which he was born and raised, educator Nina Medvinskaya goes on to tell of his periods as a resistance journalist in France and as a novelist, in which capacity he would write such enduring works as The Stranger and The Plague. Medvinskaya illuminates Camus’ central insight with a well-known image from his earlier essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” on the Greek king condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity.




“Camus argues that all of humanity is in the same position,” says Medvinskaya, “and only when we accept the meaninglessness of our lives can we face the absurd with our heads held high.” But “Camus’ contemporaries weren’t so accepting of futility.” (Here the Quentin Blake-style illustrations portray a couple of figures bearing a strong resemblance to Sartre and de Beauvoir.) Many existentialists “advocated for violent revolution to upend systems they believed were depriving people of agency and purpose.” Such calls haven’t gone silent in 2020, just as The Plague — one of Camus’ writings in response to revolutionary existentialism — has only gained relevance in a time of global pandemic.

Last month the Boston Review‘s Carmen Lea Dege considered the recent comeback of the thought, exemplified in different ways by Camus, Sartre, and others, that “rejected religious and political dogma, expressed scorn for academic abstraction, and focused on the finitude and absurdity of human existence.” This resurgence of interest “is not entirely surprising. The body of work we now think of as existentialist emerged during the first half of the twentieth century in conflict-ridden Germany and France, where uncertainty permeated every dimension of society.” As much as our societies have changed since then, uncertainty has a way of returning.

Today “we define ourselves and others on the basis of class, religion, race, and nationality, or even childhood influences and subconscious drives, to gain control over the contingencies of the world and insert ourselves in the myriad ways people have failed and succeeded in human history.” But the existentialists argued that “this control is illusory and deceptive,” an “alluring distraction from our own fragility” that ultimately “corrodes our ability to live well.” For the existentialists, pursuit of good life first demands an acceptance of not just fragility but futility, meaninglessness, absurdity, and ambiguity, among other conditions that strike us as deeply unacceptable. As Camus put it, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. But can we?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How to Manage Your Time More Effectively: The Science of Applying Computer Algorithms to Our Everyday Lives

Who among us hasn’t wished to be as efficient as a computer? While computers seem to do everything at once, we either flit or plod from task to task, often getting sidetracked or even lost. At this point most have relinquished the dream of true “multitasking,” which turns out to lie not only beyond the reach of humans but, technically speaking, beyond the reach of computers as well. “Done right, computers move so fluidly between their various responsibilities, they give the illusion of doing everything simultaneously,” says the narrator of the animated TED-Ed lesson above. But in reality, even they do one thing at a time; what, then, can we humans learn from how they’re programmed to prioritize and switch between their many tasks?

A computer operating system has an element called a “scheduler,” which “tells the CPU how long to work on each task before switching.” Schedulers work quite well these days, but “even computers get overwhelmed sometimes.” This used to happen to the open-source operating system Linux, which “would rank every single one of its tasks in order of importance, and sometimes spent more time ranking tasks than doing them. The programmers’ counterintuitive solution was to replace this full ranking with a limited number of priority ‘buckets,'” replacing a precise priority ordering with a broader low-medium-high kind of grouping. This turned out to be a great improvement: “The system was less precise about what to do next, but more than made up for it by spending more time making progress.”

The lesson for those of us who habitually list and prioritize our tasks is obvious: “All the time you spend prioritizing your work is time you aren’t spending doing it,” and “giving up on doing things in the perfect order may be the key to getting them done.” In the case of e-mail, bane of many a 21st-century existence, “Insisting on always doing the very most important thing first could lead to a meltdown. Waking up to an inbox three times fuller than normal could take nine times longer to clear.




You’d be better off replying in chronological order, or even at random.” Robert Pirsig memorably articulated this in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, whose main character offers advice to his son frustrated by the task of writing a letter home from their road trip:

I tell him getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all. Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.

We don’t write many letters home these days, of course, and even e-mail may no longer pose the direst threat to our time management. More of us blame our lack of productivity on the interruptions of instant messaging in all its forms, from texting to social media, another problem with an equivalent in computing. That a computer can be interrupted by any number of the processes it runs necessitated the development of a procedure called “interrupt coalescing,” according to which, “rather than dealing with things as they come up,” the system “groups these interruptions together based on how long they can afford to wait.” Even if we can’t eliminate interruptions in our lives, we can group them: “If no notification or e-mail requires a response more urgently than once an hour, say, then that’s exactly how often you should check them — no more.”

This TED-Ed lesson comes adapted from Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ book Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions. If you’d like to hear about more of the ways in which they apply computers’ methods of decision making to areas of human life — home-buying, gambling, dating — you can also watch their talk at Google. We also have plenty of supplementary time management-related material here in the Open Culture archives, on everything from the neuroscience of procrastination to the daily routines of philosophers, writers and other creative people to tips for reading more books per year to the presidentially-approved “Eisenhower Matrix.” By all means, click on all these links; just don’t overthink the order in which to do it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

16 Ways the World Is Getting Remarkably Better: Visuals by Statistician Hans Rosling

It certainly may not feel like things are getting better behind the anxious veils of our COVID lockdowns. But some might say that optimism and pessimism are products of the gut, hidden somewhere in the bacterial stew we call the microbiome. “All prejudices come from the intestines,” proclaimed noted sufferer of indigestion, Friedrich Nietzsche. Maybe we can change our views by changing our diet. But it’s a little harder to change our emotions with facts. We turn up our noses at them, or find them impossible to digest.

Nietzsche did not consider himself a pessimist. Despite his stomach troubles, he “adopted a philosophy that said yes to life,” notes Reason and Meaning, “fully cognizant of the fact that life is mostly miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd.” Let’s grant that this is so. A great many of us, I think, are inclined to believe it. We are ideal consumers for dystopian Nietzsche-esque fantasies about supermen and “last men.” Still, it’s worth asking: is life always and equally miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd? Is the idea of human progress no more than a modern delusion?




Physician, statistician, and onetime sword swallower Hans Rosling spent several years trying to show otherwise in television documentaries for the BBC, TED Talks, and the posthumous book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, co-written with his son and daughter-in-law, a statistician and designer, respectively. Rosling, who passed away in 2017, also worked with his two co-authors on software used to animate statistics, and in his public talks and book, he attempted to bring data to life in ways that engage gut feelings.

Take the set of graphs above, aka, “16 Bad Things Decreasing,” from Factfulness. (View a larger scan of the pages here.) Yes, you may look at a set of monochromatic trend lines and yawn. But if you attend to the details, you’ll can see that each arrow plummeting downward represents some profound ill, manmade or otherwise, that has killed or maimed millions. These range from legal slavery—down from 194 countries in 1800 to 3 in 2017—to smallpox: down from 148 countries with cases in 1850 to 0 in 1979. (Perhaps our current global epidemic will warrant its own triumphant graph in a revised edition some decades in the future.) Is this not progress?

What about the steadily falling rates of world hunger, child mortality, HIV infections, numbers of nuclear warheads, deaths from disaster, and ozone depletion? Hard to argue with the numbers, though as always, we should consider the source. (Nearly all these statistics come from Rosling’s own company, Gapminder.) In the video above, Dr. Rosling explains to a TED audience how he designed a course on global health in his native Sweden. In order to make sure the material measured up to his accomplished students’ abilities, he first gave them a questionnaire to test their knowledge.

Rosling found, he jokes, “that Swedish top students know statistically significantly less about the world than a chimpanzee,” who would have scored higher by chance. The problem “was not ignorance, it was preconceived ideas,” which are worse. Bad ideas are driven by many -isms, but also by what Rosling calls in the book an “overdramatic” worldview. Humans are nervous by nature. “Our tendency to misinterpret facts is instinctive—an evolutionary adaptation to help us make quick decisions to avoid danger,” writes Katie Law in a review of Factfulness.

“While we still need these instincts, they can also trip us up.” Magnified by global, collective anxieties, weaponized by canny mass media, the tendency to pessimism becomes reality, but it’s one that is not supported by the data. This kind of argument has become kind of a cottage industry; each presentation must be evaluated on its own merits. Presumably enlightened optimism can be just as oversimplified a view as the darkest pessimism. But Rosling insisted he wasn’t an optimist. He was just being “factful.” We probably shouldn’t get into what Nietzsche might say to that.

via Simon Kuestenmacher

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Find Emotional Strength & Resilience During COVID-19: Advice from Elizabeth Gilbert, Jack Kornfield, Susan David & Other Experts

There are many roads through the coronavirus crisis. One is denial, which only makes things worse. Another is service and self-sacrifice, a choice we honor in the medical professionals putting their lives at risk every day. For most of us, however, the best course of action is non-action—staying home and isolating ourselves from others. Days bleed into weeks, weeks into months. It can seem like life has come to a complete halt. It hasn’t, of course. All sorts of things are happening inside us. We don’t know how long this will last; current courses of action don’t bode well. What do we do with the fear, anger, loneliness, grief, and buzzing, ever-present anxiety?

Maybe the first thing to do is to accept that we have those feelings and feel them, instead of stuffing them down, covering them up, or pushing them onto someone else. Then we can recognize we aren’t by any means alone. That’s easier said than done in quarantine, but psychologists and inspirational writers and speakers like Elizabeth Gilbert have come together under the auspices of the TED Connect series, hosted by the head of TED Chris Anderson, to help.




TED, known for showcasing “thinkers and doers [giving] the talk of their lives in 18 minutes (or less),” has wisely recognized the need to dig much deeper. Anderson and head of curation Helen Walters’ conversation with Gilbert, above, runs a little over an hour.

As for that ceaseless anxiety, Gilbert suggests we should all give ourselves “a measure of mercy and compassion.” We might feel like we need permission to do so in societies that demand we constantly justify our existence. But admitting vulnerability is the beginning of strength. Then we find constructive ways forward. The kind of resilience we can build in isolation is the kind that can outlast a crisis. Still, it is hard won. As Anderson says above, in addition to the external battle we must fight with the virus and our own governments, “there’s this other battle as well, that is probably equally as consequential. It’s a battle that’s going on right inside our minds.”

Rather than killing time waiting fitfully for some acceptable form of normal to return, we can build what psychologist Susan David calls “emotional courage.” In conversation with TED’s Whitney Pennington Rogers, above, David reveals that she herself has good reason to fear: her husband is a physician. She also understands the consequences of a collective denial of suffering and death. “The circumstance that we are in now is not something that we asked for, but life is calling on every single one of us to move into the place of wisdom in ourselves… into the space of wisdom and fortitude, solidarity, community, courage.” We move into that space by recognizing that “life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”

Themes of courage and connection come up again and again in other TED Connects interviews, such as that above with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and below with author Priya Parker. Elsewhere on the internet, you’ll find similar kinds of advice.

On the Tim Ferris show, you can hear interviews with Jack Kornfield on finding peace in the pandemic, Esther Perel on navigating relationships in quarantine, and Ryan Holiday on using Stoicism to choose “alive time over dead time.”

Stoicism has gathered a particularly rich store of wisdom about how to live in crisis. In his own meditation on isolation, Michel de Montaigne drew on the Stoics in advising readers to “reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principle solitude and retreat…. We have a mind pliable in itself, that will be company; that has wherewithal to attack and to defend, to receive and to give: let us not then fear in this solitude to languish under an uncomfortable vacuity.” In other words, the road through isolation, though fraught with painful emotions and uncertainties, can be, if we choose, one of significant personal and collective growth.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Brief Animated History of Alcohol

Almost anything can be preserved in alcohol, except health, happiness and money…

Roderick Phillips’ Ted-Ed lesson, a Brief History of Alcohol, above, opens with a bon mot from early 20th-century quote maven Mary Wilson Little, after which, an unwitting chimpanzee quickly discovers the intoxicating effects of overripe plums.

His eyes pinwheel, he falls off a branch, and grins, drunk as a monkey’s uncle.

And though the subject is alcohol, this primate is the only character in Anton Bogaty’s 5-minute animation who could be hauled in on a drunk and disorderly charge.

The others take a more sober, industrious approach, illustrating alcohol’s prominent role in early medicine, religious rituals, and global trading.

Ancient Egyptians harvest the cereal grains that will produce beer, included as part of workers’ rations and available to all classes.

A native of South America stirs a kettle of chicha, a fistful of hallucinogenic herbs held at the ready.

A Greek physician tends to a patient with a goblet of wine, as a nearby poet prepares to deliver an ode on its creative properties.

Students with an interest in the science of alcohol can learn a bit about the fermentation process and how the invention of distillation allowed for much stronger spirits.

Alcohol was a welcome presence aboard seafaring vessels. Not only did this valuable trading commodity spark lively parties on deck, it sanitized the sailors’ drinking water, making longer voyages possible.

Cheers to that.

Educators can customize the lesson here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC tongight, Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Cape-Coddities (1920) by Roger Livingston Scaife. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Improve Your Memory: Four TED Talks Explain the Techniques to Remember Anything

Offered the ability to remember everything, who among us could turn it down? For that matter, who among us could turn down even a slight increase in our memory capacity? If we’re older, we complain of forgetfulness. If we’re younger, we complain that so little of what we’re supposed to learn for tests sticks. If we’re in the middle, we complain of being “bad with names” and having trouble properly organizing all the tasks we need to complete. Whatever our stage in life, we could all use the kind of memory-improving techniques explained in these four TED Talks, the most popular of which offers Swedish “memory athlete” Idriz Zogaj’s method of “How to Become a Memory Master.”

Framing his talk with the story of how he trained himself to compete in the World Memory Championships (yes, they exist), Zogaj recommends remembering by making “a fun, vivid, animated story,” using all your senses.” “And do it in 3D, even though you don’t have the 3D goggles. Your brain is amazing; it can do it anyway.” Telling yourself a story in such a way that connects seemingly unrelated images, words, numbers, or other pieces of information gives those connections strength in our brains.




In “How to Triple Your Memory by Using This Trick,” Ricardo Lieuw On recommends a similarly story-based method, but emphasizes the importance of constructing it with “bizarre images.” And “if you tie these bizarre images to a place you know well, like your body, suddenly memorizing things in order becomes a lot easier.”

In his TED Talk about daily practices to improve memory, Krishan Chahal divides “the art of memorizing” into two parts. The first entails “designing the information or modifying the information in such a way so that it can catch your attention,” making what you want to memorize more naturally palatable to “the taste of human mind” — stories and strong visual images being perhaps the human mind’s tastiest treat. The second involves creating what he calls a “self-meaning system,” the best-known variety of which is the memory palace. The Memory Techniques Wiki describes a memory palace as “an imaginary location in your mind where you can store mnemonic images,” typically modeled on “a place you know well, like a building or town.” When memorizing, you store pieces information in different “locations” within your memory palace; when recalling, you take that same mental journey through your palace and find everything where you left it.

The memory palace came up here on Open Culture earlier this year when we featured a video about how to memorize an entire chapter of Moby-Dick. Its creator drew on Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, and if you want a taste of what Foer has learned about memory, watch his TED Talk above. Foer, too, has spent time at the World Memory Championships, and his questions about how memory athletes do what they do led him to the concept psychologists call “elaborative encoding,” the practice of taking information “lacking in context, in significance, in meaning” and transforming it “so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind.”

Elaborative encoding underlies the effectiveness of memorizing even the driest lists of facts in the form of stories full of striking and unusual sights. (Foer himself opens with a memory-aiding story starring “a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.”) No wonder so many of the greatest storytellers have had a thematic preoccupation with memory. Take Jorge Luis Borges, author of “Shakespeare’s Memory” (previously featured here on Open Culture) and the even more (dare I say) memorable “Funes the Memorious.” In the latter a horse-riding accident robs a rural teenager of the ability to forget, bestowing upon him an effectively infinite memory — a power that has him taking an entire day to remember an entire day and assigning a different name (“the train,” “Máximo Perez,” “the whale,” “Napoleon”) to each and every number in existence. As much as we all want to remember more things, surely none of us wants to remember everything.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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