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After Election Day, NPR, The Washington Post and various blogs described America as bitterly divided or on the brink of civil war. These were by the same journalists, pundits and intellectuals who only know how to sell fear.

“They want to take away your guns!” and “They want to take your children away!” were their cries, while praising BLM’s protesters on one screen and promoting videos of the infinitesimal number of rioters on another.

The Atlantic speculated about widespread violence depending on the outcome, but I never believed these seemingly well-researched reports that have become commonplace in our clickbait-driven world. And as we saw, nothing of real concern happened; instead of violence, there were relatively small protests and dancing in the streets.
The gap that supposedly divides our nation is narrower than the doomsaying pundits, intellectuals, politicians and cause leaders want you to believe. Why do they want you to believe this? Because promoting division and conflict sells and grants a perverse glue that unites people within their tribal communities. Behind these labels of conflict are seeds of fear that can grow into irrational fears. Fears without reason, fears beyond facts. Sometimes these fears become things we hate  —  and our society and nation should have no place for hate, because it is an unproductive emotion without any possible positive outcome.

I’ve learned to ignore much of the headline-driven news and social media echo chambers where ridiculous ideas fester across our political spectrum. There are obviously ridiculous ideas, such as QAnon, but the subtly ridiculous ideas can be more dangerous and potentially even more destructive. These ideas can be diminished by simple questions to the average reasonable person.
One idea spawned in some progressive echo chambers was the notion that Trump would stage a coup d’état if Joe Biden won the election (i.e., “Did you see those unmarked federal police!?” which signaled to some that a coup was coming).

A basic element of a coup d’état is military support or control, which obviously Trump did not have. I would ask basic questions around this idea, but always ask the rhetorical question, “Do you know how difficult it is to conduct a coup d’état?” Meanwhile, in some conservative echo chambers, a similar concern made rounds that “defund the police” was an effort to install a “federal police force” that Biden would control once in the Oval Office. So there really isn’t much original thought inside the echo chambers of America.

Maybe both sides with such fantasies recently watched that Patrick Swayze classic, “Red Dawn,” where a tiny militia of high school students held off the combined forces of the old Soviet Union and Cuba. Or maybe they saw “300,” in which Sparta’s army held off more than 300,000 invaders. After watching either of these inspirational movies, I might possibly believe such a militia or “federal force” could overpower the whole might of the U.S. military. Ahem.

For those warmongers and soothsayers warning of civil war, where do they want the country to go? Static echo chambers of America, or a vision of suburban folks with pitchforks and handguns versus urban dwellers carrying machine guns and Blue Bottle coffee mugs?

Since the level of violence after the election did not in fact match the crystal balls of these oracles, the definitions and terms have of course changed. As Bertrand Russell stated, “fear is the main source of superstition”  —  to which I would add that fear is also the source of really stupid predictions and ideas.
And let’s be clear that while I do criticize the echo chambers of social media, they are only tools of promotion, because echo chambers are not limited to the online social media. Echo chambers can be homes, bars, lodge meetings, yoga studios and Sunday bridge clubs. The enablers are the pundits, intellectuals, politicians and cause leaders that seed these ideas.

Conspiracy theories, misinformation and outlandish statements were quite capable of spreading before the recommendation engines of Facebook and others were fully developed. For example, in 2006, over 50% of Democrats believed the U.S. government was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attack. More than half of registered Democrats believed in this conspiracy theory! And let’s not forget the Obama “birther” conspiracy, where at least 57% of Republicans continued to believe that President Obama was born in Kenya even after he released his birth certificate in 2008.

But today, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media sites have become extremely powerful accelerants for such provocative ideas and strange fictions. Tristan Harris, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, was recently featured in the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” where he discussed how social media tends to feed content to retain people’s attention and can spiral downward.

This can become an abyss of outright misinformation, or — even more importantly in my estimation — for subtle, ignorant ideas, such as coups d’état and civil wars. And those destructive ideas and irrational conspiracy theories from the 2000s that probably took months to spread, are now supercharged by today’s social media giants to infect our society in a matter of days or weeks.

The fabric of our nation was delicately woven, but after countless turns of the loom between conflicts and enlightenment, our country has proven itself extremely resilient. Indestructible beyond today’s calls for racism and ignorance, for anarchy and destruction, and for civil wars.

Biden is our President-elect with a mandate to lead our nation beyond this divide  —  a divide that I believe has been overstated. Many citizens met in the middle to provide Biden with a mandate to bridge the gap. The “blue wave” didn’t occur and House Republicans gained 10 seats, which means many Republicans and independents voted “red” down-ballot but also voted for Biden.

Trump had the largest number of minority votes for a Republican presidential candidate in history, including from 18% of Black male voters  —  and that number would have been much higher pre-pandemic. I see all of this as a positive, because our citizens are not voting party line or becoming beholden to one party.

In reality, many of the major issues that supposedly separate us are much closer than we know. For example, I’ve sat down behind closed doors with a senior adviser on healthcare for a major Republican leader, who stated that Obamacare isn’t far off from what they were planning. The difference was that their plan was more small business friendly and their cost savings would be among the younger demographic. I also sat down with a senior adviser for Obamacare, who explained that they believed it wasn’t sustainable unless the cost savings were for those 65 and above. So the differences on such critical policies are not miles apart but only steps away from each other. Although at times politics are about credit and conflict, hopefully such differences can be resolved in the near future.

I hope this election will change the temperament of our nation and its citizens. I hope it will lead more people to ignore the tactics of both political parties and organizations seeking their attention and support. Their shortsighted methods should be cast away like the relics of the past and conflict should not be the tool of this new America. Instead, let’s focus on productive dialogue to find common ground, and thoughtful, practical policies to move our nation forward.

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Amazon’s advertising business grew 19%, unlike Google, Meta

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Amazon's advertising business grew 19%, unlike Google, Meta

The regulator was concerned with Amazon’s dual role as both a marketplace and a competitor to merchants selling on its platform.

Nathan Stirk | Getty Images

Amazon’s advertising business continues to grow despite a general slowdown in digital advertising, which has hurt companies like Google parent Alphabet, Facebook parent Meta and Snap.

The online retail giant’s advertising services unit brought in $11.6 billion in sales for the fourth quarter, representing a 19% year-over-year increase, according to its earnings report Thursday.

Although Amazon’s advertising unit still constitutes a small fraction of the $149.2 billion in revenue the company recorded in its fourth quarter, it represents a fast-growing area that analysts believe could be a crucial player in the digital advertising market.

Indeed, while investors were pleased that Meta is cutting costs, sales in the company’s fourth quarter dropped 4% year-over-year to $32.17 billion.

Meta executives explained on Wednesday during a call with analysts that they don’t see an immediate rebound in the digital advertising market coming anytime soon. Susan Li, the company’s chief financial officer, said “Consistent with our expectations, Q4 revenue remained under pressure from weak advertising demand, which we believe continues to be impacted by the uncertain and volatile macroeconomic landscape.”

Meanwhile, Alphabet on Thursday reported fourth quarter advertising revenues of $59.04 billion, a slowdown from $61.24 billion in the year-ago quarter.

Alphabet’s YouTube advertising unit, which faces competition from TikTok, brought in $7.96 billion in the fourth quarter, representing an 8% drop from a year ago.

Tech companies that are powered by digital advertising have been under pressure from several factors, including a tough economy, increased competition from TikTok, and the lingering effects of Apple‘s 2021 iOS privacy update.

The latest Insider Intelligence survey of digital advertising revenue share worldwide revealed that Amazon now holds 7.3% of the overall online ad market, trailing Alphabet‘s Google, and Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram, which respectively have 28.8%, 11.4%, and 9.1%, of the digital ad market.

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FTC sets its sights on the health data market

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FTC sets its sights on the health data market

With Carmen Paun

AN FTC FIRST — The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on companies sharing health data in new ways that could have implications for online business models, POLITICO’s Ruth Reader reports.

The FTC said Wednesday it had reached an agreement with GoodRx on a fine and remedies after the prescription discount site and telehealth provider shared customers’ health data with Google, Facebook and other third parties.

It’s the commission’s first enforcement of its 2009 Health Breach Notification Rule. Pending a court’s agreement, the decision could upend business models that rely on selling or using the data.

In the agreement with GoodRx, the agency filed a proposed order to levy a $1.5 million fine and enforce the remedies with the federal court in the northern district of California, which still must approve the agreement.

The FTC said GoodRx was unfair in its handling of customer data — alleging the company falsely claimed it complied with HIPAA and also shared information when it pledged not to. The company also had no internal processes to protect, or limit third-party access to, consumer health data, the commission said.

Though GoodRx has agreed to settle, it didn’t admit wrongdoing. The company also said it didn’t believe the FTC action would materially impact the business.

“We believe this is a novel application of the Health Breath Notification Rule by the FTC. We used Facebook tracking pixels to advertise in a way that we feel was compliant with regulations and that remains common practice for many websites,” the company said in a statement.

Still, the FTC is signaling heightened interest in the issue, data privacy experts say.

“What they’re doing is sending a warning shot across the digital bow of the online advertising industry saying, ‘Hey, these things are unfair, we’re watching, and you should not be using this health information in the way it’s being used,’” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for digital privacy and consumer protections online.

WELCOME TO THURSDAY PULSE. One bill to keep an eye on: a proposition to make roasted chile New Mexico’s official state aroma. What should your state’s official aroma be? Send ideas — and health news — to [email protected] and [email protected].

TODAY ON OUR PULSE CHECK PODCAST, Erin Schumaker talks with Megan Messerly about the millions of Americans who were allowed to remain covered by Medicaid during the pandemic and what could happen now that Congress has given states the go-ahead to reevaluate who’s still eligible for those health insurance benefits.

AMERICA DOESN’T HAVE THE CAPACITY TO IDENTIFY PANDEMIC ORIGINS, EXPERTS TELL CONGRESS — The United States doesn’t have the combination of scientific research, access to samples databases, domestic operational plans and international partnerships that can reliably identify the source of disease outbreaks such as the coronavirus pandemic, five experts told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Carmen reports.

Using genetic sequencing and analyzing blood samples stored in databases are technologies that have proven useful in detecting the origin of other diseases in the past, but a lack of access to such databases hinders origin investigation, Karen Howard, the acting chief scientist at the Government Accountability Office told the subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

International agreements should be developed to standardize sample databases that could help in researching a virus’ origin, she said, adding that the U.S. should also develop a detailed national strategy for investigating a pandemic’s beginning, she said.

One single office in the U.S. government should coordinate the work of several agencies in identifying where an outbreak started, added Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former adviser on the White House Covid-19 Response Team.

Why it matters: Inglesby said the ability to investigate a viral outbreak could be a form of deterrence against enemies who would want to use biological weapons against the U.S.

The hearing was the first for this Congress that focused on Covid’s origins, an issue that the Republican House majority has made a priority. Most questions from the Republican subcommittee members focused on whether it could be demonstrated that the coronavirus originated at the Wuhan virology lab.

The health experts testifying said the current data doesn’t clearly trace the virus to the Wuhan lab, but several studies link it to a live animal market in that Chinese city.

Michael Imperiale, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan, warned against politicizing the debate and discouraged scientists from getting involved in such research. Some of his colleagues studying viruses with pandemic potential, he said, have received death threats from people who mistrust the researcher’s work, suspecting them of deliberately engineering viruses to become more transmissible or dangerous.

“We must be careful not to throw sand in the gear that slows our progress, dissuades our scientists or discourages our young people from being a part of our scientific system,” he told lawmakers.

WYDEN WANTS INFO ON IRA REBATES — Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter Wednesday to CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure asking for details about the Medicare Part D and Part B inflation rebate provisions included in the Inflation Reduction Act.

The information requested includes a timeline for implementing rebates, an explanation of how those rebates will be calculated and a plan to promptly penalize companies that increase prices faster than the inflation rate.

ONCDP TO THE CABINET? A bipartisan group of 55 lawmakers asked President Joe Biden in a letter Wednesday to add the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to a Cabinet-level position.

The lawmakers wrote that, amid the opioid epidemic, the president should announce the change at next week’s State of the Union address and push ending the crisis as a top priority.

IN CASE OF DEFAULT — The largest House Republican caucus worked on a list of ideas for fiscal reform, including an item on Medicare, POLITICO’s Caitlin Emma and Olivia Beavers report.

Though Speaker Kevin McCarthy said earlier this week that Medicare and Social Security were off the table for cuts, the group is considering a way to continue payments to beneficiaries should the U.S. default on its debt.

FDA EMPLOYEES WON’T BE FIRED OVER FORMULA CRISIS — As the FDA looks to major reforms in the wake of the infant formula crisis, the agency’s commissioner said employees won’t be fired or reassigned in the changes, POLITICO’s Meredith Lee Hill reports.

The announcement came as Commissioner Robert Califf rolled out his “new, transformative vision” of the main agency tasked with overseeing food safety in the U.S., though he didn’t include specific plans to address breakdowns around infant formula.

Still, Califf pointed to some past “leadership changes.” His remarks come just days after senior FDA foods official Frank Yiannas’ resignation last week. In his resignation letter, Yiannas called for structural reforms in the troubled division.

“But the short answer is no one’s going to be reassigned or fired because of the infant formula situation,” Califf told reporters.

PANDEMIC PREP DEAL DETAILS — The World Health Organization shared plans for an international agreement aimed at improving pandemic preparations, Carmen reports.

The plan lays out ideas to avoid the failures from the Covid-19 pandemic, such as inequitable vaccine distribution.

The proposal would require countries to allow WHO rapid-response teams access to their territories to assess and support efforts to combat emerging outbreaks — after China didn’t grant fast access to international experts to the Wuhan virology lab at the pandemic’s outset.

The draft also demands that countries support temporary waivers of intellectual property rights on those products and requires manufacturers that received public funding for their development to waive their rights. That sort of provision, hotly contested through the Covid era, will likely be fought by pharmaceutical companies.

Governments will start negotiations on the agreement at a meeting later this month, with discussions continuing for the next year.

FIRST IN PULSE: Andrea Harris, previously chief of staff to Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and two HHS assistant secretaries, will join Protect Our Care as director of policy programs.

Jean Accius is now president and CEO of Creating Healthier Communities. He previously was SVP of global thought leadership for AARP.

The New York Times reports that vaccine makers kept well over $1 billion in prepayments for Covid shots for developing countries.

Kaiser Health News writes about nursing home owners funneling cash out of facilities during the pandemic.

The Washington Post reports on research about the cancer risk associated with ultra-processed food.

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