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Todd Suomela
  • I think it’s crucial to look at the robots.txt as an imperfect, but much needed part of a conversation between web publishers and archives of the web. The idea that there is a perfect archive that contains all the things is a noble goal, but it has always been a fantasy. Like all archives the Internet Archive represents only a sliver of a sliver of the thing we call the web. They make all kinds of decisions about what to archive and when, which are black boxed and difficult to communicate. While some people view the robots.txt as nothing better than a suicide note that poorly optimized websites rely on, robots.txt is really just small toehold in providing transparency about the decisions about what to archive from the web.
Todd Suomela
  • Chapter and verse on how the class politics of professional political journalists have blinded them to reality comes not so much from the November 2016 title bout between Clinton and Trump, but rather from the Democratic primary undercard between Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Writing in Harper’s last November, Baffler Prime Mover Thomas Frank heroically surveyed the Democratic primary coverage of the Washington Post and concluded that Sanders was nothing less than an affront to the enlightened sensibilities of the professional managerial elite controlling the Post’s editorial page output (online and off). His summation of the paper’s anti-Sanders jihad is worth quoting at length: 

     
     

    Affluent white-collar professionals are today the voting bloc that Democrats represent most faithfully, and they are the people whom Democrats see as the rightful winners in our economic order. Hillary Clinton, with her fantastic résumé and her life of striving and her much-commented-on qualifications, represents the aspirations of this class almost perfectly. An accomplished lawyer, she is also in with the foreign-policy in crowd; she has the respect of leading economists; she is a familiar face to sophisticated financiers. She knows how things work in the capital. To Washington Democrats, and possibly to many Republicans, she is not just a candidate but a colleague, the living embodiment of their professional worldview.

     

    In Bernie Sanders and his “political revolution,” on the other hand, I believe these same people saw something kind of horrifying: a throwback to the low-rent Democratic politics of many decades ago. Sanders may refer to himself as a progressive, but to the affluent white-collar class, what he represented was atavism, a regression to a time when demagogues in rumpled jackets pandered to vulgar public prejudices against banks and capitalists and foreign factory owners. Ugh.

  • That’s one way of putting it. Another would be: Any news outlet that would put an investment banker in a position of maximum leadership isn’t going to come forward with the full truth about how social class systematically deforms the process of newsgathering. After all, in their envoi, Shafer and Doherty wishfully note that the baleful effects of the media’s coastal bubble syndrome may prove self-correcting:

     
     

    Journalists respond to their failings best when their vanity is punctured with proof that they blew a story that was right in front of them. If the burning humiliation of missing the biggest political story in a generation won’t change newsrooms, nothing will. More than anything, journalists hate getting beat.

     
     

    But of course, journalists have gotten horribly beat over the past decade-plus, from their craven coverage of the run-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq to their near-complete failure to see the remorseless advance of the 2008 financial meltdown—both instances in which the members of our respectable press not only bowed before the prerogatives of state and financial power, but tied themselves up in intellectual knots while doing so.

     

    Next to these fiascos, the failure to call the election for Trump—who, after all, did not come close to winning the popular vote—is a comparative Bertie-Wooster style bloomer. (It’s also worth noting, in this same regard, that many right-leaning media types were also taken aback by the Trump victory.)

Todd Suomela
  • In some ways, Facebook faces an impossible task. From the beginning, complaints over “fake news” have included everything from sloppy reporting to simple partisanship, and it would be impossible for any one system to address them all. Even confining the issue to explicit propaganda campaigns forces the company to draw a line between legitimate politics and covert espionage, a line that’s particularly hard to draw as accusations of Russian espionage become commonplace. Even the most heavy-handed measures — like blocking articles that draw on espionage-linked data dumps — wouldn’t prevent data from spreading outside of Facebook. It’s easy to understand why the company is wary of going too far.
  • But what we’re left with is the real prospect of foreign powers manipulating public discourse, and no clear way to fix it. As with false reporting, Facebook has laid out a plan for more aggressive action against fake accounts, but it’s running up against more serious limits. Even more than false information, disinformation campaigns happen largely outside of Facebook’s control. What should be a reassuring document ends up as an admission of defeat. This is what Facebook can do to fight the problem -- and what it can’t do. The bigger message may be that if we want to protect public discourse, we’ll need more than algorithms.
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