Thursday, March 4, 2021

Tangled Web

"Marquee columnist"

"Marquee columnist" was a phrase used by Matt Yglesias in reference to the ongoing Brooks brouhaha, which you may not have heard about: Somebody finally figured out the the New York Times "marquee columnist" David Brooks is getting paid for the Aspen gig, chairing "Weave: The Social Fabric Project", probably in six figures, and BuzzFeed has been exploring the thought that he might have a bit of a conflict of interest there, since he's composed a substantial number of columns praising himself for his involvement in the thing without warning us that he has a financial interest in it.

Which I thought initially looked like a bit of a stretch, because what kind of idiot imagined he wasn't getting paid? But wait, there's more!

Because what BuzzFeed finds in the first place is that "Weave: The Social Fabric Project" is funded by billionaire plutocrats—again no surprise there; in the words of Willie Sutton, that's where the money is—and one of them is Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and last week Brooks published a blogpost not at The Times (where he has always haughtily refused his editors' demand that columnists contribute to the paper's social media profile) but at Facebook's corporate website, where he wrote about—wait for it—how great and Weavy Facebook is:

How do you build trust? Trust is built when people are enmeshed in trustworthy communities—communities in which people reliably show up for each other. A century ago, most people were enmeshed in religious congregations, small towns, tribal networks, veterans organizations, local chapters of community groups. Those kinds of communities have withered all around the world as we have urbanized and, in many places, become less religious. The $100 trillion questions are: Can we create new forms of trustworthy communities? Can we form these communities where people are spending their time, online?

If you had asked me these questions five years ago, I would have said absolutely not. Online communities, I believed then, foster shallow communication and scattered, atomized, ephemeral and unreliable relationships. Especially in the U.S. the rise in social media has been accompanied by a rise in depression, suicide and political polarization.

Since then my views have shifted. Social scientists have now had the chance to study the effects of social media and, in general, they find surprisingly little or no correlation between social media uses and these social maladies. In the U.S., suicide and polarization are on the increase, but in many other countries with high social media penetration, suicide and polarization are on the way down. My takeaway from all this research is that it’s not social media that’s the problem, it’s the ideas and behavior of the people who use it. Character is destiny, online or offline.

Heh. Social media don't kill people, people kill people. It's not Facebook that spreads disinformation concocted by Russian intelligence agencies, Republican ratfuckers, and mysterious paranoid cults (but I repeat myself!), it's those pesky users of the platform.

What the post is promoting is the Facebook Communities Insight Survey, a YouGov poll of attitudes in 15 countries that found that online communities are totally terrific and Weavy as hell, and "The Power of Virtual Communities", a product of the Governance Lab of NYU's Tandon School of Engineering studying the "governance and leadership" of 50 Weavy Facebook groups such as African Mums in Deutschland, White People DOING Something, and Female IN ("1.7 million women are leading with kindness"), supported by the MacArthur Foundation and the Omidyar Network but "partnered" by the Facebook Community Partnerships Team, whose mission is

to inspire and support community leaders and organizations - online or offline, aspiring or existing - to help 1 billion people find a meaningful community on Facebook by 2022. At Facebook, we have a unique opportunity to serve these community leaders with our platform so that we not only live in a world where everyone is part of a meaningful community to them - improving belonging, connectedness, and well-being - but also one where every single person feels empowered to become a community leader if that's a path they want to pursue.

And Facebook, as noted, seems likely to be paying a hefty portion of Brooks's Aspen salary, and

has bought newspaper and online advertisements in news publications and also run sponsored content, paid posts that are meant to look like native articles. It has also funded journalism initiatives and paid news organizations to feature their content, including for its Facebook News vertical, which was launched in Oct. 2019. (BuzzFeed News is paid by Facebook as part of that program, though the company has no say over editorial matters.)

.... Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for the New York Times, told BuzzFeed News that editors for the Times were not aware of his work with Facebook, and that he was not compensated for his Facebook blog post or for a recent panel appearance for the social network. She noted that Brooks’s work was done in conjunction with the Aspen Institute’s Weave Project, a local community-building initiative that was founded by the Times writer.

One of those pieces of "sponsored content" was a promotion in the Chronicle of Philanthropy of a conference of "Upswell", a "community of relentless changemakers[, n]onprofit and foundation professionals, organizational leaders, philanthropists, innovators, artists, corporate citizens, community activists, and social entrepreneurs" under the aegis of Independent Sector, "the only national organization representing nonprofits, foundations, and corporations advancing the common good." A conference at which the featured speakers were David Brooks and "Deepti Doshi, a Facebook employee who works on strategic partnerships and who also completed a fellowship at the Aspen Institute, according to her LinkedIn profile."

“This is why we love working with Independent Sector and being at Upswell,” Brooks wrote. “It is an established organization that does convening in new ways. It emphasizes social collision, not panel discussion.”

Preparatory to appearing, no doubt for yet another big check, at yet another panel discussion.

O what a tangled web, amirite? 

Interviewed in The Guardian in Februrary 2019 on the subject of his then new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas said, not so much on the subject of people like David Brooks as the "plutes" who fund his activities,

What I am trying to do is to take on this pervasive societal habit of automatic gratitude and praise for elites who engage in various forms of do-gooding, whether that’s impact investing or social enterprise or philanthropy or any modality that falls within the “doing well by doing good” paradigm of change. This is the kind of change that allows you to stand on someone’s back while saying you’re helping them.

My book is a book about moves. It’s a book about ruling-class dance moves, if you will. There are certain dance moves that have been very effective at making us think that members of the ruling class are not the problem that in fact they are. One popular dance move is using generosity to obscure one’s own complicity in injustice. You commit an injustice and then rely on generosity on a much smaller scale to cover it up. This is the most obvious move. This happens often enough that when you see an act of plutocratic generosity you should at a minimum be skeptical.

This isn’t the only move, though.... [For example,] elites might introduce a new concept like “resilience”, a concept that sounds great but that is actually just about adjusting to societal crappiness rather than fixing it. What wealthy people do is rig the discourse.

Zuckerberg's Aspen dance, with David Brooks supplying the fiddle music, is such a great example of that, with him demanding all the credit when people use the platforms to "lead with kindness" while blaming the "ideas and behavior" of users when they work to destroy democracy. And Brooks's whole career, as I've said so many times before, has been devoted to that particular style of rigging the discourse—explaining that social change isn't needed because the gentry will take care of all the problems, any day now, and anyway poor people ought to behave better, getting married and studying stupid subjects so they can end up working stupid jobs.

It's striking how frequently we hear about "leading" and "leaders" in the conversation, because that's in fact the subject: the community leaders and meta-leaders who are proposing to do all the change-making out of the range of democratic agitation. Giridharadas may be missing a crucial psychological factor, which is that in hiding the injustice they create in their day jobs these people are hiding it from themselves, behind the self-praise and satisfaction they get out of doing so much good in the world, with all that leadership.

Brooks's unending self-praise, for becoming a "moral person" and climbing that Second Mountain (even as he obtains a much younger wife and a much bigger bank account), is the most infuriating thing about him, of course. I don't know that all these incestuous Aspen goings-on are illegal or even unethical

You went into jail in the summer,” wrote Libby [to the journalist he was leaking to, Judith Miller]. “It is fall now … Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work—and life.”

but they fill me with endless rage.

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