The Rapper Defense

Should the standards of what constitutes an actionable threat of physical violence be changed in the era of the internet and social media?  Next week the Supreme Court will consider that question, which probes the tender intersection of the First Amendment, criminal law, and society’s interest in protecting people from impending harm.

For years the prevailing standard has been that “true threats” to harm another person are not protected free speech and can be punished under the criminal law.  The issue raised by the Supreme Court case is whether prosecutors should be required to prove that the speaker had a “subjective intent” to threaten, as opposed to showing that an objective person would consider the statements to be threatening.  A requirement of subjective intent obviously would be harder to prove.

In the Supreme Court case, the defendant created Facebook posts about his estranged wife, writing about “a thousand ways to kill you” and asking whether the protection from abuse order she received was “thick enough to stop a bullet.”  His lawyers contend that the statements are simply “therapeutic efforts to address traumatic events” and references to the violent, misogynistic imagery of the defendant’s favorite rappers.  The defendant also argues that other actions like the placement of an emoticon — a face with its tongue sticking out, purportedly to indicate “jest” — must be considered in assessing whether the speaker truly intends menacing behavior or is just blowing off steam.

I’m a big supporter of free speech, and exercises in line-drawing are always difficult, but I don’t see any need to revisit long-time legal standards just because the internet has been developed.  Domestic abuse is a huge problem, and we need to protect the abused.  If prosecutors are required to prove “subjective intent,” and the placement of emoticons or the couching of unambiguous threats of violence in the context of rap lyrics become viable defenses, the ability to protect the abused will be diminished.  I don’t know of any real “therapy” that encourages disturbed people to make specific threats of violence, and I don’t buy the argument that standards of lawful behavior should be reduced simply because some anonymous people treat the internet as a kind of free-for-all zone.

Standards exist for a reason, and we shouldn’t be in a hurry to lower them.  It’s not unfair to hold people whose behavior already has given rise to legitimate concern — like the defendant in the Supreme Court case who was the subject of a protection from abuse order — accountable for specific violent statements, on social media or otherwise.

In The Cage With Facebook Lab Rats

Some people are very upset that Facebook has admitted conducting a psychological experiment on hundreds of thousands of randomly selected users.

In the 2012 study, Facebook data scientists decided to test the hypothesis that reading about the great things “Facebook friends” are writing about their lives depresses readers, who feel that their lives kind of suck by comparison.  So, for one week, the data scientists used an algorithm on the Facebook news feeds of almost 700,000 people to delete posts with words associated with positive, or negative, emotions to see whether it affected the kinds of posts those readers made.  The study ultimately refuted that hypothesis.

A number of people feel that the experiment treated Facebook users as guinea pigs, improperly tried to manipulate their emotions, and was unethical.  I can understand the sentiment, but I think we all need to accept that we are lab rats in a vast media stew in which the overriding goal is to manipulate our emotions and perceptions — whether the active agent is a Facebook post, an email designed to provoke us to make a contribution to a political candidate, or a banner ad that touts the miracle weight-loss qualities of a previously unknown plant.  Face it, folks — it’s all just part of navigating through our media-saturated modern culture.

Knowing about Facebook’s willingness to conduct broad-scale psychological and social experiments has its positive aspects, too — it helps to explain certain otherwise inexplicable realities of Facebook.  From my occasional review of my “news feed,” I’m guessing that Facebook is currently conducting tests on these other hypotheses:

*  What is more likely to cause “de-friending”:  incessant requests to play Facebook games or posting memes that express rote sentiments and demand “click like if you agree!”?

*  Are conservatives or liberals more likely to post ludicrously overheated, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it reactions to current events?

*  Is there any location on a Facebook page where ads can be placed that readers will not be able to successfully ignore them?

*  Does the frequency of posts with pictures of food increase as Facebook users age?

That Morning Email Fix

For nearly 50 years I lived comfortably without a mobile phone.  I could go out to eat without needing to check constantly on social media, see whether I’d received a text, or take a photo of my food and post it somewhere immediately.  Now I seem to be as addicted to my handheld device as a heroin addict is to his daily fix.

IMG_6119I check my email first thing in the morning, check it routinely throughout the day, and typically do so again the last thing before I head upstairs for bed at night.  I am in a business where client service is crucially important and I want to be promptly responsive to any messages from those clients — but I know that is, in part, just a rationalization.  If I check my phone for email, I can get back to my clients in impressive time and always will seem to be in touch — but I’ll also see whether any other messages are waiting for me.

Why is this so?  I think it’s driven in part by ego and in part by the natural curiosity of the human brain.  We want to know if people are responding to us or thinking of us, and we are easily bored.  Rather than just take a walk down the street, why not check in on Facebook, too?  I suppose there’s no significant harm in missing the simple pleasures of a walk that you’ve taken many times — only to get another message that you’ve been invited to play some unknown Facebook game — but when referring to your handheld begins to interfere with actually living your life it seems like it’s time to reconsider what you’re doing.

I thought of this increasingly during our trip to New Orleans, when I encountered people who seemed to be focused on tapping things into their handheld to the exclusion of everything else — even if it meant stumbling into people on the street because they weren’t paying attention to where they were going.  The point was driven home when Richard, Russell, UJ and I were sitting on the second story balcony of a place on Frenchmen Street, enjoying a beer and the view, and we noticed a group of 10 or so young women who appeared to be part of a wedding party at the next table over.  Virtually all of them had their eyes locked on their phones and their thumbs flying.  They weren’t really in New Orleans, they were in cyberworld — so why physically be in New Orleans in the first place?

It was sad, and I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not much better.  I like blogging and feeling like I’m connected, but I need to make sure that I’ve worked out an appropriate balance between the real world and the virtual one.

Twitter Turnabout

Twitter is a good example of a double-edged sword.  When companies or entities try to use it for positive PR purposes, as often as not it backfires, and what is generated instead is embarrassing and often humorous.

As a very recent example, consider the New York City Police Department.  Some genius decided it would be helpful to ask people to tweet their pictures with members of the police force with the hashtag #myNYPD.  Clearly, the Department envisioned smiling photos of citizens and friendly, blue-coated officers.

But what actually happened didn’t go according to that plan.  Instead, people started tweeting photos of police officers handcuffing suspects, lashing out with batons, and otherwise engaging in less positive interactions with members of the public.  Other tweets identified people who had been shot to death by police and complaining about police brutality — as well as ripping the NYPD for a self-inflicted PR disaster.

The NYPD example probably should be taught in PR classes about use of social media.  What are the key elements of this colossal blunder?  One is a person or entity who lacks significant awareness of how they are actually perceived by the public and therefore can’t envision the negative tweets that their campaign might generate.  It’s hard to imagine that any police department would be blind to the fact that they aren’t adored by a significant percentage of the public — after all, the police regularly issue tickets, order people around, and arrest and apprehend suspects who proclaim their innocence, and those people have families and friends — but the NYPD apparently falls into that category. That’s amazing, and suggests that the PR decisionmakers aren’t adequately acquainted with reality.

A second element is a lack of understanding of human nature.  People who are angry and negative are far more motivated to post something than people who are happy and positive.  Tourists who were helped by members of the NYPD aren’t likely to take a photo or be aware of a Twitter campaign about the NYPD — but somebody who is convinced that the cops routinely engage in racial profiling will be monitoring and ready to spring when an ill-advised campaign gets underway.

If I were a company or a public entity, I’d be very cautious about inviting Twitter chatter.  Our grandmothers told us, “be careful what you ask for” — and that was wise advice,

Facebook And The Arc Of Coolness

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the future of Facebook. Millions of teenage users apparently are no longer using the social media network. Some Princeton researchers have concluded that social networks are like communicable diseases that infect people rapidly then just was quickly burn out; they predict Facebook will lose 80 percent of its peak user base by the 2015-2017 time period.

There’s no doubt that Facebook is not as cool as it once was, but that result always was inevitable — because nothing stays ubercool for long. The equation of coolness is simple: young people add to coolness, and old people who aren’t rock stars detract from it. Once Moms and Dads and people in their 60s started to use Facebook to post boring pictures, send inspirational messages, and attempt to make “hip” comments about their kids’ drunken selfies, any self-respecting youngster would realize that the coolness luster was gone . . . and move on to the next big thing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook is doomed. My guess is that Facebook wants to end up as a kind of utility — that is, an invention that initially is cutting-edge and used by only a few people and later becomes so broadly accepted that it is unconsciously integrated into everyone’s daily life, like the electric light or the telephone. iPads might not be as cool as they once were, but does Apple care if they are being sold by the millions to uncool people in the business community who love the idea of a lightweight device that they can customize to meet their unique business and personal requirements?

The key for Facebook, or for that matter any other form of social media, is whether it can make that transition. If Facebook sticks around and keeps that critical mass of users, will those coolness-sensitive teens return to the Facebook fold when they hit their late 20s and realize that the social media network is a really handy, one-stop place to keep in contact with high school buddies, college friends, and former co-workers, remember their birthdays, and have some sense of what they are doing with their lives?

Line-Drawing And Violent Content

If you establish a social media site, and allow the world at large to join and post, you’re running a risk.  Some people will post pictures of kittens, old family photos, or corny but uplifting messages.  Others, however, may want to post other things — things that are disturbing.  So you establish a content policy — but where do you draw the line?  That’s an issue that Facebook is wrestling with these days.

IMG_5117Facebook has an extensive set of “community standards” that address topics like “nudity and pornography,” “violence and threats,” and “hate speech.”  One topic is “graphic content.”  As Facebook puts it, people use the site to share their experiences and thoughts about issues, some of which “involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism.”  Facebook distinguishes between sharing such content for purposes of condemnation and sharing “to celebrate or glorify violence.”  Facebook asks users to share content “in a responsible manner” and warn the audience about any graphic video.  If Facebookers report that certain content violates the community standards, Facebook decides whether to remove it. 

The most recent controversy involves a video showing a woman being decapitated.  The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and others criticized Facebook for not removing the video and for apparently loosening its standards on hyper-violent postings.  Facebook reacted to the criticism, removed the video after determining it improperly and irresponsibly glorifies violence, and issued a “fact check” statement to explain its new approach and its decision.  

It’s the right decision, of course — but it shouldn’t have been a hard decision to make in the first place.  There is a big difference between disturbing images of starving children that sharpen an appeal for contributions to a hunger relief charity and a video of a planned execution by beheading.  Line-drawing can be tough, but I would certainly draw the line so that videos showing real people actually being killed, tortured, or horribly injured are excluded, whether their accompanying text purportedly “condemns” such action or not.

Mean Girls

There’s been a lot of talk about “mean girls” and bullying lately.  The terrible suicide  of a 12-year-old Florida girl, who jumped off a tower after being tormented by schoolmates, is just the latest in a series of incidents that have people questioning whether young girls — and for that matter, young boys — are just getting meaner.

Some of the prevailing wisdom is that the internet, and social media, have contributed to the relentless bullying.  The notion is that what used to be one-on-one bullying can quickly become a much wider form of inflicting humiliation.  Rather than just mortifying someone on the school bus or in the gym class locker, the thinking goes, social media allows the bullies to broadcast and heighten their taunts and attempts to shame and ridicule to the point where the object of the bullying feels that death is their only escape.  The youthful targets doesn’t quite realize that their teenage years will pass, that the school year embarrassments will fade into distant memories, and that the jerk who is torturing them doesn’t represent what lies ahead.

I think social media is a big part of the problem — but also for a different reason.  It’s harder to be mean to someone to their face.  When you are posting something insulting or humiliating about someone on Facebook, you’re typing something into a computer.  When you’re texting a mean picture, you’re thumbing a message into a smartphone.  It’s all an abstraction, where the power trip can be taken without directly experiencing the reaction.  You don’t see the hurt that your words or actions inflict; instead, you just get a few LOLs from the sycophantic friends in your clique.

I’m convinced that only truly evil people would be capable of tormenting someone, in person, to the point of suicide.  If I’m wrong about that, and we actually are raising a generation of kids so malevolent and disconnected from human decency that they don’t care about the consequences of their mean-spirited actions, then we’ve got much bigger problems as a society.