Social Media's Dark, Unintended Consequences

Searching for news sources that fit their hyper-partisan appetite, Americans are heading to social media sites like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter for their news in staggering numbers. Many appear to have filled their newsfeeds and subscription lists with sensational clickbait or sound bites rather than relying on professional articles written by reputable news organizations; it almost appears as if Americans are confusing reliable reporting from The New York Times with politically-slanted NowThis News videos proliferating on Facebook.

Unfortunately, accurate and informative content can be hard to find on these social media sites. Remember when Facebook erroneously spread People Magazine’s misquotation of an interview President Trump did in 1998? Or the Pizzagate scandal which spread across InfoWars Youtube page? Not to mention the countless other examples of “fake news” that social media has been lit ablaze with. Some, like teens in Veles, Macedonia, have even earned enough advertising revenue by reposting fake articles to justify dropping out of high school and continuing to cash in on conservative clickbait tendencies.

Fake news ‒ and the continual attacks on mainstream media as illegitimate ‒ are incredibly damaging to the integrity of journalists and the population as a whole. The understanding that a free and open press is a fundamental part of the U.S. Constitution no longer seems apparent. With each passing day, an educated citizenry self-governing the American experiment seems more unattainable because of the news we are digesting.

On the surface of this existential crisis is fake news, but lurking underneath is hateful, radical, and extremist content emboldening dangerous homegrown terrorists. Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, everyone’s favorite social media apps, seem to be little more than bystanders.

Since its origins, ISIS has utilized social media as a digital weapon to recruit members and spread its message to a global audience. Youtube videos, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts abound with the infamous Anwar Al-Awlaki ‒ just one amongst many imams ‒ preaching hateful versions of Quranic verses that justify jihad against America and our allies. A quick 5 minute search will yield over 71,400 videos touting his radical message for millions to view.

While uncomfortable to many, social media companies’ advertising-driven business model allows them to profit from views and clicks on extremist content. Video producers also bask in the monetary gain, using the funds to support global terrorist operations abroad. Unintentionally then, Google, Youtube, and Facebook’s revenue model may be supporting ISIS, their counterparts, and homegrown terrorists around the globe. Should stockholders vote to change Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook’s business model in the face of the global war on terrorism?

 From their humble origins, none of these three sites envisioned radical extremist users. Facebook began as a college-only dating site, Youtube as a way to share home videos, and Twitter as a way to speak your mind in 140 characters or less. Today, however, their paradigms have shifted and the seething hatred of American values has penetrated once innocent social media sites. This has put these Silicon Valley titans at a crossroads between protecting free speech and profiting off this content, or upholding their terms of service and doing everything possible to delete it.

Yet is there any evidence suggesting that social media has directly caused terrorism? Lawsuits filed against Google, Twitter, and Facebook from the San Bernardino shootings allege that they “knowingly and recklessly” provided ISIS with “a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits.” The Showtime documentary American Jihad explains how Youtube videos, Facebook pages, and Twitter posts are radicalizing many and causing them to commit violent acts in the name of ISIS, without ever traveling to the group’s homebase in Syria and Iraq. Plenty of examples illustrate the homegrown terrorist threat America now faces; the Boston Marathon bombing, Orlando nightclub attack and others were all linked to perpetrators’ ability to access radical content from the confines of their home.

Logically, we’d expect these social media companies to do more than disavow the radical undercurrent of their sites. Yet with 500 hours of content uploaded every minute, it’s impossible for Youtube employees to continually monitor everyone who spreads extremist ideology online. Even if they do block users with potentially violent tendencies, new accounts continue to spawn with identical videos spreading the same messages. This removal and reappearance process is like a never-ending whack-a-mole cycle.

Despite taking recent steps to improve their content curation, it’s likely impossible to root out all extremists from social media without a computer algorithm to do it quicker than humans can. With advertising agencies controlling corporations’ ads, the job is in their hands to ensure viewers don’t see a Mercedes E-Class ad on a video sympathizing with ISIS. Utilizing a high-functioning system called programmatic advertising, this computer algorithm seeks out the most viewed and clicked content within seconds. As a result, this rapid tool can place ads on content humans don’t have time to review for hateful undertones, often displaying a company’s ad on content unreflective of their values. Despite blacklisting options being available, programmatic ads face the same dilemma social media companies do: banning a user from running ads is impossible when others pop up with the same video.

Without much foresight when their platforms originated, it seems like Google, Youtube, and Facebook may have created a living Frankenstein. Wary of letting radical messages continue to spread, it might be time for outside actors to intervene in social media’s fight against terrorism. Online content is a public good, and therefore government interference is justifiable within reason. If the U.S. is going to continue fighting terrorism abroad, the government should look online first.

-Jordan Wolken

Holding Trump Accountable to the Stock Market

President Trump has made a habit of touting the stock market’s success in the few months following his election. Back three weeks or so, when the Dow Jones was consistently in the green and soaring past 20,000 ‒ and later 21,000 ‒ for the first time ever, he tweeted about its rise on five separate occasions. His market rhetoric often carries conspicuous meaning; one Christmas Eve tweet reads,

“The world was gloomy before I won - there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10% and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!”

By claiming that his election victory increased investor confidence, he almost embodies Atlas ‒ the ancient Greek titan condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky’s weight ‒ as if he physically lifted the tickers himself.

Setting analogies aside, does Trump have authority to claim sole responsibility for the market’s rally? Yes and no. Yes, investors generally view Republicans and their pro-business plan for tax cuts and deregulation favorably, but that view isn’t exclusive to Trump or his policies. What matters more, most analysts agree, is the boom-and-bust economic cycle during a president’s four years ‒ which hinges more on the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy than any presidential policy. The Trump rally, therefore, likely has more to do with the Fed’s 7-year strategy of setting near-zero interest rates than anything else. Such low rates have artificially propped up asset prices to spur cheap borrowing and business investment. While this has helped stocks recover from the 2008 Great Recession, some investors are beginning to view prolonged low rates as a sign that we’re heading towards another market bubble.

The bubble theory could become reality if investors continue to downplay the policy risks associated with a Trump presidency; erratic behavior, a potential trade war with China, and reckless border wall spending are just beginning to factor into daily market movements. These (and other gaffes) will surely creep into investor’s minds at some point, clouding Trump’s ability to take responsibility for any future rallies.

Still, some market analysts credit Trump for roughly half of the post-election market gains. The monthly uptick in consumer confidence and increase in investors’ trading bonds for stocks are both signs of optimism towards Trump’s pro-business platform and its ability to spur economic growth. He also gets credit for using Twitter as a bully pulpit to convince auto companies like General Motors and Ford to invest at home (although there’s no conclusive evidence that his tweets actually move stock prices).

No matter how bullish your current market outlook is, it’s worth exploring diversification options to hedge against a future downturn. Even with an impressive post-election rally, investors shouldn’t expect it to continue forever. If a market bubble becomes clearer during his presidency, expect outlandish reactions from Trump. If he can take credit for the market’s success, he should own up to its failures too.

Holding Trump accountable for an imminent market downturn will be a tough albeit necessary challenge for Democrats moving forward. His thin-skinned nature makes him an easy target, as he’s shown a willingness to retaliate on Twitter against Democratic foes. On April 27, for example, he tweeted six different times blaming Democrats for their ineptitude. By continually riling up Democrats, he’s almost begging for them to berate him if the market performs poorly.

Their task will be made even easier, however, if a market downturn precedes a larger economic one. They can then claim, as some previously did when bubbles occurred during George W. Bush’s presidency, that they foresaw a rocky economic road ahead before the president has a chance to publicly indicate anything himself. If you believe that the stock market is in a bubble, then an economic downturn might be imminent. Plenty of historical research backs this assertion up, highlighting how Republican bull markets are usually a negative sign for the economy. Each major Republican tax cut ‒ Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover’s in 1924 and 1928, Ronald Reagan’s in 1981, and George W. Bush’s in 2001 and 2003 ‒ all led to huge economic crises, including the Great Depression in 1929, the 1987 Stock Market Crash, and the Great Recession in 2007-08.

Will the Trumped-up trickle-down tax cuts be next? We’ll have to wait and see. But if you believe the stock market is headed for darker days, then there’s good reason to brace for economic malaise. Oddly enough, Democratic opponents could politically benefit if such events were to occur. By claiming that Trump is fully responsible for the stock market’s highs and lows, they’re in good position to criticize his boastfulness and hypocritical statements, holding him accountable when he likely refuses to acknowledge future market slumps.

-Jordan Wolken

Did Karl Marx Foresee Trump's Rise?

 Most mainstream American and European economists stopped studying Karl Marx when the Cold War ended in 1991. His denunciation of capitalism and proposed communist uprising proved too impractical for the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc to effectively execute. Even China’s economy shifted away from its communist tendencies over three decades ago, operating as more of a state-run capitalist system today. Yet with many of his ideas discredited decades ago, Marx’s Communist Manifesto is still the third most frequently assigned text at American universities, trumping household names like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. As I’ll explain, this may not be such a bad thing: despite most career economists and politicians disregarding Marxist theory, one of his ideas maintains significant relevance in today’s political climate.

In his 19th century heyday, Marx gained notoriety for his radical ideas about shifting labor and capital. Although disproved by others, his labor theory of value (LTV) ‒ the idea that a good’s value is contingent upon the number of human labor hours needed to produce it ‒ is still included in many economics textbooks. Despite its conceptual errors, understanding LTV is a requirement for foreseeing Marx’s five steps that lead to a capitalist system’s downfall. In Das Kapital, Marx proclaims that many companies begin to exchange human labor for machinery as they compete to increase their production capacity. Marx predicates this substitution on the LTV ‒ as a company’s production capacity increases, so too does the amount of labor needed to produce their goods. Eventually, with companies incentivized to minimize their costs and earn higher profits than their competitors, many begin exploiting workers by halting any wage increases, stretching their hours and speeding up their work pace. Yet because the supply of human labor is both limited (Marx channels his inner Malthus here) and less productive than machines, wealthy companies begin firing workers and automating their production process. With unemployment rising and the macroeconomy expanding its output, unsold goods are left toiling on store shelves and an endless cycle of poverty ensues. According to Marx, the unemployed now band together and form a ‘reserve army of labor’ to uproot the entire capitalist system in favor of a worker-led communist one. He excitingly describes this further in his infamous Communist Manifesto

 “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!” (Section 4 Paragraph 11)

Before totally disregarding Marx’s communist revolution as an idyllic fantasy, let’s take a step back and note the remarkable similarities between Marx’s reserve army and the United States’s own white working class. America, and much of the developed economy, is now in a peculiar and unfamiliar place. Emerging technology and factory automation threaten millions of low-wage unskilled workers across the country. Much of the Rust Belt, which once reflected a booming American manufacturing sector, now looks like an abandoned shell of itself. One Ball State University study estimates that 87% of the manufacturing job losses are a result of automation, rather than “bad” trade deals shifting jobs to lower-wage countries like Mexico or China. Yet despite thousands of recent factory closures and worker layoffs, aggregate manufacturing output is at a record high. Marx preempted this dichotomy. He recognized that increasingly efficient machines (or robots, in this case) would concentrate capital into a wealthy few, raise unemployment and expand total production. This economic scenario sets the stage for those unemployed workers to revolt, or in today’s context, demand political change.

Although I don’t believe the American capitalist system will be overtaken by angry unemployed workers, which is the inevitable next step in Marxist theory, I do believe that our political system has been temporarily hijacked by Donald Trump’s own minion of Marx’s reserve army. Trump, like Geert Wilders, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen and other European right-wing populists, owes his political support to newly unemployed working class citizens. He edged Hillary Clinton by 39% amongst white voters without college degrees, serving as further testament to his intentional courting of formerly employed factory workers. As the Washington Post points out, many of those voters helped him win Rust Belt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin ‒ three states that hadn’t gone red since either 1984 or 1988. Is it a coincidence that Marx-esque unemployed factory workers are demanding a complete shift in Washington? Unhinged by job loss, political gridlock, and allegiance to big business (or capitalists, as Marx would argue), this reserve army undoubtedly helped fuel Trump’s November victory. What’s more, Marx may have brilliantly foreseen America’s current economic and political firestorm without even knowing it, nearly 150 years before anyone else.

So what’s next? In Marxist theory, the same group that elected Trump would eventually topple the entire political system and run it themselves. With Trump reneging on many of his campaign promises that wooed those voters in the first place, it’s not impossible to imagine a disgruntled reserve army rallying against Trump during the next four years. His favorability ratings are at historically low levels during only his first few months in office, and unless he can curb the emerging technology behind factory automation and job loss, his doomsday might be near. In other words, continuing the steamy rhetoric against bad trade deals might only get him so far.

- Jordan Wolken

Other Resources to Read: