‘Every day was a nightmare’ – two horror stories wrapped in one

Members of the Irish parliament have been listening to a very disturbing story. Facebook is a big player in the Irish tech economy but the underbelly of this giant is now being exposed. Within its entrails it is harbouring a monster.

Isabella Plunkett has worked as a Facebook content moderator for just over two years.

She has now told the parliaments’ Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, about her nightmare job as a moderator viewing graphic content up to eight hours a day. The job is so stressful that Facebook has to provide 24/7 counselling support for staff – but clearly what they do is totally inadequate.

There are two horror stories wrapped in one here. The first is the story of Isabella and all her co-workers in this role. This morning the BBC has told this in its searing detail and the nightmare is clearly still raging. Nothing that Facebook is currently doing or promising to do is solving the problem and the burden that it is asking these workers to endure.

Isabella’s job is to review posts on the platform – which can contain graphic violence, exploitation, extremism, abuse and suicide.

But what, we must ask, does it say about us as a society, as a civilisation, that we have allowed a platform to exist in our midst – and willingly, even gratefully cooperate with it – which is facilitating traffic like this across the world – or that can bring itself to ask a young person to expose themselves to such evil. There is a moral principle which tells us that what it is not good to desire it is not good to look at. This is for a reason – and the reason is that by exposing oneself to certain kinds of evil one risks being contaminated by that evil, even against one’s better judgment.

“It’s not like a normal job where you can go to work and go home and forget about it – the stuff you’re seeing is really ingrained in your mind.” Isabella processes around 100 a day – these can be videos, images or text posts on the platform. She said they often contain graphic violence, suicide, exploitation and abuse. “Every day was a nightmare,” she said, adding that the support given was “insufficient.” 

“It’s not enough. I’m now seeing the content I view in work in my dreams. I remember it, I experience it again and it is horrible.

“You never know what is going to come next and you have to watch it the full way through because they might have violators.”

“It would follow me home. I could just be watching TV at home and think back to one of the horrible, really graphic tickets” – the terms for the units she had to watch.

Depressing for all of us is the realisation that corrupted human nature has been capable of generating the volume of evil which this exposure is now revealing. The pain and misery of Isabella Plunkett is heart-rending but the sea of pain and misery which this monstrous alien living and thriving in the body of Facebook is generating must dismay us beyond horror. That it is so persistent decades after its mothership arrived among us is surely evidence that it is nowhere near vanquished.

The 26-year-old Plunkett says she could not speak to her friends or family about the things she saw at work due to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) which she had signed at the beginning of her contract. “It was always clear we couldn’t speak about our job, we couldn’t speak about our job to friends, family… and it’s definitely a workplace with a sense of secrecy.” Well it might be, but there are harmless secrets and there are lethal secrets which should not be secret – like the one the Chinese authorities kept under wraps for too long in Wuhan.

Many of us use Facebook every day. I may also buy my newspaper in a store which peddles unspeakable merchandise on its top shelves. I may consider that this does not compromise me morally. But at what point do I draw the line? These revelations – about the suffering of a young woman and the potential corruption of our society at large – may be forcing us to make a choice we might rather not have to face.

Is Machiavelli alive and well in Silicon Valley?

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Floundering might be the word which springs to mind as we look at the spectacle of poor Mark Zuckerberg trying to cope with – or, depending on your point of view, making excuses for – the failure of Facebook to protect us from predators of one kind or another.

For Mr. Zuckerberg the search for a solution seemed to be in the same territory from which the creature which has made him one of the wealthiest men in the world has come – technology. Totally absent from his horizon was the one feature in the landscape where the solution ultimately must lie. We suspect that it may be AWOL for the same reason that it was also absent from all the imagination and energy which went into Dr. Frankenstein’s creation more than two centuries ago. There are indeed those who see Dr. Zuckerberg’s – I’m hazarding a guess that at this stage he has picked up a few honorary doctorates along the way – creation as something of a mirror image of Mary Shelly’s.

Sadly, unlike Mary Shelly’s monster, which was embodied only in fiction, a wise and salutary tale about the folly of a man who gave life to a powerful man-like instrument he could not control, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is a real nuts and bolts, now apparently out-of-control, creation.

There seems to exist a multiplicity of black holes in the universe of modern technology. As the Netflix series, Black Mirror, worryingly illustrates for us, our lives can be sucked into these in any number of ways with the most dire personal and social consequences imaginable.

The unifying element which should offer us protection from most of these black holes is embodied in the single phrase, moral sense. The absence of this sense in the integral structure of all the myriad of pursuits of modern man is the source of many of the woes which accompany them in the form of unintended consequences. “Unintended” may modify culpability for those consequences but if our poverty of intention stems for our neglect of serious and responsible reflection, then culpability is present as darkness is present with night.

But let us not be personal about this. Mark Zuckerberg is a child of his time and if we can learn anything from his predicament it will be by looking beyond his and his company’s problem to the bigger picture.

Zuckerberg has now apologised to Facebook’s users for the “breach of trust”. What “trust” really means in the world of big tech is anyone’s guess. This breach allowed University of Cambridge researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to harvest the details of about 270,000 people who took part in something as seemingly innocuous as an online quiz. A former Facebook manager has warned now that hundreds of millions of users are likely to have had their private information used by firms in ways that they know nothing about.

But all the talk about this is now about control, technical control, regulation and more regulation. Does anyone really understand any more why we regulate? If the moral sense which the modern world  now lacks were a real force in our society our need for regulation, controls and all the rest would be much less. If all we have are external regulations and controls we are lost souls.

A “reckoning is coming” for Facebook and its fellow tech giants, said The Sunday Times – and “not before time”. The issue in this scandal is not whether harvested Facebook data enabled Trump to steal the US election. “It did not – however much liberals would love to overturn the result.” Rather, it’s that Facebook has failed to protect the personal data of its users. The company has been “unforgivably lax” about third-party use of this information, agreed  The Times. It has arrogantly shirked “the responsibilities that come with power”, and been wilfully blind to the consequences of its inaction until problems have reached the headlines.

The black hole into which the private information of “hundreds of millions of users” has plummeted may be the least of the threats to the common good emanating from Facebook’s army of busy bees. Joseph Ratzinger, one of the greatest moral voices of our time, back in 2005, just a year after Facebook moved from being a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye to its launch in 2004, gave a prescient address at Subiaco in Italy.

In that address Ratzinger – who would become Pope Benedict XVI a few weeks alter – spoke of  the  “disquieting… possibilities of self-manipulation that man has acquired. He has plumbed the depths of being, has deciphered the components of the human being, and is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action, a product that, therefore, can also be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves.”

As we know, there are plenty of people who are concerned about the manipulative characteristics deliberately built in to modern technology – from the colour coding of iPhone screens to the subtle designs of homepages across the internet. Others are concerned about the contribution which Facebook, for example, contributes to the cancer of gender confusion sweeping across our culture with its amoral subscribing to a bewildering plethora of genders.

If our world, our cultures and our civilization suffers from a moral malaise it did not begin – nor will it end –  with technology and the power it places in the hands of men. In one understanding its roots are of course immemorial and the struggle it demands of us is endemic in our nature. But in recorded history we can also see a turning point at which western civilization fell deeper into the mire of confusion of which Facebook’s amorality is just another modern manifestation.

The turning point which occurred at the dawn of the modern age – and the falsehood at its heart – led Machiavelli to offer his advice to those who exercise power in this world. The spirit of this advice is also responsible for the destructive elements at work in forces of modern technology. This is not to deny any of the good elements. I use Facebook and will continue to do so.

Dr. Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation, his masterful study of how our civilization has reached the point at which it now stands, explains that Machiavelli’s ideas about human nature influenced the rejections of the Christian (and Aristotelian, and Platonic) claim about the inseparability of morality and politics. In the Florentine’s view, efforts expended in trying to live virtuously could only seem quixotically futile, aspirations to create a correlative moral community unrealistic. In his views about human nature, Machiavelli would find successors in Hobbes, Hume, and many other thinkers.

If in the following quote from Gregory’s book, we substitute in our mind the wielders of technological power for the wielders of political power we will see how Machiavelli is alive and well in Silicon Valley.

In theory, at least, Machiavelli’s practical distinction between the demands of political life and moral norms severed the exercise of power from teleological virtue ethics in public affairs, the “realism” of the former contrasted with the “idealism” of the latter. Successful and therefore good politics was unavoidably immoral, and immoral politics was the norm.“ No longer aspiring to encompass traditional morality, politics becomes instead “the art of the possible”—and as people grow accustomed to new human realities, their views change concerning what is and is not possible. What his contemporaries and Reformation-era successors who offered advice to princes continued to regard as the telos of human nature within an inherited Christian worldview, Machiavelli consequentially disdained as the “imaginary world.” Human beings are what they are; the world is as it is; the effective exercise of power requires the abrogation of morality; successful rulers override the virtues with virtu. One could exercise power or be moral, but not both.

But while “successful rulers override the virtues with virtu“, Silicone Valley overrides all morality with science and technology.

Ratzinger, who like Tiresias, perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—explained in his Subiaco address, how in the modern world the principle is now valid, according to which, man’s capacity is measured by his action. What one knows how to do, may also be done. There no longer exists a knowing how to do separated from a being able to do, because it would be against freedom, which is the absolute supreme value. But man knows how to do many things, and knows increasingly how to do more things; and if this knowing how to do does not find its measure in a moral norm, it becomes, as we can already see, a power of destruction.

Man knows how to clone men, and so he does it. Man knows how to use men as a store of organs for other men, and so he does it; he does it because this seems to be an exigency of his freedom. Man knows how to construct atomic bombs and so he makes them, being, in line of principle, also disposed to use them. In the end, terrorism is also based on this modality of man’s self-authorization, and not on the teachings of the Koran.

Until we escape from the delusion that we are masters of this universe, that we are orphans in this world and that we are answerable to no one but ourselves, then our fate will be to succumb to our inept regulations and continue to weave our way around them and wriggle our way out of them. This is the miserable human condition to which we condemn ourselves to by our arrogance.