- Illustration: © Leremy | dreamstime.com
In this issue, you'll find another two full pages of letters to the editor about our "Wildlife Wars" cover story from two weeks ago. To put it mildly, animal advocates who oppose certain hunting practices — such as trapping and using hounds to track game — do not see eye to eye with the people who have been happily "harvesting" Vermont fauna that way for generations.
Read the missives carefully, and you'll notice another key player in this heated debate: Facebook.
In their letters, a number of sportsmen describe the experience of posting pictures of their prey on the social media platform — and the threats that have ensued. Ted Sheloski of Ira, for example, killed a coyote with a bow and arrow on his own land. "Being proud to take out a predator, I posted it on Facebook," he wrote. "That's when the trouble began." He said he received hateful messages from people he didn't know, who wrote things like: "You should be shot with a bow" or "I'll show you how it feels."
Weird as it is for an alleged woodsman to publicize his kills on social media, it's no less unsettling that he was targeted and vilified by a virtual mob.
There's no shortage of disagreement in the world these days — between hunters and animal advocates, public health officials and vaccine skeptics, Republicans and Democrats, pro-choice and anti-abortion activists — and the rhetoric on all sides seems to be escalating. Last week a lone voice on Capitol Hill revealed one possible reason: Facebook makes money by making you mad. Data scientist Frances Haugen went before a U.S. Senate subcommittee to warn the country that the algorithms designed by her former employer were "dangerous."
In plain language, and with reams of supporting documentation, Haugen explained how Facebook's machine-learning algorithms study the preferences of each individual user in order to select and deliver content customized to keep that person's attention. Unfortunately, the most compelling material is often the most divisive. That "engagement-based ranking," as she called it, "is pulling families apart. And in places like Ethiopia, it is literally fanning ethnic violence." In her opening statement to lawmakers, Haugen said, "I'm here today because I believe Facebook's products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy."
She left out that they also destroy local media. But I guess that's old news. Those of us who have lost ad dollars to Facebook won't shed a tear if it gets broken up, regulated or further exposed. In March I got an email from a local business owner who used Facebook exclusively to advertise his retail store. He had been locked out of his account, which needed updating, and couldn't get in touch with the company to report the problem. He had tried everything, he told me, and could not reach a human being.
Ironically, he was asking me for help. I couldn't resist pointing out: If he were advertising with Seven Days or any other Vermont media company, he'd surely get immediate assistance. And his dollars would support local news gathering rather than enrich Mark Zuckerberg.
In the end, it took congressional intervention to fix the guy's issue with Facebook. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch's office stepped in to reach a "liaison" at the company. By now, he and everyone else on Capitol Hill should know: The problem with this unbridled, profit-driven social media company is so much larger.
Which brings me back to our old-school letters to the editor. I edit each one for clarity, which involves contacting the author to verify identity and intent. This week, two writers asked me to remove the final sentence of their letters. One explained, "I wrote this 'off the cuff' so to speak, in a matter of seconds when I was commenting on FB and someone asked me to send it to 7 Days, so I did but ... I don't want to come across as confrontational."
Once you've made an inflammatory comment, it's hard to undo the damage. Maybe that lesson is finally starting to sink in.