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raceAhead: Zuckerberg’s Apology Is Not Enough

October 12, 2017, 7:10 PM UTC

Mark Zuckerberg was forced to apologize on Tuesday after live-streaming a video of himself taking a voyeuristic virtual reality tour of post-hurricane Puerto Rico.

A cartoon avatar version of Zuckerberg, accompanied by a cartoon version of Rachel Franklin, a member of Facebook’s virtual reality team, appeared embedded into a 360-degree video of the ravaged island. While some of their conversation touched on the company’s efforts to help, the true purpose of the video appeared to be to show off the “amazing” new Facebook Spaces, a product that allows users to create a 3-D virtual avatar of themselves to use with an Oculus Rift headset.

“One of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality, is you can get the feeling that you’re really in a place,” said Zuckerberg, while virtually standing in a place without electricity, potable water, food, a rising death toll and growing rates of deadly and preventable disease.

He responded swiftly to the immediate outcry. “One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world. I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery,” said Zuckerberg. “Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”

I think that Zuckerberg is sincere in his apology and believes in the empathy-scaling potential of VR. And I’m clear the company is doing plenty of other helpful-sounding things, like donating over $1.5 million to Puerto Rican relief efforts and using artificial intelligence to better help aid workers.

But the problem isn’t about messaging. It’s about prioritizing product while erasing people. What ends up scaling is something else entirely.

Of course, it’s not just Facebook. We’ve see it time and time again throughout history: Cars designed to optimize the safety of men at the expense of women; algorithms that bake biases into the criminal justice system; film that can’t see black people; and now technology platforms that allow the president of a country to say untrue and inflammatory things without penalty, but routinely blocks the accounts of advocates and activists.

The disconnect between celebrating a “shiny new thing” and understanding the potential negative impact the thing can have on people who haven’t been fully considered is more than an empathy gap. It’s a global emergency.

In an extended interview published today with Mike Allen, co-founder of Axios, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg was unable to answer definitely whether Facebook was a media company, but did concede that the Russian-financed ads and “fake news” on Facebook were a completely “new threat” and that “things happened on our platform that shouldn’t have happened,” before the 2016 election.

Though I fully appreciate all the things that Facebook does right, in no universe I’m aware of is propaganda a new development and I’m having a hard time understanding how this type of predictable mischief could have been overlooked or ignored. We need a better sense for how the technology that dominates the way we communicate behaves and a real plan for holding it accountable.

In a complex world, not everything needs to move fast if what gets broken is us.


On Point

About Eminem’s rap battle with the current president…It was initiated by rapper Marshall Mathers (Eminem) on Tuesday’s BET Hip Hop Awards broadcast, and it was as concise a commentary on politics, guns, and race as any pundit has delivered in more traditional formats. But, it was also a challenge. “And any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his, I’m drawing in the sand a line,” raps Eminem. “You’re either for or against.” As ThinkProgress astutely points out, “Eminem is the most popular artist in a heap of red states, including Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.” The BET platform is a major one, and Eminem is clearly not afraid of losing fans in conservative zip codes. Even if you’re not a hip-hop fan, Eminem’s freestyle is worth watching. For more analysis, watch this segment from MSNBC’s Ari Melber’s who brings together one of the most delightfully diverse panels ever. Really.Think Progress

Reporting the atrocities experienced by Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar
The world can be a terrible place. But for the Rohingya Muslims, one of the most persecuted people in an already terrible world, the stories of massacres, gang-rapes and other atrocities emerging from Myanmar and refugee camps in Bangladesh, are particularly horrific. And it’s still happening. It’s a largely under-reported story as Myanmar is not allowing the United Nations to investigate, but this piece from the New York Times aims to remedy that. It is a very difficult, but essential read.
New York Times

Professional women of color are ambitious and going it alone
This story from The Wall Street Journal confirms what many of you already know: Women of color have senior leadership aspirations but aren’t getting the support they need to get there. Blind spots at the management level are partly to blame. “Black women are most likely to say they don’t have interactions with top bosses, and only 23% say managers help them navigate organizational politics, compared with 36% of white women,” according to a new study from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey. 
Wall Street Journal

The Woke Leader

As a father of daughters, I implore you to stop hurting the females, at least for a minute
"I’m a father of daughters, I don’t condone this behavior…” has become the new “thoughts and prayers,” a largely empty phrase in the face of disturbing news that needs a real response. The most recent allegations of sexual harassment and assault leveled at Harvey Weinstein have brought out a slew of “as a father” statements, an empty gesture of allyhood that reflects, in a literal way, the essence of patriarchy. I direct you now to the great Mallory Ortberg, who has written an outstanding parody of an “as a father,” outrage missive. Taken to its comical conclusion, we can see it for what it is.
The Toast

Why promising kids don't make it to college
An alarming number of low-income students – up to 30% — make it through high school and are admitted to college, but never make it to freshman orientation. This thoughtful piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education helps to explain why. “[W]atch students’ lives unfold up close, and you’ll see a mesh of circumstances as complex as the students themselves.” The reasons are more than financial, there are often thorny issues of identity to parse and complicated relationships with parents and other family members. This story follows two exceptional high school grads, Ramon Alfaro and Marisol Perez, in the perilous weeks before college begins. A nailbiter, well worth your time. (Subscription required, sorry.)
Chronicle of Higher Education

Let’s talk about Irish slaves
One of the most persistent racist myths cited by white supremacists involves Irish slavery and the intentional conflation of Irish indentured servitude with race-based, hereditary chattel slavery in the U.S. Its value as a meme and tactic can be summed up quickly: “The Irish got over it, what’s your problem, black people?” Liam Hogan, an Irish librarian, historian, and a truly heroic debunker of racist propaganda has collected two years of his work de-bunking the Irish slave meme, and even includes a geo-tagged map of Facebook users who have shared “Irish as slaves” misinformation. There are 39 articles, hundreds of citations and a full exploration of the meme on social media and neo-Confederate sites. Even if you don’t read it all, just click through to savor this man’s dedication. Mo sheacht mbeannacht ort, Mr. Hogan.


I’m seeing body after body and our mayor Giuliani / Ain’t tryna see no black man turn to John Gotti / My daughter use a potty so she’s older now / Educated street knowledge, I’ma mold her now / Trick a little dough buying young girls fringes / Dealing with the dope fiend binges, seeing syringes / In the veins, hard to explain how I maintain / The crack smoke make my brain feel so strange.
—Notorious B.I.G.