Pluralistic: 25 Oct 2020

Today's links

Facebook threatens ad-transparency group (permalink)

Ad Observatory is an NYU project that enlists Facebook users to record the ads they see, building a database of the ads Facebook runs and to check whether Facebook is adhering to its own policies, for example, on labeling and limiting political ads

The project has been extensively used by journalists and transparency activists to hold Facebook to account for failing to live up to its own standards. It relies on a browser plugin that Facebook users choose to install to help with the transparency effort.

Facebook's dismal track record on advertising, combined with the urgent concerns about disinformation in paid political advertising in the runup to the 2020 election, are cause for alarm.

The company, however, sees it as cause for a legal threat.

Facebook has sent a legal threat to NYU demanding that they take down Ad Observatory and stop supporting the plugin (once again, this is a plugin that Facebook users choose to install specifically to hold the company to account).

Holy fucking shit, is that a bad look for Facebook.

I mean, even by Facebook standards, that is a bad look for Facebook. People and institutions across the USA are getting ready for pogroms and civil war 2.0 and Facebook's answer is to sic lawyers on its academic critics.

Facebook claims the plugin violates its terms of service, and while the company got its start by violating Myspace's terms of service and building tools to help its users import their Myspace messages to Facebook, they have since changed tunes.

In 2009, Facebook set US legal precedent by suing Power Ventures, a company that offered users a way to read their Facebook messages and messages from rival services in a combined inbox.

They said that breaking FB's terms of service was a violation of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a broad cybercrime bill passed in haste after a screening of Wargames panicked President Ronald Reagan, then in the early stages of dementia.

FB's legal threat against Ad Observatory builds on that groundbreaking precedent, but the facts here are very different. For starters, the precedent been largely overturned by Linkedin's failed bid to block a competitor called Hiq from scraping its listings.

But more importantly, FB is trying to suppress academic researchers who have revealed the company's indifference to upholding its own election disinformation policies from continuing to report on its misdeeds.

Here, FB is once again on thin legal ice. Last year, they suffered a stinging defeat in Sandvig v Barr, where the ACLU got a judge to say that the First Amendment interests of watchdogs trumped FB's terms of service.

NYU, to its credit, has publicly announced that they intend to wipe their asses with FB's threat.

Meanwhile, this is another reason for you to delete Facebook – and then write to your Member of Congress and ask them to direct the DoJ to break up that cancer of a company.

UPDATED The madness of elite varsity sports (permalink)

UPDATE: Since the publication of "The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents" by Ruth Shalit Barrett – the main article cited in this blog post – its publisher, The Atlantic has retracted it, with the following addendum:

Editor’s Note: After The Atlantic published this article, new information emerged that raised serious concerns about its accuracy, and about the credibility of the author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.

We have decided to retract this article. We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author, and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.

We draw a distinction between retraction and removal. We believe that scrubbing the article from the internet would not meet our standards for transparency, and we believe it is important to preserve access to the article for the historical record. We have decided to take down the online version but to make available a PDF of the article as it appears in our November 2020 issue.

We are sharing with our readers what we have learned so you may understand how we came to this decision. We have established that Barrett deceived The Atlantic and its readers about a section of the story that concerns a person referred to as “Sloane.”

The original version of this article stated that Sloane has a son. Before publication, Sloane confirmed this detail to be true to The Atlantic’s fact-checking department. After publication, when a Washington Post media critic asked us about the accuracy of portions of the article, our fact-checking department reached out to Sloane to recheck certain details. Through her attorney, Sloane informed us that she does not, in fact, have a son. We independently corroborated that Sloane does not have a son.

In explaining Sloane’s reasoning for telling our fact-checker she had a son, Sloane’s attorney told The Atlantic that she wanted to make herself less readily identifiable. Her attorney also said that according to Sloane, Barrett had first proposed the invention of a son, and encouraged Sloane to deceive The Atlantic as a way to protect her anonymity.

When we asked Barrett about these allegations, she initially denied them, saying that Sloane had told her she had a son, and that she had believed Sloane. The next day, when we questioned her again, she admitted that she was “complicit” in “compounding the deception” and that “it would not be fair to Sloane” to blame her alone for deceiving The Atlantic. Barrett denies that the invention of a son was her idea, and denies advising Sloane to mislead The Atlantic’s fact-checkers, but told us that “on some level I did know that it was BS” and “I do take responsibility.”

Sloane’s attorney claimed that there are several other errors about Sloane in the article but declined to provide The Atlantic with examples. Barrett says that the fabricated son is the only detail about which she deceived our fact-checkers and editors.

During the initial fact-checking process, we corroborated many details of Sloane’s story with sources other than Sloane. But the checking of some details of Sloane’s story relied solely on interviews and other communications with Sloane or her husband or both of them.

In reviewing the article again after publication, our fact-checking department identified several additional errors.

We identified the need to clarify a detail about a neck injury sustained by Sloane’s middle daughter, to be more precise about its severity. We also identified the need to correct the characterization of a thigh injury, originally described as a deep gash but more accurately described as a skin rupture that bled through a fencing uniform. And we identified the need to correct the location of a lacrosse family mentioned in the article: They do not live in Greenwich, Connecticut, but in another town in Fairfield County. Before this retraction, we noted and corrected these errors in the online version of the article on October 30.

Before that, on October 22, we noted and corrected another error in the story: The article originally referenced Olympic-size backyard hockey rinks, but although the private rinks are large and equipped with floodlights and generators, they are not Olympic-size.

We have also updated Barrett’s byline. Originally, we referred to her as Ruth S. Barrett. When writing recently for other magazines, Barrett was identified by her full name, Ruth Shalit Barrett. (Barrett is her married name.) In 1999, when she was known by Ruth Shalit, she left The New Republic, where she was an associate editor, after plagiarism and inaccurate reporting were discovered in her work. We typically defer to authors on how their byline appears—some authors use middle initials, for example, or shorter versions of their given name. We referred to Barrett as Ruth S. Barrett at her request, but in the interest of transparency, we should have included the name that she used as her byline in the 1990s, when the plagiarism incidents occurred. We have changed the byline on this article to Ruth Shalit Barrett.

We decided to assign Barrett this freelance story in part because more than two decades separated her from her journalistic malpractice at The New Republic and because in recent years her work has appeared in reputable magazines. We took into consideration the argument that Barrett deserved a second chance to write feature stories such as this one. We were wrong to make this assignment, however. It reflects poor judgment on our part, and we regret our decision.

Our fact-checking department thoroughly checked this piece, speaking with more than 40 sources and independently corroborating information. But we now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department. We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.

When I think of the last 40 years of neoliberalism, I think of a game of musical chairs, in which the music's tempo steadily increases, the number of chairs rapidly decreases, and the penalties for not having a chair become more ever-more cruel.

Movements for racial, gender and gender identity justice are a source of panic for the most precarious chair-chasers, because these movements increase the number of people who get to compete for chairs – but don't increase the number of chairs in play.

The wealthiest, most powerful people could mobilize their fortunes to secure chairs and for a long time, the game served them: the increasing desperation for chairs on the part of everyone else translated into ready access to toadies, jesters, bodyservants and courtesans.

But we're at the endgame. The number of chairs is trending to single digits. The world will soon boast one or more trillionaires. You can't amass a trillion dollars solely by raiding the pathetic reserves of poor people – you've gotta pauperize some billionaires.

The 2019 Varsity Blues scandal revealed the desperation of the chair-habituated mid-upper echelon, who had participated and benefited from the maintenance of a wildly unequal society but now saw that their kids would have no place in it.

It turns out that the Varsity Blues parents were amateurs. The real pros don't cheat their kids into sports-based elite college admissions – they destroy their kids to get sports-based elite college admissions.

Ruth S Barrett's feature in the current issue of The Atlantic exposes the jaw-dropping world of ultra-rich families' tormented children and their desperate, moneyball gambits to buy their way into sports scholarships.

It's a longread and worth your time, but here's a quick tldr: you've got kids whose parents move Olympians into their guest-cottages to train them in squash or fencing in private gymnasia on their sprawling estates.

They spend vast fortunes flying them around the country and the world competing. Children are exhorted by professional athletes to stab each other with fencing foils until they are at the point of collapse.

Then they're given a break to eat dinner out of a cooler toted by nannies who bark math problems at them. Their parents argue about whether to disclose their kids' multiple concussions to new coaches, and the kids grow up with long-term chronic sports-related disabilities.

And the thing is, the Ivies and Big Ten schools were already seeing through all of this before the pandemic. Even schools that really wanted to have a top lacrosse or water-polo team were savvy enough to understand that these kids had already peaked.

If you're 18 and performing in the 94th percentile after being trained for a decade by Olympians, nothing the school does will make you any better. How could they? If you want to find prodigies, pick undertrained kids who still perform competitively and polish them.

What's more, these kids are basket cases. They arrive at university with no grip on reality, no capacity for self-management or self-actualization. They spiral into substance abuse and mental health crises.

These sports admission programs often have their roots in an attempt to provide space at elite schools for poorer kids, especially kids of color (that was definitely the case with the USC football team when I taught there).

But the chair-having motherfuckers figured out how to buy these seats, too.

And why? Why destroy your kids' health and their sanity? Why watch as your adolescent daughter gets stabbed in the throat in a fencing competition and then re-enroll her in fencing?

Because the number of chairs trends to single digits. That's why you pay nannies to do oppo research on the kids your offspring competes against; it's why you pay dirty tricksters to bombard admission departments with dirt on kids competing with yours for a spot on the team.

All that was before covid: parents waking up and realizing that they were destroying their kids' life for a gambit that would probably fail, but doing it anyway because they knew that a world of trillionaires would leave the chairless grubbing for roots and insects.

And now the elite schools are simply getting rid of the teams these children have been optimized to play for, in a process that recognizes that they were just a way for the wealthiest, whitest plutes to buy their way in.

Hilariously, billionaire parents have responded by starting "urban" leagues for elite sports to create the appearance (if not the reality) that your fencing team might not be a back-door for the ex-CEO of American Express's progeny to attend an ivy.

While others are promising second-tier colleges that starting a water polo team will bring in a bunch of full-tuition kids who've been honed from birth to simulate one another's death by drowning. It ain't gonna work. Here's a telling quote:

"Sorry, but there’s no way in hell. What parent wants to have a child who’s going to be playing for a bottom-tier school with bottom-tier academics in the armpit of the United States? I want to be polite. But there’s no way in hell." -Water-polo mom from Stamford.

In Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty describes how the Age of Colonization ended primogeniture, whereby great fortunes were kept intact by passing inheritances solely to the eldest son, while other kids became spouses or clerics.

Colonial looting made it possible for the Great Families to bud off new fortunes for each of their offspring, for two or three generations. When they exhausted the world's supply of brown people to enslave and rob, that ended.

Plutes whose parents and grandparents' cohorts had each started a new fortune had to tell their own kids that the ride was over. But any system that has been in place since your grandad was a kid is effectively eternal and it was unthinkable that the eternal would end.

So the plutes decided that it wouldn't end. They would all get new fortunes, and since they'd exhausted the world's supply of poor people, they turned on each other. We call that fight World War I.

For 40 years, the world's wealth has been gathered into fewer and fewer hands, as oligarchy's musical chairs game has run faster and more vicious. Now, the chairs are tending to single digits.

Plutes are desperate. The idea that their kids would lead worse lives than theirs – an idea the rest of us have been expected to swallow for a quarter-century – is unthinkable.

So they're not accepting it. They are destroying their own kids in a bid to acquire one of the final chairs. Most of those kids will not get a chair, and the ones that do will be broken and shriveled things, stunted by a lifetime of abuse.

But it's not them I'm worried about. I'm worried about the kids that don't get a chair. Their parents were willing to torture their own kids from birth to get them a chair. When that fails, what will Plan B look like?

(Image: Wannapik, CC BY)

Bob Dylan sings a EULA (permalink)

The rise and rise of terms of service is a genuinely astonishing cultural dysfunction. Think of what a bizarre pretense we all engage in, that anyone, ever, has read these sprawling garbage novellas of impenetrable legalese.

And yet, there they are, looming over us, and, even more bizarrely, they are generally enforceable, even when they confiscate rights as basic as the right to sue over negligence or malice.

Terms of Service are "the biggest lie on the internet":

Qualitative findings suggest that participants view policies as nuisance, ignoring them to pursue the ends of digital production, without being inhibited by the means.

Many artists have attempted to awaken us from our slumbering acceptance of this outrageous practice. There's Dima Yarovinsky's 2018 "I agree," which printed out the ToS of popular services:

Before that, there was R Sikoryak's incredible "Terms and Conditions," which reproduced the entire Itunes ToS as a series of comics pages, each in the style of a different artist, with cartoon Steve Jobs uttering these unreadable words.

Today, I found a new treasure in the genre, Damien Slash's's impersonation of Bob Dylan singing a "standard user agreement." It is the most remarkable 34 seconds I've experienced since waking.

All of this is grimly hilarious, like mocking the official state religion.

This is probably a good opportunity to remind everyone of my standard email footer:

READ CAREFULLY. By reading this email, you agree, on behalf of your employer, to release me from all obligations and waivers arising from any and all NON-NEGOTIATED agreements, licenses, terms-of-service, shrinkwrap, clickwrap, browsewrap, confidentiality, non-disclosure, non-compete and acceptable use policies ("BOGUS AGREEMENTS") that I have entered into with your employer, its partners, licensors, agents and assigns, in perpetuity, without prejudice to my ongoing rights and privileges. You further represent that you have the authority to release me from any BOGUS AGREEMENTS on behalf of your employer.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Rand Paul supporters pin down and curb-stomp MoveOn activist – video

#5yrsago NSA spying: judge tosses out case because Wikipedia isn’t widely read enough

#1yrago How an usher at (and would-be star of) Hamilton organizes the women’s bathrooms during intermission

#1yrago Zuck claims he chows down with politicos from “across the spectrum” but they all seem to be far-right creeps

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Super Punch (, Jeremy B Merrill.

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 518 words (76615 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla