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Tire Fire of the Vanities

With millions of blog posts published every day, it’s statistically inevitable that most of them will be bad. Some, however, are remarkable precisely because of just how truly bad they are. Case in point, this self-indulgent garbage published by WIRED earlier this week.

The article, which is apparently part of WIRED’s Ideas series, was written by Antonio García Martínez, a former Goldman Sachs employee who worked on Facebook’s early monetization team.

Beneath the arrogant, self-aggrandizing tone, the flowery language, and the half-baked freshman philosophizing, Martínez’s main point seems to be that poor, beleaguered billionaire Mark Zuckerberg has been treated very unfairly by those big meanies in the mainstream media — specifically, in its coverage of the recent congressional hearings into the Cambridge Analytica scandal that has engulfed Zuckerberg’s company.

So what sins are we self-servingly heaping on this poor billionaire’s head? What are we atoning for via this C-SPAN stoning?

As delighted as Martínez clearly was with this paragraph, it reveals just how flawed his argument actually is.

For one, there’s the not-inconsequential matter of the purpose of the hearings. Martínez seems to have missed the point entirely that the purpose of Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress was to account for the misdeeds of his company. Facebook knowingly permitted the personal data of more than 87 million people to be collected, stored, and used by a private company that boasted of its prowess at influencing elections — yet somehow, Zuckerberg is the real victim here.

Even if the entire endeavor were indeed nothing more than performative political theater, as many have argued, the hearings themselves were symbolic. The chief executive of a privately held company in the United States of America was summoned before Congress to explain himself and the actions of his company — a scenario of almost exquisite rarity. While few people expected any meaningful action or change to follow the hearings, that’s not the point. Zuckerberg had to appear before Congress, because he has to answer for the towering inferno of garbage his company has created. Assumptions of innocence or guilt are irrelevant.

Then there’s the matter of Martínez’s agonizing analogy of the sacrificial scapegoat. Martínez paints a very pretty picture:

The constant mimetic jousting in society creates tensions, which brings us to the second Girardian contribution: the scapegoat. The original narrative comes to us from Leviticus, where on Yom Kippur the high priest would heap the sins of the community on a sacrificial goat, which was then expelled and abandoned to die in the desert, presumably taking the sins with him.

The problem with Martínez’s comparison — aside from its staggering pretension— is that it conveniently overlooks the fact that the sacrificial goat sent to die in the desert for the sins of the villagers was innocent.

The extent to which Zuckerberg personally knew of Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook user data remains unclear. Sure, it could be nothing more than coincidence that Zuckerberg dumped almost $500 million worth of Facebook stock just weeks before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke — but it could just as easily have been a calculated decision by a chief executive who knew full well what was coming. Regardless, comparing Mark Zuckerberg to the sacrificial goat sent to die for the sins of the villagers is as intellectually fraudulent as claiming that Facebook is capable of policing itself in good faith.

Of course, we deserve to have our private data leaked to unscrupulous data brokers, according to Martínez, because it’s all our fault:

After one too many climate change denials or debunked viral conspiracy theories, we stare into the social media mirror this magical device creates and recoil in horror at the ugliness reflected there. Ultimately, however, we opt not to change ourselves or how we use the device, but to ritually stone the guy who built the mirror.

Social media does reflect the ugliness and toxicity of society in a broader sense, but it also helps spread and amplify that toxicity. Algorithms ostensibly designed to serve users with content that aligns with their interests help us share ideas with like-minded people, but they also invariably create ideological echo chambers. However, our complicity in the ideological schism that Facebook has widened does not excuse the actions of those who have made their fortunes from Facebook’s hubris.

The saddest part about Martínez’s essay is that when he isn’t writing like a high school sophomore with a brand-new thesaurus (Zuckerberg’s “incongruous” suit? Jesus Christ), he does make some valid points. The various members of Congress who led the hearings were no more equipped to question Zuckerberg effectively than they are to represent the interests and will of their constituents. Much of the current swamp we’re mired in is indeed of our own making. However, Martínez’s arrogance makes it very difficult to identify or even sympathize with his point of view:

Most of our nation’s legislators did not seem even vaguely equipped to ask the detailed technical and legal questions necessary to dissect Facebook and its creator, but frankly, neither does most of the journalistic chattering class. I often serve as a source on the vagaries of Facebook monetization, and the politicians’ questions were no dumber than those I’m regularly asked by working journalists. But again, this is all the beside the point. The skill of the stone-throwers matters little to the spectacle.

I’m sure the irony of a “writer” throwing proverbial stones at journalists just a few paragraphs before describing Zuckerberg’s suit as “incongruous” was not lost on many of my fellow stone-throwers. In this regard, I’d strongly disagree with Martínez — I think it’s clearly evident that the skill of the stone-thrower matters a great deal to the spectacle.

As a rule, I don’t typically single out other writers’ work. We’ve all written bad articles, and Martínez’s essay is just another terrible essay in a rising ocean of terrible essays. It’s no more surprising that somebody who helped Facebook monetize the minutiae of our private lives would publicly speak out in support of Mark Zuckerberg than it is that WIRED would publish an essay with all the literary and intellectual rigor of a grocery list. But when influential people use that influence to defend business practices that cause devastating harm in the pursuit of greater returns for shareholders — particularly in the context of executive accountability — all bets are off. Mark Zuckerberg is no more a scapegoat than he is a victim, and to claim otherwise is objectively baseless — something the writer (and the editor who approved this piece) should be intelligent enough to realize.

Sadly, it’s not hard to believe that WIRED’s editorial team saw fit to publish an essay with a central thesis so weak it wouldn’t pass a high-school English class, but here we are. Perhaps WIRED should include a disclaimer that it never specified its Ideas series would only feature good ideas.