Are Tech Companies Responsible for Harassment on their Platforms?

Ibrahim.ID [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

So far the answer to that question is — No. According to a 1996 law that was originally passed to protect free speech, companies are not liable for speech on their online platforms — including harassment.

After repeated harassment and a restraining order against the dating app Grindr, one man is trying to change that. Matthew Herrick’s ex repeatedly created fake profiles of Herrick, sending men to his workplace and home expecting to hookup. The harassment continued even though the ex was not following Grindr’s terms of service, and Herrick got a restraining order against Grindr in which they were to take down all the fake accounts.  In 2017, Herrick filed a lawsuit against Grindr.

Grindr and other tech groups and companies are relying on the 1996 law to say they are not responsible for third party speech on their platforms.  Herrick’s attorney has turned towards product liability laws — saying Grindr is dangerous and built specifically to allow such harassment.

So, is Grindr responsible for the repeated harassment? Or do apps not harass people, people harass people?  Or is it something in between: should a person have legal recourse if a company doesn’t stick to its TOS?

Is the Politicization of Facebook Making Us More Partisan?

Regarding the claim that political deliberation leads to positive results, philosopher Jason Brennan writes,

In a comprehensive survey of the empirical research on democratic deliberation, political scientist Tali Mendelberg (2002, 154)  concludes that the “empirical evidence for the benefits that deliberative theorists expect” is “thin or non-existent”. Deliberation tends to undermine cooperation among groups (Mendelberg 2002, 156). When groups are of different sizes, deliberation tends to exacerbate conflict rather then mediate it (Mendelberg 2002 158). Status-seeking drives the discussion. Deliberators try to win positions of influence and power over others (Mendelberg 2002, 159). High-status individuals have more influence, regardless of whether the high status individuals actually know more (Mendelberg 2002, 165-7). During deliberation, people use language in biased and manipulative ways (Mendelberg 2002, 170-2). As Mendelberg concludes, “in most deliberations about public matters”, group discussion tends to “amplify” intellectual biases rather than “neutralize” them (Mendelberg 2002, 176, citing Kerr, MacCoun, and Kramer 1996).

…Mendelberg’s take on the empirical literature is not unusual. Other reviews of the extant political literature—including by people who favor deliberative democracy—find similar results (Landemore 2012, 118-19; Pincock, 2012). For instance, deliberation tends to move people toward more extreme versions of their ideologies rather than toward more moderate versions (Sunstein 2002). Deliberation over sensitive matters—such as pornography laws—often leads to “hysteria” and “emotionalism”, with parties to the debate feigning moral emergencies and booing and hissing at one another (Downs, 1989).

Relatedly, political scientist Diana Mutz’s (2006) empirical work shows that deliberation and participation do not come together. The people who are most active in politics tend to be Hooligans. Vulcans tend to stay home.

Mutz finds that being exposed to contrary points of view tends to lessen one’s enthusiasm for one’s own political views. Cross-cutting political exposure decreases the likelihood that a person will vote, reduces the number of political activities a person engages in, and makes people take longer to decide how to vote (Mutz 2006, 92, 110, 112-113). In contrast, active, participatory citizens tend not to engage in much deliberation and tend not to have much cross-cutting political discussion (Mutz 2006, 30). Instead, they seek out and interact only with others with whom they already agree.  When asked why other people hold contrary points of view, participatory citizens tend to respond that others must be stupid or corrupt.

Many political theorists advocate provide more meaningful opportunities for political participation.  Mutz, in effect, finds that the people most likely to take advantage of such opportunities are extremists and partisans (Mutz, 135-6).

Some might wonder, if deliberative democracy does not work, then what does? Unfortunately, the answer might be nothing.

While Mutz’s work finds that positive interpersonal interactions can increase political compromise, a new study suggests that online interactions do quite the opposite:

Social media sites like Facebook are often charged with increasing political polarization by establishing what are called “echo chambers,” places of discourse that prevent people from being exposed to things that contradict their beliefs. It is commonly believed that exposure to opposing opinions is a good thing, as it allows one to empathize with their interlocutors and see the merits of another point of view. A recent study published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences seems to imply the opposite though, increased exposure to opposing political views can actually increase one’s political polarization.

In the published study, the researchers first surveyed 2 large groups of Republicans and Democrats who were frequent Twitter users about a range of policy issues. Then they had each group follow Twitter bots that retweeted content from elected officials and public figures with opposing political views for one month. Afterward, the participants were surveyed again regarding their political opinions. What the researchers found was that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot expressed substantially more conservative opinions than before. Alternatively, they found that Democrats following a conservative Twitter bot expressed slightly more liberal opinions, although not to a statistically significant degree.

Such a study highlights the important (and potentially negative) effects that social media can have on political discourse. It is commonly touted nugget of wisdom that exposure to opposing political beliefs can temper one’s own, causing them to fall closer to the center of the political spectrum. In actuality, sometimes exposure to opposing opinions can have a “backfire effect”—where exposure to foreign ideas actually makes one hold their own ideas more strongly and can push one further to the ends of the political spectrum.

…The results indicated that liberals who had followed a conservative bot showed a slight increase in liberal attitudes, but not to any statistically significant degree. On the contrary, Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot showed a substantial increase in conservative political opinions. Of the Republican respondents who fully completed the ending survey, the researchers measured an average increase in polarization of .60 points, around .59 standard deviations. Even when controlled for both age, and for initial extremeness of position, the results stayed the same; Republicans had a much more pronounced polarizing reaction to exposure to opposing political opinions. Thus, it seems that this “backfire effect” is more likely to be seen and be more pronounced in Republicans than Democrats.

That’s disappointing, if entirely predictable.

Does Loneliness Lead to Pornography Consumption or Vice Versa?

According to a new study, the answer is “yes” to both:

Image result for shame laptop gifOur study suggests a close and painful partnership between pornography and loneliness for some users. From our survey of over 1,000 individuals around the world, we developed a statistical model that suggests an association between pornography use and loneliness, each increasing in tandem with the other. Each incremental increase in loneliness was associated with an increase in pornography use (by a factor of 0.16), and each incremental increase in pornography use predicted a significant increase in loneliness (by a factor of 0.20). While the magnitude of effects was small, they were statistically significant. Interlocking partnerships like this are worrisome since they represent an entrapment template associated with addiction—where the consequences of coping with loneliness through pornography use only increase loneliness, potentially locking the two in a self-fueling cycle.

If loneliness can lead to pornography use, and pornography use may bring about or intensify loneliness, these circular linkages may create a vicious cycle, pulling the user even further from health-promoting relationship connections. In the cultural context of emotionally-disconnected sexual hookups scripted by pornography, loneliness may deepen and become increasingly painful, yet in response, pornography use may only intensify.

While the gender gap in pornography use is closing, men still use pornography more than women, and married persons use pornography less than single persons. The fact that pornography use decreases after marriage may hint at a link between pornography, relational success, and loneliness. Are those who use pornography less likely to achieve relational success and marry? Or does relational success in marriage remove the loneliness trigger for pornography use—or both?

How do porn and loneliness work in tandem?

Image result for shame michael fassbenderPornography triggers the sexual system, providing a physical “feel-good” experience overshadowing negative feelings. Sexual arousal and climax offer a quick “feel-good” fix. Pornography also expands the sexual system’s escape through creating sexual anticipation, bringing a person “under the influence” of sexual arousal for as long as they care to be before acting out.

Additionally, the sexual system is biologically and neurologically tied to a relationship experience. The human sexual system is carefully designed to support both conception and bonding. First, there’s the physical pleasure of arousal, intercourse, and climax—the engine designed to ensure offspring. Then, after climax, partners experience the brain’s “love” plan for pair bonding, when oxytocin (or what researchers refer to as the “cuddle chemical”) is released, producing feelings of comfort, connection, and closeness. In the context of a caring attachment relationship, this release and “after-play” support emotional bonding.

When pornography is used to trigger the sexual system, the biology of the sexual system produces a false relationship experience, offering temporary “relief” from lonely feelings, but soon enough, the user again faces a real-world relationship void. That emptiness may trigger loneliness. Additionally, porn invites the mental fantasy of a relationship experience. Thus, the mind fantasizes and biologically the sexual system tricks the brain into imagining it’s having a relationship experience and can thus mask loneliness—but only temporarily. In this way, pornography exploits the sexual system but only tricks the brain for a while. The user can’t escape the fact that when the experience is over, they’re still alone in an empty room. So, when sexual intoxication wears off, the experience may only end up excavating a deeper emptiness—a setup for a vicious cycle. We hypothesize that this experience could create the potential for getting trapped in the short-term, feel-good escape of pornography joined with long-term loneliness.

Image result for shame crying gif…Recent scholarship suggests that pornography’s sexual scripts of eroticism, objectification, promiscuity, and misogyny (domination) are, on their face, fundamentally anti-relationship and anti-attachment and “conceptually linked to loneliness.” Pornography promotes an understanding of sexuality and relationships that is corrosive to connection because it doesn’t promote people, only parts. Hence, in the most intimate of circumstances, actual intimacy is elusive—because pornography doesn’t support or advocate emotional connection and whole relationships.

…In the recent research conducted with my colleagues, we raise the possibility of pornography use compulsivity or addiction, pointing to how pornography use fits this entrapment template. The potentially habitual “fix” of pornography may consist in using it to relieve loneliness (or other troubling emotions). The sexual system’s combination of two very different rewards—intense sensual gratification during arousal and climax, followed by oxytocin’s relief and comfort during the resolution period—could be thought of like a combined cocaine-valium experience and “hook.”

Sex therapist and friend Mark Bird lists pornography addiction as one of “ways people try to cope ineffectively: [one of] the negative symptoms associated with connective disorders.” The above research seems to back this claim.

The Value of the Internet

From The Economist:

Many economists believe that national accounts may underestimate the economic significance of technological innovations. Despite the advent of the internet, smartphones and artificial intelligence, the official value added by the information industry as a share of GDP has scarcely changed since 2000. What might explain this paradox?

Part of the problem is that GDP as a measure only takes into account goods and services that people pay money for. Internet firms like Google and Facebook do not charge consumers for access, which means that national-income statistics will underestimate how much consumers have benefitted from their rise.

One way to quantify how much these internet services are worth is by asking people how much money they would have to be paid to forgo using them for a year. A new working paper by Erik Brynjolfsson, Felix Eggers and Avinash Gannamaneni, three economists, does exactly this and finds that the value for consumers of some internet services can be substantial. Survey respondents said that they would have to be paid $3,600 to give up internet maps for a year, and $8,400 to give up e-mail. Search engines appear to be especially valuable: consumers surveyed said that they would have to be paid $17,500 to forgo their use for a year.


Recall the thought experiment put forth by The Washington Post: “Try this thought experiment. Adjusted for inflation, would you rather make $50,000 in today’s world or $100,000 in 1980’s? In other words, is an extra $50,000 enough to get you to give up the internet and TV and computer that you have now?”

Moral Outrage Online

In the most recent issue of Nature Human Behaviour, neuroscientist Molly Crockett suggests that “digital media may exacerbate the expression of moral outrage by inflating its triggering stimuli, reducing some of its costs and amplifying many of its personal benefits.”

Figure 1
Moral outrage is an emotion elicited by stimuli appraised as signifying moral norm violations. The subjective experience of outrage in reaction to such stimuli motivates the expression of behavioural responses such as gossip, shaming or punishment. Expressing outrage can lead to positive and negative outcomes for oneself and for society. Digital media may promote the expression of outrage by magnifying its triggers, reducing its personal costs and amplifying its personal benefits, while at the same time reducing its benefits for society.

She explains,

A recent study conducted in the US and Canada suggests that encountering norm violations in person is relatively rare: less than 5% of reported daily experiences involved directly witnessing or experiencing immoral acts. But the internet exposes us to a vast array of misdeeds, from corrupt practices of bankers on Wall Street, to child trafficking in Asia, to genocide in Africa — the list goes on. In fact, data from a study of everyday moral experience show that people are more likely to learn about immoral acts online than in person or through traditional forms of media…Research on virality shows that people are more likely to share content that elicits moral emotions such as outrage. Because outrageous content generates more revenue through viral sharing, natural selection-like forces may favour ‘supernormal’ stimuli that trigger much stronger outrage responses than do transgressions we typically encounter in everyday life. Supporting this hypothesis, there is evidence that immoral acts encountered online incite stronger moral outrage than immoral acts encountered in person or via traditional forms of media…These observations suggest that digital media transforms moral outrage by changing both the nature and prevalence of the stimuli that trigger it. The architecture of the attention economy creates a steady flow of outrageous ‘clickbait’ that people can access anywhere and at any time.

This could be a problem:

By increasing the frequency and extremity of triggering stimuli, one possible long-term consequence of digital media is ‘outrage fatigue’: constant exposure to outrageous news could diminish the overall intensity of outrage experiences, or cause people to experience outrage more selectively to reduce emotional and attentional demands. On the other hand, studies have shown that venting anger begets more anger. If digital media makes it easier to express outrage, this could intensify subsequent experiences of outrage. Future research is necessary to resolve these possibilities…[Online], people can express outrage online with just a few keystrokes, from the comfort of their bedrooms, either directly to the wrongdoer or to a broader audience. With even less effort, people can repost or react to others’ angry comments. Since the tools for easily and quickly expressing outrage online are literally at our fingertips, a person’s threshold for expressing outrage is probably lower online than offline…And just as a habitual snacker eats without feeling hungry, a habitual online shamer might express outrage without actually feeling outraged. Thus, when outrage expression moves online it becomes more readily available, requires less effort, and is reinforced on a schedule that maximizes the likelihood of future outrage expression in ways that might divorce the feeling of outrage from its behavioural expression.

So why the outrage?

[E]xpressing moral outrage benefits individuals by signalling their moral quality to others. That is, outrage expression provides reputational rewards. People are not necessarily conscious of these rewards when they express outrage. But the fact that people are more likely to punish when others are watching indicates that a concern for reputation at least implicitly whets our appetite for moral outrage. Of course, online social networks massively amplify the reputational benefits of outrage expression. While offline punishment signals your virtue only to whoever might be watching, doing so online instantly advertises your character to your entire social network and beyond. A single tweet with an initial audience of just a few hundred can quickly reach millions through viral sharing — and outrage fuels virality.

And while this outrage may “benefit society by holding bad actors accountable and sending a message to others that such behaviour is socially unacceptable,” for the most part

moral disapproval ricochets within echo chambers but only occasionally escapes. Second, by lowering the threshold for outrage expression, digital media may degrade the ability of outrage to distinguish the truly heinous from the merely disagreeable. Third, expressing outrage online may result in less meaningful involvement in social causes, for example through volunteering or donations. People are less likely to spend money on punishing unfairness when they are given the opportunity to express their outrage via written messages instead. Finally, there is a serious risk that moral outrage in the digital age will deepen social divides. A recent study suggests a desire to punish others makes them seem less human. Thus, if digital media exacerbates moral outrage, in doing so it may increase social polarization by further dehumanizing the targets of outrage.

She concludes,

The framework proposed here offers a set of testable hypotheses about the impact of digital media on the expression of moral outrage and its social consequences…Preliminary data support the framework’s predictions, showing that outrage-inducing content appears to be more prevalent and potent online than offline. Future studies should investigate the extent to which digital media platforms intensify moral emotions, promote habit formation, suppress productive social discourse, and change the nature of moral outrage itself. There are vast troves of data that are directly pertinent to these questions, but not all of it is publicly available. These data can and should be used to understand how new technologies might transform ancient social emotions from a force for collective good into a tool for collective self-destruction.

Lay off the outrage porn.

Image result for outrage porn

Regulation vs. Innovation

AEI’s James Pethokoukis has a nice little blog post on the negative effects of ill-conceived regulation:

So I very much liked a Mercatus study last year finding US economic growth has been slowed by an average 0.8% per year since 1980 due to the cumulative effects of regulation. Also a favorite of mine: A 2013 study from economists John Dawson of Appalachian State University and John Seater of North Carolina State University, Federal Regulation and Aggregate Economic Growth, that estimates the past 50 years of federal regulations have reduced real GDP by roughly two percentage points a year, or nearly $40 trillion. Both studies show pretty sizable effects from smarter regulation or deregulation.

He points to new articles at Reason and National Affairs demonstrating that the Federal Communications Commission limited tech advancement, including cell phones. As economist Thomas Winslow Hazlett writes in his Reason piece,

Image result for cell phoneWhen AT&T wanted to start developing cellular in 1947, the FCC rejected the idea, believing that spectrum could be best used by other services that were not “in the nature of convenience or luxury.”…  A child conceived at the same time as cellular would have been 37 years old by the time the first commercial cellphone—Gordon Gecko’s $3,995 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X brick—was released onto the market. Once the blockage was cleared, progress popped. Soon, the science fiction vision of the Star Trek communicator was reality.

Check them out.

“Why We Post” Project


The Economist reported on a new project titled “Why We Post” that “refute[s] much received wisdom” regarding the use of social media:

  • Selfies: Are selfies guilty of “fostering self-regard and an undue focus on attractiveness”? “In Italy girls were indeed seen to take dozens of pictures of themselves before settling on one to post. In Brazil many selfies posted by men were taken at the gym. But at the British site, Dr Miller found, schoolchildren posted five times as many “groupies” (images of the picture-taker with friends) as they did selfies. Britons have also created a category called “uglies”, wherein the purpose is to take as unflattering a self-portrait as possible. And in Chile another unique genre has developed: the “footie”. This is a shot taken of the user’s propped-up feet, a sign of relaxation.”
  • Memes: Do memes “debase traditional forms of public debate…spreading far and wide with little context”? “In India they tend to focus on serious and religious issues; Trinidadian memes are more often send-ups of politicians. Yet in all cases Dr Miller sees meme-passing not as limiting what social-media users think and say, but as enabling discourse. Many users happily forward memes laced with strong ideological messages about which they would not dare to comment individually.”
  • Image: Are profiles “false fronts designed for the medium at hand”? Trinidadians “see online profiles as more representative of a person’s true self even than what is seen in real life. And, though the perceived loss through social media of the anonymity that once characterised online life causes much hand-wringing in the West, young boys and girls in Turkey see things differently. Social media permit them to be in constant contact with one another, in full view of their parents, but to keep their conversations and photos to themselves.”
  • Distraction vs. Education: “In rural China and Turkey social media were viewed as a distraction from education. But in industrial China and Brazil they were seen to be an educational resource. Such a divide was evident in India, too. There, high-income families regarded them with suspicion but low-income families advocated them as a supplementary source of schooling. In Britain, meanwhile, they were valued not directly as a means of education, but as a way for pupils, parents and teachers to communicate.”

The project “refutes the idea that social media are making humans any less human…The sceptics’ reaction to new technology seems equally deep-rooted. New means of communication from railways and the telegraph onwards have always attracted critics. Sooner or later, the doubters either convert, or die.”

The Health Benefits of Nuclear Power

Image result for chernobyl diaries

Science writer Ronald Bailey has a brief write-up on some of the research regarding nuclear power and health outcomes:

A 2015 recent analysis by Israeli researcher Yehoshua Socol in the journal Dose-Reponse reconsiders the health consequences of the the Chernobyl accident. Socol argues that using even the most conservative linear no-threshold hypothesis to calculate cancer risk cannot distinguish any increase above normal background rates of cancer incidence and mortality. Assume 50,000 cancer deaths would result from Chernobyl’s radiation. Socol notes, assuming current mortality rates, that over the next 50 years some 50 million people (plus or minus 2.5 million) will die of cancer in developed countries. Given the annual uncertainty of 50,000 deaths per year, it would be impossible to detect what number, if any, of those deaths can be attributed to exposures to Chernobyl.

Socol concludes that “unlike the widespread myths and misperceptions, there is little scientific evidence for carcinogenic, mutagenic or other detrimental health effects caused by the radiation in the Chernobyl-affected area, besides the acute effects and small number of thyroid cancers. On the other hand, it should be stressed that the above-mentioned myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation caused, by themselves, enormous human suffering.”

A fascinating December 2015 study by European researchers in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres asked what would the health consequences to Europe if the continent had closed all of its nuclear power plants and switched to coal-fired generation between 2005 and 2009? They calculated that there would have been an increase of around 100,000 premature deaths annually owing to increased air pollution (most of them due to cardiopulmonary illnesses). If these calculations are correct, the number of deaths attributable to coal would have been three times higher than even the worst-case Chernobyl cancer scenario being pushed by activists. If the WHO’s estimates are right, coal kills at more than 1,000 times the rate of Chernobyl radiation.

Chernobyl was bad enough, but exaggerating its effects to further an unscientific campaign against nuclear power is ethically sleazy and may have the unintended consequence of killing more people than the activists claim they want to save.

There’s Hollywood, then there’s reality.

High-Skilled Immigrants and Innovation in US History

How important have high-skilled immigrants been to innovation in US history? According to a recent study,

Medical inventions (e.g. surgical sutures) accounted for the largest share of immigrants, but this category produced just 1% of all US patents. However, immigrants were also active in chemicals and electricity – two sectors that had a particularly large effect on US economic growth, accounting for 13.9% and 12.6% of all US patents, respectively. Noticeably, immigrants accounted for at least 16% of patents in every area. This evidence suggests that their impact on inventive activity was widespread.   

[The graph below] also shows that the majority of immigrant inventors originated from European countries, with Germans playing a particularly prominent role. This is consistent with the findings of Moser et al. (2014) who show that German-Jewish émigrés who fled the Nazi regime boosted innovation in the US chemicals industry by around 30%. Today the closest analogue to these high-impact individuals would be inventors of Indian and Chinese ethnic origin who make substantial contributions to the development of innovation clusters in areas like Silicon Valley (Hunt and Gauthier-Loiselle 2010, Kerr and Lincoln 2010).

The researchers

constructed a measure of foreign-born expertise, which multiplies the share of each country’s patents granted in a given technology area between 1880 and 1940 (as a measure of proficiency) by the number of immigrants from that country in the 1940 Census (as a measure of how intensely that proficiency diffuses to the host country).

We find that technology areas with higher levels of foreign-born expertise experienced much faster patent growth between 1940 and 2000, in terms of both quality and quantity, than otherwise equivalent technology areas. Although we do not identify a causal relationship, our quantitative evidence can be used alongside qualitative evidence to highlight two areas where immigrant inventors may have acted as catalysts to economic growth: through their own inventive activity and through externalities affecting domestic inventors.

Immigrant inventors were responsible for some of the most fundamental technologies in the history of US innovation, which still influence our lives today. For example, Nikola Tesla, who was born in Serbia, worked in America on alternating current electrical systems; the Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell was instrumental to the development of the telephone from a workshop in Boston; Swedish inventor David Lindquist, while living in Yonkers, New York, assigned his patents relating to the electric elevator to the Otis Elevator Company located in Jersey City, New Jersey; and Herman Frasch, a German-born chemist, worked in Philadelphia and Cleveland on techniques which are analogous to modern fracking.

In short, the evidence suggests that “immigrant inventors were of central importance to American innovation during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the migration of high-skilled inventors to the US involved some costs, immigrant inventors contributed heavily to new idea creation, through both their own work and collaboration with domestic inventors. Our evidence aligns with the view that growth in an economy is determined by its ablest innovators, regardless of national origin. The movement of high-skilled individuals across national borders therefore appears to have aided the development of the United States as an innovation hub.”