“Marianne Williamson debate: her rise is scary, not funny - Vox.com” plus 1 more
Posted: 31 Jul 2019 12:00 AM PDT
Self-help guru Marianne Williamson was the breakout star of CNN's first Democratic debate — at least if internet chatter and pundits are to be believed.
Williamson was the most-searched person on Google after the debate in 49 out of 50 states. CNN analyst and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm praised her "really compelling and authentic" answer on reparations, saying, "Honestly, I think she brought it." GOP pollster Frank Luntz tweeted that "she's cutting through the clutter tonight." A Washington Post article claimed she had "a big night," writing that she "used her limited time on the microphone to maximum effect, attracting attention for meaningful answers on race and Democratic ideology." Even current Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) singled out her "surprisingly eloquent answers" to some of the debate questions during his post-debate MSNBC appearance.
This all needs to stop.
Marianne Williamson is not a serious candidate for the presidency: She's a self-help celebrity who openly disdained policy debate onstage Tuesday night. Worse than that, she looms as a menace to public health — someone who has attacked antidepressants and vaccination in a manner that "can literally kill people," as my colleague German Lopez (who covers public health) put it. She has no business being on the debate stage; the more famous she gets, the more harm she can do.
The fact that a lot of media figures aren't recognizing this — that they're either celebrating her flashes of insight on issues like reparations for slavery or enjoying her kookiness — shows that they haven't fully internalized the lessons of Donald Trump's rise to power. Williamson is vanishingly unlikely to win, or even come close, but the amount of press attention she's getting is troubling. Even if public interest in her mandates some level of coverage, at least it could be more muted and skeptical than what we're seeing.
"As far as I can tell, Williamson has zero experience or expertise that would prepare her to effectively do the job for which she's auditioning, and that's terrifying to me," Seth Cotlar, a historian of the US at Willamette University, tells me. "It's fun to cover politics as a circus, because it often is a circus, but the stakes of what happens in DC are incredibly serious and have real consequences for people's lives."
The media has tremendous power to shape public discourse, to take fringe ideas and broadcast them to a much larger audience. The failure to recognize the responsibility that comes with this power helped Trump win the GOP nomination, and now it's helping popularize someone who can do real harm.
The case against Williamson
By background, Marianne Williamson is a celebrity self-help guru and religious figure. She became prominent in the 1980s and has since written seven New York Times best-sellers on self-help. She has been referred to as Oprah's "spiritual adviser"; Kim Kardashian said Williamson was "very inspiring" during the latter's failed 2014 congressional campaign.
None of this, as far as I can tell, has translated into the substantive policy knowledge necessary to hold any major public office, let alone the presidency. Here's the full text of one of her answers on health care from last night; it's extremely vague and hard to parse, but managed to at times banal and at other times deeply weird ("chemical policies?"):
Similarly, here's her answer to a question from the first debate about what she'd say to Trump if given the chance. Her pitch is that having policy ideas is bad and a waste of time, and only someone like her who can "harness love for political purposes" can beat him:
If Williamson were just an unqualified candidate arguing for the Democratic Party to prioritize her peculiar brand of psychology over policy, it would be merely embarrassing for the party to have her onstage. What makes her rise in profile potentially dangerous is the substance of what she says about her core issues of health and psychology, things that don't come up on the debate stage but are key parts of her public persona.
At a June campaign stop in New Hampshire, Williamson argued against mandatory vaccination, calling it "Orwellian" and "draconian." "To me, it's no different than the abortion debate," she said. "The US government doesn't tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child." She apologized for these comments in a subsequent statement, claiming she personally supports vaccination, but she has a long history of promoting skepticism on the subject (something Trump has done as well).
Anti-vaccine sentiment is easy to spread through social media and difficult to rebut once it takes hold. The more Williamson's views get attention, the more validation she gets, and the more likely it is that she'll contribute to the problem — convincing individual parents that it's okay not to vaccinate their children, which weakens herd immunity and makes outbreaks like the recent measles emergence in New York more likely.
Moreover, as the Washington Post's Gillian Brockell notes, Williamson has spread misinformation about illness more broadly. In her book A Return to Love, Williamson wrote that "sickness is an illusion and does not exist," and that "cancer and AIDS and other physical illnesses are physical manifestations of a psychic scream." She advised her followers that "seeing sickness as our own love that needs to be reclaimed is a more positive approach to healing than is seeing the sickness as something hideous that we must get rid of."
Elsewhere in the book, she insists that she's not saying people shouldn't take medication. But the upshot of these passages seems to be that people with cancer or AIDS can will themselves back to health. Williamson's denial "that I ever told people who got sick that negative thinking caused it" is hard to square with the quotes from her book, part of a habit of obfuscating and downplaying her worst statements when called on them during the campaign.
But the rhetoric that bothers me the most — on a visceral, personal level — is Williamson's repeated attacks on antidepressants.
Williamson has repeatedly cast doubt on the idea that clinical depression is real, calling the idea "such a scam" in an interview with actor Russell Brand and labeled antidepressants harmful, a cause of suicide rather than a cure for it. Here's a sampling of this rhetoric compiled by podcast host Courtney Enlow:
Williamson has apologized for the "scam" comment and tried to walk back some of the more heated tweets. She also argued that her issue is not with using antidepressants per se, which she claims to at times support, but rather with their overprescription of them.
But her rhetoric has for some time gone way beyond such reasonable concerns in a way that makes her walkbacks ring hollow. She has argued that antidepressants are often actively harmful, suggested that they caused Robin Williams and Kate Spade to kill themselves (there's no evidence for either claim), and has insinuated that Big Pharma is pushing antidepressants on Americans who don't need them.
Now, there is serious debate among mental health experts on just how effective antidepressants are and whether they're overprescribed. And Williamson is correct to say that people sometimes get diagnosed with depression when they're actually just sad, and that antidepressants aren't a cure-all for sicknesses of the soul. But her rhetoric has at times crossed the line into more pernicious territory, casting doubt on the value of taking such drugs altogether.
There's clear evidence that antidepressants can help at least some patients; a 2018 meta-analysis in The Lancet that surveyed 522 separate trials conducted on a total of 116,477 individuals confirmed that "all antidepressants were more effective than placebo." The trouble for patients with clinical depression is a lot of them don't want to get help: Mental illness is still stigmatized by a lot of people.
I know this is real because I've lived it. Starting around 2014, I started to suffer from clinical depression. Depression makes even the smallest effort, like calling a psychiatrist's office, feel like climbing Mt. Everest. Nothing seems like it will work; everything seems destined to fail.
I'm better now — not cured, but better. Medication helped me improve, and it helps me regulate to this day. But when I was really in the ditch, anything that fed what my depression was telling me — nothing you can do will make you better — would have erected another barrier to getting help. I didn't encounter Williamson-type arguments during my worst time, but it's easy for me to see how this kind of rhetoric could serve as depression's agent, worming into a depressed person's brain in a way that might cause them to avoid something that could literally save their life.
This isn't just my anecdotal experience but the view of actual mental health professionals. "Mental health experts say comments like [Williamson's] can increase stigma and make people less likely to seek treatment, even if that is not the intention," Maggie Astor writes in the New York Times.
Marianne Williamson isn't funny or charmingly weird — at least, not after you think about her for a bit. The effect her rhetoric could have on vulnerable people is scary.
The media's Williamson failure
Let's be clear about something: There's almost no chance that Williamson is going to win the Democratic nomination in the same way Trump won in 2016. She's not nearly as famous as Trump was, not polling well enough, and can't tap into base racial grievance the way Trump can.
But just because she won't win doesn't mean she can be treated as a funny sideshow.
When a presidential candidate gets massive media attention, there is always a surge of interest in what they think and believe. Their past writing gets read more, they get more chances to spread their ideas via America's biggest megaphones, and they can even parlay their post-candidacy notoriety into more impressive and high-profile positions.
What this means, in Williamson's case, is a greater opportunity to attract more followers and adherents to her worldview. It's not that she's bringing up her dodgy ideas about depression and vaccines in debates — at least not yet — but rather that all the people who are Googling her after watching the debate or reading a positive article about her performance are likely to encounter her old rhetoric for the first time. They'll hear her past lines about how it's okay not to get vaccinated, how "sickness is an illusion," and how antidepressants are dangerous and pushed on you by Big Pharma.
The more people hear these things, the more likely people are to believe them. The media's elevation of Williamson gives her a significantly greater set of opportunities to influence people's views on health in a potentially harmful manner.
This is irresponsible. I get that she's funny and kooky, and even sometimes says things that make sense (like the need to confront the emotional character of Trump's racial appeals). She's getting a lot of attention from the public, giving every media outlet — including Vox — an incentive to cover her. But none of that outweighs the potential damage she can do to real lives by giving parents license to skip vaccination or convincing a person with depression that they don't need to take their meds. Elevating Williamson, especially through favorable coverage, subtly mainstreams these views.
Even more fundamentally, it suggests that a lot of the mainstream media hasn't learned the lessons of 2016.
One of the key reasons that Trump was able to break from the GOP pack so decisively is that he absolutely dominated press coverage. His persona was undeniably entertaining, his substantive views equally offensive — both of which generated large TV audiences and clicks for news websites. One 2016 study found that Trump got nearly $2 billion in free media during the primary season alone, due to the inordinate press focus on him.
One of the media's cardinal failures in 2016 was giving Trump, an ignorant and dangerous candidate, far more attention than he deserved — because he was entertaining and almost no one thought he could win. What happened afterward is a lesson in American journalism's failure to appreciate the importance of its gatekeeping role in the country's political system.
Williamson is a test of what, exactly, the mainstream media has learned from the Trump debacle — and it's one that many are failing.
Posted: 14 Aug 2019 06:36 AM PDT
Disclaimers from the edge of the ethical rabbit hole
Humans crave ethics. Ethically-sourced. Ethically-raised. We're drawn to the idea of ethics because it gives us a framework to understand the impact of our existence.
Humans study moral philosophy whether they intend to or not. We use our judgments about the rightness or wrongness of actions as a foundation for making our own decisions.
The ethics we adopt help define us personally and as a society.
Faced with our limited imprint on time and vastness of existence, let's do what everyone does.
Let's Google it.
Hey Google, What's the Definition of Ethics in SEO?
If we expand out on this thought, there are some interesting nuisances.
Bots aren't "moral" devices. Neither are websites.
Each search engine has its own version of what is acceptable. Two search engines could have acceptable strategies or techniques that directly conflict. You only have one site.
Ethical SEO for one search engine would be unethical for the other.
This is where real-life humans come in.
Whatever decisions are made, the code will inherit their stands of good as bad. It will carry their blind spots and biases.
Every digital asset inherits the ethics and power of the business they represent, the individuals contributing code and commentary, as well as behavior patterns of their users.
This ethical imprint is in how we differentiate optimization from manipulation. Does this engine accept the practice?
Both involve research and code changes.
Structured data markup is a fancy tech term for slipping a search engine a cheat sheet. That cheat sheet would be approved by some search engines and not others.
Does structured data have moral value? It is an action and it has a consequence.
Creating a Human-Centric Definition of Ethics in SEO
In general, ethical questions don't have a right or wrong answer. Instead, it's about the thought experiment of taking a situation and holding it against a moral framework.
Plenty of theories, frameworks, and principles exist.
For the sake of brevity, let's look at the work of Immanuel Kant. He boiled down the ethical value of actions to a two-question framework.
If the answer to either of these questions is no, the action is unethical.
Code can't inherently decide whether to return a controversial app that allows Saudi men to control the movements of dependent women.
Is this app an example of modernizing misogyny or another form of relativism? The arguments for either side lead to deep rabbit hole full of human rights and technology that simply won't fit here.
Let's step back and take in a larger view.
If we use the same framework adopted in the definition of SEO, morality is relative to the guidelines. This app is relatively ethical to the Google Play store.
Apply Kant's framework.
Could we rationally will that others prioritizing actions relative to the guidelines that most benefit us?
In early 2019, TurboTax, a major tax U.S. tax service blocked search engines from indexing a page that would allow low-income users to file their federal taxes for free.
In business terms, they identified a low ROI audience (users making $34,000 or less, or are active duty military who earned $66,000 or less). It leveraged established brand recognition and cross-platform marketing messages to upsell.
The human consequences played like a bait and switch, if you searched for free federal tax filings, you landed on a page like this.
It's for a product known as the "Free Edition" and distinct from TurboTax Free File Program, which is part of the IRS's Free Filing Alliance. Despite the page's grandstanding, the user will pay $60-120.
ProPublica documented their experiments in creating various users. Each time, their faux tax filer would end up at the same dead-end requiring an upgrade before taxes could be filed.
You could argue that the practice targets military members and the economically disadvantaged. You wouldn't be alone. Lawmakers have openly challenged the company with the FTC and IRS.
The practice of using design and conversion pathing to coerce users to do something they didn't want to do is called dark patterning.
TurboTax used organic search as part of their strategy by adding robots noindex directives to the actual free tax service.
Only 3% filed using the free product – even though 70% of TurboTax's users are eligible for free filing.
Can I rationally will that everyone act as I propose to act?
Does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than merely using them for my own purposes?
Search Engines Are Imprints of Power
Websites and search engines are imprints of the ethics, biases, and norms of those with. Those that are successful become artifacts of power – or less somberly, brand recognition.
The longer that power endures, the greater its influence on culture and other developing technologies.
There's no better way to scale our ethical framework than to look at power and language.
In 2019, 54% of the internet is in English despite only representing 25% of users. The second most used language on the internet is Russian at 5.9% of all content.
That gap is so wide, it should have its own guided tours and gift shop.
That gap is so wide it impacts a lot of lives in ways we may not think of.
Language forms our reality. The words we use impact how we conceptualize the world.
When a new concept enters our vocabulary, we give it a name.
No better example of a well-seasoned SEO than seeing page view entered into the Merriam-Webster dictionary six months ago.
That absent definition did not phase us or impact our reality because we know what it means.
The phrase's transformation was powered by the digital community. Our language has the ability to adapt and welcome new concepts in.
Others are not so lucky. When new concepts and information aren't available in a language, it means fewer members of that society can engage or adopt them.
This is dangerous because some critical fields move at break next pace. Two such fields are medicine and technology.
When linguistic researchers studied an HIV prevention program sponsored by U.S. companies they found that over 80% of subjects in certain studies did not understand concepts such as placebo, randomization, and the ability to withdraw from research participation.
Can you ethically include a subject in a clinical trial who does not know what a placebo is?
The landing page for potential participants is indexed by Google and scores well for performance and SEO on web.dev. It's optimized and designed to bring in new users. At the time of this article, I was only able to find the content in English.
Kant would ask, "Does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than merely using them for my own purposes?"
Can we respect another human when asking they are consenting to an agreement they don't understand?
Translations, Cookies, & Communities
Can they agree to be tracked and remarketed to?
Do they know they might be given personalized content recommendations based on what they like? That the platform would what is free speech?
If your site hosts user-generated content, how can it address hate speech in a language no one on your team speaks?
Facebook's lack of oversight directly continued to the Rohingya refugee crisis. More than 70,000 people fled their homes. Here is Facebook's apology:
One could argue that platform growth without adequate translation or regulation has a larger societal impact than a translation budget.
A Translators Without Borders study details the impact of language on the European Refugee Crisis. Events requiring humanitarian organizations to step in are rarely polite enough to provide adequate resources and planning.
When thousands of asylum seekers are fleeing and the dust hasn't yet settled, the team adapts with their boots on the ground and a prayer in their pocket.
The best resource they have is being able to communicate to the humans impacted by war, disease, or disaster.
Not all migrants, asylum seekers, or refugees impacted by an event will speak the same language.
In a six-month space, 14,000 refugees arrived in Italy by sea from Nigeria – a country estimated to have 520 languages contained in its borders.
Knowing which languages and their respective percentage of the whole group could allow these teams to get the right translators and resources in place.
The study found that without objective information in their language, refugees relied on word of mouth and social media posts for critical information.
These refugees had internet access but couldn't find objective information in their own tongue. Imagine relying on a Facebook meme to get out of a war zone.
One could argue that engaging native speakers for content creation and community moderation is an ethical requirement for internationalization.
The human consequence of that ethical decision could mean picking a dusty and forgotten translation ticket out of the backlog and bringing it to sprint planning.
Paying for Rank by Mortgaging Trust
It's the ubiquity of search that gets us.
No official figures have been shared since 2012, but back then Google processes 40,000 search queries every second – even on an average lazy summer afternoon.
If search queries were snowflakes, we'd be buried in a blizzard we barely seem to acknowledge.
Users trust search engines because we believe they know the answers. They have the power to scour the web and the authority to sort out all possible answers.
SEO professionals are part of that process.
We nudge the system with better page titles and cleaner code to manipulate what answer is shown where and to whom.
We play with the fabric interconnected knowledge and fuss with the ubiquitous pillars of knowledge shoved in everyone's pocket. Isn't that oddly wonderful?
It also means we're on the front lines of the battle for user trust.
Freedom of Speech vs. Misinformation & 2020 Presidential Election
A user searching for [Joe Biden 2020] is likely interested in the presidential candidacy.
The SERP result directly below the candidate's real website is a "parody" site. It's the work of a consultant employed to make videos and other digital content for President Trump's re-election campaign.
This first-page parody put in the effort. While performance is painful, it nails a perfect 100 score on web.dev and an impressive 93 inaccessibility.
In the 2016 election cycle, we watched Facebook take the brunt of fake news backlash. Facebooks ads have a fast turn around.
As far as I know, no one has published data on the index coverage of these sites by Google.
Ranking beside your competitor for their branded query would be impressive for any SEO professional. I asked Twitter for stories from SEO professionals who've worked on political campaigns.
I expected to see tales of more wildly inaccurate news sites. Instead, SEO pros shared their stories of misinformation.
SEO Will Be Judged by Its Ethics Regardless of Whether We Talk About Them
I'm writing this now because we need to talk about it now.
SEO has gone from obscurity to established practiced and may be preparing for new levels of scrutiny.
Broken down, these presidential tweets assert:
These individual statements have to be aggregated with each unique person's understanding of the speaker's tone. It is not hard to read that unfavorable search results will be discredited.
If search loses credibility with users the most sanctimonious algorithm can stop digital strategies from triggering real-world consequences. Without a trusted source of truth, humans are more vulnerable to misinformation.
Ending the Critical Myth of an Unbiased Algorithm
Algorithms come in many flavors and all of them have biases.
Mix those initial blindspots with machine learning based on human interaction and you can conjure the worst in humanity. It took less than 24 hours for Microsoft's Twitterbot to morph from tween to filterless racist tirades.
These are learning pains that we have to acknowledge.
We need more languages ethnicities and gender identities represented on the teams building these tools. Failure to be represented could be catastrophic.
The lack of ethnic diversity in datasets for facial recognition software could play as out false identifications.
Facial recognition software in the U.K. has been highly criticized after it failed to include a "safeguard" (a.k.a. a set threshold that disqualified results under a matching threshold). Non-white subjects were more likely to be falsely identified.
Ethics requires that we step beyond our immediate environment. Disregarding users from datasets now can devalue or limit their contributions in future iterations.
"Works on my machine" is not an option.
Promote Transparency About Personalization
When you're only given back results you agree with, it impacts your perspective.
The code splits you into buckets. You become persona A or persona B.
The result of this false dichotomy is palpable.
What Is the New Definition of Ethics in SEO?
You were warned there would be no answers here.
As SEO professionals and all of tech have conversations, more resources are coming together.
You can check out the EthicalOS toolkit to learn about the major ethical risk zones and thought experiments to help future-proof your tech.
Apply an ethical framework to a proposed action.
Ask if we could rationally will that others prioritizing actions relative to the guidelines that most benefit us.
Create civil discussions about when human rights override relative guidelines.
By doing so, you would be exercising your self-agency. Good for you!
Chase that intentional moral choice by asking yourself: "When do human values override technological guidelines?"
Do ethics now have an order of operation?
There will never be a right answer, but you'll ask better questions every time.
All screenshots taken by author, August 2019
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