Thoughts on “We elected Trump because of Facebook” argument

Summary: Nope. That’s way overstating the impact of social networking sites, and way understating the intelligence of the people who use them. The biggest problem: generating connections and empathy between disparate users.


We don’t live in a world were we are exposed solely to the information cocoon of our Facebook friends, unless you never leave your house, turn on the TV, or talk to other human beings. For instance, I doubt very much that people widely believed that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring or that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump. If anything, so called “fake news stories” (read “lies”) nudge us in the same fashion as the National Inquirer, a publication no one believes (except for Trump); if you don’t like the person to begin with, you maybe like him/her fractionally less after reading “fake news.”

“But,” you say, “the BuzzFeed story said that anywhere from 20 to 38 percent of news on Facebook was ‘fake’ in one way or another.” Agreed, but here’s a rebuttal: people get hundreds of emails a year advertising “Canadian Pharmaceuticals” and “Sexy Asian Singles In Your Area” and “Why Global Warming is Fake,” but I doubt many are seriously investigating these possibilities. Just because someone clicks on something doesn’t mean they accept it as the truth, and it doesn’t mean they’re a rube who can’t tell the difference between bullshit and reality.

Facebook has a couple of problems on their plate right now. Problem one goes like this: they’re showing us things that we want to see in order to get us to click on more shit at the expense of showing us things we should probably know but maybe don’t want to see. That problem is bad, but not as bad as problem two: we aren’t learning very much about each other as a result of social networking sites, suggesting that these sites build little to no consensus or empathy. Rather than shit kick FB for failing to manually disambiguate so called “fake news” (we were all screaming for algorithms to control Trending Topics six months ago), we should think about the real problems posed by social networking sites, mainly that they aren’t doing a very good job of connecting us as a country.

Problem one

The underlying technological issue behind problem one presents itself if, by chance or choice, you click on a “fake news” story (or any other link, for that matter). Upon returning to your feed, you will be presented with the lamentable “People Also Shared” option that force feeds you more of the same (which you presumably click on). That leads to the inevitable worry: “If you see an argument enough, it starts to look true.” That’s a problem, but it’s a social problem not inherent to Facebook.

Rather than talk about an article on FB, we’re all more apt to fall into the “spiral of silence,” where we use the site to post news articles to an audience of our choosing (FB friends) that are representative of what we think, but we don’t particularly want to have a debate. Nor do most people actively seek out their ideological opposites to get their opinions. Instead, if something is possibly going to cause offense or even trigger a negative comment, we self censor. Hence, we end up reading a lot of repetitive things that possibly influence our thinking, but we don’t share our opinions (e.g. the so called “white silence”). In that way, problem one can cause a chilling effect, but I don’t see Facebook fixing that one by adding a self-flagellation icon for staying silent on a social issue, so I’ll defer that to the end of this post where I talk about hard things to fix.

What about the “if you see it enough it becomes true” argument? The underlying problem is that many of us are not trained or under-equipped to critically evaluate information we encounter on the internet. When we search, we look at the first page of results (at best), and if they conform to our assumptions, we accept it despite knowing that search results = algorithm + harvested personal data. When we look at product reviews, we go for the “most helpful,” ignoring potential manipulations from strategies like “sock puppeting” or “astroturfing” (phony reviews or comments made by the person hocking the product). We miss a lot of information that could otherwise be very useful. Also, search activities = relative individual worth + available time.

As a side note, I have observed one activity that transforms an average citizen into the grittiest of investigative reporters: saving ten bucks on a hotel. Maybe we should fine people ten bucks for re-posting a “fake news” article (sadly, it would put The Onion out of business, although by the above logic that may be a valuable service, especially for those confused over whether Kim Jung Un is the sexiest man alive).

I saw a suggestion that Facebook should discontinue the news feed and change the formatting on bogus stories, presumably to make them look “faker” than “real news” stories. I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference between the fake celebrity magazines and the real ones at the grocery store, but I just assume they’re all horseshit and proceed about my business.

No, it’s not Facebook’s job to search out “fake news” and reformat it. Nor is it their job to teach us to critically evaluate an article entitled “The Satanic Connection Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Want Anyone to Talk About” (actual website, by the way). It’s up to our educators to do a better job training the next generation to be skeptical about what they read, especially when it’s only what they want to hear. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but in my experience as an educator, young folks are doing a lot better than the OG in terms of filtering out the bullshit on the internet.

Problem two

Problem two is the underlying social and technical problem that will consume the next decade: How do we get people to connect to people outside of their own social circle, and how do we teach people to voice their opinions even when they are unpopular? I’m not sure you can change a platform like Facebook to make that happen, but I have some suggestions:

  • Optionally suggest a friend connection with one random person per month. You don’t need to force it on people, but put in a suggestion other than Mark Zuckerberg (I mean, Jesus, how many friends do you want, Mark?).
  • Promote some random posts into the news feed. Maybe even make them bulletproof by stripping the name of the person posting. Just let people see what others are thinking.
  • Instead of promoting narcissistic behaviors (selfies, FB Live, etc.) through the design of the platform, find a way to use it to build connections and empathy, maybe even hooking people up who want to debate issues and adding a moderation feature.

Every social networking site can’t do everything, so you can’t just kluge together a bunch of other features, but you can promote more inclusive behaviors among members instead of endlessly remixing content in their own personal information cocoons. Isolation leads to polarization, and polarization leads to a loss of empathy. A path to the dark side that is.


To conclude, I’m usually the first to kick the shit out of Facebook for everything, but let’s stop it with the whole “Facebook cost Hillary the election.” Just like our false belief in polling and statistics combined with our inability to connect and empathize with our fellow citizens, Facebook is one problem among many.

On why Ventra is a problem (and my experience with it)

ventraslide1Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know that the Chicago Transit Authority has privatized their fare collection system with Ventra, which is a subsidiary created to manage the fare collection for Chicago but is really owned by a larger company, Cubic Transportation Systems. According to Cubic, the CTA agreed to a $454 million, 12-year contract for Ventra to provide fare collection on CTA busses and trains.

Some background

I am generally against long-term privatization deals for the administration of public services since private companies are not in the business of providing good service at the expense of their own profits. Public sector (essentially non-profit) work is not in the interest of corporations in the capitalist model; pleasing shareholders with steady investment returns is.

The predominant line of thought in politics in the City of Chicago seems to be that private companies can perform services formerly paid for by taxpayers for a great deal less money. The oft-cited benefit is that such a model provides “savings” to the taxpaying public, but what does “savings” really mean? Where do those “savings” go?

One would typically think that in a balanced budget, any savings on public services would return to the taxpayers in the form of a tax refund or reinvestment in the interest of improving public services. The problem is that Chicago runs a large budget deficit (approximately $339 million for FY2014), which invariably means that savings to taxpayers are used in the part of the calculation which reduces said deficit and doesn’t necessarily return to the taxpayers in any tangible form. The CTA is no different, except that their budget deficit is much smaller proportionally than the city’s and they do not (for the most part) run on taxpayer support (52% of their operating funds for FY2013 will come from system-generated funds as opposed to a relatively modest 48% public contribution).

Thus, fare collection is really the CTA’s rice bowl: without efficient fare collection, they are sunk. For years, the CTA relied on the hybrid Chicago Card system (which used touch cards [similar to credit cards but without numbers] loaded with money either online or at pay kiosks at train stations) and temporary use plastic cards with magnetic stripes that must be inserted into slots in a pay station on a bus or at a train station, and are only rechargeable at said pay kiosks. If those options didn’t appeal to you, however, you could purchase passes for short durations (e.g. one day or three days) as plastic mag-stripe cards, or longer passes (e.g. thirty days) as automatically loaded values to your Chicago Card. This was admittedly clunky, as there were two systems that needed two different fare collection infrastructures to work (touch or insert). Also, those temp plastic cards, lost with value on them, were gone forever (like lost cash) with no way of retrieving that value.

According to the CTA 2013 Budget, they were also facing the fact that their fare collection system was “at the end of its useful life” and would need to be replaced. This left them with a choice that has plagued the City of Chicago on two notable occasions (namely the Skyway tollway and the parking meter system): come up with money to upgrade the infrastructure by raising revenue or find a way to lease the system to a private corporation that will front the money to upgrade the system, yet will retain control and extract a significant profit over a term of many years in exchange for accepting the responsibility of maintaining that system. The city made that decision in extreme, leasing the Skyway tollway and the parking meter system, and all subsequent toll/fee collections, for extended periods (99 years and 75 years, respectively) in exchange for large cash payouts ($1.83 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively). Sadly, the combined $3.02 billion has been frittered away in filling budget gaps in subsequent years. Thus any “savings” that were accrued through these leases did little public good, as they were just stopgap kindling to keep the smoldering fire that is Chicago’s operating budget from dying out.

ventraslide2The CTA took a bit of a different route with Ventra. Rather than take a massive cash infusion, the CTA would pay no money up front to have Cubic update their fare collection infrastructure. Rather, the CTA would pay an indecipherable amount to Ventra each of the contract years (the amount is lumped in with “other expenses” on their budget statement), supposedly up to $454 million over the twelve-year life of the contract.

For 454 million dollars, customers will get the opportunity to pay with a card that is almost identical to the Chicago card in every way, however it can also function as a prepaid debit card. Likewise, you can use any major credit card with an RFID chip to pay. You can purchase a temporary card with cash as well at a payment kiosk, but you cannot pay with cash or an “into-the-slot” card (they are all touch cards using RFID now). There are some major downsides to these payment options that I will explain shortly, but this is a slight improvement in terms of streamlining payment.

On the other side of this equation is how much it would have cost the CTA to implement a new payment system themselves. That is an unknown, and seems to have been studied only to determine a “savings” amount (estimated in the FY2013 budget statement as $50 million over the 12 years). It’s worth noting that Cubic is not an Illinois company and it’s unclear how their takeover impacts the CTA labor market (I wonder who is servicing the fare collection devices? I could not find out if it is the same workers who serviced kiosks prior to the agreement).

Ventra will undoubtedly affect low-income persons disproportionately. There is a non-refundable 50 cent feel associated with temporary “Ventra Tickets” purchased at rail station kiosks (replacing the mag-stripe cards). 1-day and 3-day passes (typically used by low-income patrons and tourists) are only available when you register for a Ventra card, and can no longer be purchased at rail stations or retailers (like grocery stores). Likewise, there is a predatory effort to get users to deposit their paychecks into the Ventra operated MetaBank, which charges users additional fees for almost anything you can imagine and was fined for deceptive lending practices.

According to the CTA, users will also have the convenience of paying with smartphones. However, it’s really unknown why or how that will be more convenient than using a plastic card. I suppose if you had forgotten your wallet and only had your phone, this might be handy provided you took the numerous steps to link your prepaid account to your phone. Likewise, you can use any major contactless debit/credit card to pay your fare, but with a caveat: if it is linked to your online Ventra account you will pay standard fares – if not, you will pay a full fare of $2.25 each time you board a train or bus (no transfer credits allowed). These are all essentially penalty fees for f**king up and leaving your Ventra card at home not registering every single device and card to Ventra. If you cannot afford a smart phone or contactless card and rely on tickets, they are a transit tax on being poor.

I’ll only briefly mention the fees associated with a the prepaid debit option on these cards. Apparently there are a constellation of fees associated with almost every action on your account. Predatory lending at its finest.

My card experience

I received an email notice in July indicating that I should verify and port some personal information over to the Ventra website from my Chicago Card account. I took the time to verify my information, and waited. A month later, I received an email that said the process of sending my card was underway, and that I should plan on receiving it in 7-10 business days.

A couple of weeks after that, I got another email with the subject line “Convenience is coming!”, informing me that I’d be getting my card in 7-10 business days. In the meantime, they invited me to log in to the site and update my access code, which is different from the password you use to log into the website. I did as instructed and waited.

Finally, two weeks later, I received the card in the mail. I had been waiting for the card for about two months at that point. I went to log into the website to activate my card, but it had been so long that I forgot my password. Normally, this is no big deal for any website, but when I tried to reset and use the temporary password the website threw an error and told me to call. At this point, I already wasted hours of my life trying to set up the account, so I gave up.

Alas, the day came when I had to take the train a couple of weeks ago and I needed to set up the account right then. I tried the password reset feature on the site, and it worked this time. After I logged in, I began the most dysfunctional process I have ever undertaken.

The initial log in

I first had to call a card activation hotline, which was straightforward enough. Then I had to update my password. Most websites give you real time feedback on password strength so that you know when you have met the arbitrary minimum of complexity, but not Ventra. You must submit passwords that are highly complex, but conform to rigid guidelines as well, and only after entering them do you find out if it is complex enough. While this is secure, it is also less effective than a two-step verification process (using a smartphone app) and, on a site where one plans to log in almost never, will inevitably result in a lost password.

Finally arriving at a satisfactory password, I went to check my card value only to discover that it read zero. The money that was supposedly going to transfer to my card seamlessly was missing. Since I needed that card to board the train the next day, I grudgingly added $20 to my account. I then set up an automatic recharge amount of $20, which was supposed to be added after my account dipped below $10. I returned to my account page and saw, yet again, a zero balance. This began the second hour of my activation efforts.

Customer service

I called the customer support line. All of the regular menu options were, of course, not what I needed. I managed to access my account information after entering my account number and CCV code, and then I waited for 15 minutes for an account rep. When one picked up, and I started to speak, I was immediately disconnected, so I had to call back and repeat the entire process again, only this time I was on hold for closer to 30 minutes.

While I was on hold, I refreshed the account page and noticed that my balance was $58.25. Apparently, my Chicago Card transfer, one time addition of $20, and my automatic recharge all processed simultaneously. My problem shifted from having no balance to having a ludicrously high balance that would take me (an infrequent rider) a long time to use up.

Finally I began speaking to a representative. I explained my problem, and she listened patiently. At one point, she said “Some convenience, this card, huh?” I found this a little odd as she represented the organization that was promising me “convenience,” but I wrote it off as some kind of calming tactic used by customer service reps to build rapport. She asked if I had been to “, or something like that,” which piqued my suspicion that she had no clue about my issues.

After some discussion, she asked me if it were possible to reverse the charges to my account. I told her I didn’t really know, as I didn’t work for the company, and that I expected her to know if this was possible. Then she began asking me for personal information including my username, card number, security number, and email address. With even two or three of these pieces of information it would be no problem to hack my account. I told here I was not comfortable giving her any information, and that is when she said: “I’m supposed to tell you this. I don’t actually work for Ventra in Chicago. I’m in Boston and I need to take your information so a customer service representative can call you back.”

I told her thank you, but I’m not going to give out any more personal information without knowing exactly who is taking it. She told me, “That’s fine, but if you wait for them to call you back and resolve this problem and you miss the call, you’ll just have to call back and wait on hold again.” I told her thank you, but I’m hanging up now and I don’t care.

My Takeaway

I have used the bus and train several times since then, and I’ve yet to have a bus trip where my card worked without a hitch. A couple of times I have just not paid at all, which adds up to lost revenue for the CTA. I never got the obscenely high card credit resolved, so I guess I will spend it off over many months.

My friend Aja since advised me that the chips in the cards were from the Gameboy Advance manufacturer who stopped making them, and that is why the CTA had to change systems. I couldn’t confirm, but this doesn’t seem that far out there.

I humbly submit this as yet another tale of the effects of privatization of city services.

User experience nightmare with car controls

This was probably one of the worst designed user interfaces I have ever experienced. I rented an economy car for the conference I was at last week and I was upgraded to this car, the make of which is readily apparent from the photo and the model of which is a synonym for concentration / what you do to a projector to make the image clear. Have a look at the annotated user interface: displays are bracketed in blue, buttons in red, and the red arrow indicates where a whole other bank of buttons was located out-of-frame on the roof of the car). Click for a larger image.

Having done some research on eye-tracking devices (the research tool that you strap to someone’s head to see exactly where they are looking at on a display), I know that the human gaze can only truly focus (no pun intended) on an area about the size of a quarter (the $0.25 coin) held at arm’s length. So while this photo is a pretty good representation of my view from the driver’s seat, you can imagine the focus area as that green circle towards the bottom center.

That green circle has another meaning, as it highlights the button you push to engage the voice command function in this car. I tried using this function to turn on the radio as I drove to the airport, as pressing the “RADIO” button on the large center console in the right of the photo does nothing (I missed the tiny on/off toggle label on the button protruding from that console).

That voice function has absolutely no natural language processing ability, and it also only controls a finite number of car functions that it lists off after you fail to issue a recognized command. It apparently thought I wanted to make a call, and kept asking me for a number. I am a tightwad, and I can only imagine the cost of making a call from a rental car, so I was frantically trying commands like “OFF!” and “Never mind!” that my iPhone recognizes, but this car jovially disregarded as it continued asking me for clarification. I was also driving on unfamiliar roads at the time and missed my turn, making the situation a complete debacle as I awkwardly tried to turn around in a shopping mall parking lot while arguing with my car, holding up traffic and probably enraging the local drivers.

So here are some unorganized observations. First, there should only be one display for the driver to look at: the one between the tachometer and speedometer on the left. The center display is a terrible distraction. Why the hell there are directional pads on either side of the steering wheel is a mystery; perhaps they are trying to accommodate right-handed and left-handed drivers? Either way, you cannot keep your eyes on the road when you are trying to move a cursor on that display. The bank of controls on the ceiling (where the arrow is pointing) operates the interior lights, sunroof, and other features, and is equally difficult to operate while driving. There are also thumb operated switches on either side of the steering wheel that operate the phone, stereo, and cruise control. These are better, and maybe one grows accustomed to the functionality over the course of ownership and with some practice (you need to hold down buttons in different time intervals apparently to select and execute the desired function).

Add to that the odd placement of some things: the door lock is a button on the center console (the one with the small orange LED), which was nearly impossible to find. On either side of that are switch-style buttons with no other label than a short line and a slightly curved line that had no function as far as I could determine (they did not control the mirrors as I first thought; there was another directional pad/switch combo on the door handle that did this job).

While in the car, I had the impression that I was piloting an F-22. I usually laugh at people who are afraid to “break” systems or who become button shy, but I was humbled by my experience in this vehicle. My own car is a warhorse with very few frills, so getting in this relatively high-tech machine was an assault on the senses (I say “relatively” because I know there are much fancier cars with even more buttons). The interface design almost assumes a passenger (or dare I say, co-pilot) to operate and monitor systems while one drives. Doing so on your own as the driver is perilous (especially when you are driving a rental in an unfamiliar city). I should note that I was also trying to use my phone’s navigation function at the time, which only added to my distractions.

The answer to the cognitive overload I experienced is obviously that little green circle. If the computer actually processed natural language and not preprogrammed speech acts, and if it controlled more of the car’s auxiliary functions (other than the primary function of driving) you could eliminate two-thirds of the buttons in those red boxes.