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We were the unpaid janitors of a bloated tech monopoly

Read to the end for just a really good Instagram post

What Facebook Knew All Along

Between 2015-2019, I traveled to over 20 countries and reported on over a dozen international elections. My beat started with the simple idea that I could learn about web culture around the world. I had a dream, in another life, of being the “Anthony Bourdain of memes”. Quickly my trips, however, started to get darker. Instead of viral trends, I was writing more and more stories about how the internet was, well, radicalizing the planet.

I was in the UK for Brexit, in France in 2017 when far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen came in second, and in Germany, the same year, when the far-right Alternative For Germany (AfD) party came in third. I stood at the base of a mountain in Switzerland while activists hung anti-Trump banners as his helicopter flew to Davos. I was in Barcelona during the Catalan succession attempt. I was in India during their monetization crisis. I was inside a Mexican troll farm the week before their 2018 election. And my last big assignment was Brazil, for the 2018 election that elected far-right human biohazard Jair Bolsonaro. I spent the week leading up to it interviewing right-wing YouTubers who running for congress.

In the beginning of my time abroad, there was always the feeling that the internet was doing something to the way democracies functioned, but it was unclear how. Mainstream American news outlets were convinced that 4chan had suddenly invented racism, but 4chan’s estimated daily traffic in 2018 was around 20 million pageviews — big, but not huge. And, plus, it’s almost exclusively in English. So I started documenting 4chan-like sites in other countries, like South Korea’s incel hub Ilbe Storehouse, Spain’s radicalized car forum Forocoches, France’s Gamergate-esque jeuxvidéo.com (videgames.com), or Brazil’s school shooter fan site Dogolachan. But, again, these sites were small and there was very little proof that they were accomplishing the “meme magic” that they claimed they were.

So, then, for a while, there was the hunch that maybe these sites were working in conjunction with other platforms. I spent months hiding out in far-right Discord servers, watching users in French and German network with English-speaking extremists. My Discord handle was in so many extremist servers that during a platform-wide purge around 2019, my account was banned and I had to email Discord and explain that I wasn’t a neo-Nazi, just a reporter who was hiding out in all those rooms. They brought my account back online, which was nice. I investigated troll farms, astroturfing campaigns, WhatsApp misinformation, Telegram groups, bad YouTubers, toxic fandoms, and conspiracy theories like PizzaGate and QAnon and antivaxxers. Every single time, regardless of the country, regardless of the conflict, when faced with hard numbers on traffic and user engagement, there was pretty much only one thing large enough online to actually mobilize people: Facebook.

Around 2016, it became increasingly hard to deny that the platform was acting as a vacuum for the darkest, most wildly out of control content on the internet, which it was then spitting back out to billions of users. When I would write stories about Facebook, I would have to reach out for comment. I’d guess I emailed them at least twice a month for five years. I’d give them my findings and then they’d usually wait until right after I published it and send me a boilerplate response. Like I said, we did dance this for years.

In 2017, I got fed up. I filmed a little experiment with the now-co-host of my podcast, Luke Bailey. We made a brand new Facebook account and I spent the week manually liking conservative Facebook pages and then every subsequent page the platform recommended for me. The Right-wing Ryan radicalized and hard. My feed jumped from normal Republican content to creepy boomer posts about sexy women to Alex Jones posts within a week.

Facebook was very mad about this! Their response was, at the time, the most aggressive they had ever been with me: “This isn’t an experiment; it’s a stunt. It isn’t how people set up or use Facebook, and suggesting so is misleading.”

Which is funny because two years later, Facebook did their own version of this “stunt” with a fake account named Carol (which is incidentally my mom’s name, weird). Except, they didn’t tell anyone. And Facebook’s Carol, per documents given to the SEC and Congress this month by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, radicalized just like Right-wing Ryan did.

Over the weekend, we learned even more about what Facebook has known about their platform all along. Seventeen news outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, and NBC News released dozens of stories based on thousands of pages of leaked internal documents from Facebook. The cross-outlet project is called The Facebook Papers and Protocol has made a great guide for sorting through all of it.

The leaks have confirmed a lot of things that many reporters and researchers have been claiming for years. Facebook knowingly promotes right-wing content and conspiracy theories over non-politicized content. They have done little-to-nothing to moderate content in countries like India, Egypt, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Myanmar. They have facilitated ethnic cleansing and human trafficking and played a central role in organizing the January 6 insurrection. The only nice thing to come out of this is that apparently there aren’t any young people on the site anymore.

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what do with all of this. I’m not sure what more we need to know before something is done. Nor am I even sure anything can be done now. After almost a decade of writing about it and talking about it, I honestly feel numb to the whole thing. It’s why I don’t write a lot about Facebook in Garbage Day. There are simply other parts of the internet that need attention. Just think about how different things would be if an entire generation of reporters and technologists weren’t forced to be unpaid janitors for a bloated tech monopoly!

My hope is that the sheer scale of these leaks isn’t too much for the average reader — or politician — to wrap their heads around. Though, they haven’t affected the company’s stock price. But this much is clear: Facebook knew all along. Their own employees were desperately trying to get anyone inside the company to listen as their products radicalized their own friends and family members. And as they were breaking the world, they had an army of spokespeople publicly and privately gaslighting and intimidating reporters and researchers who were trying to ring the alarm bell. They knew all along and they simply did not give a shit.

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The Fake TikTokers Are Out In Full Force

Last week, Vox published an unbelievable piece about a company called FourFront which is currently running a network of fake TikTokers. These TikTokers are played by actors and use their accounts to act out storylines. FourFront recently sold “tickets” to a live Zoom with one of their characters Sydney (pictured above). Apparently, thousands of people logged on to interact with her.

I hadn’t had the time to really sit down and go through these accounts until recently and I really can’t overstate how surreal the whole thing is. The Sydney character just completed a storyline on her account and to see it progress over dozens of short videos is really mind-bending.

On her page, Sydney identifies herself as a dating app employee, which, I mean, ethically is, at the very least, weird. In August, Sydney told her followers that she got a “report of an account that was unusually active.” She then discovered the account belongs to her sister’s fiancé. And then, across 37 TikTok videos posted across a month and a half, Sydney chronicled how she tried to tell her sister about the cheating before the couple gets married. It’s totally weird and, once again, none of this is real.

The current storyline on Sydney’s account is even weirder. In her most recent videos, she and all of the other FourFront FakeTokers get invited to a billionaire’s mansion for some kind of weird game. It’s very strange, but the strangest thing about all of this though is that the comments aren’t full of people upset about how this is all fake. In fact, on a recent video of Sydney’s, one commenter wrote, “we need an update on your sister!”

Many years ago, when I was in college I stumbled across a YouTube series called Marble Hornets. If you’ve never heard of it before, it was a scripted horror ARG told via videos strewn across YouTube. Part of experiencing the story — which was slowly revealed to be based on the Slenderman creepypasta — was a feeling that what you were watching could be real. There was a similar metatextual element to the Blair Witch Project when it first premiered. In both instances, when they were revealed to be works of fiction, some of the magic was lost. But, decades later, users don’t really have the same hangups about what is real and fake. Instead, they’re interacting with these characters the same way they would their favorite streamer or influencer.

There was this assumption many years ago that YouTubers would eventually graduate to traditional entertainment. There was a brief moment where internet celebrities were given chances to host TV shows or star in movies. But it really hasn’t ever stuck. Even the current wave of TikTok emo is beginning to feel more and more like a flash in the pan. But what if we got it wrong all along? What if, instead of influencers becoming movie stars, scripted entertainment was supposed to morph into formats that fit parasocial online relationships? You can already see this happening with things like the Minecraft YouTube epic, the Dream SMP, or with tabletop roleplaying franchises The Adventure Zone or Critical Role. Perhaps, Logan Paul was never meant to star alongside Tom Cruise, but, there is a guy using an AI deepfake to be Tom Cruise on TikTok.

A Good Tweet

Meet Lipstick Brother

I’ve been trying to find space in Garbage Day to talk about Lipstick Brother because I find the whole thing completely fascinating. Li Jiaqi is a beauty influencer in China who is called “Lipstick Brother” on social media. But to call him just a beauty influencer doesn’t really convey how big this guy is. On a livestream he once sold over 10,000 lipsticks in five minutes.

Earlier this month, he broke a record, selling over $2 billion worth of beauty products on a 12-hour livestream. Caixin has a report on the whole thing you can read here.

I suspect the US isn’t far away from a similar convergence of online shopping, internet fame, video platforms, and E-commerce. In many ways, it feels like the logical endpoint for the current landscape of internet platforms is just a weird home shopping network where the hosts act like they’re friends with you.

The Cottagecore Community Reacts To The New Hozier Song

Over the weekend, the singer Hozier announced that he was collaborating with the Italian EDM group Meduza for a song called “Tell It To My Heart”. The song premiered as a snippet on TikTok because that’s how songs are released in 2021.

If you didn’t know, Hozier has a very strange fandom online. There are a lot of users on platforms like Tumblr, TikTok, and Pinerest — many of which are queer American women — who like to write fan fiction about Hozier being some kind of mythical forest deity. idk man, look, I just try my best to explain this sort of stuff.

Well, a particularly vocal subsection of the already weird Hozier fandom is also really into the #cottagecore movement, as well. So, for a lot of younger internet users on apps like TikTok, Hozier’s music is all about being cozy in a small cabin in some kind of bog or swamp. But, unfortunately for them, Hozier is Irish, which means he’s European, which means he was going to put out an EDM song eventually.

All of this means that Hozier’s new collab with Meduza, premiering on TikTok, is causing a lot of drama. My thoughts are with the “Hozier is a cryptid” community during this incredibly stressful period.

A Good Chart

I think this is exactly right, unfortunately.

Finally, A Spooky ABBA Album

YouTube creator Brian David Gilbert is releasing an album tonight called AAAH!BBA which reimagines Abba songs as if they were written by famous “Halloween villains”. The first single is “Lay All Your Love On Me, performed by a vampire” and it’s extremely good. And, if you haven’t checked out my Garbage Day interview with Gilbert, you totally should!

A Good TikTok

A Good… Pornhub Channel?

There’s a hot new Pornhub performer worth checking out. He goes by changhsumath666, real name Changhsu, and he’s, uh, a Taiwanese math tutor. I went to check out his channel, which is totally SFW, and I cannot begin to describe how weird it is to watch a completely serious math lesson being taught in Mandarin, completely surrounded by wildly NSFW porn advertisements.

The comments on his videos are pretty funny. Here are few from his recent videos:

  • “I have no idea what's going on but I respect the lengths this man goes through to teach people math”

  • “very nice educating video. 5 stars recommendation ❤”

  • “I wish I could understand chinese, these classes seem to be pretty good”

changhsumath666 spoke to Mel Magazine about the project. “Since very few people teach math on adult video platforms, and since there are so many people who watch videos on them, I thought that if I uploaded my videos there, a lot of people would see them,” he told Mel. Yeah, sounds right to me!

But apparently, the exposure he’s getting from Pornhub has been pretty good for business. He told Mel that he’s had a lot of people sign up for non-Pornhub hosted courses after he started uploading his videos to the porn platform.

Guys… should I start posting Garbage Day videos on Pornhub?

A Small Note

Yes, I have seen the furry pizza thing. I’m looking into it. If you know anything about it, shoot me an email. 👀

Some Stray Links

***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***

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