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Platforms Between Scylla and Charybdis – 11th June 2020

-- 9 min read --

We are hearing a lot about the turmoil within platform companies as they manage some kinds of political content in the US.

I will try to shed some light on this with the help of a story from the 8th Century BC as illustrated by a 19th Century cartoon.

I do not tell this tale in the expectation that it will elicit much sympathy for people who work at the platforms – it is their responsibility to navigate hard issues like these, and they are well-rewarded for doing so.

I rather hope it might increase understanding of the position platforms are in, and trust that better understanding is a public good even if it does not immediately resolve disagreements.

Those who believe that platforms are irredeemable and see little good in their staff may still find some value in this for the purpose of ‘know your enemy’!

The 8th Century BC Story

In Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, the ship carrying Odysseus and his companions has to navigate a narrow stretch of water with monsters on either side called Scylla and Charybdis.

They are given advice that it is impossible to avoid both monsters so they must choose to be attacked by one or other of them and this has come to represent situations where you need to choose the ‘lesser of two evils’.

The description of how it feels to be in such a situation is captured in three lines shown here in the original Greek as I wanted to share their beauty.

ἡμεῖς μὲν στεινωπὸν ἀνεπλέομεν γοόωντες:
ἔνθεν μὲν Σκύλλη, ἑτέρωθι δὲ δῖα Χάρυβδις
δεινὸν ἀνερροίβδησε θαλάσσης ἁλμυρὸν ὕδωρ.

Homer, Odyssey, Book XII, lines 234-6

[NB there is a haunting recreation of lines from another part of the Odyssey if you are interested in how this text might have sounded].

In a modern English poetic rendition, the position of Odysseus and his ship is described as –

We sailed on,
up the narrow strait, groaning as we went.
On one side lay Scylla; on the other
divine Charybdis terrified us all,
by swallowing salt water from the sea.

Homer, Odyssey Book XII, translated by Ian Johnston.

This is the position in which platforms that carry political content find themselves in the run-up to the US Presidential election in November 2020.

On one side of them is the monster of permitting political content to go unchallenged that many people feel has crossed one or more lines for what is acceptable in public discourse.

But as they steer away from this monster, they see looming before them the spectre of being pulled into the political fray in ways that go against their sense of how platforms should behave in relation to elected politicians.

For people onshore, only one of the monsters may be visible and they cannot understand why the ship does not simply steer away from it.

But those on the ship have a closer view of the ‘swallowing salt water’ on the other side and fear the consequences of steering too far in either direction.

The 19th Century Cartoon

This cartoon from Punch in 1863 translates the Homeric story into a political scenario that nicely illustrates the challenge facing platforms today.

cartoon-scylla-charybdis
Fig 1 – cartoon from Punch magazine, Oct 10th 1863

Here, the British Prime Minister of the day is trying to steer his ship of ‘neutrality’ between the competing leaders in the American Civil War – Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – portrayed as Scylla and Charybdis.

I found this image a few days ago while researching for this post but it has become even more apposite as the news today covers an argument over whether US military bases should carry the names of Confederate generals.

Jefferson Davis represented (in the eyes of any reasonable person though not of all of the contemporaneous British elite) the bad side, while Abraham Lincoln represented the good (and eventually victorious) side.

Yet, even if there was clarity about where the moral authority lay here, it was not obviously right for Britain to become an active participant in this conflict, and so they maintained their neutrality.

There is a risk of drawing this out too far as an analogy and wading into ethical debates about international interventions, but it at least helps illustrate the challenge for third parties navigating between parties in a heated conflict.

Why So Many Monsters?

There is a widespread feeling that the nature of the political debate changed quite significantly after the election of the current US President in 2016.

Looking at broader issues than those facing tech platforms, we see a shift towards issues being presented as a choice between two bad options.

The current US administration presents Iran with a choice between the Charybdis of military annihilation and the Scylla of giving up their identity to become a westernised state.

China is told it must either have a huge trade war or give everything up in a trade deal that will massively favour the US

Denmark is told it can either ‘sell’ Greenland or be dismissed as an irrelevance by the US.

More immediately, the President frames the choice for the US as being either violent disorder or maintaining the status quo, with no focus on the kind of meaningful reforms that would be many people’s ‘non-monstrous’ preference.

The modus operandi of the President in creating these monster-on-either-side situations seems fairly consistent so we need to ask why this should be.

Some commentators see this as a wholly destructive approach rooted in the psychological flaws of the individual who became President.

I see an explanation that may sound like another attempt at pop psychology but is actually much simpler.

When any of us starts a new job, the most important factors guiding our approach will be our experience and habits from previous positions.

Holding an elected office may carry a certain level of mystique, but in many respects it is just another job.

If we want to understand why an office holder is behaving in a particular way then the clues are most likely to lie in their prior professional experience.

People will approach their political roles quite differently if they have worked as a State Governor, or journalist, or community organiser, or real estate developer, for no other reason than that their ‘instincts’ are the product of their experience.

[On a personal note, I worked on computer software before being elected and that experience certainly shaped my approach to politics, including frustration when I found code does not necessarily win arguments in party politics].

We can better understand why so many political decisions today, including those faced by platforms, feel like sailing between two monsters if we consider the professional experience of the person setting up these questions.

Importantly, we have someone in the US Presidency today who has spent years working in fields where the ‘game’ is precisely to create these dual monster scenarios.

Work Experience

To understand how this works, we can apply some of our own experiences.

If you have ever sold a house, you will recognise how this creates monsters on either side of you.

If you accept an offer and it turns out you could have received a higher one, will you kick yourself for years to come that you settled too low?

But if you reject an offer and the deal falls through, will you feel stupid and greedy and end up selling for less anyway?

Most of us sell property only occasionally (if we are fortunate enough to own a house at all) and we hate the process because of these wretched feelings of uncertainty.

Where we are dealing with another private buyer then there will be some equality of stress as they think ‘have I offered too much and cheated myself?’ or ‘have I offered too little and will now lose my dream home?’.

But there is no such equality when we deal with professional developers interested in our property.

They may be running multiple deals at the same time fully expecting to win some and lose some so they are not plagued by monsters over your property.

Success for the developer may come precisely from this imbalance as they can persuade you to accept their terms to relieve the stress and make the monsters go away.

Another field in which we see ‘two bad choices’ being used deliberately to stress people is in reality television.

Contestants are set up to make a fortune or go broke, not for a steady path to incremental growth.

In the survivor format, the choice is between eating horrible bugs or going hungry with no sensible snack option on the table.

The current US President is someone who has an exceptional amount of professional experience in creating this particular kind of stress in people and we should not be surprised that he brings this to his political role.

There are different views about how successful he was in his career, and I won’t opine on that, but what we can say with confidence is that he has done more property deals and hosted more reality TV shows than the average politician.

Coming back to my core subject of platforms, we can now see how the President is deliberately creating monsters on either side of them by both putting out more content that invites their intervention and threatening retaliation if they do so.

He is doing this because his experience tells him that this will create the kind of stress within the platforms that may give him an advantage in any subsequent deal-making.

The evidence of events over the last week suggests he is meeting his goal of causing stress not just in platforms but in society more broadly.

Given this, the pressing question for platforms (and society, though that is out of scope for this blog) is whether there is any way for them to lift that stress.

Plotting a Course

We can continue to draw on the sailing metaphor in considering how platforms might best navigate the next few months to November’s election.

A major part of sailing a boat is the chartwork you do before you set out – this includes making predictions about weather conditions and tides and planning for these ahead of time.

You want to be as precise as possible to avoid confusion and minimise the new decisions you have to make when a storm blows up.

There are some areas we can safely predict are going to come up during the election where that chart work can be done now :- Political Advertising, Voter Suppression, Voting Process Misinformation, Hate Speech, Incitement to Violence, Candidate Misrepresentation, ‘Gaming’ of Algorithms etc.

There may be a hesitation towards plotting overly detailed courses as platforms are used to more free-form go-where-you-will sailing.

But unfortunately these times do constrain and the risks of not having a precise course are too great.

Not everyone on board will agree with the course, but most will prefer following it to the continual stress of crashing round in the narrow strait with monsters on either side.

What gives a crew confidence is knowing they are on a known course and what demoralises them is the sense that they are wholly at the mercy of the elements.

After recent events, there is a perception that Twitter has started to define its own course with steps it has taken to ban political adverts and label high profile political content, and that this has created confidence in their ‘crew’.

Whether this will prove to be the right course or not is something we will only know over time, and I will cover some of their choices in future posts.

There are also scenarios in which people sail confidently into disaster after picking the wrong course, but I certainly would not wish for that to happen here with any platform.

There are reports of significant disquiet at Facebook as they seem to have more unresolved questions about where they are headed.

This is painful for the company and the people who work there as they are still having to face both monsters.

This is the bit where you may be saying ‘tough luck, they made their bed and should now have to lie in it.’

You might forgive me for being more sympathetic as people in the middle of this are personal friends and I have lived through similar moments.

People will be variously angry at the politicians who stir the pot, at company leaders who take decisions they disagree with, and at colleagues who act, or fail to act, in ways that disappoint them.

This anger can lead to more anger, to sadness, to stubbornness and to frustration, and all of these emotions can turn previously joyful workplaces into somewhere you don’t want to be.

Moving Ahead

For each of the expected areas of tension, platforms need to pick their course, plot it carefully factoring in all known variables, communicate it to their crews, and have their wits about them for any unforeseen changes.

In my last post, I described the importance of having detailed written ‘legislation’ and see this as a key part of that course plotting exercise.

I know that platforms have done a lot of thinking and already have significant bodies of internal policy and documentation in all the areas I have described.

If they bring their detailed approaches into the public domain and get feedback ahead of crises, then this will help them to understand whether a particular course is actually going to work.

I am an eternal optimist, so it may be that there is still a way for platforms to thread their way between Scylla and Charybdis and that their worst fears will not materialise.

Or it may be, as with the original mythic challenge, that they have to take a hit somewhere and it just remains for them to decide which pain to accept.

Either way, there is a greater chance of success if the course has been deliberately chosen than if it is determined by responding to external forces.

A Postscript

You may be wondering what happened to Odysseus back in the day.

[SPOILER ALERT: when something has been out over 2,500 years I think it’s OK to give away the plot, but if you want to find out from the original text, you should stop reading now].

He was advised to sail near to Scylla and lose some of his sailors to this six-headed monster rather than risk his whole ship being taken by the whirlpool Charybdis.

He did this and got through the strait with the loss of just 6 sailors.

So, he seemed to have made a wise choice and plotted the right course, but…

At the next island, the rest of his crew rebelled, in part due to the trauma of the loss of their fellow sailors, and brought the wrath of Zeus down upon them.

Their ship was blown back towards Charybdis and everyone was lost except for Odysseus.

Yikes!

But (and this is the big spoiler), he made it home in the end. Phew!

Summary:- I use the story of Scylla and Charybdis to describe the situation of platforms in respect of US political content. I share views on the political dynamics that are in play with the current US President. I propose more detailed policy ‘course-plotting’ as the best way forward.

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