Fake News and Facebook: the case of Palmer Luckey

I listen to a lot of podcasts, on subjects ranging from economics to quantum physics, so I’m not surprised about the number one rule of the game: always express the correct political position.

Whatever the podcast, whenever the issue of politics appears (regarding grants for scientists, zoning laws, NBA basketball, the history of the Polish labor movement, anything) it’s indispensable that all participants in the podcast state that they are all progressive, they all hate the US Republican leader [insert name here] and they all love the US Progressive leader [insert name here], whichever the circumstances.

That’s just how it goes, and I don’t have a problem with that. If they had invented podcasts in the Middle Ages, I’m sure everyone would have elbowed each other out of the way to be first to proclaim their love for the Pope and the feudal system, and to ask for much stronger penalties against those fucking witches. Power is power, like Cersei Lannister told Little Finger.

So, I was really surprised the other day when I was listening to this podcast on science-fiction and technology, Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is normally very reliably progressive (they’ve put up podcasts on LGBT science fiction, and on leftist science fiction), and something else happened.

The program’s showrunner, David Barr Kirtley, was interviewing Blake J. Harris, author of the recently published book “The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality.” The book is about the incredible life history of Palmer Luckey, inventor of the first virtual reality device, the Oculus Rift, which he sold for billions to Facebook before he was fired from that company.

Harris and Kirtley, very early on, started to discuss a media controversy in which Luckey was involved, and then spent practically the whole podcast on that specific topic: it turns out that Luckey gave 10,000 dollars to a pro-Trump group (as we know, almost enough to swing a US election, as the New York Times keeps telling us) and this eventually led to his firing from Facebook.

Both Harris and Kirtley went through the usual disclaimer: we hate Trump, we despise Trump and everything he stands for, we suffered horribly when Hillary Clinton lost (these are almost exactly Harris’ words) and Trump is the worst racist ever. This being out of the way, they jumped down into the rabbit hole.

Harris started to tell how media reports completely twisted Luckey’s actions of out proportion, painting him as terrible white supremacist and then doing the same to Harris, when he tried to defend the subject of his very well-researched book. Then Facebook piled on, with Mark Zuckerberg going as far as lying to Congress when he stated that Luckey had NOT been fired for his political views.

The podcast is here. It’s worth a listen. This is very strong stuff, having two committed, convinced progressives, aghast at the way the media goes after people and destroy them whenever they don’t conform perfectly to their preferred ideological frame, obliterating all of the rules of journalism in the process.

And Facebook. Yeah, tell me more about how Facebook needs to be even more aggressive against those who don’t follow our ruling ideology. Tell me about how a company in which donations to Democratic candidates accounted for 95% OF ALL POLITICAL DONATIONS in the 2018 US mid-term elections needs to be further purged of any semblance of conservatism.

It’s an absolute pity that there seems to be no full transcription of the interview out there. Good news is that Wired, the podcast’s publisher, did come out with a story summing up the interview, that includes a partial transcript. For example, here’s Harris about the media’s doxing of Palmer Luckey:

“Basically it was described that every terrible white supremacist, misogynistic, transphobic, awful, anti-Semitic meme that you’d seen online during the election season, Palmer was responsible for, that he’d been funding this group of trolls. That part of the story was not true at all. What was true was that he had given about $10,000 to a small Trump organization called Nimble America. … [Its] founders started this organization with the goal of putting up meme-like, catchy billboards across the country in battleground states, and they [only] put up one billboard—in Pennsylvania—which had the words ‘Too Big to Jail’ on it, and then a caricature of Hillary Clinton’s face. So I don’t think there was anything too unreasonable there. It seemed like a pretty typical campaign advertisement.”

Another shame: the transcript doesn’t include Harris’ pithy summary of how the Daily Beast, a sorry excuse for a news organization (*), got the “scoop” that Luckey had donated those 10,000 dollars. They contacted a Conservative agitator (this guy) who put them in touch with “secret donor” Luckey — ON THE CONDITION THAT LUCKEY WOULD REMAIN ANONYMOUS.

Same as in the case of Stanley McChrystal, the general who was fired after he was exposed by Rolling Stone for criticizing Barack Obama, the news organization thought that betraying a source was worth the gain, so they did, and published an extremely misleading story, with an extremely misleading headline, that made Luckey look like Hitler’s second coming (**).

Here’s Harris on Facebook, which comes away as — well, make up your own mind:

“The employees at Oculus and Facebook were told that Palmer had continually been making requests for vacation, as if it was his choice to not be there because he didn’t want to face the situation. … Sometime in the middle of October, one month after all this happened, Palmer at this point believed that he was about to be let back into the office. He was in a car with his friend—and early Oculus employee—Julian Hammerstein, and they were listening to a town hall while they were driving somewhere, and during this town hall an Oculus employee asked what was going on with the Palmer situation—when was he coming back to the office to finally answer questions from people? And they were told—and Palmer and Julian heard this during the town hall, as they were listening in—that Palmer had requested another four to six weeks of vacation. And Palmer was just so furious. Julian described Palmer just being apoplectic.”

Harris on the idiots who first called for Palmer Luckey to be fired:

“I want to give credit to Scruta Games. Because Scruta Games was—I believe—the first developer to say that they were not going to continue developing for Oculus unless Palmer was fired. And then they are the only person in this whole story that actually acknowledges that what was reported was wrong. I believe one week after they made those tweets—and their tweets are included in the book—they say that they realized that all that [Nimble America] was was that they put up a billboard, and that the media had misreported what happened. So if you have the people who are actually boycotting [Oculus] coming to believe that, ‘Oh no, we actually are not boycotting it because we were misled,’ that seems pretty significant to me.”

Harris gives the impression of being a very mild-mannered person. In the interview, he explains how his first editor at the publishing firm pulled the plug on the book contract after a conversation that went more or less like this:

Editor: “So, who’s the hero of the book?”

Harris: Why? Luckey, of course. He’s a poor kid from a trailer park who invented Oculus Rift and —

Editor: He can’t be the hero

Harris: Why?

Editor: He’s a Trump supporter.

The editor is a very committed person. After long deliberation, the publisher took the book back and assigned another editor. The first editor wasn’t fired: indeed, she sent Harris a profanity-laced email after the book came out, earlier this year.

Imagine, as people often say, how long she would have survived in that company, any company, had she stated: “We can’t publish a book where the hero is a [insert your favorite Progressive politician here] supporter.” (***)

Harris, who found a lot of success with an earlier book on tech and videogames, was surprised that no major new outlet, not mainstream or tech-oriented, has published any reviews of his book. In fact, the book was selling pretty badly until Conservative media, and most notably Glenn Beck, got the scent and started to make noise: at the time when he talked in the podcast, Harris’ book was number two in The New York Times’ non-fiction list.

Yes, this is not that surprising, in a country where about half of the people vote Republican. But 99% of editors don’t care. Ideology means not worrying about the money you’re leaving on the table when you don’t cater to those people’s views. And they don’t worry.

Keep in mind that Harris and Kirtley don’t worry about that either. Near the end of the interview, Kirtley makes this excellent question: well, yes, so Luckey was the victim of an unjustified witch-hunt, etc. But what if he had only been exposed, correctly, as a Trump supporter? Because Luckey was a Trump supporter(****).

At this point, Harris and Kirtley agree: Facebook would have had to fire Luckey anyway, because of the publicity backlash and the danger that other companies, videogame makers and suppliers, would boycott the Oculus Rift. So, after his (and Luckey’s) long ordeal, Harris fundamentally agrees that, in a general sense, it was OK for Facebook to fire Luckey simply because of his political views. It’s the whole process, the lies and the manipulations that Harris objects to.

Asked point-blank how he would describe Luckey’s firing, Harris doesn’t say “outrageous”, “dangerous”, “a mockery of democracy and the rule of law”. Instead, he says: “it’s complicated.”

Drill this into your mind: in the world’s most capitalist country, when dealing with one of the world’s largest and most profitable firms, NOBODY CARES ABOUT THE MONEY. It’s all about making sure that no Trump supporter goes unpunished. I’m so glad I’m not one of those, and believe me when I say nothing would make me happier than seeing Trump impeached and thrown in jail. But this is still marvellous.

Finally, here’s Harris on his critics, from the transcript:

“I don’t understand how someone could think that there was a strategic agenda-based goal on my part. That I thought, ‘Well, I’ve had a pretty good career to date. Let me align myself with this person that everybody hates, and try to show that he’s not really as bad as you think, or that he didn’t do these things.’ I kind of would ask [my critics], ‘What is that case? What would be the reason that I would choose to do that?’ And why would you think that that is more likely than me just following the story, and it leading to this narrative, as opposed to having a narrative and trying to figure out how to get there? Because I would say, my life would have been a lot easier, and my ability to sell future books probably would have been in greater standing, if I had gone with the narrative that Facebook was telling me.”

*The vomit-inducing Daily Beast has turned doxing rightists into a the house specialty, even though others are striving to match its success. Why this doesn’t break multiple privacy laws (I live in Europe, where privacy protections are extremely strict, at least in theory) is beyond me. They had this other case recently: https://www.thedailybeast.com/we-found-shawn-brooks-the-guy-behind-the-viral-drunk-pelosi-video

**Another wonderful detail about this incredible story: the founder of “Nimble America,” the pro-Trump organization that received the 10,000 dollars from Trump, is a committed anti-Nazi, moderator on several anti-Nazi Reddit forums, Harris revealed. Still, this guy was described as a White supremacist by the Daily Beast.

***Harris himself provides, in the interview, an example of this kind of hypocrisy, noting that he found in his reporting that Facebook executives, during the election, often shared anti-Trump company material for internal consumption, convinced that crushing the Republican nominee through whichever means wasn’t against any company policies, nor should be.

****More delicious details: Mark Zuckerberg personally prepared a statement for Luckey to deliver to media, as Luckey’s own, denying that Luckey was a Trump supporter, and stating (incorrectly) that Luckey intended to vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson; but it would be unfair to put all of the blame on Zuckerberg.


About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Greatest Hits, Sights and Sounds and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Fake News and Facebook: the case of Palmer Luckey

  1. Pingback: Spain’s Punishment of Catalan Separatists Goes Against E.U. Norms | Neotenianos

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