Seeking Truth through Social Media

Not too many years ago, serious people were holding workshops and seminars touting the transformative power of social media. Twitter and Facebook were new tools that could expose more people to critical information about politics and social justice, raise awareness of suffering and human rights abuses, and organize activists to check and even overthrow tyrannical governments. Now, those same serious people mock online “slacktivists” who think for a moment that Tweeting or sharing on Facebook does anything to make the world a better place.truth

So much difference a few years can make. It didn’t take long for government and corporations to seize control (or tighten control, as they already controlled the entire system) of the information flow on the Internet. Worse, government agencies, police forces, and corporate legal departments used information from social media to track and punish activists.

Worse still, various groups for diverse reasons poisoned the supply of information on the Internet till it was next to impossible to separate factual information, propaganda, satire, and hoaxes. Enough professional journalists from respected news outlets have been exposed for plagiarism and fabrication to make readers and viewers suspicious of all news outlets, and some people now actually believe that propaganda mills are more reliable than once-trusted journalistic outlets.

Further, accusations of plagiarism, ghostwriting, and fraud have even plagued scientific and medical journals, raising legitimate suspicions about the reliability of scientific literature. With major papers being retracted in large numbers in pharmaceutical and medical journals, it becomes more believable for some that climate scientists may be perpetuating some kind of elaborate hoax. While experts are clearly more qualified to evaluate the quality of scientific data than untrained observers, sadly, most people feel they are quite competent to pass judgment on scientific work. “Everyone has a right to an opinion” has become, “All opinions should be taken equally seriously.”

In spite of constant assaults on truth, we still share information, because that is part of what humans do. The human appetite for information has resulted in some positive developments. Scientists are demanding more transparency and data sharing. Independent groups are publicizing retractions, publishing data that contradicts earlier published reports, and demanding that funding sources be revealed. Journalists are holding each other and public officials to greater scrutiny, and many are realizing the importance of good investigative journalism. And members of the “general public” are taking greater care to check sources and look at new information skeptically.

Still, misleading information such as propaganda often comes from powerful sources, and it will not go away. Perhaps, though, we will see a revival of skeptical inquiry and analysis. Perhaps more people will begin to follow the advice to hold beliefs only in proportion to the available evidence.

In the meantime, I see no reason to mock those who find information and post it on social media, even if that is all they do for the cause. Social media “slactivism” may seem like the least one can possibly do, but for some it is also the most they can do. If someone doesn’t have the time, energy, or skills to do more, then so be it.

Arthur Levitt “Defends” Goldman Sachs

Arthur Levitt, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman and a senior adviser to Goldman Sachs, says no one puts customer’s first and the firm should stop saying they do. He says this in response to Greg Smith’s op-ed published on the day of his departure from Goldman Sachs. Smith, of course, said that Goldman Sachs was disrespectful of clients and did not put their interests first. Levitt thinks it is wrong to expect financial services firms to put the interests of clients ahead of their own. That would be unreasonable, and anyone who doesn’t understand that is just too stupid to even be doing business, apparently. Levitt said, “That’s not to stay that buyers should beware. It is to say there should be transparency. But on the other hand, let’s not create a fellowship of buyers and sellers that will march into the sunset.”

What he is saying, I think, is that the most successful firms are also the most ruthless. If they put their clients first, they will fail. This is the same reason so many athletes use performance-enhancing drugs. It isn’t that it is right; it is just that everyone is doing it, so it has become necessary to compete. More regulation and oversight might help financial services, but this doesn’t seem to occur to Levitt.

But it does occur to Matt Taibbi, reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Way back on May 11, 2011, Taibbi reported on Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse, the 650-page report just released by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, alongside Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. From Taibbi’s article:

“But the mountain of evidence collected against Goldman by Levin’s small, 15-desk office of investigators — details of gross, baldfaced fraud delivered up in such quantities as to almost serve as a kind of sarcastic challenge to the curiously impassive Justice Department — stands as the most important symbol of Wall Street’s aristocratic impunity and prosecutorial immunity produced since the crash of 2008.”

But we shouldn’t be too critical, right?

It seems absurd to even have to write about this in an ethics blog. Is there any ethical question here? The fact that anyone would defend fraud and client abuse is a sad indication of our current state of moral decay. How do we revive a sense of honor and decency in corporate executives? How do we weave a new moral fabric and replace the one that is soiled and rent?


Jamie Dimon shoots feet

At an investor’s conference, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, said, “Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it.” He went on to say that a few bad apples don’t ruin the whole bunch. It is wrong to generalize, you see. Does he really think OWS protestors hate success? Does he not understand why the banks are targeted while other industries are not? Either he is genuinely clueless or her is trying to deflect attention from himself.

A November 12 Huffington Post article by Janet Tavakoli claims that Dimon dismissed the assertion that JPMorgan Chase was involved in foreclosure fraud. He said, Chase should carry on with foreclosures, even if it had to pay some penalties. Tavalokoli says, “JPMorgan’s role in alleged foreclosure fraud had already been made public when Dimon made these ill-considered statements.”

Tavakoli quotes from Annie Lowrey of the Washington Independent: “But the financial statement itself proved the lie. The bank said it was carefully checking 115,000 mortgage affidavits. It set aside a whopping $1.3 billion for legal costs. And it put an extra $1 billion into a now $3 billion fund for buying back bunk mortgages and mortgage products.” OWS protestors are not against success; they might just want people to succeed through hard work, creativity, intelligence, and honest business practices. They might also expect a little humility.

But not only that, Irving Picard, a trustee in the Bernie Madoff scandal, accuses JPMorgan Chase of making a half a billion dollars off Madoff’s victims and is responsible for $5.4 billion in damages. It could be a case of just taking advantage of a bad situation, but what of further investigations against JP Morgan Chase?

Earlier this year the SEC fined JP Morgan Chase $228 million for a bid-rigging scheme involving municipal bonds. Matt Taibbi compared this to mafia-style bid rigging and said, “But if the defendants are a bunch of Ivy-League educated bankers from Wall Street, what we end up getting is a negligible fine (officials will brag about this $228 million, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the banks make scamming communities and governments) and, as always, no admission of guilt.”

Taibbi ends his blog post by declaring, “It’s not going to stop until people start doing hard time for these crimes, and it looks like we’re still a very long way from that.” It is just a little hard to believe that Jamie Dimon really thinks people are angry because he is successful, is it not?