Instagram Doesn't Care the App Causes Teen Depression/Suicide, Brene Brown is a Bot that Requires Calories, A Prominent Leftist Pushes Back on the Hypocricy of The Met Gala. (The Five for 09/17/21)

Hey, welcome to The Five.

A couple of quick updates before we dive in.

The first is that I’ve started a second Substack as an outlet for evidence of rampant local corruption happening in St. Louis, which you can subscribe to here.

The second is that Fundfly, the student loan crowdsourcing platform my friend Drew and I are building, will be moving more quickly soon, and we’re looking forward to seeing the first student loan holders escape from crushing debt with the help of local communities soon. I’ll keep you posted.

It’s Friday, so let’s dive into Culture & Commentary.

[one]

I frequently criticize the mainstream media for sloppy, inaccurate and vapid reporting.

But when a major media player releases an incredibly important piece of journalism…the story is overshadowed by what AOC wore to The Met. So maybe big journalism is just constantly in a lose/lose position.

This week, The Wall Street Journal dropped a barnburner of an investigative report into Facebook. I hope you find time to read the whole thing…but for the sake of brevity, I’m pull from Tech Crunch summary of the exhaustive findings:

One of the biggest revelations from the WSJ’s report: The company knows that Instagram poses serious dangers to mental health in teenage girls. An internal research slide from 2019 acknowledged that “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” — a shocking admission for a company charging ahead with plans to expand to even younger and more vulnerable age groups.

As recently as May, Instagram’s Adam Mosseri dismissed concerns around the app’s negative impact on teens as “quite small.”

But internally, the picture told a different story. According to the WSJ, from 2019 to 2021, the company conducted a thorough deep dive into teen mental health, including online surveys, diary studies, focus groups and large-scale questionnaires.

According to one internal slide, the findings showed that 32% of teenage girls reported that Instagram made them have a worse body image. Of research participants who experienced suicidal thoughts, 13% of British teens and 6% of American teens directly linked their interest in killing themselves to Instagram.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” another internal slide stated. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Following the WSJ report, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced a probe into Facebook’s lack of transparency around internal research showing that Instagram poses serious and even lethal danger to teens. The Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security will launch the investigation.

“We are in touch with a Facebook whistleblower and will use every resource at our disposal to investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew it – including seeking further documents and pursuing witness testimony,” Senators Blackburn and Blumenthal wrote. “The Wall Street Journal’s blockbuster reporting may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

Maybe somebody else said it first…but Colorado Congressman Ken Buck dropped a line on Twitter that may one day live alongside phrases like “a date that will live in infamy,” and “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon.”

“The new Big Tobacco.”

If I were Zuckerberg, I wouldn’t be sleeping well these days.

[two]

This publication exists to shine a light on the important, often ignored stories that are significantly shaping our lives and culture, and not to simply drive traffic via outlandish statements about controversial topics.

In the two years I’ve been publishing The Five, I tend to shy away from a few topics, including guns, vaccines and abortion. Not because I don’t have strong beliefs (I very much do, strongly pro-life, pro-gun…as far as the vax goes, I was never a science or health writer, so I’m not going to tread where I have no experience or expertise) but because these topics have been so beaten to death there’s basically nothing I could write that wouldn’t be a re-tread of someone else’s idea.

While I share insights and analysis in every issue, The Five has never been about me ranting…and I’m not going to start now.

However, in the wake of Texas’ abortion restrictions, I wanted to examine bestselling author Brene Brown’s response which she posted as a mini-essay to her Instagram account, because it reveals a lot about the state of discourse in modern culture.

Keep in mind, Brown is praised as one of the most prominent public intellectuals of this era.

The, ummm, public intellectual writes:

The abortion ban in Texas is not about protecting vulnerable lives. It’s about protecting power — the kind of power that’s based in fear, scarcity and white supremacy.

Huh?

Brown sets up the abortion restrictions as a racial issue, but never follows through on why or how. Nor does she explain how the law is based on ‘fear and scarcity.”

She then screams into the nothing about the terrible leadership of Texas Governor Greg Abbott for not requiring mask mandates (if you’re wondering what COVID mask regulations have to do with abortion — the answer is “nothing”) before condemning Texas for being a “leader in child deaths from COVID-19, with 59 as of September 3.”

There are more than seventy million Americans under the age of 18. Roughly 400 have died of COVID, making a child’s chances of dying from the disease 0.0005%. Also, Texas is the second most populous state in the Union, meaning the child deaths (while tragic) may be due to the large population, rather than any specific policies. It’s quite possible the death count was higher…simply because there were more people.

Brown continues:

“Texans can now carry handguns without a license or training.”

We’re once again back to “what in the world does this have to do with abortion?” For the record, there’s some evidence that there’s a correlation (not causation) of lower crime rates in Constitutional Carry states, but that’s an aside and an issue that requires much more data to reach conclusive findings, and evidence could certainly emerge that points the other way.

For Brown’s grand finale:

”[the abortion ban] is dismantling the Constitution with the help of SCOTUS. Voter restriction legislation is not about preventing voter fraud. It’s about silencing black and brown citizens. White, male power-over is making a last stand, and they’re afraid. That’s making them dangerous.”

Dismantling the Constitution? I’m not a lawyer, but I have done hundreds of hours of reporting around legal issues at the county, state and federal levels — and unless I’m missing something huge here…Texas limiting abortions to the first six weeks of pregnancy is a stand alone law. In one state. About something that's not mentioned in The Constitution.

Again, unless I’m missing something huge, there are no widespread ramifications here. This is not Brown vs. Board of Education, that changed the fabric of the nation.

Brene has been called “America’s Therapist,” but isn’t licensed to practice therapy. She holds a a Master’s in Social Work, as well as a PhD in Philosophy. From what I can tell (I saw her speak at a conference once, and was quite bored), she sells books that are primarily about emotions and is similar to another bestselling Texan/reality TV show star — Jen Hatmaker. Both women sell feelings as fact, and have made a lot of money off of it.

Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not covering Brown’s statement because she’s pro-abortion…there are countless celebs and public figures that have posted similar (although, hopefully less tin-foil-hat) statements to what Brown shared. (To hear better, more nuanced arguments for the pro-abortion stance, check out YouTubers Tim Pool and Dave Rubin).

She’s a self-proclaimed public intellectual who can’t make a reasoned argument, a celeb who masquerades as a therapist who veered so wildly into conspiracy theory and insanity in her regularly absurd accusations that…well, an AI could have written it.

Brown’s statement closely mirrors AOC’s Twitter account, where the Freshman Rep only has a few diagnosis for all the world’s issues — it doesn’t matter if it’s climate change or Marvel’s Black Widow bombing at the box office — the villains are always racism, bigotry, homophobia and white supremacy.

We are at the dawn of the AI driven copywriting revolution, where machine learning computers can spit out paragraphs that are indistinguishable from human-penned prose.

I haven’t read any of Brown’s books, but based on her social media posts, I can tell you that she could go on vacation for years and turn her social media accounts over to an AI, which could regularly spit out angry rants declaring that all of society’s ills, from product shortages during COVID to the controversy over the MLB’s changes to the playoff schedule, are because of “bigoted-capitalistic-patriarchal-anti-Constitution bad guys” lurking in the shadows.

And if an AI can predict what you’re going to say because you never deviate from a script — well, that makes you a bot that eats.

As far as the chicken-and-egg dilemma goes, I’m not sure if our shallow, vapid culture promotes individuals like this to “public intellectual status,” or if the most prominent voices are responsible for driving us further away from logic and reason.

[three]


HBO talk show host Bill Maher joined the previously funny Jimmy Kimmel this week, and dropped a heck of a prescription for healing the country’s divides.

KIMMEL: Do you think we’re ever going, if there’s ever gonna be a time or do you think it’s possible even that we can come together?

MAHER: Well, I, you know, that’s a great question. And to me, one of the keys to that is to stop talking about it. Stop talking politics. When I was a kid, you may remember the same thing, people didn’t talk politics all the time. There was no Facebook. You know, Facebook should go back to being what it should be, humblebrags, cat videos, finding out who from high school is gay, fatter, dead. But instead, it’s people arguing with some kid you went to third grade with about Brett Kavanaugh. You want to know how to heal America? Shut up. Shut the hell up. Stop talking politics all the time. Stop trying to convince people, it’s a big country with lots of people who don’t think like you and no matter what side you’re on, and you’re not going to convince them, just accept it like you do in a relationship. No, really. You’re married, right? [Crosstalk] You must must know the three most important words in a relationship are not “I love you,” they’re “let it go.”

This is dead on. Starting somewhere around 2015, Facebook (in particular, because it’s built primarily on real-life contacts) started showing users posts with more comments and likes…because it increased time on the app, which increased ad clicks (and revenue).

The problem has been well documented at this point…but Maher is the first mainstream voice who has stood up and stated the obvious — rather than blame the algorithms for breeding anger and animosity in your real life — just stop engaging.

It’s easy to blame big tech (I just did in story #1 — and they often deserve it) and call for regulation.

It’s much more difficult to regulate our own jealousy, anger, rage and impulsiveness.

[four]

I went back and forth on whether or not to comment on The Met gala, as it’s lived in the 24/7 news cycle all week, so there’s not much more to add without beating a dead horse.

However, former New York Times reporter Bari Weiss (who recently defected to Substack, you should definitely subscribe to her newsletter) shared an interesting perspective on the Unherd Podcast this week:

Watching the spectacle of the premier standard bearer of woke politics, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, show up at an event with $35,000 tickets, wearing a dress that says “tax the rich” on the back while all the staffers have to wear masks…there’s no way you can watch that spectacle and not say “this is insane.”

These are the same people who tell parents that their 2, 3, 4, 5 year old children need to spend all day at preschool masked. But here they are at this ridiculous spectacle, flaunting the very rules the want for us.

One of the things COVID has made it impossible to ignore is that this thing that felt like an abstraction to many people, the gap between the elites and the rest of us, the gap between the rest of us, has become literally impossible to ignore because you see it in these photos.

In my opinion, Weiss is one of the best, most fearless journalists working today, but she and I disagree on the typical left/right key issues (she uttered the phrase “abolish the Second Amendment” on Joe Rogan’s podcast).

Which is why I found it so interesting that Weiss, whom many would have considered to be “far left” a few short year ago, dropped a sound bite that could have played on Fox News without batting an eye.

I don’t believe Weiss has “moved right,” I think she’s a true journalist who’s calling balls and strikes here.

Mentally, I’m putting this in the same file folder as the AMC/Game Stop stock flurry that happened at the beginning of the year, as a pushback against the strain of elitism that populates the coasts, and drives (limits?) our entertainment, financial and education choices.

A political realignment is happening before our eyes. I won’t pretend to know what the board is going to look like when the pieces reset, but this is anything but business as usual.

[five]

As always, let’s head into the weekend with a pop culture roundup:

  • A major sports package may move to streaming. NFL Sunday Ticket, a $300 annual package that allows viewers watch every NFL game, is essentially a season long pay-per-view. ESPN may be exiting Sunday Ticket, and Apple could pick it up next…which means fans would need at least one Apple device in their household to have access NFL games.

  • Kevin Hart is taking a dramatic turn in True Story (Netflix, Nov. 24), in which the comedian plays a semi-autobiographical role as stand up comic who’s life is coming apart. Wesley Snipes co-stars. This one feels like pure Oscar bait, but the kind of Oscar bait that’s actually watchable.

  • Steven Spielberg is offering up his take on West Side Story, with Ansel Egort and (The Fault in Our Stars, Baby Driver) leading a cast of mostly newcomers in the classic tale set in NYC in 1957. First trailer here.

MY PICK: Amanda and I watched the pilot for Only Murders in the Building on Hulu this week, and the comedy/mystery is one of the best things I’ve seen this year. Pairing comedy legends Steve Martin (Father of the Bride, The Jerk) and Martin Short (Saturday Night Live, The Three Amigos) team up with pop vocalist Selena Gomez, who proves her acting chops in this one.

The plot follows three neighbors in a large apartment building in New York City who launch a true crime podcast to investigate the alleged suicide of a man in their building, because they suspect foul play.

It’s tough to stick the landing on both comedy and mystery in the same story, but this show (or, at least the first episode) balances both.

MUSIC NEWS: Americana solo artist Jason Isbell, who gets zero radio play but is one of the biggest selling artists of the last decade (in any genre) will release a covers album of all Georgia artists (his home state), including songs originally by R.E.M., Gladys Knight, Indigo Girls and Otis Redding.

NEW MUSIC: Controversial hip hop star Lil Nas X releases his proper debut, Montero. Angels & Airwaves (fronted by Tom Delong of Blink 182 fame) have a new EP, Spellbound. Post punk outfit Thrice are generating positive press with their latest, Horizons/East.

Until the next one,

-sth