What caused Elon Musk’s Twitter meltdown? He’s enraged people stopped believing his tall tales. – Vox

“If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.” ―Carl Sandburg

Elon Musk built Tesla, Inc., by turning Tesla into a great story. This story — one that’s partly about the allure of “disrupting” the auto industry, partly about building a modern-day muscle car, and partly about an eco-friendly mission to save the world — has convinced investors to propel his vision with billions of dollars in cash.

To some extent, every entrepreneur is a storyteller, their venture a vehicle to an imagined future, but Musk is in a class of his own. Whether he’s talking about building electric cars, tunneling under the streets of Los Angeles, or colonizing Mars, his stories matter more than others. They reshape markets.

In the end, however, entrepreneurship can’t be pure fiction. The fiction must serve as a prelude to the creation of a new company that adheres to a simple, fundamental rule: Revenues must be higher than costs, or costs must be financed. Facts matter.

Recent news articles have focused on Musk’s Twitter meltdown, in which he raged at the press for pointing out problems with some of his stories. But the real issue isn’t Musk’s thin skin. The example of Tesla — its rise and its potential fall — shows the power of narrative to affect the allocation of billions of dollars.

Humans are primed to be captivated by stories, and over the past decade, Musk has cycled through many versions of the Tesla story, each intended to raise more and more money from a host of different audiences, each intended to buy more time for his company to achieve the holy grail of an affordable, mass-produced electric car.

If Tesla proves to be a bubble company, not only will many investors and potential customers be left stranded, but we will have witnessed a remarkable case study in the limits of entrepreneurial yarn spinning. Today Musk thinks the media is his enemy, but he could never have built Tesla without it. We should always be wary of entrepreneurs selling utopia — even more so today, when an expanded, ever-present media fuels American capitalism.

Musk is mad that the media has stopped presenting his stories as nonfiction

When it comes to Tesla, the facts are not on Musk’s side. Musk’s latest of many problems is Tesla’s inability to ramp up production on the long-anticipated Model 3, which he had portrayed as a $35,000 electric car for the masses — an electric Model T of sorts. Indeed, based on the 400,000-plus deposits that consumers placed for Model 3s in 2016, two full years ago, demand for a more affordable, high-quality, long-range Tesla vehicle exists.

And make no mistake, the mass market is necessary to rationalize Tesla’s huge $46 billion valuation. Without a car for the average driver, Tesla is a niche player in the global auto industry, closer to Porsche than to Ford. Porsche is worth, conservatively, $10 billion and produced more than 200,000 vehicles last year. Building a Porsche-like company from scratch would be accomplishment enough for most, but Musk seems hell-bent on taking on industry giants like Toyota ($187 billion), GM ($54 billion) and Ford ($45 billion), regardless of the risks.

But so far, at least, the $35,000 Model 3 is essentially a tall tale. The lowest selling price of a Model 3 has been well above the target $35,000 that Tesla lists on its website. Tesla has been choosing to fill only orders that include significant options, including a long-range battery pack ($9,000 extra) and the premium interior package ($5,000). Autopilot? That’s another $5,000.

A $50,000 car may be fun to drive, but it is not a car for the masses. Musk had previously said that orders for the $35,000 base model would start to be fulfilled when production for the premium model reaches 5,000 cars per week, a target he has repeatedly stated is just around the next bend in the road.

Tesla’s inability to reach this target is the result of a combination of hubris leading to self-inflicted delays (an overambitious attempt to automate production, for example) and the fundamental challenges inherent in designing and mass producing a modern vehicle. Either way, the mass market remains elusive. One wag wrote, “There are fewer [$35,000 Model 3s] on the road today than there are Teslas floating through space.” Ouch. When you live on a narrative as Tesla has, you open yourself to painful counternarratives.

The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against Tesla in 2016 for failing to disclose to investors the crash of a vehicle driving on autopilot, and the government has investigated potential union-busting at the company, among other concerns. But in a possibly more consequential development, after years of accepting Musk’s pronouncements at face value, the press has begun to scrutinize Tesla. Bloomberg created a chart tellingly titled Tesla Production vs. Tesla Targets. (Spoiler: Tesla doesn’t hit its goals, which it then shifts.)

And to put it mildly, Musk has not responded well, lashing out wildly on Twitter. He is so angry over the skeptical coverage that he proposed to create a service that would vet the quality of news outlets. He proposed calling this service “Pravda,” which means “truth” in Russian. (Pravda was the house organ of the Soviet Communist Party, and Musk has tweeted that the irony is intentional.)*

If Musk could counter the latest round of negative stories with facts, he wouldn’t be going after the messengers in the media

Here’s the dynamic that explains Musk’s Twitter outburst: Tesla is clearly struggling to reach production levels that will justify its valuation. Musk has no facts with which to counter the media reports, and it is illegal for him to lie about these numbers. (Hype is one thing; lying to investors is another.) His Orwellian solution is to convince Tesla fans that what they are reading is not true. The stakes are high. Tesla’s $1 billion-per-quarter burn rate makes it very likely that the company will need to raise a couple billion dollars in the fourth quarter of this year.

Musk literally cannot afford for investors to believe a negative storyline. Only his optimistic, visionary narrative will convince potential investors that Tesla is a good bet, rather than a bubble preparing to pop.

Musk’s narrative is, by now, a saga: He’s been telling it (and selling it) for well over a decade. And over that period, he has consistently overpromised and underdelivered. Tesla’s first vehicle, produced from 2008 to 2012, was the Roadster, a two-seat techno-bauble with a base sticker price of $92,000 that was marketed as being able to go from 0 to 60 in four seconds. Foreshadowing the production problems that would plague the company in the future, early versions of the Roadster were slower than a $30,000 Honda S2000.


tesla model 3

 

Recognizing the limited market reach of such a vehicle, by May 2007, Musk turned to touting Tesla’s imagined future. Tesla would leverage what it learned from the Roadster to produce mass-market electric vehicles. He predicted that Tesla’s next vehicle — code-named “White Star,” the project that became the Model S — would hit the market in 2009, with a $30,000 car to follow in 2010.

In September 2008, Musk predicted that the Model S would cost $60,000, and in November of that year he dialed that estimate down to just under $50,000 ($49,900 after tax credits): “Would you rather have this car [Model S] or a Ford Taurus?” he asked.

We would have chosen the Tesla! But Musk’s statements about prices — and therefore the Taurus comparison — were aspirational, to put it charitably; his goal was to secure a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy for electric vehicles. The feds were not interested in financing a luxury car, and a $50,000 car as a gateway to the mass market was a good story.

But by the time the Model S was available for sale, reality had departed significantly from the car Musk had described. The first Model S rolled off the production lines in 2012, four years behind schedule. Today, the lowest-priced, no-features-added Model S is $74,500 (and few Model S’s sell at that price). According to Tesla’s online savings calculator, the “cost after estimated savings,” which takes into account the federal tax credit and additional, lower per-mile operating costs of electric vehicles as compared to gasoline, the cost is $62,700.

That’s $35,000 more than the lowest-priced Taurus. And lest we forget, the $30,000 car “to follow in 2010” started to trickle out in August 2017, seven years late and at almost double the promised price.

Perhaps Musk really does think in dog years. Anyway, so much for the Taurus comparison. Yet memories are short, and Musk has moved on to new stories that kept the short sellers at bay.

Perhaps because Tesla would lose money if he actually sold a $35,000 Model 3 — the components may simply be too expensive — Musk has pushed production of a car at that price yet further into the future, now to three to six months after the company passes the milestone of producing 5,000 Model 3s per week. To sell the affordable car sooner, Musk says, would cause Tesla to “lose money and die.”

Departing even further from the goal of conquering the mass market, Tesla will instead offer a $78,000 dual-motor performance Model 3 (autopilot sold separately) when it hits the 5,000-car-per-week benchmark.

Musk is caught between a rock and a hard place. He is struggling to produce a mass-market car. If he cannot do it, it means Tesla should be valued closer to Porsche than to Ford, and the stock price should fall. But if the stock price falls, he won’t be able to raise money, Tesla will run out of cash, and the dream of a mass-market Tesla will be dead (or at least it will not be fulfilled by an independent company controlled by Musk). Tesla needs the profits produced by luxury models to forestall that outcome, but that’s not a long-term solution to his basic problem.

Given this set of facts, Musk’s only hope is “to pound the table and yell like hell” to try to convince investors to ignore reality — and focus on his storyline.


*UPDATE, 5/30: This passage originally suggested Musk was unaware of the irony of naming a fact-checking operation “Pravda.” In response to questions, he tweeted that the name is satirical.

Brent Goldfarb is an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He drives an e-Golf and previously drove a Nissan Leaf. Find him on Twitter @brentdg2. David Kirsch is also an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Smith School of Business. He drives a Prius plug-in hybrid. Find him on Twitter @darchivist. They are the authors of the forthcoming book Bubbles and Crashes: The Boom and Bust of Technological Innovation, which discusses Tesla. Neither author has any position in Tesla securities.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at [email protected].

 

Source: What caused Elon Musk’s Twitter meltdown? He’s enraged people stopped believing his tall tales. – Vox

Trump Ignores Court Ruling That He Can’t Block Twitter Critics: ‘President Thinks He’s Above the Law’

President Donald Trump defied a federal court judge who ruled Wednesday that it was unconstitutional for the president to block people on Twitter over their dissenting political views.

Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in Manhattan ruled that comments on Trump’s personal Twitter account—and those of other officials in the U.S. government—were public forums and that blocking critics for voicing their views breached the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Eugene Gu, a surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and one of the seven plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told Newsweek on Thursday that Trump still hasn’t complied with the court’s ruling. “I am still blocked,” Gu said at 11 a.m. ET. “I have spoken to the other plaintiffs, and they are still blocked as well.”

Although Buchwald did not order Trump or Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media, to unblock the individual plaintiffs in the case, she did announce that a declaratory judgment should be sufficient.

“Because no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the President and Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional,” she wrote.

Gu, however, is uncertain whether Trump will ever comply with the ruling. “I think that Trump doesn’t care about these matters and the rule of law. I don’t think he’ll unblock me,” Gu said. “The president thinks he is above the law, as you can see from him always denigrating the FBI, the Department of Justice, the CIA, all the law enforcement agencies because of the Mueller investigation.”

Gu added, “Trump thinks that he doesn’t have to even care about a little matter like a federal judge telling him what to do.”

“I highly doubt that he will unblock us. In fact, I think that this judgment will make him want to block us even more. If he could double block us he would do that.”

GettyImages-956111416 U.S. President Donald Trump announces his decision on the Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, on May 8. Eugene Gu told Newsweek that Trump still hasn’t unblocked him on Twitter despite a court ruling issued on Wednesday. Getty

Following the ruling, Gu revealed that the plaintiffs have already discussed next steps with their legal team. “One option is to ask the judge to issue an injunction which would, in essence, force the president to unblock us,” Gu said.

Although the judicial branch cannot order the president to act, Gu said they could potentially order the White House Director of Social Media to execute the unblocking. “The judge can order Dan Scavino to actually unblock. And that wouldn’t run into any kind of constitutional roadblocks.”

The lawsuit against Trump was filed last July by the Knight First Amendment Institute of Columbia University on behalf of seven people, including Gu, who were blocked by the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account.

“This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, ‘block’ a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States,” Buchwald said when giving her verdict. “The answer to both questions is no.”

Trump blocked Gu June last year after the surgeon posted a tweet ridiculing him for his infamous Covfefe post. “Covfefe: The same guy who doesn’t proofread his Twitter handles the nuclear button,” Gu wrote.

The White House did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment about whether the president will comply with the ruling.

 

Source: Trump Ignores Court Ruling That He Can’t Block Twitter Critics: ‘President Thinks He’s Above the Law’

Here’s An Anecdote That Perfectly Encapsulates The Stupid Marriage Of Silicon Valley And The Rest Of Corporate America

Photo: Jeff Chiu (AP)

Throughout Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s excellent new book about fraudulent blood-testing company Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes, the $9 billion company keeps running into the same problem: would-be investors or retailers want to see a demonstration of its technology. This is an issue for Elizabeth Holmes’s company, because their shit definitely doesn’t work.

Holmes and her colleagues get around this a number of ways: In Switzerland, they ping a fake result from California in real time; often, they just blame a crappy wireless connection and somehow get away with it. People—not including the current Secretary of Defense or Stanford chemistry or engineering professors—raise the alarm, and somehow have their obvious objections dismissed. This happened most hilariously at Walgreens, whose own laboratory consultant, Kevin Hunter, was ignored for the dumbest possible reason:

After they hung up, Hunter took aside Renaat Van den Hoof, who was in charge of the pilot on the Walgreens side, and told him something just wasn’t right. The red flags were piling up. First, Elizabeth had denied him access to their lab. Then she’d rejected his proposal to embed them in Palo Alto. And now she was refusing to do a simple comparison study. To top it all off, Theranos had drawn the blood of the president of Walgreens’s pharmacy business, one of the company’s most senior executives, and failed to give him a test result!

Van den Hooff listened with a pained look on his face.

“We can’t not pursue this,” he said. “We can’t risk a scenario where CVS has a deal with them in six months and it ends up being real.”

Holmes’s technology was totally worthless; Walgreens had firsthand evidence of this; Theranos had the blood of one of their senior executives and refused to say anything about it; but CVS exists, and so Walgreens went on to spend $140 million with Theranos over seven years. They recouped less than $30 million of that in a lawsuit and settlement.

At least this scam soaked the worst people in America for hundreds of millions of dollars along the way. Please enjoy the whole book. There’s well-founded speculation in it that Holmes’s speaking voice is fake.

 

Source: Here’s An Anecdote That Perfectly Encapsulates The Stupid Marriage Of Silicon Valley And The Rest Of Corporate America

Elon Musk wants to fix media mistrust with a dopey rating system. There’s a better way. – The Washington Post

Entrepreneur Elon Musk thinks journalism needs fixing, and he’s got just the answer.

Enraged last week by negative media coverage of Tesla, his car company, the tech billionaire proposed a rating system in which the public would vote on the credibility of individual journalists and news sites.

As with all things Musk, the sketchy idea brought rave reviews from his obsessive fans, even though his explanations (by tweetstorm) of how journalism works show that he’s way out of his depth.

“Problem is journos are under constant pressure to get max clicks & earn advertising dollars or get fired. Tricky situation, as Tesla doesn’t advertise, but fossil fuel companies & gas/diesel car companies are among world’s biggest advertisers.”

It doesn’t work that way. Journalists are not under pressure to earn ad dollars through their news stories and in fact go out of their way not to write favorably — or at all — about their company’s advertisers.

Musk should stick with his plans for colonizing Mars with his SpaceX venture.

Besides, the field of those aiming to improve media trust is already plenty crowded, as an industry grapples with the rush of misinformation, propaganda and hoaxes that flooded social media platforms and may well have affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

There’s the Trust Project from Google and the Knight Foundation. There’s the News Integrity Initiative from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. There’s the Trust & News Initiative from Duke University.

There are so many of these worthy efforts and the names are so confusingly similar that the Nieman Lab at Harvard provided a puckishly titled guide to seven of them, “So what is that, er, Trusted News Integrity Trust Project all about?” All of these projects also speak to the troubled condition of news media today, which has suffered from a trust deficit for many years.

Meanwhile, local newspapers — some of the most trusted sources of news available — are in a death spiral that seemed to increase its velocity over the past month.

It feels like the beginning of the final act.

The horrors of what’s happening at papers owned by Digital First Media, such as the Denver Post, are well known: The company’s vulture capitalist owners at Alden Global Capital are shrinking newsroom staffs at a frightening pace, with no apparent regard for the important role that these papers play in their communities.

Brian Tierney, a Philadelphia investor who once fought with Alden Global Capital’s investors over control of the Philadelphia Inquirer, told me that he was stunned by how little they knew — or cared — about the public-service role of newspapers.

“When you talk about the civic good, they go ‘Huh?’ It’s not their world — it’s a piece of meat with the word newspaper stamped on it,” Tierney said.

Eventually, the Philadelphia papers — the Inquirer and the Daily News — would come to be run by the Lenfest Institute, a philanthropic organization that is providing a welcome measure of stability after many years of turmoil.

But even papers with well-meaning local ownership, like the Salt Lake Tribune, are experiencing brutal cuts: The paper is losing one of every three newsroom staffers, it was announced a few weeks ago.

And papers like the Buffalo News, which I edited for many years, are going through deep reductions, despite being owned by the company chaired by Warren Buffett, who well understands the role that newspapers play in a community. Buffett was for many years on the board of The Washington Post.

Buffett sounded close to hopeless about the future of the newspaper business during a Q&A session at Berkshire Hathaway’s recent annual meeting.

“No one except the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and now probably The Washington Post has come up with a digital product that really in any significant way will replace the revenue that is being lost as print newspapers lose both circulation and advertising,” said Buffett, who bought dozens of local papers in 2011. “‘It is very difficult to see . . . how the print product survives over time.”

He added, about the problems at the newspapers his behemoth company owns, that “the economic significance to Berkshire is almost negligible, but the significance to the society I think actually is enormous.”

It’s also profoundly sad, for many reasons.

One of those is the very issue of public mistrust that Musk cynically claims he can address.

I know from my own research, and that of others, that local news tends to be trusted news.

As Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute has observed, when people say they don’t trust journalism, they are far more likely to be talking about, for example, cable news than their hometown paper: “Most Americans like their own media pretty well.”

An ill-conceived rating system — Musk says smirkingly he would call it Pravda, Russian for “truth”— can never begin to touch the value of roughly 1,300 daily newspapers that are now gasping for breath.

Local philanthropy and eventual nonprofit status are probably a part of the solution — if there is one.

If a Silicon Valley billionaire really wanted to improve trust in the news media, he would help reinvent the economics of city and town news outlets so they can do their vital work. City Hall, Mr. Musk, is a lot closer than Mars.

Source: Elon Musk wants to fix media mistrust with a dopey rating system. There’s a better way. – The Washington Post

What Separating Migrant Families at the Border Actually Looks Like – VICE

Earlier this month, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to prosecute “100 percent” of migrants illegally crossing the Mexican border, it became official US policy to routinely separate children from their parents. Already, hundreds of children have been ripped from their families: 658 kids in the first 13 days of the program alone, Customs and Border Protection disclosed in a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday. This policy—which advocates say in practice mainly targets women and youths seeking asylum from the violence-ridden countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—is intended to punish the adults by criminally prosecuting them for entering the country, thereby deterring others from making the journey north. But it does incalculable damage to the children at an already traumatic moment in their lives, often stripping them from their mothers when their mothers are all they have.

“Why do I have to leave? Mami I want to stay with you!” one four-year-old El Salvadorian boy balled to his mother, known as JIL, as CBP officers took him and his ten-year-old brother away from her in South Texas, according to an affidavit filed by the mother. They were separated in March—before Sessions’s policy even officially launched—but the incident is an example of what is now common practice at the border. The brothers slept in the same room as their mother back in El Salvador and were too anxious to go to the bathroom without her after witnessing MS-13 gang members beat and threaten her. But once they arrived in the US, the boys were placed in two separate foster homes and held in government custody for over a month without being able to speak with their mother, who remains in Laredo Detention Center, JIL’s attorney Denise Gilman told me.

The boys are now staying with other family in Virginia, but JIL will likely be detained for many more months: A San Antonio judge Wednesday issued her a bond too high for her to pay—$12,500—deeming her a flight risk for being connected to a gang, when her sole connection was the harm they did her.

As Gilman, the director of University of Texas’s Immigration Law Clinic, explained: “There’s a real trend towards trying to put all asylum seekers in the same category as gang members even when all this young mother was seek to protect these young boys by bringing them to the US.”

ICE intends to prosecute all parents for illegal entry, but an agency spokesperson told me that the process is still ramping up, so some families are still remaining together and being sent to family immigrant detention centers.

Stories of extreme violence, sex abuse, death threats, and imprisonment are the norm when talking to these families—time and time again, the women say they only brought their children here to save their lives.



The same week Sessions made his announcement, the largest family facility—a 2,400-bed cluster of trailers in Dilley, Texas—was packed nearly to capacity, as volunteers and a few legal staff scrambled to inform women of their rights as they fought immediate deportation. Kids detained included a 16-year-old whose father sold her to drug traffickers until her mother rescued her; a first-grader pulled out of school to work for her father inside the house all day with her mom while an armed guard trapped them inside; a nine-year-old pursued by gang members at school to sell drugs for them until her mother refused and was threatened with murder; and an adolescent boy forced to watch his mother have sex with his stepfather in their one-room apartment nearly every day.

For the children, even a moment’s separation can be devastating. One volunteer recalled a two-year-old who wailed when her mother, a Honduran woman, tried to leave her in a separate room while discussing her case. So the child sat doodling as the mother recounted why they’d fled: A member of the M18 gang had kidnapped them from their home, held them hostage, beat them, and brought ten comrades over to rape the mother in front of the child. He swore to kill them if they escaped, but one night while he was sleeping the mother was able to slither through an opening in the window. She sprinted with her baby to the bus station and rode straight to the US. While the mother spoke, her child started drawing on her and kissing her shoulders.

These are the faces of family separation: the families who come here because their governments could not protect them. But the face new problems upon crossing the border and being detained by the US. Parents and children could lose contact for months, years, or even permanently. Mothers convicted of illegal entry can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and be dealt up to $10,000 in fines, while the youths are shipped off to Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters around the country—and ORR and the US Marshals Service, which prosecutes the mothers, do not communicate, Jennifer Podkul, policy director for Kids in Need of Defense, told me.

Even once the parents are out of jail and transferred to immigrant detention centers, they remain divided from their kids—meaning some parents are deported before their children even know it, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project.

And as they wait in limbo, it’s unclear where these children will be able to stay. Already the ORR shelters equipped to house unaccompanied minors—which until now have been children traveling without a parent—are 91 percent full. To quickly make more room, the Trump administration now plans to put kids on military bases—which the Obama administration did in the past with unaccompanied teens. But this setup is only meant for kids 13 and older for temporary emergency stays. And while the vast majority—83 percent last year—of unaccompanied minors entering the country have been older than 13, children traveling with parents tend to be far younger, often babies.

Children stayed in shelters an average of 41 days in fiscal year 2017—but that will likely increase with widespread family separation, projected Bob Carey, who was ORR director under Barack Obama. These children may have to wait for their parents to get out of detention, or they may seek another adult sponsor already in the US to claim them. But those adults are now more fearful to come forward, since the Trump administration just two weeks ago announced a proposal to collect information on potential sponsors’ immigration status, information that could be used for enforcement purposes. As Carey told me, “It appears we’re setting up a long-term incarceration system for children.”

Physically divided from their parents, they also become divided before the law: While each family makes up a single asylum case when that family is kept together, when parents and children are in different locations different courts handle them. That’s because proceedings must go forward where each individual is located—so JIL’s asylum case is currently being heard in San Antonio immigration court, while her children’s is in Virginia, Gilman said. And any parent in detention is heard in a detained docket, which can’t include non-detained family members, further splitting cases. This spells trouble for a legal system already overwhelmed by a backlog of nearly 700,000 cases—and since immigrants don’t have the right to free legal help, we’re likely to see more young children representing themselves in immigration court.

Migrants are detained after illegally crossing the border in early 2017, ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Photo by John Moore/Getty

A DOJ spokesperson told me that there had been no blanket policy change to the way the courts were handling family asylum cases, so it’s too soon to know how separations could impact the courts long-term. He noted that the backlog currently counts each family member, even if multiple relatives are part of one case, and he referred me to Sessions’s statement announcing the policy, which said, “Congress has failed to pass effective legislation that serves the national interest—that closes dangerous loopholes and fully funds a wall along our southern border. As a result, a crisis has erupted at our Southwest Border that necessitates an escalated effort to prosecute those who choose to illegally cross our border.”

An ICE spokesman also defended the policy to me by noting that “every day in communities across the country, if you commit a crime the police will take you to jail—regardless if you have a family or not.” And under the law, anyone can be prosecuted for illegally entering the US, including parents. The spokesman said ICE was committed to making sure its enforcement did not “unnecessarily disrupt the parental rights of alien parents and legal guardians of minor children,” and that it would look into any individual cases of children not able to communicate or reunite with their parents.

This new policy is only the latest in a line of so far unsuccessful strategies to dissuade Central American families from coming to seek protection in the US. Beginning in 2014, facing the fact that families from the Northern Triangle countries were fleeing northward en masse, the Obama administration began opening family detention centers like Dilley and conducting deportation raids of Central Americans who lost their asylum cases.

The US government also funded and trained Mexico’s immigration enforcement to facilitate the removal of immigrants before they reach the US border—but as I found reporting in Honduras in 2016, families desperate for protection would often get straight on the bus north again after being deported. Coyotes—the real smugglers, who get paid by migrants to lead them to the US—began offering clients three chances for their money. So even if Mexican authorities deported them twice, they would still attempt the journey once more.

The Trump administration is now going even further than the Obama administration in its attempts to deter asylum seekers, as it seeks to terrify mothers from coming here with their children. The prosecutions have already started flooding border courts, and this “zero-tolerance” policy has only just begun. Meanwhile the refugee crisis of Central America’s Northern Triangle countries continues apace—16 times the number of people from the region were displaced in 2017 as were in 2011, the the UN refugee agency noted in a recent report. The families have a legal right to seek asylum here—and as devastating as the consequences may be, they will not stop coming. The terror they leave behind is much worse.

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Source: What Separating Migrant Families at the Border Actually Looks Like – VICE

Whose Story (and Country) Is This? | Literary Hub

Watching the film Phantom Thread, I kept wondering why I was supposed to be interested in a control freak who is consistently unpleasant to all the people around him. I kept looking at the other characters—his sister who manages his couture business, his seamstresses, eventually the furniture (as a child, I read a very nice story about the romance between two chairs)—wondering why we couldn’t have a story about one of them instead.

Who gets to be the subject of the story is an immensely political question, and feminism has given us a host of books that shift the focus from the original protagonist—from Jane Eyre to Mr. Rochester’s Caribbean first wife, from Dorothy to the Wicked Witch, and so forth. But in the news and political life, we’re still struggling over whose story it is, who matters, and who our compassion and interest should be directed at.

The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence, the kid gloves and the red carpet, and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially white Protestant men, some of whom are apparently dismayed to find out that there is going to be, as your mom might have put it, sharing. The history of this country has been written as their story, and the news sometimes still tells it this way—one of the battles of our time is about who the story is about, who matters and who decides.

It is this population we are constantly asked to pay more attention to and forgive even when they hate us or seek to harm us. It is toward them we are all supposed to direct our empathy. The exhortations are everywhere. PBS News Hour featured a quiz by Charles Murray in March that asked “Do You Live in a Bubble?” The questions assumed that if you didn’t know people who drank cheap beer and drove pick-up trucks and worked in factories you lived in an elitist bubble. Among the questions: “Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community with a population under 50,000 that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college? Have you ever walked on a factory floor? Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?”

The quiz is essentially about whether you are in touch with working-class small-town white Christian America, as though everyone who’s not Joe the Plumber is Maurice the Elitist. We should know them, the logic goes; they do not need to know us. Less than 20 percent of Americans are white evangelicals, only slightly more than are Latino. Most Americans are urban. The quiz delivers, yet again, the message that the 80 percent of us who live in urban areas are not America, treats non-Protestant (including the quarter of this country that is Catholic) and non-white people as not America, treats many kinds of underpaid working people (salespeople, service workers, farmworkers) who are not male industrial workers as not America. More Americans work in museums than work in coal, but coalminers are treated as sacred beings owed huge subsidies and the sacrifice of the climate, and museum workers—well, no one is talking about their jobs as a totem of our national identity.

PBS added a little note at the end of the bubble quiz, “The introduction has been edited to clarify Charles Murray’s expertise, which focuses on white American culture.” They don’t mention that he’s the author of the notorious Bell Curve or explain why someone widely considered racist was welcomed onto a publicly funded program. Perhaps the actual problem is that white Christian suburban, small-town, and rural America includes too many people who want to live in a bubble and think they’re entitled to, and that all of us who are not like them are menaces and intrusions who needs to be cleared out of the way.

“More Americans work in museums than work in coal, but coalminers are treated as sacred beings owed huge subsidies.”

After all, there was a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year full of white men with tiki torches chanting “You will not replace us.” Which translates as get the fuck out of my bubble, a bubble that is a state of mind and a sentimental attachment to a largely fictional former America. It’s not everyone in this America; for example, Syed Ahmed Jamal’s neighbors in Lawrence, Kansas, rallied to defend him when ICE arrested and tried to deport the chemistry teacher and father who had lived in the area for 30 years. It’s not all white men; perpetration of the narrative centered on them is something too many women buy into and some admirable men are trying to break out of.

And the meanest voices aren’t necessarily those of the actual rural and small-town. In a story about a Pennsylvania coal town named Hazelton, Fox’s Tucker Carlson recently declared that immigration brings “more change than human beings are designed to digest,” the human beings in this scenario being the white Hazeltonians who are not immigrants, with perhaps an intimation that immigrants are not human beings, let alone human beings who have already had to digest a lot of change. Once again a small-town white American narrative is being treated as though it’s about all of us or all of us who count, as though the gentrification of immigrant neighborhoods is not also a story that matters, as though Los Angeles and New York City, both of which have larger populations than many American states, are not America. In New York City, the immigrant population alone exceeds the total population of Kansas (or Nebraska or Idaho or West Virginia, where all those coal miners are).

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, we were told that we needed to be nicer to the white working class, which reaffirmed the message that whiteness and the working class were the same thing and made the vast non-white working class invisible or inconsequential. We were told that Trump voters were the salt of the earth and the authentic sufferers, even though poorer people tended to vote for the other candidate. We were told that we had to be understanding of their choice to vote for a man who threatened to harm almost everyone who was not a white Christian man, because their feelings preempt everyone else’s survival. “Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks,” Bernie Sanders reprimanded us, though studies showed that many were indeed often racists, sexists, and homophobes.

Part of how we know whose party it is was demonstrated by who gets excused for hatred and attacks, literal or verbal. A couple of weeks ago, the Atlantic tried out hiring a writer, Kevin Williamson, who said women who have abortions should be hanged, and then un-hired him under public pressure from people who don’t like the idea that a quarter of American women should be executed. The New York Times has hired a few conservatives akin to Williamson, including climate waffler Bret Stephens. Stephens devoted a column to sympathy on Williamson’s behalf and indignation that anyone might oppose him. Sympathy in pro-bubble America often goes reflexively to the white man in the story. The assumption is that the story is about him; he’s the protagonist, the person who matters, and when you, say, read Stephens defending Woody Allen and attacking Dylan Farrow for saying Allen molested her, you see how much work he’s done imagining being Woody Allen, how little being Dylan Farrow or anyone like her. It reminds me of how young women pressing rape charges are often told they’re harming the bright future of the rapist in question, rather than that maybe he did it to himself, and that their bright future should matter too. The Onion nailed it years ago: “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed.”

“There have been too many stories about men feeling less comfortable, too few about how women might be feeling more secure.”

This misdistribution of sympathy is epidemic. The New York Times called the man with a domestic-violence history who in 2015 shot up the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, killing three parents of young children, “a gentle loner.” And then when the bomber who had been terrorizing Austin, TX, last month was finally caught, journalists at the newspaper interviewed his family and friends and let their positive descriptions stand as though they were more valid than the fact he was an extremist and a terrorist who set out to kill and terrorize black people in a particularly vicious and cowardly way. He was a “quiet, ‘nerdy’ young man who came from ‘a tight-knit, godly family,” the Times let us know in a tweet, while the Washington Post’s headline noted he was “frustrated with his life,” which is true of millions of young people around the world who don’t get this pity party and also don’t become terrorists. The Daily Beast got it right with a subhead about the latest right-wing terrorist, the one who blew himself up in his home full of bombmaking materials: “Friends and family say Ben Morrow was a Bible-toting lab worker. Investigators say he was a bomb-building white supremacist.”

But this March, when a teenage boy took a gun to his high school in Maryland and used it to murder Jaelynn Willey, the newspapers labeled him lovesick, as though premeditated murder was just a natural reaction to being rejected by someone you dated. In a powerfully eloquent editorial in the New York Times, Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Isabelle Robinson writes about the “disturbing number of comments I’ve read that go something like this: Maybe if Mr. Cruz’s classmates and peers had been a little nicer to him, the shooting at Stoneman Douglas would never have occurred.” As she notes, this puts the burden—and then the blame—on peers to meet the needs of boys and men who may be hostile or homicidal.

This framework suggests we owe them something, which feeds a sense of entitlement, which sets up the logic of payback for not delivering what they think we owe them. Elliot Rodgers set out to massacre the members of a sorority at UC Santa Barbara in 2014 because he believed that sex with attractive women was a right of his that women were violating and that another right of his was to punish any or all of them unto death. He killed six people and injured fourteen. Nikolas Cruz said, “Elliot Rodgers will not be forgotten.”

“We are as a culture moving on to a future with more people and more voices and more possibilities. Some people are being left behind, not because the future is intolerant of them but because they are intolerant of this future.”

Women often internalize that sense of responsibility for men’s needs. Stormy Daniels felt so responsible for coming to a stranger’s hotel room in 2006 that she felt obliged to provide the sex he wanted and she didn’t. She told Anderson Cooper, “I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’” (It’s worth noting that she classified having sex with Donald Trump as “bad things happen” and the sense in that she deserved it was a punitive one.) His desires must be met. Hers didn’t count.

Women are not supposed to want things for themselves, as the New York Times reminded us when they castigated Daniels with a headline noting her ambition, a quality that Hillary Clinton and various other high-profile women have also been called out for but that seems invisible when men have it, as men who act and direct movies and pursue political careers generally do. Daniels had, the New York Times told us in a profile of the successful entertainer, “an instinct for self-promotion” and “her competitive streak is not well concealed.” She intended to “bend the business to her will.” The general implication is that any woman who’s not a doormat is a dominatrix.

Recently people have revisited a 2010 political-science study that tested the response to fictitious senatorial candidates, identical except for gender; “regardless of whether male politicians were generally preferred over female politicians, participant voters only reacted negatively to the perceived power aspirations of the female politician.” They characterized that reaction as “moral outrage”: how dare she seek power. How dare she want things for herself rather than others—even though seeking power may be a means to working on behalf of others. How dare she consider the story to be about her or want to be the one who determines what the story is.

And then there’s the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. We’ve heard from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women about assaults, threats, harassment, humiliation, coercion, of campaigns that ended careers, pushed them to the brink of suicide. Many men’s response to this is sympathy for men. The elderly film director Terry Gilliam said in March, “I feel sorry for someone like Matt Damon who is a decent human being. He came out and said all men are not rapists, and he got beaten to death. Come on, this is crazy!” Matt Damon has not actually been beaten to death. He is one of the most highly-paid actors on earth, which is a significantly different experience than being beaten to death. The actor Chris Evans did much better with this shift, saying recently, “The hardest thing to reconcile is that just because you have good intentions, doesn’t mean it’s your time to have a voice.”

But the follow-up story to the #MeToo upheaval has too often been: how do the consequences of men hideously mistreating women affect men’s comfort? Are men okay with what’s happening? There have been too many stories about men feeling less comfortable, too few about how women might be feeling more secure in offices where harassing coworkers may have been removed or are at least a bit less sure about their right to grope and harass. Men themselves insist on their comfort as a right; Dr. Larry Nassar, the gymnastics doctor who molested more than a hundred girls, objected to having to hear his victims describe what he did and how it impacted them on the grounds that it interfered with his comfort.

We are as a culture moving on to a future with more people and more voices and more possibilities. Some people are being left behind, not because the future is intolerant of them but because they are intolerant of this future. White men, Protestants from the dominant culture are welcome, but as Chris Evans noted, the story isn’t going to be about them all the time, and they won’t always be the ones telling it. It’s about all of us. White Protestants are already a minority and non-white people will become a voting majority in a few decades. This country has room for everybody who believes that there’s room for everybody. For those who don’t—well, that’s partly a battle about who controls the narrative and who it’s about.

 

Rebecca Solnit

 

Source: Whose Story (and Country) Is This? | Literary Hub

The Makers of Sesame Street Are Suing the Team Behind The Happytime Murders

An image from The Happytime Murders.
Photo: STX

The first trailer for the hard-R-rated puppet film The Happytime Murders says that the film is “no Sesame, all Street,” and the people responsible for Sesame Street are not happy about it. In fact, they’re suing.

Sesame Workshop, the company responsible for the long-running family program Sesame Street, filed a lawsuit in New York Thursday against STX Entertainment, which is making The Happytime Murders. The suit claims The Happytime Murders tarnishes the Sesame Street brand by using its recognizable name in its decidedly adult marketing. (The Wrap has more specific details on the suit.)

“Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, learned last Friday that the name Sesame Street is being used to market a graphic, adult-themed movie,” a statement released to io9 from the Sesame Workshop read. We were surprised and disappointed that Sesame Street, a show dedicated to educating young children, is being exploited to market this R-rated film. We immediately contacted the film’s distributor, STX Films, and requested that they remove our name from the film’s marketing. They declined to do so. We take no issue with the creative freedom of the filmmakers and their right to make and promote this movie, rather this is about how our name is being misused to market a film with which we have no association. We regret that our fans and families have been confused by STX’s marketing campaign.”

“Fred, Esq.,” a puppet representing STX Entertainment, provided io9 with the following statement.

STX loved the idea of working closely with Brian Henson and the Jim Henson Company to tell the untold story of the active lives of Henson puppets when they’re not performing in front of children. Happytime Murders is the happy result of that collaboration and we’re incredibly pleased with the early reaction to the film and how well the trailer has been received by its intended audience. While we’re disappointed that Sesame Street does not share in the fun, we are confident in our legal position. We look forward to introducing adult moviegoers to our adorably unapologetic characters this summer.

The Happytime Murders is directed by Brian Henson—whose father, Jim Henson, helped create Sesame Street. While there is no direct link between the properties, Henson puppets and puppeteers are being used in the film, so there is some tangential DNA. The question becomes, will STX decide to remove the Sesame Street reference from the film’s marketing—or will a court of law be forced to get involved?

The Happytime Murders is scheduled for release August 17.

[The Blast]

Updates: Sesame Workshop sent a slightly updated statement after publication, which we changed, and we added a statement from STX’s representative puppet.

 

Source: The Makers of Sesame Street Are Suing the Team Behind The Happytime Murders

How Social Media Became a Pink Collar Job | WIRED

Companies hiring for technical positions often slip language into their job postings that appeals to men. They say they’re looking for “ninjas,” who seek to “obliterate competition,” and are capable of “dominating.” By now, these wordings are a well understood form of bias that produces more male candidates than female.

But one job in the digital economy falls predominantly to women. It’s an oft-overlooked position, drawing on both marketing and editorial skills, that has become increasingly critical both to business success and online discourse. The pay is poor, and the respect can be limited. Take a look at the job posting for any social media manager. You’ll discover the same bias in its language, in reverse: a bias for sourcing female candidates.

By now, these wordings are a well understood form of bias that
produces more male candidates than female.

Social media managers are “the behind-the-screens labor involved in media and technology, central to propelling our digital economy forward,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, who is an Assistant Professor in Communications at Cornell. Between 70 and 80 percent of social media workers self-identify as women on the salary compilation site Payscale. The career has been referred to as the Pink Ghetto.

According to a study, published by Duffy and University of Oxford researcher Becca Schwartz in New Media & Society and slated for a print release early next year, companies create this diversity gap by advertising social media as “women’s work”—at the same time as they routinely undervalue it. Duffy and Schwartz studied 150 job postings to determine how businesses recruit social media specialists. These companies, which included BuzzFeed, Equinox and Thrillist, advertised jobs that called for applicants to be sociable, exhibit deft emotional management and be flexible–all traits that Duffy says are typically associated with women.

The feminized nature of social media employment, Duffy and Schwartz argue, is connected to its “characteristic invisibility, lower pay, and marginal status” within the tech industry. The pair cites statistics from Payscale that place average pay for a social media specialist at $41,000. But that’s for staff jobs. Duffy, who last year published the book (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work, has been tracking this field for awhile. This spring, she conducted an additional 25 interviews with social media managers to better understand the dynamics of the job. Most social media jobs, she says, are contract positions; the ghost-tweeters responsible for upholding a brand’s social persona, for example, may be balancing two or three clients at a time.

In the job descriptions Duffy and Schwartz studied, which included both entry-level postings and calls for internships, companies often made the jobs sound like non-work: fun hobbies for which people just happened to get paid. (Or, occasionally paid. Many of the internships were offered without pay, or for school credit.) Postings referred to the job as sociable, blurring the boundaries between work and play. Perks on offer included everything from discounts on classes at Equinox to LaCroix and free massages at the digital media company Ranker. “The assumption was that these jobs were extensions of what people would be doing for fun anyway,” says Duffy.

“The assumption was that these jobs were extensions of what people
would be doing for fun anyway”

Duffy notes that social media specialists’ roles are not simply to steward a brand’s presence on social media, but to act as a personal round-the-clock ambassador for the brand. Companies sought out workers who had active social followings already, and could prove they use many different services, from Twitter to Instagram to Pinterest, regularly. For these workers, tech addiction or obsession was not pathologized, but in fact “bound up with notions of the idealized worker,” according to the study. Candidates were encouraged to be always online–and passionate personally about the brands for which they worked. Companies sought workers who expressed social allegiance: Candidates were expected to show a “passion for travel and [The Points Guy] brand,” or a “deep passion for the UrbanDaddy brand and lifestyle.”

At the same time, their true identities go unrecognized. Unlike journalists, social media managers have no byline. They don’t reveal who they are when tweeting under a brand’s handle or posting to Pinterest. In that way, social media workers are a digital version of public relations professionals, an often low-status woman-dominated role within corporate America. Social media managers usually command less respect than PR managers, while taking on responsibility for an increasingly important distribution channel. Strategic use of social media has been credited for influencing elections, harnessed to transform fledgling startups into billion-dollar companies, and used as a form of warfare. But this influence doesn’t translate into a higher paycheck or more internal power.

The study also suggests companies are seeking out candidates capable of “emotional labor.” This falls into two buckets. Companies advertise for candidates who are “upbeat” and “kind-hearted,” and capable, generally, of the emotional finesse involved in wrangling a brand’s messages into 140-character tweets, managing its employees so that they participate, and interacting with the wider audience of brand loyalists. But social managers must also withstand the vitriol of the trolls who target Tweeters and posters with an expanding vocabulary of hate speech. “You are on the other end of a public face,” says Duffy. “You are dealing with the trolls yourself.”

Duffy and Schwartz believe the influx of women in these roles is the reason salaries and status remain low. Historically, when women entered both journalism and public relations beginning in the late 19th century, society began to value these types of work less. Similarly, they suggest, when companies use female-centric language to advertise, they’re devaluing the nature of the work.

By contrast, there’s a different type of social media work that companies value highly—the work of coding and building the networks. It similarly happens behind-the-screens, and relies on a set of specialized skills. These professionals, who are overwhelming white and male, are like gold to employers, who offer them “hefty base salaries, top-notch benefits and perks galore.” They are valorized by society. As anyone who has watched HBO’s Silicon Valley will note, they are often perceived to lack the emotional finesse necessary to accomplish the “emotional labor” involved in social media and we consider that more of a point of humor than a deficit.

Women are left to shoulder the burden of labor for communications and branding—necessary roles whose value does not command similar prestige. It’s the digital version of the pink-collar job, and until companies evaluate their hiring process, this division of labor will only become more entrenched.


More Great WIRED Stories

Source: How Social Media Became a Pink Collar Job | WIRED

Betsy DeVos to Schools: Call ICE on Undocumented Children

Photo: Mark Wilson (Getty Images)

Does Betsy DeVos care more about furthering the xenophobic and racist policies of this administration than she does about educating the children of this country? The education secretary’s latest statement would lead us to believe that is indeed the case, since she basically told schools to call the police on undocumented children who show up to get their legally mandated free public education.

HuffPost reports that during a hearing Tuesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) asked DeVos if she thought school leaders should call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on students or their parents if they believed them to be undocumented.

“I think that’s a school decision, it’s a local community decision,” DeVos told the committee. “I refer to the fact that we have laws and we also are compassionate. I urge this body to do its job and address and clarify where there is confusion around this.”

Betsy DeVos, you ignorant slut.

Keep in mind that in 1982 in the landmark decision Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot constitutionally deny a free education to students based on their immigration status. By passively instructing schools to call ICE on undocumented students, DeVos is increasing the likelihood that students who fit that category will stop showing up for class. It is an underhanded way to deny them their free education.

When pressed by HuffPost to clarify DeVos’ statement, Department of Education press secretary Elizabeth Hill said, “Her position is that schools must comply with Plyler and all other applicable and relevant law.”

The vague double talk is telling.

Betsy DeVos doesn’t care about educating children. She is yet another tool of this administration, put in place to dismantle everything this country claims to be about.

About the author

Monique Judge

#TheRootAfterDark Columnist and News Writer for The Root. I said what I said. Period.

 

Source: Betsy DeVos to Schools: Call ICE on Undocumented Children

Your Worst Alexa Nightmares Are Coming True

Illustration: Gizmodo

What’s the most terrifying thing you can imagine an Amazon Echo doing? Think realistically. Would it be something simple but sinister, like the artificially intelligent speaker recording a conversation between you and a loved one and then sending that recording to an acquaintance? That seems pretty bad to me. And guess what: it’s happening.

A husband and wife in Portland recently received a disturbing call from the man’s employee. “Unplug your Alexa device right now,” said the voice on the line. “You’re being hacked.” That would have been scary enough, but then, the thoughtful employee explained that he had recently received audio files containing a conversation between the couple. When they doubted him, the employee sent the files. Sure enough, the couple’s Amazon Echo had shared a recording of a private conversation without the couple’s permission—and it wasn’t because of hackers. It was because of Amazon.

Amazon recently admitted that the Portland couple had fallen victim to an “unlikely … string of events.” Somehow, their Echo had misinterpreted background noise as a wake word and then another sound as a command to send a message and then another string of words as a command to send the recording to the man’s employee. Amazon even claims that Alexa said “[contact name], right?” to confirm the action, but the couple denies that the devices ever asked for a confirmation to send the message. Heck, they didn’t even know they were being recorded in the first place.

To say, “This is some Black Mirror shit,” would not only be cliché, it would be an understatement. This incident illustrates the real-life privacy nightmare that always-on voice assistants bring into our homes. As with any internet-connected technology, smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home confront consumers with the decision to trade privacy for convenience.

The terms of that tradeoff remain unclear. For now, we know that these devices record your commands in order to train their voice software to understand commands better. We also know that Google and Amazon both hold a number of patents that would enable them to collect data from voice commands to do anything from making a judgment about a child’s level of “mischief” to gauging a person’s mood in order to personalize content or target ads. Amazon specifically has already started experimenting with ads on Alexa-powered devices in the form of sponsorships and is reportedly in talks with companies about delivering ads based on voice commands. If you ask how to remove a stain, for instance, Alexa might respond with a Clorox ad. But right now, these are just ideas.

Present day reality is, in some ways, much more frightening. The technology that powers internet-connected, voice-controlled devices is so new that we simply don’t know how or when it will fail. And we definitely don’t know what the consequences might be when they do. Scenarios like the Alexa oopsie above don’t even represent security issues. They represent a fundamental design flaw in these apparently under-tested systems. If Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are supposed to improve as they collect more data and learn more about human speech, we can only conclude that there’s always a chance they will fail and do the wrong thing along the way. We now know that might mean your Echo could record a private conversation between you and a loved one and send it someone on your contact list.

That’s all assuming these devices work like they’re supposed to. There are other ways that voice-controlled assistants become compromised, including but not limited to software bugs, security shortcomings, and government intervention. For example, a touch panel bug turned some Google Home Minis into full-fledged surveillance devices last year. Security researchers, meanwhile, have had a field day hacking Alexa and turning her into an always-listening spy. And let’s not forget that Amazon has proven that it will hand over your Echo data to law enforcement if the situation demands it. The FBI may or may not be wiretapping Echo devices in the meantime.

If you’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned Apple or Siri in all of this creepy surveillance business, you get a gold star. The HomePod and other Siri-powered experiences simply haven’t been subject to so much scandal (yet). That might be because Apple insists that all Siri commands are anonymized, encrypted, and stored on the device. Who knows if, in the long term, this means that Siri is a safer assistant than Alexa. But for now, as far as we know, Apple’s technology simply hasn’t created the appalling sort of situation that leads to a couple’s private conversation being sent to a seemingly random person because of crappy software. Yet.

As for Alexa, though, now feels like a moment of reckoning. Amazon’s admitting the Echo error happened at almost the exact same time we saw reports that Google Home had outsold Amazon Echo devices for the first time ever. That’s probably a coincidence, but it makes you wonder if Amazon is in over its head when it comes to artificial intelligence and machine learning.

I’ve argued in the past that Google’s smart gadgets work better than Amazon’s. And now, despite a bug here or there, I’m starting to feel like Alexa might just be dangerous in her inferiority. Alexa’s screw-ups are scary. The conversation recording is actually terrifying. It’s a nightmare. And it’s also one you can avoid. Don’t buy an Echo. Definitely, don’t buy one for a friend.

About the author

Adam Clark Estes

Senior editor at Gizmodo.

PGP Fingerprint: 91CF B387 7B38 148C DDD6 38D2 6CBC 1E46 1DBF 22A8 • PGP Key

OTR Fingerprint: D9330D9B 6CF5E271 7FAC6194 DAA9B51B E09A99B2

 

Source: Your Worst Alexa Nightmares Are Coming True