Helping Hand

Charities, like tech companies, have an interest in appearing “neutral” when they are anything but

On the 24th of June, 1859, a Swiss baron travelling through Italy on business was caught up in the Battle of Solferino. “What tragic, dramatic scenes of every kind, what moving catastrophes were enacted!” Henry Dunant wrote in his memoir. Men and horses were everywhere bayoneted and bleeding, their skulls crushed with stones. At night, soldiers would creep back onto the battlefield to look for their injured friends and try to staunch their bleeding with handkerchiefs or their bare hands. The aftermath meant convoys of thousands of wounded pouring into a town ill-equipped to care for them. Dunant did his best to help in the improvised wards. “Oh, Sir, I’m in such pain!” a wounded soldier said to him. “They desert us, leave us to die miserably, and yet we fought so hard!” Dunant wrote: “They called out in their distress for a doctor, and writhed in desperate convulsions that ended in tetanus and death.”

Dunant’s experience is at the heart of the origin story of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In A Memory of Solferino, published in 1862, Dunant imagined how different the carnage at Solferino could have been with a hundred experienced volunteer orderlies and nurses to organize and guide relief efforts. His account and recommendations circulated among government officials and monarchies throughout Europe, where it found sympathetic readers. By the end of 1863, Red Cross committees in Geneva and Germany had been formed, followed a few years later by one in England. In 1864 the Swiss government held a conference; this resulted in the First Geneva Convention, which was signed by twelve European powers.

Social media companies have a vested interest in being seen as impartial agents in the wars we wage against each other

In Solferino, each side was attempting to provide medical aid to their own wounded under enemy shelling, and while black flags were flown to mark the position of first aid posts, as Dunant wrote: “quartermaster and ambulance men are no more spared than are the wagons loaded with bread, wine, and meat to make soup for the wounded.” The advent of neutral aid workers who could help both sides impartially was seen as advantageous to all parties. In 1965, the ICRC adopted seven fundamental principles of the movement: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, volunteerism, unity, and universality.

In recent years, Red Cross has been the primary and often the only organization that social media platforms or tech companies have promoted in the wake of disasters. In 2013, during the Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan, and again in 2014, during the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, Facebook added a button on its Facebook News feeds for easy donations to the Red Cross. Until August 2017, when Facebook suddenly made a small organization called the Center for Disaster Philanthropy its chief partner for disaster relief, the relationship between Red Cross and Facebook helped the two organizations trade their strengths: the charity’s legitimacy for Facebook’s relevance. After flooding in Louisiana in 2016, Apple, T-Mobile, and Amazon all shepherded donors towards Red Cross. For massive companies with millions of users holding potentially opposed political opinions, Red Cross’ principle of firm neutrality aligns with a blank — yet caring — corporate image.

Today, we are still struggling to structure charitable work in a way that reconciles the pursuit of neutrality with humanity. The visibility of Red Cross as primary responders to humanitarian disaster touted by the Big Four demonstrates how the perception of neutrality can become a currency that allows the tech sector to market its own brand of shared human feeling distributed through a neutral platform. Social media companies have a vested interest in being seen as impartial agents in the wars we wage against each other.

“Her beneficence was unbounded; indeed the natural tenderness of her heart might have been argued, by the frigidity of a casuist, as detracting from her virtue in this respect, for her humanity was a feeling, not a principle.” These lines come from Henry Mackenzie’s 1771 novel The Man of Feeling. The book is generally considered an extreme example of the sentimentalism in vogue in the late 18th century — the hero, whose name is Harley, sighs, trembles, and cries his way through town and country for 191 pages. However, literary historians suggest that Harley’s encounters with a sex worker, an insane-asylum inmate, a beggar, and sundry others on the fringes of society feed into a grander narrative: the rise of organized humanitarianism in Christian culture.

Today it seems natural and inevitable that we should be moved by suffering. On social media, emotional reaction is the currency of exchange — as torrents of shared news, opinions, and feelings engulf us, a state of heightened sensibility becomes normal. We are all called upon to perform our humanity through demonstrations of feeling. The term “emotional labor,” coined by Arlie Hochschild in 1983’s The Managed Heart, is often used to describe the unequally divided work of responding to the cues of feeling in our environments. We devise personality tests to screen for empathy, and fear those who fail.

The association of feeling with weakness means that even caring about other people has to be couched in terms that foreground rationality

The complicated dance between sense and sensibility in our perception of the ideal person makes itself known in that sentence of Mackenzie’s: the frigid casuist, who applies theoretical rules to moral problems, would find fault with the heroine for feeling rather than thinking. But sense and sensibility are etymologically difficult to separate, and the distinction between them is messier than it seems in Jane Austen’s 1811 portrayal of the temperate and the intemperate sister. The person showing “sensibility” in the early 19th century was an empiricist of feeling, one whose senses were finely calibrated to gather emotional information from their surroundings. Music, painting, and natural beauty might move them to tears. Today, when we call a person “sensible,” we mean that they are practical and rational; sensible shoes are not shoes that faint at the sight of dashing Mr. Willoughby.

The conventional attitude to the suffering of others in European society began to swing from what was called sense to what was called sensibility in the 1800s — a realignment that made it seem rational and practical to be moved by emotion. The antislavery movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and the labor movement all suggested that to be fully human meant recognizing the humanity of others. In the Victorian period, humanitarianism as a practice of actively defending suffering populations from harm and working to better social conditions went hand-in-hand with a turning in Christian thought away from the afterlife and onto the betterment of this world.

And yet, as a humanitarian ethos became the established norm, the sentimentality of The Man of Feeling drew scorn. In its 1886 edition, the editor, Henry Morley, included a sly “Index to Tears (Chokings, &c., not counted)” itemizing the excesses of the hero’s weepy journey. Morley directs the reader to “Tears, burst into” on pages 54, 75, and 99, as well as “feet bathed with,” (p. 100), “hand bathed with,” (p. 53), and “voice lost in,” (p. 108). Readers could look up where tears “gushed afresh,” (p. 148) or “choked utterance,”(p. 144), as well as those that “wetted gray beard” (p.137). While charity towards others was becoming part of the ideal personality, romanticism’s bursts of tempestuous emotion were no longer in vogue. Feeling for others was to be expressed in action, and — rather as the frigid casuist might have recommended — reasoned as a principle.

This is how a discourse of neutrality and objectivity developed around the emotional recognition of universal human rights. The senses should flutter when they perceive injustice at work in the world, but then sense should be deployed to organize it away. Our discomfort with our own emotions — and the association of feeling with weakness — means that even caring about other people has to be couched in terms that foreground rationality.

But the more this emotional starting point is obscured under layers of “neutrality” and “objectivity,” the harder it becomes to recognize bias. In the 2016 book Organizing Disaster: The Construction of Humanitarianism, Adam Rostis writes of the hidden ironic effects that arise “when humanitarianism is wielded as a weapon of common sense.” Rostis, who is a doctor and holds a PhD in management, worked with the Red Cross for three years in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia, and his project is to destabilize the idea that humanitarianism and humanitarian intervention are either neutral or inevitable. The responses to extreme events, he writes, which often involve teams of predominantly Western-based charitable organizations entering other territories to identify crises, create infrastructure, and promote their favored solutions, tend to extend the colonial project of European control over other areas of the globe, and to entrench existing problems.

Rostis gives the example of mass evacuation or relocation of a population in the event of catastrophic drought or a cyclone; people are reluctant to leave in part because they realize that they may never be allowed back, and their ability to provide for themselves will be upended, making them semi-permanent wards of these international organizations. In addition, Rostis mentions the focus on HIV/AIDS during his own time with the Red Cross, and the blindness of international staff to the underlying problem of endemic poverty — why was the organization so unwilling to classify poverty as an emergency? In these types of situations, organizations like the Red Cross promise to create change for communities, but “the result is the exact opposite of change: the preservation and reinforcement of existing power relations under the guise of neutral humanitarianism.”

The priority given to certain types of suffering — and sufferers — over others that Rostis notes is neither neutral nor new. In one vignette of The Man of Feeling, the hero visits an insane asylum (historically a popular entertainment), and he and his fellow guests are led into a room with a number of inmates. “Separate from the rest stood one whose appearance had something of superior dignity. Her face, though pale and wasted, was less squalid than those of the others, and showed a dejection of that decent kind, which moves our pity unmixed with horror: upon her, therefore, the eyes of all were immediately turned.” They spoke more plainly in the 18th century, but it is very easy to imagine these same thoughts going through the mind of a fundraising and marketing strategist for a disaster relief agency today. For a campaign to work on social media, it needs the eyes of all to be immediately turned upon it, and the perception that some people’s faces are more dignified and deserving than those of others has not gone away.

When large organizations delude themselves into thinking that they are truly neutral actors, they put themselves in danger of hurting the people they are ostensibly helping

When Facebook controls the news users see, it has the power to create humanitarian disasters. If users are engaging with news of an earthquake in China, Facebook can push this news story into a place of prominence, creating awareness and facilitating donations. If Facebook doesn’t think a famine in Somalia or a flood in Eritrea will generate a lot of traffic, it can quietly sweep the event away. Facebook is not interested in showing us the most important things happening in the world, but rather in showing us content that will keep us on the site. And yet the existence of Facebook’s right-hand bar, which shows trending news stories, gives the impression that the platform is simply a window into what’s going on. Because so many people are going to social media for their news, in a very real sense events that don’t get enough shares don’t become news. Facebook wants to give us the impression that it empowers us to choose for ourselves what’s important.

When large organizations delude themselves into thinking that they are truly neutral actors, they put themselves in danger of hurting the people they are ostensibly helping and directing attention away from others in need. And when tech companies present themselves as neutral platforms for expression and connection, they disguise the extent to which they manipulate our sensibilities.

The Person of Feeling is very active on Facebook. If I were to construct an Index of Tears of my current feed, the past 10 minutes have yielded 23 sad-face emojis and two entries of the word “tears” in headlines, posts, or comments (“moved to” and “were shed”). Facebook’s mission statement, which was new in 2017, is “to bring the world closer together,” and users, in my circle at least, often demonstrate their increased closeness through shared grief. The endless novel of my Facebook feed cycles through genres like a scarf that changes colors every few inches, but right now, it is mostly a tragedy.

And Facebook wants to be seen as an organization that cares. When humanitarian crises arise, the company benefits from the reflected glow of altruism when it encourages or matches donations. As an organization, however, Facebook likes to think of itself as neutral. Following accusations that the company had allowed fake news to sway the U.S. election, Zuckerberg responded with a post: “Trump says Facebook is against him. Liberals say we helped Trump. Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like. That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.” The story is that Facebook is simply a place where everyone can voice their ideas and opinions, an exercise in free speech that, Zuckerberg claims, will strengthen democracy and make the world a better place.

The notion that the content visible on Facebook is neutrally selected is, of course, completely counter to the most cursory experience with the site. My News Feed is algorithmically crafted to heighten my engagement by showing me things the company thinks I want to see; people whose posts I have liked or commented on in the past are shown to me more often, and posts with high engagement from others in my circle are pushed to the top. Ads are tailored to me in part by buying information about what other sites I visit and what I do when I go there.

If the product is my attention, the buyers are advertisers. Far from being a neutral platform that promotes everyone’s voices equally, Facebook works with companies, organizations, and political campaigns buying ad space to help them make their ads as prominent as possible. In October, Bloomberg reporters Ben Elgin and Vernon Silver wrote that in the final lead-up to the election, Facebook had helped Secure America Now, an anti-Islam nonprofit, reach voters in swing states with a series of ads that showed the Eiffel Tower topped with a crescent and the Mona Lisa in a burka. The company used the group’s ads as an opportunity to test out a vertical video format — they tried 12 different versions of the video and then did a user survey to find out which format was preferred.

This last example — helping an organization spread hateful messaging while also using the opportunity to gather information about how to make their own product more sticky — seems to encapsulate Melvin Kranzberg’s famous first law of technology: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” Facebook’s priority is developing technologies for directing and holding our attention, and the ability to influence our behavior to this degree is highly charged. Even the simple desire to do so is the opposite of neutral.

When Facebook dumped Red Cross as its primary disaster-relief partner in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, media outlets speculated that it must have been the cumulative effect of negative reporting on Red Cross over the years. In 2015, ProPublica devoted a series to Red Cross: its mismanagement, its fudged reports of impact, its inefficacy. A joint report from ProPublica and NPR stated that the Red Cross had raised over half a billion dollars for relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and claimed to have provided housing to more than 130,000 people — when it fact it had built only six houses. The Red Cross responded with a post by their chief international officer, David Meltzer, saying that Red Cross had provided 860,000 tarps as well as 6,100 transitional homes.

Perhaps we could better deal with large tech organizations if their proposed activities and actual activities were as heavily regulated as those of charities

It is certainly likely that Facebook was responding to Red Cross’s negative publicity and the damage this could do to their brand. Their new partnership, however, may be a reflection of another strand in tech companies’ approach to charity: to see charities and nonprofits as social engineering problems that should be implementing solutions from the tech sector itself. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s website says the organization’s mission is to “transform the field of disaster philanthropy to increase donor effectiveness.” CDP doesn’t provide services itself; instead, it redistributes donations sent its way to nonprofits it believes can help in a given area. Google also began promoting CDP after Hurricane Harvey, and an article for IRIN, a humanitarian aid-focused independent media venture formerly associated with the United Nations, reported: “According to one experienced humanitarian manager, Google is choosing a go-between because it doesn’t want to vet charities, and then share responsibility for any failures.”

The rise of “impact investing” has some charity advocates worried that a business ethos, in which only projects that yield the most impressive-sounding results would be considered for funding, misses the point of the charitable sector. Deworming children may yield the highest ROI since it is cheap and effective, but does this mean slower, more difficult projects that affect fewer people should become less attractive to donors? A distribution model for attention to humanitarian crises that mirrored the internet’s distribution of attention would tend to make “popular” crises or issues more popular and drive less and less traffic over time to the unpopular ones.

It seems clear that neither technology companies nor humanitarian organizations can achieve any kind of true neutrality. If we accept this impossibility and decide that the goal is not neutrality but an articulation of standpoint — the “strong objectivity” popularized by feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding — that allows for the pursuit of a common good, the positioning of religious charities provides an interesting example.

The funding structure for charitable work has evolved in a way that rewards perceived neutrality, and penalizes organizations that seek to make clear their own point of view.

There is a Catch-22 embedded in the mission of many charities and nonprofits in the U.S., in that they may be trying to address a problem that is rooted in policy without being able to call for specific policy changes. In November, the NAACP chose to change its tax status from a 501(c)3 to a 501(c)4 so that it would be free to spend a greater share of its time and budget on political activity.

Yet the furtherance of religion is one of the purposes that the U.S. accepts as charitable. Religious charities arguably wield a “stronger” objectivity than the secular state, in that their positions come from chapters and verses that can be cited in widely available texts. Paradoxically, the fact that some of these beliefs no longer blend seamlessly with contemporary mores makes them easier to identify, and hence easier to talk honestly about as biases, whereas the biases of secular organizations remain more easily hidden. When questioned about their worldview and belief system, a religious person can discuss the complexities and ambiguities of their sacred texts — it provides a clear starting point. When a secular person is asked the same questions, it can be harder for them to identify the source of their beliefs. When I can’t readily explain why I think something, I am sometimes all the more likely to respond that it is obvious and doesn’t need to be explained.

Perhaps we could better deal with the large tech organizations that have such a heavy influence on our lives if the alignment of their proposed activities with their actual activities were as heavily regulated as those of charities. Registered charities are highly regulated, financially transparent, and accountable to governments and donors because they are considered to be doing, in effect, the government’s work — and because the claim to selfless pursuit of the good is so inherently suspicious. Paradoxically, it seems as though tech companies’ for-profit status allows them to claim beneficence, neutrality, and self-interest all at once, while shielding their financial and policy decisions from public scrutiny. As tech companies take on quasi-governmental roles — collecting data for spy agencies, managing political ads, even developing new cities as in Toronto’s upcoming Quayside project — commentators and lawmakers have started to suggest concrete moves towards greater transparency for social media companies. They could be obliged to maintain public databases of political advertising, and give individuals the ability to view and delete information held about them. If the U.S. were to change a 1996 law so as to make interactive computer services liable for false or libelous information published through them (as with traditional media sources), Facebook could be sued for allowing fabricated news stories to circulate on its platform.

What if you weren’t allowed to say that your goal was “bringing the world closer together” if an analysis of your projects and budget determined that your mission was in fact “attracting ad money by delivering user engagement”? It’s hard to imagine using such a platform to make friends and share personal stories. But this may be a question of sensibility rather than sense — without quite admitting it to ourselves, it’s what we’re already doing.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of OBJECTIVITY. Also from this week, Mila Samdub on SimCity’s  capitalist lens, and Anna Reser and Leila McNeill on the view from nowhere in approaches to climate change

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.