Since last year, I stopped waiting spasmodically for my birthday. An additional year of life doesn’t mean anymore the acquisition of a new right (the last right that I gained was, at 25, the possibility to vote for the Italian Senate of the Republic), but just being a little closer to the natural conclusion of my life cycle.
Unfortunately, Facebook recently and brutally reminded me of the upcoming event, forcing this reminder at the top of my newsfeed:
Apparently, for Zuckerberg my data aren’t good enough; now, he wants me to start raising funds for the public good too.
This new fundraising feature appeared in August 2017 and it allows Facebook users to start fundraisers for the causes that they care about. All you need to do is pick a nonprofit from a pool of +750,000 organizations (yes, three zeroes) and in a few, easy steps you can ask your friends to throw in a buck to make the world a better place.
With a brilliant strategic move, Facebook gurus decided to focus on birthdays since birthday dates are already quite central to our daily lives in Zuckerland. Moreover, the new feature taps into an evident need for personal validation.
The strategy paid off. Last August, the social network announced that in one year this new functionality raised over $300 million. At the beginning, the company took a fairly standard 5 percent fee on every donation. However, in November 2017, it abolished the fee and now 100 percent of donations made through the platform go directly to the selected nonprofits.
In a time when the "overhead myth" dominates public opinion, the Menlo Park juggernaut guarantees that all your money will go straight to the charity you decided to help. Sounds good, eh?
Moreover, if you’re not convinced by its first invitation to create a fundraiser, Facebook will come up with a new banner, also strategically positioned at the top of your newsfeed, that promises to donate €2 to a non-profit of your choice, if you just create a fundraiser for it.
All you need to do is pick a cause that you think is worthy and make it public. Facebook will do the rest. Small donation included.
This is probably the lowest-effort philanthropy one can think of. In the realm of Facebook, doing good is so easy that it takes more effort not to do it. Only Pennywise the Dancing Clown would dare to say that setting up a birthday fundraiser for, let's say, disabled kids is "bad for business".
Then why am I then bothering to write a piece that supposedly exposes the “problem” of FB fundraisers?
My main issue with this nifty feature is that it propagates an unsuccessful approach to philanthropy; I’ll explain my claim showing how the (extremely smooth and user-friendly) process of setting up a fundraiser on the platform works.
Once you have decided that you do want to create a fundraiser, Facebook will ask you to select a non-profit. As I said, you can choose from a batch of +750,000 organizations. And Facebook will propose to you a list like this one:
You can scroll the list or search for an organization yourself. There’s also a sidebar menu that helps you navigate the charities by category. Apparently, the list is tailored mainly on your location, friends, and friends’ likes. Standard Facebook algorithm.
Information about the organizations’ effectiveness or impact is nowhere to be found.
When it’s time to share your fundraiser, Facebook will pop this window, suggesting a possible text to “tell your story”.
And that’s the main problem at the core of Facebook fundraisers; they’re just another declination of self-expression.
“I’ve chosen this nonprofit because their mission means a lot to me,” Facebook suggests to write. In this conception, raising funds for a charity is just another way to tailor your virtual self and to express a sense of belonging, akin to sharing a political post or a romantic picture with your partner. It’s a replica of the same echo (ego) chamber mechanism that causes us to cluster in groups of private interests, losing sight of the possibility of a common, shared good.
On social media, it’s all always about you and your damn story. But altruism shouldn’t be a prosecution of the ego by other means. Quite the opposite, it should be about, well, others.
I’m aware that this problem doesn’t start with Facebook. Philanthropy has always been also about feeling good about ourselvesand promoting the causes that we’re for several reasons inclined to care about. However, social media certainly amplifies this logic.
The problem is that this approach to fixing the world’s problems is doomed to fail. If we want to make the world a better place, we need to adopt a more rational, evidence-based approach to doing good. That’s the kind of “Copernican revolution” of philanthropy that a social movement and philosophy called “Effective Altruism” proposes: shifting the focus of our altruistic efforts from “what we care about” to “what we should care about”.
For example, EA activists claim that, if we want to solve the world’s problems, we need, first off, to make some cause prioritization and select the issues that we ought to tackle first; according to EA, those are ending radical poverty, stopping intensive animal farming, and taking care of our “long-term future” which basically means the minimization of global catastrophic risks (like the singularity).
At the same time, we should be careful to only donate to organizations that can maximize the positive impact of our money.
These are dimensions that are completely lacking in Facebook birthday fundraisers. If only the social network started to pay more attention to these aspects, this neat functionality might lead to much greater good.
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When we think of “global threats”, we usually imagine terrorist attacks, cyberwars, and weapons of mass destructions. Or maybe, trespassing into the realm of fiction, of James Bond’s Dr. No and other, similar, cats-owning villains.
Obviously, these are all fearsome scenarios and risks (especially Dr.No). However, there’s another “global threat” that is looming above us, even though we probably wouldn’t think of calling it that way. Such a threat is climate change.
Last Tuesday, the Office of the Director of US National Intelligence published its yearly Worldwide Threat Assessment, a hearing of the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee that has occurred since 2006.
In the report, the US intelligence community lists a series of “global threats” that humanity is currently facing. Amidst transnational organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions, and online operations to interfere with political elections, we find also — grouped in the section relating to “human security” — the “negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change.”
In particular, the assessment highlights how the increased magnitude of these phenomena is likely to “fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
Three are the main critical points raised by the report. First off, the intelligence community is concerned by extreme weather events and particularly by how they will affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.
Secondly, they link the increasing water and food insecurity around the world with the “changes in the frequency and variability” of heat waves, droughts, and floods.
And, finally, the report zooms in on the issue of diminishing Arctic sea ice, highlighting how this problem paves the way for increased competition with Russia and China over access to sea routes and natural resources.
En passant, the intelligence report reminds its readers that Arctic ice is shrinking constantly. “In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010,” the report warns.
As environmental media outlet Inside Climate News reminds us, The Worldwide Threat Assessment included “climate change” as a global threat to human security also in the past years, so there’s “nothing new under the sun”: the ice is still melting.
However, while other global threats like terrorism are treated as such in the media, climate change is still too often debated not as an imminent threat but as something that, if at all, will strike far in the future. At the opposite, as the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment denounces once again, climate changes' effects are already underway.
A year ago, the UK government asked economist Frances Cairncross to conduct an independent review of the challenges high-quality journalism is facing in the country.
Last Tuesday, the Cairncross Review was published, highlighting nine recommendations that the government and regulators ought to follow to help secure the sustainability of journalism in the future.
The recommendations range from investigating the workings of online advertising (aka the Google-Facebook duopoly) to developing a media literacy strategy.
However, the recommendation that attracted my attention the most, given my particular interest in the charitable sector, was number nine.
It reads: “New forms of tax relief: The government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.”
Cairncross is hinting at two tax changes here. The first one is the extension of zero-rating VAT to digital subscriptions and micropayments for online news (currently, the exemption is enjoyed just by print newspapers and periodicals) and the second is granting charitable status to particular types of high-quality, public-interest journalism.
Last June, Cairncross issued a ‘call for evidence’ to gather material for the report and the review reveals that granting charitable status to select news outlets was one of the most frequently raised proposals.
As known, charities benefit from several tax breaks in the United Kingdom so it would be much easier for a news organization with charitable status to attract philanthropic donations that could provide a much-needed additional revenue stream.
However, this is easier said than done. As the report notes, UK’s current charity law is probably incompatible with the role of news organizations since it forbids charities “to undertake certain political activities such as securing or opposing a change in law, policy or decisions affecting the country”.
A solution could then be to add public-interest journalism to the list of charitable causes the 2011 Charities Act set out to advance. But, again, this might take time and be deemed legally too complicated. That’s why the Cairncross report also highlights a “second-best option”: building a journalistic equivalent of the Creative Sector Tax Relief that grants support to creative industries ranging from video-games to film production.
Legal feasibility aside, the indication expressed by Craincross is part of a larger trend that is taking hold in the news industry: non-profit journalism.
Facing shrinking revenue opportunities, several news media startups across the world decide to opt for business models that rely solely on donations, from private individuals or larger foundations.
One of the most notable examples is certainly ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize winning newsroom established in New York in 2007 to produce investigative journalism in the public interest.
But media organizations that adopt mixed business models are also considering the idea of attracting philanthropic money to fund in-depth reporting with increasing interest.
Just to give a number, Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism found that 12 percent of European publishers saw philanthropy as an “important” income stream in 2019.
Obviously, “philanthrojournalism” is not immune to criticism. How can we make sure that the money comes with no strings attached? And even if we can guarantee that the media outlet retains total editorial control - as in the examples I mentioned above - how could we envision a system where the funding doesn’t necessarily reflect the funder’s interest areas?
These are complex challenges that require bold and imaginative solutions.
Maybe we should think beyond large foundations. In a recent article for The Guardian, journalist Owen Jones contemplates a sort of democratized public subsidy for the whole media industry. His idea, firstly proposed by US media scholar Robert McChesney, consists of the state giving every citizen a yearly allowance of $200 to donate to one or more publications. In Jones’s hypothesis, the allowance would be funded by an annual tax on the advertising industry.
The idea lends itself to an array of criticism. There’s the evident risk, for example, that the funding will just mirror the electorate’s political preferences of the moment resulting in a pro-government press with more money than its competitors.
Regardless, the idea has the merit of being radical and out-of-the-box and that’s the kind of thinking we need in this ongoing brainstorming on the future of journalism.
There are many reasons why people decide to cut animal products from their diet, but the negative health effects of excessive meat and dairy consumption and the enormous environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are popular ones.
However, the suffering of billions of animals each year in factory farming, referred to in a 2015 Guardian article as one of the “worst crimes in history”, is the most powerful motivation for many, including myself.
Refraining from something that causes so much harm and suffering is laudable, but there’s one argument occasionally used in vegan and animal rights campaigns that warrants closer attention – the idea that consuming other creatures is morally wrong in its own right.
Opposing meat eating on ontological grounds – meaning, simply because animals are sentient beings, we shouldn’t eat them – separates humans from nature and prevents truly ethical relationships between humans, animals and the natural world. The late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood coined “ontological veganism” to describe this absolute opposition.
Ontological veganism asserts that beings that count as ethical subjects should not be eaten, in the same way that there’s a widespread taboo about eating humans. While this thinking erects another unhelpful boundary between animals and other life forms, it’s also ironic that the rationale underlying taboos against eating humans is the desire to radically separate humans from other animals.
By framing the consumption of other living beings as an inherent moral wrong, ontological veganism also risks demonising predation. In order to avoid this, a common approach is to “excuse” animal predation by arguing that the latter is part of “nature” while humans, as cultural beings, should be exempt.
Some of us – especially those living in wealthy countries – can indeed choose to opt for vegan products, but this argument reproduces another false dichotomy: nature vs. culture. Life is entanglement, with no clear boundaries between “humans” and other species, or between “nature” and “society”.
"Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows. You can take them, you can eat them, like you they are food. They are with you, not for you."
This quote is from the late utopian author Ursula Le Guin, in her novel Always Coming Home. Her idea is akin to Plumwood’s theory of ecological animalism, which seeks to replace human supremacy over nature with mutual and respectful use between humans and other species.
Ontological veganism would frame using or consuming animals itself as inherently exploitative. But consider forms of mutual use seen in symbiotic relationships, such as those between pollinating insects and plants. In such scenarios, use isn’t oppressive or exploitative. It’s the form of use seen within industrial capitalism, where humans and non-humans alike are treated only as a means to an end, that prevents ethical relationships.
Ecosystems and all living beings depend upon mutual use and consumption. Orcas consume fish and other marine mammals, we must consume living vegetable matter at least, and when we die, we become food for a host of microorganisms, nourishing them in turn.
If humans are indeed animals who differ from other species only by degrees rather than kind, then like them, we are food. To deny this is to deny that humans are embedded within the ecosystems they originate from and are sustained by.
The horrific cruelty involved in industrial factory farming reduces living beings to mere profitable commodities. This is why I am a vegan, and it is here where calls for eradicating or at least reforming animal agriculture find firmer ground.
The ways in which animals are currently treated in agriculture represent the exact opposite of respect and mutuality. No wonder Aldous Huxley observed in his poignant ecotopian work, Island, that
"For animals… Satan, quite obviously, is Homo sapiens."
Ecological animalism offers a powerful basis for truly ethical and egalitarian ways of relating to other species. We are all food, and crucially, so much more. We are with and not for one another, and we are all worthy of respect. Go vegan whenever and wherever possible, but be mindful of the underlying rationales involved, lest we reproduce the same harmful dualisms we want to dismantle.