Cheese, Facebook, Google, and Trump DC
Last week, I came across a Twitter thread about the US government’s massive underground cheese storage caves. Like you (presumably), I did not know that our government stores 1.4 billion pounds of cheese in climate controlled limestone mines in Missouri. Why on earth do we need all this cheese? The answer, of course, is we don’t, but the dairy industry needs tens of billions a year in subsidies and this is the solution we came up with:
So, in 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter decided to pour money into the dairy industry to motivate production and alleviate the crisis. The government set a new policy to subsidize dairy, providing two billion dollars to the industry over the next four years. While this plan was welcome to dairy farmers, it also primed them for overproduction.
In the 70s and 80s, the government gave the dairy industry billions in subsidies, but it quickly built up a large surplus of cheese - producers turned the excess milk into cheese because it was more shelf stable. In the 90s, Clinton started Dairy Management Inc, an offshoot of the Department of Agriculture with a 9 figure budget and one mission: get Americans to consume more dairy. As recently as 2019, the government increased its cheese stockpile in response to trade disputes and declining consumption at home. By then the dairy industry was receiving between $35 and $43 billion a year in federal subsidies, and a shocking amount of their revenue was straight up government cheese:
In 2018, 42% of revenue for U.S. dairy producers came from some kind of government support. It is important to note that the dairy lobby is largely responsible for influencing politics to dedicate this money for the industry, and the money mostly goes to the big dairy companies that fund the lobby, leaving smaller operations to fend for themselves in the increasingly competitive market.
Speaking of government cheese, where does that term come from? Oh, right, one of the things the Reagan administration did to try to use up its massive cheese stores was give it to poor people:
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed a farm bill that released 30 million pounds of processed cheese for states to give to low-income residents. The cheese was distributed to people on welfare, food stamps, and Social Security through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program until the 1990s. This program birthed the term “government cheese,” and despite the 1981 farm bill’s attempt to bite into the 2-billion-pound cheese surplus, the 30 million pounds of cheese it released barely made a dent in the stockpile.
When that didn’t make a dent, the government forced it on prisoners and school kids:
Prisons have contracts with national and state dairy producers, schools opt into government programs that subsidize and push dairy products, and charitable organizations still receive cheese donations from the US government.
But haven’t we been told by decades’ worth of ads that milk is good for you? I had in every school lunch, and TV ads tell me it’s part of a healthy diet, good for a growing body! Well, about that:
Still operating today, Dairy Management is a federally-funded nonprofit corporation whose mission is to promote American-made dairy products, a mission recognizable in their “Got Milk?” advertisement campaign, the Fuel Up to Play 60 Campaign, and even the Dominos bailout following the 2010 recession. Dairy Management’s main strategy has been to increase consumer confidence in milk and dairy products by expounding their health benefits and nutritional value.
Dairy Management’s strategy is more surreptitious than advertisements about milk moustaches; it has successfully convinced the public of dairy’s health benefits, despite most scientific evidence pointing to the contrary.
The problem with the dairy propaganda - broadcast by the government at the behest of the dairy lobby - is that it’s wrong. And, for many of the people who are on the receiving end of government cheese, it’s actively harming them:
The idea that cheese and milk are essential parts of a well-balanced diet is largely an American-centric and white-centric notion. In fact, the majority of people of color are lactose intolerant.
Consuming dairy products while lactose intolerant can plague individuals with a host of symptoms, ranging from diarrhea to joint pain and even to difficulty with short-term memory.
Yeah! Despite American milk consumption dropping by nearly half since the 70s, the dairy industry has increased production 13% since 2010, because they’re being paid to do so! Then, a lot of the milk ends up in schools, being forced into the stomachs of minority children who are likely to get sick from it:
School milk accounts for about 7 percent of all fluid milk sales in the United States. This is due in part to the fact that the National School Lunch Program requires that fluid milk be offered daily alongside free meals.
The Special Milk Program further promotes dairy-heavy school meals, reimbursing all participating schools for their fluid milk purchases in full in an effort to lower milk prices.
So, for the last forty-plus years, the government has engaged in a dishonest marketing campaign to convince us milk is good for us, given it to generations of school kids for whom it may be actively unhealthy, and propped up the dairy industry so it could make way more milk than we need, lining the pockets of rich factory farm owners.
All these cows are helping destroy the planet as an added bonus:
Cattle are the No. 1 agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide. Each year, a single cow will belch about 220 pounds of methane. Methane from cattle is shorter lived than carbon dioxide but 28 times more potent in warming the atmosphere…
It’s difficult to estimate how many unnecessary dairy cows we have in this country, because the system we built to help “family” dairy farmers survive a price shock in the 1970s has been corrupted into a multibillion dollar handout to large dairy producers, who funnel money to the elected officials with their hand on the spigot. The real beneficiaries of government cheese are working hand-in-hand with a federally run propaganda agency to prop up an industry that produces a product many people can’t safely eat, and it’s so comically inefficient we have 1.4 billion pounds of cheese no one will ever eat sitting in a fucking cave in Missouri.
Sorry, I am sorry, this is not a weekly newsletter on the ills of Facebook, but they keep doing things like this:
Here in Nairobi, Sama employees who speak at least 11 African languages between them toil day and night, working as outsourced Facebook content moderators: the emergency first responders of social media. They perform the brutal task of viewing and removing illegal or banned content from Facebook before it is seen by the average user.
Despite their importance to Facebook, the workers in this Nairobi office are among the lowest-paid workers for the platform anywhere in the world, with some of them taking home as little as $1.50 per hour, a TIME investigation found. The testimonies of Sama employees reveal a workplace culture characterized by mental trauma, intimidation, and alleged suppression of the right to unionize.
The stories of how Sama contractors are treated are harrowing, as is the content they are expected to moderate for Facebook for a couple bucks an hour. We have talked about how Facebook’s oversight of its platform in Africa and other areas of the world is shameful at best, and in Ethiopia in particular appears to be enabling genocide:
Through its prioritization of speed and efficiency above all else, this [moderation] policy might explain why videos containing hate speech and incitement to violence have remained on Facebook’s platform in Ethiopia.
The moderation policy in question is the quotas Facebook places on contractors like Sama, forcing its workers to review as many as hundreds of pieces of awful content per day. Facebook, of course, claims it does not set quotas the reviewers, but there’s no way for that claim to be true - the company must have some form of success metric to continue paying companies like Sama millions of dollars to do the dirty work of removing problematic content. So it monitors how much content its contractors review, and raises concerns if the pace slows or the queues back up. They have policies specifically designed to speed up the process:
Facebook guidelines seen by TIME—previously unreported—instruct content moderators to watch only the first 15 seconds of a video before marking it as OK to remain on the platform and moving onto the next piece of content—as long as the title, transcript, top comments and thumbnail of the video appear to be innocent, and no users nor Facebook’s AI systems have flagged specific points in the video.
The problem with this, obviously, is that hate speech in the 20th or 60th second of a video wouldn’t be caught by a moderator. But, speed, etc.
This article about the grueling, brutal working conditions of a woefully small number of underpaid contractors in Africa trying to deal with hate speech, violence, and child abuse on a continent with 54 countries and thousands of different spoken languages - 522 in Nigeria alone! - was published the same week The Atlantic released this research into Facebook’s superusers, and why they are such a problem on the platform:
Among this publicly active minority of users, the top 1 percent of accounts were responsible for 35 percent of all observed interactions; the top 3 percent were responsible for 52 percent. Many users, it seems, rarely, if ever, interact with public groups or pages.
In America, and one would assume everywhere else, a small number of incredibly active, typically hateful and racist people are responsible for half of the interactions on the platform’s biggest pages and groups. And, as we’ve discussed previously, “engagement” metrics influence what other people see on the platform:
A metric like MSI, which gives more weight to less frequent behaviors such as comments, confers influence on an even smaller set of users. Using the values referenced by The Wall Street Journal and drawing from Haugen’s documents, we estimate that the top 1 percent of publicly visible users would have produced about 45 percent of MSI on the pages and groups we observed, plus or minus a couple percent depending on what counts as a “significant” comment.
So the people posting their murder fantasies about female members of Congress are the ones driving “meaningful” social interaction on Facebook, which should come as little surprise to anyone who’s spent any time on the platform lately. The platform’s refusal to ban these people - who are engaging in speech that clearly violates Facebook’s terms - has real world consequences:
These disturbing comments were not just empty talk: Many of those indicted for participating in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol also appear in our data. We were able to connect the first 380 individuals charged to 210 Facebook accounts; 123 of these were publicly active during the time our data set was constructed, and 51 left more than 1,200 comments total. The content of those comments mirrors the top 1 percent of users in their abusive language—further illustrating the risk associated with pretending that harmful users are just a few bad apples among a more civil general user base.
Cool! The problem with moderating Facebook by outsourcing the brain-damaging work to contractors creates the same perverse incentives we’ve seen elsewhere - when the sheer volume of bad and dangerous posts is so great you need a single worker to look at hundreds a day to keep up, you can’t possibly balance that with their mental health. I mean, Facebook could spend $10 billion on moderation instead of the metaverse, but we know that’s not going to happen. Zuck has long refused to admit the problems with Facebook can be solved by human beings rather than computer programs. Facebook can ill afford to nuke its most toxic users from orbit, since it lost a few hundred billion dollars last time it disclosed platform engagement was down, so instead they’ll try to sweep it under the rug and keep the media (and regulators) focused on their idea for a grand, legless digital future.
We have talked before about shady advertisers using Google ads to trick consumers by claiming to offer government benefits or services. Well! The Huff Post has uncovered yet another scam on its platform:
1111 LLC has pumped out a deluge of slickly produced videos via Google ads in recent months that promote entirely fabricated government handouts: $38,070 in tuition funding for individuals without college degrees through the “Government Education Program”; $2,888 for seniors in “certain zip codes” through the “ACA Plus Program”; $97,246 for homeowners through the “Homeowner Relief” program; $710 for drivers without DUIs through the “SODA Program”; among others.
Many of these ads are designed to look like news segments, with miscontextualized footage of President Joe Biden at his desk appearing to sign documents related to the bogus payouts. Some ads even display falsified CNBC articles with headlines restating the ads’ hoaxes. They have collectively been viewed well over 100 million times in a matter of months, according to public Google data, sparking false hope in an untold number of households nationwide as the coronavirus pandemic drags into its third calendar year.
Not good! The company seems to be trying to trick people into providing their personal details so it can sell the data off to other marketers, or their own network of pro-Trump and MAGA merchandise shops. What caught the attention of journalists was the size of the ad spend:
Over the past five months, when 1111 LLC suddenly started outspending many of Google’s most prolific political advertisers — including Donald Trump’s Save America PAC — not a single one of its ads was audited and taken down. It wasn’t until Tuesday, after HuffPost had reached out to inquire about 1111 LLC, that Google finally pulled the ads.
The tech behemoth has pocketed more than $2.2 million from 1111 LLC since September to run ads that cruelly con its own users while flagrantly violating its own policies — and, experts say, federal law.
This unknown marketing company was spending more than Trump’s PAC on “political” ads that were flagrant lies about nonexistent government programs, and Google did nothing about it for almost half a year. Now they’ve taken the ads down, of course, but they still made $2 million dollars in advertising revenue from it. If the LLC behind the ads is found to have violated the law they’ll presumably face some sort of consequences, but Google won’t - and, honestly, can’t - compensate the people who had their information stolen.
This continues to happen - companies use Google’s self serve ad platform to trick people into filling out fake benefits forms or applications, or paying for services the government offers for free, and Google eventually takes down the ads and issues a PR apology. It is clear the company cannot effectively police its platform, and has little desire to, because even when a little fraud happens, they keep the ad dollars. The company made $20 billion in profit in the last quarter of 2021, and has announced a 20-for-1 stock split to bring its share price low enough to be listed in the Dow Industrial Average.
In a truly on-the-nose metaphor for the corrupt dysfunction in American governmental bureaucracy, the House is asking the agency that oversees Trump’s DC hotel lease to terminate it:
The House Oversight Committee is asking the General Services Administration to consider terminating the lease for the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, before the former president's business can sell it, in light of allegations that the Trump Organization submitted false financial statements to the federal government.
That seems like a decent reason to break a lease? The reason it’s come up now is that Trump is planning to sell the hotel and underlying lease to a developer for a $100 million dollar profit. He likely submitted false financial statements to secure the lease, but that’s only one of the tricks he played on the inept government agency.
Trump originally secured the deal by making two grand promises to the GSA, which he immediately welshed on:
Trump promised to employ the architect who had, over decades, championed the building’s careful, historic restoration. And he promised the involvement of a multibillion-dollar real estate investment firm with a rock-solid financial reputation.
After Trump’s team got the nod from the GSA, however, it reversed itself on both these promises.
It announced that the architect would no longer be involved. And it informed the government that it would no longer be working with the real estate investment firm. To finance the construction, Trump borrowed $170 million from a bank, putting the federal lease on the property up as collateral.
But the government did the deal anyhow, because it “feared political fallout” which is another way to spell cowardice. Then, Trump applied for an 8-figure tax subsidy to cover his investment in the building. Then, Trump set about violating all the decorative guidelines for a historical landmark in DC and turned it into the tacky piece of shit his coterie of goons spent most of the last four years in while they were trying to curry favor with the former president:
For example, Trump is covering century-old marble floors with carpeting and concealing historic wood and marble walls with drapery. And he has asked to festoon the grand lobby with gold leaf.
Why is the whole project such a shit show? Why did the GSA allow Trump to ink a shady deal, immediately violate it, and keep the lease while using the hotel to extract tax breaks from the government? Why is it now potentially allowing him to flip it for a profit? It is a shame that many of the people in charge of relatively simple things like leasing historical buildings in our nation’s capital are incapable of enforcing even basic rules on the wealthy elite, but here we are. Maybe Trump DC will continue to be an ugly stain on the city, or maybe they’ll revoke the lease and turn it into a Courtyard Marriott or something.
FTC - “But reports to the FTC suggest it also creates opportunities for scammers. In the past five years, people have reported losing a staggering $1.3 billion to romance scams, more than any other FTC fraud category.”
Vox - “The gamification of money, and the blurring boundaries between what constitutes investing and what constitutes entertainment, have raised plenty of concerns, and many argue that the government is too far behind the times to adequately address it.”
NY Mag - “Anderson prefers to think of himself as a private detective, identifying mischief and malfeasance that might otherwise go undetected by snoozing regulators. He used to poke around in shadowy corners, but lately he has been seeing fraud sitting right in the blazing light of day.”
IEEE.Org - “Yet in 2020, Byland had to find out secondhand that the company had abandoned the technology and was on the verge of going bankrupt. While his two-implant system is still working, he doesn’t know how long that will be the case.”
The Guardian - “The houses now list a frightening array of defects: water intrusion, black mold, porches rotted through, stair rails collapsing, fires caused by electrical problems, plumbing problems and poor ventilation, according to a class-action lawsuit filed against Pitt and his charity by some of the remaining residents.”
Tips, thoughts, or 1 billion pounds of cheese to firstname.lastname@example.org