Facebook Delenda Est

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Kevin Coldiron
Kevin Coldiron
2 months ago

Appreciate this post Ben, it’s helped clarify for me how to think about this. I have had people in other countries – Cambodia in particular – tell me that Facebook’s network has given them an effective way to organize against a dictatorial government. But I suppose Cambodia’s government isn’t particularly powerful in a global sense so no reason for FB to be supportive of it’s goals in the same it has been with India, Germany, etc. I’ll post a link to this article on Facebook.

Jim Handshaw
Jim Handshaw
2 months ago

The power of Citizen’s United was made clear in Sen Sheldon Whitehouse’s book Captured.

Desperate_Yuppie
Desperate_Yuppie
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Handshaw

The same Senator Whitehouse who helped get Jack McConnell, one of his (and the DNC’s) big time donors a judgeship? Hard pass on his opinions regarding money in politics.

Chris McKeown
Chris McKeown
2 months ago

Well framed Ben. Pointing out FBs core function – to sell advertising – is essentially extolling all to “follow the money”. As I read this, I couldn’t help recall that FB started as a platform to rate woman. How’d Zuck escape #metoo??

Nicholas Allen
Nicholas Allen
2 months ago

I don’t disagree with the main point, but I staunchly disagree with your contention that individuals can’t meaningfully opt out. First off, network effects cut both ways. The usefulness of the network shrinks exponentially with the user base as much as it grew. This was immediately obvious to me when I deleted Facebook a year ago this month. Groups that I was a meaningful part of shifted off Facebook, variously to texting, email, “Teams”, Discord, and other venues. There were at least 4 grass-roots, organic groups on Facebook which transitioned off the platform to places more supportive of free speech, since the groups valued my group membership more than they valued the platform. The network effects cut both ways. Swearing off Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram is no solution here. There is no meaningful way to opt out of a ubiquitous and universal communications and social media platform, because the system of a ubiquitous and universal communications and social media platform is impervious to your individual decision. It’s like saying that you’re going to opt out of Covid-19. Sure, you can move off the grid into the Alaskan wilderness and not get sick. Knock yourself out. But that’s not a meaningful definition of opting out. This point stands directly at odds with your grassroots organization principles, as well as the source of Facebook’s power. Facebook’s power and vitality come solely from the messy, organic interactions that they’re currently at war with, and their subservience to the nudging oligarchy is nothing but slow-motion suicide. Young… Read more »

Rusty Guinn
2 months ago
Reply to  Nicholas Allen

Good thoughts, Nicholas! I have a few, too: I share a lot of your thoughts. I think it is really, really hard to unravel the complications of the intersection of overwhelmingly powerful network effects and individual sovereignty. I struggle with whether our right to take our ball and go home is enough, or at least, all we have a right to ask for or demand. It may be a bit easier to unravel those complications than Ben writes here (IMO), but I also think it’s probably a bit harder than what you seem to be implying (again, IMO). Voat and Parler are not going to weaken the incumbents’ network effects, if I may cherry-pick selectively humorous examples. But most of our aunts and uncles and high school classmates aren’t gonna join our slack channel. They don’t care as much as we do about whether Facebook is doing enough to protect free speech / censor hate speech. I’ve heard the MySpace and Friendster case studies (and appreciate your other examples, too, having used my modem to connect directly to several BBS’s where I established an unimpeachable reputation for wit and Beatles knowledge that I believed falsely would be a permanent asset). I’ve also seen them used as proof of this constant evolutionary cycle of cool-to-lame death-of-platforms. I don’t buy it. This is a nearly trillion dollar company. This is NOT a BBS. This is NOT MySpace. Yes, new social media platforms will emerge. Yes, one will have some ridiculously indispensable feature… Read more »

Flat Arthur
Flat Arthur
2 months ago
Reply to  Rusty Guinn

Great points Nicolas & Rusty! Thank you both for taking the time to elaborate on your positions. I agree with Ben & Rusty that FB/WA/IG is ubiquitous on an unprecedented level. I also think FB/WA/IG has shown an ability to buy/copy/innovate at a level that makes it unlikely that it will simply age out.

However, Nicolas’ point that saying our individual decisions don’t matter is very “un-ET”. Taleb has done some interesting writing on how small intransigent groups can end up forcing changes on flexible majorities. https://medium.com/incerto/the-most-intolerant-wins-the-dictatorship-of-the-small-minority-3f1f83ce4e15#.z5ry4bucq This is why virtually every restaurant now offers vegan and gluten free options, despite both of these groups being obnoxiously small minorities.

Ben’s refrain is BITFD, and I’m always left scratching my head about how I can do anything to stop the “Grifters”. Well FB/WA/IG and any other service that they develop or acquire is one place where the lever we can pull is obvious and easy. If the ET pack is intransigent enough and valued enough by the rest of society we can have a larger impact than the simple math would suggest.

Nicholas Allen
Nicholas Allen
2 months ago
Reply to  Flat Arthur

Absolutely! I think it’s easy to underestimate the impact we have on the world with the products we use and the platforms we endorse. I expect many in the pack are people who are looked up to by their peers. There are a few groups that, while small, tend to lead societal changes. ET is definitely one of them.

Nicholas Allen
Nicholas Allen
2 months ago
Reply to  Rusty Guinn

I agree. I think that we should have a extremely high threshold for “there ought to be a law/regulation”, and we should exhaust simpler grassroots options before. Grassroots boycotts are underappreciated right now. It’s tempting to try for the moonshot, but I think that Government Supremacists overestimate the effectiveness of government policy. As you and Ben have pointed out many times, the broad societal changes we need to realize have to be bottom-up in order to succeed.

Honestly, Facebook isn’t even the censorship engine that concerns me the most. Facebook’s value is the future posts its members will make, and the content being continuously generated. We’re a few minds away from rendering Facebook irrelevant. No, the censorship that concerns me is of Youtube. Youtube is a fantastic storehouse of praxis, the best that the world has ever collected. Censorship of Youtube is a direct war on effective DIY action in a way that no social network or search engine censorship can match.

TheCoeus
TheCoeus
2 months ago

Ben,

Excellent insight as always. I would love to see you expand your commentary on the citizen’s united decision. I agree with you that corporations and other legal constructs should not have first amendment rights. My biggest problem with the decision is that it allows those with money to set up a single purpose entity to shield the spender and prevent accountability. It’s the legal equivalent of opinion laundering.

I think an individual can say whatever they want, and pay as much as they want to promote an idea, but they have to own it. No anonymity allowed. If you don’t believe strongly enough to put it out there with your name on it, then you can’t put it out there. If a politician wants to accept funding from an individual citizen, then they need to disclose who they accepted from and how much they accepted. No limits, just crystal clear disclosure. I also think that any volunteers need to be identified. Time is money. Show me how someone spends their time and their money and I will show you their priorities.

FYI, I understand that I’m being more than a little hypocritical here since I am posting under a pseudonym, but my identity has been verified with ET and could be unmasked if necessary.

Thanks for keeping the Brain humming.

Desperate_Yuppie
Desperate_Yuppie
2 months ago

When did Josh Hawley start writing for ET?

Rusty Guinn
2 months ago

This, but unironically (I think I’d like that more than you or Ben).

Desperate_Yuppie
Desperate_Yuppie
2 months ago
Reply to  Rusty Guinn

I have a feeling you’re going to get your wish in 2024…

Brian Patno
Brian Patno
2 months ago

Ben, this is one of your best articles. I agree with your thesis and the fix for the individuals. But I would modify the corporate fix since having any fact checker requires a person to fact check and each and every person has a bias. How do we get rid of the bias? We cannot. Also, what is your definition of a fact may be another person’s opinion. Therefore, I suggest the process of television’s old rule for political speech called “equal access,” allowing any non-person to have an alternate viewpoint that FB must reference or allow a person to click for an alternate view.

underyourhat
underyourhat
2 months ago

Sorry, Ben. I don’t think you seriously addressed the legal issues (or otherwise) involved in Citizens-U (or Facebook) with this snide post. The decision itself reversed in part and concurred in part and was quite complicated legally. An alternative snide post could easily be argued from the other side (actually other sides) in a similar manner. (Law Journals are filled with them.) But none will get the issues to the simple place you think they can be, as easily shown by reading the near 200-page decision itself and grappling with it honestly. As far as our Constitution goes, you’re playing bother sides against the middle and getting we the people nowhere. There is no simple solution where Zuck is the evil genius and Ben is the good guy problem solver. But nice try. This country is made up of individuals and those legalistic entities you deride. Both are essential to free speech: think this Epsilon Theory blog and The New York Times. Allowing some useless idiots to make silly movies entitled Hillary (or otherwise) that no one watched is a nothing burger in comparison. Of course, I don’t Facebook, so I am not in the throes of the Zuck mindmeld.

TyB
TyB
2 months ago

How can you ban something, in this case “hate speech” that “isn’t a thing”? I mean this seriously. A violent threat is illegal. Libel and slander are illegal (albeit difficult to prove). Much of what I hear called “hate speech” is merely an attempt to silence opposition. On Twitter, pro-choice groups have been very successful banning pro-life posts as “anti-woman”. A member of the mushy middle (and as it happens, pro-choice), I believe both positions worthy of discussion. Mostly, to tell me who to avoid at parties. Now I am being told “All Lives Matter” is hate speech. Are those three words, in that order, inherently racist? Who gets to make that decision? When it comes to fact checkers, unfortunately in today’s world of the New York Times/Washington Post against Fox News, I have found “facts” to be much less stubborn than they used to be. As I recall, in the 2012 election, Romney made a claim that we would not be able to keep our doctors under Obamacare. Many fact checkers found Obama’s claim true, many (tortured) explanations were made to justify the claim. In 2013, the WaPost suddenly named the same claim the lie of the year. I wonder what changed in late 2012? My point being, I have zero faith that Mark Zuckerberg will not use his monopoly on social media, and mobile advertising (~75% I believe), to put the finger on the scale in a way that benefits his beliefs and interests. As someone who also… Read more »

Desperate_Yuppie
Desperate_Yuppie
2 months ago

For all its manifest flaws, Facebook has done one huge and important thing for modern society: they facilitated the complete destruction of American legacy media. Without Facebook’s enormous platform–and Twitter’s rapid, real time dissemination of information–legacy media would have spent another decade or so limping along while its members, oblivious to their effect on the host, tried desperately to kill it from the inside. At least the era of social media has helped burn to the ground the most dangerous and pernicious force that touches our everyday lives. The reason everyone in media is going hard at Facebook isn’t because they care about what effect it has on an election, it’s because they know that it’s the thing that will make them unemployed eventually. In a war between FB and legacy media all you can do is root for casualties.

chill
chill
2 months ago

I take your point regarding legacy media. But come on dude, Facebook and Twitter engage in rapid, real-time dissemination of misinformation far more than than providing any true value. Unless you value a really handy echo chamber construct.

I think the media channels aren’t the real problem. We are the problem, but we’re mostly OK with it.

Desperate_Yuppie
Desperate_Yuppie
2 months ago
Reply to  chill

It hardly matters whether or not the information is true, all that matters is where the engagement is heading to. And it’s not going to CNN/MSNBC/NYT/WAPO. People are realizing that if they’re going to be lied to then they might as well get their lies from somewhere that shares their views. Twitter May well be the greatest thing to happen to journalism in the history of the profession. All of the sudden the opinions you used to only get to share at parties and gatherings could now be shared with the entire world, in real time. It was like handing a bunch of 12 year old boys a flamethrower and OxyContin-laced gummy bears. The journalism profession proceeded to light itself on fire and opened up a whole new world of possibilities. ProPublica grows because everyone wants real news. Substack grows *enormously* because independent voices no longer have to bow to the gatekeepers who once kept everyone but their friends out of the clubhouse. Facebook and Twitter lead to this and it’s been their greatest contribution to society. Does it make up for the damage they’ve done? Maybe. But as you noted, most of that damage was done by us anyway.

cartoox
cartoox
2 months ago

This are quotes from a summary I read on London review of books by John Lancaster a couple of years ago :
[I believe the book was “the Attention merchants” by Tim Wu]

There was a particular reason Facebook caught Thiel’s eye, rooted in a byway of intellectual history. In the course of his studies at Stanford – he majored in philosophy – Thiel became interested in the ideas of the US-based French philosopher René Girard, as advocated in his most influential book, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Girard’s big idea was something he called ‘mimetic desire’. Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter. Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them. In Thiel’s summary, the idea is ‘that imitation is at the root of all behaviour’.
………………..
The reason Thiel latched onto Facebook with such alacrity was that he saw in it for the first time a business that was Girardian to its core: built on people’s deep need to copy. ‘Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,’ Thiel said. ‘Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.’ We are keen to be seen as we want to be seen, and Facebook is the most popular tool humanity has ever had with which to do that.

John Little
John Little
2 months ago

That’s a concise description of the problem, but the delenda est solution seems unlikely with the interests of the constructed entities (‘conveniences, not citizens’ was brilliant) and the institutions capable of effecting change so closely aligned.

Douglas Craig
Douglas Craig
2 months ago

I have always despised Facebook, primarily because this site is a drain on productivity. In fact I think there is something amiss when two of the largest companies in the world derive most if not all of their income from advertising. How much advertising do we really need on the internet if there were honest search engines? I a big advocate of creating social change by taxation, however I would be in favor of putting a cap on advertising expenditures as a ration to capital expenditures. Maybe in this manner we would see some tangible investments by the business community.

O.P.A.
O.P.A.
2 months ago

Well written Ben, I’ve been saying much the same to my friends for years. As always, you’ve taken a complex idea and provided clarity, and a catchy motto to boot. Facebook delanta est. I recall that was achieved in the case of Carthage by toppling every stone of the city, and salting the surrounding farmland to ensure no one would return. Perhaps we could employ the modern equivalent: orbital bombarding Hacker Way with tactical nukes (or maybe full Exterminatus) Less excitably, but more seriously, I – like several others here in the comments – would dissent from your conclusion that opting out is not meaningful. I am one of many that avoid Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or most anything with a newsfeed style UI. Also Google. You can recreate most of the benefits of those platforms with email, texting, group messages, video calls, etc. Most of the benefits. It’s definitely not perfect. But I think there are enough acceptable alternatives for at least a sizable minority of Facebook users to transfer their activity off of the platform. Will it kill Facebook? Probably not. But 10% of users leaving the platform, 20% cutting their usage by half, and 50% of users scaling back their usage by 10% (so, roughly 25% total reduction in time spent on the platform), would seriously derail their business model. Maybe not permanently, but materially. That, combines with (in my view, entirely justified) anti-trust suites, would go a long way to opening up the space needed for more… Read more »

Kevin Coldiron
Kevin Coldiron
2 months ago
Reply to  O.P.A.

It’s a good point about a seemingly small fall in FB users potentially having a big impact. I believe they are an pretty low margin business, thus it might not take a huge fall off in advertising volume for FB to feel a pinch. And – if typical power laws apply – it could be that a small fraction of the FB user base drives a lot of the revenue for advertisers. Thus, a defection in those users could potentially create an outsized economic impact on FB. This is just speculation on my part…

cartoox
cartoox
2 months ago
Reply to  Kevin Coldiron

Hi Kevin
actually its the other way around in the case of facebook,
the large advertisers [the ones who publicly announced boycotts] make up a tiny fraction of their revenues.

the vast majority appears to be
1) international
2) small businesses such as restaurants, boutiques, independent
all those digital nomads, and people pounding away at their laptops in cafes…..a fair percentage make a living doing Social media services for these small companies….

There is a chart I read here :

https://www.statista.com/chart/22205/facebook-ad-revenue/

breaks it down by category

jb00212000
jb00212000
2 months ago

Citizens United did not protect the speech of corporations or groups because corporations or groups are legal citizens. Instead, the decision protects ALL speakers, arguing that “restrictions based on the identity of the speaker are all too often simply a means to control content.”

I agree.

Victor K
Victor K
2 months ago
Reply to  Ben Hunt

C.U. marked the end of the ‘individuals’ phase of the USA. Now we have a zombie country with crapitalism, ever-larger co-dependent institutions, and the nukes.

jb00212000
jb00212000
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben Hunt

Fair enough. We can disagree as to whether restrictions based on identity are hidden restrictions based on content.

Just really wanted to clarify that the basis of the majority’s argument is that ALL speakers must be treated equally. The majority’s argument is not based on the notion that corporations are legal persons.

Wraith
Wraith
2 months ago

At the flatland level, the Mill and Cato references had me from the first pitch. You always do that! One level deeper (and man, there are how many levels to this?) I see the major impediments to the ‘solving’ problem grouping into 3 categories: 1) The whole idea that a meaningful amount of voters and citizens can hold two ideas with multifarious components simultaneously seems elusive. Not just ‘now’, but especially now. Maybe I take too much of a Dan Carlin approach to human nature and historical analogues… 2) The focus on FB is hyper-relevant. And of course you described the ‘job’ of Zuck perfectly. But ‘value unlock concepts’ framed in the way that Scott Galloway and an activist TWTR (monetize the TAM, bro) HF do jams cross-spectrum elements together in the same Snowpiercer 1st/2nd class car that has no exits. How does one stop a train when unlikely (and powerful) bedfellows need perpetual motion? Where’s our Cato? 3) The path that academia has taken shows that there are only short windows for platform jumping within an ecosystem. Yes, this sounds like (2). And I applaud the what alternative forums are doing (ET, Thinkspot, EW etc.). And I truly believe some of these platforms (like ET) won’t get caught on the platform window treadmill that hammered academia and the institutions that have failed us. But what’s the delta of escape velocity here? What if no one was there to listen to Delende Est? Re-reading what I wrote, it all comes… Read more »

Eric
Eric
2 months ago

Lots of (mostly) smart comments and critiques here (one of the best comments sections on the internet, for now…), so I’ll confine myself to something simple: you can view these social media giants as monopolies that control what was once the public square (more or less, a simplification but hear me out) or as companies that rely on addiction as much as anything else to maintain their revenues. So, in my mind (and perhaps nowhere else), Facebook is like the British East India Company, making sure the mutually beneficial relationship between them and the great power(s) remain intact while harming their customer base for profit. This tortured analogy leads me to the idea of how society deals with addictions. We deal with them most effectively, I think, through principles of “harm reduction.” Addictions are largely intractable problems so you seek to reduce the negative impacts they have on society at large, even if it means a type of moral compromise for condoning “bad” behavior. So the problem with Facebook which you have, if I’m reading right, is one of unfair power being conferred to them in a mutually beneficial relationship with state-power which suppresses opposition to the regime in power. The more pressing problem I see with Facebook, and the others, is misinformation and political atomization. I understand that these are related problems, but I think there is a legitimate argument to be made that Facebook should absolutely be ruthless and err on the side of zealotry in removing and… Read more »

Eric
Eric
2 months ago
Reply to  Eric

Perhaps better off using the other Latin phrase mentioned in a previous note: Et in Arcadia Ego. No matter what kind of government or society you have you can never escape the problems which people have. Tolerating misinformation and hateful speech, I guess, is the price of an open society.

cartoox
cartoox
2 months ago

“You can be unethical and still be legal – that’s the way I live my life” – Mark Zuckerberg [From Ben Mezrich’s book]

Ben, Great Post. Appreciate the clarity with which the rights of the individual, as opposed to legal constructs such as corporations  , are described.

Stopped using facebook years ago [ironically, it was because i was based in Shanghai from 2012-2015 & access was difficult]

Still use Whatsapp ….bah……am gonna switch to Telegram

James Miller
James Miller
2 months ago

Ben, I have been following Facebook for quite a while and testified as an expert in their IPO litigation. I opted out of Facebook some years ago as a result of my read on managements’ character. Here is my concrete suggestion – end their advertising model and make them a public utility – that changes all of their incentives. See my attached letter to our Ct senators: 23, 2018   The Honorable Chris Murphy 136 Hart Senate Office Building Washington D.C. 20510   Dear Senator Murphy,   I, like many citizens, am concerned with the role of Facebook and other social media and their misuse for propaganda and surveillance.   I believe that the root of the problem is their advertising driven business model. Our citizens’ data (their face, location, likes, friends, health status, political sympathies, romantic connections, etc.) is for sale to any and all, for good or evil purposes. No amount of effort on their part or regulations by Congress will solve these problems unless there is a fundamental change in the way their businesses operate.   That having been said, the vast majority of people enjoy the benefits of social media, which allow them to keep up with and reach out to friends and family, who in today’s world are often geographically scattered.   However, there is a solution. We the people can make public utilities of the major social media companies, as well as Google. Prohibit their sale of data and advertising and set regulated fees… Read more »

chudson
chudson
2 months ago

I think the best way to fight any Empire is with networks designed using Rhizome theory in mind. Think about wire grass. Each root has the potential to spawn an entirely new plant. Each plant is part of a decentralized network. Each plant is hell-bent on reproducing. Each plant is independently capable of reproducing new decentralized networks on their own. If you pull any, or every plant up you create dozens more plants because you’ll inevitably leave a few roots in the ground. Each root is capable of spawning a whole new plant, each of which will work tirelessly to spawn an entirely new decentralized network hell-bent on reproducing. Certain types of cancer act this way, Glioblastomas in particular. The major trait all rhizome networks share is one of persistent determined growth. I think that is a fantastic model designed specifically to confront and overwhelm centralized networks.

Megan Parker
Megan Parker
2 months ago

“The crowd is untruth. A crowd–not this or that, one now living or long dead, a crowd of the lowly or of nobles, of rich or poor, etc., but in its very concept–is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision. . . For a crowd is an abstraction, which does not have hands; each single individual, on the other hand, normally has two hands, and when he, as a single individual, lays his two hands on Caius Marius, then it is the two hands of this single individual, not after all his neighbor’s, even less–the crowd’s which has no hands. . . . the untruth is that the crowd had the “courage” for it, since never at any time was even the most cowardly of all single individuals so cowardly, as the crowd always is. For every single individual who escapes into the crowd, and thus flees in cowardice from being a single individual, contributes his share of cowardice to “the cowardice,” which is: the crowd.” Soren Kierkegaard, 1846.

quickxotica
quickxotica
2 months ago

Wife and I deleted FB in 2014. Never looked back. It CAN be done. The only people who would sweat if FB disappeared are the ad execs (only for a quarter or two until they found other venues). The rest of the global population would proceed normally, precisely because (as you point out) it’s only an ad-delivery platform after all, and nothing more!
My good friends who work there – high up – acknowledge privately it has become a net negative to society. But, who is going to staunch a well gushing Billions? Not our government, certainly.
That is precisely why WE, the “users,” must decide to leave the platform. Only then will the change you seek manifest itself. Be the change you seek (barf-y cliche, but true in this case).

K
K
2 months ago

I left my FB accout in spring 2015 and have never looked back. I’m not on any other social media, either.

I thought about FB every day in the first few weeks after quitting. In my moments of downtime (toilet especially) I missed not having that window of connectedness to everyone I knew and everyone barely knew.
But after a few weeks the whole idea of it faded away into meaninglessness. The peace of mind that replaced it felt much more valuable.

I noticed a steady shift in my mental state while I was on social media. I began to care more and more about my profile…how many likes I got…how many “friends” I had…how my “friends” were living. When I read “Sheep Logic” in 2017 (2 years later), I realized that during my time on social media I had experienced a steady shift towards “other regarding” emotions. That’s reason enough for me to agree: Facebook delenda est.

Tanya Weiman
Tanya Weiman
1 month ago

While reading this piece, I couldn’t help but think of the quote (I think attributed to national treasure Jaron Lanier but I’m not 100% sure), paraphrased: “If the product is free, you are the product being sold.”

Thanks Ben, for another thought-provoking discussion.

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