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How Facebook polarized us during the Kavanaugh hearings

How Facebook polarized us during the Kavanaugh hearings


How the News Feed and Groups can push Americans in opposite directions

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Activists Demonstrate Against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh In Brooklyn
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The polarization of the American electorate predated Facebook’s arrival on the scene. But a nagging question about the social network has been whether its viral mechanics — and the viral mechanics on YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms — have accelerated the split between the left and the right.

Today we have two stories that examine that phenomenon. The first concerns the fight over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. At a time when the sharing of news articles on Facebook is in general decline, the wrenching battle over Kavanaugh has been a top performer on the site. And many of the top performing posts, reports Craig Silverman, are among the most partisan in nature:

Daily Wire’s top story about Kavanaugh confirmation was published Oct. 1 with the headline “Prosecutor Who Questioned Ford Shreds Her Case In Five-Page Memo.” It’s generated more than 205,000 engagements. The site also received just under 180,000 engagements for the story, “Bill Clinton Rape Accuser Juanita Broaddrick Crashes Kavanaugh Hearing, Slams Dems For ‘Biggest Double Standard.’” [...]

Occupy Democrats’ top story about Kavanaugh-Ford is headlined “Matt Damon just DESTROYED Kavanaugh and Senate Republicans in hilarious SNL cold open.” It had just under 70,000 engagements. Another story about the Kavanaugh confirmation, “Bernie Sanders just demanded the FBI investigate five lies Kavanaugh told at his hearing,” generated over 44,000 engagements.

Silverman notes that more mainstream coverage, including from The New Yorker and CNN, outperformed these links. But the fight has thrown a lifeline to partisan publishers, who have struggled this year as Facebook ratcheted down the amount of news in the News Feed. It has replenished their email lists and generated new advertising revenues. And, in doing so, it has incentivized more polarized coverage in the future.

Meanwhile, Facebook Groups are becoming more polarized … thanks to a simple name change. Kevin Roose tweeted about the phenomenonearlier in the week: “One of the largest pro-Kavanaugh groups on FB was previously called “ISIS SUPPORT GROUP” and “WHO FARTED? !!!!” Now the Washington Post’s Tony Romm has written a full account:

The fluid nature of these groups illustrates how the social networking giant’s powerful tools for political and community organizing remain major risks for spreading misinformation and stoking unrest, especially as Facebook wages its war against inauthentic activity online and the 2018 election is just weeks away. Groups are at the heart of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s stated mission to ensure “online communities strengthen physical communities,” as he put it during a speech in 2017. But group owners can easily rename and refocus their groups, while keeping their original members – and their ability to push content into their daily feeds.

Facebook said in the last month it began displaying the two-year history of all groups’ name changes to improve transparency. The change offers “more information and insights about a Group, as well as increased accountability for Group admins,” said spokesman Andy Stone. With the Ford group, in particular, Facebook said late Thursday it is investigating its recent, whiplash revisions.

On one hand, the groups in question here are small, with fewer than 10,000 members between them. On the other, they show how efforts to promote polarization are evolving along with the platform. Making it easy to change the name of the group also made it easy to take a general-interest group like, uh, “WHO FARTED,” and turn it into conservative stronghold.

I imagine a Facebook employee might look at these two stories and respond: this is the biggest story in the United States right now. Of course it’s blowing up on social networks, and of course people are taking sides. But it’s still striking to see how fast, and how far, the shrillest of voices travel on the platform — and how a service meant to build community so often manifests itself as an engine for tribalism.


Facebook’s Joel Kaplan admits mistake on Kavanaugh at intense company meeting

Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, told angry employees today that he had made a mistake when he went to support his friend Brett Kavanaugh during a hearing in which the Supreme Court nominee was accused of sexual assault. David McCabe, Mike Allen, and Kim Hart:

A Facebook employee who viewed the event characterized the meeting as “intense,” and added that people were not expressing hostility but more incredulity at the situation.

UK cyber security agency backs Apple, Amazon China hack denials

Britain’s cyber security agency said Friday it had no reason to doubt Apple and Amazon after they challenged a Bloomberg report that their systems had been compromised by Chinese spies.

Google CEO quietly met with military leaders at the Pentagon, seeking to smooth tensions over drone AI

Sundar Pichai made an unannounced visit to the Pentagon during his Washington trip, Tony Romm and Drew Harwell report:

Pichai met with a group of civilian and military leaders mostly from the office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Defense Department directorate that oversees the artificial-intelligence drone system known as Project Maven, according to people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Smaller outlets reduce, scrap Facebook promotion over new ad rules

Mathew Ingram reports that some news outlets are so reluctant to register as political advertisers that they’re halting Facebook advertising generally:

Ultimately, Haussamen says, he stopped spending money on promoting content on Facebook. It wasn’t much money—maybe $70 or $80 a month—but the NMPolitics publisher said he thought it was an important symbolic move. Ironically, since he stopped spending money to promote posts, the amount of Facebook traffic to his site has been steady, while engagement on the site’s posts has actually gone up. “Whatever Facebook’s intent was, from my perspective, it has backfired on them completely,” he says. “I’m giving them less money and getting better engagement on their platform. It’s been a win-win.”

The Last Jedi Russian troll study shows we still don’t know how to interpret speech online

Earlier this week, several outlets — including The Verge — reported on a study claiming that Russian troll farms were responsible for inflaming tensions around The Last Jedi. Bijan Stephen and Adi Robertson revisited the study and talk to its author. It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny:

The paper doesn’t indicate an explicitly coordinated campaign to create an artificial political dispute. It suggests that a lot of real, individual humans decided to express genuinely held political views about a movie that they didn’t care much about. But the structure of the study also establishes these two categories as part of a single phenomenon of “deliberate, organized political influence measures,” or as the paper title puts it, “social media manipulation.” That’s a much more sweeping suggestion.


The Journalist Who Blew Open The Cambridge Analytica Scandal Threatened To Injunct Channel 4 News And Demanded They Hand Over Their Sources

Carole Cadwalladr gained fame as the face of the Cambridge Analytica coverage that rocked Facebook earlier this year. But behind the scenes, she was sending legal threats to the very journalists she was working with. A wild story from Mark DiStefano.

Fake Facebook Profiles and Dating in Afghanistan

Maija Liuhto has a charming story about how young people in Afghanistan are dating on Facebook. (And not by using Facebook Dating, either.)

Until recently, dating was almost nonexistent in Afghanistan, because of religious and cultural norms that prohibit relationships before marriage. Communication was difficult too: During Taliban rule, people had to cross the border into Pakistan to make an international phone call (domestic calls weren’t easy either). Today, with the arrival of cheap smartphones and affordable mobile internet—about 90 percent of Afghanistan’s population has access to a cellphone—even the poorest people can get on Facebook. Althoughpremarital relationships are still taboo, social media have provided the younger generation with a covert means of online dating.

“Boys usually use this technique to get closer to the girls they like,” says Naweed, an 18-year-old male student in Kabul who had a fake female Facebook profile for more than a year. (He asked to be identified by only his first name, because his family would not approve of him dating.) “I was talking to girls for fun, and I enjoyed it a lot.” Many men first try to friend their crushes using their real profile; if this fails, they resort to creating a fake account.

Teens Are Nostalgic For 2015 And They’re Making Instagram Memes About It

Surely this is one of the strangest effects of the Trump presidency: extreme short-term nostalgia. From a fun story by Julia Reinstein:

Yes, 2015 was not that long ago. But most of these memers are teenage girls currently in high school. These were their formative preteen years.

A teen who runs the account @glossberry told BuzzFeed News she thinks 2015 nostalgia has gotten big “because it is a relatable time for everyone” and “it’s not so far away that people don’t remember it.”


Facebook Lite launches for iOS in Turkey

These stripped-down versions of popular apps have grown popular over the past few years, but typically they’re only available on Android. (They’re designed for lower-income people using older phones.) But they often appeal to power users who prefer lighter-weight apps that aren’t as burdened by feature bloat — and that means iOS users. Facebook is now testing an iOS version of its own “lite” app in Turkey. (Anyone else think it would be fun to call this app Diet Facebook?)


Introducing the Internet Bill of Rights

Kara Swisher talks to Nancy Pelosi about Democrats’ plans to regulate the internet if they manage to take back Congress:

The first principle, for example, covers an issue that seems dead obvious and should have been enshrined in law back in the early 2000s: The right “to have access to and knowledge of all collection and uses of personal data by companies.” (Some companies voluntarily follow this rule already, as well as a few of the following, but none are required by federal law.)

The second says consumers should have to give their permission — an “opt in” rather than “opt out” system — before their data can be collected and shared with third parties. I like to call it the anti-Cambridge Analytica rule.

And finally ...

The Dads of Pinterest

Today’s social media hero is Neil Haldar, who is a member of my favorite new demographic: Pinterest dads:

Neil Haldar, a divorced dad of a 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, says the social network has been an invaluable parenting aid, especially since he lives in the Bay Area and his kids live in Bozeman, Montana, with their mom. When he visits them about once a month, he looks up recipes and projects on Pinterest that they can do together — from dinosaur-themed dioramas, to dry-ice volcanos, to no-bake key lime pies. He says it’s also been useful for travel planning and finding kid-friendly attractions.

“I don’t have a guy friend where I can pick up the phone and be like, ‘Hey man, do happen to have an awesome recipe for a no-bake key lime pie?’” Haldar says. “So Pinterest has become my go-to in terms of what’s trending. Now, I have a place to go where I can search and get answers to questions that I feel like I’m a little behind on. That makes me a better dad.”

Here’s to the good dads — the Pinterest dads.

And have a nice weekend.

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