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How a new class of “digital martyrs” are manipulating social networks

How a new class of “digital martyrs” are manipulating social networks


What danah boyd’s new talk has to say about platforms — and the press

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On a rare slow news day, I found myself reading and re-reading this talk given by danah boyd at the Online News Association’s annual gathering this weekend. Titled “Media Manipulation, Strategic Amplification, and Responsible Journalism,” the talk examines a variety of subjects that will be familiar to readers of this newsletter. boyd (who styles her name in lowercase) looks at claims of anti-conservative bias; the risks of de-platforming toxic users; the balance between speech and security; and the crisis of trust in the information ecosystem.

You should read (or watch) boyd’s talk for at least two reasons. The first is that she concisely lays out how media manipulation works in our current moment:

Media manipulators have developed a strategy with three parts that rely on how the current media ecosystem is structure:

1. Create spectacle, using social media to get news media coverage.

2. Frame the spectacle through phrases that drive new audiences to find your frames through search engines.

3. Become a “digital martyr” to help radicalize others.

These steps rely on the relationship between social media, news media, and search engines.

It’s a playbook we’ve seen run several times over the past few years, with good results for conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. And it ties into the second reason to read boyd’s talk. While folks like me often emphasize the role played by social platforms in empowering bad actors, boyd wants the press to look at its own role in amplifying bad actors:

Phrases like “crisis actor” don’t spread naturally through word-of-mouth networks, even on social media. To get them into the public lexicon, media manipulators must convince major media amplifiers to work on their behalf. Over the last six years, networks of online antagonists have jumped on every mass tragedy to manipulate the media and propel this term into the mainstream. They use fake accounts on social media to talk with journalists, to ask journalists if there is any truth to the idea that witnesses are really crisis actors. They deface Wikipedia entries. They try to manipulate trending topics and autocomplete on search. But algorithmic systems aren’t their target. Journalists are the real target of their digital shenanigans.

Manipulators aren’t trying to get journalists to say that witnesses to gun violence and terrorism are actually crisis actors. Their goal is to get the news media to negate that frame — and negate the conspirators who are propagating that frame. This may be counter-intuitive, but when news media negates a conspiratorial frame, the people who are most open to such a conspiracy will want to self-investigate precisely because they don’t trust the news media.

Here boyd has identified is an extremely thorny problem. On one hand, she’s right that the press ought to consider what it’s giving oxygen to. More than that, like the platforms, the media needs to smarten up about ways that extremists successfully manipulate the media into writing about them.

On the other hand, maintaining boyd’s “strategic silence” on the subject of crisis actors or (to use another boyd example) incels requires a level of cooperation — some would say collusion! — that the national media has rarely shown. I’m less certain that the effects of the media banding together and deciding, as a unit, never to publish the word “incels” would have a positive effect on the information ecosystem.

Moreover, while studies have reached different conclusions here, there’s at least some recent evidence that the so-called “backfire” or “boomerang” effect — which causes people to believe the opposite of what people tell them when it challenges their existing point of view — is overstated.

Finally, I wish boyd’s talk paid more attention to how manipulators exploit the machinery of amplification on social networks to become newsworthy figures in the first place. Alex Jones was a lot less worthy of coverage when he was a local-access TV host; it was harder to ignore him once he was broadcasting to an audience of millions on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. He wouldn’t become a martyr if no one had ever heard of him — and his story just isn’t possible without the platforms and their recommendation algorithms.

But if I’m going to press the social platforms to do better here, I can push myself to do the same. She concludes her message to the press this way:

You are not algorithms. But you are also not neutral. And because you have the power to amplify messages, people also want to manipulate you. That’s just par for the course. And in today’s day and age, it’s not just corporations, governments, and PR shops that have your number. Just as the US military needed to change tactics to grapple with a tribal, networked, and distributed adversary, so must you. Focus on networks — help connect people to information. Build networks across information and across people. Be an embedded part of the social fabric of this country.

“Building networks across information and across people” has been one of my goals with this newsletter from the beginning. Becoming an embedded part of the social fabric — that’s going to require a different approach. If you have any ideas, I’m all ears.


Facebook is hiring a human rights policy director

If you are good at human rights than do I have an important job for you to consider! Jon Fingas has the details:

The company is hiring a Director of Human Rights Policy who will develop approaches that foster human rights and peace while simultaneously cracking down on those who “enable harm, stifle expression, and undermine human rights.” This leader would steer investigations into human rights abusers and work with both government and corporate partners.

The future director would be particularly well-experienced. They’d need at least 12 years of experience with public policy and human rights (including in developing countries), and would require some background in technology.

More States to Join Justice Department’s Discussion on Social Media Concerns

“The Justice Department is inviting a bipartisan group of 24 state attorneys general to discuss concerns over social media platforms, after receiving an “increased level of interest” from the AGs, John D. McKinnon reports. Their level of interest increased after they were told that Justice planned to hold such a meeting to begin with! (Initially the feds planned to meet only with Republican attorneys general.)

Tech’s New Problem: North Korea

North Koreans love social media! Unfortunately they are not allowed to use it, because they are committing crimes with it. Nice little caper story from Wenxin Fan, Tom Wright and Alastair Gale:

A Facebook page for, showing packages with hundreds of programs, was taken down minutes later as a reporter was viewing it. Pages of some of the account’s more than 1,000 Facebook friends also subsequently disappeared.

Facebook said it had no knowledge of North Koreans using its platform but is committed to rooting out profiles using false names. It suspended numerous North Korea-linked accounts identified by the Journal, including one that Facebook said appeared not to belong to a real person. After it closed that account, another profile, with identical friends and photos, soon popped up.


Mobile social network Path, once a challenger to Facebook, is closing down

One of the first pieces of software criticism I ever wrote was about why I thought Path was doomed. Turns out, it was!

Facebook paid leave too short, say working moms who want flex time

Jessica Guynn talks to Facebook working moms who say the company’s paid leave policies fall short of its public claims to support them:

“We say Facebook is this great company and that it’s so great for parents, all knowing that it’s a four-month leave, which just indicates that, in our culture, we think a four-month leave is generous and it’s just not, and somebody had to say it,” Khuner says.  “I thought there might be other people like me who don’t feel like it’s the right time to leave their baby and feel that it’s wrong to say you are supposed to come back to work full-time, no matter what, when your baby is that young.”

Four reasons Snap’s stock price is at an all-time low

Kurt Wagner sizes up Snap’s terrible year. Here’s a key nugget:

The impact of competitors may be most evident by looking at the amount of time people spend using Snapchat. A survey published this week by analysts at Cowen Research found that Snapchat users spent less time with the app this quarter than they did a year ago. Users still spend roughly 31 minutes inside the app per day — pretty good — down slightly from 33 minutes in the third quarter of 2017. But Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest all saw time spent increase this quarter over the same time last year.

There’s A Simple Fix, But Grindr Is Still Exposing The Location Of Its Users

Grindr is a privacy disaster, Nicole Nguyen reports. And this is even before you take into account that it is owned by a Chinese company:

The gay dating app Grindr is still exposing the precise location of its more than 3.6 million active users although it has long been aware of the issue. According to experts, there is a simple tweak that would protect users, but Grindr hasn’t implemented it.

In a post published Thursday, the website Queer Europe detailed how easy it is to find any Grindr user’s location using an app called Fuckr, which employs a technique called “trilateration” to find users. Fuckr, which can be downloaded for free and is not affiliated with Grindr, is built on top of unauthorized access to Grindr’s private API, or “application programming interface,” which provides Fuckr with information in Grindr’s database.

What It’s Like to Download Your Facebook Data

Anna Wiener downloads her Facebook data:

I was startled to find dozens of videos I had deleted before posting or sharing with friends, an embarrassment of outtakes. There I was, lower-resolution and smoother-skinned, staring at the computer camera and adjusting my bangs, looking for a good angle from my dorm room, my parents’ kitchen, a temp job. It was like watching B-roll for a documentary about my insecurities. (Facebook has since announced that the inclusion of deleted videos was the result of a bug, and said it was planning to discard the data from its servers.) The videos were jarring to discover—and suggested questionable data-retention practices at Facebook—but they were not entirely unwelcome. In an era of personal brands and social-media curation, I was amused, and a little wistful, to have a realistic glimpse of what I had been like as an awkward college student.

The download also included a reverse-chronologically organized list of “friends,” everyone I had connected to—and disconnected from—on the platform. Scrolling through it, I could see the contours of a life taking shape. I’d made an initial flurry of connections around the time I first created an account, the summer before I left for college: relatives and elementary-school friends along with summer-camp crushes and future classmates. At the top of the list were the solutions engineers and CrossFit evangelists I’d met when I’d moved out West to work in tech. It was like looking at the guest list for a party I would never throw.


Facebook launches new cybersecurity tools for U.S. political campaigns

With under 50 days to go until the 2018 U.S. midterms, this feels a little late for a pilot project. But we’ll take it!

The social media giant on Monday announced a pilot program open to any campaign for state or federal office that would offer additional security protections for their Facebook pages and accounts.

Under the program, campaigns as well as campaign committees that opt in to the program would be designated potential high-priority users and be able to take advantage of expedited troubleshooting if they detect any unusual behavior involving their accounts.

Instagram adds a shopping tab to the Explore page

Hey, I wrote this:

Ahead of the launch of a standalone shopping app, Instagram is bringing more commerce to the flagship. The company said today that it will add a shopping tab to the Explore page, allowing you to thumb through a dedicated feed of shoppable merchandise from various sellers. As part of the launch, Instagram will let sellers add stickers to their ephemeral Stories for the first time, letting buyers make purchases from the Stories feed by tapping on merchandise.

Twitter now puts live broadcasts at the top of your timeline

One reason I enjoy writing newsletters is that sometimes the entire story is in the headline!

Facebook Broadens Its Bug Bounty to Include Third-Party Apps

Here’s some Cambridge Analytica fallout: Starting Monday, Facebook will pay at least $600 to researchers who spot third-party apps behaving badly on its platform, Lily Hay Newman reports:

Facebook will now accept reports about not just about vulnerabilities in its own products, but in third-party apps and services that connect to Facebook user accounts. Third-party interactions create user risk on the social network, since Facebook vets but doesn’t develop the outside apps and can’t ensure their integrity as thoroughly as it can its own platform. Users are also responsible for managing the permissions of third-party apps, which can be a confusing and opaque process.

The bounty expansion will specifically focus on third-party bugs that relate to exposure of “user access tokens,” the credential that allows apps to interface with Facebook accounts, and that could be exploited to gain inappropriate types of access. For example, researchers have found things like personality quiz services, and JavaScript components in apps, that invasively track user data or pilfer information.

New-style TripAdvisor aims to be the world’s first ‘travel feed’

TripAdvisor is adding a social feed for some reason. Still no word on TripAdvisor stories, though, likely because that would just be Instagram.


How Bots Ruined Clicktivism

“As platforms struggle to detect and stop foreign interference in the midterm elections,” writes Renee DiResta, “there’s a thorny complication: Many of the tactics used by spammers and trolls are also leveraged by real activists.” Read this:

Misinformation researchers look at a collection of criteria to attempt to differentiate authentic campaigns from influence operations. These include the content (is the same exact message being pumped out en masse?), the voice (do the accounts participating in the campaign appear to be authentic?), and the dissemination pattern (is there evidence of mass automation?). No one wants to inadvertently misidentify a real activist. The challenge is that tactics designed to reduce the friction of participating are also ripe for easy exploitation.

With the November 2018 midterms approaching, mass, coordinated action is picking up again. Hundreds of people simultaneously tweeting the exact same thing looks very much like the kind of automation used to manufacture consensusdominate a hashtag, or game a trending algorithm. Organic outrage or excitement usually inspires a bit more variety in the commentary. And despite exhortations from politicians and mea culpas from technology executives, some of their latest campaigns and features are actually making things worse.

And finally ...

Who Drew the ‘Wow Queen’ Goofy Picture?

Tiara Seddens drew an unremarkable picture of Max and Roxanne, two characters from the 1995 animated film A Goofy Movie, and posted it to Instagram. Max says to Roxanne: “Wow Queen, you’re so beautiful.” As Brian Feldman recounts in New York, this somehow became a meme: 

The Goofy picture was posted on April 13, but it would be another six months before “the meme community” seized on it. By then, however, Seddens had moved on. “I walked away from it because I found happiness. I was kinda doing the art, trying to figure my life out because I was in the transitioning phase,” she said. Through her Instagram account, she had met somebody — a fan of her viral art — and eventually married him.

From a meme to a marriage. Happy Monday!

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