At the White House today, amid much concern that conservative voices are being silenced by social media platforms, President Donald Trump (after a “morning of tweets [that] was off the rails, even by his standards”) stood before a group of activists to deliver a message of support. “Some of you are extraordinary,” the president said. “The crap you think of is unbelievable.”
Unfortunately, as we discussed here yesterday, the crap that conservative voices think of does not always reach the maximum possible audience. Sometimes conservatives do not appear as high as they would like to in search results. Sometimes they get suspended, or even banned. This has led to much conspiratorial thinking that liberal-leaning Silicon Valley is throttling their access in an effort to tip the scales of democracy.
Today, those conspiratorial thinkers gathered together to complain about how social platforms limit their reach, in a high-profile public event that was covered widely by much of the media. It culminated with the president saying he would soon bring representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to the White House to berate them in person. Roberta Rampton and David Shepardson report:
At a meeting with conservative social media users at the White House, Trump said he would “be calling a big meeting of the companies in a week or two — they have to be here.”
Trump said he would invite members of U.S. Congress to the meeting, and added he may also invite conservative social media users. The White House declined to offer additional details.
Conservatives typically take great pains to protect the free market from undue interference from the government. But social networks are powerful enough that, in this case, Republicans intend to intervene.
What’s less clear is what that intervention might look like. The president’s remarks on the subject barely rise above the level of gibberish. (“To me free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write bad,” he said today. “To me that’s very dangerous speech, and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.”
Elsewhere, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) has proposed legislation that would require large social networks to treat every political opinion equally — which would be great news for Nazis. But even in such a world, feed-based platforms will still have to rank and recommend content — and many conservative complaints revolve around the fact that they do not always rank at the top.
And one person’s bias is another person’s personalization. Twitter said Thursday it would test the ability to let users in Canada hide replies to their tweets. How long before the first conservative Canadian politician complains that they have been shadowbanned when replying to a viral tweet?
The truth is that moderation is necessary for platforms to perform, and any platform that moderates post will always face accusations of bias. To see this you had to look only so far as ... the social media summit itself. Attendees were required to submit questions in advance, leading Vox.com’s Jane Coaston to quip: “So their content is going to be moderated?” Meanwhile, an official live stream of the event had comments disabled. “Why am I being deplatformed?” a joking Ashley Feinberg demanded.
So yes, the hypocrisy was thick at the White House today. But so was the comedy. For just as activists had assembled to complain about the unreliability of social platforms, Twitter took the opportunity to completely collapse. The service went down for an hour or so globally, the effect of a “configuration change,” a spokesman said.
While the president focuses on bias, social platforms like Twitter appear to have a more pressing concern: outages. Reddit also went down today; LinkedIn collapsed the day before; and Facebook and Instagram had day-long outages a week ago.
As Rob Price wrote in Business Insider:
Over the past twelve months, the amount of downtime suffered by Facebook’s services has skyrocketed, data shared with Business Insider by outage-monitoring service Downdetector shows, contributing to frustration among the company’s 2.7 billion users around the world, who rely on Facebook’s services to do everything from communicate with their friends to support their businesses and put food on the table.
Instagram’s downtime over the first six months of 2019 has almost doubled compared to the same time period a year previously, jumping 90%. And for Facebook, the spike is even more severe — nearly quadrupling, hitting 281%.
I assume that all these glitches are unrelated — various security firms emailed to tell me that today’s Twitter outage in particular showed no signs of being an outside attack. And yet it’s hard for me not to anthropomorphize these platforms, looking around at all the crybabies whining that they don’t treat every single user exactly the same in every situation, and collapsing in frustration. A temporary, universal deplatforming is an increasingly serious matter, as I wrote here last week. But I’m sympathetic to any algorithm that observed today’s social media summit and wished that absolutely everyone would just shut up.
On Tuesday I complained that by focusing on policy writing rather than enforcement, Twitter was fixing the wrong problem. A spokesman wrote in to say the policy change really was necessary — previously, its hate speech rules applied only to tweets targeted at individuals. So under the rules you could tweet “Protestants are scum,” for example, but not “Casey’s Protestant scum.” Now both are disallowed, and that seems like a good thing.
Mon dieu! It seems likely the United States will retaliate here in some way. Colin Lecher reports:
France has passed a controversial tax on “digital services” that will hit American tech giants, as the United States says it will investigate the plan.
Under the bill, just passed by the French Senate, tech companies with more than €750 million in global revenue and €25 million in French revenue will be required to pay a 3 percent tax on total annual revenue generated by providing services to French users. The move will affect major players like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, and was made as plans for EU-wide tax changes seemed to stall.
Makena Kelly profiles Joey Saladino, a Staten Island resident hoping to ride his 2.5 million YouTube subscribers to a seat in Congress:
Much of his early content was mostly harmless, piggybacking off of television shows like ABC’s What Would You Do? in order to teach viewers valuable moral lessons. But as Joey’s channel grew, so did the stakes and the shock value. He’s double-parked his car just to see how onlookers would react. He’s pretended to abduct children (with parental permission), terrifying them, in hopes that they’d learn not to trust strangers. In 2016, Joey’s videos grew increasingly more political, conveniently when support for Donald Trump was gaining in the polls. He’s gone on to film himself holding up “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” signs in front of grocery stores and attending Trump protests. This content has migrated from YouTube to Twitter where Joey has often criticized the mainstream media and social media platforms of being biased against conservatives like himself.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said the success of Libra could jeopardize the stability of the global financial system. Bitcoin’s price went down afterward, Hamza Shaban reports:
On Wednesday, Powell confirmed that the Fed has reservations of its own. “While the project’s sponsors hold out the possibility of public benefits, including improved financial access for consumers, Libra raises many serious concerns regarding privacy, money laundering, consumer protection and financial stability,” he said. “These are concerns that should be thoroughly and publicly addressed before proceeding.
Bitcoin fell to $11,658 as of Thursday morning, according to market data from Coindesk.
Sal Rodriguez talks to observers who are skeptical that Libra will get off the ground this year:
At least one early Facebook investor, Matt Ocko, is actively rooting for regulators to stop Libra before it launches.
“Many countries are legitimately freaked out about the ruthless amoral Facebook vampire squid having its tentacles jammed into their countries’ control of currency and banking systems,” he said. “I hope to God that enlightened regulators kill this thing in its tracks.”
Ryan Gallagher reports that a nonprofit led by Google and IBM executives “is working with Semptian, whose technology is monitoring the internet activity of 200 million people in China.”
The OpenPower Foundation — a nonprofit led by Google and IBM executives with the aim of trying to “drive innovation” — has set up a collaboration between IBM, Chinese company Semptian, and U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx. Together, they have worked to advance a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more efficiently.
Shenzhen-based Semptian is using the devices to enhance the capabilities of internet surveillance and censorship technology it provides to human rights-abusing security agencies in China, according to sources and documents. A company employee said that its technology is being used to covertly monitor the internet activity of 200 million people.
Lucas Shaw reports that China is looking to harvest one of our most precious national resources:
Tencent, owner of the all-purpose Chinese app WeChat, is trying to encourage more U.S. social-media stars to do business in the world’s No. 2 economy. The opening panel of the event is titled “How Tencent could help your influencers’ businesses in China.” They have an edge over YouTube in tapping the burgeoning market: The Google-owned video service is blocked in the country.
The resurgent interest in American content coincides with a period of intense competition in the world’s largest online arena. The popularity of Douyin, China’s equivalent of TikTok, has shaken China’s technology industry, and companies like e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., search leader Baidu Inc. and Tencent have been forced to defend their turf.
Katie Notopolous reports on a positive change Facebook is making to help people understand which ads they’re seeing. (Here’s the company blog post on the same subject.)
Facebook launched a transparency tool this week that will give people a little more information about how its targeted ads work (good!). Now you can see more details about why you’re seeing an ad in your feed, how it is linked to an ad agency or data broker, and how to opt out of interest-based ad campaigns run by businesses that have your information. The bad news is that looking at it may end up just making you feel worse about how your data is passed around by third-party data brokers — credit reporting bureaus and marketing agencies — like Halloween candy.
Previously, Facebook provided very limited information about why ads appear in your feed (“You are an existing customer” or “H&M wants to reach women ages 16 and older who live in the United States”). It didn’t really explain that ad targeting is far more sophisticated than simply identifying age and location.
Kurt Wagner reports on Facebook’s consistent problem with policing illegal animal sales:
The sting was possible because of Facebook, which investigators used to discover, track and communicate with Ahamed, who ultimately was sentenced to two years in jail. But Facebook also helped to create the problem – the social network’s massive reach has made it an attractive tool for animal traffickers, and simultaneously made it difficult for the company to monitor and block them. Facebook, which didn’t participate in the turtle bust, does take down posts when they’re reported, but until recently has done little to actively hunt them down and halt the trade on its own. That’s allowed illegal wildlife sales to persist on Facebook and Instagram, according to conversations with close to a dozen researchers and academics.
Social networks and online marketplaces have long been hubs of illegal activity, including exotic animal trafficking. Smugglers use the platforms as digital billboards, often sharing photos and videos of their merchandise for users around the world to see. On Facebook and Instagram, it’s common for traffickers to post their WhatsApp or WeChat numbers alongside their goods, a signal to prospective buyers to connect in a more private forum. From orangutans and cheetah cubs to opioids and ancient Middle Eastern antiquities, if something can be sold illegally, researchers say, it’s likely being sold somewhere on Facebook or Instagram.
Emma Grey Ellis reports on a new paper analyzing misogynistic subreddits:
The most salient findings will be a sanity check for many women who spend time online. You’re not a snowflake: Misogynist rhetoric has been increasing in frequency and violence, especially since 2016. It has also changed in tone and type. Back in 2011, men’s rights activists were focusing on issues like male mental health or a perceived bias against men in family law. Nowadays, they focus on feelings of deprivation (like being “kissless” or “involuntarily celibate”) and on flipping feminist narratives to suit their own interests (I’m not oppressing you, you’re oppressing me!). The study also found that misogynist language and violent language tend to occur together and that posters expressing violent misogyny often authored posts expressing violent racism or homophobia as well.
The Reply All team considers the case of Carlos Maza versus YouTube. Looking forward to listening to this one on my commute home today.
Shira Feder has the latest grim news out of HQ:
When semi-professional poker player turned Jeopardy champion Alex Jacob tweeted that he hadn’t been paid the $20,000 he won on HQ, the social media outcry against the beleaguered trivia app was swift. Payment was not.
Jacob, who did not respond to a request for comment, received more than 1,000 retweets on his request to get paid—but he wasn’t the only one who got stiffed.
Salvador Rodriguez reports on a new step Twitter is taking to diversify its workforce:
“The Twitter Engineering Apprenticeship Program is an opportunity for folks from non-traditional tech backgrounds to experience engineering at Twitter,” the company said in one job listing for the program. “We believe the people who build Twitter should be representative of those that use the platform, this includes people from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented within tech such as women, black, Latinx, Native American, etc, just to name a few.”
Tom Simonite reports that a Belgian broadcaster somehow obtained recordings of more than 1,000 conversations with Google’s automated assistant:
Most recordings reviewed by VRT, including the one referencing the Waasmunster couple, were intended; users asked for weather information or pornographic videos, for example. WIRED reviewed transcripts of the files shared by VRT, which published a report on its findings Wednesday. In roughly 150 of the recordings, the broadcaster says the assistant appears to have activated incorrectly after mishearing its wake word.
Some of those captured fragments of phone calls and private conversations. They include announcements that someone needed the bathroom and what appeared to be discussions on personal topics, including a child’s growth rate, how a wound was healing, and someone’s love life.
Taylor Lorenz and Joe Pinsker report that workaholic Americans are now using professional-grade productivity tools to keep track of their families — at least for a little while:
For Peder Fjällström, using Slack at home was mainly a fun experiment. A former app designer who lives in Stockholm and is starting a kombucha brand, Fjällström, initially was excited about using the software at home a couple of years after adopting it at work: He custom-built little tools within the program that would let members of his family add an item to the grocery list when something was running low, report “bugs” in the house (like a broken appliance), and determine the kids’ current location (pulled from the Find My iPhone app). On occasion, Slack was also a way for Fjällström and his wife to summon their two kids at dinnertime.
But the Slack experiment lasted only three or four months—the kids soon gravitated toward apps that were “more fun.” After some reflection, Fjällström has concluded that using Slack with his family made home life feel more like work. “It helped at that point in time because it felt like life was a bit messy … but life is supposed to be a little bit messy.” There are things, he recognizes, that productivity software doesn’t optimize for, such as carving out quality family time and allowing children to “feel all the emotions.” “That’s what we’re aiming for at the moment,” he said, “not structure.”
Google used to spin up these miniature social networks a lot — remember Schemer? But it’s been a while since we’ve seen anything like Shoelace. Sam Rutherford reports that it’s currently available only in New York City:
Developed by Google’s experimental Area 120 product development workshop, Shoelace is a hyper-local social networking app (available on Android and iOS) that aims to connect people based on shared interests in specific events and in-person activities. In short, Shoelace looks like a social network that encourages people to spend less time on their phones, and more time doing something, anything in real life.
With Shoelace, users are able to create “Loops”—like the loops on a shoelace, get it?—which are essentially listings for events that can be shared with others on the app, with the side goal of possibly helping people make a new friend or two.
Sarah Jeong reflects on lessons from what she calls “a reality show that can be roughly described as a cross between The Bachelor and the Stanford Prison Experiment.”
“Love Island” serves as a cautionary tale of how quickly the expectation of privacy will erode in the face of ubiquitous monitoring. But reality shows — including the aptly named “Big Brother” — aren’t really allegories of the surveillance state.
The Love Islanders, after all, eventually get to go home. We should fear how our liberties and our own behaviors will be warped by the proliferation of cameras on every street corner, on every car dashboard and in every pocket.
And finally ...
Sometimes a news story about a tech platform comes along and is so metaphorically resonant that you almost don’t know where to begin. Thank you for this one, Andrew E. Kramer:
The site, a lake in Siberia, has become such a draw this summer for people posting on Instagram that whole social media pages are dedicated to its charms.
There is only one problem: The lake is a man-made waste site for a power plant, Heating and Electrical Station Number 5. And that irresistible blue hue is not the color of pristine waters reflecting off the sky, but rather the deposits of calcium salts and metal oxides, according to the electrical company that runs the plant.
Fake news, meet lake news. See y’all in a couple weeks!
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and recommendations for things to do in Seattle: firstname.lastname@example.org.