A few days removed from this weekend’s mass shootings, one of which had been announced on the hate forum 8chan, the White House has had two contradictory responses. One is to announce a Friday summit on violent online extremism to be attended by tech companies, and to call on those companies to detect and report violent manifestos to the authorities. The other is to prepare, in secret, an executive order aimed at eliminating “anti-conservative bias” on tech platforms.
As my colleague Adi Robertson points out, these twin initiatives may be self-canceling:
One shooting was apparently an act of far-right terrorism, based on an anti-immigrant screed posted online. There was a fine line between its rhetoric and the views of major conservative figures like Tucker Carlson or Trump himself. Preemptively flagging the shooter — or one of several far-right killers before him — could have looked like egregious anti-conservative bias. And since predictive AI has sky-high error rates, it would probably catch a lot of non-violent conservative accounts (alongside those of non-conservatives) purely by accident. That’s already a recipe for a PR disaster, and it gets even dicier if Trump adds new legal punishments.
Of course, this issue becomes less pressing if you believe, as I do, that these bias complaints are intended primarily to rile up conservative voters and unlikely to become law. (It’s unclear how you would even craft a law to ensure “neutrality,” as Sen. Josh Hawley recently called for.)
While politicians trade press releases on the subject, the practical fate of hate-promoting tech platforms has fallen to the invisible hand of the marketplace. Over the past 72 hours, we’ve seen 8chan go down, come back, and go down again, as various internet infrastructure companies learn of the site’s existence and chase it off their customer rolls. (Its current status is: up? I think?)
Most people I know assume the site will eventually find stable service providers somewhere. But that has led to a debate: does kicking 8chan off any individual service provider make the world a better place, or not?
Does deplatforming down help, or doesn’t it? Will Oremus calls the move “better than nothing” but still finds it ineffective:
The inability of any single private internet company to kill a website means that deplatforming is a battle in which victories tend to be short-lived. And that’s leaving aside the harder question of whether it really works, in the sense of not just blacklisting a given person or domain, but actually limiting the virulent spread of their ideology.
And yet, we now have good evidence that forcing hate figures and their websites to continuously relocate is effective at diminishing their reach over time. Angela Chen explains why:
After a group of tech companies kicked InfoWars founder Alex Jones off their platforms, initial interest in him spiked, but a year later, he had mostly disappeared. One 2017 study found that Reddit’s decision to ban communities like r/fatpeoplehate and r/CoonTown led to less hate speech on the site, says study coauthor Eshwar Chandrasekharan, a PhD candidate at Georgia Tech. The reason: extremely motivated users will follow a community or personality to a new place, but less-engaged members drop off completely.
Similarly, the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer used to be a central organizing space for the far right. Since it was dropped by web-hosting company GoDaddy two years ago, its influence within the movement has significantly waned, says Becca Lewis, a researcher who studies online political subcultures. “If 8chan stays down, there’s reason to believe that that would have a big impact on what we see in terms of online organizing in the far-right movement,” she adds.
That’s good enough for me. I’d rather that Congress pass gun control, but I’ll take the deplatforming of 8chan in the meantime.
Meanwhile, Ben Thompson offers a useful framework for how to think about deplatforming. On one end of the spectrum — what he calls “the stack” — are consumer-facing platforms like Instagram and Twitter that anyone can post to. On the other are infrastructure providers like Cloudflare whose role is to provide basic access to the internet. Thompson argues that consumer platforms should moderate aggressively so as to attract the broadest possible audience — while infrastructure companies should try to limit their moderation to what is legal, so as to promote the maximum about of speech.
Thompson writes of Cloudflare’s decision to ban 8chan: “User-facing platforms are the ones that should make these calls, not infrastructure providers. But if they won’t, someone needs to. So Cloudflare did.” I think that’s the right framing — and the right decision on Cloudflare’s part.
The problem is that we have so few consumer-facing platforms that the “stack” Thompson describes looks increasingly flat. When your options for broadcasting to a large audience are limited to a small handful of companies, they start to look a lot like infrastructure. Which is precisely why politicians are making so much hay about “bias” on the platforms — they simply don’t have many other good options.
Breaking up the tech platforms would cause any number of difficult problems for executives. But it could also give them more freedom to do the moderation their users want to see.
As you might expect, journalists are now looking into what other sites Cloudflare is hosting …
… and those inquiries are now spilling onto other service providers, like this one!
Jane Lytvynenko says disinformation about shootings is spreading on messaging apps — a worrisome trend heading into next year’s election:
Just after the El Paso shooting, a video of a young man in glasses driving and rapping to Kendrick Lamar began to spread on Telegram. It was posted by Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys founder who has been banned from major social media platforms for violent rhetoric, with this caption: “This just in: rap fan shoots up Walmart in El Paso. Is rap the devil’s music?” Within a minute, it was reposted by Milo Yiannopoulos, who has also been kicked off the major social networks, with the words “Kendrick Lamar has some questions to answer.” But the driver, a 26-year-old from New York state, had nothing to do with the shooting, and the video itself was several years old.
Collectively the two posts, which remain online, have been viewed by roughly 7,500 people according to Telegram statistics (though it’s possible the two men’s audiences overlap). Yet there’s no way to tell whether it had further spread to private groups on the platform, or if it made the leap from Telegram to other private spaces. The video highlights an emerging issue for online disinformation: As the major social platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have taken steps to ban users for spreading false, hateful, or violent messages, bad actors have turned to private spaces where their communications are harder to track.
Republicans continue to put pressure on Google over Huawei, though the whole thing continues to feel like an intimidation campaign related to bias allegations. Colin Lecher:
Three Republican senators want to hear more from Google after reports that the company was working on a Huawei-branded smart speaker. They are accusing the company of failing to take Americans’ privacy into account on the project. […]
Now, senators with a history of sharply criticizing Google and Huawei are asking for more information about the planned collaboration. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who’s worked to position himself as a conservative critic of the tech industry, signed on to a letter with two fellow Republicans who have been some of the loudest voices denouncing Huawei, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tom Cotton (R-AR).
Colin Lecher reports on more irresponsible misinformation from the president:
President Trump again took aim at Google in a series of tweets on Tuesday morning, claiming there was an anti-conservative bias at the search giant while also suggesting there was a conspiracy at the company to “illegally subvert the 2020 election,” ideas the company has repeatedly denied.
Pranav Dixit reports on an important court fight:
WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service that has built a 400 million strong user base in India, is squaring off in a Tamil Nadu courthouse in a case that could force the company to weaken its privacy protections. The Madras high court recently began hearing a case filed by two petitioners asking the country to force people to link their WhatsApp accounts to their Aadhaar, India’s controversial biometric ID number for nearly all of the country’s 1.4 billion residents.
This one’s a must-read. Citing a new study Craig Silverman reports that measures Facebook took after 2016 to counter bad actors failed to stem the tide of trolling in the Philippines — but have resulted in more ad spending on Facebook:
Ong and his colleagues show that new election rules aimed at bringing more transparency to digital campaigns, as well as efforts by Facebook to support fact-checking and execute takedowns, didn’t beat back the tide of digital disinformation. The official and unofficial digital campaigns supporting Duterte and the opposition simply adapted to new rules and instituted countermeasures to avoid being flagged by fact-checkers or the platforms. And the PR firms executing these tactics still face little or no accountability, Ong said.
The result was that the use of trolls, false news, misleading memes, microtargeting, and other so-called black ops was even more widespread in 2019 than in 2016. Budgets for social media campaigns also increased, according to Ong and his colleagues.
Makena Kelly reports on fallout from last month’s revelation of a vulnerability in Messenger Kids:
Democratic senators wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Tuesday, probing the company on whether it has done enough to protect children’s privacy after The Verge reported last month on a flaw in the Messenger Kids app that allowed minors to chat with unapproved adults.
Late last month, Facebook alerted parents of the flaw and notified them that the group chats created by way of it were being shut down by the company. Messenger Kids allows parents to approve of users that their children can speak with in the app. But because of the reported flaw, some minors were invited to group chats by approved people where unapproved people were also included.
Andrea Stanley profiles an anonymous woman known as the Savant who infiltrates online hate groups in an effort to identify potential mass shooters before they strike. She’s currently tracking more than 1,000 men who posted hateful screeds online. In 2007 she worked with the FBI to stop a bombing:
It could have been one more mass-casualty event on our grim, ever-lengthening list. Columbine. Orlando. Charleston. Gilroy. El Paso. Dayton. But it wasn’t. Because Finton was immediately swarmed by FBI agents and members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. He was shackled, locked up, and indicted, eventually pleading guilty to one count of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction against property owned by the United States. He’s now serving 28 years in federal prison.
There were plenty of news articles about Finton’s arrest, but you won’t find her name in any of them. Instead, in reports about her cases, you’ll see words like “tip,” “alerted,” “uncovered.” Words that basically mean her. Even the existence of her work has been largely a mystery. At least, until now.
Here’s a yikes from Greg Bensinger:
Google and Amazon, two of the biggest platforms for online shopping, have been offering for sale and profiting from listings of firearm and gun accessories, an apparent violation of their own stated policies that shows the pitfalls of software-driven retail.
The companies as recently as Monday, within days of three mass shootings that have shaken the nation, were offering rifle magazines for sale on their sites, including models with a capacity to hold 25 or more bullets.
Twitter’s current verification policy is somewhere between incoherent and nonexistent. Maegan Vazquez and Donie O’Sullivan have the latest wrinkle:
Twitter is telling some new congressional candidates that they’ll need to win their primary races before their accounts can be verified on the social media network, CNN has learned.
The social media giant isn’t making exceptions for candidates running for office in 2020, emails between a campaign representative and Twitter, obtained by CNN, show. That’s despite indications that foreign entities have previously attempted to pose as US political candidates on social media.
Matthew Boyle reports on the latest incident of a rank-and-file corporate employee facing retaliation for protesting company policy:
Thomas Marshall, a 23-year-old category manager in Walmart’s San Bruno, California-based e-commerce business, asked employees to call in sick Tuesday, leave work early on Wednesday, and sign a Change.org petitionthat urges the company to stop selling firearms and ammunition in the wake of two shootings at the company’s stores in recent weeks.
Marshall said Walmart retaliated by blocking his access to both his corporate Outlook email account and Slack, a workplace collaboration platform where he had originally publicized the protest. Company spokesman Randy Hargrove confirmed that Marshall’s access to networks had been temporarily suspended, and said they’d be reactivated once he returns to work, pending a review.
Good Rob Price story on a sleazy San Francisco marketing firm named HYP3R, which scraped millions of public posts to build a marketing database in violation of Instagram’s rules. It did so over a year, and Instagram only became aware of it when contacted by the reporter:
Publicly, HYP3R welcomed Instagram’s API changes, writing a worthy blog post in which it said it “understand[s] and welcome[s] the changes that Facebook is making to protect the privacy of all of us,” and promising its data would never be used for political purposes.
But behind the scenes, the company got to work building a system that could disregard Instagram’s decision and keep on harvesting data anyway, sources told Business Insider.
Microsoft is the latest company to be scrutinized for its use of human contractors to analyze audio recordings taken from its services in an effort to improve them. Joseph Cox reports:
Contractors working for Microsoft are listening to personal conversations of Skype users conducted through the app’s translation service, according to a cache of internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings obtained by Motherboard. Although Skype’s website says that the company may analyze audio of phone calls that a user wants to translate in order to improve the chat platform’s services, it does not say some of this analysis will be done by humans.
The Skype audio obtained by Motherboard includes conversations from people talking intimately to loved ones, some chatting about personal issues such as their weight loss, and others seemingly discussing relationship problems. Other files obtained by Motherboard show that Microsoft contractors are also listening to voice commands that users speak to Cortana, the company’s voice assistant.
Facebook is going after developers that generate fake clicks on Facebook ads, Jay Peters reports:
Facebook has sued two app developers for click injection fraud, claiming the developers made Google Play apps that installed malware on a user’s phone for the purpose of generating fake clicks on Facebook ads. That fraudulent ad revenue in turn went to the app developers, Hong Kong-based LionMobi and Singapore-based JediMobi.
Facebook has to rebuild core parts of WhatsApp and Messenger because of a privacy-focused change to the next version of iOS, Aaron Tilley reports:
The change will restrict a feature that apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp used to make voice calls over the internet. Right now, the calling feature in these apps runs in the background even when it’s not in use, ensuring the apps can connect calls faster but also making it possible for them to perform other, unrelated tasks such as collecting data. Now, Apple is restricting that background access so that it can only be used for internet calls.
Apple’s move will force Facebook to redesign its messaging apps, two people familiar with the issue said. It may have a particularly heavy impact on WhatsApp, which has been using the internet calling feature in a variety of ways, including for implementing the app’s end-to-end encryption, the people said. Other messaging app developers, who have long relied on the internet calling feature to keep their apps running in the background on Apple mobile devices, will also have to rebuild their apps, said people familiar with the issue.
Nice find here from Adrienne Jeffries on a gross little thing that Yelp does to restaurants on its platform:
Even though restaurants are capable of taking orders directly—after all, both numbers are routed to the same place—Yelp is pushing customers to Grubhub-owned phone numbers in order to facilitate what Grubhub calls a “referral fee” of between 15 percent and 20 percent of the order total, I learned while researching an episode for the podcast Underunderstood.
Yelp has historically functioned like an enhanced Yellow Pages, listing direct phone numbers for restaurants along with photos, information about the space, menus, and user reviews. But Yelp began prompting customers to call Grubhub phone numbers in October 2018 after the two companies announced a “long-term partnership.”
Taylor Lorenz reports on the best new job title of 2019:
Today, the company is announcing that it’s looking to hire its first-ever strategic-partnerships manager specifically to focus on meme accounts and what the company calls “digital publishers,” social-based media companies including @TheShadeRoom, @OverheardLA, @CommentsbyCelebs, and @Betches. According to Lila King, Instagram’s head of news and publishing partnerships, the person will work within Instagram’s partnerships division to identify important new formats and trends while also serving memers already on the platform, including large and well-established meme accounts like @FuckJerry, @KaleSalad, and @Daquan, as well as the rapidly growing next generation of accounts run by mostly teenagers such as Winch.
The role is in part an attempt to placate one of the platform’s most vibrant communities: According to a statistic provided by Instagram, meme content gets shared seven times more than non-meme content on the app. More meme accounts than ever are monetizing, and memes have become the default way many young people consume news information on the platform.
Sure, why not:
Twitch has partnered with the National Basketball Association to stream USA Basketball games globally through 2020, according to Reuters. USA Basketball is a nonprofit organization that’s the governing body for basketball in America; it’s the outfit that organizes the men’s and women’s teams that compete internationally. (This year, it will send teams to the FIBA World Cup in China — which happens every four years and is basically the same as the soccer version.)
The move brings even more live sports to Twitch, which currently plays host to the NFL’s Thursday Night Football among other content, like NBA minor league games.
Pray for the emoji house!! Jelisa Castrodale explains why:
Earlier this summer, Kidd commissioned a local artist to paint the exterior of her home, and she decided that, this time, she’d go with the kind of pink you rarely see outside of a 7-year-old’s birthday party. In addition to the hottest of hot pinks, Kidd had two emojis added to the exterior, one with a zipped mouth, one with a wide smile and floppy tongue, and both of them with thick, oversized eyelashes on their loopy, oversized eyes. […]
But one of her neighbors says that she’s lashing out—pun absolutely intended—at them for snitching on her to the city, and that Kidd is deliberately making fun of her appearance. Susan Wieland admits that she contacted the city when she learned that Kidd had listed the 39th Street house on Airbnb. (Short-term rentals of less than 30 days are illegal in Manhattan Beach.) She also said that she had eyelash extensions on the single occasion that she’d spoken to Kidd in person.
Dangerous radicals within the Twitter organization are building artificial restrictions on the app’s ability to give you a dopamine rush whenever your posts are liked or retweeted, Jane Manchun Wong reports.
And finally ...
Eighteen-year-old Skylar Madison is obsessed with managing the online social media “influencer” careers of her fellow classmates and will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. That includes murder. Having already gotten away with killing the most popular girl in her school, Skylar now turns her sights on managing the career of seventeen-year-old Jessica Lake, the new girl in class and an up-and-coming fashion video blogger. But Jessica’s mother Lynn Kessling suspects the truth: that Skylar is a dangerous, amoral psychopath, who’s dark secrets may be too frightening to believe!
After writing this newsletter for a couple years, let me just say … I believe it.
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