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USA: A conservative Facebook would probably fail — but Facebook should worry about it anyway

31 Aug, 2018
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In the days after the 2016 election, Gizmodo published a much-discussed story that predicted our current moment. The story, written by Michael F. Nuñez, alleged that Facebook had built a tool to reduce the spread of fake news — and then abandoned the tool over fears it would disproportionately affect right-wing news sites. Nuñez reported that Facebook had undertaken a high-level overview of its products in an effort to identify ways in which they might be biased against conservatives.

Facebook denied most of the substance of the story. But subsequent reporting reporting did find concerns within the company that right-wing users might someday turn on the service en masse. (See the now-famous May 2016 meeting between Zuckerberg and 16 prominent conservatives.) As I wrote in 2016:

When an earlier generation of media companies acted as gatekeepers against false and misleading stories, they created a market for alternative media. That led to the rise of conservative talk radio, Fox News, and (most recently) the alt-right. Facebook’s worst nightmare is that conservatives stop seeing it as a neutral platform, and create a fair-and-balanced social network of their own.

On Thursday, that nightmare gained a bit of momentum. Axios’ Mike Allen spoke to Donald Trump Jr., who said he was in the market for a “conservative, Facebook-like social network,” which he would heavily promote to his millions of followers:

When I asked him if his father’s 2020 campaign might build such a platform, Don Jr. said: “I’d love to do it. But what I would prefer is, take one of the two Silicon Valley conservatives and let them start it. And then I’d help promote the platform and be all over that.”

Scary thought: Imagine tribal news delivered via tribal pipes. And, as one mischievous Trump adviser told us, imagine the president moving his Twitter show to that network.

Of course, merely wishing for a conservative Facebook won’t make it so. There’s already an alternative right-wing Twitter named Gab, and after two years it seems barely afloat. It’s also not clear an ideologically pure social network would even be that much fun to use; as Joe Weisenthal put it: “a right-wing only social network will give users no way to trigger the libs, and so what’s the point? People will just get bored.”

Moreover, the existing Facebook has been an incredible boon to the conservative movement, as NewsWhip’s rankings of the most popular publishers consistently attest. (Maya Kosoff: “the fact of the matter is that a legitimate ‘Facebook for conservatives’ would look . . . a lot like Facebook.”)

At the same time, there appears to be at least some level of risk that this drumbeat of bias complaints is doing lasting damage to Facebook’s image. On Wednesday the Media Research Center, a partisan organization devoted to promoting the idea that the media is biased against conservatives, published the results of a poll it sponsored. sample size was small — just 351 people — but the views are consistent with the ideas that Republican lawmakers have been floating in hearings lately. And it doesn’t help that trust in Facebook has been declining generally:

Of conservatives who have used Facebook, 32.3% say they have either left (7.5%), or are considering leaving (24.8%), Facebook due to its censorship of conservative views.

What’s more, nearly two-thirds (66.9%) of conservative likely voters have less trust in Facebook than they did a year ago. Likewise, nearly two-thirds (66.1%) do not trust Facebook to treat all political views equally and 64.6% believe sites like Facebook are intentionally censoring conservatives and conservative ideas.

A frustration I have with this poll — and with the whole debate, really — is that the terms are so imprecise. What would mean for Facebook to “treat all political views equally”? Facebook was built to be personalized to the individual; if you want to see nothing but Fox News in your feed, you very easily can. Conversely, were Facebook to inject an equal bunch of articles from CNN or the New York Times into your heavily curated, Fox-only feed, you would likely see Facebook as more biased than it is today.

But it’s hard to fight a fundamentally emotional argument with reason. (That sentence also doubles as my preview of next week’s Congressional hearings.) Mainstream press outlets have largely been unable to convince conservatives that they are practicing journalism in good faith. And I suspect Facebook will have just as hard a time.

It seems almost quaint now to think about the months before the election, when Facebook scoured its products for evidence of actual bias against conservatives. It seems clear now that no matter what it found, or did, it would be facing the same fury it did today. And given the bad-faith arguments it rests on top of, it’s not at all clear what Facebook can do about it.

DEMOCRACY

Trump Says Google, Facebook, Amazon May Be ‘Antitrust Situation’

President Trump told Bloomberg that Google, Facebook, and Amazon might be in a “very antitrust situation.” One of the most dreaded of all antitrust situations.

Jack Dorsey Gets His Day in Washington

Selina Wang says Twitter’s CEO will face the harshest scrutiny of anyone when he testifies before Congress (for the first time!) next week. The reason is because Twitter has fewer resources at its disposal, and also its decision-making is often opaque and incoherent:

Twitter Inc. is in a more precarious position than its larger competitors, though. Dorsey’s company can’t match their user bases or cash reserves, and the modest user growth he’s fostered over the past two years could vanish if Twitter starts losing conservatives over concerns, warranted or not, about bans and “shadow bans” (in which a user’s content is invisible to everyone but ­themselves—a ­practice Twitter says it doesn’t engage in). On the other side, the service could lose liberals who won’t participate on a site they perceive to be fostering abusive speech or bending rules to accom­modate conservatives.

The latest flashpoint is a decision Apple, Facebook, Spotify, and Google-owned YouTube made in early August to purge content from Alex Jones, the shock-radio host and creator of the website InfoWars, over posts and videos that violated their hate-speech and harassment policies. Twitter has also been under mounting pressure to ban Jones, notably for spreading false assertions that the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was a hoax. After his competitors’ decision, Dorsey tweeted that Jones “hasn’t violated our rules” and implied that other platforms had caved to political pressure.

Senators Criticize Google CEO for Declining to Testify

Lawmakers are upset that Sundar Pichai isn’t going to testify next week alongside Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey, Steven T. Dennis reports:

Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Google and the other companies should all send their CEOs.

“This is the United States Senate, this is an important issue, and we deserve to hear from the decision-makers, not the people who carry out the decisions,“ King said.

Hatch asks FTC to investigate Google’s market dominance

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has asked the Federal Trade Commission to re-open the investigation into whether Google’s search and digital advertising practices are anti-competitive, Harper Neidig reports. Note that this request is based in reality — unlike, say, claims that Google search results are “rigged” against the president.

Hatch sent a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons expressing concern about reports in recent years ranging from Google restricting competing advertising services to collecting data from users’ Gmail inbox contents.

“Needless to say, I found these reports disquieting,” Hatch wrote. “Although these reports concern different aspects of Google’s business, many relate to the company’s dominant position in search and accumulating vast amounts of personal data.”

Trolls for Sale in the World’s Social Media Capital

Jonathan Corpus Ong examines how Rodrigo Duterte’s cultivation of a troll army prefigured Russia’s 2016 influence campaign:

Duterte’s campaign machinery strategically focused onassembling bloggers, digital influencers, and fake account operators to tap into the public’s deep-seated anger—and convert these emotions into votes on election day. This was initially a cost-saving maneuver for an “outsider” candidate lacking extensive political resources, but it worked to great effect. This tactic owed much of its success to the fact that the Philippines is the world’s “social media capital,” with the average Filipino spending more time on social media than any other nationality.

WhatsApp kicks off radio campaigns in India to tackle fake news

Facebook already did a print campaign to warn against fake news; now there’s a radio campaign to go along with it, reports wire agency PTI. The initial ads are in Hindi but will expand to include other languages:

“The radio campaign will air starting today across 46 Hindi-speaking stations of All India Radio (AIR) across Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told PTI. […]

These campaigns advise users to verify authenticity of messages before forwarding them and to report content that they might find to be inflammatory. It also cautions users to be careful about forwarding messages that contain misinformation and said doing so, could have serious repercussions.

ELSEWHERE

The People With Power at Facebook

Sarah Kuranda does us all a great service by offering an up-to-date org chart. Sarah, may you continue to update this in all perpetuity. I bookmarked it immediately, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

How Misinfodemics Spread Disease

Misinformation influences more than politics. It’s actually making us sicker, Nat Gynes and Xiao Mina report: “Researchers are finding more and more that online misinformation fuels the spread of diseases such as tooth decay, Ebola, and measles.”

Recent research found that Twitter bots were sharing content that contributed to positive sentiments about e-cigarettes. In West Africa, online health misinformationadded to the Ebola death toll. In New South Wales, Australia, where the spread of conspiracy theories about water fluoridation run rampant, children suffering from tooth decay are hospitalized for mass extractions at higher rates than in regions where water fluoridation exists. Over the past several weeks, new cases of measles—which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared eliminated from the United States in 2000—have emerged in places such as PortlandBostonChicago, and Michigan; researchers worry that the reemergence of preventable diseases such as this one is related to a drop in immunization rates due to declining trust in vaccines, which is in turn tied to misleading content encountered on the internet. With new tools and technologies now available to help identify where and how health misinformation spreads, evidence is building that the health misinformation we encounter online can motivate decisions and behaviors that actually make us more susceptible to disease.

Grindr IPO for gay dating app

Grindr essentially invented modern gay dating and has had a dramatic (and too-little-explored) affect on the culture. It’s now preparing to go public, and good lord I can’t wait to read the risk factors on that S1. Here you have a network where an extremely number of high-profile individuals are regularly sexting and exchanging nudes with often-fake profiles around the world, providing a ready source of kompromat to, say the Chinese government, which almost certainly will take an interest in everything passing through the Kunlun Group’s servers, assuming they haven’t already????

Johnny Johnny Yes Papa explained by the internet’s best meme creators

Sometimes a meme comes along at the perfect moment, and as soon as you see it, you know why it has captured the internet’s imagination. Johnny Johnny Yes Papa is not one of those memes. In fact Julia Alexander had to interview an army of experts to even begin to understand why a simply nursery rhyme (that does not rhyme!!!) has racked up billions of views across all manner of disturbing YouTube channels. This was the explanation that resonated most with me:

Creator behind Welcome to My Meme Page (300,000 Facebook followers): I think Demons have descended upon our world. We are thrashing under the fever of a Great Sickness, yet we do not know it.

LAUNCHES

Twitter will begin labeling political ads about issues such as immigration

Twitter is adopting Facebook’s rules requiring political advertisers to verify their identities, while carving out an exemption for news reports. (Facebook has not created such an exemption, and many outlets are still struggling to understand their responsibilities, as this piece in India’s Caravan indicates.) The impact of this will be fascinating to watch — Russia’s RT network tweets news, but it’s also funded by the Kremlin — making it arguably just political advertising by another name. Twitter has made journalists happy here, but it also may have just created a loophole for influence campaigns to exploit. Here’s Tony Romm:

Twitter said Thursday that it would begin requiring some organizations that purchase political ads on topics such as abortion, health-care reform and immigration to disclose more information about themselves to users, part of the tech giant’s attempt to thwart bad actors, including Russia, from spreading propaganda ahead of the 2018 election.

The new policy targets promoted tweets that mention candidates or advocate on “legislative issues of national importance,” Twitter executives said in a blog post. To purchase these ads, individuals and groups must verify their identities. If approved, their ads then would be specially labeled in users’ timelines and preserved online for the public to view. And promoted tweets, and the accounts behind them, would be required disclose the name of the actual organization that purchased the ad in the first place.

TAKES

Why Google Doesn’t Rank Right-Wing Outlets Highly

Google News ranks right-wing outlets lower than mainstream outlets because they don’t do much reporting or adhere to basic journalistic standards, says Alexis Madrigal:

But even if the methodology is flawed, Google applies it equally to all the media organizations in its news universe. It might not be a “free” marketplace of ideas, but it is a marketplace with fairly well-known and nonpartisan rules. If right-wing sites aren’t winning there, maybe Google isn’t the problem.

AND FINALLY …

Snapchat, Weather Channel, and others hit with anti-Semitic vandalism

Operate a walled garden and journalists will rail against you for your greed. Operate a more open system and journalists will constantly ask, how did you let this happen???

Today we had one of the latter cases:

New Yorkers who opened up Snapchat, The Weather Channel, CitiBike, or a number of other apps and services this morning found that the name of their city had been swapped with anti-Semitic vandalism, replacing it with “Jewtropolis.”

The offensive change appears to have been a result of edits to Mapbox, a widely used service that powers the maps inside of all these apps and more. The change was also spotted inside the app for StreetEasy and on The New York Times’ map of 2016 election results. Mapbox also lists ViceVox (our sibling site), and the FCC as groups that have made use of its maps, however, the vandalism didn’t show up on those sites.

I can’t help but feeling like, were there not so many Nazis walking around these days, this would seem more like a junior-high prank than a genocidal influence campaign. But, you know!

TALK TO ME

Send tips, comments, questions, and suggested features for partisan social networks: casey@theverge.com.

This entry was posted on Friday, August 31st, 2018 at 6:13 pm and is filed under Latest News.

Literature Literature archive

Baalen, S. van. 2018 Research Ethics 14(4), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016117750312

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Drs. Heidi Larson and Pauline Paterson of the Vaccine Confidence Project join episode 50 of the Public Health United podcast with Nina Martin, November 2017.

Drs. Larson and Paterson join a discussion on vaccine confidence at Hong Kong University.  September, 2015.

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