Programming note: The Interface will be off the rest of the week for Thanksgiving travels. Thanks to everyone who has joined me for this first year, and shared the newsletter with your friends — lots of exciting things are coming. Stay tuned.
Thanksgiving is nearly upon us in the United States, and Americans will sit down to dinner feeling less certain than ever about their social media accounts. This news comes from Axios, who had SurveyMonkey ask 3,622 adults if social media does more to help or hurt democracy and free speech. It was the second year the poll had been conducted — and the poll found a precipitous decline in social media sentiment. Sarah Fischer and Alison Snyder report:
In the past year, there has been a 15-point spike in the number of people who fear the federal government won’t do enough to regulate big tech companies — with 55% now sharing this concern.
In that same period, there was a 14-point increase in those who feel technology has hurt democracy and free speech.
The authors note that the disdain for social media, as of this year, is a fully bipartisan phenomenon. Whether it’s the ginned-up outrage about “censorship” or something more legitimate, Republicans now believe social media is worse for democracy and free speech than Democrats do.
Meanwhile, the number of people who think social media is a net positive for society is down to 40 percent. If you think social networks are a boon to the republic, you are officially now in the minority. Among other things, the poll suggests that the networks are doing a bad job making this case for themselves — despite making huge investments in policy and communications teams.
There are lots of big reasons why people are wary of social media, and as a reader of this newsletter you can probably rattle off half a dozen or more. But there are small reasons, too, and I wanted to point out just one of them before the holiday weekend.
A couple years ago, inspired by the early success of Meerkat and then Periscope, Facebook made a huge investment in live video. It hasn’t amounted to much, but engineers and product people on Facebook Live continue to tinker with the offering.
Facebook employees are typically evaluated quarterly against some quantifiable metric, and at Facebook many of those metrics are oriented around some form of engagement — number of messages sent, for example. Former employees have complained to me that this cycle tends to reward projects that can be completely quickly to juice the metric in question, impress the boss, and earn their bonus, whatever the intrinsic merits of the project in question.
It’s in that context that I read this Ryan Mac story about a new Facebook Live engagement-boosting feature noticed by horrified onlookers of a video stream that documented a mass shooting at a Chicago hospital:
On Monday, a handful of Facebook users noticed that the social media platform was offering them preset responses for live videos about a series of news stories. On one stream for MSNBC about an ongoing, officer-involved shooting at a Chicago hospital, NBCUniversal contractor Stephanie Haberman noticed Facebook was prompting her to comment with phrases like “this is so sad” and “so sorry,” along with emojis including the prayer hands.
Haberman wryly called the feature “a thoughts and prayers autoresponder,” a phrase that resonated with more than 2,000 people who liked her tweet. As Mac notes, autoresponders are all the rage lately, having recently materialized inside Gmail.
They’re popping up more on Facebook properties, too — tap to comment on an Instagram story and the app will now suggest you send an emoji instead. That’s fine when you’re sending hearts to a picture of somebody’s homemade brunch, but unsettling when Facebook’s vaunted AI tools are working to predict your response to a massacre.
The company shut down the test. “Clearly this wasn’t implemented properly and we have disabled this feature for now,” it told Mac. But that’s different from saying it never should have been implemented at all — or won’t be again.
As social networks study the sentiment reported in the Axios survey, it would do well to ask how engagement bait like this chips away at any good feeling someone might have from using their products. The thoughts and prayers autoresponder will be forgotten in a few days. But the underlying doubts about what role these services play in our lives will linger.
On Monday I looked at how unforced errors on Facebook’s communications and policy team suggested a need for rethinking from its wartime CEO. I heard back from insiders who let me know that while executives like Alex Stamos, Andrew Bosworth, and Adam Mosseri might have embraced Twitter before the communications team, eventually comms put together a coordinated Twitter effort that put them at the center. People discussed their Twitter accounts in conference rooms. There were presentation decks!
I also heard from some smart folks on Twitter who read my post as a suggestion that Facebook’s problems are primarily the result of a bad PR strategy. I don’t think that, and I should have made it more clear on Monday. What I intended to say is that whatever Facebook’s more deeply rooted problems, the paranoid, cynical style of PR championed by Sheryl Sandberg, Elliot Schrage, and Joel Kaplan has resulted in a lot of paranoid, cynical coverage. The Definers scandal is only the latest example.
Google quietly updated an August blog post to say it had found more inauthentic, state-sponsored accounts — mostly from Iran, David McCabe reports:
The company removed an additional Blogger site, 34 YouTube channels and six pages on Google+ related to “Iran-linked operations.” The YouTube channels had 20,794 total views in the United States on English-language videos.
Daniel Funke reports on a new study that attempted to analyze the effectiveness of Twitter bots in spreading misinformation during the 2018 election:
According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications today, automated Twitter accounts disproportionately amplified misinformation during the last U.S. election. It found that, while bots only accounted for about 6 percent of the Twitter users in the study, they were responsible for 34 percent of all shares of articles from “low-credibility” sources on the platform.
“This study finds that bots significantly contribute to the spread of misinformation online — as well as shows how quickly these messages can spread,“ said Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University and the study’s lead, in a press release sent to Poynter.
Russian’s Federal Agency of News, which Spencer Ackerman describes as “a corporate twin” of the more famous Internet Research Agency troll farm, is suing Facebook to have its account restored in the name of the First Amendment. Trolls gonna troll!
The Russian outlet insisted it’s merely “an independent, authentic and legitimate news agency.” And it made an argument likely to discomfort Facebook and attract support from the far right: it’s a free speech martyr unfairly victimized by the 21st century discourse’s digital gatekeepers.
“Facebook took action against FAN in an effort to silence and deter FAN’s free speech,” it argued in its brief.
Henry Farrell interviews Yochai Benkler, who along with his fellow scholars Rob Faris and Hal Robert has their new book, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.” It finds that Fox News plays a uniquely toxic role in American life:
BENKLER: Surveys make it clear that Fox News is by far the most influential outlet on the American right — more than five times as many Trump supporters reported using Fox News as their primary news outlet than those who named Facebook. And Trump support was highest among demographics whose social media use was lowest.
Our data repeatedly show Fox as the transmission vector of widespread conspiracy theories. The original Seth Rich conspiracy did not take off when initially propagated in July 2016 by fringe and pro-Russia sites, but only a year later, as Fox News revived it when James Comey was fired. The Clinton pedophilia libel that resulted in Pizzagate was started by a Fox online report, repeated across the Fox TV schedule, and provided the prime source of validation across the right-wing media ecosystem.
I’ve always said that people who spend a lot of time criticizing whatever it is they mean by “the media” turn out to be easy marks. Joshua Benton reports on a new study that supports this line of thinking:
Don’t like the media? Think it’s all “lies” or “fake”? Then you’re probably not as good at reading the news as your less perpetually annoyed peers.
That’s one finding from a new study from the News Co/Lab at Arizona State, in collaboration with the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas. Those who have negative opinions of the news media are less likely to spot a fake headline, less likely to differentiate between news and opinion — but more confident in their ability to find the information they need online.
Raymond Zhong reports on how China defied expectations and created a very popular and successful internet while also turning it into a massive surveillance system to suppress dissent:
If people in the West didn’t see this coming, it was because they mistook China’s authoritarianism for hostility toward technology.
But in some ways Chinese tech firms are less fettered than American ones. Witness the backlash against Big Data in the United States, the calls to break up giants like Facebook and the anxiety about digital addiction. None of those are big problems for Chinese companies.
Facebook had its second major outage of the month on Tuesday:
Facebook is experiencing a rare outage that is making the popular social network site — along with Facebook Messenger and Instagram — unavailable to users across the United States as well as parts of Europe and South America, according to third-party site Down Detector’s outage map.
Facebook’s ad-buying system also had a badly timed outage on Tuesday, Gerrit De Vynck and Sarah Frier report:
The technology, which companies and agencies use to buy Facebook ads, was down for some major users earlier in the day on Tuesday, according to a media buyer and another person familiar with the situation. The system is now back up but working slower than normal, the people said.
“Campaigns that are live and running should not be affected and are still being delivered. However, advertisers may experience issues creating new campaigns and making changes to existing campaigns,” a spokesman for Facebook said in email.
A prelude to deleting their accounts?
“Over the past two weeks we’ve experienced a higher volume of Download Your Information requests than usual,” a Facebook spokesperson told Recode when we noticed a few complaints that download requests seemed to be taking a long time. “This means it is taking longer to process the requests. We are working on it and appreciate people’s patience.”
It’s been a bad few months for the stocks of the big tech companies, Matt Phillips reports:
Shares of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, are down more than 10 percent since the market peaked, while Facebook and Amazon have dropped more than 20 percent.
Investors’ faith has been eroded by slowing growth and a trade war with China, as well as a steady stream of revelations about privacy lapses, security issues and mismanagement. If tech stocks cannot shake the fears, the rest of the market could feel the pain.
Yesterday I inadvertently omitted this Tom Dotan classic, in which Snap’s CEO is found ignoring board members and taking a private jet everywhere as his company’s stock price plunges and executives stream toward the exits. (Who does he think he is — a peacetime CEO?)
Benchmark partner Mitch Lasky, a Snap director until August, on occasion would challenge CEO Evan Spiegel about the company’s failure to meet Wall Street expectations for user growth and profits. Mr. Spiegel, who spends most board meetings looking at his phone and messaging people on Snapchat, was dismissive of Mr. Lasky’s concerns, according to people with knowledge of the board discussions
But hey, Snap has some new glasses coming, Alex Heath reports:
Snap is planning to release a new version of its Spectacles glasses with two cameras and a higher price point of $350 by the end of the year, Cheddar has learned.
The new Spectacles, internally codenamed Newport, will feature an all-new design with a more premium frame made of aluminum and cameras capable of producing augmented reality effects in videos, according to people familiar with the matter. With a $350 price point, the new glasses will be more than double the cost of the first iteration of Spectacles, which were released in 2016.
Libby Torres investigates cultural appropriation among a set of Instagram influencers cribbing black style:
Hallberg is merely one of many white or white-passing women on Instagram who’ve gained attention in recent weeks for their controversial styling that mimics the skin tone, hair, and aesthetic of many black women, and their unwillingness to be transparent about their non-black heritage—a practice dubbed “blackfishing” on social media. Most of these white women have significant Instagram followings, and most of them feel immune to criticisms of cultural appropriation—at least until a controversial Twitter thread called them out last week.
Jenna Wortham reports that social media has been a boon to nonbinary folks:
Her research found that social media is a gathering place for discussing the logistics of gender — providing advice, reassurance and emotional support, as well as soliciting feedback about everything from voice modulation to hairstyles. The internet is a place where nonbinary people can learn about mixing masculine and feminine elements to the point of obscuring concrete identification as either. As one person she interviewed put it, “Every day someone can’t tell what I am is a good day.”
Tumblr says that child pornography was the reason for its app’s sudden disappearance from the iOS App Store. The app has been missing from the store since November 16th, but until now the reason for its absence was unclear — initially Tumblr simply said it was “working to resolve the issue with the iOS app.” However, after Download.com approached Tumblr with sources claiming that the reason was related to the discovery of child pornography on the service, the Yahoo-owned social media network issued a new statement confirming the matter.
Brian Feldman names the practice — common to short-form video apps like Vine and now TikTok — of playing multiple identities over the course of a few seconds:
Perhaps the most important thing that Klumping does is it provides a level of intimacy and authenticity that multi-actor Vines do not. As Viners blew up, they started appearing in each others Vines — Logan Paul would hang out with King Bach who’d hang out with Lele Pons and so on and so forth, cross-pollinating in a way that felt like naked self-promotion, a digital circle-jerk.
Those who Klump, on the other hand, were afforded authority because of how low-effort their vines look. It signals that “this is just for fun” and feels spontaneous, and it has faith in the viewer to figure out who is who.
A week after Instagram, 15 weeks after it was announced, and months after Apple and Google cut it off at the pass with system-level dashboards, Facebook has finally introduced its feature to help you monitor your time in the app.
Here’s the most direct example yet of YouTube using its giant platform to fight Article 13. From Julia Alexander:
If you watch YouTube videos without a YouTube Premium subscription, you’re familiar with the tiny pop-ups that appear in the bottom left-hand corner of the stream that prompt users to sign up for YouTube’s ad-free service.
It seems that YouTube has replaced that pop-up with a new message that warns users about the European Union’s proposed copyright directive. It also offers an explainer on one particular act known as Article 13. The pop-up brings YouTube viewers to the company’s standalone website detailing the possible effect of Article 13, which puts the onus on YouTube to prevent copyrighted material from appearing on the platform.
The Alex Jones case has made Zeynep Tufekci nervous about platforms’ power:
If the unaccountable manner in which the tech platforms can amplify harmful content has led to a crisis, so has the facility with which they can eject it. Jones delivered eyeballs for many years. Then the platforms succumbed to pressure and banned him, all within the span of a few weeks.
The tech platforms have arbitrary power to decide what to amplify, and thus what to bury, and they have the power to banish as they wish. There is nothing aside from backlash to stop them from deplatforming, say, tech critics or politicians who call for shutting tax loopholes for massive corporations. Without due process or accountability, a frustrated public is left with appealing to a few powerful referees—and crossing our fingers.
Thanks to you, yesterday we surged past 6,000 subscribers — and our open rate has held steady, with the last three clocking in at 46, 44, and 44 percent, respectively. Please keep your thoughts coming on how I can make The Interface more useful in your life — whether it’s helping you stay informed at your job, as a citizen of the world, or some combination of the two.
And finally …
Truly today is a blessed day, for Josh Constine brings word of LinkedIn stories. Absolutely nothing about LinkedIn’s idea makes a lick of sense, and I invite you to contemplate the following at leisure, and discuss with your families over Thanksgiving dinner:
A LinkedIn spokesperson tells us the motive behind the feature is to get students sharing their academic experiences like internships, career fairs and class projects that they’d want to show off to recruiters as part of their personal brand. “It’s a great way for students to build out their profile and have this authentic content that shows who they are and what their academic and professional experiences have been. Having these videos live on their profile can help students grow their network, prepare for life after graduation, and help potential employers learn more about them,” Patel says.
I sometimes say that LinkedIn is Facebook, but in slow motion — ephemeral video stories on a social resume site is more like Facebook, but drunk.
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