Twitter slowly gets smarter

From the New York Times

WASHINGTON — Twitter on Tuesday suspended the account of the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for a week after he tweeted a link to a video calling for supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready against media and others, in a violation of the company’s rules against inciting violence.

The social media company followed up on Wednesday by also suspending the account for Infowars, the media website founded by Mr. Jones, for posting the same video.

The twin actions effectively prevent Mr. Jones and Infowars from tweeting or retweeting from their Twitter accounts for seven days, though they will be able to browse the service.

Charles Arthur has an astute assessment of this strategy:

Clever move by Twitter. In effect, it was waiting for Jones to make the slightest wrong move, and he fell straight into the trap. The week’s suspension isn’t quite congruent for the Jones account and the Infowars account (by a few hours, the latter is in jail longer). It’s going to be harder and harder for him not to all into Twitter jail repeatedly, and eventually get banned. And so Twitter wins, without having to go to war.

Yep.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post is reporting that Twitter’s boss, Jack Dorsey, has embarked on a major re-think.

Jack Dorsey said he is rethinking core parts of the social media platform so it doesn’t enable the spread of hate speech, harassment and false news, including conspiracy theories shared by prominent users like Alex Jones and Infowars.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Dorsey said he was experimenting with features that would promote alternative viewpoints in Twitter’s timeline to address misinformation and reduce “echo chambers.” He also expressed openness to labeling bots — automated accounts that sometimes pose as human users — and redesigning key elements of the social network, including the “like” button and the way Twitter displays users’ follower counts.

Good luck with that. Twitter is now oscillating between being a vast network of cesspools and an equally vast universe of echo-chambers. And it’s also the tool that has been captured by Trump.

The death of the news feed

Ben Evans has a very thoughtful essay on his Blog about the intrinsic contradictions of social media. It’s basically about digital overload and is long and complicated and so worth reading in full. But he provides a useful summary towards the end, which goes like this:

All social apps grow until you need a newsfeed
All newsfeeds grow until you need an algorithmic feed
All algorithmic feeds grow until you get fed up of not seeing stuff/seeing the wrong stuff & leave for new apps with less overload
All those new apps grow until…

— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) January 22, 2018

I’m reminded of Clay Shirky’s famous aphorism that “there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s just filter failure”. Evans’s point is that normal human beings can’t — or won’t — use filters.

How to stay sane on Twitter: ignore retweets

This morning’s Observer column:

When Twitter first broke cover in July 2006, the initial reaction in the non-geek community was derisive incredulity. First of all, there was the ludicrous idea of a “tweet” – not to mention the metaphor of “twittering”, which, after all, is what small birds do. Besides, what could one usefully say in 140 characters? To the average retired colonel (AKA Daily Telegraph reader), Twitter summed up the bird-brained frivolity of the internet era, providing further evidence that the world was going to the dogs.

And now? It turns out that the aforementioned colonel might have been right. For one of the things you can do with a tweet is declare nuclear war. Another thing you can do with Twitter is to bypass the mainstream media, ignore the opinion polls, spread lies and fake news without let or hindrance and get yourself elected president of the United States.

How did it come to this?

Read on

The bad news about false news

The most comprehensive study to date of misinformation on Twitter is out. The Abstract reads:

We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

So what is Twitter really for?

This morning’s Observer column:

In a way, it’s no surprise that Trump should have taken to Twitter because it has the right bandwidth for his thought processes. Technically, bandwidth is the range of frequencies that a particular communications channel can transmit. The wider the bandwidth, the more information the channel can handle, which is why analog phone lines were OK for voice communication but hopeless for relaying music. Smoke signals are one of the oldest communication channels devised by humans and they were very good for communicating danger or summoning people to gatherings. But as the cultural critic Neil Postman once observed, they were lousy for philosophical discussions. The bandwidth is too low.

Same goes for Twitter. It’s great for transmitting news tersely, which is why an increasing amount of breaking news comes via it (and not just warnings from Trump about supposedly imminent nuclear exchanges, either)…

Read on

The dark underbelly of online ‘safety’

This morning’s Observer column:

Alarmed by this, the companies have been bragging about the number of extra staff they are recruiting to deal with the [‘inappropriate content’] problem. Facebook, for example, is hiring 10,000 extra people to work on “safety and security generally” – which means that by the end of 2018 it will have 20,000 people working in this area. And YouTube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, announced her goal of “bringing the total number of people across Google working to address content that might violate our policies to over 10,000 in 2018”.

What these impressive-sounding commitments do not specify is how many of the new hires will be actual employees and how many will be merely contractors. My hunch is the latter. A more important question – and one we have all shamefully ignored until now – is what kind of work will they be required to do, and under what conditions?

Read on

Facebook: the Psychopaths ‘R Us channel

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The old adage “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. A while back, Facebook launched Facebook Live, a service that enables its users to broadcast live video to the world. Shortly after the service was activated, the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said that the service would support all the “personal and emotional and raw and visceral” ways that people communicate. Users were encouraged to “go live” in casual settings – waiting for baggage at the airport, for example, or eating at a restaurant.

Note the phrase “raw and visceral”. Facebook Live has already broadcast a live stream of a young disabled man being tied up, gagged and attacked with a knife. In March, two Chicago teenage boys live-streamed themselves gang-raping a teenage girl. And around 40 Facebook users watched the video without reporting it either to Facebook or the police.

That’s pretty raw and visceral, you might think. But it turns out that it was just a prelude…

Read on

Facebook won’t fix fake news or filter bubbles for one simple reason: its business model depends on them

I’ve had a few goes at this (for example here and here) but Frederic Filloux has done an even better job:

Setting aside the need to fix its current PR nightmare, Facebook has no objective interest in fixing its fake stories problem.

In the end, it all boils down to this:

Facebook is above all an advertising machine. A fantastic one. I encourage everyone to explore its spectacular advertising interface and, even better, to spend a few bucks to boost a post, or build an ad. Its power, reach, granularity and overall efficiency are dizzying.

Facebook’s revenue system depends on a single parameter: page views. Pages views come from sharing. Which page criteria lead to the best sharing volumes?

You know the answer:

  • Emotions, preferably positive ones
  • Fun – LOLcats, listicles, cartoons,…
  • Proximity – stuff from friends and family
  • Affinities – stuff that resonates with your feelings, values and politics (and thereby locks you into your own personal filter bubble)

Sharing is key to Facebook’s business model because it leads to higher page consumption which, in turn, leads to multiple personalised advertising exposures.

It’s a great post, well worth reading in full. What I particularly enjoyed is Filloux’s takedown of young Zuckerberg’s cant about connecting everybody. This is what the lad said:

We stand for connecting every person. For a global community. For bringing people together. For giving all people a voice. For a free flow of ideas and culture across nations. And this idea of connecting the world has gotten stronger over the last century. You can now travel almost anywhere in the world in less than a day. Countries trade more openly and cooperate more easily than ever. And the Internet has enabled all of us to access and share more ideas and information than ever before. We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we’re all better off for it.

Sounds good? Only problem: it’s BS. As Filloux puts it:

Facebook might have created a “global community” but its components are utterly segregated and fragmented.

Facebook is made up of dozens of millions of groups carefully designed to share the same views and opinions. Each group is protected against ideological infiltration from other cohorts. Maintaining the integrity of these walls is the primary mission of Facebook’s algorithm.

Yep. QED.

Just because it’s ‘trending’ doesn’t mean it’s true

This morning’s Observer column:

On 27 September, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced up to one another in the first of the televised presidential debates. Most observers concluded that Clinton had come off best. She was better prepared, they thought, and towards the end Trump seemed rattled and rambling.

Needless to say, this didn’t stop the Trump campaign team from using the phrase “Trump Won” in ads even before the debate ended. Aha, you say, that’s American politics for you: you get what you pay for. And in these circumstances, every candidate says that she or he has won anyway, no matter what happened in the debate.

But then something interesting happened. The hashtag #TrumpWon went viral on Twitter and in a few hours had reached the top of the global trending list. Trump was on to it like a shot. “The #1 trend on Twitter right now,” he tweeted, “is #TrumpWon – thank you!”

Read on