Sunday 7 June, 2020

One man stands between Joe Biden and the US presidency – Mark Zuckerberg

This morning’s Observer column:

…my mind goes back to this time in 2016, when similar sentiments were the conventional wisdom about the chances of Trump defeating Hillary Clinton. And one of the most agonising questions in the aftermath of that election was: how could Nate Silver and co have got it so wrong?

The answer is simple: nobody, including opinion pollsters, knew about the Trump campaign’s astonishing mastery of social media, especially Facebook. Trump may not have known much about that at the time – he really only understood Twitter – but Brad Parscale and his team sure knew how to make use of Facebook’s micro-targeting machine. And they did.

Spool forward to now. Trump knows that if things continue as they are – with no party conventions or mass rallies and if the election is held in November (a sizable “if” IMHO) – then Biden will win. The only thing that could change that is – you guessed it! – Facebook…

Read on


The Protests Remind Us Why Social Media Is Worth Fixing

Very thoughtful post by Will Oremus arguing that while Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok are distorting our view of a crisis, they’re also countering the distorted view we had before. And the trouble is, that’s correct. We have to abandon the notion of a world without social media (though not the idea that it could have better, less societally damaging, business models). That genie is long out of the bottle. So the question is: how can we improve the current situation so that we have a less polluted public sphere? As Oremus puts it:

It’s on Facebook, Twitter, and even TikTok that shaky smartphone videos of police brutality are going viral, and once-radical demands such as defunding the police are picking up steam.

Without these platforms, we’d still be totally reliant on a press corps whose demographics and values skew white and upper-middle-class, and which for decades has helped to prop up — or at least failed to topple — a status quo of white supremacy. The problem with Zuckerberg’s framing of Facebook as a net positive, then, is not that it’s absurd, per se — although it is conveniently unfalsifiable, as the New York Times’ Kevin Roose points out. The problem is that, when deployed as a shield against criticism, it’s a red herring — a hand-waving thought experiment that’s irrelevant to the question of how Facebook should regulate its platform. What matters now is not judging whether social platforms are a force for good or ill, but figuring out what it would take to make them better.

In the essay (which is well worth reading in full), he points to a couple of significant ideas that Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, advanced in a remarkable public memo to employees following his decision to follow Twitter in taking a stand, saying it will no longer promote Trump’s snaps in its influential Discover tab. The relevant passage reads:

As for Snapchat, we simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform. Our Discover content platform is a curated platform, where we decide what we promote. We have spoken time and again about working hard to make a positive impact, and we will walk the talk with the content we promote on Snapchat. We may continue to allow divisive people to maintain an account on Snapchat, as long as the content that is published on Snapchat is consistent with our community guidelines, but we will not promote that account or content in any way.

There are two significant ideas embedded here, says Oremus.

The first is that ‘free speech’ does not equal ‘free reach’. Much of the poisonous impact of social media lies not in the fact that people can post all kinds of obnoxious content online, but that the algorithms that are calibrated to maximise engage (and revenue) effectively amplify that content by giving it massive reach. The world is full of cretins, but if one states on the street or outside his house spouting hatred or nonsense then his reach is limited by physical proximity. Much the same is true for any individual post on any platform. It just resides in the infinitely ‘long tail’ of posts which are read or seen by tiny numbers of people. And if it stayed that way, then the world would be a safer and a better place. It’s Algorithmically giving violent or divisive content exaggerated reach that’s the problem.

The second implicit idea in Spiegel’s post discerned by Oremus is, I suppose, more difficult for social media to handle — namely that platforms can (and should?) decide whether some people are inadmissible simply because of their off-platform behaviour. This would have barred Trump, for example, from ever being on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, if those platforms had the wit initially — and later the courage — to bar him.

Both essays — Oremus’s and Spiegel’s are worth reading in full. Spiegel’s is particularly wide-ranging and impressive. He sounds like an admirable young man.


Errol Morris: The Umbrella Man

If you haven’t ever seen this short film, then take ten minutes and draw up a chair. It’s beautifully crafted and shot, and it contains an important lesson about conspiracy theories that everyone should know.


Quarantine diary — Day 78

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Thursday 28 May, 2020

Deconstructing Cummings’s Downing Street statement

Wonderful analysis of the Cummings document by the FT’s David Allen Green. Takes the form of a 25-minute video going through the document line by line, but there’s also a transcript if you’re in a hurry. It’s a fascinating piece of work. Allen thinks that the entire document was drawn up by a (no doubt expensive) lawyer because it reads like a witness statement as used in trials. (But there’s no signature at the bottom attesting that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!).

The only thing he misses is the fact (mentioned in the Wired report discussed on this blog yesterday) that Cummings retrospectively added to his blog post of March 4, 2019 to make it look as thought he was exceedingly prescient about this kind of pandemic.

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Charlie Warzel on de-platforming Trump

Useful piece by Charlie sparked by the thought that Twitter might ban Trump.

“The strategy of power now is not to dominate the whole narrative,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality” told me recently. “It’s to polarize citizens and construct a very potent worldview and to alienate them from the truth. When journalists speak truth to power they’re by nature giving the powerful the opposition they want.”

Naturally, media outlets and reporters, not wanting to be bullied or discredited, adopt an adversarial approach. This leads to some great, important journalism but also a fair amount of grandstanding, which then become ammunition for the president and his supporters.

This situation is hard for journalists to get their heads around, Mr. Pomerantsev says. “We’re trained to stand up to the powerful,” he Pomerantsev said. “But now the powerful are comfortable with us doing the punching — just look at how they’re attacking.”

It’s basically a cycle that requires participation from all parties: the president (who initiates it), Twitter (which tolerates it) and the media (which amplifies, frequently to the president’s advantage). Removing one participant gums up the cycle, but does not stop it outright.


How Trump proposes to go after Twitter for labelling his tweets

He’s gone for the ‘nuclear strike’ — to try to modify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, (which is Title V of the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act). The Section is the one that exempts platform providers from legal liability for stuff that users post on their platforms. It’s essentially the bedrock of their impunity.

The key part of the Section reads as follows:

(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material

(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(2) Civil liability No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or

(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

This is what Trump’s draft Executive Order targets.

The thrust of the Order is that Twitter’s labelling of Trump’s tweets as inaccurate is not protected under Subparagraph C(2).

“The provision does not extend to deceptive or pretextual actions restricting online content or actions inconsistent with an online platform’s terms of service. When an interactive computer service provider removes or restricts access to content and its actions do not meet the requirements of Subparagraph C (2) (A), it is engaged in editorial conduct.”

So the Order directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct an inquiry to “clarify”

This is going to be interesting. If nothing else, it guarantees that all the tech companies will be pouring money into Joe Biden’s campaign, because Section 230 has always been their get-out-of-gaol card. Indeed, for social-media companies it’s what underpins their business model.

And… Right on cue, up pops Mark Zuckerberg (who has had a couple of dinners recently with Trump, I believe) on Fox News yesterday criticising Twitter for fact-checking Trump’s tweets, saying private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”. Zuckerberg is keeping his political options open. Creep.


Every stock is a vaccine stock

What’s the value of a Covid vaccine — and to whom? General Electric stock was rocketing up on Tuesday, but not because of anything the company did or announced. What’s going on is that any positive news about a Covid vaccine Recent Covid-19 vaccine serves as a catalyst, making every stock feel like a vaccine stock.

Fascinating post by Tyler Cowen:

It’s not surprising that when Moderna reports good vaccine results, Moderna does well. It’s more surprising that Boeing and GE not only do well they increase in value far more than Moderna. On May 18, for example, when Moderna announced very preliminary positive results on its vaccine it’s market capitalization rose by $5b. But GE’s market capitalization rose by $6.82 billion and Boeing increased in value by $8.73 billion.

A cure for COVID-19 would be worth trillions to the world but only billions to the creator. The stock market is illustrating the massive externalities created by innovation. Nordhaus estimated that only 2.2% of the value of innovation was captured by innovators. For vaccine manufacturers it’s probably closer to .2%.

The disconnect between stock markets and the real world is truly mysterious.


Quarantine diary — Day 68

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Monday 23 March, 2020

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Black humour

I watched Boris Johnson’s live press conference from Downing Street yesterday and found myself marvelling at the dark irony of a man who has behaved with grotesque irresponsibility throughout his entire adult life railing against citizens who were behaving irresponsibly by not obeying injunctions about social distancing.


CV takes on a new meaning

Dave Winer (whom God preserve) has decided to start calling the disease CV on his blog. Smart move, and saves typing. I’ve never maintained a proper CV, really, and hope that I don’t acquire this new type either.


Podcasting comes into its own

It’s the second draft of history, in a way. And it’s not radio, for all kinds of reasons — one of which is that it has higher cognitive bandwidth because mostly it’s coming through your headphones and getting more of your attention. The New York Times‘s The Daily is playing a blinder at the moment. The interview with Governor Cuomo, for example, is one of the best things I’ve heard in months. Or the episode in which they spoke to an Italian doctor who’s having to triage patient care at the heart of his country’s crisis.


Why we need Wikipedia more than ever

Great article in Slate’s Future Tense series on how Wikipedia is addressing the information and knowledge challenges posed by the pandemic. Sample:

In the midst of the fast-paced editing, some Wikipedians are thinking about the role that the project is playing during this crisis. Last week, William Beutler made a persuasive case on his blog, the Wikipedian, that there should be a dedicated space on Wikipedia’s front page for coronavirus news that would easily catch readers’ attention. “Like it or not, Wikipedia is in a unique position to point information-hungry citizens around the world to better information than they can find almost anywhere else,” Beutler wrote. On Monday Wikipedia updated its front page with the new coronavirus news feature in line with Beutler’s suggestion. But the debate between editors about the proposal was contentious. Highlighting news about the pandemic arguably goes against another of the site’s content policies: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and “not a newspaper.” Then again, that distinction raises tricky questions, like, what’s the difference between a journalist and an encyclopedist who are both chronicling a pandemic in real time?

Rather than going down that particular rabbit hole, however, it’s probably better to highlight how the information about the coronavirus on Wikipedia is truly serving the reading public, or as some volunteer editors jokingly put it, “the customer.” Personally, I appreciate English Wikipedia’s category table, which neatly organizes English Wikipedia’s 200-plus articles about the subject. These pages are neatly grouped by subtopics, like the financial impact of the coronavirus or its effect on tourism. Overall, the way the Wikipedians have been organizing the information and summarizing it reminds me of a high school history textbook—except that this one is being written in real time, with thousands of authors making thousands of changes.

Wikipedia is one of the wonders of the world. Whenever I run into people who are sniffy about it because of a mistake they found on it, my response is: so why haven’t you corrected it? And to people who tell me how wonderful it is I say: so when did you last make a donation to help it keep going?


Quarantine Diary – Day 2


Sunday 16 February, 2020

Reports of social media’s influence on (UK) voters may be exaggerated

This morning’s Observer column:

While it would obviously be ridiculous to deny that social media played some role in these political upheavals [Brexit and Trump’s election], it would be foolish to assign it the critical role. Apart from anything else, putting social media centre stage ignores what had been happening to democratic electorates during decades of globalisation, neoliberal economic policy, rising inequality and austerity. But because the rise of Facebook et al was one of the biggest changes over the last two decades, the temptation to see them as the place to look for explanations seems to have been well-nigh irresistible.

Fortunately, it was resisted by researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford when they set out to understand where UK voters got their news during the 2019 general election. They tracked the online news consumption of 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices throughout the campaign and also surveyed a subset of 752 panellists before and after the vote. What the researchers were seeking to understand was the relative importance for voters of offline and online news and their attitudes to the media and politics more widely.

Their findings make intriguing reading, not least because they challenge some of the anecdotal conventional wisdom about the predominance of social media…

Read on


In the boxing business, only the promoter wins every fight

Same applies on social media.

Both of these sites are owned by the same jokester. Heads he wins, tails he wins. ‘Engagement’ is all.

“Are you glad to see Conway gone?” asked Liberal Society at the end of its post.

“Will you miss seeing Conway on TV?” asked Conservative 101.

The stories read like they were stamped out of the same content machine because they were. Using domain registration records and Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, BuzzFeed News determined that both sites are owned by American News LLC of Miami.

That company also operates another liberal site, Democratic Review, as well as American News, a conservative site that drew attention after the election when it posted a false article claiming that Denzel Washington endorsed Trump. It also operates GodToday.com, a site that publishes religious clickbait.

Source


What the composition of the Johnson Cabinet actually portends

Insightful analysis by James Butler in the LRB:

It’s the move to control and centralisation that is most significant, and gives us the clearest sign of what to expect from the government over the next five years: personalised authority, a tussle over economic intervention intended to reshape the nation, hostility to legal and journalistic accountability, and a host of convenient public enemies as villainous Brussels recedes from view. The new appointees, and the new priorities, inaugurate a new mode of British Conservatism – and any opposition that fails to grasp that, and its internal weaknesses, may find it takes longer than five years to defeat it.


In praise of bloggers

From a “Blogging in an expert society” by Ken Smith:

At least there are certain mistakes that bloggers don’t often make:

  • They usually don’t pull rank.

  • They usually don’t insist that a problem can be solved only by a certain kind of expert or talked about only in one kind of language.

  • They tend to think that people’s experience has something to offer.

  • They assume that tradition or dogma should be challenged by people reflecting on their experiences.

  • They get riled up, but down deep they like to hear more voices, not fewer. They want their turn to speak, not the only turn. They get really impatient, but down deep they want democracy.

(HT to Dave Winer)

What comes after Spotify?

Shortly after I wrote Building vs. Streaming in popped an email from Drew Austin, who was musing about what happens when a new product/service fills a void and thereby leads to the decline of whatever filled it beforehand.

Here’s the money quote:

The increasingly-maligned model of VC-funded, loss-leading hypergrowth in the pursuit of market dominance, understood another way, is a quest to create voids that matter, voids that will hurt if we let them emerge by rejecting the product currently filling them (the fissures of a post-WeWork world are at least perceptible now). In the early ‘00s, when Blockbuster died out, it was clear that something better was replacing it (there’s a nostalgic counterargument that I’m tempted to indulge, but let’s just accept this). Today, it’s more common to watch something decline without a replacement that’s clearly better. It’s easy to understand why physical media led to file-sharing and then streaming, but what comes after Netflix and Spotify? Does anyone think it’s likely to be another improvement? I don’t, and the companies’ Facebook-like pursuit of absolute ubiquity is why. Unlike the immediately-filled Blockbuster void, I fear the Spotify void. I already got rid of all my CDs. The residue of buildings and cities determines what gets built on top of them, and if we’re conscientious, we’ll build with a more distant future in mind.

Building vs. Streaming

Every Saturday morning for as long as I can remember, BBC Radio 3 has had a programme at 9am called “Building a Library”, in which a group of experts review recordings of classical music with a view to recommending the one(s) that the listener should contemplate adding to his or her ‘library’. The implicit model is that the music comes on a disc, which made complete sense in the pre-streaming era. The fact that the channel is still running the programme suggests that lovers of classical music still buy discs, which I guess really marks them out nowadays from lovers of pop, rap, etc., most of whom probably get their music from streaming sources. In which case a ‘library’ is now a playlist, I guess.

When the medium is the message

A couple of weeks ago my Observer column was about podcasting and the pioneering role that Dave Winer played in its evolution. Since Dave often includes a short podcast on his daily blog, I thought I should include an audio version of that particular column. Here it is:

(It’s only five minutes long, but the embed player doesn’t seem to realise that.)

Podcasting: will it succumb to the Wu cycle?

This morning’s Observer column:

I’ve just been listening to what I think of as the first real podcast. The speaker is Dave Winer, the software genius whom I wrote about in October. He pioneered blogging and played a key role in the evolution of the RSS site-syndication technology that enabled users and applications to access updates to websites in a standardised, computer-readable format.

And the date of this podcast? 11 June, 2004 – 15 years ago; which rather puts into context the contemporary excitement about this supposedly new medium that is now – if you believe the hype – taking the world by storm. With digital technology it always pays to remember that it’s older than you think.

When he started doing it, Winer called it “audioblogging” and if you listen to his early experiments you can see why. They’re relaxed, friendly, digressive, unpretentious and insightful – in other words an accurate reflection of the man himself and of his blog. He thought of them as “morning coffee notes” – audio meditations about what was on his mind first thing in the morning…

Read on