Social media, society and technology 2021-

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News Use Across Social Media Platforms in 2020
Facebook stands out as a regular source of news for about a third of Americans
(Pew Research Center) As social media companies struggle to deal with misleading information on their platforms about the election, the COVID-19 pandemic and more, a large portion of Americans continue to rely on these sites for news. About half of U.S. adults (53%) say they get news from social media “often” or “sometimes,” and this use is spread out across a number of different sites, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2020.
There are in some cases drastic demographic differences between the people who turn to each social media site for news. For example, White adults make up a majority of the regular news users of Facebook and Reddit but fewer than half of those who turn to Instagram for news. Both Black and Hispanic adults make up about a quarter of Instagram’s regular news users (22% and 27%, respectively). People who regularly get news on Facebook are more likely to be women than men (63% vs. 35%), while two-thirds of Reddit’s regular news users are men.
The majority of regular news users of many sites – YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and LinkedIn – are Democrats or lean Democratic. (12 January 2021)

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen tells lawmakers that meaningful reform is necessary ‘for our common good’
(WaPo) Her Senate committee testimony — based on her experience working for the company’s civic integrity division and thousands of documents she took with her before leaving in May — sought to highlight what she called a structure of incentivization, created by Facebook’s leadership and implemented throughout the company. By directing resources away from important safety programs and encouraging platform tweaks to fuel growth, these performance metrics dictated operations, Haugen said, a design that encouraged political divisions, mental health harms and even violence.
Analysis: Will this spell Facebook’s demise? Don’t count on it.
In the pantheon of Facebook scandals, the whistleblower affair shares space with the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, Russian election interference and the platform’s role in facilitating the Myanmar genocide. Through each of those, the company has emerged with its reputation battered but its business intact. Facebook reported record revenue last quarter of nearly $30 billion, and it boasts a staggering 3.5 billion users across its platforms, which include WhatsApp and Instagram.
The Most Important Answer From the Facebook Whistleblower
(Slate) “The dangers of engagement-based ranking are that Facebook knows that content that elicits an extreme reaction from you is more likely to get a click, a comment, a reshare”.
According to Haugen, the research indicates that content that elicits an extreme, often angry reaction from users is more likely to get clicks, and Facebook’s algorithms promote clicky content. This feeds into a cycle in which producers of such content are incentivized to put out ever more divisive posts in order to get that engagement and thus rank higher on news feeds. According to one report Haugen leaked, even an algorithm change in 2018 that the company claimed would promote more “friends and family” content actually exacerbated this dynamic.

4 October
Gone in Minutes, Out for Hours: Outage Shakes Facebook
When apps used by billions of people worldwide blinked out, lives were disrupted, businesses were cut off from customers — and some Facebook employees were locked out of their offices.
The outage lasted over five hours, before some apps slowly flickered back to life, though the company cautioned the services would take time to stabilize.
Facebook’s apps — which include Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Oculus — began displaying error messages around 11:40 a.m. Eastern time, users reported. Within minutes, Facebook had disappeared from the internet. The outage lasted over five hours, before some apps slowly flickered back to life, though the company cautioned the services would take time to stabilize.

11 August
Facebook shuts accounts in anti-vaccine influencer campaign
Russia-based marketing firm sought to pay social media influencers to smear Covid vaccines
(The Guardian) Facebook has removed hundreds of accounts linked to a mysterious advertising agency operating from Russia that sought to pay social media influencers to smear Covid-19 vaccines made by Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
A network of 65 Facebook accounts and 243 Instagram accounts was traced back to Fazze, an advertising and marketing firm working on behalf of an unknown client.
The network used fake accounts to spread misleading claims that disparaged the safety of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. One claimed AstraZeneca’s shot would turn a person into a chimpanzee. The accounts targeted audiences in India, Latin America and, to a lesser extent, the US, using several social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram.

30 July
NB: I tried to share this story on Facebook and was reprimanded:
“Your post goes against our Community Standards on dangerous individuals and organizations”
Matt Taibbi: Meet the Censored: Hitler
Can history itself violate community standards?
Since the beginning of the “content moderation” movement, a major problem has become apparent. Human beings simply create too much content on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for other human beings to review. Machines have proven able to identify clearly inappropriate content like child pornography (though even there the algorithms occasionally stumbled, as in the case of Facebook’s removal of the famous “Running Girl” photo).
But asking computer programs to sort out the subtleties of different types of speech — differences between commentary and advocacy, criticism and incitement, reporting and participation — has proven a disaster. A theme running through nearly all of the “Meet the Censored” articles is this problem of algorithmic censorship systematically throwing out babies with bathwater.

Foreign powers amplified QAnon content to sow discord that led to Jan. 6 Capitol riots, extremism expert says
Mia Bloom, co-author of “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon,” speaks with The World‘s host Marco Werman about the rise of QAnon, a US-based, conspiracy-fueled movement with international reach.
(PRI) MB: QAnon is one of these baseless conspiracy theories that started from the underbelly of the internet, and the basic premise of QAnon is rehashed and recycled old anti-Semitic tropes, conspiracy theories about the Catholic Church, and that the world is controlled by this global cabal of mostly Democrats, but also Hollywood elites that are trafficking in children.They are raping the children, and then they are drinking their blood. And for the longest time, it was a fringe movement. And then all of a sudden, in March 2020, we saw a 600% increase in the number of people joining these message boards, Facebook groups, Twitter. And so, there was a massive uptick. So now, instead of it being a fringe movement, what we have is as many as 30 million Americans believe that there is a blood-drinking cabal running things.
SP: QAnon is also of interest to us because it appears to have some international connections. The Soufan Group, which looks at extremism and global security, they put out a report that pointed to Russia and China as having weaponized QAnon, that the two governments use social media to sow discord among Americans. Did foreign powers have responsibility in creating QAnon or allowing it to grow?
MB … We know that Russian accounts, the internet research agency that was so involved in the 2016 election, they amplified that content. And now, Russia and China also have QAnon problems. And so, it’s almost one of these ironies that while Russia tried to amplify it, now they themselves have to deal with it.
…there are QAnon followers in 85 different countries. And what’s unique about QAnon is its ability to adapt to a new environment and take on a lot of local flavor. There is QAnon in China, there’s QAnon in Russia. When they get to a foreign area, they connect with local groups. So, for example, in France, they are allied with the Yellow Jackets movement. In the United Kingdom, they’re connected to Brexit. We even have QAnon trying to make in-roads into Israel. And there’s a number of Hebrew-language QAnon channels, which is very ironic and interesting because QAnon is really anti-Semitic.

28 July
Facebook’s ‘Disinformation Dozen’ Are Flourishing Across Social Media
(Newsweek) The dozen were named by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) as those intentionally peddling the most viral false information about vaccines and COVID-19 online, in a study released in March 2021 and later cited by the Joe Biden administration.
The CCDH urged social media companies to shut down accounts linked to the 12 but, despite several being removed, a majority are still active.
The Big Three
Joseph Mercola has by far the largest reach.
The osteopathic physician and alternative medicine advocate has more than 1.7 million followers on a verified Facebook account, with a further 1 million on a Spanish-language account. His Twitter account has about 296,000 followers and an Instagram account, which is also verified, has about 330,000.
Ty and Charlene Bollinger, controversial alternative medicine activists, were also named among the 12. … However, they do not appear to have posted about vaccines and COVID since their original Instagram ban, instead focusing on cancer and alternative medicine.

15 July
Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies need to be treated like Big Tobacco
The surgeon general’s new advisory shows their product is in need of serious consumer protection regulations.
By Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, and Jennifer Nilsen, research fellow at the Shorenstein Center
Thursday marks a turning point in internet history. For the first time, the U.S. surgeon general has declared the barrage of misinformation spreading on social media a public health hazard. In an advisory, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy calls on technology companies to “take responsibility for addressing the harms” their social media products impose on consumers by prioritizing the early detection of misinformation, providing researchers with meaningful access to data, and protecting public health professionals from harassment.

5 May
Oversight Board to Facebook: We’re Not Going to Do Your Dirty Work
The decision on Trump is the clearest indication yet that the board does not want to be Facebook’s flunky.
(Wired) On January 21, Facebook asked its Oversight Board to review its decision to indefinitely ban Donald Trump, and guide it on whether it should allow the former president to post again. You could see it as the ultimate buck-passing. For three years, Facebook has been setting up an elaborate structure for a supposedly independent body to review its content decisions. And now that the 20-member board has just begun to hear cases, Facebook outsourced it with perhaps the company’s most controversial decision ever. Would Donald Trump return to social media, attacking those who displeased him and insisting that he actually won the election? Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his shiny new board to make the call.
But the board did not play. While affirming that Facebook was correct to suspend the Trump account for its riot-coddling posts on January 6, today it called out the company for inventing a penalty that wasn’t part of its policies—an “indefinite” suspension. The board told Facebook to take six months and get its own rules straight, and then make the Trump restoration decision itself.

22 April
Online-ad firm Outbrain confidentially files for IPO following rival Taboola’s SPAC deal
Outbrain provides links to sponsored content that Web sites display via so-called “native advertising,” where the material looks like another news article or similar item.
These often appear in “chumboxes,” those sets of links that appear at the bottom of articles and other Web pages under headings like “Recommended For You.”
“This Is Going to Be a Global Moment”: All Eyes Are on Facebook as It Weighs Whether to Ban Donald Trump for Life
Everyone from Angela Merkel to Bernie Sanders has weighed in on what the tech giant ought to do. And whatever his oversight board decides, Mark Zuckerberg could find himself in a bind.
(Vanity Fair) What started as a 24-hour block on Trump’s account on January 6 became an indefinite suspension. Mark Zuckerberg justified this by stating that the risks of Trump continuing to use the platform were “simply too great” given the January 6 riot. Twitter was not so indecisive—its Trump ban appears to be sticking—while YouTube sided more closely with Facebook, with its CEO, Susan Wojcicki, stating that it may lift its suspension “when we determine that the risk of violence has decreased.”
Remember the chumbox providers? This is how they look now
You know that chumbox of weird garbage that appears at the bottom of most news sites, including this one? You know the one! It’s labeled “Promoted stories” or “Around the web.” It’s got headlines like: “1 Weird Trick to Lose Weight,” “You Won’t Believe What [STAR NAME HERE] Looks Like Today!,” and “Throw this vegetable out!” There are two major players in the field — Taboola and Outbrain — and the Justice Department has approved their merger.

Why are they called chumboxes? Well, chum is fishbait — you throw decomposing fish guts, blood, and bones into the water to lure other fish. A chumbox is like this but for humans online. These chumboxes exist because they’re more lucrative than other kinds of advertising: you add them to your site — that’s free! — and then make money off the unwary souls who want to know “Is CBD good for my pet?” The money is, evidently, good: besides Vox Media, Bloomberg, Business Insider, The Washington Post, CNN, and more feature these boxes at the bottoms of their stories. (July 2020)

31 March
A Dozen Misguided Influencers Spread Most of the Anti-Vaccination Content on Social Media
The Disinformation Dozen generates two thirds of anti-vaccination content on Facebook and Twitter
(McGill Office for Science & Society) The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) has recently released a report entitled The Disinformation Dozen, and its main take-home message is that two-thirds of anti-vaccine content shared or posted on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16, 2021, can be attributed to just twelve individuals. Twelve. Let that sink in.
The modern anti-vaccination movement is led by a relatively small number of devoted and typically well-financed influencers who have accumulated a mighty following on social media platforms, where fear spreads more easily than facts and nuance. So who exactly is the Disinformation Dozen?

22 March
Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society
We need to reclaim our lives from our phones and ‘reset,’ says CBC Massey lecturer Ron Deibert
(Massey Lectures 2020 Part 1) ‘Look at that device in your hand,’ says Ron Deibert in the first instalment of his 2020 CBC Massey Lectures. ‘You sleep with it, eat with it … depend on it.’ The renowned tech expert exposes deep systemic problems in our communication ecosystem and shares what we need to do about it.
“Information and communications technologies are, in theory, supposed to help us reason more effectively, facilitate productive dialogue and share ideas for a better future,” says renowned technology and security expert Ron Deibert. “They’re not supposed to contribute to our collective demise.” (originally aired on November 9, 2020)

20 February
Apps Recreate the Soundtrack of Pre-Pandemic Life
(Bloomberg City Lab) Ice cubes clink. A blender whirs. The hum of gossip carries. People shout to be heard over the din.
Can you hear it? Do you miss it? You’re not alone. There’s a whole genre of auditory environments like this that have all but disappeared over the past year: other people making little noises around you. In bars, coffee shops, and even open offices. Ears yearning, people in lonely apartments all over the world have tuned into new sites that turn that low background hum of life-in-public into a soundtrack.
The internet has long churned out “coffee shop” playlists, which channel the lo-fi instrumentals or soft folk you might hear at a Starbucks. These new mixes go further to include sounds you may not have appreciated but were always there, curated not via algorithm but by internet Foley artists. There’s Spotify’s “The Sound of Colleagues,” where remote workers can crank the volume to return to the dulcet, focusing tones of “printer,” “coffee machine,” and “keyboards.” Kids Creative Agency is behind I Miss The Office, where telephones ring and coworkers sneeze and “mhm.”

17 February
Facebook restricts the sharing of news in Australia as Google says it will pay some publishers.
(NYT) Facebook said on Wednesday that it would restrict people and publishers from sharing links to news articles in Australia, in response to a proposed law in the country that requires tech companies to pay publishers for linking to articles across their platforms.
The decision came hours after Google announced it had reached an agreement to pay Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to publish its news content in a three-year global deal, part of a string of deals it had struck with media companies in recent days to ensure that news would remain on its services.

6 February
Lawsuits Take the Lead in Fight Against Disinformation
Defamation cases have made waves across an uneasy right-wing media landscape, from Fox to Newsmax.
Lou Dobbs, whose show on Fox Business was canceled on Friday, was one of several Fox anchors named in a defamation suit filed by the election technology company Smartmatic.

(NYT) In just a few weeks, lawsuits and legal threats from a pair of obscure election technology companies have achieved what years of advertising boycotts, public pressure campaigns and liberal outrage could not: curbing the flow of misinformation in right-wing media.
Dominion Voting Systems, another company that Mr. Trump has accused of rigging votes, filed defamation suits last month against two of the former president’s lawyers, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, on similar grounds. Both firms have signaled that more lawsuits may be imminent.

25 January
A double-edged sword
How social media went from toppling dictators to platforming hate.
(Open Canada) Ever since the Arab Spring revealed the fragility of certain Middle Eastern dictatorships and highlighted how quickly online discontent can transform into national resistance, authoritarian regimes have used social media to help predict dissent and gauge public sentiment. Governments can now actively monitor protest plans, identify key figures and persecute people who support popular protests (as is currently the case in Belarus). Social media platforms also provide governments with new methods of communicating with their population, which they can use to counter dissenting opinions or to spread propaganda and disinformation that creates confusion and muddies the waters of legitimate news sources.
Countries that have effectively used social media to monitor and control public opinion include China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. China encourages limited expression online in order to better understand weaknesses within its own government. This gives the Chinese government a better understanding of the dynamics of public discontent, while also allowing it to present the façade of benevolence and democratic oversight. Saudi Arabia passed counterterrorism legislation in 2014 that criminalized defamation of the state — a purposely vague cybercrime law that arbitrarily limits free speech and allows the government to arrest online bloggers and activists with little explanation. Saudi, along with regional neighbours like the United Arab Emirates, also use automated bot and pro-government social media influencers to promote state propaganda and to drown out dissenting voices. Bahrain, an island neighbour of Saudi, has arrested several prominent opposition figures who criticized the Bahraini government online.

12 – 15 January
White supremacist terrorism: Key trends to watch in 2021
(Brookings) …the movement as a whole is heavily dependent on social media. Part of this is a generational shift, as youth around the world embrace Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and other media. But social media is also cheap and easily accessible, making it ideal for propaganda and networking. This technological shift, however, has made the movement more diffuse, weakening what little hierarchies existed while connecting previously isolated individuals. Fortunately, social media and financial services companies are more willing to deplatform white supremacists, but many experts contend more could be done.

The Guardian view of Trump’s populism: weaponised and silenced by social media
(Editorial) Donald Trump’s incitement of a mob attack on the US Capitol was a watershed moment for free speech and the internet. Bans against both the US president and his prominent supporters have spread across social media as well as email and e-commerce services. Parler, a social network popular with neo-Nazis, was ditched from mobile phone app stores and then forced offline entirely. These events suggest that the most momentous year of modern democracy was not 1989 – when the Berlin wall fell – but 1991, when web servers first became publicly available.
There are two related issues at stake here: the chilling power afforded to huge US corporations to limit free speech; and the vast sums they make from algorithmically privileging and amplifying deliberate disinformation. The doctrines, regulations and laws that govern the web were constructed to foster growth in an immature sector. But the industry has grown into a monster – one which threatens democracy by commercialising the swift spread of controversy and lies for political advantage.

The Importance, and Incoherence, of Twitter’s Trump Ban
By Andrew Marantz
(The New Yorker) “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” Donald Trump said in 2017. He may have been wrong; after all, he uttered those words on Fox Business, a TV network that will surely continue to have him on as a guest long after he leaves the White House, and even if he loses every one of his social-media accounts. Perhaps Trump could have become President without social media. There were plenty of other factors militating in his favor—a racist backlash to the first Black president, the abandonment of the working class by both parties, and on and on. Still: Trump wanted to be President in 1988, and in 2000, and he couldn’t get close. In 2012, just as social media was starting to eclipse traditional media, Trump was a big enough factor in the Republican race that Mitt Romney went to the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas to publicly accept his endorsement. Only in 2016, when the ascent of social media was all but complete, did Trump’s dream become a reality. Maybe this was just a coincidence. There is, tragically, no way to run the experiment in reverse.

Trump’s Been Unplugged. Now What?
The platforms have acted, raising hard questions about technology and democracy.
(The New Yorker) … The President’s tweeting was “highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts at the U.S. Capitol,” the company stated, in a blog post. It noted that plans for additional violence—including a “proposed secondary attack” on the Capitol and various state capitols—were already in circulation on the platform.
… Although Twitter has been an undeniable force throughout the Trump Presidency—a vehicle for policy announcements, personal fury, targeted harassment, and clumsy winks to an eager base—most Americans don’t use it. According to Pew Research, only around twenty per cent of American adults have accounts, and just ten per cent of Twitter users are responsible for eighty per cent of its content.
By Saturday, most major tech companies had announced some form of action in regard to Trump. The President’s accounts were suspended on the streaming platform Twitch, and on Snapchat, a photo-sharing app. Shopify, an e-commerce platform, terminated two online stores selling Trump merchandise, citing the President’s endorsement of last Wednesday’s violence as a violation of its terms of service. PayPal shut down an account that was fund-raising for participants of the Capitol riot. Google and Apple removed Parler, a Twitter alternative used by many right-wing extremists, from their respective app stores, making new sign-ups nearly impossible. Then Amazon Web Services—a cloud-infrastructure system that provides essential scaffolding for companies and organizations such as Netflix, Slack, NASA, and the C.I.A.—suspended Parler’s account, rendering the service inoperable.

In the United States, online speech is governed by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a piece of legislation passed in 1996 that grants Internet companies immunity from liability for user-generated content. Most public argument about moderation elides the fact that Section 230 was intended to encourage tech companies to cull and restrict content.

Social media companies need better emergency protocols
Daniel L. Byman and Aditi Joshi
How can and should social media companies treat politicians and governments fomenting hate online?
(Brookings) Online vitriol, especially in the hands of widely-followed, influential, and well-resourced politicians and governments, can have serious — and even deadly — consequences. On January 6, 2020, President Trump tweeted false claims of election fraud and seemingly justified the use of violence as his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Although an in-person speech appeared to most directly trigger the violence, Trump’s social media presence played a large role in the mob’s actions. For weeks after losing the 2020 election, President Trump tweeted false claims of election fraud and encouraged supporters to descend on Washington, D.C. on January 6, refuse to “take it anymore,” and “be strong.” On the day of the assault, a tweet that Vice President Mike Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done” was followed by messages from Trump’s supporters on the social networking platform Gab calling for those in the Capitol to find the vice president, as well as in-person chanting of “Where is Pence?” Leading up to and during the outbreak of violence, various social media platforms helped the mob assemble at the right place and time, coordinate their actions, and receive directions from the president and one another.
Although states’ exploitation of communications technology is not new, social media provides new dangers and risks. Given platforms’ reach, states can have a huge impact on their populations if they dominate the narrative on popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, social media facilitates “echo chambers,” where feeds are personalized based on user data and users’ pre-existing views are reinforced (possibly to the point of inciting action) rather than challenged. Lastly, most social media platforms have no gatekeepers and lack the editorial role of newspapers or television broadcasts, though they do usually have minimum community standards.
Although Facebook and other companies have devoted significant resources to the problem of bad content, technical tools and available human moderators often fall short of solving the problem. Humans are necessary to train and refine technological tools, handle appeals, and treat nuanced content requiring social, cultural, and political context to be understood.
… over-restriction can have equally devastating consequences. Repressive regimes often shut down the internet in the name of security while using the silence to harm dissenters or minority communities. Furthermore, limiting any content, especially government content, may be at odds with U.S.-based technology companies’ supposed principles. Many companies claim to be committed to free speech for all their users and do not see themselves as arbiters of appropriate or inappropriate content. Making these judgments places social media companies in a role they should not nor want to be in. Yet, with the power these platforms yield, social media companies must find ways to prepare for this role and prevent escalation of tensions in a crisis.

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