Tech: Twitter’s case for keeping Alex Jones is falling apart


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On Tuesday, weighing in on the public pressure to ban Alex Jones and Infowars from Twitter, CEO Jack Dorsey called on journalists for help. “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors,” Dorsey tweeted, “so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.”

Journalists complained loudly about being asked to perform unpaid content moderation on Twitter’s behalf. But in the spirit of serving the public conversation, CNN’s Oliver Darcy decided to document some of those unsubstantiated rumors of Alex Jones’. Taking a tour of Jones’ Twitter history, he found 20 attacks on the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, on the survivors of the Parkland shooting, on gay people, on Muslims, and on CNN’s Brian Stelter, whom he called, among other things, the “literal demon spawn of the pit of Hell,” a “smiling leering Devil,” and a “degenerate sack of anti-human trash.”

Yesterday, in a memo to employees that she eventually made public, Twitter’s head of safety, Del Harvey, acknowledged that Jones had sinned in the past. “If he were to post similar accusations today, we would take action on them,” she wrote. “If people report past content of his that includes those types of accusations, we would require him to remove it but would not further penalize him as we work to avoid retroactive applications of our policy.”

Harvey wrote that “our rules have evolved over time,” suggesting that Jones’ conduct was once acceptable on Twitter, but no longer. And yet as Harvey’s blog post this week laid out, targeted harassment of the kind Jones inflicted on Parkland survivors has been banned since 2013. Many of the tweets and videos that Darcy found — in some cases identical to the ones that led him to be banned on Facebook and YouTube, among other platforms — were posted within the past few months.

Yesterday, Dorsey won Sean Hannity’s praise for the company’s paralysis. “If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction,” Dorsey had said, by way of explanation.

But a company cannot make a principled stand against outside pressure while ignoring the standards it set for the rest of its user base. As Darcy’s story makes clear, Jones repeatedly violated multiple Twitter rules for years, as recently as the past month, and the company declined to enforce them. In practice Twitter’s enforcement apparatus is, to borrow Dorsey’s words, “a service constructed by personal views that can swing in any direction.” With Jones, it has acted as capriciously as its least charitable critics accuse it of being.

Policing online behavior is often difficult. But not in this case. “He hasn’t violated our rules,” Dorsey said Tuesday of Jones. It was an argument that couldn’t withstand a single Twitter search.

Democracy

Hard Questions: Where Do We Draw The Line on Free Expression?

Facebook had another entry in its Hard Questions series today, this one focused on the timely topic of hate speech. (There was also an accompanying panel discussion featuring a former reporter, an activist, a UC Berkeley professor, and Facebook product policy and counterterrorism chief Monika Bickert.) Interesting anecdote here:

Hate speech too can constitute harm because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may have dangerous offline implications. It is perhaps one of the most challenging of our standards to enforce because determining whether something is hate speech is so dependent on the context in which it is shared. Even in countries where there are very detailed laws about hate speech, like Germany, there is disagreement. A German court recently ordered us to restore a statement which seemed to compare migrants to “vermin” and “parasites” that we had previously removed under our hate speech standards. The court viewed the statement differently and felt it related to the conduct of specific individuals and not migrants generally.

Facebook To Ban 3D Printed Gun Files From Its Platforms

The great news here for would-be weapon owners is that America basically has no other gun laws:

The move comes amid a rush by states to block these instructions from being posted. A July settlement between the State Department and Defense Distributed, an open-source organization that created the first completely 3D-printed gun, cleared the way for the group to publish the gun code. However, that was stalled when a federal judge on July 31 granted a temporary nationwide injunction that prevented Defense Distributed from uploading the plans.

In the meantime, Facebook is taking its own stand. “Sharing instructions on how to print firearms using 3D printers is not allowed under our Community Standards,” Facebook said in a statement. “In line with our policies, we are removing this content from Facebook.”

Microsoft threatened to drop hosting for Gab over hate speech posts

Gab, which is Twitter for people who got kicked off at Twitter and the people who wish they could still tweet at them, might lose its web hosting over some Nazi posts, Russell Brandom reports:

Microsoft has threatened to cease hosting services for the alt-right social network Gab over two anti-Semitic posts, according to an email published by Gab founder Andrew Torba. The email claims the posts violate Microsoft policy and requests that Gab “promptly take appropriate action to resolve the complaint…within two business days” or hosting service will be suspended. If Gab is forced off Azure, Torba says service “will go down for weeks/months” as the company secures a new provider.

The named posts were written by Patrick Little, a Senate candidate who was ejected from a GOP convention in May for anti-Semitic views. The named posts, which are more than three weeks old, also express intense anti-Semitism and meet any reasonable definition of hate speech. Little has pledged to remove the posts, but described the complaint as “a violation of our rights as Americans.”

What’s the matter with Twitter?

How much time do you have, Daniel Funke??? He writes about the company’s indifference to fact-checking efforts that other social platforms have embraced:

While there’s ample reason to doubt that Facebook and Google’s efforts are working, Twitter doesn’t even have any comparable programs, aside from aiding a collaborative fact-checking project during the recent Mexican elections. And it’s not like the company isn’t aware of efforts at other companies — fact-checkers have repeatedly asked Twitter for similar partnerships.

“(Agência) Lupa has its Twitter account as the most active social media and has reached (out to) Twitter many times for partnership,” said Cristina Tardáguila, director of the Brazilian fact-checking project, in a WhatsApp message. “Unfortunately, we haven’t managed to establish a partnership. We (have worked) with Google and Facebook for over a year, but not with Twitter.”

More than 40,000 Facebook users expressed interest in political protests with potential Russian ties

Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin count up the people who were “interested” in fake events. Question here: I sometimes appear as “interested” in events simply because I’ve been invited. Is it possible this number is inflated?

Viral Political Ads May Not Be As Persuasive As You Think

Issie Lapowsky writes about a nonprofit’s experiment indicating that engaging content on Facebook likely isn’t persuasive in the way that campaigns might hope. (As she notes, this is why the Trump campaign focused on direct-response ads rather than broad-based appeals to the electorate.)

Bill Nelson: The Russians have penetrated some Florida voter registration systems

Would love to know what’s really going on here:

Russian operatives have “penetrated” some of Florida’s voter registration systems ahead of the 2018 midterms, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Wednesday, adding new urgency to concerns about hacking.

The state, however, said it has received “zero information” supporting his claim.

Elsewhere

’People You May Know:’ A Controversial Facebook Feature’s 10-Year History

Kashmir Hill looks back on Facebook’s People You May Know feature, which has helped power its growth around the world:

Facebook refuses to let users opt out of PYMK, telling us last year, “An opt out is not something we think people would find useful.” Perhaps now, though, in its time of privacy reckoning, Facebook will reconsider the mandatory nature of this particular feature. It’s about time, because People You May Know has been getting on people’s nerves for over 10 years.

If you message first in online dating, you might be punching above your weight

Livia Albeck-Ripka is here to ruin the day for me, a person who almost always sends the first message. (The paper only studied straight people but this feels like it should be universally true.)

According to research published Wednesday in Science Advances, people tend to initiate online conversation with people who are at least 25 percent more desirable than they are, based on how many initial messages they they received from other users and how “desirable” those users were themselves. Men tend to be even more aspirational than women when sending a first message. But there is only up to a 21 percent chance that the woman a man messages will write back, and that number drops as the desirability gap widens.

The paper analyzed data from heterosexual users of an unspecified “popular, free online dating service” in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle from January of 2014. The highest ranked person in all four cities was a 30-year-old woman in New York City, who received 1504 messages during the period of observation, the equivalent of one message every 30 minutes for the entire month.

Emoji couples might come in 55 gender and skin tone combinations next year

This is the future liberals want.

Launches

Facebook launches Mentorships, matching people within Groups to help them guide each other

Here’s a new free service to match people in Facebook groups looking for guidance:

Early users of the mentorship feature include Mama Dragons, a group focused on providing support to Mormon parents of LGBTQIA children; and a group focused on learning how to make soap. (Yes, soap.) Mentorship product manager Gabriel Cohen said that the kind of help that mentors will be providing will vary widely, from helping new Group members “learn the ropes” in the Group, through to providing more direct support and guidance in whatever the specific area might be.

Anchor now lets podcasters receive Patreon-style pledges from listeners

Anchor aspires to the YouTube of audio, and so it’s heartening to see it launch a way for creators to earn direct revenue from their fans so early in its life.

Discord will start selling games

The gaming chat app Discord is branching out from hosting white supremacist organizing meetings to selling games.

Google launches Cameos, a video Q&A app aimed at celebs and public figures

Google wants celebrities to answer the most frequently asked questions about themselves on video and then promote them in search results. Cameos is the app that will let them do it. I tried to sign in but apparently I am not a celebrity. Rude!

Takes

Rules Won’t Save Twitter. Values Will.

Kara Swisher tells Twitter to ban Alex Jones:

Values would require that Twitter make tough calls on high-profile and obviously malevolent figures, including tossing them off as a signal of its intent to keep it civil.

And Mr. Jones is not even an edge case: His bilious lies, including that the murders of the Sandy Hook Elementary children were “synthetic, completely fake, with actors,” clearly sully the platform. Besides, let’s be clear: Twitter can change its rules to ban whoever it wants anytime, because it is not a public trust but a for-profit company.

Big Tech Banned Jones This Week But Learned Very Little

Charlie Warzel says the lessons of the Infowars saga has been lost on the tech giants:

Jones and Infowars suggest that the tech platforms have brought down the censorship “purge” and warn that other conservatives and pro-Trump media outlets are next. But in reality, it appears that little precedent has been set beyond revealing the truth that, when pressured by rivals and a month of awful PR, tech’s giants are willing to scramble and take sweeping, unilateral action.

For some, Jones’ partial de-platforming offered a sliver of hope that big tech companies were perhaps finally ready to make the difficult decisions necessary to transparently and consistently crack down on behavior that stifles speech of others, endangers users, and is potentially harmful to broader discourse. But while Jones’ speech is frequently vile, it feels like there’s little to celebrate. Many of tech’s biggest platforms took consequential action against what can only be described as an edge-case offender — an outlet led by a 30-year conspiracy veteran whose content not only frequently crosses the boundaries of decency but is quite literally designed to stoke outrage. More importantly though, none of these platforms used the opportunity to provide a transparent roadmap for enforcement in a post-Jones platform era. In a number of cases (including Apple’s), we’re left with more questions about consistent enforcement than we had at the outset.

Combating Hate and White Nationalism in the Digital World

“A progressive digital agenda that promotes inclusivity and diversity is needed to address this latest swing and mitigate hate and violence,” the Center for American Progress in a new white paper-ish thing:

Halting the spread of violent white nationalism online will require nonprofits and private sector companies in the media and technology industries to devote substantial resources toward research and the development of best practices to address this threat. This research should seek to fully identify and understand patterns of behavior; platforms for communication and indoctrination; and mechanisms for exchanging money and weapons.

In the meantime, media and technology companies should begin implementing clear terms-of-use policies, expand enforcement mechanisms, and put in place measures to ensure transparency and accountability.

Digital Detox: Big Tech’s Phony Crisis of Conscience

Grafton Tanner has a critique of the Time Well Spent movement from the left:

In a time when free-market capitalism is the only game in town, massively centralized tech companies have virtually unfettered reign. Yet the technocrats never mention capitalism. They rarely talk about the surveillance state or the problems with data privacy. They fail to attack the attention economy at its roots or challenge the basic building blocks of late capitalism: market fundamentalism, deregulation, and privatization. They reinforce neoliberal ideals, privileging the on-the-move individual whose time needs to be well spent— a neatly consumerist metaphor. Competition is the name of the game, and when our technology has us by the brain stem, according to Harris, “[w]e have to change what it means to win.“

And finally …

Blowing Up My Plans to Write a Blog Post on My Analysis of Instagram TV

As I see it, if you are an influencer who never stops lecturing others about how to be an influencer, you have two options when it comes to the subject of IGTV. Those choices are (1) write about it and (2) don’t write about it. Gary Vaynerchuk somehow invented a third category, which is having his team write an article about why he didn’t write anything about it. After hundreds of words of warm-up, including a few sentences in which he says he doesn’t understand IGTV enough to comment, he offers:

I’m a little surprised that Instagram decided to launch a completely separate app as opposed to just including long-form video in Instagram itself; long-form video in Instagram would have crushed, and I still believe that to be the case.

Long-form video is now of course available in Instagram through IGTV as well as in a standalone app. My message to you today is this beware false prophets, and also the influencer economy is out of control.

Talk to me

Send me tips, questions, comments, Gab accounts to follow: [email protected]

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Tech: Twitter’s case for keeping Alex Jones is falling apart

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