Pictures Can and Do Lie, and GIFs Lie Twice as Loudly

If there’s one thing the coverage of Donald Trump has shown time and again, it’s that the mainstream media is more than happy to construct elaborate stories about him, based on nothing more than a tweet or a short GIF — even if the impression they give of events is distorted as a result.

The latest example was a mini-storm of coverage focused on the idea that Trump was ignored by Agata Kornhauser-Duda, the wife of the Polish prime minister, during a recent visit during the G20 summit. A video clip that made the rounds appeared to show Kornhauser-Duda avoiding a handshake with Trump in favor of one with his wife, Melania.

Headlines said things like “Watch Donald Trump Handshake Rejected by Polish First Lady in Hilariously Awkward Exchange” (Newsweek) and “Polish first lady passes over Trump’s handshake” (Washington Post). But is the video clip a fair representation of what actually happened? Not really.

If you look at longer video clips and those shot from a different angle, it’s obvious that the Polish first lady was heading for Melania Trump from the beginning, and didn’t pass over Trump, who was busy saying hello to her husband. And after she shook Melania’s hand, she turned and shook the president’s hand as well. Nothing very awkward at all.

So why did so many outlets — and plenty of Twitter accounts — choose to make so much out of the alleged rejection? Because it was funny, presumably, to think of the president of the United States being embarrassed or humiliated by someone refusing his handshake.

Short GIFS and clickbait headlines about Trump being rejected also likely drove a certain amount of low-quality, high-churn traffic to those news sites, something outlets like Newsweek are increasingly desperate for. But what is the long-term cost of these strategies?

https://twitter.com/TEN_GOP/status/883076138112872449

The problem with posting a funny GIF of Trump is that, even though it might seem like a harmless laugh, to the extent that it distorts the reality of what actually happened, it plays right into the allegations of “fake news” coming from conservatives in the U.S. There are plenty of real things worth criticising Trump for — we don’t need to invent them.

CNN Made Itself the Story Instead of the Reddit User Who Created that Trump GIF

It was a pretty big scoop, at least as far as Twitter and Reddit were concerned: CNN’s “K-File” investigative unit, run by former BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski, found the guy who created the GIF that Donald Trump used for a recent anti-CNN tweet. And then a single poorly-worded line in the story shifted the focus away from the GIF creator and onto CNN itself.

In the story, CNN said it had decided not to identify the Reddit user who originally created the GIF, someone who goes by the name HanAssholeSolo. But then it added a coda to that promise that created a controversy about its motives that continues to expand.

CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

As soon as I read that last line, I thought to myself “That’s odd. It sounds like CNN is threatening to identify this guy if he steps out of line in the future.” That’s a pretty unusual thing for a mainstream news outlet to do. So I tweeted about it:

Kaczynski responded to me (and to others) that we were misinterpreting the phrase, and that it was intended only to make it clear that CNN had not made any kind of agreement with the Reddit user to keep his identity anonymous. But I was hardly the only one who saw it as an implied threat.

Unfortunately for CNN, this line was seized upon by pro-Trump forces (my tweet was retweeted over two thousand times, which is an unusually large amount) and used to accuse the media outlet of blackmailing their target. This in turn fed into the ongoing “CNN is fake news” campaign that gave rise to the original Trump GIF of him taking down a person with the CNN logo for a head.

I don’t think CNN deliberately wanted to threaten the Reddit user with that phrase, but I find it hard to believe that no one else could see that this is the way it would be interpreted. According to BuzzFeed, the line was added later by an editor. “All we intended to make clear is that there was no agreement about revealing or not revealing his identity,” a CNN executive said.

That may have been the intention, but the way it was handled has made CNN’s problems worse instead of better. If you have a target on your back the way CNN does, you should try reading everything you write in the most suspicious way possible, just in case.

Twitter Was Right Not to Remove Trump’s CNN-Bashing Tweet

A large number of people, many of them in the mainstream media, spent a large part of Sunday up in arms about a tweet from Donald Trump in which he bashed CNN as “fraud news” (he’s apparently trying to get away from the term “fake news,” probably because it has been debased by him and his followers). The tweet included a GIF from a wrestling event in which he took someone down, but their face is obscured by a CNN logo.

Obviously, this is far from the only time Trump has attacked CNN on Twitter, and it’s not even close to being the worst thing he has said about them in speeches or at rallies. So why did it cause so much fuss? Mostly because some saw it as encouraging violence against members of the media, which they said crossed the line of acceptable behavior — and some argued that it should be seen as a breach of Twitter’s terms of service, which forbids harassment or threats of violence.

There’s a lot going on here, of course, which makes it more complicated than just some dumb tweet. First of all, it’s from the president of the United States. And it’s yet another in a long line of attacks on the mainstream media and threats against the press, and even threats against the First Amendment. Trump has deliberately made the traditional media the enemy, and this apparently plays extremely well with his base, who see the press as left-wing liars.

Needless to say, this troubles many people in the media, including me. It’s a pernicious and dangerous attempt to destabilize the free press and to empower news outlets that are more friendly to Trump, such as Breitbart News, InfoWars and NewsMax.

That said, however, this is also just a dumb tweet that includes a joke video clip from a clearly staged wrestling match, with a poorly Photoshopped logo added to it — in other words, it seems to be an obvious parody. In any case, it is hardly a call to violence against the press. And since that is the case, if Twitter was to remove it, it would provide Trump’s base with even more ammo to argue that their guy is being treated unfairly by liberal media snowflakes.

On top of all that, I personally don’t want Twitter to be pushing the censorship line even further down the slippery slope it is already on. Should hate and outright violence be removed? Yes. But if we are going to take down every tweet or account that engages in parody or satire, that’s going to lead to some dark places. As Charlie Warzel points out, Twitter didn’t even take down Kathy Griffin’s severed-head parody tweet, and that was much closer to advocating actual violence.

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci also makes a good point, which is that CNN is hardly a blameless actor in this whole scenario. The network has deliberately and crassly played to Trump’s supporters in a variety of ways, and arguably gave the candidate hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free advertising during the campaign. As she put it, if you turn the election into a wrestling match, someone who comes from that background will turn it against you.

I realize that just because CNN has given Trump lots of coverage, that doesn’t justify him attacking them. That’s called blaming the victim. And I also know that as soon as a journalist is thrown to the floor by a Republican (as Ben Jacobs was not long ago by then Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte) or is otherwise harmed by a Trump supporter, someone will say that this GIF made them do it. I happen to think that’s unlikely, but I could be wrong.

In any case, I think Twitter was right not to remove the tweet, because that’s a slippery slope that I don’t think we want to go down. Feel free to argue the point with me in the comments below.

German Hate-Speech Law Forces Facebook to Engage in Censorship

Under the terms of a new German law, social networks like Facebook face fines of up to $57 million if they don’t delete illegal, racist or slanderous content within 24 hours. But free-speech advocates, including the Commission for Human Rights, say the law gives too much power to Facebook and other platforms to decide what constitutes hate speech.

“I am concerned with the lack of judicial oversight with respect to the responsibility placed upon private social networks to remove and delete content,” said David Kaye of the High Commission for Human Rights. “A prohibition on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous criteria, such as ‘insult’ or ‘defamation,’ is incompatible” with the International Covenant on Civil Rights.”

The European Digital Rights group, made up of civil and human rights organizations, also protested the new law, saying “there is no indication of how a decision is to be made on what ‘violating content’ might be.” The group added that it is “easy to see how the fear of high fines will bring platforms to delete and block any content that appears to generate a risk of being punished under this new law.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists, meanwhile, said that the law is ostensibly aimed at combatting disinformation and hate speech, but the way it is going to be implemented “raises concerns about restrictions on free expression and the privatization of censorship.”

The Troubling Implications of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Google Ruling

This is a disturbing decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, as explained by my former colleague (and fellow Canadian) Jeff Roberts at Fortune. It follows some equally troubling decisions in Europe that have ordered Google to delete results worldwide because of the so-called “right to be forgotten.”

In a 7-2 decision, the court agreed a British Columbia judge had the power to issue an injunction forcing Google to scrub search results about pirated products not just in Canada, but everywhere else in the world too.Those siding with Google, including civil liberties groups, had warned that allowing the injunction would harm free speech, setting a precedent to let any judge anywhere order a global ban on what appears on search engines. The Canadian Supreme Court, however, downplayed this objection and called Google’s fears “theoretical.”

Source: Google Loses Supreme Court of Canada Case Over Search Results

Update: Daphne Keller published a smart piece on this issue at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society (which I found via Eugene Volokh). Here’s some of what she said:

Canada’s endorsement of cross-border content removal orders is deeply troubling. It speeds the day when we will see the same kinds of orders from countries with problematic human rights records and oppressive speech laws. And it increases any individual speaker’s vulnerability to laws and state actors elsewhere in the world. Content hosting and distribution are increasingly centralized in the hands of a few multinational companies – Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft with their web hosting services, etc. Those companies have local presence and vulnerability to formal jurisdiction and real world threats of arrest or asset seizure in scores of countries.

Source: Ominous: Canadian Court Orders Google to Remove Search Results Globally

It should be noted that Keller is associate general counsel at Google, and as such was involved in this particular case at the Court of Appeals stage. But her warning is still worth listening to. Another smart post on the topic comes from my friend Michael Geist, a Canadian law professor.

What happens if a Chinese court orders it to remove Taiwanese sites from the index? Or if an Iranian court orders it to remove gay and lesbian sites from the index? Since local content laws differ from country to country, there is a great likelihood of conflicts. That leaves two possible problematic outcomes: local courts deciding what others can access online or companies such as Google selectively deciding which rules they wish to follow.

Source: Global Internet Takedown Orders Come to Canada: Supreme Court Upholds International Removal of Google Search Results

The Age of Distributed Truth

Smart post from Eugene Wei about how information gets distributed now, and things that were commonly known in specific circles (like a certain VC’s reputation for sexual harassment) become more widely known.

We live in the age of distributed truth, and it’s an environment in which fake news can spread like mold when in viral form. But the same applies to the truth, and if there’s one lesson on how to do your part in an age of distributed truth, it’s to speak the truth and to support those who do. It may be exhausting work—is it really necessary to point out the emperor is buck naked?—but it’s the best we can do for now.

Source: The age of distributed truth — Remains of the Day

New York Times Copy Editors Tell the Ocean to Stop Advancing

Copy editors at the New York Times have written an open letter to executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn, protesting the downsizing of editing functions at the paper. The Times is planning to get rid of its central copy desk, and aims to reduce the number of editors by about 50%.

“Dear Dean and Joe,” the letter begins. “We have begun the humiliating process of justifying our continued presence at The New York Times. We take some solace in the fact that we have been assured repeatedly that copy editors are highly respected here. If that is true, we have a simple request. Cutting us down to 50 to 55 editors from more than 100, and expecting the same level of quality in the report, is dumbfoundingly unrealistic. Work with us on a new number.”

Source: New York Times copy desk to top editors: ‘You have turned your backs on us’ – Poynter

I have a huge amount of respect for copy editors, and editors of all types — the good ones are invaluable, and have saved me from more stupid errors than I care to enumerate. But the harsh fact is that the kind of structure newspapers used to have, in which four or five different editors touched every story, simply doesn’t make any sense any more.

When I worked at Fortune, one editor was responsible for assigning, copy editing and publishing. Obviously we still made mistakes, but not that much more than any other publication I don’t think. As touching and heartfelt as the New York Times editor’s letter is, there is no way to turn back the hands of time and make the newspaper business what it used to be.

Group Wants to use the Blockchain to Reinvent Journalism

This seems like an interesting — and also ambitious — project aimed at developing a kind of crowdsourced journalism infrastructure based on the crypto-currency Ethereum. Instead of a traditional advertising-based model, the group is proposing to monetize the project (known as Civil) using Ethereum “tokens” or virtual currency that could be exchanged in a variety of ways.

We propose a solution called Civil, an Ethereum-based decentralized platform that can be used to create “newsrooms” and “stations”?—?blockchain-based marketplaces where citizens and journalists form communities around a shared purpose and set of standards, financially support factual reporting and investigative work, and substantially limit misinformation through effective collaborative-editing methods. The net result is a self-sustaining global marketplace for journalism that is free from ads, fake news, a

Source: Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism — Medium

Facebook’s Paywall Feature Will be a Double-Edged Sword for Publishers

Facebook has reportedly been working on building support for paywalls and subscription models into its mobile-first Instant Articles platform. And as with so much of what the social network offers to publishers, it will be a giant double-edged sword.

The company is hoping to roll out support for third-party subscriptions by the end of this year, according to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal.

The proposed feature is still in the development stages, so it’s unclear whether Facebook is planning to take a percentage of the revenue from subscriptions that are activated through Instant Articles (as Apple does through Apple News) or allow publishers to keep all the money.

As far as the structure of the feature goes, Facebook reportedly prefers a metered approach where users would get a certain number of articles free every month before being asked to pay. This is the kind of paywall the New York Times offers.

Imposing such a feature could rankle some other publishers who have harder paywalls, however, such as the Journal itself, or the Financial Times.

There’s no question that support for subscriptions, in whatever way Facebook chooses to implement it, could be hugely beneficial to many media companies. As the social network and Google have increased their dominance in the advertising industry, many publishers have turned to subscriptions as a way of boosting their declining revenues.

According to a recent estimate by industry analyst Brian Wieser, the two digital giants now control more than 75% of the digital advertising business, and last year they accounted for almost 100% of the growth in that industry in the U.S.

Subscriptions have also become more appealing because outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have been having so much success with them, thanks to what appears to be a backlash against President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media.

The risk in Facebook’s new feature, however, is the same as it is with almost every other Facebook offering: Namely, that it will pull media companies even further into the giant social network’s orbit, and thereby give it even more control over their fate.

Instant Articles itself, which formats news articles so they load faster on mobile devices, is exactly this kind of Faustian bargain. It solves a huge problem for many media companies, many of which can’t afford to come up with their own mobile solution, and it offers the potential of reaching Facebook’s massive 1.8-billion user base.

At the same time, however, it gives Facebook an enormous amount of control over the content that publishers produce and how they make money from it. And over the long term, it risks turning media companies into commodity suppliers of news to the social network.

Surveys show that large numbers of people who get their news from Facebook—including the millennial audiences that many media companies are so concerned about reaching—can’t remember the original source of the news they read on the site. The only source that matters is Facebook. What effect does that have on a media company’s brand?

The social network also has a history of changing its mind when it comes to features it offers to publishers. A number of years ago, many bet their future on so-called “social reader apps,” which lived on Facebook and for a time brought in millions of new readers.

That worked until Facebook decided to de-emphasize those apps in the news-feed algorithm, however, and all of a sudden huge numbers of users never saw those apps or the articles within them.

Reaching the billions of users Facebook has is a huge lure for publishers, and understandably so. But building your business—or at least a significant part of it—on someone else’s land can have very real consequences. Facebook may genuinely want to help media companies. But it also wants to help itself. How long until the latter clashes with the former?

Trump’s Own Tweets Help Kill His Government’s Travel Ban, Again

As a number of legal experts warned they might, Donald Trump’s tweets about his “travel ban” helped convince an appeals court to block the controversial order. It’s the second time his own comments have helped the courts knock down the proposed legislation.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on Monday, ruling that the Trump’s attempt to block immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries “exceeded the scope of the authority delegated to him by Congress.”

In their ruling, the judges cited a tweet from the president that was posted after the recent terrorist attack in London, in which Trump argued that the U.S. needed a travel ban “for certain dangerous countries.”

The Trump tweet was cited in a footnote in the decision, at a point where the court was questioning the justification for the ban.

“The Order seeks to ban people from specific countries, but it does not provide any link between an individual’s nationality and their propensity to commit terrorism or their inherent dangerousness,” the judges said. “In short, the Order does not provide a rationale explaining why permitting entry of nationals from the six designated countries… would be detrimental.”

The court also noted that press secretary Sean Spicer recently confirmed that Trump sees his tweets as official statements from the president of the United States, and therefore they should have the same effect as a statement from the Oval Office.

Immediately after the president posted his thoughts on the travel ban in the wake of the London attacks, a number of people were quick to respond that this was probably unwise, given the fact that the immigration order was still before the courts.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, warned in a tweet that it was planning to use Trump’s tweets as evidence in its ongoing fight against the order.

Even someone fairly close to Trump — George Conway, a New York lawyer and husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway — suggested that posting such a comment was unwise. “These tweets may make some ppl feel better, but they certainly won’t help OSG get 5 votes in SCOTUS, which is what actually matters. Sad.”

Conway went on to say that he was a big supporter of Trump and of the immigration ban, but added that tweets on legal matters “seriously undermine Admin agenda and POTUS.”

To make matters worse, Trump didn’t stop at one tweet about the ban (which his own administration had argued vociferously was not actually a ban, and shouldn’t be referred to with that term). The president said that he supported his original order, not the “watered down, politically correct version” that his own advisers had convinced him to sign.

That earlier version of the law was struck down by two lower courts because it was targeted at Muslims, and blocking travel based on a person’s religion is unconstitutional.

“I think he shot himself in the legal foot,” Cornell Law School immigration professor Stephen Yale-Loehr said of Trump’s comments about his preference for the original version of the ban.

One would think that the Trump administration or the president himself might be more careful with posts on Twitter about a legal case, since this isn’t the first time that his tweets have been used against him in a court decision blocking his immigration order.

A lower court in Hawaii that blocked the most recent version of the order, in the case that led to the current ruling by the court of appeal, also cited tweets from the president, as did an earlier 9th Circuit decision on the previous version of the ban.