Facebook, Twitter and what news is fit to share

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In an unprecedented move Wednesday, both Facebook and Twitter took steps to limit the distribution of a news story from a mainstream publication, on the grounds that it was a) based on hacked emails and b) of questionable accuracy. Twitter actually prevented users from posting a link to the story, and in some cases prevented users from clicking on existing links to it as well, showing them a warning instead with a message saying the story violated the company’s terms of service. Facebook didn’t stop anyone from posting a link to the story, but reduced its reach by tweaking the News Feed algorithm so fewer users would see it.

The story was a New York Post report alleging that Hunter Biden introduced his father Joe to the head of a natural gas company in the Ukraine. The source? Emails allegedly retrieved from the younger Biden’s laptop by a computer repair shop and given to Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. In Twitter’s case, the company argued that the story breached its policy against distribution of content obtained through hacking, and said documents included with the story also contained an individual’s name and identifying information, which is against privacy rules. Facebook, meanwhile, said its position against “hack and leak” operations required it to reduce the distribution of the story while it was being fact-checked by third-party partners.

These moves, not surprisingly, triggered an avalanche of accusations of censorship from conservatives. Sen. Josh Hawley went so far as to argue in a letter to the Federal Election Commission that removing the story was a benefit to Biden, and therefore amounted to a campaign finance violation, and said the Judiciary Committee will vote on whether to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to explain his actions. Others, including Sen. Ted Cruz, argued that Facebook and Twitter had breached the First Amendment. Rep. Doug Collins said that the blocks were “a grave threat to our democracy.” These arguments, of course, ignore the fact Facebook and Twitter are protected by the First Amendment, and also by Section 230 of the CDA, which allows them to make content-moderation decisions without penalty.

Continue reading

Yes, we’re doing it all over again

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Since Donald Trump became president, there has been a seemingly never-ending series of articles and commentary about what went wrong, and in particular what the media did to enable his victory. Near the top of that list is the platform and free advertising ($2 billion worth, according to one estimate) given to him by TV networks like CNN, because they knew he would attract a crowd, in much the same way a car accident does. And also near the top of the list is the credulous reporting of stories about Hillary Clinton that were fed by hacked and leaked emails, creating the erroneous impression that both sides were equally guilty of political transgressions. Given the sheer volume of these “lessons learned” pieces, you might think it unlikely that something similar would happen this time around — but you would be wrong. A blizzard of news on Wednesday showed that the very same risks exist now, and some are not only failing to heed those warnings but failing hard.

Take NBC. In the wake of Trump’s refusal to attend a virtual presidential debate, the network not only offered the president his own town hall event, but scheduled it at the same time as Biden’s previously announced town hall. This is such a crass ratings-driven decision that it’s almost breath-taking — NBC is treating a debate between candidates for president as though it were the finale of a celebrity cooking show (Trump reportedly offered the network the opportunity to host his town hall but only if it was at the same time as Biden’s). More than one observer was reminded of what former CBS chief executive Les Moonves said about Trump’s presidency in 2016: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” New Yorker writer Sue Halpern called the NBC decision “stunning and shameful”, and Yashar Ali of HuffPost said more than a dozen NBC sources expressed “frustration and anger toward their employer.” As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said: “the defining media story of this era is mainstream journalism’s refusal to deny Trump a giant megaphone.”

Continue reading

House slams monopolistic tech giants for abusing their power

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

This week, a regulatory process that began in June of last year finally reached its conclusion: the House Subcommittee on Antitrust released a report on the monopolistic practices of four globe-spanning digital platforms: Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple. The investigation involved the collection of more than 1.2 million documents, including internal emails sent by company executives, as well as seven congressional hearings looking at the impact the digital giants have had on privacy, innovation, and the media. Some of these hearings amounted to little more than a crass show of grandstanding by legislators who seemed to barely understand the technology behind these companies, but others sparked some tough questions. The final hearing put the chief executives of all four companies on the hot seat as members of Congress pelted them with examples of blatantly anti-competitive behavior. All of that and more appears in the final report, which is 450 pages long.

The bottom line, the report states, is that by controlling access to certain technology markets, these giants can “pick winners and losers throughout our economy. They not only wield tremendous power, but they also abuse it by charging exorbitant fees, imposing oppressive contract terms, and extracting valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them”. The tech giants also use their monopolistic positions to entrench their market power, it says. “By controlling the infrastructure of the digital age, they have surveilled other businesses to identify potential rivals, and have ultimately bought out, copied, or cut off their competitive threats”. In the end, the report states, “companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons”.

Continue reading

Can we make Facebook and Google “democratic utilities?”

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Over the past decade, Google and Facebook have built globe-spanning digital platforms that impact almost every facet of our digital lives, and increasingly our physical lives as well, and often in harmful ways. Apart from their use of “surveillance capitalism” on a massive scale, or their distribution of disinformation during the 2016 election, the algorithms Google uses at YouTube have been implicated in the radicalization of alt-right fanatics like QAnon, and Facebook’s private groups and WhatsApp messaging service have been cited by the United Nations as helping to perpetuate a genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. And yet traditional antitrust legislation, or at least the way it’s been interpreted for the past couple of decades, makes it difficult to regulate these two giant platforms — as does Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which absolves them of liability for anything that is posted by their users, and gives them wide latitude to moderate content as they wish.

Is there another path we could take that might allow us to harness the benefits of these huge services, while also blunting their negative effects? Dipayan Ghosh thinks there is. He’s the director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, a former policy adviser to the Obama administration, and a former adviser at Facebook. He’s also the co-author of a recent paper with Joshua Simons, a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard and a former adviser to the UK Labour Party, as well as a former policy adviser at Facebook. Their paper is titled “Utilities for Democracy: Why and How the Algorithmic Infrastructure of Facebook and Google Must Be Regulated.” CJR used its Galley discussion platform to speak with both men about their proposals recently, and their belief that the algorithms used by both companies have become part of the infrastructure of our public sphere, and therefore Facebook and Google should be regulated as public utilities.

Continue reading

The political football known as TikTok is still up in the air

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The political drama surrounding TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app, already seemed to be at a fever pitch last week, as the clock ticked down on an executive order from Donald Trump that gave the company a deadline to sell the app or be banned, followed by a counter order from the Chinese government that prevented TikTok from selling its recommendation algorithm, seen as the app’s “secret sauce.” But as improbable as it sounds, the drama has only intensified, and in the process has confirmed that the affair is even more of a craven political game than it appeared to be. As part of a deal designed to get Trump to stop short of banning the app outright, Oracle and Walmart have partnered to invest in a new entity that will control the app, and the data will be stored on Oracle’s cloud computing service. But it’s not clear that the way TikTok’s ownership is structured will actually meet Trump’s requirements. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has been making noise about how the whole process is “extortion,” and sources close to the ruling Communist party say the deal could be rejected even if the US approves it.

According to recent press statements by both Oracle and Walmart, the two companies will take a combined 20 percent ownership stake in a new entity called TikTok Global, which is then expected to issue a public offering of shares. “Americans will be the majority [owners] and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global,” Oracle’s statement said. TikTok’s current owner Bytedance, however, has said that it plans to continue to own 80 percent of the new entity. That would seem to contradict not just Oracle’s description of the deal, but also Trump’s comments about what he intends to accept. On Monday, he told Fox News that he would not approve a deal between Oracle and the company unless it results in US owners having control over the app (Trump has also said he expects a $5 billion payment to be made by TikTok’s owners into an educational fund). Oracle and Walmart “are going to buy it,” he said. “They’re going to have total control over it. They’re going to own the controlling interest. And if we find that they don’t have total control, then we’re not going to approve the deal.”

Continue reading