Advocacy groups are increasingly acting like media orgs, but is that a good thing?

It was an impressive display of investigative journalism: An in-depth look at Amazon’s marketing of a controversial face-recognition software product to US law enforcement. It involved multiple record searches in multiple jurisdictions, along with the collection of other evidence about the campaign and its impact. But this journalistic tour-de-force didn’t come from a large media organization like The New York Times or the Washington Post—it came from the American Civil Liberties Union.

In many ways, the story was a perfect fit for the kinds of skills that an agency like the ACLU has: Matt Cagle, a lawyer who works for the ACLU’s Northern California office, noticed online marketing materials Amazon had put up for its facial-recognition software, which listed several law-enforcement organizations as users of the product. So Cagle and his team started doing a records search, got two other ACLU bureaus involved, and then the national editorial team pulled the project together.

In all, Cagle says, the project involved more than two dozen lawyer/advocates, as well as legal advisers at the national level, editors and the ACLU’s marketing/communications team, and it took several months to come to fruition—the kind of resources many media companies would find it hard to marshall for a single story.

As the media landscape continues to fragment and many existing outlets struggle financially, non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch are increasingly taking on the role of journalistic or media entities, breaking stories and in some cases even helping to change policy. But is that a good thing?

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Ties between Silicon Valley and the military run deep

In a high-profile move last week, Google said it will stop work on something called Project Maven at the end of the current contract, after a number of its employees complained about it, started a petition and even resigned in protest. They did so because Project Maven is designed to use Google’s artificial intelligence expertise to help the US military get better at recognizing targets for military drones, which some see as a contradiction for a company whose unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil.”

As inspiring as Google’s climb-down from that project might be, however—or the company’s statement that its artificial intelligence skills won’t be used for weapons that target human beings or for surveillance that violates human rights—the reality is that Project Maven is only the tip of a rather large iceberg when it comes to Google’s ties to the US government, not to mention the ties of other Silicon Valley giants. Why? Because the government has money, especially for defense, and everyone wants some.

Google has had ties to the Department of Defense for some time: Former chairman Eric Schmidt, also a board member of parent company Alphabet, sits on a Pentagon advisory board, and so does a Google vice president named Milo Medin. Author Yasha Levine says the company has been selling customized versions of its software to US intelligence agencies since 2003, and ramped up after Google bought Keyhole, a CIA-backed project that became Google Earth. And the early research that led to the creation of the Google search engine itself was funded by two key defense-related grants.

Other tech companies also see the military and government as a key source of new revenue: As a story broken by the ACLU recently pointed out, Amazon has been pitching its Rekognition facial-recognition software to police forces and intelligence agencies for some time. Microsoft also boasts about the amount of work it has done with various branches of the US military to use its cloud software.

Even though Google CEO Sundar Pichai promised the company wouldn’t actively work on technology partnerships that involve human targeting, he stopped short of saying Google wouldn’t work with the military at all, and that’s in part because—just like every other major tech company in the Valley—it is hoping to get a piece of something called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure or JEDI, a contract for a broad range of cloud services that could be worth as much as $10 billion.

Some analysts believe Amazon may have the inside track on the JEDI contract because the online retailing giant has already won several contracts for similar services with government and intelligence agencies, including the CIA, where it offers what amounts to a top-secret version of its cloud services. But others believe Amazon might not be a shoe-in for the contract in part because the company has become a routine target for President Trump, who seems to dislike its approach to taxes and the fact that the Washington Post—owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos—writes so many negative news stories about him.

Google may see Trump’s Amazon bashing as an opportunity for the company to win a lucrative contract like JEDI, but defense-industry analysts say turning down more work on Project Maven isn’t going to help the search giant make the case that it should be the one who gets the nod. Not being evil seems like a great idea, and it probably makes employees feel good, but it can sure get in the way of grabbing a share of that juicy government spending. Maybe that’s why Google took that phrase out of its latest code of conduct.

There’s no longer any debate over whether Facebook is a media entity

Ever since the furor over Russian trolls and fake news triggered a congressional hearing, Facebook has talked about its plans to curb misinformation by using its News Feed algorithm to rank high-quality news sources based on trust, etc. But the company is also taking an even more significant step into the editorial side of the news business, it confirmed on Wednesday, and one that cements its status as a media entity rather than just a distribution platform: It is paying a select group of news organizations like CNN and Fox News to create news shows specifically for its Watch feature. As Variety described it:

The initial shows, fully funded by Facebook, come from seven partners: TV news orgs ABC News, CNN, Fox News Channel, and Univision; local news publisher Advance Local; and digital media companies ATTN: and Mic. They’re slated to roll out on Facebook Watch this summer. The mix includes live breaking news, daily news briefings, and weekly, longer-form series. The shows will be available in an exclusive window on Facebook Watch.

The fact that Facebook was working on rolling out a series of such media partnerships is not new. It was reported by the Wall Street Journal last month, and Campbell Brown also discussed the idea with CJR in a recent interview, since she is the architect of the program. In that same interview, Brown addressed one of the main criticisms of Facebook’s attempts to rank news on the basis of quality, which is that doing so inevitably means the giant social network has to pick winners, and that doing so could tilt the landscape. Those ways may serve Facebook’s needs, but will they serve the needs of society or journalism? That remains to be seen.

In the case of the Watch partnerships, Facebook is even more explicitly choosing winners: It is paying specific news outlets money (the exact amount is unknown) in return for producing specific kinds of video news programming that will presumably be heavily favored by the Facebook ranking algorithm. Anyone who has been creating news-related video for Facebook is instantly at a disadvantage. That’s not to say the partners Facebook has chosen aren’t worthy, only that by choosing them the social network has put its thumb on the scale of what counts as quality news on the platform.

The other risk of this new venture is a more pragmatic one, and that is the risk that Facebook will one day change its mind about what it wants to focus on, and anyone who bought into the Watch vision of longer-form news content will be left twisting in the wind. As Brown acknowledged in her CJR interview and former News Feed head Adam Mosseri also admitted at a recent CJR event (a discussion that can also be heard on the CJR podcast), Facebook has done this in the past with video, when it was promoting Facebook Live.

In a similar way to its current video initiative, the company paid a range of media outlets including BuzzFeed and The New York Times a total of $50 million to produce short-form video for Facebook Live, and then left many of them hanging when its strategy changed. “We need to be more transparent about how we do that kind of thing and get better at setting expectations,” Mosseri said during his interview with The Information’s Jessica Lessin at the CJR event in San Francisco.

Obviously, paying media outlets is on one level a good thing, since many of them are facing declines in advertising revenue (thanks in part to Facebook) and are looking for alternative ways to fund their journalism. But at the same time, as several critics mentioned in a recent CJR story, that money arguably distorts the production of journalism in a variety of ways, since to some extent it forces media organizations to cater to Facebook’s definition of what the news should look like. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune, as the old saying goes. And the long-term impact of that is anyone’s guess.

Fox News apologizes for implying Eagles players knelt during the anthem

The ongoing war of words between the White House and the Philadelphia Eagles over the Super Bowl champion football team’s decision to boycott a meeting with Donald Trump caused some collateral damage on Tuesday at Fox News. During a report Monday night about the administration cancelling its invitation to the team, the network broadcast a video of two Eagles players kneeling on the turf, implying that this was footage of them “taking a knee” in protest during the playing of the national anthem.

The only problem, as a growing horde of Twitter users and media analysts pointed out late Monday night and early Thursday morning, was that none of the Philadelphia Eagles players ever knelt during the national anthem. The video clip Fox used was of two players kneeling in prayer before a game. As the crescendo of criticism continued to build, one of the players involved took to Twitter to slam the network. “Praying before games with my teammates, well before the anthem, is being used for your propaganda?! I feel like you guys should have to be better than this,” wrote tight end Zach Ertz.

Partway through the day on Tuesday, a Fox network executive issued an apology for the video clip, something that took at least a few media watchers by surprise. Christopher Wallace, executive producer of the program that featured the video, said in a statement: “During our report about President Trump canceling the Philadelphia Eagles trip to the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl win, we showed unrelated footage of players kneeling in prayer. To clarify, no members of the team knelt in protest during the national anthem throughout regular or post-season last year. We apologize for the error.”

Why did the apology take some by surprise? Because Fox News has broadcast stories involving far more serious allegations that were later shown to be inaccurate, but hasn’t issued any apologies for those. For example, the network aired multiple reports about a conspiracy theory involving the death of former Democratic Party staffer Seth Rich, but didn’t apologize for it even after the victim’s family complained that they were being harassed by online trolls who believed the reports.

Here’s more on the network’s backpedaling and the Eagles-White House brouhaha:

  • Play-by-play: CNN’s Tom Kludt has the story on how the Fox News report and the apology came about, as well as some additional bonus material about a back-and-forth between another football player (former Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith) and noted conservative commentator and Fox News regular Charlie Kirk, who complained about the team disrespecting the anthem.
  • Apology not accepted: Chris Long, defensive end for the Eagles, didn’t think the apology was enough. In a tweet, Long said: “Fox News used the faith of Christian men dishonestly to push an agenda. That wasn’t an “error,” but intentional and strategic. They’ve deleted the segment + apologized on twitter, but many viewers don’t have twitter. An on air apology to all Christians would be the classy move.”
  • Friendly fire: A report at The Hill noted that at least some of the criticism of Fox’s video clip came from prominent conservatives and in some cases regular Fox contributors like Brittany Hughes, who said: “This is a deceptive photo montage showing Eagles players praying before games, not kneeling for the anthem. Truth matters.” Noted Trump supporter Jack Posobiec also criticized the video.
  • More kneeling: After cancelling the invitation to the Eagles, the White House went ahead with a celebration that included the playing of the national anthem and music from the United States Marine Band, which Trump promoted in a tweet that said “No escaping to locker rooms.” According to a CNBC report, two people at the event knelt during the playing of the anthem.

Other notable stories:

A new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia looked at more than 7,000 recommendations made by Apple News, the computer company’s media portal, and found what it called a “strong tendency” to favor a small group of large players such as The New York Times, while paying less attention to regionally focused news outlets.

Gerard Baker is stepping down as editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal and will be replaced by Matt Murray, the paper’s current executive editor. Baker will become editor-at-large and will write a column for the Journal, as well as hosting conferences, and will also host a news and interview show on the Fox Business Network. The paper has also reportedly asked some editors to reapply for their jobs.

The HuffPost wrote about how one of its reporters, Luke O’Brien, was attacked by trolls on Twitter after he revealed the identity of the woman behind a prominent conservative Twitter account, @AmyMek. The story says O’Brien received dozens of threats on Twitter as well as by phone and email, and that the names, addresses and phone numbers of several of his family members were posted online. HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen also said she was “doxed” or had personal information posted about her.

Gizmodo reports that the Federal Communications Commission deliberately spread false information about an alleged cyber-attack it suffered last spring during the open comment period on proposed net neutrality legislation. The site says the FCC misled several news organizations by feeding their journalists fabricated details about the alleged attack, while at the same time trying to convince them not to challenge the commission’s official story about what happened.

The publisher of The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto sent a note to staff saying the paper has a new policy on harassment and trolls: Phillip Crawley said the Globe will block and even cancel the subscriptions of readers who harass its journalists either on the paper’s discussion website or through any other means, including email, social media, telephone or printed correspondence.

An obituary notice in the Redwood Falls Gazette for Kathleen Dehmlow, who died at the age of 80, started off normally but then mentioned that she became pregnant by her brother-in-law and abandoned her children to be raised by their grandparents. The obit concluded by saying that she “will now face judgement,” and that her children “understand this world is a better place without her.” According to at least one report, most of the Gazette‘s newsroom disagreed with the decision to run the obituary.

Most Americans feel overwhelmed by the news, survey finds

Almost 70 percent of adult Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they are worn out by the amount of news there is now, according to a new study released on Tuesday. The percentage of respondents who said they liked the amount of news they were subjected to was only 30 percent, Pew said in a report, while about 68 percent said they felt overwhelmed by the amount of news. In a similar survey during the 2016 election, less than 60 percent said they felt worn out by the news.

Interestingly, the Pew research found an ideological divide in how many people said they were fatigued by the amount of news: More than 75 percent of Republican voters and conservative-leaning independents said they were overwhelmed, compared with about 60 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters. The feeling of being worn out was also much more common among those who said they didn’t follow the news closely than it was among people who said the opposite.

Those who don’t feel the news media is doing a very good job were more likely to say they felt exhausted by the amount of news. About 80 percent of those who said national news organizations are not doing all that well at informing the public said they were worn out, compared with about 69 percent of those who thought the media were doing “fairly well” at informing people. Of those who thought the media was doing its job very well, only 48 percent said that they felt overwhelmed.

The Pew report found white Americans were much more likely to say they felt exhausted — almost 75 percent of those who identified as white said they felt worn out by the news. That was much higher than either the Hispanic or black American groups surveyed, where just 55 percent of respondents said they felt overwhelmed by the amount of news. Meanwhile, about 71 percent of women agreed that they felt exhausted, compared with about 64 percent of men who said that. The Pew report was based on a survey done between Feb. 22 and March 4 of this year, with a sample of about 5,000 adults.

Facebook’s defense boils down to “Everyone was doing it back then”

It seems as though hardly a week goes by without Facebook coming under fire for playing fast and loose with people’s data, and this week is no exception. In some cases, the social network has immediately fallen on its sword and begged for forgiveness, but in the latest case it appears to be arguing that this is just how the industry works, and therefore it shouldn’t be accused of bad behavior. For many, that attitude is not going to sit well, and it’s likely to increase pressure for some kind of regulatory oversight.

The New York Times reported on the weekend that Facebook has been sharing the personal data of possibly millions of users—and all of their friends—with device makers like Apple, BlackBerry and Samsung. According to the Times, the social network did so without asking for permission or informing users that phone manufacturers were storing some or all of that data. As the story describes it:

Facebook allowed the device companies access to the data of users’ friends without their explicit consent, even after declaring that it would no longer share such information with outsiders. Some device makers could retrieve personal information even from users’ friends who believed they had barred any sharing, The New York Times found.

In previous cases, including the Cambridge Analytica data leak, messages of apology came from either Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or COO Sheryl Sandberg, or someone of that caliber. But in the latest case, the response from the social network came from a vice-president of product partnerships—and the message was significantly less conciliatory. Entitled “Why We Disagree with The New York Times,” the post says the process of allowing device makers to extract data was necessary in order to allow those devices to incorporate Facebook-like functions, in the days before there were discrete apps.

The company also says data was shared only when users gave explicit permission, even though this directly contradicts the reporting by the Times. According to the newspaper, users in their tests had information shared even when they had turned data-sharing off. As former FTC chief technology officer Ashkan Soltani pointed out on Twitter, this seems to go against Zuckerberg’s previous statements during the Cambridge Analytica uproar that Facebook shut down all such data sharing in 2014.

In a series of tweets that were posted by the main Facebook account following the Times story, the company made the case that it restricted the amount of data shared with device makers, and also noted that it launched the device-integrated APIs in order to help get Facebook onto mobile device before app stores had been invented. And finally, the company argued that “this was standard industry practice.” That argument isn’t likely to hold much water for some Facebook critics, however.

Even one of Facebook’s most powerful executives—Adam Mosseri, until recently the man in charge of the all-powerful News Feed—admitted recently that this kind of attitude has been part of the problem not just with the social network but with many other Silicon Valley companies as well. Mosseri told attendees at a CJR event in San Francisco in May that Facebook and many other companies have suffered from a blind spot that caused them to ignore the potential downsides of a given technology.

For better or worse, events like the Cambridge Analytica leak have highlighted how much of Facebook’s behavior was seen by the company as just standard industry practice, but is now a red flag pointing to the social network’s cavalier attitude on user information and privacy. And if both of these recent cases suggest that the company has breached its 2011 consent decree with the FTC, that is likely going to ramp up calls for the government to step in and take some kind of action.

Facebook cuts its losses by killing its Trending Topics feature

Trending Topics is no more. Facebook said Friday that it has decided to sunset the feature—which was introduced in 2014 as a way of competing with Twitter as a source of breaking news—because users no longer seem interested in it. But that’s probably not the only reason Facebook decided to kill the section, which consisted of a list of trending keywords in the upper right-hand of the site. Trending Topics has also been the source of a significant amount of controversy in the past over what shows up in it, and how the company decides to moderate or filter it to remove certain terms.

That process used to be handled by a team of human editors who were hired for the task, until one staffer confessed to Gizmodo in 2016 that editors were in the habit of manually removing conservative news sites from the ranking. The resulting storm of criticism from conservative media companies and politicians led to the firing of almost all of the human editors and a meeting between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and several prominent conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck.

The ranking process , meanwhile, was handed over almost entirely to Facebook’s all-powerful algorithms. But the section continued to draw complaints both for what it included as well as what it chose not to include. Among other things, the section promoted a conspiracy theory about the 9/11 attacks, as well as a number of other false and misleading stories. Although Facebook improved the algorithm, the feature never seemed to take off with users, perhaps in part because of the controversy.

In a way, this was a taste of what was to come for the social network. The term “fake news” started to become more and more popular, and soon Facebook was put under the spotlight for its role in promoting conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation during the 2016 election on behalf of the Internet Research Agency, an infamous group of online trolls with links to the Russian government. Since then, the social network has repeatedly said it is committed to focusing on only high-quality news sources, including those it believes are the most trusted by a broad range of users.

In place of the trending section, Facebook says it will be introducing several new experiments, including:

  • A “Breaking News” Label: The company says it’s currently running a test with 80 publishers across North and South America as well as Europe, India and Australia that lets publishers place a “breaking news” indicator on their posts in News Feed, combined with breaking news notifications.
  • Today In: Facebook says it is experimenting with a new dedicated section on the site that is called Today In, which the company says will “connect people to the latest breaking and important news from local publishers in their city,” as well as providing updates from local officials and groups.
  • News Video in Watch: As CJR reported after an interview with Facebook’s Head of News, Campbell Brown, the site is also rolling out a new dedicated section in Watch, its video feature, that will provide live video news coverage and analysis provided by a range of media partners.

It remains to be seen whether the new “Breaking News” category will become as clogged with questionable content as the old Trending Topics section was. Presumably Facebook is devoting considerably more resources to the new feature, but that isn’t likely to stop certain news sites and publishers from complaining if their articles aren’t highlighted and those from other news sites are. Picking winners and losers is never an easy game for a platform to play, but Facebook is in that role whether it wants to be or not. Now it has to figure out how to live up to its commitments without starting another PR firestorm.

What can social media do for democracy?

Given the seemingly never-ending litany of transgressions we find all around us on social-media platforms—whether it’s Facebook giving up data to Cambridge Analytica and being manipulated by Russian trolls, or Twitter’s complicity in racism and online harassment—it’s difficult to imagine a case being made that social media in general is anything but a looming danger to society and democracy.

Despite this, however, Ethan Zuckerman—who runs the Center for Civic Media at MIT and teaches at MIT’s Media Lab—did his best to put together a list of the ways in which social media can or should help democracy and society, in a post he published Wednesday on his blog and at Medium. Whether his argument ultimately succeeds or not is hard to say, but it’s a worthwhile question to ask. As Zuckerman puts it:

I’m interested in what social media should do for us as citizens in a democracy. We talk about social media as a digital public sphere, invoking Habermas and coffeehouses frequented by the bourgeoisie. Before we ask whether the internet succeeds as a public sphere, we ought to ask whether that’s actually what we want it to be.

Zuckerman uses as his template an essay that journalism professor Michael Schudson wrote as part of his 2008 book Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press, in which he argues that good journalism can accomplish a number of things that are worthwhile for society—including informing the public, investigating important issues, analyzing complex topics and serving as a tool for social empathy.

So what can social media do? Zuckerman says that at its best, social networks can also inform us about significant news events, as Twitter and Facebook did during the Arab Spring in Egypt and the killing of Michael Ferguson by police in Missouri. And they can amplify important voices, he says. “By sharing content with small personal networks on social media, individuals signal the issues they see as most important and engage in a constant process of self-definition.” He argues social media can also show us diverse views and perspectives, and provide a place for informed debate.

Anyone who has spent any time on Twitter—or Facebook for that matter—discussing issues like the 2016 election of Donald Trump or the rise of the “alt right” in US politics might laugh at the idea that social platforms can show us diverse views or be a place for informed debate. And Zuckerman admits that every beneficial aspect he mentions can have a significant downside:

The tools that allow marginalized people to report their news and influence media are the same ones that allow fake news to be injected into the media ecosystem. Amplification is a technique used by everyone from Black Lives Matter to neo-Nazis. The bad news is that making social media work better for democracy likely means making it work better for the Nazis as well.

In the end, Zuckerman argues that if we are to expect better from platforms like Facebook and Twitter, then we need to know what it is we want them to do—what service do we think they can or should perform in a civil society? “If our response to the shortcomings of contemporary social media is to move beyond the idea that we should burn it all down,” he writes, “then it’s critical that we ask what social media can do for democracy and demand that it play its part.” Whether the platforms will listen is a different question.