Facebook lays out the rules for its new Supreme Court for content

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Until recently, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg rejected any suggestion that his company was a media entity, despite the fact that the platform’s all-powerful News Feed algorithm chooses what to show users based on a series of unknown editorial criteria, and that tens of millions of posts, photos, and other pieces of content are taken down every year because they breach the company’s rules. In the spring of 2018, however, in an interview with Ezra Klein of Vox, the Facebook CEO seemed to be growing accustomed to the idea that the company was a kind of media entity, and even mused out loud that maybe Facebook should have a kind of editorial board — or a Supreme Court, as he described it; an external body that would “ultimately make the final judgment call on what should be acceptable speech.” Over the past two years, Facebook has been trying to fulfil that promise, designing what it calls an Oversight Board, and this week the company announced the bylaws or rules that the board will operate under, as well as its first staff member.

The director of the new entity is Thomas Hughes, former executive director of a group called Article 19, an international non-governmental organization that focuses on freedom of expression and digital rights (named after the section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that deals with freedom of expression). Hughes will essentially run a limited liability company called Oversight Board LLC that Facebook created, which in turn will be financed by Facebook through an arms-length trust (which the company has committed to funding for six years). As it did with its star-crossed attempt at launching a cryptocurrency called Libra, the social network is going above and beyond in order to show that it is taking a hands-off approach to the new entity. The bylaws for the group even state explicitly that the board can overrule Zuckerberg or any other Facebook executive when it comes to content decisions. That said, however, there are some pretty large caveats.

For example, the three co-chairs who will be in charge of running the board (Hughes will run the administrative side of things, rather than the group that makes the actual decisions) are to be chosen by Facebook, which for many will raise immediate questions about the impartiality of those who are selected. Those co-chairs will then have the responsibility of choosing the rest of the board, which could number as many as 40 people (the Facebook bylaws don’t specify an exact number, but say that the “ideal number” of members is 40). And when it comes to the kinds of cases that this board will hear, Facebook has placed some restrictions on that — at least initially. For example, at least for the first while, the company says that the board will only be able to hear cases about content that was taken down, and make decisions about whether these removals were appropriate. It won’t be able to adjudicate whether content that wasn’t taken down should have been — such as the video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was slowed down to make her appear drunk. Facebook said that this restriction could change over time, but didn’t say when or why.

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Rebecca Elson, Canadian astronomer and poet

I had never heard of Rebecca Elson before, until I came across a piece last year that was written by Maria Popova, who publishes a wonderful newsletter/website called BrainPickings, which I highly recommend. Elson was born in Montreal and became a celebrated astronomer, getting her doctorate from Cambridge, followed by a post-doc research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (which was founded by Albert Einstein) to work on data from the Hubble telescope. Its launch was delayed after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, however, so she found refuge in creative writing, which she wound up teaching at Harvard while on a fellowship there. She was also diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. She returned to Cambridge to do research on the Hubble images — and to write poetry — while her disease was in remission, but it eventually returned and she died in 1999 at the age of 39. To celebrate her life, Maria Popova held a reading of her poetry by singer/songwriter Regina Spektor (via BrainPickings)

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The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor reads “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

A photo essay of abandoned Italian mansions

Paris-based photographer Thomas Jorion has gone out of his way to prove that in Italy, even neglected things can be excessively beautiful. Over the past decade, Jorion has traveled across Italy to document the country’s most stunning abandoned buildings. His work—which mainly focuses on spaces from the 18th and 19th century—has culminated in the project Veduta (View). Jorion won’t reveal their exact locations, but we do know that the majority can be found between the regions of Umbria and Tuscany in central Italy, and Lombardy in the north. (via Vice)

Is the Salvator Mundi a lost $450M masterpiece or a fraud?

The art world is a strange place. Millionaires and billionaires bid ridiculous amounts for even trivial pieces of art, and anything by one of the masters routinely goes for hundreds of millions of dollars. But ancient art is far from an exact science, and that’s what makes the story of the so-called “Salvator Mundi” so fascinating. It was bought in a small New Orleans auction house in 2005 for about $1,000, and appeared to be a copy of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting known as the Salvator Mundi — a portrait of Christ facing the viewer, with his right hand raised. Da Vinci painted it in 1500, possibly for Louis XXII. There are plenty of copies of it around, but as the painting was painstakingly restored, its owner and the restorers working on it became convinced that it was the original Da Vinci — at which point it went from being worth a few hundred thousand dollars to being worth a few hundred million.

The picture has since sold once for $127.5 million and again, in a record-setting auction at Christie’s, for close to half a billion dollars. It has been held up as the “male Mona Lisa” and the “Holy Grail of old-master paintings” and derided by this magazine’s art critic, Jerry Saltz, as a “two-dimensional ersatz dashboard Jesus.” It has been owned by a Swiss tycoon, a Russian oligarch, and Saudi royalty. Its rise is both an astonishing tale of restoration and historical sleuthing and — for those inclined to see the world less romantically — a parable of highbrow greed, P. T. Barnum–style salesmanship, and reputation laundering.

— via The Invention of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ Or, How to Turn a $1,000 Art-Auction Pickup Into a $450 Million Masterpiece

Government funding for journalism: necessary evil or just evil?

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

It’s not news that many journalistic outlets in North America, with the exception of a select few like the New York Times or the Washington Post, are in the midst of a funding crisis. Advertising revenue continues to decline, thanks in part to the market power of digital giants such as Google and Facebook, and so virtually every publisher big or small has had to find other sources of funding. Some have turned to venture capital, while others are experimenting with nonprofit status, crowdfunding, and even selling shares to their supporters. And now there’s another controversial source of financing being added to the mix: Government funding. In New Jersey, the state has agreed to give a nonprofit entity called the Civic Information Consortium $2 million to hand out to publishers. And in Canada, the government created a $600 million fund aimed at supporting journalism through a variety of tax breaks and grants. But does government money come with too many strings attached and too many potential conflicts of interest? Or is it better than nothing?

To answer these and other related questions, we invited a range of experts, critics, and observers to join us on our Galley discussion platform for a virtual panel on the topic, including: Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York; Victor Pickard of USC Annenberg’s School for Communication; Mike Rispoli of Free Press in New Jersey, one of the architects of the Civic Information Consortium proposal; Molly de Aguiar, who runs the Independence Public Media Foundation in Philadelphia; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia; Caitlin Johnson of Policy Matters Ohio; Jeremy Klaszus of The Sprawl in Calgary, Alberta and Saima Desai, editor of Briarpatch magazine in Saskatchewan. All of those interviews—along with featured interviews from previous Galley panels—can be found on the Galley site.

On the question of whether taking government funding is a necessary evil or just evil, Jarvis definitely came down in favor of the latter. “I see danger everywhere if government funds or in any way approves or interferes with journalism and speech,” he said. “To accept funding from government, no matter the alleged safeguards, puts us at risk of mortal conflict of interest. Whom do we serve then? Need I say it? Follow the money.” Jarvis also admitted, however, that every revenue source brings with it the potential for conflicts of interest (the News Integrity Initiative, which is part of the Tow-Knight Center and the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY, is partially funded by Facebook). Many people hold the BBC in Britain up as an example of how government funding for journalism can work, and it has done much good, Jarvis says.
“But now my fears are coming to life as we see Boris Johnson coming to attack the BBC, its franchise, its funding, and its legitimacy. If given similar power in this country, I shudder to think what Trump would do.”

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Brazil’s attack on Greenwald mirrors the US case against Assange

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Over the years, Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald has made a number of enemies with his journalism. What some of his fans and supporters see as a crusade for truth and justice can strike others—including those who become the targets of his journalistic crusades—as needlessly hostile and potentially biased. But there is one enemy that has stood out among all the others of late, and that is Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose government has been the subject of wave after wave of coverage by Greenwald, all of it negative (with good reason, Greenwald would no doubt argue). Now the Brazilian leader has struck back with force: On Tuesday, prosecutors charged the Intercept writer with aiding a criminal conspiracy for his role in the hacking and leaking of cellphone messages belonging to members of his government.

The Intercept has published a number of articles based on the leaked messages, stories that raised questions about a corruption investigation involving some of Brazil’s most powerful players in both business and politics. As the New York Times describes, the stories questioned the integrity of the judge who oversaw that investigation, a man named Sergio Moro, who is now Bolsonaro’s minister of justice. The case resulted in a number of powerful businessmen and political figures going to prison, including former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a popular leftist. His departure in turn created an opening for Bolsonaro, a man who is often compared to Donald Trump because of his right-wing leanings and his use of social media as a weapon for pursuing vendettas against the media and others. Last year, he called Greenwald a derogatory term and warned that he “might wind up in jail.”

The criminal complaint filed against Greenwald says that the Intercept’s Brazilian operation, which he founded, didn’t just receive the hacked messages and then publish some of them in news stories. Instead, it argues that Greenwald co-operated with the hackers, and that he therefore played a “clear role in facilitating the commission of a crime.” Among other things, the prosecutors say Greenwald encouraged the hackers to delete archives of leaked material in order to make it more difficult to connect them with the leaks. They also argue that the Intercept writer was in communication with the hackers while they were listening in to private conversations through apps such as Telegram, and that therefore he had ceased to operate as a journalist and instead became a member of a criminal conspiracy.

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Who is right about political ads, Twitter or Facebook?

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

As the 2020 federal election draws closer, the issue of online political advertising is becoming even more important, and the differences in how the different platforms are approaching it are becoming more obvious. Twitter has chosen to ban political advertising, but questions remain about how it plans to define that term, and whether banning ads will do more harm than good. Meanwhile, Facebook has gone in the opposite direction, saying it will not even fact-check political ads, for fear of tipping the scales inadvertently. So whose strategy is the best, Twitter’s or Facebook’s? To answer this and other questions, we convened a virtual panel of experts this week on CJR’s Galley discussion platform, including Federal Election Commission member Ellen Weintraub, Alex Howard from the Digital Democracy Project, Ellen Goodman of the Rutgers Law School, and Dipayan Ghosh from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center (all of those interviews and more are available here).

Ghosh said he believes Twitter has taken the right approach to the problem of political advertising. “If companies cannot figure out how to shut down the threat of coordinated disinformation operations over their political advertising systems, I believe that they should temporarily and indefinitely shut down those systems,” he said. “That is why Jack Dorsey’s announcement should be praised: the company has said that it will put democracy over profits.” Facebook’s decision not to fact-check ads, he said, “opens up a tremendous threat to the functioning of the political process in this country.” Harvard Law student and Berkman Klein affiliate Evelyn Douek, however, said in her view neither company is 100-percent right. “The best path is somewhere in the grey area in between,” she said. “It’s not obvious that a ban improves the quality of democratic debate. Facebook’s position, on the other hand, seems to rest on a notion of free expression that is nice in theory, but just doesn’t match reality.”

Tatenda Musapatike, director of campaigns for a media-strategy firm called Acronym, said that her organization supports supports Facebook’s decision not to ban political ads on the platform, because she says such a ban “would put progressive organizations at a disadvantage” in terms of raising awareness. When it comes to the company’s position on fact-checking political ads, however, Musapatike — who used to work at Facebook on the political ad team — says she “wholeheartedly disagrees” with the policy. “I think this argument is indicative of the dangerously optimistic, or even naive, attitude that I think is cause for so many of the platform’s issues,” she says. Alex Howard says the idea behind the behind the Honest Ads Act, which he helped draft while he was at the Sunlight Foundation, was to compel disclosure and transparency, but none of the companies is really measuring up.

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The YouTube “radicalization engine” debate continues

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

For many people, YouTube is a place to kill time by watching sailing videos, or to pick up tips on how to train their dog, or change a car headlight. But the Google-owned video service also has a darker side, according to a number of news articles, including one from the New York Times last year. Some users, these stories say, start out looking at innocuous videos, but get pushed in the direction of more and more radical, inflammatory or even outright fake content. Those pushes come from YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which some argue has turned the service into a “radicalization engine.” Does the network and the software that powers its video suggestions actually turn otherwise normal users into consumers of far-right conspiracy theories and other radical content, and if so what should be done about it?

Those are some of the questions we at CJR wanted to address, so we used our Galley discussion platform to convene a virtual panel of experts in what some call “automated propaganda,” including Dipayan Ghosh of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, New York Times columnist Kevin Roose — who wrote last year’s Times piece on YouTube radicalization — as well as Brazilian researcher Virgilio Almeida, Aviv Ovadya of the Thoughtful Technology Project, former YouTube programmer Guillaume Chaslot, and Harvard misinformation researcher Joan Donovan. One trigger for this discussion was a research paper published recently that not only said YouTube is not a radicalization engine, but argued that its software actually accomplishes the opposite, by suggesting videos that push users in the direction of mainstream content. As part of our virtual Galley panel, we spoke to a co-author of that paper, Mark Ledwich.

In Twitter posts and on Medium, Ledwich took direct aim at the New York Times and Roose for perpetuating what he called the myth of YouTube algorithmic radicalization. In reality, he said, this theory showed that “old media titans, presenting themselves as non-partisan and authoritative, are in fact trapped in echo chambers of their own creation, and are no more incentivized to report the truth than YouTube grifters.” One of the main criticisms of the paper — which came from others in the field such as Arvind Narayanan of Princeton — was that the research was based on anonymized data, meaning none of the recommendations were personalized, the way they were in the New York Times piece (which used personal account data provided by the subject of the story). In his Galley interview, Ledwich pointed out that much of the research that others have used to support the radicalization theory is also based on anonymized data, in part because personalized data is so difficult to come by.

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