Congress fails to grapple with social-networking algorithms

Note: This post was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The history of Congressional hearings into the inner workings of Facebook, Twitter, and Google — which dates back to before 2017 — isn’t exactly filled with penetrating insights or dogged investigation. For the most part, it’s been a series of sideshow carnival-style events, with a lot of grandstanding by senators and members of congress designed to get airtime on TV news shows and/or help with re-election bids, not to mention finger-waving about non-existent fears, such as the alleged bias that social platforms like Facebook have against conservative voices. For every hard-hitting question about the ways in which these networks distort information or use personal data for ad targeting, there have been dozens more poorly-informed inquiries like Republican Senator Orrin Hatch’s infamous question about how Facebook makes money if it doesn’t sell personal data. “We sell ads, Senator” chief executive Mark Zuckerberg replied, overjoyed at seeing such a softball pitch.

Given that backdrop, the likelihood of yet another Congressional hearing producing anything of substance was extremely low, especially since the one that just concluded on Tuesday — titled “Algorithms and Amplification: How Social Media Platforms’ Design Choices Shape our Discourse and Our Minds,” — didn’t involve any of the chief executives of Facebook, Twitter, or Google. The fact that there were no high-profile names attached helps explain why there were no front-page headlines with quotes from those involved, or video clips of senior executives being pigeonholed by a senator. In advance of the hearing, some argued that the lack of big names might actually be a positive development, since there was less chance of the whole thing turning into a circus. So was this hearing notable for its depth or perspicacity? Not really. If anything, there was less outrage than there probably should be about the hidden algorithms that control what we see and do on social platforms.

At the outset of the hearing, Democratic Senator Chris Coons said “there’s nothing inherently wrong” with how Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube use algorithms to keep users engaged. Coons said the committee wasn’t weighing any actual legislation and that the hearing was designed to be a listening session between legislators and the platforms. That sanguine description was at odds with some of the experts who testified, however, including Joan Donovan, who runs the Technology and Social Change project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “The biggest problem facing our nation is misinformation-at-scale,” she told the committee, adding that “the cost of doing nothing is democracy’s end.” On Twitter, Donovan criticized those at the hearing for not going deeper. “The companies should have been answering questions about how they determine what content to distribute and what criteria is used to moderate,” she said. “We could have also gone deeper into the role that political advertising and source hacking plays on our democracy.” For its part, Facebook routinely argues that its algorithms merely give you more of what you have already indicated you want to see or interact with on the platform.

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Covering systemic violence without showing video of police killings

By now, most of us have likely seen the cellphone video of the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota Police officer Derek Chauvin multiple times. The video—captured by a Black teenager named Darnella Frazier while she was walking to the store with her young cousin—has featured prominently on TV news broadcasts, been embedded in online news coverage, and remains widely visible on social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It often carries a warning about the content being graphic or disturbing, and it is both. A New York Times headline credited Frazier’s video with having “upended the police department’s initial tale,” and a legal analyst for ABC named it “the star witness for the prosecution”—a comment picked up by other news outlets. That the clip showed Floyd’s death in such painful and graphic detail surely helped counteract the defense’s argument that Chauvin used reasonable force against Floyd, or that Floyd’s death was an unfortunate accident, and undoubtedly played a major role in Chauvin’s recent conviction on charges of unintentional second-degree murder; third-degree murder; and second-degree manslaughter. 

The day after Chauvin’s conviction, an NPR story noted that Frazier and her video had been “praised for making [the] verdict possible.” Such praise was widespread; after the verdict, social media lit up with people thanking Frazier. “Can we all sing a praise song for Darnella Frazier who had the presence of mind to film that video that made such a difference in this case,” Michelle Norris, founding director of the Race Card Project, wrote. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post, also paid tribute to Frazier for her quick thinking, and her desire to document the injustice in front of her. “After so many previous instances in which police officers were acquitted of what looked to many people like murder, this time was different,” Sullivan wrote. “And it was different, in some significant portion, because of a teenager’s sense of right and wrong.” The Mayor of St. Paul said that Frazier’s video deserved to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

But the repeated broadcasting, posting, and sharing of eyewitness videos of police violence against Black people is problematic for a number of reasons—not least of which is the trauma it forces Black viewers to experience or re-live. Ahead of the verdict, Allissa Richardson—a journalism professor at USC Annenberg, and the author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, wrote in an essay for Vox that re-playing these kinds of videos does more harm than good. “I now believe that circulating videos of Black and brown death at the hands of police reinforces white supremacy,” Richardson wrote, adding that they “are a reminder of a social hierarchy that privileges police with qualified immunity [and] punishes communities of color with death.” Numerous journalists shared Richardson’s essay following Chauvin’s conviction, and other writers echoed her sentiments. The Undefeated published an essay titled “It’s time to stop showing the video of Floyd’s death”; in it, Andrene Taylor wrote that “the constant showing of Floyd’s death is a racialized, modern-day snuff film that has its roots in lynching [and] requires making a spectacle of defiling, dehumanizing and degrading Black bodies.”

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New T-shirt just arrived! Going to wear this on my next trip in to the grocery store

For more context on this shirt, there was a minor scandal involving racism at a private school called Smith College in the Massachusetts, and someone criticized the college for being too “woke,” and said something like “What’s Smith turning into, Satan’s School of Gay Communism?!” and within a matter of hours there were T-shirts for sale, so I bought one. Should be fun to wear into the store in the small town I live in in rural Ontario.

Journalism under siege in Minnesota

Note: This post was originally published in the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

As protests continued over a police officer accused of killing Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Minnesota, journalists have been subjected to numerous instances of mistreatment by Minnesota state police. Joshua Rashaad McFadden, a Black freelance photographer who was covering the protests for the New York Timestold the paper that the police surrounded the car he was in on Tuesday as he tried to leave the protests. “It was definitely scary — I’ve never been in a situation like that with so many police officers hitting me, hitting my equipment,” he said, adding that police did not believe his press credentials were real. Carolyn Sung, an Asian American CNN producer, was seized by police, despite identifying herself as a journalist, and was zip-tied while a state police officer yelled “Do you speak English?” Sung was then then taken to a nearby jail, where she was subject to an invasive search and forced to wait in a cell for several hours before finally being released. Still other journalists have been pepper-sprayed despite identifying themselves, or had their credentials taken.

Many of these incidents — including one in which journalists were forcibly stopped and made to lay on the ground, before having their identification photographed, and in some cases being detained for several hours — occurred after a district court judge issued a temporary restraining order on Friday barring police from harassing journalists, to include threatening arrest and seizing camera or recording equipment. In one incident, a state police officer grabbed a photojournalist, pulled him out of a line, and took away his phone while another officer held his arms behind his back. When the photojournalist asked why he was doing this, the officer reportedly said, “Because that’s our strategy right now.” 

On Saturday, Leita Walker, a lawyer representing more than 20 news media organizations — including the Associated Press, BuzzFeed, Minnesota Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Committee to Protect Journalists — sent a letter to the governor of Minnesota and the heads of the state’s law enforcement organizations asking for them to put a stop to the harassment and abuse, citing the restraining order passed a day earlier. In her letter, Walker noted that several of the incidents she refers to took place Friday night, after the restraining order was already in effect. “Law enforcement officers have engaged in widespread intimidation, violence, and other misconduct directed at journalists that have interfered with their ability to report on matters of intense public interest and concern,” she wrote. Walker also pointed out that having law enforcement officers collect the identifying information of journalists who are engaged in journalism was found to be a First Amendment violation in a recent federal district court case. Minnesota State Patrol said in a statement that “troopers checked and photographed journalists and their credentials and driver’s licenses at the scene in order to expedite the identification process.” While some journalists were “detained and released during enforcement actions after providing credentials, no journalists have been arrested,” the police statement said.

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Many Americans don’t support journalistic values, study says

Note: This post was originally published in the daily newsletter from the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Most — if not all — journalists likely share a commitment to a set of journalistic values, including a belief that those in power should be subject to some kind of oversight, that transparency is the right approach to important information, that facts are required to get to the truth, that the less powerful deserve a voice, and that revealing the flaws in society helps us to deal with them. But do news and journalism consumers share a commitment to or belief in these values? A study published on Wednesday by the Media Insight Project, a joint venture of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, suggests that many do not, and that this could help explain why there has been a crisis in trust when it comes to mainstream journalism. The authors say their study shows that uneasiness with these core values of journalism crosses ideological boundaries, and the bottom line is that “when journalists say they are just doing their jobs, the problem is many people harbor doubts about what the job should be.”

Only one of the five core journalism values that the study used as part of its survey was supported by a majority of those who responded, and that was the idea that facts help get us closer to the truth, which was agreed to by 67 percent of those who replied the the survey. The principle that had the lowest amount of support — just 29 percent of respondents — was the idea that the best way to make society better is to highlight its problems. And only 11 percent of those who took the survey fully supported all five of the journalistic values mentioned above. “Rather than distrust toward the media being tied only to the perception of partisan bias,” the study’s authors say, “the problem at the heart of the media trust crisis may be skepticism about the underlying purpose and mission journalists are trying to fulfill.” The debate over trust in news has seemed intractable, the study says, because it involves “journalists believing they are just doing their jobs and critics seeing clear signs of political leaning and the denials of journalists as proof of dishonesty.”

According to the API’s research, people who put more emphasis on authority and loyalty tend to be more skeptical about fundamental journalism principles. These people put a high value on respect for leaders and groups, and according to the study “they worry that some of the things journalists believe in can be intrusive and get in the way of officials doing their jobs. This group would like to see more stories about what works, not just what is going wrong.” In other words, people in this group tend to see journalistic principles as emphasizing the negative and threatening established order. Only 33 percent of the people in this category believe that the news media in general are trustworthy, the study says, and only about 15 percent think the press cares about them, or that the press is morally upstanding. Interestingly, this group is evenly split between political conservatives and moderates, the study says: half said they are Republicans, 30 percent said Democrats, and the remainder identified themselves as political independents.

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Syrup made a week or two apart — right-hand one light won’t even pass through it

We made maple syrup again this spring, from two giant old maples right near the house — tapped them with spigots (called “spiles” apparently) and plastic buckets, and got gallons of sap, and then boiled it down on the BBQ, in large metal pans. Then once it was almost all boiled away — which took three or four hours — we put the rest in a pot on the stove and kept it boiling until it reached exactly 219 degrees Fahrenheit. If you go past that point, even a little, it suddenly turns into sugar crystals, which is great if you want maple sugar, but not so good if you want syrup. After it cools, you just pour it into a sterilized jar.

This spring was a little strange, because it hit just the right sap-running temperature — cool in the evenings and above zero in the daytime — so we collected a bunch and boiled it down (that’s the jar on the far left) and then it got cold again and the sap stopped running. Then it warmed up and started running again, so we collected some more and boiled it down — that’s the jar in the middle. And then it got cold again a few days later, and the sap stopped running, and at first we thought that was the end, but then it warmed back up again, and that’s when we got the sap that turned into the jar on the right.

According to my maple syrup-related research, the change in colour occurs as the weather warms up, and microbes act on the sugars in the sap, changing their chemical composition in a variety of ways. So if you like the golden coloured syrup, you want to get the stuff that’s made early in the season — but if you like the darker stuff, as I do, then you want to wait until later. Some people prefer the golden coloured syrup because it’s lighter, and they find the darker stuff too heavy or earthy-tasting. But I like the darker stuff — especially over ice cream! It’s like wine I guess — some people like dry whites, and others like heavy reds.

Could NFTs help the media, or are they just a sideshow?

Note: This was originally published as part of the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Over the past several months, technology journalists have had to get used to a new concept: the “non-fungible token,” or NFT, a concept that has been lighting up the cryptocurrency world, as well as art and media. An NFT is a string of code that, once it has been “minted” (generated by a computer) resides on the Ethereum blockchain, a ledger of every transaction since the currency was created. The “non-fungible” part just means that a token can’t be exchanged for another string of similar code, so it’s unique. What has made this phenomenon so compelling is that these tokens can be associated with specific real-world objects: pieces of art, such as the digital canvas created by an artist named Beeple that sold for $69 million, clips of NBA highlights, or even newspaper articles — such as the New York Times piece by Kevin Roose about NFTs that recently sold for $560,000 (the paper donated the money to charity).

In many cases, the people buying pieces of digital art for $69 million or a single news article for half a million dollars are cryptocurrency “whales” — investors who bought Bitcoin or Ethereum early and have seen their investments increase as Bitcoin has risen by more than 600 percent. Others run auction platforms for NFTs or other cryptocurrency trading systems, and likely see spending those kinds of sums as marketing. So is all of this just Las Vegas casino-style froth, or is there something of real value happening — something that could benefit the media industry and journalism? To answer those and other questions, we used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to bring together a number of experts, including Jarrod Dicker, vice president, commercial for the Washington Post; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia; developer Julien Genestoux; Elizabeth Lopatto, deputy editor of The Verge; and Josh Quittner, co-founder and chief executive of Decrypt Media.

Dicker, who was involved in a cryptocurrency venture called Poet before he joined the Post, said that his primary interest in NFTs is as a way of bringing “an ownership element back to media” and put more value on  individuals and the work they create. “If we as content creators are able to manage control of assets at the inception of the idea, what dynamics come about that give us more creative control, monetization and agency?” he asked. “This gives both control as to how that content is used, licensed and distributed as well as a means to be able to collect revenue.” The Tow Center is looking at NFTs because “the idea of authentic, distributed systems that can be verified and controlled away from central entities should appeal to journalism,” Bell said. Bell was on the advisory council for Civil, a blockchain-powered platform for independent journalism that eventually shut down last year, and says she liked the idea of funding journalism via “more community-based methods.”

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