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Facebook's Dilemma, Subpoena Time, and Twitter: There Was an Attempt

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It’s time for Hellfeed, your biweekly summary of who’s kicking and screaming online, and we really couldn’t have picked a better day: The president tweeted that he is ill with the novel coronavirus this morning and then totally dropped off the goddamn radar.

While the nation waits for updates on the president’s condition—the White House has quietly upgraded the severity of his coronavirus infection from “mild” to “very moderate”—it is simultaneously hooting, claiming it’s a hoax, preparing for chaos, demanding civility, and generally not having any idea what the hell is going to happen next. This really caps off two weeks of everything breaking, which we’ve summarized below.


Facebook hits back at The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s documentary on the deliberate design choices behind the online attention economy, is sort of a hot mess. It certainly raises good points about the business model and manipulative nature of companies like Facebook, but it also posits social media as the cause of rather than an amplifying factor in the state of society and doesn’t meaningfully interrogate how all of this is shaped by factors like capital, class, and politics. (It’s perhaps best summed up by a ridiculous Reefer Madness-style frame narrative, featuring a teen who is radicalized into some kind of nebulous “Extreme Center” extremist organization after staring at his phone for a few days.)


That aside, The Social Dilemma has earned largely glowing reviews and a flurry of attention because of... well, everything that’s going on right now. Facebook itself has now responded with a point-by-point list of what it says the film got wrong, complete with helpful pointers like “you are not the product,” Facebook’s algorithm is merely designed to keep feeds “relevant and useful,” and that the company takes “steps to reduce content that could drive polarization.” In perhaps the most disingenuous point, Facebook insisted that its engineering teams are “not incentivized to build features that increase time-spent on our products,” which is kind of like if Netflix insisted it really wants you to spend more time outside.

TikTok gets a last-minute reprieve

The Trump administration has been trying to force TikTok’s owner, Beijing-based ByteDance, to sell the app off to a U.S. company or face a blanket ban throughout the country—and the effort has become a total debacle for everyone involved. The White House has failed to provide a compelling justification for the deal other than just saying “communism” over and over, the bidding process was a mess, and the only winner appears to be Oracle, the leading contender for a deal. It just so happens that Oracle’s co-founder Larry Ellison and CEO Safra Catz are big Trump supporters.


Another setback: A federal judge intervened just hours before the ban would have taken effect, ruling that the U.S. government has to actually prove that it’s legal to force app stores to remove consumer apps.

Cambridge Analytica scandal still going

Remember Cambridge Analytica, the firm that took advantage of Facebook’s reckless policies in user data to hoard information on hundreds of millions of its users? According to a report by British broadcaster Channel 4, some of that data was used by Trump’s 2016 campaign in a database that categorized millions of Black voters for targeted for “deterrence” (likely referring to targeted advertising designed to convince them voting is pointless).


Joe mad

This week, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign authored yet another letter to Facebook complaining that the site isn’t doing enough to punish the president (or... Donald Trump Jr.) for spreading lies about voting by mail on Facebook or Instagram.


Previously, Biden has called for Facebook to have its Section 230 protections revoked so he could sue it, as well as announced a petition campaign to pressure the company. So a strongly worded letter will definitely change things.

It’s the airwaves, stupid

Researchers at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard have released a working paper showing that the president’s use of his bully pulpit and complicity by the mass media has been more influential in the spread of misinformation about mail-in voting rather than the social media masses. Rather than propelled by random internet conspiracy theorists or the spooky Russians, the team found, mapping of online coverage, tweets, and Facebook posts shows it was an “elite-driven, mass-media led process.”


In particular, Trump and Republican allies have found great success exploiting “three core standard practices of professional journalism.” The team wrote:

... elite institutional focus (if the President says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and balance, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side. He uses the first two in combination to summon coverage at will, and has used them continuously to set the agenda surrounding mail-in voting through a combination of tweets, press conferences, and television interviews on Fox News. He relies on the latter professional practice to keep audiences that are not politically pre-committed and have relatively low political knowledge confused, because it limits the degree to which professional journalists in mass media organizations are willing or able to directly call the voter fraud frame disinformation.


The analysis found that right-wing media and politicians then acted as a sort of speech police for conservatives, strong-arming any dissenters. Conversely, there’s no evidence that a wellspring of suspicion about mail-in voting spontaneously sprung from the masses:

We have been unable to identify a single episode where a peak in media attention to the question of fraud associated with voting by mail or absentee ballots, in either mass media or social media, was meaningfully driven by an online disinformation campaign, and for which we did not have an obvious elite-driven triggering event.


TL;DR: Widespread disinformation about voting is, as one might suspect, the product of a concerted effort by Republicans and spread in the news, with social media mostly amplifying that effort after the fact. Read the paper here.

Please, we beg of you, rethink getting news from YouTube

A Pew Research Center survey found that around 26 percent of adult respondents in the U.S. say they get news on YouTube at the same time that independent, unvetted channels are sucking up more traffic. Pew also found that independent channels are far more devoted to coverage of conspiracy theories. According to their analysis of roughly 3,000 videos from 100 top-viewed news channels, “14% were primarily about one of these conspiracy theories, and an even higher share (21%) at least mentioned one of these conspiracy theories.”


Republicans to the fringes

Trump refused to condemn white supremacist groups at the presidential debate on Tuesday. In fact, he did the complete opposite and basically endorsed the Proud Boys, a street-brawling neo-fascist gang that’s largely been driven off mainstream social media sites but continues to organize via apps like Telegram, by telling them to “stand down and stand by” at protests across the country.


17 Republican members of Congress refused to vote for a largely symbolic measure condemning QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that has metastasized from the nether regions of the internet into a sizable tumor in the GOP. Another voted present, which is slang for coward.

It’s subpoena time

The Senate Commerce Committee to subpoena Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for testimony on Section 230, the foundational internet law that shields their companies from liability for user-generated content.


Republicans on the committee promised their Democratic counterparts the hearings will reserve time for questions on privacy and antitrust, not just hollering at the three CEOs about why they’re conspiring to shut up proud American patriots. In other news, Charlie Brown will kick the football this time.

“You can read the article”

Twitter is essentially designed to make it as easy as possible to start hollering about a headline in the news without actually reading the article, but now it will start guilting you about it. Last week, the site announced it is rolling out a feature that reminds users attempting to share a link they haven’t clicked that they might be about to embarrass themselves.


This week, it admitted it was having trouble fixing another problem: Its blatantly discriminatory photo-cropping algorithm, which tends to crop Black people out of thumbnails. In the meantime, it plans to just let users crop the photos themselves.