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Journalists and Techies Knock Each Other Over Media Coverage of Trump-Biden Contest

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Screenshot from the webinar

November 9, 2020 – The media may have missed the boat on Trump voters, including Latino Trump voters, but at least it was smart enough to spike the Hunter Biden story as “misinformation.”

That was the assessment of journalists participating in a Knight Foundation event on Thursday. Two days after Election Day, but two days before Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential contest, these journalists evaluated the highs and lows of the news media’s and the tech media’s performance during election season.

Joanne Lipman, former editor of USA Today and a distinguished journalism fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, asserted that there was a “complete lack of understanding of the Trump voter.”

The media focuses on the misogyny, racism, and politics fear and anger of Donald Trump supporters not seeing the president’s supporters as the proud patriots that they see themselves.

There was misunderstanding of the Latino vote as well, she said, with media portraying it as uniform and monolithic when it was “anything but.”

Journalists also discussed misinformation. Charles Sykes, founder and editor-at-large at The Bulwark, quoted a tweet from former Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, “The point of modern propaganda is not only to misinform or push an agenda, it is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” Sykes said we have been and still are living in that kind of environment.

“I don’t know who to trust” has become a common phrase, said Sykes.

Lipman delineated several issues: the media is still declaring winners instead of projecting them, the polls are playing into horserace journalism by overstating their own significance and not providing useful information, and twitter has become a “giant Slack channel” for journalists. They end up amplifying issues that have no bearing for the larger audience, she said.

What to take from news and tech platforms’ approach to the Hunter Biden story

Panelists also discussed the New York Post story about Hunter Biden. Setti Warren, executive director of the Shorenstein Center on Media and Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, praised other news organization for not running the story because of its lack of appropriate documentation.

Warren said she was hopeful that this decision would exemplify how content is moderated going forward. He stressed that it was on the media both to put out very strong content moderation on their platforms and to put out very strong information on how content moderation is done.

Sykes agreed, saying while tech platforms like Twitter got tweaked for blocking users’ ability to share the story, the media’s overall decision to downplay and refuse to disseminate it was “telling.”

Kate Klonick, assistant professor at law at St. John’s University Law School and an affiliate fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, took a contrarian view to the pro-gatekeeper sentiment.

She said Twitter did not make the right decision to block users’ ability to share the Hunter Biden story. In that case, she said, Twitter was actually crossing factchecking journalists.

Klonick acknowledged that the role of social media platforms is still being decided, but she discouraged them from stepping into the journalist’s role and suggested that in similar future situations, posts just have interstitials or notices of possible misinformation.

But Lipman said the Hunter Biden story was proof that the mainstream media needed to stop giving oxygen to misinformation: “That is the lesson of this election.”

Panelists like Lipman advocated for funding for schools to teach information literacy starting at a younger age because it has become so hard to discriminate between what’s true and false on the internet.

Warren stressed the importance understanding how media manipulation works and how to prevent it in organizations. “Without a healthy information ecosystem, we can’t govern,” he said.

Sykes said the best filter for misinformation was people wanting to have accurate information and pleaded for media to “get it right” because mistakes in this climate are “instantly weaponized.”

Jennifer Preston of the Knight foundation and Vivian Schiller of Aspen Institute moderated this discussion.

Section 230

Experts Warn Against Total Repeal of Section 230

Panelists note shifting definition of offensive content.

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WASHINGTON, November 22, 2021 – Communications experts say action by Congress to essentially gut Section 230 would not truly solve any problems with social media.

Experts emphasized that it is not possible for platforms to remove from their site all content that people may believe to be dangerous. They argue that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields platforms from legal liability with respect to what their users post, is necessary in at least some capacity.

During discussion between these experts at Broadband Breakfast’s Live Online Event on Wednesday, Alex Feerst, the co-founder of the Digital Trust and Safety Partnership, who used to work as a content moderator, said that to a certain extent it is impossible for platforms to moderate speech that is “dangerous” because every person has differing opinions about what speech they consider to be dangerous. He says it is this ambiguity that Section 230 protects companies from.

Still, Feerst believes that platforms should hold some degree of liability for the content of their sites as harm mitigation with regards to dangerous speech is necessary where possible. He believes that the effects of artificial intelligence’s use by platforms makes some degree of liability even more essential.

Particularly with the amount of online speech to be reviewed by moderators in the internet age, Feerst says the clear-cut moderation standards are too messy and expensive to be viable options.

Matt Gerst, vice president for legal and policy affairs at the Internet Association, and Shane Tews, nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also say that while content moderation is complex, it is necessary. Scott McCollough, attorney at McCollough Law Firm, says large social media companies like Facebook are not the causes of all the problems with social media that are in the national spotlight right now, but rather that social features of today’s society, such as the extreme prevalence of conflict, are to blame for this focus on social media.

Proposals for change

Rick Lane, CEO of Iggy Ventures, proposes that reform of Section 230 should include a requirement for social media platforms to make very clear what content is and is not allowed on their sites. McCullough echoed this concern, saying that many moderation actions platforms take presently do not seem to be consistent with those platforms’ stated terms and conditions, and that individual states across the nation should be able to look at these instances on a case-by-case basis to determine whether platforms fairly apply their terms and conditions.

Feerst highlighted the nuance of this issue by saying that people’s definitions of “consistent” are naturally subjective, but agrees with McCullough that users who have content removed should be notified of such, as well as the reasoning for moderators’ action.

Lane also believes that rightfully included in the product of Section 230 reform will be a requirement for platforms to demonstrate a reasonable standard of care and moderate illegal and other extremely dangerous content on their sites. Tews generally agreed with Lane that such content moderation is complex, as she sees a separation between freedom of speech and illegal activity.

Gerst highlighted concerns from companies the Internet Association represents that government regulation coming from Section 230 reform will require widely varied platforms to standardize their operation approaches, diminishing innovation on the internet.

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Social Media

Social Media Companies Noncommittal on Bipartisan Calls for Changes to Content Regulation

Platform representatives did not commit to legislation that would increase online protections for kids.

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Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut

WASHINGTON, October 28, 2021 – Members of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection on Tuesday lobbed concerns at representatives from Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube about what their platforms put in front of kids, as the platforms did not commit to changes proposed by lawmakers who are winding down a month that included revelations of the negative impact social media can have on the mental health of kids.

During the hearing, subcommittee chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said his staff had created a TikTok account and while at first they were shown videos of dance trends that have been popularized on the app, it only took one week for the app’s algorithm to place videos encouraging suicidal ideation on their feed. Blumenthal also noted that through viewing fitness-related videos geared toward a male audience on social media, it only took one minute to find posts promoting illegal steroids.

Blumenthal also raised other concerning videos his staff found, including a stunt whereby kids are encouraged to hold their breath until they lose consciousness.

In response, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy, stated that TikTok has “not been able to find any evidence of a blackout challenge on TikTok at all.” In response to Beckerman, Blumenthal said that his office had been able to find “pass out videos” and that he found Beckerman’s statements on the matter to be unreliable.

Tuesday’s hearing comes mere weeks after a Facebook whistleblower testified that the company does not take action on its own internal research that shows its photo-sharing app Instagram has a negative impact on kids health because it conflicts with its profit-driven motion. The testimony came after the whistleblower, Frances Haugen, leaked the research to the Wall Street Journal and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Since then, Facebook has halted development of an Instagram app for kids.

The hearing pressed tech platform representatives on social media policies that lawmakers say have led to the sale of illegal drugs to minors online, the exposure of minors to content which promotes self harm and access to children for sexual predators.

Senators also criticized the social media platforms’ lack of data privacy policies and contended that they often refuse to cooperate with law enforcement investigations as well as display indifference toward keeping children from using their platforms. Both Snapchat and TikTok’s representatives committed to providing access to the algorithms used in their apps after Senators asked whether they would.

However, the representatives would not all commit their companies to supporting proposed regulatory legislation such as the Children and Teen’s Online Privacy Protection Act written by subcommittee member Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, which prohibits the collection of personal information without consent for kids ages 13 to 15 years., bans targeted advertising directed to kids, and lets kids and teens erase any personal info collected on them at any point with an erase button

The representatives also did not commit to supporting the EARN IT Act of 2020, which would amend Section 230 and allow social media platforms to be held liable in cases where they are suspected to have caused harm to children. Throughout the hearing, the social media representatives tended to emphasize the importance of trying to take an active role in controlling what their children are viewing on social media.

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Section 230

Democrats Use Whistleblower Testimony to Launch New Effort at Changing Section 230

The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act seeks to target large online platforms that push harmful content.

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Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California

WASHINGTON, October 14, 2021 – House Democrats are preparing to introduce legislation Friday that would remove legal immunities for companies that knowingly allow content that is physically or emotionally damaging to its users, following testimony last week from a Facebook whistleblower who claimed the company is able to push harmful content because of such legal protections.

The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – which provides legal liability protections to companies for the content their users post on their platform – to remove that shield when the platform “knowingly or recklessly uses an algorithm or other technology to recommend content that materially contributes to physical or severe emotional injury,” according to a Thursday press release, which noted that the legislation will not apply to small online platforms with fewer than five million unique monthly visitors or users.

The legislation is relatively narrow in its target: algorithms that rely on the personal user’s history to recommend content. It won’t apply to search features or algorithms that do not rely on that personalization and won’t apply to web hosting or data storage and transfer.

Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-California, Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey, Mike Doyle, D-Pennsylvania, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, plan to introduce the legislation a little over a week after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen alleged that the company misrepresents how much offending content it terminates.

Citing Haugen’s testimony before the Senate on October 5, Eshoo said in the release that “Facebook is knowingly amplifying harmful content and abusing the immunity of Section 230 well beyond congressional intent.

“The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act ensures courts can hold platforms accountable when they knowingly or recklessly recommend content that materially contributes to harm. This approach builds on my bill, the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, and I’m proud to partner with my colleagues on this important legislation.”

The Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act was introduced with Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-New Jersey, last October to hold companies responsible for “algorithmic amplification of harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence.”

From Haugen testimony to legislation

Haugen claimed in her Senate testimony that according to internal research estimates, Facebook acts against just three to five percent of hate speech and 0.6 percent of violence incitement.

“The reality is that we’ve seen from repeated documents in my disclosures is that Facebook’s AI systems only catch a very tiny minority of offending content and best content scenario in the case of something like hate speech at most they will ever get 10 to 20 percent,” Haugen testified.

Haugen was catapulted into the national spotlight after she revealed herself on the television program 60 Minutes to be the person who leaked documents to the Wall Street Journal and the Securities and Exchange Commission that reportedly showed Facebook knew about the mental health harm its photo-sharing app Instagram has on teens but allegedly ignored them because it inconvenienced its profit-driven motive.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company was developing an Instagram version for kids under 13. But following the Journal story and calls by lawmakers to backdown from pursuing the app, Facebook suspended the app’s development and said it was making changes to its apps to “nudge” users away from content that they find may be harmful to them.

Haugen’s testimony versus Zuckerberg’s Section 230 vision

In his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce committee in March, Zuckerberg claimed that the company’s hate speech removal policy “has long been the broadest and most aggressive in the industry.”

This claim has been the basis for the CEO’s suggestion that Section 230 be amended to punish companies for not creating systems proportional in size and effectiveness to the company’s or platform’s size for removal of violent and hateful content. In other words, larger sites would have more regulation and smaller sites would face fewer regulations.

Or in Zuckerberg’s words to Congress, “platforms’ intermediary liability protection for certain types of unlawful content [should be made] conditional on companies’ ability to meet best practices to combat the spread of harmful content.”

Facebook has previously pushed for FOSTA-SESTA, a controversial 2018 law which created an exception for Section 230 in the case of advertisements related prostitution. Lawmakers have proposed other modifications to the liability provision, including removing protections in the case for content that the platform is paid for and for allowing the spread of vaccine misinformation.

Zuckerberg said companies shouldn’t be held responsible for individual pieces of content which could or would evade the systems in place so long as the company has demonstrated the ability and procedure of “adequate systems to address unlawful content.” That, he said, is predicated on transparency.

But according to Haugen, “Facebook’s closed design means it has no oversight — even from its own Oversight Board, which is as blind as the public. Only Facebook knows how it personalizes your feed for you. It hides behind walls that keep the eyes of researchers and regulators from understanding the true dynamics of the system.” She also alleges that Facebook’s leadership hides “vital information” from the public and global governments.

An Electronic Frontier Foundation study found that Facebook lags behind competitors on issues of transparency.

Where the parties agree

Zuckerberg and Haugen do agree that Section 230 should be amended. Haugen would amend Section 230 “to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions,” meaning that practices such as engagement-based ranking would be evaluated for the incendiary or violent content they promote above more mundane content. If Facebook is choosing to promote content which damages mental health or incites violence, Haugen’s vision of Section 230 would hold them accountable. This change would not hold Facebook responsible for user-generated content, only the promotion of harmful content.

Both have also called for a third-party body to be created by the legislature which provides oversight on platforms like Facebook.

Haugen asks that this body be able to conduct independent audits of Facebook’s data, algorithms, and research and that the information be made available to the public, scholars and researchers to interpret with adequate privacy protection and anonymization in place. Beside taking into account the size and scope of the platforms it regulates, Zuckerberg asks that the practices of the body be “fair and clear” and that unrelated issues “like encryption or privacy changes” are dealt with separately.

With reporting from Riley Steward

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