Design Choices

Facebook asks for hard questions; Trump hires event planner for top housing job; and more.


  • This is civic tech: “Democracy is the technology we have for living with people with whom we disagree. That technology needs norms.” That’s Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig berating Twitter for allowing its platform to reinforce hatred of others more than empathy, in the wake of his tweeting a statement of sympathy for the victims of Wednesday’s shooting of Republican lawmakers and staff in Virginia. Lessig used the phrase “We are #AllRepublicansToday” in his tweet.

  • “We’re still putting numbers together, but in 2016, on Twitter alone, we counted over 350 million tweets that referenced voter registration that day, September 27. And more than 770,000 people actually registered, including 125,000 who filled out paper forms with a volunteer.” That’s Matt Singer, the master organizer behind National Voter Registration Day, explaining how all the pieces came together to Gail Ablow of the Carnegie Corporation. He also notes that separately, Facebook registered more than 625,000 people in the four days leading up to the event.

  • Singer also notes that his favorite tools for organizing are “listening” and clipboards, “because they allow you to write on a piece of paper when you’re walking around.” He also endorses using whatever free tech tools people are currently using to communicate with their peers.

  • Trump watch: Lynne Patton, the new head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Region II, which includes New York and New Jersey is a longtime Trump family loyalist who has no housing experience, but has arranged tournaments at Trump golf courses as well as son Eric Trump’s wedding, Greg Smith reports for The Daily News. Patton claims a law degree from Quinnipiac University’s School of Law, but the school says she only attended two semesters. She will oversee the distribution of billions of dollars in housing subsidies.

  • Back in March, according to a document unearthed by Eric Lipton of The New York Times, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt held a private briefing for 45 CEOs of the largest oil and gas companies. The location: The Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. Remember when secret meetings with energy companies to draft federal policy was a huge scandal? At least the meetings of Dick Cheney’s energy task force didn’t personally put money in the pocket of then President George Bush.

  • What sharing economy? A woman who was raped by her Uber driver in India is suing Uber and three top executives in the wake of reports that they obtained her private medical records, Mike Isaac reports for The New York Times.

  • The joke floating around Twitter: With its controversial CEO Travis Kalanick on leave, and missing a COO, CBO, CFO, CMO and SVP of Engineering, Uber is finally a driverless company.

  • Life inside Facebookistan: Elliot Schrage, the company’s longtime VP for public policy and communications, posts that “we’re starting a new effort to talk more open about some complex subject,” including questions like: “How should platforms approach keeping terrorists from spreading propaganda online? …How aggressively should social media companies monitor and remove controversial posts and images from their platforms? Who gets to decide what’s controversial, especially in a global community with a multitude of cultural norms? Who gets to define what’s false news — and what’s simply controversial political speech? Is social media good for democracy?” He’s asking for suggestions on what topics to address—email yours to hardquestions@fb.com.

  • The first post in the series promised by Schrage, written by Monika Bickert and Brian Fishman, inadvertently illustrates how hard Facebook’s problem is. Titled “How We Counter Terrorism,” the post explains a variety of strategies the company is employing to remove content supportive of groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda and their affiliates, and states that “we expect to expand to other terrorist organizations in due course.” But for all the references to terrorism and terrorists, Bickert and Fishman’s post never actually defines either term.

  • Related: Olivia Solon reports for The Guardian that a security lapse exposed more than 1,000 Facebook content moderators, showing their personal details to the administrators of groups they were monitoring. In at least once case, seven individuals associated with an alleged terrorist group that a moderator banned viewed his personal profile, leading him to go into hiding. Such “community moderation analysts” are typical hired by outside contractors, paid just $15 an hour despite their specialized knowledge, and required to constantly view disturbing material, since Facebook allows users to post extremely violent images as long as they don’t promote or celebrate terrorism. (Female breasts are another matter). Solon reports that moderation teams at Facebook are continually scored for their accuracy and speed of decisions, and if their score drops below 90% they get a warning. The company has launched a monthly award program to celebrate top performs, she notes. The prize: a Facebook mug.

  • To: hardquestions@fb.com From: Us Do you think you can answer any of these questions by outsourcing the work to poorly paid content moderators?

  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has posted a “request for ideas” on Twitter, looking for ways “to be helping people in the here and now — short term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” So far he’s received more than 6,000 replies.

  • As Robert Frank notes in a backgrounder on Bezos’ past philanthropy, the Amazon chief’s Twitter invitation “came after repeated question from The [NY] Times about his giving levels and lack of public information on his philanthropy.”

  • Crypto-wars, continued: The founder of the secure messaging app Telegram is alleging that while on a visit to the U.S., American intelligence agencies tried twice to bribe his developers to weaken the app’s encryption, FastCompany reports.

  • Long-read for the weekend: Don’t miss Alvin Chang’s engrossing look for Vox at how small town America is being reshaped by changing patterns of in- and out-migration, titled “Those who leave home, and those who stay.”

  • Apply: NASA is looking for more “Datanauts,” people interested in learning how to develop data science skills through access to and use of NASA’s open data.”

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