Free Reach

Lots happening in the world of social media platforms, information disorder, and the Senate Intelligence Committee


  • This is civic tech: A big welcome to the Integrated Benefits Initiative, a collaboration of Code for America, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Nava Public Benefit Corporation, who are working with five states—Michigan, Colorado, Alaska, Louisiana and Vermont— to pilot faster, more effective and less expensive ways for people to access critical government services including SNAP benefits and Medicaid.

  • Congrats to Code for America and its Brigade program, which is getting a just-announced $2 million two-year boost from the Knight Foundation.

  • UX designer Eric Liu offers some dos and donts of mobile service design with a case study on an Ottawa volunteer group that is building a prototype for reporting local civic issues called Snap311.

  • Kelsey Foster reports for Code for All on the development of a vote monitoring app, Monitorizare Vot, in Romania. She notes that Code for Poland is looking into implementing the app to assist with monitoring of upcoming local elections in Warsaw.

  • In MIT Technology Review, Chris Horton offers a sympathetic but critical take on the deliberative democracy process known as vTaiwan, which he says has yet to take Taiwanese politics by storm.

  • California has joined the states passing net neutrality laws seeking to stand in for the FCC’s discarded rules, Karl Bode reports for The Verge.

  • Meet AmritaKripa, a mobile app that works in Malayam and English to help survivors of the recent massive floods in Kerala, India.

  • Apply: Germany’s Prototype Fund is looking for its next round of open source projects to support.

  • Attend: Personal Democracy Forum Ukraine, which will be taking place in Kharkiv in mid-October, is now accepting applications for travel grants.

  • Life in Facebookistan: With Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee tomorrow (plus Dorsey alone before the House Commerce Committee later in the day), here’s a burst of new stories about the challenges these social media platforms are facing dealing with information disorder.

  • Despite Facebook’s community guidelines, private groups devoted to disinformation and hate speech (on everything from white nationalism to anti-vaccination conspiracy mongering) continue to thrive on the platform, Kevin Roose reports for The New York Times. Despite Facebook’s crackdown on Alex Jones, for example, a private Infowars Facebook group with more than 110,000 members is alive and kicking.

  • In Libya, Facebook has acted as an accelerant for the civil war underway there, Declan Walsh and Suliman Ali Zway report for The New York Times.

  • Facebook’s head of civic engagement, Samidh Chakrabarti, who is leading company-wide efforts to upgrade the company’s efforts to battle information disorder around elections, tells NBC News’ Jo Ling Kent that in a recent six month period the company “detected, blocked and removed over a billion fake accounts before they could do anything like spread fake news or misinformation.” That means on an annual basis, there are nearly as many fake accounts started on Facebook as there are actual users.

  • Twitter has moved slowly and inconsistently in responding to hate speech on the platform, The Wall Street Journal’s Georgia Wells and Kirsten Grind report. (This is news?) What’s important about their story is how they show CEO Dorsey sometimes overruling the decisions of his trust and safety team in cases like that of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer. Wells and Grind also report that “In the coming weeks, the company plans to start showing users a picture of a tombstone in the place of a tweet that has been taken down as a way to signal that a user has violated a company policy, rather than a notice saying the tweet is unavailable.”

  • House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is leading the push by conservatives who believe Twitter is biased against them, the Hill’s Melanie Zanona reports.

  • Fox News host Laura Ingraham suggests it may be time for the government to take over Facebook and Twitter and run them as public utilities.

  • In Wired, the always smart Renee Diresta explains the difference between “free speech” and “free reach” and argues that in a world awash in information, content-prioritizing algorithms are essential—but they have to be more transparent so everyone can understand how they work, making it harder for “bad-faith politicking” to gain traction.

  • Speaking of conservatives and Twitter, Republican tech strategist Patrick Ruffini decided to use Twitter’s muting tools to block out all mentions of President Trump from his feed, and despite his worry that he might miss something important, three weeks into his experiment he says he “can happily report” that “Muting Trump news is the best thing you can possibly do to take back your news consumption and create a healthier Twitter experience for yourself.”

  • Volunteer moderators on Reddit pages often suffer from racist and sexist abuse, Benjamin Plackett reports for Engadget. While Reddit is now the sixth most popular website in the world, none of its thousands of subreddit moderators get paid, and the site has only about 50 paid admins with the ability to ban abusive site users.

  • If there’s a common thread to all the stories about the toxic culture of social media today, it’s this: the bros who built these sites and the VCs who invested in and rewarded them cared first and foremost about reaching massive scale at the lowest cost. So allowing maximum levels of “free speech” without regard for the impact of anonymous or hateful speech on users was the norm, rewarded with billions for founders and millions in stock options for employees.

  • Media matters: Chuck Todd, the political director of NBC News and moderator of Meet the Press, has some astounding (for him) things to say in the Atlantic about mainstream journalism’s failure to defend itself against forces seeking to demolish Americans’ trust in factual reporting. And friends in civic tech, without a commonly shared basis in facts, much of our work will be for naught.

  • Meet Liker, a Facebook-alternative launched by the founder of Occupy Democrats, and as Will Sommer reports for The Daily Beast, a “hive for false claims about Trump.”

  • Palantir CEO Alex Karp tells Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York times why he thinks it’s important for Silicon Valley companies should keep working with the Pentagon and national security agencies. Fears that their tools will be abused are unfounded, he says: “America is a complicated modern democracy with numerous checks and balances so that no one person has the ability to do insane things,” adding that with government work, “you’re buying into the inherent fabric and structure of the country.”

  • End times: The “Naked 3-D home body scanner” will give you highly accurate measurements of you in the altogether, as Joanna Stern reports for the Wall Street Journal. Any bets on how long it gets a product placement on this show?