Objectionable

A mapathon for Puerto Rico; why Mark Zuckerberg should have finished college; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Alice Yin reports for The New York Times on a mapathon that took place Friday at Columbia University, where volunteers working with OpenStreetMap worked to fill in the building-by-building details of devastation and need in Puerto Rico.

  • Say hello to Oversight.gov, a new website that has collected all the federal inspector general reports in one place.

  • Say hello to MobilityScore, a new tool from TransitScreen, that rates cities and looks at four modest of transportation—public transit, car share, ride-hailing and bike-sharing—to determine how easy it is to get around.

  • Here’s a simple four-slide deck from GovTrack.us Josh Tauberer on how to be helpful if you want to start your own civic tech project.

  • Life in Facebookistan: The 3,000 political ads bought on Facebook by accounts linked to Russia were seen by an estimated 10 million people, Elliot Schrage, the company’s vice president of policy and communications, disclosed late yesterday. Many of them, he admitted, “did not violate our content policies.”

  • One of the Russian-bought ads showed pictures of an armed black woman firing a rifle, Adam Entous, Craig Timberg and Elizabeth Dwoskin report for The Washington Post. “Investigators believe the advertisement may have been designed to encourage African American militancy and, at the same time, to stoke fears within white communities,” they write.

  • “These are the same methods and sophisticated tools that the pharmaceutical companies were using, that big oil companies were using,” Philip N. Howard of Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project told the Post. “This was regular ad technology that regular advertisers use.”

  • Side comment: Philip Howard is right, and the Washington Post’s headline writers and reporters are wrong. “Russians took a page from corporate America by using Facebook tool to ID and influence voters” is a ridiculous headline that only someone unversed in Facebook’s ad tech could write. “The revelation about the use of Facebook’s Custom Audiences tool, which has not been previously reported, adds to an emerging picture of a Russian effort to shape the U.S. election and sow division using tools built by American technology companies,” write Elizabeth Dwoskin, Craig Timberg and Adam Entous. Well, duh, anyone who builds an ad campaign on Facebook’s ad manager is immediately offered the use of Custom Audiences to target specific users.

  • One thing that is constantly elided whenever Facebook officials discuss how the company handles speech on their platform: the difference between paid speech and free speech. As noted above, Facebook VP Elliot Schrage writes that because Facebook has become “an increasingly important and widespread platform for political and social expression, we at Facebook…must also take seriously the crucial place that free political speech occupies around the world in protecting democracy and the rights of those who are in the minority, who are oppressed or who have views that are not held by the majority or those in power. Even when we have taken all steps to control abuse, there will be political and social content that will appear on our platform that people will find objectionable, and that we will find objectionable.” He says this while defending making money from paid speech (ads) which is different from allowing free speech by users; to my knowledge Facebook has never offered groups fighting for democracy or minority groups subsidies to ensure that their speech reaches more people. The bottom line is the bottom line; if the fabulously rich company wanted to, it could hire hundreds of thousands of people to help moderate content more carefully, but that would mean seeing its stock price drop.

  • Max Read has a great name for a writer, given the length of his piece on Facebook in New York magazine. Buried in the essay are a few nuggets that push the story forward. My favorite: Media theorist Tim Wu, comparing Facebook to the highly regulated TV media giants of the 1950s. He notes, “Facebook has the same kind of attentional power, but there is not a sense of responsibility. No constraints. No regulation. No oversight. Nothing. A bunch of algorithms, basically, designed to give people what they want to hear.”

  • Shorter and better: Virginia Heffernan in Wired on the same topic. Bonus quote from Siva Vaidhyanathan, who will have a new book on Facebook out next year. He says Mark Zuckerberg should have finished his education. ““He lacks an appreciation for nuance, complexity, contingency, or even difficulty. He lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

  • Over at the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims joins the chorus of Facebook critics, writing, “What the company’s leaders seem unable to reckon with is that its troubles are inherent in the design of its flagship social network, which prioritizes thrilling posts and ads over dull ones, and rewards cunning provocateurs over hapless users. No tweak to algorithms or processes can hope to fix a problem that seems enmeshed in the very fabric of Facebook.”

  • In the rush of attention after Sunday night’s shooting in Las Vegas, Google and Facebook both allowed bad information to get wide distribution on their news platforms, Alexis Madrigal reports for The Atlantic. Newspapers, he notes, do not post unverified rumors from readers known to perpetuate hoaxes, but in Google’s case nonsense from 4chan made it into its “top stories” section while on Facebook’s “trending stories” section included stories from Russian propaganda site Sputnik.

  • More on the same from Kevin Roose in The New York Times.

  • In other news, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jeremy Malcolm reviews all the ways the Spanish government clamped down online during the referendum on Catalonian independence, starting with seizing the referendum.cat domain, the official referendum website.