Shifting the Balance

How Russian troll accounts continue to shape online discourse; why blockchain currencies need so much energy; and more.


  • According to the research site Countlove.com, which scrapes news sites for reports of protests, in at least 105 cities across America, a thousand or more people turned out for a Women’s March this past weekend. Half a million came out in Los Angeles, roughly one of eight residents. As Matthew Yglesias of Vox noted, this is “the largest sustained mobilizations the country’s seen in decades,” and yet there’s been almost no coverage of how organizers have managed to create this juggernaut. Unfortunately, the mainstream media doesn’t (know how to) cover organizing.

  • The always-perceptive Henry Farrell has a big piece in Foreign Policy looking past the issues raised by Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 election, arguing that policymakers have to “start thinking about strengthening the system of democracy itself.” Along the way, he also shows how Facebook and Twitter’s refusal to explain how their systems actually work has made it harder for us to understand how much (or little) their systems were actually compromised by fake accounts—leading many Americans to further distrust everything they disagree with online.

  • Speaking of the threats to democracy in America, Twitter is emailing the 677,775 people in the United States that it says followed, liked, or retweeted an account that is has identified as a Russian troll connected to the Internet Research Agency. So far the company has identified more than 50,000 Russian linked accounts overall.

  • Related: A new academic study of political conversation on Twitter in 2016 finds a substantial proportion of both right- and left-leaning accounts were actually “paid trolls sitting side by side somewhere in St. Petersburg hate-quoting each other’s troll account, helping to shape divisive attitudes in the U.S. among actual Americans who think of the other side as a caricature of itself,” as Kate Starbird, one of the study’s authors, put it. The study specifically looked at nearly 3,000 accounts identified by Twitter as Russian trolls, and focused on how they participated in the conversations around the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter.

  • Over the weekend, the hashtag #SchumerShutdown became the top trending hashtag promoted by Russian bots monitored by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, #ReleasetheMemo, another hashtag that is associated with the claim that a secret memo written by Republican congressional officials proves bias in the Mueller investigation, was the second-highest.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Company founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he’s “asked our product teams to make sure we prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local.” As usual, he’s refusing to admit that Facebook has editorial power and responsibilities, and thus have the company spend what it would take to pay humans to make those judgments, and instead says it will ask users whether they are familiar with and trust particular sources, and use that data to adjust the News Feed algorithm accordingly. “This update will not change the amount of news you see on Facebook, he writes. “It will only shift the balance of news you see towards sources that are determined to be trusted by the community.”

  • What is this mysterious “community,” you may ask? Scan this accompanying statement from Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s head of News Feed, and you will never see a definition of the term, even though he uses four times in less than 500 words.

  • “When Facebook first came to Cambodia, many hoped it would help to usher in a new period of free speech, amplifying voices that countered the narrative of the government-friendly traditional press. Instead, the opposite has happened,” Megha Rajagopalan reports for BuzzFeed. “Prime Minister Hun Sen is now using the platform to promote his message while jailing his critics, and his staff is doing its best to exploit Facebook’s own rules to shut down criticism—all through a direct relationship with the company’s staff.”

  • Future, forward: Don’t miss Steven Johnson’s long feature on the potential of blockchain tech in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. IMHO, he does a great job explaining what has gone wrong with the once-open web, but doesn’t quite prove that blockchain is the solution. Along the way, though, he points to some intriguing experiments in blockchain-based payment systems that may not replace state-fiat currencies but could usefully supplement them.

  • Here’s a good explainer on why mining Bitcoin and other blockchain-based currencies uses so much energy, from Nathaniel Popper in The New York Times.

  • This is civic tech: Former government technologists Hana Schank and Sara Hudson, now both at New America, explain in the Washington Post how and why tech fails so often in government.

  • Here’s an updated 2018 version of Microsoft Chicago’s guide to civic tech in the Windy City.