Toxic Effects

Accessibility in civic tech; giant online partisan news ecosystem takes over Facebook; and more.


  • Life inside Facebookistan: A massive new analysis by BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman, Jane Lytvynenko, Lam Thur Vo and Jeremy Singer-Vine describes the rise of “a new, huge online partisan news ecosystem that is taking over people’s timelines and creating alternate universes in which your side is always right and the other side is always wrong….Measured in Facebook engagement, website traffic, and the sheer number of outlets, partisan news is in the midst of a new golden age in the United States….These newer partisan sites and pages, which are the main focus of this report, feed partisan fear and anger and richly reward that partisan fear and anger in the form of Facebook engagement and ad revenue.”

  • The Facebook pages of Occupy Democrats and Fox News consistently outperform CNN, The New York Times and the Washington Post, BuzzFeed reports. In March of 2017, Occupy Democrats hit 36.7 million total engagements with content on its page; Fox News hit 28.3 million. The content on some sites is of good quality, but many exist primarily because the ad revenue is so lucrative. “One liberal publisher with at least two websites said she grosses between $30,000 and $50,000 per month in revenue based on pageviews of between 3 million and 5 million.”

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the launch of the “Watch tab”—a way to discover shows your friends are watching, “chat and connect with people during an episode, and join groups with people who like the same shows afterwards to build community.” In February, Zuckerberg announced that his giant company’s purpose was no longer connecting the world, but “building global community.” Watch is the first product launched since that announcement. The idea that “community” is something that forms around things that we watch, rather than things that we do together, should be deeply disturbing—assuming you are a person who still knows what a real community is and does.

  • Life inside Trump’s Twitter: Stack Overflow data scientist David Robinson has updated his study of President Trump’s tweets, using a much richer dataset. Trump doesn’t use his Android phone any more, but textual analysis allows Robinson to identify with a lot of confidence which ones are being written by him vs staff. He writes, “Trump almost never uses hashtags, pictures or links in his tweets. Thus, the percentage of tweets containing one of those features is a proxy for how much others are tweeting for him.” Trump tweets containing the words “fake” and “russian” are most likely to be retweeted, he reports.

  • Related: DidTrumpTweetIt.com, which uses Robinson’s data and machine learning to analyze current Trump tweets.

  • White House chief of staff John Kelly is facing resistance from the Little Twitler, who doesn’t want to give up the freedom to tweet whatever he feels like without Kelly’s supervision, Sarah Westwood reports for The Washington Examiner. The president “was pissed when he read Kelly wanted to control his Twitter feed,” a source told her.

  • Vox populi: Only 24% of Americans say they trust all or most of what they hear from the White House, a CNN poll has found, which media correspondent Brian Stelter says is a “sign of the national news media’s strength.”

  • On the other hand, half of all self-identified Republicans say that they would support postponing the 2020 election until the “problem” of voter fraud is solved, according to a new Washington Post poll. “A substantial number of Republicans are amenable to violations of democratic norms that are more flagrant than what is typically proposed (or studied),” write Ariel Malka and Yphtach Lelkes. (It should be noted that as Trump’s overall support declines, the number of people identifying as Republicans may be shrinking, with those remaining more likely to be hardline supporters.)

  • Lies, damn lies, and statistics: And now, in a new report by Caroline Jack of Data & Society called “Lexicon of Lies,” a very discerning guide to all the different kinds of problematic information we have to deal with, from fake news and propaganda to disinformation, misinformation, PR, gaslighting, and xuanchuan (the Chinese term for misdirection).

  • Machine is learning? Perspective, a new tool from the folks at Jigsaw, aims to use AI to help evaluate whether online comments may be perceived as “toxic” to a discussion and thus “help improve conversations online.” As Jillian York of EFF demonstrates, the tool needs a lot of work: “women are not as smart as men” was scored as 4% likely to be toxic; the word “vagina” was scored as 100% likely to be toxic.

  • This is civic tech: Our Shorenstein Fellow Angel Quicksey offers a detailed look at the issue of accessibility in civic tech and government digital services, and a guide to essential steps developers should take to address the problem.

  • A new Civic Innovation Lab has launched in Abuja, Nigeria.

  • Despite being under threat of a chilling lawsuit, or perhaps because of that reason, the news site TechDirt is expanding its free speech reporting, writes founder Mike Masnick, in partnership with the Freedom of the Press Foundation and several other groups, including Automattic, the Charles Koch Foundation, Craig Newmark’s CraigConnects and Union Square Ventures. 

  • Watch: The annual Netroots Nation conference is getting underway today in Atlanta and you can watch the keynotes here, schedule here.

  • Your moment of zen: “Humans’ underrepresentation in tech is not due to discrimination,” writes a manufacturing robot named Claw 2 at Google Factory C4.7, in a memo unearthed by Ben Kronengold and published my McSweeney’s. “Rather, it is due to biological differences. Specifically, humans have a biology.”

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