What A Week

How Facebook fanned the flame of anti-Rohingya sentiments in Myanmar; the worst tweeter in politics; and more.


  • While we wait to hear the first news of the Mueller investigation’s reported indictments related to the Trump administration, ponder Vox writer David Roberts meditation on whether it is still possible for objective information to tip the partisan divide in America.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Remember Facebook’s Free Basics program, the project originally touted by CEO Mark Zuckerberg as Facebook Zero and Internet.org? As Kevin Roose writes for The New York Times, “the rise in genocidal anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar coincided with a huge boom in social media use that was partly attributable to Facebook itself.” It turns out that when you make communications really cheap AND design a platform whose algorithm accentuates emotional engagement AND fail to educate the public that everything you read on the Internet isn’t true, you inflame social tensions. Similar problems are on the rise in places like the Sudan, India and Malaysia. Roose notes in Myanmar that Facebook has partnered with local organizations to distribute printed copies of its community standards, but otherwise has not made responding to events in Myanmar a priority.

  • Representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google will be appearing before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism on Tuesday, and the Senate and House intelligence committees on Wednesday. Lawmakers are pushing for more details about “organic content” on Facebook and Twitter, including the spreading of misinformation via fake, automated and hijacked user accounts Steven Overly, Li Zhou and Josh Meyer report for Politico. Facebook removed more than 30,000 such accounts during the recent French election, but so far has only disclosed identifying 470 Russian-linked ones affecting the US election.

  • Facebook is running focus group sessions filled with PR professionals and DC insiders to help it figure out how best to respond to the Russia ad controversy, Julie Bykowicz reports in The Wall Street Journal. “Proposed messaging strategies appeared to highlight the company’s desire to fix any problems on its own rather than through regulation,” she reports. “Among the test messages were ‘we’re not a news organization’ and ‘we can combat the problems with automated buys with other automated tools.’”

  • Tech and politics: In yet another example of garbage in, bias out, Andrew Thompson reports for Motherboard that Google’s sentiment analysis tool thinks the word Christian in a sentence is positive, while the words Jew or gay are negative. Google says it is working to fix the problem.

  • Nudging people with text messages, whether they’ve opted to receive them or not, works better than email for getting people out to vote, according to studies run by Vote.org in 2016, its COO Raven Brooks writes for Campaigns & Elections magazine.

  • A tweet with more replies than retweets or likes is probably a bad tweet, because people who respond with a reply are usually attacking the original post. And from that kernel of insight, Oliver Roeder, Dhrumil Mehta and Gus Wezerek of FiveThirtyEight.com offer an elaborate analysis of who is the “worst tweeter in politics.” A clue: It’s not Donald Trump.

  • Following a late-night tirade against CNN’s Don Lemon, Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone has been permanently banned from Twitter, Slate’s Will Oremus reports.

  • Media historian Tim Wu argues in a New York Times op-ed that in the interest of protecting American politics, “new rules should bar social media companies from accepting money for political advertising by foreign governments or their agents. And more aggressive anti-bot laws are needed to fight impersonation of humans for propaganda purposes.”

  • Mark Halperin has apologized, sort of, for years of abusing his power over women, and this reply from Kate Harding, the co-editor of Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance and Revolution in Trump’s America, is one for the ages.

  • As Ezra Levin points out in Vox, for decades men like Halperin and Leon Wieseltier shaped political and cultural attitudes in America from their perches at the heights of the media, and its no coincidence that the US has never elected a woman president and less than one in five Senators are female.

  • Tech companies are trying to sell police agencies all kinds of high-tech surveillance tools, Jay Stanley reports for the ACLU. Attending the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia, he saw a lot of body cameras, audio gunshot detectors, facial detection systems and promises of “full situational awareness.”

  • This is civic tech: The good folks at the UK’s Government Digital Service have written a year-by-year history of how it came to be (h/t Tom Steinberg).

  • In case you missed it, here’s the FutureShift discussion between me and Malka Older, the author of the terrific science fiction novel Infomocracy. 

  • Attend: This Thursday at 6pm, Civic Hall is kicking off a series of book talks on Tech and Power, starting with Zeynep Tufekci, the author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. RSVP here. (Tickets are $10; members can attend free.)