There’s nothing new about online white-supremacist terrorism

Commodore 64. Photo (cc) 2010 by Luca Boldrini.

The New York Times has an interesting long look at the history of online activism among violent white supremacists. Laura Smith traces it back to a former Ku Klux Klan “Grand Dragon” named Louis Beam, who launched a bulletin-board system for haters on his Commodore 64 back in the early 1980s. In one of his early screeds, Beam wrote:

Imagine, if you will, all the great minds of the patriotic Christian movement linked together and joined into one computer. Imagine any patriot in the country being able to call up and access these minds.

The people Beam was trying to reach could imagine it only too well. Among those who may have been influenced by such early online networking on the extreme right was the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who owned two Commodore 64s when he was in high school and may well have stumbled across Beam’s network.

And as Smith writes, the goals espoused by today’s extremely online domestic terrorists “can sound chillingly similar to those envisioned by Mr. Beam and his cohort.”

From the Department of Unintended Consequences

The Washington Post reports:

Right-wing groups on chat apps like Telegram are swelling with new members after Parler disappeared and a backlash against Facebook and Twitter, making it harder for law enforcement to track where the next attack could come from….

Trump supporters looking for communities of like-minded people will likely find Telegram to be more extreme than the Facebook groups and Twitter feeds they are used to, said Amarasingam. [Amarnath Amarasingam is described as a researcher who specializes in terrorism and extremism.]

“It’s not simply pro-Trump content, mildly complaining about election fraud. Instead, it’s openly anti-Semitic, violent, bomb making materials and so on. People coming to Telegram may be in for a surprise in that sense,” Amarasingam said.

Entirely predictable, needless to say.

Amazon’s move against Parler is worrisome in a way that Apple’s and Google’s are not

It’s one thing for Apple and Google to throw the right-wing Twitter competitor Parler out if its app stores. It’s another thing altogether for Amazon Web Services to deplatform Parler. Yet that’s what will happen by midnight today, according to BuzzFeed.

Parler deserves no sympathy, obviously. The service proudly takes even less responsibility for the garbage its members post than Twitter and Facebook do, and it was one of the places where planning for the insurrectionist riots took place. But Amazon’s actions raise some important free-speech concerns.

Think of the internet as a pyramid. Twitter and Facebook, as well as Google and Apple’s app stores, are at the top of that pyramid — they are commercial enterprises that may govern themselves as they choose. Donald Trump is far from the first person to be thrown off social networks, and Parler isn’t even remotely the first app to be punished.

But Amazon Web Services, or AWS, exists somewhere below the top of the pyramid. It is foundational; its servers are the floor upon which other things are built. AWS isn’t the bottom layer of the pyramid — it is, in its own way, a commercial enterprise. But it has a responsibility to respecting the free-speech rights of its clients that Twitter and Facebook do not.

Yet AWS has an acceptable-use policy that reads in part:

You may not use, or encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to use, the Services or AWS Site for any illegal, harmful, fraudulent, infringing or offensive use, or to transmit, store, display, distribute or otherwise make available content that is illegal, harmful, fraudulent, infringing or offensive.

For AWS to cut off Parler would be like the phone company blocking all calls from a person or organization it deems dangerous. Yet there’s little doubt that Parler violated AWS’s acceptable-use policy. Look for Parler to re-establish itself on an overseas server. Is that what we want?

Meanwhile, Paul Moriarty, a member of the New Jersey State Assembly, wants Comcast to stop carrying Fox News and Newsmax, according to CNN’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter. And CNN’s Oliver Darcy is cheering him on, writing:

Moriarty has a point. We regularly discuss what the Big Tech companies have done to poison the public conversation by providing large platforms to bad-faith actors who lie, mislead, and promote conspiracy theories. But what about TV companies that provide platforms to networks such as Newsmax, One America News — and, yes, Fox News? [Darcy’s boldface]

Again, Comcast and other cable providers are not obligated to carry any particular service. Just recently we received emails from Verizon warning that it might drop WCVB-TV (Channel 5) over a fee dispute. Several years ago, Al Jazeera America was forced to throw in the towel following its unsuccessful efforts to get widespread distribution on cable.

But the power of giant telecom companies to decide what channels will be carried and what will not is immense, and something we ought to be concerned about.

I have no solutions. But I think it’s worth pointing out that AWS’s action against Parler is considerably more ominous than Google’s and Apple’s, and that for elected officials to call on Comcast to drop certain channels is more ominous still.

We have some thinking to do as a society.

Earlier:

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Twitter solves a business problem. But in the long run, it won’t matter all that much.

A few quick thoughts on Twitter’s decision to cancel Donald Trump’s account.

I was never among those who called for Trump to be thrown off the platform. I have mixed feelings about it even now. But this is not an abridgement of the First Amendment, and I suspect it will be proven to be not that big a deal as social media fracture into various ideological camps.

First, the free-speech argument: Twitter is a private company that has always acted to remove content its executives believe is bad for business. Twitter not only isn’t the government; it’s also not a public utility like the phone company, or for that matter like the broader internet, both of which are built upon principles of free speech no matter how loathsome. As Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins, a lawyer, put it:

The not-a-big-deal argument is a little harder to make. Trump, after all, had more than 88 million Twitter followers, and it was the main way he communicated with his supporters and the broader public. But it’s a big world. He can switch to Parler, a Twitter-like application friendly to right-wingers. Yes, it’s tiny now, but how long would it stay tiny with Trump as its star?

Consider, too, the news that Apple and Google are taking steps to throw Parler off their app stores. So what? Parler could just tell its users to access the platform via the mobile web instead of through apps. This isn’t as exotic as it might sound. Twitter and Facebook members don’t have to use the apps, for instance. They can simply use their phone’s web browsers, and in some ways the experience is better.

Boston Globe columnist Hiawatha Bray writes that “even after this week’s crackdown on his inflammatory and misleading Internet postings, Trump is likely to remain an online force.” Indeed.

The reason that Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey waited so long to act — until Trump called a coup against his own government in the waning days of his presidency — is that Dorsey understands banning Trump will ultimately prove futile, and that it will endanger Twitter’s dominant role in social media by speeding up the emergence of ideologically sorted alternatives.

Dorsey solved his immediate problem. It’s likely that the worst is yet to come, but at least he’ll be able to tell his shareholders that he did the best that he could.

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We can leverage Section 230 to limit algorithmically driven disinformation

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo (cc) 2012 by JD Lasica.

Josh Bernoff responds.

How can we limit the damage that social media — and especially Facebook — are doing to democracy? We all know what the problem is. The platforms make money by keeping you logged on and engaged. And they keep you engaged by feeding you content that their algorithms have determined makes you angry and upset. How do we break that chain?

Josh Bernoff, writing in The Boston Globe, offers an idea similar to one I suggested a few months ago: leverage Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which holds digital publishers harmless for any content posted by third-party users. Under Section 230, publishers can’t be sued if a commenter libels someone, which amounts to a huge benefit not available in other contexts. For instance, a newspaper publisher is liable for every piece of content that it runs, from news articles to ads and letters to the editor — but not for comments posted on the newspaper’s website.

Bernoff suggests what strikes me as a rather convoluted system that would require Facebook (that is, if Mark Zuckerberg wants to continue benefiting from Section 230) to run ads calling attention to ideologically diverse content. Using the same algorithms that got us into trouble in the first place, Facebook would serve up conservative content to liberal users and liberal content to conservative users.

There are, I think, some problems with Bernoff’s proposal, starting with this: He writes that Facebook and the other platforms “would be required to show free ads for mainstream liberal news sources to conservatives, and ads for mainstream conservative news sites to liberals.”

But that elides dealing the reality of what has happened to political discourse over the past several decades, accelerated by the Trump era. Liberals and Democrats haven’t changed all that much. Conservatives and Republicans, on the other hand, have become deeply radical, supporting the overturning of a landslide presidential election and espousing dangerous conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Given that, what is a “mainstream conservative news site”?

Bernoff goes so far as to suggest that MSNBC and Fox News are liberal and conservative equivalents. In their prime-time programming, though, the liberal MSNBC — despite its annoyingly doctrinaire, hectoring tone — remains tethered to reality, whereas Fox’s right-wing prime-time hosts are moving ever closer to QAnon territory. The latest is Tucker Carlson’s anti-vax outburst. Who knew that he would think killing his viewers was a good business strategy?

Moving away from the fish-in-a-barrel examples of MSNBC and Fox, what about The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal? Well, the Times’ editorial pages are liberal and the Journal’s are conservative. But if we’re talking about news coverage, they’re really not all that different. So that doesn’t work, either.

I’m not sure that my alternative, which I wrote about for GBH News back in June, is workable, but it does have the advantage of being simple: eliminate Section 230 protections for any platform that uses algorithms to boost engagement. Facebook would have to comply; if it didn’t, it would be sued into oblivion in a matter of weeks or months. As I wrote at the time:

But wouldn’t this amount to heavy-handed government regulation? Not at all. In fact, loosening Section 230 protections would push us in the opposite direction, toward deregulation. After all, holding publishers responsible for libel, invasions of privacy, threats of violence and the like is the default in our legal system. Section 230 was a regulatory gift, and it turns out that we were too generous.

Unlike Bernoff’s proposal, mine wouldn’t attempt to regulate speech by identifying the news sites that are worthy of putting in front of users so that they’ll be exposed to views they disagree with. I would let it rip as long as artificial intelligence isn’t being used to boost the most harmful content.

Needless to say, Zuckerberg and his fellow Big Tech executives can be expected to fight like crazed weasels in order to keep using algorithms, which are incredibly valuable to their bottom line. Just this week The New York Times reported that Facebook temporarily tweaked its algorithms to emphasize quality news in the runup to the election and its aftermath — but it has now quietly reverted to boosting divisive slime, because that’s what keeps the ad money rolling in.

Donald Trump has been crusading against 230 during the final days of his presidency, even though he doesn’t seem to understand that he would be permanently banned from Twitter and every other platform — even Parler — if they had to worry about being held legally responsible for what he posts.

Still, that’s no reason not to do something about Section 230, which was approved in the earliest days of the commercial web and has warped digital discourse in ways we couldn’t have imagined back then. Hate speech and disinformation driven by algorithms have become the bane of our time. Why not modify 230 in order to do something about it?

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Blogging is dead. Long live blogging. Or, why the Substack hype is much ado about very little.

Same as it ever was. Photo (cc) 2006 by Sofia Gk.

Previously published at GBH News.

I have nothing against Substack.

The newsletter platform seems like a clean, simple tool aimed at helping independent writers charge subscription fees for their work.

But please spare me the hype. Substack has been the subject of recent stories by NPR, the Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Times, among others. And though most of the coverage has come with a few caveats, the impression that’s left is that Substack, at long last, has created a workable business model to support journalism at a time when COVID, Google and Facebook are destroying more traditional forms of media.

Substack, Ben Smith wrote in the Times earlier this year, holds out the promise of “reversing the dynamic of the old top-down media company and producing something more like a talent agency, where the individual journalist is the star and the boss, and the editor is merely on call.” Now where have we heard that before?

With celebrity journalists such as Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Iglesias giving up their institutional gigs and going it alone, Substack has emerged as the hot new media thing of 2021, even though it’s not new and it’s unlikely to pay off for more than a few writers who had a substantial audience even before they switched to Substack.

“The Substack model works really well for some people who already have prestige and a following,” New York University journalism professor Meredith Broussard told NPR. “And it doesn’t work that well for everybody else.”

Back when I was a graduate student in the 1980s, I remember coming across an aphorism that there are two schools of thought about the unfolding of history. The first is that it’s one damn thing after another. The second is that it’s the same damn thing over and over.

Substack is clearly an example of the second. Because what is the newsletter model if it’s not blogging revisited? Remember blogs? I’ve been writing one since 2002. I also teach a workshop on “Blogging for Journalists” once or twice a year at the Harvard Kennedy School. Over the years, my message has morphed from “this is a cool new thing” to “everyone is doing it, so you should too” to “blogging may be dead, but it’s still got a lot of value.”

I guess my revised message should be “blogging is alive and well, except now we call it Substack.” After all, you can subscribe to my blog and get an email every time I post — so it’s a newsletter, right? And Substack archives your past newsletters in an attractive list kept in reverse-chronological order — so it’s a blog, right? Does this sound like a revolution to you?

There is one important difference: Substack has better, more flexible tools for payment than blogging ever had. We could put out a virtual tip jar back in the day (I never did) or run ads (I experimented with them but decided they weren’’t worth the bother). For the most part, though, charging subscription fees for access to a blog is difficult, and very few bloggers tried it. Substack makes it simple and, as the coverage enthusiastically notes, a small number of writers at the top of the heap are earning six-figure incomes. That’s pretty impressive.

At the same time, though, the paid-subscription model itself may be heading for the bubble-bursting stratosphere sometime in 2021. National news organizations have returned to something like financial health through reader revenue, which is no small accomplishment after years of wondering if The New York Times would survive. But how many news subscriptions are readers going to pay for? My guess: one or two digital newspapers; a magazine or two; and that’s just about it. Writers charging $6 a month on Substack are going to be frozen out — again, except for the celebrities.

“If Substack is successful, it will remind news consumers that paying for good journalism is worth it,” wrote the University of Maine’s Michael Socolow for The Conversation. “But if Substack’s pricing precludes widespread distribution of its news and commentary, its value as a public service won’t be fully realized.”

Moreover, there are some problems with Substack that sound exactly like the laments you used to hear from bloggers.

For instance, when Andrew Sullivan gave up his blog a few years ago and went to work for New York magazine, he said the grind had gotten to be too much. This past summer, when he announced he was leaving the magazine for Substack, he was still whining about the workload.

“Since I closed down the Dish, my bloggy website, five years ago, after 15 years of daily blogging,” he wrote, “I have not missed the insane work hours that all but broke my health.”

Somehow Sullivan has convinced himself that things will be different at Substack. Maybe he should have checked in with Patrice Peck, a journalist who publishes a Substack newsletter in relative obscurity called Coronavirus News for Black Folks. According to an article by Clio Chang in the Columbia Journalism Review, Peck has discovered that overwork and burnout are just as real for newsletter writers as they are for bloggers. (And why would we think otherwise?)

“I’m creating graphics on Instagram to promote it, tweeting it, doing everything,” Peck told Chang. “It’s a one-woman show. That gets exhausting. I don’t put it out as frequently as I’d like to.”

As for Substack’s corporate priorities, well, look out below. Chang noted that Substack is funded in large measure through $15.3 million in venture capital that it received in 2018. Among other things, the money has enabled Substack to recruit well-known writers. But at some point the investors will insist on their payday, as they always do. That’s when Substack writers will realize they’re not working on their own but are, rather, cogs in someone else’s machine.

After the initial excitement of the early to mid-2000s, blogging settled into a valuable but small niche in the digital media world. Some of us are still at it. Many others moved on.

The same is likely to be true of Substack as well. Because Substack isn’t merely similar to blogging. It is blogging, and it’s amazing that so many think that it’s new and different. Like Blogspot, WordPress, Medium (an earlier cautionary tale for journalists) and others, Substack will take its place as just another platform for self-publishing — better than some, but evolutionary, not revolutionary.

And the hard work of finding ways to pay for journalism in the digital age will continue.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

How Google and Facebook destroyed the value of digital advertising

To what extent have Google and Facebook destroyed the digital ad model for news organizations? I came across a telling data point the other day from Josh Marshall, the editor and founder of Talking Points Memo, a liberal political site that’s one of the oldest outposts on the web. In an email to subscribers explaining why he’s raising rates, Marshall wrote:

The high watermark of advertising revenue for TPM was in 2014. That year we had a little over $2.5 million in ad revenue and $165,000 in membership revenue. In 2020, we’re on pace for $538,000 in ad revenue and $2.1 million in membership revenue.

What Marshall describes is a successful business venture that has boosted reader revenue by a factor of 13 over the past six years — but that at the same time has seen its ad income plummet to about a fifth of what it was.

Google’s auction system has destroyed the value of digital ads. Meanwhile, more than 90% of all new spending on digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook, which works out nicely for them because of sheer volume and the fact that most of their operations are automated.

It’s great for TPM that it’s been able to induce so many readers to pay. But with more and more publishers asking for subscription money (including all those individual journalists who’ve decamped for Substack), the ceiling is going to be hit fairly soon.

We need a way to bring digital advertising back for news publishers.

Correction: Post updated to fix several math errors.

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In 2016, moving comments to Facebook seemed like a great idea. Now it’s a problem.

A little more than four years after turning off comments and directing everyone to Facebook, I’ve turned them back on. The move comes at a time when we’re all questioning our dependence on Facebook given the social-media giant’s role in spreading disinformation and subverting democracy across the world.

I will continue to post links on Facebook, and readers will be able to comment either there or here. But if you’d like to reduce your own use of the platform, I urge you to sign up for email delivery of Media Nation (click on “Follow This Blog” in the right-hand rail) and post your comments here. Your real name, first and last, is required.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

 

Facebook News may be a boon to big media. But will local news get left behind?

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo (cc) 2012 by JD Lasica.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Imagine for a moment that you run a small community newspaper or website. You have a Facebook page. But people tell you that even though they’ve “liked” it, they almost never see content from your page show up in their News Feed. And thus one of the most important channels for distributing journalism in the social-media era isn’t working for you.

According to some estimates, “organic reach” — that is, the percentage of users who’ve liked your page and who actually see your content — can be as low as 2 percent. What can you do? Well, you can give Mark Zuckerberg access to your credit card, which will boost your reach considerably. But if you can’t afford to pay, you’d be better off handing out refrigerator magnets with your website’s URL on them than depending on Facebook.

Now imagine that you’re the publisher of a major national news organization like The New York Times, The Washington Post or BuzzFeed. The Zuckerborg is about to bestow upon you millions of dollars. That’s because you’ve agreed to be part of Facebook News, a new tab in the service’s mobile app for curated, reliable journalism. (The feature is being rolled out slowly, and I have not seen it yet.)

There are many reasons to be skeptical of Facebook’s latest foray into news, but surely one of the most important is this: At a time when local news is under unprecedented economic pressure, the News Tab will only widen the gap between relatively well-off, highly visible national news organizations and small local projects. The national sites will get paid; the local sites will be billed monthly.

It’s possible that this could change over time. According to Facebook’s announcement. “we’ll showcase local original reporting by surfacing local publications from the largest major metro areas across the country, beginning with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington DC, Miami, Atlanta and Boston. In the coming months, we’ll include local news from Today In, our local news and community information tab, which recently expanded to over 6,000 US towns and cities.”

So, at least at first, it sounds like large regional news organizations will be included. But it’s not clear how or if any of that money will ever trickle down to the laid-off community-news reporter who’s trying to start a hyperlocal site, or to the volunteers who provide coverage that their chain-owned weekly ignores.

There are other potential hazards as well. Let’s start with the conflicts of interest posed by news organizations choosing to do business with our most controversial tech company.

“Payments to publishers for stories that Facebook might otherwise aggregate for free is a boon for journalism,” wrote Emily Bell at the Columbia Journalism Review. “The idea that there will be a daily, regular newsfeed that’s not filled with nonsense is a boon for Facebook users. The delineation of news as a category distinct from other ‘content’ is a boon for democracy. Yet the readiness with which publishers are seemingly embracing this new business arrangement is discomfiting, given Facebook’s track record, and the total lack of regulation. Will News Corp. [parent company of The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both part of the News Tab] and others disclose their relationship with Facebook when they cover the tech world? One can only hope so.”

Another problem is the very odd presence of Breitbart News as part of the News Tab. It’s one thing to want to include a conservative-leaning news organization; it’s quite another to add weaponized propaganda to a list that is supposed to be comprise factual, verified journalism. More than anything, the inclusion of Breitbart appears to be part of Zuckerberg’s continued efforts to suck up to right-wing critics who accuse Facebook and other social-media platforms of liberal bias.

Finally, there is the question of whether Facebook this time will stick with its newfound embrace of news. Over the years the company has alternately accepted its role as a platform for journalism and walked away from it. About a decade ago, it unveiled a program called the Social Reader, inviting news organizations to use it and set up shop inside Facebook. The Washington Post and The Guardian, in particular, had considerable success with it. And then Zuckerberg changed his mind.

David Beard, a veteran journalist who was working on social-media strategies for the Post at that time, told me in a 2015 interview that he began developing email newsletters for the paper in direct response to the Social Reader fiasco. “For a while, we had tons of readers in India and the Philippines and some other places,” he said. “And then Facebook changed the algorithm, and we suddenly had none. So my learning from that episode was, is there something we can do without a mercenary, where we own the machinery?”

Now, once again, news organizations are relying on Mark Zuckerberg’s machinery. Will it be different this time? I hope so. Zuckerberg is under fire from all directions these days. He may sincerely hope that leading people away from disinformation and toward real news will not only ease the pressure on him and his company, but will be good for democracy as well.

But few things are more vital for fixing democracy than bolstering local news. At the very least, Facebook News is off to an unacceptably slow start at the local level. If that doesn’t change, then Zuckerberg’s latest idea may wind up being just one more example of a promise unfulfilled.

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How Apple News Plus saddles publishers with the worst of Facebook and Spotify

Apple News Plus presents publishers with both a Facebook problem and a Spotify problem.

Like Facebook, news content would be disaggregated and mashed up with whatever Apple decides to put in front of its subscribers. Like Spotify, subscription fees would be split so many ways that no single publisher could make much money, especially compared to what it theoretically might be able to pull in from its own digital subscription efforts.

I expand on both of those thoughts in this interview with News@Northeastern.

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