A Washington Post reporter is suspended after his sexist retweet blows up

Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2022 by the World Economic Forum.

The use and misuse of social media platforms — especially Twitter — continue to torment newsrooms. The latest news organization to have a mess on its hands is The Washington Post, which is no stranger to past Twitter controversies.

Let’s start at the end: political reporter David Weigel was suspended for a month without pay after retweeting a horrendously sexist joke for which he had already apologized. The joke — and yes, God Almighty, Weigel should have known better: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has a good overview of the entire controversy, which included pointed criticism of Weigel by a fellow Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez (on Twitter, naturally) and criticism of Sonmez by reporter Jose Del Real, who was upset that Sonmez had unleashed the Twitter mob on Weigel.

Post executive editor Sally Buzbee weighed in on Sunday, writing an internal memo calling on Post journalists “to treat each other with respect and kindness both in the newsroom and online.” That might have been the end of it, but obviously Buzbee thought she needed to make a statement about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

We are all tempted to push the envelope on Twitter to get attention, measured by like and retweets. But at this late date, you’d think a reporter for a respected news organization would have figured it out. We don’t always know where the lines are, but it was pretty obvious in this case.

Twitter has its uses in journalism — mainly to follow people and organizations who are useful for your beat. If you read 10 times more frequently than you post, you’re probably doing it right. I’d say that journalists ought to restrict their Twitter activities to posting links to their work and that of their news organization; sharing other work they think is worthwhile; and engaging in light banter, because we’re all human. But if light banter is what Weigel thought he was doing, maybe he needs to take a long, long break from Twitter.

Weigel, by the way, lost an earlier gig at the Post back in 2010 after it was revealed that he’d been disparaging conservatives on a private forum called Journolist. And Sonmez was suspended after she took to Twitter in the immediate aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death to remind everyone of his past sexual assaults.

As they say: Never tweet.

The Buffalo horror raises thorny issues about hate speech and the media

Image via Today’s Front Pages at FreedomForum.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this post identified 4chan’s hosting service. In fact, it was a porn site that uses the name 4chan but is otherwise unrelated.

Our thoughts at this time need to be with the Black community of Buffalo — and everywhere — as we process the horror of one of the worst mass murders of recent years. We need to do something substantive about guns, racism and white supremacy. What actually happened, and what we can do to prevent such horrific events from happening again, must be at the top of our agenda.

This blog, though, is primarily about the media and often about free speech. So let me address some of the secondary issues. The shootings intersect with notions of hate speech, social media and the role of Fox News in mainstreaming dangerous racist ideologies such as so-called replacement theory, which holds that the left is trying to push out white people in favor of non-white immigrants in order to obtain an electoral advantage.

First, keep in mind that hate speech is legal. The New York Times today says this about New York Gov. Kathy Hochul:

When pressed on how she planned to confront such hate speech online, without impinging on First Amendment rights, Ms. Hochul noted that “hate speech is not protected” and said she would soon be calling meetings with social media companies.

Hochul is wrong, and the Times shouldn’t have used “noted,” which implies that she knows what she’s talking about. If hate speech were illegal, Tucker Carlson would have been kicked off Fox long ago.

What’s illegal is incitement to violence, and you might think whipping up racist hatred would qualify. In fact, it does not — and the very Supreme Court case that made that clear was about a speaker at a rally who whipped up racist hatred. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) held that a ranting Ku Klux Klan thug demanding “revengeance” against Jews and Black people had not engaged in incitement because his threats were non-specific.

Hochul can cajole and threaten. And she should. But it’s going to be difficult to do much more than that.

As for the media themselves, that’s a morass, and it’s too early to start sorting this out. But the shooter reportedly fell down the 4chan hole during the pandemic, immersing himself in the racism and hate that permeate the dark corners of the internet. There are a lot of moving parts here, but it seems unlikely that a young mass murder-in-the-making was sitting around watching Fox, even if some of his rants paralleled Carlson’s rhetoric. Fox’s role is to mainstream such hatred for its frightened, elderly viewers. The radicalization itself happens elsewhere.

So, are we going to ban 4chan? How would that even work? If the government tried to shut them down, they could just go somewhere else. I’m sure Vladimir Putin would be happy to play host.

4chan represents the bottom of this toxic food chain; Fox News is at the top. In the middle are the mainstream social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Twitch (which allowed the shooter to livestream his rampage for nearly two minutes before taking it down) and the like. It’s too early to say what, if anything, will happen on that front. But it’s probably not a good time to be a billionaire who wants to buy Twitter so that there will be less moderation on the platform than there is currently.

As it turns out, that billionaire, Elon Musk, may be backing away.

Looking back at the early promise of Twitter with Andy Carvin and the Arab Spring

With Twitter apparently on the verge of falling into the hands of billionaire troll Elon Musk (or maybe not), I thought back to a time when we thought it could be used as a force for good. More specifically, I thought back to a story broadcast on the “PBS NewsHour” 11 years ago (above) in which Andy Carvin, then with NPR, talked about how he was using it to track the Arab Spring uprisings that engulfed Tunisia and, later, Egypt and beyond.

This is a great story, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch it. I used to show it to my students as a demonstration of how Twitter could be used to track news in real time. If I showed it to them now, it would be as a historical artifact.

Carvin began with about a half dozen people in the Middle East who he was already following on Twitter — what interviewer Hari Sreenivasan called Carvin’s “first ring of trust.” From there, Carvin looked at who those people were following. He’d engage in private conversations via DM to add to his circle, building a “mental map” and explaining: “It doesn’t mean that they’re all reliable. It does mean that they’re all talking to each other.”

Carvin also discussed his methods, some of which I would not recommend today given the toxic cesspool that Twitter has become. “I see my Twitter feed as an open newsgathering operation,” he said, explaining he would often retweet items with comments such as “Source?” or “Verified?”

In one such instance, he said he retweeted a sign being held by protesters in Iran that showed three prominent politicians photoshopped to make it appear they were about to be hanged. He was able to verify that the sign was real. Today, given that Twitter has long since grown beyond a small conversation among a fairly sophisticated community, that sort of activity would be called out for promoting misinformation and probably removed by Twitter. (But maybe not after Musk takes over.)

Carvin talked about what was then the surreal experience, now fairly common, of watching live coverage of the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square while using Twitter to follow people on the ground. “You don’t necessarily get complete situational awareness,” he said. “But you get a pretty close proximity to it.” Just a few years later, in 2014, many of us followed the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter as protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown — protests that television didn’t catch up with for many hours.

Carvin also discussed the overwhelming nature of social media, saying he would check tweets on his phone while making dinner, lay off while eating with his family and reading to his kids, and then go back to TweetDeck until nearly midnight to keep up with the latest. Of course, Carvin was a journalist covering vitally important live events, and his routine was certainly less exhausting than being a reporter on the scene. If you leave that aside, though, it speaks to the difficulty we’ve all had of achieving any sort of work-life balance in the age of always-on digital technology.

“I don’t know how to juggle all this,” he said. “I’m kind of hoping that others will be able to come in and do similar things. I probably will reach some saturation point at some point. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting pretty close.”

Twitter remains a valuable tool for journalists, but it’s fallen far short of its initial promise. It’s hard to see how Musk is going to make it better. Even after reaching a deal to buy the platform, he was attacking top executives at Twitter, unleashing his army of trolls. It has not been a good week — or, as the Carvin video reminds us — a good decade for any of us who are interested in preserving some sliver of civil online discourse.

Twitter was right to ban MTG — but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s going to matter

Marjorie Taylor Greene. Photo (cc) 2021 by Gage Skidmore.

If I were in charge of Twitter, I would have banned Marjorie Taylor Greene, too. But let’s not kid ourselves. This was a business decision, aimed at protecting Twitter’s brand and keeping its customers satisfied. Greene’s reach will hardly be affected (her official congressional Twitter account is still online), and her fans will simply write off her punishment as further evidence that Twitter is part of the liberal elite’s global conspiracy or whatever.

Meanwhile, Joe Rogan and other right-wingers are moving to GETTR, the latest Trump-friendly Twitter alternative. And our cultural disintegration continues apace.

Researchers dig up embarrassing data about Facebook — and lose access to their accounts

Photo (cc) 2011 by thierry ehrmann

Previously published at GBH News.

For researchers, Facebook is something of a black box. It’s hard to know what its 2.8 billion active users across the globe are seeing at any given time because the social media giant keeps most of its data to itself. If some users are seeing ads aimed at “Jew haters,” or Russian-generated memes comparing Hillary Clinton to Satan, well, so be it. Mark Zuckerberg has his strategy down cold: apologize when exposed, then move on to the next appalling scheme.

Some data scientists, though, have managed to pierce the darkness. Among them are Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy of New York University’s Center for Cybersecurity. With a tool called Ad Observer, which volunteers add to their browsers, they were able to track ads that Facebook users were being exposed to and draw some conclusions. For instance, they learned that users are more likely to engage with extreme falsehoods than with truthful material, and that more than 100,000 political ads are missing from an archive Facebook set up for researchers.

As you would expect, Facebook executives took these findings seriously. So what did they do? Did they change the algorithm to make it more likely that users would see reliable information in their news feed? Did they restore the missing ads and take steps to make sure such omissions wouldn’t happen again?

They did not. Instead, they cut off access to Edelson’s and McCoy’s accounts, making it harder for them to dig up such embarrassing facts in the future.

“There is still a lot of important research we want to do,” they wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “When Facebook shut down our accounts, we had just begun studies intended to determine whether the platform is contributing to vaccine hesitancy and sowing distrust in elections. We were also trying to figure out what role the platform may have played leading up to the Capitol assault on Jan. 6.”

In other words, they want to find out how responsible Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest are for spreading a deadly illness and encouraging an armed insurrection. No wonder Facebook looked at what the researchers were doing and told them, gee, you know, we’d love to help, but you’re violating our privacy rules.

But that’s not even a real concern. Writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram points out that the privacy rules Facebook agreed to following the Cambridge Analytica scandal apply to Facebook itself, not to users who voluntarily agree to provide information to researchers.

Ingram quotes Princeton professor Jonathan Mayer, an adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a senator, who tweeted: “Facebook’s legal argument is bogus. The order “restricts how *Facebook* shares user information. It doesn’t preclude *users* from volunteering information about their experiences on the platform, including through a browser extension.”

The way Ingram describes it, as well as Edelson and McCoy themselves, Facebook’s actions didn’t stop their work altogether, but it has slowed it down and made it more difficult. Needless to say, the company should be doing everything it can to help with such research. Then again, Zuckerberg has never shown much regard for such mundane matters as public health and the future of democracy, especially when there’s money to be made.

By contrast, Facebook’s social media competitor Twitter has actually been much more open about making its data available to researchers. My Northeastern colleague John Wihbey, who co-authored an important study several years ago about how journalists use Twitter, says the difference explains why there have been more studies published about Twitter than Facebook. “This is unfortunate,” he says, “as it is a smaller network and less representative of the general public.”

It’s like the old saw about looking for your car keys under a street light because that’s where the light is. Trouble is, with fewer than 400 million active users, Twitter is little more than a rounding error in Facebook’s universe.

Earlier this year, MIT’s Technology Review published a remarkable story documenting how Facebook shied away from cracking down on extremist content, focusing instead on placating Donald Trump and other figures on the political right before the 2020 election. Needless to say, the NYU researchers represent an especially potent threat to the Zuckerborg since they plan to focus on the role that Facebook played in amplifying the disinformation that led to the insurrection, whose aftermath continues to befoul our body politic.

When the history of this ugly era is written, the two media giants that will stand out for their malignity are Fox News, for knowingly poisoning tens of millions of people with toxic falsehoods, and Facebook, for allowing its platform be used to amplify those falsehoods. Eventually, the truth will be told — no matter what steps Zuckerberg takes to slow it down. There should be hell to pay.

Coming to terms with the false promise of Twitter

Photo (cc) 2014 by =Nahemoth=

Roxane Gay brilliantly captures my own love/hate relationship with Twitter. In a New York Times essay published on Sunday, she writes:

After a while, the lines blur, and it’s not at all clear what friend or foe look like, or how we as humans should interact in this place. After being on the receiving end of enough aggression, everything starts to feel like an attack. Your skin thins until you have no defenses left. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish good-faith criticism from pettiness or cruelty. It becomes harder to disinvest from pointless arguments that have nothing at all to do with you. An experience that was once charming and fun becomes stressful and largely unpleasant. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. We have all become hammers in search of nails.

This is perfect. It’s not that people are terrible on Twitter, although they are. It’s that it’s nearly impossible to avoid becoming our own worst versions of ourselves.

Twitter may not be as harmful to the culture as Facebook, but for some reason I’ve found interactions on Facebook — as well as my own behavior — to be more congenial than on Twitter. Of course, on Facebook you have more control over whom you choose to interact with, and there’s a lot more sharing of family photos and other cheerful content. Twitter, by contrast, can feel like a never-ending exercise in hyper-aggression and performative defensiveness.

From time to time I’ve tried to cut back and use Twitter only for professional reasons — promoting my work and that of others, tweeting less and reading more of what others have to say. It works to an extent, but I always slide back. Twitter seems to reward snark, but what, really, is the reward? More likes and retweets? Who cares?

I can’t leave — Twitter is too important to my work. But Gay’s fine piece is a reminder that social media have fallen far short of what we were hoping for 12 to 15 years ago, and that we ourselves are largely to blame.

A small example of how racially biased algorithms distort social media

You may have heard that the algorithms used by Facebook and other social media platforms are racially biased. I ran into a small but interesting example of that earlier today.

My previous post is about a webinar on news co-ops that I attended last week. I used a photo of Kevon Paynter, co-founder of Bloc by Block News, as the lead art and a photo of Jasper Wang, co-founder of The Defector, well down in the piece.

But when I posted links on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, all three of them automatically grabbed the photo of Wang as the image that would go with the link. For example, here’s how it appeared on Twitter.

I don’t know what happened. Paynter was more central to what I was writing, which is why I led with his photo. Paynter is Black; Wang is of Asian descent. There’s more contrast in the image of Wang, which may be why the algorithms identified it as a superior picture. But in so doing they ignored my choice of Paynter as the lead.

File this under “Things that make you go hmmmm.”

Why I’m asking you to become a member of Media Nation

At the beginning of 2021, I decided to shift my online activities — I was going to blog more and use Facebook and Twitter less. At the same time, I decided to start offering memberships to Media Nation for $5 a month, following the lead of Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, pundits such as Andrew Sullivan, reporters such as Patrice Peck and others.

Most of these other folks are using Substack, a newsletter platform. I figured I had sunk way too many years — 16 — into writing Media Nation as a blog, and I didn’t want to switch to a platform that’s reliant on venture capital and could eventually go the way of most such companies. So here I am, still blogging at WordPress.com, and asking readers to consider becoming members by supporting me on Patreon.

And yes, I have been blogging more as I try to stay on top of various media stories, especially involving local journalism, as well as politics, culture and the news of the day. Just this week I’ve written about Larry Flynt and the First Amendment, Duke Ellington’s legacy, a new partnership between The Boston Globe and the Portland Press Herald, and a Louisiana reporter who’s been sued for — believe it or not — filing a public-records request.

If you value this work, I hope you’ll consider supporting it for $5 a month. Members receive a newsletter every Friday morning with exclusive content.

And if you’ve already become a member, thank you.

Twitter reportedly bans Mass. political gadfly Shiva Ayyadurai

Shiva Ayyadurai, in white hat. Photo (cc) 2019 by Marc Nozell.

Massachusetts Republican gadfly Shiva Ayyadurai has been banned from Twitter, most likely for claiming that he’d lost his most recent race for the U.S. Senate only because Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office destroyed a million electronic ballots. Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub has the details.

In 2018, I gave the City of Cambridge a GBH News New England Muzzle Award for ordering Ayyadurai to dismantle an wildly offensive sign on his company’s Cambridge property that criticized Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. City officials told him that the sign, which read “Only a REAL INDIAN Can Defeat the Fake Indian,” violated the city’s building code.

Ayyadurai threatened to sue, which led the city to back off.

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.