Political ads on Facebook can be fixed. Is Mark Zuckerberg willing to try?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

If nothing else, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey proved himself to be a master of timing when he announced last week that his social network will ban all political ads.

Anger was still raging over Mark Zuckerberg’s recent statement that Facebook would not attempt to fact-check political advertising, thus opening the door to a flood of falsehoods. Taking direct aim at Zuckerberg, Dorsey tweeted: “It‘s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!’”

Not surprisingly, Twitter’s ad ban won widespread praise.

“This is a good call,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who had only recently tormented Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing. “Technology — and social media especially — has a powerful responsibility in preserving the integrity of our elections. Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make.”

Added Hillary Clinton: “This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world. What say you, @Facebook?”

Oh, but if only it were that simple. Advertising on social media is a cheap and effective way for underfunded candidates seeking less prominent offices to reach prospective voters. No, it’s not good for democracy if we are overwhelmed with lies. But, with some controls in place, Facebook and Twitter can be crucial for political candidates who can’t afford television ads. To get rid of all political advertising would be to favor incumbents over outsiders and longshots.

“Twitter’s ban on political ads disadvantages challengers and political newcomers,” wrote University of Utah communications researcher Shannon C. MacGregor in The Guardian. “Digital ads are much cheaper than television ads, drawing in a wider scope of candidates, especially for down-ballot races.”

And let’s be clear: Facebook, not Twitter, is what really matters. Journalists pay a lot of attention to Twitter because other journalists use it — as do politicians, bots and sociopaths. Facebook, with more than 2 billion active users around the world, is exponentially larger and much richer. For instance, the 2020 presidential candidates so far have spent an estimated $46 million on political ads on Facebook, compared to less than $3 million spent by all candidates on Twitter ads during the 2018 midterms.

But is political advertising on Facebook worth saving given the falsehoods, the attempts to deceive, that go way beyond anything you’re likely to see on TV?

In fact, there are some common-sense steps that might help fix Facebook ads.

Writing in The Boston Globe, technology journalist Josh Bernoff suggested that Facebook ban all targeting for political ads except for geography. In other words, candidates for statewide office ought to be able to target their ads so they’re not paying to reach Facebook users in other states. But they shouldn’t be able to target certain slices of the electorate, like liberals or conservatives, homeowners or renters, white people or African Americans (or “Jew haters,” as ProPublica discovered was possible in a nauseating exposé a couple of years ago.)

Bernoff also suggested that politicians be required to provide documentation to back up the facts in their ads. It’s a good idea, though it may prove impractical.

“Facebook is incapable of vetting political ads effectively and consistently at the global scale. And political ads are essential to maintaining the company’s presence in countries around the world,” wrote Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” in The New York Times.

But we may not have to go that far. The reason ads spreading disinformation are so effective on Facebook is that they fly under the radar, seen by tiny slices of the electorate and thus evading broader scrutiny. In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, argued that the elimination of microtargeting could result in more truthful, less toxic advertising.

“Ads that are more widely available will contribute to the robust and wide-open debate that is central to our First Amendment values,” Weintraub wrote. “Political advertisers will have greater incentives to be truthful in ads when they can more easily and publicly be called to account for them.”

Calling for political ads to be banned on Facebook is futile. We live our lives on the internet these days, and Facebook has become (God help us) our most important distributor of news and information.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Nonprofit news update

Earlier this week The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the IRS had approved its application to become a nonprofit organization, making it the first daily newspaper to take that step. Unlike The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations, the Tribune will be fully nonprofit, making it eligible for tax-deductible donations.

Nonprofit news isn’t exactly a novelty. Public media organizations like PBS, NPR and, yes, WGBH are nonprofit organizations. So are a number of pioneering community websites such as the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego. And if the Tribune succeeds, it could pave the way for other legacy newspapers.

Last May I wrote about what nonprofit status in Salt Lake could mean for the struggling newspaper business. This week’s announcement is a huge step forward.

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Why Sri Lanka’s shutdown of social media was met mainly with applause

Roman Catholic church in Sri Lanka. Photo (cc) 2010 by Ronald Saunders.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Eight years ago, Western observers were appalled when then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cut off internet access in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings. Back then, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media were seen as tools of liberation, empowering ordinary citizens to stand up against the forces of repression.

Alec Ross, a top aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, went so far as to call the internet “the Che Guevara of the 21st century,” enthusing: “Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part — but not entirely — because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual.”

What a long, ugly trip it has been since those hopeful days. How bad has it gotten? When the Sri Lankan government shut down Facebook and other social platforms following Sunday’s deadly terrorist attacks on churches and hotels, many people applauded, citing social media’s seemingly unlimited potential to spread dangerous rumors and incite more violence. Leading the charge was Kara Swisher, a longtime technology journalist who now writes a column for The New York Times.

“It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off,” Swisher wrote. “But it has become clear to me with every incident that the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways.”

Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, a project founded at Harvard Law School for the express purpose of giving a voice to citizen journalists across the world, took to Twitter to praise Sri Lanka’s action, as noted by CNN. “A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat,” said Sigal. “#facebook your house is not in order.”

Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot since those heady days when we believed that social media would bring people together, leading to a utopian world community overflowing with peace, love, and understanding. The dark side has become ever more prevalent in recent years as Facebook and its ilk have fostered the rise of right-wing populism from the Philippines to Hungary, from the United Kingdom to the United States.

Sometimes it’s because bad actors have manipulated the platforms, as the Russians did during the 2016 U.S. election — or, more tragically, as the military in Myanmar did in whipping up genocidal violence against that country’s Muslim minority. Sometimes it’s because the platforms work exactly the way they’re supposed to. Facebook, with its 2.3 billion active monthly users, relies on algorithms that keep those users online and engaged — and the most effective way to do that is to serve up content that appeals to their sense of outrage and grievance.

In his book “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is naive and idealistic rather than deliberately destructive — but that makes him no less nefarious an actor. “Mark Zuckerberg is profoundly uneducated,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “He lacks an appreciation for nuance, complexity, contingency, or even difficulty. Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion. But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

As BuzzFeed News noted, not everyone applauded the Sri Lankan government’s social shutdown. Some pointed out that Facebook and other platforms are among the few means that ordinary people have to stay in touch with their friends and family members and to check on their safety. Others said that the privileged (not to mention the terrorists themselves) would not be affected, as they could simply use a VPN — that is, a virtual private network — to get around the censorship decree.

“Curbing civil liberties and civil rights doesn’t make people more safe,” Allie Funk of the nonprofit organization Freedom House told Wired. “These are societal issues that are going to take long-term solutions.”

Facebook itself said in a statement: “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and to helping the community and the country during this tragic time.”

CNN’s daily media newsletter asked: “Have we really reached a moment where a government being able to shut down the world’s most important social media platforms is better than having the platforms up and running after a terrorist attack, misinformation and all?”

It would appear that the answer to that question is yes. Yes, it is better. Simply put, social media, and especially Facebook, have not just failed to live up to their promise — they’ve been a detriment across the world, undermining democracy, stirring up hatred, and costing lives.

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Overcoming digital distraction. Plus, The New York Times’ $1.1b folly, and saving community access TV.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?

You’re not alone. For years, writers like Nicholas Carr (“The Shallows”) and Virginia Heffernan (“Magic and Loss”) have worried that the internet is rewiring our brains and transforming us from deep readers into jittery skimmers. In “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” Jaron Lanier writes that — well, you know.

The latest entry in what has grown into a burgeoning list of digital jeremiads is an essay that appeared in The New York Times over the weekend. The piece, by Kevin Roose, is headlined “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.” Over the course of nearly 2,500 words, Roose describes in anguished detail how his smartphone had left him “incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations.” Social media, he adds, had made him “angry and anxious.”

Roose’s solution: A detox program overseen by Catherine Price, the author of “How to Break Up with Your Phone.” Without going into detail (after all, you can read about it yourself), by the end of the program our hero is happier, healthier, and less addicted to his phone.

Digital dependency is a real problem, and it’s hard to know what to do about it. I know that as well as anyone. Over the years, my writing has become symbiotically enmeshed with the internet — I look things up and fact-check as I go, and I can’t imagine returning to the days of writing first, checking later, even though the result would probably be more coherent. Social media and email are ever-present impediments to the task at hand.

But it’s a lot easier to describe what we ought to do than to actually do it. I recommend mindful reading either in print or on one of the more primitive Kindles. In reality, I read the news on an iPad while admonishing myself not to tweet any of it — usually without much success. I need to be on social media for professional purposes, which makes it all the harder to stay away from energy-draining non-professional uses.

We are not doing ourselves any favors. “You know the adage that you should choose a partner on the basis of who you become when you’re around the person?” writes Lanier. “That’s a good way to choose technologies, too.”

The problem is that we didn’t choose our technologies. They chose us, backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, whose billions grow every time his engineers figure out a way to keep us more addicted and less able to break ourselves of the habit. We need solutions. I’ll get back to you on that. Right after I check Facebook. Again.

Looking back at a deal gone bad

More than a quarter-century after the New York Times Co. bought The Boston Globe for the unheard-of price of $1.1 billion, the transaction remains a sore point in some circles. As I’m sure you know, Red Sox principal owner John Henry bought the paper for just $70 million in 2013, which turned out to be less than the value of the real estate.

In her new book, “Merchants of Truth,” former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is blisteringly critical of the 1993 acquisition. Describing the Times Co.’s strategy of that era, she writes: “Some recent business blunders had made the structural damage inflicted by the internet even more painful. The worst was the purchase of The Boston Globe at precisely the moment the glory days of newspaper franchises were ending.” (My “Beat the Press” colleague Emily Rooney interviewed Abramson for our most recent broadcast, and she did not shy away from asking some tough questions about errors in Abramson’s book as well as credible accusations of plagiarism.)

In a recent interview with the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson described what he and his fellow executives were up against in late 2012: “The thinking at the top of the company when I arrived was that the Times should sell The Boston Globe, and that it was going to be fantastically difficult to manage the Globe in a way where it wasn’t going to become over time a net depleter of the total business, rather than something that was going to add to the success of the company.”

So was the Times Co.’s decision to pay all that money for the Globe really such a boneheaded move? When I was interviewing people for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I got some pretty strong pushback to that proposition from former Globe editor Matt Storin and current editor Brian McGrory.

Storin told me that the Globe turned a profit of some $90 million in one of its first years under Times Co. ownership. “Imagine today if you made a $90 million profit,” he said. “I mean, those classified ads were just a gold mine. The Times knew that, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they bought us. They didn’t foresee that that was going to disappear, obviously.”

McGrory sounded a similar theme. “For 15 to 18 years there were Brinks trucks driving down I-95 with tens of millions of dollars every year, amounting to hundreds millions over that time, taking money from Boston to New York,” he said. “They made their investment just fine.”

The reality is most likely somewhere in the middle. From 1993 until about 2005, the Globe earned plenty of money for the Times Co. But then things went seriously south, with the Globe losing $85 million by 2009, a situation so dire that the Times threatened to shut down the paper unless the unions agreed to $20 million worth of givebacks. (They did.)

For the Times Co., the real mistake wasn’t in buying the Globe — it was in keeping it for too long.

Last stand for community access TV

This past November I wrote about an industry-supported effort by the FCC to allow the cable companies to save money by cutting what they spend to support local public-access operations.

Naturally, the FCC is pushing ahead with this anti-consumer proposal. So now advocates of local do-it-yourself media are asking supporters to sign an online petition to Congress asking that lawmakers stop the new rule from taking effect.

“PEG [public, educational, and governmental] access channels provide local content in communities that are not served by the broadcast industry and are increasingly under-served by newspapers,” says the petition. “They help prevent ‘media deserts’ in towns and cities across the U.S. and ensure diversity of opinion at the local level.”

Will it matter? I suspect that elected members of Congress from both parties will prove more amenable to public pressure than FCC chair Ajit Pai, who led the campaign to kill net neutrality. But we won’t know unless we try. So let’s try.

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Fighting #fakenews: A conversation with Shorenstein’s Heidi Radford Legg

Photo via the Shorenstein Center.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In just a few years, #fakenews has moved to the top of what we worry about when we worry about the news media.

Recently the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, based at Harvard’s Kennedy School, released a report seeking to document efforts to fight fake news, from Facebook, Google, and Twitter to academic institutions, from entrepreneurial start-ups to nonprofit foundations. The report, titled “The Fight Against Disinformation in the U.S.: A Landscape Analysis,” was written by Heidi Radford Legg, a journalist who is the director of special projects at Shorenstein, and Joe Kerwin, a Harvard senior.

“Trust in news has fallen dramatically and the rise in polarizing content, created to look like news, is being driven by both profiteers and malevolent players,” Radford Legg and Kerwin write. “Add to this a president that undercuts the credibility of the press on a daily basis and who has declared the press as an ‘enemy of the people.’ American journalism, already shouldering practically non-existent revenue models that have led to the decimation of quality local news, is in deep defense.” (Disclosure: My work is briefly cited in the report.)

What follows is a lightly edited email interview that I conducted with Radford Legg.

Dan Kennedy: You’ve provided a comprehensive overview of efforts to fight disinformation. What is the main takeaway? How do you hope your paper will be used?

Heidi Radford Legg: When I arrived at the Shorenstein Center, as a journalist trained to give context to a situation and who had long worked in upstart or for-profit media, I was fascinated by all the people in academia and in the foundation world who were stepping up to solve this existential crisis for our society. It became immediately clear to me that this was the story. Here was Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, which essentially disrupted the newspaper classified revenue stream, giving $70 million to journalism and the fight against disinformation.

As an entrepreneurial journalist, having founded TheEditorial.com, I was all about disruption and innovation. However, we are now in this acute moment when a deluge of disinformation and misinformation plagues our information ecosystem — exponentially, thanks to this digital age. Local news revenue is being decimated, platforms are absorbing all of the attention economy dollars, and rogue players are penetrating our information pipeline. It is the perfect storm.

Thankfully, a few bold leaders have stepped in to try to put some guard rails in place while we wait for the platforms to self-regulate or be regulated. My hope is that this paper will inspire other funders and civic leaders to get involved, because the effects of disinformation and the breakdown of traditional journalism models are quickly eroding the ability to have an informed citizenry in our democracy.

Kennedy: You cite one of my heroes, Neil Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”What do you think he would have to say about this media and cultural moment?

Radford Legg: I wonder if Postman might think he was too cheeky about the whole thing and should have warned us more desperately ­— the same way climate change advocates worry we are being too apathetic about the dire risks of climate change today. I will say, it is hard not to see that we are dumbing down as a society, with our attention span reduced to nanoseconds. I know some digital experts disagree with me and think we are at a point of great societal leaps with artificial intelligence. I am not there. I would take basic education on civics and critical thinking for all Americans, and an informed citizenry, at this point. Computer code is still binary. It is based on “this equals that.” While transformative and our future, I still believe in the ethical fortitude of the human when taught critical thinking and empathy.

Kennedy: Your section on how Facebook is fighting misinformation is appropriately skeptical, yet I sense that you accept the company’s assurances that it’s sincere about its efforts. I’m wondering if your views have changed since you finished writing this report given the never-ending stream of bad news coming out of the Zuckerborg. Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in his book “Antisocial Media” that Facebook can’t be fixed because it’s working the way it was designed to work. What do you think?

Radford Legg: I tried to stay unbiased in the reporting to list actual measures being taken by platforms at the time of the writing of this paper. I had two terrific Harvard student interns this summer, Joe Kerwin and Grace Greason, who spent hours tracking the media reports on measures the platforms were taking. We would compare the PR version to news articles by Wired, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Harvard’s Nieman Lab. You will remember that from April to August, there was a mad flurry of deplatforming of Facebook sites, scourging of Twitter accounts, and general clean-up by the social media giants ­— who likely knew they were being asked to testify in front of Congress in September. Our research leads up to the moment Twitter’s Jack Dorsey finally booted Alex Jones and Infowars off the site. We tried to stick to the facts.

I do think the platforms are taking steps, but what I would really like them to address is that they are now news organizations. Rather than media entertainment companies, they need to accept that they are owning the news, and it is time they begin to hire journalists and editors with a small percentage of the insane profits they reap in this new Attention Economy. This revenue, in the form of advertising fees, was what once funded local newsrooms, and that breakdown is part of the problem.

The Shorenstein Center’s Platform Accountability Project, IDLab, and Media Manipulation Case Studies Project are all working together to create a body of research and knowledge that will put pressure on the platforms and educate Congress on what is happening in the space. One way for people to join the effort is to fund our research at the Shorenstein Center. Our goal is to be at the intersection of media and politics and help inform legislation and policy around this urgent problem as we lead up to another Presidential election in 2020.

Kennedy: You describe an impressive set of initiatives by Google to help news organizations find their way toward financial sustainability and to keep disinformation out of its search results. Ultimately, though, I wonder if what Google really needs to do is work out a system of paying for the news content that it uses. I realize that’s probably outside the purview of your study, but do you have any thoughts on that?

Radford Legg: I write in the study that “one part of Google’s effort funds journalism while the other builds tools to sell back to them. Its approach is equal parts philanthropy and capitalism. Google’s tagline makes its intent clear: ‘To help journalism thrive in a digital age.’” The question remains, for whose benefit? Ours or their bottom line? I’m hoping for the former.

What I would really like to see is for the Google News Initiative, led by Richard Gingras, to fund a number of major research projects at leading media centers like ours around revenue models for local news. The Shorenstein Center’s Elizabeth Hansen has been studying membership models like the Texas Tribune and how small and medium-sized newsrooms compete in this global digital economy. Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Media Lab is working on a project that could share ad revenue from major platforms with the journalists or outlets that wrote a particular story. Take Flint, Michigan. The journalists who broke that story should get the largest financial gain. Today, that is not the case. Google, Facebook, and any platform or major outlet profiting from the story with clicks, should help support that local journalism.

The platforms have all the access today. Facebook alone has 2 billion users and a cash balance of $41 billion and market cap of $407 billion. Google has a cash balance of $106 billion and a market cap of $731 billion. They should start to pay and hire vetted reporters and editors steeped in the tenets of journalism — to report facts and first-person accounts. One might say it is time they grow up and be the civic leaders in the room.

Kennedy: As you note, the Berkman Klein Center has documented asymmetric polarization, which shows that consumers of right-wing media are far more susceptible to disinformation than those whose sources are more mainstream or left-leaning. What can we do about this without arousing suspicions — and anger — that we are simply seeking to impose our own liberal and elitist views?

Radford Legg: Again I go back to local news. If people who are being radicalized on the web by polarized content were instead reading about the people who live next to them and consuming news about their own city’s innovation, challenges, and progress, I believe the country would be better off and less divided. Without a trusted and reliable source on the ground in their local communities, Americans are susceptible to dogma being sold by harvesters of the Attention Economy, who are polluting the information ecosystem with untruths and content intended to polarize and divide our nation.

We should work harder to be inclusive with those in other areas of the country. As reporters, the more we can cover those stories, the better for democracy. My dream is to find paths to having journalists funded in those towns who understand the people and culture, and who can bring local back into the national conversation. This will require funding, and that is where the platforms should step up.

Kennedy: We live at a time when the president himself is our leading source of disinformation, and he has managed to convince his most committed followers that he is the ultimate source of all truth. How difficult is it to fight against disinformation in such a climate?

Radford Legg: At the Shorenstein Center’s Theodore H. White Lecture, I sat at a table with a number of our Joan Shorenstein Fellows, of whom you were one. We debated this. Should we cover the president or should we ignore him and instead cover local news and stories of progress? Should we ensure that headlines don’t repeat lies? The table was divided. But at what point do we turn away from the media circus and return to the basics? What is going on in your city hall? What ideas are changing the way you live and work in your city, town, state? What can we as a nation learn from what is going on in Corning, New York, or Beaufort, North Carolina, Portland, Oregon or Maine, or McLean County, Kentucky? I am a local kid. I think that is where the lifeblood of a democracy lives.

Kennedy: Is there any hope?

Radford Legg: Always.

Today, given the dire state of revenue models for local news, we need the wealthiest and most influential to fund and promote the research and innovation experiments desperately needed today in local journalism, and we need everyone who believes in journalism to get involved, vote, and help bridge the polarization. The late Gerry Lenfest’s legacy gift in Philadelphia is a case study many of us are watching in local news. He put the fabled Philadelphia Inquirer and sister properties into a trust and endowed it with $20 million. That’s commitment to local and that is hope. Let’s hope it inspires more of the same.

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Help! I’ve been locked out of Twitter. And the bots aren’t going to let me back in.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

(Note: My Twitter account was restored several days after this column appeared thanks to some human intervention. Which is what Twitter and other internet businesses need to offer to everyone.)

I’ve been off Twitter since Feb. 12 — surely my longest sabbatical since joining in 2008. But it’s not by choice. First my account was attacked, apparently by Turkish hackers. Then I botched the process of resetting my password. Now I’m stuck in limbo, unable to revive my account on my own yet clueless about how to get an actual human being at Twitter to help.

If you think this is special pleading, you’re right. I confess to hoping that someone at Twitter (or someone who knows someone) sees this and contacts me. Yes, I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. Yes, I’ve been known to refer to its troll-infested backwaters as a cesspool. But as long as it exists, I need it to keep up on conversations that are important to me and to promote my work.

If you visit my Twitter page, you’ll see that everything is intact — my 16,000-plus followers, my cherished “verified” check mark, my 62,000 tweets (a record of which I am not proud), and my nine lists. But it might as well go in a scrapbook for all the good it’s doing me. I can look, but I can’t touch.

As a culture, we have become utterly dependent on the free tools and platforms that have come with the digital age. Yes, I’m well aware of what they say about free: If you’re not paying, then you’re the product. But Twitter, Facebook, and the rest offer the kind of convenient networking (too convenient, argues Tim Wu in The New York Times) that is now difficult to live without.

Never mind their considerable downside, including the way these platforms — especially Facebook — enabled the Russians to interfere in our political process. Social media is how we connect in these early decades of the 21st century, and if you’re shut out from those connections, you’re at a huge disadvantage. Unfortunately, the reason social-media platforms are profitable is that they require very few paid employees. I know of no way that you can contact a customer-service representative at Twitter or Facebook. You’ve got to rely on automated help. And I’ve gotten myself into such a mess that Twitter’s bot service just isn’t going to get the job done.

Would you like to know what happened? It’s not an especially gripping story, but I’m going to tell you anyway. You might learn from it.

At about 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 12 I logged onto Twitter on my phone and saw that I had received a direct message from a fairly prominent editor. His DM promised news and was accompanied by an odd-looking link. But because it seemed to be from someone I knew, and because I had heard there were cutbacks under way at his organization, I made the dangerous assumption that the link was legitimate. I clicked. Nothing happened. I clicked again. Still nothing. So I forgot about it.

Later that morning I received an email from a colleague at another university informing me that my direct messages appeared to have been hacked. The evidence: a DM he had received from me (or, should I say, “me”) that was identical to the one I’d gotten from the editor. At that point I stopped what I was doing and reset my password. I use 1Password, which generates long strings of gibberish that are essentially unbreakable. I saved the new password and tried to log in to Twitter again.

Except that I hadn’t saved it. My old password was dead and I had no idea what my new password was. So I followed Twitter’s instructions for resetting my password again. The options I was given were to supply my Twitter name, which only brought me back to the same menu; my cellphone number, which I had never turned over in the first place; or an email address associated with my account.

And this was the moment when I realized I was in over my head. Twitter recognized none of my email addresses. Why? I have no idea. Maybe they were wiped out by the hackers. Maybe I’m overlooking something obvious. The point is that I need someone at Twitter to perform an exorcism, and I don’t know how to make that happen. Maybe once or twice a day I try to log in using my old password, hoping something miraculous has occurred. The message I get: “We detected unusual activity on your account. To secure your account, please change your password before logging back in.” Gah.

Is all of this my fault? Of course. I shouldn’t have clicked on that link. I should have provided Twitter with my cellphone number ages ago. I should have pasted my new password into a Word document until I was absolutely sure that I had saved it. The thing is, people do stupid things. They shouldn’t be left without options.

So if anyone from Twitter is reading this, I want to say something from the bottom of my heart: Won’t you please help?

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Herald reporter suspended for violating social-media policy

Boston Herald reporter Chris Villani was given a three-day suspension for violating the paper’s social-media policy. According to Chris Sweeney of Boston magazine, Villani tweeted out some breaking news on the Aaron Hernandez case without first seeking permission from the higher-ups. (Note: This post has now been updated with a message to the staff by Herald publisher Pat Purcell and a response to Purcell by the Newspaper Guild. Just keep scrolling.)

A number of Herald reporters are boycotting Twitter in response to Villani’s punishment. Here’s a statement from the union that represents Herald employees:

The policy is the policy. But having to get permission from a top editor before tweeting seems unworkable for a news organization hoping to make an impact in the digital space.

Adam Vaccaro of The Boston Globe has more. An interesting side note: Herald editor Joe Sciacca declined to comment to the Globe even after providing a rather fulsome statement to Boston magazine.

Update: Herald publisher Pat Purcell has weighed in.

Update II: The Newspaper Guild has now responded to Purcell.

Guild members are grateful to Pat Purcell for keeping the Boston Herald alive and thriving during a difficult time for the newspaper industry. We respect his leadership and his decades of experience.

No one is more concerned with matters of reputation and accuracy than his Guild employees. After all, our names go on the stories; our reputations are on the line if any of the information is wrong. The same holds true for our social media accounts, where our names, pictures, and occupations accompany every single post. We are well aware that if we were to use social media recklessly, we would lose the trust both of sources who help us do our jobs as well as our readers.

We agree with Pat that there is a need for a policy, but we have deep reservations about certain aspects that Herald Media Inc. has incorporated into its policy. In our view, the response our members have expressed about this recent enforcement is an opportunity to open the door to discuss making changes.

We remain committed to providing Boston Herald readers with the best quality journalism in the city and look forward to speaking with him.

The Guild

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Twitter’s slide and newspaper apps that don’t quite work

Tech journalist Om Malik interviews Jack Dorsey in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.
Tech journalist Om Malik interviews Jack Dorsey in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.

Twitter, long a laggard behind Facebook, may be reaching a crisis point. Despite the return of co-founder Jack Dorsey, the stock price is sliding, its user base is stagnant and journalists — many of whom have long been enamored of Twitter because of its flexibility — are beginning to realize that far more of their audience is on Facebook.

Recently Umair Haque wrote a post for Medium headlined “Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It)” in which he argued that the platform has become the leading outlet for a certain type of nasty incivility — a place where “little violences that permeate the social web” get their more extravagant airing.

The post degenerates into overwrought handwringing. But before Haque gets to the part where he starts critiquing the meaning of life, he raises some important questions about Twitter. Why is Facebook (usually) a more civil place that fosters better conversations than Twitter?

Some of the answers seem obvious. On Facebook, you’re not bound by the 140-character restriction, which makes it more congenial for a conversation to develop. Facebook also makes it easier (though not as easy as it should) to define your community, whereas Twitter assumes you want everything to be open to everyone. Yes, you can fiddle with the settings, but it makes the service feel less useful.

A couple of years ago, I vastly preferred Twitter to Facebook. Now I find Facebook to be much more satisfying. I’m not sure whether Twitter has changed or if, instead, what I’m looking for in a social platform has evolved. Maybe it’s just that the novelty of Twitter has worn off.

Twitter recently unveiled curated stories called Moments, which might help in attracting those who were put off by the sheer labor you have to put into assembling a worthwhile list of feeds. If users started thinking about it differently — say, as more of a broadcast medium, a more flexible form of RSS, rather than as a place to have a conversation — that might help, too.

Or Twitter might curl up and die. Technologies come and go. There is no guarantee that Twitter will be one of the survivors, or that it should be.

The trouble with apps. Like many newspapers, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post have bet the farm on online distribution. Each has tablet apps (the Post has two!) that create a reading experience somewhat similar to the print newspaper. As a regular reader of both papers, I want to point out a bug in each. (Caveat: I could be doing something wrong.)

First, the Globe app, which is based upon a replica of the print edition, has a feature that supposedly lets you share an article on Twitter or Facebook. But the link it produces does not take you to the article. Instead, it takes you to the App Store, where you are invited to download the Globe’s iPad app. Which, of course, you already have.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.22.53 AM

The app, designed by miLibris, has improved greatly since a buggy version was released some months back. But this particular bug has prevailed. Time to fix it, eh?

My issue with The Washington Post involves its “classic” app, which is older than the sexy new magazine-like app that’s included with Amazon Prime — but which is also more comprehensive. (An overview of the Post’s various digital products can be found here.)  It’s simple: the audio in videos does not play on my iPad, even though they are preceded by video ads that work just fine. The same videos also work fine when I try them on the newer app.

I would love to know whether the Globe and the Post are going to fix the bugs I’ve described — or if, as is always possible, I’m doing something boneheaded to create problems that don’t actually exist.

Snapchat news targets the young and the underinformed

snapchat

Previously published at WGBHNews.org and republished in The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.

On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.

“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”

My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.

Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.

The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.

CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.

Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)

“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.

Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!

In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:

It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.

Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)

But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.

How the Globe is leveraging social to cover #FITN

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A recent Pindell piece in Medium.

In his recent exhortation to accelerate the transition to digital, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory singled out — among others — James Pindell, who’s covering the New Hampshire primary (or #FITN, as they say) as a digital-first reporter, “rapidly pushing webbier (sorry) stories that allow the site to look less like a digital reflection of that morning’s and the next morning’s print paper.”

Now Mashable has a close-up look at exactly how Pindell is accomplishing that. Jason Abbruzzese writes that Pindell has embraced a wide range of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, FacebookMedium and — shades of steam-powered presses from the 19th century — an email newsletter. (Not all of this is new. Pindell’s Twitter feed has been a must-read among political junkies for years.) Pindell’s work is gathered at a Globe site called Ground Game.

The approach has allowed Pindell to cover stories that are worth telling even if they’re not quite worthy of (or suitable for) print — such as his first-person account of covering Donald Trump and his hair during Trump’s recent foray into New Hampshire.

The idea, Abbruzzese reports, is to leverage Pindell’s coverage of across a variety of platforms in order to compete with national outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post:

“We’re putting him out there deliberately in a very focused way saying, ‘This is our guy. This is the face of our coverage,'” says David Skok, digital adviser at the Globe, who helped form their strategy of pushing content out on social platforms via a single, recognizable reporter.

The strategy also fits with the Globe’s embrace of digital verticals such as Crux, which covers “all things Catholic”; BetaBoston, which follows tech and innovation; and more that I’ve heard are in the works.

Alas, as smart a move as Ground Game may be journalistically, it’s unclear, as always, how it will make money. From the Mashable piece:

The main question dogging media organizations that want to embrace this strategy of social publishing is how it affects their bottom line. Reaching more people is great, but the benefits are quickly offset if it comes at the behest of revenue.

Skok said that Pindell’s work outside of the Globe did not have direct monetization opportunities yet, but that the broader impact would hopefully attract advertisers that want to be associated with the paper’s authoritative coverage.

The folks at the Globe deserve a lot of credit for understanding the value of pushing ahead anyway.

Eyes right: My Twitter feed is now on Media Nation

Earlier this week I did something I had resisted for a long time: I added my Twitter feed to the right-hand rail of Media Nation. (WGBH News is still there, but farther down.)

I did it for two reasons. First, for me, as for many people, Twitter has changed my approach to blogging. If I want to put up a link with a brief comment, I do it on Twitter, often on Facebook as well, and rarely on Media Nation. Ten years ago, by contrast, I would have run everything on my blog.

Second, I tend to be less disciplined than I’d like on Twitter. (How’s that for a euphemism?) Having a little voice in my head reminding me that whatever I post on Twitter will also show up on Media Nation is a good thing.

And speaking of how social media have changed blogging, a reminder: I post links to all Media Nation articles on Facebook, where a much richer discussion generally takes place than is the case here. You don’t have to friend me — just follow my public feed.