Archive Monthly Archives: January 2019

Don’t give Facebook and YouTube credit for shrinking Alex Jones’ audience | Julia Carrie Wong

Internet platforms were making money by placing Infowars content in front of those who would not otherwise view it

It is an iron law of the internet that any attempt to censor or suppress information will inevitably result in the increased dissemination of that information. Just as the laws of thermodynamics undergird everything we know and can learn about the physical world, this rule – known as the Streisand Effect – sets the table for every debate around speech on the internet.

It was thus only to be expected that when Facebook, YouTube and other internet platforms decided to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s fake news broadcasts in early August, Infowars’ traffic and reach would only increase.

“The more I’m persecuted, the stronger I get,” Jones reportedly said in response to the mass banning. “It backfired.”

But a new report by the New York Times suggests that, in fact, traffic to Infowars’ website and video broadcasts has fallen precipitously in the wake of his banishment from Facebook and YouTube. According to the Times’ analysis, Jones’ reach went from 1.4 million visitors each day to just 715,000, and a temporary spike in traffic to the Infowars website did not replace the approximately 900,000 video views that Facebook and YouTube were responsible for each day for the three weeks before the bans. (Jones disputed the Times’ analysis on Twitter, a platform that bucked the trend of banning Jones, but also has a significantly smaller reach than YouTube or Facebook.)

That the de-platforming of Alex Jones is reducing the number of people exposed to his particularly noxious brew of conspiracy theories, hate mongering, misinformation, harassment and other bile on a daily basis is certainly welcome news.

But before we give Facebook and YouTube too much credit for reducing Jones’ reach, it’s important to look at the equation from the other side: until one month ago, Facebook and YouTube combined were apparently responsible for doubling Infowars’ audience.

They were not just serving as passive platforms, hosting content for those who sought it out. They were placing Infowars before the eyeballs of people who would not otherwise consume it, and they were making money off that transaction.

“I think that what is reflected in the traffic going down is related to the power of social media to broadcast content to new audiences,” said Joan Donovan, a lead researcher at Data & Society’s Media Manipulation Initiative. “What we are seeing now is more of a reflection of the fanbase as it stands rather than a reflection of how the recommendation algorithm is serving the content to new audiences.”

In other words, Alex Jones was a small man, standing on the shoulders of internet giants in order to punch above his weight.

The symbiotic relationship between Infowars and the social media platforms was particularly potent because of the platforms’ incentive structure (they want to keep people on their platforms where they will watch advertisements) and the algorithms they use to achieve that objective. Rather than expecting users to actively seek out information or entertainment, Facebook and YouTube feeds them an algorithmically determined stream of whatever content the algorithms calculate is most likely to keep the user from clicking away.

“These algorithms work really well if you are into a subculture of music or really love scented candles and want to watch reviews of scented candles,” Donovan said. “It’s not problematic because you are seeing the things you are interested in, you consume it, and you move on with your day.”

“But when you’re doing it with news, it does have a different effect on political polarization,” Donovan added. “If you’re looking at extremist videos, particularly stuff related to the alt-right, [the algorithm] sees that you typed in that keyword, and it wants to keep serving you stuff related to that keyword.”

Donovan said that Infowars was particularly suited to Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms, because they are looking for “freshness and relevance”. Jones broadcasts for hours each day, and Infowars then slices and dices his rants into short videos designed for social media platforms.

“It really tips the recommendation system towards Infowars because they have content about almost everything you can imagine, as well as having content that is new online,” she said. “Very few media makers can produce at that kind of rate online.”

Indeed, since publication of the Times’ article on Tuesday morning, Infowars has shared at least five videos disputing it on Twitter.

Facebook and YouTube are, of course, not solely responsible for amplifying Jones and his ilk. The traditional media are also grappling with the question of how best to cover the alt-right and other extremists, many of whom court media attention in order to hijack our platforms for their own ends. Monday’s contretemps over the New Yorker’s (since retracted) decision to invite white nationalist Steve Bannon to headline its annual ideas festival was just one example of how frequently the traditional news media err.

But more editors and journalists are discussing ideas such as “strategic silence” and publications at the very least take responsibility for their editorial decisions, rather than blaming an algorithm, or their readers.

“It is possible to have an ethic and a process of social media moderation that mirrors the ethic and practice of journalists,” Donovan said. “If [the internet platforms] had paid attention to Alex Jones when he hit 10,000 followers, or 20,000, or 50,000, and done consistent content review to understand if the content contained conspiracy theories or targeted harassment, they then would have had a handle on the issue, and it wouldn’t have ballooned into this PR crisis.”

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Astronaut Scott Kelly is coming home

(CNN)In a few hours, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is due to be back on Earth.

Kelly has completed a nearly yearlong mission on the International Space Station, the longest any U.S. astronaut has been in space. He’s set to come home on Tuesday, riding back to Earth on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. He’s scheduled to land in the Kazakhstan desert at 10:27 Wednesday morning (11:27 p.m. ET Tuesday).

    The prolific social media user posted a photo of the sunrise on Tuesday — the last one he’ll watch from space.

    Spending 340 days in space could affect a person’s vision and bones, but Kelly said last week that physically, he feels pretty good. “I could go for another 100 days or 100 years,” the astronaut said during his last briefing with reporters from orbit.

    But the long stay has also been lonely. “The hardest part is being isolated from people on the ground who are important to you,” he said.

    The space veteran said he has witnessed some of the most amazing scenes of Earth during his mission, like spotting the northern lights, passing over the Bahamas and watching huge storms like Hurricane Patricia.

    The view from space

    He’s also gained perspective on Earth’s climate while he’s been orbiting the planet. “I feel more like an environmentalist since I’ve been up here,” he said. “There are parts of the Earth that are covered with pollution all the time. I saw weather that was unexpected. Storms bigger than we’ve seen in the past. This is a human effect. This is not a natural phenomenon.”

    In a previous interview with CNN, Kelly said Earth’s atmosphere “looks very, very fragile” from the space station. But there are opportunities to solve the Earth’s environmental problems, Kelly said Thursday. “If we can dream it, we can make it so,” he said.

    Once Kelly lands, he will be flown to Houston’s Ellington Field and go through a battery of physical and scientific tests. Afterward, he’s looking forward to jumping into his pool, he said.

    Kelly isn’t bringing back any souvenirs — this is his fourth mission in space, after all — but he’s looking forward to returning some personal items when he lands.

    One of his biggest hopes for the Year in Space mission’s legacy is that it helps NASA on its quest to take astronauts farther away from Earth on longer space flights — a necessity for traveling to Mars in the future. “The space station here is a magical place, and an incredible science facility. I hope more people have the opportunity to do this in the future,” he said.

    ‘Feel like I’ve lived my whole life up here’

    He told CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta last week that it feels like he’s spent his whole life on the station and that leaving it is going to be tough.

    “I’ll probably never see it again,” Kelly told Gupta. “I’ve flown in space four times now, so it’s going to be hard in that respect, but I certainly look forward to going back to Earth. I’ve been up here for a really long time and sometimes, when I think about it, I feel like I’ve lived my whole life up here.”

    August

    Kelly also promised to keep a personal journal of his experience on the space station and said that he might share it with us.

    “I plan to be completely honest about it,” he said before launch, but — “who knows, maybe there are some crazy thoughts I’ll have at the end that I wouldn’t want to share.”

    Kelly also did experiments. Lots and lots of experiments. He and his one-year crewmate, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, conducted studies to help NASA better understand what happens to the human body in space: The eyes, brain, bones, muscles — they all change in a weightless environment.

    NASA needs to know a lot more about these changes to the body before it can send people to Mars or on any other long spaceflights.

    Riding home with the Russians

    Kelly began his mission to the space station on March 27, 2015, riding a Russian rocket that launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

    He’ll come home much the same way. When his mission ends, Kelly will have spent 340 consecutive days on the space station and a total of 520 days in space counting his time from previous trips. Both are records for U.S. astronauts, but not for Russia. Between 1987 and 1995, four cosmonauts spent a year or more in space.

    Kornienko also will come back Tuesday and cosmonaut Sergey Volkov will be on the flight too — though he did not spend a year on the space station.

    After Kelly lands, he’ll be flown to Houston. But his mission doesn’t end there. NASA will spend years analyzing the tests he conducted on board.

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    Study links social media use and disordered eating

    Another day, another study that might be true but more likely will turn into another instance of media reporting incomplete scientific information as fact. But well take the bait, since this time it involves our precious time on Facebook.

    According to an analysis by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, greater social media use among young people is linked to a greater risk of developing an eating disorder. But lets unpack that a bit.

    The study participants filled out two questionnaires, one about their social media use, and one that assessed their eating disorder risk. The results from this study indicate a strong and consistent association between social media use and eating concerns in a nationally representative sample of young adults aged 19 to 32 years, says the abstract of the study, which sampled 1,765 U.S. adults in the aforementioned age range.

    According to lead researcher Jamie E. Sidani, its common knowledge that exposure to media like fashion magazines and television can result in the development of eating disorders, and that social media combines many of the visual aspects of traditional media with the opportunity for social media users to interact and propagate stereotypes that can lead to eating and body image concerns.”

    Participants who spent more time on social media, whether that was more visits per week or longer visits per session, had 2.2 times the risk of reporting eating and body image concerns. But its not as simple as Facebook causes anorexia.

    Time spent looking at photos of other bodies could certainly trigger disordered eatingbutthose who have body image issues could also be drawn to a site where they could compare themselves to other bodies. Dr. Brian A. Primack, senior author of the study, said the analysis could not determine which came first, the disordered eating or the social media use.

    Still, its not hard to see how looking at heavily edited photos of celebrities, fitspo stars, and that one friend of yours who is always on vacation and looks great in a bikini could make you at least more aware of how your body measures up. So, as a helpful reminder, the thigh gap is a total lie.

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    Black Woman Accuses Cop Of Racism, But His Bodycam Footage Tells A Very Different Story

    Modern day technology certainly gets a hard press, but whilst there are many negatives to smartphones and social media, there are also a lot of advantages to the devices that we take for granted.

    For example, the body camera may feel like an unnecessary gadget for most. But for those in fields of work which require constant contact with people, especially people who are suspected of criminal offenses, they’re vital.

    To provide proof of this, you need look no further than the case of Brunswick County Police Department and a woman by the name of Dawn H.W.

    On April 27, Dawn was pulled over in Virginia by an officer of Brunswick County Police Department after she was caught doing 70 mph in a 55 mph zone.

    Dawn, who was traveling back home to Greenville, South Carolina, believed that the officer who pulled her over was racially motivated and instantly took to Facebook Live to explain what had just happened to her.

    Watch her explain every detail of the “traumatic incident” here…

    Dawn claims to have “been threatened” by the police officer in her emotional explanation of the incident.

    “We shouldn’t be afraid to drive,” Dawn says through tears whilst addressing “all African-Americans and people of color.”

    “I just want to show you what area that I’m in. This is the area I’m in, in the middle of this kind of stuff,” Dawn then continues to say, turning her camera around to show the green fields to the side of the Interstate in Virginia. “This is where I am, so it’s not like I am not afraid because this is where we got lynched.”

    “I was literally afraid that he was going to pull me out, impound my car and I’d be Sandra Bland,” Dawn continues, referencing the 2015 death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland who died in a Texas prison three days after being pulled over for a traffic violation.

    “Now, do any of my white friends ever feel like that when they get pulled over? Are they afraid that they’re never going to come home to see anybody else?” Dawn continues. “Why do only African-Americans and people of color know what I am going through right now?”

    Dawn’s video instantly went viral, which left Bushwick County Police Department with no option but to review their officer’s bodycam to inspect if Dawn’s “traumatic experience” was as she described it.

    Here is what they found when they reviewed the footage. Clearly, something doesn’t add up…

    As you can see, Dawn’s story is very different to what truly happened that day.

    Thankfully the bodycam footage was able to prove exactly what happened and leave everyone in no doubt that the police officer was simply just doing his job.

    Speaking of the incident, Brunswick County Sheriff Brian Roberts said: “I don’t know what she has been through and I don’t know her life history, what I worry about is this kind of thing will inflame situations where you see cops in other states have been executed while they were just eating lunch.”

    It is certainly a compelling case, although it would appear that most people are unanimously in favor of the officer.

    Whose side do you take? Watch both videos to ensure you have the full story on the incident.

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