Archive Monthly Archives: January 2019

Ballot selfie ban ruled in violation of the First Amendment

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton takes a selfie with supporters after speaking a voter registration rally at the University of South Florida September 6, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.
Image: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Voting in New Hampshire this fall? Don’t worry, you can take a selfie and post it to Snapchat.

On Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a would-be ban on taking and sharing selfies and other images in voting booths.

Such actions were previously banned under New Hampshire state law, but the law was struck down in August 2015 by a federal judge, who ruled that it violated the right of free speech under the First Amendment. However, that case was on appeal.

Supporters of the ban argued that allowing cameras and the ability to take pictures inside and around voting booths could provide support for illegal voting practices, such as vote buying.

Indeed, how do you prove who you voted for if not by taking an image?

But times have changed. Those against the ban argued that vote buying was not common nor was it practical, especially in a presidential election. In fact, the Court of Appeals reported in its ruling that New Hampshire had not received complaints of vote buying or voter intimidation since “at least 1976.”

New Hampshire had not received complaints of vote buying or voter intimidation since “at least 1976.”

“Digital photography, the internet, and social media are not unknown quantities they have been ubiquitous for several election cycles, without being shown to have the effect of furthering vote buying or voter intimidation,” the ruling reads.

The case had prompted Snap Inc., the company formerly known as Snapchat, to file its first standalone amicus brief in April that supported the act of taking selfies as it is a core part of using Snapchat at voting booths.

Snapchat cited the ballot selfie as a “uniquely powerful form of political expression” and also positioned itself as a newsgatherer who has a “First Amendment interest in disseminating user-generated content.”

“Today’s ruling is a victory for free speech in the digital age.We’re thrilled the court recognized that ballot selfies are an important way for Americans especially youngerAmericans to participate in the political process,” Chris Handman, Snap’s general counsel, said in a statement to Mashable.

Snapchat has entrenched itself in the 2016 election, with daily coverage on the campaign trail and at debates. The company, in partnership with TurboVote, is currently running voter registration within the app.

Snap Head of News Peter Hamby, who hosts an election-focused show “Good Luck America” on Snapchat, shared news of the ruling on Twitter.

So, in part, we can thank Snapchat for our right to take a selfie at least in New Hampshire.

However, photography near a voting booth is still illegal in dozens of states, with specifics varying state by state.

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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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