Cooperation against fake news

I’ve spent the past few days reading almost exclusively about the rise, dissemination and impact of fake news.

It’s not a new topic—I’ve enjoyed reading John Hermann, Mike Caulfield, Caitlin Dewey and Jeff Jarvis (among others) for some time. But Trump’s victory has turned it from a curiosity into a dangerous force.

Jarvis has co-written a list of 15 suggestions for platforms to adopt or investigate. This stands out to me as particularly important:

Create a system for media to send metadata about their fact-checking, debunking, confirmation, and reporting on stories and memes to the platforms. It happens now: Mouse over fake news on Facebook and there’s a chance the related content that pops up below can include a news site or Snopes reporting that the item is false. Please systematize this: Give trusted media sources and fact-checking agencies a path to report their findings so that Facebook and other social platforms can surface this information to users when they read these items and — more importantly — as they consider sharing them. Thus we can cut off at least some viral lies at the pass. The platforms need to give users better information and media need to help them. Obviously, the platforms can use such data from both users and media to inform their standards, ranking, and other algorithmic decisions in displaying results to users.

These linked data connections are not difficult to implement but they won’t happen without us asking for them. Platforms simply aren’t interested.

Same for this idea, also on the list:

Make the brands of those sources more visible to users. Media have long worried that the net commoditizes their news such that users learn about events “on Facebook” or “on Twitter” instead of “from the Washington Post.” We urge the platforms, all of them, to more prominently display media brands so users can know and judge the source — for good or bad — when they read and share. Obviously, this also helps the publishers as they struggle to be recognized online.

A key issue that Caulfield has repeatedly noted is that Facebook doesn’t really care whether you read articles that are posted; just whether you react to them, helping the platform learn more about you, in order to improve its ad targeting:

Facebook, on the other hand, doesn’t think the content is the main dish. Instead, it monetizes other people’s content. The model of Facebook is to try to use other people’s external content to build engagement on its site. So Facebook has a couple of problems.

First, Facebook could include whole articles, except for the most part they can’t, because they don’t own the content they monetize. (Yes, there are some efforts around full story embedding, but again, this is not evident on the stream as you see it today). So we get this weird (and think about it a minute, because it is weird) model where you get the headline and a comment box and if you want to read the story you click it and it opens up in another tab, except you won’t click it, because Facebook has designed the interface to encourage you to skip going off-site altogether and just skip to the comments on the thing you haven’t read.

Second, Facebook wants to keep you on site anyway, so they can serve you ads. Any time you spend somewhere else reading is time someone else is serving you ads instead of them and that is not acceptable.

The more I read about this, the more dispirited I become. The those of us who care about limiting fake news need to gather around a set of ideas and actions—Jarvis’s list is the best we have so far.

Instagram’s feed algorithm

Alex Parker on Medium discussing How Instagram’s algorithm is holding us captive:

Let’s be honest: the algorithm serves advertisers. Instagram is a free service, and it needs to make money. For years, it was free of advertisements. Then it had a few. Now, every few posts is sponsored. To tell the truth, I don’t mind the ads. They aren’t intrusive, they’re easy to scroll past, and I’m all for something I like finding ways to be sustainable. A business has to make money.

But why does it have to be at the expense of users and their enjoyment of a product?

[…]

As a journalist, who has a real-time Twitter feed inches from my face most hours of the day, I know I’m not the typical social media user (I’m also older than the average Instagram user, but age is just a number, right?). But because I use social networks so much, I want them to respond to my needs, rather than treating me like a captive pawn.

Parker is arguing that, as a heavy user, he should have a real-time view of what’s happening on Instagram. I can understand this—I exclusively use Tweetbot for Twitter so that I am always seeing posts in reverse-chronological order.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed’s Mat Honan and Alex Kantrovitz interviewed Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom. The timeline came up, along with questions about real-time viewing:

Nowhere in our mission is it about being real-time. I don’t think we are focused on making sure you have a news feed of an unfolding event in real-time view. And I think that’s okay. You should still see rainbows, generally, together — especially if they’re good rainbows, in which case the best ones will rise to the top.

That’s OK, I guess, but it would be helpful to have an option to change the order. This wouldn’t need to affect advertising.

He also shared some other ways they thought about implementing ephemerality for what would become Instagram Stories:

As we dug into our user studies, I realized very quickly that we had to find a solution that made it so you didn’t have to post your profile,” Systrom explained. “After some tests, we added a check box that said ‘expire from my profile’ or ‘don’t post to my profile.’ But no one understood why they would do that.

I rarely ever look at the stories posted by people I follow—which are dominated by a handful of heavy users—and seldom post to my own. I’d be interested to find out usage rates across the 500m active users.

‘Link in bio’ on Instagram

Alyssa Bereznak, for The Ringer, discusses the inability to add links in Instagram posts, and the community’s semi-popular workaround:

Take a moment to think about that. A network that hosts millions of people won’t let them do something that is second nature for digital natives. So its users have concocted their own clunky loophole to get around the problem. It’s as if there were a permanent snowstorm in a city, and the mayor refused to clear the sidewalks. Inevitably, pedestrians would just stomp out their own inelegant roundabout paths to navigate the dirty, urine-filled slush.

Anecdotally: when I’ve (reluctantly) used this tactic on our company’s Instagram account, very few people have followed the link compared to the number of likes and comments on the post. I’m not sure it’s worth the bother. Instagram will roll out usable links to organic posts before too long, I’d wager.

Facebook’s takeover of political media

The always-excellent John Herrman, for the New York Times:

For now, the network hums along, mostly beneath the surface. A post from a Liberty Alliance page might find its way in front of a left-leaning user who might disagree with it or find it offensive, and who might choose to engage with the friend who posted it directly. But otherwise, such news exists primarily within the feeds of the already converted, its authorship obscured, its provenance unclear, its veracity questionable. It’s an environment that’s at best indifferent and at worst hostile to traditional media brands; but for this new breed of page operator, it’s mostly upside. In front of largely hidden and utterly sympathetic audiences, incredible narratives can take shape, before emerging, mostly formed, into the national discourse.

While this is (mostly) about the U.S. election, the same basic pattern exists in all territories at all times. The only surprising thing should be the scale (tiny) and profitability (staggeringly high) of the content farms.

Weird Facebook

Steven Thomas, for Real Life:

The term “Weird Facebook” is fast becoming synonymous with Facebook pages dedicated to posting ironic memes — some of which, like Bernie Sanders’s Dank Meme Stash and I play KORN to my DMT plants, smoke blunts all day & do sex stuff, can clock over 100,000 followers. New York Magazine called them home to “thousands of the web’s most innovative weirdos,” while the Daily Dot called them “fodder for the guy you bought weed from in high school.” These larger groups often act like fan pages: One or a handful of admins make and post the memes for subscribers to like and share. But the delight of Weird Facebook is the network itself, which spills beyond these Facebook groups to the feeds of many of their members. “Dank Meme Stash” is only one realization of a vital and much more expansive sensibility. Weird Facebook lives in the posts that a loose community of artists, writers, weirdos and depressives make on their personal accounts and in conversation with each other. A genre emerges in these personal posts, something like a combination of performance art and comedy, and uniquely Facebookian: The art is in the performance of self, real or fictional or some combination thereof, with the depth and scope that a full profile, photo album and Timeline can allow.

See also:

Facebook to remove share count API

Last year Twitter stopped sites from displaying the number of times an article had been Tweeted. This sent marketers into meltdown. Now Facebook is doing the same thing.

James Parsons, for Inc.:

This is an interesting change. Facebook clearly still shows share counts on their own buttons. It’s only the availability of data for third party buttons that has been removed. In other words, Facebook is trying to shut down third party share counters, in favor of making marketers either use no-count buttons like Twitter, or making them use the official Facebook buttons.

Site owners everywhere will need to update or remove their sharing buttons. It’s questionable how useful having the count next to the button is to the audience anyway:

My question is actually how long Facebook’s buttons will continue showing share counts. I may be erring on the apocalyptic side here, but this hints to me at a larger change in the works. Facebook share counts are a good metric to monitor for tracking engagement rates, but the display of the counts wasn’t necessarily helpful or valuable.

Here’s what I think is the key takeaway:

[Marketers] didn’t work towards better goals, and treated share counts as the goal in and of themselves […] I’m not saying seeking engagement is a bad thing, but it’s just another example of fixation on a number that isn’t as meaningful as people thought it was.

Twitter map bots

@unchartedatlas is a Twitter bot that programatically generates maps of fictional lands:

Here’s a bit of background on how the bot does its thing.

See also @emojiatlas:

Instagram adds Stories for teens who delete posts

Casey Johnston for The New Yorker:

A recent Washington Post profile of Katherine Pommerening, an eighth grader from Virginia, noted that she never has more than a couple dozen posts visible on her Instagram profile at any given time. Teens love to post, but they love nearly as much to delete and unburden themselves of past gauche choices—the selfie taken in bad light, or with a then friend, now enemy. Pommerening and her cohort, in other words, have been rigging Instagram to do what Snapchat does automatically.

Audiogram turns audio into video for social media

WNYC, America’s most popular public radio station, is open sourcing its Audiogram service for turning audio clips into videos for native sharing on social media.

The most popular social media platforms—Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—don’t have a content type for audio and are predominantly visual. Facebook in particular sees video at the heart of what it does, and brands are using the format more often. See for example the huge increase in cooking and how-to videos.

It’s increasingly important to share content natively on social media platforms—that is, to use the platforms’ own media types, which are privileged in users’ news feeds.

Common solutions are to use audio hosting services such as SoundCloud or Audioboom, but these are a click away from a user’s Facebook news feed, or st the very least don’t auto play. This means that a user is less likely (source) to click to play or visit the content, which in turn results in low engagement, which in turn leads to lower exposure within Facebook.

I’ve seen this anecdotally when sharing SoundCloud recordings. I see far fewer likes, comments and shares, and people tell me they never saw the posts in their feeds.

WNYC’s tool turns audio files (.mp3 and .wav) into movie files, adding branding, captions and a waveform visualisation. They plan to introduce options for subtitling in a future release. The idea isn’t brand new—organisations like The Economist have had some success already—but by open sourcing their workflow, more people can try it out.

The target audience for the tool is WNYC partners and other news organisations who record interviews, but there are potential uses for:

  • Bedroom musicians to share demos
  • Podcasters
  • Writers of spoken-word fiction or radio plays
  • Stand-up comics

WNYC’s Delaney Simmons:

WNYC shows have been seeing great results. On Twitter, the average engagement for an audiogram is 8x higher than a non-audiogram tweet and on Facebook some of our shows are seeing audiogram reach outperform photos and links by 58% and 83% respectively.

Maybe turning audio into video is the way for it to finally go viral?

Facebook crack down on clickbait

Alex Peysakhovich and Kristin Hendrix:

We’ve heard from people that they specifically want to see fewer stories with clickbait headlines or link titles. These are headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer. For example: “When She Looked Under Her Couch Cushions And Saw THIS… I Was SHOCKED!”; “He Put Garlic In His Shoes Before Going To Bed And What Happens Next Is Hard To Believe”; or “The Dog Barked At The Deliveryman And His Reaction Was Priceless.”

To address this feedback from our community, we’re making an update to News Feed ranking to further reduce clickbait headlines in the coming weeks. With this update, people will see fewer clickbait stories and more of the stories they want to see higher up in their feeds.