Watching Synthetic Messenger is a somewhat dissociative experience. It operates in a Zoom call with 100 participants, all of whom are bots. Observers can watch these bots—which are strangely anthropomorphized with images of disembodied hands and voices that say “scroll” and “click” repeatedly—methodically scroll through news articles about climate change and click every ad on each page.
The project, created by two New York artist-cum-engineers, launched earlier this month. In its first week and a half online, its bots visited 2 million climate articles—you can see them listed here—and clicked on 6 million ads.
If this all seems like a bizarre, trippy art project, it definitely is. But it’s also a piece of criticism about how narratives about the climate crisis are shaped by the media.
Most online outlets are funded by advertisers. Stories that garner more ad clicks can also become more visible in Google’s search algorithms, drawing more eyes to the page. When certain stories garner more views and engagement, news organizations are more likely to publish similar articles. Absurdly, this means advertising mechanisms and algorithms can play an outsized role in determining what news people see rather than other factors like, um, how important the story is.
“With this project, we wanted to see how that media ecology affects our actual ecology, how narrative affects our material realm,” Sam Lavigne, an artist and assistant professor in the Department of Design at the University of Texas, said.
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Of course, conflicting narratives have always played a role in the climate crisis, as Lavigne was quick to note. Polluters know that controlling how people talk and think about the climate crisis is important, so they’vespentfortunes on all sorts of misinformation campaigns, including on shaping narratives in media.
“The narrative around climate change has been so controlled by the fossil fuel industry and lobby groups,” Lavigne said.
Algorthims have further distorted how news—or, increasingly, misinformation—reaches people. YouTube’s algorithm for recommending videos, for instance, has encouraged viewers to watch videos full of climate denial. YouTube also sold against those videos, profiting off misinformation while incentivizing viewers to consume ever-more of it.
As historically damaging wildfires spread across Australia a year-and-a-half ago, a narrative sprung up that they were sparked by arsonists, not by the climate crisis. That misinformation, a group of researchers found, was spread with the use of online trolling bots. Conservative media then turned around and amplified those claims, creating a feedback loop where everyone was debunking lies rather than talking about how to address the climate crisis. (The same scenario played out in the U.S. last year.) Yet as Tega Brain, who co-created the project, noted, these aren’t the only ways that algorithms have colored the media landscape.
“All news, and therefore all public opinion is being shaped [by] algorithms,” Brain, an assistant professor of digital media at New York University whose background is in environmental engineering, said. “And the algorithmic systems that shape news are these blackbox algorithms,” she added, referring to tech companies’ practice of hiding how their code and priorities from the public.
Synthetic Messenger, then, looks to game the system by showing bot-fed interest in climate stories. While it could play a small role in amplifying climate coverage, there are some complications. For one, since its algorithm is imprecise and based on climate-related keywords, it also clicks ads on climate-denying media. Its creators have tried to get around that by blacklisting denialist websites like those owned by Rupert Murdoch, but it’s not a perfect system.
If this project were primarily designed as a tool for political organizing, those might be big sticking points. But Brain and Lavigne are clear that they know their project won’t change the media landscape or fight the climate crisis itself.
“We don’t intend for it to be read as like, ‘here is this really effective new activist strategy to deal with climate change,’” said Brain. “Essentially, with this project we’re doing what’s called ‘click fraud,’ and if we did it for a long enough time and at a large enough scale, it wouldn’t work, because obviously ad networks are doing everything they can to sort of protect against automated behavior. They’d stop it.”
Rather, the purpose is to call attention to the screwed-up incentive structures that determine what climate stories get told and amplified by advertisers and search algorithms.
“It’s not like we are offering this as a solution to this problem that we have. The solution is meaningful climate policy, effective policy,” said Brain. “But we’re trying to open up a conversation and reveal the way that our media landscape is currently operating.”
Twitter is floating “early concepts” of new anti-abuse features—such as the ability for a user to untag themselves from another’s posts, or even revoke the ability of another user to tag them entirely.
The new features aren’t set in stone, but concepts tweeted by Twitter privacy engineer Dominic Camozzi tease the idea of an “Unmention yourself from this conversation” button that allows a user to not only stop receiving notifications from a conversation (already possible via the mute button) but remove any link to their profile. Another possible update would allow users to ensure that another who doesn’t follow them never tags them in a post again—they would instead receive a notification that the “[user] can’t be mentioned.” The two features could be linked in some way, providing a quick way for users to tell hostile strangers to go screw off.
According to TechCrunch, other major updates being floated by Twitter include a toggle that would allow users to turn off being tagged in a post for stretches of one, three, or seven days, as well as a tool that would identify situations that may be “escalating further” and suggesting solutions such as turning off mentions. This wouldn’t stop other Twitter users from relentlessly screenshotting a particularly bad tweet or criticizing someone, although it would give whoever is the target of the latest round of Twitter beefing an opportunity to not get a notification every time another rando goes for a dunk.
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A Twitter spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that Camozzi’s tweets were a “design mock” that remain “still in the early stages of design and research,” though the company is “excited about community feedback even at this early stage.” Numerous issues remain to be sorted out, such as how turning off tagging will affect pre-scheduled or automatically scheduled tweets.
These would collectively constitute some of the bigger anti-harassment updates to Twitter in recent memory. The site has dealt with rampant bullying, hate speech, and overall toxicity for almost as long as it’s been around (a 2016 BuzzFeed article described it as a decade-long “honeypot for assholes”). To a big extent, this is inherent to the way the site works at all—a relatively small group of power users jockeying for attention combined with legions of trolls leads to bad results—but maybe it will make the overall experience more pleasant for users, especially marginalized or vulnerable communities that tend to take the brunt of hate speech.
Twitter has been on a feature roll lately, introducing such things as the ability for users to charge for access to premium feeds and audio chat rooms. In Australia and Canada, it recently began testing Twitter Blue, a $4.99 premium account service offering features such as a 30-second window of opportunity to retract tweets, condensed threads, and bookmarking and organization tools. The company also recently relaunched its system for users to request “verified” status on the site, which had been shut down for four years after its staff’s decision to verify a number of high profile white supremacists and neo-Nazis backfired.
Cherrie Lynn Almonte is an influencer with 192,000 Instagram followers and a bio that includes the phrase “Travel | Lifestyle | Good vibes.” Her posts follow standard travel-influencer protocols, with perfectly framed photos of stunning vistas and cityscapes, lots of saturated colors, and geolocations for most shots as well as prominently tagged brands. An October 2020 post of Almonte’s fits this vibe perfectly with a vintage-style video of a trip to Joshua Tree. There’s dreamy warm-toned footage of Almonte, her ash-blonde hair visible under a big hat, wandering among cacti, and the dazzling sunset in the desert. There’s just one thing off. It’s all interspersed with shots of her and her fellow road tripper filling up at a Shell gas station.
The post was sponsored by Shell, which Almonte notes at the top of her caption, before launching into a list of things she learned from her trip. Point number one: “check your destination before you go,” she wrote. “Especially with the fires that are happening in California, we had to make sure it was safe for us to go to Joshua Tree.” In fall 2020, while Almonte was filming in Joshua Tree, California was in the midst of its biggest fire season in history, supercharged by the West’s devastating drought conditions and the heat of the climate crisis. Just a month prior to her Joshua Tree video, the trees themselves became the first species to be listed as endangered due to climate change.
Compared to some other brands, Big Oil has made relatively small forays into the world of Instagram marketing—but if history is any indication, they’re just getting started. Almonte’s post—with the accompanying whiplash of seeing a company partly responsible for the climate crisis sponsoring a trip to a place greatly endangered by climate change–could become the norm. History has shown that fossil fuel companies have mastered the art of quiet persuasion, and they’ll almost certainly join in the battle for our time and attention on social media.
Earther has found at least two oil and gas companies—Shell and Phillips 66—have launched campaigns with different types of Instagram influencers. Shell is the second-largest investor-owned source of historical carbon pollution on the planet. Phillips 66 doesn’t have quite that historic footprint, but a staggering 80% shareholders recently voted for the company to address its carbon emissions tied to users. Clearly both companies could use a little image boost in the public’s eyes.
Since at least 2018, Phillips 66 has worked with a handful of accounts as part of a campaign called “Live to the Full,” which, per the Phillips 66 Facebook page, the company calls “an anthology of middle America.” The accounts we were able to find posts from all appear to be clustered around St. Louis and Kansas City; all are parenting-focused accounts whose Phillips 66-sponsored posts tend to centeraroundtheir kids. (A post from October by Liz Rotz, who describes herself as a “St. Louis Family Blogger,” is pretty standard fare: The image shows Rotz and her two kids snacking on pastries out of the back of her car, with the caption thanking Phillips 66 for sending them on the “ultimate adventure to eat out in St. Louis.”)
Shell, meanwhile, appears to have launched multiple different campaigns over the past few years with lots of different influencers in several different locations. We found several clustered under the hashtag “#ShellPartner,” which influencers use to tag their sponsored posts with the company. Many of the posts are pretty obviously ads; several are just influencers posinginfrontofaShellgaspump. But some posts, like Almonte’s, are basically unrecognizable from other types of standard aspirational social media fare. Eileen Lazazzera, who goes by @yesmissy and has a beauty and wellness account with nearly 30,000 followers, posted a set of photos in 2019 posing with chocolate pretzel thins and water—no pumps or logos in sight—while giving props to Shell stations for providing “healthy snack options while on the go” in the caption.
Even for heavy Instagram users, the details behind these kinds of deals can be murky. Does the social media manager of Shell just slide into a bunch of influencers’ DMs hoping a few will bite? Brendan Gahan, the chief social officer at ad agency Mekanism, said that there’s no hard-and-fast rule for brokering an influencer-brand deal, but usually big brands like Shell and Phillips 66 will hire social agencies that will help them develop a strategy and then figure out influencers to work with.
“There’s a ton of tools you can use to cross-reference and get demographic and geographic data around an influencer’s audience,” he explained.
Gahan said a lot of brands are still trying to figure out how to best use Instagram; while more social-savvy brands are developing ongoing relationships with top influencers, he still sees a lot of “one-and-done” deals with brands dipping their toes into brokering deals with accounts of all sizes. But that looks poised to change very soon. When covid-19 closed production offices unexpectedly in 2020, it was “like gasoline on the fire” of Instagram marketing, Gahan said. A recent survey found that the number of sponsored posts by influencers for brands on Black Friday last year nearly doubled from the number in 2019.
Shell seems to recognize the power of celebrity more than any other fossil company. In 2019, the company tapped “Criminal Minds” actor Brent Bailey as a spokesperson (Bailey ran a social media campaign encouraging people to take a “#Shellfie,” which, ouch). A couple of years ago, Shell launched ads featuring Jennifer Hudson and other international stars covering Imagine Dragons and American Authors’ songsto promote its #makethefuture campaign. While Instagram influencers may not have the traditional star power of a singer or actor, Gahan said the medium can still be extremely powerful.
“With a digital ad, you’re lucky if people watch 3 seconds,” Gahan said. “People just keep scrolling. But influencers—people will stop, and they’ll watch a full 15-, 20-minute vlog of their favorite creator, all the way through, and they’ll listen to every single word. You can actually communicate some stuff with real depth.”
Recently, Shell seems to have branched off from using Instagram to promote road trips and gas station stops, and into what the company claims it’s doing to save the environment. As part of a new campaign called “Drive Carbon Neutral,” severalinfluencers have recently created outdoors-centric posts to promote how Shell is selling options for customers to choose to add a small price to their gas at the pump, which the company then uses to purchase carbon offsets.
“Thanks to Shell, there’s a way to explore nature and reduce our carbon footprint at the same time,” Erik McRitchie, a photographer from Alberta with more than 74,000 followers, narrates over a reel of kids playing in the snow and shots of beautiful mountains.
Earther emailed more than a dozen influencers who worked on the Phillips 66 or Shell campaigns described in this article. Most did not respond; the few who did get back to us declined to talk about the partnership. (One said they sign NDAs with the companies they work for, presumably including Phillips 66, while another said they weren’t comfortable disclosing details because they’d “hate to ruin” their relationship with a partner.)
Doing a sponsored post for a company with a dirty reputation can have serious consequences for rising social stars’ careers. One Instagram influencer that partnered with Shell and agreed to speak to Earther on the condition of anonymity, said they “didn’t expect” the negative comments from their followers. “The negative backlash I received will definitely shape how I choose to do partnerships in the future,” they said. But there are always more influencers.
Oil companies working with influencers is actually part of a tradition they helped create decades ago. A lot of the way modern advertising works—including Instagram—is thanks to the work of brands like Shell and Exxon.
“The oil industry has been essential to the invention and perfection of propaganda techniques for 100 years,” said Geoffrey Supran, a researcher at the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and director of Climate Accountability Communication at the Climate Social Science Network at Brown University. “Since the very beginning, they’ve been using advertising in various ways, especially since the rise of environmentalism and then climate change from the 1970s through the 1990s.”
The genesis of many of Big Oil’s modern propaganda techniques can be traced back to the 1970s oil crisis. Herb Schmertz, ExxonMobil’s head of public relations in the 1970s and 1980s who guided the company through the crisis, is recognized by much of the advertising industry as a pioneer in the business. He elevated the company from just something that sells a product to a cultural and political force. Schmertzinvented many advertising techniques that are still used today, like brands sponsoring cultural programming (under his leadership, Exxon underwrote several seasons of PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre” program) and creating what he called “advertorials,” or what’s commonly referred to today as “paid media”–ads in newspapers and on websites that look like traditional articles. Much of Schmertz’s work helped set Exxon up to successfully wage its decades-long PR battle against climate science, planting the seeds for Big Oil to influence politicians and the public into not paying attention to what its product was doing.
A central idea of Schmertz’s was to bypass traditional gatekeepers, like journalists and analysts, to reach consumers directly. The goal wasn’t necessarily to sell them a specific product, but to establish positive associations with the company itself as an entity, which could help head off PR crises or problems in the future (like, say, the fact that a company is actively helping burn down the planet). Supran said Schmertz particularly recognized the power of celebrities, politicians, religious leaders, and educators to sway opinions about a company through what he called a “ripple effect,” like throwing a stone into a pond. In Schmertz’s era, the power of the New York Times op-ed page or an episode of a prestigious TV show could be the most effective way of changing opinion.
Were Schmertz alive and in charge of Exxon’s ad department today, he may have seen the value in getting a post from a user’s favorite Instagram influencer to create that ripple. Oil companies “have gone digital, and they’ve gone more subtle, but there’s no denying the fact that these messages are not simple product advertising,” Supran said. “These are the modern manifestations of the PR techniques Big Oil helped create.”
I wanted to get a sense of what a modern-day Schmertz might dream up for Exxon (or Shell, or Phillips 66) today. So, I asked Gahan how he would advise an oil and gas company looking for a social campaign, particularly as public opinion—especially from social native generations Gen Z and millennials—turns increasingly toward climate action. Gahan said he’d hammer home on the good the company says it’s doing to bond with its audience.
“My gut would be, they’re probably going to lean into the [corporate social responsibility]-focused stuff as a way in to generate some goodwill, versus being like, ‘we’ve got great gas!’” he said. “These conglomerates, they’re almost so polished, there’s no humanity there. I think they could benefit from humanity, even if some of it’s pointing out their flaws.”
“We all know we must urgently tackle climate change and achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement for countries to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Ben van Beurden, the CEO wrote, after questioning whether or not it was fair for a court to single out his company and partially blaming consumer demand for Shell’s continued production of oil. “The court ruling has not changed the fact that Shell is more determined than ever to play its part and lead in this global challenge.”
It’s clear that the social strategy on Instagram and beyond for oil and gas companies has turned to talking up their role in the coming energy revolution. Meanwhile, they’re hiding the dirty work they plan on continuing to do in opaque reports.
“There’s a social media loophole the size of an oil tanker in terms of how the fossil fuel industry gets away with brazen political advertising, hidden behind the veil of corporate green talk,” said Supran.
Even if regulators figure out a way to crack down on online greenwashing, the industry is not likely to stop. Rather, it seems, they’re just getting started. In December, Mother Jones reported that the natural gas lobby was paying Instagram influencers to promote gas stoves in response to the increasing wave of legislation banning natural gas hookups across the country. Supran pointed out that studies have shown that negative media attention is one of the key indicators of oil and gas advertising. In May, Big Oil suffered a three-tier punch: On the same day Shell got handed its court ruling, both Exxon and Chevron suffered climate-related shareholder revolts at their annual meetings. Given the international headlines about Big Oil’s “bad week,” it’s reasonable to expect a fresh wave of PR in the aftermath.
“I feel as though we’re going to see a doubling down on efforts to protect social, political, and legal legitimacy,” said Supran.
And even if advertising directly to dubious consumers becomes increasingly tricky, turning to influencers could be an incredibly effective way to get Big Oil’s messages across.
“A great influencer campaign, it’s shocking the outcomes you can generate,” said Gahan. “I’ve worked campaigns where we’ve crashed websites, had so many fans show up we’ve had to shut things down. It’s really surprising what they can do. I think people generally underestimate the impact that they have.”
If you thought the deal couldn’t possibly get sweeter for the influencers that flock to Facebook and Instagram to simultaneously bolster their social media followings and line their pockets, think again: On Tuesday, both platforms announced that they’ll be stepping up their respective games in the coming weeks by rolling out a suite of additional financial incentives aimed at keeping the creator class logged on and streaming.
During Instagram’s first Creator Week event, Mark Zuckerberg — the CEO of Facebook, which owns Instagram — debuted new features that will help influencers rack up “extra cash” in exchange for hitting certain milestones. According to Engadget, examples of goals that will translate to extra cash include selling badges within streams or going live with other accounts on Instagram and participating in “Stars Challenges,” on Facebook, which will reward creators for meeting certain streaming milestones and completing other predetermined tasks.
“We believe that you should be rewarded for the value that you bring to your fans and to the overall community,” Zuckerberg told creators during the event.
In addition to the new milestones, Instagram will also be rolling out an option for creators who sell their own products to link to them in-app, with additional options to earn commission directly from shopping posts.
The cash incentives seem explicitly designed to keep influencers, well influencing, which, in addition to lining creators’ pockets, serves the dual purpose of attracting more users to Instagram and Facebook.
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Notably, the bonuses also seem to be explicitly targeted towards mid-range creators, rather than content behemoths with massive online followings. This seems to be in line with Zuckerberg’s recently stated goal of establishing a sort of “creator middle class” — the subset of influencers that, despite having substantial platforms, are not yet big or influence-y enough to merit sponsorship offers from big-name brands.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page is having an extremely normal one, read: Mark’s latest gladiatorial displays to the mighty riff of Audioslave. As you can see, he is capable of firing bow and arrow and throwing a javelin—or a spear of some sort. Also, yesterday he dropped whatever still-intact public pretense might have remained and told Apple that Facebook is coming for them.
After two videos of paramilitary exercises posted on Sunday and Monday, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will keep engagement and subscription tools free for creators until 2023, and it won’t be robbing you like Apple (and “others,” which means “Google”) with notorious app store commissions. He wrote:
To help more creators make a living on our platforms, we’re going to keep paid online events, fan subscriptions, badges, and our upcoming independent news products free for creators until 2023. And when we do introduce a revenue share, it will be less than the 30% that Apple and others take.
That 30% is a reference to Apple’s commission for purchases made through apps downloaded from the App Store. In an announcement about Facebook’s free online events service, the VP of the Facebook app Fidji Simo wrote that creators can blame Apple for taking their earnings. “We asked Apple to reduce its 30% App Store tax or allow us to offer Facebook Pay so we could absorb all costs for businesses struggling during COVID-19,” Simo wrote. “Unfortunately, they dismissed both our requests and [small and medium businesses] will only be paid 70% of their hard-earned revenue.”
Facebook fully intends to weaponize the above fact in order to muster the influencers and turn them against certain Facebook competitors. Zuckerberg added that Facebook will be unrolling a tool so that influencers can compare their earnings by breaking down “how different companies’ fees and taxes are impacting their earnings.”
“More to come soon,” he warned.
Protect your neck.
Facebook has spent the better part of a year protesting Apple’s privacy update which compels iPhone users to opt-in or out of data collection by apps. Not only is this expected to hurt Facebook’s ad network, but it draws uncomfortable attention to the fact that apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger (and apps using Facebook ads) track our movements while browsing other apps and the internet.
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A personal Tim Cook-Mark Zuckerberg rivalry flourished into a spectacular New York Times piece detailing attempts by a Facebook-backed political firm to anonymously smear Cook, even making a fake presidential campaign to turn Donald Trump against Cook. Meanwhile, speaking to the media and governments, Tim Cook has gotten to cast himself as a savior and raising the question what will it take to psych out this guy?
Zuckerberg named unrelated nemeses as the target audience for war games on Saturday, June 5th, claiming that an unnamed “trail that I like to hike” ran out of hiking permits and now only offers hunting permits. The message to Tim Cook was clear: Mark didn’t want to become a hunter, but his hand was forced.
Large chunks of the internet were offline starting shortly before 6:00 a.m. ET on Tuesday, including everything from CNN to the British government, in an outage being blamed on Fastly, a content distribution network used by hundreds of high-profile websites. Gizmodo was also down during this morning’s outage.
Fastly announced at 6:44 a.m. ET that it had identified “the issue” and that a fix was being implemented. It’s not immediately clear what the issue may have been and the company did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Fastly’s clients include news outlets like CNN, the New York Times, and the Guardian, as well as social media sites like Pinterest, Twitch, and Reddit. The UK Government website was also hit with an outage, which is particularly dangerous because it gives hucksters an opportunity to quickly fill the void and potentially collect information for scams, as Martin Lewis pointed out on Twitter.
Some news outlets tried alternative methods of reporting the news, with the Verge sharing a Google doc on Twitter. The only problem? They forgot to turn off editing. People added their own commentary to the doc, including “everyone can write for Verge now.”
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The outage will likely draw attention to how centralized our “decentralized” internet really is—a depressing reminder as ransomware attacks hit at critical infrastructure around the world.
It appears that not just anyone will be able to make bank for the time they spend on Twitter. If you’re looking to get people to pay you for your “exclusive” Twitter content and become your Super Followers, you might have to meet a certain set of criteria and fill out an application.
App researcher Jane Manchun Wong said on Sunday that Twitter appeared to be moving along in its development of the Super Follows feature, which it announced back in February. From what we know so far, Super Follows is basically a paid subscription service for certain types of additional content—such as extra tweets, supporter badges, subscriber-only newsletters, or access to community groups—on individual Twitter feeds.
According to Wong, who shared screenshots of the purported new details on Super Follows, Twitter will only allow users over 18 years old who have at least 10,000 followers and have posted at least 25 tweets in the last 30 days to use the feature.
In one of the message screens for the feature that Wong found, Twitter sells Super Follows as a way for users to do what they love and earn money doing it. Another screen titled “earnings estimator” suggests that users could earn $6,250 a month with Super Follows if they manage to convert 2% of their followers at a price of $4.99 a month.
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“Offer your favorite followers a little something extra and earn money each month,” Twitter said. “They’ll get access to a more personal experience with bonus content, and you’ll get paid for what you create. It’s a win-win situation.”
In terms of price, it should be noted that Twitter hasn’t confirmed a price for Super Follow subscriptions yet, although it has floated around the price of $4.99. It is expected that the company will take a portion of the revenue generated from this feature. Whether Twitter ultimately will in the end and how much that cut would be is unknown at the moment.
Interestingly, it’s apparently not enough to meet the criteria above. Wong also found that Twitter is reportedly looking to make users fill out an application. The application asks users to identify their content category, other creation platforms, and demographic information. Twitter has included “adult content” and “OnlyFans” as content categories, which is notable considering that the social media platform hadn’t committed on whether to allow Super Follows for sexual content a few months back.
The application also asks users to detail how they plan to use Super Follows. Wong’s research notes that Twitter aims to review the information and get in touch with applicants within 10 days.
Twitter told Gizmodo that it had no comment on Wong’s research on Sunday.
Although Wong’s research paints an interesting picture of the development on Super Follows, it’s important to note that we don’t know for sure what the feature will look like yet or when it will launch. Wong has a good track record on finding features, but in the end, it’s Twitter’s call. Maybe we’ll find out sooner rather than later.
Facebook announced on Friday that Donald Trump’s accounts on the company’s platforms—which includes the former president’s Instagram account—are going to be suspended for a full two years. At the end of that two-year gap, the company will “look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded,” before reinstating his account.
This news comes about a month after the company’s Oversight Board voted to uphold the suspensions that struck Trump after he used the platform to praise people involved with the Capitol riots on January 6th. Because his account was officially suspended the following day, Facebook says that the two-year block will stay in place until January 7th, 2023.
According to a blog post by Facebook’s VP of global affairs, Nick Clegg, the two year period is meant to be “long enough to allow a safe period of time after the acts of incitement, to be significant enough to be a deterrent to Mr. Trump and others from committing such severe violations in future, and to be proportionate to the gravity of the violation itself.”
At the time of the original Oversight Board vote, some members criticized the originally open-ended nature of the ban, demanding that Facebook re-review their decision and “justify a proportionate response” for the then-outgoing president. They gave Facebook six months to respond with a verdict that “should be “consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform.” This two-year stretch is meant to respond to those criticisms.
In the blog, the company noted that “any penalty” that gets applied (or not applied) to Trump will inevitably be controversial.
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“There are many people who believe it was not appropriate for a private company like Facebook to suspend an outgoing President from its platform, and many others who believe Mr. Trump should have immediately been banned for life,” Facebook wrote. “We know today’s decision will be criticized by many people on opposing sides of the political divide—but our job is to make a decision in as proportionate, fair and transparent a way as possible.”
In addition to its decision on Trump, Facebook also updated its policies regarding posts by all politicians, which was first reported by the Verge. This includes publishing its “strike system” to allow users to “know what actions our systems will take if they violate our policies,” and limited its “newsworthiness” standard, which the company used as the basis for letting Trump say shit like this. Facebook says it will publish any instance in which it applies its “newsworthiness allowance” and, importantly, it will no longer “treat content posted by politicians any differently from content posted by anyone else.”
“We allow certain content that is newsworthy or important to the public interest to remain on our platform—even if it might otherwise violate our Community Standards,” Clegg wrote. “We may also limit other enforcement consequences, such as demotions, when it is in the public interest to do so. When making these determinations, however, we will remove content if the risk of harm outweighs the public interest.”
Facebook’s found a new way to capitalize on the thoughts, prayers (and data) from the religious side of its user base. On Thursday, the company confirmed that it’s begun expanding a new feature called “prayer posts” that will let members of particular Facebook groups literally ask for (and offer up) prayers for other folks on the platform.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the feature’s been in testing for “over a year” before quietly rolling out to the masses over the past few months. Back in April, Robert Jones—who runs Public Religion Research Institute in Washington DC—was one of the first public faces to actually ask the company what the hell these posts actually were.
His question wasn’t picked up by mainstream outlets at the time, but more than a few religious-facing newswires jumped on the story and got Facebook to confirm that Prayer Posts were indeed being tested on a select few groups, though the company wouldn’t elaborate on which groups they were (hint: probably users who are religious).
At the time, Nona Jones—who has the baffling role of leading “Global Faith Partnerships” for the company—told one of these religious outlets that the idea for prayer posts stemmed from the need to “build community,” with users over the course of the pandemic. It’s not a coincidence that Jones was seeing this post in the lead-up to Easter when churches were expecting to see their attendance to be sliced to a fraction of what they’d expect in the pre-covid era.
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“During the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve seen many faith and spirituality communities using our services to connect, so we’re starting to explore new tools to support them,” a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo. He added that the feature first debuted in select groups in the US in order to “give people the option of requesting prayer from their Facebook Group,” if they choose. The company did not answer questions on whether any of the data from these posts would be used to deliver targeted ads at users based on their group-praying habits.
When a group administrator opts into using the feature, members just drop prayer requests into the group, and then others can flock over and hit the “pray” button to notify the poster that their request has been prayed for. Sure, it’s… something, but like the majority of Facebook’s design, it’s a concept that feels cold and clinical and more than a bit bizarre. This is a company that puts profits before all else, always, and has found ways to turn even the smallest blip on the platform into data to be monetized. And if prayers are something deeply personal to the users posting them, at the end of the day, they’re still just points of data on a major social platform that has absolutely no scruples about turning over that data for as much cash as possible.
Instagram is making a change to its algorithm after employees raised concerns over the reach of pro-Palestinian content in light of the recent deadly confrontation between Israel and Palestine.
A Financial Times report published on Sunday states that the change will affect original and reposted content in Instagram’s Stories section, which is displayed at the top of the app. The outlet affirmed that until now, Instagram had favored original stories over stories that reshare posts from the user’s feed or someone else’s feed. Going forward, Instagram will rank original and re-shared posts on the same level.
The move comes after a group of as many as 50 employees inside Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, expressed their concerns about pro-Palestinian content being suppressed, the outlet said. Buzzfeed News reported that this group had begun filing internal appeals to restore content on Facebook and Instagram they believed had been improperly blocked or removed.
An Instagram spokesperson told the FT that more users had been sharing posts about the recent conflict in Gaza. However, the app’s current setup had a “bigger impact than expected” on how many people had seen the posts, according to the outlet.
“Stories that reshare feed posts aren’t getting the reach people expect them to, and that’s not a good experience,” the Instagram spokesperson told the FT. “Over time, we’ll move to give equal weighting to re-shared posts as we do originally-produced stories.”
Gizmodo reached out to Instagram on Monday for a comment on the planned change but did not receive a response by the time of publication. We’ll make sure to update this blog if we hear back.
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Despite Instagram’s acknowledgment of the impact of its previous ranking, the social media company told the FT that the change in its algorithm “was not wholly” in response to the problems over pro-Palestinian content, and that it has been under consideration for some time. Instagram also reiterated that the ranking wasn’t meant to suppress “stories about particular topics or points of view.”
“We want to be really clear—this isn’t the case. This applied to any post that’s re-shared in stories, no matter what it’s about,” the spokesperson said.
This isn’t the first time Instagram has made mistakes regarding content on its platform related to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In May, Instagram deleted posts and blocked hashtags related to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in the Islamic faith, because its content moderation system erroneously associated it with violence and terrorist organizations.
Overall, actions in Facebook’s social media empire have drawn criticism from its own employees, some of which have gone so far as to say that the company “is losing trust among Arab users.” It’s also come under fire from data rights organizations, which allege the company is discriminating against certain groups.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told Buzzfeed News in an interview that Facebook knew there had been several issues that impacted people’s ability to share on its apps, but that it had fixed them. He added that the problems should have never occurred and that the company was sorry for people who felt they couldn’t bring attention to certain events or felt their voices were being suppressed.
“This was never our intention—nor do we ever want to silence a particular community or point of view,” Stone said.