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Majority of Americans call social networks a net negative

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Programming note: The Interface will be off the rest of the week for Thanksgiving travels. Thanks to
 
November 20 · Issue #251 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: The Interface will be off the rest of the week for Thanksgiving travels. Thanks to everyone who has joined me for this first year, and shared the newsletter with your friends — lots of exciting things are coming. Stay tuned.
Thanksgiving is nearly upon us in the United States, and Americans will sit down to the table feeling less certain than ever about their social media accounts. On behalf of Axios, SurveyMonkey asked 3,622 adults if social media does more to help or hurt democracy and free speech. It was the second year the poll had been conducted — and it found a precipitous decline in social media sentiment. Sarah Fischer and Alison Snyder report:
In the past year, there has been a 15-point spike in the number of people who fear the federal government won’t do enough to regulate big tech companies — with 55% now sharing this concern.
In that same period, there was a 14-point increase in those who feel technology has hurt democracy and free speech.
The authors note that the disdain for social media, as of this year, is a fully bipartisan phenomenon. Whether it’s the ginned-up outrage about “censorship” or something more legitimate, Republicans now believe social media is worse for democracy and free speech than Democrats do.
Meanwhile, the number of people who think social media is a net positive for society is down to 40 percent. If you think social networks are a boon to the republic, you are officially now in the minority. Among other things, it suggests that the networks are having a tough time making this case for themselves — despite making huge investments in policy and communications teams.
There are lots of big reasons why people are wary of social media, and as a reader of this newsletter you can probably rattle off half a dozen or more. But there are small reasons, too, and I wanted to point out just one of them before the holiday weekend.
A couple years ago, inspired by the early success of Meerkat and then Periscope, Facebook made a huge investment in live video. It didn’t pan out, but engineers and product people continue to tinker with the offering.
Employees at Facebook are typically evaluated quarterly against some quantifiable metric, and at Facebook many of those metrics are oriented around some form of engagement — number of messages sent, for example. Former employees have complained to me that this cycle tends to reward projects that can be completely quickly to juice the metric in question, whatever their intrinsic merits.
It’s in that context that I read this Ryan Mac story about a new feature noticed by horrified onlookers of a video stream Monday that was documenting a mass shooting at a Chicago hospital:
On Monday, a handful of Facebook users noticed that the social media platform was offering them preset responses for live videos about a series of news stories. On one stream for MSNBC about an ongoing, officer-involved shooting at a Chicago hospital, NBCUniversal contractor Stephanie Haberman noticed Facebook was prompting her to comment with phrases like “this is so sad” and “so sorry,” along with emojis including the prayer hands.
Haberman wryly called the feature “a thoughts and prayers autoresponder,” a phrase that resonated with more than 2,000 people. As Mac notes, autoresponders are all the rage lately, having recently materialized inside Gmail. They’re popping up more on Facebook properties, too — tap to comment on an Instagram story and the app will now suggest you send an emoji instead.
That’s fine when you’re sending hearts to a picture of somebody’s homemade brunch, but unsettling when Facebook’s vaunted AI tools are working to understand your response to a massacre.
The company shut down the test: “Clearly this wasn’t implemented properly and we have disabled this feature for now,” it told Mac. But that’s different from saying it never should have been implemented at all — or won’t be again.
As social networks study the sentiment reported in the Axios survey and others, it might want to ask how cheap engagement-juicing features chip away at any good feeling someone might have from using their products. The thoughts and prayers autoresponder will be forgotten in a few days. But the underlying doubts about what role these services play in our lives will linger.

The key chart from the Axios report.
Pushback
On Monday I looked at how unforced errors on Facebook’s communications and policy team suggested a need for rethinking from its wartime CEO. I heard back from insiders who let me know that while executives like Alex Stamos, Andrew Bosworth, and Adam Mosseri might have embraced Twitter before the communications team, eventually comms put together a coordinated Twitter effort that put them at the center. People discussed their Twitter accounts in conference room. There were presentation decks!
I also heard from some smart folks on Twitter who read my post as a suggestion that Facebook’s problems are primarily the result of a bad PR strategy. I don’t think that, and I should have made it more clear on Monday. What I intended to say is that whatever Facebook’s more deeply rooted problems, the paranoid, cynical style of PR championed by Sheryl Sandberg, Elliot Schrage, and Joel Kaplan has resulted in a lot of paranoid, cynical coverage. The Definers scandal is only the latest example.
Democracy
Google has taken down more foreign disinformation pages
Bots spread a lot of fakery during the 2016 election. But they can also debunk it.
Russian Trolls Sue Facebook, Their Old Propaganda Machine
Blame Fox, not Facebook, for fake news
If you hate the media, you’re more likely to be fooled by a fake headline
How China Walled Off the Internet
Elsewhere
Facebook and Instagram are down for some users across the US
Facebook's Ads System Suffers Glitch Days Before Black Friday
So many people are downloading their Facebook data that it’s causing delays
Amazon, Apple and Facebook Once Led the Market. Now They Are Driving it Down.
Snap’s Spiegel Flies High Above Wall Street Worries ($)
Snap To Release New Spectacles With Two Cameras For $350 on Cheddar
The White Instagram Influencers Pretending to Be Black: ‘My Style Is My Own’
On Instagram, Seeing Between the (Gender) Lines
Tumblr was removed from Apple’s App Store over child pornography issues
Klumping: The Art of Playing Every Role in Your Viral Video
Launches
Facebook rolls out time spent dashboard
YouTube now runs pop-ups on videos that warn users of EU copyright proposal
Takes
'He Who Must Not Be Named': What Infowars' Alex Jones and Voldemort Have in Common
Milestones
Thanks to you, yesterday we surged past 6,000 subscribers — and our open rate has held steady, with the last three clocking in at 46, 44, and 44 percent, respectively. Please keep your thoughts coming on how I can make The Interface more useful in your life — whether it’s helping you stay informed at your job, as a citizen of the world, or some combination of the two.
And finally ...
LinkedIn launches its own Snapchat Stories: “Student Voices”
Talk to me
Send me tips, questions, comments, and your favorite Thanksgiving side dishes: casey@theverge.com.
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