Happy Worldwide Developer Conference
to those who celebrate. I spent the weekend watching three stories unfold at the intersection of social networks and politics. Let’s take them in turn.
During the initial George Floyd protests earlier this month, a big question was whether the social networks would take action against President Trump for one of his bad posts. Twitter applied some warning labels, and Snapchat removed him from promotion in the Discover tab. But Facebook declined to take action, and a lot of people got mad: current employees, former employees, advertisers. There was even a virtual walkout. Facebook not acting in this
case led some people to believe it would not act in any
case, and it’s still dealing with the fallout
Around that time, I predicted that by July or August, Trump would post something else that clearly violated Facebook’s policies and had to be removed. (Scrub to about 1:03:45 of this Vergecast episode
.) Instead it took about two weeks. Here’s Russell Brandom in The Verge
Facebook has removed more than 80 ads placed by the Trump campaign for use of imagery linked to Nazism. The ads used the imagery of an inverted triangle, which the Trump campaign has argued
is a “symbol widely used by antifa.” The same symbol
was used to identify political prisoners in Nazi death camps, leading Media Matters
to call it an “infamous Nazi symbol” with no place in political rhetoric.
Facebook agreed, ultimately removing the ads because of the Nazi-linked imagery. “Our policy prohibits using a banned hate group’s symbol to identify political prisoners without the context that condemns or discusses the symbol,” said Facebook’s Andy Stone in a statement.
A day later, both Facebook and Twitter removed an organic post from Trump’s account
. In this case, the video was a deceptively edited piece taken from CNN, and it was removed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That’s a little different than removing a post for violating a rule about speech, but it still signals that Facebook is willing to act, and I have no real doubts the company will continue removing presidential posts that violate their standards.
In fact, my cynical read here is that everyone is getting something that they want. Trump and the right get ammo for their ongoing bad-faith allegations that social networks are “biased” against them, even as their posts get more distribution than anyone else’s
; and Facebook gets to point to enforcement action as evidence it’s not in bed with the administration. (Even if it’s an occasional dinner guest
.) That ought to help with morale, and may discourage other brands from showily, temporarily pulling their advertisements.
At the same time, there is a clear pattern of escalation here. Questionable posts stayed up; that led to the posting of Nazi imagery; surely worse is to come. I’ve never thought it was even plausible that a big social network would ban one of the president’s accounts. But if he continues in this vein, one or more of them may feel as if they don’t have a choice.
TikTok users and fans of Korean pop music groups
claimed to have registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets for Mr. Trump’s campaign rally as a prank. After the Trump campaign’s official account @TeamTrump posted a tweet
asking supporters to register for free tickets using their phones on June 11, K-pop fan accounts began sharing the information with followers, encouraging them to register for the rally — and then not show.
The trend quickly spread on TikTok, where videos with millions of views instructed viewers to do the same, as CNN reported
on Tuesday. […] Thousands of other users posted similar tweets and videos to TikTok that racked up millions of views.
Discussion of this story dominated my feeds on Sunday. One, the people in my feeds mostly like to see the president made to look foolish. Two, the culprits — younger music fans organizing on an upstart social network — made the story irresistible.
It also raised some provocative questions.
- How much of the low turnout should be attributed to the teens, and how much should be attributed to other factors — like that pandemic, for example?
- Was this an example of what Facebook would call, on its platform, “coordinated inauthentic behavior”? Or was it something else? (Nathaniel Gleicher, who runs security policy at Facebook, said it’s something else, because the TikTok teens appeared to be using their real accounts and are not working to hide their coordination.)
How will this behavior be weaponized in the future against the rest of us? “When one group uses these algorithms effectively, supporters tend to celebrate,” Zeynep Tufecki tweeted. “In 2012, it fell on deaf ears when a few of us tried to warn that the role Facebook was playing in elections wasn’t healthy for democracy. It took 2016 to realize tools don’t stay in one side’s hands.”
In the moment, Trump versus the TikTok teens offered a canvas that anyone could project their hopes and LOLs onto. And a lot of good comes out of online protests and organizing. But if you worried about Russians tricking Americans into showing up to fake events in 2016, it seems to me you might also worry about the implications of Americans tricking campaigns into doing, uh, whatever they tricked Trump into doing this weekend. A country where nothing is true and everything is possible
, to be clear, looks more like Russia than the one I grew up in. It seems like a dangerous path to go down, even if I realize we’re already well on our way.
Some former employees read the blog post and then tweeted about how when they worked at Snap, that commitment to racial justice hadn’t always been apparent
. Then some current employees were like hey, if you want to show your commitment to black folks, how about releasing a public diversity report, like all of Snap’s peers? And Spiegel said no, because it would “only [reinforce] the perception that tech is not a place for underrepresented groups.”
The idea apparently being that not knowing how many underrepresented minorities work at Snap would make it more attractive to underrepresented minorities than knowing would.
Anyway, then Friday was Juneteenth, and as it often does, the company released a special augmented-reality filter to commemorate the occasion. It was, unfortunately, a disaster. Kim Lyons and I wrote about it at The Verge
Snapchat is apologizing for a controversial Juneteenth filter that allowed users to “smile and break the chains,” saying the filter had not gone through its usual review protocols. The filter was panned by critics on Friday morning shortly after its release for its tone deafness, and was disabled by about 11AM ET. […]
Atlanta-based digital strategist Mark S. Luckie
demonstrated the filter on Twitter, calling it “interesting.” The filter showed what appeared to be an approximation of the Pan-African flag
, and prompted the user to smile — a common trigger for animated Snapchat filters — causing chains to appear and then break behind the user.
Snap has a history
of releasing disastrous filters
. It also has a history of bragging about how it uses human curators to weed out bad stuff from Discover and other surfaces of its app. So this one hurt.
The company investigated what happened and emailed its findings to the team. We published that email on Sunday, and it’s worth reading in full
. Oona King, the company’s head of diversity and inclusion, said that black and white employees had collaborated on the filter, but that it had not gone through the usual review processes. She wrote (emphasis hers):
For the record, and the avoidance of all doubt: the two Snap team members who on separate occasions specifically questioned if the “smile” trigger was appropriate for Juneteenth were two White team members. The Snap team members who suggested the smile trigger to begin with, and said it was acceptable to use, were Black Snap team members, and / or members of my team.
Speaking on behalf of my team, clearly we failed to recognize the gravity of the “smile” trigger. That is a failure I fully own. We reviewed the Lens from the standpoint of Black creative content, made by and for Black people, so did not adequately consider how it would look when used by non-Black members of our community. What we also did not fully realize was a) that a ‘smile’ trigger would necessarily include the actual word “smile” on the content; and b) that people would perceive this as work created by White creatives, not Black creatives.
I asked people to share their thoughts, and heard from more than 50
, including from some black folks who work in tech. I encourage you to read them.
On one hand: mistakes happen. I’ve spoken to people at Snap about this incident, and they’re clearly pained by it. Sometimes at a company you try to do a nice thing, and despite your best efforts it blows up in your face. And it can be hard to sort out the real lessons to be learned from the conversation on Twitter, which is a powerful amplifier for schadenfreude.
On the other: Snap had been setting itself up to take this fall for years. It talks a big game about inclusion and platform integrity, but the reality has often been found to be running far behind the hype. If you want to take the credit, you’ve got to do the work. Snap ought to hire and retain more underrepresented minorities, release its diversity report, and stop distributing filters to its entire user base without a proper review. And until it does, the least it can do is to stop patting itself on the back.