How an Amtrak crash revealed the continuing ills of Facebook's algorithms

Conspiracy theories run amok after fatal Virginia accident

The National Transportation Safety Board deals with plane crashes, train derailments, pipeline accidents, highway calamities, marine mishaps and now, thanks to Facebook, fake news. It's a real case of garbage in, garbage out as the NTSB investigators descend on Virginia.

As the Daily Beast lays out, Wednesday's Amtrak crash in Virginia may be the first prompting scrutiny not just of a conductor and a nearby garbage truck but maybe, just maybe also the "People Are Saying" slice of Facebook's Trending News feature. The feature "prominently surfaced several conspiracy theories about Wednesday’s Amtrak crash pushed by personal accounts, alleging a 'false flag' attack by 'commie-lib resisters' or Hillary Clinton herself." (Note to Sean Hannity: This is grist for one of those marathon opening monologues of yours.)

"For users logged out of Facebook, 'People Are Saying' is the only section that surfaces on the topic page for the Amtrak crash in Charlottesville that left one dead and two others injured. The train was carrying Republican members of Congress heading to a retreat. The one death and two serious injuries were reportedly sustained by the people in a truck hit by the oncoming train."

“I want to know if (House Intelligence Committee Chairman) Rep. Devin Nunes was on this train and how Hillary still has the power to order these kinds of strikes,” reads one post, affixed to an ABC News story. Hannity will surely figure this out, along with links to The New York Times, Rachel Maddow, the ACLU and Kendrick Lamar.

Facebook is struggling with its other-wordly success and influence, not to mention its much-criticized reluctance to give over too much influence to others in what winds up on its platform. It prefers that "the community" self-police and, to that end, will entrust "the community" with rating news sources.

What is the latest Amtrak-inspired unseemliness amount to when it comes to online garbage? Well, it forces one to again think of the scourge of digital deceit and the roles of Facebook, Google and Twitter in dealing with — or not dealing with — their communities of occasional idiots and trolls. Some of that is well summarized here in a report — yes, tidily titled "Digital Deceit" — from New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington

“Very often at the intersection of technology and media, fixing one problem merely gives rise to a new problem. Facebook may have layered so many solutions on top of one another that we can’t dig our way back to the underlying truth!" says Owen Youngman, who holds the Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

(To that end, he touts Siva Vaidhyanathan’s forthcoming book, “Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Has Disconnected Citizens and Undermined Democracy,” since "I expect him to scope the problem, and explain a path forward, better than anyone else.”

"To moderate an enormous and endless flow of content in real time, FB is trying to develop automated systems vs. hiring expensive human editors. This example shows how hard it is to build bulletproof algos. Clearly FB ain't there yet," says Alan Mutter, a San Francisco-based media and tech analyst who also teaches journalism in the graduate program at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Yes, it illustrates limits of fb's tech, and why they would be better off hiring more humans to sift through the site (which they are doing but grudgingly)," emails Peter Kafka, a great tech reporter with Recode.

"On the other hand fb trending is a minor fb feature. Basically desktop only, and fb is a mobile platform. It’s what's in the feed that counts, and that’s where fb is rightly concentrating with its overhaul."

We await Hannity, who obliges President Trump with his pro bono counsel, to perhaps assist the NTSB, if not Facebook, and at least bring Hillary to justice. A secretive star chamber proceeding would presumably be held in the dining car of a New York-Washington Metroliner with black drapes on the windows and Nunes serving as judge, with both a verdict and untrustworthy coverage on "People Are Saying" assured before the train arrives.

Meanwhile, Facebook stock hit a record high after reporting earnings up due to very steep (40 percent) advertising price hikes. Moral of story: Fake news and fat earnings can go hand in hand. Inspiring, isn't it?

Mika tells Wolff to take a hike

On "Morning Joe," the ensemble hammered author Michael Wolff for what they feel are his clear, unsubstantiated suggestions that Trump has been playing around with women, including U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Lamely, Wolff prevaricated and says "many of the people around the president believe he is involved with various women," but fudged on Haley. Mika Brzezinski would have none of it. "You're slurring a woman, it's disgraceful ... She has been accused of nothing. C'mon, are you kidding, we don't b.s. here on the set of 'Morning Joe' " and promptly ended the interview. She beat CNN's Jake Tapper's recent record in ditching a (dissembling) guest, namely Stephen Miller, by many minutes.

Wolff seemed less nonplussed than arrogantly nonchalant. There will be other bookers from other shows calling. But, on this morning, good for Brzezinski.

The annals of sex harassment in the media (cont.)

If it's Wednesday, the new alleged media sex harasser must be ...

PetaPixel informs, "Another prominent figure in the photography industry is being accused of sexual misconduct. Several women are claiming that photographer and photo editor Patrick Witty sexually harassed them in a variety of ways."

The accusations were first reported in Vox and involved Witty’s departure from his position as deputy director of photography at National Geographic. “In November 2017, several women at National Geographic pressured the magazine’s human resources department to investigate [Witty] for allegedly abusing his power in the industry for years to get away with predatory sexual behavior toward female colleagues, freelance photographers, and peers in the field,” Vox reports. "But Nat Geo had already been investigating Witty for a month after there were anonymous murmurings of inappropriate behavior."

"Witty quietly and abruptly stepped down from his position in December 2017, and no reason was given by Witty or the magazine about the departure. Witty announced his move on social media at the time."

Jemele Hill takes after her alma mater

Jemele Hill, the ESPN show host suspended for anti-Trump and other tweets, has moved to the ESPN-run Undefeated site on sports, race and culture and produces what "may be the most difficult column I’ve ever written. Which is saying something since I’ve tackled some of my most personal and difficult issues including my parents’ drug addictions and my survival from a rape attack when I was a preteen."

She went to Michigan State University and considers herself a friend of legendary basketball coach Tom Izzo. But ESPN's own revelations about university inaction in the face of sexual assault allegations against basketball and football players — meaning the MSU mess goes well beyond its notorious gymnastics conduct — are clearly complicating the friendship. She's texted him in the hope of eliciting a more expansive response about his own role, but to no avail.

Yes, she's long admired him, she writes. "But it’s impossible not to be disappointed by Izzo’s non-response to these charges, not just because of our personal relationship but because he is the face of Michigan State University. Even more so now that the university president and athletic director each stepped down within days of each other last week."

The drug industry and fake news

Paul Thacker, a former journalist and investigator for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, opines in STAT about the loosey-goosey use of the term "fake news," but notes, "An entire industry called 'product defense,' created years ago by the tobacco industry, uses falsehoods and misdirection to protect companies from bad media and regulatory scrutiny. The pharmaceutical industry is no stranger to these tactics."

"Document archives have revealed how tobacco companies helped create and hone product defense strategies," writes Thacker, who's now pursuing a writing career and living in Spain. "In my years as a reporter and during a stint as an investigator for the U.S. Senate, I’ve seen them deployed by a range of industries." He expands here.

The confounding market for TV sports

Sports Business Daily reports, "Fox will replace CBS and NBC as the Thursday Night Football broadcaster as part of a five-year deal that will be announced later today, according to sources. Fox’s deal will pay the NFL more than the combined $450M per year CBS and NBC paid over the last two years. Sources peg Fox’s payout at an average of around $550M per year through the '22 season, which syncs up with the league’s other TV deals. This is a strong sign for the NFL, as it shows its programming remains among the most valuable in entertainment."

Find an economist somewhere to explain how ratings can be fair to middling, they're airing pretty average games, players grouse about injuries resulting from insufficient time between a Sunday and Thursday game — and the TV rights keep going up.

Propaganda in Detroit (via, yes, Facebook)

"Early this month," writes Violet Ikonomovan in Metro Times, "in the days after Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he'd be moving forward with a plan to require thousands of Detroit businesses to buy into a costly surveillance program intended to reduce crime, a sponsored post that looked favorably upon the program appeared at the top of our Facebook timeline."

"The linked content — 'Inside the Real Time Crime Center, DPD's 24-hour monitoring station' — had all of the trappings of a news story. There was a headline, a byline, a mix of quotes and information. It was published at a site called 'theneighborhoods.org,' suggesting it may have been the work of a community news nonprofit."

Alas, "the story was not journalism. It was written by the Detroit city government — more specifically, its 'Storytelling' department."

Bloom off the rose with Outbrain, Taboola

Digiday reports, "For the past three years, publishers have benefited from fat guarantees from content recommendation services like Outbrain and Taboola. But the good times are coming to an end, as both players, along with upstarts, move away from a land-grab phase in development."

"Publishers that spoke on background for this story because they were in the midst of negotiating said either that the content recommendation companies themselves weren’t offering guaranteed payments anymore or that the publishers themselves were opting for a revenue-share model where they’d be paid a share of the revenue when visitors click on a paid ad in the widget. One exec at a digital lifestyle publisher used to get a $1 million-plus guarantee a year and gave it up for a rev share with Taboola."

The Morning Babel

Before the Wolff dustup earlier on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," the enemy of my enemy was my friend as its own chyron declared, "CNN: FBI Agent Behind Anti Trump Texts Drafted 2016 Comey Letter to Re-open Clinton E-Mail Probe." Is this the guy who's allegedly part of the "deep state conspiracy" to take down Trump, at least according to "Trump & Friends," but now is aligned with a letter that perhaps badly hurt Clinton's campaign? Joe Scarborough et al. were in high sarcastic dudgeon over the obvious implications of the CNN opus when it comes to Republican conspiracy tales about the agent (the same fellow who was in a relationship with an FBI senior lawyer).

But the show's most interesting element was The Washington Post's Robert Costa explaining the curious dance of House Speaker Paul Ryan as he deals with, and largely rationalizes, some of the politically potent GOP craziness around him.

As for "Fox & Friends," it was mulling, "Dems Continue Attacks on Trump's SOTU Address" — yes, focus on those wayward Democrats anytime one can — and going big with some in-class rant by a California high school teacher who went on an anti-military riff, part of the frequent Fox invocation of a liberal, anti-America education system run amok. And imagine this scoop: It interviewed the student who secretly taped the teacher. Co-host Brian Kilmeade got White House Chief of Staff John Kelley to say the teacher should "go to hell" during a White House chat the day before.

CNN "New Day" was especially helpful if your New York Times was late in arriving, or you couldn't find your laptop or phone since it once again relied heavily on the paper's reporting, namely an effort by Jo Becker, Mark Mazzetti, Matt Apuzzo and Maggie Haberman on the contours of Robert Mueller's questioning concerning the curious Trump Tower meeting involving Trump campaign officials.

And if you missed that Times work product, "Morning Joe" had The Times' estimable Charlie Savage explain why the secret memo of House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes is all about seeking to discredit the Mueller investigation. His handiwork is right here.

The day's best business story

Check out Bloomberg Businessweek's "How G.E. Went From American Icon to Astonishing Mess: Famous for great management, General Electric is staring down a plunging share price, a federal investigation, and possible breakup." Yup, it wasn't long ago that I was sitting in newspaper management meetings with consultants detailing the G.E. way, especially under then-boss Jack Welch. That was then and this is now, says reporter Drake Bennett.

An editor fired amid pay equity flap

Jeffrey Good, who won a Pulitzer for editorial writing while at the St. Petersburg, Florida, Times, said he was fired as executive editor of Newspapers of New England's Pioneer Valley Newspaper group because he advocated for equal pay for women employees. But that prompted his publisher and former colleagues to dispute his self-portrayal.

The publisher, Mike Rifanburg, said no, it's more complicated, while some former colleagues claim Good pushed them out of jobs at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, which is a solid local paper serving a community that includes the premier academic institutions of Amherst College, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, Smith and the University of Massachusetts.

In his note to staff, Good said that Rifanburg dismissed him for his advocacy for "transparency and fair pay for our female colleagues at the Daily Hampshire Gazette and its sister publications" in their bucolic environs in western Massachusetts. But others held that self-portrayal is hypocritical and unfounded, with Good then responding that they're "entitled to their opinions" and he saw no reason to debate the matter.

Trump to come clean with Hannity!

How did The Washington Post, MSNBC, the Christian Science Monitor and Breitbart miss this?

"Ending any speculation over whether he would submit to questioning on the subject, lawyers representing President Trump confirmed Wednesday he is willing to clear up any concerns that talk show host Sean Hannity may have about his 2016 campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia."

“'The president has expressed to us that he is fully committed to cooperating with Mr. Hannity on all aspects of the Russia issue,' said White House attorney Ty Cobb, adding that his client looks forward to speaking with the Fox News anchor on the record and, furthermore, is not the least bit worried about the revelations that will result from Hannity’s line of inquiry."

Another scoop for, ah, well, it's the Onion.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

 

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former chief media writer, The Poynter Institute.

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