Twitter surges back after positive financial results

Three months ago the Twitter share price fell off a cliff thanks to a worrisome earnings call, but bad performance does not necessarily mean a bad company.

The latest financial report demonstrated this. Revenues for the fourth quarter of 2019 were $1.01 billion, an 11% year-on-year increase, while Average monetizable Daily Active Users (mDAU) were 152 million for Q4, compared to 126 million in the same period of 2018.

The third quarter financials could now be viewed as a blot on the landscape as share price shot up 16% during the early hours of trading on Thursday February 6. This is still considerably down on the high of $45.85 in September, but momentum might well shift back in favour of one of Silicon Valley’s earliest successes.

“We reached a new milestone in Q4 with quarterly revenue in excess of $1 billion, reflecting steady progress on revenue product and solid performance across most major geographies, with particular strength in US advertising,” said Ned Segal, Twitter CFO.

“We continue to see tremendous opportunity to get the whole world to use Twitter and provide a more personalized experience across both organic and promoted content, delivering increasing value for both consumers and advertisers.”

Despite being one of the most successful social media companies in terms of adoption, Twitter is one of the Silicon Valley residents who has struggled to make a meaningful impact on the promised fortunes of the digital economy. Over the last 12-18 months, this painful equation has seemingly been balanced, but the Q3 results threw a spanner in the works.

Over the last 12-18 months, Twitter has been sorting out its house. It started offering more comprehensive products for advertisers to target and engage customers, as well as more insightful features on the reporting features. There were some minor glitches to these features during Q3, which impacted results, as did retiring legacy products.

Another factor to consider is what actually happened during 2018. In a sentence, not a lot. This meant AmDAU’s were down during the period, and therefore advertising revenues were also. All of these factors combined resulted in the poor performance during the third quarter, but they were all issues which could be fixed. This is the basis of the turnaround during the fourth quarter.

This is the first quarter the business has exceeded $1 billion in revenue and there could be more to come. With the Olympics in Tokyo, the UEFA European Championships and the US Presidential Election all taking place over the next twelve months, there certainly could be more active users on the platform, therefore more opportunity to advertise and, finally, more revenue for Twitter.

2020 could be a very good year for the company, especially with new video products and a much more comprehensive approach to advertisers.

Fourth quarter Year-on-year Full year Year-on-year
Total revenue $1.01 billion 11% $3.46 billion 14%
Net income $118 million (54%) $1.46 billion 22%
R&D spend $198 million 40% $682 million 23%

The US election will test social media censorship to breaking point

Electoral losers are increasingly blaming social media for their failure, but this year will demonstrate that censorship is not the answer.

Democracy only works if the losers of elections accept defeat, but sadly few are inclined to do so these days. Now we have five stages of electoral grief that are directly analogous to the original Kübler-Ross model. We still have denial, anger and depression, but instead of bargaining we have litigation and acceptance seems to have been replaced with conspiracy theories in which social media plays a central role.

The central concern is that when the electorate votes for the other team it must be because they were mislead in some way, because no rational, fully informed person could fail to recognise the superiority of my team. In the past some blame could be attached to the mainstream media, something the UK Labour party still persists with. In the US, however, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 despite having the support of no major media, would appear to render that theory obsolete.

Trump was able to prevail because politicians are no longer dependent on the old media to communicate directly with the electorate, thanks to social media. But this significantly lowered barrier to entry into the public sphere also provides fertile ground for electoral losers searching for mitigation and another bite at the cherry.

A favourite on both sides of the pond is to blame ‘the Russians’. While cold war fervour largely shifted its focus to China, Russia remains a strong source of bogeymen. Now it should be noted that there is plenty of evidence of social media bot farms originating from a number of countries, including Russia, that apparently seek to meddle in elections. What is much harder to prove is whether they had any effect on the outcome of elections whatsoever.

The small matter of evidence is never going to stand in the way of those refusing to concede defeat, however, and it has now become conventional wisdom that social media censorship is vital if we are to ever have untainted elections again. Since the US is in the middle of another of its interminable general election campaigns this year, the heat is being turned up on social media and they are being forced to respond.

Last week Twitter announced it was ‘turning on a tool for key moments of the 2020 US election that enables people to report misleading information about how to participate in an election or other civic event.’ The tweet implies the tool has a broader purpose than that, though, as it also includes intimidation and misrepresenting of political affiliation. Already you can see how a simple censorship objective becomes immediately and massively complicated under the weight of interpretation, semantics and generally chasing its tail.

Then you have Google and its subsidiary YouTube blogging about how much they ‘support’ elections, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Again a lot of this focuses on content that is intended to mislead voters, but since electioneering is biased by definition, surely all of it is intended to mislead to some extent. YouTube also reiterates its aim to promote ‘authoritative’ voices, which is code for establishment media and commentariat.

In contrast, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is increasingly pushing back on censorship, having tried and failed to walk that tightrope since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Perhaps motivated by the prospect of an extra four years of Trump, who has made his feelings known on censorship, Zuckerberg is now turning all free speech absolutist on us. Whether that position will survive even the first engagement of the US electoral process remains highly debatable, however.

Early signs of the immense pressure these platform owners will come under are already appearing, with the Democrats mobilising supposed experts to ‘protect’ the electoral process. “Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus will mark the DNC’s greatest challenge so far in efforts to guard its presidential contenders from the same fate that befell Hillary Clinton in 2016 when her campaign was upended by a Russian-backed hacking and disinformation effort,” reports the Washington Post in depressingly partisan fashion.

If that WaPo piece is anything to go by everyone is going to be trying to manipulate not only the US Presidential election, but the Democratic primaries too, where non-establishment candidate Bernie Sanders is currently the front-runner. Presumably YouTube doesn’t intend to punish the country’s mainstream media for misleading the electorate, so it seems it will support democracy by censoring everyone else.

As ever, censoring free societies is a game of whack-a-mole, in which policy-making can never hope to keep up with the desire of its people to say what they want. Even if the social media companies are successful in their stated censorship objectives, which they won’t be, the team that loses will still blame them. So they might as well not bother and trust their users to sort the wheat from the chaff. Afterall, they’ve been doing that with mainstream media for years.

Twitter tries to find another way to solve the censorship dilemma

Social media giant Twitter is exploring the creation of an open standard that it hopes will provide the answer to the impossible question of censorship.

As you would expect the announcement was made by Twitter CEO via a tweet in which he announced the creation of a small team to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. In the thread he cites some of the inspiration for the move as coming from an essay entitled ‘Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech’. The author of that essay has already written an article cautiously welcoming this move.

Right now all social media are siloed platforms providing their own technology and rules. That means they’re also in the impossible position of trying to censor the stuff their users publish in order to please other users as well as advertisers and regulators. Right now they face constant pressure from all three and, of course, can never please all of the people all of the time.

At the core of the dilemma, as the essay implies, is free speech and its opposite: censorship. Determining what speech is good and bad is inherently subjective and an impossible tightrope to walk. We have long argued that any attempt to do so is futile and that the best solution for social media platforms would be to throw themselves at the mercy of regulators, thus absolving themselves of responsibility for censorship decisions.

This move by Twitter seems to be an early investigation into the possibility of an alternative resolution by creating a basic social media protocol, of which it would by just one of the clients, that could serve as the foundation for a number of other platforms. All social traffic would take place over this protocol, but then individual platforms could implement their own unique rules about what content they allowed to be published.

It’s very early days and there are all kinds of reasons why it may never take off, but it seems like a step in the right direction. Right now social media companies are being regulated like platforms but as they increasingly curate the content they host are acting more like publishers. Unless they find a way of resolving this conundrum themselves, state authorities will end up doing it for them,

As if to illustrate the point YouTube has announced yet another update to its harassment policy, including ‘a stronger stance against threats and personal attacks’. This amounts to a ban on ‘veiled or implied threats’, ‘demeaning language that goes too far’ and ‘content that maliciously insults someone based on protected attributes’.

On the surface who could have a problem with action against threatening, demeaning and insulting speech, right? It’s only when you try to establish the precisely when speech crosses any of those lines that you see what a futile, subjective and censorious policy this is. Expect a further update within months after some one claims to be upset about something and then another soon after that. You never know, eventually YouTube might come around to this protocol business.

Investors learn Silicon Valley can be volatile as Twitter tanks

Twitter’s share price was slashed by 18% as the market opened this morning, with the social media giant failing to find enough consistency to impress investors.

There was a brief glimmer of hope that Twitter might have been a company people could rely on, but rainclouds have once again emerged to spoil the parade. It certainly isn’t corporate doomsday for Twitter, but the management team will have to start ensuring some consistency if they want to remain in their current employment for the long-term.

Looking at the results, total revenues for the three-month period stood at $824 million, a 9% year-on-year increase, but short of the $876 million analysts estimated. Unfortunately for any optimists, the next quarter isn’t looking much better.

Twitter is forecasting revenue to be between $940 million and $1.01 billion for the next three months, down on the $1.06 billion which was estimated by analysts. Operating income is expected to be in the $130 million and $170 million range.

Although the steep decline in share price has largely levelled off, it does not make for comfortable reading.

The question which remains is what went wrong at Twitter? Looking at the materials presented during the earnings call, the management team is pointing to two areas. Firstly, seasonality. Twitter is suggesting fewer users were using the platform during the summer months than it was expecting, partly due to a lack of major events which were taking place over July and August.

Secondly, bugs in the legacy Mobile Application Promotion (MAP) product impacted the ability to target ads and share data with measurement and ad partners. The team also discovered certain personalization and data settings were not operating as expected. Twitter estimates the product issues reduced year-over-year revenue growth by 3 or more points in Q3.

Although these figures, this quarter and the next three months, are not the best it does not demonstrate the business is fundamentally flawed. This should not be seen as a company which will fall off a cliff, next year could be much more promising.

Firstly, the team is retiring legacy products and introducing new systems constantly, as well as creating more opportunities for those advertisers who are craving video engagement. This is an area which Twitter lags behind other social media platforms, though it could certainly catch-up.

Secondly, when you look at what is going to happen over the next 12 months, it would suggest there will be increased engagement from users and therefore increased opportunity for advertisers. In Europe, you have the UEFA European Championships, in the US, the Presidential Election and in Japan, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. All of these events present major opportunities for Twitter to engage users.

Looking at user engagement, Twitter has decided to alter the way it reports figures, creating its own metric which will be known as ‘monetizable daily active users’ (mDAU). This could be a useful way to measure engagement, and the explanation below is taken from the letter to shareholders:

“Average mDAU for a period represents the number of mDAU on each day of such period divided by the number of days for such period. Changes in mDAU are a measure of changes in the size of our daily logged in or otherwise authenticated active user base. To calculate the year-over-year change in mDAU, we subtract the average mDAU for the three months ended in the previous year from the average mDAU for the same three months ended in the current year and divide the result by the average mDAU for the three months ended in the previous year.”

In short, it is the number of users which can be served ads each day. Using this metric, Twitter estimates it was able to serve ads to 145 million people each day, on average, which is a 17% increase on the same period of 2018.

The only issue with this metric is that it isn’t the most transparent when it comes to app downloads or concrete figures on daily usage. That said, according to data from Sensor Tower, it is still one of the most popular social media applications worldwide.

These results are not representative of a company which is in trouble, but more demonstrates the volatility of the internet segment. It was a bad three months, but that does not necessatily make Twitter a bad company. There are few companies which emerge from the garages of Silicon Valley which are genuinely reliable, but Twitter is one which will probably get better.

The fundamentals of the business are pretty sound. Assuming the team continue to improve the user experience and fix the bugs in the advertising machine, it will make money. Events across 2019 will attract more people only the platform, especially with social media likely to feature very prominently through the 2020 Presidential Election campaign. Perhaps the market needs to take a reality check on how much money it expects Silicon Valley to hoover up.

Twitter and Facebook move to block Chinese state-backed disinformation campaign

US social media sites have announced coordinated action designed to counter a propaganda campaign apparently designed to undermine the Hong Kong democracy protests.

Twitter was the first site alerted to this activity, with some users flagging up sponsored posts from state-run media that seemed biased against the mass gatherings in Hong Kong that are protesting moves to give the Chinese state greater power over the semi-autonomous region.

Twitter also published a blog post titled Information operations directed at Hong Kong, in which it said “We are disclosing a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change.” This took the form of almost a thousand phoney accounts apparently designed to amplify messaging undermining the legitimacy of the Hong Kong protests, which have now been suspended.

Removing any doubt about censorship activity being coordinated between internet giants, Facebook then announced it is acting on a tip from Twitter to remove a few accounts suspected of ‘inauthentic behaviour’ from China. “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” said the Facebook announcement.

Lastly, while not explicitly referring to China, this propaganda campaign has clearly prompted Twitter to announce it will no longer accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities. Somewhat belatedly is has dawned on Twitter that state-controlled media is sometimes a tiny bit biased towards the state that controls it, which can have direct political consequences. Who knew?

Meanwhile US President Donald Trump is persisting with his claims that Google exerted some deliberate influence against him in the 2016 US general election. He cites an unspecified report that claims up to 16 million votes were manipulated in favour of his opponent Hilary Clinton in the election and called for Google to be sued.


Clinton herself has unsurprisingly queried the validity of the claim by attacking the, still unspecified, source. A number of other media have also criticised the presumed source of the claim, most of which make no secret of their antipathy towards Trump. As ever Trump’s tweet will have an underlying tactical purpose, in this case to threaten Google and any other internet company that maybe tempted to use its platform to favour his 2020 opponent.

Battle lines drawn ahead of White House social media summit

US President Trump has invited a number of social media commentators to a discussion about the current digital environment.

This is being largely interpreted as an anecdotal investigation into the nature of social media censorship, with Trump having repeatedly raised his concerns on the matter. The major social media platforms don’t seem to have been invited, however, instead a selection of independent journalists, commentators and activists will be asked about their online experiences.

The White House hasn’t published a list of attendees, so here’s our own, in no particular order, derived from information already in the public domain. We’ve also included the number of Twitter followers each attendee has to provide some measure of their online influence. The summit takes place tomorrow.

  • Tim Pool – YouTube Journalist – 352k
  • James O’Keefe – Independent Journalist – 548k
  • Ben Garrison – Political Cartoonist – 176k
  • Charlie Kirk – Activist – 1.16m
  • Ali Alexander – Activist – 95k
  • Scott Presler – Activist – 226k
  • Bill Mitchell – Broadcaster – 445k
  • Carpe Donctum – Activist – 122k
  • PragerU – YouTube Commentator – 271k
  • Heritage Foundation – Think Tank – 649k
  • Media Research Center – Media Watchdog – 157k
  • Christian Ziegler – Activist – 3k

It has not gone unnoticed that nearly all of those invited are at the conservative end of the US political spectrum and Trump is known to be concerned that online censorship tends to affect conservatives disproportionately. It’s presumably not a coincidence that most of these conservatives also seem to be committed Trump supporters.

The presence of the two journalists at the top of the list indicates this will be more than just a Trump supporter love-in, however. “This event will bring together digital leaders for a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment,” a White House spokesperson is widely reported to have advised.

Pool has probably been chosen due to his high-profile grilling of Twitter on the Joe Rogan podcast, in which he argued some of its rules on speech it permits  are demonstrably biased against conservatives. Similarly O’Keefe’s organisation Project Veritas has recently claimed to have exposed similar political bias at Google.

So it seems clear that at least one of the primary purposes of this summit is to enable the US government to gather evidence of bias in social media censorship. Earlier this year the White House opened a web form inviting people to submit such evidence, so it’s possible this will have influenced who was invited too.

While much commentary has focused on the perceived political agenda of this summit, the absence of not only the big tech companies but big media too indicates another angle. There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that social media censorship is increasingly biased against independent commentators and thus in favour of corporate, institutional, establishment voices.

Leftist independent commentator David Pakman has alleged in the video below that the YouTube recommendation algorithm has been changed in order to favour corporate over independent media. Most of the independents he cites are also leftist, indicating this isn’t a predominantly political move.

 

It is well documented that YouTube has been anxious about the effect of some of its more contentious contributors on revenues for some time and has implemented broad censorship in an apparent attempt to appease big advertisers. If there is bias in the recommendation algorithm in favour of corporate media it’s probably because advertisers also favour them, but every piece of arbitrary censorship seems to create as many problems as it solves.

Meanwhile, Twitter is where Trump spends much of his time and so is probably the platform he scrutinises most closely. A US appeals court recently ruled that it’s unconstitutional for Trump to block people on Twitter, but this precedent had led to other US politicians who have blocked people on Twitter being sued. Elsewhere Twitter’s recent decision to ban any comment that ‘dehumanizes others on the basis of religion’ seems destined to raise questions about selective enforcement.

Not to be out-done Facebook recently updated its policy regarding ‘violence and incitement’ with the guidance shown in the screenshot below.

Facebook policy screen

This seems to say that it’s OK to advocate high-severity violence (un-defined) against anyone Facebook considers to be a ‘dangerous individual’ or anyone said to be a violent criminal or sexual predator. Since Facebook explicitly identified several individuals as dangerous recently, some of those people have understandably interpreted this move as hostile to them.

That there is a growing body of evidence of a deeply flawed approach by social media companies to policing their platforms is undeniable. To what extent this involves political bias remains unclear, but Trump seems to think it does and, with the next US general election imminent, he seems increasingly disposed to bring the full force of the state against any tech companies deemed to be acting against the public, and his, interest. Those companies will doubtless be following this summit with interest.

We’ll leave you with Pool’s take on the whole thing.

 

Trump tweets anti-AT&T tirade

Its often said the pen is mightier than the sword, but President Donald Trump seems to think his twitter account is the literary version of a dirty bomb.

In the latest example of the flurry of tiny hands scampering across the keyboard of an unsecured iPhone, the Commander in Chief has taken aim at AT&T, suggesting US citizens should turn elsewhere for their daily fix of connectivity.

Those expecting some sort of scandal might be disappointed. AT&T hasn’t actually done anything wrong aside from owning CNN, a regular target for the President.

What we are unsure of is how much of an impact these sorts of attacks will actually have on the AT&T brand. Of course, there will be millions who simply disregard the majority of messages which float out of the Oval Office, but there are probably as many who would take the President’s word as gospel.

There have been other attacks from Trump using the virtual highways, with Amazon CEO at the centre of one of these examples.

Back in April 2018, Trump set his eyes on the eCommerce giant. The stream of abuse suggested Amazon was being naughty with its tax returns, was holding the US Postal Service to ransom and Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post was purely to acquire a lobbyist and a voice which could undermine the White House. Some points were fair, such as the creating accounting techniques, though the Presidential paranoia suggesting political propaganda perhaps showed a measure of the man’s ego.

In the war of words with Amazon, it was largely hot air. The President was flexing his muscles, without actually doing anything. If he wanted to do any real damage, he could have cancelled the AWS multi-billion-dollar contract with the Pentagon. But he didn’t.

Bearing this in mind, AT& shouldn’t have too much to worry about, though it certainly doesn’t have the same brand credibility as Amazon.

According to The Values Institute, a research and consulting practice solely focused on values based corporate culture, Amazon was the most trusted brand in the US in 2018. AT&T was the best scoring telco on the list, though it ranked down in 32nd. This is down from 14th in 2017. 32nd doesn’t sound too bad if you consider all the companies which operate in the US, though the scope of this survey is quite limited, only taking the biggest names into account.

Interestingly enough, AT&T finished below Taco Bell, which is regularly featured in a variety of toilet memes on the social media platforms.

Amazon has the credibility with US consumers to simply ignore any Twitter abuse from Trump, but telcos certainly do not have the same relationship with consumers, especially when you consider the recent race to the bottom. For some, telcos are utilities. It is a tough reputation to shake, while a constant focus on speed and price won’t help at all.

Looking at the potential impact of the President’s social media temper tantrums, it does seem to be short-term in most circumstances. This is not the first time President’s have named and shamed companies, President Kennedy did it in the 70s, but social media is a new beast. Most of the time with Trump’s rants, share price seems to be hit for a short period, though it recovers soon after. There doesn’t really seem to be any notable follow through from the President’s threats.

In the Amazon case, share price dipped by 11% during the exchange. The threat of intervention was enough to spook some. However, it took roughly two weeks for recovery, and since that point share price did increase almost 40% before a heavy fall last month.

Research from Juma’h Ahmad and Yazan Alnsour of University of Illinois also suggest there is limited impact from the President’s social media fury. In a study which looked at Presidential attention on 58 companies, the duo concluded there was no long-term, material consequence for the business, with any impact in the financial markets limited to three to five days.

Interestingly enough, Trump seems to be having less of an impact on the world as his term progresses. According to data from CrowdTangle (covered here by Axios), Trump’s interaction rate has fallen from 0.55% in the month he was first elected, to 0.16% in the month through to May 25 2019

The growth in Trump followers is still staggeringly large, though it appears he is not getting the same cut through as before. This might be down to a couple of different reasons, perhaps more laissez faire followers or maybe there is just too much noise reducing the effectiveness.

While there is a risk, especially considering the sustained nature of Trump’s hatred towards CNN, we’re not convinced whether an attack on AT&T’s reputation from Trump will have too much impact. However, the President has a track record of swaying the masses.

Social media censorship is a public concern and needs a public solution

With much of public discussion now taking place on the three main social platforms the time has come to take editorial control away from their owners.

Even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal it had become apparent what a major role social media was already playing in public life. Politicians use Twitter to communicate directly with the electorate and spend billions on Facebook’s targeted advertising. Meanwhile a new generation of political and social commentators have been given their voice by YouTube and now attract audience numbers mainstream media can only dream of.

But all three of these platforms are commercial operations with obligations to maximise returns to their investors. In all three cases the business model is the classic media one of charging for access to their audience, which means they rely on advertisers for their revenue. This in turn can lead to conflicts of interest.

These have always existed in traditional media too. It is far more common than you might imagine for publications to receive pressure from advertisers to change editorial decisions under threat of advertising revenue being taken away if they don’t. They then face a simple choice: the short-term fix of capitulation to blackmail or the long-term investment in the trust of their audience and the credibility of their title.

The dilemma is different for social media, however, since they don’t produce the content they sell advertising against. Instead their business model has been to make is as easy as possible for anyone in the world to publish on their platforms, a model so successful that much of the advertising traditional media used to rely on has now moved to social media, such that digital ad spend is forecast to overtake traditional spend in the US this year.

Inevitably social media are facing the same kind of advertiser pressure traditional media always have, but their response is usually to capitulate. The reason for this is simple: they have no investment whatsoever in the content they host and no specific editorial theme or angle to protect. Because of this they seem much more ready to remove content and even ban users if they think is will keep the ad money flowing.

One other by-product of caving in to commercial pressure is that it sets a precedent, with advertisers emboldened to be ever more demanding with their requests. In the case of social media this has resulted in increasing pressure to ban from social media any contributors advertisers fear may harm their brands by association. This capitulation has also emboldened activists to call for bans of anyone they disagree with, sometimes even alerting advertisers to the PR danger to increase the pressure further.

This PR pressure came to a head for Facebook last week when it decided to ban several accounts it had unilaterally decided were ‘dangerous’ and to pre-brief a number of media about it before even notifying the users themselves. While opponents of the people bans applauded the move, there has been wider concern about the arbitrary nature of the action and the power of Facebook to decide who gets to take part in the public conversation.

A common argument at times like this, often made by people otherwise deeply suspicious of the motives of big corporations, is to insist that private companies like Facebook are free to police their platforms as they see fit. But the fact that those platforms is where most public discussion takes place and that those companies tend to just buy competitors when they get too big means this is a public concern both from a freedom of speech and a competition perspective.

Probably the most famous social media user is also arguably the most significant politician in the world: US President Donald Trump. He was deeply concerned by Facebook’s actions and, appropriately enough wasted little time Tweeting about it.

  He went on to refer to one of the banned people – Paul Joseph Watson, a UK citizen – directly in subsequent tweets and retweeted a number people objecting to the move, noting it appeared to target people on the conservative side of the political spectrum. Watson responded by calling for him to revoke the protection internet platforms have from the consequences of what is posted on them, since it was now acting as a publisher.  

Elsewhere one of the founders of Facebook published an op-ed calling for the break-up of Facebook on the grounds that it had grown too powerful and too much of that power is held by Mark Zuckerberg alone, who personally holds the overall majority of voting power in the company. Others have argued, however, that since Facebook isn’t a monopoly in any of its markets any attempt to break it up would be illegal and that better regulation would be much more effective.

Again it’s common for accusations of hypocrisy to be levelled at those who call for regulation to protect freedom of speech, but in this case the position is entirely consistent. If speech is being restricted by a private oligopoly then public intervention may be the only way to combat that. As any telecoms company could tell you, regulation of oligopolies in markets with high barriers to entry is commonplace and vital to ensure consumers aren’t held to ransom.

The father of the free market Adam Smith famously wrote the following in his definitive book ‘The nature and causes of the wealth of nations’, in reference to the necessity of regulating cartels:  “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

In this case we’re not talking about cartel behaviour, although sometimes their activities can seem suspiciously coordinated, nor is the primary concern a contrivance to raise prices. The commodity at stake is not money but the ability to take part in public discussion. This is arguably no less important a utility then water, electricity or telephony, but to date the companies that control it have faced far less scrutiny than utilities.

Such is this burden of responsibility that even Zuckerberg himself has publicly called for increased regulation. His underlying motives may be self-preservatory, but the logic is sound. Nobody thinks access to public conversation should be controlled by private companies, but currently there are now regulation in place to take that decision away from them. Zuckerberg seems to have concluded that if there were that would take a lot of the heat off him.

Decisive regulation may also pre-empt the litigation that is bound to hit social media companies as they continue to restrict their users. Watson indicated he’s tempted to take legal action, especially since the discovery phase would require Facebook to reveal the rationale behind his banning, possibly exposing the political bias he suspects is behind it. Watson also recently tweeted about a possible legal precedent that may be set in Poland, that would prohibit social media companies from acting against anything legal.

This would appear to be the best solution for everyone. Social media companies would be able to tell pushy advertisers that such decisions have been taken out of their hands, while users would have the law is their sole guide to acceptable public speech. There would still be the matter of different laws in different countries and deliberately censorious and ill-defined legal terms such as ‘hate speech’, but things would be a lot clearer than they are now.

Essentially this would mean that, in order to retain the protections afforded to platforms, social media would not be able to censor anything legal. Alternatively , if they want to take a more active editorial role they should be treated as publishers and be liable for all content published on them, right now they’re somewhere in between and that’s unsustainable. Here’s independent Journalist Tim Pool with a US take on the matter.

 

Facebook selectively bans ‘dangerous’ users

Social media giant Facebook has significantly stepped-up its censorship efforts by banning seven accounts, six of which are often described as ‘far-right’.

Alex Jones, his publication Infowars, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, Paul Nehlen and Louis Farrakhan. Jones and Infowars, of which Watson is an editor, are known more for general conspiracy theories than any specific political stance, while Yiannopoulos is a notorious provocateur, Loomer a political activist, Nehlen a fringe US politician and Farrakhan the leader of The Nation of Islam.

“We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” said a Facebook spokesperson in response to our query. The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts.” The ban also applies to Facebook-owned social networking service Instagram.

Further enquiries revealed that all were banned for violating Facebook’s policies against dangerous individuals & organizations. Among the things Facebook considers to be violations include:

  • Calling for violence against people based on factors like race, ethnicity or national origin
  • Following a ‘hateful’ ideology
  • Use of ‘hate speech’ or ‘slurs’, even on other social media sites
  • Whether they’ve had stuff removed from Facebook or Instagram before

There are also two tiers of ban. Facebook told us it usually censors all other users from even praising these banned people and organisations, regardless of context, which implies it does allow criticism of them or indeed neutral commentary. But there’s another tier that covers people who haven’t transgressed according to the criteria above but are still considered ‘dangerous’ by Facebook according to unspecified criteria. They get banned but everyone else is still allowed to say nice things about them if they want and it’s unclear which category each of the banned people fall into, hence whether or not users should avoid saying nice things about them.

Facebook did indicate to us some of the signals that prompted it to take action in these cases. It looks like many of them are being punished for associating with Gavin McInnes, founder of Vice magazine and a provocateur in the Yiannopoulos mould. Jones recently interviewed him, Loomer ‘appeared with’ him and also praised another banned person, Faith Goldy, while Yiannopoulos himself also praised McInnes as well as banned activist Tommy Robinson. Farrakhan has been banned for multiple public statements disparaging Jews.

While all of the people banned have doubtless broken the state rules at some time or other, questions remain about the specificity of those rules and how indiscriminately they’re enforced. According to Wikipedia (not necessarily the most authoritative source but we have to start somewhere) hate speech is defined as ‘a statement intended to demean and brutalize another’.

On the surface this would seem to apply to the majority of discourse over social media, but the definition is typically narrowed to such statements that are deemed to be influenced by race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. As the Wikipedia page illustrates, every country has its own hate speech legislation, but Facebook has decided to draft its own.

‘A hate organization is defined as: Any association of three or more people that is organized under a name, sign, or symbol and that has an ideology, statements, or physical actions that attack individuals based on characteristics, including race, religious affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, serious disease or disability,’ explains the Facebook community standards page.

If we take these guidelines literally, therefore, you can be abusive on Facebook, as people frequently are, so long as you don’t call for violence or make any reference to the person’s identity. This is obviously a very difficult thing to enforce, leading to concerns that there may be a degree of political or other bias in doing so.

A common example of this cited by those who perceive political bias is the case of Antifa. The name is an abbreviation of ‘anti-fascist’ and it’s a group set up to counter perceived far-right activity. There are, however, numerous reports of this activity involving violence, especially against a group founded by McInnes called the Proud Boys. Antifa has even been labelled a domestic terrorist group in the US and yet many of  its Facebook pages remain unbanned.

The matter of actively campaigning politicians is another hot-button issue. Nehlen seems to be the only member of this newly-banned group to describe themselves as a politician, but in the UK at least two candidates standing in the imminent European elections have had their campaign accounts banned from Twitter due to the individuals in question having already been banned from that platform.

A common response to concerns about selective banning by social media platforms is that they’re private (although publicly-listed) companies and are thus free to ban whoever they please. The biggest problem with this argument is that they have also become the new public square, and the platform from which political campaigns are now largely based.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal hinged on concerns that Facebook had been used to manipulate elections and US President Donald Trump famously uses Twitter as his primary means of public communication. By selectively banning certain accounts social media companies not only open themselves up to accusations of political bias, they also run the risk of directly undermining the entire political process.

The politics of technology

The latest mutiny at Google illustrates what a political game technology has become and it’s only going to get more so.

Last week Google announced the creation of ‘An external advisory council to help advance the responsible development of AI.’ In so doing Google was acknowledging a universal concern about the ethics of artificial intelligence, automation, social media and technology in general. It also seemed to be conceding that the answers to these concerns need to be universal too.

The Silicon Valley tech giants are frequently accused of having a political bias in their thinking that is hostile to conservative perspectives. Normally this wouldn’t matter, but since the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter have so much control over how everyone gets their information and opinion, any possible bias in the way they do so becomes a matter of public concern.

In an apparent attempt to demonstrate diversity of viewpoints in this new Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), Google included Kay Coles James, who it describes as ‘a public policy expert with extensive experience working at the local, state and federal levels of government. She’s currently President of The Heritage Foundation, focusing on free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom and national defense.’

This decision has upset over a thousand Google employees, however, who made their feelings publicly known yesterday via a an article titled Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate. The piece accuses James of being ‘anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant’ and linked to three recent tweets of hers as evidence.

Beyond those tweets it’s hard to fully test the veracity of those allegations, but it does seem clear that they are largely political. The Equality Act is a piece of US legislation currently being debated in the US House of Representatives, sponsored almost entirely by members of the Democrat Party. The legal status of transsexual people is intrinsically political, as is immigration policy, and attitudes towards them tend to be similarly polarised.

The Googlers Against Transphobia certainly seem to fall into that category, but what makes them noteworthy, apart from their numbers, is that they expect their employer to adhere to their political positions. Google has attempted to defend the appointment of James to one of the eight ATEAC positions by stressing the importance of diversity of thought.

Here’s what the Google dissidents think of that argument. “This is a weaponization of the language of diversity,” they wrote. “By appointing James to the ATEAC, Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making. This is unacceptable.”

This is just the latest internal insurrection Google has faced from its passionately political workforce. Every time a story emerges about Google working on a special search engine for China there is considerable disquiet among the rank and file, ironically opposed to censorship in this case. And then there was the case of James Damore, sacked by Google for trying to start an internal conversation about gender diversity at the company.

Google’s struggles pale when compared to those of Facebook, however. Every time it seems to have just about recovered from the last crisis it finds itself in a new one. The latest was catalysed by the atrocity committed in New Zealand, in which a gunman killed 50 people praying in two mosques in Christchurch and live-streamed himself on Facebook.

Understandably questions were immediately asked about how Facebook could have allowed that streaming to happen. While it acted quickly to ensure the video and any copies of it were taken down, Facebook was under massive pressure to implement measures to ensure such a thing couldn’t happen again. Its response has been to announce ‘a ban on praise, support and representation of white nationalism and white separatism on Facebook and Instagram.’

These kinds of ideologies are largely rejected by mainstream society for many good reasons, but ideologies they remain. Facebook is also moving against claimed ‘anti-vaxxers’, i.e. people who fear the side-effects of vaccines. They may well be misguided in this fear but it is nonetheless an opinion and, so far, as legal one.

Finding itself under pressure to police ideologies and opinions on its platforms, Facebook seems to have realised this is an impossible task. For every ‘unacceptable’ position it acts against there are thousands waiting in the wings and an obvious extrapolation reveals a future Facebook in which very few points of view are permitted. In apparent acknowledgment of that dilemma Facebook recently called on governments to make a call on censorship, but it should be careful what it wishes for.

Another type of content facing increasing calls for censorship is claimed ‘conspiracy theories, with a recent leak revealing how Facebook agonises over such decisions. Google-owned Facebook is also acting against such content, but seems to prefer sanctions short of outright banning, such as the recent removal of videos published by activist Tommy Robinson from all search results.

Again this puts technology companies in the position of censors of content that often has a political nature. How do you define a conspiracy theory anyway and should all of them be censored? Should, for example, the MSNBC network in the US be sanctioned for aggressively pursuing a narrative of President Trump colluding with Russia to win his general election when a two-year investigation has revealed it to be false? Is that not a conspiracy theory too? Politics and technology collide once more.

The current era of political interference in internet platforms was probably started by the Cambridge Analytica and subsequent allegations that the democratic process had been corrupted. As technology increasingly determines how we view and interact with the world this problem is only going to get bigger and it’s hard to see how technology companies can possibly please all of the people all of the time.

Which brings us back to the start of this piece: AI. The only hope internet they have of monitoring the billions of interactions they host per day is through AI-driven automation. But even that has to be programmed by people with their own personal views and ethics and will need to be responsive to public sentiment as it in turn reacts to events.

As the US President has done so much to demonstrate, technology platforms are now the places much of politics and public discussion take place. At the same time they’re owned by commercial organizations with no legal requirement to serve the public. They have to balance pressure from both professional politicians and the politics of their own employees with the dangers of alienating their users if they’re seen to be biased. Something’s got to give.

This dilemma was illustrated well in a recent Joe Rogan podcast featuring Twitter, which you can see below. In it Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and his head of content moderation Vijaya Gadde defend themselves from accusations of bias from independent journalist Tim Pool.