The Notre Dame Cathedral inspires so much awe in visitors that seemingly everyone who steps inside it feels a powerful, and personal, sense of connection to it. I visited it myself for the first time two years ago and, like everyone else I know, was thrilled by its foreboding Gothic architecture. In spite of myself, I snapped a couple dozen pictures. Even knowing that every inch of the building had already been documented by far better photographers than me, I felt overwhelmed by the need to take a piece of Notre Dame home with me.
And so to watch the cathedral burn today — helplessly, on a Periscope stream — was a tragedy. And while nothing will match the horror of seeing the world lose one of its most beautiful structures, the calamity showed once again how unprepared tech platforms are to process news events in real time. Conspiracy-minded goons continue to twist real-time events into nefarious plots in the absence of any facts, and platforms’ viral sharing mechanics help their narratives dominate users’ attention while the truth is still being uncovered.
At BuzzFeed, Jane Lytvynenko shows how one Twitter account misrepresenting itself as CNN falsely stated that the fire was the work of terrorists, and how another misrepresenting itself as Fox News posted a fake quote from a Muslim congresswoman allegedly saying “they reap what they sow.” (She said no such thing.) Both accounts put “parody” in their bios, but their visual branding copied CNN and Fox News exactly, there was nothing evidently parodic about their tweets, and few people likely clicked to check their bios before retweeting them.
On Facebook, a 2016 story about a plot to blow up a car outside the cathedral was linked from a site that regularly spreads Islamophobic misinformation, with no clear sign that it was totally unrelated to the fire. (Facebook’s story designs don’t make it clear when pages re-share older articles.)
And on YouTube, well … this happened. From Chris Welch:
A fire has broken out at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral today, and, as you’d expect, many news networks are offering live coverage of the breaking situation. What’s a little more unusual is that YouTube seemed to temporarily mix up the unfortunate burning of a historic cathedral with the 9/11 New York City terror attacks.
Underneath live streams from CBS and others, viewers saw an explainer for the September 11th, 2001, attacks. These two things are completely unrelated, and there has been no indication that the Notre Dame fire is a result of terrorism or even criminal arson.
The whole reason for the panel’s existence is to fight misinformation. And so the fact that a YouTube algorithm took a look at a video of a cathedral on fire and linked it to a terrorism attack is profoundly unfortunate. “These panels are triggered algorithmically and our systems sometimes make the wrong call,” a YouTube spokesperson told welch. “We are disabling these panels for live streams related to the fire.”
If ever there were a case for “these panels” to be “triggered” editorially by humans, rather than algorithmically by math, a project designed to fight misinformation and conspiracy theories would surely be it.
Of course, it didn’t help that the president of the United States — while the building was still on fire — made these bizarrely conspiracy-tinged remarks: “”They think it was caused by, at this moment, they don’t know, but they think it was caused by renovation. And I hope that’s the reason. Renovation, you know, what’s that all about?”
I don’t want to overstate the case here: none of this misinformation went truly viral, and I imagine that most people who read about the fire will find an accurate account of what happened.
But it’s easy to imagine how the combination of irresponsible speechifying by an elected official, combined with platform-related mishaps, will empower cathedral fire truthers. And even if you think some level of conspiracy theorizing is inevitable after a catastrophe, it’s possible to wish social media companies didn’t so powerfully enable their spread.
Until then, I’m reading personal accounts of what Notre Dame meant to Paris and the world. Here’s a nice one from Mohamed A. El-Erian in Bloomberg. Here’s a history of royal moments at the cathedral from Ella Kay. And here’s a photo I took of the great church in 2017, when it still seemed as eternal as the Seine.
It’s official: the Copyright Directive is now law, with 19 of 28 countries voting in favor of it. It promises to have huge consequences for YouTube, Facebook, and other big tech platforms, and could make it more difficult for new tech companies to operate in Europe. It won’t go into effect immediately, though — countries have two years to design the implementation, and the law could be amended before then.
Jennifer Duke reports on Facebook’s latest move to self-regulate ahead of government action in Australia:
Sources close to the social media platform said those who broke the site’s rules, such as spreading hate speech on Facebook, would be stopped from going live under the changes.
The new restrictions will likely be introduced before a government-led taskforce meeting later this month and ahead of the business’ first quarter earnings call.
Same platform, different disinformation campaign. Newley Purnell reports:
Anti-vaccine misinformation, some of it from social media posts in the West, is spreading in India on WhatsApp, undermining efforts to root out measles and rubella in a country where tens of thousands of people are struck by the diseases each year.
Dozens of schools in Mumbai have refused to allow health officials to carry out vaccinations in recent months, largely because of rumors shared on Facebook’s popular messaging app about the supposed dangers.
Masood Farivar reports that Russia is welcoming white nationalists onto its largest social network with open arms:
For white nationalists banned from Facebook, VK, based in St. Petersburg, has become a favorite destination. Its laissez faire policy allows them to post hate-filled memes, praise Hitler, rail at immigrants and Jews, and doxx — publish private information about their enemies.
Lulu Yilun Chen and Yoolim Lee write about China’s “stunning ideological coup” — persuading other nations to adopt its vision of a highly restrictive internet purpose-built for surveillance of its citizens:
The more free-wheeling Silicon Valley model once seemed unquestionably the best approach, with stars from Google to Facebook to vouch for its superiority. Now, a re-molding of the internet into a tightly controlled and scrubbed sphere in China’s image is taking place from Russia to India. Yet it’s Southeast Asia that’s the economic and geopolitical linchpin to Chinese ambitions and where U.S.-Chinese tensions will come to a head: a region home to more than half a billion people whose internet economy is expected to triple to $240 billion by 2025.
“For authoritarian countries in general, the idea of the state being able to wall off to some extent its internet is deeply appealing,” said Howard French, author of “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. “This is about the regimes’ survival in an authoritarian situation. So that’s why they like to do this. They want to be able to insulate themselves against shocks.”
Good for TikTok for trying to get in front of its inevitable evolution into a fake-news distributor. Aria Thaker reports:
TikTok, owned by Chinese tech unicorn Bytedance, recently began displaying a public-service announcement (PSA) to its users when they search for some politically relevant hashtags. The hashtags Quartz found that are shown with the PSA are the names of prominent politicians or political organisations, including “bjp,” “narendramodi,” “rss,” and “rahulgandhi,” among others. This coincides with the start yesterday (April 11) of India’s parliamentary election, which will take place in seven phases over six weeks.
“In light of upcoming elections, we request you to continue using TikTok in a responsible way,” the PSA reads. “Please do not upload or share any unlawful content on TikTok. Guard against fake news by always referring to verified news sources.”
The Speaker of the House tells Kara Swisher that regulations are coming:
Pelosi said Silicon Valley is abusing the privilege of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says that internet companies are not responsible for what is posted on their platforms.
“230 is a gift to them, and I don’t think they are treating it with the respect that they should,” she said. “And so I think that that could be a question mark and in jeopardy…. For the privilege of 230, there has to be a bigger sense of responsibility on it, and it is not out of the question that that could be removed.”
Overzealous copyright lawyers at Starz led to a bunch of tweets being disappeared over the weekend. Starz apologized on Monday, Janko Roettgers reports:
Facing a backlash over overzealous copyright enforcement, Starz issued an apology for inadvertently taking down tweets to articles about TV show piracy Monday. The TV network said in a statement that recently incurred a security breach that resulted in screener episodes leaking, which prompted the company to hire a third party for copyright enforcement.
“The techniques and technologies employed in these efforts are not always perfect, and as such it appears that in this case, some posts were inadvertently caught up in the sweep that may fall outside the DMCA guidelines,” the network said in a statement.
Sure, why not:
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has unveiled a 3D hologram that he intends to use to remotely campaign in key battlegrounds states. Yang revealed the hologram during a segment on TMZ Live on Wednesday.
Good. From Jessica Guynn:
Alford would be the first African-American woman and second African-American to join the board of the social media giant. Her nomination at the company’s annual meeting on May 30 would mark a major step in diversifying its nine-member board.
Lotta outages at Facebook-owned properties this year!
Extremely funny, from Rob Price:
Facebook said it accidentally hid bizarre and “inappropriate” messages inside “tens of thousands” of virtual-reality controllers, including “Big Brother is Watching” and “The Masons Were Here.”
Nate Mitchell, the cofounder of Oculus, the Facebook-owned VR company, said on Twitter on Friday that the company inadvertently printed some unusual messages in its Touch controllers, handheld devices for playing games and navigating VR environments.
Running a big social network comes with very real risks — I’m glad Facebook is investing in its employees’ security.
Tinder is a very popular app!
Meanwhile, Tinder’s revenue climbed. In the first quarter, it saw revenue grow by 42 percent year-over-year, to reach $260.7 million across both stores, up from $183 million in Q1 2018, the firm also found.
Ben Collins has the forehead-smackingly depressing tale of how a woman who made significant contributions to the quest to photograph a black hole became the target of men’s rights activists across the internet last week:
By Friday, falsehoods claiming it was not Bouman but a male colleague who deserved credit for the black hole image overtook legitimate coverage in search results on YouTube and Instagram.
On YouTube, the first video result for users who search for “Katie Bouman” returns a video titled “Woman Does 6% of the Work but Gets 100% of the Credit: Black Hole Photo.” The video is riddled with inaccuracies, and largely draws from a falsehood created on Reddit and pushed heavily by a “men’s rights” community.
Compilations of Vines are one of the most beloved genres on YouTube. But they’re also likely copyright violations — and now there’s a battle over their future, Julia Glum reports:
In trying to explain his dark sense of humor, Estela unwittingly stumbled upon a battle brewing over Vine clips, YouTube, and who deserves payment. There’s an entire generation of young people obsessed with producing, watching, and referencing Vine compilations like Estela’s, but the original creators still want credit—and ad revenue—for clips they made years ago. As view counts continue to climb, both Viners and YouTubers are facing big questions about income and ownership.
“Vine was an art,” Estela says, downplaying the YouTube video he uploaded. “If you get it right, you should reap the benefits—not some rando who decides your Vine is funny enough to put into a 20-minute compilation.
Facebook wants to move more people — and advertisers — to stories. So it is experimenting with converting News Feed posts into stories posts. Interesting!
Would you spend more time in Facebook if you could message your friends there? I have to admit I’m surprised to see the company considering this, given how confidently it moved everyone to Messenger a few years back:
Facebook might be putting Messenger’s chats back into its main social media app. The feature is currently in testing and was spotted by app researcher Jane Manchun Wong, and would mean that you could use a single app to access both the social media platform and elements of the messaging service. The change uses the existing Messenger button in the Facebook app, but takes you to a new “Chats” section instead of opening the separate Messenger app.
Speaking of Messenger, dark mode is here.
Twitch just released its first video game — a Windows karaoke game designed to showcase what Twitch can do, Nick Statt reports:
“Twitch Sings unites the fun and energy of being at a live show with the boundless creativity of streamers to make an amazing shared interactive performance,” reads a statement from Joel Wade, the game’s executive producer. “Many games are made better on Twitch, but we believe there is a huge opportunity for those that are designed with streaming and audience participation at their core.”
If there’s no joy in your family, KJ Dell’Antonia says, consider abandoning social media:
The more I reserve both good news and personal challenges for sharing directly with friends, the more I see that the digital world never offered the same satisfaction or support. Instead, I lost out on moments of seeing friends’ faces light up at joyful news, and frequently found myself wishing that not everyone within my network had been privy to a rant or disappointment.
“There’s plenty of evidence that interpersonal, face-to-face interactions yield a stronger neural response than anything you can do online,” said Ms. Miner. “Online empathy is worth something to us, but not as much. It takes something like six virtual hugs to equal one real hug.”
And finally …
Twitter put its official verification program on hiatus in 2017 after realizing it was unable to offer any coherent explanation for what verification signaled on the platform. Ad-hoc verifications have continued since then — and one lucky beneficiary of the program, Karissa Bell notes, is … CEO Jack Dorsey’s mother. And there are many more:
Mashable used Twitter analytics service Follower Wonk to analyze all of the accounts @verified followed for 120 days ending on March 28th, and the results show Twitter’s verification is far from “paused.” The account followed a total of 13,767 users during that 120-day period, according to Follower Wonk’s data.
Another take on Twitter verifying 13,000-plus people in three months while the verification program is supposedly “paused” is that … verification isn’t really paused at all. Sigh.
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Send me tips, comments, questions, and your Notre Dame photos: firstname.lastname@example.org.