When Digital Platforms Become Censors

17 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Call 2018 the “Year of Deplatforming.” The internet was once celebrated for allowing fresh new voices to escape the control of gatekeepers. But this year, the internet giants decided to slam the gates on a number of people and ideas they don’t like. If you rely on someone else’s platform to express unpopular ideas, especially ideas on the right, you’re now at risk. This raises troubling questions, not only for free speech but for the future of American politics and media.

The most famous victim of deplatforming is, not coincidentally, the least popular: Alex Jones, the radio host known for promoting outrageous conspiracy theories about everything from vaccinations to the Sandy Hook massacre. In a concerted action earlier this month aimed at loosely defined “hate speech,” Facebook , Apple , Spotify and YouTube removed from their services most of the material by Mr. Jones and his InfoWars network.Twitter recently followed suit with a seven-day suspension.

Apple cited its “terms of use” in removing InfoWars from its iTunes podcast listings but couldn’t explain why it didn’t remove the InfoWars app, which shares the same content, from its App Store. YouTube made general reference to its “terms of service and community guidelines,” but didn’t say what Mr. Jones had done wrong. Facebook’s reasons were similarly vague.

Their evasiveness isn’t hard to explain. After all, Mr. Jones isn’t doing anything different from what he has been doing for years. The real reason for his removal is that technology companies don’t like his views and have come under increasing pressure to deny him the use of their platforms.

. . . .

This week, Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes was suspended from Twitter along with his far-right Proud Boys organization, who call themselves “Western chauvinists,” though they say they oppose white supremacy. Twitter doesn’t like them, and it doesn’t like their politics. But even a mainstream conservative figure like radio host and author Dennis Prager has complained that YouTube placed age restrictions on some of the videos he produced. Facebook blocked an advertisement for Republican Congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng, ostensibly because her video mentioned the Cambodian genocide, which her family survived. Microsoft even threatened to shut down the web services used by conservative Twitter-competitor Gab because a single user on the network had posted anti-Semitic content.

If internet megaplatforms like YouTube and Facebook were publishers, none of this would be especially problematic. One of the essential duties of a publisher is deciding what to publish and what not to publish. The Supreme Court has even held, in Miami Herald v. Tornillo (1974), that the law can’t compel newspapers to print replies to their articles, because it would interfere with their choice of what to publish.

But internet platforms don’t want to be treated as publishers, because publishers are also responsible for their decisions. If a newspaper publishes a libelous story, it can be sued. If it infringes someone’s copyright, it can be held liable for damages. And everything it chooses to publish or not to publish is a reflection on its reputation.

Today, the big internet companies are treated not as publishers but as conduits—tools that other people use to spread their own ideas. That’s why the “safe harbor provision” of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a landmark in internet regulation, states that platforms aren’t legally responsible for what other people publish on their sites. The law was originally intended to protect things like newspaper comment sections, but its application has become very broad, encompassing virtually all of the content on social media and sharing sites.

Now these companies are trying to have it both ways. They take advantage of the fact that they are not publishers to escape responsibility for the endless amounts of problematic material on their sites, from libel to revenge porn. But at the same time, they are increasingly acting like publishers in deciding which views and people are permitted on their platforms and which are not. As a narrow matter of First Amendment law, what these companies are doing will probably pass muster, unless some federal court decides, as in Marsh v. Alabama (1946), that their platforms are functionally equivalent to “company towns,” where the public square is privately owned.

. . . .

The notion that Silicon Valley megabillionaires are actively limiting what ordinary Americans can talk and write about is likely to produce a backlash. The tech industry’s image has already suffered over revelations about Facebook’s experiments aimed at manipulating users’ newsfeeds to test their emotional states, as well as various cases of invasion of privacy and data mishandling. Twenty years ago, most Americans saw Silicon Valley as liberating; now it seems to have gone from the hammer-wielding woman in that famous “1984” Apple commercial to the Big Brother figure up on the screen.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

A Novelist in Awe of Physics

17 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Should sci-fi be centered on human beings and human problems, as Theodore Sturgeon insisted long ago? Or is actual science vital for producing the “sense of wonder”? Most sci-fi authors these days lean toward the focus on people, no longer generating stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s 1961 “A Fall of Moondust” or Poul Anderson’s 1963 “Shield,” which had at their core a technical problem, or a technical breakthrough.

Cixin Liu’s Ball Lightning” . . . swings firmly the other way. At the start Mr. Liu insists that all descriptions he uses of the titular phenomenon—in which lightning takes the form of floating balls of plasma—are based on historical records, and very strange they are. People burned instantaneously to ash while the wooden stools they were sitting on are left untouched; a man’s toenails burned off without affecting his boots.

The first quest, then, is for a theory to explain this intensely selective release of energy. The second is to find a use for it, if it can be controlled. Once ozone replaces gun smoke as the scent of the battlefield, ball lightning will succeed the tank and the nuclear bomb as the ultimate war-winner.

The theory, though, is what creates the wonder. We know about microscopic fundamental particles. Is ball lightning a macroscopic fundamental particle? If so, maybe the strangeness is quantum. When Mr. Liu’s protagonist Dr. Chen, whose parents were killed by a burst of ball lightning, and his colleagues create a thunderball gun, they find it works only in the presence of an observer. If you try it with the cameras off, it remains a probability cloud.

The trouble is that sometimes it works even when they have taken all precautions. So someone is observing, but they have no idea who. One thought is that ball lightning’s victims may continue to exist in a quantum state—like ghosts, in fact, trying to communicate. But how? The head theoretician says that once “you yourself become a macro-particle in a quantum state,” understanding the world will become a lot easier. Could this be reassurance? It doesn’t feel like it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

As Barnes & Noble Struggles to Find Footing, Founder Takes Heat

17 August 2018

From The New York Times:

Leonard Riggio radically altered bookselling in America when he bought an ailing New York City bookstore and turned it into a national chain of megastores.

Now, his company — Barnes & Noble — is floundering, the publishing industry that depends on it is worried, and Mr. Riggio has nobody to turn to but himself.

That much became starkly evident last month when Barnes & Noble abruptly fired its chief executive, Demos Parneros, with little explanation. Mr. Parneros was the fourth noninterim chief executive in five years, a remarkable amount of turnover at a large company.

The news left alarmed publishers and investors complaining that the chain is once again dealing with a management vacuum when it desperately needs to adapt and innovate. Sales are falling. The Nook, Barnes & Noble’s attempt at selling electronic books, became a financial drain. Critics say the company lacks direction, sometimes seeming to prioritize sales of gifts and tchotchkes over books. For investors, the impact is already evident: Barnes & Noble’s stock price is down 60 percent over the last three years.

. . . .

“It would be disastrous if they go down,” said Dennis Johnson, a co-publisher of Melville House, an independent press. “If 600 bookstores disappear from the country, there will be that many fewer visible books, which seem to be receding from their place in the culture.”

. . . .

Mr. Riggio, 77, the company’s chairman, disputed the notion that Barnes & Noble is mired in a leadership crisis. After all, he said during an interview at the company’s headquarters on New York’s Fifth Avenue, he has always been there.

And he has a plan to turn things around.

“I have a big stake in the business, I founded it and I’ve been here forever, so I think there’s a lot of stability that comes with that,” said Mr. Riggio. “If we’re without a leader, I’m it.”

. . . .

The American Booksellers Association counted 2,470 independent store locations in 2018, up from 1,651 in 2009, and sales at its member stores were up 5 percent so far this year over last. Sales of printed hardcover books grew nearly 11 percent from 2013 to 2017, while those of paperbacks rose 17 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers.

. . . .

“The indies decided that rather than trying to compete on price and inventory, we’re going to provide our customers with a curated experience that’s hypersensitive to the customers in that community,” said Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who has studied why independent bookstores are rebounding in spite of Amazon. “Barnes & Noble has struggled to figure out where they fit in the larger ecosystem, given that that continuum continues to spread further and further apart.”

To adapt, Mr. Riggio said that Barnes & Noble would close big, underperforming stores and open smaller ones in more highly trafficked areas. In the last decade, the chain has closed more than 150 stores and now operates 633.

“We have to move back to where the action is,” he said. “We have to follow the population.”

But he disagrees with another diagnosis of the problem: that he’s a micromanager who doesn’t give his chief executives room to operate. People who have worked closely with him described him as self-assured to a fault.

. . . .

[Riggio] disputed the idea that he doesn’t give his chief executives room to operate.

“I don’t micromanage anything,” he said.

. . . .

Mr. Riggio should focus less on where to close and open stores and more on how to convert browsing visitors into paying customers, Mr. Schottenfeld said.

“It’s not as much about the ideas as it is the execution of those plans — the company is mismanaging the opportunities in front of them,” he said. “It seems like you can get more dollars out of people if you just figure out what they want to buy from you.”

. . . .

Some publishing executives privately express hope that Barnes & Noble will be sold, perhaps to Indigo.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

How free should novelists be to imagine radically different lives?

17 August 2018

From The Guardian:

 My new novel may need justifying. Half of it is narrated by Sofia, a 17-year-old girl born in Cairo; I’m a 47-year-old man who has never lived outside the UK. More to the point, the story opens with Sofia arriving in Syria to join Islamic State – a long way from any experience of my own. Privately, I have been asked what gives me the right to tell this story. With the book newly out, I expect to have to answer this publicly. It’s a good question.

And a vexed one, debated with understandable heat over the last few years. One side sees an act of presumption or, worse, exploitation: those who are used to having an audience for their stories usurp the experience, culture and identity of those who are never heard. To object to this is right. Control the past and you control the future, as Orwell tells us; the fictional stories we tell shape us as powerfully as history does. This responsibility ought to sit with the owners of the stories – not only because it is morally right, but also because their chances of being heard diminish every time someone tells their story for them. Like a child who never gets a word in because their older siblings speak for them, they are robbed of the chance to find their own voice.

The other side responds with logic that appears irrefutable. If a writer can write only what they know, they will be confined to writing about themselves, or their experience of others. They’ll be barred from imagining what it is to be someone else. The boundaries shrink to almost nothing, and literature dies: no Anna Karenina, no Molly Bloom, no Frankenstein. Jane Austen might have shrunk from creating Darcy.

If some extension is allowed, how far can it go, and who decides? My last novel focused on a Jewish New Yorker in his late 50s, wealthy, single and living in London. I’m not Isaac Hammer any more than I am Sofia, but my life is probably a little closer to his, at least in appearance. No one ever remarked on that gap. So is that OK? Can I write a female character, provided she has a similar background to my own? A gay character? Can I move up a class, or down one? These shifting grades are so numerous that the exercise quickly becomes ludicrous.

. . . .

Novelists are familiar with the moral shape of this relationship with the world. What we create isn’t generated from nothing; everything that comes out has at some point gone in. It follows that the richer the inputs, the better the odds that good work will result. This is why families and friends are rightly wary of us, and why Graham Greene said there was no such thing as a boring lunch, just an opportunity to gather material. If we’re doing it right, we don’t just borrow the experience of others, we absorb it and make it our own. We steal.

That novelists do not sit with the politicians and the bankers in popular esteem suggests there is a contract in place, that the world acknowledges that the benefit outweighs the intrusion. It is for good reason that most cultures prize their novelists (and that some governments fear them). But the recent debate around cultural appropriation suggests that, at its edges, the terms of the contract are no longer clear or reasonable. The world has changed, old assumptions no longer hold and novelists, like everyone else, need to move with the times. Writing fiction deserves no special dispensation.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG’s beliefs might not fit every definition of free speech absolutism, but he’s pretty close.

With a few exceptions (“Let’s go burn down the jail and kill everyone inside!” Child pornography. A handful of others.), PG thinks anybody ought to be able to speak or write about any subject they choose. The solution to wrong-headed speech is more speech.

Nobody “owns” the right to tell stories about a particular ethnic group or culture. Often someone who is not a member of a group, an outsider, can observe and depict things to which insiders are effectively blind or about which they feel they can’t speak. Black Like Me and I Passed for White may not be your cup of tea, but their creation and existence haven’t deprived anyone else of the opportunity to write about the same or a related subject.

Again, the simple solution to speech which is wrong or misrepresentative is more speech. In a free society, there is never a shortage of speech. Shortages of speech only appear in totalitarian environments.

“Appropriation” assumes that if one person takes something, he/she is depriving someone else of what was taken.

“Cultural appropriation” assumes that if someone speaks or writes about another culture, he/she is depriving members of that culture of the ability to speak or write about their culture. To state the underlying rationale of cultural appropriation is to demonstrate its fallacy.

PG suggests the concept of cultural appropriation is one of the many species of censorship, another version of “I won’t let you say things I don’t like!” It has nothing really to do about what is said and everything to do with control and domination of others.

 

Analyst warns Facebook investors: “systemic mismanagement” poses big risks

17 August 2018

From Fast Company:

Headlines over the past few weeks–nay, years–have been hard on Facebook. If it’s not a story detailing how the company mismanaged user data, it’s another scathing report about how it misleads customers, can’t get fake news under control, or is killing the news business.

And analysts are getting increasingly worried.

Yesterday, an advertiser filed a lawsuit, seeking class-action status, over Facebook allegedly misrepresenting its “Potential Reach” statistic. In Myanmar, the company’s attempt to fight hate speech is reportedly going terribly. The list goes on.

With all of this, Pivotal analyst Brian Wieser sees a big problem. Though he’s given the company a “sell” rating for a while, these latest headlines further bolster his opinion. “Although we don’t have a tangible sense of financial consequences these situations may bring they are illustrative of systemic mis-management at the company which is mostly under-appreciated as risks by investors,” he writes in a new note.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

PG suspects he’s not the only one who has substantially reduced his time on Facebook in recent months after the deluge of negative publicity, but that’s not the worst thing from Facebook’s standpoint.

The worst thing is that PG has found he doesn’t really miss Facebook.

Believe it or not

17 August 2018

Believe it or not, some of us have piercings and tattoos and dye our hair because we think it looks pretty, not for any deep sociological reason. This isn’t an act of protest against cultural or social repression. It’s not a grand, deliberately defiant gesture against capitalists or feminists or any other social group. It’s not even the fashion equivalent to sticking two fingers up at the world.

The boring truth of it, Gabriel, is that I don’t dress like this to hurt my parents or draw attention to myself or make a statement. I just do it because I think it looks nice.

Disappointed?

~ Alex Bell, The Ninth Circle

Amazon Bestseller Lists

16 August 2018

Here are Amazon’s Books Bestseller Lists (Print/Kindle Combined ), Updated Hourly:

All Books

Fiction Genres

Romance

Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Comics and Graphic Novels

Non-Fiction

Biographies

Self-Help

Christian

History

Religion and Spirituality

 

How to Set up Google Alerts (and Use It to Grow Your Business)

16 August 2018

From Ahrefs Blog:

Do you want to monitor the web for mentions of your name? Or perhaps your business? Or maybe even your competitor? Google Alerts can do this.

It’s simple to use. You enter a word or phrase, and you’ll be alerted by email whenever Google finds new mentions on the web.

. . . .

But Google Alerts is useful for more than just boosting your ego. Tracking mentions related to your business or brand can unveil opportunities for link building, brand building, collaborations, and more.

It’s a free tool that’s well-suited to beginners. But, despite being owned by Google, it doesn’t catch all web mentions.

How do we know? Because we have a web monitoring tool called Ahrefs Alerts. When we ran a small experiment to compare the number of results found by each tool, we found that, on average, Ahrefs Alerts returned 2,376% more results.

. . . .

How to set up Google Alerts

  1. Go to google.com/alerts
  2. Enter a search term to track. Google Alerts will display a results preview as you type.
  3. Select “Show options” (below the search box). Choose how often you’d like to receive alerts: once a day; as it happens; once a week.
  4. Choose a source for your alerts: web; blogs; news; etc. If you’re unsure, leave this as the default “automatic.”
  5. Choose a language and region.
  6. Choose how many results you want to see: “all results,” or “only the best results.”
  7. Choose a delivery email address (this is where Google will send your alerts).
  8. Select “Create alert.”

. . . .

No matter how hard you work to keep your customers happy, you can’t please everyone.

Because of this, negative reviews can be a problem for all businesses.

Monitoring brand mentions should uncover negative reviews. But if your business gets mentioned a lot, these can be easy to miss. It is, therefore, worth setting up a Google Alert just for reviews.

For that, you can use: [brand name] + intitle:review

This will alert you to any new reviews of your business. Some of which may be negative.

. . . .

Spying on your competitors can unveil marketing tactics that you can use in your business.

. . . .

Plus, if a site is mentioning and linking to a competitor, they might also be willing to link to you.

. . . .

If a page mentions multiple competitors but neglects to include you, it presents an opportunity to introduce you and your business to the site owner.

. . . .

Most businesses publish new blog content on a regular basis, including your competitors.

Keeping an eye on what the competition is putting out there can help you to discover new topic ideas for your blog. It also keeps you in the know, should they publish competing content.

. . . .

Using Google Alerts, then, is a much better option.

Link to the rest at Ahrefs Blog

For visitors to TPV who are not familiar with Google Alerts, they operate just like a Google Search, but are running all the time.

If you use Google to search for your pen name to learn who and where you’re being mentioned, using the same search terms in a Google Alert will keep the search running continuously and email you when your pen name initially appears in a new post, website, etc.

PG has been doing something like this for many years using Google Alerts and, before that, LexisNexis (for whom he worked for three unhappy years, but from whom he obtained free access credentials that lasted for over ten years after he quit). He just counted and learned he is currently running 41 Google Alerts on a variety of topics.

As the OP indicates, these tools can provide a lot of good and actionable information about who is talking about you online and what they are saying. For example, readers of your books might appreciate a short thank you email from you if they mention you or one of your books on a blog.

PG does recommend some good sense and caution so you don’t give the impression you are operating an all-seeing eye that hovers over the internet. “My automated online surveillance system just discovered you posted a bad review and I demand an immediate retraction,” is not the effect you’re looking for.

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