danah boyd on fake news

I’ve hesitated to write anything about the fake news issue because I work at a company that is in the middle of it. SmartNews uses algorithms to curate the most important stories of the moment and we are constantly debating  how to best use the tools we have to discover, process, filter, and rank, filter, a “balanced” view of the world to our readers.

I’ve been frustrated with all the proposed “solutions” to the fake news problem because I appreciate the limits of technology and have great respect for human creativity.

danah boyd, ever a beacon of clarity on the intersection of technology and society, has written the post that had me nodding in violent agreement. Read it now. It’s the best thing I’ve read about where we are, how we got here, why past solutions will not work and the hard road ahead. Google and Facebook Can’t Just Make Fake News Disappear.

an excerpt (emphasis mine)

Even if the goal were to curb the most egregious lies for economic gain (or even just deception in business in FTC parlance), that conversation wouldn’t be quick or easy — folks forget that iterations in spam/SEO went on for decade(s) to get to the current status quo (which is still imperfect but less visible, especially to Gmail users and sophisticated American searchers). These are international issues with no good regulatory process or reasonable process to adjudicate what is real or not. Welcome to the high stakes game of whack-a-mole.

Try writing a content policy that you think would work. And then think about all of the ways in which you’d be eliminating acceptable practices through that policy. Next, consider how your adversaries would work around your policy. This was what I did at Blogger and LiveJournal, and I can’t even begin to express how challenging it was to do that work. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of images I saw that challenged the line between pornography and breastfeeding. These lines aren’t as clean as you’d think.

Although all eyes turn to Facebook, Google and other distribution points of the news they cannot flip a few switches and fix everything.

Technology is but a temporary routing algorithm for our motivations, a reflection, albeit supercharged, of our own cultural biases and societal divisions.

If we want technical solutions to complex socio-technical issues, we can’t simply throw it over the wall and tell companies to fix the broken parts of society that they made visible and helped magnify. We need to work together and build coalitions of groups who do not share the same political and social ideals to address the issues that we can all agree are broken.

A neighbor of mine is using private Facebook groups to “generate dialogue and engagement between divided communities” rewarding  “curiosity over confrontation.” (Spaceship Media).

Today I read about Alex Reinoso in NYC who is posting fliers around town with his cell number and email with the simple invitation. “Hi, I’m Alex. I’m a liberal. All my friends are liberal. My newsfeed is one-sided. Are you a conservative dealing with the same issue? If so I’d like to talk.”

Now that we have the means to connect and broadcast ourselves to anyone in the world, let’s now create technology that accelerates cooperation and amplifies empathy?

Everyone’s Neighbor on the Chopping Block

The late-Mr. Rogers melted hearts in 1969 before the Senate Commerce Committee stressing the need for publicly-funded educational television and defend funding for the nascent Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the main source of funding for PBS and NPR).

This speech is all the more poignant in light of the proposed elimination of CPB to help fund the expansion of the military and fund the proposed Trump wall in the latest draft budget.

h/t Mashable

Work for SmartNews!

We’re looking for a few engineers for our downtown San Francisco office. Primarily back-end with a strong background in backend development technologies.  The bullet points on the job posting say:

  • Coding experience in Java, Kotlin, or Scala
  • Experience operating and maintaining a JVM-based application
  • Experience developing on top of a web framework (e.g. Spring Boot, Ruby on Rails, etc.)
  • Working knowledge of HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript
  • Experience with AWS
  • Experience developing and operating a high-traffic web service
  • Good understanding of JVM internals

That’s the baseline. There’s a coding test to suss out the knowledge and skills you’ll need to be an engineer at SmartNews. You will have a burning desire to change how we keep up with what’s going on in our world and how news is distributed from those who publish it.  That means you are original and creative – we don’t want to be just another socially-powered aggregator of feeds.

SmartNews SF office (the earth guy is our mascot Chikyu, he has a blog)

We do things differently. See that photo of our modern-looking lobby above? The wooden slats are bed frames from Ikea. The beautiful slab of redwood is repurposed from a fallen log harvested by my neighbor. We look for inspiration everywhere. We use familiar tools and materials in different ways to make something new, orthogonal.

People like to visit our office to learn about startups

Because SmartNews is not writing or producing news, we rely on our publishing partners to send us the most important stories every day. To do this, we built a product and business that brings new readers and revenue for our partners. We want those that publish great journalism to get exposure and succeed. Our goals are aligned with our partners.

If you have a passion for the future of news, live to scale and optimize infrastructures, and wouldn’t mind working with a international (Japan, Iceland, Iran, Argentina, and China) team of engineers (and occasionally visit the SmartNews HQ in Tokyo), drop me a line and send me your CV.

Our Harajuku Headquarters (it’s very swank)

For more, about SmartNews check out:

Full Disclosure

Diving into the minutiae of documents sometimes uncovers wonderful details and flashes of humanity.

Mutual Fund disclosure statements are the usual dry blah-de-dah boilerplates but The Wall Street Journal Moneybeat column digs out this chestnut from the go-go dotcom days before the crash.

Plain Language Risk Disclosure

First of all, stock prices are volatile. Well, duh. If you buy shares in a stock mutual fund, any stock mutual fund, your investment value will change every day. In a recession it will go down, day after day, week after week, month after month, until you are ready to tear your hair out, unless you’ve already gone bald from worry. It will insist on this even if Ghandi, Jefferson, John Lennon, Jesus and the Apostles, Einstein, Merlin and Golda Maier all manage the thing. Stock markets show remarkably little respect for people or their reputations. Furthermore, if the fund has really been successful, you might be buying someone else’s whopping gains when you invest, on which you may have to pay taxes for returns you didn’t earn. Just try and find somewhere you don’t, though. Dismal.

While the long-term bias in stock prices is upward, stocks enter a bear market with amazing regularity, about every 3 – 4 years. It goes with the territory. Expect it. Live with it. If you can’t do that, go bury your money in a jar or put it in the bank and don’t bother us about why your investment goes south sometimes or why water runs downhill. It’s physics, man.

Aside from the mandatory boilerplate terrorizing above, there are risks that are specific to the IPS Millennium Fund you should understand better. Since most people don’t read the Prospectus (this isn’t aimed at you, of course, just all those other investors), we thought we’d try a more innovative way to scare you.

We buy scary stuff. You know, Internet stocks, small companies. These things go up and down like Pogo Sticks on steroids. We aren’t a sector tech fund, we are a growth & income fund, but right now the Internet is where we think most of the value is. While we try to moderate the consequent volatility by buying electric utility companies, Real Estate Investment Trusts, banks and other widows-and-orphans stuff with big dividend yields, it doesn’t always work. Even if we buy a lot of them. Sometimes we get killed anyway when Internet and other tech stocks take a particularly big hit. The “we” is actually a euphemism for you, got it?

We also get killed if interest rates go up, because that affects high dividend companies badly. Since rising interest rates affect everything badly, we could get killed even worse if the Fed raises rates, or the economy in general experiences higher interest rates beyond the control of those in control, or gets out of control. Whatever.

Many of the companies we buy are growing really fast. Like, 50% – 100% per year sales growth. Many of them also don’t make any money, although they may be relatively large companies. That means they have silly valuations by traditional valuation techniques. We don’t know what that means any more than you do, because we have never seen anything like the Internet before. So we might overpay for these companies, thinking we are really smart and can get away with it because they are growing so fast. It doesn’t take a whole lot for these companies to drop 50% or more, because nobody else knows what they are worth either. Received Wisdom can turn on a dime in this business, and when that happens prices fall off a cliff.

Even if we were really smart and stole these companies, if their prices run way up we are still as vulnerable as if we were really dumb and paid that high a price for them to start with. If we sell them, you will get pretty irritated with us come tax time, so we try not to do any more of that than we have to. The pole of that strategy, though, is that if we are really successful, you will have a lot of downside risk in a recession or a bear market. Bummer.

Finally, if you haven’t already grabbed the phone and started yelling at your broker to sell our fund as fast as possible, you should understand the shifting sands of technology. It doesn’t take billions of dollars to start a high tech company, like it did U.S. Steel or Ford Motor. Anybody can do it, and everybody does. Many of our companies are small, even though they dominate their market niche. It’s much easier for a new technology to blow one of our companies out of the water than it was in the old days of canal, mining, railroad and steel companies.

Just so you know. Don’t come crying to us if we lose all your money, and you wind up a Dumpster Dude or a Basket Lady rooting for aluminum cans in your old age.

If you like that, check out other bits of brilliance that I’ve highlighted in the past:

 

The best thing on the Internet today

I’ve already shared this multiple times today but am adding it here so I can refer back when needed.

Media coverage was thick and fast as it was a slow news day in Trumpland and everyone was looking for a bit of comic relief on a Friday after a busy week. Taiwan-based expat Ben Thompson has the best scene-by-scene breakdown.

It had me in tears.

UPDATE: Here’s an interview with the analyst Robert Kelly and his wife Kim Jung-A on the chaos that lead to the “comedy of errors”  and how their life changed when the video received 84 million views

Truth to Power

It’s no secret that the disinformation swirling around our new president and how he got elected have been a boon for the troubled media business. Americans have taken a new interest in good journalism and are looking more carefully at where they get their information.

Subscriptions are up at places like the New York Times and New Yorker and we’ve been seeing record activity here at SmartNews. People want the truth.

Hollywood is getting in on the boom. Today, Steven Spielberg announced that he will direct The Post, a film about the Washington Post’s role in the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Tom Hanks will play Ben Bradlee, the paper’s editor and Meryl Streep will play Kay Graham, the publisher.

In an age in which a sitting president loudly and routinely attacks the media and dubs credible outlets the “enemy of the people,” it’s more vital than ever to remember the lessons that history has already taught us. – Vanity Fair

To get a sense of the epic battle that is brewing, check out this conversation between Walt Mossberg, Kara Swisher and Marty Baron, the current editor of  the Washington Post (Baron played a central role in the reporting that led to the film Spotlight). The entire 45-minute talk is worth listening but I’ve called out some memorable quotes.

When asked, to respond to Trump’s criticism that he has a “running war” with the media, Marty replies,

The way I view it is, we’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.

Replying to the comment that the media is an, “opposition party,”

We don’t act like a party, the press doesn’t coordinate with each other, we compete. We like a party but we’re not a party. We’re not the opposition, we’re independent.

And about “alternative facts”

We have to understand that the alternative to facts is not alternative facts. It’s fiction…I think this is a really concerning development, that we seem to say there is no such thing as an objective fact. It’s all just a matter of personal opinion.

Times like these will produce great journalists.

Casey Neistat – Disrupter of Broadcast News?

Two of the three commercials run by Samsung during this year’s Academy Awards were basically showing us why their phones will not explode, the final spot of the evening featured mega-YouTube star Casey Neistat and dared anyone with imagination to become the next star.

It’s an inspirational advertisement that only peripherally features Samsung but is notable because this YouTube star made the jump to broadcast television in a big way when CNN acquired his production company.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interview with Casey in which he talks a bit about how he wants to change the way news is delivered. Keep a close eye on him as he is looking to shake up the way people get their news in much the same way bloggers did to mainstream media 10 years ago.

What’s interesting is how he answer’s the question below. Clearly he wants to pop the filter bubble, protected by the “thick, strong, solid-steel bullshit shield that this generation cautiously holds up in between them and everything being thrown at them.” – Rather than shy away from bias, he embraces and leans into it to seek balance.

I watch television, although not that much. I have my favorite news outlets, but what I try to do in consuming online is to find the same story in two different places. I’ve been trying to find a biased perspective on either side. It’s the same with podcasts. I’m a huge fan of political podcasts, but I listen to as many conservative commentators as I do liberal ones. When I consume media, I want to know what’s going on but I also really want to understand how and why it’s being shared the way it is, especially in the shadow of what we’re trying to build.

UPDATE: And here’s his latest call to arms to all the creators out there.