Mar 19, 2019

Christchurch shooting video puts platforms on the spot

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The online spread of the Christchurch mosque killer's sickening first-person video divided experts, industry insiders and the broader public into two opposite camps: Some saw the debacle as proof that Facebook and YouTube can't police their platforms. Others saw it as evidence that they won't.

Why it matters: How we define the platforms' struggle to block the New Zealand shooter's video will shape how we respond to the problem. Either way, Facebook and YouTube don't come off well.

Driving the news:

  • Late Monday night, Facebook posted new details about the video, reporting that the shooter's original live stream was viewed fewer than 200 times in total. None of those viewers flagged it to moderators. The first report about the video came in 12 minutes after the live stream ended.
  • "Before we were alerted... a user on [troll site] 8chan posted a link to a copy of the video on a file-sharing site," Facebook says. Once Facebook took down the original, users began reposting copies.
  • Facebook previously reported that in the 24 hours after the shooting, it removed 1.5 million copies of the video — 1.2 million of which were blocked as they were uploaded.
  • YouTube didn't report numbers, but a Washington Post account said that despite the video platform's efforts to expand human moderation and automated systems, "humans determined to beat the company’s detection tools won the day."

One widely held view is that Facebook and YouTube are simply too big to monitor and control, even with the legions of human moderators they employ and the AI-driven recognition tools they are beginning to deploy.

  • "Social-media platforms were eager to embrace live streaming because it promised growth. Now scale has become a burden," Neima Jahromi wrote in The New Yorker.
  • In this picture, outnumbered moderators will always be a step behind masses of determined users, and the whack-a-mole game will never end.
  • As platforms get better at identifying and blocking particular classes and instances of undesirable content, the content's proponents will find new tactics for modifying, hiding and redistributing the material.

Another view holds that Facebook and YouTube have both repeatedly shown their ability to police their vast online estates when given no alternative:

  • They've taken strong measures against child pornography, and indeed kept most kinds of porn at bay.
  • They've moved forcefully to keep ISIS recruiting videos from publicly circulating.
  • They've worked to eliminate access to Nazi propaganda in Germany, where it's outlawed.
  • They've cracked down effectively on distribution of copyrighted materials via their services.
  • If strong enough legal, financial and socio-political incentives have done the trick in these areas, the argument goes, surely Facebook and YouTube can also take effective action against violent right-wing extremists.

These two scenarios paint two very different pictures of what's going on.

  • In one, platform managers are playing a Sisyphean delete-and-block game against persistent and inventive opponents.
  • In the other, companies that prioritize engagement metrics are protecting their business interests by failing to limit offensive content — except when media coverage and ad boycotts make action unavoidable.

Be smart: Hard as the problem is, people are going to keep pushing the platforms to solve it. And there are plenty of other steps Facebook and YouTube could take.

  • For instance, during a crisis they could suspend real-time uploads, or temporarily block those coming from new or unverified accounts.
  • In a Twitter thread, Homebrew's Hunter Walk (a former YouTube exec) proposed methods for YouTube to protect freedom of speech while curtailing "freedom of reach."

Go deeper: The real tech regulators

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America's rundown roads add to farmers' struggles

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

American farmers are struggling to safely use the roads that cut through their fields; decades of neglect and lack of funding have made the routes dangerous.

The big picture: President Trump has long promised to invest billions in rural infrastructure, and his latest proposal would allocate $1 trillion for such projects. Rural America, where many of Trump's supporters live, would see a large chunk of that money.

South Korea and Italy see spikes in coronavirus cases

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The novel coronavirus continues to spread to more nations, and the U.S. reports a doubling of its confirmed cases to 34 — while noting those are mostly due to repatriated citizens, emphasizing there's no "community spread" yet in the U.S. South Korea's confirmed cases jumped from 204 on Friday to 433 on Saturday, while Italy's case count rose from 3 to 62 as of Saturday.

The big picture: COVID-19 has now killed at least 2,362 people and infected more than 77,000 others, mostly in mainland China. New countries to announce infections recently include Israel, Lebanon and Iran.

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Centrist Democrats beseech 2020 candidates: "Stand up to Bernie" or Trump wins

Bernie Sanders rallies in Las Vegas, Nevada on Feb. 21. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Center-left think tank Third Way urgently called on the Democratic front-runners of the 2020 presidential election to challenge Sen. Bernie Sanders on the South Carolina debate stage on Feb. 25, in a memo provided to Axios' Mike Allen on Saturday.

What they're saying: "At the Las Vegas debate ... you declined to really challenge Senator Sanders. If you repeat this strategy at the South Carolina debate this week, you could hand the nomination to Sanders, likely dooming the Democratic Party — and the nation — to Trump and sweeping down-ballot Republican victories in November."