On Wednesday, an 85-page document
leaked to Breitbart News. Titled “The Good
Censor,” it’s a presentation that traces the evolution of
content moderation on tech platforms to the present day. The
document is more descriptive than it is prescriptive, aiming to
capture the current debate rather than influence Google’s
leadership directly. Still, in speaking frankly about Google’s
role as a censor, the document — which you can read in
its entirety here — could fuel new calls to rein in
First, some context. The presentation was put together in March
of this year by something called
Brand Studio, which describes itself as “Google’s internal
think tank that uses creativity, media, and technology to
create experiences that connect Google products to the people
who use them.” It also has a team that develops programs for
“crisis response and sustainability.” Generally speaking, Brand
Studio talks to experts and puts together white papers and does
various marketing stunts around them.
In other words, the presentation that leaked to Breitbart
News is not a memo from the head of Google search, or the
CEO of YouTube. Still, it’s worth taking look, primarily for
the way it frames the debate around content moderation for
companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
The presentation is divided into five sections: describing the
importance of free speech; outlining the dimensions of bad
behavior and censorship online; examining how companies are
responding; looking at the balance between free speech and
censorship around the world; and finally, asking how people
want Google to respond.
Everywhere the authors look, they find people “behaving badly,”
to use their chosen expression. Individuals harass and abuse
other users. Governments employ bots, troll farms, and hackers
to wage influence campaigns. Tech companies promote fake news,
underinvest in moderation, and profit from the spread of
”Shares, likes, and clickbait headlines — monetized online
conversations aren’t great news for rational debate,” the
authors write. “And when tech firms have an eye on their
shareholders as well as their free-speech and censorship
values, the priorities can get a little muddled.” They add: “In
responding to public pressure, tech firms haven’t managed the
situation particularly well, either.”
What have tech companies mismanaged? According to the report:
inconsistent application of content moderation guidelines;
opaque explanations around their policies; underplaying the
scope of the problem; slow response times; and a reactionary
posture that can seem more attuned to public perception than
addressing root-level problems.
So what should Google do about it?
”The answer is not to ‘find the right amount of censorship’ and
stick to it,” the authors write. Instead: “Google might
continue to shift with the times — changing its stance on how
much or how little it censors (due to public, governmental, or
commercial pressures). If it does, acknowledgement of what this
shift in position means for users and or Google is essential.
Shifting blindly or silently in one direction or another right
incites users’ fury.”
Other recommendations from the report: remain neutral; “police
tone instead of content”; clearly enforce policies; offer
justifications for global policies around censorship; explain
the underlying technology that the platforms run on; and do a
better job talking about all of it.
The company’s official position on content moderation remains
political neutrality, a spokeswoman told me in an email:
Google is committed to free expression — supporting the free
flow of ideas is core to our mission. Where we have developed
our own content policies, we enforce them in a politically
neutral way. Giving preference to content of one political
ideology over another would fundamentally conflict with our
goal of providing services that work for everyone.
Of course, it’s impossible to read the report or Google’s
statement without considering
Project Dragonfly. According to Ryan Gallagher’s ongoing
reporting at The Intercept, Google’s planned Chinese
search engine will enable anything but the free flow
of ideas. Even in an environment where American users are
calling for tech platforms to limit users’ freedoms in exchange
for more safety and security, many still recoil at the idea of
a search engine that bans search terms in support of an
And that’s the unresolvable tension at the heart of this
report. Almost all of us would agree that some restrictions on
free speech are necessary. But few of us would agree on what
those restrictions should be. Being a good censor — or at
least, a more consistent censor — is within Google’s grasp. But
being a politically neutral one is probably impossible.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sent a letter to the Federal
Trade Commission calling for an investigation into the data
exposure that resulted in Google+ being shut down.
Richard Pinedo, 28, made up to $95,000 selling stolen bank
accounts to Russians, which were then used to buy internet ads
during the 2016 election. Today he received six months in
prison and six months of home confinement after pleading guilty
to a felony identity fraud charge.
Alexandra Stevenson checks in with Rappler, a Filipino news
outlet, which is Facebook’s fact checker in the Philippines:
“It’s frustrating,” said Marguerite de Leon, 32, a Rappler
employee who receives dozens of tips each day about false
stories from readers. “We’re cleaning up Facebook’s mess.”
On the front lines in the war over misinformation, Rappler is
overmatched and outgunned — and that could be a worrying
indicator of Facebook’s effort to curb the global problem by
tapping fact-checking organizations around the world. Civil
society groups have complained that
Facebook’s support is weak. Others have said the company
doesn’t offer enough transparency to tell what works and
Twitter signed a deal with local broadcasters to stream seven
debates that may have national interest:
The seven debates that will be livestreamed throughout
October include the debate between Sen. Cruz and Rep.
O’Rourke and the Oregon governor’s race. Zuckerman said
Twitter is actively looking to add more to the list.
Kurt Wagner looks at candidates to take over Elliot Schrage’s
job at Facebook. It’s going to be a difficult job: the
communications team has been extremely stressed out lately. One
person told me that a recent comms meeting ended in tears:
“I can’t think of another company that’s facing the
[challenges] they have, or even anticipated facing those
[challenges],” said Brandee Barker, co-founder of The Pramana
Collective, a marketing and communication firm. Barker was
head of global communication and public policy at Facebook
from 2006 to 2010, when the biggest issue facing the company
was explaining its technology. When Facebook launched News
Feed, angry users protested outside the company’s office.
“It’s clear that from when I was there the role has evolved
so significantly,” Barker said. Noting that the job has two
elements, she thinks it’s predominantly a policy role right
now. “They have challenges now at the governmental level
internationally, in the U.S., in the EU, and it will only
continue to increase.”
A day after the company promised it would address this issue by
somehow applying artificial intelligence to photographs, Taylor
Lorenz shines a light on Instagram bullying:
According to a
recent Pew survey, 59 percent of teens have been bullied
online, and according to a 2017 survey conducted by
Ditch the Label, a nonprofit anti-bullying group, more
than one in five 12-to-20-year-olds experience bullying
specifically on Instagram. “Instagram is a good place
sometimes,” said Riley, a 14-year-old who, like most kids in
this story, asked to be referred to by her first name only,
“but there’s a lot of drama, bullying, and gossip to go along
Teenagers have always been cruel to one another. But
Instagram provides a uniquely powerful set of tools to do so.
The velocity and size of the distribution mechanism allow
rude comments or harassing images to go viral within hours.
Like Twitter, Instagram makes it easy to set up new,
anonymous profiles, which can be used specifically for
trolling. Most importantly, many interactions on the app are
hidden from the watchful eyes of parents and teachers, many
of whom don’t understand the platform’s intricacies.
Gretchen McCulloch has a paper that gives a name to that thing
where people refer to the president as “Cheeto” or whatever on
social media sites:
recent paper by researcher Emily van der Nagel puts a
name to this phenomenon of hiding a word in plain sight. She
calls it Voldemorting. Van der Nagel traces Voldemorting back
to the Harry Potter books, where most characters are too
afraid of Voldemort to say the word directly, instead
replacing his name with euphemisms like You Know Who and He
Who Must Not Be Named. This practice starts as a
superstition, but by the final book there’s a deeper purpose:
The word Voldemort is revealed as a way of locating the
resistance: “Using his name breaks protective enchantments,
it causes some kind of magical disturbance.”
The internet practice of Voldemorting, van der Nagel says,
comes via a comment left by a user named Eugene, who made the
connection as part of a
discussion about deliberately starving “trash
celebrities” of attention by not referring to them by name.
A leading explanation for the decline of drinking in Britain is
the rise of social media, Iliana Magra reports:
Social media has made users more image-conscious, he noted,
while also providing lasting documentation, in text and
images, of behavior people might prefer to forget.
“There’s a trend of greater sense of health consciousness
among young people,” Mr. Nicholls added. “There’s a move away
from alcohol and drugs, there’s less of a culture of
Bijan Stephen checks in with the Google+ diehards:
“It might not be an amazing site but IT DAMN sure feels like
it. So why should I move?” asked user Buruburedo Boudreaux.
I traveled to Santa Monica to interview Snap’s head of original
content, Sean Mills, as Snapchat tries to reinvent MTV for a
In an interview at the company’s offices in Santa Monica,
California, Mills said Snap’s original shows are engineered
to succeed in the difficult environment of mobile video where
viewers are never more than a thumb-tap away from abandoning
a show. Snap Originals are designed to hook viewers within
seconds and keep them stimulated with flashy visuals, he
“I feel like I’m watching the beginning of a fundamentally
new medium, where people are just waking up to how you have
to take a very different creative approach,” Mills said.
Left out of the competition among social companies to announce
that they had put artificial intelligence into things, LinkedIn
entered the arena today to announce that its AI would go to
work on diversity issues. Honestly none of this sounds like AI
LinkedIn will track what happens in the hiring process with
regards to gender, showing companies reports and insights
about how their job postings and InMail are performing on
this. In addition, LinkedIn will re-rank the top search
results in LinkedIn Recruiter to be more representative.
The Magic Leap One Creator Edition mixed reality headset is now
shipping across the contiguous United States, at a low, low
price of $2,295. It will look great next to your Juicero!
And finally …
After the pop singer broke her legendary silence about
politics, her fans are registering to vote en masse:
“We are up to 65,000 registrations in a single 24-hour period
since T. Swift’s post,” said Kamari Guthrie, director of
communications for Vote.org.
For context, 190,178 new voters were registered nationwide in
the entire month of September, while 56,669 were registered
Taylor Swift is good again, and I encourage everyone to resume
playing “Shake It Off” accordingly.
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and secret Google
presentations: [email protected].