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Help reduce harassment and abuse of women journalists on social media

A team of Columbia researchers is developing new computational tools designed to automatically identify abusive, offensive and harassing speech on social media platforms. As a first step, this work will develop targeted tools that smartly identify the nuances of problematic speech targeted towards women journalists on Twitter. As such, the team is looking for women-identifying journalists who are willing to both share parts of their Twitter history and spend up to an hour using an interactive tool to evaluate problematic tweets. If you are interested in participating or have any questions, please reach out to Julia Hirschberg (, Sara Ita Levitan (, and Susan McGregor (

COVID-19 newsroom cutbacks tracker

The Tow Center is conducting a project to track newsroom lay-offs and cutbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have been affected or know of a newsroom that has, please add to our form. We are extremely grateful for any contributions.

Facebook's long, drawn-out reckoning

By Emily Bell

Mark Zuckerberg and Noam Chomsky are strange bedfellows in this political moment, but both found themselves on the same side this week in resisting so-called cancel culture. While Zuckerberg refused to make changes to Facebook’s policies towards misinformation and hate speech under pressure from a growing advertiser boycott, Chomsky joined luminaries including Margaret Attwood, Wynton Marsalis, J.K. Rowling and Gloria Steinem in signing “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s magazine. 

The two separate incidents illustrate how cultural change is reshaping both journalism and social media platforms, as gatekeepers old and new confront their long-ignored blind spots. The Harper’s letter reaches for more nuance than Mark Zuckerberg’s position on speech but broadly occupies the same territory. The letter seeks the answer to intolerance and extremism in the “free exchange of information and ideas” rather than what the 153 signatories see as a constriction of speech, alluding to how employers such as the New York Times have reacted to public outcry about editorial decisions.

While it is no longer acceptable for conservative senators to argue for using military force against protesters in the New York Times, publishing platforms with far more reach have few, if any, boundaries for acceptable speech at all. On social media, politicians—Presidents even—can encourage the violent repression of demonstrations without censure. 

In fact, Facebook has hardly narrowed the boundaries of debate at all. Conspiracy theories and divisive speech continue to circulate on the platform, political advertising (which increasingly takes place on Facebook) advances blatant lies without fear of fact-checking, and damaging and misleading ideas about critical issues such as coronavirus and climate change are frequently posted without tangible consequences.

The concern over what Facebook has framed as a “free speech issue” is now impinging on company revenues. Advertisers including Unlivever, Verizon, LEGO, Dunkin Donuts, Pepsi and Target have joined the boycott, organised by groups including NAACP, Color of Change and the Anti-Defamation League as well as Free Press. The demands of the campaign extend to structural reforms inside Facebook including the appointment of a human rights expert to advise the company, regular external audits of the platform for identity-based discrimination and bias and the adoption of a number of other policies. Although the campaign targets racial hate speech on all social platforms, Facebook has become the focus of the story after the company repeatedly refused to flag or remove posts from President Donald Trump that stoked racial tensions and called for shootings during the recent Black Lives Matter protests. 

Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and head of communications, the former British Deputy Prime Minister Sir Nick Clegg, met the boycott campaign organizers via Zoom on Tuesday, but to little effect. Jessica Gonzalez, of Free Press, who attended the Zoom meeting said it yielded only “spin” from Facebook: “I’m deeply disappointed that Facebook still refuses to hold itself accountable to its users, its advertisers and society at large. I was hoping to see deep humility and reflection about the outsized role that Facebook plays in shaping beliefs, opinions and behavior, and the many harms it’s caused and facilitated in real life. Instead we saw more dialogue and no action,” said Gonazalez in a statement.

News organizations sit uncomfortably on the jagged edge of this debate. One of the striking aspects of the #StopHateForProfit campaign is that, while many news organisations have celebrated the discomfort of Facebook, not many of them have actually joined the boycott. In fact, media properties such as HuffPost, Yahoo and Techcrunch, are still running promotional ads on the social platform according to the data in Facebook’s advertising library, despite being owned by Verizon, one of the companies on the boycott roster.

This is a hard case for news companies. Very few have the scale or reach that would enable them to forgo the distribution power of Facebook, and that means they’re stuck paying to promote their own articles. In other words, advertising on Facebook for many publishers is not optional. Many have pointed out that the current Facebook boycotts are taking place at a point where advertisers are not planning spending, and this is a way to burnish their own brands at relatively little detriment to revenue. However the equations for the news business is different. Advertising on Facebook is like paying trucks to take your product to newsstands or paying carriage costs for cable television. It is access to the market more than it is brand promotion. 

One organization taking a different stance is the New Zealand’s largest news group, Stuff, which told staff in a leaked internal memo that it would cease all activity on Facebook until further notice in line with the current ad boycott. Editor-in-chief Patrick Crewdson was quoted in a report from website The Spinoff saying, “We’ve all seen examples of social ills on Facebook that aren’t compatible with trust – for instance the spreading of fake news and hate speech. Stuff itself is frequently frustrated by other sites posing as our website on Facebook.” Stuff is the largest employer of journalists in New Zealand, and the fifth largest site on the Internet there. It is also, like all publishers, experiencing an unprecedented drop in advertising revenues. 

Facebook’s perceived lack of trust might be damaging to news publishers, but the company itself has become ever more interwoven into the fabric of the news business, especially through direct grants to journalism organizations and schemes to help newsrooms develop new products. The Stuff precedent raises many interesting ethical issues for publishers about how they should relate to Facebook. Should they keep accepting Facebook money for journalism support while spending their own resources on Facebook promotion of their content? You will read a great deal about the boycott Facebook movement in the pages of many news organizations which themselves remain locked into the broader ecosystem that tolerates material their subscribers might find abhorrent. Stuff says its boycott is an experiment. Publishers around the world will be interested to see the results.  

  • Google’s Startup Labs is seeking entrepreneurs “who have identified a community’s need for better news and want guidance on how to either launch or further develop a recently launched news business.”

  • At The Markup, Jeremy B. Merrill and Aaron Sankin track the evolution of one fake news headline about “Antifa Supersoldiers.” 

  • Clubhouse, a social media app popular among venture capitalists that the New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz reported on in May, became a site of mockery and harassment of Lorenz herself last week, as well as a forum for CEOs and funders to debate their views on journalism as a whole. A breakdown of the whole ordeal at Motherboard points to widespread anti-media bias among tech CEOs and funders.
Copyright © 2020 Tow Center for Digital Journalism, All rights reserved.

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