Murder Video Puts Facebook on the Spot


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

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On Sunday a guy in Cleveland announced in a Facebook post that he was going to murder somebody. Then he posted a video in which he committed a murder. Then he went on live Facebook video to confess the murder (The New York Times). Two hours later, someone on Facebook flagged the videos for Facebook’s moderators, and they were taken down. Today, the suspect killed himself in Pennsylvania after a multi-state manhunt.

Looking beyond the brutality and the stupidity, the incident raises profound questions about the nature of Facebook. Is Facebook a public civic space, where free expression reigns and individuals are accountable for their communications? Or is it a private community, where the corporate owner of the space bears ultimate responsibility for every post?

Facebook’s leaders — along with the proprietors of every other important online service — have deliberately smudged the distinction between these two models of platform management. But this grim story of Facebooking-while-committing-murder might be the start of a new era for the dominant social network, one in which it must clearly choose what it wants to be when it grows up. It can be a public plaza or a private entertainment zone. But it’s going to have a hard time being both.

No one ever blamed the phone company when someone used its services to organize a crime. But the phone company never broadcast your calls to hordes of people, either — or put ads on them. Facebook announced its hope that Facebook Live videos would be “raw and visceral” (Slate). It got way more than it expected.

People are holding Facebook responsible for policing its network, and Facebook is accepting that responsibility — promising to “do better” using artificial intelligence and speedier complaint reviews. But we have no window onto the company’s decision-making processes, and it is not accountable to users — only to its shareholders.

Obviously we don’t want people sharing their own shootings live on Facebook. But what about a shooting you accidentally witnessed — is Facebook going to be the arbiter of which of these we can see? How will it decide? Ultimately: Do we trust Facebook to be the gatekeeper for billions of human beings’ self-expression?

Trump Takes Aim at Tech’s Favorite Foreign Worker Visas

President Trump moved today to restrict tech companies’ use of the H-1B visas they rely on to hire skilled foreign workers. Critics have long argued that firms use these visas to import lower-cost employees that put Americans out of jobs. The Trump administration says its new order will tighten the rules and make it harder for companies to do that (The Washington Post).

But Trump’s order simply requires federal agencies to review their rules. A full overhaul of the H-1B program would require action from Congress — which hasn’t had much luck taking action on anything lately.

The Indian outsourcing firms that have flooded the government with H-1B applications in recent years may already be reining in their plans. For the first time in years, the U.S. government said that the total number of H-1B applications it received dropped this year — from recent highs around 235,000 to 199,000 (The San Francisco Chronicle).

Ballmer’s Project Tallies Up the Government Balance Sheet

Government transparency is in a state of flux and disarray, if not outright retreat, under the Trump administration. But former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, of all people, is striking a blow for Team “Sunight Is the Best Disinfectant”: He has unveiled USAFacts, a new site he has funded that aims to answer the question, “What does the government do with your money?” (Recode).

Applying a business-analytics mindset to public spending isn’t always the smartest approach. But in this case Ballmer and the people he hired seem to have taken care to avoid the most obvious pitfalls. One innovation they adopt: combining spending figures from all levels of government (federal, state, local) to arrive at a full picture of public-sector expenditures.

That work turns up some simple truths that are often lost in this era of hyper-partisanship — like, a huge chunk of government spending in the U.S. goes to education and the military (The New York Times).

United’s PR Fiasco Was No Coincidence

United Airlines’ bloody ejection of a passenger from one of its flights continues to reverberate as a low point for an already unhappy industry. But the fiasco wasn’t an isolated breakdown of customer service. It was an outcome of the interplay of rigid algorithms and authoritarian decision making, as John Robb points out in NewCo Shift. It was also the logical endpoint of United’s recent history of “overcrowding, poor treatment, and invidious discrimination,” Tim Wu writes in Wired.

After weathering a difficult bankruptcy a decade ago, United merged with Continental and commenced a vigorous, and successful, program of cost-cutting and efficiency-tightening. Planes would fly full. Passengers would be hit with baggage and flight-change fees.

Voila! United was profitable again — at the cost of becoming “industry leader in the abandonment of basic decency,” as Wu puts it. That kind of reputation is hard to shake. It may not matter for an airline that flies a whole lot of non-competitive routes right now. But some day it will haunt the company.

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