Court rules that Trump can’t block people on Twitter

A New York federal judge has ruled that Donald Trump can't block people he doesn't like on Twitter, because he uses Twitter to communicate his edicts and policies as President of the United States, and the US government can't exclude communications based on viewpoint, as this violates the First Amendment. (more…)

Elon Musk has a very bad idea for a website rating journalists

Elon Musk has, as I imagine he often does during meetings or long car rides, come up with an idea for a new thing. Unlike the Hyperloop, which was cool, and various space-related ideas, which we know he’s at least partly expert about, this one is just plain bad. It’s basically Yelp But For Journalism.

He may as well have said, I found this great can marked “worms” and I’m going to open it, or, I’ve determined a new method for herding cats.

The idea of holding publications and people accountable is great. Unfortunately it is the kind of problem that does not yield to even the best of intentions and smart engineering, because it is quickly complicated by the ethical, procedural and practical questions of crowdsourcing “the truth.”

He agreed with another Twitter user, whose comment is indistinguishable from sarcasm:

My guess is Musk does not often use Yelp, and has never operated a small business like a restaurant or salon.

Especially in today’s fiercely divided internet landscape, there is no reliable metric for truth or accountability. Some will say The New York Times is the most trusted newspaper in America — others will call it a debased rag with a liberal agenda. Individual stories will receive the same treatment, with some disputing what they believe are biases and others disputing those same things as totally factual.

And while the truth lies somewhere in-between these extremes, it is unlikely to be the mathematical mean of them. The “wisdom of the crowd,” so often evoked but so seldom demonstrated, cannot depend on an equal number of people being totally wrong in opposite ways, producing a sort of stable system of bias.

The forces at work here — psychological, political, sociological, institutional — are subtle and incalculable.

The origins of this faith, and of the idea that there is somehow a quorum of truth-seekers in this age of deception, are unclear.

Facebook’s attempts to crowdsource the legitimacy of news stories has had mixed results, and the predictable outcome is, of course, that people simply report as false news with which they disagree. Independent adjudicators are needed, and Facebook has fired and hired them by the hundreds, yet to arrive at some system that produces results worth talking about.

Fact-checking sites perform an invaluable service, but they are labor-intensive, not a self-regulating system like what Musk proposes. Such systems are inevitably and notoriously ruled by chaos, vote brigades, bots, infiltrators, agents provocateur and so on.

Easier said than done — in fact, often said and never done, for years and years and years, by some of the smartest people in the industry. It’s not to say it is impossible, but Musk’s glib positivity and ignorance or dismissal of a decade and more of efforts on this front are not inspiring. (Nate Silver, for one, is furious.)

Likely as a demonstration of his “faith in the people,” if there are any on bot-ridden Twitter, he has put the idea up for public evaluation.

Currently the vote is about 90 percent yes. It’s hard to explain how dumb this is. Yet like most efforts it will be instructive, both to others attempting to tame the zeitgeist, and hopefully to Musk.

It’s unconstitutional for Trump to block people on Twitter

A uniquely 21st-century constitutional question received a satisfying answer today from a federal judge: President Trump cannot block people on Twitter, as it constitutes a violation of their First Amendment rights. The court also ruled he must unblock all previously blocked users. “No government official is above the law,” the judge concluded.

The question was brought as part of a suit brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute, which alleged that the official presidential Twitter feed amounts to a public forum, and that the government barring individuals from participating in it amounted to limiting their right to free speech.

After consideration, New York Southern District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald determined that this is indeed the case:

We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account — the “interactive space” where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets — are properly analyzed under the “public forum” doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court, that such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment.

The president’s side argued that Trump has his own rights, and that in this case the choice not to engage with certain people on Twitter is among them. These are both true, Judge Buchwald found, but that doesn’t mean blocking is okay.

There is nothing wrong with a government official exercising their First Amendment rights by ignoring someone. And indeed that is what the “mute” function on Twitter is equivalent to. No harm is done to either party by the president choosing not to respond, and so he is free to do so.

But to block someone both prevents that person from seeing tweets and from responding to them, preventing them from even accessing a public forum. As the decision puts it:

We reject the defendants’ contentions that the First Amendment does not apply in this case and that the President’s personal First Amendment interests supersede those of plaintiffs…

While we must recognize, and are sensitive to, the President’s personal First Amendment rights, he cannot exercise those rights in a way that infringes the corresponding First Amendment rights of those who have criticized him.

The court also examined the evidence and found that despite the Executive’s arguments that his Twitter accounts are, for various reasons, in part private and not subject to rules limiting government spaces, the president’s Twitter is definitively a public forum, meeting the criteria set out some time back by the Supreme Court.

At this point in time President Trump has by definition performed unconstitutional acts, but the court was not convinced that any serious legal remedy needs to be applied. And not because the Executive side of the case said it was monstrous of the Judicial to dare to tell it what to do:

While we find entirely unpersuasive the Government’s parade of horribles regarding the judicial interference in executive affairs presented by an injunction directing the President to comply with constitutional restrictions… declaratory relief is likely to achieve the same purpose.

By this the judge means that while the court would be legally in the clear if it issued an official order binding the Executive, but that there’s no reason to do so. Instead, merely declaring that the president has violated the rules of the Constitution should be more than enough to compel his team to take the appropriate action.

Specifically, Trump and (it is implied but not stated specifically) all public officials are to unblock any blocked users on Twitter and never hit that block button again:

No government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the President and Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional.

No timeline is set but it’s clear that the Executive is on warning. You can read the full decision here.

“We’re pleased with the court’s decision, which reflects a careful application of core First Amendment principles to government censorship on a new communications platform,” said executive director of the Knight Institute, Jameel Jaffer, in a press release.

This also sets an interesting precedent as regarding other social networks; in fact, the Institute is currently representing a user in a similar complaint involving Facebook, but it is too early to draw any conclusions. The repercussions of this decision are likewise impossible to predict at this time, including whether and how other officials, such as senators and governors, are also bound by these rules. Legal scholars and political agents will almost certainly weigh in on the issue heavily over the coming weeks.

Twitter is killing several of its TV apps, too

Twitter is shutting down its TV apps on Roku, Android TV and Xbox starting on May 24, the company announced this morning. The news of the apps’ closure comes at a time when Twitter is now trying to steer its users to its first-party mobile apps and its desktop website by killing off apps used by a minority of its user base – like the Twitter for Mac app it shut down earlier this year. And more recently, it has attempted to kill off popular third-party Mac apps with a series of unfriendly API changes.

It’s unclear why this has become Twitter’s agenda. While it can be a burden for a company to support a broader ecosystem of apps where some only have a niche audience, in some cases those “niche” users are also the most influential and heavy users. And arguably, anyone launching Twitter’s app on their TV must be a die-hard user – because who is really watching that much Twitter on their TV?

In terms of the TV apps’ shutdown, this is a somewhat abrupt strategy shift. The company had been steadily expanding its live streaming video content over the past year, and it saw its TV apps as a way to get that video in front of a television audience – and particularly cord cutters – who are looking to watch major news events, sports matches, and other entertainment.

The Twitter Roku app was one of the later TV apps to arrive, launching just a year ago, following the September 2016 launch of the Apple TV, Fire TV and Xbox One apps. At the time, the company touted the app as a way for people to “…watch live events and see what people are talking about, keeping them connected to what’s happening.”

It’s likely that none of Twitter’s TV apps have much traction. After all, Twitter didn’t have much in the terms of high-profile exclusive live video content. And on the TV, it has to compete for attention with top streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

But these TV apps shutdowns aren’t tied to Twitter’s API changes, we’ve heard. Rather, Twitter has made the decision to kill off these apps as it works towards GDPR compliance. (Apparently, these apps were undeserving of time and attention on that front.) In addition, neither Xbox or Roku support a standard regularly supported video player, which made them more difficult to maintain. That also came into play with this decision.

Not all of Twitter’s TV apps are getting the cut, though.

Twitter for tvOS (Apple TV) and Twitter for Amazon Fire TV will continue to be available.

Twitter Will Start Hiding Tweets That ‘Detract From the Conversation’

Yesterday, Twitter announced several new changes to quiet trolls and remove spam. According to Slate, the company "will begin hiding tweets from certain accounts in conversations and search results." In order to see them, you'll now have to scroll to the bottom of the conversation and click "Show more replies," or go into your search settings and choose "See everything." From the report: When Twitter's software decides that a certain user is "detract[ing] from the conversation," all of that user's tweets will be hidden from search results and public conversations until their reputation improves. And they won't know that they're being muted in this way; Twitter says it's still working on ways to notify people and help them get back into its good graces. In the meantime, their tweets will still be visible to their followers as usual and will still be able to be retweeted by others. They just won't show up in conversational threads or search results by default. The change will affect a very small fraction of users, explained Twitter's vice president of trust and safety, Del Harvey -- much less than 1 percent. Still, the company believes it could make a significant difference in the average user's experience. In early testing of the new feature, Twitter said it has seen a 4 percent drop in abuse reports in its search tool and an 8 percent drop in abuse reports in conversation threads.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

Twitter Delays Shutdown of Legacy APIs By 3 Months as it Launches a Replacement

Twitter said on Wednesday that it will be giving developers more time to adjust to its API platform overhaul, which has affected some apps' ability to continue operating in the same fashion. From a report: The company clarified this morning, along with news of the general availability of its Account Activity API, that it will be delaying the shutdown of some of its legacy APIs by three months' time. That is, APIs originally slated for a June 19, 2018 shutdown -- including Site Streams, User Streams, and legacy Direct Message Endpoints -- will now be deprecated on Wednesday, August 16, 2018.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

Twitter algorithm changes will hide more bad tweets and trolls

Twitter’s latest effort to curb trolling and abuse on the site takes some of the burden off users and places it on the company’s algorithms.

If you tap on a Twitter or real-world celebrity’s tweet, more often than not there’s a bot as one of the first replies. This has been an issue for so long it’s a bit ridiculous, but it all has to do with the fact that Twitter really only arranges tweets by quality inside search results and in back-and-forth conversations.

Twitter is making some new changes that calls on how the collective Twitterverse is responding to tweets to influence how often people see them. With these upcoming changes, tweets in conversations and search will be ranked based on a greater variety of data that takes into account things like the number of accounts registered to that user, whether that tweet prompted people to block the accounts and the IP address.

Tweets that are determined to most likely be bad aren’t just automatically deleted, but they’ll get cast down into the “Show more replies” section where fewer eyes will encounter them. The welcome change is likely to cut down on tweets that you don’t want to see in your timeline. Twitter says that abuse reports were down 8 percent in conversations where this feature was being tested.

Much like your average unfiltered commenting platform, Twitter abuse problems have seemed to slowly devolve. On one hand it’s been upsetting to users who have been personally targeted, on the other hand it’s just taken away the utility of poring through the conversations that Twitter enables in the first place.

It’s certainly been a tough problem to solve, but they’ve understandably seemed reluctant to build out changes that take down tweets without a user report and a human review. This is, however, a very 2014 way to look at content moderation and I think it’s grown pretty apparent as of late that Twitter needs to lean on its algorithmic intelligence to solve this rather than putting the burden entirely on users hitting the report button.