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By Eric Johnson
Published Aug 07, 2023

Online Media vs. Democracy

In this week’s episode of The Newsletter, we focus on a couple of recent news events—the death of Twitter (and its little bird), and some much-hyped academic studies about Meta and Facebook.

But first, a reminder that every issue of The Newsletter contains a news digest, curated by executive editor Sharan Street. A scroll or two below, you’ll find bite-sized bits of local news from a variety of newsrooms in your community, including our partners in the California Local Media Alliance and other trusted sources.


The Death of Big Social Media

Our dear friend and colleague Chris Neklason, a veteran tech CEO, full-stack developer and award-winning journalist, is not trained as a graphic artist. But this week he added that skill to his bonafides.

Chris is visiting the East Coast, so he heard about Elon Musk’s decision to kill his little bird before most of us here in California. By the time we got together for our morning stand up, Chris had already created the mock logo you see below. 

The idea came to him in an instant, and he quickly posted it to his Mastodon thread, figuring others might arrive at the same concept. (OK it’s almost obvious, but still it’s pretty good piece of imaginative work for a coder.)

I saw this one before I had seen any of the others, and told Chris that as his editor, I would love him to write a blog post about the event—just so we could use his little drawing. I knew he’d have something to say partly because he’s been on point during an attack by Twitter on California Local. “I suspect bot-on-bot violence,” he writes, “because it’s doubtful any humans were involved in the process, having all been fired.”

It’s a telling tale and an example of how the world’s richest man is ruining what once was a pretty cool thing.

As a counterpoint, we are also reaching way back to re-share a post Chris wrote about some things he discovered while building the database that forms the foundation of what we do here at California Local. That, I hope you'll agree, is a hopeful tale.


Ex-Twitter: One Dead Bird

Illustration by Chris Neklason.
Big Social Media is becoming useless as a news feed or organizing hub. Is a replacement emerging in the Fediverse?

The Genius of Democracy

A graph of a social network.
In which we ponder human self organization.

How Facebook Broke the Internet

If you haven’t heard about the controversial research papers regarding Meta and its subsidiary Facebook, that may be because it’s hard to find on the Internet. If you Google “meta-study,” as you may know, you will find a bunch of scholarly papers that combine results from a number of other studies. “Meta research results” won’t work either, because that is already a thing, too.

Well, the research results that dropped last week concerned four questions primarily regarding Facebook’s influence on its users’ political attitudes and moods. My favorite analysis of the studies’ release comes from Thursday’s "Media Today” newsletter from the Columbia Journalism Review, which ran it under the headline “Meta let researchers study whether it stokes polarization. The results were polarizing.” 

As it happens, this is a topic I’ve studied closely. I watched Facebook’s initial explosion while serving as news editor at Metro Silicon Valley. More recently, over several months in the summer of 2019, I contracted with a California-based nonprofit to study the nefarious online shenanigans that set Americans at each other’s throats and, in the eyes of many serious journalists and scholars, contributed to the election of Donald Trump. This of course took place largely on Facebook.

My research was supposed to result in a handbook that would arm voters to confront what was expected to be a similar onslaught prior to the 2020 election. The project was scrapped for a variety of reasons I won’t go into; over the weekend, I adopted and boiled down one of the unfinished chapters to address what I see as the undeniably destructive role that Facebook has played in recent American political history.


Is Facebook Trying to Drive Us Apart?

Science headlined its report on its study of Meta and Facebook "Wired to Split."
Recent much-hyped studies are inconclusive, but prove one thing: Facebook’s algorithm pushes hate.


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