The Week in Tech: Social Media Ugliness Hits Home

Each week, technology reporters and columnists from The New York Times review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.

Greetings from sunny San Francisco. I’m Nathaniel Popper, a Times reporter covering financial technology and strange things like Bitcoin and the blockchain.

I wrote a story this week about a crazy scheme to build a blockchain-based community in the Nevada desert. But I couldn’t help spending much of the week riveted by the work my colleagues were doing.

A few years ago, an Apple product introduction, which was covered this week by Jack Nicas, or the quarterly earnings announcements of the big companies, might have been the thing everyone was talking about.

And in more ordinary times, the biggest news in Silicon Valley would have been the fallout from the article that my colleagues Daisuke Wakabayashi and Katie Benner published last week about Google and its handling of sexual harassment.

Thousands of Google employees walked out of work on Thursday to protest the company’s policies and decision-making. Earlier in the week, one of the executives named in the Times article, Richard DeVaul, resigned. Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, said that his initial response and apology had not been forceful enough. He promised to support and work with internal critics.

But all of this happened at a time when Silicon Valley was fixated on the role technology might have played in the deadly synagogue shooting last Saturday, not far from where I grew up in Pittsburgh, and the package bombs that were intercepted last week.

In the days after those events, Kevin Roose looked at how Cesar Sayoc Jr., the man who was accused of sending the pipe bombs, had fallen into a maelstrom of right-wing conspiracy theories on Facebook and Twitter. These theories appear to have stoked Mr. Sayoc’s anger toward the people, mostly Democratic politicians, who received the pipe bombs.

Kevin followed that up by examining the online postings of Robert Bowers, the man accused in the slaughter in Pittsburgh, who had used the fringe online network Gab to voice his hatred of Jews and immigrants. Kevin also hosted two fascinating episodes of The Daily podcast, where he examined the rise of anger-stoking websites and Russian propaganda aimed at creating discord.

The big social networks have, of course, been trying to confront the spread of divisive news and misinformation on their platforms. Facebook’s quarterly financial results, which it announced on Tuesday, showed a slowdown in revenue that appears to have been caused, at least in part, by the company’s efforts to rein in bad actors.

But a flurry of reports this week underscored how ineffective these measures have been. A Vice reporter, William Turton, found that despite Facebook’s new efforts at advertising transparency, he was able to get approval for ads that he posted in the name of fake political groups and sitting senators. When Twitter unveiled a page dedicated to capturing news on the midterm elections, BuzzFeed quickly noticed that the page was spotlighting disinformation.

Even when one social network manages to drive away bad actors, those bad actors are generally able to find other online outlets for their activities. Sheera Frenkel, Mike Isaac and Kate Conger shined a spotlight on how Instagram has become the latest hot spot for anti-Semitic material. A few days after the synagogue shooting, a social network that began as a place to post happy vacation photos was found to be hosting over 11,000 posts with a hashtag that blamed Jews for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Kara Swisher, who has been covering the tech world for decades, wrote a column for The Times this week where she described how the internet, which promised to promote global harmony, has instead become a tool of hate.

All in all, it was enough to make at least this reporter long for a time when a new iPad was the thing everything was talking about.

Some other tech stories of note this week:

■ Nellie Bowles wrote a powerful trio of stories about our troubled relationship with the screens that dominate our lives. Her first story looked at how many people in Silicon Valley do everything in their power to keep their children away from screens. Some parents have gone so far as to bar the people taking care of their children from ever using a phone or other electronic device in front of the kids.

Not long ago, people were worried about poor children missing out on the digital revolution. Now, Nellie reported, there is more concern that poor children are getting too much of the revolution, in the form of screen time, while wealthier parents keep their children away from addictive digital devices.

■ Most Americans have probably not heard of Bytedance, the Chinese company Raymond Zhong profiled this week. But the company has risen into an unlikely Goliath of the internet — with a value of around $75 billion — by serving up lots and lots of fluff. In China, the company has a bunch of different applications that allow young users to share everything from news to their latest break-dancing moves. Outside China, the company’s video platform, TikTok, has gained popularity as a place to broadcast short, personal videos.

■ Thomas Fuller and Cade Metz explained that scientists are getting better at understanding earthquakes and potentially providing early warnings, thanks to artificial intelligence. Earthquake predictions have been notoriously bad, but some people in the field said their experiments had been helped by the kind of neural networks that are used to program talking digital assistants and driverless cars.

Who said we don’t have any good news?

Nathaniel Popper writes about financial technology and other unusual things for The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter here: @nathanielpopper.

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