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Bits: Farhad’s and Mike’s Week in Tech: Fake News, Trolls and Other Spectacles

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Twitter’s #VideoNow event in New York City in 2015. Twitter rolled out new tools for users to fight abuse, and it also suspended several accounts run by people in the white-supremacist “alt-right.” Credit Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

Each Saturday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at 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.

Farhad: Hello there, Mike! I was just reading that Bob Dylan decided to skip the ceremony for his Nobel Prize. He says he’s busy. What a power move. I’m going to take a cue from Dylan the next time Dean Baquet, our executive editor, asks to see me in his office.

Mike: I tried that once with Dean. Then, mysteriously, I had a bunch of late-duty weeknight shifts to cover for the rest of the month. Good luck with that.

Farhad: O.K., let’s talk tech. It was a busy week for social networks. Facebook and Twitter continued to face fallout from the ways they had been used during the election. For Facebook, the story was fake news. Although Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, played down the role that misinformation spreading through his site might have had in the election, some employees at Facebook have been more skeptical, as you reported.

Mike: Yeah, maybe if he took a break from eating all that dolphin, Mark would realize that he has a real fake news problem.

Farhad: Mike, I’m pretty sure that was a fake news story. Mark doesn’t eat dolphin; he’s partial to lion cubs.

Anyway, on Monday, both Google and Facebook changed their advertising policies to explicitly prohibit fake news sites from making money from their lies.

And then President Obama — who was long the subject of a fake news campaign regarding his birthplace, though that wasn’t pushed by Facebook as much as it was by the new president-elect — weighed in against fake news. This story doesn’t seem over, does it?

Mike: Not by a long shot. I think this is truly one of Facebook’s existential threats, and something it is now forced to take seriously. Mark tried shrugging it off at a conference last week, but that’s clearly not going to work. The problem is, once you’ve optimized your entire site for the spread of viral news and engagement, it’s sort of hard to put the brakes on just one part of that.

In short, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes right now.

Farhad: Twitter also made some news. The short-message social network that we all love to hate has long been a haven for racists, sexists and various other kinds of trolls. On Tuesday, it rolled out new tools for users to fight abuse, and it also suspended several accounts run by people in the white-supremacist “alt-right.” Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, also apologized for an ad placed by a neo-Nazi group that appeared on Twitter.

Anyway, do you have anything to say about this? I vowed to quit Twitter. I didn’t quit, but I did delete the app from my phone and have thus been looking at it a lot less. It’s liberating.

Mike: I give you a week before you reinstall the app on your phone.

I did take a few breaks from Twitter for a few days after the election, and in the run-up over the last 18 months of the race. Sometimes the vitriol and blaming and arguing is just too much, especially when I’m not in a good head space.

But I truly believe it still provides a net positive for the world. Through the most optimistic lens, it gives a voice to the voiceless, which has done more good than harm. After all, I think as a writer I’m more on board the free-speech train and all the costs that come with it than others might be.

Farhad: O.K., but there’s one more social network to talk about. Snapchat! Or, as it now wants to be known to folks on Wall Street, Snap Inc.

Snap Inc. is the parent company to Snapchat, which is an app that millions of people who don’t read this newsletter probably use. You use it to send pictures of funny faces. It’s really great.

Mike: I like how we’ve moved from “world-changing app based largely upon First Amendment practices in action” to “app that makes your face look like a dog.”

Farhad: Anyway, two things about Snap. First, the company finally released the photo glasses that it showed off earlier this year. It did so in a predictably goofy way: The glasses, called Spectacles, are available only through special vending machines that move around the country. If you happen to be near one, you line up for a long time and then get your glasses.

Mike: The vending machines look like large and terrifying Minions, a meme I thought had died out and sadly has yet to do so. Thanks, Snapchat.

Farhad: Yeah, I asked the company to send me some and did not hear back. But others who’ve tried them seem to love them.

Also, Snap filed papers to take itself public. What do you think, is this the next Facebook?

Mike: Nah, not really. I see a limited market cap for Snap unless it can find a way to break out of targeting only younger demographics. Granted, getting ’em while they’re young and then having that generation grow up to be mainstream users is kind of what Facebook did. But what Snap does seems fundamentally different from social networks of the past. I find it hard to see where those major sources of growth are going to come from in the future.

Of course, maybe these Spectacles actually take off. Maybe this is the wearable that makes the behavior — recording video directly from your face — a mainstream activity. We saw what happened with the huge embarrassing failure that was Google Glass, so I think everyone is more skeptical these days, as they should be. But Spectacles look a lot cooler than Glass did. (Probably because they look like they came straight out of the Moscot display window.) Maybe that will be the product that makes Snap a hit.

Farhad: Yeah, it could happen. After all, I think Spectacles look really cool, and I’m a pretty good barometer for upcoming fashion trends. O.K., that’s it for this week!

Farhad and Mike will be off next Saturday after eating Thanksgiving turkey. The Saturday newsletter will resume on Dec. 3.

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