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Why upholding Trump’s Facebook ban won’t break the cycle

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Why upholding Trump’s Facebook ban won’t break the cycle


“It was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension,” the decision reads. Facebook needs to review the matter itself, the board wrote, and “determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform.” The board set a deadline of six months from now, at which point we will no doubt have another news cycle about Trump’s presence on social media. 

For years, Trump was at the center of an attention loop that was both extremely consequential and meaningless; a head of state was using his personal Twitter account to amplify extremist content, manipulate public attention, retweet dumb memes, promote dangerous conspiracy theories, and speak directly to followers, who in the end were willing to storm the Capitol to try to overturn an election they falsely believed was stolen.

For years, companies like Facebook and Twitter refrained from interfering in Trump’s social media posts, claiming their “newsworthiness” should keep him protected even when he broke platform rules on abuse or disinformation. That began to change during the covid pandemic, as Trump used his platform to repeatedly spread misinformation about both voting and the virus. Over the summer, Twitter began to append “fact checks” to Trump’s rule-breaking tweets, which so infuriated the president that he threatened to abolish Section 230, the rule that shields many internet companies from liability for what users do on their services. 

But even if Trump stays off the major social media platforms forever, the cycle has been established. Trump will continue to issue statements, and they will be shared by his supporters, and covered by the media whether or not he is on social media. And the networked attention cycle revolved around him for so long will continue without him, as will the underlying structures that make Trump’s influential presence on social media possible. 

It’s the “worst-case scenario for Facebook, who put this thing together.”

Joan Donovan, Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy

Banning Trump from Facebook permanently would keep him on the sidelines of these networks. But focusing so much attention on the platform decisions themselves is extremely misguided, says Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies media literacy and disinformation. Trump’s social media success comes partly from the platforms but partly from “economic, political, and social undercurrents” that incentivized Trump and will continue to promote the next Trumps to come.  

“Trump’s accounts are exhausting because they are taking attention away from the deeper stuff we’ve have to deal with yesterday,” Phillips says. The oversight board’s decision was hyped as a major referendum on how Facebook balances free speech and safety; instead, it was a non-decision that changes little about why we ended up here in the first place. 

The creation of the board itself “was essentially a media op PR campaign,” argues Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. The board’s approach means that Facebook has been tasked with deciding for itself how to apply its own policies, which is essentially the “worst-case scenario for Facebook, who put this thing together,” she says. “They had one job.”  

“When it comes to Facebook, you have to remember that Facebook isn’t just a place where people post messages,” says Donovan. “It effectively gives you the capacity to have your own television station,” along with a network of related pages and accounts that can quickly amplify content to an audience of millions. Facebook is an organizing tool and broadcast network in one, and its power in that capacity is routinely used for good and for bad. 

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The Download: Introducing our TR35 list, and the death of the smart city

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JA22 cover


Spoiler alert: our annual Innovators Under 35 list isn’t actually about what a small group of smart young people have been up to (although that’s certainly part of it.) It’s really about where the world of technology is headed next.

As you read about the problems this year’s winners have set out to solve, you’ll also glimpse the near future of AI, biotech, materials, computing, and the fight against climate change.

To connect the dots, we asked five experts—all judges or former winners—to write short essays about where they see the most promise, and the biggest potential roadblocks, in their respective fields. We hope the list inspires you and gives you a sense of what to expect in the years ahead.

Read the full list here.

The Urbanism issue

The modern city is a surveillance device. It can track your movements via your license plate, your cell phone, and your face. But go to any city or suburb in the United States and there’s a different type of monitoring happening, one powered by networks of privately owned doorbell cameras, wildlife cameras, and even garden-variety security cameras. 

The latest print issue of MIT Technology Review examines why, independently of local governments, we have built our neighborhoods into panopticons: everyone watching everything, all the time. Here is a selection of some of the new stories in the edition, guaranteed to make you wonder whether smart cities really are so smart after all:

– How groups of online neighborhood watchmen are taking the law into their own hands.

– Why Toronto wants you to forget everything you know about smart cities.

– Bike theft is a huge problem. Specialized parking pods could be the answer.

– Public transport wants to kill off cash—but it won’t be as disruptive as you think.

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Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever

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Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever


Most Quayside watchers have a hard time believing that covid was the real reason for ending the project. Sidewalk Labs never really painted a compelling picture of the place it hoped to build. 

Quayside 2.0

The new Waterfront Toronto project has clearly learned from the past. Renderings of the new plans for Quayside—call it Quayside 2.0—released earlier this year show trees and greenery sprouting from every possible balcony and outcropping, with nary an autonomous vehicle or drone in site. The project’s highly accomplished design team—led by Alison Brooks, a Canadian architect based in London; the renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye; Matthew Hickey, a Mohawk architect from the Six Nations First Nation; and the Danish firm Henning Larsen—all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city not as a techno-utopia but as a bucolic retreat. 

In every way, Quayside 2.0 promotes the notion that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so loaded with trees that they suggest foliage is a new form of architectural ornament. In the promotional video for the project, Adjaye, known for his design of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, cites the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back toward Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.

To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects the changing times, as society has gone from a place of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to a place of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the tech industry has made life more productive over the past two decades, but has it made it better? Sidewalk never had an answer to this. 

 “To me it’s a wonderful ending because we didn’t end up with a big mistake,” says Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto, who advised the Ministry of Infrastructure on how to set this next iteration up for success. She’s enthusiastic about the rethought plan for the area: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing, because we have an affordable-housing crisis in our city. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming. Are those things that are derived from Sidewalk’s proposal? Not really.”

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Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech

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Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech


What ML and AI in biotech broadly need to engage with are the holes that are unique to the study of health. Success stories like neural nets that learned to identify dogs in images were built with the help of high-quality image labeling that people were in a good position to provide. Even attempts to generate or translate human language are easily verified and audited by experts who speak a particular language. 

Instead, much of biology, health, and medicine is very much in the stage of fundamental discovery. How do neurodegenerative diseases work? What environmental factors really matter? What role does nutrition play in overall human health? We don’t know yet. In health and biotech, machine learning is taking on a different, more challenging, task—one that will require less engineering and more science.

Marzyeh Ghassemi is an assistant professor at MIT and a faculty member at the Vector Institute (and a 35 Innovators honoree in 2018).

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