NEW YORK (AP) — What’s behind the accusations that Facebook is manipulating its “trending topics” feature to promote or suppress certain political perspectives?
According to the technology blog Gizmodo , which is owned by Gawker Media, a former Facebook contractor with self-described conservative leanings said Facebook downplayed news that conservatives are interested in and artificially promoted liberal issues such as the “BlackLivesMatter” hashtag. Gizmodo did not name this person.
Facebook denied the claims, but the GOP-led U.S. Senate Commerce Committee has sent a letter to Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting answers about the matter.
Here’s a look at what the fuss is about:
WHAT ARE ‘TRENDING’ TOPICS?
Facebook shows popular topics being discussed at any given moment.
As with a similar feature on Twitter, Facebook doesn’t purport to show all the most popular topics. They wouldn’t be interesting anyway and would probably include the weather, cute puppy videos, and years-old listicles about the best ways to stay thin. Facebook says software formulas identify trending topics, and humans review them “to confirm that the topics are in fact trending news in the real world and not, for example, similar-sounding topics or misnomers.”
Topics that appear as trending can have a self-fulfilling effect, as more Facebook readers see and share the items, and other news organizations decide to write their own stories.
FINDING THE TRENDS
On browsers, the topics appear on the top right corner, separate from the news feed containing updates from your friends and family.
Besides “top trends,” users on traditional personal computers can click on specific topics such as “sports” and “entertainment.” On Wednesday, top politics trends for one U.S. user included comments from “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson on the transgender bathroom issue as well as the Facebook trending controversy itself. Topics for another U.S. Facebook user were slightly different and also had Donald Trump and “Full Frontal” comedy host Samantha Bee giving a goodbye tribute to Ted Cruz.
On mobile devices, users can tap on the search bar to see the top trends, but they can’t see separate categories, regardless of whether it’s on an app or Web browser.
WHERE’S THE PROOF?
There isn’t much proof beyond one anonymous former contractor that Facebook is hiding these conservative trends.
The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify the claims. Facebook’s vice president of search, Tom Stocky, said Monday that the company found “no evidence” that the allegations are true.
“We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so. Our guidelines do permit reviewers to take steps to make topics more coherent … to deliver a more integrated experience,” Stocky wrote.
As one example, he cited combining related topics into a single event, such as “Star Wars” and a movie reference widely used on May 4, “May The Fourth Be With You.”
It might not even be in Facebook’s interest to promote or suppress certain perspectives. The service is used by 1.65 billion people each month, most of them outside the U.S. Facebook has an interest in keeping these people happy, regardless of their political leanings, so that they keep using the service and advertisers keep courting them. Zuckerberg typically sets his sights on the next decade — and decades — into Facebook’s future. As such, an election year such as this one is but a blip.
BACKLASH FOR FACEBOOK?
Facebook’s sheers size and ubiquity means any controversy can attract the attention of the news media, politicians and political activists. Other recent examples include the company’s frequent changes to its privacy policies and its requirement that drag queens and other transgender users use their real names on the site.
The latest firestorm has led to plenty of media coverage, as well as a letter from U.S. Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who heads the Commerce Committee. He requested information on who at the company made the decisions on stories that appear in the trending feature. He asked for answers by May 24.
A BIG DEAL?
If evidence emerges that Facebook favors certain political perspectives, it would be a big deal, as it could cause people to lose trust in the company as a neutral platform.
Thirty percent of U.S. adults get news on Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. The firestorm suggests a certain degree of anxiety about the influence Facebook is having in shaping the worldview of its users by becoming their main news source, even as newspapers across the U.S. are shutting down amid low readership and declining advertising dollars.
Gizmodo report: http://bit.ly/1Xh1kg5
Facebook response: http://bit.ly/24IUdTc
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Virtual reality specialist Oculus is trying to dazzle consumers by adding more entertainment and educational options to the Samsung Gear headset in hopes of transforming the technological curiosity into a cultural phenomenon.
The new selections announced Wednesday include “Nomads,” a three-dimensional video series from Felix & Paul Studios that examines wayfaring lifestyles in remote parts of the world. There’s also an upcoming video game called “Tactera” that requires players to plot a battlefield strategy on a holographic tabletop, and another 360-degree video called “6X9” providing a grim look of what it’s like to be stuck in a prison’s solitary confinement cell.
They join a menu of more than 250 apps designed for the Gear VR since its consumer model was released nearly six months ago. That’s a meager amount compared to the millions of apps available for the iPhone and devices running on the Android operating system.
Devices that build an arsenal of compelling apps usually are easier to sell to consumers. Programmers, though, put a lower priority on designing apps for devices until they have amassed a large audience.
That hasn’t happened yet with the Gear, though Oculus says it is winning over fans faster than it anticipated when the headset hit the market just before last year’s holiday shopping season. About 1 million people used the Gear VR last month for an average of 25 minutes per day, according to Oculus. About 80 percent of that time was spent watching video.
Samsung designed the Gear for its most recent smartphones with the help of Oculus, a little-known startup until online social networking leader Facebook bought it for $2 billion two years ago to help introduce virtual reality to the masses.
“Oculus can help people experience anything, anywhere,” boasted Max Cohen, the company’s head of mobile. “We think this (technology) can actually change people’s lives.”
The concept of virtual reality, a technology that immerses people in an artificial world, has been around for years, but has never taken off.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is convinced it is destined to become technology’s next big breakthrough, and other influential trendsetters Google and Apple are now scrambling to catch up in the still-nascent field. Google is widely expected to unveil a virtual-reality device next week at its annual developers conference in the next step beyond its rudimentary product called “Cardboard” that works with smartphones.
The Gear was a forerunner to a more advanced virtual-reality headset called the Rift that costs $600 and requires a connection to a high-powered computer. The Rift began shipping nearly two months ago, although many buyers still haven’t received the headset yet because of delays that Oculus has blamed on parts shortages.
In contrast, users of the Gear only need a set of headphones and one of these Samsung phones: the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge Plus or Note 5. As part of its attempt to make it easier to find stuff to watch and play on the Gear, Oculus plans to release a new version of its app for the device next month.
The Gear VR is turning into an assembly line of apps for the Rift. More than 20 of the games originally designed for the Gear are also compatible with the Rift.
LONDON (AP) — Britain’s 90-year-old monarch has made a rare foray into political affairs, being caught on film characterizing Chinese officials as “very rude” in their dealings with British counterparts during a state visit last year.
Queen Elizabeth II made the unguarded comments Tuesday while talking to a senior police officer at a rain-soaked garden party on the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
With uncharacteristic bluntness — rarely if ever heard in public — the queen said the Chinese had not dealt properly with Barbara Woodward, the British envoy to China.
“They were very rude to the ambassador,” Elizabeth said.
The comments were recorded by a palace-authorized cameraman working for three British networks and distributed to broadcasters under a pool arrangement allowing them to use the material. Two reporters close to the queen did not hear the comments but they were easily discernible on the videotape.
In the video, the Lord Chamberlain, a senior palace official, introduced the queen to police Commander Lucy D’Orsi and explained that the officer was in charge of policing for the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in October.
The queen quickly responded: “Oh! Bad luck.”
The official told the queen that D’Orsi had been “seriously undermined by the Chinese” in the handling of the visit.
When D’Orsi asked if the queen knew it had been a “testing time,” the monarch interjected: “I did.”
The officer recalled a moment when Chinese officials walked out of a meeting with Woodward, the ambassador, and told the British the trip was off.
“They walked out on both of us,” D’Orsi said.
“Extraordinary,” the queen said.
“It was very rude and undiplomatic I thought,” D’Orsi said.
It is not clear if the queen knew she was speaking loudly enough to be easily understood on tape.
Elizabeth’s broadside was unusual. As a constitutional monarch, she is prohibited from being actively involved in politics. She has assiduously earned a reputation for great discretion, and it is completely out of character for her to publicly criticize another country’s diplomats.
If anything, she has been so careful to adhere strictly to her defined constitutional role that some commentators say they have no idea what she thinks about world affairs.
It is now clear, however, that she was at least annoyed by some of the positions taken by the Chinese delegation during a state visit that was vital for Britain’s political and business leaders, who seek ever-closer ties with China to bolster trade.
Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat in China who directs the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London, said the comments strip away the “this is the golden age” rhetoric that prevailed during the state visit.
He said no one on either side had “breathed a word” about the difficulties.
Both sides responded quickly to the break in the queen’s neutral approach — by downplaying its importance and asserting that the state visit had been a triumph.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, asked about the queen’s remarks at a daily news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, declined to address them directly, but said Xi had made a “very successful visit” to Britain last year.
“The working teams from both sides made huge efforts to make this possible. This effort has been highly recognized by both China and Britain,” Lu said.
Despite Lu’s comments, China appeared to regard the queen’s comments as sensitive. Information about the remarks was difficult to find on China’s heavily censored Internet and government monitors cut the signal of the British Broadcasting Corp. when it reported on the comments.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the visit “got a bit stressful on both sides” but had been “highly successful.”
He said that “our relationship with China is very strong and has been greatly strengthened by the success of that visit.”
The remarks were recorded at one of the queen’s summer garden parties, where she traditionally greets a long line of guests as she makes her way to the royal tent for tea and sandwiches.
It is customary for Peter Wilkinson, a cameraman working for U.K. networks, to walk in front of the queen and record her interactions with guests. The material, rarely before deemed newsworthy, is later provided to the networks for possible use.
Both the Metropolitan Police and the palace refused to comment on what they described as private conversations. The palace stressed that Xi’s visit had been “extremely successful.”
It was the second embarrassment on Tuesday for the palace, where Prime Minister David Cameron was overheard at a separate event describing Nigeria and Afghanistan as “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world.” The leaders of both countries will attend an anti-corruption summit organized by Cameron in London this week.
During Xi’s four-day state visit to Britain, officials had added layers of pomp and splendor — including a state banquet at the palace. Xi was welcomed with a 41-gun artillery salute, and taken to Buckingham Palace in a royal gilded carriage drawn by white horses.
The queen gave Xi and his wife a personal tour of the Royal Collection at the palace. She gave them a special collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets and spoke glowingly of the two countries’ “global partnership” at the elaborate state dinner.
There were no public hints of tensions at the time, although Prince Charles — the heir to the throne, and a supporter of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama shunned by the Chinese — did not attend the gala banquet.
The two countries signed more than 30 billion pounds ($46 billion) in trade agreements during the trip, and Cameron said Britain would be China’s “partner of choice” in the West.
This is not the first time British royals have been caught making undiplomatic remarks about the Chinese. Prince Charles branded Chinese diplomats “appalling old waxworks” in a private journal entry that had described the 1997 ceremony to hand Hong Kong back to Chinese rule.
In 1986, Prince Philip reportedly told British exchange students in China they would get “slitty eyes” if they stayed in China too long.
Associated Press writers Isolda Morillo in Beijing and Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
NEW YORK (AP) — Dish’s Sling TV and Sony’s PlayStation Vue both offer ways to watch traditional TV channels over the Internet without a cable box or satellite dish.
Both also offer recent episodes of TV shows on demand. Vue also offers a digital video recorder that lets you save TV shows that aren’t available on demand.
Vue is more robust than Sling as an alternative to cable, but Sling has better prices and works with a greater range of mobile and streaming TV devices. Each service comes in two flavors.
PLAYSTATION VUE — BASIC PACKAGE
For $40 a month, you get more than 50 cable and over-the-air channels, including ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and Telemundo. There’s no PBS or CW, though. Cable channels include ESPN, AMC and CNN.
There’s a big catch, though : Vue offers this package only to people who live in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as their suburbs. That’s because Sony has to strike deals with individual local affiliates of the big broadcasters. In these locations, the stations are mostly owned by the networks. Where they’re not — such as the ABC station in Miami — you’re limited to network shows on demand the next day.
You can pay for additional channels. For $5 extra, for instance, you get about 10 additional channels, including the regional sports network that covers your hometown team (so long as it’s Comcast, Fox or Yes). You can also get premium channels such as Showtime for $11 extra.
Prices aren’t necessarily cheaper than traditional cable TV, but cable tends to hook you with discounted rates and then raise prices once the promotions end.
Vue’s DVR lets you pause, rewind and fast-forward, but typically only after the show’s broadcast ends. There’s unlimited storage, but shows expire after 28 days. For some shows, recent episodes are available on demand, even if you didn’t set the recorder. But the fast-forwarding button is typically disabled, so you can’t skip commercials.
Shows are easy to find, as Vue combines live TV, DVR and on-demand shows in one search. Add a show to your list, and episodes are automatically recorded. But you can’t remove an episode after watching it without deleting all other episodes for that show.
You need a Sony PlayStation or Amazon Fire TV device to sign up, but after that you can watch some shows with an iPhone or iPad. The service is designed for households and supports simultaneous viewing on multiple devices.
PLAYSTATION VUE — NATIONAL PACKAGE
Vue offers just the cable channels live for $30 a month. Shows from ABC, Fox and NBC are available on-demand the next day, similar to Hulu. But you won’t get local shows, such as the news. Otherwise, the service is similar to the basic package. Options for regional sports networks and Showtime are also available.
This limited package is offered only where you can’t get the basic package. If you’re in New York, for instance, you’re stuck with the $40-a-month plan, even if you don’t want over-the-air channels.
SLING TV — BASIC PACKAGE
For $20 a month, you get 26 cable channels, including ESPN, AMC and CNN. You get more options than Vue for bonus channels, in part because the base package has fewer. Packages of five to 15 extra channels cost $5 each, grouped by genres such as sports, kids and Spanish TV. HBO costs $15, and Cinemax $10.
Sling TV keeps costs down by excluding over-the-air stations from the base package, though you can get ABC and Univision stations in some markets as part of a $5 broadcast package.
Getting all 95 channels costs $90 — which sounds pretty steep, given that cable TV offers hundreds of channels at that price. The point, of course, is that you probably don’t need every channel. You simply choose what you want and pay way less than $90.
The main drawback: No DVR. If you miss a show live, your have to hope that the channel offers that show for on-demand streaming. Even then, some shows expire after just a week. Others are around longer, but most eventually expire.
The interface feels primitive, although a major revamp Sling plans this year looks promising.
The service is available nationwide and works on a variety of gadgets, including Apple, Android and Amazon mobile devices, Mac and Windows PCs, Roku, Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV. There’s no app for Apple TV. The service is limited to one stream at a time, so if you start a show on a second device, it stops on the first.
SLING TV — MULTI-DEVICE PACKAGE
Sling is testing a service that lets you stream on three devices at a time, not just one. But the channel mix is different. This service also costs $20 a month and offers up to 30 channels. You don’t get ESPN or other Disney channels, but you get FX and Fox regional sports networks unavailable in the main package. You also get Fox’s over-the-air station in some markets; elsewhere, you get network shows the next day.
You can buy extra packages for $5 each, though there aren’t as many choices as in the basic offering.
Although some channels are available with both services, you need to buy both $20 packages to get all of them.
It would have been easier to combine the channels into one package and simply restrict simultaneous streaming for channels that don’t allow it. But Sling says it wants to offer flexibility to those who want only one or the other. Packages could change once the multi-device version finishes its beta testing.
A look at rights and other constraints: http://apne.ws/1TQGOA6
NEW YORK (AP) — It might feel cathartic to ditch your cable TV company. But if you’re looking to channel-surf online, you’re going to find services such as Sling TV or PlayStation Vue coming up short in some respects.
Both services offer live TV channels just like cable , but you can’t connect your own digital video recorder. Dish’s Sling TV service limits you to whatever episodes a given network offers on demand. And while Sony’s Vue has an Internet-based DVR with “unlimited” storage, it deletes stored shows automatically after 28 days.
Worse, arcane legal rights restrict what you can watch. Your channel lineup might differ depending on where you live because the services have rights to only a handful of broadcast stations around the country. And even from your couch, what you can watch changes depending on which device you use or whether you connect using home Wi-Fi or cellular.
Online alternatives to cable are taking root. Last week, Hulu announced that it’s working on its own online service; Apple and YouTube have also expressed interest, according to news reports. They’ll have to negotiate rights, too, though Hulu might have an advantage, as it’s owned by the parent companies of three major broadcasters — ABC, Fox and NBC.
To be sure, there’s a lot to like about these services so far:
— Price. Online alternatives tend to be cheaper than cable, though with far fewer channels. Sling TV, for instance, offers a base package of 26 channels for $20 a month. Plus, there’s no set-top box or other equipment to rent.
— Easier navigation. Live TV, recorded shows and channels’ on-demand offerings show up in a central location with a single search. There’s also no need to memorize channel numbers; just click on the network’s name.
— More screens. Cable TV is designed for the TV. Sling TV and Vue also work on phones and tablets, though with limitations having to do with — you guessed it — television rights.
Sling TV and Vue are pioneers in delivering TV to homes over the Internet, and immediate perfection was never in the cards. It wasn’t for cable TV on Day One, and many people will argue that it still isn’t.
Yet online TV could be much more, even in its early days — were it not for these pesky rights. Some of these restrictions come from the channels; others come from the producers of the shows or sporting events themselves.
With both Sling TV and Vue, some sports channels are blocked when you travel to another city. Pro football games aren’t available on phones, even at home, as Verizon has exclusive NFL rights on phones.
On Vue, you can stream USA Network-aired reruns of “Modern Family” on an iPhone over home Wi-Fi, but not cellular, even at home; meanwhile, reruns of the same show on channels 5, 7 and 9 in New York stream just fine on your phone’s own data network or on a friend’s Wi-Fi. Some other shows won’t stream on a phone or tablet at all, even through a home Wi-Fi network.
True, cable TV has similar restrictions on mobile devices, but at least their services were originally designed for the TV. Online services stress that they aren’t bound to TV screens.
Plus, with traditional TV, you can get around these restrictions with a $150 Slingbox (unrelated to Sling TV). The device hooks to your DVR and replicates on a mobile app whatever’s on the living-room screen. Or you can get a TiVo, which lets you view live and recorded shows remotely through TiVo’s app. None of these options work with online services.
The good news: The number of blocked shows is declining steadily, as channels add streaming rights for shows whose contracts have come up for renewal.
But there are occasional hiccups, particularly with sports. A recording of the Super Bowl disappeared from Vue after the game ended, so there was no way to catch up on the halftime show. Rather than risk missing the Olympics on NBC, I ordered a TiVo DVR last week and plan to hook up an antenna. (If you’re on Vue, chances are you can’t watch the Olympics via NBC anyway; Vue currently holds rights to NBC stations in only seven of the 210 U.S. markets.)
These services also need more flexible DVRs. Sling offers more than 10,000 hours of shows and movies on demand, but that doesn’t matter if your show isn’t one of them. As for Vue, Sony says most people watch shows within two weeks, so its 28-day expiration still gives people plenty of time. It’s nice not to deal with storage filling up, but you can’t binge on entire seasons at once or archive that one show you like to watch over and over.
There once was a better alternative called Aereo, which offered over-the-air channels and an Internet DVR with a set amount of storage for a monthly fee. If you wanted to store an entire season of “The Simpsons,” you simply had less room for “The Bachelorette.” Your call.
Aereo was pleasant to use because it didn’t try to navigate a sea of rights. It reasoned that it could simply pick up over-the-air signals just like everyone else and record shows on a DVR just like everyone else.
But broadcasters and the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. Aereo was forced to shut down. What’s left are less-flexible services that have to cater to the idiosyncrasies of the TV industry.
Comparing the services: http://apne.ws/1T5pfgF
HINCKLEY, Minn. (AP) — Authorities say three Good Samaritans helped save a woman’s life when they pulled her from a car just before it burst into flames on the side of a Minnesota highway.
One of those three was Sean Kehren, a college student. Kehren tells the Star Tribune (http://strib.mn/1Ta95Bz ) he was driving along Interstate 35 near Hinckley on Sunday when he saw a vehicle ahead of him crash.
Kehren says he stopped and ran to the wrecked car. Two other people helped him to get the woman to safety. The newspaper reports the car caught fire seconds later. Dashcam video shows it engulfed in flames.
State Patrol Sgt. Neil Dickenson says the actions of Kehren, and Elissa and Josh Schnell, “played a vital role in saving” the 67-year-old woman’s life.