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Instagram reveals more about how its algorithms decide what you see

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More than five years after Instagram moved from a strictly chronological feed to an algorithmic one, you still hear people pining for the “good old days.” And while the company appears uninterested in going back to how it did things in the past, Instagram has shared a new blog post that attempts to address some of the “misconceptions” around how it surfaces content. Penned by Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, the blog starts by saying no one algorithm decides what you see across every facet of the app. Instead, each part of the software has its own set of code governing how it ranks content.  

All of the algorithms broadly work in the same way, though they’re “tailored to how people use it.” For instance, when it comes to your Feed and Stories queue, Instagram says the goal is to put photos and videos in front of you that come from friends, family and those you’re closest to. 

Each post is ranked based on information the app extracts from them. According to Instagram, there are “thousands” of these “signals,” but in the majority of cases, one of the more important ones is the popularity of a post. However, it will also take into act your recent activity and history of interacting with someone. Instagram will then use this information to predict how likely you’re to spend “a few seconds” on a post to comment, like and save it. “The more likely you are to take an action, and the more heavily we weigh that action, the higher up you’ll see the post,” says Mosseri. In short, the company aims to maximize your engagement with a post.

While the focus shifts to discoverability with the Explore tab, here too, Instagram tries to gauge how likely you are to engage with a photo or video. Where things are slightly different is when it comes to Reels. Here, Instagram says the goal is surfacing clips it thinks you’ll find funny or entertaining. To that end, Instagram says the most important prediction it tries to make when it comes to Reels is whether you’ll watch one all the way through.        

The blog post also touches on shadowbanning. Unfortunately, Instagram doesn’t have a lot to say here other than the fact that it plans to be more transparent about things. It says it’s developing “better” in-app notification that will inform people why the company took down one of their posts.

If you want more control over your Instagram experience, the company recommends a couple of things. First, it says you should select your close friends for Stories. Not only will this allow you to limit who sees your Stories, but it will also prioritize their photos and videos. You should also mute (or unfollow) an account if you don’t want to see their posts. And make sure to tap the “Not Interested” option to shape what you see elsewhere.  

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Apple will produce an animated series based on Nathan Pyle’s ‘Strange Planet’ webcomic

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Apple is adapting Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet webcomic and series of best-selling graphic novels into an animated TV+ series, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Started in 2019, Strange Planet follows a group of blue aliens who describe the activities they’re doing in unusual ways. For example, in one strip they say of a cat, “If we gently admire the softness, we don’t experience the sharpness.” The webcomic is immensely popular on Instagram, where more than 6.1 million accounts follow it. 

Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon has signed on to help adapt the series for television. Alongside Pyle, he’ll also serve as an executive producer on the project. Apple’s in-house Studios subsidiary will produce the show with help from ShadowMachine, the animation studio behind Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. Following Central Park from Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard, Strange Planet is the second adult animated show Apple has announced. The newest series doesn’t have a release date yet, but its first season will include 10 episodes.

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Peacock is finally coming to Amazon Fire TV and tablets

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NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming platform is finally making its way to Amazon devices. Starting on Thursday, June 24th, you’ll be able to download the Peacock app on your Fire TV and Fire tablet products. That’s inclusive of the entire Fire TV lineup, including the Fire TV Stick 4K and Fire TV Stick Lite.

At launch, you can even use Amazon’s voice assistant to open the Peacock app, with full Alexa title integration to follow later in the year. Once the functionality becomes available, you’ll be able to use your Alexa Voice Remote to navigate the entire Peacock library. As part of today’s announcement, NBCUniversal network apps from channels like Bravo and NBC Sports are also making their way to Amazon devices.

Come Thursday, Peacock will be available on just about every piece of streaming hardware of note. You can download the app on Xbox and PlayStation consoles, Apple and Android devices, as well as smart TVs from LG, Vizio and Samsung.

Peacock offers three tiers of plans: Free, Premium and Premium Plus. All three come with at least 7,500 hours of programming, including the first two seasons of The Office. However, you’ll need to pay $5 per month to rewatch every episode of the series and another $5 monthly to do so without ads. The more expensive tiers also grant you access to live sports and next-day availability of current NBC shows.

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What the Supreme Court Snapchat decision means for free speech online

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An expletive-filled Snapchat Story has become the basis for a Supreme Court ruling on free speech. The Supreme Court ruled that a Pennsylvania public school violated the First Amendment rights of one of its students after suspending her from the cheerleading squad as a result of a Snapchat post in which she said “f— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything.”

At first glance, the case sounds like the kind of disciplinary action that likely happens at most schools: A student, identified in court documents as “B.L.,” didn’t make the varsity cheerleading squad and took to Snapchat to “blow off steam” as Justice Brett Kavanaugh described. The post eventually made its way beyond her Snapchat friends, ultimately resulting in her suspension from the cheerleading squad.

But in its decision, the Supreme Court made clear that even off-color speech is protected by the First Amendment. “It might be tempting to dismiss B. L.’s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his majority opinion.

The case is also unique because it’s one of the first times the nation’s highest court has weighed in on student speech on the internet, says Jeffrey Rosen, CEO of the National Constitution Center. “One reason this case is so important is because it’s the court’s first opportunity to grapple with the question of where to draw the line between on-campus and off-campus speech in an online world,” Rosen told Engadget ahead of the ruling.

In its decision, the Supreme Court left open questions about exactly how social media affects how those lines should be drawn. The ruling made more of the fact that the speech took place off-campus and not during a school function, rather than how the comments were made. Though in a separate, concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito noted that a school would have authority over what students say while participating in online learning or other “online school activities.”

Notably, in his lone dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas did raise the role that social media might play in these decisions. “The majority fails to consider whether schools often will have more authority, not less, to discipline students who transmit speech through social media,” he wrote. “Because off campus speech made through social media can be received on campus (and can spread rapidly to countless people), it often will have a greater proximate tendency to harm the school environment than will an off-campus in-person conversation.”

Even so, the ruling could still influence how future cases are handled. “Students will be continued to be disciplined for stuff they post online and lower courts will, once again, disagree, and at some point, the Supreme Court will be asked to come back in,” Rosen says.

B.L’s case is hardly the only high-profile debate about free speech and social media. But it has the distinction of being one of the few cases where the First Amendment applies to social media. “Much online speech isn’t covered by the First Amendment,” Rosen said. “The private companies themselves are not bound to respect the First Amendment.” This case was an exception because it involved a public school, which therefore was acting “as an arm of the State,” as Justice Alito wrote.

But most of us can’t claim that what we say on social media is protected by the First Amendment, despite what some politicians claim. As private companies, Facebook and YouTube and Snapchat and Twitter are free to set their own rules around content moderation. And major questions about, say, what a president can or can’t say on social media will — barring regulation from Congress — be left to the platforms themselves or industry-created groups like the Oversight Board.

“So much of the action when it comes to free speech will take place outside of the Supreme Court,” Rosen said. “And Mark Zuckerberg and the heads of the platforms have more power over free speech in some ways than any king or president or even Supreme Court justice.”

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John McAfee, controversial antivirus pioneer, found dead in prison

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Antivirus software entrepreneur John McAfee has died at the age of 75. According to Spanish-language publications El Mundo and El Pais, police found McAfee dead in the Barcelona prison cell where he was awaiting extradition to the US. A spokesperson for the Catalan Justice Department has since confirmed the death to Reuters. The reports indicate that authorities believe he committed suicide, but the cause of death has not been officially determined. 

Spanish authorities arrested McAfee at Barcelona airport in October 2020 following an indictment from US federal prosecutors on allegations of fraud and money laundering, as well as tax evasion charges linked to his failed bid to run as the Libertarian Party candidate in the 2020 US presidential election. McAfee allegedly failed to file tax returns for four years between 2014 and 2018 despite earning a “considerable income” from a variety of sources, including from money he made promoting cryptocurrencies and selling the rights to his life story for a documentary. 

While he’s best known for the antivirus software that carries his name, in more recent years McAfee has mostly garnered media attention for his erratic behavior. In 2012, while he was living in Belize at the time, he was accused of paying a hitman $5,000 to murder his neighbor. More recently, authorities in the Dominican Republic arrested McAfee on suspicion of travelling on a yacht loaded with high-caliber weapons and other military equipment. 

“There is much sorrow in prison, disguised as hostility,” McAfee recently wrote on his Twitter account. “I’m old and content with food and a bed but for the young prison is a horror — a reflection of the minds of those who conceived them.”         

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s # is 1-800-273-8255. Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HOME to 741741 (US), 686868 (Canada), or 85258 (UK).

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