Google, Facebook and the power to nudge users

This morning’s Observer column:

Thaler and Sunstein describe their philosophy as “libertarian paternalism”. What it involves is a design approach known as “choice architecture” and in particular controlling the default settings at any point where a person has to make a decision.

Funnily enough, this is something that the tech industry has known for decades. In the mid-1990s, for example, Microsoft – which had belatedly realised the significance of the web – set out to destroy Netscape, the first company to create a proper web browser. Microsoft did this by installing its own browser – Internet Explorer – on every copy of the Windows operating system. Users were free to install Netscape, of course, but Microsoft relied on the fact that very few people ever change default settings. For this abuse of its monopoly power, Microsoft was landed with an antitrust suit that nearly resulted in its breakup. But it did succeed in destroying Netscape.

When the EU introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – which seeks to give internet users significant control over uses of their personal data – many of us wondered how data-vampires like Google and Facebook would deal with the implicit threat to their core businesses. Now that the regulation is in force, we’re beginning to find out: they’re using choice architecture to make it as difficult as possible for users to do what is best for them while making it easy to do what is good for the companies.

We know this courtesy of a very useful 43-page report just out from the Norwegian Consumer Council, an organisation funded by the Norwegian government…

Read on

Implications of Facebook’s changed newsfeed curation algorithms

Interesting piece in *Slate about the impact of news publishers of Facebook’s new-found desire to escape from news.

Slate — yes, the publication you’re reading right now — got more than 85 million clicks that originated from external sites and apps in January 2017 alone. Almost a third of them — 28 million—came from Facebook. That was more than any other single outside traffic source. Other online publications with a political focus, such as Vox and Politico, posted similarly blockbuster numbers.

It was, in retrospect, the zenith of Facebook’s influence over the news industry. Starting in about 2013, when the social network began prioritizing actual news in users’ news feed rankings—the order in which posts appear when you scroll through its app or site—Facebook had grown increasingly critical to many media outlets’ business, for better or worse. Every visitor the social network sent to an outlet’s pages translated to much-needed ad views. And it sent so many that newsrooms remolded their editorial strategies to maximize clicks, likes, and shares on Facebook. For less scrupulous publishers, that sometimes meant sensationalizing headlines or framing stories in ways that pandered to people’s biases—a trend that Facebook tried to combat algorithmically, with limited success. By August 2016, the New York Timess’ John Herrman wrote that Facebook had “centralized online news consumption in an unprecedented way,” shaping how the public perceived politics by determining which stories they’d see in their feeds. And by 2017, some antitrust thinkers concerned with its centrality to the news business were calling for Facebook to be regulated as a monopoly.

A simplistic theory of political polarisation

From Bryan Caplan

Leftists are anti-market. On an emotional level, they’re critical of market outcomes. No matter how good market outcomes are, they can’t bear to say, “Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?”

Rightists are anti-leftist. On an emotional level, they’re critical of leftists. No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can’t bear to say, “The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them.”

Caplan explicitly calls it a simplistic theory, and it is. But it’s not bad as a first approximation — as George Hawley suggests:

If out-group hostility is more important to party identification than support for particular policies or ideologies, we may not actually place very many ideological demands on our parties. Defeating our enemies may be more important than advancing specific liberal or conservative agendas. According to Groenendyk: “If partisans’ identities are increasingly anchored to hatred of the outparty than affection for their inparty, electoral dynamics are likely much more fluid than many accounts suggest. Thus, insurgent candidates with questionable ideological credentials (e.g., Donald Trump) may be more appealing than one might expect in the age of ideologically sorted parties.”

The best question Zuckerberg was asked was the one he couldn’t answer

I agree with Dave Winer:

Senator Lindsey Graham asked Zuck the right question on Tuesday. Who are your competitors? The answer is they have none, though Zuck wouldn’t say that. That is the big problem. Solve it and all the others go away.

Zuck tried to laugh off the question, but the answer was as clear as day and he knew it. In the social-networking business, Facebook is the monopoly to end all monopolies.

What happens in China stays in China. Ask Apple

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s your starter for 10. Question: Apple’s website contains the following bold declaration: “At Apple we believe privacy is a fundamental human right.” What ancient English adage does this bring to mind? Answer: “Fine words butter no parsnips.” In other words, what matters is not what you say, but what you do.

What brings this to mind is the announcement that from now on, iCloud data generated by Apple users with a mainland Chinese account will be stored and managed by a Chinese data management firm – Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD). “With effect from 28 February 2018,” the notice reads, “iCloud services associated with your Apple ID will be operated by GCBD. Use of these services and all the data you store with iCloud – including photos, videos, documents and backups – will be subject to the terms and conditions of iCloud operated by GCBD.”

Read on

Like father, like daughter

On Sunday NBC News’ Peter Alexander asked Ivanka Trump a simple question: “Do you believe your father’s accusers?” Trump responded: “I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated there’s no truth to it.”

Jack Shafer is (rightly) having none of this evasiveness.

Trump pleads for recusal from the question, though, not because the question itself is wrong to ask. She pleads for recusal because she thinks it’s wrong for the press to ask a daughter such a question after her father has issued his denials. Do daughters of presidents who are also assistants to the president really get to wave such a flag of privilege? No way. No journalists can make any public official answer a question, so if Ivanka Trump wants to say “no comment,” she should help herself. But to declare a question illegitimate requires more explanation that she volunteers.

Having planted her flag, Trump pours some quick-drying cement at the flagpole’s shaft with her next comment.

“I don’t think that’s a question you would ask many other daughters,” she said.

How to unpack?! Obviously the press won’t ask many other daughters the question because not many other daughters have a father whose alleged paramours have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their silence. Not many daughters have a father who was caught bragging about his sexual assaults on a live mic and then publicly apologized. Not many fathers have been accused of sexual misconduct by at least a dozen women. For those fathers who have such a reputation, it would be reasonable to ask their daughters such questions if they worked for their fathers in government.

Yep. One of the curious by-products of the Trump presidency is its illustration of the power of norms in governing behaviour. There are no laws — as far as I know — explicitly prohibiting a president from exploiting his office for private gain. It was just a norm that presidents didn’t do that. Trump’s great advantage is that he doesn’t do norms. As far as he is concerned, they’re there to be flouted. And like father, like daughter.

President Zuck

There’s a fascinating article in The Verge based on an interview with Travis McGinn, an opinion pollster who was hired by Facebook to lead an ongoing polling operation to track minute changes in public perceptions of the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.

It was a very unusual role,” McGinn says. “It was my job to do surveys and focus groups globally to understand why people like Mark Zuckerberg, whether they think they can trust him, and whether they’ve even heard of him. That’s especially important outside of the United States.”

McGinn tracked a wide range of questions related to Zuckerberg’s public perception. “Not just him in the abstract, but do people like Mark’s speeches? Do they like his interviews with the press? Do people like his posts on Facebook? It’s a bit like a political campaign, in the sense that you’re constantly measuring how every piece of communication lands. If Mark’s doing a barbecue in his backyard and he hops on Facebook Live, how do people respond to that?”

Facebook worked to develop an understanding of Zuckerberg’s perception that went beyond simple “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” metrics, McGinn says. “If Mark gives a speech and he’s talking about immigration and universal health care and access to equal education, it’s looking at all the different topics that Mark mentions and seeing what resonates with different audiences in the United States,” he says. “It’s very advanced research.”

Well, well. Now when was the last time a corporation devoted that kind of resource to determine how the great unwashed perceives its CEO? And — since nothing strategic goes on at Facebook without the boss’s say-so, what does it tell us of Zuckerberg’s delusions about himself?

“Facebook is Mark, and Mark is Facebook,” McGinn says.

“Mark has 60 percent voting rights for Facebook. So you have one individual, 33 years old, who has basically full control of the experience of 2 billion people around the world. That’s unprecedented. Even the president of the United States has checks and balances. At Facebook, it’s really this one person.”
McGinn claimed that he joined Facebook “hoping to have an impact from the inside.“

”I thought, here’s this huge machine that has a tremendous influence on society, and there’s nothing I can do as an outsider. But if I join the company, and I’m regularly taking the pulse of Americans to Mark, maybe, just maybe that could change the way the company does business. I worked there for six months and I realized that even on the inside, I was not going to be able to change the way that the company does business. I couldn’t change the values. I couldn’t change the culture. I was probably far too optimistic.”

This sounds extraordinarily naive of McGinn. Didn’t he understand the business model on which the company is based?

Sexual predation and power

Sobering editorial by Gideon Lichfield of Quartz:

Nobody can deny the ground has shifted in America. Formerly invincible men are tumbling one by one as victims come out with their stories of sexual assault. Some, like Harvey Weinstein, were already fading from power, but others, like Louis CK, were still at the height of it.

Yet one man continues to defy America’s new moral norm: its president. Seventeen women have accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment. Their claims are more numerous and no less credible than those against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for senator in Alabama. Senate leader Mitch McConnell said this week, “I believe the women” who accused Moore, and that he “should step aside.” But asked if he believes the women who accused Trump, McConnell refused to answer. (Trump’s position: Every one of those 17 women is lying.)

So yes, the ground has shifted, but some still stand high enough on it to escape the cold, swirling waters of justice. In other words, it’s still, in the end, about power. Trump’s power is that the party still needs him (or believes it does). That means it will blatantly ignore accusations that would put any other man on the street, if not in jail.

Still, if you have to be president to achieve that sort of immunity, things aren’t so bad, right? Wrong. What Trump proves is not that you have to be president, just that you have to have leverage…

Yep. And, right on cue, comes this from the New York Times:

A year later, after a wave of harassment claims against powerful men in entertainment, politics, the arts and the news media, the discussion has come full circle with President Trump criticizing the latest politician exposed for sexual misconduct even as he continues to deny any of the accusations against him.

In this case, Mr. Trump focused his Twitter-fueled mockery on a Democratic senator while largely avoiding a similar condemnation of a Republican Senate candidate facing far more allegations. The turn in the political dialogue threatened to transform a moment of cleansing debate about sexual harassment into another weapon in the war between the political parties, led by the president himself.

Zuckerberg’s Frankenstein problem

Nice Buzzfeed piece by xxx about whether Zuck is really in charge, despite his controlling shares. Here’s the nub:

Facebook’s response to accusations about its role in the 2016 election since Nov. 9 bears this out, most notably Zuckerberg’s public comments immediately following the election that the claim that fake news influenced the US presidential election was “a pretty crazy idea.” In April, when Facebook released a white paper detailing the results of its investigation into fake news on its platform during the election, the company insisted it did not know the identity of the malicious actors using its network. And after recent revelations that Facebook had discovered Russian ads on its platform, the company maintained that as of April 2017, it was unaware of any Russian involvement. “When asked we said there was no evidence of Russian ads. That was true at the time,” Facebook told Mashable earlier this month.

Some critics of Facebook speak about the company’s leadership almost like an authoritarian government — a sovereign entity with virtually unchecked power and domineering ambition. So much so, in fact, that Zuckerberg is now frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate despite his public denials. But perhaps a better comparison might be the United Nations — a group of individuals endowed with the almost impossible responsibility of policing a network of interconnected autonomous powers. Just take Zuckerberg’s statement this week, in which he sounded strikingly like an embattled secretary-general: “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion,” he said.

Nice metaphor, this.