Zuckerberg’s monster

Here’s an edited version of a chapter I’ve written in a newly-published book – Anti-Social Media: The Impact on Journalism and Society, edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, Abramis, 2018.

Ponder this: in 2004 a Harvard sophomore named Zuckerberg sits in his dorm room hammering away at a computer keyboard. He’s taking an idea he ‘borrowed’ from two nice-but-dim Harvard undergraduates and writing the computer code needed to turn it into a social-networking site. He borrows $1,000 from his friend Eduardo Saverin and puts the site onto an internet web-hosting service. He calls it ‘The Facebook’.

Fourteen years later, that kid has metamorphosed into the 21st-century embodiment of John D Rockefeller and William Randolph Hearst rolled into one. In the early 20th century, Rockefeller controlled the flow of oil while Hearst controlled the flow of information. In the 21st century Zuckerberg controls the flow of the new oil (data) and the information (because people get much of their news from the platform that he controls). His empire spans more than 2.2bn people, and he exercises absolute control over it — as a passage in the company’s 10-K SEC filing makes clear. It reads, in part…

Read on

Conspiracist thinking and social media

This morning’s Observer column:

The prevalence of conspiracy theories online explains why they tend to crop up whenever we track the cognitive path of someone who, like the alleged Pittsburgh killer, commits or attempts to commit an atrocity. A case in point is Dylann Roof, a South Carolina teenager who one day came across the term “black on white crime” on Wikipedia, entered that phrase into Google and wound up at a deeply racist website inviting him to wake up to a “reality” that he had never considered, from which it was but a short step into a vortex of conspiracy theories portraying white people as victims. On 17 June 2015, Roof joined a group of African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, before opening fire on them, killing nine.

We find a similar sequence in the case of Cesar Sayoc, the man accused of sending mail bombs to prominent Democrats. Until 2016, his Facebook postings looked innocuous: decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games – what the New York Times described as “the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity”.

But then something changed. He opened a Twitter account posting links to fabricated rightwing stories and attacking Hillary Clinton. And his Facebook posts began to overflow with pro-Trump images, news stories about Muslims and Isis, ludicrous conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News…

Read on

How Facebook’s advertising machine enables ‘custom audiences’ that include anti-semites and white supremacists

This is beginning to get routine. I’ve said for some time that if you really want to understand Facebook, then you have to go in as an advertiser (i.e. the real customer) rather than as a mere user. When you do that, you come face-to-face with the company’s amazingly helpful, automated system for helping you to choose the ‘custom audiences’ that you want to — or should be — targeting. A while back, Politico did a memorable experiment on these lines. Now The Intercept has done the same:

Earlier this week, The Intercept was able to select “white genocide conspiracy theory” as a pre-defined “detailed targeting” criterion on the social network to promote two articles to an interest group that Facebook pegged at 168,000 users large and defined as “people who have expressed an interest or like pages related to White genocide conspiracy theory.” The paid promotion was approved by Facebook’s advertising wing. After we contacted the company for comment, Facebook promptly deleted the targeting category, apologized, and said it should have never existed in the first place.

Our reporting technique was the same as one used by the investigative news outlet ProPublica to report, just over one year ago, that in addition to soccer dads and Ariana Grande fans, “the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of ‘Jew hater,’ ‘How to burn jews,’ or, ‘History of “why jews ruin the world.”’”

Tech stasis and planned obsolescence

Like most of my peers in the tech-commentary business, I generally tune into the twice-yearly events at which senior Apple executives reveal the latest wonders to emerge from the creative imagination of Jony Ive. Part of the entertainment value of these gabfests is seeing grown billionaires talking like teen tech worshippers (everything is ‘incredible’ or even ‘fantastic’; the company exists to help customers to enhance their innate ‘creativity’ with new products that we will all ‘just love’, etc). But usually, buried in the superheated hoopla there’s the odd genuinely interesting new thing.

But this week’s event — which was held in New York rather than San Francisco (itself a first, I think) — was strangely dull. There’s a new MacBook Air, but actually it’s hard to see why it’s needed. The new one has a Retina screen, but I can’t see why anyone would get excited just about that when the underlying hardware is much the same as before. And, overall, Apple’s laptop lineup looks strangely incoherent. The two big announcements, to judge from the presentations, were a substantially enhanced Mac Mini and a new iPad Pro. The new Mini is welcome because for many of us it’s the most useful little workhorse that Apple has ever produced. And the new iPad is clearly a a serious upgrade of a product that’s already way ahead of the competition.

But here’s the rub. I’ve had an iPad Pro since the product was first launched, and it’s the most useful — and usable — device I’ve ever owned. In combination with the Apple Pencil it has entirely replaced the paper notebooks that I’ve always used up to now. It goes everywhere with me, does exactly what I need a tablet to do, and does it very well. So no matter how fancy the new iPad ( and its enhanced Pencil) is, I have no rational reason to consider upgrading.

(And much the same applies to all the other Apple kit I own and use on a daily basis. My four year old MacBook Pro is still a terrific workhorse. My iPhone 6 has been re-energised by a new battery and IoS12. And the watch does what I want it to do, even if it could use a longer battery life.)

These big Apple events are often — and justly — ridiculed for being just revivalist meetings for the Church of Apple. Tim Cook & Co are always preaching to the choir. And, since I’m a long-term Apple user, I could be regarded as one of the above. But if even a hardened user can find no reason to upgrade, what’s the point of all the hoopla?

My friend Charles Arthur — he of the wonderful Overspill and an acute observer of these things — thinks that people like me were not the intended audience for this week’s event. It was, he wrote in an email, “one of those events where they’re not speaking to people who already have them – it’s those who haven’t found a need to cross the gap to doing more work on the iPad. USB-C would be interesting to quite a lot of photographers, perhaps.”

Perhaps. But maybe we’ve arrived at what Charles calls — “a sort of tech stasis”. Many of the things we have are now Good Enough, and so despite Moore’s Law and the wonders of computational photography, etc. we don’t need to upgrade them every year, or every two years.

If that’s indeed what’s happening, then what are the implications for tech companies that are hooked on planned obsolescence to a degree that even General Motors in its heyday couldn’t dream of?

Gab, Gab, Gab

From ArsTechnica:

Gab, a “free speech” alternative to Twitter that’s popular with the far right, has been shut down after losing service from a number of mainstream technology platforms, including PayPal, Joyent, Medium, and GoDaddy.

“Gab is under attack,” the company’s home page now reads. “We have been systematically no-platformed by App Stores, multiple hosting providers, and several payment processors.” Gab is working to get back online using new service providers.

The attacks on Gab follow revelations that the man accused of Saturday’s deadly mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh appeared to be a regular Gab user. An account with his name was “rife with anti-refugee, anti-Semitic and white supremacist posts,” according to The Washington Post. One post complained about a “kike infestation.”

Here’s the aforementioned front page:

Note the claim about “80% of normal everyday people”. This is typical of the alt-right strategy of always claiming victimhood when challenged or banned. In an interesting Vanity Fair piece, Tina Nguyen quotes some of the posts that appeared on Gab celebrating what the alleged killer (Robert Bowers) had done. For example:

“I can’t wait to hear about how many lampshades the alleged synagogue shooter made out [sic] these jews in Pittsburg,” wrote @EmilyAnderson, followed by three laughing cat emojis; another user predicted that Bowers’s statement—“All these Jews have to die”—would “be a meme as long as the Internet lives. Which wont [sic] be long after this LOL.”

This is so utterly revolting that it beggars description. But it will not only continue — and will probably increase. As Nguyen observes,

the existence of Gab reflects a larger trend on the right, wherein those banished from mainstream social-media sites create evermore extreme platforms on which to express themselves. Fox News initiated this trend more than two decades ago: the cable channel was explicitly founded to offer a conservative take on the news, while Andrew Breitbart built his namesake site to cater to an even more conservative audience. The bigger the Internet has become, and the lower the cost of entry, the more likely sites like Gab.com and those further afield will proliferate—not just as social hubs, but as an alternate Internet with its attendant-support networks.

The deeper problem here is about what the Internet has revealed about humans. I’ve argued for a long time that one way of interpreting it is to think of the network as holding up a mirror to human nature. Much of what we see in it is uplifting, informative, inspirational and/or banal — unproblematic, in other words. But the mirror also reflects many of the ugliest sides of human nature, and the technology gives expression to that in ways that has real-world effects. Which is why the riposte that all those ugly sides of human nature already existed in the pre-Internet age rather loses its force: in earlier times, this ugliness was more localised and generally had limited traction (though of course there were genocidal exceptions). Now it can find expression anywhere.

It’s also strange how the technology seems to lead some people inexorably towards more and more extreme views — and then to action. Take the mail-bomb suspect, Cesar Altieri, whose social-media activities were usefully chronicled by the New York Times:

Until 2016, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr.’s life on social media looked unremarkable. On his Facebook page, he posted photos of decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games — the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity.

But that year, Mr. Sayoc’s social media presence took on a darker and more partisan tone. He opened a new Twitter account and began posting links to sensational right-wing news stories, adding captions like “Clinton busted exposed rigging entire election.” On Facebook, his anodyne posts gave way to a feed overflowing with pro-Donald Trump images, news stories about Muslims and the Islamic State, far-fetched conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News broadcasts.

By the time he was arrested in Florida on Friday, charged with sending pipe bombs to at least a dozen of President Trump’s critics, Mr. Sayoc appeared to fit the all-too-familiar profile of a modern extremist, radicalized online and sucked into a vortex of partisan furor. In recent weeks, he had posted violent fantasies and threats against several people to whom pipe bombs were addressed, including Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. His vehicle, a white van plastered with right-wing slogans, came to resemble a Facebook feed on wheels.

So he went from posting pictures of women, real estate, dining and cars to posting pictures of ISIS, guns and people in jail — and then to posting mail-bombs to prominent Democrats.

Anti-semitism continues to thrive online

From today’s New York Times:

SAN FRANCISCO — On Monday, a search on Instagram, the photo-sharing site owned by Facebook, produced a torrent of anti-Semitic images and videos uploaded in the wake of Saturday’s shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

A search for the word “Jews” displayed 11,696 posts with the hashtag “#jewsdid911,” claiming that Jews had orchestrated the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Other hashtags on Instagram referenced Nazi ideology, including the number 88, an abbreviation used for the Nazi salute “Heil Hitler.”

The Instagram posts demonstrated a stark reality. Over the last 10 years, Silicon Valley’s social media companies have expanded their reach and influence to the furthest corners of the world. But it has become glaringly apparent that the companies never quite understood the negative consequences of that influence nor what to do about it — and that they cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

“Social media is emboldening people to cross the line and push the envelope on what they are willing to say to provoke and to incite,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “The problem is clearly expanding.”

When will this penny drop, one wonders. These companies can’t fix this problem, because their business models depend on allowing people to do what they like — and then reacting, ineffectually, after the fact.