This morning’s Observer column:
At last, we’re getting somewhere. Two years after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, we’re finally beginning to understand the nature and extent of Russian interference in the democratic processes of two western democracies. The headlines are: the interference was much greater than what was belatedly discovered and/or admitted by the social media companies; it was more imaginative, ingenious and effective than we had previously supposed; and it’s still going on.
We know this because the US Senate select committee on intelligence commissioned major investigations by two independent teams. One involved New Knowledge, a US cybersecurity firm, plus researchers from Columbia University in New York and a mysterious outfit called Canfield Research. The other was a team comprising the Oxford Internet Institute’s “Computational Propaganda” project and Graphika, a company specialising in analysing social media.
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Last week the committee released both reports. They make for sobering reading…
My OpEd piece from yesterday’s Observer:
Conspiracy theories have generally had a bad press. They conjure up images of eccentrics in tinfoil hats who believe that aliens have landed and the government is hushing up the news. And maybe it’s statistically true that most conspiracy theories belong on the harmless fringe of the credibility spectrum.
On the other hand, the historical record contains some conspiracy theories that have had profound effects. Take the “stab in the back” myth, widely believed in Germany after 1918, which held that the German army did not lose the First World War on the battlefield but was betrayed by civilians on the home front. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the theory was incorporated in their revisionist narrative of the 1920s: the Weimar Republic was the creation of the “November criminals” who stabbed the nation in the back to seize power while betraying it. So a conspiracy theory became the inspiration for the political changes that led to a second global conflict.
More recent examples relate to the alleged dangers of the MMR jab and other vaccinations and the various conspiracy theories fuelling denial of climate change.
For the last five years, my academic colleagues – historian Richard Evans and politics professor David Runciman – and I have been leading a team of researchers studying the history, nature and significance of conspiracy theories with a particular emphasis on their implications for democracy…
Terrific FT column by Rana Foroohar. Sample:
If the Facebook revelations prove anything, they show that its top leadership is not liberal, but selfishly libertarian. Political ideals will not get in the way of the company’s efforts to protect its share price. This was made clear by Facebook’s hiring of a rightwing consulting group, Definers Public Affairs, to try and spread misinformation about industry rivals to reporters and to demonise George Soros, who had a pipe bomb delivered to his home. At Davos in January, the billionaire investor made a speech questioning the power of platform technology companies.
Think about that for a minute. This is a company that was so desperate to protect its top leadership and its business model that it hired a shadowy PR firm that used anti-Semitism as a political weapon. Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, founded by Mr Soros, wrote in a letter last week to Ms Sandberg: “The notion that your company, at your direction”, tried to “discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me”.
I couldn’t agree more. Ms Sandberg says she didn’t know about the tactics being used by Definers Public Affairs. Mr Zuckerberg says that while he understands “DC type firms” might use such tactics, he doesn’t want them associated with Facebook and has cancelled its contract with Definers.
The irony of that statement could be cut with a knife. Silicon Valley companies are among the nation’s biggest corporate lobbyists. They’ve funded many academics doing research on topics of interest to them, and have made large donations to many powerful politicians…
There is a strange consistency in the cant coming from Zuckerberg and Sandberg as they try to respond to the NYT‘s exhumation of their attempts to avoid responsibility for Facebook’s malignancy. It’s what PR flacks call “plausible deniability”. Time and again, the despicable or ethically-dubious actions taken by Facebook apparently come as a complete surprise to the two at the very top of the company — Zuckerberg and Sandberg. I’m afraid that particular cover story is beginning to look threadbare.
Well, well. Maybe we’re — finally — making progress. This from Recode:
Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and other top Facebook leaders should get ready for increased scrutiny after a damning new investigation shed light on how they stalled, stumbled and plotted through a series of crises over the last two years, including Russian meddling, data sharing and hate speech. The question now: Who does Facebook fire in the aftermath of these revelations? Meanwhile, the difficult past year has taken a toll on employee morale: An internal survey shows that only 52 percent of Facebook staff are optimistic about its future, down from 84 percent of employees last year. It might already be time for a new survey.
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…
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.”’”
Ian Betteridge has had enough:
Why should I make an investment both in time and emotion in a service that actually cares so little about its users — and, in fact, about the health of the society it now influences? The excuse that Twitter holds up a mirror to wider society is hogwash: it has consistently and with an outstanding level of ill-judgement given a platform to and cultivated people with utterly reprehensible views.
If you’re an out and out vile individual, like Alex Jones, Twitter gives you a free pass. If you’re a conspiracy theorist who wants to get traction for your lies, Twitter is your friend. If you’re a racist, Twitter will defend your “free speech rights”.
But if you’re a woman getting vile, violent and consistent abuse, Twitter will do precisely nothing to stop it.
Without Twitter, the insanity that is QAnon couldn’t have gained the traction it has. Confined to 4chan, it would have been yet another crackpot piece of tomfoolery. Amplified unchallenged by Twitter, it becomes a series of signs held up at Trump’s rallies, and a truck parked across a highway. It won’t be too long before it becomes a death.
Yep. Sometimes, in recent times, I’ve been wondering which of the networks is the most anti-social. Twitter is now probably the worst. The fact that it’s smaller than Facebook provides some consolation, but not much.