Facebook’s strategic obfuscation

Facebook’s Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions, was interviewed by Peter Kafka at the 2019 Code Media conference in Los Angeles yesterday. Vox had a nice report of the interview. This section is particularly interesting:

When pressed on Facebook’s refusal to fact-check political ads, Everson tried to defend the company’s stance by referencing the rules that govern how broadcasters must handle political advertisements. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission has extensive guidelines for television and radio broadcasters around political advertising that bar broadcasters from censoring ads or from taking down ones that make false claims. Those guidelines don’t apply to online platforms, including Facebook, but the company has consistently tried to hide behind them.

“We have no ability, legally, to tell a political candidate that they are not allowed to run their ad,” Everson said.

That’s complete baloney. Facebook is not bound by any regulations governing TV ads. It can shut down anyone or anything it likes or dislikes.

After the interview, a Facebook spokeswoman walked back the comments and said that Everson misspoke when she said Facebook was legally barred from refusing to run political ads.

An audience member also asked Everson why Facebook has decided to allow right-wing website Breitbart to be listed in its new News tab, which is ostensibly an indication that Breitbart offers trusted news, despite being a known source of propaganda. “We’re treating them as a news source; I wouldn’t use the term ‘trusted news,’” Everson said, pointing out that Facebook will also include “far-left” publications.

Which of course raises interesting questions about Facebook’s standards for determining the “integrity” of the news sources it includes in its tab, which the company extolled when it launched the feature in October.

Networked totalitarianism: the script

The New York Times’s scoop on the treatment of China’s Uyghur population is an eye-opener, even to those of us who suspected the worst.

The students booked their tickets home at the end of the semester, hoping for a relaxing break after exams and a summer of happy reunions with family in China’s far west.

Instead, they would soon be told that their parents were gone, relatives had vanished and neighbors were missing — all of them locked up in an expanding network of detention camps built to hold Muslim ethnic minorities.

The authorities in the Xinjiang region worried the situation was a powder keg. And so they prepared.

The leadership distributed a classified directive advising local officials to corner returning students as soon as they arrived and keep them quiet. It included a chillingly bureaucratic guide for how to handle their anguished questions, beginning with the most obvious: Where is my family?


”They’re in a training school set up by the government”. If pressed, officials were to explain that the parents were not criminals, but were nevertheless not free to leave the “schools”.

The question-and-answer script also included a barely-concealed threat: students were to be told that their behaviour could either shorten or extend the detention of their relatives. “I am sure that you will support them, because this is for their own good”, officials were advised to say, “and also for your own good”.

Lots more in that vein.

So why are Western countries still treating China as a proper member of the international community? (The answer is that one has to play nice with a superpower, I guess.) And what will it take to change things? Answer: probably only a brutal Tienanmen-style suppression of the protests in Hong Kong would have that effect.

On the other hand, it’s not that long ago that the UK had a system of interning people without trial in Northern Ireland. But at least it had the excuse of a genuine emergency. As far as one can see, the Uighurs don’t pose any threat to the Chinese state.

British politics, circa 2019

From a splendid column by Marina Hyde on the current ‘election’ campaign:

On the subject of presumably competitively priced after-dinner speakers, what a week to learn that Theresa May has been signed up to the circuit, believed to have fought off a bid from the speaking clock for her services. May bills herself as a specialist in “inspiring lives” and how to “achieve progress”. Why not just add election-winning and contemporary streetdance? In for a penny; in for an unspecified number of pounds an hour. The news did seem to confirm that irony-manufacture is our sole thriving industry.

Or this:

Elsewhere, imbecility remains a key battleground, with debate over which party is fielding the more extravagantly or malevolently stupid candidates. Is it the Tories, whose children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi insisted he wasn’t sure whether Jeremy Corbyn would shoot the rich, adding: ”You’ll have to ask him that question”? Or is it Labour, whose newly selected Pudsey candidate Jane Aitchison provided the BBC’s Emma Barnett with 12.5 seconds of dead air in a discussion in which she apparently excused another candidate saying she’d celebrate the death of Tony Blair. It was one of those clips you listen to going, “Don’t say Hitler. Don’t say Hitler. Don’t say Hitler. Don’t say Hitler.” “For instance,” reasoned Jane, “they celebrated the death of Hitler.”

Only in a field like this could Boris Johnson retain a reputation as an orator. The best way to get through a Johnson speech is tell yourself he’s going to make 10 jokes he’s done numerous times before, then it won’t be so bad when he only does nine. His three-and-a-half minute campaign launch set in Birmingham saw a return for several “old friends”. Yet again, Johnson produced his line about broadband being “informative vermicelli”, as though he were Taylor Swift and he had to do Shake it Off because that’s what the crowd had come for. “This is a prime minister on fire,” judged Gavin Williamson, who seems to be back in the fireplace selling business.

Kranzberg’s Law

As a critic of many of the ways that digital technology is currently being exploited by both corporations and governments, while also being a fervent believer in the positive affordances of the technology, I often find myself stuck in unproductive discussions in which I’m accused of being an incurable “pessimist”. I’m not: better descriptions of me are that I’m a recovering Utopian or a “worried optimist”.

Part of the problem is that the public discourse about this stuff tends to be Manichean: it lurches between evangelical enthusiasm and dystopian gloom. And eventually the discussion winds up with a consensus that “it all depends on how the technology is used” — which often leads to Melvin Kranzberg’s Six Laws of Technology — and particularly his First Law, which says that “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” By which he meant that,

“technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.”

Many of the current discussions revolve around various manifestations of AI, which means machine learning plus Big Data. At the moment image recognition is the topic du jour. The enthusiastic refrain usually involves citing dramatic instances of the technology’s potential for social good. A paradigmatic example is the collaboration between Google’s DeepMind subsidiary and Moorfields Eye Hospital to use machine learning to greatly improve the speed of analysis of anonymized retinal scans and automatically flag ones which warrant specialist investigation. This is a good example of how to use the technology to improve the quality and speed of an important healthcare service. For tech evangelists it is an irrefutable argument for the beneficence of the technology.

On the other hand, critics will often point to facial recognition as a powerful example for the perniciousness of machine-learning technology. One researcher has even likened it to plutonium. Criticisms tend to focus on its well-known weaknesses (false positives, racial or gender bias, for example), its hasty and ill-considered use by police forces and proprietors of shopping malls, the lack of effective legal regulation, and on its use by authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, particularly China.

Yet it is likely that even facial recognition has socially beneficial applications. One dramatic illustration is a project by an Indian child labour activist, Bhuwan Ribhu, who works for the Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan. He launched a pilot program 15 months prior to match a police database containing photos of all of India’s missing children with another one comprising shots of all the minors living in the country’s child care institutions.

The results were remarkable. “We were able to match 10,561 missing children with those living in institutions,” he told CNN. “They are currently in the process of being reunited with their families.” Most of them were victims of trafficking, forced to work in the fields, in garment factories or in brothels, according to Ribhu.

This was made possible by facial recognition technology provided by New Delhi’s police. “There are over 300,000 missing children in India and over 100,000 living in institutions,” he explained. “We couldn’t possibly have matched them all manually.”

This is clearly a good thing. But does it provide an overwhelming argument for India’s plan to construct one of the world’s largest facial-recognition systems with a unitary database accessible to police forces in 29 states and seven union territories?

I don’t think so. If one takes Kranzberg’s First Law seriously, then each proposed use of a powerful technology like this has to face serious scrutiny. The more important question to ask is the old Latin one: Cui Bono?. Who benefits? And who benefits the most? And who loses? What possible unintended consequences could the deployment have? (Recognising that some will, by definition, be unforseeable.) What’s the business model(s) of the corporations proposing to deploy it? And so on.

At the moment, however, all we mostly have is unasked questions, glib assurances and rash deployments.

Right diagnosis, wrong remedy

Robert Reich is right about one thing:

A major characteristic of the internet goes by the fancy term “disintermediation”. Put simply, it means sellers are linked directly to customers with no need for middlemen.

Amazon eliminates the need for retailers. Online investing eliminates the need for stock brokers. Travel agents and real estate brokers are obsolete. At a keystroke, consumers get all the information they need.

But democracy can’t be disintermediated. We’re not just buyers and sellers. We’re citizens who need to know what’s happening around us in order to exercise our right to self-government, and responsibility for it.

If a president and his enablers are peddling vicious and dangerous lies, we need reliable intermediaries that help us see them.

The problem is we have a president who will say anything to preserve his power, and two giant entities that spread his lies uncritically, like global-sized bullhorns.

We can’t do anything about Trump until election day or until he’s convicted of an impeachable offense. But we can and should take action against the power of these two super-enablers. If they’re unwilling to protect the public against powerful lies, they shouldn’t have as much power to spread them.

And his solution? Use antitrust law to break up Facebook and Twitter.

That’s not going to solve the problem. And even if it did, Trump would be into his fifth term before break-up was accomplished.

The Liberal failure

From Dave Winer:

Just thinking out loud here. I am sure there’s a new journalism out there, that it’s not the journalism that gets so much acclaim, the reinvention of Woodward and Bernstein, the two Washington Post innovators who brought down Nixon. We should be way ahead of that by now. We need to be, because the forces opposing democracy, the equivalent of 1974’s plumbers, are moving much faster. We’re erecting Maginot Lines now, getting ready to fight the Battle of 2016, ignoring that the enemy already controls our capital. They’ve been innovating. We haven’t seen the results of their most recent innovations, yet.


Two Cambridge Analytica stories

My Observer review of Chris Wylie’s and Brittany Kaiser’s memoirs.

Hindsight is the only exact science, as these two books confirm. Chris Wylie and Brittany Kaiser are two youngish, idealistic, clever people who got involved in some very dark stuff orchestrated by unscrupulous operators. Eventually, both realised they had become accomplices to activities that were at best unethical and at worst illegal, realisations that prompted them to break loose and blow the whistle. And both their memoirs, though very different in style and tone, are attempts to atone for the societal damage their respective collaborations with the devil have done.

But there the similarities end…

Read on

Facebook keeps digging itself into the hole

From a report in the Washington Post highlighted by Charles Arthur:

The Arizona ad, paid for by The Committee to Defend the President, is one of roughly two dozen such ads that two pro-Trump super PACs have purchased on Facebook over the past five months, according to an analysis of Facebook’s advertising archive by The Washington Post. Some of the ads falsely suggest that Democrats are purging voter rolls; others direct viewers to some version of a voter-registration form, but only after they submit information, such as their names, email addresses and political affiliations.

Responding to an inquiry from The Post, Facebook said this weekend that it was removing four of the voting-related ads for violating its policies. A spokesperson for the tech giant said it would send other ads purchased by another pro-Trump group, Great America PAC, to third-party fact-checkers to verify their assertions about states purging voter rolls.

Charles’s comment:

So Facebook won’t allow ads that might lead to voter suppression. Apart from the ones it allows. It’s exhausting; Facebook says it won’t allow something, journalists find multiple examples of it allowing something, repeat. The simple solution would be to ban political ads.

Yep. Remember Denis Healey’s First Law of Holes: when you’re in one, stop digging. And the funniest thing of all is that, in terms of Facebook’s revenues, political ads earn peanuts.

LATER The NYT is reporting that some Facebook employees are getting agitated about the decision to give politicians’ ads a free run.