There’s ‘Facebook’; and then there’s Facebook

Dave Winer has been ruminating on the idea of ‘Facebook’ viewed not so much as “Zuckerberg’s monster” or a toxic global corporation (the way most of its critics and the media portray it) but as an astonishing global collection of human users. He’s been thinking along these lines for a while, but the way he puts it now is particularly striking. “When I was 14”, he writes,

I went to high school in the Bronx and lived in Queens. It was a 1.5 hour trip each way. I had a few choices but they all magically took the same amount of time. One of the routes was to take the Q16 bus to Main Street, then the 7 train to Grand Central, and switch to the 4 train uptown. The Bedford Park Blvd station is two blocks from the school. One day on the train, I remember this really clearly, I was watching all the houses and apartment buildings we passed, first in Queens, then in the Bronx. Inside every window, I guessed, was a family, like my own, possibly. With their dramas and struggles, stories, victories, history, abuse, happiness, fear. I tried to imagine how each of them might live and realized in an overwhelming way that I could never begin to understand who they were. NYC, even then, was an ethnically and economically diverse place. Of course as we traveled through the city, the people on the train changed too. Very few of them were Bronx Science students. There were all kinds of people. Who knew what any of them were thinking. The point is this. The world is huge. To keep our sanity we have to simplify it, and to do that we have to ignore differences. The stories we tell ourselves little connection to reality. And so any general statement about a community as huge and diverse as Facebook is certain to miss the mark, widely. And most of what we read only focuses on the company, not the users. To have that appear as journalism is just wrong because journalism has a higher calling, to find out what’s real, what’s true, and then say that.

Watching the way my own extended family uses Facebook, that strikes a chord.

Zuckerberg’s politics: Facebook Über Alles

Robust commentary from Siva Vaidhyanathan after the news that Zuckerberg has had two secret dinners with Trump in the White House:

At the very moment when the US House of Representatives reveals overwhelming evidence that Trump used his power as president to support his re-election campaign and bolster his friend Vladimir Putin by withholding support from Ukraine, Zuckerberg continues to treat the Trump White House as just another potential regulator who must be charmed.

Zuckerberg’s politics favor two things: the interests of Facebook and people like him. So it’s no wonder Zuckerberg got close to the two American presidents who have served over his company’s history. Since the world abandoned its mindless worship of Facebook and Silicon Valley in recent years, Zuckerberg has been on a constant if unsuccessful campaign to save face and stem efforts to regulate or fracture his company.

So the problem with Zuckerberg’s politics is not just that they seem to have turned to the right. His politics have not changed at all. The world has. The problem is that by choosing an amoral set of principles and positions he has become deeply immoral.

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.

How “Don’t Be Evil” panned out

My Observer review of Rana Foroohar’s new book about the tech giants and their implications for our world.

“Don’t be evil” was the mantra of the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the graduate students who, in the late 1990s, had invented a groundbreaking way of searching the web. At the time, one of the things the duo believed to be evil was advertising. There’s no reason to doubt their initial sincerity on this matter, but when the slogan was included in the prospectus for their company’s flotation in 2004 one began to wonder what they were smoking. Were they really naive enough to believe that one could run a public company on a policy of ethical purity?

The problem was that purity requires a business model to support it and in 2000 the venture capitalists who had invested in Google pointed out to the boys that they didn’t have one. So they invented a model that involved harvesting users’ data to enable targeted advertising. And in the four years between that capitulation to reality and the flotation, Google’s revenues increased by nearly 3,590%. That kind of money talks.
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Rana Foroohar has adopted the Google mantra as the title for her masterful critique of the tech giants that now dominate our world…

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Facebook contradictions

Proud announcement from Facebook:

Today, we removed four separate networks of accounts, Pages and Groups for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram. Three of them originated in Iran and one in Russia, and they targeted a number of different regions of the world: the US, North Africa and Latin America. All of these operations created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing. We have shared information about our findings with law enforcement, policymakers and industry partners.

We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people.

To which Charles Arthur comments: “I thought manipulating people was basically the point.” Which it is. It’s just that apparently some kinds of manipulation are verboten. And of course, as Charles says, this is just the stuff they’re catching.

Sauce for the goose…

You have to hand it to Elizabeth Warren sometimes. Annoyed (as I am) about Facebook’s insistence on continuing to allow untruthful political ads to run on the platform, Warren placed an untruthful ad herself to see what happened (and, clearly, to annoy Mark Zuckerberg. Here’s the gist of the NYT report of the jape:

The Democratic presidential candidate bought a political ad on the social network this past week that purposefully includes false claims about Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and President Trump to goad the social network to remove misinformation in political ads ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The ad, placed widely on Facebook beginning on Thursday, starts with Ms. Warren announcing “Breaking news.” The ad then goes on to say that Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg are backing the re-election of Trump. Neither Mr. Zuckerberg nor the Silicon Valley company has announced their support of a candidate.

“You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, ‘how could this possibly be true?’ Well, it’s not,” Ms. Warren said in the ad.

In a series of tweets on Saturday, Ms. Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, said she had deliberately made an ad with lies because Facebook had previously allowed politicians to place ads with false claims. “We decided to see just how far it goes,” Ms. Warren wrote, calling Facebook a “disinformation-for-profit machine” and adding that Mr. Zuckerberg should be held accountable.

Lovely.

Computational propaganda continues to increase — and evolve

A new report from the Computational Propaganda group at the Oxford Internet Institute shows that states are increasingly using weaponising social media for information supression, disinformation and political manipulation. The researchers found “evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns which have taken place in 70 countries, up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017. In each country, there is at least one political party or government agency using social media to shape public attitudes domestically.”

Other findings:

  • social media has been exploited by authoritarian regimes in 26 countries to suppress basic human rights, discredit political opponents and drown out dissenting opinions.

  • A handful of sophisticated state actors use computational propaganda for foreign influence operations. Facebook and Twitter attributed foreign influence operations to seven countries (China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela) who have used these platforms to influence global audiences.

  • China has become a major player in the global disinformation order. Until the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, most evidence of Chinese computational propaganda occurred on domestic platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, and QQ. But China’s new-found interest in aggressively using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should raise concerns for democracies.

  • Facebook remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation. In 56 countries, the researchers found evidence of formally organized computational propaganda campaigns on Facebook. Interestingly, the exploitation of Facebook’s targeted advertising machineseems to be on the decline. In the case studies the researchers studied, advertising was not central to the spread of disinformation. Instead the campaigns created memes, videos or other kinds of content tailored to exploit platforms’ algorithms and their amplifying effects — effectively getting virality for free.

There’s a good NYT report summarising the researchers’ findings.

Another reason not to like Facebook Likes

From The Register:

Organisations that deploy Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” button on their websites risk falling foul of the General Data Protection Regulation following a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice.

The EU’s highest court has decided that website owners can be held liable for data collection when using the so-called “social sharing” widgets.

The ruling (PDF) states that employing such widgets would make the organisation a joint data controller, along with Facebook – and judging by its recent record, you don’t want to be anywhere near Zuckerberg’s antisocial network when privacy regulators come a-calling.

Well, well.

Facebook thinks it’s a state. US Congress disagrees

This morning’s Observer column:

Now that Wimbledon is over, if you’re looking for something interesting to watch, can I suggest heading over to the video of last week’s interrogation by the US Senate committee on banking, housing and urban affairs of Facebook’s David Marcus? Given the astonishing incompetence of the Senate’s inquisition of Marcus’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, some time ago, my hopes for last week’s hearing were not high. How wrong can you be?

But first a bit of background might be helpful. Facebook, currently the tech world’s most toxic company, has decided to get into the currency business. It proposes to launch a new global cryptocurrency called Libra. Marcus is the guy leading this project. He formerly worked at PayPal and then moved to Facebook, where he ran the company’s Messenger service.

At first sight, Marcus appears to be a Smooth Man from central casting. At second sight, he evokes the “uncanny valley”, defined by Wikipedia as “a hypothesised relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object”. In that respect, he is not unlike his boss…

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Fines don’t work. To control tech companies we have to hit them where it really hurts

Today’s Observer comment piece

If you want a measure of the problem society will have in controlling the tech giants, then ponder this: as it has become clear that the US Federal Trade Commission is about to impose a fine of $5bn (£4bn) on Facebook for violating a decree governing privacy breaches, the company’s share price went up!

This is a landmark moment. It’s the biggest ever fine imposed by the FTC, the body set up to police American capitalism. And $5bn is a lot of money in anybody’s language. Anybody’s but Facebook’s. It represents just a month of revenues and the stock market knew it. Facebook’s capitalisation went up $6bn with the news. This was a fine that actually increased Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth…

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