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.

Another Dyson triumph!

Well, well. ‘Sir’ James Dyson, the billionaire British inventor and enthusiastic advocate of Brexit (who prudently decamped to Singapore before that dream came to pass), has now revealed that his grand plan to produce a world-beating electric car has been abandoned. Apparently it was a terrific vehicle (no evidence available to date for that claim) but there was no way the company could make it commercially viable.

Still, its inventor can stay comfortably in Singapore — at least until his fellow-ideologues have succeeded in turning the UK into Singapore 2.0.

Facebook: (yet) another scandalous revelation

If you’re a cynic about corporate power and (lack of) responsibility — as I am — then Facebook is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider this from the NYT this morning:

For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.

The special arrangements are detailed in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. The records, generated in 2017 by the company’s internal system for tracking partnerships, provide the most complete picture yet of the social network’s data-sharing practices. They also underscore how personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.

The deals described in the documents benefited more than 150 companies — most of them tech businesses, including online retailers and entertainment sites, but also automakers and media organizations, and include Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo. Their applications, according to the documents, sought the data of hundreds of millions of people a month, the records show. The deals, the oldest of which date to 2010, were all active in 2017. Some were still in effect this year.

Is there such a condition as scandal fatigue? If there is, then I’m beginning to suffer from it.

What we’ve learned from the DCMS release of Facebook emails

According to Tech Review:

  • Facebook “whitelisted” certain companies, meaning that they still had full access to users’ friends’ data after platform changes in 2014-15, including Airbnb and Netflix.

  • Facebook aggressively tried to shut down competition. When Twitter launched video-clip platform Vine, Facebook revoked access to its API. It also used data on customers’ usage of mobile apps (collected without their knowledge) to work out acquisition targets.

  • Facebook accessed users’ call history without alerting them, to make “People You May Know” suggestions and tweak news-feed rankings. Facebook made it as hard as possible for users to know this was happening.

It’s a hoot, especially when one compares the tone of the emails with Zuckerberg’s sanctimonious cant in his public utterances.

Hypocrisy on stilts

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.

Why populism is thriving

Martin Wolf has a brilliant review of Adam Tooze’s Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World in Saturday’s FT ($). His review touches on two things in particular that have preoccupied me ever since the crash. One is the failure to hold those responsible to account; the other is about the way the losses run up by capitalist irresponsibility were then socialised — by loading them onto ordinary citizens. (If I remember correctly, the bailing out of the banks dumped a debt of Euro 30,000 on every Irish citizen.). The other was the way politicians conned the public into accepting that it was public excess rather than private greed that caused the crisis.

Two excerpts from Wolf’s review elegantly make these points. Here’s the first:

The scale and nature of the required response had significant political consequences. The public was enraged by the size of support for the banks and, even worse, by the payment of the bonuses apparently due to the bankers. This was made even more infuriating by the fact that hundreds of millions of ordinary people suffered by losing their homes and jobs, or by being the victims of post-crisis austerity. Many were also enraged that so few senior individuals were charged. The trust that must exist in any democracy between elites and everybody else collapsed. With trust gone, conspiracy-mongers and political mountebank had their day.

Yep. And here’s the second gem:

Perhaps most startlingly, conservative politicians in the US, the UK and Germany successfully reframed the crisis as the result of out-of-control fiscal policy rather than the produce of an out-of-control financial sector. Thus, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK’s coalition government, shifted the blame for austerity on to alleged Labour profligacy. German politicians shifted the blame for the Greek mess from their banks onto Greek politicians. Transforming a financial crisis into a fiscal crisis confused cause with effect. Yet this political prestidigitation proved a brilliant coup. It diverted attention from the failure of the free-market finance they believed in to the costs of welfare states they disliked.

Osborne’s hypocritical dishonesty made him, for me, the most loathsome politician in Britain. (Boris Johnson runs him close, of course, but whereas Johnson is loathsome-but-chaotic, Osborne is loathsome-but-coherent: he always believed in shrinking the state and was the brains behind Cameron’s leadership.) The idea of a trust-fund baby delightedly imposing economic hardship on poorer citizens turns the stomach. Just about the only good thing about Theresa May’s ascent to the premiership was the cool, calculated cruelty of the way she sacked Osborne.

All of which suggests that the best explanation for the waves of populism now breaking on our shores is simply that they are the long-delayed explosion of rage at the way people have been screwed by neoliberal capitalism. And the storm has some way to go before its force is spent.

Google drops “don’t be evil”

Interesting. Gizmodo reports that the high-minded motto disappeared from the company’s corporate code of conduct sometime between April 21 and May 4. Here’s the updated version:

The Google Code of Conduct is one of the ways we put Google’s values into practice. It’s built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct. We set the bar that high for practical as well as aspirational reasons: Our commitment to the highest standards helps us hire great people, build great products, and attract loyal users. Respect for our users, for the opportunity, and for each other are foundational to our success, and are something we need to support every day.

Aw, shucks.

Facebook’s sudden attack of modesty

One of the most illuminating things you can do as a researcher is to go into Facebook not as a schmuck (i.e. user) but as an advertiser — just like your average Russian agent. Upon entering, you quickly begin to appreciate the amazing ingenuity and comprehensiveness of the machine that Zuckerberg & Co have constructed. It’s utterly brilliant, with a great user interface and lots of automated advice and help for choosing your targeted audience.

When doing this a while back — a few months after Trump’s election — I noticed that there was a list of case studies of different industries showing how effective a given targeting strategy could be in a particular application. One of those ‘industries’ was “Government and Politics” and among the case studies was a story of how a Facebook campaign had proved instrumental in helping a congressional candidate to win against considerable odds. I meant to grab some screenshots of this uplifting tale, but of course forget to do so. When I went back later, the case study had, well, disappeared.

Luckily, someone else had the presence of mind to grab a screenshot. The Intercept, bless it, has the before-and-after comparison shown in the image above. They are Facebook screenshots from (left) June 2017 and (right) March 2018.

Interesting, ne c’est pas?

‘Complexity’: ontology or just an epistemological tactic?

I’m reading Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. In Chapter 1 he reflects on the curious fact that nothing much changed as a result. “The strangest thing”, he writes,

was that instead of leading to a collapse of the right-wing neoliberalism that had enabled the catastrophe to happen, the crisis actually seemed to strengthen the Right. It took a rare degree of self-confidence or fortitude not to gasp dumbfounded at the roaring resurgence of the right so soon after the most catastrophic global economic collapse after the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Incongruity” seems too polite a term to describe the unfolding of events; “contradiction” seems too outmoded. Austerity became the watchword in almost every country; governments everywhere became the scapegoats for dissatisfaction of every stripe, including that provoked by austerity. In the name of probity, the working class was attacked from all sides, even by nominal “socialist” parties… The pervasive dominance of neoliberal doctrines and right-wing parties worldwide from Europe to North America to Asia has flummoxed left parties that, just a few short years ago, had been confident they had been finally making headway after decades of neoliberal encroachment. Brazenly, in many cases parties on the left were unceremoniously voted out because they had struggled to contain the worst fallout from the crisis. By contrast, the financial institutions that had precipitated the crisis and had been rescued by governmental action were doing just fine — nay, prospering at pre-crisis rates — and in a bald display of uninflected ingratitude, were intently bankrolling the resurgent right. Indeed, the astounding recovery of corporate profits practically guaranteed the luxuriant post-crisis exfoliation of Think Tank Pontification. nationalist proto-fascist movements sprouted in the most unlikely places, and propounded arguments bereft of a scintilla of sense. “Nightmare” did not register as hyperbolic; it was the banjax of the vanities.

That’s just about the most succinct expression of the bewilderment that most of us felt — or certainly that I felt as I watched the UK post-crisis, Tory-led coalition government blaming the populace (or its Labour predecessor) for the debacle, and imposing ‘austerity’ as the punishment for popular irresponsibility rather than as the price of forcing the public to shoulder the costs of bankers’ greed and recklessness. And it’s why I always thought that, eventually, the penny would drop with electorates, and why the current ways of populist anger towards ‘elites’ comes as no surprise. In fact the only surprising thing about it is that it took so long to materialise.

Mirowski also picks up the strange inability of the left to pin the blame where it belonged: the financial services industry and the feeble regulatory regimes under which the madness and greed of the sector burgeoned. Here, for example, is Ezra Klein reviewing Inside Job, a documentary that made an admirable stab at naming names and fingering culprits. What made the financial crisis so scary, Klein wrote, was that

The complexity of the system far exceeded the capacity of the participants, experts and watchdogs. Even after the crisis happened, it was devilishly hard to understand what was going on. Some people managed to connect the right dots, in the right ways and at the right times, but not so many; and not through such reproducible methods, that it’s clear how we can make their success the norm. But it is clear that our key systems are going to continue growing more complex, and we’re not getting any smarter.

The fact that (as Mirowski points out) some commentators normally seen as left-of-centre felt obliged to attack the documentary is itself significant. It’s a symptom of how far the ice of neoliberalism has penetrated the radical soul. Less abstractly, it confirms my own working definition of ‘ideology’ as the force that determines how you think even when you don’t know you’re thinking. Klein’s hapless defeatism also echoes the feeble answer eventually provided by the British Academy to the question posed by the Queen to the luminaries of the LSE at the height of the crisis: why had none of those besuited, learned gents in the receiving line seen the catastrophe coming?

But against those who warned, most were convinced that banks knew what they were doing. They believed that the financial wizards had found new and clever ways of managing risks. Indeed, some claimed to have so dispersed them through an array of novel financial instruments that they had virtually removed them. It is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris. There was a firm belief, too, that financial markets had changed. And politicians of all types were charmed by the market. These views were abetted by financial and economic models that were good at predicting the short-term and small risks, but few were equipped to say what would happen when things went wrong as they have. People trusted the banks whose boards and senior executives were packed with globally recruited talent and their non-executive directors included those with proven track records in public life. Nobody wanted to believe that their judgement could be faulty or that they were unable competently to scrutinise the risks in the organisations that they managed. A generation of bankers and financiers deceived themselves and those who thought that they were the pace-making engineers of advanced economies.

All this exposed the difficulties of slowing the progression of such developments in the presence of a general ‘feel-good’ factor. Households benefited from low unemployment, cheap consumer goods and ready credit. Businesses benefited from lower borrowing costs. Bankers were earning bumper bonuses and expanding their business around the world. The government benefited from high tax revenues enabling them to increase public spending on schools and hospitals. This was bound to create a psychology of denial. It was a cycle fuelled, in significant measure, not by virtue but by delusion.

Among the authorities charged with managing these risks, there were difficulties too. Some say that their job should have been ‘to take away the punch bowl when the party was in full swing’. But that assumes that they had the instruments needed to do this. General pressure was for more lax regulation – a light touch. The City of London (and the Financial Services Authority) was praised as a paragon of global financial regulation for this reason.

Translation: It was all very complex, Ma’am. QED.

This is the resort to ‘complexity’ as an epistemological or ideological device. It’s a way of saying that some things are beyond analysis or explanation. Sometimes this is true: complex systems exist and they are inherently unpredictable and sometimes intrinsically incomprehensible. But a banking system run as a racket does not fall into that category.