How merchants use Facebook to flood Amazon with fake reviews

The Washington Post reports:

On Amazon, customer comments can help a product surge in popularity. The online retail giant says that more than 99 percent of its reviews are legitimate because they are written by real shoppers who aren’t paid for them.

But a Washington Post examination found that for some popular product categories, such as Bluetooth headphones and speakers, the vast majority of reviews appear to violate Amazon’s prohibition on paid reviews. Such reviews have certain characteristics, such as repetitive wording that people probably cut and paste in.

Many of these fraudulent reviews originate on Facebook, where sellers seek shoppers on dozens of networks, including Amazon Review Club and Amazon Reviewers Group, to give glowing feedback in exchange for money or other compensation. The practice artificially inflates the ranking of thousands of products, experts say, misleading consumers.

Amazon.com banned paying for reviews a year and a half ago because of research it conducted showing that consumers distrust paid reviews. Every once in a while, including this month, Amazon purges shoppers from its site whom it accuses of breaking its policies.

But the ban, sellers and experts say, merely pushed an activity that used to take place openly into dispersed and harder-to-track online communities. [Continue reading…]

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The internet promised utopia and instead gave us Trump

Noah Kulwin writes:

To keep the internet free — while becoming richer, faster, than anyone in history — the technological elite needed something to attract billions of users to the ads they were selling. And that something, it turns out, was outrage. As Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality, points out, anger is the emotion most effective at driving “engagement” — which also makes it, in a market for attention, the most profitable one. By creating a self-perpetuating loop of shock and recrimination, social media further polarized what had already seemed, during the Obama years, an impossibly and irredeemably polarized country.

The advertising model of the internet was different from anything that came before. Whatever you might say about broadcast advertising, it drew you into a kind of community, even if it was a community of consumers. The culture of the social-media era, by contrast, doesn’t draw you anywhere. It meets you exactly where you are, with your preferences and prejudices — at least as best as an algorithm can intuit them. “Microtargeting” is nothing more than a fancy term for social atomization — a business logic that promises community while promoting its opposite.

Why, over the past year, has Silicon Valley begun to regret the foundational elements of its own success? The obvious answer is November 8, 2016. For all that he represented a contravention of its lofty ideals, Donald Trump was elected, in no small part, by the internet itself. [Continue reading…]

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It’s time to regulate the internet

Franklin Foer writes:

As Facebook’s scandals have unfolded, the backlash against Big Tech has accelerated at a dizzying pace. Anger, however, has outpaced thinking. The most fully drawn and enthusiastically backed proposal now circulating through Congress would regulate political ads that can appear on the platform, a law that hardly curbs the company’s power or profits. And, it should be said, a law that does nothing to attack the core of the problem: the absence of governmental protections for personal data.

The defining fact of digital life is that the web was created in the libertarian frenzy of the 1990s. As we privatized the net, releasing it from the hands of the government agencies that cultivated it, we suspended our inherited civic instincts. Instead of treating the web like the financial system or aviation or agriculture, we refrained from creating the robust rules that would ensure safety and enforce our constitutional values.

This weakness has long been apparent to activists toiling on the fringes of debate—and the dangers might even have been apparent to most users of Facebook. But it’s one thing to abstractly understand the rampant exploitation of data; it’s another to graphically see how our data can be weaponized against us. And that’s the awakening occasioned by the rolling revelation of Facebook’s complicity in the debacle of the last presidential campaign. The fact that Facebook seems unwilling to fully own up to its role casts further suspicion on its motives and methods. And in the course of watching the horrific reports, the public may soon arrive at the realization that it is the weakness of our laws that has provided the basis for Facebook’s tremendous success. [Continue reading…]

Russia has ability to shut off power in the U.S.

The New York Times reports:

The Trump administration accused Russia on Thursday of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut power plants off at will.

United States officials and private security firms saw the attacks as a signal by Moscow that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities in the event of a conflict.

They said the strikes accelerated in late 2015, at the same time the Russian interference in the American election was underway. The attackers had successfully compromised some operators in North America and Europe by spring 2017, after President Trump was inaugurated.

In the following months, according to a Department of Homeland Security report issued on Thursday, Russian hackers made their way to machines with access to critical control systems at power plants that were not identified. The hackers never went so far as to sabotage or shut down the computer systems that guide the operations of the plants.

Still, new computer screenshots released by the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday made clear that Russian state hackers had the foothold they would have needed to manipulate or shut down power plants.

“We now have evidence they’re sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage,” said Eric Chien, a security technology director at Symantec, a digital security firm.

“From what we can see, they were there. They have the ability to shut the power off. All that’s missing is some political motivation,” Mr. Chien said.

American intelligence agencies were aware of the attacks for the past year and a half, and the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. first issued urgent warnings to utility companies in June. On Thursday, both agencies offered new details as the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations it accused of election meddling and “malicious cyberattacks.”

It was the first time the administration officially named Russia as the perpetrator of the assaults. And it marked the third time in recent months that the White House, departing from its usual reluctance to publicly reveal intelligence, blamed foreign government forces for attacks on infrastructure in the United States. [Continue reading…]

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Jarrod Dicker on what the blockchain can do for news

Mathew Ingram writes:

For journalists who are also into new technology, Jarrod Dicker has a pretty compelling CV: He was the head of product management at Huffington Post, director of digital products at Time Inc., helped run operations at online-publishing startup RebelMouse, and ran a digital-research lab at The Washington Post. With a career like that, lots of people in media pay attention when Dicker calls something interesting, and so many heads turned when he said he was leaving the Post for a blockchain startup called Po.et.

For many people, “blockchain” is just the latest buzzword to infect internet-focused discussion and, more recently, media futurism. There’s no question the topic is surrounded by almost unprecedented levels of hype, in part because it provides the foundation for crypto-currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, which have ballooned in value over the past year due to what many see as speculative hysteria.

That isn’t why Dicker is interested in it, however. Much like Civil, a blockchain-based media platform that wants to use the technology for journalism, Dicker sees Po.et as a way of using blockchain to empower individual content creators—not just journalists or news organizations, but anyone who creates words or images or music or video for almost any purpose, including advertisers and brands. In effect, he says Po.et is trying to build an open-source, blockchain-based licensing system for content. [Continue reading…]

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Algorithms of oppression

MIT Technology Review reports:

The internet might seem like a level playing field, but it isn’t. Safiya Umoja Noble came face to face with that fact one day when she used Google’s search engine to look for subjects her nieces might find interesting. She entered the term “black girls” and came back with pages dominated by pornography.

Noble was horrified but not surprised. The UCLA communications professor has been arguing for years that the values of the web reflect its builders—mostly white, Western men—and do not represent minorities and women. Her latest book, Algorithms of Oppression, details research she started after that fateful Google search, and it explores the hidden structures that shape how we get information through the internet.

The book, out this month, argues that search engine algorithms aren’t as neutral as Google would like you to think. Algorithms promote some results above others, and even a seemingly neutral piece of code can reflect society’s biases. What’s more, without any insight into how the algorithms work or what the broader context is, searches can unfairly shape the discussion of a topic like black girls.

Noble spoke to MIT Technology Review about the problems inherent with the current system, how Google could do better, and how artificial intelligence might make things worse. [Continue reading…]

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Google Chrome now blocks ads in order to promote advertising

The New York Times reports:

Google did not become the creator of the world’s most popular browser and a dominant advertising force by running its business in a manner that did not serve its own interests.

With the Chrome update, the company hopes to come out ahead by lessening the temptation of web users to install more comprehensive ad-blocking software. In other words, Google is betting that ridding the web of especially intrusive ads will render it more hospitable to advertising in general — and more profitable for advertisers and Google itself.

The new filter will be rolled out gradually to the browser’s hundreds of millions of users. Website operators had a few months before the launch to become compliant; going forward, those who violate the standards will be given 30 days to get in line. If they don’t, Google will demonstrate its leverage not by simply removing offending ads from a noncompliant site, but by disabling all of its ads. Revenue to the offending websites would presumably plummet as a result.

Utilizing Chrome’s popularity in this way is yet another example of Google’s singular position in the modern web. [Continue reading…]

Vietnam’s internet is in trouble


Dien Luong writes:

Vietnamese authorities have harped of late on the urgency of fighting cybersecurity threats and “bad and dangerous content.”

Yet the fight against either “fake news” or misinformation in Vietnam must not be used as a smoke screen for stifling dissenting opinions and curtailing freedom of speech. Doing so would only further stoke domestic cynicism in a country where the sudden expansion of space for free and open discussion has created a kind of high-pressure catharsis online.

Other countries, including democratic states, are also scrambling to rein in toxic information online. But while Germany, for example, specifically targets hate speech and other extremist messaging that directly affects the masses, Vietnamese leaders are more fixated on content deemed detrimental to their own reputation and the survival of the regime.

The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has repeatedly urged Facebook and Google to block “toxic” information that it said slandered and defamed Vietnamese leaders. Google sort of conformed by removing more than such 5,000 clips; Facebook also flagged about 160 anti-government accounts at the behest of the government. [Continue reading…]

Amazon behaves like a planned economy

Malcolm Harris writes:

Although they attempt to grow in a single direction, planned economies always destroy as well as build. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union compelled the collectivization of kulaks, or prosperous peasants. Small farms were incorporated into a larger collective agricultural system. Depending on who you ask, dekulakization was literal genocide, comparable to the Holocaust, and/or it catapulted what had been a continent-sized expanse of peasants into a modern superpower. Amazon’s decimation of small businesses (bookstores in particular) is a similar sort of collectivization, purging small proprietors or driving them onto Amazon platforms. The process is decentralized and executed by the market rather than the state, but don’t get confused: Whether or not Bezos is banging on his desk, demanding the extermination of independent booksellers — though he probably is — these are top-down decisions to eliminate particular ways of life.

Now, with the purchase of Whole Foods, Bezos and Co. seem likely to apply the same pattern to food. Responding to reports that Amazon will begin offering free two-hour Whole Foods delivery for Prime customers, BuzzFeed’s Tom Gara tweeted, “Stuff like this suggests Amazon is going to remove every cent of profit from the grocery industry.” Free two-hour grocery delivery is ludicrously convenient, perhaps the most convenient thing Amazon has come up with yet. And why should we consumers pay for huge dividends to Kroger shareholders? Fuck ’em; if Bezos has the discipline to stick to the growth plan instead of stuffing shareholder pockets every quarter, then let him eat their lunch. Despite a business model based on eliminating competition, Amazon has avoided attention from antitrust authorities because prices are down. If consumers are better off, who cares if it’s a monopoly? American antitrust law doesn’t exist to protect kulaks, whether they’re selling books or groceries.

Amazon has succeeded in large part because of the company’s uncommon drive to invest in growth. And today, not only are other companies slow to spend, so are governments. Austerity politics and decades of privatization put Amazon in a place to take over state functions. If localities can’t or won’t invest in jobs, then Bezos can get them to forgo tax dollars (and dignity) to host HQ2. There’s no reason governments couldn’t offer on-demand cloud computing services as a public utility, but instead the feds pay Amazon Web Services to host their sites. And if the government outsources health care for its population to insurers who insist on making profits, well, stay tuned. There’s no near-term natural end to Amazon’s growth, and by next year the company’s annual revenue should surpass the GDP of Vietnam. I don’t see any reason why Amazon won’t start building its own cities in the near future. [Continue reading…]

 

Facebook gave Russia everything it needed to help Trump become president, but we gave Facebook its power

By the admission of Facebook’s own VP of advertising, Rob Goldman, Russia’s goal of sowing division in America has been served “incredibly well” through its use of Facebook:


Is Facebook’s success in enlisting two billion members a testament to Mark Zuckerberg’s genius in creating the social media platform, or does this tell us more about the frail condition of the human mind?

To a significant degree, our attention is hardwired to be grabbed. We need the capacity to respond to unexpected triggers in our immediate environment in ways that ensure our physical survival.

But in a world where dire threats are not so commonplace, we have acquired the attention of domesticated herd animals whose waking state is occupied by foraging. It is our willingness to passively be fed that attaches us to our feed.

We have succumbed to a form of slavery in which our slave masters need apply no shackles because we have largely lost a sense of agency.

The fact that Facebook could give Russia the attention of so many million Americas was a consequence of the willingness (largely unconscious) of each of these individuals to freely give away their attention.

Until each of us reclaims the power to direct our own attention, we will continue casting out an open invitation to be led astray.