Trump violates First Amendment by blocking Twitter users, judge says

The New York Times reports:

Apart from the man himself, perhaps nothing has defined President Trump’s political persona more than Twitter.

But on Wednesday, one of Mr. Trump’s Twitter habits — his practice of blocking critics on the service, preventing them from engaging with his account — was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in Manhattan.


In her ruling, Federal District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald wrote of seven plaintiffs who sued Mr. Trump and several of his aides after being blocked by Mr. Trump’s Twitter account that “the speech in which they seek to engage is protected by the First Amendment.” Judge Buchwald added that Mr. Trump and Dan Scavino, the White House social media director, “exert governmental control over certain aspects of the @realDonaldTrump account.” [Continue reading…]

How social media exploits our moral emotions

Scott Koenig writes:

A few years ago, Justine Sacco, then the senior director of corporate communications at the holding company InterActiveCorp, tweeted about the nuisances of air-travel during a long, multi-leg journey from New York to South Africa. She started with sardonic observations—one about a smelly passenger at JFK Airport, another about London’s peculiar food and predictably inclement weather. Then came this one, shortly before her final flight: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

As she settled in to sleep, she had good reason to expect that that tweet would fade away into the hectic ether of Twitter. She had only 170 followers, after all. But no. While her phone was off, Sacco became the number one worldwide trending topic on Twitter, as tens of thousands of users across the globe filled her feed with their outrage. When she landed in Cape Town, she found herself receiving the full brunt of the online community’s capacity for public shaming. Her public persona destroyed, Sacco was fired from her job and saw much of her social circle—both online and offline—wither away. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal,” she later told author Jon Ronson for his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

This wasn’t the first time caprice was punished with viral outrage. Sacco’s tweet is just one of countless examples of provocative online behavior drawing a seemingly disproportionate social punishment. Why does this keep happening? Because the architecture of social media exploits our sense of right and wrong, reaping profit from the pleasure we feel in expressing righteous outrage. The algorithms that undergird the flow of information on social media are, like the sensationalist print media and incendiary talk radio that came before them, designed to maximize ad revenue by engaging consumers’ attention to the fullest extent possible. Or as novelist John Green puts it, “Twitter is not designed to make you happier or better informed. It’s designed to keep you on Twitter.”

Columbia Law professor Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, calls this “attention harvesting.” And as a business model, it’s extremely lucrative. Many are aware on some level that those persistent, weirdly personal ads on our devices have a lot to do with how Twitter, Facebook, and Google make money. What some may not be aware of, though, is exactly how those platforms manage to hold our attention well enough to make their ads so profitable. [Continue reading…]

USA Today read every one of the 3,517 Facebook ads bought by Russians. Here’s what they found

USA Today reports:

The Russian company charged with orchestrating a wide-ranging effort to meddle in the 2016 presidential election overwhelmingly focused its barrage of social media advertising on what is arguably America’s rawest political division: race.

The roughly 3,500 Facebook ads were created by the Russian-based Internet Research Agency, which is at the center of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s February indictment of 13 Russians and three companies seeking to influence the election.

While some ads focused on topics as banal as business promotion or Pokémon, the company consistently promoted ads designed to inflame race-related tensions. Some dealt with race directly; others dealt with issues fraught with racial and religious baggage such as ads focused on protests over policing, the debate over a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and relationships with the Muslim community.

The company continued to hammer racial themes even after the election.

USA TODAY Network reporters reviewed each of the 3,517 ads, which were released to the public this week for the first time by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The analysis included not just the content of the ads, but also information that revealed the specific audience targeted, when the ad was posted, roughly how many views it received and how much the ad cost to post. [Continue reading…]

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Where countries are tinderboxes and Facebook is a match

The New York Times reports:

Past the end of a remote mountain road, down a rutted dirt track, in a concrete house that lacked running water but bristled with smartphones, 13 members of an extended family were glued to Facebook. And they were furious.

A family member, a truck driver, had died after a beating the month before. It was a traffic dispute that had turned violent, the authorities said. But on Facebook, rumors swirled that his assailants were part of a Muslim plot to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority.

“We don’t want to look at it because it’s so painful,” H.M. Lal, a cousin of the victim, said as family members nodded. “But in our hearts there is a desire for revenge that has built.”

The rumors, they believed, were true. Still, the family, which is Buddhist, did not join in when Sinhalese-language Facebook groups, goaded on by extremists with wide followings on the platform, planned attacks on Muslims, burning a man to death.

But they had shared and could recite the viral Facebook memes constructing an alternate reality of nefarious Muslim plots. Mr. Lal called them “the embers beneath the ashes” of Sinhalese anger.

We came to this house to try to understand the forces of social disruption that have followed Facebook’s rapid expansion in the developing world, whose markets represent the company’s financial future. For months, we had been tracking riots and lynchings around the world linked to misinformation and hate speech on Facebook, which pushes whatever content keeps users on the site longest — a potentially damaging practice in countries with weak institutions. [Continue reading…]

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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America’s first reality TV war

Micah Zenko writes:

One year after launching a limited strike against the Syrian government to deter future chemical weapons attacks, U.S. President Donald Trump did the same thing again Friday night. Within 12 hours, the Pentagon judged the operation as being “very successful,” which was a given since the three above-ground facilities were assuredly monitored for years and situated in a relatively low-threat air defense environment. The ability of a $700 billion military to destroy static targets is unremarkable.

What was sensational about the missile strikes was the public spectacle of it all. From Trump’s initial pledge that the Syrian government’s suspected chemical attack “will be met, and it will be met forcefully,” to the Pentagon videos showing individual missiles being launched, this was a military operation telegraphed, scripted, and executed for a 24-hour information era.

Trump’s Twitter feed provided its typical denunciation, bluff, and guidance. He assigned his latest enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the artless nickname “Gas Killing Animal,” indicated that the promised operation could commence “very soon or not so soon at all!,” and then warned Russia that the missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” The latter tweet was an accurate prophecy, as the operation featured the combat debut of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range. Over the coming week, all of these tweets framed the news coverage and pundit debates, and the always scrambling-to-catch-up statements by administration officials. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook is able to ‘collect information from all of us’

The New York Times reports:

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, went to Capitol Hill this week to explain to members of Congress how the detailed personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users ended up in the hands of a voter-profiling company called Cambridge Analytica.

What Mr. Zuckerberg got instead, as he testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, was a grilling about Facebook’s own data-mining practices.

Representative Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, for one, wanted to know about Facebook’s use of different types of tracking software to follow consumers’ activities on millions of non-Facebook sites all over the web.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have a Facebook account,” Ms. Dingell said to Mr. Zuckerberg. “Through those tools, Facebook is able to collect information from all of us.”

Facebook meticulously scrutinizes the minutiae of its users’ online lives, and its tracking stretches far beyond the company’s well-known targeted advertisements. Details that people often readily volunteer — age, employer, relationship status, likes and location — are just the start.

Facebook tracks both its users and nonusers on other sites and apps. It collects biometric facial data without users’ explicit “opt-in” consent. [Continue reading…]

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Zuckerberg gaslights Congress

Kevin Poulsen writes:

Facebook was warned five years ago that the “reverse-lookup” feature in its search engine could be used to harvest names, profiles, and phone numbers for virtually all its users. But the company ignored the red flags until last week, after it happened.

In prepared testimony to Congress released Monday, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that malefactors had used the reverse-lookup “to link people’s public Facebook information to a phone number,” he wrote (PDF). “When we found out about the abuse, we shut this feature down.” He said that Facebook only discovered the incidents two weeks ago.

Zuckerberg is set to testify at a joint hearing before the Senate’s Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday, and then return to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This will be the first time Facebook’s billionaire founder and CEO has ever appeared before Congress. Last fall the company’s vice president and general counsel Colin Stretch appeared at the hearings probing Russia’s election interference campaign.

The hearings are a response to last month’s revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based consulting firm that worked for the Trump campaign, harvested data on as many as 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge.

Facebook revealed the separate reverse-lookup data spill while responding to the Cambridge Analytica controversy.

The issue was that Facebook allowed users to find anyone on the site by entering either their phone number or email address. In 2010, computer science researchers in Greece showed how spammers could use that feature to validate address lists and “craft personalized phishing emails that are far more efficient than traditional techniques by using personal information publicly available in social networks” (PDF).

But Zuckerberg’s written testimony reveals for the first time that it was phone number lookups that were used in the large scale scraping. That’s a more potent weapon for bulk harvesting, because a data miner can programatically cycle through every possible phone number to get a complete corpus. With some exceptions—custom privacy settings or accounts with no phone number attached—sequential mining would yield every Facebook profile. [Continue reading…]

 

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Two-thirds of tweets linking to popular websites come from bots, not humans

Pew Research Center reports:

The role of so-called social media “bots” – automated accounts capable of posting content or interacting with other users with no direct human involvement – has been the subject of much scrutiny and attention in recent years. These accounts can play a valuable part in the social media ecosystem by answering questions about a variety of topics in real time or providing automated updates about news stories or events. At the same time, they can also be used to attempt to alter perceptions of political discourse on social media, spread misinformation, or manipulate online rating and review systems. As social media has attained an increasingly prominent position in the overall news and information environment, bots have been swept up in the broader debate over Americans’ changing news habits, the tenor of online discourse and the prevalence of “fake news” online.

In the context of these ongoing arguments over the role and nature of bots, Pew Research Center set out to better understand how many of the links being shared on Twitter – most of which refer to a site outside the platform itself – are being promoted by bots rather than humans. To do this, the Center used a list of 2,315 of the most popular websites1 and examined the roughly 1.2 million tweets (sent by English language users) that included links to those sites during a roughly six-week period in summer 2017. The results illustrate the pervasive role that automated accounts play in disseminating links to a wide range of prominent websites on Twitter.

Among the key findings of this research:

  • Of all tweeted links to popular websites, 66% are shared by accounts with characteristics common among automated “bots,” rather than human users.
  • Among popular news and current event websites, 66% of tweeted links are made by suspected bots – identical to the overall average. The share of bot-created tweeted links is even higher among certain kinds of news sites. For example, an estimated 89% of tweeted links to popular aggregation sites that compile stories from around the web are posted by bots.
  • A relatively small number of highly active bots are responsible for a significant share of links to prominent news and media sites. This analysis finds that the 500 most-active suspected bot accounts are responsible for 22% of the tweeted links to popular news and current events sites over the period in which this study was conducted. By comparison, the 500 most-active human users are responsible for a much smaller share (an estimated 6%) of tweeted links to these outlets.
  • The study does not find evidence that automated accounts currently have a liberal or conservative “political bias” in their overall link-sharing behavior. This emerges from an analysis of the subset of news sites that contain politically oriented material. Suspected bots share roughly 41% of links to political sites shared primarily by conservatives and 44% of links to political sites shared primarily by liberals – a difference that is not statistically significant. By contrast, suspected bots share 57% to 66% of links from news and current events sites shared primarily by an ideologically mixed or centrist human audience.

[Continue reading…]