Finland is winning the war on fake news. What it’s learned may be crucial to Western democracy

CNN reports:

On a recent afternoon in Helsinki, a group of students gathered to hear a lecture on a subject that is far from a staple in most community college curriculums.

Standing in front of the classroom at Espoo Adult Education Centre, Jussi Toivanen worked his way through his PowerPoint presentation. A slide titled “Have you been hit by the Russian troll army?” included a checklist of methods used to deceive readers on social media: image and video manipulations, half-truths, intimidation and false profiles.

Another slide, featuring a diagram of a Twitter profile page, explained how to identify bots: look for stock photos, assess the volume of posts per day, check for inconsistent translations and a lack of personal information.

The lesson wrapped with a popular “deepfake” — highly realistic manipulated video or audio — of Barack Obama to highlight the challenges of the information war ahead.

The course is part of an anti-fake news initiative launched by Finland’s government in 2014 – two years before Russia meddled in the US elections – aimed at teaching residents, students, journalists and politicians how to counter false information designed to sow division.

The initiative is just one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today – and tomorrow. The Nordic country, which shares an 832-mile border with Russia, is acutely aware of what’s at stake if it doesn’t.

Finland has faced down Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns ever since it declared independence from Russia 101 years ago. But in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it became obvious that the battlefield had shifted: information warfare was moving online. [Continue reading…]

A path for regulators to break up Facebook remains unclear

April Glaser writes:

Facebook is big. Possibly too big. Which is why the chorus of experts and former Facebookers who think it’s time to break the company up is getting louder. Last Thursday, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote a mammoth op-ed in the New York Times about why the company that made him very wealthy should be less powerful. In his view, the way to do that is to make the market more competitive. To do that, Hughes recommends (among other ideas) severing Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger from the Facebook mothership.

Hughes isn’t the only one worried that Facebook’s scale, design, and social networking dominance allow the vast dissemination of hate and misinformation. In March, Sen. Elizabeth Warren shared an ambitious proposal to undo Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, among other antitrust actions that would reduce the power of massive tech platforms. There’s now a campaign, called Freedom From Facebook, urging the Federal Trade Commission to break up the company. On Sunday, another presidential contender, Sen. Kamala Harris, said she also thinks the feds should look into amputating Facebook’s subsidiaries. Even the odd Republican is antitrust-curious. “I think Facebook is an extremely creepy company. I don’t know if they’ve done a good job with anything,” Sen. Josh Hawley said in an interview with the Verge in March. “We need to have a discussion, though, about what antitrust looks like when applied to the tech world.”

So where is this momentum taking us? Right now, the FTC is reportedly deliberating how big of a fine it will slap on Facebook following an investigation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal into whether the social media giant broke an FTC privacy decree. Since 2011, Facebook has been legally required to get permission from users before sharing private data about them beyond what they’ve explicitly agreed to, yet for years the company allowed thousands of developers to not only collect data from people who downloaded their Facebook apps but also data on their friends. That fine could be in the billions. But for a company as big as Facebook, a fine alone may feel more like a speeding ticket. Following a year in which the company faced a PR crisis seemingly every week, Facebook has reformed some of its data-collection practices and is now in the midst of a “pivot to privacy.” Even Mark Zuckerberg is talking about more government regulation—though he would certainly prefer a version that does not turn Facebook into a 21st-century Ma Bell. His problem is that “break up Facebook”—like “abolish ICE” and the “Green New Deal”—could quickly become an idea within the bounds of serious discussion. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s social media bias reporting project is a data collection tool in disguise

Casey Newton writes:

Three years ago this month, Mark Zuckerberg gathered together a group of influential conservatives to defend Facebook against allegations of political bias. The company had found itself under pressure after Gizmodo reported that the editors who then worked for Facebook “routinely suppressed conservative news” from its since-abandoned Trending Topics module. It hoped that a roundtable discussion with Glenn Beck, Fox News host Dana Perino, and others would quell the growing panic that Silicon Valley liberals were stifling dissent.

Conservatives need not have worried. Nearly every time the analytics firm NewsWhip reports on the top publishers on Facebook, Fox News ranks near the top. (It fell to No. 2 for the first time this year in March, when the Daily Mail edged it out.) But among many conservatives, including many elected officials, it is now an article of faith that social networks discriminate against them.

The past year has seen multiple congressional hearings devoted to trumped-up allegations of bias against social media bias. Today the president — who recently met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to complain that the company’s removal of bots had depressed his follower count — issued a new call for allegations. Makena Kelly has the story:

On Wednesday, the White House launched a new tool for people to use if they feel they’ve been wrongly censored, banned, or suspended on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

“Too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies,” the site reads. “No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump.”

The “tool” launched by the administration is, in fact, a Typeform page, which can be set up in a few minutes by anyone. The White House’s wording is broad enough that it might inspire anyone who has ever had a bad experience on a social network to register a complaint. “SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” the form shouts. Whether platforms might also seek to moderate hate speech or terrorism (for example) isn’t a question that makes it into the form. [Continue reading…]

If Trump actually cared about free speech and its protection by social media platforms, he could support the Santa Clara Principles — no doubt he’s never heard of them. Their declaration was announced a year ago:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called on Facebook, Google, and other social media companies today to publicly report how many user posts they take down, provide users with detailed explanations about takedowns, and implement appeals policies to boost accountability.

EFF, ACLU of Northern California, Center for Democracy & Technology, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and a group of academic experts and free expression advocates today released the Santa Clara Principles, a set of minimum standards for tech companies to augment and strengthen their content moderation policies. The plain language, detailed guidelines call for disclosing not just how and why platforms are removing content, but how much speech is being censored. The principles are being released in conjunction with the second edition of the Content Moderation and Removal at Scale conference. Work on the principles began during the first conference, held in Santa Clara, California, in February.

“Our goal is to ensure that enforcement of content guidelines is fair, transparent, proportional, and respectful of users’ rights,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo. [Continue reading…]

Trump administration balks at global pact to crack down on online extremism

The New York Times reports:

The Trump administration said on Wednesday that it would not sign an international accord intended to pressure the largest internet platforms to eradicate violent and extremist content, highlighting a broader divide between the United States and other countries over government’s role in determining what content is acceptable online.

Citing free speech protections, the administration said in a statement that “the United States is not currently in a position to join the endorsement.” It added that “the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech.”

The statement coincided with President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand meeting in Paris to sign what they have labeled the Christchurch Call. The agreement was crafted after a terrorist attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March that left 51 Muslim worshipers dead. The massacre was live streamed on Facebook, and spread virally over the internet.

Ms. Ardern has used the Christchurch killings to rally support for increased vigilance toward keeping violent and extremist content off the world’s largest internet platforms. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft and Amazon have vowed to monitor their services more aggressively for material that encourages and facilitates violence.

Yet the debate about regulating the internet is raising broader questions about what constitutes acceptable free expression online. Companies and governments have largely coalesced around addressing violent, terrorist-related and child-exploitation content online, but there is less consensus on issues like what qualifies as hate speech and misinformation, and what forms of political rhetoric are tolerable even if they are offensive and polarizing. [Continue reading…]

Facebook busts Israel-based campaign to disrupt elections

The Associated Press reports:

Facebook said Thursday it banned an Israeli company that ran an influence campaign aimed at disrupting elections in various countries and has canceled dozens of accounts engaged in spreading disinformation.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told reporters that the tech giant had purged 65 Israeli accounts, 161 pages, dozens of groups and four Instagram accounts.

Although Facebook said the individuals behind the network attempted to conceal their identities, it discovered that many were linked to the Archimedes Group, a Tel Aviv-based political consulting and lobbying firm that publicly boasts of its social media skills and ability to “change reality.”

“It’s a real communications firm making money through the dissemination of fake news,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a think tank collaborating with Facebook to expose and explain disinformation campaigns. [Continue reading…]

Should the media sever their ties to Facebook?

Mathew Ingram writes:

With all that has transpired between Facebook and the media industry over the past couple of years—the repeated algorithm changes, the head fakes about switching to video, the siphoning off of a significant chunk of the industry’s advertising revenue—most publishers approach the giant social network with skepticism, if not outright hostility. And yet, the vast majority of them continue to partner with Facebook, to distribute their content on its platform, and even accept funding and resources from it.

Given that Facebook has not only helped hollow out newsrooms across the country but arguably lowered the overall quality of civic discussion, repeatedly flouted laws around privacy in ways that have served the needs of foreign actors like the Russian government, and played a key role in fomenting violence in countries like Myanmar and India, it’s worth asking: Is it enough to be skeptical? Or is there an ethical case to be made that media companies, and the journalists who work for them, should sever their ties to Facebook completely?

The argument in favor of staying on Facebook is obvious: the social network has immense reach—2 billion monthly active users—, which provides publishers with the potential to increase their readership. Facebook also has billions of dollars to spread around, whether it’s through advertising revenue sharing, or by funding journalism initiatives, to which it recently committed a total of $300 million over the next three years. Together, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have become the biggest journalism funders in the world, a sad irony given their effects on the business. [Continue reading…]

Now for sale on Facebook: Looted Middle Eastern antiquities

The New York Times reports:

Ancient treasures pillaged from conflict zones in the Middle East are being offered for sale on Facebook, researchers say, including items that may have been looted by Islamic State militants.

Facebook groups advertising the items grew rapidly during the upheaval of the Arab Spring and the ensuing wars, which created unprecedented opportunities for traffickers, said Amr Al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio and a former antiquities official in Syria. He has monitored the trade for years along with his colleagues at the Athar Project, named for the Arabic word for antiquities.

At the same time, Dr. Al-Azm said, social media lowered the barriers to entry to the marketplace. Now there are at least 90 Facebook groups, most in Arabic, connected to the illegal trade in Middle Eastern antiquities, with tens of thousands of members, he said.

They often post items or inquiries in the group, then take the discussion into chat or WhatsApp messaging, making it difficult to track. Some users circulate requests for certain types of items, providing an incentive for traffickers to produce them, a scenario that Dr. Al-Azm called “loot-to-order.” [Continue reading…]

Co-founder of Facebook says it’s time to break up the company

Chris Hughes writes:

The last time I saw Mark Zuckerberg was in the summer of 2017, several months before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. We met at Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., office and drove to his house, in a quiet, leafy neighborhood. We spent an hour or two together while his toddler daughter cruised around. We talked politics mostly, a little about Facebook, a bit about our families. When the shadows grew long, I had to head out. I hugged his wife, Priscilla, and said goodbye to Mark.

Since then, Mark’s personal reputation and the reputation of Facebook have taken a nose-dive. The company’s mistakes — the sloppy privacy practices that dropped tens of millions of users’ data into a political consulting firm’s lap; the slow response to Russian agents, violent rhetoric and fake news; and the unbounded drive to capture ever more of our time and attention — dominate the headlines. It’s been 15 years since I co-founded Facebook at Harvard, and I haven’t worked at the company in a decade. But I feel a sense of anger and responsibility.

Mark is still the same person I watched hug his parents as they left our dorm’s common room at the beginning of our sophomore year. He is the same person who procrastinated studying for tests, fell in love with his future wife while in line for the bathroom at a party and slept on a mattress on the floor in a small apartment years after he could have afforded much more. In other words, he’s human. But it’s his very humanity that makes his unchecked power so problematic.

Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government. He controls three core communications platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — that billions of people use every day. Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60 percent of voting shares. Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered. He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it.

Mark is a good, kind person. But I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks. I’m disappointed in myself and the early Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders. And I’m worried that Mark has surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.

The government must hold Mark accountable. [Continue reading…]

Facebook gives social scientists unprecedented access to its user data

Nature reports:

Facebook is giving social scientists unprecedented access to its data so that they can investigate how social-media platforms can influence elections and alter democracies.

The first group of projects selected for funding involves more than 60 researchers split into 12 teams. They will tackle questions such as how fake news spreads, who distributes it and how to identify it. Their projects, announced on 28 April, will focus on countries including Germany, Chile, Italy and the United States.

The scientists will have access to reams of Facebook data, such as the URLs that users have shared and demographic information including gender and approximate age. The company — which has been accused of privacy violations in the past — is developing new protections aimed at shielding the identities of its users.

The research teams were chosen by the non-profit group Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn, New York, and Social Science One, an academic–industry partnership with ties to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A coalition of eight charitable organizations will fund the work. Facebook had no say in selecting the projects. [Continue reading…]

Facebook’s banning of Alex Jones and other bigots misses the real problem

April Glaser writes:

[After banning Infowars, Alex Jones, Paul Joseph Watson, and other inflammatory figures like far-right personalities Laura Loomer and Milo Yiannopoulos, white supremacist politician Paul Nehlen, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan] Facebook didn’t share what rules specifically were violated or what the process was for reviewing its rules. Presumably, if Thursday’s actions reflect a new approach that Facebook is now taking—or at least a new sense of urgency—then far more than seven accounts would have been banned.

Still: At the end of the day, a bunch of high-profile bigots had been stripped of a major platform. It should’ve resonated as a victory against the fringe figures who have benefited from the distortionary effects of social media, where ranking algorithms tend to benefit divisive, emotional content. So why did this latest act of content moderation instead feel underwhelming?

Deplatforming certainly does help to reduce the spread of hate. Since Alex Jones lost his main Facebook and YouTube pages in August, traffic to Infowars has plummeted. Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right provocateur who was banned from Twitter for directing racist harassment at the actress Leslie Jones, can no longer receive financial backing from his fan base via Venmo or PayPal and is reportedly in severe debt. (Those services banned him last year after he sent $14.88, a number that symbolizes a salute to Hitler in neo-Nazi communities, to a Jewish journalist.) But, particularly in Facebook’s case, deplatforming also has to align with a set of clearly articulated policies so that it isn’t read as a tyrannical act of corporate censorship that will further inflame accusations of bias. In this case, Facebook created a news story in much the way it might if it had announced a new product, but it didn’t actually say why specifically the accounts were removed. What should have been a by-the-book punitive act became a spectacle—and probably one that Alex Jones and the like will try to spin to their advantage. Facebook has the power to punish wrongdoers, as it did on Thursday. But we don’t know its full rationale for doing so, nor do we know who will be next. [Continue reading…]