Targeted advertising is ruining the internet and breaking the world

Nathalie Maréchal writes:

In his testimony to the US Senate last spring, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized that his company doesn’t sell user data, as if to reassure policymakers and the public. But the reality—that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media companies sell access to our attention—is just as concerning. Actual user information may not change hands, but the advertising business model drives company decision making in ways that are ultimately toxic to society. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci put it in her 2017 TED talk, “we’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.”

Social media companies are advertising companies. This has never been a secret, of course. Google pioneered the targeted advertising business model in the late 90s, and Sheryl Sandberg brought the practice to Facebook in 2008 when she joined the company as chief operating officer. The cash was flowing in, and companies around Silicon Valley and beyond adopted the same basic strategy: first, grow the user base as quickly as possible without worrying about revenue; second, collect as much data as possible about the users; third, monetize that information by performing big data analytics in order to show users advertising that is narrowly tailored to their demographics and revealed interests; fourth, profit.

For a while this seemed like a win-win: people around the world could watch cat videos, see pictures of each others’ babies in Halloween costumes, connect with family, friends, and colleagues around the globe, and more. In return, companies would show them ads that were actually relevant to them. Contextual advertising had supported the print and broadcast media for decades, so this was the logical next step. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. From today’s vantage point, the Arab Spring stands out as an iconic cautionary tale of techno-utopianism gone wrong. Sure, would-be revolutionaries, reformers, and human rights defenders were among the first to master the power of what we used to call “Web 2.0,” but authorities caught on quickly and used the new tools to crack down on threats to their grasp on power. Similarly, the 2008 Obama campaign was the first to harness online advertising to reach the right voters with the right message with near-surgical precision, but 10 years later the same techniques are propelling right-wing authoritarians to power in the US, the Philippines, and Brazil, and being used to fan the flames of xenophobia, racial hatred, and even genocide around the world—perhaps most devastatingly in Myanmar. How on Earth did we get here? [Continue reading…]

Delay, deny and deflect: How Facebook’s leaders dealt with issues such as foreign interference in elections

The New York Times reports:

Sheryl Sandberg was seething.

Inside Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters, top executives gathered in the glass-walled conference room of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. It was September 2017, more than a year after Facebook engineers discovered suspicious Russia-linked activity on its site, an early warning of the Kremlin campaign to disrupt the 2016 American election. Congressional and federal investigators were closing in on evidence that would implicate the company.

But it wasn’t the looming disaster at Facebook that angered Ms. Sandberg. It was the social network’s security chief, Alex Stamos, who had informed company board members the day before that Facebook had yet to contain the Russian infestation. Mr. Stamos’s briefing had prompted a humiliating boardroom interrogation of Ms. Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and her billionaire boss. She appeared to regard the admission as a betrayal.

“You threw us under the bus!” she yelled at Mr. Stamos, according to people who were present.

The clash that day would set off a reckoning — for Mr. Zuckerberg, for Ms. Sandberg and for the business they had built together. In just over a decade, Facebook has connected more than 2.2 billion people, a global nation unto itself that reshaped political campaigns, the advertising business and daily life around the world. Along the way, Facebook accumulated one of the largest-ever repositories of personal data, a treasure trove of photos, messages and likes that propelled the company into the Fortune 500.

But as evidence accumulated that Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives.

When Facebook users learned last spring that the company had compromised their privacy in its rush to expand, allowing access to the personal information of tens of millions of people to a political data firm linked to President Trump, Facebook sought to deflect blame and mask the extent of the problem.

And when that failed — as the company’s stock price plummeted and it faced a consumer backlash — Facebook went on the attack. [Continue reading…]

How mass shooters practice their hate online

Vox reports:

The Tallahassee shooting was the third crime in a single week that was apparently preceded by a trail of online hate. Robert Bowers, the man suspected of killing 11 people and wounding six others in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last Saturday, appears to have posted threatening language about Jewish people and HIAS National Refugee Shabbat, a refugee aid group formerly known as the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, on Gab, a social network that has become a home for anti-Semitism and racism.

Cesar Sayoc, the man arrested last Friday in connection with bombs mailed to CNN and several critics of President Donald Trump, appears to have threatened Democrats on Twitter and Facebook. “Hug your loved son,Niece,wife family real close everytime U walk out your home,” said one tweet sent to former Vice President Joe Biden, apparently by Sayoc. It included an image of Biden’s home with a target superimposed on it.

The postings apparently made by Beierle, Bowers, and Sayoc were part of a pattern going back years. Elliot Rodger left behind a YouTube video in which he said women would be punished for not being attracted to him. And George Sodini, a gunman whose murder of three women at a gym outside Pittsburgh in 2009 appears to share similarities with the Tallahassee shooting, maintained a blog detailing his anger toward women for months before committing the crime.

These men share more than their apparent online histories of bigotry. All were part of communities, online or off, that seemed to reinforce their views. That’s why online hatred and harassment is so serious. It’s not just that an individual person’s online posts can be warning signs of future violence. It’s also that hateful posts, even by those who never commit crimes, create an environment where those crimes are encouraged, accepted, and even celebrated. [Continue reading…]

Cesar Sayoc’s path on social media: From food photos to partisan fury

Kevin Roose writes:

[B]efore Mr. Sayoc’s accounts were taken down [by Facebook and Twitter], The New York Times archived their contents. And a closer study of his online activity reveals the evolution of a political identity built on a foundation of false news and misinformation, and steeped in the insular culture of the right-wing media. For years, these platforms captured Mr. Sayoc’s attention with a steady flow of outrage and hyperpartisan clickbait and gave him a public venue to declare his allegiance to Mr. Trump and his antipathy for the president’s enemies.

On social media, none of this behavior is particularly out of the ordinary. In fact, to many of his followers, Mr. Sayoc may have appeared to be just one of many partisan keyboard warriors working through their rage.

“There are tons of people like this,” said Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah who studies social media. “He took these memes to their most violent extreme, but this is a pretty big world on social media.”

The genesis of Mr. Sayoc’s partisan awakening may never be known, but hints of it first appeared on his Facebook feed in early 2016, as the primary season for the presidential election was starting.

That February, he posted a link to a conspiracy theory video on YouTube titled, “Is Barack Obama THE ANTICHRIST — 100% PROOF Is There!” Days later, he posted a second YouTube video, “Satan Sent Obama to Destroy America,” and a clip featuring Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, which was called, “MUST HEAR: Sean Exposes Illegal Immigrant Crime Stats.” He posted several anti-Obama videos multiple times on his feed, interspersed with stories about personal finance and his favorite soccer players.

By the summer, Mr. Sayoc’s social media activity was all politics, all the time. [Continue reading…]

Saudis’ image makers: A troll army and a Twitter insider

The New York Times reports:

Each morning, Jamal Khashoggi would check his phone to discover what fresh hell had been unleashed while he was sleeping.

He would see the work of an army of Twitter trolls, ordered to attack him and other influential Saudis who had criticized the kingdom’s leaders. He sometimes took the attacks personally, so friends made a point of calling frequently to check on his mental state.

“The mornings were the worst for him because he would wake up to the equivalent of sustained gunfire online,” said Maggie Mitchell Salem, a friend of Mr. Khashoggi’s for more than 15 years.

Mr. Khashoggi’s online attackers were part of a broad effort dictated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his close advisers to silence critics both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad. Hundreds of people work at a so-called troll farm in Riyadh to smother the voices of dissidents like Mr. Khashoggi. The vigorous push also appears to include the grooming — not previously reported — of a Saudi employee at Twitter whom Western intelligence officials suspected of spying on user accounts to help the Saudi leadership.

The killing by Saudi agents of Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, has focused the world’s attention on the kingdom’s intimidation campaign against influential voices raising questions about the darker side of the crown prince. The young royal has tightened his grip on the kingdom while presenting himself in Western capitals as the man to reform the hidebound Saudi state.

This portrait of the kingdom’s image management crusade is based on interviews with seven people involved in those efforts or briefed on them; activists and experts who have studied them; and American and Saudi officials, along with messages seen by The New York Times that described the inner workings of the troll farm.

Saudi operatives have mobilized to harass critics on Twitter, a wildly popular platform for news in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010. Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed who was fired on Saturday in the fallout from Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, was the strategist behind the operation, according to United States and Saudi officials, as well as activist organizations. [Continue reading…]

A genocide incited on Facebook, with posts from Myanmar’s military

The New York Times reports:

They posed as fans of pop stars and national heroes as they flooded Facebook with their hatred. One said Islam was a global threat to Buddhism. Another shared a false story about the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man.

The Facebook posts were not from everyday internet users. Instead, they were from Myanmar military personnel who turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing, according to former military officials, researchers and civilian officials in the country.

Members of the Myanmar military were the prime operatives behind a systematic campaign on Facebook that stretched back half a decade and that targeted the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group, the people said. The military exploited Facebook’s wide reach in Myanmar, where it is so broadly used that many of the country’s 18 million internet users confuse the Silicon Valley social media platform with the internet. Human rights groups blame the anti-Rohingya propaganda for inciting murders, rapes and the largest forced human migration in recent history. [Continue reading…]

Taylor Swift’s Instagram post has caused a massive spike in voter registration

BuzzFeed reports:

Since Taylor Swift flexed her star power Sunday with an Instagram post that encouraged her 112 million followers to register to vote, has experienced an unprecedented flood of new voter registrations nationwide.

“We are up to 65,000 registrations in a single 24-hour period since T. Swift’s post,” said Kamari Guthrie, director of communications for

For context, 190,178 new voters were registered nationwide in the entire month of September, while 56,669 were registered in August.

In Swift’s home state of Tennessee, where she voiced support for two Democratic candidates running in this year’s midterms, voter registrations have also jumped. [Continue reading…]

Social media is revolutionizing warfare

P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking write:

“The exponential explosion of publicly available information is changing the global intelligence system … It’s changing how we tool, how we organize, how we institutionalize—everything we do.” This is what a former high-level intelligence official told us back in the summer of 2016, explaining how the people who collect secrets—professional spies—were adjusting to a world increasingly without secrets.

We were asking him about one of the most important changes in technology and politics today: the rising power of social media. Whether it’s conflicts in the Middle East or political fights over the Supreme Court or the upcoming midterms in the U.S., social networks originally created for fun have instead become crucial battlegrounds. And this source, who had run the Defense Intelligence Agency, had been one of the most respected leaders of America’s recent wars, and had used these same online social spaces to run down terrorists and insurgents.

We didn’t know then that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn would soon also demonstrate yet another side of the social-media battleground—the spread of disinformation—and along the way become one of the most crucial players in a scandal that has divided America.

Open Source Intelligence (known as OSINT) has a long history, being first separated from the classic spy craft of coaxing and interrogation (known as human intelligence, or HUMINT) and the intercept of confidential communications (signals intelligence, or SIGINT) during World War II. The breakthrough came when Allied analysts with the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of today’s CIA) discovered that they could figure out the number of Nazi casualties by reading the obituary sections of German newspapers that were available in neutral Switzerland. By war’s end, these analysts were cataloging roughly 45,000 pages of periodicals each week and transcribing more than 500,000 words of radio broadcasts each day.

In the ensuing Cold War, U.S. intelligence agencies collected OSINT on an even more massive scale, monitoring more than 3,500 publications in 55 languages and nearly 1,000 hours of television each week. But intelligence chiefs traditionally put little faith in what this mass of free data yielded. If it could be acquired so easily, how could it be valuable? And if the Soviet Union was sharing it willingly, wasn’t it bound to be a lie?

The end of the Cold War and the rise of the internet seemed to settle these questions. By the early 2000s, many of the key OSINT programs were shut down; information was simply spreading too quickly online to keep up. Policy makers also began to believe there was no reason to work so hard. For years, intelligence analysts had labored to maintain a sprawling, updated encyclopedia on the regions of the Soviet Union. Now there was Wikipedia.

However, a few forward-thinking intelligence officers took a cognitive leap in the other direction. What if OSINT wasn’t losing its value, they asked, but was instead becoming the new coin of the realm?

The question was painful because the answer could require setting aside decades of training and established thinking. It meant envisioning a future in which the most valued secrets wouldn’t come from cracking intricate codes or the whispers of human spies behind enemy lines—the sort of information that only the government could gather. Instead, they would be mined from a vast web of open-source data, to which everyone had access. If this was true, it meant changing nearly every aspect of an intelligence agency, from shifting budget priorities and programs to altering the very way its spies looked at the world. But when we interviewed him, Flynn felt it was a crucial change that had to be made.

“Publicly available information is now probably the greatest means of intelligence that we could bring to bear,” he told us. Over the course of his career, he had come to a stark realization about the new nature of power. “Whether you’re a CEO, a commander in chief, or a military commander, if you don’t have a social-media component … you’re going to fail.” [Continue reading…]

How Putin works to weaken faith in the rule of law and our justice system

Suzanne Spaulding and Harvey Rishikof write:

In the summer of 2016, a Facebook group called “Secure Borders” began fanning the flames of rumors that a young girl had been raped at knifepoint by Syrian refugees in Twin Falls, Idaho. The group accused government officials, including the prosecutor and judge in the case, of conspiring to protect the immigrant community by covering-up the true nature of the crime. Secure Borders attempted to organize a rally, demanding, among other things, that “[a]ll government officials, who are covering up for these criminals, should be fired!” The claims were riddled with falsehoods. There were no Syrian refugees involved, and there was no knife. But because the suspects were minors, privacy laws made it difficult for the court to publish facts that could correct the public narrative.

The “Secure Borders” Facebook group was not the product of outraged Twin Falls residents. It was created by Russian operatives as part of Russia’s ongoing campaign to weaken our institutions of American democracy—in this case, by sowing discord and painting the justice system as an agent of politicians.

As Russia’s desired narrative took hold, images of the judge in the case were shared by a website called “Bare Naked Islam,” stamped with the words “corrupt judge.” Others posted his home address. When the local federal prosecutor issued a public statement warning against the “spread of false information or inflammatory or threatening statements about the perpetrators or the crime itself,” she became the subject of online vitriol, accusing her of attempting to censor the public.

The Defending Democratic Institutions Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has studied how Russia continues its attack on democracy by pushing a narrative weakening faith in the rule of law as administered by the justice system in both the United States and Europe. While policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have made important strides in confronting election manipulation and related attacks—and, increasingly, understand that information warfare is targeting public attitudes beyond elections—they have not yet come to grips with the threat to the justice system specifically and have not taken adequate steps to protect against it. [Continue reading…]

Detecting ‘deepfake’ videos in the blink of an eye

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It’s actually very hard to find photos of people with their eyes closed.

By Siwei Lyu, University at Albany, State University of New York

A new form of misinformation is poised to spread through online communities as the 2018 midterm election campaigns heat up. Called “deepfakes” after the pseudonymous online account that popularized the technique – which may have chosen its name because the process uses a technical method called “deep learning” – these fake videos look very realistic.

So far, people have used deepfake videos in pornography and satire to make it appear that famous people are doing things they wouldn’t normally. But it’s almost certain deepfakes will appear during the campaign season, purporting to depict candidates saying things or going places the real candidate wouldn’t.

It’s Barack Obama – or is it?

Because these techniques are so new, people are having trouble telling the difference between real videos and the deepfake videos. My work, with my colleague Ming-Ching Chang and our Ph.D. student Yuezun Li, has found a way to reliably tell real videos from deepfake videos. It’s not a permanent solution, because technology will improve. But it’s a start, and offers hope that computers will be able to help people tell truth from fiction.

[Read more…]