Zuckerberg’s so-called shift toward privacy

Zeynep Tufekci writes:

I was tempted to roll my eyes on Wednesday when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, posted a manifesto outlining his plan to make social networking more “privacy-focused” and less about the public disclosure of information.

Why take seriously someone who has repeatedly promised — but seldom delivered — improvements to Facebook’s privacy practices? This is a company, after all, that signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission agreeing to improve how it handles the personal information of its users, after federal regulators filed charges against it for deceiving consumers about their privacy. That was about seven years ago, and it has been one scandal after another since.

But I don’t believe in cynicism: Things can get better if we want them to — through regulatory oversight and political pressure. That said, I also don’t believe in being a sucker. So I read Mr. Zuckerberg’s plan with akeen eye on distinguishing meaningful changes from mere platitudes and evasions.

The platitudes were there, as I expected, but the evasions were worse than I anticipated: The plan, in effect, is to entrench Facebook’s interests while sidestepping all the important issues. [Continue reading…]

The traumatic lives of Facebook moderators in America

The Verge reports:

On May 3, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg announced the expansion of Facebook’s “community operations” team. The new employees, who would be added to 4,500 existing moderators, would be responsible for reviewing every piece of content reported for violating the company’s community standards. By the end of 2018, in response to criticism of the prevalence of violent and exploitative content on the social network, Facebook had more than 30,000 employees working on safety and security — about half of whom were content moderators.

The moderators include some full-time employees, but Facebook relies heavily on contract labor to do the job. Ellen Silver, Facebook’s vice president of operations, said in a blog post last year that the use of contract labor allowed Facebook to “scale globally” — to have content moderators working around the clock, evaluating posts in more than 50 languages, at more than 20 sites around the world.

The use of contract labor also has a practical benefit for Facebook: it is radically cheaper. The median Facebook employee earns $240,000 annually in salary, bonuses, and stock options. A content moderator working for Cognizant in Arizona, on the other hand, will earn just $28,800 per year. The arrangement helps Facebook maintain a high profit margin. In its most recent quarter, the company earned $6.9 billion in profits, on $16.9 billion in revenue. And while Zuckerberg had warned investors that Facebook’s investment in security would reduce the company’s profitability, profits were up 61 percent over the previous year. [Continue reading…]

India and Pakistan are already at war on truth

Pankaj Mishra writes:

In the predawn hours on Feb. 26, India launched an aerial attack — unprecedented in peacetime — on neighboring Pakistan, in retaliation for a suicide bombing 12 days earlier that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers in the disputed valley of Kashmir. Pakistan predictably responded the next morning with its own air strike into Indian-controlled Kashmir.

The confrontation could spiral out of control quickly. But fortunately, apart from a wounded Indian pilot and a Pakistani villager hit by falling rubble, the only confirmed casualty so far seems to be truth. Right now, the more extensive and damaging war in South Asia is the multi-pronged assault on reality by the warriors of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and hyper-nationalist news channels as well as mendacious governments.

India’s public sphere was the first to erupt with war cries. “Mess with the best,” declared one aged Bollywood action hero on Twitter, “die like the rest.” Even the few commentators ostensibly wary of Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, succumbed to patriotic bloodlusts. India’s leading television channels vied with each other in urging more bombings and broadcasting transparently fake footage of the attack.

As this war porn went viral, it was hard not to feel déjà vu. A similarly murky “surgical strike” by Indian forces in retaliation for a 2016 terrorist attack in Kashmir also incited a euphoric unanimity — though it achieved nothing, apart from an abysmal Bollywood tribute. Enraptured by #surgicalstrike2 (the trending Twitter hashtag), far too many powerful and influential Indians appear determined to give war a chance. These smartphone bombardiers were shockingly incapable of grasping a simple fact — that assaulting hills and dales deep in Pakistani territory would do nothing to forestall more terrorist attacks in Kashmir while guaranteeing Pakistani escalation. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports:

Pakistan says it will release a captured Indian pilot as a “peace gesture” between the neighbours amid the gravest military crisis in the subcontinent in two decades.

Imran Khan, the country’s prime minister, told a joint sitting of parliament that the Indian wing commander, Abhinandan Varthaman, who was shot down over the heavily guarded ceasefire line in disputed Kashmir on Wednesday, would be released on Friday.

“We have captured an Indian pilot,” Khan said. “As a peace gesture, tomorrow we are going to release him.” [Continue reading…]

‘Sustained and ongoing’ disinformation assault targets Democratic presidential candidates

Politico reports:

A wide-ranging disinformation campaign aimed at Democratic 2020 candidates is already underway on social media, with signs that foreign state actors are driving at least some of the activity.

The main targets appear to be Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), four of the most prominent announced or prospective candidates for president.

A POLITICO review of recent data extracted from Twitter and from other platforms, as well as interviews with data scientists and digital campaign strategists, suggests that the goal of the coordinated barrage appears to be undermining the nascent candidacies through the dissemination of memes, hashtags, misinformation and distortions of their positions. But the divisive nature of many of the posts also hints at a broader effort to sow discord and chaos within the Democratic presidential primary.

The cyber propaganda — which frequently picks at the rawest, most sensitive issues in public discourse — is being pushed across a variety of platforms and with a more insidious approach than in the 2016 presidential election, when online attacks designed to polarize and mislead voters first surfaced on a massive scale. [Continue reading…]

Facebook described as ‘digital gangsters’ in British parliamentary report

The Guardian reports:

Facebook deliberately broke privacy and competition law and should urgently be subject to statutory regulation, according to a devastating parliamentary report denouncing the company and its executives as “digital gangsters”.

The final report of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee’s 18-month investigation into disinformation and fake news accused Facebook of purposefully obstructing its inquiry and failing to tackle attempts by Russia to manipulate elections.

“Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day,” warned the committee’s chairman, Damian Collins. [Continue reading…]

Latest hack proves Facebook’s a dangerous monopoly that a fine won’t fix

Sarah Miller and David Segal write:

Facebook is too big to control. That simple reality becomes clearer with each passing day. The most recent example is the news this past Friday of a security breach that allowed hackers to access at least 50 million accounts; earlier that week, Facebook admitted to sharing phone numbers users provided to improve their account security with advertisers.

Over the past year, the social media giant has experienced scandals like these on a regular basis, often of massive scale and tremendous real-world consequence. Those facts — plus its ability to survive these scandals — is leading to a growing recognition that Facebook is one of the world’s most dangerous monopolies.The range of extraordinary harms deriving from Facebook’s monopoly power are why the company must be broken up — and competition restored — as a fundamental component of a solution.

This is certainly not hard to do, technically speaking. And the power to do so lies with the Federal Trade Commission, which upholds competition in the economy. In 2011, Facebook signed what’s known as a consent decree with the FTC, pledging to protect user privacy. That decree has clearly been violated: In one incident alone, data from up to 87 million users was unknowingly shared with the Cambridge Analytica research firm attached to the Trump campaign — resulting in up to $2 trillion in fines.

That broken decree gives the FTC the power to fine Facebook, but more importantly, the leverage to impose other, far more effective remedies, such as spinning off WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger and interoperability standards to end Facebook’s network dominance, allowing other companies a chance to compete for users. [Continue reading…]

AI that writes convincing prose risks mass-producing fake news

MIT Technology Review reports:

Here’s some breaking fake news …

Russia has declared war on the United States after Donald Trump accidentally fired a missile in the air.

Russia said it had “identified the missile’s trajectory and will take necessary measures to ensure the security of the Russian population and the country’s strategic nuclear forces.” The White House said it was “extremely concerned by the Russian violation” of a treaty banning intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

The US and Russia have had an uneasy relationship since 2014, when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

That story is, in fact, not only fake, but a troubling example of just how good AI is getting at fooling us.

That’s because it wasn’t written by a person; it was auto-generated by an algorithm fed the words “Russia has declared war on the United States after Donald Trump accidentally …”

The program made the rest of the story up on its own. And it can make up realistic-seeming news reports on any topic you give it. The program was developed by a team at OpenAI, a research institute based in San Francisco.

The researchers set out to develop a general-purpose language algorithm, trained on a vast amount of text from the web, that would be capable of translating text, answering questions, and performing other useful tasks. But they soon grew concerned about the potential for abuse. “We started testing it, and quickly discovered it’s possible to generate malicious-esque content quite easily,” says Jack Clark, policy director at OpenAI. [Continue reading…]

Regulate social media now. The future of democracy is at stake

Anne Applebaum writes:

A few days ago, ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, discovered that a tool it was using to track political advertising on Facebook had been quietly disabled — by Facebook. The browser extension had detected political ad campaigns and gathered details on the ads’ target audiences. Facebook also tracks political ad campaigns, but sometimes it fails to detect them. For the past year, the company had accepted corrections from ProPublica — until one day it decided it didn’t want them anymore. It also seems like “they don’t wish for there to be information about the targeting of political advertising,” an editor at ProPublica told me.

Facebook also made news in recent days for another tool: an app, this time its own, designed to give the company access to extensive information about how consumers were using their telephones. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, has defended the project vigorously, on the grounds that those who signed up to use this research app knew what they were doing — and were paid $20 a month. Unamused, Apple decided to intervene — and has now banned the app from its phones.

Both of these stories have something in common: They illustrate who is making the rules of our new information network — and it isn’t us. It isn’t citizens, or Congress, who decide how our information network regulates itself. We don’t get to decide how information companies collect data, and we don’t get to decide how transparent they should be. The tech companies do that all by themselves.

Why does it matter? Because this is the information network that now brings most people their news and opinions about politics, about medicine, about the economy. This is also the information network that is fueling polarization, that favors sensational news over constructive news and that has destroyed the business model of local and investigative journalism. The past few days have also brought news of staff layoffs at newspapers around the country, from Arizona to Tennessee to New Jersey.

I have singled out Facebook here because it is the dominant force in social media — like an old-fashioned monopolist, it owns Instagram and WhatsApp, too — but I could write similarly about Google, which is the dominant force in Internet search, or YouTube, which is owned by Google and is the dominant force in the distribution of video content. These companies also operate according to their own rules and algorithms. They decide how data gets collected and who sees it. They decide how political and commercial advertising is regulated and monitored. They even decide what gets censored. The public sphere is shaped by these decisions, but the public has no say. [Continue reading…]

Older, right-leaning Twitter users spread the most fake news in 2016, study finds

The Washington Post reports:

The notion that fake news exists in its own universe turns out to be doubly true: One universe is the realm outside truth. The other is its own seedy pocket of social media.

In a new study published Thursday in the journal Science, political scientists surveyed the inhabitants of this Internet pocket around the time of the last presidential election, from Aug. 1 to Dec. 6, 2016. They found that people who shared fake news were more likely to be older and more conservative. “Super-sharers” were responsible for the bulk of fake news, soaking their Twitter feeds in falsehoods with the gusto of kids with water pistols. They were enthusiastic communicators, tweeting an average of 70 times a day, and had a very limited reach.

Only 0.1 percent of users shared 80 percent of the fake news. “And almost all exposure is among 1 percent of Twitter users,” said David Lazer, a political-science professor at Northeastern University and an author of the new report. The algorithm that researchers designed to sniff out fake news — using a list of offending publishers, like Truthfeed.com, compiled by academics, journalists and fact-checkers — could not detect any fake news in the feeds of about 90 percent of users. [Continue reading…]

The plot against George Soros

Hannes Grassegger writes:

The glass tower that houses George Soros’s office in Manhattan is overflowing with numbers on screens, tracking and predicting the directions of markets around the world. But there’s one that’s particularly hard to figure out — a basic orange chart on a screen analyzing sentiment on social media.

The data, updated regularly since 2017, projects the reactions on the internet to the name George Soros. He gets tens of thousands of mentions per week — almost always negative, some of it obviously driven by networks of bots. Soros is pure evil. A drug smuggler. Profiteer. Extremist. Conspiracist. Nazi. Jew. It’s a display of pure hate.

The demonization of Soros is one of the defining features of contemporary global politics, and it is, with a couple of exceptions, a pack of lies. Soros is indeed Jewish. He was an aggressive currency trader. He has backed Democrats in the US and Karl Popper’s notion of an “open society” in the former communist bloc. But the many wild and proliferating theories, which include the suggestion that he helped bring down the Soviet Union in order to clear a path to Europe for Africans and Arabs, are so crazy as to be laughable — if they weren’t so virulent.

Soros and his aides have spent long hours wondering: Where did this all come from?

Only a handful of people know the answer.

On a sunny morning last summer, one of them could be found standing in front of the huge buffet in the Westin Grand Hotel in Berlin. George Birnbaum is built like a marathon runner — tall and slender, his head and face shaved clean. Elegant horn-rimmed glasses frame his piercing blue eyes.

Birnbaum — a political consultant who has worked in the US, Israel, Hungary, and across the Balkans — had agreed to talk for the first time about his role in the creation of the Soros bogeyman, which ended up unleashing a global wave of anti-Semitic attacks on the billionaire investor. But he also wanted to defend his work, and that of his former mentor and friend, Arthur Finkelstein.

George Eli Birnbaum was born in 1970 in Los Angeles, where his family moved after fleeing Nazi Germany. His grandfather was shot by the Nazis in front of his son, Birnbaum’s father, who later survived Auschwitz. Anti-Semitism followed the family as they moved to Atlanta, where Birnbaum grew up, and where the Jewish school he attended was often defaced with anti-Semitic slurs. It left a mark.

In an era when many American Jews drifted away from their specific identity, Birnbaum wasn’t allowed to forget it. Every weekend his father handed him the Jerusalem Post.

“First you learn what’s going on with the Jewish people in the world, then you can worry about the rest of the world,” Birnbaum remembered his father saying. He grew up believing that only a strong nation, the state of Israel, could protect the Jews from a second Holocaust.

All of which makes it bizarre that Birnbaum and Finkelstein’s ideas spawned a new wave of anti-Semitism, and that they did so in the service of an authoritarian leader, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, reviled around the world for his far-right views. The two men took all the arguments against Soros, from East and West, from left and right, and fused them together. Two American Jews, one a towering figure in US politics, helped create a monster. [Continue reading…]