New report on Russian disinformation, prepared for the Senate, shows the operation’s scale and sweep

The Washington Post reports:

A report prepared for the Senate that provides the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election found the operation used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump — and worked even harder to support him while in office.

The report, a draft of which was obtained by The Washington Post, is the first to study the millions of posts provided by major technology firms to the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), its chairman, and Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), its ranking Democrat. The bipartisan panel hasn’t said if it endorses the findings. It plans to release it publicly along with another study later this week.

The research — by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm — offers new details on how Russians working at the Internet Research Agency, which U.S. officials have charged with criminal offenses for meddling in the 2016 campaign, sliced Americans into key interest groups for targeted messaging. These efforts shifted over time, peaking at key political moments, such as presidential debates or party conventions, the report found. [Continue reading…]

Facebook’s fake concern about fake news evident to its factcheckers

The Guardian reports:

Journalists working as factcheckers for Facebook have pushed to end a controversial media partnership with the social network, saying the company has ignored their concerns and failed to use their expertise to combat misinformation.

Current and former Facebook factcheckers told the Guardian that the tech platform’s collaboration with outside reporters has produced minimal results and that they’ve lost trust in Facebook, which has repeatedly refused to release meaningful data about the impacts of their work. Some said Facebook’s hiring of a PR firm that used an antisemitic narrative to discredit critics – fueling the same kind of propaganda factcheckers regularly debunk – should be a deal-breaker.

“They’ve essentially used us for crisis PR,” said Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor of Snopes, a factchecking site that has partnered with Facebook for two years. “They’re not taking anything seriously. They are more interested in making themselves look good and passing the buck … They clearly don’t care.” [Continue reading…]

Facebook and Twitter face growing scrutiny for their role in sparking France’s ‘Gilets Jaunes’ protests

VentureBeat reports:

The French government announced it is investigating the possibility that Russia manipulated social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter to foment discord that has inspired growing protests across the country.

The Gilets Jaunes or “yellow vests,” appeared at first to be largely a spontaneous social movement of protestors angry about an impending tax on diesel that is aimed at fighting climate change. The original complaint that this fell disproportionately on the backs of poor and rural residents has evolved into widespread anger over economic injustice. This movement has now engulfed President Emmanuel Macron’s government in its greatest crisis since he was elected 18 months ago.

It was clear from the start that Facebook played a critical role in propelling the movement forward as Facebook groups sprang up across the country, allowing local residents to organize and plan demonstrations. But there had been growing suspicion in recent weeks, particularly as the protests turned more violent, that outside groups may be using social media to manipulate residents — as happened with the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

On Sunday, during an interview with RTL radio in France, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said an investigation has been launched into possible manipulation by Russia or others.

“An investigation is now underway,” said Le Drian, according to Bloomberg. “I will not make comments before the investigation has brought conclusions.”

The Bloomberg story notes that the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a unit of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. that monitors pro-Kremlin activity, has been tracking about 600 Twitter accounts that promote Kremlin views and that have recently been targeting France by promoting the #giletsjaunes hashtag. The Alliance says #giletsjaunes conversations on these Twitter channels has surged past those about Brexit and U.S. politics.

In many cases, these accounts, led in part by such Russian-controlled media outlets as Sputnik news and RT, have been reporting blatantly false stories, such as that French police are sympathizing with protestors and turning their back on the government. One such video that involved police removing their helmets went viral because it supposedly showed police standing in unity with protestors, something witnesses on hand say was not true.

French newspaper Le Monde reports that French security forces are examining “accounts opened two weeks ago that send a hundred messages a day.”

Meanwhile, French cybersecurity researcher Baptiste Robert has been capturing more than 250,000 tweets over the past week as he tracked the explosion of English-language messages with the #giletsjaunes hashtag.

The tweets with the most reach and influence are coming from the Twitter accounts of a Polish nationalist, a Turkish breaking news account, and a pro-Trump follower who is part of the QAnon conspiracy theorists, Robert found. “A lot of influential groups are trying to support the catastrophic nature of the demonstrations, the ‘civil war’, the police violence,” Robert told the Liberation newspaper. [Continue reading…]

Facebook’s very bad month just got worse

Sue Halpern reports:

Who could have imagined that a creepy little app that scoured Facebook for pictures of women in bikinis might be the instrument that skewers the behemoth social network? Who, that is, besides Facebook executives and their lawyers? Until a little over a week ago, the company had successfully sequestered internal e-mails, which were obtained by the legal team of Ted Kramer, the founder of the app company Six4Three, during the discovery process in a 2015 lawsuit. At issue was Facebook’s policy of allowing third-party app developers to access the data of Facebook users’ friends—the very policy that enabled Cambridge Analytica to buy the data of eighty-seven million unwitting users on behalf of the Trump campaign. In Kramer’s case, his Pikinis app relied on that access; once Facebook changed its policy, in 2014, the app no longer worked. Kramer cried foul and sued Facebook for breach of contract. At the company’s request, the judge in the case ordered the records sealed to keep them, ironically, private.

That changed on November 20th, when a parliamentary sergeant-at-arms showed up at Kramer’s London hotel room and escorted him to the halls of Westminster, where the Tory M.P. Damian Collins, the chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, demanded that Kramer turn over all his files in the case under threat of arrest. Kramer, who was in London on unrelated business, said that he panicked and moved a number of files from a Dropbox account to a USB drive, which he turned over to the M.P. How Collins knew that Kramer was in London has been traced to the tireless Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr, who has spent more than two years unravelling the connections between Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer, and Brexit. After arranging to meet with Kramer, she appears to have tipped off Collins to Kramer’s whereabouts. But how Collins knew that Kramer was in possession of the documents—which were not his to have—remains a mystery. There are reports that the two men had been in communication for the past few months, at Cadwalladr’s prompting, which suggests that the frog march to Parliament was just for show. (When Kramer’s lawyers found out that he was in possession of the discovery documents and that he had given them to Collins, they attempted to drop him, but, over the weekend, a California judge demanded that they continue to represent Kramer until the matter of the purloined files is adjudicated.)

Collins, for his part, claimed that whatever seal was in force in California was irrelevant in the U.K. On November 27th, he used the snatched e-mails to grill Richard Allan, the Facebook executive who was sent to speak for the company at an unprecedented international hearing on fake news and disinformation that Collins convened in Parliament. Mark Zuckerberg, who said he was too busy to appear—making this the fourth time that he has refused a request from Parliament—was represented by a nameplate positioned in front of an empty chair; every time the television cameras panned to Allan, they also showed his absent boss. Allan admitted that the optics were “not great,” and then went on to do his best Zuckerberg imitation, dodging and feinting as the lawmakers sought to put him on the spot. The most damning claim to emerge was that Facebook either gave, or considered giving, favored access to its users’ data to companies that spent at least two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in advertising on the platform. There also seemed to be evidence that Facebook had been informed, in 2014, that computers with Russian I.P. addresses were siphoning three billion data points a day from Facebook accounts, a claim that Allan refused to address in the hearing.

On Wednesday, Collins published the full cache that he seized from Kramer. The two hundred and fifty pages of internal Facebook documents show, irrefutably, that the company did indeed whitelist a number of lucrative business partners, including Netflix, Lyft, and Airbnb, allowing them continued and unfettered access to the accounts of Facebook users and their friends after the company claimed that it had stopped the practice. The documents also reveal that, in 2015, a permissions update for Android devices, which users were required to accept, included a feature that continuously uploaded text messages and call logs to Facebook. [Continue reading…]

Here’s how Facebook’s local news algorithm change led to the worst riots Paris has seen in 50 years

BuzzFeed reports:

This week, protesters scaled the Arc de Triomphe, burned cars, and clashed with police in the third consecutive weekend of riots in France. More than 300 people were arrested in Paris last weekend alone, and 37,000 law enforcement officers have been deployed around the country to restore order.

The “Gilets Jaunes” or “Yellow Jackets” protests have only gotten more violent since they began last month. Three people have died, hundreds more have been injured. To hear the protesters tell it, they’re marching through the streets to fight back against rising fuel prices and the high cost of living in the country. Beyond that, though, it’s an ideological free-for-all. Fights have also been witnessed among demonstrators, and some have sent death threats to other protesters.

But what’s happening right now in France isn’t happening in a vacuum. The Yellow Jackets movement — named for the protesters’ brightly colored safety vests — is a beast born almost entirely from Facebook. And it’s only getting more popular. Recent polls indicate the majority of France now supports the protesters. The Yellow Jackets communicate almost entirely on small, decentralized Facebook pages. They coordinate via memes and viral videos. Whatever gets shared the most becomes part of their platform.

Due to the way algorithm changes made earlier this year interacted with the fierce devotion in France to local and regional identity, the country is now facing some of the worst riots in many years — and in Paris, the worst in half a century.

This isn’t the first time real-life violence has followed a viral Facebook storm and it certainly won’t be the last. [Continue reading…]

The technology industry is run by capitalists pretending to be idealists

Ian Bogost writes:

Businesspeople are in business for the money, won directly through profits and indirectly through the forces of market speculation. And yet, for more than a decade now, the technology industry has persuaded the public, and the street, that the efforts of firms such as Facebook and Google are conducted first for reasons of social benefit. To “change the world,” as their leaders intone, even as it becomes clear that some of the changes in question are often detrimental rather than beneficial. Perhaps it was inevitable that these optimistic, tech-industry entreaties of the aughts—make the world more open and connected, don’t be evil, and so on—would be revealed as mere Pollyannaism, naive but ultimately righteous in their ambition.

Facebook’s own public defenses lean in, as it were, to that interpretation. Mark Zuckerberg opened his testimony before Congress earlier this year by insisting that “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company.” More recently, as the company has reeled from report after report suggesting that it knew more, and earlier, about how its platform was being used for election meddling, its executives repeated over and over again that it had been “too slow” to respond to Russian election interference and other techniques of manipulation on the platform.

That’s a smart parry, because it implicitly reinforces the righteousness of the company and its mission. It’s not okay to have been slow, the messaging suggests, but it’s understandable given the company’s ambitious, global optimism. “Connecting people” is difficult work, so cut us some slack, the company seems to be saying.

In this context, Sandberg has an impossible task. She was hired to be “the adult in the room,” that much is true. But that epithet has been interpreted too literally and without guile. It was never really meant to involve deepening the sophistication with which Facebook understands “community” or “connecting people.” Her job was to make the company profitable, and she did. [Continue reading…]

Sheryl Sandberg is said to have asked Facebook staff to research George Soros

The New York Times reports:

Sheryl Sandberg asked Facebook’s communications staff to research George Soros’s financial interests in the wake of his high-profile attacks on tech companies, according to three people with knowledge of her request, indicating that Facebook’s second in command was directly involved in the social network’s response to the liberal billionaire.

Ms. Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, asked for the information in an email to a senior executive in January that was forwarded to other senior communications and policy staff, the people said. The email came within days of a blistering speech Mr. Soros delivered that month at the World Economic Forum, attacking Facebook and Google as a “menace” to society and calling for the companies to be regulated.

Ms. Sandberg — who was at the forum, but was not present for Mr. Soros’s speech, according to a person who attended it — requested an examination into why Mr. Soros had criticized the tech companies and whether he stood to gain financially from the attacks. At the time, Facebook was under growing scrutiny for the role its platform had played in disseminating Russian propaganda and fomenting campaigns of hatred in Myanmar and other countries.

Facebook later commissioned a campaign-style opposition research effort by Definers Public Affairs, a Republican-linked firm, which gathered and circulated to reporters public information about Mr. Soros’s funding of American advocacy groups critical of Facebook.

Those efforts, revealed this month in a New York Times investigation, set off a public relations debacle for Ms. Sandberg and for Facebook, which was accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic attacks against the billionaire. Facebook quickly fired Definers. [Continue reading…]

Time to regulate social media

In an editorial, The Guardian says:

When Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the US Congress this spring he insisted he was not running a media company. But it is getting easier to say why he does. Facebook, the site Mr Zuckerberg founded almost 15 years ago, hosts and produces content. It sells advertising against content. It employs thousands of moderators who help patrol the content it “surfaces”. Two months after he gave his testimony Facebook, without irony, announced plans to launch news shows on its video portal. Its database of privately shared information and personal connections has been used to destabilise democracy. Mr Zuckerberg ought to be held accountable for running a media company.

The billionaire will resist this. His no-show at the House of Commons this week was a snub to representatives from nine parliaments. It is part of a deliberate defensive strategy to delay, deny and deflect criticism. This will only make the regulatory backlash bigger. History shows that political power can be brutally enforced over an influential private enterprise when it has compromised morality for the sake for profit. Facebook might be able to brush off allegations it is too addictive. But it cannot dismiss so easily the charge that it is bad for democracy. The company is long overdue a regulatory reckoning. [Continue reading…]

Social media promotes violent right-wing extremism in the U.S.

An editorial in the New York Times says:

Social media has played a key role in the recent rise of violent right-wing extremism in the United States, including three recent incidents — one in which a man was accused of sending mail bombs to critics of the president, another in which a man shot dead two African-Americans in a Kroger’s grocery store in Kentucky, and a third in which a man is accused of conducting a murderous rampage at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Each of these attacks falls under the definition of right-wing extremism by the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland: “violence in support of the belief that personal and/or national way of life is under attack and is either already lost or that the threat is imminent.” Antiglobalism, racial or ethnic supremacy, nationalism, suspicion of the federal government, obsessions over individual liberty — these are all hallmarks of this network of ideologies, which is, of course, shot through with conspiracy theories.

Yet, even as the body count of this fanaticism grows, the nation still lacks a coherent strategy for countering the violent extremism made possible through the internet.

Instead, the fundamental design of social media sometimes exacerbates the problem. It rewards loyalty to one’s own group, providing a dopamine rush of engagement that fuels platforms like Facebook and YouTube, as well as more obscure sites like Gab or Voat. The algorithms that underpin these networks also promote engaging content, in a feedback loop that, link by link, guides new audiences to toxic ideas.

This dynamic plays out around the globe. In Germany, one study showed that towns with heavier Facebook usage saw more anti-refugee attacks. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Facebook played a significant role in inciting violence.

While the motivations of violent actors may be different, the paths they travel toward violence are similar. [Continue reading…]

How loneliness is tearing America apart

Arthur C. Brooks writes:

America is suffering an epidemic of loneliness.

According to a recent large-scale survey from the health care provider Cigna, most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or “left out.” Thirteen percent of Americans say that zero people know them well. The survey, which charts social isolation using a common measure known as the U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale, shows that loneliness is worse in each successive generation.

This problem is at the heart of the new book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” by Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska. Mr. Sasse argues that “loneliness is killing us,” citing, among other things, the skyrocketing rates of suicide and overdose deaths in America. This year, 45,000 Americans will take their lives, and more than 70,000 will die from drug overdoses.

Mr. Sasse’s assertion that loneliness is killing us takes on even darker significance in the wake of the mail-bomb campaign against critics of President Trump and the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, both of which were perpetrated by isolated — and apparently very lonely — men. Mr. Sasse’s book was published before these events, but he presciently described what he believes lonely people increasingly do to fill the hole of belonging in their lives: They turn to angry politics. [Continue reading…]