Why Facebook will never change its business model

Following Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony in March, Len Sherman wrote:

Other companies can only dream of running a company with essentially:

  • No cost of goods sold (individual users and companies provide content for free)
  • No marketing costs (user word-of-mouth and viral network effects spur continuous growth)
  • No selling costs (most advertisements are purchased through a self-service, automated ad placement platform)

If you were in charge of such a money-making machine, would you be eager to change this business model?

But if Facebook provides such a valuable service to its more than 2 billion users, several Congressmen wondered aloud why the company couldn’t replace its ad-supported business model with user fees? Zuckerberg responded with a maudlin regurgitation of Facebook’s mission to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” which, he explained could only be accomplished with a free service.

Zuckerberg amplified on this theme in his recent war of words with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who had publicly chastised Facebook for selling access to user data. Zuckerberg called Cook’s comments “extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth,” going on to say:

The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay. And therefore, as with a lot of media, having an advertising-supported model is the only rational model that can support building this service to reach people…But if you want to build a service which is not just serving rich people, then you need to have something that people can afford.

Zuckerberg’s impassioned rhetoric suggests that Facebook’s primary concern is to provide an affordable, valued service to its vast global community of users, many of whom have limited disposable income. But the second real reason Facebook is committed to its current business model is that the price advertisers are willing to pay Facebook to invade users’ privacy is vastly greater than the price most consumers would be willing to pay Facebook to protect their privacy. [Continue reading…]

As the bizarre QAnon group emerges, Trump rallies go from nasty to dangerous

Margaret Sullivan writes:

Hostility toward the media at Donald Trump’s rallies is nothing new. It infected the presidential campaign and has marred every raucous gathering of supporters since the election.

But on Tuesday night in Tampa, the extreme aggression dropped the basement floor another level.

This was a new low. And a scary one at that.

“I’m very worried that the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in someone getting hurt,” CNN’s much-maligned reporter Jim Acosta noted, as he posted video of the scene.

It showed a sea of worked-up Trump supporters screaming curses at him and aggressively gesturing with their middle fingers.

The New York Times’s Katie Rogers agreed, calling it “as hostile as I’ve seen people.”

Making matters worse was a dark novelty: The emergence at the rally of a cultish group called QAnon. These are the deranged devotees of a supposed government agent who they believe is waging war against the “deep state” that threatens the Trump presidency.

Believers were front and center at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall, as The Washington Post reported.

“As the president spoke, a sign rose from the audience. ‘We are Q,’ it read. Another poster displayed text arranged in a ‘Q’ pattern: ‘Where we go one we go all.’ ”

The group, born on Internet message boards such as Reddit and 8Chan, is a close cousin to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that led a gunman to open fire in a D.C. restaurant last year. The Huffington Post’s Andy Campbell described it as a mishmash: “It’s every conspiracy, all at once, an orchestra tune-up of theories.”

And although the group has staged public events in recent months, Tuesday night’s Trump rally was its real coming-out party.

What’s particularly troubling about QAnon’s embrace of Trump rallies is its love for armed conflict and quasi-military associations: This crowd likes guns. [Continue reading…]

The liar’s dividend, and other challenges of deep-fake news

Paul Chadwick writes:

Do the notes taken by the interpreters at the recent Helsinki summit include the words “Snowden” and “swap”? We could ask the Russians to check their (assumed) audio recording and let us all know whether Presidents Trump and Putin discussed such a prospect during their long private chat. Trump wrong-footing his own country’s intelligence community by delivering their most-wanted, Edward Snowden, seems precisely the trolling that Putin would enjoy.

What else might leak soon, in the form of audio of the authentic voices of two familiar public figures speaking to each other through the only other people in the room, the US interpreter and her Russian counterpart? What other mischief could be coming in this dawning era of astonishingly realistic “deep fakes”?

Artificial intelligence is becoming more proficient at using genuine audio and video to help create fake audio and video in which people appear to say or do what they have not said or done. Celebrities seeming to read aloud their own tweets and fake video of Barack Obama are two examples. Some developers indicate awareness of the ethical implications.

The issues are analysed in a new draft paper, Deep Fakes: A Looming Challenge for Privacy, Democracy and National Security, by two US law professors. Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron unflinchingly yet constructively explain the potential harms to individuals and societies – for example to reputations, elections, commerce, security, diplomacy and journalism – and suggest ways the problem can be ameliorated, through technology, law, government action and market initiatives. The paper reflects and respects both experience and scholarship, a style familiar from the Lawfare blog that Chesney co-founded. The specifics in the paper are mostly American but its relevance is global. Deep fakes are aided by the quick, many-to-many spread of information, especially in social media, and by human traits such as biases, attraction to what’s novel and negative, and our comfort in our filter bubbles. [Continue reading…]

Facebook and YouTube give Alex Jones a wrist slap

The New York Times reports:

The digital walls are closing in on Alex Jones, the social media shock jock whose penchant for right-wing conspiracy theories and viral misinformation set off a heated debate about the limits of free speech on internet platforms.

Facebook said on Friday that it had suspended Mr. Jones from posting on the site for 30 days because he had repeatedly violated its policies. The social network also took down four videos posted by Mr. Jones and Infowars, the website he oversees.

“We received reports related to four different videos on the pages that Infowars and Alex Jones maintain on Facebook,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. “We reviewed the content against our Community Standards and determined that it violates. All four videos have been removed from Facebook.”

The 30-day ban applies only to Mr. Jones personally, not to Infowars or to any of the other administrators of his Facebook page, which has nearly 1.7 million followers. Those people will still be able to post to Mr. Jones’s page as long as their posts don’t violate the site’s policies — meaning that Mr. Jones could still appear in videos and stories posted to the page as long as he does not post them personally. [Continue reading…]

Jaron Lanier on how social media ruins your life


How social media became a tool of political oppression

Bloomberg reports:

Journalist Nedim Turfent was reporting on a brutal counterterrorism operation in Turkey’s Kurdish region when he published video of soldiers standing over villagers, who were face down with their hands bound. Soon, odd messages seeking Turfent’s whereabouts began appearing on his Facebook page.

Then, Twitter accounts linked to Turkish counterterrorism units joined in, taunting locals with a single question—“Where is Nedim Turfent?”—as soldiers torched and raided more villages.

The threat was clear: Give him up, or you’re the next target.

That was in the spring of 2016. Within days, Turfent was in the military’s hands, and he was eventually charged with membership in a terrorist organization. An anonymous Twitter account capped off the social media manhunt by tweeting a picture of Turfent in custody, handcuffed and haggard. Then soldiers doused the office of his employer, Dicle News Agency, with gasoline and set it ablaze. Turfent remains behind bars.

Only a few years after Twitter and Facebook were celebrated as the spark for democratic movements worldwide, states and their proxies are hatching new forms of digitally enabled suppression that were unthinkable before the age of the social media giants, according to evidence collected from computer sleuths, researchers and documents across more than a dozen countries.

Combining virtual hate mobs, surveillance, misinformation, anonymous threats, and the invasion of victims’ privacy, states and political parties around the globe have created an increasingly aggressive online playbook that is difficult for the platforms to detect or counter.

Some regimes use techniques like those Russia deployed to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, while others are riffing in homegrown ways. And an informal but burgeoning industry of bot brokers and trolls-for-hire has sprung up to assist. The efforts have succeeded in many cases, sending journalists into exile or effectively silencing online expression.

In Venezuela, prospective trolls sign up for Twitter and Instagram accounts at government-sanctioned kiosks in town squares and are rewarded for their participation with access to scarce food coupons, according to Venezuelan researcher Marianne Diaz of the group @DerechosDigitales. A self-described former troll in India says he was given a half-dozen Facebook accounts and eight cell phones after he joined a 300-person team that worked to intimidate opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And in Ecuador, contracting documents detail government payments to a public relations company that set up and ran a troll farm used to harass political opponents. [Continue reading…]

For Facebook, Trump is, above all, a valued customer

BuzzFeed reports:

In the days following Donald Trump’s election victory over Hillary Clinton, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg placed a secret, previously unreported call to the president-elect during which, sources told BuzzFeed News, he congratulated the Trump team on its victory and successful campaign, which spent millions of dollars on advertising with Facebook.

The private call between Zuckerberg and Trump, which was confirmed by three people familiar with the conversation, is just one in a series of private endorsements from Facebook employees of the Trump campaign’s ad efforts on the platform. The company declined to comment on the call. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.

While Facebook has been reluctant to publicly acknowledge how well Trump used its social network to reach voters, it has celebrated the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign internally as one of the most imaginative uses of the company’s powerful advertising platform. In addition to interviews with Trump campaign staffers and former Facebook employees, BuzzFeed News obtained company presentations and memos that show the social media giant viewed Trump’s campaign as an “innovator” of a fast-moving, test-oriented approach to marketing on Facebook.

These memos and presentations indicate Facebook took the methods it learned from the Trump campaign to further refine a marketing model called “Test, Learn, Adapt” (TLA), which it currently uses to assess its own advertising. These internal documents are a candid recognition by Facebook of the GOP candidate’s advertising success and reveal the degree to which the company views Trump not just as a potential regulator or a source of misinformation, but also, above all, a valued customer. [Continue reading…]

How emoji are changing the way we communicate

Wired reports:

Two years ago, Sanjaya Wijeratne—a computer science PhD student at Wright State University—noticed something odd in his research. He was studying the communication of gang members on Twitter. Among the grandstanding about drugs and money, he found gang members repeatedly dropping the ⛽ emoji in their tweets.

Wijeratne had been working on separate research relating to word-sense disambiguation, a field of computational linguistics that looks at how words take on multiple meanings. The use of ⛽ jumped out as a brand new problem. “They were using the gas pump emoji to refer to marijuana,” says Wijeratne. “As soon as I saw this new meaning associated with the emoji, I thought, what about emoji-sense disambiguation?”

That moment caused Wijeratne to redirected his PhD research toward emoji. This week, he put together the first interdisciplinary academic conference on emoji in research.

At Stanford University this week, a collection of linguists, data scientists, computer researchers, and emoji enthusiasts gathered for the International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media, itself a smaller piece of the AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media. They brought with them research on how emoji are changing the way we communicate online, how gender and political affiliation are reproduced online through emoji, and the challenges emoji pose for natural-language processing in computers. The assembled academics also debated basic questions about the nature of emoji: Like, if emoji is something akin to a language, why can’t anyone agree on what individual emoji mean? [Continue reading…]

The escalating hatred faced by journalists

Julie Beck writes:

The majority of Americans do not trust the news media. There are many complex reasons why, and there’s enough blame to go around to many different parties, journalists included. So it’s hardly surprising that they get some rude messages. “But I’m not talking about the rudeness. I’m talking about intimidation,” says Elana Newman, a psychologist who works with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. “I’ve been working for the Dart Center for 20 years in some capacity, and when we used to ask people what the most stressful parts of journalism are, they would talk about the hours, or getting it right. They would talk about all sorts of things. Now what comes up is really this kind of stuff.”

According to research by the psychologist Kelsey Parker in 2015, 63 percent of journalists from several English-speaking countries said they had experienced occupational intimidation in the past 12 months. Globally, almost two-thirds of female journalists “experienced acts of ‘intimidation, threats and abuse’ in relation to their work,” a report from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International News Safety Institute found. Another study, of Swedish journalists, found that a third had experienced a threat in the past year. A far greater number—74 percent—had received “abusive comments which are unpleasant but do not involve any direct threat.”

Journalists have had their families harassed, had their addresses and other personal information published (a practice known as doxxing), and had SWAT teams sent to their houses by trolls.

“Raise your hand if you know (or are) a journalist who has received a death threat in the last year,” Sam Escobar, the deputy director of Allure magazine, tweeted on Thursday after the shooting. The tweet received replies from journalists on every beat imaginable—health, politics, music, gender, tech, beauty—and a cartoonist. [Continue reading…]

News and the forgotten value of waiting

If someone wanted to create a parody of cable news, it would be hard to satirize the form more effectively than to cast Wolf Blitzer as the lead character in a goofy show called The Situation Room, where all news all the time is breaking news.

The irony of the fact that CNN’s news show of that name is, on the contrary, meant to be taken seriously, is that it does indeed capture the zeitgeist of the news media environment in which we now live — an environment, driven largely by social media, that maximizes the value of the nowness of news while eviscerating the value of its content.

News nowadays has such a short shelf-life, it’s already stale before it gets packaged.

The obvious explanation for this state of affairs is that while journalism is and always has been a mad race to get there first, the driving forces behind that race now operate outside the control of traditional news organizations.

Yet that dynamic does not, it seems to me, fully account for what’s going on.

The over amplified urgency of news, mirrors a much broader social malaise. People everywhere, but especially in America, have been conditioned to feel that there is no experience in life more intolerable than having to wait.

To wait is to be tortured by a cavity that urgently demands filling.

Waiting destabilizes the nervous system and seemingly the only way most people can prevent an imminent seizure or some other kind of systemic breakdown these days is by clutching the ubiquitous grounding device upon which everyone now depends: their smart phone — a grounding device that helps each user feel connected by disconnecting them from where they are.

In response to a pandemic of impatience, the news media, like Amazon Prime, caters to and cultivates a sense that waiting is one step away from dying and conversely that a life lived to the full is a life in which we never have to wait — for anything. We want everything now.

In truth, as we lose the capacity to wait, we regress to (or never grow out of) a state of infantilism. Our expectation that everything should be available on demand, far from shaping the perfect life, has instead become an unremitting source of stress.

We have become enslaved by our impatience — there is no liberty in this addiction.

Impatience is the incapacity to find ease in the present moment.

Rather than treating the present as a fertile space in which the unexpected can freely emerge, we demand that it conform to our expectations. We struggle to shape what will be while continuously turning away from what is.

In so doing, we are forever struggling to inhabit a world of our designs, while shielding ourselves from the world in which we live.

Since so much of what passes for news describes circumstances in which people have died, it is strange that questions about life and death somehow fall outside the purview of most journalists — as though cold facts are all that matter.

The shooting at the offices of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, yesterday afternoon illustrate how thinly sliced a story becomes when reduced to a short string of facts — the names of the gunman and his victims, statements from law enforcement, gleanings from social media, and then a robotic presidential response.

Jarrod Warren Ramos will have his day in court, while his random victims have been deprived of theirs. Maybe he’ll dispute the suggestion that his killing spree was random. Strangely, the local police, while emphasizing that their investigation would be slow and thorough, nevertheless went out of their way to dampen speculation that this might be a random attack on journalists incited by Donald Trump and the alt right — as though by describing Ramos’ attack as “targeted,” they had sealed off the crime scene from the media-hostile environment in which it took place.

There may come a day when the full story is told, yet the faster the spinning top of news coverage turns, the smaller the space in which patient storytelling can unfurl.

In our eagerness to consume the news as fast as it comes, like a snake eating itself, we consume our capacity to digest information, ruminate on its meaning and engage the world thoughtfully with reflective minds and open hearts.