At a Facebook content moderation site, one contractor has died, and others say they fear for their lives

Casey Newton reports:

Keith Utley loved to help.

First, he served in the Coast Guard, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. He married, had a family, and devoted himself utterly to his two little girls. After he got out of the military, he worked as a moderator for Facebook, where he purged the social network of the worst stuff that its users post on a daily basis: the hate speech, the murders, the child pornography.

Utley worked the overnight shift at a Facebook content moderation site in Tampa, FL, operated by a professional services vendor named Cognizant. The 800 or so workers there face relentless pressure from their bosses to better enforce the social network’s community standards, which receive near-daily updates that leave its contractor workforce in a perpetual state of uncertainty. The Tampa site has routinely failed to meet the 98 percent “accuracy” target set by Facebook. In fact, with a score that has been hovering around 92, it is Facebook’s worst-performing site in North America.

The stress of the job weighed on Utley, according to his former co-workers, who, like all Facebook contractors at the Tampa site, must sign a 14-page nondisclosure agreement.

“The stress they put on him — it’s unworldly,” one of Utley’s managers told me. “I did a lot of coaching. I spent some time talking with him about things he was having issues seeing. And he was always worried about getting fired.”

On the night of March 9th, 2018, Utley slumped over at his desk. Co-workers noticed that he was in distress when he began sliding out of his chair. Two of them began to perform CPR, but no defibrillator was available in the building. A manager called for an ambulance.

The Cognizant site in Tampa is set back from the main road in an office park, and between the dim nighttime lighting and discreet exterior signage, the ambulance appears to have had trouble finding the building. Paramedics arrived 13 minutes after the first call, one worker told me, and when they did, Utley had already begun to turn blue.

Paramedics raced Utley to a hospital. At Cognizant, some employees were distraught — one person told me he passed by one of the site’s designated “tranquility rooms” and found one of his co-workers, a part-time preacher, praying loudly in tongues. Others ignored the commotion entirely, and continued to moderate Facebook posts as the paramedics worked.

Utley was pronounced dead a short while later at the hospital, the victim of a heart attack. Further information about his health history, or the circumstances of his death, could not be learned. He left behind a wife, Joni, and two young daughters. He was 42 years old.

On Monday morning, workers on the day shift were informed that there had been an incident, and they began collecting money to buy a card and send flowers. But some site leaders did not initially tell workers that Utley had died, and instructed managers not to discuss his death, current and former employees told me.

“Everyone at leadership was telling people he was fine — ‘oh, he’ll be okay,’” one co-worker recalled. “They wanted to play it down. I think they were worried about people quitting with the emotional impact it would have.”

But the illusion shattered later that day, when Utley’s father, Ralph, came to the site to gather his belongings. He walked into the building and, according to a co-worker I spoke to, said: “My son died here.” [Continue reading…]

With cryptocurrency launch, Facebook sets its path toward becoming an independent nation

The world’s newest country?
railway fx/Shutterstock.com

By Jennifer Grygiel, Syracuse University

Facebook has announced a plan to launch a new cryptocurrency named the Libra, adding another layer to its efforts to dominate global communications and business. Backed by huge finance and technology companies including Visa, Spotify, eBay, PayPal and Uber – plus a ready-made user base of 2 billion people around the world – Facebook is positioned to pressure countries and central banks to cooperate with its reinvention of the global financial system.

In my view as a social media researcher and educator, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is clearly seeking to give his company even more political power on a global scale, despite the potential dangers to society at large. In a sense, he is declaring that he wants Facebook to become a virtual nation, populated by users, powered by a self-contained economy, and headed by a CEO – Zuckerberg himself – who is not even accountable to his shareholders.

Facebook hasn’t behaved responsibly in the past, and is still wrestling with significant public concerns – and investigations – about its privacy practices, information accuracy and targeted advertising. Therefore, it’s important to see through the hype. People must consider who is reshaping the world, and whether they are doing it in the best interests of humankind – or whether they are just seeking to benefit the new class of elite technology executives.

[Read more…]

Facebook’s path to global domination: Take over the internet, then the world’s financial system

Thomas Claburn writes:

Facebook – the global ad business pilloried repeatedly over the past 15 years for privacy disasters – on Tuesday announced a scheme to allow account holders to buy credits and spend the digitized funds online through a network of partners, under a “strong commitment to privacy.”

The antisocial network’s blockchain-tracked currency, Libra, will reside in a digital wallet named for the company’s newly formed financial services subsidiary Calibra. This coin-storing code will be available initially in WhatsApp and Messenger and as a standalone app for Android and iOS next year, the Silicon Valley goliath says.

Skepticism of what might be described as “Facebank” is high. “It is frankly baffling to me that a company with a massive data privacy problem launched a non-private global currency,” said Matthew Green, associate professor of computer science at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute in the US, via Twitter.


Some people may be giving Facebook, which this year suffered a corporation-wide 14-hour outage, too much credit…


The e-IOU notes are backed by actual financial assets, collectively known as the Libra Reserve, which will allow the digital funny money to be converted to local fiat currencies. It’s not pegged to a single currency, however, so its value with regard to other currencies will fluctuate, a fact that will invite ruthless currency arbitrage. [Continue reading…]

Matt Levine writes:

Central banks are mysterious, and banks are widely mistrusted, and there is a popular and not unreasonable sense that the banking system gives special privileges to favored insiders in unfair and inegalitarian and politicized ways. Cryptocurrency disintermediates banks and governments and traditional favored incumbents, and rests the power to create money in a form of direct social consensus. It is, crypto advocates say, the most powerful democratizing force since the internet.

But, you know … look at the internet. In a real, true, important sense, the internet is decentralized and libertarian and empowering; the architecture of the internet is not controlled by any government or corporation, and everyone can access and build on it. But in another, also quite real, sense, the internet has been a powerful tool for the centralizing of power. There are a zillion websites but you find them using Google; anyone can publish on the internet but you get your news from Facebook; anyone can sell anything on the internet but mostly you buy stuff from Amazon; email is a free and open protocol but you use Gmail. The democratizing effect of the internet’s openness and decentralization is counteracted by its vast economies of scale and network effects, which tend to concentrate power in a few big winners.

Basically the point here is that if you replace the traditional social-regulatory technology of money creation with a new sort of computer technology of money creation, odds are that the power of money creation will end up not so much in the hands of free-spirited individual hackers around the world, but in the hands of some giant tech company.

In this case, Facebook Inc.:

Facebook Inc. unveiled plans for a new cryptocurrency that the social-media giant hopes will one day trade on a global scale much like the U.S. dollar.

Called Libra, the new currency will launch as soon as next year and be what’s known as a stablecoin — a digital currency that’s supported by established government-backed currencies and securities. The goal is to avoid massive fluctuations in value so Libra can be used for everyday transactions in a way that more volatile crypotcurrencies, like Bitcoin, haven’t been.

Libra is the culmination of a year-long effort to devise an easy way for Facebook users to send and receive money through its messaging services.

Oh yeah. Here’s the white paper describing Libra, and here are some ancillary papers about its blockchain and its programming language and its cash reserve and its compliance policies. Everything is at a pretty high level of generality—you can’t go out and buy a Libra today—but I suppose we have to talk about some specifics anyway.

So, first, Libra will be a “stablecoin,” in the sense that its value will be pinned to conventional financial assets. Unlike most stablecoins, though, it will be pinned to a basket “of low-volatility assets, including bank deposits and government securities” in different currencies, so it won’t consistently be worth one dollar or one euro or anything else. “As the value of Libra will be effectively linked to a basket of fiat currencies, from the point of view of any specific currency, there will be fluctuations in the value of Libra.”

This strikes me as very annoying, but it has some obvious advantages for Facebook/Libra. For one thing, they’ll only need to manage one general Libra, rather than having different stablecoins corresponding to different national currencies. For another thing, if Libra gains widespread acceptance, its lack of one-to-one correspondence will give it a tendency to displace national currencies. If you mostly spend dollars, and Libra is always going up and down against the dollar, that will be annoying and you won’t want as many Libras. But if you mostly spend Libras—if Facebook is successful at making this the main currency of the internet—then that dynamic will reverse. If the dollar is always going up and down against the Libra, that will be annoying and you’ll want more Libras. The dollar will start to seem unstable and useless. If you buy most things online, and if everything online is priced in Libras, then you’ll end up living your life denominated in Libras, and only converting your Libras into dollars on your occasional touristic visits to the physical world. The goal is for Libra to be more useful than any national currency, accepted in more places and with fewer complications; pegging it to a single national currency would only hold it back. [Continue reading…]

YouTube’s new policy on hate speech risks increasing ignorance about fascism

The Guardian reports:

YouTube has blocked some British history teachers from its service for uploading archive material related to Adolf Hitler, saying they are breaching new guidelines banning the promotion of hate speech.

The video-sharing website announced on Wednesday that it would remove material glorifying the Nazis from its platform in an attempt to stop people being radicalised. In the process however, it also deleted videos uploaded to help educate future generations about the risks of fascism.

Scott Allsop, who owns the longrunning MrAllsopHistory revision website and teaches at an international school in Romania, had his channel featuring hundreds of historical clips on topics ranging from the Norman conquest to the cold war deleted for breaching the rules that ban hate speech.

“It’s absolutely vital that YouTube work to undo the damage caused by their indiscriminate implementation as soon as possible,” said Allsop. “Access to important material is being denied wholesale as many other channels are left branded as promoting hate when they do nothing of the sort.”

While previous generations of history students relied on teachers playing old documentaries recorded on VHS tapes on a classroom television, they now use YouTube to show raw footage of the Nazis and famous speeches by Hitler. [Continue reading…]

Russian disinformation on YouTube draws ads, lacks warning labels, say researchers

Reuters reports:

Fourteen Russia-backed YouTube channels spreading disinformation have been generating billions of views and millions of dollars in advertising revenue, according to researchers, and had not been labeled as state-sponsored, contrary to the world’s most popular streaming service’s policy.

The channels, including news outlets NTV and Russia-24, carried false reports ranging from a U.S. politician covering up a human organ harvesting ring to the economic collapse of Scandinavian countries. Despite such content, viewers have flocked to the channels and U.S. and European companies have bought ads that run alongside them.

The previously unpublished research by Omelas, a Washington-based firm that tracks online extremism for defense contractors, provides the most comprehensive view yet of the Russian government’s success in attracting viewers and generating revenue from propaganda on YouTube, which has 2 billion monthly viewers worldwide. [Continue reading…]

Facebook is an enemy of the effort to avert catastrophic climate change, scientists say

Joe Romm reports:

ThinkProgress asked some experts what Facebook’s latest actions mean for the national conversation on climate change.

“Facebook is complicit in spreading outright falsehoods and misinforming the public about matters of public concern,” environmental sociologist Robert Brulle wrote in an email. The company’s “refusal to take down this blatant distortion of Speaker Pelosi shows that they are an irresponsible actor, and contributing to the decline of public discourse.”

Brulle explained that Facebook’s actions are particularly disastrous since there are so many issues critical to public well-being that require an accurately informed public, such as vaccinations and climate change.

[Michael] Mann, who is director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, was equally blunt. “This shows that Facebook is in fact complicit with bad actors seeking to spread disinformation throughout the internet,” he said. “We must view them now as another tool in the toolbox used by fossil fuel interests and plutocrats to confuse the public and policymakers.”

Because Facebook refuses to be a responsible actor, Brulle concluded, “Senator Elizabeth Warren is right — it is time to break up Facebook.” [Continue reading…]

Twitter is eroding your intelligence. Now there’s data to prove it

The Washington Post reports:

Twitter, used by 126 million people daily and now ubiquitous in some industries, has vowed to reform itself after being enlisted as a tool of misinformation and hate.

But new evidence shows that the platform may be inflicting harm at an even more basic level. It could be making its users, well, a bit witless.

The finding by a team of Italian researchers is not necessarily that the crush of hashtags, likes and retweets destroys brain cells; that’s a question for neuroscientists, they said.

Rather, the economists, in a working paper published this month by the economics and finance department at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, found that Twitter not only fails to enhance intellectual attainment but substantially undermines it. [Continue reading…]

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…]