Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quits Facebook, calls social media a ‘public health risk’

The Washington Post reports:

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose mastery of social media has helped drive the national conversation and shed light on the inner workings of congressional power, has given up on the most popular social network in the world.

In an interview Sunday with the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery,” the New York Democrat said she stopped using her Facebook account and was scaling back on all social media, which she described as a “public health risk” because it can lead to “increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, escapism.”

Ocasio-Cortez, 29, who burst onto the national stage after defeating a high-ranking incumbent, said her departure from Facebook was a “big deal” because the platform had been crucial to her campaign. She still has accounts on the site, she said, and according to the company’s ad library, her official Facebook account has dozens of active advertisements sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Congress. Among the ads are calls to support her signature Green New Deal, and fundraising pleas to support progressive legislation and to counteract a super PAC aligned against her. [Continue reading…]

Facebook Brexit ads secretly run by staff of Lynton Crosby firm

The Guardian reports:

A series of hugely influential Facebook advertising campaigns that appear to be separate grassroots movements for a no-deal Brexit are secretly overseen by employees of Sir Lynton Crosby’s lobbying company and a former adviser to Boris Johnson, documents seen by the Guardian reveal.

The mysterious groups, which have names such as Mainstream Network and Britain’s Future, appear to be run independently by members of the public and give no hint that they are connected. But in reality they share an administrator who works for Crosby’s CTF Partners and have spent as much as £1m promoting sophisticated targeted adverts aimed at heaping pressure on individual MPs to vote for a hard Brexit.

Repeated questions have been raised about who is backing at least a dozen high-spending groups that have flooded MPs’ inboxes with calls to reject Theresa May’s deal, but until now they were thought to be independent entities.

But according to the documents, almost all the major pro-Brexit Facebook “grassroots” advertising campaigns in the UK share the same page admins or advertisers. These individuals include employees of CTF Partners and the political director of Boris Johnson’s campaigns to be mayor of London, who has worked closely with Crosby in the past.

Their collective Facebook expenditure swamps the amount spent in the last six months by all the UK’s major political parties and the UK government combined. They have paid for thousands of different targeted Facebook ads encouraging members of the public to write to their local MPs and call for the toughest possible exit from the EU, creating the impression of organic public opposition to Theresa May’s deal. [Continue reading…]

How an aging, digitally semi-literate population is reshaping the internet and politics

BuzzFeed reports:

Although many older Americans have, like the rest of us, embraced the tools and playthings of the technology industry, a growing body of research shows they have disproportionately fallen prey to the dangers of internet misinformation and risk being further polarized by their online habits. While that matters much to them, it’s also a massive challenge for society given the outsize role older generations play in civic life, and demographic changes that are increasing their power and influence.

People 65 and older will soon make up the largest single age group in the United States, and will remain that way for decades to come, according to the US Census. This massive demographic shift is occurring when this age group is moving online and onto Facebook in droves, deeply struggling with digital literacy, and being targeted by a wide range of online bad actors who try to feed them fake news, infect their devices with malware, and steal their money in scams. Yet older people are largely being left out of what has become something of a golden age for digital literacy efforts.

Since the 2016 election, funding for digital literacy programs has skyrocketed. Apple just announced a major donation to the News Literacy Project and two related initiatives, and Facebook partners with similar organizations. But they primarily focus on younger demographics, even as the next presidential election grows closer. [Continue reading…]

Attacks by white extremists are growing. So are their connections

The New York Times reports:

In a manifesto posted online before his attack, the gunman who killed 50 last month in a rampage at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, said he drew inspiration from white extremist terrorism attacks in Norway, the United States, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

His references to those attacks placed him in an informal global network of white extremists whose violent attacks are occurring with greater frequency in the West.

An analysis by The New York Times of recent terrorism attacks found that at least a third of white extremist killers since 2011 were inspired by others who perpetrated similar attacks, professed a reverence for them or showed an interest in their tactics.

The connections between the killers span continents and highlight how the internet and social media have facilitated the spread of white extremist ideology and violence.

In one instance, a school shooter in New Mexico corresponded with a gunman who attacked a mall in Munich. Altogether, they killed 11 people. [Continue reading…]

Teens have less face time with their friends – and are lonelier than ever

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Teens aren’t necessarily less social, but the contours of their social lives have changed.

By Jean Twenge, San Diego State University

Ask a teen today how she communicates with her friends, and she’ll probably hold up her smartphone. Not that she actually calls her friends; it’s more likely that she texts them or messages them on social media.

Today’s teens – the generation I call “iGen” that’s also called Gen Z – are constantly connected with their friends via digital media, spending as much as nine hours a day on average with screens.

How might this influence the time they spend with their friends in person?

Some studies have found that people who spend more time on social media actually have more face time with friends.

But studies like this are only looking at people already operating in a world suffused with smartphones. They can’t tell us how teens spent their time before and after digital media use surged.

What if we zoomed out and compared how often previous generations of teens spent time with their friends to how often today’s teens are doing so? And what if we also saw how feelings of loneliness differed across the generations?

To do this, my co-authors and I examined trends in how 8.2 million U.S. teens spent time with their friends since the 1970s. It turns out that today’s teens are socializing with friends in fundamentally different ways – and also happen to be the loneliest generation on record.

[Read more…]

How social media’s business model helped the New Zealand massacre go viral

The Washington Post reports:

The ability of Internet users to spread a video of Friday’s slaughter in New Zealand marked a triumph — however appalling — of human ingenuity over computerized systems designed to block troubling images of violence and hate.

People celebrating the mosque attacks that left 50 people dead were able to keep posting and reposting videos on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter despite the websites’ use of largely automated systems powered by artificial intelligence to block them. Clips of the attack stayed up for many hours and, in some cases, days.

This failure has highlighted Silicon Valley’s struggles to police platforms that are massively lucrative yet also persistently vulnerable to outside manipulation despite years of promises to do better.

Friday’s uncontrolled spread of horrific videos — a propaganda coup for those espousing hateful ideologies — also raised questions about whether social media can be made safer without undermining business models that rely on the speed and volume of content uploaded by users worldwide. In Washington and Silicon Valley, the incident crystallized growing concerns about the extent to which government and market forces have failed to check the power of social media.

“It’s an uncontrollable digital Frankenstein,” said Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. [Continue reading…]

White nationalism is an international threat

Patrick Strickland writes:

In Australia, whence the [Christchurch massacre] suspect [Brenton Tarrant] hails, the rise in unabashed Islamophobia has buoyed far-right and ultra-nationalist movements in recent years. The country’s broad far-right category includes “several very different groups positioned on an ideological spectrum of extremism from conservative anti-immigration, anti-Islam groups to far-right neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, generally racist, white supremacy groups,” a group of Griffith University criminologists wrote in 2016.

Many of these groups nurture relationships with international counterparts, stretching from Greece’s Golden Dawn, a violent neo-Nazi outfit currently on trial for operating a criminal organization, to anti-Muslim hucksters in the United Kingdom and the U.S. In 2018, U.K. Islamophobe Tommy Robinson and former Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes, known for urging his followers to attack anti-fascists in the streets, managed to sell tickets for up to around $750 a head for a planned five-event December speaking tour of Australia. (It was postponed when Robinson planned a conflicting Brexit protest.) “The Australian far right draws inspiration from overseas groups in the U.S. and U.K. trying to form local chapters,” sociologist Joshua Roose told Australian broadcaster SBS in November. “However, other groups formed organically in Australia. And they mostly formed in past three years.”

These international links were on full display in the violence in Christchurch. Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) president Richard Cohen observed as much in a statement Friday, warning that the manifesto “bears the unmistakable fingerprints of the so-called alt-right, both in tone and reference.” On Twitter, SPLC journalist Michael Edison Hayden pointed out that the same meme posted on the cover of the manifesto had been promoted by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke last month.

The symbols and slogans emblazoned on the killer’s weapon also pointed to the global nature of neo-fascism and white nationalism. Written in white on the suspect’s guns were the Greek word for “Turk eater” and the number fourteen, an apparent reference to the “Fourteen Words,” a white nationalist mantra coined by David Lane.

President Trump condemned the Christchurch attacks, but his administration has spent the last three years emboldening white nationalists and neo-Nazis, cracking down on left-wing activists, and mainstreaming anti-immigration conspiracy theories tinged with anti-Semitic undertones not dissimilar to those promulgated by Tarrant. In October, the president addressed an audience of supporters at a campaign rally in Houston, Texas. He prompted “USA!” chants from the crowd when he declared himself a “nationalist” fighting against “power-hungry globalists.”

During the 2018 midterm elections, Trump maligned a U.S.-bound caravan of refugees and migrants as an “invasion,” a conspiracy theory repeated by white nationalist Robert Bowers when he gunned down worshippers at a Pittsburg synagogue last November. The Christchurch shooter used eerily similar language in a blog post on Thursday: “I will carry out an attack against the invaders,” he wrote, apparently referring to Muslim immigrants. [Continue reading…]

Facebook faces fresh questions over when it knew of data harvesting

The Observer reports:

Facebook is facing explosive new questions about when senior executives knew of Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of users’ data, one year on from when the scandal first broke, as federal prosecutors investigate claims that the social media giant has covered up the extent of its relationship with the firm.

The Observer has also learned that a Facebook board member and confidant of its CEO Mark Zuckerberg met Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, in the summer of 2016 just as the data firm started working for the Trump campaign.

Facebook has repeatedly refused to say when its senior executives, including Zuckerberg, learned of how Cambridge Analytica had used harvested data from millions of people across the world to target them with political messages without their consent. But Silicon Valley insiders have told the Observer that Facebook board member Marc Andreessen, the founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and one of the most influential people in Silicon Valley, attended a meeting with Wylie held in Andreessen Horowitz’s office two years before he came forward as a whistleblower. [Continue reading…]

Speed kills

When Evan Williams created Blogger and triggered the social media revolution of push-button publishing, an unquestioned presupposition underpinning the creation of the platform was that there was inherent value in reducing the temporal distance between authorship and publication.

Supposedly, if anyone, anywhere, could broadcast their words to the world without any barriers standing in the way, this would represent the greatest leap forward in communication since Gutenberg.

That turns out to have been a false presupposition for several reasons.

What from one perspective might look like communication barriers, turn out more often to function as de facto forms of quality control.

Back in the 1400s, when Johannes Gutenberg created movable type, he opened the door to mass communication in a way that the handwritten manuscript would never allow, but this still involved filtered access. The time, effort, and cost required in typesetting and printing necessitated the application of some notion of what was worthy for print and what text might retain its value as durably as its binding.

Social media has not only removed the barriers to mass communication; just as significantly, it has removed or corroded many of the internal filters that would otherwise inhibit the public expression of private experiences. At the same time as expanding the spheres of communication, it has helped dump into those spheres a landfill of babble and vitriol.

Social media has fueled a contagious desire for being heard and seen, creating a rush onto a public stage where presence takes on more importance than performance.

Worst of all, the pathological effect of narrowing the gap between thought and expression is that belief, through its effortless immediacy, is erasing the willingness to engage in the quiet and sometimes arduous work of reflection.

Arguably, people have always found it easier to believe than to think. What is new, is that communities of opinion are now emerging in which incoherent amalgams of beliefs can be bound together and sustained in echo chambers that give succor to feeble minds oblivious to the mishmash.

In the strange terrain of social media it’s possible to believe in a flat earth and climate change; to marvel at DNA while rejecting evolution; and to construct the perverse ideology of an “anti-imperialist eco-fascist.”

Thus out of the swamps of online bigotry there emerges with increasing frequency the likes of Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch gunman.

Today, the social media giants are once again in damage control, issuing statements about doing everything in their power to prevent the promotion of hatred even when acts of violence have been conceived and carried out as social media events.

At this point, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are sounding increasingly like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds — purveyors of products that their makers insist don’t harm most users. How many massacres will be too many?

In the libertarian world of social media, freedom is another name for lack of accountability. From boardrooms down to individual users, there is a deficit of social responsibility — corporate responsibility and personal responsibility.

The reluctance of the social media corporations to confront the monster they have created hinges on a single fact: any measure that diminishes the volume and speed of online interactions will diminish advertising revenue.

Social media capitalizes on maximizing the reactivity of its users.

But suppose that the pursuit of profit was not the sole guiding principle in the operations of Facebook et al. There is one very simple technical measure that would serve these platforms well (and also could have applications in other digital environments, such as automated stock market trading): continuous forced delays.

Instead of insisting that speed has inherent value, we need to recognize that there are countless situations where there is greater value in having to wait.

Having to wait, opens a space for second thoughts and second thoughts often have more depth than their impulsive precursors.

Suppose that each time you hit share/tweet/send/publish, you then had to wait 60 seconds for anything to happen.

Which of these online communications is actually so urgent that it cannot bear the strain of behind withheld just for a minute?

Wait a minute is a well-worn phrase for good reason: it encapsulates a timeless truth. Life needs to be punctuated with pauses.

Were we all forced to wait a minute and during that interval have the opportunity to retract our own words, how much venom, bile, and vacuous chatter might be aborted before it got inflicted on friends and strangers through social media?

The times online when we must speak now or forever hold our peace are almost non-existent. (With the rare exceptions where seconds do count – like sharing a tsunami warning – a temporary technical override on the one-minute delay wouldn’t be difficult to implement.)

If everyone’s speech was being tethered in the same way, no one would be disadvantaged.

The cultural ramifications for this paradigm shift in the way we are conditioned to value time — recognizing that in so many ways, slower can be better than faster — could (there’s a small chance) begin to break the spell of technical innovation.

For so long, commerce has insisted that speed improves, extends, and expands life, even while experience consistently points in the opposite direction.

Slowing down may be the only way we can start to reclaim life and no longer remain enslaved to fictitious technological imperatives.

‘Everything we say to try to tear people apart, demonize particular groups, set them against each other, that all has consequences’