Facebook’s role in Brexit — and the threat to democracy

 

 

How the far right spread politically convenient lies about the Notre Dame fire

Talia Lavin writes:

As a conflagration spread through the ancient timbers of Notre Dame Cathedral’s attic on Monday, a parallel fire was spreading on social media. This one was willfully set, a series of conspiracy theories neatly slotted into preexisting cultural biases. And soon enough, willing believers were aflame with hate.

The conspiracy theorizing began almost as soon as the blaze did, right when people saw the shocking, transfixing video of the cathedral’s spire toppling. While French authorities began to assert almost immediately that the fire was apparently accidental, the brief gap between the startling images’ generation and their explication was enough for far-right figures to exploit with their own sinister insinuations. Their prevailing view was nearly identical and, apparently, completely false: that the fire was deliberate and most probably set by Muslims.

Conservative gadflies on social media were among the first to leap to dark conclusions about the blaze, even as it raged: Matt Walsh, a conservative blogger who identifies himself as a “theocratic fascist” in his Twitter bio, wrote, “I don’t understand how a fire of this magnitude could happen accidentally,” accumulating nearly 9,000 likes. Infowars, a conspiracy-oriented outlet helmed by Alex Jones, immediately publicized unverified rumors claiming the fire had been “deliberately started” and linking the blaze to “anti-Christian attacks.” Katie Hopkins, a racist British provocateur, was far more explicit, claiming that “Jewish and Christian Parisians” are being “hunted out of the city by Islamists, fleeing in their thousands,” and affixing the hashtag #NotreDame. [Continue reading…]

15 months of fresh hell inside Facebook

Wired reports:

The streets of Davos, Switzerland, were iced over on the night of January 25, 2018, which added a slight element of danger to the prospect of trekking to the Hotel Seehof for George Soros’ annual banquet. The aged financier has a tradition of hosting a dinner at the World Economic Forum, where he regales tycoons, ministers, and journalists with his thoughts about the state of the world. That night he began by warning in his quiet, shaking Hungarian accent about nuclear war and climate change. Then he shifted to his next idea of a global menace: Google and Facebook. “Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment,” he said. “The owners of the platform giants consider themselves the masters of the universe, but in fact they are slaves to preserving their dominant position … Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered.”

Across town, a group of senior Facebook executives, including COO Sheryl Sandberg and vice president of global communications Elliot Schrage, had set up a temporary headquarters near the base of the mountain where Thomas Mann put his fictional sanatorium. The world’s biggest companies often establish receiving rooms at the world’s biggest elite confab, but this year Facebook’s pavilion wasn’t the usual scene of airy bonhomie. It was more like a bunker—one that saw a succession of tense meetings with the same tycoons, ministers, and journalists who had nodded along to Soros’ broadside.

Over the previous year Facebook’s stock had gone up as usual, but its reputation was rapidly sinking toward junk bond status. The world had learned how Russian intelligence operatives used the platform to manipulate US voters. Genocidal monks in Myanmar and a despot in the Philippines had taken a liking to the platform. Mid-level employees at the company were getting both crankier and more empowered, and critics everywhere were arguing that Facebook’s tools fostered tribalism and outrage. That argument gained credence with every utterance of Donald Trump, who had arrived in Davos that morning, the outrageous tribalist skunk at the globalists’ garden party. [Continue reading…]

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

File 20190319 60956 6picsy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Teens aren’t necessarily less social, but the contours of their social lives have changed.
pxhere

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…]