Is Facebook going the way of Bell? Don’t bet on it

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America’s industrial scene has long been marked by monopolies – and by government, attempts to break them and ensure fair trade. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, once the world’s largest oil company, found itself facing that economic reality in 1911 when the Senate at last succeeded in an anti-trust lawsuit. With Facebook in the crosshairs from both sides of the political aisle, there have been suggestions that the social media giant might be just be too big to stand as well. As South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham argued to Mark Zuckerberg over his two day hearing on Capitol Hill, Facebook’s spread across apps and platforms makes it feel discomfortingly close to a monopoly (even if Zuckerberg feels otherwise).

Yet in the tech industry, there’s a better example of a monopoly which escaped the hatchet: Bell Systems, which for over a century held sway over American telephony. Unlike Standard Oil, which had sought to fight the government, Bell was smart enough to ask to be regulated. In return for cutting off parts of their enterprise, they got to maintain their monopoly until 1983. Not bad going, all things considered.

A government-regulated monopoly on Facebook would be beneficial for both parties. Facebook would get to keep on keeping out the competition. The US government would be able to have the peace of mind that they were regulating the biggest source of their citizens’ data outside of their own servers. And that’s not even considering that regulation would almost certainly offer a backdoor for accessing said data for national security purposes.

There’s also that fact that regulation avoids one danger of a break-up: strengthening Chinese tech companies. That was seen as such a trump card that it made its way onto the notes that Zuckerberg brought to the first day of his hearing. It’s a fair point, perfectly played to America’s policymakers with their endless references to Facebook as an ‘American company’. Given the lack of a Western competitor, China’s all-in-one WeChat (artificially grown in a state capitalist vacuum) could have the utility and the clout to take over at least some of Facebook’s roles. For US politicians, the idea of a company with close links to China’s government is probably even less appealing than a company with dubious links to Russia’s.

Of course, Bell was dealing with telephones and telegrams: simpler technology, and far easier for a government to wrap its head around than social media, data protection, leaks, and so on. The level of technical expertise on offer at Zuckerberg’s hearings in the States, in general, has not been the most impressive. What form the regulation would take is also difficult to see: perhaps monitoring of the types of data shared with third parties and available to Facebook employees themselves.

That still leaves the question of political division. Whilst concerns about Facebook are shared across the spectrum, the reasons for those concerns are not. Democratic politicians attacked Zuckerberg largely on Russian interference and the use of the site’s advertising platform for discrimination. Republicans routinely claimed that conservatives were being censored, with live-bloggers Diamond and Silk repeatedly being presented to Zuckerberg as victims of his site’s liberal agenda. Moving towards a consensus – beyond agreeing that Facebook has made a colossal blunder – seems almost inconceivable.

And finally, there’s the fact that this should have been a chance to grill a man in charge of the company which handed over immense amounts of data to dubious researchers and even more shady firms – whilst instead, we got more than a little bonhomie. Between the struggles of lawmakers to actually understand what Facebook does, and the rare cases of tough questioning that didn’t allow Zuckerberg to return to his script, there was far too much bonhomie: asides asking for rural internet, offering top tips for recruiting spots, even the outrageous attempt to curry favour by stating that Zuckerberg’s alma mater in Westchester, New York, was proud of him. In what were nominally occasions in which Mark Zuckerberg was to be cut down to size, America’s politicians made clear Big Tech’s immense staying power. The lure of an industry which offers jobs and money – and re-election – was too big, apparently.

Facebook has, for a long time, not been a product which people show real excitement about. Millennials, the hip generation for platforms, have increasingly voted with their feet or are vocal that they view it as a tool for keeping in touch with family. And yet, despite all the bad press and Silicon Valley screw-ups, the site has continued to hold on and grow. The immense fines from GDPR might hurt it enough to force a rethink of redirection, but don’t expect action from America’s politicians, too in thrall to the seductive power, money, and jobs of Big Tech.

#DeleteFacebook Isn’t About Data Security

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In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook might actually be in trouble. The #DeleteFacebook hashtag is trending, and it’s seen some unlikely contributors, like Blink 182 singer Mark Hoppus, and Brian Acton, the co-founder of WhatsApp, which was itself sold to Facebook. Meanwhile, Facebook stock has dropped by 10% this week so far. The FTC has announced that it’s opening an investigation into Facebook’s business practices, to determine whether Facebook violated its user agreement, an infraction which would come with a hefty fine. Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t made a public statement about the matter yet, but he’s been summoned by the UK Parliament. The bad news keeps piling up.

The obvious question is whether Facebook will survive, after whatever punitive measures are dispensed. And, while it’s possible that it won’t, it’s difficult to imagine how its extinction would come about. Its users could always leave, but there’s very little individual incentive to do that, and, given that a third of the world uses Facebook, getting everybody to quit would represent a massive coordination problem. Therefore, unless Facebook is banned outright, or somehow sued into oblivion, it seems likely that it will persist, if in some sort of regulated or otherwise curtailed form.

The less obvious question is: why now? This is by no means the only data scandal that Facebook has been embroiled in. Any intelligent consumer of digital media knows very well that Facebook is harnessing their personal data, and that such data has been treated carelessly before, and used for somewhat nefarious ends. Probably the most striking example came in 2014, when PNAS published a study by researchers who quite literally played with the emotions of Facebook users to find experimental evidence of Internet-based emotional contagion. More recently, earlier in March, it was revealed that Facebook’s researchers had told advertisers that it had figured out how to identify whether its teenage users were feeling desperate or depressed—and that this could be worthwhile marketing data. Given all of this, it’s clear that data security isn’t the primary force driving #DeleteFacebook.

It’s much more plausible that what’s behind the media conflagration isn’t data security itself, but rather the involvement of Donald Trump. Some have claimed that Cambridge Analytica was responsible for Trump’s election, having provided his campaign with personal data about voters that (maybe) offered unprecedented psychologiccal leverage, revealing which precise people could be viably targeted by propaganda. If you’re anti-Trump, and you believe this, then your beloved social network has unwittingly engaged in a large-scale erosion of democracy, which is to say, a technologically-driven coup by a candidate you don’t like.

This may not even be the case, by the way. The person who’s most loudly proclaimed that Cambridge Analytica was responsible for the election’s outcome is the now-suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix. Ted Cruz’s campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, obviously didn’t win the election, and, as David A. Graham of the Atlantic reports, “found that CA’s products didn’t work very well, and complained that it was paying for a service that the company hadn’t yet built.” Corroborating this view is Kenneth Vogel, a New York Times reporter from their Washington Bureau, who recently Tweeted that Cambridge Analytica “…was (&is) an overpriced service that delivered little value to the TRUMP campaign.” He went on to claim that campaigns only signed up to secure access to the Mercer family—a rich line of big-time Republican donors—being that they’re major CA investors.

To sum up: Cambridge Analytica is only one of many organizations which have used personal Facebook data in a sinister manner, and its use of that data might have actually been inconsequential. If this is the case, #DeleteFacebook offers a clear lesson to tech companies, which is that it’s not actually important whether your product or service unscrupulously surveils its users. It’s more important to ensure that your company doesn’t give its data to anybody particularly unpopular, especially if they end up getting elected. If you sell your data to relatively unproblematic clients, you’ll probably be okay.

There is No Solution to the Problem of “Fake News”

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In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the term “fake news”, seldom heard previously, became ubiquitous. This was, of course, no coincidence: the unexpected victory of Donald Trump cried out for an explanation, and invoking the concept was one such attempt by the president’s many critics, who could not bring themselves to face the possibility that he won fairly. As one conservative commentator saw it, “just as progressive ideas were being rejected by voters across the western world, the media suddenly discovered a glitch which explained why. Fake news is the new false consciousness.” But the dissemination of disinformation and propaganda is as old civilization itself. The internet is merely a new means of spreading these, and even then, not especially new. Consider, for instance, the anti-vaccination and “9/11 truth” movements of the preceding decades, and the role played by the internet in amplifying the noises of otherwise small groups of dedicated ideologues or charlatans. So we are still left wondering: why only in the last few years has the term “fake news” entered public discourse?

A possible answer is that the point has been reached at which traditional purveyors of news feel that they no longer have control over broader narratives. Their sounding of the alarm over “fake news” is thus a desperate rallying cry in order to regain this control. Some have drawn an analogy to the invention of the printing press in the 16th century, which also revolutionized the spread of information and led to the Protestant Reformation (and of course, disinformation, such as exaggerated accounts of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition). From this perspective, it is futile to resist the changing ways in which information spreads. One must adapt or die. In many ways, Donald Trump, who began his presidency fighting off a cascade of “fake news” allegations, including about such petty matters as the size of his inauguration crowd, has done a better job of adapting to the new informational eco-system. Twitter, with its 280–until recently, only 140–character limit, has turned out to be the perfect medium for a president with a reportedly short attention span. He also uses it to bypass the mainstream media in order to reach the public directly with his own message or narrative. And the president has masterfully turned the weapon of “fake news” around, aiming it right back at the media. At the end of 2017, his first year in office, he seemed to relish releasing the “The Highly Anticipated Fake News Awards”, a list of misleading or false anti-Trump news stories undermining the media’s insistence that it is impartial.

For all its faults, however, the mainstream media does have a legitimate point about the dangers of “fake news”. There must be an objective standard against which all purveyors of news are held and there does need to be a common set–or at least core–of facts upon which all rational parties in society can agree. But this is easier said than done, and it is far from obvious that there is a “quick fix” solution to this problem that does not merely favor one set of news purveyors over another, based on criteria other than factual accuracy. For example, many in the US fear that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proposed changes to “net neutrality” rules will give a few major companies the ability to speed up, slow down or even block access to certain web addresses or content. Comcast, for instance, is simultaneously the largest television broadcasting company, through its National Broadcasting Company (NBC) channel, and the largest internet service provider in the United States. Should the current FCC chairman’s plans to end “net neutrality” succeed, this will put Comcast in a powerful position to regulate–effectively–much of the online media landscape according to its own financial interests as a news organisation.

Social media companies such as Facebook have come under fire for spreading “fake news.” Although Mark Zuckerberg initially argued that Facebook is a tech platform and not a media company per se, he was eventually forced to concede that whatever he had originally intended the company to be, an increasing number of people around the world did in fact get their news primarily from their Facebook newsfeed and that Facebook therefore had a “a responsibility to create an informed community and help build common understanding”. Behind this corporate newspeak must also lie a very real fear that government regulation of Facebook as a media company could end up crippling its business model. If Facebook could be held liable for the spread of false information, it would need to hire thousands of fact checkers to nip this in the bud whenever it occurs, but doing so would be far too costly for the organisation, to say nothing of the practical challenges involved. Thus, it has had to rely on very imperfect “fake news” detection algorithms, and more recently, a deliberate de-emphasis of news altogether, the idea behind this being to return the platform to its original purpose of connecting friends and family.

But it is gradually dawning on many people that the war on “fake news” may be unwinnable. This is because there is no in-principle solution to the age-old philosophical problem of how to know what is true. If anything, this problem has become vastly more difficult now that there is an abundance of information to sort through, presented to us in a non-random–but not necessarily truth-tracking–way. We would all do well, however, to exercise greater skepticism in response to all truth claims, including official ones, such as the vague claim that Russia “hacked the election”. Skepticism does not come naturally to human beings, who are notoriously credulous. One should thus be taught to be skeptical from a young age, and to favor logical consistency and empirical evidence over other considerations when evaluating competing truth claims. This approach falls well short of a real solution, but it may help us individually and collectively to navigate the treacherous ocean of information in which we find ourselves. Hopefully, we will find ways of adjusting to our current information environment and a new equilibrium will emerge from the informational chaos. Cronycle is one platform that is ahead of the curve in this respect: it not only recognizes the problem of information overload, but provides its users with useful tools for finding the trustworthy, high quality content out there in the Wild, Wild Web.

Big Tech’s gamble is wearing thin – and why that’s bad news for us

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It’s now 22 years since Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act came into force: a landmark case even in 1996. It meant that those hosting information on the then nascent internet were not to be treated as “publisher or speaker” of any of that information. This made perfect sense at the time, when the internet remained a small curiosity, and in which it was fair to assume that small, practically amateur companies would have had difficulty managing to scan all the content they were hosting (the early giants like AOL even then seemed like a different story, but that seems by the by now).

Online content – and the avenues in which it is created and uploaded and perhaps most importantly, disseminated – has only grown since then. We are past Web 2.0, with its blogs and microblogs, and into the Internet of Things – and yet we are plagued with some very pre-digital problems online: child abuse, and terror, and defamation (admittedly in new forms, such as revenge porn). The tech industry’s answer has usually been to shrug when confronted with this sort of material. There’s the free speech argument, and then there’s the legal backing which legislation like Section 230 (and its national/regional equivalents) offer.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech at Davos stands in rude contrast to this civil libertarian ethos. This is not a shock: May views the internet as another sphere which requires total government control and regulation, a mere expansion of the offline world. This is not a new view, and it’s one rooted both in government over-reach, and in a complete lack of technical knowledge. Consider Amber Rudd’s desire to combat the evils of encryption without having any understanding of how it works: there’s a rank arrogance to the professional politician which is only matched (fittingly) by that of the big tech company.

The collision course between the two has long been set, but it’s increasingly clear that public opinion has turned against the argument for laissez-faire. Facebook, Twitter et al long assumed that the utility they offered could trump governmental arguments that they should be regulated more heavily. However, a slew of stories about objectionable content – such as terror and borderline child abuse on YouTube, or targeted ads used to support hatred on Facebook – have increasingly eroded this position.

And that’s bad news for users. The current scheme is broken, admittedly (content providers seem to care much more about PR after scandals than actively working on solving major structural problems), but heavy government regulation is concerning at best. At worst, we can expect to see a quiet creep of illiberal regulations under the guise of national security. Lest we see this as too much of a conspiracy, let’s not forget that in the wake of the Snowden revelations, the British government decided to consolidate mass surveillance powers. By failing to self-police, big tech has fundamentally removed its own popular support base, allowing governments which don’t understand technology and which seek to gain more power in the name of national security an open goal.

Content providers and platforms are in no ways victims here – they are equally complicit in what amounts to a rising risk to their users. If they wish to truly avoid over-regulation, they need to move beyond the sort of measures which are patently designed to improve their appearance. Consider YouTube’s plans to fund counter-terror videos: does anyone really believe this will stop someone moving down the path towards radicalisation? A greater emphasis on moderation which goes beyond horribly underpaid contracts (with no support) or crude algorithms may be the only way to save them – and us – from a future which looks a little Orwellian.

Murdoch’s Right: Facebook would be better off paying publishers cash than lip service

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Rupert Murdoch, perhaps the most polarising media owner in the world, may seem an odd man to be a prophet of the future. He did sell off a large chunk of his media empire to Disney, after all: a move some have read as a retreat from the game of newsmaking which he lead at for so many years (often enough with dubious practices). It’s hard to side politically with the man whose papers were involved in phone hacking of grieving families, or whose television station routinely blasts out falsehoods.

But the 86 year old media mogul’s statements on Facebook are spot on, recognizing that the rather staid and self-centered world of legacy media has come to a cropper at the hands of even more elitist and narcissist institutions: social media platforms.

Murdoch’s statements took aim at Facebook’s offer to “prioritize” news from ‘trusted’ publishers – part of a rebranding effort taken by a social media giant that once attempted to play down or virtually hide the impact of the fake news it was so happy to carry. The contempt for journalists is almost palpable: rather than actively paying for good content (which requires the investment of time and effort, and can put reporters lives at risk), Facebook offers a sort of pat on the head, months after trying to pretend it didn’t help undermine trust in media.

It is often difficult to empathize with the media, which have essentially played big tech’s game of condescending to audiences before the big tech came around.  The New York Times‘ motto, ‘All the news that’s fit to print’, was originally a barb against rivals seen as sensationalism and commercialism – but today it smacks of arrogance. But at the very least the news media – for all of its failures (and there are many) – produced content, rather than acting as a mere conduit. Moreover, when the traditional media has screwed up, someone normally gets the blame for it.

Facebook offering recompense to support better reporting for the news whose advertising revenue it essentially takes would have been a better alternative for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it can afford to, and it would do a lot more than token efforts to fund fact-checking sites. Coverage revealed that unsurprisingly, this was Silicon Valley spin at its finest: a lot of hot air which failed to actively solve the problem, but touted as a shiny new solution. All this, rather than working on a way to support real news.

Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, is the question of what a ‘trusted’ publisher is. Is this a paper which skews liberal, reflecting Facebook’s ‘beliefs’? (it is difficult to see immense tech firms which do their best to take our data with as little consent as possible as liberal in any worldview but their own, admittedly). Or perhaps, more cynically, it will simply become pay to play on a bigger scale: those who pay some sort of fee will enter the category. Or perhaps, even more cynically, news which is critical of Facebook will quietly vanish whilst puff pieces and press releases will sale to the tops of our newsfeeds.

The most monstrous fact about Facebook is the seeming inability to accept, or maybe even countenance that its immense power could be dangerous – or that folks like Mark Zuckerberg could be distant from normal humans. It truly is a caricature of West-Coast scientific optimism, entirely certain in the progress of science, and entirely blind to its own failures – or the value of any other institutions. The need to ‘disrupt’ and ‘innovate’ can be used to tell yourself what amounts to little more than hijacking advertising revenue, or helping to ensure that fake news is as well disseminated as the real thing, apparently. Once you imagine yourself as the face of the future, why care about anyone else?

Facebook, like all social media, has always relied upon content creators (be they friends and family, or professional newsmakers). In its haste to proclaim itself the only meaningful expression of humanity (as evidenced by Zuckerberg’s tone-deaf attempts to convince the world that he’s ‘fixing’ Facebook in any other way than ensuring it suits his agenda), the social media giant has fundamentally forgotten this. If it really wants to make the world a better place, it would do well to follow the insalubrious but canny Murdoch’s suggestion and support content creators – and accept that just maybe, other people’s work is of value too.

Sesame Credit and the Future of Social Credit

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When it comes to bashing countries for poor internet freedom practices, China usually appears near the top of the list – and with good reason. Perhaps in part that’s because, in contrast with more crude filtering systems adopted in many authoritarian states, the Great Firewall is an almost elegant panopticon. The sheer level of surveillance – and capacities for intervening – can look like an early draft of a Black Mirror episode. Take, for example, the ability to effectively remove images deemed unsuitable for the interests of the state ‘mid-air’. Where the Soviets had to make do with erasing people after the fact, Chinese internet censors can do so on a real-time basis.

Sesame Credit seems, in a sense, to be the obvious outcome of this level of monitoring and capacity for intervention. The so-called ‘social credit’ is opaque in its operation, but from what we understand, citizens will be able to ‘earn’ credits by such patriotic activities as pro-government posts on message boards. A higher score will mean greater perks, incentivising citizens to behave as suits the Communist Party of China.

There is something thoroughly Chinese about this – and not in a negative way. In e-commerce, the country outstrips its competitors with home-grown giants like Alibaba. Granted, they have been grown in a sort of incubator, with Western competitors artificially kept out, but they have achieved success on a scale which surely makes even Facebook or Google jealous. The ease of access to functions through all-in-one apps like WeChat is another example of an approach to the internet with a great number of affordances. On the more positive side, the use of something like Sesame Credit shows a continuing move away from paper money. This was the goal of China’s almost as populous neighbour to the West, through the process of demonetisation. Yet India has largely failed in its bid to go digital: in spite of the number of new digital bank accounts created, the majority (owned by the urban poor) are empty, and the rural poor (with no access to the internet) never had them to start with.

This cannot detract from the cost in terms of citizens’ rights to privacy, or freedom of expression. It also opens up a number of worrying scenarios in which a users social credit could be lowered. A drunken error or a joke made at the expense of the government on a relative’s account, for example, might have an impact; more concerningly, a malicious actor could effectively fabricate dissent. There is also the question of automation . How well can the system deal with bots set up to pump out pro-government posts? Will it lead to inflation (at least temporarily, before accounts are presumably removed)? The lack of adequate information on this front makes this largely guesswork, sadly.

Will social credit in the style of Sesame Credit spread from China, is the final question. Many have pointed to pre-existing systems, like the credit scores which are prevalent across the West – and they have a point. Much like Sesame Credit, when it’s rolled out, they can have immense impacts on our lives and are by no means transparent. And yet largely speaking, our behaviour on Facebook or Twitter has no major bearing on these (we hope). The age of the all-in-one app is yet to hit us – but when it does, there’s no reason to assume that social credit would not be its outcome.

Is Facebook a Technology or a Media Company?

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Here’s a transcript of the presentation

Facebook calls itself a technology company

  • Technology companies should not have political leanings nor bias
  • Meanwhile, a media company has a communicative vision and purpose
  • They do have bias
  • This May, Gizmodo revealed Facebook routinely suppressed conservative news stories in the ‘trending’ section of your news feed
  • A former Facebook worker said:
  • “Workers prevented stories about the right wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even thought they were organically trending among the site’s users”

If Facebook workers tamper with a news feed then your new feed is biased

  • Meanwhile Facebook claims their trending topics are simply popular articles shared around the world

Why should you care?

  • A reader of traditional media can educated themselves about hte biases associated with that content
  • A readwe has no idea how to interpret the articles they read on Facebook
  • Which gives Facebook enormous influential power in how we think

Why should we worry?

  • 1 billion people log onto Facebook every day
  • 60% Americans get their news direct from Facebook
  • With a huge audience – Facebook gets a lot of money from advertisers
  • Which should be going to the publishers
  • News outlets and publishers are closing around the world because they can’t make any money

Could this be the end of an independent, open and varied web?