Social media, society and technology 2019 –

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Social media, society and technology 2017 – March 2019

The Privacy Project
Companies and governments are gaining new powers to follow people across the internet and around the world, and even to peer into their genomes. The benefits of such advances have been apparent for years; the costs — in anonymity, even autonomy — are now becoming clearer. The boundaries of privacy are in dispute, and its future is in doubt. Citizens, politicians and business leaders are asking if societies are making the wisest tradeoffs. The [New York] Times is embarking on this months-long project to explore the technology and where it’s taking us, and to convene debate about how it can best help realize human potential.
Does Privacy Matter?
What Do They Know, and
How Do They Know It?

What Should Be Done About This?
What Can I Do?
View all Privacy articles (April 2019)

26 August
Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience
Where Big Tech goes to ask deep questions
By Andrew Marantz
(The New Yorker Magazine) Esalen is just outside Silicon Valley, so the executives who visit it have come from the likes of Intel and Xerox PARC—and, more recently, from Apple and Google and Twitter. Esalen’s board of trustees has included an early Facebook employee, a Google alumnus, and a former Airbnb executive. Presumably, had there been such conspicuous overlap between a countercultural think tank and captains of any other industry…there would have been an outcry, or at least some pointed questions. But Big Tech was supposed to be different. It was supposed to make the world a better place.
Then came Brexit, the 2016 election, and the Great Tech Backlash. “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook,” a headline in New York declared. A law professor at Stanford published a paper that asked, “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” Suddenly, a board with several Silicon Valley executives didn’t seem entirely unlike a board with several Atlantic City casino bosses. Even after it became apparent that Facebook posts were fuelling the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, the company dithered for months before taking decisive action. Clearly, all was not in alignment.
For a long time, the prevailing posture of the Silicon Valley élite was smugness bordering on hubris. Now the emotional repertoire is expanding to include shame—or, at least, the appearance of shame. “They can’t decide whether they ought to feel like pariahs or victims, and they’re looking for places where they can work this stuff out,” a well-connected Silicon Valley organizer told me. “Not their boardrooms, where everyone tells them what they want to hear, and not in public, where everyone yells at them. A third place.”

August 19, 2019
1 August
Twitter Needs a Pause Button
Instantaneous communication can be destructive. We need to tweak our digital platforms to make time for extra eyes, cooler heads, and second thoughts.
(The Atlantic Magazine) Not long before the [Christchurch] attack, Justin Kosslyn, who was then an executive at Jigsaw, a technology incubator created by Google, had published an article on Vice.com called “The Internet Needs More Friction.” The internet, he argued, was built for instantaneous communication, but the absence of even brief delays in transmission had proved a boon to disinformation, malware, phishing, and other security threats. “It’s time to bring friction back,” he wrote. “Friction buys time, and time reduces systemic risk.”
For a long time, through the internet’s first and second generations, people naturally assumed that faster must be better; slowness was a vestige of a bygone age, a technological hurdle to be overcome. What they missed is that human institutions and intermediaries often impose slowness on purpose. Slowness is a social technology in its own right, one that protects humans from themselves.

28 May
Facebook’s False Standards for Not Removing a Fake Nancy Pelosi Video
(The New Yorker) Last week, when a doctored video of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, began circulating on Facebook, it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before it was removed. After all, just one day before, Facebook proudly announced that it had recently removed 2.2 billion fake accounts between January and March as part of its expanded efforts to curb the platform’s circulation of misinformation. The video, which was manipulated to make Pelosi seem drunk and confused, is not a particularly sophisticated fake. But it was convincing enough that countless commenters believed it to be true and sent it spinning through cyberspace. At one point, there were seventeen versions of the video online; various iterations had jumped to Twitter and YouTube, and one was picked up by Fox News. The Fox News clip was then posted on Twitter by President Trump. Within hours, a version of the doctored video had been viewed more than two million times.  … Facebook refused to remove the Pelosi video because, according to Monika Bickert, the company’s head of global policy management, it does not violate the company’s community standards, even though it is demonstrably false.

14 May
Deepfakes are coming. We’re not ready.
By Brian Klaas
(WaPo) If 2016 was the election of “fake news,” 2020 has the potential to be the election of “deepfakes,” the new phenomenon of bogus videos created with the help of artificial intelligence. It’s becoming easier and cheaper to create such videos. Soon, those with even a rudimentary technical knowledge will be able to fabricate videos that are so true to life that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether the video is real.
In the era of conspiracy theories, disinformation and absurd denials by politicians staring down seemingly indisputable facts, it is only a matter of time before deepfakes are weaponized in ways that poison the foundational principle of democracy: informed consent of the governed. After all, how can voters make appropriate decisions if they aren’t sure what is fact and what is fiction? Unfortunately, we are careening toward that moment faster than we think.
Deepfakes are created by something called a “generative adversarial network,” or GAN. GANs are technically complex, but operate on a simple principle. There are two automated rivals in the system: a forger and a detective. The forger tries to create fake content while the detective tries to figure out what is authentic and what is forged. Over each iteration, the forger learns from its mistakes. Eventually, the forger gets so good that it is difficult to tell the difference between fake and real content. And when that happens with deepfakes, those are the videos that are likely to fool humans, too.

4 May
David Frum: Trump Attacks Facebook on Behalf of Racists and Grifters
But unlike in previous eras, the social giant knows it can just ignore the president.
After Facebook on Friday banned far-right figures and organizations from their platform, including the site Infowars, the president threatened to “monitor” social-media sites in retaliation. Through much of the late evening of May 3 and early morning of May 4, the president used his Twitter feed to champion the people who earn a large living spreading false reports. He hailed them as conservative thinkers whose free-speech rights have been abridged by social-media platforms.
… even as the president engrafts conspiracists and racists onto mainstream conservatism, it’s worth wondering: Why is he starting this fight? What does he hope to accomplish? In the past, when presidents publicly criticized major corporations by name, they got results.
One observer of social media speculates that Trump hopes to deter Facebook from enforcing its rules against him and his 2020 campaign. In that case, wouldn’t Trump fight on the strongest ground, not the weakest? Identifying “my team” with some of the worst characters on the internet seems a prelude not to a hard fight, but to an embarrassing retreat.
Instead of preparing for a trial of strength against a corporation that a president should easily win, he has joined his personal brand to a gaggle of shady characters in an outburst likely to be forgotten in a day or two. Or, at least, forgotten by him.

2 May

Facebook and Instagram cracked down on extremist figures. Accounts from Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Louis Farrakhan—among several others—were all kicked off both platforms. The move comes as Facebook, which owns Instagram, continues to grapple with its inability to root out extremist views and misinformation, and its complicity in election interference. Instagram might be best known for seemingly flawless influencers, but the platform has become fertile ground for conspiracists who collectively have garnered millions of followers. “Banning these extremist figures is a step toward stricter moderation of extremist views,” writes Taylor Lorenz, “but time and again, we’ve seen that the internet’s worst actors always find new ways to exploit platforms.”

26 April
The Terrifying Potential of the 5G Network
Two words explain the difference between our current wireless networks and 5G: speed and latency. 5G—if you believe the hype—is expected to be up to a hundred times faster. (A two-hour movie could be downloaded in less than four seconds.) That speed will reduce, and possibly eliminate, the delay—the latency—between instructing a computer to perform a command and its execution. This, again, if you believe the hype, will lead to a whole new Internet of Things, where everything from toasters to dog collars to dialysis pumps to running shoes will be connected. Remote robotic surgery will be routine, the military will develop hypersonic weapons, and autonomous vehicles will cruise safely along smart highways. The claims are extravagant, and the stakes are high. One estimate projects that 5G will pump twelve trillion dollars into the global economy by 2035, and add twenty-two million new jobs in the United States alone. This 5G world, we are told, will usher in a fourth industrial revolution.

27 April
The age of the Influencer has peaked. It’s time for the slacker to rise again
(Quartz) It’s hard to remember a time when scrolling through Instagram was anything but a thoroughly exhausting experience.
Where once the social network was basically lunch and sunsets, it’s now a parade of strategically-crafted life updates, career achievements, and public vows to spend less time online (usually made by people who earn money from social media)—all framed with the carefully selected language of a press release. Everyone is striving, so very hard.

21 April
Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match
False rumors set Buddhist against Muslim in Sri Lanka, the most recent in a global spate of violence fanned by social media.
(NYT) For months, we had been tracking riots and lynchings around the world linked to misinformation and hate speech on Facebook, which pushes whatever content keeps users on the site longest — a potentially damaging practice in countries with weak institutions.
Time and again, communal hatreds overrun the newsfeed — the primary portal for news and information for many users — unchecked as local media are displaced by Facebook and governments find themselves with little leverage over the company. Some users, energized by hate speech and misinformation, plot real-world attacks.
A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.
… where institutions are weak or undeveloped, Facebook’s newsfeed can inadvertently amplify dangerous tendencies. Designed to maximize user time on site, it promotes whatever wins the most attention. Posts that tap into negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, studies have found, produce the highest engagement, and so proliferate.
In the Western countries for which Facebook was designed, this leads to online arguments, angry identity politics and polarization. But in developing countries, Facebook is often perceived as synonymous with the internet and reputable sources are scarce, allowing emotionally charged rumors to run rampant. Shared among trusted friends and family members, they can become conventional wisdom.

2 April
Canada must legislate Facebook to tackle online-networked hate
By Kyle Matthews & Duncan Cooper
There are no quick fixes to dealing with online hate and the violence that it often fuels. This complex reality does not absolve governments from taking action, however. Former U.K. deputy prime minister and current head of Facebook’s public policy team, Nick Clegg, once said, “The best way to ensure that any regulation is smart and works for people is by governments, regulators and businesses working together to learn from each other.”
(Toronto Star) Canada ought to keep an eye out on other countries’ legislation. Perhaps the most advanced framework for online extremism has come from Germany, whose Network Enforcement Act imposes heavy fines — up to €50 million — if extremist content is not taken down within 24 hours of its detection.
Another model for digital governance comes from France, where President Emmanuel Macron has stewarded a “smart regulation” program of embedding government officials within Facebook’s offices for a six-month period. This effort will determine strategies to counter extremism amongst France’s Facebook users.
Australia is set to vote on a law this week that could see social media companies fined and their executives jailed for up to three years for not taking down such content faster. In statement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “Big social media companies have a responsibility to take every possible action to ensure their technology products are not exploited by murderous terrorists.” Australia also wants this issue to be part of the agenda for the upcoming G20 meeting in Japan in June.
In the past, Facebook has repeatedly pushed back against such ideas, promising to use artificial intelligence and hiring more human content moderators as the preferred strategy. However, Facebook’s ability to counteract threats through either workers or AI is deeply questionable.

30 March
Australia, Singapore Crack Down on Online Media With New Laws
(Bloomberg) Governments in the Asia Pacific region are accelerating efforts to fight malicious use of online media, unveiling laws that make it easier to target websites which enable distribution of criminal or fraudulent content.
Australia said it will legislate “tough” new laws to prevent social-media platforms from being “weaponized” by terrorists and extremists who may use them to live-stream violent crimes, such as this month’s terror attack in New Zealand. Singapore said it will introduce a law to halt the spread of “fake news.”
Facebook Inc. came under sharp criticism for not taking down a video in which the alleged gunman killed 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch fast enough, and for allowing it be circulated across the internet and uploaded to platforms like YouTube. The social-media company was considering placing restrictions on who could post live videos in the wake of the shooting that was filmed and disseminated in real time.
… Singapore, meanwhile, said its new law will give more power to the government to hold online outlets accountable if they’re deemed to have deliberately delivered false news.
The measures will include requiring them to show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods, and even removing articles in extreme cases, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech.

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