Friday, October 6, 2017

TIME TO RIP THE COVER OFF FACEBOOK

By Dominique Paul Noth


Facebook salesman Mark Zuckerberg
According to the tabloids, Mark Zuckerberg has spent the last four years countering that brilliant Aaron Sorkin portrait of his shallowness in 2010’s “The Social Network” and has used massive philanthropy, business suits and political speeches to paint a more likeable portrait.

The one thing he hasn’t done is pay attention to Facebook and its two billion accounts that made him one of the richest men in the world.

Until September he denied that Russians were using Facebook in any significant way – and then was confronted with Russian ads, some paid in rubles, that were using Facebook’s targeting abilities in particularly ugly ways.

Such as seeking out people who posted disparagingly or suspiciously about Muslims and then sending them anti-Clinton items (what Donald calls fake news).

Such as targeting secession movements from Catalonia to Texas to encourage disgruntlement with current governments, specifically devaluing belief in democratic solutions.

Such as spreading dissension between Clinton and Sanders supporters by choice use of items pretending to be news and playing up long-standing but unproven enmities.

Such as using the image of a black woman firing a rifle to inflame sentiments.

Last November Zuckerberg was actually pulled aside and warned by President Obama about the misuse of Facebook underlying Trump’s election, yet ignored that as well. 

Now his company if not him has to testify to Congress and try to explain to the public just where his brain has been for the last few years.

He has gotten rich for inventing Facebook, but if it is out of control, what is his right to keep running it?  Or does he even know how?

Facebook and social media in general have developed an unprecedented power that governments and their citizens are finally seeing not as a salvation but as a threat.

It also turns out that Russians siding with Putin may also have grasped the possibilities of algorithms more cunningly that Silicon Valley did and may or may not have needed Trump underlings to help out.

Siri on your phone is a useful if sometimes annoying example of algorithms. So are many other accepted pieces of coding.  There are applications you install because they promise one thing, such as anti-virus protection, but may open a trapdoor to something nefarious.  There are computer viruses and bots (automated software) that can replicate commands from hidden call centers.

Adults chuckle that their kids are more comfortable with computers than they are.  Yet even most kids don’t understand the stew of math, propaganda, coding and fraud. There are a lot of curious portals out there and they are now working hand in glove with familiar utilities like Google and Facebook.

The slowness of Facebook to grasp the mischief inherent in its creature is actually frightening.  I occupy an infinitesimally small sliver of Facebook with only 1,000 shared visitors mostly friends and necessary contacts.  So why, dating back two years, could I see problems worth writing about that Zuckerberg couldn’t?

I never leapt to the realization of Russian involvement, but in 2015 I wrote about how cunningly Facebook’s elements were being used by both practical jokers and politicians seeking a publicity advantage. I even said  “If Isis uses the Internet to recruit the unthinking, they now have helpers in such politicians as Wisconsin Gov. Walker.”


And in June of 2016 – more than a year ago --  I wrote another piece describing the insane dislike of Bernie Sanders supporters for Hillary Clinton fans, and vice versa, on Facebook.  I speculated that this was also political mischief because in real life these people, if they were real people, would never express such vitriol without some shrewd goading.  As I observed then, in calling for some code of ethics, “On the Internet these usually don’t exist at all.

Looking back now, a lot of that vitriol was stemming from bots not people, yet amazingly few of the victims – even today! -- want to admit falling for all that.  The consequence of the admission would be devastating psychologically when people ask themselves why they stayed home or voted opposite of expectations or common sense.

There is growing evidence that thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of accounts on Facebook and Twitter are not individuals but clones -- robotic agents for spreading “information,” to make real-life recipients believe they are part of a mass movement.

These poor citizens. They believe their innocent photos of puppies and recipes reflect the benign use of Facebook for the bulk of those two billion listed users.  These puppy lovers, convinced that their Facebook pals wouldn’t deceive them, repost alt.news and fake news portraying Hillary as a demon, Trump as a savior (literally) or whatever momentary fancy moves them.

One lesson just came from Las Vegas. The algorithms that add weight to initial searches on Google created a flood of falsehoods, including the wrong name of the shooter, which was spread on Facebook.  Such incidents are no longer a rarity.   Google searches turn into Facebook posts for hours or even days before actual information can slowly seep in and correct misimpressions – doing worse damage than a news crawl at the bottom of your TV screen.

The New York Times also detailed how fictions about juvenile sex and Shariah law used social media to unbalance an entire town.  More and more users of Facebook are realizing that the “Like” button is almost a virus, opening the door for years to misapplication of what you Liked and what you didn’t.

There may be an egotistical key to all this. That steady drumbeat of misinformation makes it seem that people who love you -- or people who care about your opinion -- are just trying to keep you in the know.

There are few objective online companies that identify fake news sites out of the volume of sites that can be created by anyone with basic coding ability – or even by Internet providers who provide the expertise for a price, with little concern about ethics.

This is an awkward moment for democratic societies.  We may admit that the Russians attempted to play with our voting databases (the US has sent confusing mixed messages about the attempt in 21 unnamed states) but we seized on assurances by state and federal agencies that the Russians did not succeed in physically pushing the wrong button.  We the People did.

Which means Trump was genuinely elected president.  How awkward.

People walked into the voting booth confident of their beliefs – or stayed home confident of their reasons for doing that, in large part believing in all the lies including that Clinton won the contest against Sanders unfairly, or that a vote for Jill Stein was not a wasted vote (though there is more and more evidence than it was wasted and was part of the Russian invasion).

Only in hindsight can we blame ignorance or deception.  Time has confirmed it was a minority of citizens who elected Trump, but unless the majority is willing to overthrow the Constitution we are stuck with him. For now.

In the meantime we should openly recognize the dangers of cyberspace are not some scientific sleight of hand.  The dangers are real and largely untouched.

This is also a particularly awkward turn for journalists like me and others who welcomed the free range of opinions the Internet allowed.  The occasional misuse – forwarding news accounts while denying the originating journalist just financial due – was regarded even by starving journalists as an almost worthwhile price for broader dissemination of real research and write-ups for the public. Many never grasped this also meant wider misinformation.

The greedy acquisitive nature of media companies – the commercial reasons they want control of the main digital pipes of the Internet – made many citizens champion net neutrality.  And still do. Frankly, the Internet seemed a welcome freedom from government interference, or the shackles of orchestrated behavior.   Saying what you think – is that bad?

Only now are we realizing that those so-called platforms – Facebook, Twitter and so forth -- rather than becoming agents of better knowledge were easily turned.  They are not harmless diversion but harmful attacks on the truth.  

These social media brands should no longer be called “platforms” but “channels” or “publishers,” not much different than TV, print and other established outlets.  They may need ethically trained and alert gatekeepers rather than technologists manipulating the codes for maximum attention rather than moral considerations.

Technology advances faster than the law can keep up. In many areas. Who in the 18th century could envision a legal handgun that could kill 58 civilians from 500 yards away in five minutes? Or a society churned by the inability to distinguish factual information from false.  Surely our Constitution could stretch to handle such matters?   Surely it won’t.

I am not so egotistical to believe the Russians needed help against na├»ve America, though I remain ever more open to the likelihood of  Trump or his aides being involved,  knowing their nefarious financial connections of the past. But bluntly there are hacker sophistication and propaganda skills far beyond what Trump has ever demonstrated.

As Congress and Robert Mueller continue their investigation, the president looks foolish to think it is all about him. It is actually all about us – how we are influenced or even led around by the nose, and who is doing it, and why -- and how we change it.


About the author:  Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  His award-winning theater reviews appear at urbanmilwaukee.com.

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