Locked out

I’ve been locked out of my Twitter account for a terrible, terrible crime.

No, not being a big old Nazi. Messing with the year of birth in my profile page. This, apparently, is a really bad thing and I can’t currently read anything on Twitter or see other people’s messages to me.

It’s been brilliant.

Being unable to access Twitter has made it clear that my relationship with social media is completely out of whack. I’m following too many people and indulging too many more, and the result is a firehose of fury with precious little of the funny cat pictures and dad jokes I signed up for. It’s become a massive time thief and a drain on my mental health.

I’m not quite ready to bin Twitter altogether, although I’m close, but assuming Twitter decides to let me back in again I’m going to massively reduce the number of people I follow – not because they’re bad people, because I don’t follow bad people, but because I’ve let myself fall into a situation where there are just too many people talking at once. I can’t hear myself think above the din.

It’s a start

Facebook has taken down much of Alex “Infowars” Jones’ content, as have Apple and Spotify.

(Update, 7/8/18: Apple was the first to move. The others were clearly waiting for somebody else to lead.)

Reuters:

The company [Facebook] said it removed the pages “for glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies.”

Apple:

Apple does not tolerate hate speech

This stuff is all in the terms and conditions. For example, for Apple’s podcasts there is an outright ban on:

  • Content that could be construed as racist, misogynist, or homophobic
  • Content depicting graphic sex, violence, gore, illegal drugs, or hate themes

Although its enforcement has been patchy, this is Facebook’s policy:

We do not allow hate speech on Facebook… We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics – race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity and serious disability or disease.

I have some sympathy for these firms, because enforcement is a big job. Facebook again:

Over the last two months, on average, we deleted around 66,000 posts reported as hate speech per week — that’s around 288,000 posts a month globally.

That’s a lot of hate. But the point is, it’s against the rules whether it’s uploaded to Apple, posted on Facebook, streaming on Spotify or tweeted on Twitter. Apple alone is now a $1 trillion company; Facebook $522 billion; Twitter $32 billion; and Twitter $24 billion. If they’re short of moderators, they can afford to hire more.

Facebook doesn’t want to be evil, but it is

This, by Nikhil Sonnad, is a superb analysis of what’s wrong with Facebook and why it’s sending the world to hell in a handcart. Much of it applies equally to Twitter.

Sonnad begins with the story of Antonio Perkins, who was shot dead as he filmed a Facebook video.

Although his death is tragic, the video does not violate the company’s abstruse community standards, as it does not “glorify violence” or “celebrate the suffering or humiliation of others.” And leaving it up means more people will connect to Perkins, and to Facebook, so the video stays. It does have a million views, after all.

The problem is that Facebook doesn’t see people as people. We’re just data.

…the imperative to “connect people” lacks the one ingredient essential for being a good citizen: Treating individual human beings as sacrosanct. To Facebook, the world is not made up of individuals, but of connections between them. The billions of Facebook accounts belong not to “people” but to “users,” collections of data points connected to other collections of data points on a vast Social Network, to be targeted and monetized by computer programs.

There are certain things you do not in good conscience do to humans. To data, you can do whatever you like.

By this reading, Mark Zuckerberg is a modern-day Victor Frankenstein. He’s created a monster and has no idea how to control it, if controlling it is even possible any more.

John Naughton makes the same point in The Guardian.

 This all became evident last week in a revealing interview the Facebook boss gave to the tech journalist Kara Swisher. The conversation covered a lot of ground but included a few key exchanges that spoke volumes about Zuckerberg’s inability to grasp the scale of the problems that his creature now poses for society.

…I can see only three explanations for it. One is that Zuckerberg is a sociopath, who wants to have as much content – objectionable or banal – available to maximise user engagement (and therefore revenues), regardless of the societal consequences. A second is that Facebook is now so large that he sees himself as a kind of governor with quasi-constitutional responsibilities for protecting free speech. This is delusional: Facebook is a company, not a democracy. Or third – and most probably – he is scared witless of being accused of being “biased” in the polarised hysteria that now grips American (and indeed British) politics.

Sonnad again:

Facebook’s value system has diverged from that of the rest of society—the result of its myopic focus on connecting everyone however possible, consequences be damned.

With that in mind, the thread running through Facebook’s numerous public-relations disasters starts to become clear. Its continued dismissal of activists from Sri Lanka and Myanmar imploring it to do something about incitements of violence. Its refusing to remove material that calls the Sandy Hook massacre a “hoax” and threatens the parents of murdered children. Its misleading language on privacy and data-collection practices.

Facebook seems to be blind to the possibility that it could be used for ill.

That blindness is already having terrible consequences. For example, the violence in Myanmar that  Sonnad refers to is attempted genocide. The UN human rights chief there, Markuzi Darusman, told reporters that social media had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media.” There are many individual tragedies too, such as people driven to suicide by howling online mobs. And of course social media has been fundamental in the rise of the far right and associated violence.

We’re going to look back on this social media age with horror.

Sympathy for the Devil

This New York Times story about the parents of Noah Pozner, who was murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre, is horrific.

In the five years since Noah Pozner was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., death threats and online harassment have forced his parents, Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner, to relocate seven times. They now live in a high-security community hundreds of miles from where their 6-year-old is buried.

“I would love to go see my son’s grave and I don’t get to do that, but we made the right decision,” Ms. De La Rosa said in a recent interview. Each time they have moved, online fabulists stalking the family have published their whereabouts.

Inevitably, Donald Trump believes that the man responsible for this horror, the snake-oil salesman and human stain Alex Jones, is “amazing“. His channels do big numbers for YouTube and Facebook.

Jones and other demons hide behind the right to free speech, which is enshrined in US law. In our social media age US law is global: the likes of Facebook and Twitter are US companies who take a US approach to the content they publish.

Whether by accident or design, that means they’ve become platforms for some of the worst people on the planet. I think it’s by design, because Facebook and Twitter do make editorial choices. Facebook won’t let you upload a photo of a woman breastfeeding. Twitter won’t let you use the name Elon Musk in your Twitter handle.

That’s beyond the pale. Holocaust denial, targeted attacking of women and minorities, inciting racial hatred, rape and death threats… that’s all fine, it seems. On Twitter, right-wing armies relentlessly attack people without consequence; the people they assault are the ones who often end up banned.

The supposed right to online free speech is starting to resemble the US right to bear arms: something that’s been perverted and used to cause untold misery. What scares me is that we’ve only scratched the surface of its malign power.

Block party

One of the reasons I haven’t binned Twitter is the existence of block lists. These enable you to automate the blocking of various bad people; they can’t see your messages (there’s a way around that, but few bother with it) and more importantly you don’t see theirs.

The numbers can be quite terrifying. One of the block lists I use, a list of anti-trans trolls, has thousands of people on it. I’m sure a few of them are falsely listed but for me that’s a small price to pay for relative freedom from online abuse.

One of the most high-profile block lists I’ve seen recently is Repeal Shield, which attempted to filter out the nastiest abuse aimed at Yes supporters in the Irish abortion referendum. Aidan O’Brien discusses the list and the interesting, if unsurprising, patterns that emerged.

Repeal Shield ended up blocking 16,000 people with very few false positives. Many of the troll accounts had clearly been set up purely to harass pro-repeal women; others had been around longer and also shared far right and/or anti-semitic content.

You’ll be shocked – shocked! – to discover that nearly three-quarters of the accounts were American. Some of them were quite clear about that; others claimed to be from Ireland but used US time stamps or only posted when everybody in Ireland had gone to bed.

I’ve written before about the malign influence of US social media users on other countries’ politics; the numbers demonstrate how big a problem it is.

It also demonstrates how big a problem abuse is on Twitter. Of all the accounts blocked by Repeal Shield, just 2.42% of them have since been suspended by Twitter’s abuse team.

This is important for various reasons. There’s the fact that Twitter is clearly doing next to nothing to curb the abuse that’s a fact of online life for women, members of minority groups and anybody the far right doesn’t like. And there’s the fact that social media is being used to sway elections.

Twitter’s response to the growing problem – it’s not just here; right now there are concerns over political bots in Malaysia, where over 17,000 bots tweeted over 44,000 pro-government messages in a single week  – is typically useless. It has just announced new rules on political advertising.

The company will require advertisers running political campaign ads for federal elections to identify themselves and certify they are located in the U.S… Twitter said it won’t let foreign nationals target political ads to U.S. residents.

That’s the advertising around tweets, not the tweets themselves. And that means it won’t change a damn thing.

The problem with Twitter has never been the display ads, the electronic equivalents of billboards. It’s the tweets and retweets, the fake news and the vicious abuse.

Social media has been weaponised.

The end is neigh. Get on your bike

Not as sci-fi as transport pods, but ebikes are affordable and available now.

According to former General Motors VP Bob Lutz, as far as personal transport is concerned the car is about to go the way of the horse.

A minority of individuals may elect to have personalized modules sitting at home so they can leave their vacation stuff and the kids’ soccer gear in them. They’ll still want that convenience.

The vehicles, however, will no longer be driven by humans because in 15 to 20 years — at the latest — human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.

Lutz reckons that the big names of the future won’t be car makers. They’ll be Uber, or Lyft, or whatever other high-tech, tax-dodging, anti-regulation “disruptor” gets the market. He’s probably right.

You know things are changing when Ford – Ford! – exits the mass market car business.

The company responsible for launching the modern carmaking era with Henry Ford’s assembly line will pivot away from being a full-line automaker, shrinking its passenger-car lineup and shifting only to low-volume, high-margin models.

The idea of autonomous transport modules whooshing around the place is undoubtedly appealing, but in the UK we live in a country that hasn’t got the hang of trains yet, and we’ve been running them commercially since 1812.

So you’ll understand why I’m just a little bit cynical.

I’m still not too sure about autonomous vehicles. I think they’re coming, but not as quickly as many people predict: in the shorter term electric bicycles are having a bigger impact because the technology is simpler, the benefits much more dramatic and the cost of entry much, much lower.

They’re less likely to kill you, too.

As industry observer Horace Dediu pointed out on Twitter:

For distances up to 9 km the eBike is the fastest mode of transport in urban areas. Half of Germany’s 30 million commuters travel less than 10km to work.

As the Treehugger blog notes:

In most European cities, e-bikes are faster than cars. You do not have to work as hard or get as sweaty so they work in hot environments, and you can bundle up for the ride in colder cities. New bikes are being designed that are safer and easier for older riders

I live in Glasgow, and I don’t cycle. It’s only partly because I’m lazy. It’s mainly because the roads near me are busy, the drivers are all mental and there aren’t any bike lanes. Bike lanes and e-bikes could transform cities like mine, probably more than any gleaming white hyperconnected travel pods. And for considerably less money too.

Autonomous vehicles, especially car-like ones, are still enormously resource-intensive and inefficient modes of transport. That’s not going to change in the foreseeable future.

Treehugger again:

Perhaps instead of being so obsessed with making the world safe for autonomous cars, we should be concentrating on making them safe for bikes and e-bikes; they are going to carry a lot more people a lot sooner.

Infowar! Huh! What is it good for?

Profits!

This is disturbing, to say the least. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal rumbles on, here’s Adam Ramsay’s view of “what happens when you privatise military propaganda”:

If you privatise war, don’t be surprised if military firms start using the tools of war on ‘their own’ side. When Eisenhower warned of the Military Industrial Complex, he was thinking about physical weapons. But, just as unregulated semi-automatics invented for soldiers end up going off in American schools, it shouldn’t be any kind of surprise that the weapons of information war are going off in Anglo-American votes.

I’ll take the quiet life

I’m doing something I should probably do more often: unfollowing a lot of people on social media. It’s not that they’re bad people. Quite the opposite. It’s that unfortunately good people often share bad things.

I block or filter out a lot of people on Twitter and other networks: nazis, bigots, people who point at planes, men’s rights activists, accounts sharing overly graphic images of cruelty, and arseholes of various kinds. And the reason I block them is because they post things I don’t want to see or read.

Unfortunately, many of the people I follow take screenshots of those things and post them online, thereby making me look at the very worst examples of the things I don’t want to see.

They’re doing it for good reasons, such as battling bigotry or cruelty. But they’re doing it in a way that forces me to see things I don’t want to see: the way social media works is that when they post it, it’s injected straight into my timeline whether I want it or not.

In effect, it overrides my choice. I’ve said “I don’t want to see this”, and the social network says “I’m going to show it to you anyway, again and again.”

It’s not that I want to live my life in a bubble, free from any bad news. It’s that there’s a limit to how much time you can spend staring into the abyss every day when you’ve got stuff to do. If you’re not careful on social media, the abyss follows you around all day demanding you stare into it again and again and again.

Facebook is rotten from the head down

I’m not the best person to opine on Facebook: during its original meteoric rise I believed its momentum would slow and it would be overtaken by something less obviously dismissive of its users. After all, this was a business built on the belief that its users were “dumb fucks”, as Mark Zuckerberg famously said.

So you can probably ignore my feeling that Facebook’s current privacy scandal may actually do serious damage to the company.

But you might want to pay attention to Jean-Louis Gassée, because he is someone worth paying attention to: his career has encompassed important roles in Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Be. His Monday Note newsletters are always worth reading. and this week’s one is about Facebook.

From the headline – Mark Zuckerberg thinks we’re idiots – on, it doesn’t pull any punches.

“Your privacy is important to us”. Yes, of course, our privacy is important to you; you made billions by surveilling and mining our private lives.

He’s writing amid yet more revelations about Facebook’s cavalier approach to privacy. For example, we now know that Facebook has been logging details of every phone call and SMS message made or received by many Android phone users. And we know that Facebook’s incorporation as a system-level app on some devices means it’s been able to avoid privacy protections built into system software.

A company’s culture emanates from the top and it starts early. In 2004, the man who was in the process of creating Facebook allegedly called Harvard people who entrusted him with their emails, text messages, pictures, and addresses “dumb fucks”. Should we charitably assume he was joking, or ponder the revelatory power of such cracks?

It’s important to understand what’s going on here. Facebook isn’t sorry that it invaded people’s privacy and made it incredibly easy for people’s personal data to be abused. It’s sorry that we’ve found out about it.

We don’t know what the fallout of all of this will mean just yet. But it’s much more than just a technology story. Facebook is part of our lives, and as we’re beginning to discover, a very important part of politics. Facebook data wasn’t just weaponised by the Trump campaign but by the Leave.EU campaign too (with some really dodgy money moving around: Private Eye has done some excellent reporting on the links between Conservatives, the DUP and Leave.EU funding). We’re only just beginning to appreciate how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.

And that’s why I’m probably wrong that we’ll see a big effect on Facebook, let alone a rethink of the value of privacy and personal data in the digital world. There are some very powerful vested interests who really don’t want us to know what they’ve been using our personal data for.

Put it this way: on the Monday immediately after the Cambridge Analytica story broke, the its London offices were visited by a team of specialist digital forensics experts who came to audit its servers.

Not from the Information Commissioner’s office. They had to wait another four days to get a warrant, an extraordinarily long delay when we’re talking about a company storing digital information.

The forensic experts were from an organisation you don’t want anywhere near servers that might contain damning evidence about Facebook.

Yep.

Facebook.

Social media is different for girls

I retweeted a post by Common Space editor Angela Haggerty last night. If you’re not familiar with the social network Twitter, retweeting is when you copy somebody’s message so that the people who follow you on Twitter can see it.

As part of a thread on Twitter’s toxic abuse problem, Haggerty wrote:

Social media abuse is probably doing more long term harm to young women/girls, and they don’t have a voice in media. Some of the stories I’ve heard are frightening and I don’t think I could have coped with it as a teen. As adults we have a huge responsibility to fight this.

This isn’t remotely surprising to anybody who’s been paying attention. Social media can be toxic, and it can be especially toxic for young women – even more so if those women are from any minority group.

So naturally a complete stranger charged into my Twitter mentions to post widely-debunked Men’s Rights Activist nonsense: women are really the villains, men get more online abuse, lesbians are wife-beaters and so on.

I’ll spare you the ins and outs of my replies – executive summary: there’s tons of data that shows the significant difference in what men and women experience online; men are more likely to be told to piss off or called a cockwomble while women are more likely to be threatened with sexual violence – and present an anecdote instead.

I’ve been using social media since 1994*. I’ve been a journalist since 1998. And I didn’t come out online as trans until 2017.

That means I was a guy on social media for 23 years and a male journalist with publicly available social media and email for 19 years.

During that period, lots of people called me names and told me to fuck off. Some people made a hobby of it.

But the total amount of actual abuse I experienced in total over 19 years is less than many women experience in one day.

* CompuServe forums FTW! <g>