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>

The best democracy money can buy

This is superb journalism, very frightening and quite clearly the tip of an iceberg.

Observer: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach.

The short version: one company surreptitiously and unethically gathered data on 1/3 of US Facebook users and used it to precision-target them with political messages on behalf of the Trump campaign.

The algorithm at the heart of the Facebook data breach sounds almost too dystopian to be real. It trawls through the most apparently trivial, throwaway postings –the “likes” users dole out as they browse the site – to gather sensitive personal information about sexual orientation, race, gender, even intelligence and childhood trauma.

A few dozen “likes” can give a strong prediction of which party a user will vote for, reveal their gender and whether their partner is likely to be a man or woman, provide powerful clues about whether their parents stayed together throughout their childhood and predict their vulnerability to substance abuse. And it can do all this without an need for delving into personal messages, posts, status updates, photos or all the other information Facebook holds.

Meet the data whistleblower.

How Likes became a weapon.

The same company was used by the Leave side during the run-up to the Brexit referendum.

The data in this scandal is a tiny proportion of the data Facebook has on everybody.

Here’s your regular reminder that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, plans to run for President of the USA.

If it’s outrageous, it’s contagious. And dangerous

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but an algorithm.

In the New York Times. Zeynep Tufekci describes YouTube’s radicalisation problem. No matter the starting point, it recommends increasingly extreme content.

YouTube has recently come under fire for recommending videos promoting the conspiracy theory that the outspoken survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., are “crisis actors” masquerading as victims. Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia, recently “seeded” a YouTube account with a search for “crisis actor” and found that following the “up next” recommendations led to a network of some 9,000 videos promoting that and related conspiracy theories, including the claim that the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax.

What we are witnessing is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire

We like conspiracies. We want to know the news THEY don’t want us to see, the products THEY tried to ban, the secrets THEY don’t want us to know. And such bullshit has been around for centuries.

What’s different is that previously, the bullshit wasn’t mainstream. The much-derided media “gatekeepers” ensured that this shit didn’t spread beyond very small groups of people. Extreme and unhinged voices were largely unable to get a platform.

Now, we don’t have gatekeepers. For younger people YouTube and Facebook are their BBC and CNN, and there’s often an assumption that if it’s on these sites it must be okay. And it’s not okay. It’s far from okay.

Extremist content isn’t just being uploaded; it’s staying up. Good luck reporting actual Nazis to Twitter, or actual Nazi propaganda to Facebook, or bigotry and hate speech on any social network.

Free speech über alles. Fuck the consequences.

The “if it’s outrageous it’s contagious” approach prioritises the worst of us. It has turned social media into a very dangerous weapon.

We’ll be reaping the whirlwind for a long time to come.

YouTube and Facebook are fuelling fake news and bigotry

This is absolutely terrifying: YouTube has a “conspiracy ecosystem”.

YouTube viewers who started searching for information on “crisis actors” — people who supposedly play roles as mass shooting survivors to push gun control — could soon find themselves tumbling down a rabbit hole of conspiracies about the the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the JFK assassination and Pizzagate, the hoax about a supposed child molestation ring run by Democratic Party luminaries out of a Washington pizzeria.

“It’s a conspiracy ecosystem,” said Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “It’s growing, not only in size but in depth.”

Exactly the same thing happens on Facebook.

The problem is “trending” content, the stuff you’re recommended by Facebook and YouTube’s algorithms, which then leads to other things.

As Frederic Filloux writes in his Monday Note newsletter:

For both YouTube (the world’s main provider of videos) and Facebook (the dominant vector of fake news), solving this problem would actually be easy: kill Trending Topics, which has a terrible track record. But neither tech giant will do that, because that’s where the advertising money is.

That money is mainstreaming extreme views. Some of the people who subscribe to the “crisis actor” bullshit are violent bigots; therefore if you view some crisis actor bullshit you’re likely to see other content relevant to violent bigots. It’s not long before you’re in very disturbing territory.

As the columnist Christopher Mims notes:

Facebook is a unique enabler of extremism, full stop. “If it’s outrageous, it’s contagious” is literally the bedrock, fundamental modus operandi of its engagement-optimizing algorithms.

Detox your digital life without giving up your digital life

We’re coming out of digital detox season, where newspaper columnists share the incredible insight that you can get a lot of stuff done if you don’t spend all your time dicking about on the internet. But as the developers of the excellent iA Writer app point out, taking a break is good but going offline permanently is hardly desirable or practical.

…you can’t escape digital culture as long as you live in a society that lives on digital fuel. If you block email you’ll have trouble holding onto most jobs. If you have no cellphone people just won’t get in touch with you anymore. Who calls landlines these days? However long your digital Sabbatical, you will inevitably get sucked back in. And so will your kids.

What you can do, they argue, is to make your digital life more meaningful. They use the analogy of being a tourist walking down a busy street in a foreign city: the people yelling to get your attention aren’t generally the people you should be paying attention to. As in life, so online.

The challenge when you are in is to not become passive. To change from consumer to maker, following to self-thinking, quoter to commentator, liker to publisher, but mostly, from getting angry about headlines of articles you haven’t read to reading precisely, asking questions, researching, fact-checking, thinking clearly and writing carefully.

These are the developers of a writing app, so they’re talking primarily to writers. But it’s sensible advice generally. It’s easy to fall into a passive role online, to consume only the content that’s pushed to you. In the era of social media that’s often the lowest quality content.

The article talks about blogs, and the changes to blogging culture that have seen blogs and blogging become very much a niche activity (incidentally, almost 20 years ago I wrote my first ever piece of published journalism about the then-new niche trend of people publishing online “journals”. It’s come full circle and is a niche once more).

One of the reasons blogging has fallen from favour, and there are many others, is that commenting – what used to be the lifeblood of blogging, the conversations that began when your post finished – became poisoned. Drive-by bullshit from complete strangers. Spammers and hackers trying to drive traffic to other websites. And marketing.

God, the marketing.

Even now, there isn’t a single day when I don’t get approached by somebody wanting to publish a guest post to my blog, or asking me to replace a dead link from a post I published in 2005 with a link to their site, or an offer of an infographic, or any of the other things that I say I don’t publish on the sodding contact page of this website.

So the comments had to go.

Comments were the first core function that got gamed. For trolls, PR companies using persona software, SEO blackhats, spammers, and dogs pretending to be humans the comments section was free sex. Commenting costs nothing. Managing comments sections is so expensive that even big media organizations can no longer afford them.

I also stopped blogging here for some time because I felt I was saying what I wanted to say on social media. But whether that was true or not, what I was saying wasn’t being read. Unless you upset somebody famous a tweet is just a drop in Twitter’s Niagara Falls, a Facebook post something that a handful of people will see if Facebook deems your post worthy of their attention.

iA again:

it’s writing as opposed to liking, thinking as opposed to reacting, owning your traffic as opposed to building up your Facebook followers that one day a Zuckerberg will take away from you when it suits his needs.

What I’m finding works best is to mix things up, to continue with short, sharp, knee-jerk stuff on social media and to post more interesting things by others here (as well as to post my own longer, more rambly thoughts). I still share the links on social media, but I don’t hand over the entire content to Facebook or Twitter: it remains here, where it can be discovered long after social media sites’ short attention spans have moved on.

Writing gets real when it is read. Before that, it is a dream in letters.

A dream in letters. I like that.

“My computer turned into a Nazi.”

The banality of evil: I married a white supremacist. 

As it turned out, becoming a Nazi was not unlike catching a common virus like the flu, and then having it spiral out of control as it hijacked your immune system and ultimately your common sense. As I tried to retrace my ex-husband’s descent into madness, my very Jewish computer became an alt-right conspiracy theorist whose new interests included obsessing over the “fake news” of the far left and praising President Donald Trump’s (then candidate Trump’s) candor and can-do promises which, as of yet, remain largely unfulfilled.

The villain of the peace: how online ads broke the world

Silent movie villain
(Is it me, or does this look like Jeremy Clarkson?)

As I write this there’s a scandal developing at Newsweek with District Attorney raids, all kinds of lurid allegations and staff apparently fired for investigating their own company.

Senior writer Matt Cooper resigned, and in his letter he wrote:

It’s the installation of editors… who relentlessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness, that leaves me most despondent not only for Newsweek but for other publications that don’t heed the lessons of this publication’s fall.

Clicks at the expense of accuracy is a pretty good way to sum up not just online news sites, but all online media.

As the ever readable Farhad Manjoo writes in the New York Times, the internet’s central villain is the advertising business.

(As a writer for many ad-funded media outlets I’m aware of the irony in posting this.)

As Manjoo puts it:

the online ad machine is also a vast, opaque and dizzyingly complex contraption with underappreciated capacity for misuse — one that collects and constantly profiles data about our behavior, creates incentives to monetize our most private desires and frequently unleashes loopholes that the shadiest of people are only too happy to exploit.

It’s a severely broken and easily manipulated system that prioritises and rewards the worst of us: fake news over facts, scaremongering over science, horror over humanity. It’s a playground for bigots and propagandists, trolls and fraudsters and extremists of all kinds.

And this system, this terrible monster that’s poisoning so much of everyday discourse, is the one we asked for. It’s become the system that drives everything online – which means it drives much of real life too.

“Pay for stuff? Sod that!” we told the internet. “Mine our misery for money!”

It turns out that wasn’t our smartest idea.

As Manjoo concludes:

In 2015, Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, warned about the dangers of the online ad business, especially its inherent threat to privacy. I wrote a column in which I took Mr. Cook to task — I argued that he had not acknowledged how ad-supported services improved his own company’s devices.

I stand by that view, but now I also regret dismissing his warning so cavalierly. Socially, politically and culturally, the online ad business is far more dangerous than I appreciated. Mr. Cook was right, and we should have listened to him.