How Russia uses social media to stir conflict

Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed an army of trolls and bots. His bad intentions go beyond revenge and interference in U.S. elections. Recently, postings from his motley crew have resulted in deaths due to a measles outbreak in Europe.

image: Rantt

Putin never forgave Hillary Clinton for the mass protests against his government in 2011. He was convinced that Clinton was seeking a “regime change” in Russia. Hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email server threw the Clinton campaign into disarray. Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Moscow until early 2014, commented: “One could speculate that this is his moment for payback.”

Canada is not immune. Putin doesn’t like Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. As a reporter, she called him an authoritarian, an autocrat and “really dangerous.” Months after she became minister, Putin banned her from Russia. Canadians have been targeted through Facebook. Russian trolls befriend unsuspecting users to spread their propaganda.

To be clear, I like Facebook and use it daily but I’m very careful about friend requests. I personally know most of my contacts and others are friends of people I trust. But Facebook admits that hundreds of millions of others have been sucked into the Russian vortex. If you’re not sure, check your Facebook account here for any Russian agents. If the box is empty, it doesn’t mean that you weren’t exposed, it just means that you didn’t engage them.

The motive of Russian trolls is to agitate and divide countries with the hope that governments will be thrown into chaos. That’s easily done in the U.S. with a president that refuses to admit what everyone knows: the Russians interfered in his election.

Russian trolls are responsible for the public health misinformation that led to a measles outbreak in Europe this summer where cases doubled over 2017 and 37 people died.

Heidi Larson, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CBC Radio’s The Current about her research. Here’s the exchange between CBC host Piya Chattopadhyay and Dr. Larson:

Piya: “And specifically I want to ask you about Facebook because as you know Facebook has been accused of contributing to misinformation — in other arenas, in other contexts. How has Facebook contributed to misinformation about vaccines?

Heidi: Oh I think it has contributed significantly. But these new tools: social media, Facebook, they are organizational tools, they’re not just about spreading information — they’re empowering groups of people not even geographically local across different locations to organize into groups. And that kind of organizational power that these tools have given some of these anti-sentiments is I think as concerning as the negative sentiments.”

The malicious posts have been traced back to the Russian troll farm, Internet Research Agency.

Researchers found that trolls were 22 more likely to tweet using a hashtag referencing vaccines than the average user. Echo chambers embolden Facebook users into thinking their bizarre thoughts are valid. It turns out that when just 25 per cent of people in your social media network are against vaccination, it can delay or prevent vaccination –even for those who previously were ready to vaccinate their children.

Facebook and Twitter are working remove agents who want to undermine democracy. Meanwhile, we need to be vigilant.

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Facebook is a Canadian utility

So many Canadians use Facebook that it should be regulated like any other Canadian utility. No broadcaster or telephone company would operate in Canada without government oversight. We should make it comply with our regulations as with other communications utilities.

      image: Tod Maffin

It’s the most-used Canadian social media. Ninety-four percent of Canadians aged 18 to 44 have a Facebook account. Overall, 84 per cent of us have an account and 80 per cent check the site daily according to The State of Social Media in Canada, 2017.

Now, Facebook is about to become more integrated into our lives with an announcement May 1, 2108, of a dating service. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: “And if we are committed to building meaningful relationships, then this is perhaps the most meaningful of all.”

Facebook’s phenomenal rise has made it a monopoly. Canadian professors Andrew Clement and David Lyon say:

“In light of Facebook’s overwhelming grip on the social networking industry, the commissioner of competition should investigate the company for its monopolistic behaviour (Globe and Mail, April 23, 2018).”

Facebook’s ascent has left governments behind. Other communications industries have taken decades to mature and regulations have kept pace. Regulators have had time to insure that TV, radio and telephone companies meet Canadian standards of privacy, identity and sovereignty.

“The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) should learn to treat social-media enterprises as utilities,” says Clement and Lyon.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of Facebook’s grip. It seems so personal that there’s a conspiracy theory claiming Facebook is eavesdropping on people’s conversations through their smartphones and using that insight to serve ads. Tech expert Avery Swartz finds this ironic:

“People find it hard to believe that computers could know so much about them, even though they are voluntarily feeding their information into the machine. For private citizens, Facebook’s targeted advertising is creepy. For advertisers, it’s captivating (Globe and Mail, April 23, 2018).”

Facebook doesn’t sell users’ data to advertisers. It sells access to data, so advertisers can target their ads to specific audiences. No wonder that advertisers like Facebook. They can place an ad for as little as one dollar a day and ad campaigns can be created for $100.

Targeted advertising is hardly unique to Facebook. It’s been around much longer than the internet. Big businesses target consumers by placing ads on certain TV stations at specific times. They distribute flyers to targeted neighbourhoods.

However, the issue is not targeted advertising. It’s the way that Facebook treats Canadians and whether its practices align with the values and practices imposed on other communications utilities.

There’s been a campaign to #DeleteFacebook but given how integrated the social medium is in the lives of Canadians, it’s not likely to succeed. An Angus Reid survey revealed that only four per cent plan to delete their accounts.

“Given its business model,” add Clement and Lyon, “Facebook on its own cannot meet the objectives of Canadian media regulations – advancing Canada’s identity and sovereignty, its social and economic fabric, universal accessibility, neutrality, affordability, openness, public accountability and rights protection.”

Canadians like Facebook. Now’s the time help Facebook like Canadians by making it truly ours.

The titans of technology have feet of clay

Technology seems unstoppable. The accumulated wealth of the Big Five: Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, have a combined value of $4 trillion. That’s more than twice Canada’s annual GDP.

     image: Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal

Wall Street also looked unstoppable before the crash of 2008. Cryptic investments made amazing returns but finance wizardry also has feet of clay. Conor Sen, business columnist for Bloomberg Views, summarizes that vulnerability:

“Markets became irrational about how profitable the financial sector could become relative to the underlying economy, and in response to these market pressures, finance came up with increasingly elaborate schemes to make money that weren’t sustainable (Globe and Mail).”

Facebook and Google have the advertising world wrapped up. The clever duo don’t have to hire reporters to dig up news because users generate their own content.  Facebook and Google and benefit in three ways: by encouraging users to generate content, collecting detailed profiles of users, and then selling advertisements to those very users. Users happily post pictures of adorable kittens, videos, inflammatory and sometimes interesting comments (but not much actual news).

While Facebook and Google couldn’t care less about the loss of newspapers and other news sources, they should be worried about the financial health of their advertisers. Companies can afford to advertise only because they are viable. Amazon is profitable because third-party vendors choose to sell on Amazon.

“In other words,” says Sen, “for the most part, the big five tech companies exist at their current size and scale only because they serve a larger underlying economy of profitable companies.”

Tech giants exist in an economic ecosystem. There has to be a balance between the top predators and the health of the ecosystem which they feed. There’s going to be trouble for the big fish once the little fish stop feeding them.

Tech giants don’t just suck only advertising revenue from traditional sources. They also provide services that didn’t exist when newspapers ruled; like the cloud computing services provided by Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Cloud computing also depends on a viable economy.

The titans of technology could harm the very businesses they depend on. For example, Blue Apron, a meal-delivery company, has been a prolific online advertiser. What if Amazon were to establish a company and put Blue Apron out of business? It’s not inconceivable. Last year, Amazon bought Whole Foods for $17 billion and even the world’s biggest retailer Walmart took notice. Target is cutting advertising to stay in the game.

Fossil Group has been struggling lately. Sales of their watch have been dropping, perhaps because of the popularity of Apple Watch. If Fossil Group starts to cut back on advertising, Facebook and Google would lose ad revenue. Amazon would lose sales of the Fossil watch as well.

Owning a newspaper used to be a licence to print money. The marriage of news and advertising seemed solid. Now readers get “news” from the internet. Selling advertising on a medium where the content is generated by the target audience seems like a sure thing.

Amazon, Google and Facebook have a parasitic relationship to the economy. Other than advertising and marketing the products of others, their contribution to the economy is minimal.

Facebook tests honest ads in Canada

Facebook hasn’t been completely honest. They haven’t made it clear how we pay for the service.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with 2 billion active users –I’m one of them. What I get from Facebook is the opportunity to connect with friends and family. What Facebook gets is $52 billion a year in advertising, an average of $80 per North American user annually. I get a valuable service and Facebook gets $80. But what’s troubling me is: just who is trying to influence me? Who have I sold myself to?

The answer hasn’t been clear because the true source of postings isn’t always obvious.  An investigation by the U.S. Senate revealed that Russians anonymously influenced the outcome of the last presidential election. Facebook told the Senate that Russian agents placed 80,000 posts that were seen by 150 million Americans.

Earlier this year, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos said that Russians bought 3,000 ads amounting to $100,000 between June 2015 and May of 2017. In violation to Facebook’s policy, 470 were connected to inauthentic accounts. Not all the ads were overtly political.

“Rather,” says Stamos, “the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

Such propaganda sneaks by our defences unnoticed because of the homey feel of Facebook; you don’t expect disinformation to be bundled with posts from friends.

Other Russian accounts weren’t subtle at all. One Facebook posting was from a fake group called “United Muslims of America.” It targeted actual Muslims. The group claimed that Hillary Clinton admitted that the U.S. “created, funded and armed” al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Another Russian Facebook group, “Army of Jesus,” featured Jesus arm-wrestling Satan in which Clinton is Satan. Trump is “an honest man who cares deeply for his country,” the group added.

Facebook knows you well. They know where you live, what you like and what you share, where you travel, what you do for a living, when you are online and for how long. Facebook knows you in unimaginable detail. There are more than 52,000 Facebook categories used to microtarget ads to your interests and desires according ProPublica: subtleties of your character that that even you may not even be aware of.

In an attempt to clear the fog of deception, Facebook Canada has announced that they are going to pull the curtain back and reveal more about advertisers. Ads will now have to be associated with a Facebook page –that’s already standard with brand-name products. And ads will reveal how you have been targeted.

The U.S. Senate wants Facebook to go further with their proposed Honest Ads Act. The act would require disclosure of the rate charged for the ad, the name of candidates in the case of political ads, and contact information of the purchaser.

In the past CEO Mark Zuckerberg has resisted, claiming that Facebook is just a technology company. Now it’s becoming abundantly clear that Facebook is not just a sharing platform but a publisher, and as such must be responsible for its content.

Unmasking Uber and Facebook

Let’s stop pretending that Uber is just along for the ride in the gig economy and that Facebook is just a technology company.

gig

At first glance, the gig economy seems great: a way for individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit to improve themselves. The reality is that it’s a race to the bottom. For many workers, it’s all they have. They string together a number of insecure, low paying, temporary jobs to try to keep the wolf from the door.

Mortgage companies are reluctant to lend to those without secure work. Gig workers have trouble saving for retirement; they have no sick or maternity leave; no health care plans. Workers are easily abused because of the one-to-one relationship with employers.

It’s easy to become complacent if you have a reliable income. Someone like me, for example. On my visit Los Angeles last year I used Uber. I marveled at the technology that allowed me watch the car’s progress from blocks away on my tablet. I was impressed by the courteous driver and his new, clean car and the low fare.

But those of us with reliable incomes should worry as full-time positions are eroded by the gig economy.

Uber professes to be just an app that connects drivers with passengers; a dubious claim says Carl Mortished:

“That was Uber’s wizard scheme: to make money from millions of taxi journeys without actually employing a single driver or even being part of the transaction. It was about making money from the gig economy without doing a single gig (Globe and Mail, November 4, 2016).”

Judges in England found Uber’s claim that it was not an employer to be unbelievable. Drivers have no control over choice of customers, fares, and routes traveled. They are subject to a rating system that amounts to a disciplinary procedure. Judges ruled that drivers were entitled to minimum wages and paid holidays.

Facebook harbors its own pretensions. At an event in Rome last year, an audience member asked founder Mark Zuckerberg if Facebook was an “editor in the media?” He replied that Facebook does not produce content but merely “exists to give the tools to give you the tools to curate and have the experience to connect to the world that you want.” Mortished disagrees:

“What Mr. Zuckerberg says is untrue. Facebook is editing and making content. Facebook is paying millions of dollars to celebrities and other media organizations to make videos for Facebook Live.”

Facebook edits its website: banning, deleting and restricting content that doesn’t fit their rules. They ran into a storm of protest when editors deleted the famous Vietnam War photo of naked girl fleeing an American napalm attack.

Facebook should grow up. It’s no longer the college photo-sharing web site it once was. Facebook would prefer not to be classified as a publisher because it would find itself in the messy business of being responsible for content that might be offensive, defamatory, or potentially criminal.

I’m not against Uber. Properly implemented, it could improve taxi service and provide fair working conditions for drivers. I like Facebook. It keeps me in touch with friends and family. But let’s avoid the charade, Mr. Zuckerberg, of the exact nature of the business that you’re in.

Why you are safe on social media

When Virginia Champoux’s husband received a lung transplant, her social media usage jumped. “Facebook became her daily – often hourly – outlet for sharing the agonizing, surreal, and occasionally funny details of Jay’s struggle to survive,” writes Jonathan Kay in Walrus magazine (June, 2016).

FB privacy

She wrote about her husband’s struggle to live; the psychotic response to his medication; his penchant for ordering odd products online; his fight to digest solid foods. It seems there was nothing she wouldn’t share.

At first glance, Champoux seems to be a poster child for reckless social media. Not so. “I am meticulous in following certain rules. In general, my children are referred to by initials –never their full names. If I post pictures, they are only visible to my friends –never public. And I always ask other parents’ permission if I post a picture of their own children,” said the Montreal native.

More than that, she has carefully made Facebook lists which specify the breadth of her circles. Lists such as “Cancer” (only those who have suffered from it), “work,” “French” (some francophones are offended by her English posts), “close friends,” “B-list,” “D-list,” and the ultra elite “VVIP” list which is limited to the eight most important people in her life.

I was curious about what she shared publically on her Facebook site. So I looked her up (she was the only one listed). Sure enough, there are videos of Jay walking with a tree of IV bags and posts from the day of his death. I felt a bit voyeuristic but I wanted to see if Champoux had changed or deleted any of the posts since being featured in a national magazine. As far as I could tell, they were all there.

Not everyone would be so willing to share the most painful moments of their lives but that’s the point: for some grieving is private matter, for others it’s cathartic.

Privacy means “the right to be left alone.” That right has never been more challenged with the advent of technology and social media where the greatest volume personal thoughts are shared. It’s been a struggle. In 2011, Facebook was accused of deceiving users by leading us to believe that they were protecting our privacy while allowing access to our lives to third-party software developers.

Facebook responded by tightening security to allow as much or as little public access to your posts as you wish. The problem is that most people don’t use the privacy settings that Facebook provides –all the while complaining about loss of privacy.

Social media users have not kept up with the changes. Instead, they worry. According to a poll done in 2015, 64 per cent of Canadians are worried about how corporations treat their personal data. Of that group, only 13 per cent feel they have total control of their information.

Social media corporations respond to complaints because it’s in their best interest, Kay concludes. “The most remarkable aspect of this privacy revolution is that it is being powered primarily not by new laws, but by corporations acting in their own economic self-interest.”

Facebook knows you best

Does Facebook know you better than your friends do, or even better than you know yourself? Lily Ames conducted an experiment to find out and reported the results to CBC Radio’s technology program Spark.

like

The personality program she tried is called Apply Magic Sauce, developed by The University of Cambridge Psychometrics Centre. It takes your Facebook “likes” and gives you a score based on a database of six million social media profiles.

When Lily ran her Facebook likes through the program, she was surprised at how well it scored on most of 20 things. It nailed her age within two years, religion, gender, education in journalism.

Then she compared those results with a standard test from Cambridge. It categorized her personality in five areas: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. She agreed with the test results with the exception of extraversion which she thought was low, especially when she considered extraversion as one of her defining traits.

Then five of Lily’s friends filled out a questionnaire on her personality. Surprisingly, the Facebook likes corresponded more closely to the standard test than either her own opinion or those generated by her friends.

Not so surprising says David Stillwell, a researcher at the Psychometrics Centre. Who we are is a philosophical question. Then, maybe we are not just one but different personalities; our self-impressions, the digital projection of ourselves online, and our personality as perceived by friends.

I was curious about what my Facebook likes would reveal about me so I tried the Apply Magic Sauce algorithm only to find that I didn’t have enough likes on Facebook to make an assessment. “Sorry, we are unable to generate a prediction.” was the reply “An insufficient number of your Likes match with those in our database, and we don’t believe in guesswork. Please take our full personality test, if you would still like to receive scientific feedback on your traits. Thanks!”

So I did. I took the full personality test and here’s the results. I scored highest on openness,73%, which reflects intellectual curiosity. Next was agreeableness, 69%, which suggests that I’m easy to get along with. Then conscientiousness, 66%, a measure of how organized I am. Extraversion, 54%, a gauge of social interaction. Finally neuroticism, 24%, my response to life’s demands. “Based on your responses, you come across as someone who is rarely bothered by things, and when they do get you down the feeling does not persist for very long,” the assessment elaborated.

It seemed fairly accurate, but then, why wouldn’t it when I’m the one who answered the questions?

Social media such as Facebook contain a wealth of data about ourselves that we may not intentionally reveal. Lily couldn’t even remember liking the Saskatchewan Roughriders. And a she was only being ironic when she “liked” new fashion trend.

No problem, says Stillwell. “From a prediction perspective, it doesn’t matter, as long as there is a link between people liking something and their personality. If everyone likes it because they are being ironic, then maybe it would be related to low agreeableness. But it doesn’t matter because the prediction still works.”