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.

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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.”