Facebook’s dominion

The Economist reports: Around a third of Facebook’s active users are in Asia (excluding China, where the service is blocked). Another third are in America and Europe; and the rest are elsewhere around the world. Of the top ten apps in India, Facebook controls three.

Facebook is in such an exalted position because no other company, with the exception of Google, has as many users, knows as much about their behaviour online and can target them as effectively. In addition to all the personal and geographical information, interests, social connections and photos users share, the social network is able to see where else they go online. Anywhere with a “like” symbol feeds back information, as do sites that allow people to log on with their Facebook credentials.

Advertisers can reach consumers with laserlike precision. An energy-drink company may target ads at parents of teenage athletes; a retailer can market goods to people from specific neighbourhoods who have visited its website. “There are three compulsory elements to online advertising today: you have to have a mobile website, and be involved with Google and Facebook,” says Peter Stabler of Wells Fargo, a bank. As a result Facebook claimed 19% and Google 35% of the $70 billion spent on mobile advertising worldwide in 2015, according to eMarketer, a research firm. Twitter and Yahoo had to make do with a meagre 2.5% and 1.5%, respectively.

Facebook is likely to remain on Google’s tail. Its core service continues to grow. Last year it added 200m new users. It has successfully outmanoeuvred regional competitors, such as Orkut, a social network owned by Google that was popular in Brazil. This is partly down to Mr Zuckerberg and his hacker mentality. He believes in rolling out products quickly: “Move fast and break things” is a company motto. [Continue reading…]

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Technology is not ruining our kids. Parents (and their technology) are ruining them

Jenny Anderson writes: Many of us worry what technology is doing to our kids. A cascade of reports show that their addiction to iAnything is diminishing empathy, increasing bullying (pdf), robbing them of time to play, and just be. So we parents set timers, lock away devices and drone on about the importance of actual real-live human interaction. And then we check our phones.

Sherry Turkle, a professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T. and the author, most recently, of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, turned the tables by imploring parents to take control and model better behavior.

A 15-year-old boy told her that: “someday he wanted to raise a family, not the way his parents are raising him (with phones out during meals and in the park and during his school sports events) but the way his parents think they are raising him — with no phones at meals and plentiful family conversation.”

Turkle explains the cost of too-much technology in stark terms: Our children can’t engage in conversation, or experience solitude, making it very hard for them to be empathetic. “In one experiment, many student subjects opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts,” she noted.

Unfortunately, it seems we parents are the solution. (Newsflash, kids aren’t going to give up their devices because they are worried about how it may influence their future ability to empathize.)

That means exercising some self-control. Many of us aren’t exactly paragons of virtue in this arena. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook groups act as weapons bazaars for militias

The New York Times reports: A terrorist hoping to buy an antiaircraft weapon in recent years needed to look no further than Facebook, which has been hosting sprawling online arms bazaars, offering weapons ranging from handguns and grenades to heavy machine guns and guided missiles.

The Facebook posts suggest evidence of large-scale efforts to sell military weapons coveted by terrorists and militants. The weapons include many distributed by the United States to security forces and their proxies in the Middle East. These online bazaars, which violate Facebook’s recent ban on the private sales of weapons, have been appearing in regions where the Islamic State has its strongest presence.

This week, after The New York Times provided Facebook with seven examples of suspicious groups, the company shut down six of them.

The findings were based on a study by the private consultancy Armament Research Services about arms trafficking on social media in Libya, along with reporting by The Times on similar trafficking in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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Adventures in the Trump Twittersphere

Zeynep Tufekci writes: Every morning since August, I have steeled myself to enter an alternate universe. I scroll through social media feeds where people are convinced that Congress funds the Islamic State, that our president hates this country and wants it to fail and that Donald J. Trump is the only glimmer of hope in this bleak landscape.

It’s my look at a list of Twitter users whom I’ve identified as Trump supporters. Some accounts have only a few followers while some have tens of thousands. (No one comes close to Mr. Trump himself, at more than seven million.) They include people of many professions and backgrounds. I found them by reading at responses to news media or political accounts, and then went on to seek out other accounts they followed. It’s a large, sprawling network.

As an academic, I study social media and social movements, from the uprising in Egypt to Black Lives Matter. As I watched this election season unfold, I wanted to gain a better understanding of the power of the Trump social media echo chamber. What I’ve been reading has surprised even my jaded eyes. It’s a world of wild falsehoods and some truth that you see only rarely in mainstream news outlets, or hear spoken among party elites.

It’s popular to argue today that Mr. Trump’s success is, in part, a creation of the traditional news media — cable networks that couldn’t get enough of his celebrity and the ratings it brought, and newspapers that didn’t scrutinize him with enough care. There is some truth in that, but the contention misses a larger reality.

Mr. Trump’s rise is actually a symptom of the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say. [Continue reading…]

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Humans of New York founder takes on Donald Trump

The New York Times reports: Brandon Stanton, the nimble shutterbug behind the immensely popular photo blog Humans of New York, has worked hard to filter politics and moral judgments out of his posts, intent on maintaining objectivity as he captures his subjects in words and on film, letting them speak for themselves.

That changed last week when Mr. Stanton, 32, shed his sedulously cultivated neutrality to take on Donald J. Trump, excoriating the Republican presidential candidate in a 300-word Facebook post presented as an open letter to Mr. Trump.

“I’ve watched you retweet racist images,” the post read in part. “I’ve watched you retweet racist lies. I’ve watched you take 48 hours to disavow white supremacy. I’ve watched you joyfully encourage violence, and promise to ‘pay the legal fees’ of those who commit violence on your behalf.”

The reaction was explosive. Within eight hours the post was shared 712,000 times, eventually garnering more than 2.2 million “likes,” 1,131,389 shares and 69,000 comments, making it among the most-shared posts in the history of Facebook. In the process, it turned Mr. Stanton, already a best-selling author, into a web sensation. [Continue reading…]

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Digital Intifada

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The Baltic elves taking on pro-Russian trolls

Michael Weiss writes from Vilnius, Lithuania: My elf was on time and surprisingly tall.

Mindaugas is an unassuming, thirtysomething advertising agency director by day, and a ferocious cyber-warrior by night. He started a phenomenon, here in Lithuania, of countering Kremlin propaganda and disinformation on the Internet. “We needed to call our group something. What to name it? Well, we were fighting trolls. So I said, ‘Let’s be elves.’”

There were 20 or 30 at first, when the trolls began a targeted campaign of leaving nasty comments about the Lithuanian government and society, usually pegged to a hatred of NATO, the European Union and, of course, the United States. Since then, elves have proliferated into the hundreds. They’re now scattered about neighboring Latvia and Estonia and have even been spotted as far north as Finland. The elves pride themselves on clandestinity and reclusiveness, and so I was quite lucky to catch this Lithuanian Legolas on my last night in Vilnius.

“Most of us were already participating in some online groups,” said this man, who suggests we call him Mindaugas in person. “Fighting the trolls on Facebook and vKontakte, giving examples of Russian lies. That’s how we met.”

Facebook is where the light skirmishes take place; the mortal combat is reserved for the comment sections of Lithuanian news articles, where the trolls loose a constant drizzle of falsehoods and complaints, each comment helping to construct an alternate reality version of life in this Baltic country of 3 million. Rather than a thriving and patriotic post-Soviet success story, which it is, the image the trolls cultivate is that of a demoralized and angry society whose people are ready for regime change, be it through internal democratic mechanisms or through “liberation” by a friendly neighboring army. [Continue reading…]

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Six ways Twitter has changed the world

By Sharon Coen, University of Salford; Aleksej Heinze, University of Salford; Deborah Chambers, Newcastle University; Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs, University of Salford; Philip James, Newcastle University, and Richard Jones, University of Huddersfield

After 10 years of documenting the world in 140 characters, Twitter now has more than 300m active users. This might be far fewer than Facebook’s 1.5 billion, but Twitter arguably has a disproportionate influence on the world, partly because it attracts a significant number of politicians, journalists, and celebrities. Our expert panel explain how their field has been changed by the little blue bird.


Politics

Sharon Coen, senior lecturer in media psychology, University of Salford

Twitter has obviously been used to raise awareness of political topics, spread political messages and coordinate collective action. This has often come through specific campaigns such as #blacklivesmatter (protesting violence against black people) and #JezWeCan (promoting the candidacy of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn).

But Twitter is also used to gauge public opinion, often producing a false sense of consensus or of how many people feel strongly about a topic (so-called Twitter storms). This is because users tend to connect with people who hold similar views to their own and are less likely to come across different issues and opinions. On top of this, by giving politicians personalised profiles similar to those of other famous people, Twitter has helped turn them into celebrities rather than public servants.

[Read more…]

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Russian atheist faces year in jail for denying existence of God during webchat

AFP reports: A man in southern Russia faces a potential jail sentence after he was charged with insulting the feelings of religious believers over an internet exchange in which he wrote that “there is no God”.

Viktor Krasnov, 38, who appeared in court Wednesday, is being prosecuted under a controversial 2013 law that was introduced after punk art group Pussy Riots was jailed for a performance in Moscow’s main cathedral, his lawyer Andrei Sabinin told AFP.

The charges – which carry a maximum one-year jail sentence – centre on an internet exchange that Krasnov was involved in in 2014 on a humorous local website in his hometown of Stavropol.

“If I say that the collection of Jewish fairytales entitled the Bible is complete bullshit, that is that. At least for me,” Krasnov wrote, adding later “there is no God!”

One of the young people involved in the dispute with Krasnov then lodged a complaint against him accusing him of “offending the sentiments of Orthodox believers”. [Continue reading…]

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Tech companies are eating journalists’ lunch. Shouldn’t they at least pay for it?

Richard Jones, University of Huddersfield

Journalism is in an existential crisis: revenue to news organisations has fallen off a cliff over the past two decades and no clear business model is emerging to sustain news in the digital era.

In the latest in our series on business models for the news media, Richard Jones asks whether tech companies that benefit from journalism should pay a levy to help sustain it.

Twitter was once described as the most significant innovation in journalism since the telephone. More than three quarters of journalists in the UK use it to gather stories, promote their own work and keep up with what’s going on.

But Twitter is in trouble. User growth slows every quarter, and is flat in the US. Squished between Facebook, Google and Apple, and under pressure to do more to tackle abuse, Twitter has lost some of its sparkle, not least to Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp.

Now back at the helm of the company he co-founded, Jack Dorsey recently signalled that Twitter’s most famous feature – the 140-character limit – might soon be lifted.

[Read more…]

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How the changing media is changing terrorism

Jason Burke writes: Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old petty criminal, spent much of the last 36 hours of his life crouched over a laptop in his small apartment in the south‑western French city of Toulouse. It was March 2012. Outside, armed police and journalists gathered. Merah reheated frozen food in a microwave and checked his weapons. He spoke with negotiators and described how he had travelled to Pakistan a few months earlier to receive some desultory training from a faction linked to al-Qaida. He also explained, incoherently, why he had killed seven people over the previous two weeks in a series of shootings. But most of the time, Merah worked on his computer.

Just a few hours before he was killed by armed police after a sustained firefight, Merah finished editing a 24-minute video clip. It was a compilation of images from the GoPro camera that he had attached to his body armour before each of his killings. GoPro primarily caters to practitioners of extreme sports who wish to obtain point-of-view footage of their adrenalin-charged exploits. Merah had filmed his preparations, the murders themselves and his motorbike getaways. His first three victims were off-duty soldiers, two Muslims and a Catholic. The others, a rabbi and three children, had died when he had attacked a Jewish school. The images showed how Merah had chased and caught one of those children: eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego, who had hesitated for a second when others ran, reluctant to abandon her school bag. Merah grabbed her by the hair, changed his weapon when the first jammed, and then finally shot the girl in the head.

Roughly 24 hours after police located Merah and surrounded his building, he managed to slip through a gap in the security cordon. He did not take the opportunity to escape. Instead, he walked to a postbox, deposited a package containing a USB stick with the video on it, and then returned to his home to await his own death.

The package he dropped into the postbox was addressed to al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV network. Merah was confident that al-Jazeera would broadcast the material because, in his words, it constantly showed “massacres and bombs and suchlike”. In fact, al-Jazeera did not show any of the clip because, the network said in a statement, Merah’s images did not “add any information” not already in the public domain and breached its ethical code.

The network’s decision did little to diminish the stream of horrendous violence that has been disseminated by Islamic militant groups and individuals in recent years. Since Merah’s death, the use and broadcast of graphic and violent images has reached an unprecedented level. Much of this is due to the emergence of the Islamic State (Isis), which launched its campaign to carve out an enclave in eastern Syria and western Iraq at around the time Merah was planning his killings. But much is also a result of the capabilities of the new technology that Isis has been able to exploit. [Continue reading…]

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Refugees and social media in a surveillance state

The New York Times reports: The Department of Homeland Security, at the urging of Congress, is building tools to more aggressively examine the social media accounts of all visa applicants and those seeking asylum or refugee status in the United States for possible ties to terrorist organizations.

Posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media can reveal a wealth of information that can be used to identify potential terrorists, but experts say the department faces an array of technical, logistical and language barriers in trying to analyze the millions of records generated every day.

After the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., “we saw that our efforts are not as robust as they need to be,” Francis X. Taylor, under secretary for intelligence and analysis, the top counterterrorism official at the Department of Homeland Security, said at a congressional hearing.

Travel industry officials and immigration rights advocates say the new policy carries the peril of making someone who posts legitimate criticism of American foreign policy or who has friends or followers who express sympathy toward terrorists subject to unwarranted scrutiny.

Their concerns underline the mounting challenge for law enforcement agencies that are trying to keep pace with the speed and scope of technology as terrorists turn to social media as an essential tool.

“We haven’t seen the policy, but it is a concern considering the already lengthy and opaque process that refugees have to go through,” said Melanie Nezer of HIAS, a group that helps resettle refugees in the United States. “It could keep out people who are not a threat.” Several trade organizations in the travel industry said they had similar concerns.

The attackers in San Bernardino, Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, had exchanged private online messages discussing their commitment to jihad and martyrdom, law enforcement officials said. But they did not post any public messages about their plans on Facebook or other social media platforms, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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The BuzzFeed business model: data, learning, dollars

Fast Company reports: Across all the platforms where it now publishes content, the company generates 5 billion monthly views—half from video, a business that effectively did not exist two years ago. Traffic to the website has remained steady — 80 million people in the U.S. every month, putting it ahead of The New York Times — even though as much as 75% of BuzzFeed’s content is now published somewhere else.

BuzzFeed has become the envy of the media world for its seemingly magical ability to engineer stories and ads that are shared widely — whether it’s a dress that looks to be either white and gold or blue and black, an investigation into taxpayer-funded “ghost schools” in Afghanistan, or an older cat imparting wisdom to a kitten on behalf of Purina. Rivals in the insular media world carp that BuzzFeed is gaming Facebook’s algorithm, or buying ads to pump up its content, and both are unsustainable; viral smashes like the dress are mere luck; even traditional brands such as The Washington Post can beat BuzzFeed with their own traffic-oriented gambits.

What’s lost here is a true understanding of what Peretti, one of the world’s most astute observers of Internet behavior, has built. The company’s success is rooted in a dynamic, learning-driven culture; BuzzFeed is a continuous feedback loop where all of its articles and videos are the input for its sophisticated data operation, which then informs how BuzzFeed creates and distributes the advertising it produces. In a diagram showing how the system works, Peretti synthesized it down to “data, learning, dollars.” [Continue reading…]

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The offline allure of ISIS

ISIS-instructor

TSG IntelBrief: Two recent announcements highlight the difference between the so-called Islamic State’s reach on social media and its real-world appeal. On February 5, 2016, Twitter announced it had suspended more than 125,000 accounts for supporting terrorism since mid-2015. On the same day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that 34 militant groups worldwide had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as of last December, with more likely in 2016. The Islamic State’s social media efforts have always received disproportionate attention. Less attention has been paid to the offline power of the group in terms of radicalization and recruitment. Social networks matter more than social media when it comes to proliferating the ideology of bin-Ladinism espoused by both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

From pamphlets to audio cassette tapes—and now videos and mobile messaging apps—terrorists have always sought to broadcast their ideology to motivate and rally people to their cause. But the real propagation of terrorism requires salesmen and saleswomen—people who understand that the principles of persuasion begin with a deep understanding of the prospective customer. Graphic tweets may produce headlines, but persuasive individuals produce recruits, often in clusters.

The eight young men who left the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad, Norway, to join the Islamic State in Syria did not join because of social media, even if it did help spread the group’s message. All were reportedly motivated to join the Islamic State by the example of Abdullah Chaib, a charismatic local soccer player who traveled to Syria in 2012. The small group of friends created a feedback loop of motivation and encouragement that did not depend on Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, the terror recruit cluster in Molenbeek, Belgium thrived on networks built around friendship and familial ties, not Telegram or Kik. This same dynamic of peer-to-peer recruitment and consistent face-to-face interaction produced the cluster in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region of Minnesota. Long-time foreign fighter hotbeds such as Derna, Libya, and Bizerte and Ben Gardane in Tunisia rely on decidedly offline networks to export extremism. [Continue reading…]

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Invasion of the body snatchers

Jacob Weisberg writes: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an average of every 4.3 minutes — according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? [Continue reading…]

As one of those eccentric, socially marginalized but not quite old aged people without a smartphone, it means I now live in a world where it seems the mass of humanity has become myopic.

A driver remains stationary in front of a green light.

A couple sit next to each other in an airport, wrapped in silence with attention directed elsewhere down their mutually exclusive wormholes.

A jogger in the woods, hears no birdsong because his ears are stuffed with plastic buds delivering private tunes.

Amidst all this divided attention, one thing seems abundantly clearly: devices tap into and amplify the desire to be some place else.

To be confined to the present place and the present time is to be trapped in a prison cell from which the smartphone offers escape — though of course it doesn’t.

What it does is produce an itch in time; a restless sense that we don’t have enough — that an elusive missing something might soon appear on that mesmerizing little touchscreen.

The effect of this refusal to be where we are is to impoverish life as our effort to make it larger ends up doing the reverse.

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