Chinese officials ‘create 488 million bogus social media posts a year’

The Guardian reports: The Chinese government is fabricating almost 490m social media posts a year in order to distract the public from criticising or questioning its rule, according to a study.

China’s “Fifty Cent Party” – a legion of freelance online trolls so-named because they are believed to be paid 50 cents a post – has long been blamed for flooding the Chinese internet with pro-regime messages designed to defend and promote the ruling Communist party.

However, the study by Harvard University researchers (pdf) claims many of those comments are not posted by ordinary citizens, as previously thought, but by civil servants who double as online stooges.

An analysis of nearly 43,800 posts found that 99.3% were the work of government employees working for more than 200 agencies, including tax and social security and human resources bureaux. [Continue reading…]

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For Twitter, ties to CIA create worse ‘optics’ than links to Russian government

L Gordon Crovitz writes: Silicon Valley’s hostility to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement reached a new low last week when Twitter rejected the Central Intelligence Agency as a customer for data based on its tweets — while continuing to serve an entity controlled by Vladimir Putin.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Twitter decided U.S. intelligence services could no longer buy services from Dataminr, which has a unique relationship with Twitter. Dataminr is the only company Twitter allows to have access to its full stream of hundreds of millions of daily tweets and sell the resulting intelligence to customers. Dataminr applies “big data” algorithms to identify unusual developments in real time. Customers who can profit from knowing about events instantly, such as hedge funds and news publishers, pay a hefty price for the alerts.

For the past two years, Dataminr provided its service to the CIA under a pilot program. The CIA and Dataminr then negotiated a contract to continue the service, but sources say Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey vetoed the contract at the last minute because he objects to the “optics” of continuing to help intelligence agencies. It’s unclear what happens to a small agreement Dataminr previously made with the Department of Homeland Security. With the new policy dictated by Twitter, Dataminr should drop the claim on its website that it includes “clients in the public sector, providing information first when there are lives at stake.”

Among the customers still getting the Dataminr alerts is RT, the broadcaster created and funded by the Russian government. Vladimir Putin has said that the government runs RT to “try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.” RT disclosed it is a Dataminr customer in its news account of Twitter barring the CIA. Agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service, formerly known as the KGB, have full access via RT to the alerts now being denied to the CIA. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook news selection is in hands of editors not algorithms, documents show

The Guardian reports: Leaked documents show how Facebook, now the biggest news distributor on the planet, relies on old-fashioned news values on top of its algorithms to determine what the hottest stories will be for the 1 billion people who visit the social network every day.

The documents, given to the Guardian, come amid growing concerns over how Facebook decides what is news for its users. This week the company was accused of an editorial bias against conservative news organizations, prompting calls for a congressional inquiry from the US Senate commerce committee chair, John Thune.

The boilerplate about its news operations provided to customers by the company suggests that much of its news gathering is determined by machines: “The topics you see are based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location,” says a page devoted to the question “How does Facebook determine what topics are trending?”

But the documents show that the company relies heavily on the intervention of a small editorial team to determine what makes its “trending module” headlines – the list of news topics that shows up on the side of the browser window on Facebook’s desktop version. The company backed away from a pure-algorithm approach in 2014 after criticism that it had not included enough coverage of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in users’ feeds. [Continue reading…]

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Racism is a system of oppression, not a series of gaffes

Gary Younge writes: On the weekend in 2001 when Oldham went up in flames during a series of racially charged disturbances, I was at a garden party at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival – when I, along with many others, heard Germaine Greer using the term “nigger in a woodpile”. I walked away, not particularly interested in her justification for using that offensive word. By the time the weekend was through I’d had several calls from newspaper diarists asking me to comment on the incident.

I refused. Irritated as I had been, I saw no need to dignify the moment with more importance than it was due. On the weekend when working-class youth in one of Britain’s poorest cities took to the streets in protest, the fact that I had found a comment at a cocktail party from a fellow columnist racially offensive defied any decent sense of priority or proportion.

Make no mistake, I was offended and had every right to be. Words have consequences, and micro-aggressions matter. Often they are emblematic of broader issues; often they have an exclusory effect. This is a word that I’m not comfortable being around, even when black people use it. (Its use by the comedian Larry Wilmore to refer to Barack Obama at this weekend’s White House correspondents’ dinner set tongues wagging.) But being offended is not a political position. Not every display of ignorance is necessarily a slight; not every slight is worth escalating into an incident; not every provocation need be indulged. [Continue reading…]

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Twitter bars intelligence agencies from using analytics service

The Wall Street Journal reports: Twitter Inc. cut off U.S. intelligence agencies from access to a service that sifts through the entire output of its social-media postings, the latest example of tension between Silicon Valley and the federal government over terrorism and privacy.

The move, which hasn’t been publicly announced, was confirmed by a senior U.S. intelligence official and other people familiar with the matter. The service — which sends out alerts of unfolding terror attacks, political unrest and other potentially important events — isn’t directly provided by Twitter, but instead by Dataminr Inc., a private company that mines public Twitter feeds for clients.

Twitter owns about a 5% stake in Dataminr, the only company it authorizes both to access its entire real-time stream of public tweets and sell it to clients.

Dataminr executives recently told intelligence agencies that Twitter didn’t want the company to continue providing the service to them, according to a person familiar with the matter. The senior intelligence official said Twitter appeared to be worried about the “optics” of seeming too close to American intelligence services. [Continue reading…]

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An amateur vs. ISIS (and the FBI): A car salesman investigates and ends up in prison

The New York Times reports: By his own account, Toby Lopez was a supremely ordinary guy. He sold Toyotas and lived with his mother in a tidy rancher here with a cherry tree out front. He was proud that he could connect with customers — anyone from a Superior Court judge to, as he put it, “Redneck Bill from down on the farm.” What passed for excitement was the time his young niece won a beauty contest and he chauffeured her in a red Corvette in a local parade.

Then a high school friend was killed in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State began beheading American journalists. Horrified, Mr. Lopez heard on CNN one day in the fall of 2014 that the Islamic State was active on Twitter, and he went online to see what he could find. “I was intrigued,” said Mr. Lopez, 42. “What could they possibly be saying on Twitter?”

What followed was a radical break from his humdrum life. He was pulled into the murky world of Internet jihadists, sparring with them from his office at the car dealership and late into the night at home. Before long, he was talking for hours on Skype with a man who claimed — falsely, as it would turn out — to be a top ISIS military commander, trying to negotiate the release of hostages. Mr. Lopez contacted the F.B.I. and began a testy relationship with counterterrorism agents who came to believe he might pose a danger. In the end, he landed in federal prison, where he was held for nearly 14 months without trial.

The story of one man’s deepening obsession with a terrorist group is a reminder of how the Internet provides easy portals to distant, sometimes dangerous worlds. It shows the complications for law enforcement agents who confront an overeager amateur encroaching on their turf. [Continue reading…]

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Dutch journalist ‘detained in Turkey’ over Erdogan criticism

Deutsche Welle reports: Ebru Umar, a columnist for the Dutch “Metro” newspaper, says she has been detained for publishing tweets critical of the Turkish president. This comes after a diplomatic spat between Turkey and the Netherlands.

The detention occurred at Umar’s home in the western Turkish resort town of Kusadasi late Saturday, according to a post on the journalist’s Twitter account. [Continue reading…]

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Google’s new YouTube analysis app crowdsources war reporting

Wired reports: In armed conflicts of the past, the “fog of war” meant a lack of data. In the era of ubiquitous pocket-sized cameras, it often means an information overload.

Four years ago, when analysts at the non-profit Carter Center began using YouTube videos to analyze the escalating conflicts in Syria and Libya, they found that, in contrast to older wars, it was nearly impossible to keep up with the thousands of clips uploaded every month from the smartphones and cameras of both armed groups and bystanders. “The difference with Syria and Libya is that they’re taking place in a truly connected environment. Everyone is online,” says Chris McNaboe, the manager of the Carter Center’s Syria Mapping Project. “The amount of video coming out was overwhelming…There have been more minutes of video from Syria than there have been minutes of real time.”

To handle that flood of digital footage, his team has been testing a tool called Montage. Montage was built by the human rights-focused tech incubator Jigsaw, the subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet that was formerly known as a Google Ideas, to sort, map, and tag video evidence from conflict zones. Over the last few months, it allowed six Carter Center analysts to categorize video coming out of Syria—identifying government forces and each of the slew of armed opposition groups, recording the appearance of different armaments and vehicles, and keeping all of that data carefully marked with time stamps and locations to create a searchable, sortable and mappable catalog of the Syrian conflict. “Some of our Montage investigations have had over 600 videos in them,” says McNaboe. “Even with a small team we’ve been able to go through days worth of video in a relatively short amount of time.” [Continue reading…]

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How Facebook plans to take over the world

The Guardian reports: When Zuckerberg addresses the F8 audience [at Facebook’s annual developer conference] it is with the composure and conviction of a president addressing his citizens. “We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we are all better off for it,” he says as he hammers home his “mission” to connect the world.

He warns of “people and nations turning inwards – against this idea of a connected world and community”, a position that fits both with his ideology and that of Facebook. This is not a speech about technical tweaks, but a state of the union address.

“It takes courage to choose hope over fear,” he adds. Behind the rhetoric and the casual clothes, the message is clear: Facebook is one of the big boys now, taking on huge global challenges and planning for prosperity.

The scale of Facebook’s audience is unprecedented. More than 1.6 billion people use Facebook at least once a month, or half of all internet users. That’s before you count users on other Facebook-owned sites including WhatsApp, which has more than 1 billion monthly active users, and photo-sharing site Instagram, which has 400 million.

Facebook has also introduced its free basics service to 37 countries, offering a free but limited package of apps to mobile phone users, but which some critics say allows Facebook to tightly control the online experience of potentially the next billion people to come online.

“You hear all the platitudes about Facebook connecting the planet, but to say they are doing it for benevolent reasons is absolute nonsense. It’s about connecting commerce, not people,” says venture capitalist and former journalist Om Malik, who reminds us of the hidden agenda of social networking firms: if you’re not paying, you’re the product. [Continue reading…]

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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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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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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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