‘The internet is broken,’ says pioneer of social media, Evan Williams

The New York Times reports: Evan Williams is the guy who opened up Pandora’s box. Until he came along, people had few places to go with their overflowing emotions and wild opinions, other than writing a letter to the newspaper or haranguing the neighbors.

Mr. Williams — a Twitter founder, a co-creator of Blogger — set everyone free, providing tools to address the world. In the history of communications technology, it was a development with echoes of Gutenberg.

And so here we are in 2017. How’s it going, Mr. Williams?

“I think the internet is broken,” he says. He has believed this for a few years, actually. But things are getting worse. “And it’s a lot more obvious to a lot of people that it’s broken.”

People are using Facebook to showcase suicides, beatings and murder, in real time. Twitter is a hive of trolling and abuse that it seems unable to stop. Fake news, whether created for ideology or profit, runs rampant. Four out of 10 adult internet users said in a Pew survey that they had been harassed online. And that was before the presidential campaign heated up last year.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.” [Continue reading…]

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Facebook could tell us how Russia interfered in our elections. Why won’t it?

Philip N. Howard and Robert Gorwa write: This month, one of the most important intelligence documents about Russian interference in the U.S. election emerged. But it didn’t come from the National Security Agency or the House Intelligence Committee. It was published by Facebook.

Facebook’s report on “Information Operations” was the company’s first public acknowledgment that political actors have been influencing public opinion through the social networking platform. The company says it will work to combat these information operations, and it has taken some positive steps. It removed some 30,000 fake accounts before the French election last month. It has purged thousands more ahead of the upcoming British election.

But more important, the report reveals that while we are all talking about “fake news,” we should also be talking about the algorithms and fake accounts that push bad information around. [Continue reading…]

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Europeans are less likely to share fake news. Here’s why

PRI reports: If you picked up a newspaper in the UK on Monday, you might have encountered an unusual advertisement offering tips on how to spot “false news.”

Facebook published the full-page ads in major newspapers — including the Guardian and the Times of Londn — ahead of the country’s general elections next month. Last month, it published the same ads in Germany and France, ahead of elections in those countries.

“People want to see accurate information on Facebook and so do we. That is why we are doing everything we can to tackle the problem of false news,” Simon Milner, Facebook’s Director of Policy for the UK, wrote in a statement.

Research indicates that Internet users in some European countries are less likely than Americans to share fake news online. Still, Facebook and other social media companies have been facing mounting pressure from European leaders to address fake news, as well as other hateful, racist and violent posts.

“I think Europe has within living memory much more understanding of the consequences of letting hateful propaganda spread,” said Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the effect of technology on politics and society. “They lived through World War I and World War II, and they have a deeper visceral reaction to the consequences of letting hate speech, incitement to violence, misinformation, propaganda — the whole range of things that we see online today — going unchecked.” [Continue reading…]

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Technology doesn’t make us better people

Nicholas Carr writes: Welcome to the global village. It’s a nasty place.

On Easter Sunday, a man in Cleveland filmed himself murdering a random 74-year-old and posted the video on Facebook. The social network took the grisly clip down within two or three hours, but not before users shared it on other websites — where people around the world can still view it.

Surely incidents like this aren’t what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind. In 2012, as his company was preparing to go public, the Facebook founder wrote an earnest letter to would-be shareholders explaining that his company was more than just a business. It was pursuing a “social mission” to make the world a better place by encouraging self-expression and conversation. “People sharing more,” the young entrepreneur wrote, “creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”

Earlier this year, Zuckerberg penned another public letter, expressing even grander ambitions. Facebook, he announced, is expanding its mission from “connecting friends and family” to building “a global community that works for everyone.” The ultimate goal is to turn the already vast social network into a sort of supranational state “spanning cultures, nations and regions.”

But the murder in Cleveland, and any similar incidents that inevitably follow, reveal the hollowness of Silicon Valley’s promise that digital networks would bring us together in a more harmonious world.

Whether he knows it or not, Zuckerberg is part of a long tradition in Western thought. Ever since the building of the telegraph system in the 19th century, people have believed that advances in communication technology would promote social harmony. The more we learned about each other, the more we would recognize that we’re all one. In an 1899 article celebrating the laying of transatlantic Western Union cables, a New York Times columnist expressed the popular assumption well: “Nothing so fosters and promotes a mutual understanding and a community of sentiment and interests as cheap, speedy, and convenient communication.”

The great networks of the 20th century — radio, telephone, TV — reinforced this sunny notion. Spanning borders and erasing distances, they shrank the planet. Guglielmo Marconi declared in 1912 that his invention of radio would “make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.” AT&T’s top engineer, J.J. Carty, predicted in a 1923 interview that the telephone system would “join all the peoples of the earth in one brotherhood.” In his 1962 book “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” the media theorist Marshall McLuhan gave us the memorable term “global village” to describe the world’s “new electronic interdependence.” Most people took the phrase optimistically, as a prophecy of inevitable social progress. What, after all, could be nicer than a village?

If our assumption that communication brings people together were true, we should today be seeing a planetary outbreak of peace, love, and understanding. Thanks to the Internet and cellular networks, humanity is more connected than ever. Of the world’s 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to a mobile phone — a billion and a half more, the United Nations reports, than have access to a working toilet. Nearly 2 billion are on Facebook, more than a billion upload and download YouTube videos, and billions more converse through messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat. With smartphone in hand, everyone becomes a media hub, transmitting and receiving ceaselessly.

Yet we live in a fractious time, defined not by concord but by conflict. Xenophobia is on the rise. Political and social fissures are widening. From the White House down, public discourse is characterized by vitriol and insult. We probably shouldn’t be surprised. [Continue reading…]

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The government is demanding to know who this Trump critic is. Twitter is suing to keep it a secret

The Washington Post reports: Twitter filed a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asking the court to prevent the department from taking steps to unmask the user behind an account critical of the Trump administration.

The tech company said that allowing DHS access to that information would produce a “grave chilling effect on the speech of that account,” as well as other accounts critical of the U.S. government. The case sets up a potential showdown over free speech between Silicon Valley and Washington.

According to Twitter’s court filings, Homeland Security is “unlawfully abusing a limited-purpose investigatory tool” to find out who is behind the @ALT_USCIS account. Its Twitter feed has publicly criticized the administration’s immigration policies, particularly the actions of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) division of Homeland Security. [Continue reading…]

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The future of free speech, trolls, anonymity and fake news online

Pew Research Center: The internet supports a global ecosystem of social interaction. Modern life revolves around the network, with its status updates, news feeds, comment chains, political advocacy, omnipresent reviews, rankings and ratings. For its first few decades, this connected world was idealized as an unfettered civic forum: a space where disparate views, ideas and conversations could constructively converge. Its creators were inspired by the optimism underlying Stuart Brand’s WELL in 1985, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.” They expected the internet to create a level playing field for information sharing and communal activity among individuals, businesses, other organizations and government actors.

Since the early 2000s, the wider diffusion of the network, the dawn of Web 2.0 and social media’s increasingly influential impacts, and the maturation of strategic uses of online platforms to influence the public for economic and political gain have altered discourse. In recent years, prominent internet analysts and the public at large have expressed increasing concerns that the content, tone and intent of online interactions have undergone an evolution that threatens its future and theirs. Events and discussions unfolding over the past year highlight the struggles ahead. Among them:

To illuminate current attitudes about the potential impacts of online social interaction over the next decade, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center conducted a large-scale canvassing of technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders. Some 1,537 responded to this effort between July 1 and Aug. 12, 2016 (prior to the late-2016 revelations about potential manipulation of public opinion via hacking of social media). [Continue reading…]

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Information wars: A window into the alternative media ecosystem

Kate Starbird writes: For more than three years, my lab at the University of Washington has conducted research looking at how people spread rumors online during crisis events. We have looked at natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes as well as man-made events such as mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Due to the public availability of data, we focused primarily on Twitter — but we also used data collected there (tweets) to expose broader activity in the surrounding media ecosystem.

Over time, we noted that a similar kind of rumor kept showing up, over and over again, after each of the man-made crisis events — a conspiracy theory or “alternative narrative” of the event that claimed it either didn’t happen or that it was perpetrated by someone other than the current suspects.

We first encountered this type of rumor while studying the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. We noticed a large number of tweets (>4000) claiming that the bombings were a “false flag” perpetrated by U.S. Navy Seals. The initial spread of this rumor involved a “cascade” of tweets linking to an article on the InfoWars website. At the time, our researchers did not know what InfoWars was, but the significance of that connection became clear over time. [Continue reading…]

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FBI’s Russian-influence probe includes a look at far-right news sites

McClatchy reports: Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories — some fictional — that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.

Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.

The bots’ end products were largely millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to stories on conservative internet sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars, as well as on the Kremlin-backed RT News and Sputnik News, the sources said. Some of the stories were false or mixed fact and fiction, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bot attacks are part of an FBI-led investigation into a multifaceted Russian operation to influence last year’s elections.

Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.

The investigation of the bot-engineered traffic, which appears to be in its early stages, is being driven by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, whose inquiries rarely result in criminal charges and whose main task has been to reconstruct the nature of the Kremlin’s cyber attack and determine ways to prevent another.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the inquiry into the use of bots.

Russia-generated bots are one piece of a cyber puzzle that counterintelligence agents have sought to solve for nearly a year to determine the extent of the Moscow government’s electronic broadside.

“This may be one of the most highly impactful information operations in the history of intelligence,” said one former U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. [Continue reading…]

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Wilders, Russia and Twitter bots: How social media is serving Dutch populism

Financial Times reports: Follower numbers are a commonly recognised indicator of social media influence. Snapshot counts of Twitter and Facebook followers reveal that, in contrast to most other party leaders, Mr Wilders’ personal social media following dwarfs that of his party’s accounts by a ratio of 330:1 on Twitter and 133:1 on Facebook. By comparison, sitting prime minister Mark Rutte’s followers are outnumbered by those of his party, VVD, by 1.5:1 on Twitter and 3.4:1 on Facebook. 

However, an examination of the rate of growth of Dutch party leaders’ Twitter followings reveals Mr Wilders’ to be growing comparatively slowly — which is to be expected given that hisis the largest among party leaders’ followings. More intriguing are the bumps in the growth rate of the Wilders following, several of which coincide with specific news events. In particular, Mr Wilders’ conviction for race-related discrimination offences on December 9 last year and the terrorist attack in which a truck was driven into a Berlin crowd on December 19 boosted Mr Wilders’ following, which may suggest a reactive component to the motivations of people following Mr Wilders on Twitter.

The accusations of election interference in France made by the campaign of Mr Macron prompted a denial by RT, which said in a statement that it “adamantly rejects any and all claims that it has any part in spreading fake news in general and in relation to Mr Macron and the upcoming French election in particular.” The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, however, asserted in a January report that RT and Sputnik functioned as part of a Russian “state-run propaganda machine” that was deployed in an attempt to influence the outcome of the US election.

FT Data calculated the frequencies with which a random sample of 100,000 of Mr Wilders’ Twitter followers mentioned the accounts of RT and Sputnik (@RT_com and @SputnikInt), along with those of the top five Dutch news outlets over a six-month period. We compared these to a sample of the same size taken from followers of the office of the Dutch prime minister (@MinPres), a non-partisan governmental account.

Although Mr Wilders himself did not disproportionately share content from either outlet, his followers were 12 times more likely to mention Sputnik and almost eight times more likely to mention RT than followers of Mr Rutte, prime minister. Notably, Mr Wilders’ followers mentioned RT more frequently than they did the Dutch national broadcaster NOS (@NOS). [Continue reading…]

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Pro-Trump media sets the agenda with lies. Here’s how traditional media can take it back

Margaret Sullivan writes: To save Tinkerbell, all you had to do was clap your hands and really, really believe in fairies.

To send a conspiracy theory on its vicious way around the world, you need to do more than just believe. You need help.

Luckily for those who wanted to elect Donald Trump, that help was available during the presidential campaign, and still is. It comes from a collection of new right-wing hyperpartisan media outlets that are having a huge effect on politics.

Consider, for example, one outlandish idea from just last week: that the CIA hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails, gave them to WikiLeaks and then framed Russia.

Business Insider traced it: from replies to the WikiLeaks Twitter account, through conservative radio and then Breitbart News, and out into the semi-mainstream — Sean Hannity on Fox News — all within 48 hours.

Similarly, the right-wing radio host Mark Levin may have started the evidence-free idea that President Barack Obama ordered the wiretapping of now-President Trump. It made its way quickly through the media ecosystem, after Trump saw it, apparently on Breitbart News.

Once the president tweets it, it’s undeniably news, picked up everywhere and re-amplified — especially by right-wing sites.

Derek Thompson of the Atlantic called this a “conspiracy-theory feedback loop.” And a very effective one it is.

A major new study, published in Columbia Journalism Review, detailed just how influential the new media ecosystem has become, calling it a determining factor in Trump’s election. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s Twitter feed is a gateway to authoritarianism

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Seemingly prompted by Trump’s Twitter outburst — where, to be clear, the current president accused the former president of committing a crime — the White House has now called for a full investigation into whether its own unsubstantiated allegations are true.


Needless to say, Trump’s critics are unimpressed.

“This may come as a surprise to the current occupant of the Oval Office, but the president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of American citizens,” said Josh Earnest, a former White House press secretary under Obama. He accused the Trump administration of trying to distract from the controversy surrounding its alleged contacts with Russian officials.

“We know exactly why President Trump tweeted what he tweeted,” said Earnest to the Post. “There is one page in the Trump White House crisis management playbook, and that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from a scandal. And the bigger the scandal, the more outrageous the tweet.”

Earlier this year, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, crafted a “taxonomy” of how Trump uses Twitter to shift the conversation from unwelcome reports and subsume the news cycle with his own agenda. [Continue reading…]

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Mar-a-Lago serves as stage for showing off the spectacle of Trump’s presidency

The New York Times reports: Trump appears to enjoy presenting the spectacle of his presidency to those at his privately held club, where members pay $200,000 to join. While the club is not open to the public, Mr. Trump’s dinner with Mr. Abe was in the club’s dining room, where any member or their guests were likely to be.

Individual club members can invite guests, submitting a list of names of table guests for security clearance to officials ahead of time.

In addition to the pictures of the North Korea conversation, Mr. DeAgazio also posted pictures of himself standing with a person he described as Mr. Trump’s military aide responsible for carrying the nuclear “football” — the briefcase with codes for launching nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]

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Anxiety about Muslim refugees is stoked online by the far-right media

The New York Times reports: Type the word refugees into Facebook and some alarming “news” will appear about a refugee rape crisis, a refugee flesh-eating disease epidemic and a refugee-related risk of female genital mutilation — none of it true.

For the months leading up to the presidential election, and in the days since President Trump took office, ultraconservative websites like Breitbart News and Infowars have published a cycle of eye-popping stories with misleading claims about refugees. And it is beginning to influence public perception, experts say.

That shift was evident on Friday, as many Americans heralded the news that the Trump administration intended to temporarily curb all refugee resettlement and increase the vetting of Syrians.

“There really is a kind of cultural battle going on,” said Cecillia Wang, the deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “There’s no question that kind of xenophobic or anti-Muslim bias is infecting our political discourse about refugees.” [Continue reading…]

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Are we entering an era in which ‘truth’ is whatever Trump wants it to be?

Shortly before Trump took office, Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote: Although we cannot yet know what kind of president he will be, from his June 2015 declaration of candidacy to his January 2017 inauguration, Trump has undertaken two parallel projects aimed at unsettling the mental habits and moral foundations of American democracy. First, he has cultivated a political persona that inspires adulation and unquestioning loyalty that can be mobilized for action on his behalf. Second, he has initiated Americans into a culture of threat that not only desensitizes them to the effects of bigotry but also raises the possibility of violence without consequence.

The founding moment of this era came one year ago, when Trump declared at a rally, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.” Trump signaled that rhetorical and actual violence might have a different place in America of the future, perhaps becoming something ordinary or unmemorable. During 2016, public hatred became part of everyday reality for many Americans: those who identify with the white supremacist alt-right like Richard Spencer openly hold rallies; elected officials feel emboldened to call for political opponents to be shot (as did New Hampshire and Oklahoma State Representatives Al Baldasaro and John Bennett, among others); journalists reporting on Trump and hijab-wearing women seek protection protocols and escorts. The bureaucratic-sounding term many use for this, “normalization,” does not fully render the operations of memory that make it possible. Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.

The risk is that the parameters of thought and action will be nudged to align with those of the leader, easing the retrofitting of history to suit his personalization of the land’s highest office. Trump’s success at this in a country known for individualism, and with no history of living under an authoritarian ruler, shows how susceptible people are to such approaches.

Trump’s bullying charm anchors this culture of threat. From the start he cultivated a relationship with followers founded on an allegiance to his person, and not to a party or principle. He devised campaign rituals (loyalty oaths, “lock her up” chants directed at imprisoning his opponent) that created a bond of charismatic authority and accustomed his constituents to his heavy hand. At his rallies he harangued his crowds, directing them emotionally, urging them to punish protesters as he expressed his own desires to punch offenders in the face. “You were nasty and mean and vicious, you wanted to win, right?” he told his fans after the election.

Twitter has been an excellent training ground for the acceptance of Trump’s cult of personality and the memory politics that undergird it. His skill at orchestrating the news cycle through tweets keeps Americans caught in the web of an “eternal present,” their attention focused on his aggressive outbursts that are dissected by the media and the public with the fervor of Communist-era Kremlinologists. His domination of the media landscape, on Twitter and elsewhere, realizes the authoritarians’ dream: to be everywhere present while remaining in your palace, and able to influence both big policy decisions and small daily habits with a few strokes of your pen. The writer Italo Calvino, who recalled that Mussolini’s face was “always in view” during the first 20 years of his life, would have appreciated how a few critical tweets from the leader-to-be led the storied Ford Motor Company to quickly scrap long-held plans for a $1.6 billion assembly plant in Mexico, and express its “confidence” in his business acumen.

The deference to the leader allows another crucial element of authoritarian rule to fall into place: the discrediting of all alternate sources of information. The confusion sowed by Trump from the start of his campaign (“we’ve got to figure out what’s going on”), which crucially extends to the facts of his personal history (Putin? “I don’t know him”), built to a blanket denunciation of all non-Trump information. “Media is fake!” the president-elect tweeted on January 8, preparing Americans for the onset of a new era in which truth is what Trump wants it to be. [Continue reading…]

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Interior Department told to stop tweeting after unflattering retweets about Trump

The Washington Post reports: The Interior Department was ordered Friday to shut down its official Twitter accounts — indefinitely — after the National Park Service shared two unsympathetic tweets during President Trump’s inauguration.

The first noted the new president’s relatively small inaugural crowd compared to the number of people former president Barack Obama drew to the National Mall when he was sworn into office in 2009. The second tweet noted several omissions of policy areas on the new White House website. A Park Service employee retweeted both missives on Friday.

“All bureaus and the department have been directed by incoming administration to shut down Twitter platforms immediately until further notice,” said an email circulated to Park Service employees Friday afternoon.

The email, obtained by The Post, described the stand-down as an “urgent directive” and said social media managers must shut down the accounts “until further directed.” [Continue reading…]

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Russian internet users say Trump gave a wonderful Soviet-era inauguration speech

Moscow Times reports: Donald Trump is now the president of the United States of America. At the time of this writing, Trump hasn’t even tweeted yet from his official “POTUS” account, though he already has millions of subscribers anxiously awaiting his next steps in the campaign to rescue the American hellscape he described in his inauguration speech on Friday.

Trump’s big day was headline news in Russia, of course, where you’ll find one of the few countries on Earth that overwhelmingly supported the Republican’s candidacy even when it was in its infancy.

Russian jokesters on Twitter certainly had their eye on President Trump’s inauguration speech, which more than a few Internet users compared to Communist rhetoric popular during the Soviet era. Trump’s focus on revitalizing American industry — particularly his vision for boosting industry and infrastructure by means of the state — struck many as the fervor of the New Soviet Man, the archetype of an industrious and devoted citizen in the U.S.S.R. [Continue reading…]

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Russian hackers find ready bullhorns in Western media

Max Fisher writes: As the dust settles on Russian interference in the United States election, journalists are confronting an aspect that has received less scrutiny than the hacking itself but poses its own thorny questions: Moscow’s ability to steer Western media coverage by doling out hacked documents.

Reporters have always relied on sources who provide critical information for self-interested reasons. The duty, tricky but familiar, is to publicize information that serves the public interest without falling prey to the source’s agenda.

But in this case, the source was Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U. — operating through shadowy fronts who worked to mask that fact — and its agenda was to undermine the American presidential election.

By releasing documents that would tarnish Hillary Clinton and other American political figures, but whose news value compelled coverage, Moscow exploited the very openness that is the basis of a free press. Its tactics have evolved with each such operation, some of which are still unfolding.

Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at King’s College London who is tracking the Russian influence campaign, said it goes well beyond hacking: “It’s political engineering, social engineering on a strategic level.” [Continue reading…]

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