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Live Thread: U.S. Senate Commerce Hearing with Facebook Whistleblower [UPDATE-5]

[NB: Check the byline, thanks. /~Rayne]

The Senate Commerce Committee is conducting a hearing right now; Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is currently testifying before the committee.

You can watch the hearing at C-SPAN at:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?515042-1/whistleblower-frances-haugen-calls-congress-regulate-facebook

You can also catch up with the backstory leading into this hearing by catching CBS’s 60 Minutes feature from this past weekend at:

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen-misinformation-public-60-minutes-2021-10-03/

Haugen is the former Facebook insider who leaked corporate documents to the Wall Street Journal several months ago, culminating in reports published a couple weeks ago. Sadly, the work is paywalled.

These are the key points WSJ reported on based on the documents:

– Facebook internal documents outline an exempt elite who can operate without prohibitions.

– Facebook’s Instagram platform knowingly relies on toxicity dangerous to teen girls.

– Facebook’s 2018 tweaks to algorithms heightened polarization between users.

– Facebook’s response to known use by organized crime from trafficking to drugs is grossly ineffectual.

– Facebook’s own algorithms undermined Zuckerberg’s efforts to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations.

All this in addition to its complicity inciting genocide of more than 25,000 Rohingya minority members in Myanmar means that Facebook is beyond toxic. It’s deadly.

I’ll update this post with additional content. Share your comments related to Facebook, social media, and today’s hearing in this thread.

~ ~ ~

On a personal note: I don’t use Facebook for many of the reasons outlined in Haugen’s disclosures and the reasons that the Federal Trade Commission issued a consent decree against Facebook back in 2011 (which Facebook violated, resulting in a $5 billion fine in 2020).

I already had strong doubts about Facebook because my oldest child was bullied by a classmate on the first day they opened a Facebook account. They had begged me to let them open an account and in spite of all my precautionary measures and coaching, they were still tormented immediately and out of view of the other student’s parents.

That was more than 14 years ago. Think of what 14 years of this kind of behavior alone will do to our children and young adults, let alone what troll farms masquerading as children on line will do to them.

And now we know Facebook has known about this toxicity targeting young women and girls, and that it has continued to develop a platform aimed at monetizing children and teens’ use of social media.

Kill it now.

~ ~ ~

UPDATE-1 — 12:30 PM 05-OCT-2021 —

I missed the earliest part of the hearing, am now going back through earlier portions.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) at 9:27 am expresses reluctance to break up companies or deem social media platforms to be utilities, calling it heavy handed.

Uh, not heavy enough. Yesterday’s outage proved Facebook is a communications system when WhatsApp went down with Facebook and Instagram.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) is prodding about regulatory oversight. Haugen says Facebook’s closed system traps the company and prevents them from changing their operations – a closed loop which it can’t break – and government intervention through oversight would break that loop for them.

Nation-state surveillance comes up next; Facebook could see other countries surveilling users. Haugen says the U.S. has a right to protect Americans from this kind of exposure.

UPDATE-2 — 12:36 PM 05-OCT-2021 —

Live hearing again. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) says he sent a letter to Facebook about related concerns well before this hearing. He asks Haugen about age restrictions for users; she feels the restriction should be changed to 16-18 years of age because of teens’ weaker impulse controls and concerns about addictive behaviors.

How to screen for age is tricky, IMO. Kids have gotten around this and parents have been just plain neglectful.

UPDATE-3 — 12:47 PM 05-OCT-2021 —

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (calls Facebook a “black box,” designed as such by Mark Zuckerberg, referencing legal obligations under Section 230.

Haugen adjusts the point he’s making by noting Facebook had said it could lie to the courts because it had immunity under Section 230.

Well that explains why Zuckerberg believes he can lie to Congress as well, as he has in at least one hearing, and why a representative for Facebook lied just this week to Congress in spite of Facebook documents liberated by Haugen proving otherwise.

Haugen says she doesn’t like seeing people blaming parents. Sorry, too bad — as a parent I know the ultimate authority over internet use at home with parent-funded devices is the parent, and I know far too many parents are just plain lazy when not willfully uniformed about social media use. More parents should have been up in their representatives’ faces all along about social media’s impact on their children.

UPDATE-4 — 12:55 PM 05-OCT-2021 —

Haugen is responding to questions from Sen. Todd Young (R-IN). She says Facebook knows how vulnerable people are who’ve had big life changes like divorce or death of a friend/loved one, how they can lose touch with surrounding community in real life because they are framing their perspective on thousands of distortive posts on Facebook.

She also doesn’t believe in breaking up Facebook.

Too fucking bad. The outage yesterday proved Facebook needs to be broken up.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has been given a copy of a tweet by a Facebook employee, Andy Stone, who rebuts Haugen’s credibility based on her work experience. Blackburn invites Mr. Stone and Facebook to be sworn in and testify instead.

You know there will be more concerted attacks on Haugen’s credibility. Sure hope there’s nothing on her in Facebook’s data.

UPDATE-5 — 1:06 PM 05-OCT-2021 —

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asks about Facebook studying children under 13 about eating disorder and whether the company is pushing eating disorder-related content children that age. Haugen implies they are getting ground this by encouraging inauthentic accounts.

Klobuchar asks about banning outside researchers; Haugen says the blocking is an indication that federal oversight is necessary when Facebook goes so far out of its way to block them.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) says he sent a letter to Facebook ten years ago asking if the company was going to collect data on child users on its platform, and now Congress is back revisiting the issue. He plugs further regulation including controls on AI.

Haugen earlier in this hearing said AI was a known problem referring to bias.

Markey brings up the Children’s Television Act of 1990 he authored which protects kids up to age 12.

Sounds like Facebook must have used this as a jumping point for its existing prohibition on accounts for those under age 13.

Haugen responds to Markey saying removing Likes/Comments/Reshares which encourage more engagement aren’t enough to protect children. They’re still exposed to dangerous “extreme and polarizing” content.

Markey asks if Haugen thinks any visible measures of content popularity should be removed on content for children – she’s not quite as forceful on this as his question about removing targeted ads aimed at children to which she’s firmly agreed.

Not All Influencers Are Celebrities on YouTube

[NB: Note the byline. ~Rayne]

There’s something hinky going on with news curation in Twitter. The story at the top of the Moments/Trends yesterday in the mobile app was this one:

We now know the GOP anticipated additional accusers when the story above was published. This morning the story at the top of Twitter’s mobile U.S. news feed is this one:

Which seems really odd that both of these stories push the White House/GOP angle promoting the troubled nomination of Brett Kavanaugh by attacking accuser Christine Blasey Ford’s credibility.*

Meanwhile, the New Yorker story by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow about a second victim alleging an assault by Kavanaugh published last evening set Twitter timelines ablaze immediately and overnight. Yet that story isn’t the one at the top of Twitter’s US News this morning.

Is this an example of poor or biased curation by Twitter? Or is this the effect of a public relations campaign (by a firm like CRC for which Ed Whelan has worked) paying to promote a news article without any indication to the public that this elevation has happened?

Would such a PR-elevated piece written by a news outlet ever fall under the scrutiny of the Federal Trade Commission as YouTube influencers’ embedded promotions have recently? Or would it slip by without the public’s awareness because it’s First Amendment-protected content?

The Federal Communications Commission won’t want to touch this subject because its chair Ajit Pai won’t want to open up a can of worms about the internet and its content as a regulated commodity like broadcast radio and television.

The Federal Election Commission hasn’t looked at news-as-campaign-ads when such content is produced in the U.S. related to an unelected/appointed official position.

Google News is a little better this morning:

Note the position of the New Yorker piece in the feed. But it’s not clear how any of the news related to Kavanaugh surfaces to the top of Google’s news feed due to a lack of transparency let alone a particular story. The public doesn’t know if there have been any attempts to manipulate the elevation/submersion of a news story favorable/unfavorable to any subject including unelected/appointed officials.

As a majority of Americans increasingly obtain their news online instead of by broadcast or print media, we’re going to need more clarity about social media’s role as a publishing platform and whether social media giants are still being used to manipulate public opinion.

__________

* First image is the expanded version as I didn’t realize at time of screenshot there would be a relationship between top of Twitter news feed on September 23 and this morning’s top of news feed. All images in this story are used under Fair Use for purposes of media criticism

Parkland and the Twittered Revolt

Marvel at the teen survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Their composed rage is terrifying to a generation or two which have not seen the like since the 1960s and early 1970s. They are leading a revolution — but note the platform they’re using to best effect.


I can’t tell you how much use they are making of Facebook as I haven’t used it in several years. What I find telling is the dearth of links to students’ and followers’ Facebook posts tweeted into my timeline. I also note at least one MSD student exited Facebook after receiving death threats.

Twitter’s platform allows the authenticity and immediacy of the students’ communications, as easy to use as texting. There’s no filter. For whatever reason, parents haven’t taken to Twitter as they did Facebook, leaving the micro-blogging platform a space without as much adult oversight.

These attributes terrify the right-wing. There’s nothing limiting the reach of students’ messages — no algorithms slow their tweets. The ability to communicate bluntly, efficiently, and yet with grace has further thrown the right. The right-wing’s inability to accept these students as legitimately speaking for themselves and for their fellow students across the country is an expression of the right’s cognitive dissonance.

The students’ use of Twitter redeems the platform, asserting its true value. It’s 180 degrees from the problems Twitter posed as a toxic cesspool filled with trolls and bots. Parkland’s tragedy exposes what Twitter should be, what Twitter must do to ensure it doesn’t backslide.

Minors shouldn’t have to put up with bullying — especially bullying by adults. Donnie Trump Jr. is one of the worst examples of this bullying and should be booted out of the platform. Other adult bullies have also emerged but Twitter’s user base is ruthless in its swiftness, dealing a coup de grâce to Laura Ingraham’s sponsorships.

If only Twitter itself was as swift in ejecting bullies and trolls. Troll bots continue to flourish even after a large number were removed recently. Victims of tragedies should expect an ethical social media platform to eliminate trolls and bots promptly along with bullies.

Ethical social media platforms also need to ask themselves whether they want to make profit off products intended to maim and kill. Should it allow certain businesses to use promoted tweets to promote deadly products, or allow accounts for lobbying organizations representing weapons manufacturers as well as owners? Should Twitter remove the NRA just as it doesn’t permit accounts representing tobacco products?

Not to mention avoiding Facebook’s ethical crisis — should Twitter be more proactive in protecting its users now that Parkland’s Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School students have revitalized its brand?

In Praise of Day Two

I know everybody is looking at that thing right now on social media. Hang back — don’t tell me what’s happening with the active shooter. Don’t tell me about the flood in progress. I don’t need to know about the skewed path of the car or the janky homemade bomb that might have gone off a thousand miles from me. I don’t even need to know the path of the plume that might be spreading into that community, far from me.

I can wait for these stories. In fact, there’s nothing else I can do in the vast, truly vast, majority of cases.

I am not saying I want to be ignorant, I’m not for shutting off all the news. I would like to be aware, expand and deepen my understanding of the world. I would like to be able to position myself to act constructively, where I can. I would like to be in a position to inform and contextualize events for myself and others. But right now, the way we consume the news does the opposite. And that’s on you, dear reader. It’s understandable, and it’s natural, but it’s on you.

About a year into my journalism career my old editor sent me off to cover the launch of a very difficult to understand piece of technology. The specifics aren’t germane, but I had kept an eye on this for six months, and I was eager to cover it. I also had to get someone home from the hospital that day, so I knew filing on time wasn’t going to be easy. Still, I made the event, and hung around doing on and off the record interviews, looking at how everyone from schools to defense contractors were thinking about using this tech. I never got to publish my story. I was too late to file and my frustrated editor said we’d turn it into a day two story. We ran a wire story instead of mine. When I got up the next morning and read through everyone else’s coverage, I felt mightily vindicated. Nearly everyone had misunderstood the tech, just about every story was wrong. The ones that weren’t were just uninformative. I went and triumphantly pointed this out to my editor, and he said something that would shape my career ever after: “It doesn’t matter if you’re right, if no one reads you.”

It was true, and it hit me hard, harder than I think he realized. I could chase the scoop, I could evolve into the hot take, the fast and consolidated posts of tech news, with the occasional in-depth reporting as a reward for other work. But I was pretty sure I would not only be bad at all of those things, I would be miserable. But that was also the path to a staff job, benefits, something tangible for a resume. That was the career path, and I was on it.

I decided that if I couldn’t write the first story, then I’d try to write the last. I turned down a contract and said I’d stick with piecework. I decided that I could write slow, and build a mutual trust with my readers: I will put in the work, and you will click the link, after you’ve waited, because you know I’ve put in the work.

This has gone remarkably well for my career. Maybe not in money, but in every other way. I did work that was defining, work that came back to me in other art and media, in forms I never expected. I got to bring a depth into my writing that I’m proud of. Some pieces took a few days, or weeks, and some, I’ve been working on for years.

Looking at this way of producing information for you, and how much richer it’s been, sent me back to thinking about how I consume information, back to thinking about that day two story that sent my career in such a different direction. Those stories were still all wrong, and that was a fucking product launch. If that was so bad, what the hell was happening with wars and disasters and complex geopolitics? It was pretty clear by the 2000s we were getting all those wrong too. It’s only gotten worse from there. We all know it’s a disaster, and surely it’s Facebook’s fault, but I saw this starting before Facebook was a thing. I saw this before I was a journalist—back in the days of cable news. Facebook made it worse, but only because we wanted them to make it worse.

Right now we are swamped in news that is ultravioletly hyperemotional. You can actually feel media fritzing out your nervous system, and it’s not a metaphor. Media is an exhausting physical experience of fight or flight. I can watch and listen and read things delivered to me all day that make me feel like I’m dying, or like I want to die, from this quiet flat in this sedate neighborhood of Luxembourg*. It switches up, changes from one life ending moment to the next, a constant feed of urgency and importance we are addicted to like junkies who never even got to chase a high.

We chase lows. Lows feel important. But are they? For the people on the scene, they certainly are. But news is rarely written for the people who are being directly affected by events. They’re using direct and localized communications. The eviction, the hurricane, the shelter-in-place order, where your children are. The cancer diagnosis, the suicide, the kid who just OD’d. No one thinks you should read the news when these things are going on in your own life. You are the news, you are the statistic, but at the moment you’re the only one allowed to prioritize for action rather than emotion.

When it’s not about you, when you’re not there, all you do is respond with emotion. Rarely does our immediate emotional response help anyone, anywhere. Our informed awareness can help people, it can help the whole damn world, but there’s little academically, and even less in recent global results, to show that grabbing emotions creates informed awareness that people act on productively.

Here’s what I propose: Slow it down. If you’re hundreds of miles away, and not trying to find your family, wait for Day Two. Look for stories with depth and context that may not stimulate you, make you want to run and smash things or rip out your wallet at once. Maybe even wait for that news source trying to write the last story, outlets like Reveal and ProPublica are good for this. Consider the usefulness of you knowing something and where it fits into your ability to see the world and act before you decide to spend some of your precious time on Earth and limited mental space. Construct what you know out of quality information, don’t just consume everything and try to make something meaningful out of it later. That’s not your job. Let me, and my colleagues in the slow news business do our jobs, and give you something healthier for you, for us, for the whole damn planet. Day two stories, and the slow news they represent have always been what lets the body politic think and act like a better creature. It’s also hard in this environment of constant urgency and heightened emotionality, and stress makes it worse. But when we slow it down, when we take responsibility for how we construct our knowledge, we don’t make as many mistakes and we don’t get played so easily by bad actors.

Day one is always feelings, and day one feels like the story you need. Day two is when we can start to get it right. Wait for day two. Wait for next week, wait for the story that needs you.

 

 

*All the neighborhoods of Luxembourg are sedate.

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Truck-sized Holes: Journalists Challenged by Technology Blindness

[photo: liebeslakritze via Flickr]

[photo: liebeslakritze via Flickr]

Note: The following piece was written just before news broke about Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden. With this in mind, let’s look at the reporting we’ve see up to this point; problems with reporting to date may remain even with the new disclosures.

ZDNet bemoaned the failure of journalism in the wake of disclosures this past week regarding the National Security Administration’s surveillance program; they took issue in particular with the Washington Post’s June 7 report. The challenge to journalists at WaPo and other outlets, particularly those who do not have a strong grasp of information technology, can be seen in the reporting around access to social media systems.

Some outlets focused on “direct access.” Others reported on “access,” but were not clear about direct or indirect access.

Yet more reporting focused on awareness of the program and authorization or lack thereof on the part of the largest social media firms cited on the leaked NSA slides.

Journalists are not asking what “access” means in order to clarify what each corporation understands direct and indirect access to mean with regard to their systems.

Does “direct access” mean someone physically camped out on site within reach of the data center?

Does “direct access” mean someone with global administrative rights and capability offsite of the data center? Some might call this remote access, but without clarification, what is the truth?

I don’t know about you but I can drive a Mack truck through the gap between these two questions.

So which “direct access” have the social media firms not permitted? Which “direct access” has been taken without authorization of corporate management? ZDNet focuses carefully on authorization, noting the changes in Washington Post’s story with regard to “knowingly participated,” changed later to read “whose cooperation is essential PRISM operations.”

This begs the same questions with regard to any other form of access which is not direct. Note carefully that a key NSA slide is entitled, “Dates when PRISM Collection Began For Each Provider.” It doesn’t actually say “gained access,” direct or otherwise. Read more