Who Needs to Organize the Far-Right When Facebook Will do it For You?
Facebook documents show Emperor Zuck has no clothes. But now critics have to come up with coherent proposals for change. Plus, a new Snap app for young candidates, Unfinished problems and much more.
Yesterday, Facebook and its sister properties Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger, were down for more than five hours worldwide. The effects were massive. Some people, like software developers, were measurably far more productive because of the reduced distraction. Extended families accustomed to constant communication on WhatsApp panicked. Afghan refugees and aid workers helping them were cut off from each other. Businesses that rely on Facebook or Instagram to drive sales were temporarily shuttered. Others, like one Canadian bakery in Manitoba, reported more walk-in traffic. Governments like the Democratic Republic of Congo took to Twitter to deny that they had cut off their country’s internet service. It was a highly timely reminder of just how much of the world’s population has come to live under Facebook’s flag.
Facebook’s internet outage came on the heels of Frances Haugen, a data scientist who worked on Facebook’s civic integrity team from 2019 to 2021, going public as the whistleblower who has been sharing thousands of internal records with Congress and reporters like Jeff Horwitz of the Wall Street Journal. Today, Whistleblower Aid, which has been assisted Haugen, made public several redacted memos detailing eight broad-ranging complaints they are making to the SEC charging that the company has misled investors, a violation of securities law. Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne released a statement pooh-poohing Haugen’s testimony before the Senate today, because she only worked at the company two years and didn’t work directly on the subjects she testified on, but no matter: the documents she removed from Facebook are testimony enough. This is important and explosive.
This complaint, for example, details how much Facebook has known internally about how its platforms promoted misinformation and violent extremism related to the 2020 election and insurrection. “We estimate that we may action as little as 3-5% of hate [speech] and ~0.6% of V&I [Violent and Inciting Content] on Facebook,” the company’s own researchers said. The memo also details how quickly its page recommendation system would direct a new user who started out following, say, Fox News and Donald Trump, to conspiracy content: just 2 days. A recommendation to QAnon content would take just a week. Who needs to organize the far right when Facebook will do it for you? Despite many public claims that it was doing more than any other company to stamp out misinformation and hate speech, Facebook’s own internal documents show its teams knew that its whitelist policy for powerful actors was “protecting content that is especially likely to deceive, and hence to harm, people on our platforms.”
There’s so much information leaking out of Facebook right now that it’s become impossible to keep up on all the ways its leadership has lied about its toxic effects on society. But here’s one startling excerpt from an internal research report on how troll farms were gaming the platform before 2020:
“Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church. Our platform has given the largest voice in the African American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never had an interaction with an African American.
Our platform has given the 2nd largest voice in the Native American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never had an interaction with a Native American.
Our platform has given the 5th largest voice in the American Womans community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, are not women and don't particularly care about any issues confronting women.
This is not normal. This is not healthy. We have empowered inauthentic actors to accumulate huge followings for largely unknown purposes. Mostly, they seem to want to skim a quick buck off of their audience. But there are signs they have been in contact with the IRA [Russia-backed Internet Research Agency]. The fact that actors with possible ties to the IRA have access to huge audience numbers in the same demographic groups targeted by the IRA poses an enormous risk to the US 2020 election.”
For all of Facebook’s rising political and legal problems, it’s still far from clear that the company will ultimately be destroyed or broken up. It’s far far more likely that like many other past monopolists—Standard Oil, AT&T, and Microsoft—it will be forced to spin off some of its parts, but its core way of doing business will survive. If Tim Wu is right, the cycle of monopoly will continue (and that’s with Wu in the White House helping shape current tech policy now!). I have yet to see anyone who has their arms around the whole problem presented by the unprecedented concentration of power accumulated by Zuckerberg. Sure, break WhatsApp and Instagram away from Facebook; that’ll give the world one useful messaging platform inclined to grow into a surveillance capitalism giant plus two existing two surveillance capitalism giants instead of one surveillance capitalism monolith. Sure, create a new government agency to protect our digital rights from Big Tech, as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan suggests. Punt the regulatory questions to them. My two cents, in addition to these useful steps: First, pass a serious consumer privacy bill of rights. Then break Facebook itself down by country, and let each country decide if it wants to nationalize its piece or let it run as a highly regulated utility.
A warning to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: The new Facebook whistleblower is not afraid to swim with whale sharks.
Bonus link: TheFacebookLogout is coming November 10th. Put it on your calendar. Every organization currently on Facebook wrestling with its conscience about being there should be involved in this.
Unfinished Unfinished Business
Manoush Zomorodi, host of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, wrote up her impressions of speaking at and attending the Unfinished conference in New York and she is much kinder to Frank McCourt and his team than I was. What she saw at the event were “hundreds of curious people from the media-tech-ethics milieu showing up in person” to give “this new player the benefit of the doubt” about his effort to “build a new web.” She also noted that “people are understandably gun shy about blockchain,” but admitted “those of us who can’t code or only understand the fundamental theories behind blockchain will always be at odds with these technologists, because all we can do is believe them (or not) when they claim their technology could be used to build a new internet.”
Is this really just a question of who you choose to believe? I don’t think it’s a good idea for the media-tech-ethics crowd to throw up its hands in confusion, or worse, lend reputational credibility to projects that haven’t been vetted. Or worse, to just go with the current because someone upstream is artificially pumping water into the river. And it isn’t that hard to get a technical read on Project Liberty, McCourt’s $25 million effort to give the world a “Decentralized Social Network Protocol.” Either this thing is genuinely going to be a breakthrough in enabling a decentralized web to rise—which most of the conference’s glittering array of great speakers appeared to accept without question—or it isn’t. Evan Henshaw-Plath (aka @Rabble), the developer of Planetary.social, attended an invite-only developers summit that Project Liberty held the day before Unfinished began, and he came away unimpressed. He told me:
“They didn't have anybody who's been involved in decentralized social media and decentralized protocols except myself and Kaliya Young [who has been running the Internet Identity Workshop for more than a decade] and a few crypto people who do decentralized but not social. Nobody from any of the existing projects….”
For Rabble, Twitter’s Bluesky project is the gold standard of current work on decentralized tech. He points out that Project Liberty isn’t considered serious enough to even be noted there. As for the Project Liberty team’s chops, he said, “They claimed they'd read the Bluesky report on the ecosystem but their work and what they're building didn't reflect any learning from it. I demo'd Planetary and the other decentralized apps that exist at least in the Scuttlebutt ecosystem. I had a good conversation with their tech folks who were interested in listening. But it seemed like a lot of the fundamental decisions like to use Ethereum were done before the project was started or any research was done. The dev team seems like mostly staffers who've not worked on open source but they did hire Karl Fogel and Red Bean to be more open. But basically they'd just hired contractors to build it, without anybody who's really informed in the space.”
He adds, “It would be awesome if they did work with the communities, especially if they provided funding for dev and meetings. There was lots of rhetoric about bringing people together and opening up. Which is great, but the attendees were mostly Project Libert staffers, academics, foundation people, and civic tech folks advocating internet freedom and decentralization. There weren’t really people doing the work. Most of the DSNP folks weren't really even aware of prior art. What we could have done with that money if it was used differently!”
Indeed, if McCourt wanted to make a genuine contribution to building the decentralized web, he’d disband Project Liberty and give his $25 million to help Twitter create a foundation to support Bluesky. It’s great that Twitter has provided the seed support for Bluesky, and ultimately Twitter’s big user base will help jumpstart adoption of Bluesky solutions. But the decentralized web ought to be nurtured from a transparent and accountable foundation, not as a vanity project designed to refurbish a real estate mogul’s reputation.
—Bonus link: One of the Unfinished speakers that didn’t drink the blockchain Kool-Aid was media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. Take five minutes to listen to his introduction to his weekly podcast, Team Human, which he recorded from the Unfinished event.
—Related: The first issue of New_ Public Magazine is out and for my money, this piece by Mary Madden is the most brain-catching. She reports that many young people are getting online not by developing a “social media presence” centered on one dominant app, but instead “shifting their time, content and data away from mainstream social apps to a much more fragmented and less public kaleidoscope of communications and communities. More than previous generations, young people are now explicitly and thoughtfully controlling their boundaries of in-groups and out-groups.” In other words, the kids are already decentralized.
—Also this: The Decentralized Tech ecosystem map.
Tech and Organizing News
—Snap, the company behind Snapchat, has announced a new initiative called Run for Office Mini aimed at helping its users if they want to run for office, NPR’s Juana Summers reports. Sofia Gross, its head of partnerships and social impact, said that during 2020, the company noticed that while it urged its youthful user base to register and vote, “there weren’t that many candidates on the issues that the Snapchat generation cares a lot about." So she started meeting with candidate-recruitment organizations and discovered that they wanted help expanding the funnel to bring more young people into campaigning for office. What’s smart about Snap’s approach to this challenge is that it isn’t just giving its users a personalized list of opportunities to run for local office; it is partnering with candidate-recruitment organizations to make sure they get the real help, tools, and resources they will need to actually run. This is a promising initiative, well worth watching. (The Verge has some additional screenshots.)
—If you wrote letters to voters in swing states last year, urging them to vote, a new peer-reviewed study by the Analyst Institute has found that your efforts made a difference, increasing turnout by 0.8%, Philip Elliott reports for Time. Vote Forward worked with 50 groups around the country, generating 17.6 million letters, which translated to about 126,000 additional votes in 21 states.
—Before Saturday’s abortion rights rallies, some observers like Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times, worried that turnout would be tepid, writing that “after the unceasing emergencies of the last few years, maintaining an appropriate level of outrage has become a challenge.” Well, it looks like there were about 650 rallies around the country. And while the turnouts were nothing like the early Women’s Marches, it’s striking how little coverage these rallies got compared to the massive amount of media that tiny groups of anti-maskers and anti-critical-race-theory racists have gotten for showing up at school board meetings. In my humble opinion, the geographic diversity of progressive protests is the most important and enduring development of the last 5 years. In my corner of the woods, there were local rallies with 400-500 people each in both White Plains in Westchester and in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. This never happened 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
—Attend: Netroots Nation is happening virtually this Thursday-Saturday, and there are a number of enticing sessions covering tech and organizing, including “The Threat of Big Tech and Disinformation to Social Movements,” “How and Why You Should Treat Your Email Community With Respect,” and several covering the basics of organizing using the various dominant platforms.
—Longtime internet rights activists may remember Eddie Geller, a comedian and aspiring actor whose angry post on Reddit about the technological illiteracy displayed by many members of Congress during the SOPA-PIPA fight led to the creation of a full-fledged political action committee, Reddit-PAC. He’s now running for Congress in Florida’s 15th district, promising to champion “policies that benefit working-class Americans.” He launched is campaign with a satirical video on YouTube. My guess is that no member of Congress has more Reddit karma.
Odds and Ends
—Twenty-one current and former employees of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin spaceship company have released an open letter describing the company as a ‘toxic” and deeply sexist workplace where 100% of the senior technical and program staff are men.
—Physical and verbal violence against health care works is on the rise nationwide, Anna Gustafson reports for the Michigan Advance. Much of it is COVID-related, with patients angry at long waits in understaffed emergency rooms, plus people threatening staff because they don’t believe their COVID diagnoses. Some health care works are wearing panic buttons so they can summon security more quickly. Before the pandemic, one hospital in West Michigan reported about 100 verbal or physical acts of aggression monthly; that number is now closer to 350 a month.
—Andrew Yang’s Forward Party website says it’s “Coming 10/5.” And it’s 10/5.
—The hacker responsible for the Facebook outage has been identified.