The United Nations issued a report today alleging that the military in Myanmar had “genocidal intent” when it committed mass murders and gang rapes of the minority Muslim Rohingya population. It called for generals to be punished for human rights atrocities. And it also implicated Facebook.
“The role of social media is significant,” the report’s authors wrote. “Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where for most users Facebook is the internet. Although improved in recent months, Facebook’s response has been slow and ineffective.”
The report went on: “The extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence must be independently and thoroughly examined. The Mission regrets that Facebook is unable to provide country-specific data about the spread of hate speech on its platform, which is imperative to assess the adequacy of its response.”
The report escalated criticism against Facebook that the United Nations began in the spring, when the chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar told reporters that Facebook had played a “determining role” in spreading hate speech.
Facebook said on Monday it was removing several Myanmar military officials from the social media website and an Instagram account to prevent the spread of “hate and misinformation” after reviewing the content.
It was the first time Facebook banned a country’s military or political leaders, according to Facebook spokeswoman Ruchika Budhraja. She said the bans could not be appealed.
We’ve often discussed here the question of when, if ever, a social media platform ought to ban accounts of government officials. It comes up frequently in discussions of whether Twitter should ban President Donald Trump, for example, whose own tweets have sometimes walked the line against inciting violence.
Twitter has said that it holds those tweets to a different standard, because they are newsworthy. And it’s easy to imagine Facebook making a similar argument about Myanmar. The plight of the Rohingya is a subject of fierce political debate in the country, and what the country’s top generals are saying about it could easily be categorized as news.
That’s what makes today’s move by Facebook so significant. It marks a line where the company has decided that newsworthiness of speech is no longer recognized as a sufficient defense to keep hateful rhetoric on the platform. And in a country where, as the UN investigators say, Facebook is the internet, that could have significant consequences. Here’s Reuters again:
Facebook’s action means an essential blackout of the military’s main channel of public communication, with pages followed by millions of people no longer available to a population that sees the social media app as virtually synonymous with the internet.
What does it mean when your country’s leadership loses its social media accounts? Will Myanmar rise up and follow their generals on Gab? We’re about to find out.
While the UN criticized Facebook today, it also gave them cover to take an action it almost certainly would have rather avoided. And it also distracted from the company’s ongoing struggle to even comprehend the volume and variety of hate speech permeating its operation in Myanmar, which BuzzFeed’s Megha Rajagopalan, Lam Thuy Vo, and Aung Naing Soe detailed today in a thorough new analysis.
Note that this analysis covers only posts from politicians, and doesn’t even get into what average citizens have been posting. (Reuters did that version of this story earlier this month.)
BuzzFeed News analyzed more than 4,000 posts by politicians from the Arakan National Party (ANP), and found that 1 in 10 of the posts — made between March 2017 and February 2018 — contained hate speech as defined by Facebook’s own public community standards. The ANP is the most popular party in Rakhine state, which was home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya before they were expelled last year. It says it represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhines, the dominant group in the state, which is also the home of the Rohingya and other groups.
Posts by members of Rakhine state’s parliament compared Rohingya to dogs, said Muslim women were too ugly to rape, falsely stated Rohingya torched their own houses for a payout from NGOs, and accused Muslims of seeking to become the dominant group in the state by having too many children. Some even told Muslims to get ready to be killed. Some of the most popular posts identified by BuzzFeed News as hate speech garnered 3,400 reactions or were shared up to 9,500 times. Asked about the posts, Tun Aung Kyaw, general secretary and spokesperson for the ANP, said he had never seen members of the party MPs post about other religions on Facebook, despite the evidence. “As general secretary of the party, I have never seen my party members post hate speech online,” he said.
Many posts had been live for months when BuzzFeed emailed Facebook about them, after which they were finally removed.
On the whole, Monday’s news — however messy — feels like progress on the part of the platform. It shouldn’t take a genocide to get someone removed from Facebook, but it still feels like an important precedent to set. The line can always be moved from genocide toward more garden-variety forms of hate speech — and I expect it will be.
Note also that the news comes ahead of yet more hearings in the United States Congress on September 5th about content moderation, in which we can expect Myanmar to come up more once.
This batch of hearings bears watching in part because cries of “censorship” on the part of Republicans leading the hearings have always rung false. Now that Facebook actually has censored the top leaders of a sovereign nation, some of those questions may land a little differently.
Earlier this month we talked about the wily businessman who beat Facebook and Google’s influence operation to get data-privacy legislation passed in California. But that influence operation is now fighting back, developing a federal law that would supercede California’s — and weaken it, advocates say.
The administration said it intended to have an outline of potential rules by the end of the year. But the timeline could easily be pushed back, as numerous agencies may be involved, including the Commerce Department, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology.
In a sign of the latitude that a federal privacy law might give tech companies, at least three trade groups — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Internet Association, and the Information Technology Industry Council — are planning to push for voluntary standards instead of legal mandates that carry steep penalties for violations.
Meanwhile, Germany is considering new data privacy regulations against Facebook on antitrust grounds, Douglas Busvine reports:
Germany’s antitrust watchdog expects to take first steps this year in its probe against Facebook after finding that the social media giant abused its market dominance to gather data on people without their knowledge or consent.
The probe is being closely watched in Europe amid mounting concerns over leaks of data on tens of millions of Facebook users, as well as the extensive use of targeted ads by foreign powers seeking to influence elections in the United States.
Here is a very deep dive on how FireEye discovered the Iranian influence campaign on social media. It’s notable insofar as it gets across the increasing sophistication of people running such campaigns.
Fact checkers are facing harassment for the work they do on Facebook, Melanie Ehrenkranz reports:
“Every day we get at least two to four tweets or Facebook messages saying that we are either censors, we don’t deserve to be online, we should die, or something like that,” Julia said. “It’s pretty bad.” She added, “Brazil is going crazy right now. You’re either against fact checking, or you’re very quiet about it.”
Acknowledging that “the internet is being exploited by hate groups,” Tumblr is changing its community guidelines to address hate speech, glorifying violence, and revenge porn, my colleague Shannon Liao reports:
“It’s on all of us to create a safe, constructive, and empowering environment,” Tumblr writes in its blog post. “Our community guidelines need to reflect the reality of the internet and social media today.” The previous version of the guidelines can still be viewed on GitHub for comparison.
Tumblr struck out words in its hate speech policy that encouraged users to argue with negative speech that “doesn’t rise up to the level of violence or threats of violence” and to only report something if it was “especially heinous.”
Earlier this month I told you that teens were going to hack state election websites at Defcon. It turned out there was a major asterisk on that hacking, which is just now coming to light:
Organizers provided them with cheat sheets, and adults walked the students through the challenges they would encounter.
Josh Franklin, an elections expert formerly at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and a speaker at Def Con, called the websites “fake.”
The Pizzagate insanity, in which a shocking number of people came to believe that a child sex ring was operating inside a Washington, DC-based pizzeria has turned into a handbook for sabotaging small businesses. Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins report on the shadowy media outlet — and YouTube channel — that are behind it:
Their paranoia is partly fueled by Big League Politics, which has published articles that glorify the anonymous peddlers of the Qanon conspiracy theory and promote unfounded allegations that the Democratic National Committee had ordered and covered up the 2016 murder of staffer Seth Rich.
Run by former Breitbart News reporter Patrick Howley, who often writes the website’s most conspiracy-oriented content, Big League Politics has amassed a readership that prominent Republicans and their supporters have increasingly found attractive. Among the groups and GOP politicians that have used the Big League Politics email list to fundraise this year are the National Republican Congressional Committee; House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana; Rep. Devin Nunes of California; and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
There was a mass shooting over the weekend at a video game tournament. Jane Lytvynenko rounds up the hoaxes about it, including a fake viral tweet from a person who is not Morgan Freeman.
A former journalist gets busted by the FBI for selling pirated hockey DVDs and decides to devote the rest of his life to spreading viral misinformation — and doing so profitably, thanks to the high Facebook engagement his fake stories get. Naturally his site’s name is True Pundit. This is an all-time classic from Craig Silverman — I couldn’t stop reading:
Unmasking Moore and revealing his criminal history, potential grudge against the FBI, lack of recent work in journalism or investigations, and string of false stories attributed to anonymous sources should cause many to discount True Pundit as a source.
But the reality is his audience is already invested in his fake scoops about the deep state, out-of-control federal agencies, and child exploitation. They will almost certainly stay with him. Moore can simply portray himself as yet another victim of the FBI, mainstream media, and deep-state complex, all while promoting his Patreon and True Pundit merchandise.
Jake and Logan Paul, our generation’s Dukes of Hazzard, held a successful live event over the weekend in which they squared off against rival YouTubers in a face-punching contest. My colleague Vlad Savov was there and captured the event in all its absurdity. I saw a fair amount of hand-wringing about this, but as Paul monetization schemes go, I’d take face-punching with willing adversaries over neighborhood destruction or hostile tourism any day.
The show was more of a Logan Paul x KSI collaboration than a fight of genuine rivalry. Jake Paul, Logan’s younger brother, also fought KSI’s younger brother Deji Olatunji. Immediately after the fight, Jake announced that he’s launching his own clothing line and that he wants (documented domestic abuser) Chris Brown to be his next opponent. It was a perverse mix of brazen commercialism and the infliction of genuine pain: the amateurism of the performers translated into a brawling performance that left most people in the crowd delighted. Whoever it was that they hated, that dude got punched in the face and bled for their entertainment.
Serving up bloody violence as a $10 pay-per-view on YouTube and charging as much as $200 for floor seats in the arena, this was an affirmation of the enduring bankability of toxic masculinity. In executing their contrived feud, the two pairs of brothers sought to assert their superior manliness through base insults about strength, pain tolerance, attire, material possessions, and sexual prowess. You’d think we’d all know better by now that our shared culture would be moving on from such retrograde tropes, but nope.
Rachel Whetstone, who led corporate communications for Facebook for the past year during a nonstop series of public-relations crises, is decamping for Netflix. (Insiders say she was gunning for the job recently vacated by Elliot Schrage, who oversaw all communications at the company. It currently appears that Facebook wants to find an outsider for that role.) Whetstone previously had a similar role at Google; as Aaron Zamost noted, if she eventually moves on to Amazon she’ll have worked at each of the so-called “FANG” companies — our industry’s version of the EGOT.
Josh Constine takes a look at IGTV’s debut and finds that it has been surprisingly weak:
It’s indeed too early for a scientific analysis, and Instagram’s feed has been around since 2010, so it’s obviously not a fair comparison, but we took a look at the IGTV view counts of some of the feature’s launch partner creators. Across six of those creators, their recent feed videos are getting roughly 6.8X as many views as their IGTV posts. If IGTV’s launch partners that benefited from early access and guidance aren’t doing so hot, it means there’s likely no free view count bonanza in store from other creators or regular users.
They, and IGTV, will have to work for their audience. That’s already proving difficult for the standalone IGTV app. Though it peaked at the #25 overall US iPhone app and has seen 2.5 million downloads across iOS and Android according to Sensor Tower, it’s since dropped to #1497 and seen a 94 percent decrease in weekly installs to just 70,000 last week.
Daniel Funke finds a network of misleading accounts on Instagram that appear to be tied to various viral-marketing schemes.
Social media has been a boon to Juul as it works to sign up the next generation of smokers, reports Sheila Kaplan. Advocacy groups have petitioned the Federal Trade Commission asking for an intervention:
The petition filed by the antismoking advocacy groups asks the F.T.C. to require tobacco companies to disclose all pictures, videos and hashtags that are paid advertising or endorsements by adding some new, and likely less viral, hashtags: #Sponsored, #Promotion, or #Ad.
My colleague Ashley Carman has been doing some great work investigating Sean Rad’s lawsuit against Tinder. She has a new statement from him here about why he exercised his stock options despite believing the company to be undervalued.
I enjoyed the Charlie Warzel episode of BuzzFeed’s new “Follow This” series on Netflix, in which he examines the phenomenon of deepfakes. The standout moment comes when an AI-generated version of his voice fools his mother in a brief phone call. He breaks it down here.
We tend to focus on the negative effects of viral memes; Allie Volpe looks on the bright side:
But just as memes have given white supremacists a platform on Reddit and 4chan to morph and influence perception (take the widely publicized example of Taylor Swift as Nazi meme fodder), some viral images have a subtler way of opening eyes to positive, prosocial behaviors as well.
One 2015 paper published in the journal Human Technology points out how memes “can influence the behavior of the recipient; therefore, examining how memes spread can provide insights into how a culture evolves.” The researchers from Texas A&M University-Commerce discusses how trickle-down memes from more influential members of a group can help lower-level members of a social faction learn group norms to better assimilate.
YouTube rolled out a “time watched” feature inside its apps today. It makes for fascinating reading — I average 43 minutes a day on YouTube! It also highlights the fact that Facebook announced that similar features were rolling out a month ago, and then never actually rolled them out. I emailed Facebook today to ask what was going on but haven’t heard back.
Sen. Ron Wyden has an op-ed in TechCrunch scolding tech CEOs for using Section 230 as an excuse to avoid thinking about content moderation:
I never expected that internet CEOs would fail to understand one simple principle: that an individual endorsing (or denying) the extermination of millions of people, or attacking the victims of horrific crimes or the parents of murdered children, is far more indecent than an individual posting pornography.
If you want to be the CEO of an internet titan where schools communicate with students, artists with their fans or elected officials with their constituents, you need to limit content like pornography — and they all do. But for some reason, these CEOs think it’s entirely appropriate to allow these other forms of indecency to live on their platforms. Their ineptitude is threatening the very legal foundation of social media.
The personal-data privacy war is long over, and you lost, says Ian Bogost:
Facebook and Google might not literally be listening in on our conversations, but they are eavesdropping on our lives. These companies have so much data, on so many people, and they can slice and dice it in so many ways that they might as well be monitoring our conversations. Traveling out of town and searching for restaurants? It’s not just that Facebook or Google knows where you are and what you’re searching for, but also if you’re a foodie or a cheapskate, if you’ve “liked” Korean hot pot or Polish pierogi, and what your demographics say about your income, and therefore your budget.
Tech companies do collect data in unexpected, and sometimes duplicitous, ways. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica catastrophe offers one example. More recently, a report based on research at Vanderbilt University suggests that Google collects or infers vast quantities of information about its users, based on their web browsing, media use, location, purchases, and more—sometimes even absent user interaction. Location data was particularly voluminous, with Android smartphones conveying a user’s position in space more than 300 times in a 24-hour period—even if the user has turned off location history in the device’s Google settings. The study also shows that the “incognito” mode in Google’s Chrome browser, which promises to hide a user’s information from websites while browsing, still makes it possible for Google to connect those supposedly hidden visits to its own, internal profile of a user.
Hunter Walk expands his tweet from Friday into a take:
It’s smart and while just a test, points to how Facebook can use the information they have about us in ways that aren’t just ad targeting or friend finding. I have to imagine these experiments are exciting for the team working on them. I mean, if you’re a Facebook engineer would you rather just be tasked with getting another few seconds of daily engagement and a slight increase in ad clicks -OR- have the chance to invent the metrics and dashboards that will monitor the health of the web going forward?
And finally ...
Before he was a semi-disgraced right-wing agitator troll and military-surveillance capitalist, Palmer Luckey was the cofounder of Oculus, which he and his fellow inventors sold to Facebook for $2 billion. On Sunday evening he posted an absolutely delicious review of the Magic Leap Developer Kit, and very few hardware reviews have ever brought me so much joy. I understand why most tech founders don’t review the competition in public, but this review will make you wish they all did. Luckey’s scrutiny of much-hyped Magic Leap is grounded in an expertise that most tech review sites can only aspire to. This is outstanding product criticism:
Magic Leap says they have “built a whole new operating system” called LuminOS to take advantage of their “spatial computing system“. It is actually just Android with custom stuff on top, the same approach most people take when they want to claim they have built a whole operating system.
I will keep this part short. I hope Magic Leap does cool stuff in the future, but the current UI is basically an Android Wear watch menu that floats in front of you. The menus are made of flat panels that can only be interacted with through the previously discussed non-clickable trackpack. Eye tracking and rotation/position of the controller are ignored, as is headlook. You can toss Windows 8 style application windows all over the place, floating in space or even attached to walls! That is nifty, mostly useless, and also exactly what Microsoft started showing off about three years ago. It is some of the worst parts of phone UI slammed into some of the most gimmicky parts of VR UI, and I hope developers create better stuff in the near future.
I look forward to Luckey’s review of the border wall, if we ever build one.
Talk to me
Send tips, questions, comments, and hateful army generals: firstname.lastname@example.org.