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Why we like fake stuff on Facebook

Why we like fake stuff on Facebook


Separating fact and fiction turns out to be fun

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A picture of a person looking at Facebook on a phone.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales

One of my favorite essays for understanding modern life was published in May of 2016 by Jeremy Gordon. In “Is Everything Wrestling?”, Gordon examined the way that the news cycle had come to resemble a scripted WWE spectacle. As in a wrestling match, the boundaries between reality and fiction had become permanently blurred. Gordon writes:

With each passing year, more and more facets of popular culture become something like wrestling: a stage-managed “reality” in which scripted stories bleed freely into real events, with the blurry line between truth and untruth seeming to heighten, not lessen, the audience’s addiction to the melodrama. The modern media landscape is littered with “reality” shows that audiences happily accept aren’t actually real; that, in essence, is wrestling. (“WWE Raw” leads to “The Real World,” which leads to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and so forth.)

And “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” I’d argue, led to our social feeds. There, too, we find a mix of truth and fiction, and are left forever to sort out who’s telling the truth, who’s not who they say they are, and so on. Critically, Gordon highlights the fact that our uncertainty around what’s real and fake makes everything more interesting, not less. Platforms generally regard fakers as bad actors, and invest billions in “integrity” teams to eliminate them. But their presence has hardly driven us away from Facebook or Twitter, and there’s reason to wonder if it might actually help keep us glued to them.

What’s real? What’s fake? Figuring it out can be a lot of fun. And even when it doesn’t feel fun, exactly, it’s rarely less than interesting.

I thought about all this today while reading this week’s stories about phony stuff discovered on Facebook, which were more numerous than usual. For example, there was the Christian satire site that objected to its article being labeled fiction by Snopes. The objection seemed to be that while it does publish fiction, the particular thing that Snopes objected to was less fiction than an actual news article that included some misleading details. A fine-grained dispute, clearly, but one that was still promoted by conservatives who thrill at painting Snopes as a leftist outlet.

There was Facebook’s own announcement that it had found two networks of propaganda outlets: one originating from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and another originating from Saudi Arabia. The networks had 13.7 million (!) and 1.4 million followers, respectively. Here’s what Facebook found in that big UAE network:

The people behind this network used compromised and fake accounts — the majority of which had already been detected and disabled by our automated systems — to run Pages, disseminate their content, comment in Groups and artificially increase engagement. They also impersonated public figures and managed Pages — some of which changed names and admins — posing as local news organizations in targeted countries and promoting content about UAE. The Page admins and account owners posted about non-country specific topics like fashion, animals, humor and crafts. They also frequently posted about local news, politics, elections and topics including alleged support of terrorist groups by Qatar and Turkey, Iran’s activity in Yemen, the conflict in Libya, successes of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and independence for Somaliland. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to two marketing firms — New Waves in Egypt, and Newave in the UAE.

The Saudi network was smaller and apparently connected to its awful government, according to Facebook.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Jim Waterston highlights how a politically connected public relations firm has “secretly built a network of unbranded ‘news’ pages on Facebook for dozens of clients ranging from the Saudi government to major polluters.” According to the report, Boris Johnson ally Lynton Crosby has exploited the fact that all news pages on Facebook look the same, whether built by real publishers or PR firms, to flood the network with news favoring paid clients. Waterson writes:

One former employee described how Crosby’s business created Facebook pages on specific topics to spread disinformation to interested members of the public in the UK and abroad. “It would all be anonymised and made to look as though they are a news aggregator with a specialist angle,” the employee said. “For instance, if we were working to promote the use of coal, it would be an anti-environmental page. You might make a page designed to attract pro-Trump types and get them revved up about green subsidies.”

Staff members said that they created websites and Facebook pages which appeared to be independent online news sources with names such as Why Electricity Matters, Reporting Yemen and Londoners for Transport, but instead could be used to distribute highly selective information which reached tens of millions of readers.

Finally — for today! — the May election in Australia was marred by a false propaganda campaign suggesting the Labor Party planned to implement an inheritance tax. As is its policy in this cases, Facebook didn’t remove the propaganda — it just ranked it lower in the feed. This has led to a fresh round of angst in the Australian press over what Facebook ought to do with this sort of thing.

In wrestling, the boundaries between fact and fiction are never resolved — they feed one another endlessly. Real-life happenings are worked into storylines, and storylines wind up warping real life. The same thing is now happening across our social networks every day — amplified and accelerated by the algorithms that make them unique actors human history. And while it can all make for good entertainment, it’s unsettling to live in a world that’s increasingly governed by the same logic as WWE.

Facial recognition

Is it just me, or has anxiety about facial recognition quickly snowballed into a full-blown reckoning? Let’s take a look at a few stories that have bubbled up over the past few days.

One, Joseph Goldstein and Ali Watkins examine current practices in New York City:

The New York Police Department has been loading thousands of arrest photos of children and teenagers into a facial recognition database despite evidence the technology has a higher risk of false matches in younger faces.

For about four years, internal records show, the department has used the technology to compare crime scene images with its collection of juvenile mug shots, the photos that are taken at an arrest. Most of the photos are of teenagers, largely 13 to 16 years old, but children as young as 11 have been included.

For those and other reasons, San Francisco led the nation earlier this year in banning the use of facial recognition technologies by government agencies. As Blake Montgomery reports in the Daily Beast, it was soon followed by Somerville, a suburb of Boston, and Oakland. He says the national mood is turning against the technology:

Until now, misgivings around the technology didn’t seem to be slowing it down. Privacy groups and officials that spoke to The Daily Beast often referenced the “mission creep” of facial recognition tech. Its opponents say facial recognition poses an existential threat to digital privacy.

“This is something that’s happening right now,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight For The Future. “It’s not some dystopian, theoretical future harm. It’s a real, immediate threat that’s spreading very quickly.”

And while Americans aren’t particularly known for their robust consumption of international news, I wonder if at least some of them haven’t been drawn to the stories about the lengths to which protesters in Hong Kong have gone to evade facial recognition technology there. Here’s Shibani Mahtani and Jennifer Hassan:

Front-line protesters — who always cover their faces and sometimes even the brands of their shoes to prevent identification — have fixed the strong beams at surveillance cameras to stop themselves from being easily spotted and identified. As night falls, when peaceful rallies tend to turn chaotic and sometimes violent, protesters point the laser beams at police cameras and riot officers’ shields and faces, turning streets into surreal theaters of colored, flashing lights.

Man, that really does sound dystopian.

In any case, even if the tide is turning against facial recognition, other surveillance technologies continue to develop faster than our policy debates around them. Dell Cameron has a great story about how Amazon’s home security division is rapidly developing a nexus with US police departments. Basically, Amazon gets access to emergency dispatch data in exchange for access to video footage captured by the company’s Ring security cameras. Amazon blasts out crime alerts to its Ring app, called Neighbors, which stokes the kind of anxiety that leads people to buy Ring security cameras.

More alerts, more camera sales, more personal data collected. It’s a tight little flywheel — and it feels like something we ought to be talking about.


FTC Antitrust Probe of Facebook Scrutinizes Its Acquisitions

The Federal Trade Commission is looking at Facebook’s acquisitions as part of its antitrust investigation, report Brent Kendall, John D. McKinnon and Deepa Seetharaman. Which, like … you would hope so!

FTC investigators are examining whether the company and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, purchased technology startups to keep them from challenging Facebook’s empire, the people said, some of whom added that the FTC has begun reaching out to the founders of such companies.

The tech giant has acquired about 90 companies over roughly the last 15 years, according to data compiled by S&P Global. Among those companies are the photo-sharing app Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp, which bolstered Facebook as a dominant force in social media and messaging.

Senator seeks to prevent next Cambridge Analytica scandal with new voter privacy bill

A day after we talked about privacy legislation making its way through the Senate, Makena Kelly reports on another new bill on the subject:

As the 2020 election season heats up, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is introducing a new bill she hopes will help prevent the next Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

Feinstein’s “Voter Privacy Act” would empower voters with new authority over how their data is collected and used by political campaigns. If approved, campaigns would be required to notify you if they obtained your data through a data broker and allow you to both access and delete it from their databases. Voters would also be able to ask platforms like Facebook and Google to stop sharing their data with these campaigns.

Another Victim of Facebook Romance Scams: A U.S. Congressman

In the wake of Jack Nicas’ report earlier this week, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois says Facebook should do more to eliminate fake accounts:

Mr. Kinzinger, a Republican and a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, is one of what are probably thousands of United States service members who have been ensnared in a widespread fraud that has played out for years on Facebook, Instagram and other social networks and dating sites. Swindlers impersonate service members online to lure victims into false romances and then cheat the victims out of their savings.

Mr. Kinzinger said he was moved to take action after reading about the scope of the schemes in a New York Times article this week. On Wednesday, he sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, requesting more information about what the company was doing to prevent such fraud on its sites.

Google will pause listening to EU voice recordings while regulators investigate

Colin Lecher reports that Google is having trouble in Germany over its usage of anonymized audio samples to improve voice recognition:

Google has agreed to stop listening in and transcribing Google Assistant recordings for three months in Europe, according to German regulators.

In a statement released today, Germany’s data protection commissioner said the country was investigating after reports that contractors listen to audio captured by Google’s AI-powered Assistant to improve speech recognition. In the process, according to the reports, contractors found themselves listening to conversations accidentally recorded by products like the Google Home.

Exclusive: FBI document warns conspiracy theories are a new domestic terrorism threat

Jana Winter reports on a grim but important milestone. Note that the FBI mentions Qanon as a specific threat:

The FBI for the first time has identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat, according to a previously unpublicized document obtained by Yahoo News.

The FBI intelligence bulletin from the bureau’s Phoenix field office, dated May 30, 2019, describes “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists,” as a growing threat, and notes that it is the first such report to do so. It lists a number of arrests, including some that haven’t been publicized, related to violent incidents motivated by fringe beliefs.


Ninja, the biggest name in Fortnite, is leaving Twitch for Mixer

Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the biggest name in Fortnite and one of Twitch’s most popular stars, and Microsoft has now signed him away. Believe it or not, this was the biggest story on The Verge on Thursday. (If you’re unfamiliar with Mixer, Julia Alexander has a nice explainer.)

Mixer is a fledgling streaming service owned by Microsoft that launched as Beam back in 2016, and later rebranded in 2017. The Ninja exclusivity marks a major get for the platform, which has struggled to catch up to competitors like Twitch and YouTube.

Twitch gave out 24 hour suspensions after last night’s Democratic debates

Some top streamers tried to stream their commentary on the Democratic debate and got suspended for copyright violations, Bijan Stephen reports:

Because CNN was hosting the second debate, they owned the rights to the entire production; they sent a takedown notice to Twitch, which then handed out suspensions to the offending streamers. Three prominent streamers in particular were affected: Mychal “Trihex” Jefferson (who has around 395,000 followers), Steven “Destiny” Bonnell (433,000), and Hasan “HasanAbi” Piker (121,000).

Capital One Hacker Threatened Shooting at Social Media Company

But we don’t know which social media company:

The Seattle woman accused of a massive hack of personal and financial data from Capital One Financial Corp. threatened to shoot up an unnamed California social media company, according to court records.

Paige Thompson, 33, was arrested during a raid of her house Monday morning and charged with illegally accessing Capital One’s files. More than 100 million people were affected by the breach, which included names, dates of birth and about 140,000 Social Security numbers, the bank said.

SexTech startups are protesting outside of Facebook’s offices, claiming the social network bars them from running ads

Facebook won’t take money from these sex toy manufacturers and they are not happy about it:

SexTech startups Dame Products and Unbound protested against ad censorship outside of Facebook’s New York office on Monday morning.

The CEOs of both women’s wellness companies, which sell products like vibrators, say that Facebook has not allowed them to run ads for their products on Facebook or Instagram.

Pinterest and YouTube Shine While Facebook User Satisfaction Suffers Amid Privacy Concerns, ACSI Data Show

The American Customer Satisfaction Index found that Facebook fell across several categories this year:

Facebook has faced privacy controversies, including Russian election interference, fake news and accounts, and potential censorship of political news. This contentious atmosphere perhaps explains why customer satisfaction with Facebook nosedives 6% to the bottom of the industry at 63.

Privacy is at an all-time low for Facebook, and it trails other social media sites by a wide margin. Facebook also rates lowest for the amount of advertising it displays, ease of uploading photos and videos, and content relevance, as users have issues with Facebook’s news feed.

YouTube Overhauled Its Algorithms for Kids’ Content Amid FTC Talks

Mark Bergen reports that last month YouTube got the bright idea to promote “quality” content for children. This replaced the previous policy of promoting bad content for children.

Fired by Google, a Republican Engineer Hits Back: ‘There’s Been a Lot of Bullying’

It’s always interesting to me that stories about conservatives who get fired from technology companies for “unfair treatment” are also invariably stories about white guys who harassed coworkers in internal chat forums. This one is no different.

Where Everyone’s an Influencer

A place where everyone is an influencer seems like the absolute most fun place that you could ever be, so thanks to Taylor Lorenz for going there:

The occasion was Instabeach, an exclusive, invite-only annual party hosted by the photo-sharing platform for 500 top creators along with plus-ones, talent representatives, managers, and—for the first time—press. The goal, according to Justin Antony, Instagram’s head of creators and emerging talent partnerships, is to help influencers meet one another, mingle, and form friendships. But what started three years ago as a casual beach party for a class of people that was once maligned by the traditional entertainment industry has become a who’s who of young Hollywood, a sun-soaked declaration of just how completely enmeshed Instagram has become with the teen-entertainment world. Instagram isn’t just a place to connect with friends, share memes, and post life highlights—it’s where more and more young stars go to make a name for themselves.


Facebook open-sources algorithms for detecting child exploitation and terrorism

Well this seems like a good thing. (I wrote this one.)

Facebook will open-source two algorithms it uses to identify child sexual exploitation, terrorist propaganda, and graphic violence, the company said today. PDQ and TMK+PDQF, a pair of technologies that store files as digital hashes and compare them with known examples of harmful content, have been released on Github, Facebook said in a blog post.

Facebook said it hopes that other tech companies, nonprofit organizations, and individual developers will use the technology to identify more harmful content and add it to shared databases. That helps platforms remove the content more quickly when people attempt to upload it.

WhatsApp ‘Frequently Forwarded’ message label starts rolling out in India: Report

Good question on this one from Brendan Nyhan: will a “frequently forwarded” tag make people less likely to share information, or more?

YouTube Rabbit Hole

Here’s a cool Chrome extension designed to help you control you time on YouTube. It lets you hide recommendations, comments, live chats, and trending pages, among other things, and can be fully customized. What if YouTube enabled a “focus” mode that did all this natively? Hint hint!


The clock’s ticking for regulators on TikTok

Observing the rise of TikTok in Australia, Fergus Ryan says it’s time for the government to take a closer look at it:

Beijing has demonstrated a propensity for controlling and shaping overseas Chinese-language media. The speedy growth of TikTok now puts the CCP in a position where it can attempt to do the same on a largely non-Chinese-speaking platform—with the help of an AI-powered advanced algorithm. There’s evidence to suggest politically motivated censorship is already happening.

Australia’s regulators may think they have a gargantuan task ahead of them grappling with America’s tech behemoths, but they will face a whole new order of problems when they try to rein in the Chinese tech unicorns that are inextricably linked to the CCP’s opaque and erratic censorship and surveillance regime.

And finally ...

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