#AxisOfEasy 148: Facebook Knew Its Algos Sowed Divisiveness And Execs Ignored It

Weekly Axis Of Easy #148

Last Week’s Quote was “If privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy.” Was PGP creator Phil Zimmermann. Phs3 got there first.
This Week’s Quote:  “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one” …by ???
THE RULES:No searching up the answer, must be posted to the blog.
The Prize:  First person to post the correct answer gets their next domain or hosting renewal on us.

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Podcast:  Axis Of Easy #148

In this issue:

  • A final push to defend your right to freedom of speech in Canada
  • YouTube removes Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans”
  • Youtube automatically delete comments insulting to Chinese Communist Party
  • TikTok blocks #GeorgeFloyd tag across system, also blames bug
  • Twitter ignites mega gigantic sh*tstorm after “fact checking” Trump tweets 
  • Twitter unverifies journalist after covering Obama-era spying on reporters
  • Facebook knew its algos sowed divisiveness and execs ignored it
  • We don’t own our digital goods and why it matters
  • A Deep Dive into the Future Technologies that will shape the Internet
  • Wikipedia co-founder says the site is “badly biased”
  • Local news stations run story scripted by Amazon 
  • GitLab runs phishing test against employees and 20% fall for it
  • The Hanseatic League of Decentralized Crypto-States

A final push to defend your right to freedom of speech in Canada

This week the signature period will end for our petition in Canada’s House of Commons to call on the government to reject the framework proposed by the Broadband Telecom Legislative Review (BTLR). As we have outlined previously the BTLR is a framework for content regulation.

This issue was pushed to the backburner with the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic, ironically so, given that the war against non-conforming and unofficial content ratcheted up into overdrive as Big Tech platforms and mainstream media outlets sought to deplatform and neutralize any non-conforming thought as “misinformation”. We wrote further on that here.

But as it stands now, our petition has only garnered about 3,500 signatures. Which is disappointing.  Let’s try to salvage this and get as many people as you can to head over to our petition and sign it before the end of Friday the 5th.

Go there now: https://petitions.ourcommons.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-2418

YouTube removes Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans”

Remember where you read it first:  just a few weeks ago in AxisOfEasy #144, we wrote about the new Micheal Moore film “Planet of the Humans” had incensed the clean energy movement so much that factions within it were organizing to have the movie deplatformed.  At that time we downloaded a copy and reposted it to AxisOfEasy.  I wrote then “just in case Youtube obliges them”, but I really didn’t think Youtube would actually remove it, I mean we’re talking Michael Moore here.

But Youtube did remove the film based on a copyright complaint from a photographer whose footage was used in the film for approximately 4.5 seconds.  He disagrees with the criticism of the renewable energy industry depicted and complained.  Moore and team have countered that the clip falls well within Fair Use. 

Matt Taibbi has written an excellent assessment of the situation, and once Moore’s team inevitably recuts the film without the offending scene it’ll be interesting to hear what excuse Youtube uses next time.

Youtube algos automatically delete comments insulting to Chinese Communist Party

Also Youtube:  report started emerging elsewhere on social media that Youtube was automatically deleting comments that contained two phrases that were insulting to China’s ruling Communist Party: 

“Comments left under videos or in live streams that contain the words “共匪” (“communist bandit”) or “五毛” (“50-cent party”) are automatically deleted in around 15 seconds, though their English language translations and Romanized Pinyin equivalents are not.”

Apparently this has been going on for nearly 6 months.  When finally pressed on the matter, YouTube’s parent Alphabet (who owns Google) said that the phrases had mistakenly been added to the system’s comment profanity filters and devs were working on a fix (like it takes a team of devs some time to remove a couple strings from a list somewhere).

In this case, Youtube blames the algos.  However I did come across this tweet: https://mobile.twitter.com/palmerluckey/status/1265077232176775168 in which somebody is complaining that Youtube deleted every comment he ever made (over time and in the past) about China’s propaganda division, Wumao (五毛).

TikTok blocks #GeorgeFloyd tag across system, also blames bug

News started spreading via the Twittersphere on Thursday night that TikTok was blocking the #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd tags across the system.

The company responded on social media that it was not intentional and that a software bug was affecting random hashtags across the system, including #cat and #hello (kinda weird that a random bug would grab two fairly tightly coupled hashtags at that moment).
By the weekend some posts to TikTok  referencing those tags were garnering hundreds of thousands of views, appearing to resolve the situation.

We don’t own our digital goods and why it matters

Via a reader, who sent me this article that examines how even after you “purchase” a digital download from an online store, you don’t actually “own” it forever the way we are accustomed to think about things we buy.  In this case, we look at Amazon’s Prime, which has been sued by at least one customer who found that a movie purchased a few years ago (Alita Battle Angel) had been removed and was no longer downloadable of viewable.

Prime’s ToS allow them to do it because their fine print, in addition to severely limiting your rights to purchased content also stipulates that it is not liable “if Purchased Digital Content becomes unavailable for further download or streaming.”

Amazon is not alone, Apple’s iTunes sometimes pulls movies out of the library for whatever reason, and if you owned that movie and didn’t download it, well tough luck.  Further, I once discovered that if your payment method in the iTunes stops working, like your credit card expires, then you cannot access any purchased content in the iTunes Store until you fix your payment method.  This even applies to everything you have already bought and paid for. I once tweeted to this effect and got some push-back from Apple fanboys “surely you must be mistaken, or an idiot, or both”.  But I have since confirmed this, more than once, with various Apple reps on the phone with them on other issues.

Twitter ignites mega gigantic sh*tstorm after fact checking Trump tweets 

A couple of weeks ago Twitter announced that they would start labeling “potentially misleading tweets” about coronavirus.  We didn’t run that story specifically, but we have said more than once that doing so is easier said than done.  Given that some of the worst, and inaccurate and just plain wrong information has come out of “official sources” such as the WHO and CDC, a social media network deigning to sort it all out and deduce what was true or not seemed a tad…. grandiose. 

Last week the company took things to a new level by adding a similar “fact checking” label to the US president’s tweets (from his private account). The Donald, predictably, went positively ballistic and it culminated in an executive order intended to pave the way toward stripping social media platforms of their immunity from liabilities arising from content posted on their systems.

Taking the emotion of how much many loathe Trump (or how much I loathe Twitter) out of the equation for a moment, it really does seem as if they stepped on a rake to some extent. 

Having been in the internet infrastructure business since the mid 90’s, one thing we were always cognizant of, and tried to diligently avoid, was exercising editorial influence on content traversing our systems.  The risk, we were inculcated to internalize from very early on, by any lawyers in the room, was that making content calls would nullify our status as mechanical distributors and put us in the unenviable position of being a publisher.  In other words, if we were to take responsibility for any one piece of content, we’d end up being responsible for all of it.

That seems to be where this is headed, now that Twitter is deciding what is and isn’t misleading, from a head of state, no less, they have basically stepped in a steaming pile of ramifications, and not just for themselves, but for the entirety of Big Tech. 

Their compadres were not entirely cool with it, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg slammed Twitter for the move saying, in effect “social media platforms are not the arbiters of truth”, (except all the other times when Facebook did exactly the same thing.)  A more plausible interpretation of Zuck’s screed would be “hey, leave us out of it!”

As I state in my book, Unassailable, trying to moderate content via so-called “fact checking“ or based on behaviour outside of the platform itself is a fool’s errand.  Avoid.

Twitter unverifies journalist after covering Obama-era spying on reporters

Also Twitter: this journalist wrote a column about Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS reporter and author of The Smear (an excellent read about political operatives and media manipulation). 

August Takala’s column tells the story of how Attkisson figured out she had been illegally surveilled by Obama-era intelligence officials, an ongoing scandal currently being ignored by most mainstream media called “Obamagate”.  Within one hour of Takala tweeting about his new column on Twitter, his hallowed “blue checkmark”, designating him as a verified account was removed.

Sometimes it almost seems like Twitter lets their own political leanings influence how they enforce rules and moderate content across their platform.  Weird.

Facebook knew its algos sowed divisiveness and execs ignored it

If anybody remembers a couple years ago we wrote a comprehensive review of Jaron Lanier’s “10 Reasons To Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”, an excellent deep dive into the ways social media platforms bring out our worst attributes and sew divisiveness.  It turns out, Facebook execs knew a lot of this about their own platform, they were warned by their own staff about it, and they chose to ignore it because hey, divisiveness drives clicks, and clicks drive page views, and page views drive ad revenues….

“Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” read a slide from a 2018 presentation. “If left unchecked,” it warned, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”

Although the study into the platform’s effect on user polarization was initially encouraged by Zuck, he eventually lost interest in it and moved onto other matters, reports the Wall Street Journal.  Other senior executives then weakened or blocked efforts to reform Facebook’s system based on the findings.

Read: https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-it-encourages-division-top-executives-nixed-solutions-11590507499 (paywall)

And: https://easydns.com/blog/2018/08/30/escape-from-the-bummer-machine/

A Deep Dive into the Future Technologies that will shape the Internet

If you want a decent cheat sheet on which technologies are worth paying attention to in the future, then “Emerging Communications Technologies” by Geoff Huston over on CircleID should be printed off and taped to your fridge.  It also helps you discern which technologies you can safely ignore, despite the hype.

Including the inevitable talk of “5G”, Huston doesn’t come out and say “ignore it”, but he does say that it appears to be more hype than actual evolution of the communications technology and that 5G is really not much different from 4G.

So as I tell people, especially the ones who are worried about 5G being some sort of evil plot, “if you’re not worried about 4G, which is already everywhere, then you shouldn’t be worried about 5G”.

Former CRTC commissioner, and erstwhile director to CIRA Tim Denton, also followed up with a dispassionate look at 5G on his blog.

Read: https://www.tmdenton.com/index.php/easyblog/entry/5g-or-any-excuse-will-do

Wikipedia co-founder says the site is “badly biased”

“The NPOV is dead”…. Long live the NPOV.  That of course is the “Neutral Point of View” a belief among Wikipedia editors that they are rationally and dispassionately editorializing content and moderating edits in a neutral, unbiased manner.  Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has been writing about the loss of objectivity on the system for some time now.  Sanger was the co-founder who coined the term “wikipedia” and who wrote most of the original governance policy (according to…. Wikipedia ????  )

Sanger writes “the point is that true neutrality, to be carefully distinguished from objectivity, requires that the article be written in a way that makes it impossible to determine the editors’ position on the important controversies the article touches on.”

The article is rife with examples where that clearly is not the case, where subjective opinions are blatantly expressed in the article’s own voice and were wide-ranging pronouncements are made “without attribution or qualification”. 

Sanger concludes with:

“It is time for Wikipedia to come clean and admit that it has abandoned NPOV (i.e., neutrality as a policy).  At the very least they should admit that that they have redefined the term in a way that makes it utterly incompatible with its original notion of neutrality” and further suggests that if they really feel the need to editorialize or skew the material then they should publicly shift their focus away from neutrality and try to lay some claim to “credibility” instead.  Which would still be deeply problematic in my opinion.

Local news stations run story scripted by Amazon 

Speaking of neutral, unbiased reporting, thankfully we still have network news, right?  Maybe you were one of the viewers who caught a story of one of 11 local TV stations throughout the US who reported on how Amazon is dealing with the stress and pressure of safely delivering essential goods to households while keeping everybody safe and healthy amid a global pandemic…. 

Todd Walker “takes us inside”. 

Walker seems like a busy guy, since all 11 stations called on their “man on the ground” Todd to go in and report on how these Amazon fulfillment centres keep it together. Turns out, Todd Walker isn’t actually a reporter working for any of these TV stations.  He’s a PR manager at Amazon.  The entire piece is scripted.  It’s not even an informercial or advertorial as much as it is a piece of propaganda touting The Company Store.

All 11 stations delivered the same segment preamble word-for-word and none of them disclosed it as such when the segment ran.

Read: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/4ayvwb/local-news-stations-run-propaganda-segments-scripted-and-produced-by-amazon

Now, this is not new.  Back in 2013, there was a short film contest called “Operation Paul Revere”.  The winning entry, “Political Earth” was absolutely hysterical, which is why I’m even aware of this.  But a runner-up was called “Media Brainwashing”, and it is creepy.  It’s a montage of local TV news anchors, all reciting news stories, verbatim in exactly the manner outlined above.  Clip after clip of these plastic looking dolls using that horribly patronizing newscaster vocal timbre repeating the same exact words like that scene in the original Manchurian Candidate flick.

GitLab runs phishing test against employees and 20% fall for it

Phishing is a problem for every company, even cutting edge tech outfits.
SiliconANGLE reported on a test GitLab ran against 50 of their employees which sent them an email with a link to a counterfeit company website.  Only 17 of the 50 recipients clicked on the link, but of them, 10 entered their login credentials.  The test did not account for additional security provisions like multi-factor authentication, which could save your bacon in a situation like this. (Remember, every easyDNS account has 2FA capabilities in your “Security” section under your account details).

On a similar note, last week the University of Waterloo ran a simulated phishing attack against segments of the student body using typo-squat domains registered via easyDNS. An alert student called us out on Twitter, and we deftly nuked the account. UoW’s head of security called us up and hilarity ensued. Moral of the story: if you’re going to run a phishing simulation against your own organization, please notify us first so we don’t nuke your ass once the emails start flying.

The Hanseatic League of Decentralized Crypto-States

Over on the AxisOfEasy website, Charles, Jesse and I did our 6th AxisOfEasy salon last week and continued on a theme of what comes next after the loss of institutional legitimacy.  Nation states aren’t going away anytime soon, but they will have to share the stage with non-state actors sooner than they may expect. Some of those actors may pose even greater threats to personal autonomy and freedom (i.e. Google, Facebook and “The Company Store”, a.k.a Amazon), but there also are other alternatives.

Watch here: https://axisofeasy.com/podcast/salon-6-the-hanseatic-league-of-decentralized-crypto-states/

We’ve had a request to make transcripts available of these AxisOfEasy Salons, so we are now doing that. The Salons typically go up Thursday nights, the transcripts should hopefully be ready on the following Monday. The Salon 5 transcript (Will the Great Opt-Out Be Able to Scale?) was posted here.

3 thoughts on “#AxisOfEasy 148: Facebook Knew Its Algos Sowed Divisiveness And Execs Ignored It

  1. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one”

    This is from Voltaire

  2. Another great one I’ll just leave in French – you’re Canadian, you can handle it.

    Dans ses écrits un sage italien
    Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien

  3. It’s not fair to say Facebook execs “ignored” the fact that they were promoting divisiveness – it’s their business model. It creates more adhesion and time spent on the site.

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