Ever since Russian agents and other opportunists abused its platform in an attempt to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has insisted — repeatedly — that it’s learned its lesson and is no longer a conduit for misinformation, voter suppression and election disruption.
But it has been a long and halting journey for the social network. Critical outsiders, as well as some of Facebook’s own employees, say the company’s efforts to revise its rules and tighten its safeguards remain wholly insufficient to the task, despite it having spent billions on the project. As for why, they point to the company’s persistent unwillingness to act decisively over much of that time.
“Am I concerned about the election? I’m terrified,” said Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and an early Facebook investor turned vocal critic. “At the company’s current scale, it’s a clear and present danger to democracy and national security.”
The company’s rhetoric has certainly gotten an update. CEO Mark Zuckerberg now casually references possible outcomes that were unimaginable in 2016 — among them, possible civil unrest and potentially a disputed election that Facebook could easily make even worse — as challenges the platform now faces.
“This election is not going to be business as usual,” Zuckerberg wrote in a September Facebook post in which he outlined Facebook’s efforts to encourage voting and remove misinformation from its service. “We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy.”
Yet for years Facebook executives have seemed to be caught off guard whenever their platform — created to connect the world — was used for malicious purposes. Zuckerberg has offered multiple apologies over the years, as if no one could have predicted that people would use Facebook to live-stream murders and suicides, incite ethnic cleansings, promote fake cancer cures or attempt to steal elections.
While other platforms like Twitter and YouTube have also struggled to address misinformation and hateful content, Facebook stands apart for its reach and scale and, compared to many other platforms, its slower response to the challenges identified in 2016.
In the immediate aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election, Zuckerberg offered a remarkably tone-deaf quip regarding the notion that “fake news” spread on Facebook could have influenced the 2016 election, calling it “a pretty crazy idea.” A week later, he walked back the comment.
Since then, Facebook has issued a stream of mea culpas for its slowness to act against threats to the 2016 election and promised to do better. “I don’t think they have become better at listening,” said David Kirkpatrick, author of a book on Facebook’s rise. “What’s changed is more people have been telling them they need to do something.”
The company has hired outside fact-checkers, added restrictions — then more restrictions — on political advertisements and taken down thousands of accounts, pages and groups it found to be engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” That’s Facebook’s term for fake accounts and groups that maliciously target political discourse in countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe.
It’s also started added warning labels to posts that contain misinformation about voting and has, at times, taken steps to limit the circulation of misleading posts. In recent weeks the platform also banned posts that deny the Holocaust and joined Twitter in limiting the spread of an unverified political story about Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, published by the conservative New York Post.
All this unquestionably puts Facebook in a better position than it was in four years ago. But that doesn’t mean it’s fully prepared. Despite tightened rules banning them, violent militias are still using the platform to organize. Recently, this included a foiled plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.
In the four years since the last election, Facebook’s earnings and user growth have soared. This year, analysts expect the company to rake in profits of $23.2 billion on revenue of $80 billion, according to FactSet. It currently boasts 2.7 billion users worldwide, up from 1.8 billion at this time in 2016.
Facebook faces a number of government investigations into its size and market power, including an antitrust probe by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. An earlier FTC investigation socked Facebook with a large $5 billion fine, but didn’t require any additional changes.
“Their No. 1 priority is growth, not reducing harm,” Kirkpatrick said. “And that is unlikely to change.”
Part of the problem: Zuckerberg maintains an iron grip on the company, yet doesn’t take criticism of him or his creation seriously, charges social media expert Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University communications professor. But the public knows what’s going on, they said. “They see COVID misinformation. They see how Donald Trump exploits it. They can’t unsee it.”
Facebook insists it takes the challenge of misinformation seriously — especially when it comes to the election.
“Elections have changed since 2016, and so has Facebook,” the company said in a statement laying out its policies on the election and voting. “We have more people and better technology to protect our platforms, and we’ve improved our content policies and enforcement.”
Grygiel says such comments are par for the course: “This company uses PR in place of an ethical business model.”
Kirkpatrick notes that board members and executives who have pushed back against the CEO — a group that includes the founders of Instagram and WhatsApp — have left the company.
“He is so certain that Facebook’s overall impact on the world is positive” and that critics don’t give him enough credit for that, Kirkpatrick said of Zuckerberg. As a result, the Facebook CEO isn’t inclined to take constructive feedback. “He doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to. He has no oversight,” Kirkpatrick said.
The federal government has so far left Facebook to its own devices, a lack of accountability that has only empowered the company, according to U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who grilled Zuckerberg during a July Capitol Hill hearing.
Warning labels are of limited value if the algorithms underlying the platform are designed to push polarizing material at users, she said. “I think Facebook has done some things that indicate it understands its role. But it has been, in my opinion, far too little, too late.”
By BARBARA ORTUTAY and DAVID KLEPPER Associated Press.
Twitter CEO defends Trump ban, warns of dangerous precedent
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended his company’s ban of President Donald Trump in a philosophical Twitter thread that is his first public statement on the subject.
When Trump incited his followers to storm the U.S. Capitol last week, then continued to tweet potentially ominous messages, Dorsey said the resulting risk to public safety created an “extraordinary and untenable circumstance” for the company. Having already briefly suspended Trump’s account the day of the Capitol riot, Twitter on Friday banned Trump entirely, then smacked down the president’s attempts to tweet using other accounts.
“I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter,“ Dorsey wrote. But he added: ”I believe this was the right decision for Twitter.”
Dorsey acknowledged that shows of strength like the Trump ban could set dangerous precedents, even calling them a sign of “failure.” Although not in so many words, Dorsey suggested that Twitter needs to find ways to avoid having to make such decisions in the first place. Exactly how that would work isn’t clear, although it could range from earlier and more effective moderation to a fundamental restructuring of social networks.
In Dorsey-speak, that means Twitter needs to work harder to “promote healthy conversation.”
Extreme measures such as banning Trump also highlight the extraordinary power that Twitter and other Big Tech companies can wield without accountability or recourse, Dorsey wrote.
While Twitter was grappling with the problem of Trump, for instance, Apple, Google and Amazon were effectively shutting down the right-wing site Parler by denying it access to app stores and cloud-hosting services. The companies charged that Parler wasn’t aggressive enough about removing calls to violence, which Parler has denied.
Dorsey declined to criticize his Big Tech counterparts directly, even noting that “this moment in time might call for this dynamic.” Over the long term, however, he suggested that aggressive and domineering behavior could threaten the “noble purpose and ideals” of the open internet by entrenching the power of a few organizations over a commons that should be accessible to everyone.
The Twitter co-founder, however, had little specific to say about how his platform or other Big Tech companies could avoid such choices in the future. Instead, he touched on an idea that, taken literally, sounds a bit like the end of Twitter itself — a long-term project to develop a technological “standard” that could liberate social networks from centralized control by the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
But for the moment, Dorsey wrote, Twitter’s goal “is to disarm as much as we can, and ensure we are all building towards a greater common understanding, and a more peaceful existence on earth.”
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — By DAVID HAMILTON
US blacklists Xiaomi, CNOOC, Skyrizon, raising heat on China
The U.S. government has blacklisted Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp. and China’s third-largest national oil company for alleged military links, heaping pressure on Beijing in President Donald Trump’s last week in office.
The Department of Defense added nine companies to its list of Chinese companies with military links, including Xiaomi and state-owned plane manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac).
U.S. investors will have to divest their stakes in Chinese companies on the military list by November this year, according to an executive order signed by Trump in November.
Xiaomi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Xiaomi Corp. overtook Apple Inc. as the world’s No. 3 smartphone maker by sales in the third quarter of 2020, according to data by Gartner. Xiaomi’s market share has grown as Huawei’s sales have suffered after it was blacklisted by the U.S. and its smartphones were cut off from essential services from Google.
Separately, the Commerce Department put China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) on the entity list, an economic blacklist that forbids U.S. firms from exporting or transferring technology with the companies named unless permission has been obtained from the U.S. government. The move comes after about 60 Chinese companies were added to the list in December, including drone maker DJI and semiconductor firm SMIC.
CNOOC has been involved in offshore drilling in the disputed waters South China Sea, where Beijing has overlapping territorial claims with other countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia.
“China’s reckless and belligerent actions in the South China Sea and its aggressive push to acquire sensitive intellectual property and technology for its militarization efforts are a threat to U.S. national security and the security of the international community,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.
“CNOOC acts as a bully for the People’s Liberation Army to intimidate China’s neighbors, and the Chinese military continues to benefit from government civil-military fusion policies for malign purposes,” Ross said.
CNOOC did not immediately comment.
Chinese state-owned company Skyrizon was also added to the economic blacklist, for its push to “acquire and indigenize foreign military technologies,” Ross said.
Beijing Skyrizon Aviation, founded by tycoon Wang Jing, drew U.S. criticism for an attempt to take over Ukraine’s military aircraft engine maker Motor Sich in 2017. The concern was that advanced aerospace technology would end up being used for military purposes.
HONG KONG (AP) — By ZEN SOO
Microsoft ousts rivals from CES marquee as show moves online
This week, Microsoft had a big test on its hands — how to help transform the world’s biggest gadget show into an online-only event.
The choice of Microsoft to power this year’s CES and create a virtual showcase for its 1,800 exhibitors gave the tech giant a big promotional boost over its best-known cloud computing rivals, Amazon and Google.
But it also posed reputational risks, as organizers of this week’s event tried to cobble together a trove of web content and mostly prerecorded panel discussions in a way that could at least partially evoke the gaudy, high-energy convention that takes over the Las Vegas strip each January.
At times, it was hard to pretend this year’s virtual CES was a live event.
“Don’t tell people we’re recording in December,” said panel moderator and venture capitalist Rajeev Chand, jokingly admonishing a Twitter executive after his comments revealed that their debate on user privacy, aired Tuesday, was taped nearly a month earlier.
The Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that runs CES, said it made a final decision in July that its premier event would be virtual, then put out a request for bids and evaluated more than 40 digital platforms before announcing its choice of Microsoft in October. The tech company already had some experience hosting its own big events virtually during the pandemic, including last year’s Build and Ignite conferences, each of which had roughly 200,000 participants.
But Microsoft’s marquee involvement in CES is a change from recent years when Google and Amazon dominated the annual Las Vegas convention with ubiquitous marketing and splashy displays — even a theme park-style ride — as they competed against each other to showcase their digital voice assistants.
Microsoft, by contrast, has kept a lower profile as it’s shifted from a consumer-focused business to one focused on selling its software and services to big organizations.
“Microsoft as a partner might have affected a couple of companies who view themselves as competition, I’m not sure,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA.
Neither Google nor Amazon has said if they had sought to win the contract to run this year’s digital CES, but both companies were mostly sitting out the show this year and showcasing their latest wares elsewhere.
“We talked to all the leading tech companies,” said Jean Foster, CTA’s senior vice president of marketing and communications. “Many of these companies were taking the physical world and putting it online. They had avatars walking around a virtual show floor. That’s just not consistent with what we’re doing.”
The event also needed a cloud computing provider that could handle a huge volume of attendees from around the world. And it needed to be able to create a system to register, bill and authenticate attendees.
“We needed high performance and security, so obviously that’s built into the Microsoft brand,” Foster said.
But the job required Microsoft to accomplish some tasks that went beyond what it did for its own events – namely, to recreate, or replace, the experience of a giant showcase of gadgets and technology.
“How could we bring a large group of exhibitors together and show off what they had to say and their value propositions in a way that’s not an expo,” said Bob Bejan, the Microsoft executive who runs its global events and production studios and is leading the CES project. “Because you can’t translate this stuff. You have to reinvent in this medium.”
Anchored at Microsoft’s production studio in Redmond, Washington, the event is designed to turn a typical directory of exhibitors into an interactive digital experience using a mix of video, audio and chat. It’s a test for Microsoft products such as Teams, the workplace communications app that the company is trying to make a must-have service for workplaces during the pandemic.
Conference attendees could send each other messages — no more than 250 of them — and use Teams for virtual meet-and-greet sessions that Bejan said was supposed to work like a “digital parallel to what you would do at an expo or a hotel lobby bar.”
Even when the pandemic wanes, Bejan said Microsoft is pivoting to a future in which he expects digital experiences will remain an important component of conferences and other live events.
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