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How Facebook let fake engagement distort global politics: a whistleblower’s account | Technology

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Shortly before Sophie Zhang lost access to Facebook’s systems, she published one final message on the company’s internal forum, a farewell tradition at Facebook known as a “badge post”.

“Officially, I’m a low-level [data scientist] who’s being fired today for poor performance,” the post began. “In practice, in the 2.5 years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve … found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions.”

Over the course of 7,800 scathing words, Zhang outlined Facebook’s failure to combat political manipulation campaigns akin to what Russia had done in the 2016 US election. “We simply didn’t care enough to stop them,” she wrote. “I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”

Zhang knew that this was not a tale that Facebook wanted her to tell, so when she hit publish, she also launched a password-protected website with a copy of the memo and provided the link and password to Facebook employees. Not only did Facebook temporarily delete the post internally, the company also contacted Zhang’s hosting service and domain registrar and forced her website offline.

Now, with the US election over and a new president inaugurated, Zhang is coming forward to tell the whole story on the record. (Excerpts of her memo were first published in September by BuzzFeed News.) This article is based on extensive internal documentation seen by the Guardian.

“What we have seen is that multiple national presidents believe that this activity is sufficiently valuable for their autocratic ambitions that they feel the need to do it so blatantly that they aren’t even bothering to hide,” Zhang told the Guardian.

“I tried to fix this problem within Facebook … I spoke to my manager, my manager’s manager, different teams, and everyone up to a company vice-president in great detail. I repeatedly tried to get people to fix things… I offered to stay on for free after they fired me, and they said no. I hoped that when I made my departure post it might convince people to change things, but it hasn’t.”

She argues that Facebook is allowing its self-interest to interfere with its responsibility to protect democracy, and that the public and regulators need to know what is happening to provide oversight.

“The whole point of inauthentic activity is not to be found,” she said. “You can’t fix something unless you know that it exists.”

A Facebook spokesperson, Liz Bourgeois, said: “We fundamentally disagree with Ms Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform.

“We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work. As a result, we’ve taken down more than 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior. Around half of them were domestic networks that operated in countries around the world, including those in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and in the Asia Pacific region. Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority. We’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue before taking action or making public claims about them.”

Facebook did not dispute Zhang’s factual assertions about her time at the company.


Ex-Facebook employee on the company’s dangerous loophole: ‘Autocrats don’t bother to hide’

BEHIND ‘COUNTERFEIT LIKES’

Zhang had been working for Facebook for about six months when she realized that Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of Honduras, was amassing large numbers of fake likes on the content he posted to his 500,000 followers on Facebook. Over one six-week period from June to July 2018, Hernández’s Facebook posts received likes from 59,100 users, more than 78% of which were not real people.

Hernández’s fake engagement stood out not just because of its volume, but because of an apparent innovation in how he acquired it. Most fake likes on Facebook come from fake or compromised user accounts, but Hernández was receiving thousands of likes from Facebook Pages – Facebook profiles for businesses, organizations or public figures – that had been set up to resemble user accounts, with names, profile pictures and job titles. One individual was the administrator for hundreds of those fake Pages, as well as for the official Pages of both Hernández and his late sister, who had served as communications minister.

Sitting behind a computer screen, the administrator could publish a post about how well Hernández was doing his job on the president’s Facebook Page, then use his hundreds of dummy Pages to make the post appear popular, the digital equivalent of bussing in a fake crowd for a speech.





sophie quote


Zhang had been hired that January to work on a relatively new team dedicated to combatting “fake engagement” – likes, comments, shares and reactions made by inauthentic or compromised accounts. In addition to distorting the public’s perception of how popular a piece of content is, fake engagement can influence how that content performs in the all-important news feed algorithm; it is a kind of counterfeit currency in Facebook’s attention marketplace.

The vast majority of the fake engagement on Facebook appears on posts or Pages by individuals, businesses or brands and appears to be commercially motivated. But Zhang found that it was also being used on what Facebook called “civic” – ie political – targets. The most blatant example was Hernández, who was receiving 90% of all the known civic fake engagement in Honduras as of August 2018.

A rightwing nationalist who supported Honduras’s 2009 military coup, Hernández was elected president in 2013. His re-election in 2017 is widely viewed as fraudulent, and his second term has been marked by allegations of human rights abuses and rampant corruption. US federal prosecutors have named Hernández as a co-conspirator in multiple drug trafficking cases. He has not been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing.

Hernández did not respond to queries sent to his press officer, attorney and minister of transparency.

The tactics boosting Hernández online were similar to what Russia’s Internet Research Agency had done during the 2016 US election, when it set up Facebook accounts purporting to be Americans and used them to manipulate individuals and influence political debates on Facebook. Facebook had come up with a name for this – “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB) – in order to ban it.

But Facebook initially resisted calling the Honduran activity CIB – in part because the network’s use of Pages to create false personas and fake engagement fell into a serious loophole in the company’s rules. Facebook’s policies to ensure authenticity focus on accounts: users can only have one account and it must employ their “real” name. But Facebook has no such rule for Pages, which can perform many of the same engagements that accounts can, including liking, sharing and commenting.

Zhang assumed that once she alerted the right people to her discovery, the Honduras network would be investigated and the fake Pages loophole would be closed. But it quickly became clear that no one was interested in taking responsibility for policing the abuses of the president of a poor nation with just 4.5m Facebook users. The message she received from all corners – including from threat intelligence, the small and elite team of investigators responsible for uncovering CIB campaigns – was that the abuses were bad, but resources were tight, and, absent any external pressure, Honduras was simply not a priority.

“It’s not for threat intel to investigate fake engagement,” an investigator from that team told Zhang. Katie Harbath, Facebook’s then public policy director for global elections, expressed interest in a “scaled way to look for this and action on other politician Pages” but noted that it was unlikely the case would get much attention outside Honduras, and that she didn’t “feel super strongly” about it. Other executives and managers Zhang briefed included Samidh Chakrabarti, the then head of civic integrity; David Agranovich, the global threat disruption lead; and Rosen, the vice-president of integrity.

“I don’t think Honduras is big on people’s minds here,” a manager from the civic integrity team told Zhang in a chat.

Frustrated and impatient after months of inaction, Zhang took her concerns semi-public – within the confines of the company’s internal communication platform. In late March 2019, she published a post to a group for the company’s “election integrity core team” pointing out that Hernández was “the only national president to be directly, actively, and consistently abusing Facebook to exploit fake engagement for himself” and that the company had known of the problem for months without doing anything.





The Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.



Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

The post succeeded in attracting the concern of an investigator from the threat intelligence team, but a further delay occurred in April when management temporarily suspended investigations into CIB cases that did not involve interference by a foreign government. In June, the investigator began working on the case and quickly confirmed Zhang’s findings: there was a large CIB network in Honduras working to promote Hernández that was linked to the president himself.

“This campaign has persistently boosted a likely illegitimate president in an ARC [at-risk country],” the investigator wrote in a report highlighting its likely “IRL [in-real-life] impact”. The accounts and Pages involved had been established in 2016 and 2017, prior to Hernández’s disputed re-election, the investigator noted.

On 25 July 2019, nearly one year after Zhang had reported the network to Facebook, the company announced that it was taking down 181 accounts and 1,488 Pages involved in “domestic-focused coordinated inauthentic activity in Honduras”. The campaign was “linked to individuals managing social media for the government of Honduras” and had spent more than $23,000 on Facebook ads, Facebook said.

Agranovich, the global threat disruption lead, praised Zhang for her role in the takedown, writing in an official feedback channel: “These disruptions removed networks on Facebook that used our services to suppress democratic expression, target innocent users on our platform, and enable clandestine geopolitical conflict. This is among the most important work at Facebook, and we could not have done any of these takedowns without your contributions.”

Privately, he added: “The Honduras case would never have happened without your continued advocacy … It means we’ve created a precedent that the Pages-as-Profiles archetype is inauthentic behavior.”

‘NO ONE CAN AGREE ON WHAT TO DO’

Zhang was invigorated by her success with the Honduras takedown and believed that the “precedent” Agranovich spoke of would clear the way for quicker takedowns in the future.

The next day, she filed an escalation within Facebook’s task management system to alert the threat intelligence team to a network of fake accounts supporting a political leader in Albania. In August, she discovered and filed escalations for suspicious networks in Azerbaijan, Mexico, Argentina and Italy. Throughout the autumn and winter she added networks in the Philippines, Afghanistan, South Korea, Bolivia, Ecuador, Iraq, Tunisia, Turkey, Taiwan, Paraguay, El Salvador, India, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Ukraine, Poland, and Mongolia.

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Reid Hoffman to join board of electric air-taxi start-up Joby

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Reid Hoffman. Image: ReidHoffman.org

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is helping to take Joby, which is being billed as ‘Tesla meets Uber in the air’, public through a SPAC deal.

Electric air-taxi start-up Joby Aviation will add Silicon Valley figure Reid Hoffman to its board as the company prepares to go public via a merger with a blank-cheque firm.

LinkedIn co-founder Hoffman, who is now a partner at venture capital firm Greylock, has a key connection to the 12-year-old start-up. Earlier this year, it was announced that Joby is going public through a $6.6bn reverse merger deal with Reinvent Technology Partners, the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Hoffman set up with Zynga founder Mark Pincus and investor Michael Thompson.

The deal is expected to close in this summer. Joby is the first aerial vehicle start-up to go public via the SPAC route, and the deal will provide the company with $1.6bn in cash.

SPACs have been growing in popularity this year as they can provide a quicker way of bringing a company public rather than the traditional route of an initial public offering.

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Hoffman will be added by the Joby board once the deal is complete, alongside Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado and former Southwest Airlines CFO Laura Wright.

Toyota Motor Corporation board member and operating officer James Kuffner and Zoox CEO Aicha Evans have already been added to the board in recent months.

“We are incredibly humbled to have been able to assemble such a remarkable and diverse group of world-class leaders to guide and support Joby as we plan to enter the public market,” said JoeBen Bevirt, Joby CEO and founder.

Joby acquired Uber’s Elevate flying car business at the end of December and now plans to begin a commercial passenger ‘air taxi’ service in 2024. Hoffman described the venture as “Tesla meets Uber in the air” in a recent interview.

The company will work with Toyota from its California-based manufacturing facility to build its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Toyota led the company’s $620m Series C funding round last year, with other investors including Intel Capital and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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For a true display of wealth, dab printer ink behind your ears instead of Chanel No. 5 • The Register

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Printer ink continues to rank as one of the most expensive liquids around with a litre of the home office essential costing the same as a very high-end bottle of bubbly or an oak-aged Cognac.

Consumer advocate Which? has found that ink bought from printer manufactures can be up to 286 per cent more expensive than third-party alternatives.

Dipping its nib in one inkwell before delicately wiping off the excess on some blotting paper, Which? found that a multipack of colour ink (cyan, magenta, yellow) for the WorkForce WF-7210DTW printer costs £75.49 from Epson.

“This works out at an astonishing £2,410 a litre – or £1,369 for a pint,” said Which?.

The consumer outfit also reported that since the Epson printer also requires a separate Epson black cartridge for £31.99, it takes the combined cost of replacement inks for the Workforce printer to a wallet-busting £107.98.

On the other hand, if people ditched the brand and opted for a full set of black and colour inks from a reputable third-party supplier, it would cost just £10.99 – less than a tenth of the price.

Printing has become essential for plenty of workers holed up at home during the pandemic. The survey by Which? of 10,000 consumers found 54 per cent use their printer at least once a week. Which? said it estimates an inkjet cartridge would need to be replaced three times a year.

The report discovered tactics used by the big vendors to promote the use of “approved”, “original”, and “guaranteed” ink supplies.

It found Epson devices, for example, flagging up a “non-genuine ink detected” message on its LCD screen when using a non-Epson cartridge, and HP printers are actively blocking customers from using non-HP supplies.

Adam French, a consumer rights champion at Which?, reckons this situation is simply unacceptable.

“Printer ink shouldn’t cost more than a bottle of high-end Champagne or Chanel No. 5,” said French. “We’ve found that there are lots of third-party products that are outperforming their branded counterparts at a fraction of the cost.”

In a rallying call to consumers he said that third-party ink should be a personal choice and not “dictated by the make of your printer.”

“Which? will continue to make consumers aware of the staggering cost differences between own-brand and third-party inks and give people the information they need to buy the best ink for their printer,” he said.

Which is exactly what the Consumers Association said almost 20 years ago when it reported that printer ink cost around £1,700 a litre. Then – as now – the Consumer Association advised consumers to steer clear of brand-name printer cartridges and pick cheaper alternatives instead.

The survey by Which? found that 16 third party brands beat the big brands in terms of ink prices.

Epson wasn’t the only printer biz to be singled out for sky-high ink prices. Canon, and HP were fingered too.

For its part, Epson said customers “should be offered choice… to meet their printing needs” and listed a number of options including its EcoTank systems and a monthly Ink Subscription service.

And in a nod to anyone looking to save money by using a third party, Epson said: “Finally, as non-genuine inks are not designed or tested by Epson we cannot guarantee that these inks will not damage the printer. Whilst Epson does not prevent the use of non-Epson inks, we believe that it is reasonable, indeed responsible, that a warning is displayed as any damage caused by the use of the inks may invalidate the warranty.”

As part of its investigation, Which? found that some HP printers use a system called “dynamic security” which recognises cartridges that use non-HP chips and stops them from working.

HP has tried to battle against third party ink makers trying to capture supplies sales by overhauling the model of its printer business: by shifting to ink tanks printers that come pre-loaded with supplies for an estimated timeframe; or by selling the printer hardware for more upfront and allowing biz customers or consumers to buy the supplies they want.

In response to Which?, HP said it “offers quality, sustainable and secure print supplies with a range of options for customers to choose from, including HP Instant Ink – a convenient printing subscription service with over 9 million users that can save UK customers up to 70 per cent on ink costs, with ink plans starting at £0.99 per month.”

Reg readers may remember the kerfuffle around HP’s Instant Ink. The free plan was reinstated, sort of. For existing customers.

Over at Canon, a spokesperson said third-party ink products can work with its printers, but the “technology inside is designed to function correctly with our genuine inks which are formulated specifically to work with Canon technology.”

“Customers are encouraged to use genuine inks to ensure the longevity of their printer, and also to ensure that their final prints are of a standard we deem Canon quality. In addition, the use of third party inks invalidates the warranty of the printer.”

With almost four in ten (39 per cent) people saying that they do not use third-party cartridges because of fears that they might not work with their printer, it might go some way to explain why more than half (56 per cent) of the consumers quizzed said they persist with using potentially pricey original-branded cartridges despite cheaper alternatives being available. ®

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