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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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Elon Musk’s Twitter lawsuit: what you need to know | Elon Musk

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Elon Musk did not become the world’s wealthiest person through a lack of confidence.

But the Tesla CEO revealed on Tuesday that he had sold $6.9bn (£5.7bn) worth of shares in the carmaker, in case he loses his attempt to walk away from a $44bn takeover of Twitter.

Twitter is suing Musk in Delaware over his abandonment of the deal and wants to make him buy the company.

In a countersuit released last week, Musk put his side of the argument. According to him: Twitter misled investors; it breached the agreement by failing to provide enough information on spam accounts; another breach occurred when Twitter failed to consult with him on business moves such as firing senior employees; and its misstatement of user numbers constitutes a material adverse effect, which substantially alters Twitter’s value and therefore invalidates the deal agreement.

Here is a breakdown of Musk’s suit.

The relationship between both sides remains poor

There is $44bn at stake and the language in Musk’s countersuit is just as punchy as Twitter’s in the original lawsuit, when the company described his behaviour as “a model of bad faith”. In the preliminary statement Twitter is accused of making financial disclosures to the US financial watchdog that were “far from true”.

“Instead, they contain numerous, material misrepresentations or omissions that distort Twitter’s value and caused the Musk parties to agree to acquire the company at an inflated price. Twitter’s complaint, filled with personal attacks against Musk and gaudy rhetoric more directed at a media audience than this court, is nothing more than an attempt to distract from these misrepresentations,” said the lawsuit.

Strong words, but Musk will need strong evidence as well to convince the judge.

Musk’s core argument is about user numbers

From the moment the deal started to go sour, the focus was on the veracity of Twitter’s numbers. It is at the centre of Musk’s countersuit as well. He argues that the number of monetisable daily average users (mDAUs) – authentic, active accounts that can see adverts (hence monetisable) – is falsely inflated by Twitter miscounting the number of false and spam accounts on the platform. As well as being a threat to the ad income on which Twitter depends, Musk said his plan to introduce a subscription service for Twitter would be affected because there would be fewer customers to target than first thought.

Twitter has consistently stated that it estimates the number of false or spam accounts on the platform to be less than 5% of its mDAUs base, which stands at just under 238 million currently.

The suit says that Musk became alarmed about how Twitter accounts for its mDAUs when, three days after signing the deal agreement, it admitted it had overstated its mDAU total for three years, by between 1.4 million and 1.9 million users per quarter. Twitter denies that the user change was a “restatement” (it describes the alteration as “updated values”) but admits it did not give the information to Musk prior to the deal being signed on 25 April.

Musk is not happy with Twitter’s verification processes

After agreeing to buy the business with minimal due diligence, the suit says Musk was “astonished” to learn about how “meagre” Twitter’s processes for identifying spam accounts were. It said 100 accounts a day were sampled by human reviewers in order to come up with the less-than-5% figure. Twitter’s CEO and chief financial officer were unable to explain how these accounts were selected to be a representative sample.

“Musk realised that, at best, Twitter’s reliance on and touting of its process was reckless; at worst, it was intentionally misleading,” says the suit.

Twitter argues that it uses a much more layered process for weeding out dodgy accounts, including using automated systems. It also pointed to the detailed explanations of how it polices spam accounts, which had been given to Musk, the press, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the public via a Twitter thread by CEO Parag Agrawal. In the most notorious episode of this takeover saga, Musk replied to the latter with a poo emoji.

But according to the countersuit at least Agrawal and Musk agreed on one thing. The document states that on 8 April Musk sent the CEO an example of a spam tweet saying: “I am so sick of stuff like this.” Agrawal replied, acknowledging “[w]e should be catching this.”

Musk’s counter-estimates

Citing “preliminary expert estimates”, the countersuit claims that in early July one-third of visible accounts may have been false or spam. This means that the true proportion of spam accounts among Twitter’s user base is at least 10%.

It says users that see zero or almost no ads account for almost all the growth in monetisable daily users. The majority of ads are served to less than 16 million users, the suit claims.

Twitter says that although not every user sees ads on a given day, in the first quarter “significantly more than” 229 million accounts contributed to Twitter’s average quarterly user number.

Regarding the 10% number, Twitter says it was based on a publicly available web tool, botometer, that has designated Musk’s own account as a likely bot.

Twitter made decisions without consulting Musk

One of the clauses in the merger agreement states Musk must be told when Twitter is deviating from its obligation to conduct its business in the “ordinary course”. In the countersuit, Musk claims that Twitter has made several “significant” changes – including firing two executives, starting a hiring freeze and initiating a legal clash with the Indian government – that occurred without his consent.

Twitter’s response is that axing employees or acting to protect users’ rights in foreign jurisdictions are part of the day-to-day business of running a company.

Information was not forthcoming

Musk is also claiming that Twitter failed to provide him with all the data and information that he requested “for any reasonable business purpose related to the consummation of the transaction”. The suit says Musk was sent reams of “stale data” that didn’t answer his questions.

It says, pointedly, that Twitter was happy to send data such as “a copy of its agreement with the Golden State Warriors for courtside basketball tickets and VIP parking”.

After more back-and-forth arguments over increasingly detailed information requests, the suit claims “the only conclusion the Musk parties could draw from Twitter’s obfuscation and delay was that Twitter knew that it had something to hide”.



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Economic uncertainty can’t stop cloud growth • The Register

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The hyperscalers and public cloud providers are barreling ahead, unfazed by a rapidly deteriorating economic outlook, according to a recent Dell’Oro Group report.

In fact, these internet behemoths stand to benefit from the current market conditions in more ways than one, analyst Baron Fung told The Register.

As chipmakers like Intel, Nvidia, Micron, and others face increased pricing pressure across their lineups due to declining demand, hyperscalers are well-positioned to take advantage of this and add more capacity on the cheap, he explained.

“Looking at the recent Q2 earnings, it was really pretty impressive from a growth standpoint,” Fung said of the cloud providers.

Amazon and Azure in particular saw robust revenue gains in their most recent quarters. AWS saw revenues climb 36 percent from the prior year, while Microsoft reported its cloud biz saw year-over-year growth of 40 percent. However, things weren’t as peachy for Google, which saw a otherwise strong quarter for cloud revenue tempered by a $858 million loss in income.

Worsening macroeconomic factors may end up helping cloud providers as enterprises look for alternatives to capex-heavy server refreshes. We saw this phenomenon once before – in the early days of the pandemic.

These factors, combined with a wave of enabling technology – next-generation CPUs, GPUs, smartNICs, and CXL-enabled components to name a handful – will further accelerate hyperscaler spending, which is expected to grow 13 percent over the next five years, Fung said.

So it’s no surprise many chipmakers are optimistic about their cloud and datacenter-related revenues over the next few quarters, despite a slump in PC and gaming demand.

The analyst firm expects next-generation CPU platforms from the likes of Intel, AMD, and Ampere will be among the strongest drivers of hyperscale spending in the near term.

Intel and AMD are expected to launch their next-generation server processors later this year. Both of these chips pack a bevy of new features, including DDR5, and PCIe 5.0, in addition to having substantially higher core counts compared to the previous generation.

These chips are also among the first to support the CXL interconnect standard, “which will enable a new kind of paradigm in the datacenter,” according to Fung.

In its first iteration, the technology will allow systems builders to pack larger quantities of memory into servers than there are DIMM slots, using CXL memory-expansion modules. And in the years to come, the technology has provisions for tiered memory, memory pooling, and disaggregated compute architectures.

The operational and resource efficiencies enabled by the tech may eventually trickle down to customers in the form of lower prices, Fung added.

But it won’t just be the x86 stalwarts leading the charge in the datacenter. Fung also expects Arm chipmakers, like Ampere, to continue gaining traction in the hyperscale arena. Here, the chipmaker’s Altra and Altra Max processors have already attracted several high-profile customers including Microsoft Azure, Google, Cloudflare, and Oracle – to name just a few.

Finally, Dell’Oro predicts hyperscalers will drive edge infrastructure deployments – a market that Intel currently dominates – to 8 percent of the total datacenter infrastructure market by 2026. ®

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Limerick researchers’ findings show potential of food to treat heart disease

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The Irish-based study lead said food scientists, medical scientists and pharma companies must work together to produce functional foods to treat chronic conditions.

A team of researchers based at the Bernal Institute in University of Limerick (UL) have developed a new guide to designing functional foods to treat various chronic conditions.

Functional foods are foods that provide nutrition and act in a way that positively affects the body, similar to medicine.

According to the research, food has the potential to help in the treatment of heart diseases such as atherosclerosis.

“The capacity for our food to do more than provide us with nutrition is huge and relatively unexplored,” said study lead Daniel Granato, professor in food science and health at UL.

“Cardiovascular diseases are a main cause of death but they can be prevented. By bringing food scientists, medical scientists and pharma companies together we can employ the same methods used in producing medicinal drugs and produce foods that might mitigate health conditions,” Granato added.

The study has been published in Trends in Food Science & Technology, an academic journal. The UL researchers were joined on the project by academics from the Federal University of Alfenas and Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil.

Granato and his team proposed an accurate computational approach to designing functional foods by predicting their bioactivity. This allowed the researchers to map how different food components benefit the body.

The study also drew attention to the potential of functional foods to treat illnesses and lessen the burden on the world’s health services. Functional foods are not too available on the market, despite their potential to help prevent conditions such as type-2 diabetes and glucose intolerance. These are both major contributors to heart disease.

Food science, cardiovascular disease therapy and computer modelling should be linked to produce functional foods that can mitigate atherosclerosis, according to Granato. He urged food and pharma companies to take note.

“This is critical to achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in good health and wellbeing, as well as ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all at all ages, by optimising discovery of bioactive compound sources, and reducing time to market for new functional foods,” he said.

Granato’s co-author and senior lecturer in the UL Department of Biological Sciences, Dr Andreas Grabrucker, said this approach could go far beyond heart disease.

“It will be the basis of a new research project at UL that aims to identify functional foods that lower the risk for neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease,” he claimed.

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