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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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New EU law may force big messaging vendors to open up • The Register

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The European Parliament’s new Digital Markets Act, adopted as a draft law this week, could compel big platforms owned by large firms including Apple, Google, and Facebook to make their tech interoperable.

Among other things, this might mean forcing the tech vendors’ messaging apps to allow communication with other services.

If the EU deems a company to be what it calls a “gatekeeper”, it could impose “structural or behavioural remedies” – compelling the largest outfits to allow interoperability, or imposing fines. The Act would also restrict what companies could do with personal data – not the first time it’s tried.

While the legislation carefully phrases the characteristics that make a company a gatekeeper in terms of its operations inside the EU, the fines are assessed against global revenue. It applies to companies that provide a “core platform service” in at least three EU nations, with more than 45 million monthly users and 10,000 business users. In money terms, it’s talking about €8bn a month inside the union, and a market cap of 10 times that.

A potential get-out is that it applies to “number-independent interpersonal communication services” – so services that identify you by your phone number rather than an account, such as Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal, and the like, might be able to dodge the new rules, which won’t come into force for a year or two.

As we pointed out a week ago, services already exist that can talk to most vendors’ proprietary offerings. Nothing technical prevents this and many of the services talked to one another in the past.

For example, Apple’s iMessage originally used AOL’s OSCAR protocol, and AOL allowed authentication using Gmail credentials. Google’s Chat, Talk, and Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger, all used the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol or XMPP – to and from which Skype offered a gateway.

As far as the phone number-based systems go, there’s also an existing standard for internet-based SMS – not that anybody cares. ®

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What happens when we ‘power through’ burnout?

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Employers know that burnout levels are increasing, but it’s important to step in and tackle it head on before it’s too late.

A recent survey from HRLocker found that more than half (52pc) of respondents are experiencing burnout.

The company surveyed 1,000 full-time employees across Ireland to assess their stress levels and the primary causes of stress.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

This is common thread with many other surveys and reports from around the world suggesting a significant increase in stress, exhaustion and burnout among the global workforce.

Another recent survey, this one of US workers, found that 89pc of respondents reported experiencing burnout over the past year.

While it’s easy to acknowledge that this increase in burnout is a problem, it’s a very different thing to take steps to actually address it, whether you’re an employee on the verge of crashing or a manager starting to notice the signs among your team.

Burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as a “occupational phenomenon”. While this can seem problematically vague for those who are experiencing it, Prof John Gallagher, chief medical officer at Cork-based Cognate Health, sees it from a different perspective.

He said that because burnout is considered a workplace phenomenon, it is not so much about the individual as much as it is about the impact that the workplace environment has on them.

“We can support the individual, but the real question is how do we fix the workplace and the impact it is having on the employee?”

‘The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact’
– DR SARAH O’NEILL

Many people will be familiar with the symptoms of burnout, which include profound exhaustion, cynicism about work, decreased productivity and extreme emotions.

However, it’s also worth noting that some people are more prone to burnout than others. “More often than not these are the more idealistic, committed and dedicated employees,” said Gallagher.

Dr Sarah O’Neill, chartered psychologist and chief clinical officer at Spectrum Life, agrees that it can often affect the most high-achieving employees. However, she said there are other people who can be prone to burnout too.

“People can also experience ‘bore-out’ when they are in a role that is dull, repetitive and there is a distinct lack of stimulation. The third common iteration is when people become worn down over a period of time,” she said.

“While the first example may be much more aligned with what we think of when we imagine burnout, the end result is the same.”

When the elastic band snaps

Burnout occurs when there are unusual levels of pressure or stress over a prolonged period of time. Those who start to suffer the symptoms will most likely have been ‘on’ for a long time with no opportunity to rest and recover.

“Think about an elastic band,” said O’Neill. “They stretch and bounce back. If the band is stressed, stretched out without the opportunity to bounce back and reset, overtime it loses its stretch. You can think about stress this way. Then burnout is when the band eventually snaps.”

Often, employees don’t mean to ignore their own health. Even the overachievers would rather reap the rewards that come with rest and recovery, which are higher energy levels, more productivity and better focus.

But sometimes an ongoing stressful period seems never-ending, like during a pandemic for example, and it can feel impossible to find the time to actually stop and take a break. You might just feel like you have to power through your stress in the hope that you’ll make it to the end of the tunnel.

However, it is this ‘powering through’ that will directly result in burnout. While it’s important for employees to be aware of this, Gallagher said it’s vital that employers and managers know when to step in.

“What employers and managers will see if an issue isn’t addressed is that the person will pull back and distance themselves from their work, become more cynical and ultimately disengage from the workplace completely. The physical symptoms are similar to those seen across other mental health issues such as feelings of exhaustion and weariness, as well as bowel and stomach problems,” he said.

“It’s important that managers engage with employees early once they see any of these warning signs and that they check in to see if the person is OK. Often the people that are most likely of experiencing burnout are those who take on more and more work without raising any red flags about their mental health and ability to cope.”

O’Neill agreed that early intervention is key but that it’s also important that managers understand how each member of the team responds to stress and pressure within the workplace.

“It’s critical for managers to know their teams well enough to recognise when something is off. That makes it possible to mitigate issues before they progress too far by managing an employee’s workload and having open conversations with them about the mental wellbeing,” she said.

The pandemic effect

Burnout has been a concern for employers and employees for several years now but, as we have seen from recent surveys and reports, the pandemic has likely compounded the stressors that can bring about burnout.

O’Neill said there has been a 30pc increase in people presenting with burnout compared to pre-pandemic trends.

“The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact and we’re seeing pretty consistent results from research where employees are identifying blurring of boundaries impacting their mental health.”

Gallagher has seen a similar increase, including increased incidences of anxiety and depression.

“It would seem that mental health concerns will be at the core of our work in occupational health for the foreseeable future. There are the more obvious reasons for this – increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, disconnection from people, as well as the general stress and anxiety of living during a global health crisis,” he said.

“But this is all compounded by the fact that it is easier to hide any issues from your colleagues and employers while working remotely and being less connected in real life.”

However, it’s not all bad news. O’Neill also said there are some positives to be gleaned from the pandemic when it comes to mental health. “We have collectively lived through a traumatic time which has, at its best, given us a new perspective on our lives. The theory of post-traumatic growth shows how a difficult experience can shift your values and your perspective on different situations in life, allowing you to move through them and grow as a result.”

Employers’ duty of care

While it’s important for employees to watch out for signs of burnout in themselves, both O’Neill and Gallagher agree that managers have a duty of care when it comes to workplace risks for their employees and these risks must include psychosocial risks.

“What I always say is that managers and employers need to ‘ask, don’t assume’ when it comes to discussing mental health concerns. We can’t assume a person is dealing with an issue and we can’t leave them to handle it by themselves. Managers need to reach out to employees and ask them how they are doing, especially if there have been any warning signs,” said Gallagher.

“Sometimes employers and managers prefer to pull back when an employee appears to be dealing with a mental health issue but that is when we need to lean in and address it openly and directly.”

‘We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health’
– JOHN GALLAGHER

O’Neill said it’s also important to look at the supports in place for teams, such as an employee assistance programme, and examine whether or not they are sufficient.

“We know people are increasingly experiencing mental health distress, that impacts them in the workplace and the mental healthcare system is, like many parts of the health service, overwhelmed by demand,” she said.

“Even if mental health distress is not a work-related issue, it can be in the interests of companies to provide support to employees from both a cultural and business perspective.”

While having support systems in place are vital, Gallagher highlighted the fact that the area of mental health can still be highly stigmatised. “While we have seen great developments to date, there needs to be an increased effort made to eradicate any stigma around mental health in the workplace,” he said.

“We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health – we still see employees asking for their medical certs to say they are suffering from back pain rather than stress, anxiety or depression. We need to cultivate an environment where employees are as comfortable saying they need time to care for their mental health as they are saying they need time to prioritise their physical health.”

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Best podcasts of the week: the life and death of Diego Maradona | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Last Days of Maradona
“Everyone – fans and non-fans alike – must have asked themselves: how did Maradona’s life end the way it did?” Thierry Henry narrates this podcast about the football legend’s death at the age of 60 in 2020 – part forensic investigation, part homage to his greatness. In a novel twist – and perhaps a sign of things to come for podcasting – the series is also available in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, via a series of hosts. Hannah J Davies

I’m Not a Monster
Listeners were captivated by the case of Indiana mother Sam Sally and how she ended up at the heart of the Islamic State caliphate. Now, host Josh Baker is back for two new follow-up episodes. He answers listeners’ questions – and heads back to Iraq. Hannah Verdier

Twenty Thousand Hertz
More offbeat sonic discoveries in a miniseries from the long-running audio show. It’s Not TV, it’s HBO, tells the story of the network’s bombastic 80s theme song as well as its iconic – if more understated – “static angel” sound, as heard before everything from The Sopranos to Sex and the City. HJD

Behind the Wand
More than 20 years after Harry Potter’s first film adaptation, Potterheads are still looking to learn something new about the wizarding world. Here, Emma
Watson’s body double Flick Miles takes us behind the scenes with crew members. It’s not as exciting as, say, the upcoming TV reunion, but fans might enjoy the nitty gritty details about how the story came to life on the big screen. Hollie Richardson

Even the Rich: Murder in the House of Gucci
With Lady Gaga and Adam Driver ’s new film throwing the spotlight on to the Gucci dynasty, this podcast tells the story of the family’s humble beginnings. Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams bring their gloriously salacious tone to the tale, from observing Guccio Gucci’s knowledge of luggage to analysing Patrizia Reggiani’s controversial white fur school coat. HV

Sunny delight ... Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Sunny delight … Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

There is always a risk in learning how something you adore is made. That’s why I was slightly apprehensive to listen to The Always Sunny podcast, which launched earlier this month. The premise is simple: each week, the geniuses behind the hit show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sit down to bring us insider knowledge on how every episode came to be, starting all the way back in 2005.

The worry is that your favourite (terrible) characters are somehow played by an unfunny trio, but Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton allay any fears early on, making one another laugh as much as you might imagine. The scoring is the same as the show, and sound design is nonexistent, so the content needs to carry – which it does. For true fans, it’s a must listen, as we hear how they developed ideas; the stumbling blocks they encountered; and, most interestingly, some of the things they regret with hindsight.

Talking points

  • As podcasts evolve, expect to see even more boundary-blurring with other creative mediums. A case in point: US culture show How Long Gone will release a double-CD album via Jagjaguwar on 17 December, featuring about releases from the record label’s other acts, including Moses Sumney, Dinosaur Jr and Angel Olsen.

  • Why not try: Close to Death | Is This Working? | Sh***hole Country

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