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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 23 March 2018, 4:22 pm

The rise and fall(?) of Facebook

I think we all knew all along that when it comes to Facebook, we are the product not the customer. But just how that adage is applied hasn't really sunk in, until now.

As former Techblog editor Bill Bennett said this morning, "Is anyone surprised that a site originally set up so nerdy blokes could compare notes on hot girls turned out to be creepy?"

It's one thing to have an understanding that Facebook sells my data to companies for commercial use. I understand that when I search for "hotels in Hawaii", my feed is going to fill up with ads for holidays and resorts and airfares. That's fine. It doesn't work because typically they don't understand why I was searching for "hotels in Hawaii" and so I get wonky results.

But that's a world away from using that same gathered data to then publish "news" stories in my feed about the quality of life in Hawaii, the need for greater vigilance around homeless people on the streets of Honolulu or why immigration policies are bad for the Hawaiian economy all because someone somewhere is pushing an agenda about any of those issues.

That Cambridge Analytica was doing just that is bad enough. Trying to influence two billion users through targeted fake news and posts written obviously by manipulators is bad enough, but mix that in with Facebook's inability to police its own network and you have a recipe for disaster. As someone mentioned on Twitter today, the US election basically came down to 70,000 votes across a handful of electorates and that was enough to sway the decision. The finger is pointing directly at Mark Zuckerberg and his creation as being culpable in all of this and rightly so.

Facebook knew enough about fake news long before the election but so long as it was generating good income, nobody was allowed to question it. Facebook's chief information security officer kicked up enough of a stink, going head-to-head with Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and the rest of the exec, that his role has been disestablished and he's moving on. All quietly, with no fuss, but we can't have that dissenting view in the exec room.

We're not just talking about well placed ads encouraging you to vote for Trump or for the UK to leave the EU or Vote Liberal. That's all fine and obvious and so what. No, CA's move was to plant stories and fake news designed to tickle that niggle you might have about economic stability or migrant workers or gun rights or whatever. How did they know to tickle your niggle and not mine? Because of the network of posts and people you've built around you. By giving you a gentle nudge (repeatedly nudging you) in a certain direction, CA encourage some people to vote one way or not to vote at all, or to turn out when normally they wouldn't. 

And given Facebook's approach to the newsfeed (yes, they call it a newsfeed) that removes the chronological order of things and allows Facebook to decide what to give prominence to, and what you'll see, and what you'll consume, the upshot is 70,000 well placed votes and 51% voting for Brexit and goodness knows what else. By the time you read this I fully expect to see yet more evidence of manipulation of other elections that we've yet to hear about.

That's assuming it all works, of course. I've seen plenty of technical folk say "yeah, well I don't buy it" and I tend to agree. These guys clearly are not the sharpest tack in the box. You just have to look at the Channel Four video of the meeting with the CEO and his team to see a group of people so in love with their own intellect they're oblivious to what was going on around them. Here's a hint: if you're a business doing shady things and someone rings you up and asks for a meeting to talk about what shady things you can do for them, do some due diligence and at least Google them, OK?

When all is said and done, the biggest crime CA committed appears to be the oldest trick in the book. Forget digital manipulation and fake news, CA used good looking prostitutes and hidden cameras (oh the irony) to bring down their targets. That's not a technology story, that's a Le Carre novel. It's also nothing new. Have a look at the story (linked below) about a Very British Coup - these people are well connected and have an agenda that's well known to the voter. It's just tarted up like a dot com company in the 90s and made to look new and shiny.

For Facebook, the news is all bad. Facebook's defence - that the company breached its terms and conditions and acted in bad faith - is risible. The company that has defined social media with two billion users and a market cap so large it has spawned a culture of unicorn stocks didn't know that one of its customers had accessed 50 million customer records? The company that built its business off influence and engagement didn't notice that its content was filling up with fake news and propaganda? The company that employs more data analysts than just about every other company in Silicon Valley didn't realise customers were searching for a distinct and unique set of key attributes and then targeting users with hate speech?

Either it didn't know, in which case the senior executive are incompetent, or it has lied to regulators in at least three countries (and probably more) and they're all about to go to jail. Either way the rise and rise of Facebook is over and the new watch cry will be "accountability". 

Facebook's first move was to ignore the evidence before it. It's second move, when approached by media, was to threaten legal action if the Guardian or New York Times dared print anything. Its third move was to suspend the Cambridge Analytica account because of discrepancies and its fourth move was to start blaming rogue employees. All of this is useless cover and fails to take into account one simple fact: the company knew about CA's activities nearly two years before it became public but did nothing to warn those users who had been compromised. In California, where Facebook is domiciled, that's a big mistake.

Credibility Graveyard

P.S. if you're looking for me on Facebook, you can stop. After reading the various links below, and a whole lot more besides, I've come to the conclusion that remaining a user of the service means nothing will change. I can't advocate for Facebook to be brought into line if I continue to provide it with the personal data, the connections and content it craves.

Metcalfe's Law - a network doubles in value with every single node added - works in reverse as well: for every user who leaves a network, its value halves. I've done that - I've pulled the pin on my account and I hope that's that.

Of course, I then remembered that the board of a charity I work with uses Facebook Messenger to communicate and that I'd just blown a big hole in that model. But no fear - within half a day we were all migrated over to WhatsApp, and we even figured out how to send GIFs to one another so it's like we never stopped. Many thanks, Aunties, and if anyone wants to donate to a great cause, let me know and I'll give you the details - via secure messaging application. 

The Washington Post - Cambridge Analytica linked to Blackwater founder 

Bloomberg - Facebook Just Lost More Than Tesla's Entire Market Cap in Two Days

Bella Caledonia - SCL - a Very British Coup

Gizmodo - Facebook Shareholder Files Class Action Suit Over Cambridge Analytica Scandal Fallout

BuzzFeed - The Truth About The Trump Data Team That People Are Freaking Out About

The Guardian - Cambridge Analytica execs boast of role in getting Trump elected

The Guardian - 'Utterly horrifying': ex-Facebook insider says covert data harvesting was routine

New York Times - Facebook's Surveillance Machine

The Guardian - Brenda the Civil Disobedience Penguin on Cambridge Analytica: the real crime was getting caught

The Washington Post - FTC opens investigation into Facebook after Cambridge Analytica scrapes millions of users' personal information

The Register - BOOM! Cambridge Analytica explodes following extraordinary TV expose

Sara Danner Dukic - How social media works (a Twitter thread that is really quite revealing)


R&D spending up

Good news on the home front. We are spending more on research and development in New Zealand. 

Statistics New Zealand has released its Business Operations Survey which "collects performance measures from New Zealand businesses to better understand the practices and behaviours they undertake that may affect their performance", and which measures R&D spending and for once, the news is good.

New Zealand firms spent $1.8 billion on R&D in 2017, an increase of 14% on 2016. The number of firms engaging in R&D is up 8% compared with 2014-2016, with good growth in the small to medium-sized enterprise space.

But conversely, our levels of innovation are down. The number of businesses that think they do innovate is down from 49% of all businesses in 2015 to 47% today.

"Cost and a lack of management resources remained the main barriers to innovation," says the report which also suggests a lack of skilled personnel was also seen as a significant barrier to innovation to around a third of businesses.

This is an area the government's CTO will have to address head on once he or she is in the hot seat. We need to build companies that are building the future, not companies that are doing the same thing over and over again. We still have a shot at that title of innovation leader - let's not squander it.

StatsNZ - Business Operations Survey 2017


Whither Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia.

Of all the sites on the internet I've found and used over my time here (which stretches way back to the dark days of 1996), Wikipedia is the one I use most often and the one that consistently provides the most value to me professionally.

As a searcher looking for facts, information, starting points, lost knowledge and more, Wikipedia is a great place to get the ball rolling. While my wife is busy telling me how much she enjoyed Season One of The Crown on Netflix, I could tell her how inaccurate its portrayal of Churchill was (particularly in the painting episode) without glancing up from my phone. As a professional mansplainer, this was bliss.

And so it was that when a client asked if I could tidy up its Wikipedia page I was quite excited. Time to flex my editing muscles, get my geek on and cite where needed.

Sadly, it was not to be.

Five minutes in I knew I was in trouble. Coding is not my natural environment so I was focused exclusively on making sure any changes I made would display the way I wanted, but that's not where the problems started. No, far from it - to date, I have yet to manage a single change.

The problem is if you work for a company (or worse, are a contractor employed by the company in question) they really don't want you editing your company page. Because it's not yours and, as an employee (or contractor) you are of course in league with the devil and not to be trusted.

That's OK. I get that. I've taken more marketing buzzwords out of documents than you've had hot dinners. I have stood firm against the sewerage-laden tide of synergies, above the line expectations and peeling the onion. I have rejected edits and removed the fluff from many a company's outputs and put more than my fair share of noses out of joint.

I know Wikipedia doesn't want "Company X, a leading provider of solutions to the ever burgeoning Goats as a Service Market" or its ilk. I'm not going to do that. I just want to update the company details and put in the new logo.

But sadly that is not to be. Wikipedia's process for such activity is not clearly defined anywhere on the site. Nowhere can you get the direct advice you need to make sure you don't upset anyone. And, talking to a variety of sources on various media, it's not just me. One correspondent happily maintained his company's Wikipedia page for three years until some editor discovered his IP address meant he was working inside the company and bam! the page was deleted.

Another spent 18 months in an edit war going back and forth trying to get factual information accepted only to have it rejected with little or no reason given. She has now been banned from editing Wikipedia pages for life.

One more, who shall definitely remain nameless, managed to get the changes he needed made - by paying an editor to stop deleting the changes.

Wikipedia, this is not a technology issue. It's not even a process issue really, although frankly that needs some serious work. This is a cultural issue that is going to fly in the face of your own desire to be an encyclopaedia that has the most up to date and relevant information. Instead, you're left with a bunch of corporate pages that are out of date, misleading or just missing entirely and that's not ideal.

If anyone has any ideas on a way forward that will reduce the edit wars, ensure the marketing speak is kept out and still allows accurate data to put put forward, do let me know. 

Until then, I'm going to have to take pretty much everything on Wikipedia with a very large grain of salt.


Criticism of Wikipedia


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