No, Regulating Social Media Won’t Mitigate Threats to the Republic

Why regulating social media in wake of Trump’s election would set a dangerous precedent.

Unregulated social media platforms apparently pose a danger to this country, NYU Stern School of Business Professor Vasant Dhar argues in a CNBC column. He writes, “Unregulated social media platforms pose significant societal risks. That’s what we found out after the 2016 election, when it became clear that social media had been used for political mass manipulation in the world’s oldest democracy.”

He then proceeds to justify this action citing a 2012 Facebook study that users’ moods could be manipulated by messages put out on the platform. Dhar then admonishes what he calls Facebook’s “algorithmic neutrality ” and says that can’t be in place going forward. (Note: Facebook’s algorithm has many serious issues, but neutrality isn’t apparent.) He adds the following:

The Facebook study of 2012 had sparked outrage and concern around the use of data for social experimentation without consent of human subjects. It was worrisome that data usage policies of virtually all digital platforms had become increasingly rapacious over the years, allowing them to do what they please with the data they collect assiduously. Facebook’s social experiment wouldn’t have been approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) for university research involving human subjects.

Imagine if the government were to regulate social media platforms? They’d have unfettered access to our personal data and other valuable information. Remember the NSA under the last administration? Given the disruptive nature of social media and government desire to stifle innovation, generally speaking, it’s not prudent to entangle government in tech—let alone any industry.

More regulation leads to less freedom. End of story.

The Russians certainly tried to screw with social media platforms last election cycle—reaching 126 million Facebook users, as well as 20 million Instagram users (per TechCrunch). However, that’s not a justification to unleash the government on social media platforms or other private entities. In fact, during a November 1st Senate Intelligence Committee hearing involving Facebook, Twitter and Google on Russian election interference, all three tech giants saidthere’s no concrete evidence Russians uploaded voter registration contact information when attempting to individually target voters with ads. Case closed.

In 2012, Pew explored the “social vote” — i.e. getting messages about voting, sending out such messages, or posting their presidential choice on a social media site – but didn’t prove the exact impact social media has on electoral outcomes. (It would be fascinating if some polling company issued a study on this.)

Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg flatly denied “fake news” or similar manipulation affected the electoral results a day after the election.

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience,” Zuckerberg said.

You don’t even have to like Trump to recognize the social media prowess his campaign boasted, however unorthodox it was. It worked to his advantage—and it didn’t hurt he boasted over $5 billion in earned media.

Dr. Laeeq Khan, who heads up Ohio University’s social media analytics lab, wrote in The Hill that there was more online enthusiasm for Trump citing online interest in him was three times higher than Clinton’s (per Google trend analysis), he boasted 4 million more Twitter followers than her, and voters made up their minds about Clinton by the third presidential debate despite her ramping up social media efforts.

A problem for Silicon Valley going forward is how it’ll wrestle with its leftist identity and the advent of innovation through the free market. Professor Khar cites “vagueness” as an impetus for regulating digital platforms. Innovation cannot be crippled because of a few bad actors. Khar’s views are thankfully not in the mainstream.

Look what happens when government across all levels stifles innovation. We see increased regulations placed on businesses like Uber, Airbnb, and other start-ups—which leads to less efficiency, functionality, loss of profit, and at times, the shutting down of operations altogether. Would there be calls for such a preposterous measure like regulation if Hillary Clinton won? I highly doubt it.

Government and tech should be able to work in concert with one another, with government simply creating an environment for innovation to flourish and grow—not to control it or kill it. Calling for drastic measures like full-fledged regulation of social media because your candidate lost last year will take us into dangerous territory. If government regulates social media platforms to suppress certain kinds of speech, everyone’s speech will be under attack.

Let’s not go down this path.

Russia Purchased Black Lives Matter Facebook Ad

Evidence is mounting of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, but the evidence does not always fit the preconceived notion that Putin’s government acted to help Donald Trump’s campaign defeat Hillary Clinton. A new revelation that a Facebook ad purchased by the Russians promoted Black Lives Matter casts doubt on the usual narrative.

CNN reports the Russians bought “at least one” Facebook ad that promoted the Black Lives Matter movement. The ad appeared in late 2015 or early 2016 to audiences in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. Ferguson and Baltimore were the subject of race riots in August 2014 and April 2015 respectively.

The ad was purchased by what CNN refers to as “accounts linked to the Russian government-affiliated troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.” US military intelligence has described the group as “a state-funded organization that blogs and tweets on behalf of the Kremlin.”

Facebook previously revealed that about 25 percent of the 3,000 ads traced back to the Internet Research Agency were geographically targeted. The Black Lives Matter ad targeted to Ferguson and Baltimore Facebook users is the first specific example of such targeting. CNN’s sources said the wording of the ad was such that it could be interpreted as both supporting and warning against the Black Lives Matter movement. The ad itself has not been released by Facebook.

Information on the Facebook ads purchased by the Russians seems to indicate that, at least early in the election cycle, the focus was on promoting division and anger rather than promoting a specific candidate. The Russians also bought ads with topics such as gun rights, immigration and the validity of western democracy.

“This is consistent with the overall goal of creating discord inside the body politic here in the United States, and really across the West,” Steve Hall, a former CIA officer and current CNN National Security Analyst, said. “It shows they the level of sophistication of their targeting. They are able to sow discord in a very granular nature, target certain communities and link them up with certain issues.”

Last December, the FBI and the CIA publicly agreed that intelligence showed that Russian cyber operations during the election were aimed at supporting the Trump campaign. In July 2017, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told NBC News that there was no disagreement among US intelligence agencies that the Russians “are trying to undermine Western democracy,” but stopped short of stating that the interference was targeted to benefit Trump.

In the months since the election, many on the right have pooh-poohed the idea that Russia interfered in the election at all, attributing the claim of interference to sour grapes by Clinton campaign. That may change as more information about Russian interference comes out, such as the recent revelation by Homeland Security that 21 state election agencies were targeted by Russian hackers and that the Russian goal was to stir the pot by promoting hostility on both sides of the political spectrum.

The biggest question about Russian meddling is what to do about it. As CIA Director Mike Pompeo told NBC News, “This threat is real. The U.S. government, including the Central Intelligence Agency, has to figure out a way to fight back against it and defeat it. And we’re intent upon doing that.”

Catholic Facebook Pages Blocked Due to “Spam Detection Tool” – Sites Since Restored

The Catholic News Agency reported yesterday evening that a couple dozen Catholic-themed Facebook pages were blocked by the site (a complete site list is located here).

This morning, The Resurgent checked the list of sites mentioned in the original article and found that they were back online, so we reached out to Facebook for comment.

A Facebook spokesperson sent The Resurgent the following official statement:

“All Pages have now been restored. This incident was triggered accidentally by a spam detection tool. We sincerely apologize for the issue this has caused.” – Facebook spokesperson

The Catholic News Agency (CNA), for their part, has also posted an updated story with a similar Facebook statement.

While the CNA article speculates that this may have been an effort by Facebook to block conservative sites, it is likely that the issue was caused by a malfunction in Facebook’s software, as they state.  Given the large number of followers for these sites and the amount of traffic they are likely generating, it is conceivable that spam software might mistakenly label the sites as spam.  For their part, Facebook has resolved the issue and apologized.  It is unknown how many other sites (i.e. non-Catholic) were affected.

Rev. Francis J. Hoffman of “Father Rocky,” one of the sites affected, posted the following update on his page:

Back by popular demand.

And yes, we’re back on Facebook. A faulty spam detector temporarily took down this page for 36 hours. All is well now. Thanking Facebook for the explanation to ACI Prensa.

 

Zuckerberg Says New Facebook Will Help Build Common Ground

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has unveiled his company’s new mission: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

This was in line with Facebook’s first-ever Community Summit in Chicago, IL. During his talk, Zuckerberg highlighted the need to build community. Here’s an excerpt from his talk:

Right now, I think the most important thing we can do is bring people closer together. It’s so important that we’re going to change Facebook’s whole mission to take this on.
For the past decade, we’ve focused on making the world more open and connected. We’re not done with that. But I used to think that if we just gave people a voice and helped them connect, that would make the world better by itself. In many ways it has. But our society is still divided. Now I believe we have a responsibility to do even more. It’s not enough to simply connect the world, we must also work to bring the world closer together.
We need to give people a voice to get a diversity of opinions out there, but we also need to build enough common ground so we can all make progress together. We need to stay connected with people we already know and care about, but we also need to meet new people with new perspectives. We need support from family and friends, but we also need to build communities to support us as well.

What will facilitate these important discussions? Facebook Groups, Zuckerberg said to CNN Tech’s Laurie Segall.

Zuckerberg also told Segall, “A lot of what we can do is to help create a more civil and productive debate on some of the bigger issues as well.” This is a large departure from making family and friend posts the dominant theme on Facebook.

This goes along the lines of a letter he authored earlier this year to make Facebook more open to diverse opinions — conservative ones included.

With respect to free speech, Zuckerberg said this:

“An important aspect of freedom of speech is that you need to be able to get pretty close to offensive,” said Zuckerberg. Disagreeable content is allowed, “as long as it’s not hate speech or way over the line,” he added.

This is Zuckerberg’s first major media appearance since 2012. The Facebook CEO was notably absent from a tech meeting with President Trump earlier this citing a “scheduling conflict.”

Zuckerberg certainly has his obtuse social justice opinions, but as the leader of the largest social media platform out there–with 1.9 billion users and counting–he recognizes his company’s responsibility to facilitate discussion and meaningful conversations.

Zuckerberg at Harvard: Successes Come From Having Freedom to Fail

Facebook’s founder/CEO and one-time Ivy League student Mark Zuckerberg delivered the 366th Harvard commencement speech at his alma mater today. Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his dorm room there in 2004, but later suspended his studies in 2005 to focus entirely on his company. Zuckerberg was also awarded an honorary degree from Harvard today.

Here’s the full text of his speech. His speech also coincides with a recent news story of black Harvard students holding their own graduation ceremony, though many have viewed it as self-segregation.

Here’s Harvard reasoning for selecting Zuckerberg as commencement speaker:

“Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership has profoundly altered the nature of social engagement worldwide. Few inventions in modern times can rival Facebook in its far-reaching impact on how people around the globe interact with one another,” said Harvard President Drew Faust in a university press release. “And few individuals can rival Mark Zuckerberg in his drive to change our world through the innovative use of technology, as well as his commitment to advance science, enhance education, and expand opportunity through the pursuit of philanthropy.”

His full speech, which was broadcasted live on Facebook, can be found here. His talk begins at the 1 hour, 38 minute mark:

Zuckerberg’s talk was prefaced by Harvard President Drew Faust, the 28th president of Harvard University and the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“We must always be ready to be wrong,” said President Drew Faust. “We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them.”

During his talk to new Harvard graduates, Zuckerberg stressed the importance of Harvard graduates finding purpose in their lives.

“I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough,” he said. “Purpose is that feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Purpose is what creates true happiness.”

He cited the advent of automation causing distress and pain for many Americans, and how people feel disconnected in an ever-connected world.  The casual observer can tell that Zuckerberg’s travels across the country have had an insurmountable effect on him. He stressed how meeting with and empathizing with different people can inspire people to “create a renewed sense of purpose.”

“It’s not enough to have that purpose yourself,” he said. “You have to create that sense of purpose for others.”

He broke his talk down into three main points on how Harvard students could promote purpose through big meaningful projects, redefining equality, and building community.

Big meaningful projects:

Zuckerberg’s first point encouraged graduates to find purpose to create big meaningful projects. He cited the construction of the Hoover Dam and the Moon Landing as accomplishments to model purpose after.

“Now it’s our generation’s turn to do great things,” said Facebook’s CEO and founder. “Ideas don’t come out fully formed.”

Zuckerberg ragged on the film industry for getting innovation wrong, citing that ideas take time to germinate and grow–how the idea of a single “Eureka!” moment grossly mischaracterizes innovation in the modern day.

“It’s good to be idealistic, but be prepared to be misunderstood, ” he added.

The speech then turned a bit more political, especially along the lines of combating climate change. However, I appreciated the point he made about new innovations for cures for cancer needing to be discovered and funded to put an end to horrible diseases. I think everyone regardless of political beliefs can agree with this point–especially if private enterprise is the financial catalyst behind this innovation.

Zuckerberg said in order to “create progress,” people must “create purpose.

Redefining equality

The second point of Zuckerberg’s talk focused on the idea of redefining equality. At first, I thought he would go full social justice warrior here, but he said some rather enlightening things. The following quote of his stood out to me the most:

“Our culture of entrepreneurship is how to create so much progress,” Zuckerberg said. “The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.”

Having the freedom to fail…he sounds like a fan of free enterprise! (He very well should be, despite some of his associations with overly left-leaning political groups.)

The 33-year-old billionaire added that in order to be successful, you must have a good idea and get lucky. No mention of success being guaranteed or handed to you? How refreshing!

His next point, however, lost me.

“Every generation expands its generation of equality,” said Zuckerberg. “Now it’s time for our generation to define a new social contract.”

Citing FDR’s New Deal and other lefty social programs, Zuckerberg proposed that society start measuring progress not just by GDP, but by the role an individual plays in society. It seemed like he was sounding off on a political platform for a prospective 2020 run–hinting at support from universal basic income, affordable childcare, and expanded educational opportunities.

But then he got back on script when he uttered, “Freedom to pursue purpose shouldn’t be free.” He added that Millennials should not only donate to charity but also give time to help people pursue their purpose in life. (Good!) He said creating the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will create more equal opportunities, which is far preferable to government-sanctioned equality.

Building community

Mark Zuckerberg’s third and final call-to-action for Harvard graduates is to build community–especially global connections.

He said it’s imperative to create “purpose for everyone…in the world” citing our more interconnected world.  Action “starts in local communities,” Zuckerberg added.

“You are graduating into a world that needs purpose.”

Zuckerberg ended his speech with a Jewish prayer–which was quite unexpected, though he has abandoned atheism in recent years.

I would say that Zuckerberg has mellowed and matured over the last decade. Indeed, his company hasn’t been without controversy as we know. But any casual observer can see that he’s been making an effort to have Facebook cater to all viewpoints, perspectives, and people.

Earlier in the year, Zuckerberg pledged to visit all 50 states to meet everyday Americans. Some say this challenge to meet new people is indicative of a launch for a 2020 bid for president. However, I think he’s genuinely interested in making Facebook work for all users here in the U.S. and across the globe:

My personal challenge for 2017 is to have visited and met people in every state in the US by the end of the year. I’ve spent significant time in many states already, so I’ll need to travel to about 30 states this year to complete this challenge.

In October 2016, Zuckerberg took it to Facebook Live to announce a newfound appreciation for hunting.

“Things taste better when you make them yourself,” he said. “And they taste doubly better when you’ve hunted the animal yourself.” In 2011, he apparently pledged to only eat meat he kills or harvests. Below is the full live broadcast:

And perhaps his most interesting undertaking was returning to religion after dabbling in atheism.

While there were some mention of social justice platitudes–climate change, undocumented immigrants, etc.–dominating his speech, Zuckerberg wasn’t hostile to conservatives. His speech contained some good points we can all take to heart–especially the part about forging real connections in a disconnected world and making great change locally. (The old adage goes, all politics is local.) And I especially appreciated the part about him saying success comes from having the freedom to fail. How many liberal Silicon Valley executives admit to this? In fact, he didn’t say the government should come in and fix problems–whether failures or not. He encouraged people in their communities to make change. These are good baby steps; now to get him to open his mind to other things…That may take some time.

Facebook is the leading social media platform out there, with 1.94 billion monthly users (as of March 2017) and 1.15 billion mobile daily active users (as of December 2016). Zuckerberg has played a role in our daily lives, however big or small, with giving us Facebook. Let’s hope more Silicon Valley leaders take a page from the Zuckerberg playbook and try to relate better with us.

Facebook, Free Speech and the Globalization Problem

Everybody talks about changing the world, but few people ever get a chance to actually do it.  Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg realizes this, and seems intent on making sure that he doesn’t miss his opportunity.  A lot of people might say that Zuckerberg has already done that, creating a social media platform that has literally connected billions of people across the planet and forever altered the way we consume and share information.  In an interview with Fast Company, however, he insists that Facebook is still very much a work in progress, and that there is still much left to be done.

Chief among those tasks is solving the problems that inevitably arise when technology moves faster than the ability of human social structures to keep up.  Back in the old days, when communication was far more interpersonal, it was a lot easier to avoid friction over differing views because people usually tried to keep the conversation polite by not talking about sore subjects.  People also tended to congregate in tighter-knit communities that shared the same values, which further kept a lid on cultural and political clashes.  But these days, your Facebook feed can easily be filled with all kinds of things you’d rather not see–and some things that will make your blood boil.  About this, Zuckerberg is remarkably candid, saying:

We know that people in the community want real information. Whenever we give them tools to get access to higher quality content, they’ll always go for that. But at the same time, we also believe in freedom of speech. People should have the ability to say what they think, even if someone else disagrees with that. And freedom of speech is a funny thing because people always want freedom of speech unless people disagree with them.

As somebody who has lost Facebook friends–and the occasional real friend–over a debate that erupted after some political post, I can personally attest that this is a very real problem.  It used to be that people who didn’t see each other too often only got that heated after a few drinks at the occasional holiday get-together.  With Facebook, you can have those kinds of fights every day–plus there’s something about dishing on a computer keyboard that makes people far more vicious than they would ever be in person.

And this is where the irony comes in.  Because of this rancor, a lot of Facebook users have cut themselves off from anything and anyone that might offend them, basically retreating into social media bubbles where everyone shares the same values and a dissenting opinion never rears its ugly head.  Perhaps it’s just human nature, but it seems we can’t avoid tribalism even on a digital landscape.

Zuckerberg seems to recognize this problem, and has ideas on how to address this kind of culture clash:

One of the things that we have struggled with recently is how do we have a set of community standards that can apply across a community of almost two billion people… The question is, in a larger community, how do you build mechanisms so that the community can decide for itself and individuals can decide for themselves where they want the lines to be? This is a tricky part of running this company…  We have come to this realization that a bunch of people sitting in a room in California is not going to be the best way to reflect all the local values that people have around the world. So we need to evolve the systems for collective decision making. It’s an interesting problem. There are certainly going to be a lot more global infrastructure and global enterprises going forward, there just hasn’t been anything at this scale yet.

Interestingly, in a way Zuckerberg has made an argument for federalism here–that a community is far better poised to make decisions for itself, rather than having a larger authority imposing a one-size-fits-all solution.  On the other hand, he also seems to be making the argument that it will probably be necessary to wall certain communities off from others, because their standards and beliefs are just too different to be compatible with one another.  Granted, he’s talking about the digital world here–but one could just as easily find a corollary in the real world, particularly in Europe where the refugee crisis is in the process of radically transforming the culture there.

Zuckerberg also addresses the issue of globalization, acknowledging that while there have been tremendous benefits from the free flow of goods and information, they have not come without a price:

A lot of the current discussion and anti-globalization movement is because for many years and decades, people only talked about the good of connecting the world and didn’t acknowledge that some people would get left behind. I think it is this massively positive thing over all, but it may have been oversold. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad—it can still be massively positive—but I think that you need to acknowledge the issues and work through them so it works for everyone.

It’s a pretty realistic assessment of where we are, and one of the few times I’ve heard the CEO of a major company talking about the downside of a global economy.  Whether Donald Trump’s trade policies will solve the problem remains to be seen–but given that a retreat from globalization was a winning theme of his campaign, and given the success of Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, there’s no doubt a lot of voters share the same concerns.

It’ll be interesting to see what Zuckerberg and Facebook have planned.

Media Matters Will Let Us Know What’s Acceptable for Us to Read

David Brock of the left-wing group Media Matters has claimed that his organization is working with Facebook to help them filter “fake news” from news feeds.  He wants internet platforms such as Facebook, Google, and others to remove sites and sources which his organization characterizes as “fake news sites and propagandists.”  This is a predictable move for Brock since Media Matters’ business model depends on it staying relevant.  At a time when many even in the Democratic Party are questioning that relevance, Brock is trying to position his organization as an authority on what is and isn’t fake news.

Both Google and Facebook have recently begun steps to filter out “fake news” and their originating sites, either in response to Media Matters or due to pressure from other parties.  The problem with this approach, however, stems from the fact that many people rely on Google searches and Facebook feeds for information and news.  Allowing these sites to be the arbiter of what is and is not newsworthy or authoritative is alarming for a number of reasons.

For one, the end result of their filtering tends to be that news favored by left-leaning groups or the traditional news media (which is also politically to the left) gets labeled as “real news,” while stories which deviate from the accepted leftist narrative are labeled as “fake news.”

In addition, the current propensity to label things as “fake news” is a symptom of a larger problem within our society.  Over the past few years we have gotten to a point in this country where many people are incapable of debating their political differences politely and reasonably.  They either engage in ad hominem attacks, riot in the streets, or simply block information with which they disagree.

Finally, those who are helping determine what is “true” have obvious conflicts of interest.  Left-wing groups such as Media Matters want to further their narratives while the traditional news media seeks to protect their business from bloggers and new media sites.  These new sources of information also often express conservative viewpoints, making natural allies of Media Matters and traditional media.

Within this environment, then, it is not surprising that President Trump continues to bypass the traditional media and go directly to the American people through means such as Twitter.  The American people, for their part, will continue to seek out alternatives to traditional media if they perceive that they are filtering the news to fit a certain agenda.  Thus, the media and political left have themselves to thank for the rise of alternative news sources.

 

What Trump Did Is Not Censorship

President Trump ordered a communications lockdown at several federal agencies, including the EPA, USDA and Department of the Interior.

The new orders focus on restrictions for online communications and social media such as Twitter. Should this surprise anyone?

The last time America had an administration change in the White House, Twitter had something under 18 million active users when Barack Obama was sworn into office. Facebook had 150 million. Most Americans got their news from the nightly newscasts and cable outlets.

At the end of Q3/2016, Twitter had 317 million monthly active users, and Facebook had nearly 1.8 billion. Let’s agree that things are a little different in how Americans get their news today. In fact, the press and liberals have made a huge giant deal about how “fake news” percolates online. I never heard that as a problem in 2009.

The Washington Post wrung its hands of whether this constitutes censorship. They searched until they found some outrage (it probably wasn’t harder than searching speed dial).

Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement that the new restrictions were significant cause for concern.

“Vladimir Putin must be proud,” Cook said. “The EPA, like all federal agencies, is funded by taxpayer dollars, and Americans have the right to know what’s being done to protect or harm public health and the environment. Americans of all political stripes should be furious.”

No, I’m sorry. They shouldn’t be furious.

Every administration has the right and obligation to actively govern, which includes taking control of communications channels for the various federal agencies under its purview. Why should Trump, who relies heavily on social media, be treated differently?

WaPo acknowledged that even Obama “moved quickly to take control” of communications channels. They failed to acknowledge that Obama enjoyed a friendly, even fawning, press, the wet kiss of a giant honeymoon, and the admiration of the country (yes, even many conservatives) at having achieved election as the first black American president.

Many new administrations — including former president Barack Obama’s — have moved quickly to take control of the U.S. government’s public relations machinery and centralize decision-making upon taking office. But the sweeping nature of some of the new controls is unusual, and the fact that they come as departments have been communicating through an array of digital platforms has made the changes particularly visible.

This is not censorship. The Trump administration has the right and the obligation to get its departments and agencies, especially those which are run by interim acting chiefs, under control so tweets like the ones from the National Park Service don’t cause more confusion than already accompanies this major change in governing style.

Those in the main stream media are just mad because they wanted to exploit whatever mixed messages they could harvest online from agencies that are about to face tough questions as to their motives and policies. Now they’ll have to go back to the old fashioned way: relying on leaks and rumors.