What Happens When You Click Like?

According to Facebook,

“Like” is a way to give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook. You can like content that your friends post to give them feedback or like a Page that you want to connect with on Facebook.

Ever wonder what happens when you click the “Like” button on social media? Several things, actually, starting with a little shot of dopamine for the person who made the post. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that provides a sense of pleasure. When we receive positive feedback from our friends and followers it lights up the reward center in our brain. That part of the reason why social media is so addictive. Sean Parker, founder of Napster and former president of Facebook, admitted as much in this video in which he explains the process as a “social validation feedback loop” that was ripe for exploitation.

For more, check out these segments from 60 Minutes.

Another thing that happens is that the platform, e.g., Facebook, get another data point that they use to build our profile. Every time we like something, we are making a statement about ourselves, and that info is used to define us for future advertisers. Do you “like” Corgis, Starbucks and brightly colored lip gloss? Okay. How about Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lawrence, and Tammy Duckworth? Check! Each time you “like” something, you give the algorithm a little more information that it can use to fine-tune your profile, making you even more valuable to advertisers.

According to research, as few as 150 “likes” on social media is better at predicting your personality than your parent, and as few as 300 “likes” allows the software to “know” you better than your own spouse.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be known for who I am by real people…who I like…and who like me.

Regulation of Cyberspace

Social media, and by that I mostly mean Facebook, is a mess. We all know that it wastes too much of our time, makes us more agitated and irritable than we should be, and collects information about us and uses that intel to manipulate us. We’ve known most of that for some time now. But seeing the undercover Channel 4 video of the Cambridge Analytica executives has shaken people who had been fully in the techno-utopian camp when it came to the internet and Web 2.0 services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Suddenly the brave new world of the internet doesn’t look so bright and shiny.

In preparation for teaching a unit on new media and regulation I was reviewing my notes about the history of regulation of the internet…which is pretty short. Not that there haven’t been attempts to regulate “cyberspace”…but as early observers already noted, the internet does not take kindly to outsiders telling it how to go about its business. The early credo, “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” is testimony to the structural logic of the internet and explains the technical challenge of controlling something that was built to withstand external attacks.

Much of the early rhetoric was hyperbolic and now seems a bit silly. As the luster and new-car-smell has faded, we look back on those early utopian ideals as innocent and naive. Here’s an example from 1996. The speaker/author of A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is John Perry Barlow; a cattle rancher, techno-philosopher, and lyricist for The Grateful Dead.

While many of the early attempts to regulate were focused on the content of the internet, e.g. the Communications Decency Act, other legislation focused on intellectual property and piracy, e.g. SOPA and PIPA.

The most recent piece of legislation, H.R. 1865 aka FOSTA-SESTA, if signed by President Trump, will modify the 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230 which has provided cover for internet companies and shielded them from legal repercussions related to the actions of users on their sites.

So, what does Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have to do with any of this? Simply that users are starting to question whether big internet companies can be trusted to do the right thing without oversight. (Others aren’t so sure).

But if it is time for regulators to tell Craigslist, Reddit, and Backpage (among others) to clean up their Personal/Massage/Dating ads in the interest of combating sex trafficking, perhaps it’s also time for regulators to tell Facebook when it is and isn’t okay to harvest and sell our data to political operatives.

No one naively believes that this will end the sex trafficking problem…just as no one believes that Zuckerberg’s promise to do a better job handling the personal data of 1.5 billion users will end the kinds of abuse exposed by last week’s investigative journalism. But it may be a start.

Update (April 9, 2018): Since this was initially posted, Craigslist has eliminated its Personals section as a response to FOSTA-SESTA. Also, the FBI shut down Backpage and charged its founder Michael Lacey. Backpage has seen strong growth after Craigslist closed its Erotic Services section if 2010.

Democracy, Data, and Dirty Tricks

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion.

This is just one quote from an investigative report conducted by Channel 4 News in the UK. The person quoted above is an employee of Cambridge Analytica. You may have heard of the big data marketing company when their use of data harvested from 50 million Facebook users was revealed this week. The use of big data in political campaigns is not new, but it is being pushed to new heights by companies who appear to be unconstrained by established ethical norms. Here’s the entire Channel 4 video…

While opposition research is not new, there appear to be new efforts to push the limits of op research to include entrapment, bribery, and investigative reporting motivated by a political agenda. This is not just muck raking, but rather “muck making.”

Just to be clear, the use of Facebook’s data is not a data breach or hack. This is how big data works and everything you do online is being scooped up by someone who wants to use that information to advance their agenda. It might be selling you something like a new pair of socks, or maybe a health insurance policy, or maybe…a president.

Want to make sure that your data on Facebook won’t end up compromised? Electronic Frontier Foundation has you covered with this explainer on how to change your Facebook API settings.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from the video above…just to make it clear that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“… we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’, the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’.”

More at Nieman Labs.

How NOT to Cover a School Shooting

Being a journalist today is hard work. While getting it right and working under intense deadline pressure has always been part of the challenge, journalists today face increasingly difficult expectations from newsroom bosses, attacks from members of the increasingly partisan audience, and social media minefields where a misstep is rewarded with professional injury or death.

The school shooting this week gave us plenty of examples of good journalism performed by dedicated journalists. It also gave us reason to pause and reflect on what can go wrong when journalistic ethics are compromised. Let’s start with the good.

Data journalism and interactive technologies give us new ways to visualize old problems. The Washington Post gave us an excellent example in the form of a webpage that updates statistics about mass shootings.

Some of the reporting was done by students who were under attack. To better understand the horror experienced by students, read this series of text messages exchanged between two sisters.

But when students were contacted by members of the media while still in an active shooter situation, objections were raised…and justifiably so. Putting people at risk for the sake of a scoop is clearly unethical and directly contradicts the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, specifically the directive to Minimize Harm.

Another problem with using source material generated by eye-witnesses is that there may be graphic images and sounds that may contribute to the trauma experienced by survivors. Poynter, a leader in journalistic ethics, provided a very thoughtful analysis of Wednesday’s coverage and asked important questions that all journalists need to consider before rushing to publish.

And finally there is the increasingly distressing problem created by fake news. Some of the fake news is predictable “spinning” by political agents or PR hacks advocating for their particular cause or position. One example is the claim circulating on social media that there have been 18 school shooting since Jan 1, 2018. That claim was debunked by a story in the Washington Post. There’s also been reporting of Russian troll farms using the event to further their campaign intended to divide and mislead the American public.

But perhaps the most alarming instances of fake news related to the Florida school shooting are the fake tweets that were intended to implicate a working journalist in the very kind of unethical behavior described earlier in this post. According to Poynter,

One of Harris’ early replies quickly went viral. Within 45 minutes, she was getting a barrage of harassment from random Twitter users. Someone made a screenshot of a fake tweet alleging that she had asked someone for photos or videos of dead bodies. She decided to ignore the hoax and report it to Twitter instead.

According to Jane Lytvynenko of Buzzfeed,

While traditional fake news stories have a financial incentive, amassing advertising revenue by monetizing page views, Lytvynenko said the motivation for creating fake tweets is less clear. While creating them could be politically motivated, there’s also the possibility that the people behind them are just bent on destruction.

There is virtually NO defense against misinformation motivated by that kind of animus.

 

Facebook’s Fraught Future

Facebook’s failed attempt to foil Fake News while fortifying financial fortunes at the expense of friends’ futures finally finds itself facing fearless foes. Okay, I can’t keep that up but I hope you get the idea. After an amazing decade of growth and incredible buy-in from more than 2 billion users, Facebook is finally getting some push-back. Investors and executives who have since left the company are publicly saying what others have wondered for some time: is Facebook too big and too focused on monetizing audience members’ attention for our own good? Here’s what some are saying:

In response to the criticism Facebook announced a change to the algorithm that dictates the contents of your news feed. According to Facebook,

…we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.

We started making changes in this direction last year, but it will take months for this new focus to make its way through all our products. The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.

As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.

While some may criticize this change as too-little, too-late, others may question whether these are mere cosmetic changes simply designed to deflect criticism. But it is fairly clear that several things are going to happen as a result: time spent on Facebook and engagement will both decline, (resulting in lower revenue for Facebook), and media companies that have relied on Facebook to distribute their content far and wide will have to find other ways to reach their audience.

But look on the bright side: that change will provide new opportunities for media-savvy storytellers who know how to reach an audience with compelling content. And that person could be you!

 

 

Thanksgiving Week Update

Although we’re off this week, breaking news is not letting up. Here’s a quick recap of media-related news stories of interest to Media & Society…

  • Charlie Rose (CBS, PBS) and Glenn Thrush (New York Times White House correspondent) are new additions to the growing list of media professionals accused of sexual harassment or misconduct. Both have been suspended.
  • The Department of Justice is attempting to block the proposed $85 billion deal between AT&T (a telecom company) and Time Warner (a content producer) on the basis of anti-trust violation. This is despite a similar deal in 2011 when Comcast bought NBC/Universal.
  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is considering a roll-back of Net Neutrality policies that were put in place during the Obama administration. More at Politico.
  • Multiple former insiders at Facebook are coming out to accuse FB of building a platform designed to compromise its users. Former engineers, designers, and investors are admitting their own involvement in aiding the tech giant in creating something that has become too big and too powerful for our own good. The person who created FB’s “like” button was quoted as saying, “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.” There’s an old saying, “Confession is good for the soul.”

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

 

Celebrity Endorsements

HuffPo recently published data reported by HopperHQ about rates charged by celebrities for social media endorsements. Here’s a list of some of the top dealmakers.

  1. Selena Gomez – 122 million followers – $550,000 per post
  2. Kim Kardashian – 100 million followers – $500,000 per post
  3. Cristiano Ronaldo – 104 million followers – $400,000 per post
  4. Kylie Jenner – 95 million followers – $400,000 per post
  5. Kendall Jenner – 81.7 million followers – $370,000 per post
  6. Khloe Kardashian – 68 million followers – $250,000 per post
  7. Kourtney Kardashian – 57.8 million followers – $250,000 per post
  8. Cara Delevingne – 40.4 million followers – $150,000 per post
  9. Gigi Hadid 34.7 million followers – $120,000 per post
  10. Lebron James – 30.7 million followers – $120,000 per post

As you can see it is largely a numbers game with a couple of notable exceptions, e.g. Kim Kardashian punches above her weight with a cool $500K per post to reach her 100M followers.

Just in case you, or anyone you know, have a plan to become one of these influence marketers, just remember that there are a few million folks in line ahead of you. You should probably have a plan B just in case.

Fake News, Social Media, and Russian Influence

In the days following the 2016 election Mark Zuckerberg said, “The idea that fake news on Facebook, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way I think is a pretty crazy idea.” Since then Facebook has uncovered more than $100,000 of ad spending by Russian operatives designed to highlight divisive election issues. In late September Zuckerberg issued an apology saying, “Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it.”

It now appears that social media regret is more widespread as well. This past week Twitter admitted to a Congressional panel that it too was targeted by Russian operatives attempting to influence the election.

According to Recode,

Twitter informed congressional investigators of its findings in a series of briefings in Washington, D.C., on Thursday — and the revelations are sure to stoke further speculation on Capitol Hill that Kremlin agents sought to co-opt social media platforms to stir social and political unrest in the U.S.

In a separate report, Recode reported…

…about 20 percent of tweets sampled around the U.S. presidential election qualified as “polarizing and conspiracy content,” including links to “junk news,” WikiLeaks or Russian sources, like Sputnik and RT.

Next on the stand will be Google. Congress wants to know whether its email, advertising, and YouTube services were compromised by Russian operatives attempting to manipulate the outcome of the Presidential election.

In all of these instances it is becoming apparent that the meddling was intended to influence the outcome of the election not by promoting or attacking any one candidate, but by stoking political unrest on a variety of hot-button social issues, including: immigration, gun control, religion, LGBT, and racial issues such as Black Lives Matter.

CNN reported that a Russia-backed account called Blacktivists used Facebook and Twitter to promote racial tension and its Facebook account had more “Likes” than the Black Lives Matter Facebook account.

According to a report published in the Washington Post,

These targeted messages, along with others that have surfaced in recent days, highlight the sophistication of an influence campaign slickly crafted to mimic and infiltrate U.S. political discourse while also seeking to heighten tensions between groups already wary of one another.

Even if Congress cracks down on reporting of political ads on social media there is little evidence that much will change. After all, these are not political ads by traditional definitions.

There are, however, a couple of take-aways from these reports. First, if you’re consuming news exclusively on social media you are vulnerable to manipulation. And second, hyper-partisanship makes us even more likely to believe propaganda and lies. The first issue is fairly easy to address…the second will take significantly greater effort.

Russia used Facebook to Try to Influence the 2016 Election

New reports are surfacing claiming that Russia was behind an effort to influence the 2016 Presidential election. Facebook itself is releasing information suggesting that it carried approximately $100,000 of advertising that was “connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies.” Using fake Facebook accounts, highly-targeted ads pushed traffic to websites designed to promote a narrative that was pro-Trump and/or anti-Clinton.

Zuckerberg had previously claimed that social media manipulations were not responsible for the Trump victory, but these new revelations may reopen that debate. In response, some lawmakers are calling for regulations that would make political ad buys on social media more transparent.

Twitter has also indicated that it will look into Russian meddling that may have targeted their platform.

 

Hacking, Leaking, and Weaponized Data

The press, and by that term I mean the media industries devoted to journalistic enterprise, love a good leak. Inside information not intended for public consumption that suddenly appears in a package tied with a pretty bow is a gift of great value and consequence.

Leakers come in every form imaginable, and do so for a wide variety of reasons: true whistleblowers looking out for some greater good, disgruntled employees who don’t like what they see happening behind closed doors, an injured party to a dastardly deed, or hackers looking to profit from rich corporations (e.g., the hack of HBO and threat to leak spoilers for upcoming episodes of Game of Thrones)…all find reasons to go the the press with their inside scoop.

It strikes at every level of nearly every organization or power structure. It is one of the power levelers—a way for those near the bottom to inflict damage on those near the top. Presidents, CEOs, celebrities, and clergy…all are susceptible to a well-timed leak.

Sometimes the leaker is passing along information that they came by honestly, and other times it may involve a breach of security protocol or even illegal hacking.

Recent leaks have been widely reported, including: the DNC emails hacked (or were they?) and released to Wikileaks last year, transcripts of President Trump’s phone calls to heads of state, Jared Kushner’s off-the-record meeting with congressional interns (see Wired magazine), FBI director Comey’s anonymous leak to the press,  and the leak of an internal memo at Google that ignited a firestorm of controversy over sex discrimination in the tech industry (see more here and here). The last example also raised questions about when and where it is safe to speak out when speaking out may be controversial and politically incorrect.

In all of these cases the leakers were only part of the equation. The leakers need the assistance of a willing journalist and a willing publisher to distribute the information to the public. Journalistic history is filled with stories about investigative reports that broke because of leakers; perhaps the most infamous being Deep Throat of Watergate fame. But these symbiotic relationships are risky when the motives of leakers are unclear. Leakers may be seeking revenge, or may even leak information in an attempt to promote their own agenda. Sometimes those in positions of power use leaks through intermediaries in order to advance their own version of events. Without corroborating evidence, a leak is simply a rumor…or worse.

The legality of leaking to the press is complicated. Prosecution of illegal leaks that compromise national security is rare but does happen, e.g. Chelsey Manning’s conviction and sentence, which was later pardoned by President Obama. But more often than not the leaker and the news organization escape punishment. This inclination to protect journalists, and their sources, is part of our First Amendment tradition.

For more information about leaks and the media, see this page at the Newseum and listen to this podcast at On The Media.