Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Readings in cognitive warfare at the societal level — #9: Roger McNamee, “How to Fix Facebook — Before It Fixes Us” (2018)

In this instructive article, former Facebook insider Roger McNamee reveals how he first noticed something was amiss on Facebook, figured out Russians were behind it, tried reporting it to Facebook executives, didn’t get taken seriously, and formed his own group for coming up with warnings and remedies.

Here are a few highlights:
“Our final hypothesis was that 2016 was just the beginning. Without immediate and aggressive action from Washington, bad actors of all kinds would be able to use Facebook and other platforms to manipulate the American electorate in future elections.

“These were just hypotheses, but the people we met in Washington heard us out. Thanks to the hard work of journalists and investigators, virtually all of these hypotheses would be confirmed over the ensuing six weeks. Almost every day brought new revelations of how Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other platforms had been manipulated by the Russians.

“We now know, for instance, that the Russians indeed exploited topics like Black Lives Matter and white nativism to promote fear and distrust, and that this had the benefit of laying the groundwork for the most divisive presidential candidate in history, Donald Trump. The Russians appear to have invested heavily in weakening the candidacy of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary by promoting emotionally charged content to supporters of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, as well as to likely Clinton supporters who might be discouraged from voting. Once the nominations were set, the Russians continued to undermine Clinton with social media targeted at likely Demo- cratic voters. We also have evidence now that Russia used its social media tactics to manipulate the Brexit vote. A team of researchers reported in November, for instance, that more than 150,000 Russian-language Twitter accounts posted pro-Leave messages in the run-up to the referendum. …

“We still don’t know the exact degree of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. But the debate over collusion, while important, risks missing what should be an obvious point: Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other platforms were manipulated by the Russians to shift outcomes in Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, and unless major changes are made, they will be manipulated again. Next time, there is no telling who the manipulators will be.”
He didn’t have success raising these concerns with Facebook or Google executives, who replied with stock notions about self-regulation:
“Facebook and Google responded by reiterating their opposition to government regulation, insisting that it would kill innovation and hurt the country’s global competitiveness, and that self-regulation would produce better results.

“But we’ve seen where self-regulation leads, and it isn’t pretty. Unfortunately, there is no regulatory silver bullet. The scope of the problem requires a multi-pronged approach.”
Disappointed but resolute, he and his colleagues, notably Tristan Harris, an expert on cults, have designed an approach around two points. The first is that “we must address the resistance to facts created by filter bubbles.” The second is that “the chief executive officers of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others — not just their lawyers — must testify before congressional committees in open session.”

This is accompanied by proposals for eight regulatory remedies. These include: banning digital bots that impersonate people; prohibiting the companies from buying new acquisitions until they’ve addressed the preceding damage; making the platforms far more transparent; limiting the commercial exploitation of consumer data; and enabling users to own their data. He and his colleagues are now trying to get Congress to attend to these matters.

In conclusion, McNamee writes,
“Increasing awareness of the threat posed by platform monopolies creates an opportunity to re- frame the discussion about concentration of market power. Limiting the power of Facebook and Google not only won’t harm America, it will almost certainly unleash levels of creativity and innovation that have not been seen in the technology industry since the early days of, well, Facebook and Google.”
Lots of good points, I’d say. Worth more attention than I can give this reading these days. To read for yourself, go here:

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