From Facebook to Factbook: It is tough to determine what values drive new information

Somewhere along the timeline between its inception and now, Facebook determined that the mundane answers to the question, “What’s on your mind?” were too mundane to hold the attention of its users so it allowed information vendors to post or promote news items into our news feeds. Concerns about user privacy, the sale of personal information to third-party vendors, and alleged manipulation of voter opinion by Russia-backed social media trolls now has Facebook asking itself the “tough” questions about how to mitigate the problem of false news.

Facebook has an 11-minute documentary, “Facing Facts”, out there where a bunch of its privacy staff (who, I opined on Twitter, look like they are all from Cowlick, Indiana) waxing philosophical about how they have to make the best efforts to discern false news from legitimate news for the protection of the platform’s users. It is up to the few to protect the members of the collective. These intrepid people are trust with the task of applying their value judgment to discern whether the expressions of the 2.1 billion value judgments from around the globe are appropriate.

I am no apostle of “diversity” and “inclusion.” Those concepts have not paid any political or social dividends for black people, but the irony cannot be overlooked here: mostly white people with a few Asians sprinkled in will determine whether rants on race by Dr Boyce Watkins or Dr Claud Anderson have any place in a person’s timeline. That would make me suspect as a user; that a bunch of white boys are telling me what is appropriate and of value socially and culturally.

I have not gotten from Facebook any indication that they understand the importance of values when crafting and disseminating political information. Benjamin Ginsberg, Theodore J. Lowi, and Margaret Weir in their text, We the People, define values as basic principles that shape a person’s opinions about political issues and events.  Basic principles that shape opinions flow from a number of sources including family, friends, civic organizations, the media, and simple personal observation. Values are personal to each Facebook user. Does Facebook want to be in the position of discriminating against each user’s perception of the world based on whether a user’s published or shared information that promotes the individual’s values is done at the cost of disparaging another point of view?

This is what political media is all about. In the ideal world debaters would give equal acknowledgment to the other side’s view, but in political theater where resources and time are tight, debaters do not have that luxury. Once you understand politics, you realize that you can’t put a third-party value judgment on information exchanged by opposing parties. Facebook has to start assuming that all political information exchanged by users is designed to move opinion, sometimes into places you don’t think opinion should go.

If Facebook is afraid to play the pure information exchange platform game, then it has two options. First, it can go from Facebook to Factbook, providing its 2.2 billion users a platform where they come and find objective, unbiased data.

The second option is that Facebook can choose a political side. It can become the Fox News or the MSNBC of social networks, being a platform for partisan dribble.

The individualist, of course, should mind remain neutral on the political question and avoid feeding the State which thrives on factious debate.

It’s not about suppressing black votes, Mr Booker. It’s about cutting off the Democratic Party’s meal ticket

Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, today raised an issue concerning Steve Bannon’s attempts to target black voters during the November 2016 elections. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Cambridge Analytica’s former director of research testified that Steve Bannon, former assistant to President Donald J Trump, sought to use data harvested by Cambridge Analytica as part of a campaign to discourage blacks from voting. Mr Booker wants us to ignore the possibility that more blacks are turning away from his party.

The reason for the butthurt over Mr Bannon’s alleged targeting of blacks has nothing to do with black voter suffrage per se. Mr Booker’s issue is that if Mr Bannon or others like him are successful in steering blacks either away from the polls or worse yet to other candidates, then the Democratic Party would be in serious trouble.

According to data compiled by BlackDemographics.com, a significant portion of the black population is affiliated with the Democratic Party. In 2012, 76% of the black population were affiliated with the Democratic Party, either calling themselves Democrats or aligning with Democratic principles or values. You would have to go back to 1968 to see the affiliation percentage exceed 90% (93%).

As for the percentage of blacks who vote for the Democratic candidate, between 1936 and 2012 that percentage was equal to or greater than 90% on four occasions; in the years 1964, 2000, 2008, and 2012. There are a couple data points that may be concerning Mr Booker and his colleagues. While a couple data points do not make a trend, they should be something to keep one’s eye on.

Back in 2000, seven percent of the black population affiliated themselves with the Republican Party. By 2004, that percentage more than doubled to 15%. A priori, that jump may have had to do with the U.S. involvement in a two-front war in the Middle East and George W. Bush’s ability to sell the U.S. on his ability to prosecute the war. Also, Mr Bush attempted to stimulate the economy during the 2001 to 2003 period via tax cuts and the one-time issue of checks to households.

By 2008, however, the portion of the black populace affiliated with the Republican Party fell to four percent, but the portion of blacks affiliated with “independent” climbed to 20%. Apparently, more blacks wanted to hedge against the probability of being on the losing side of history. Vote for the first black president without moving into the Democratic playpen. By 2012, black Republicans went back home with 16% of the black population affiliating with the Republicans.

What may be underlying these numbers is a change of heart and direction on the part of younger blacks when it comes to the Democratic Party. According to NPR, black voter turnout fell from 66.6% of blacks in 2012 to 59.6% of blacks in 2016. Over four million black voters stayed home and according to the NPR report part of the reason is that a growing number of blacks no longer believe they have a home in the Democratic Party. Blacks may no longer see voting as the best way to change their economic or social plight as the population still sees unemployment rates higher than whites and neighborhoods that are run down and facing abandonment.

No, Mr Booker. It appears that something more substantive is going on to turn away blacks from the poll other than a sponsored ad running on the right-hand side of a person’s Facebook page.

Facebook the Common Carrier

A couple weeks after Mark Zuckerberg made his appearance before Congress to describe the privacy practices and overall business model of Facebook, two media personalities, Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, appeared before the House judiciary committee to describe the discriminatory treatment they were allegedly receiving from Facebook. The two women, known as “Diamond and Silk” to their fans, argued that Facebook intentionally changed their algorithms to keep their conservative political viewpoints from appearing in the news feeds of their followers on the social media platform.

The hearing provided heated exchanges between the two Trump-adoring personalities and congressmen sitting on the left of the political spectrum. Engagement between Diamond and Silk and two congressmen in particular, Barbara Jordan Lee, Democrat of Texas, and Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, caught my attention for the heat it generated in the hearing room.

Mr Johnson took issue at first with the subject matter of the entire hearing, driving home his point that the committee would best spend its time focusing on the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the November 2016 elections or Mr Trump’s purported attempts to remove Robert Mueller from the election tampering investigation.  He then proceeded to disparage the credibility of Diamond and Silk by asking repeatedly whether or not they were paid by the Trump campaign. After the second or third time Diamond and Silk answered “no”, the congressman should have moved on but he kept asking the same question and brought back the same taint of ridiculousness he managed to pour on himself when failing in 2010 to articulate a simple concept of overpopulation of the island of Guam by projecting that the island would “capsize” if additional American military personnel were stationed there.

Ms Lee didn’t much better in the get it together department when she gave up two minutes of her time to introduce two kids visiting congress during bring your offspring to work day and tried to get time back in order to keep up an attack using vague questions about the timing of communications between Diamond and Silk and Facebook. Ms Lee also repeatedly asked Diamond and Silk if they had received payment from the Trump campaign. After answering no at least three times, Ms Lee just kept asking the same question. By this time Louis Gohmert, Republican of Texas, dropped the gavel repeatedly letting his home girl know that question time was over.

The only saving grace during the questioning of Diamond and Silk came from Steve King, Republican of Iowa. In his questioning he alluded to similarity between Facebook and FedEx, where, like FedEx, Facebook promises to deliver a message from user to follower. If the company is preventing those messages from being received then they may be discriminating.

Facebook prefers to describe itself as a digital commune where the world connects over a bottle of Coke, a smile, and a blunt. As a user, I look at Facebook as an entertainment medium and a channel for my blog. But, over a Coke and a smile sans blunt I can also see why it could be called a common carrier.

Roger LeRoy Miller and Gaylord A. Jentz define a common carrier as a transportation service publicly licensed to provide transportation services to the general public. A common carrier must arrange carriage for all who apply, within certain limitations. The delivery of goods to a common carrier creates a bailment relationship between the shipper and the common carrier.

A bailment is a situation in which the personal property of one person (the bailor) is entrusted to another (the bailee), who is obligated to return the bailed property to the bailor or dispose of it as directed.

The common carrier’s standard of care over the received goods is based on strict liability. This means that the carrier is absolutely responsible for damage to the property in its possession with the exception of five common law exceptions:

  1. An act of God.
  2. An act of a public enemy.
  3. An order of a public authority.
  4. An act of the shipper.
  5. The inherent nature of the goods.

Calling Facebook a common carrier could raise the issue of lost profit. Diamond and Silk could claim lost profits from Facebook’s failure to deliver their messages to their followers. Diamond and Silk would have to provide evidence that the messages are being delivered for the purpose of making money and not just the expression of an opinion. Diamond and Silk would also have to provide evidence that a clear communication of profit motive was given to Facebook and that Facebook understood that communication.

Facebook’s net neutrality posse never had this scenario in mind when they pushed for more regulation of internet freedom via the imposition of net neutrality rules based on a telephone statute passed in 1934. Nor did they foresee the very openness on the internet they advocate for would lead to third-party abuses from violating user privacy to one nation-state upsetting the elections of another nation-state in cyberspace. Unfortunately, to keep Facebook in line with its commercial users’ expectations, common carrier treatment of Facebook may be an option.

 

Time for broadband providers and Facebook to call a truce

Americans talk too much. They give up too much information on themselves. Right now, I am writing this post in a Krispy Kreme joint where a worker on break is sitting on my right yacking personal business on her smart phone. At the same time a customer is walking out of the store providing details on her travel itinerary including where she is to be picked up from and the color of the vehicle that will scoop her up.

Walk into the Kroger here in the West End Atlanta and you will gather a lot of opinions on the seemingly high prices and the budgetary stresses consumers are under. The U.S. Departments of Labor and Commerce would have a field day gathering so much consumer information.

And as the news that Bill Cosby has been convicted of sexual assault sits atop the “what’s trending” columns of social media, it will be impossible to avoid all the amateur legal and sociological assessments of the former “America’s Dad.”  Fans of Hugh Beaumont and Robert Young may be blowing sighs of relief that these two now sit alone at the top of the perch.

The current political environment provides much fodder for political commentary particularly on social media. The current occupant, as David Horowitz has observed, has had a seven second honeymoon post inauguration and is providing the left plenty to talk about. I don’t consider rumor about his wife, his philandering with prostitutes, or his fast food meal plan true political news. It is noise and in American politics that noise has become the new baseline. It is the surprise that pops out of the baseline that interests me. That is true information. How valuable those noises are is another matter.

Whether noise or baseline, Facebook is collecting and analyzing this user output, ascertaining as much user behavior as possible in order to offer up the user on an advertiser’s menu. This business model, at least in the short term, is working for Facebook as the social media firm is seeing an uptick in users and revenues. According to The Wall Street Journal, the number of Facebook users jumped to 2.2 billion while quarterly revenue jumped to $11.97 billion. It’s quarterly per share profit came in at $1.69, up from $1.04 a year ago. As I write this, Facebook shares are up 9.06% after today’s trading.  All this, according to The Journal, over a tumultuous 17 months of allegations that the company allowed Russians to abuse its platform and that its lax privacy practices allowed third parties to use its subscribers’ private data against the company’s privacy practices.

Some users have managed to share their opinions about Facebook’s privacy practices even as they continue to share cat videos, vacation schedules, and religious and political views. Facebook has been instrumental, as a supporter of net neutrality rules, in convincing some of these users to push the Federal Communications Commission to subject internet service providers (ISPs) to 20th century telephone rules in order to enforce management transparency and privacy protections for broadband subscriber data. The irony. How things have changed since the FCC passed onerous net neutrality rules in 2015 not only to see them overturned late last year but now to have Facebook be subjected to rules onerous enough to damage its business model.

Facebook could, in my opinion, do one of three things. It could continue with business as usual, taking a chance that continued user and revenue growth will buffet it against the threat of onerous regulation. On a second path it could call a truce with ISPs and together convince Congress to pass a statute containing a consumer bill of rights that provides for protection of data while codifying net neutrality principles of transparency   in network management, no blocking, and no throttling. The third path, would be market-based, where Facebook introduces a tiered service where subscribers that want added privacy protections would pay Facebook for insuring no third-party use of information.  Facebook could also “purchase” subscriber data in exchange for not using subscriber data beyond activities related to providing a better customer experience. That promise not to use customer data beyond the need for managing the CX should be equal to the very onerous telephone rules that Facebook would like seen applied to ISPs.

I would recommend Facebook go the middle route. It would ensure, in my opinion, a seamless application of privacy throughout the internet, something that past FCC chairman advocated for and the net neutrality posse cheered on.

Facebook is learning the hard way that American democracy has its spillover effect. To call for a democratized internet means Facebook must do its part to bring it about.

Congress can’t regulate privacy on Facebook until it understands what drives Facebook

In the movie Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, the crew of the Enterprise had a dilemma: how to detect and destroy a cloaked Klingon ship.  After a few minutes of debate among its senior officers, Commander Uhura makes the observation, “Well. The thing has got to have a tailpipe?”

It was clear from the questions that a number of senators posed to Mark Zuckerberg during a hearing on Facebook’s privacy policies that Congress has not yet located Facebook’s tailpipe. Facebook’s tailpipe is comprised of its subscribers’ demand for and willingness to use the social media firm’s platform. What is it about Facebook that causes subscribers to ignore existing albeit confusing and vague privacy terms and fork over to Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and the rest of the Menlo Park posse our inner most personal thoughts, our rabid political stances, pictures of our kids, and videos of young women twerking?

I have concluded from my own personal observation of behavior on the medium that it has a lot to do with attention. As an entertainment medium, two billion subscribers take the opportunity emit ego energy by posting the aforementioned twerking videos and kiddie pictures in order to draw attention to themselves. “Look at me! Look at my kids! Look at the European vacation I’ll spend the next twelve months paying for!” Contribution of free content by subscriber A serves Facebook’s business model well by providing the company with free content. This free content is used to grab the attention of subscriber B and if the algorithms are working, provided in such a way as to hold subscriber B’s attention long enough to make her a target for advertisements.

Subscribers A and B may become aware eventually that they are fodder for Facebook’s advertisement machine. Selling advertisement is how Facebook generates almost all of its revenues. What is it about Facebook that causes the need for attention to outweigh the willingness to ignore Facebook’s privacy terms?

The professionals cite a number of reasons beyond my amateur observations for moths being drawn to Facebook’s fire. One post in Adweek sums up some of the professionals’ findings.  One reason that Facebook draws attention is fulfill a need to belong to a group. You have heard the adage, that humans are social animals and this need for community has people gravitating to group pages on Facebook.

Feel like expressing yourself and receive near instant approval of the “you” that you share? Facebook provides its users plenty of opportunity for that. I have often likened Facebook as the dorm that Zuckerberg never left with a user’s profile being a dorm room and the user’s “wall” a bulletin board on the dorm room door where people can drop by and leave a post-it message on the door or the occupant can leave some zany flyer announcing the next beer party.

For students, Facebook is probably used to relieve stress. According to Adweek, students are worried about grades, writing papers, and dealing with professors and going online looking for reassuring likes may be helpful.

Courtney Seiter shared in a blog post how use of Facebook has an impact on our “reward centers”. The more likes we get from our sharing on Facebook, the more our nucleus accumbens lights up.

Also, the “likes” we share on Facebook are currency. Forty-four percent of Facebook users share the love on the content their friends provide by liking it, according to Ms Seiter.

For information theory buffs, the Facebook “like” button carries more information beyond a “yes” or “no” difference. Ms Seiter cites research that found that mining a decision to “like” a post can reveal information about race, gender, political persuasion, or age of the user.

Another piece of information that data on Facebook user participation provides us is on the level of loneliness. Students felt more connected, less lonely when they engaged on Facebook.

This is just a small snippet of the literature out there on why people use a social network like Facebook. The takeaway that is important to me is given what appears to be an emotional or social connection between users of the platform and that this connection is the fuel to Facebook’s business where the connection is so strong that users are not paying attention to Facebook’s disregard for privacy, how best can Congress intervene in this space?

Uhura might say, “Facebook’s got a tailpipe. Are you willing to syphon the gas?”

Facebook’s challenges demonstrate it is time to level the regulatory playing field

This week’s joint senate hearing on Facebook’s privacy and transparency policies raised the question, does the public expect Facebook to act like a information utility? Reactions on Facebook to Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the U.S. Senate’s commerce and judiciary committees ranged from calling the 33-year old CEO a “shitbag” to praising him for confidently addressing questions from a 44 senators, a significant number of whom gave the impression that they had no clue as to what Facebook’s model is.

Consumers have been bitching and moaning about Facebook for years, expressing displeasure whenever the company changed the configuration of its pages, added or subtracted icons, or changed its algorithms in order to present what it thinks is more pertinent information to its users. Most users access Facebook’s content at no out-of-pocket cost to them and I personally know of no one who clicks on the ad links that pop up along the right hand side of our timelines. Yet, a significant number of users have expectations about how Facebook treats them, especially when they get put in “Facebook jail” for stating positions that may not be in keeping with the Facebook’s “righteousness police squad.”

If any senator yesterday came close to summarizing my personal sentiments on Facebook it was Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah. The 42-year senate veteran, in the five minutes allotted to each senator, was able to get across that Facebook was not a utility; that if people were not satisfied with the product that they could go elsewhere on the internet. I don’t view Facebook as a necessity although I admit I probably spend too much time posting there albeit not as much eleven years ago when I was invited to join the Facebook community.  It can see where it can be addicting, but in the end it is not a utility.

With a utility there is an understanding that in exchange for a service generated with the use of natural resources purchased by the utility, you the consumer will compensate the utility for the generation and distribution of said service. And if that utility is regulated, the regulator is following a mandate to balance the consumer’s interest in fair and reasonable rates and consumer protection with the utility’s interest in maximizing its shareholders’ wealth. The senators that seemed adamant about Facebook not being considerate of its user community seemed to come very close to wanting to treat Facebook like a utility, but were very far from considering Facebook’s investor needs.

If Congress wants to regulate Facebook like a utility, it will have to come to terms with the fact that Facebook has only one set of consumers; the firms that purchase its advertising services. The users that Congress is so concerned about are the fuel for Facebook’s advertising platform, specifically the information attached to each user. The user is extracted, organized, and packaged as a fuel cell for advertisers, creating the eyeballs to which company advertising is targeted.

Unlike coal, oil, or natural gas, the fuel for Facebook delivers itself voluntarily over broadband access infrastructure. Whether by wired or wireless access, these transmission pipes are a necessary part of Facebook’s “information utility” business. No fuel, no eyeballs for advertisers. As former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler argued, the consumer experience on the internet should be seamless. Consumers should be able to access websites like Facebook without broadband access providers throttling speeds or otherwise determining which websites would get access to the consumer at certain speeds and vice versa. Also, to create the seamless experience, broadband access providers had to exercise a great degree of transparency regarding their management practices while protecting the privacy of data used to fuel the information utilities, such as Facebook, that deliver services on the edge.

The problem with the Wheeler approach is that the framework balkanized regulation of the internet. Wheeler and other progressives favored archaic transparency and privacy of information rules based on the Communications Act of 1934 applied to broadband access providers. Edge providers, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, were to remain outside of this regulatory framework where they would be allowed to innovate and not have their information utility business model threatened by AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon. But Facebook’s current dilemma, Russian use of its platform and the trade in its user private data by unauthorized third-parties, demonstrates that if policy makers and elected officials want a seamless internet that projects transparency, all stakeholders will have to be placed on a level regulatory playing field.

Transparency can’t end at a broadband access provider’s point of presence and then enter an edge provider’s black hole.  If consumers want their data to stay private and advocate for policies that keep that data private along and throughout the internet, policymakers will have to ensure that privacy policies extend from the modem in the consumer’s home to the servers that store the data that social media collects on its users. If Congress cannot deliver seamless regulation, then yesterday and today’s hearings will equate to the mindless twerking we see on Instagram.

Is broadband access less about connectivity and more about individuality?

My sister recently experimented with Whole Foods‘ delivery service. As an Amazon Prime member, she could take advantage of no cost delivery to her home in the West End. This is a smart move on the part of Whole Foods to deliver to the West End, an area where the median household income is lower than the rest of Atlanta’s sectors. My observation has nothing to do with the wishful thinking that Whole Foods is practicing altruism, but the probability that Whole Foods is betting on the continued gentrification of the area; that it makes sense to plant a flag in the area so that when higher-income, cheap rent seeking young white couples move into the area, Whole Foods will be there to greet them. And while increasing the area’s investment value may not have been on the top of Whole Foods’ agenda, current property holders can at least tell their friends living in other areas of the city that they have not been left out of high-end food delivery options.

Going online and ordering your groceries is an example of what the long-term purpose of broadband connectivity is all about, especially for those with capital. If we accept the Facebook model of broadband and the internet, then we support the argument that broadband and the internet are about connecting people for the sake of creating a larger global community that leads to more democracy, peace, and understanding. This is one of the premises underlying net neutrality; the creation and maintenance of an open internet.  Two billion people connecting on Facebook may be deemed evidence that the globe is demanding this type of connectivity and community development on the world wide web, but such a view fails to account for the “politico-economic physics” of broadband and the internet. I believe the true value of broadband access lies in the empowerment that broadband access creates in the individual. The universe revolves around her and not the other way around.

The internet, at least for those with capital, is about bending the four-dimensional characteristics of space time and enhancing her sovereignty; creating a self-sufficient lifestyle for her. High value individuals don’t see the platforms upon which they move through space and time as flat or linear. The platform is geodesic; a curved line that provides the shortest distance between two points. In this case, between capital and the products and services that capital can acquire. The closer broadband technology brings her to sources of goods and services, the tighter her enclosure around her. She is not creating inclusiveness, or a bigger tent. In actuality, her tent becomes tighter, filled with other high value resources including friends and business associates. Creating a sovereignty blocks out the noise that the internet is becoming increasingly known for.

I would argue further that as her capital and value grows the more space-time bends around her. She creates a gravitational pull attracting even more resources, income, and opportunities. Those who argue for equality and democracy on the internet overlook this important value element. High value, capital holding consumers on the internet bend space-time toward them and high value content and service deliverers will point their commercial starships in the direction of high value.

How should policy react? It can either acknowledge the individual’s use of broadband to create a sovereign individual while transmitting her consumer energy into her tight commercial space or it can regulate her relationship with the points of commercial light within her internet space and risk forcing her to engage with value deficient “black holes” that threaten to reduce her incentive to engage in e-commerce or change her engagement in such a way that the value she receives and transmits is reduced. Policy should opt for protecting her choice for engaging with the value providers of her choice.