.@facebook’s role as a digital archive threatened by #Russia and itself…

Robert Mueller’s indictment of thirteen Russian nationals for defrauding the United States by using fraudulent means to leverage social media in order to spread during the 2016 campaign season doesn’t intentionally pick on Facebook as a villain. Members of Congress are asking how the Russian-based Internet Research Agency using 100 or so employees, could have circumvented 22,000 Facebook employees and introduce their “digital political hack” into American cyberspace.

Members of Congress have been acting since last fall when Facebook provided documentation that its platform via paid advertising had been used to send targeted messaging via certain Facebook pages to divide the electorate. For example, H.R. 4077 is a bill designed to increase the amount of transparency in electioneering communication.  Introduced in October 2017, the bill aims for accountability and disclosure of who is behind the financing of paid social media users or, as they are affectionately called, “trolls.”

A companion bill, S. 1989, was introduced at the same time in the U.S. Senate.

S. 625, introduced in the U.S. Senate in March 2017 provides the Unites States Attorney General with investigative tools to flesh out foreign agents using social media to disrupt U.S. elections.  The bill requires prosecution of social media users failing to make this disclosure.

Congress hasn’t gone directly (yet) at Facebook or other social media properties. For the political left, especially members of the net neutrality posse, passing any legislation that hints at slowing down the growth of the very same edge providers that they have been protecting would send a message that they are as dysfunctional as some of the electorate already thinks. Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, has been a proponent of net neutrality rules. They have, to various degrees, built their business models on advertising driven by the free content and personal information that they “hack” from consumers. They make their advertising services available globally and unfortunately for them, their social media levers were pulled expertly by Russian nationals.

Facebook, probably inadvertently, has become a digital archive of America’s thoughts and opinions. Instead of having to rummage through personal libraries in order to learn about what Americans are thinking, historians now have access to digital living history, ironically made open by the openness of the internet. Crackdowns on social media would do more damage to openness than poorly forecasted bad gateway behavior of internet access providers. Net neutrality proponents wouldn’t have to worry about degraded access to content. They would have the bigger problem of congressional regulation of content.

Mr Mueller’s indictment has surmised that the digital hacking of the United States’ electoral system is continuing. Russian nationals may have done some adjusting since 2016 to better avoid detection, problem via some more openness themselves by complying with foreign agent registration laws. As for Facebook, changes in its business model may be on the way.

When the #internet was just for #academics….#broadband

Democrats are wary of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Hillary Clinton’s loss in the November 2016 elections allegedly compounded by a misinformation game played by the Russians via social media has the Democrats in Congress asking themselves if a little more transparency i.e. regulation of social media practices is necessary in order to prevent any more shenanigans from Russia.

In the net neutrality debates, Democrats and grass roots progressives have taken the position that due to their gatekeeper position, internet access providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are in a position to negatively impact the innovative internet portal and social media services that Facebook and Google provide. Democrats argue that we don’t want to discourage the creation of the next Facebook by allowing Comcast to throttle speeds from potential upstarts or block a consumer’s access to the new Twitter. Now these members of Congress appear a bit wary of the cat that they have been snuggling up to; being scraped by the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) is not fun.

What I find ironic is that these congressmen were no where to be found as the FANGs were busy building a business model on acquiring consumer data from the droppings that consumers leave all over the internet. This data collection didn’t impact the politicians, who thrive on political intelligence so having a master information collector or two on their donor page didn’t hurt. It wasn’t until the FANGs messed with the source of a politician’s livelihood i.e. the vote, that the FANGs fell under deeper scrutiny.

It is up to the individual to choose whether to use FANG services. I have little to no use for Facebook myself. Amazon, Google, and Netflix deliver pretty much what they promise: logistics and content. What’s amusing is that highly educated, professionals in the Congress have yet to figure out the business model that social media relies on for its survival.

I think it is best that the internet go back to what it was meant to be: a way to connect information seekers with data. The irony is that internet service providers have been providing their networks as a part of the larger data transmission scheme for over two decades but seem to be catching the most heat from congressmen that support the companies providing the most abuse.

Social media: Scourge of and escapism for Black America

Last week after ten years I gave Facebook the heave-ho. A friend from college sent me the invite to join back in 2007. I recall saying to him, “Kevin. Aren’t we too old for this bulletin board shit?” He responded that it appeared to be a great platform for keeping up with his kids. I said to myself that using it to keep in touch with my nieces seemed like a good idea. So I joined.

During that ten year period I connected online with interesting new people, high school and law school classmates. I have been fortunate to reconnect with family members and meet cousins on both sides of the family. In some ways it strengthened the ties within the lineages and helped drive home the importance of the tribe.

On the flip side, Facebook exposed a neurosis festering in Americans, and in particular Black Americans. Americans are divisive and lack critical thinking skills. By fueling the neurosis, Facebook, and I believe unintentionally, has contributed to the hyper-partisanship that the United States is experiencing. Facebook has made it very easy to allow its users to create near impenetrable silos thus discouraging worthwhile, thought expanding conversation and replacing it with ad hominem and vitriolic language, behavior that a civilized democracy is allegedly not supposed to reflect.

In short, Facebook has exposed an inconvenient truth; that civility is not the rule, but increasingly the exception to social interaction. It is not surprising that the Russian government was able to create fake pages and spread static loud enough to discombobulate the average voter. Facebook provides enough digital real estate for every Farmer Brown to build a silo of ignorance.

I used the word static as opposed to information. There is a reason. Facebook has built a business model on the ability of grab the attention of subscribers by encouraging them to exchange mostly valueless noise. The vast majority of static on Facebook cannot answer the question of “so what?” I believe that when you bombard the human brain consistently with meaningless noise, you erode a person’s critical thinking skills. And that is a scenario that Black Americans cannot afford.

Black American’s disproportionate use of social media is disconcerting because it feeds the narrative that Black Americans are not strategic thinkers and make political decisions based on their emotions. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are emotional cesspools, perfect places for those brave enough to opine on politics from an emotional, lack of depth perception. Making assertions based on static obtained from a cable news program is intellectually obscene given the political agendas of the cable programs on-air personalities.

Take for example the debate on net neutrality. The majority of comments on Facebook leading up to the 15 December 2017 vote were made by a vast majority of Facebook subscribers who had not read the net neutrality rules slated for repeal, had not read the section of the Communications Act upon which the rules were based, and were consistently conflating net neutrality principles with net neutrality rules. The two are different.

But when ignorance in social media post can go viral via a hashtag, the tide becomes unstoppable.

One can argue that I am being a bit uptight and prudish. Surely I should not expect every political media consumer to go out and read every bloody statute, regulatory code, etc., before making a decision. My answer is, yes, I do. Today’s political economy environment is where you extract the resources necessary for your physical, emotional, and mental survival. You are required to know it, just like your ancestors were required to understand the currents on the seas that they fished, and the terrain upon which the hunted and grew food.

Given African America’s lack of access to capital and the political abusive relationship it has with political parties, observing. extracting, analyzing, and distributing value-driven information upon which important decisions can be made is more important than digesting static filled content that passes through you as quickly as white rice, stripped of nutrients that keep you strong.

ISPs, not edge providers, reflect the reality of communications and connectivity

Within the Communications Act of 1934, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission for the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communications. Congress intended the Commission to make available a rapid,efficient, nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications network and provide that network at reasonable rates for the nation-state’s consumers. Congress wanted a nation-state, barely a hundred years into its industrial revolution and in the middle of its worst recession, to have the ability to connect all of its citizens.

The episodes of connection via a phone call were not expected to take up the 135 minutes a day that the average person spent on social media in 2017. Earlier today in an op-ed on Axios.com, Evan Spiegel wrote about the difference between social media and his communications app, Snapchat. In his words:

“The personalized newsfeed revolutionized the way people share and consume content. But let’s be honest: this came at a huge cost to facts, our minds and the entire media industry.

This is a challenging problem to solve because the obvious benefits that have driven the growth of social media – more friends! more likes! more free content! – are also the things that will undermine it in the long run.

  • New alternatives for self-expression, including services like text messaging, WhatsApp, and Snapchat are part of a shift towards using communication applications to express yourself rather than posting on social media, because communication apps are oriented around talking with your close friends, free from judgment.
  • Social media fueled “fake news” because content designed to be shared by friends is not necessarily content designed to deliver accurate information. After all, how many times have you shared something you’ve never bothered to read?”

Social media is a bulletin board that you placed on the front of your dorm room, open to a myriad of Post-It notes left by dorm mates and easily read by everyone else, is my summation of Mr Spiegel’s distinction between his service and Facebook. Snapchat; another form of private communication similar to texting or voice calls versus the barroom brawl that is social media.

As concerned as progressive congressional Democrats appear to be about Russia’s ability to use the permeability of Facebook, Twitter, and Google to allegedly upend an election, they do not appear to be in any rush to apply onerous privacy rules to social media, a business model designed for fake news.

Social media was a “god send” for the State. Social media aggregates people into groups that can be operationalized and manipulated. A lot less expensive than tapping phone lines in order to get the pulse of society. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are media outlets and as such are in a position to create messaging and target it toward certain groups. Facebook doesn’t ask “What’s on your mind” for no reason.

Some consumers want balance. They are using the ear buds to create space in the real world and don’t mind connecting where there is value in social media exchange, but they want the option of withdrawing to a position where their smartphone, at the end of the day, is merely for texting and sending/receiving voice calls.

Congress and the Commission should keeps their focus on the infrastructure aspect of communications and leave the bulletin board behavior to the kids.

Google and Facebook: When humans are the fuel for social media farms

For several weeks, social media firms Facebook, Google, and Twitter have faced scrutiny from media and Congress over their alleged facilitation of Russian messaging during the 2016 presidential elections. Nitasha Tiku shared last month in an article for WIRED how social media companies have been catching heat from both sides of the aisle for allowing Russia-based or backed entities to buy ads on their platforms and direct subscribers to messages designed to misinform, mislead, or otherwise influence readers.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter are leaders in the “attention economy“, where social media companies buy (more like hack), package, and sell the attention they glean from their subscribers. Keeping your attention is their business, keeping it in sufficient quantities to attract advertisers who wish to market product to you. Attention, not information, is in short supply. That is the true gold nugget.

Congress, while not having yet passed any significant legislation, is still scrutinizing how social media companies manipulate consumer behavior. For example, today the U.S. House energy and commerce committee has a hearing on how companies use algorithms when making decisions on consumer behavior. This should provide some insight on where Congress wants to go next on the issue.

How does regulating Facebook optimize returns on resources?

Farhad Manjoo writing for The New York Times argued in a recent article for increased regulation of “The Frightful Five”; Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. For Mr Manjoo, their increasing intrusion into personal privacy and growth in the retail sector market should raise concerns on the part of regulators.

My takeaway from Mr Manjoo’s article is that government is moving further and further away from the opportunity of being simply a fair allocator of capital to oppressively regulating its distribution to the point where growth in the value of capital is squashed.

In addition, the Frightful Five have no monopoly on natural resources. They do not control land or access to air or minerals. As demand grows for internet services so too does demand grow for electricity use of the part of internet companies. In an article for Forbes.com, Christopher Helman estimates that internet firms account for 1.8% of electricity consumed in the United States. On an annual basis, internet companies are spending $7 billion a year to consume 70 billion kilowatt hours per year of electricity.

And given their two percent contribution to total greenhouse gas emissions, companies like Google have been purchasing energy from renewable energy sources with a 2017 goal of going 100% renewable, according to a piece by Adam Vaughan for The Guardian.com. As a consumer, Google and other internet companies aren’t in the energy extracting and generation business, making them susceptible, like any other consumer, to the whims of energy companies that actually have a license to extract, generate, and distribute energy.

In terms of human resources they higher relatively few people compared to other large companies in different sectors. The data processing, hosting, and related services sub-sector, within which companies like the Frightful Five belong, employed 364,000 people in September 2017, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This total represents approximately .23% of the approximately 156 million people employed in the United States.

What the Frightful Five are first and foremost are tax revenue generators. While not responsible for extracting and managing the United States’ natural resources, by employing 364,000 wage earners and providing platforms for the sale of goods and services including advertisement, internet companies are providing a tax revenue stream for the United States government that didn’t exist twenty years ago.

How much in taxes would the United States be willing to forego by regulating the profit centers of internet companies? For example, in 2016, Alphabet, the parent of Google, had tax expenses of $4.7 billion at a tax rate of 19%, while Microsoft posted tax expenses of $3.3 billion at a tax rate of 16.5%. Apple paid $15.8 billion in taxes at a tax rate of 25.8%.

As Congress considers a corporate tax overhaul and the impact reform may have on its coffers and the deficit, does Washington want to risk reducing the tax revenues that keep its bond holders calm?

Rather, a better scenario for bond holders would be for government not to interfere in the Frightful Five’s ability to generate taxable income. Since internet companies do not manage directly the United States’ natural resources via extraction or distribution, there should be less reason for regulating these entities.