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.

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?”

A reining in of the political media should be expected under a nation-state model

Forbes reported today about a statement of work issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on 3 April 2018.  The statement of work seeks prospective vendors capable of providing the Department’s National Protection and Programs Acquisition Division with the capabilities to monitor traditional and social media. The specific objective of the services is:

“Services shall enable NPPD/OUS to monitor traditional news sources as well as social media, identify any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event. Services shall provide media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers.”

The statement of work does not get into any specifics as to why the Department would need such a program. It could be one of three reasons. One reason could be a push back by the Trump Administration on what it calls “fake news.” Mr Trump has shown a disdain for what he terms as unfair reporting typically from media perceived to be left leaning. He has no love for CNN, a lack of love expressed with so much disdain that he came out against the Time Warner-AT&T merger, one that is now being challenged by the Trump Justice Department.

The second reason for the proposed statement of work may be to create another tool for dealing with the media attacks a Russian troll service has been accused of. By monitoring media influencers, the United States could make a preemptive strike against journalists, bloggers, broadcasters, etc., that spread fake news and set the stage for divisiveness in American politics.

The third reason I see is that the political media has to be reined in by the nation-state. Part of the nation-state’s political ordering of and for society should include keeping the collective in order by controlling the messaging. While some spin is allowed in order for news organizations to establish some type of brand differentiation, i.e., MSNBC leans liberally forward while FOX is conservatively fair and questionably balanced, the general messages issued by the nation-state via the political media must be uniform enough to keep the masses in line or distracted. Too much spin to the left or to the right creates chaos in the collective, a disturbance in the force that the nation-state cannot afford.

I believe reason three is the purpose for the Department’s statement of work. Some Americans may see the proposal as an attack on a free press, but has the press ever really been free? Except for the occasional “breaking news” (which amounts to a press secretary given their favorite reporter or a reporter they can use the first shot at a story), most political news is initiated by a state actor with the media being tasked for commercial and political reasons for distributing it.

Probably over the weekend we may see some discussion on the meaning of a “free press.” Given that this story is not even trending on Twitter anymore has me wondering how seriously the media is taking the Department’s action.

Will Congress regulate.@facebook like a public utility? Given its potential benefit to partisan politics, probably not. #socialmedia

The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins, Jr. posted an article last Friday about Facebook’s apparent maturity as a business given its focus on regulatory issues such as the potential of Congress to regulate the social media company like a public utility. Mr Jenkins points out that Facebook’s fear of regulation, a fear shared by other “tech” companies, comes from the attention that large companies draw to themselves as the result of centralization of power. In this case, Facebook is perceived as one of the few central nodes of power in the digital space (along with fellow FANGs; Amazon, Netflix, and Google). Issue is, does Facebook have a monopoly status that justifies “public utility” regulation. My answer is no.

The classic argument for regulating a firm as a public utility is that the public has an interest in benefiting from the use of the public’s rights-of-way including the efficiencies that flow from making such uses exclusive to one firm in a given territory. Electric and water utilities quickly come to mind when we discuss public utilities and rights-of-way. Would you rather see your streets and driveways dug up to provide multiple pipes from multiple water or electricity suppliers or would you rather one supplier who is forced to comply with a pricing model that creates a competitive price and rate of return on the assets used by the utility to produce a good? For the most part, society has settled for the latter. We don’t like the idea of having an excess number of utility lines running overhead or into our residences for aesthetic or safety reasons.

Does Facebook fall into this public utility model? No, it does not. According to Facebook, the company makes almost all of its revenue from the sale of advertisement. Facebook uses its algorithms to identify potential viewers of content or purchasers of services for its advertisers and display ads these ads to content viewers and services purchasers in exchange for an advertising fee. Ad services, including the delivery of advertisements to consumers, by Facebook’s admission is a competitive business. Unlike electricity transmission and distribution, ad delivery is not a monopolized industry. As Mr Jenkins points out in his piece, ads are ads, digital or otherwise, and Facebook is no where near dominating a $540 billion advertising industry.

Even if Facebook had a monopoly on the delivery of advertisements or advertisement services, would a regulator risk creating a state action by regulating Facebook’s advertising services? Bearing in mind that the latest buzz around Facebook ads was spawned by the delivery of advertisement messaging produced by Russian nationals allegedly designed to disrupt and defraud the American electorate, would Congress require that Facebook vet the firm generating advertisement content? Would Congress risk the overturn of legislation requiring Facebook vet advertisers if found violating the First Amendment?

I think that even advertisers confident that their messaging does not violate the public interest would think twice about placing advertisements on Facebook’s platform. More important, from the perspective of the regulator, an administrative agency would not to create the risk of creating First Amendment violations and having to defend those violations in court. As the U.S. Supreme Court held in Edenfield v. Fane:

“The commercial market place, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish. Some of the ideas and information are vital, some of slight worth. But the general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented. Thus, even a communication that does no more than propose a commercial transaction is entitled to the coverage of the First Amendment.” 113 S.Ct. 1792, 1798 (1993)

Finally, political parties may not want to impede the returns to electioneering that social media has been providing for the past decade. According to the Brookings Institution, since the 2008 national elections, political parties have been determining how best to convert the amplification and engagement created by social media during a campaign season into two-year and four-year governance.  Political parties have been encouraged to use social media in a number of ways including the following:

  • Acknowledging that the electorate is using social media as a “trust filter” of political news and information;
  • Realizing that politicians have decreasing control over debate topics and that control is shifting to social networks;
  • Making continued use of social media platforms to directly engage constituents;
  • Using social media platforms as “virtual surveys” of constituent sentiment and gauging feedback from the surveys; and
  • Leveraging ordinary citizens’ use of social media to persuade the electorate.

It is 2018 and Congress should view social media that has greater benefits as an electioneering tool if it is not regulated. From a regulatory perspective, there is no economic or legal justification for regulating social media as a public utility.

How we long for the switchboard operator and virtual spilled tea

During the tumultuous 1960s, someone reminded DARPA that the network of connected computers it created could not be turned on its own people. The guys and gals of the agency had an “a-ha” moment in the late 1980s and decided to pass it off to private sector agents who could then, via an open source technology and a consumerist market narrative, invite the nerds from Bellvue and Arkham to create an insidious surveillance mechanism that you now call the internet.

Getting Americans, who once had a distrust of the CIA and FBI for violating their privacy rights, to spill almost all their personal beings into a computer via digital bulletin boards at first was no simple feat. The first drawing board blew up during the 2000-2001 recession. Amazon was one of the very few consumer-centric companies to survive the downturn. The internet was apparently dead ….until 11 September 2001.

The internet found its two-fold purpose. In private hands under the guise of “democratic openness”, “free speech”, “innovation”, and “market capitalism”, well-off college students would drop out of their undergrad and graduate programs and do the surveillance bidding of government by creating search portals and social media alluring enough to get unsuspecting consumers to look up information they once obtained from newspapers, the barber shop, grocery stores, and Friday night tea parties in exchange for the handing over of their personal (and typically mundane, boring) information.

The second portion of its purpose would be turned outward. Making up for the lack of human intel on the ground in the Middle East, the internet could be used to leverage messaging campaigns to spur revolt, as countries such as Egypt and Libya can attest to.

One has to wonder if the chickens have come full circle to roost as the vanguard of domestic surveillance, i.e. social media, now see its faculties leveraged by Russia as The Great Bear seeks pay back for the dent in its Middle East influence, due in part to the democracy narrative spread by the FANGs.

Yes. Life was simpler when Ruth Buzzy ran the switch board and encyclopedias, radio, television, and tea time gave you all the information you needed .

.@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.