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Update August 2018


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August 18, 2018 - August 24, 2018

Facebook opens up on vote meddling, but is the shift real?

(AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

Barbara Ortutay

New York (AP) - For a company bent on making the world more open, Facebook has long been secretive about the details of how it runs its social network - particularly how things go wrong and what it does about them.

Yet last week, Facebook rushed forward to alert Congress and the public that it had recently detected a small but “sophisticated” case of possible Russian election manipulation. Has the social network finally acknowledged the need to keep the world informed about the big problems it’s grappling with, rather than doing so only when dragged kicking and screaming to the podium?

While the unprompted revelation does signal a new, albeit tightly controlled openness for the company, there is still plenty that Facebook isn’t saying. Many experts remain unconvinced that this is a true culture change and not mere window dressing.

“This is all calculated very carefully,” said Timothy Carone, a business professor at the University of Notre Dame. He and other analysts noted that Facebook announced its discovery of 32 accounts and pages intended to stir up U.S. political discord just a week after the company’s stock dropped almost 20 percent - its worst plunge since going public.

But Facebook’s proactive disclosure, including a conference call for reporters with chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, struck a markedly different tone from the company’s ham-handed approach to a string of scandals and setbacks over the past two years. That has included:

- CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous dismissal of the idea that fake news on Facebook could have influenced the 2016 election as “a pretty crazy idea”;

- The company’s foot-dragging as evidence mounted of a 2016 Russian election-interference effort conducted on Facebook and other social-media sites;

- Zuckerberg, again, declining for nearly a week to publicly address the privacy furor over a Trump campaign consultant, Cambridge Analytica, that scavenged data from tens of millions of Facebook users for its own election-influence efforts.

A chastened Facebook has since taken steps toward transparency, many of them easy to overlook. In April, it published for the first time the detailed guidelines its moderators use to police unacceptable material. It has provided additional, if partial, explanations of how it collects user data and what it does with it. And it has forced disclosure of the funding and audience targeting of political advertisements, which it now also archives for public scrutiny.

All of that is in keeping with the image of Facebook that Zuckerberg relentlessly promotes. In his telling, the giant, data-and-ad-driven social network is a force for good in the world that must now reluctantly do battle with “bad actors,” such as Russian agents, who threaten Facebook’s noble mission of “connecting the world.”

Solving such problems, in Facebook’s view, is mostly a matter of more investment, more hard work, more hires, and better technology - particularly artificial intelligence.

And Facebook’s newfound passion for openness only goes so far. Of the 32 apparently fake accounts and pages it found, it only released eight to researchers. In a conference call this week, executives declined to characterize the accounts, even in terms of whether they leaned right or left. Facebook left it to researchers at the nonprofit Atlantic Council, a think tank that is helping the company on election interference, to draw those conclusions.

Facebook said its timing was motivated by an upcoming protest event in Washington that was promoted by a suspicious page connected to a Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency. Several people connected to the IRA have been indicted by the U.S. special counsel for attempting to interfere in the 2016 election.

Despite Zuckerberg’s repeated mantra - delivered to relentless effect in some 10 hours of testimony before Congress in April - that the company now really gets it, some who know the company best have their doubts.

David Kirkpatrick, the author of a Facebook history, argues that neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg have ever shown themselves to be “deeply alarmed in public.” As a result, he suggests, Facebook seems more concerned with managing its image than with solving the actual problem at hand.

Such issues run deep for the company. Some of its biggest critics, including former employees such as Sandy Parakilas and early Facebook investor Roger McNamee, say the company needs to revamp its business model from the ground up to see any meaningful change.

These critics would like to see Facebook rely less on tracking its users in order to sell targeted advertising, and to cut back on addicting features such as endless notifications that keep drawing people back in. Parakilas, for example, has advocated for a subscription-based model, letting users pay to user Facebook instead of having their data harvested.

Merely hiring more moderators, or hanging hopes on the evolution of artificial intelligence, isn’t going to cut it, in their view. There have also been widespread calls for Facebook to acknowledge that it is, in a sense, a media company, responsible for what happens on its platforms - a characterization the social network has long fought.

For all that, Facebook is well ahead of Silicon Valley rivals such as Google and Twitter when it comes to openness - even if only because it’s attracted the lion’s share of criticism, said Paul Levinson, a media studies professor at Fordham University.

But Facebook “can’t win at this game,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia professor of media studies whose 2018 book “Antisocial Media” critiques Facebook’s effect on democracy and society. Because it’s so huge - 2.2 billion global users and counting - and so difficult to police, he said, “it will always be vulnerable to hijacking and will never completely clean up its content.”

Worse, he says, there is no real solution. “It is hopeless,” he said. “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”


August 11, 2018 - August 17, 2018

It’s Rubens vs. Facebook in fight over artistic nudity

In this photo taken on Thursday, July 26, 2018, a visitor looks at the restored Peter Paul Rubens self-portrait from 1628 in the Rubenshouse in Antwerp, Belgium. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

Raf Casert

Brussels (AP) - For four centuries, the opulent, exuberant nudes of Peter Paul Rubens have been known to shock and delight in sometimes equal measure. And now somehow, even in 2018, his Baroque paintings are still jolting the internet.

Belgian museums are uniting in protest against Facebook since they cannot promote Flemish Masters including Rubens at will for falling foul of the social media site’s adult content rules and automatic censorship.

“The bare breasts and buttocks painted by our artist are considered by you to be inappropriate. We have noticed that Facebook consistently rejects works of art by our beloved Peter Paul Rubens,” over a dozen top Belgian art officials wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The Visit Flanders tourist board even produced a mock news video where security officials prevent visitors from seeing nudity in the Rubens House museum, one even spreading his arms in front of the Adam & Eve painting, where the biblical figures are covered only by the proverbial fig leaf. Instead they divert them to other paintings where everyone is properly dressed.

Point made, they hope.

“Twenty percent of the (Facebook) posts that we dedicated to the Flemish Masters couldn’t be shown to our audience, our cultural audience worldwide,” said spokeswoman Tama d’Haen of Visit Flanders.

“It’s really embarrassing for Visit Flanders that we cannot show one of our main assets to the world. That’s why we came up with the idea of a video,” said d’Haen.

Facebook says it understands the issues at hand. Even if it allows for paintings like those from Rubens to be posted, it has more restrictive rules when it comes to advertising which “must not contain adult content. This includes nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.”

The rules go on to say that it includes “nudity or implied nudity, even if artistic or educational in nature.”

And that is where Rubens and other masters get caught in the act.

D’Haen said that they want Facebook to “make a difference between nudity in general, pornographic nudity, which is of course not allowed on their platform, and the nudity which is part of many paintings hanging in Flanders and worldwide.” D’Haen said they never get complaints from museum goers that they feel shocked when coming face-to-face with the nudity.

She said both sides have already agreed to a meeting to discuss it more in detail. Facebook wrote in a statement to the Associated Press on that “as part of a longer running and continuous review process, we want to make sure that museums and other institutions are able to share some of their most iconic paintings.”

“We are thus currently reviewing our approach to nudity in paintings in ads on Facebook,” the statement said.

The censorship wouldn’t be unfamiliar to Rubens. After all, the Roman Catholic church in his time already asked him to paint loincloths over body parts of his Venus figures, although he preferred the natural concourse of muscle, skin, and fat.

It was always thus, said Paolo Grossi, Director and Area Coordinator of the Italian Cultural Institute in Brussels.

“Everyone knows the story of Il Braghettone, the famous Daniele da Volterra who was asked to paint loincloths over Michelangelo’s nudes in the Last Judgment,” in the papal Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Grossi said.

If that was prompted by moral concerns, Grossi wondered if Facebook was now driven “by the need to deliver a politically correct message ... and comply with Facebook’s ad and business model to avoid any ripples.”


August 4, 2018 - August 10, 2018

Facebook suspends Boston analytics firm over data usage

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

New York (AP) - Facebook said last week that it has suspended Boston-based analytics firm Crimson Hexagon while it investigates how it collects and shares Facebook and Instagram’s user data.

Facebook has been facing increased scrutiny over how third-party firms use its data since news broke in March that data firm Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed user data.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that Facebook had suspended Crimson Hexagon. The newspaper says among the firm’s clients is a Russian nonprofit with ties to the Kremlin.

“We don’t allow developers to build surveillance tools using information from Facebook or Instagram,” said Ime Archibong, Facebook’s vice president of product partnerships. “We take these allegations seriously, and we have suspended these apps while we investigate.”

Facebook said Friday that Crimson Hexagon is cooperating and that so far its investigation hasn’t found evidence that the firm obtained Facebook or Instagram information inappropriately.

Crimson Hexagon says on its website it has access to over one trillion consumer conversations from social media, forums, blogs and reviews.

In a blog posting, Crimson Hexagon Chief Technology Officer Chris Bingham said the company “abides completely” by the rules social media sites including Twitter and Facebook put in place to limit the ways third-party companies can use their data.

He said the firm only collects publicly available social media data. He contrasted that with Cambridge Analytica’s use of private user data.

Users of Crimson Hexagon’s platform, which include government customers, analyze the data to understand large-scale consumer trends and preferences, Bingham wrote.

“Government entities that leverage the Crimson Hexagon platform do so for the same reasons as many of our other non-government customers: a broad-based and aggregate understanding of the public’s perception, preferences and sentiment about matters of concern to them,” he wrote.


July 28, 2018 - August 3, 2018

Microsoft raises alarms about face recognition

Redmond, Wash. (AP) - Microsoft is calling on Congress to regulate the use of facial recognition technology to protect people’s privacy and freedom of expression.

It’s the first big tech company to raise serious alarms about an increasingly sought-after technology for recognizing a person’s face from a photo or through a camera.

Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a blog post Friday that the government should form a bipartisan expert commission.

Smith says Microsoft, which supplies face recognition to some businesses, has already rejected some customers’ requests to deploy the technology in situations involving “human rights risks.”

A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to provide more details about what opportunities the company has passed over because of ethical concerns.

Smith defended the company’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying it doesn’t involve face recognition.
 


DAILY UPDATE

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Facebook opens up on vote meddling, but is the shift real?


It’s Rubens vs. Facebook in fight over artistic nudity


Facebook suspends Boston analytics firm over data usage


Microsoft raises alarms about face recognition


 



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