Senate warns tech companies on foreign interference: “Time is running out”August 2, 2018
“Time is running out.”
That was the message from Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) Wednesday at a meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The subject of the hearing, which came 96 days before the midterm elections: Foreign Influence Operations and their use of Social Media Platforms.
And the day’s witnesses, which included directors and researchers from organizations including the German Marshall Fund, the Oxford Internet Institute, and New Knowledge, were in agreement: America needs a legislative solution to counter the influence campaigns now underway on social platforms.
My colleague Makena Kelly, who watched Wednesday’s hearing, captured the scope of the problem (emphasis mine):
Kelly also produced a surprising statistic: far-right and far-left bot accounts produce 25 to 30 times more posts and messages per daythan standard, authentic user accounts. Committee members and panelists said that the flood of content aided in increasing the divide among the American populace with memes and posts surrounding highly emotional issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. “These types of asymmetric attacks — which include foreign operatives appearing to be Americans engaging in online public discourse – almost by design slip between the seams of our free speech guarantees and our legal authorities and responsibilities,” Warner said.
This flood of fake content is what researcher Renee DiResta, who testified Wednesday, calls “computational propaganda.” She told the committee that “addressing this asymmetric threat requires a 21st century Information Operations Doctrine, the implementation of a global real-time detection and deterrence strategy, and the cooperation of private industry, press, law enforcement, and the intelligence community.” She painted a dark picture:
The evolution of social media propaganda and influence techniques will bring serious threats. We should anticipate an increase in the misuse of less popular and less resourced social platforms, and an increase in the use of peer-to-peer messaging services. We believe that future campaigns will be compounded by the employment of witting or unwitting U.S. Persons through whom these state actors will filter their propaganda, in order to circumvent detection by social platforms and law enforcement. We should anticipate the incorporation of new technologies, such as videos and audio produced by artificial intelligence, to supplement these operations, making it increasingly difficult for citizens to trust their own eyes.
The news came on the same day that the man who has led Facebook’s security efforts, and played a key role in disclosing the current influence campaigns underway to the press yesterday, announced he would leave the company. Alex Stamos’ departure as chief security officer had been expected since earlier this year, and he’ll stay on through August 17th. But while I suspect Facebook believes Stamos has gotten perhaps more than his share of credit for the company’s cyber-security efforts, the loss still stings: Stamos had a lot of credibility with the press, who sees him a straight shooter, and he spoke about his work with an urgency and moral seriousness that were unusual for a corporate executive.
Facebook said that the dedicated security team that Stamos led would be dissolved, under the idea that it would be better to embed security engineers into every part of the organization than maintain a standalone force. A spokesman told me:
We expect to be judged on what we do to protect people’s security, not whether we have someone with a certain title. We are not naming a new CSO, since earlier this year we embedded our security engineers, analysts, investigators, and other specialists in our product and engineering teams to better address the emerging security threats we face. Alex helped us manage this transition. We will continue to evaluate what kind of structure works best as we continue to invest heavily in security to protect people on our services.
It may well be that Facebook doesn’t need a high-profile leader of its security team to protect the platform. But on a day in which top experts in the field warned us about the vast and increasing scope of the problem, it felt unsettling.
Congress will get a chance to ask about it directly. Members of the intelligence committee will meet with senior executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google on September 5th.
Someday it will not be news when a sitting US senator references a popular meme in discussing the day’s events. Today is not that day:
“Some feel that we as a society are sitting in a burning room, calmly drinking a cup of coffee, telling ourselves, ‘This is fine,’” Burr said about Russia’s interfering efforts. “That’s not fine.”
Elizabeth Williamson has an infuriating story about how Alex Jones targeted the parents of a victim of a 6-year-old victim of the Sandy Hook shooting, broadcasting directions to their home, inciting a viewer to stalk them, and forcing them to move seven times, so that they can no longer visit their son’s grave. Jones is now suing them for $100,000 in court costs.
And speaking of Jones, add Spotify to the list of media services that are tentatively disciplining him in ways that will do him zero lasting harm, here’s Kurt Wagner:
While Spotify is taking action, Jones and his podcast aren’t gone for good. A Spotify spokesperson declined to share what episodes were removed or what specific content triggered the company’s action, but the podcast is still available through the service.
Ryan Gallagher reports that Google is very close to re-launching in China. Some employees are mad, Greg Sandoval reported separately. Expect the controversy over this to grow:
Teams of programmers and engineers at Google have created a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named “Maotai” and “Longfei.” The app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government; the finalized version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials.
The hot new social network in politics is the SMS message, Kevin Roose reports:
“There’s no question that texting is the breakout tech of 2018,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist and founder of Learn Test Optimize, a newsletter about political marketing. “There’s so much competition in the inbox, we’re looking for other channels. For now, that’s text messaging.”
Mr. Wilson recently gathered a group of political strategists in a Washington office to talk, over dumplings and craft beers, about the sunny prospects for text messaging. The group agreed that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were becoming crowded, and that text messages, which are read at higher rates than emails and are less invasive than phone calls, were a promising alternative.
The Post has a good explainer on how a demented fascist fantasy about the ultimate triumph of Donald Trump over our democratic institutions leapt from the darkest corners of 4chan onto T-shirts at a Trump rally this week.
Snopes repeatedly debunked a fake news empire, causing them to lose the bulk of their Facebook distribution and basically drive them out of business. The empire is now very mad at Snopes.
The best app for making memes is the human heart! At least, that’s what I say. Taylor Lorenz says existing meme-making tools leave much to be desired:
In the meantime, some memers have found the current suite of mobile applications so lacking that they choose to create their memes on desktop computers instead. “On your phone, you’re never going to be able to do as much as you could as on a computer,” says Noam, who memes under the account @listenintospitandgettingparamoredon.
I wrote about Facebook and Instagram’s new Time Well Spent-inspired usage dashboards, which also let you set in-app reminders to stop idly thumbing through your feed after an interval you specify. Note also that this is the first time Facebook and Instagram ever introduced a product together — a sign of Facebook’s increasing influence over Instagram.
It’s like Alexa for your face, Ashley Carman reports:
Snapchat’s newest AR Lenses allow users to issue voice commands that’ll make them come to life. Some lenses will ask users to say words like, “hi,” “love,” or “wow,” which will cause the lenses to animate.
Charlie Warzel nails what’s so disturbing about the ongoing influence campaign designed to undermine the legitimacy of the left:
The disturbing reality, here, is how the trolls/meddlers win no matter the outcome. if they operate in secrecy, they meddle and succeed. If they are discovered, they cast doubt on the greater political and cultural conversation across these platforms. If they get shut down, they take down real advocacy orgs with them. Dark times.
Farhad Manjoo says the so-called techlash has been toothless. Especially when it comes to Facebook:
In a strange way, the social network’s troubles only underscored its dominance. Even after its stock crash, Facebook remains the fifth most valuable corporation in the American markets, ahead of Berkshire Hathaway, and there are almost no serious calls for its chief executive to resign, as you might expect for any other company experiencing such a loss. That’s because the company reported little to cause experts to alter their long-term outlook. Pretty much everyone who studies Facebook believes that it will hold its grip on the culture and the advertising industry for the foreseeable future.
“This is one of the most profitable business models I’ve ever seen, and that really hasn’t changed,” said Mark Mahaney, an analyst at the firm RBC Capital. He added that Facebook’s stock now “may be the single most attractively priced asset across technology.”
One of my favorite former colleagues, Emily Dreyfuss, regrets deleting her old tweets:
I realized I was upset because my old tweets, like those old and probably terrible poems, symbolized a phase in my life, which deleting brought to an abrupt and final end. Those tweets were my late 20s, my era of striving, before I became a mother and stopped staying up late for Weird Twitter, and before I learned that the internet is not a safe haven for silly jokes but can be a deadly serious extension of the real world. Deleting those tweets was the nail in the coffin of my innocent relationship with the internet.
And finally …
This made me laugh:
“This new verification system offers users a simple, efficient way to determine which accounts belong to total pieces of shit whom you should have no qualms about tormenting to your heart’s desire,” said spokesperson Elizabeth James, adding that the small red symbol signifies that Twitter has officially confirmed the identity of a loathsome person who deserves the worst abuse imaginable and who will deliberately have their Mute, Block, and Report options disabled.
Thank you for not muting, blocking, or reporting The Interface.
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