Silencing Critics a la Trump: Insult Them!

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/07/us/politics/trump-tillerson.html

Ray Myers

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Did Facebook Learn Anything?

It’s been barely six months since Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress and promised lawmakers and the American public that he and Facebook, the company he founded and leads today, would do better. “This episode has clearly hurt us,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “We have to do a lot of work about building trust back.”

The episode he was referring to was the revelation in March that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm connected to the Trump campaign, had harvested the sensitive data of as many as 87 million Facebook users without their explicit permission. That scandal rocked Facebook, sending the company’s stock price spiraling. Mr. Zuckerberg himself lost nearly $11 billion.

Since Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony, lawmakers have done little to nothing to better regulate technology platforms like Facebook and hold them more accountable for suspect practices. But there’s also little evidence that Facebook, and Mr. Zuckerberg, has taken his pledge to Congress as seriously as once hoped either: Facebook announced late last month the biggest data breach in its history, affecting nearly 50 million user accounts. In the same week, the news site Gizmodo published an investigation that found Facebook gave advertisers contact information harvested from the address books on their users’ cellphones.

Equally worrisome from Gizmodo’s report: Facebook is also giving advertisers phone numbers that users have provided solely for security reasons. Security experts generally advise users to add two-factor authentication to their accounts, which sometimes takes the form of providing a phone number to receive text messages containing log-in codes. It’s ironic — two-factor authentication is supposed to better safeguard privacy and security, but these phone numbers are wWhile the Cambridge Analytica scandal engulfed Facebook in a firestorm of controversy, this time the company effectively got a free pass from a nation fixated on Brett Kavanaugh and his turbulent Supreme Court confirmation. Still, with consequential midterms less than a month away, this latest string of Facebook privacy failures is a discouraging reminder of how much potential there is for things to go terribly wrong — again —  during those elections. It’s not just about user privacy, it’s a sign of how well Facebook is poised to handle sophisticated foreign disinformation campaigns, and where its priorities lie.

The seriousness of Facebook’s most recent data breach ranks it among one of the most egregious in the history of Silicon Valley. A weakness in Facebook’s code allowed hackers to gain access into other people’s accounts, and potentially control not only the Facebook profiles but any services that those users logged into using Facebook — Instagram, Spotify and Tinder, for example.

The breach originated from three bugs in Facebook’s code. At least one was introduced over a year ago; it’s still not clear when the other two became part of the code. Information security is a difficult problem: A company might do the right thing every time and still be successfully attacked. But one of the reasons Facebook’s breach is so concerning is the company’s footprint in the lives of so many people — 2.2 billion and counting. Facebook has sought to find ways into as many aspects of people’s lives as possible, becoming the recipient of a glut of data and the implicit trust of its users. The company has been careless with that trust — and is still being careless.

Speaking before Congress and in other public statements, Mr. Zuckerberg has been upfront about being caught unaware of the influence his company can have in ordinary people’s lives, whether that influence is in determining election outcomes or sparking real-life violence in places like Sri Lanka and Libya. And perhaps nobody fully understands that power — academics and experts are still piecing together the puzzle of how advertising systems honed on personal information can enable foreign propaganda campaigns, and to what extent this phenomenon affects democratic elections. It may be a long time before it all becomes clear. (In the meantime, falsehoods about Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford are going viral on Facebook). In response to such concerns, Facebook has set up a “war room” in its headquarters to monitor potential foreign influence campaigns during elections, winding up in the hands of advertisers.

But the latest disclosures are far from reassuring. In late September, the war room was still under construction. With less than a month to go before the American midterms, is Facebook really ready for its next big test?

(NYTImes editorial, 10/7/18)

Ray Myers

P.S. I will be taking a fall break and will blog again on Wednesday, 10/17)

Google Chief Executive Will Testify to Congress

WASHINGTON — Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, toured the nation’s capital this week trying to assuage concerns from both parties about the company’s size and influence, and whether its search results have political bias.

Mr. Pichai, who had largely avoided meeting with lawmakers, will be coming back.

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who organized a meeting with Mr. Pichai on Friday, said he expected him to attend a congressional hearing later this year. The hearing will address questions of political bias, as well as Google’s potential plans to re-enter the Chinese market, said Mr. McCarthy, the House majority leader.

Mr. Pichai confirmed in a statement that he would testify in “due course.”

In addition, he has agreed to participate in a discussion with other tech industry leaders and President Trump, said Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council.

Google had declined to send Mr. Pichai to testify this month at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about foreign manipulation of social media. The absence upset many lawmakers, leading to his visit this week.

Mr. McCarthy has been one of the most vocal critics of Google, raising accusations that the search engine purposely suppresses conservative views in its results. He has accused Twitter and Facebook of similar bias, joined by other Republican lawmakers who point to the liberal leanings of Silicon Valley as motivation to skew the discovery of information.

The meeting on Friday with Mr. Pichai, which Mr. McCarthy and eight other Republican lawmakers attended, seemed to smooth over relations. But suspicions of political bias remained.

“I see a hearing right now looking at bias, looking at all the issues we talked about, from privacy to China,” Mr. McCarthy said after the meeting. He does not expect the hearing to focus on antitrust concerns and whether Google should be broken up, he added.

After avoiding much of the scrutiny heaped upon its internet rivals over the last year, Google has been thrust into the harsh spotlight in recent weeks. Conservatives have accused the company of using its dominance of online search to provide results slanted against Republicans — a charge the company denies.

Mr. Pichai’s no-show at the hearing this month — captured by images of an empty seat alongside executives from Facebook and Twitter — added to the rancor. Leaks of employee emails discussing ways to counter President Trump’s immigration policy, and video of a companywide meeting that showed executives lamenting his election victory, have also fueled the allegations of bias.

Mr. McCarthy said Mr. Pichai had explained how search worked and how Google’s algorithm, which the company keeps secret, changes over time. In the past, Google has said political ideology is not a factor in any aspect of its search results. It does not, according to the company, collect information about whether a user is conservative or liberal, or categorize web pages by political leanings.

On Thursday and Friday, Mr. Pichai also had meetings with Democratic lawmakers, including one with Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader.

Mr. Pichai, in the statement, said the discussions over the two days “with a wide range of congressional leaders were constructive and informative.”

Cecilia Kang reported from Washington, and Daisuke Wakabayashi from San Francisco. (NYTImes,9/19/18)

Ray Myers

Republicans, Citing Bias, Give Google the Third Degree

WASHINGTON — Google executives, after months of mostly avoiding the harsh spotlight put on their internet peers, are being grilled in Washington this week by lawmakers questioning if the Silicon Valley giant is living up to its promise to be a neutral arbiter of online information.

On Friday, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, will meet with Representative Kevin McCarthy, of California, the Republican House majority leader and a vocal critic of Google, and more than two dozen Republicans to discuss complaints the company is trying to silence conservative voices.

“Google has a lot of questions to answer about reports of bias in its search results, violations of user privacy, anticompetitive behavior, and business dealings with repressive regimes like China,” Mr. McCarthy said in a statement.

The Friday meeting will cap a week of tech-related sessions in Washington in which Google — in the cross hairs of Silicon Valley’s conservative critics since late summer — has played a starring role.

At a gathering of the heads of the Justice Department and a dozen state attorneys general on Tuesday, Google was mentioned more than any other company when it came to concerns about antitrust enforcement and privacy practices, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

At a Senate hearing discussing online privacy on Wednesday, Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, received the toughest and broadest array of questions from lawmakers who wanted to know about the company’s consideration of introducing search services in China. Google says it is not close to starting such a service.

In a letter to the Senate committee holding the hearing, a former employee, Jack Poulson, said Google’s building a search engine that would be acceptable to the government of China was a “catastrophic failure of the internal privacy review process.” He said this was part of a “broad pattern of unaccountable decision making.”

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, also questioned Mr. Enright about claims of bias against conservatives in search results. “I can tell you that millions of Texans believe Google is actively censoring the speech of conservatives,” Mr. Cruz said.

On Thursday, Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer and Republican Party official, is set to testify in the House about anti-conservative bias in tech. Ms. Dhillon represents several former employees in a lawsuit filed last year against Google that claims the company discriminated against them based on their political beliefs.

Google’s week in Washington comes three weeks after executives from Twitter and Facebook testified in a Senate hearing dedicated to Russian disinformation on social media. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, also spoke at a House hearing about claims of anti-conservative bias at Twitter.

Google executives did not attend the Senate hearing, though they were invited. The company offered to send Kent Walker, a senior vice president for global affairs who is also the company’s top lawyer. But urged on by Facebook officials, according to two people familiar with the matter, senators insisted on a more powerful executive. Google refused.

It was the “worst business decision of 2018,” said Scott Galloway, a founder of the business research firm Gartner L2 and a professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business. “It feels like the tide has turned substantially,” Mr. Galloway said. “They’ve sort of poked the bear.”

A Google spokeswoman said officials from the company had testified before Congress 22 times since 2008. “We’re happy to continue explaining our products and practices,” Becca Rutkoff, the Google spokeswoman, said in a statement.

For longtime Google critics and even some of its Silicon Valley peers, it is surprising that Google has avoided the spotlight for so long.

It has 90 percent of the global search market — a share so high that it has for years had to sidestep concerns that it is a dominant monopoly that needs to be regulated. Competitors have long claimed that Google is using its search dominance to advantage its own services and should be controlled by antitrust laws.

The Google-owned YouTube video service is also dominant, and has for several years faced questions about videos that show terrorist violence and disinformation, similar to issues that Facebook and Twitter have had to address in congressional hearings.

And Google has faced several claims of bias. A video of a staff meeting held shortly after Donald J. Trump was elected president, leaked two weeks ago, showed several senior Google executives, including Mr. Pichai, expressing their alarm.

Emails leaked last week showed lower-level Google employees discussing whether they could alter search results to counter President Trump’s travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries. Google is adamant that no one in a position to make such a change seriously considered it.

Employees are bracing for more embarrassing leaks. The company has long encouraged workers to speak their minds on internal message boards. That includes politics.

The conservative pressure on Google started to escalate in late summer. On Aug. 28, Mr. Trump, in a series of tweets, attacked Google for what he claimed was an effort to suppress conservative media that was favorable to his administration.

The next day, the president posted a video that seemed to show that Google did not promote his State of the Union address on its home page as it had in the past for President Obama. He used the hashtag #StopTheBias. The video was incorrect. Google said that it didn’t promote Mr. Obama’s inaugural address, a joint statement to Congress but not technically a State of the Union address, in 2009 either.

Shortly after, other Republicans were calling for regulations and greater scrutiny. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, called for antitrust regulators to reopen an investigation into Google.

Some Google officials wonder if competitors are organizing a campaign to prompt regulatory scrutiny.

At the Senate hearing Google did not attend, lawmakers mentioned a report that had come out a day before from the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group that often publishes research critical of Google. The group posed as Russian trolls to buy what it called politically divisive ads on Google’s systems, which failed to stop them.

Google called the report “a stunt” by its rivals and blamed the software maker Oracle for its release. Ken Glueck, a senior vice president at Oracle, said it had made a one-time financial contribution in 2016 to the Campaign for Accountability but denied that the company had any involvement in the report.

Google has many business opponents in Washington, including telecommunication giants like AT&T and Comcast. Oracle and News Corp. have put significant resources into funding third-party coalitions and public relations firms to place ads and to lobby lawmakers on Google’s dominance in search and on allegations it uses its power to unfairly harm publishers and other tech rivals.

But few companies have been as tenacious as Yelp, a midsize internet outfit with far fewer resources. It has waged a seven-year battle to get regulatory agencies around the world to investigate Google. Until recently, its calls have been largely ignored in the United States. The company claims Google prioritized its own reviews over others, making it much harder for competing reviews sites like Yelp to be discovered.

Early in September, a White House official received an email with an attachment from Luther Lowe, the senior vice president for policy for Yelp.

“Check out the attachment,” Mr. Lowe wrote in an email. “Tell me what you think.”

The attachment was a document called, “Executive Draft Order to Protect American Competition and Small Businesses From Bias in Online Platforms.” It was a draft presidential order instructing antitrust officials to recommend ways to protect competition and clamp down on content bias on internet search and social media sites.

Mr. Lowe said in an email that he did not know the origins of the document and that it had been forwarded to him.

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Cecelia Kang, NYTIMES 9/17/18

Ray Myers

Cautious Tech Leaders

When Joe Barton, a Republican congressman from Texas, greeted Jack Dorsey at a congressional hearing last week, he sounded flummoxed.

“I don’t know what a Twitter C.E.O. should look like,” Mr. Barton said. “But you don’t look like what a C.E.O. of Twitter should look like.”

The congressman had a point. Mr. Dorsey — who sported a nose ring, a popped-collar shirt and a craggy Moses beard — looked more like a hipster version of a Civil War officer than a tech icon. Yet more striking than his look was his manner before skeptical lawmakers.

Faced with tough questions, Mr. Dorsey did not mount an aggressive defense of his company and his technology, as an earlier generation of tech leader might have. Instead, he demurred, conceded mistakes and generally engaged in a nuanced and seemingly heartfelt colloquy on the difficulties of managing tech in a complex world. Even in response to Mr. Barton’s comment about his look, Mr. Dorsey was solicitous. “My mom agrees with you,” he said.

Ray Myers

(Excerpted from NY Times, 9/13/18)

P.S.

The online Global Education Conference begins on Monday, September 17, please join in throughout the week.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-2018-global-education-conference-registration-49538109820?aff=erelexpmlt

What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

Research shows that students, especially boys, benefit when teachers share their race or gender. Yet most teachers are white women.

By Claire Cain Miller

Sept. 10, 2018

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Zara Gibbon helps a new sixth grader at Animo Westside Charter Middle School in Los Angeles. A majority of teachers in American schools are white women.

As students have returned to school, they have been greeted by teachers who, more likely than not, are white women. That means many students will be continuing to see teachers who are a different gender than they are, and a different skin color.

Does it matter? Yes, according to a significant body of research: Students tend to benefit from having teachers who look like them, especially nonwhite students.

The homogeneity of teachers is probably one of the contributors, the research suggests, to the stubborn gender and race gaps in student achievement: Over all, girls outperform boys, and white students outperform those who are black and Hispanic.

Where Boys Outperform Girls in Math: Rich, White and Suburban DistrictsJune 13, 2018

Yet the teacher work force is becoming more female: 77 percent of teachers in public and private elementary and high schools are women, up from 71 percent three decades ago. The teaching force has grown more racially diverse in that period, but it’s still 80 percent white, down from 87 percent.

(Excerpted from NY Times, 9 /11/18)

Ray Myers

Twitter Bars Agitator and His Website

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple, Facebook and Google’s YouTube mostly barred Alex Jones, the right-wing provocateur and creator of the conspiracy theorist website Infowars, last month for propagating hate speech. Twitter did not.

On Thursday, though, Twitter said it would permanently suspend Mr. Jones’s account, as well as the account for Infowars. The social media company said Mr. Jones had posted messages within the previous 24 hours that violated its policies, which prohibit direct threats of violence and some forms of hate speech but allow deception or misinformation.

“Today, we permanently suspended @realalexjones and @infowars from Twitter and Periscope,” the company posted on its Safety account. “We took this action based on new reports of Tweets and videos posted yesterday that violate our abusive behavior policy, in addition to the accounts’ past violations.” (NY Times, 9/7/18)

Ray Myers

What’s So Funny, Twitter?

Some call it the “social media dopamine loop.” The short-attention-span jolt of Twitter is perfect for a few specialized things: breaking news, viral links – and presidential hissy fits. But it turns out, Twitter is perfect for jokes.

“A Twitter habit, like any other Internet addiction, is an endless dopamine loop. Your brain doesn’t have a satiety signal for social media updates. It just wants you to check your screen again and again for new content until you die. (NY Times, 7/29/18).”

Many want to opt out of the social media loop altogether. But their hedonic treadmills are turned up so fast that it’s hard to make the leap. Real life seems drab now, compared with the high-speed barrage of ironic banter online. It’s the dream of our sitcom-watching childhood come true: nothing but punch lines as far as the eye can see.

Ray Myers

P.S. I will be taking some time off during August. I will only be posting blog updates on Mondays of the month, but will resume M-W-F postings after Labor Day (no post), on September 3.

Need a Hobby? Go Online!

On Monday, I posted a blog about one NY Times’ writer’s decision to stop “Tweeting” and spend time on other pursuits. Perhaps she would like to take up a new hobby? That seems to have been the solution for many other who have now found that the Internet can be a place to learn new skills by connecting with other “hobbyists.” Pottery, painting, cooking, you name it!

While much of this is not new, the way the Internet can help steer us toward something useful bears mentioning in the name of growing digital skepticism (see Monday’s blog). It is a reminder that the Internet’s most effective trick is connecting disparate individuals into a coherent whole. There may only be a small number of potters in any given city, but online there is a whole ceramics metropolis willing to help.

Art, for example, is an empowering thing. Most people think they can’t do it, and when they realize they can, it’s amazing – it opens up a whole new world, and that world doesn’t really have time for a lot of “fighting and fussing.”

Ray Myers

I Tweet, and So Does Everyone Else!

Way back during the early years of the Obama administration, government agencies were beginning to use social media as a means of “getting our message out.” I volunteered to be a part of this “outreach” then, as a staff member at the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education. It was all new to me, and as one of the more “senior” staff, I was eager to learn some new tricks. Now I am older and so is Twitter, and it is certainly not the novelty that it once was.

I think that it still serves as a convenient “short-hand” stream of consciousness for many, but it may have become overloaded with everyone’s desire to be heard in the name of open and free expression (“TechtoExpress”). Maggie Haberman of the NY Times put it this way this past week: “To be clear, Twitter is a useful and important platform. It’s a good aggregator for breaking news. I still check my feed to see breaking news developments, and I will continue to. And it is democratic – everyone gets to have a voice, whether they work for a local paper, a small TV station or one of the biggest newspapers in the world, or are not in the media business at all. The downside is that everyone is treated equally expert on various topics.”

“Make America Great Again.” Just get a Twitter account, and tweet away. You may even be elected president?

Ray Myers

Political Messaging on Facebook

Trump is now the single biggest political advertiser on Facebook. So what’s your favorite addiction? Politics or social media? I think it is now safe to say after the last election, that if you like to get your “fake news” online, you were among those who were the most helpful in getting Trump elected. He may not have gotten the most individual Americans’ votes, but he certainly knew where the most counted and where to place his political ads, Facebook.

He still continues today and will probably continue to take the most advantage of Facebook’s hypnotic hold on those who believe that everything that they read or see online must be true! This is now the age of believing in your own opinions, regardless of what the facts may be. “If it’s online, it must be true.” As discussed on this blog on Monday, political consultants have said that Democrats who are running for election are spending a smaller percentage of their ad budgets on digital ads than their rivals, sometimes as little as 10 percent versus 40 percent for Republicans. That has spurred volunteer efforts in Silicon Valley, which is widely regarded as liberal, to help bring Democratic campaigns into the digital age.

The new digital political age? And if you can’t get enough followers, make them up.

Ray Myers

Screen Time as a Stress Reducer

“Device addiction is as likely a symptom of anxiety as a cause.”  Every teenager seems to have a device that is at their disposal any time of night or day.  It can help you to always be connected on your own terms with whomever you want to be, and feel you have established your own independence.

“But this may really be only an uncertain independence, many having been raised under the whirring of helicopter parents, over-involved and trying to fix every problem for their children. This suffocates independence at a time when teenagers should be exploring autonomy, limits the development of self-reliance and grit and may even directly produce anxiety and depression . . .

Yes, we should devote resources to making smartphones less addictive, but we should devote even more resources to address the public health crisis of anxiety that is causing teenagers so much suffering and driving them to seek relief in the ultimate escape machines (NY Times, 7/15/18).”

Ray Myers

How to Win an Election – Campaign Technology

Forget about your “hanging chads,” fake news and dirty tricks. Get some savvy technology tools to load onto your campaign bandwagon. And, of course, the right people to make it all work. Democrats obviously have the greater need.

“Democrats are often thought to be tech savvy, because the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 were celebrated for their online touch and because much of Silicon Valley backs the party’s candidates. In fact, . . . Democrats in congressional and state-level races have been out-matched by their Republican rivals, who benefitted from the heavy tech investments during the Obama years and their enthusiastic embrace of targeted ads on platforms like Facebook and Google.

People don’t understand how not far along we are as a party (Democratic). Obama was really good at tech, but it never trickled down to a Senate race, let alone the state-level stuff. (NY Times, 7/14/18).”

Ray Myers

Twitter to Purge Fake Followers – Back to the USSR

Timing is everything as the old saying goes. Trump may have been the recipient of some good timing in terms of his world travels next week when he visits with his good buddy Vladimir Putin.

“For Twitter, the reform comes at a critical moment. Though it is a smaller company with far fewer users than Facebook or Google, Twitter has been sharply criticized for allowing abuse and hate speech to flourish on its platform. And along with other social networks, Twitter was a critical tool for Russian influence during the 2016 election, when tens of thousands of accounts were used to spread propaganda and disinformation. Those troubles dampened Twitter’s prospects for acquisition by a bigger firm, and the company, which went public in 2013, did not turn a profit until the final quarter of last year.”

I wonder how many followers Trump will lose? Maybe his Russian followers will still find a way to “influence” him, and increase his number of (fake?) followers. He will be visiting with them next week?

Ray Myers