President Obama’s Farewell Address on Social Media’s Threat to Democracy

GARCIN: …So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!

No Exit (Huis Clos), by Jean-Paul Sartre

In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prophetic farewell address famously warned of the growing “military industrial complex”:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Given Eisenhower’s history as a military officer of the highest rank, Ike knew of what he spoke only too well.

In 2017, President Barack Obama may well have given his own prophetic warning of a different unholy alliance between government and industry, but this time there won’t be a song written about it called “Masters of War,” except maybe “Masters of the Internet” (by Ceramic Dog/Marc Ribot) or “March of the Billionaires” by Cracker (written by Faragher-Hickman- Lowery-Urbano).

The President warned in his farewell address (“the great sorting”):

For too many of us, it has become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds. Surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splitting of our media into a channel for every taste. All this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start only accepting information, whether its true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the information that is out there.

As Maya Kosoff reflects on President Obama’s warning in Vanity Fair:

Today, 62 percent of U.S. adults say they get their news from social media, often relying on news stories shared within their own self-selected digital bubbles. Facebook, which has finally accepted some culpability for its role in disseminating unchecked misinformation, is still experiencing growing pains as it evolves, whether willingly or not, from a social network into a media company. But the problem runs deeper. Studies in recent years suggest media fragmentation has increased partisanship—that is, paradoxically, the vast array of news outlets at our disposal today have given way to more explicitly ideological ones and have helped contribute to an increase in partisanship and polarized political opinion. [Emphasis mine]

Facebook’s own internal studies developed in Facebook’s “Core Data Science Team” as well as medical research into Internet addiction confirms what Sean Parker revealed this week–Facebook intentionally profits from addiction.  And as Professor Adam Alter teaches us about behavioral addictions, the addiction that Sean Parker tells the world was perfected by Facebook is every bit as addictive as substance addiction:

People have been addicted to substances for thousands of years, but for the past two decades, we’ve also been hooked on technologies, like Instagram, Netflix, Facebook, Fitbit, Twitter, and email—platforms we’ve adopted because we assume they’ll make our lives better. These inventions have profound upsides, but their appeal isn’t an accident. Technology companies and marketers have teams of engineers and researchers devoted to keeping us engaged. They know how to push our buttons, and how to coax us into using their products for hours, days, and weeks on end.

Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe that the true purpose of Facebook is to bring the world closer together.  I’m a skeptic, and here’s why.

The good thing about Facebook is that it brings people together in new communities.  The bad thing about Facebook is that some of those people previously only met on Death Row.  And as Sartre said, hell is other people.

 

 

 

 

@andreworlowski: Sean Parker: I helped destroy humanity with Facebook Sorry isn’t enough, Sean

The billionaire and former Facebook president Sean Parker now says he regrets helping turn the social network into a global phenomenon. The site grew by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” with its greed for attention and the careful reward system it created to keep users addicted.

“We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever… It’s a social-validation feedback loop… a vulnerability in human psychology,” he admitted to news site Axios.

Parker’s backing was instrumental in turning the Harvard campus-only software into a global phenomenon by introducing Zuckerberg to Silicon Valley venture capital. (Parker [“A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars”] was played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network.)

Read the post on The Register

@GarettSloane: SEAN PARKER SAYS FACEBOOK WAS DESIGNED TO BE ADDICTIVE

[According to Spotify board member and Facebook president Sean Parker] All the sharing and liking [on Facebook] Iwere used like a drug to get people hooked on checking Facebook non-stop. “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible,” said Parker, referring to Facebook’s earliest mission.

“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” Parker said.

The candid interview wasn’t the first time a Silicon Valley insider had sounded the alarm on the digital dangers of social media and the internet. However, in light of the mass disinformation dump on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and everywhere online during the election, the real-world consequences have become more clear and frightening.

Read the post on AdAge

Mark Zuckerberg’s Kremlin “Investors”

sovietfb

The “Paradise Papers” reveal that Facebook took approximately $200 million of cash investment from the Kremlin.  This huge chunk of cash came from the Kremlin’s VTD Bank was “funneled through DST Global”, an investment vehicle owned by oligarch Yuri Millner (known as “космонавт” loosely translated as “the spaceman”).   The papers also show that Gazprom (the controversial Kremin-owned energy company) heavily funded an offshore company that partnered with DST Global in a large investment in Facebook.

russia_medvedev_facebook_zuck

A story in the Guardian from 2009 about the transactions provides insight into how the deal was structured for Facebook:

[Digital Sky Technology], run by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner [“the Spaceman”), has also indicated that it is willing to spend at least another $100m buying out existing Facebook shareholders as part of a plan that would allow current and former staff to sell some of their shares.

Wonder who those “current and former staff” were who got the juicy opportunity of some Gazprom funded liquidity?  We do, too.

And then there’s this:

The deal represents something of a comedown for the Harvard drop-out: when Zuckerberg raised a slightly larger amount from Microsoft in late 2007, Facebook was valued at $15bn.

So this transaction was so important that Facebook’s investors approved a down round?

Zuckerberg stressed that his company did not need DST’s cash to meet his plans of reaching a cashflow positive position sometime next year. Instead, the $200m was a “buffer” against further fluctuations in the market. The deal would also give Facebook access to DST’s experience across its five social networking sites in 13 European countries.

These sites – such as Russia’s Vkontakte.ru – make money from the traditional model of online advertising but have also experimented successfully with micro-payments, allowing users to buy and sell items with the site taking a slice of the revenue, and other subscriber payment mechanisms.

“One of the things that was most interesting to me about DST’s portfolio is they have a large number of social networks and each of them monetises in different ways and all of them effectively,” said Zuckerberg. “The bottom line is each of those (sites) is doing well with a different model.”

In the case of Vkontakte.ru, one of those business models was piracy.  As recently as December 2016, Vkontakte still on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Notorious Pirate Market List:

VK.com – Russia. VKontakte, or VK.com, is the leading social networking site in Russia and Russian speaking territories and a hotbed of illegal distribution of movie, television and music files. The site’s content is popular, searching for content and then downloading it is easy, and the site supports streaming playback through embedded video players. The site is available worldwide in multiple languages, including English, and is easily one of the most visited sites in the world, with a global Alexa ranking of 23 and a local ranking of 2 in Russia. Internet service providers (ISPs) in Italy were ordered by the court of Rome to block VK.com in November 2013. VK.com had 92,640,125 unique visitors in August 2014, which was an 8% increase compared to August 2013, according to comScore World Wide data. The site operates on corporate-owned servers in Russia.

And to this day Facebook has no music licenses.  It’s unclear at this point whether any of these transactions involved the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

So what was in it for the Russians?  Reports show that these transactions may all have started in 2012 when Zuckerberg visited Russia at the invitation of then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

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No, Senator, no rubles for Facebook.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev hosted an historic meeting Monday with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in an effort to entice the tech-savvy entrepreneur to invest in the country’s IT industry, and perhaps lend an endorsement that would resonate with the world community. “You probably know that here in Russia we have not only oil, gas, gold, and diamonds – there is also an IT industry,” a beaming Medvedev told Zuckerberg as photographers gathered in front of the Gorki residence outside Moscow where the meeting took place.  [aka Russian hackers]

“Unlike the United States and much of Europe, Russia takes pride in learning about our citizens to maintain order,” Medvedev noted. “And the government makes no pretense in saying we need Facebook to help us ‘improve’ our own social networks for the good of the people….But with the fall of critical communication services such as Pravda and Tass, and with the demolition of the People’s Ministry of Information, our ability to provide for our citizens has nearly been destroyed,” Medvedev lamented.

“We have no idea what they’re up to or how they might be struggling. During the Soviet period, everybody had jobs, homes and food on the tables. We were a culture of love; we were all comrades, brothers, sisters — because the People’s Government knew what all the people were doing and thinking and wanting. We could prevent social problems before they happened. Now, our tranquility has been replaced by an isolated, selfish free-for-all.”

Yep–Dmitry and his friend Vlad knew a good thing when they saw it.

zuckerberg-meets-russian-pm-on-moscow-mission
Sorry about the rubles–can you pay in dollars?

 

@mekosoff: Silicon Valley’s Tech Gods Are Headed for a Reckoning How Facebook and Google became mercenaries—and now casualties—in the information war.

As early Facebook employees recently told my colleague Nick Bilton,the social network’s rapid evolution into a global power-player has come as a relative shock. “They look at the role Facebook now plays in society, and how Russia used it during the election to elect Trump, and they have this sort of ‘Oh my God, what have I done’ moment,” admitted one. “I lay awake at night thinking about . . . what we could have done to avoid the product being used this way,“ said another. Others in Silicon Valley described [and royalty deadbeat] Mark Zuckerberg as out of touch with reality, unaware of the damage his brainchild has done. While C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg’s indefatigable No. 2, recently acknowledged that “things happened on our platform that shouldn’t have happened,” she maintained that Facebook is not a news organization. “At our heart we’re a tech company,” she said in an interview last week. “We don’t hire journalists.”

[Editor Charlie sez:  That’s straight outta The Circle, they don’t hire journalists, they get news feeds for free.]

Read the post on Vanity Fair

@noamcohen: Silicon Valley is Not Your Friend

Late last month, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a brief post on Facebook at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, asking his friends for forgiveness not just for his personal failures but also for his professional ones, especially “the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together.” He was heeding the call of the Jewish Day of Atonement to take stock of the year just passed as he pledged that he would “work to do better.”

Such a somber, self-critical statement hasn’t been typical for the usually sunny Mr. Zuckerberg, who once exhorted his employees at Facebook to “move fast and break things.” In the past, why would Mr. Zuckerberg, or any of his peers, have felt the need to atone for what they did at the office? For making incredibly cool sites that seamlessly connect billions of people to their friends as well as to a global storehouse of knowledge?

Lately, however, the sins of Silicon Valley-led disruption have become impossible to ignore.

Facebook has endured a drip, drip of revelations concerning Russian operatives who used its platform to influence the 2016 presidential election by stirring up racist anger. Google had a similar role in carrying targeted, inflammatory messages during the election, and this summer, it appeared to play the heavy when an important liberal think tank, New America, cut ties with a prominent scholar who is critical of the power of digital monopolies. Some within the organization questioned whether he was dismissed to appease Google and its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, both longstanding donors, though New America’s executive president and a Google representative denied a connection.

Meanwhile, Amazon, with its purchase of the Whole Foods supermarket chain and the construction of brick-and-mortar stores, pursues the breathtakingly lucrative strategy of parlaying a monopoly position online into an offline one, too.

Now that Google, Facebook, Amazon have become world dominators, the question of the hour is, can the public be convinced to see Silicon Valley as the wrecking ball that it is?

These menacing turns of events have been quite bewildering to the public, running counter to everything Silicon Valley had preached about itself.

Read the post on the New York Times

@jonathantaplin: Why The 1 Percent Needs Google and Facebook

When Charles Koch founded the Cato Institute in 1974, his mission (in words from Cato’s journal) was “protecting capitalism from government.” That meant the end of public education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as cutting taxes on the rich and government regulations on business. It was a tall order—but now, for the first time in 44 years, Koch and his billionaire libertarian friends like Robert Mercer and Peter Thiel are within sight of their goal of building a true oligarchy (Aristotle’s “rule by the rich”). The current Trump tax cut will deliver billions of dollars into the pockets of the Kochs, the Mercers, the Trumps, and their heirs. Creating a political economy in which the wealthy minority rule over the middle and lower class majority is a hard task. It requires mechanisms that suppress voting and mechanisms for propaganda that convince middle class voters that cultural divisions are more important than economic equality. In both these tasks, Google and Facebook have been a key to the success of the 1 percent.

The role of the internet in propaganda and voter suppression is a two-pronged attack. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World foresaw our current dilemma—Huxley’s assertion was that technology would lead to passivity. The ease with which we could consume mind-numbing entertainment and distractions would ultimately rot our democracy. And this is exactly what may be happening. In the 2016 presidential election, 94 million citizens who were eligible to vote declined to exercise that privilege (compared to the 136 million who voted), according to the United States Election Project. And a much larger percentage of millennials are nonvoters. As Kevin Drum reported in Mother Jones, “In 1967 there was very little difference between the youngest and oldest voters. By 1987 a gap had opened up, and by 2014 that gap had become a chasm.” Beyond the extreme apathy, Republican legislatures in many states have instituted far more restrictive voter ID laws, which have also contributed to lower voting rates. But Steve Bannon wasn’t content to leave voter suppression to chance. One of his brilliant moves was to circulate memes on Facebook targeting only African American voters with the text: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” By all accounts it was a successful voter suppression strategy….

We have been here before. But not since the days at the turn of the 20th century, when Teddy Roosevelt took on the monopolies of John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, has the country faced such concentration of wealth and power.

Read the post on Washington Monthly