Facebook Turns A Blind Eye | The Chinese Data Vacuum
September 16, 2020
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“Distracted from distraction by distraction”
“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”
Facebook Turns A Blind Eye
(Kenzo Tribouillard via Getty Images)
Sophie Zhang spent three years at Facebook. Her LinkedIn profile said she “worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team” and dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like.” Zhang was recently fired, and will undoubtedly be labeled a “disgruntled employee” by her former employer. But Zhang says she’s a whistleblower, and she’s written a 6,600-word memo filled with concrete examples to bolster her claim that the social network ignored hard evidence of rampant global political manipulation on its platform.
Zhang learned early on that Facebook prioritized the US and Western Europe, with seemingly little inclination to protect democratic processes in smaller countries. She found coordinated inauthentic behavior — Facebook’s internal term for the use of multiple fake accounts to boost engagement or spread content — benefiting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, for example. But when she reported the operation involving thousands of fake accounts to Facebook’s threat intelligence and policy review teams, months passed before any action was taken.
Although still in a junior position, and without any real institutional support, Zang was handed extraordinary moderation powers affecting millions of people. As just one of a few employees looking for and identifying fake accounts impacting civic activity outside of “priority” regions, she struggled with the power she’d been given. “There was so much violating behavior worldwide that it was left to my personal assessment of which cases to further investigate, to file tasks, and escalate for prioritization afterwards,” she wrote. She often felt responsible when civil unrest took hold in places she didn’t prioritize for investigation and action.
Zhang laments that Facebook’s real impetus for action isn’t real-world problems, but the potential for bad press. “It’s an open secret within the civic integrity space that Facebook’s short-term decisions are largely motivated by PR and the potential for negative attention,” she writes, noting that she was told directly at a 2020 summit that anything published in the New York Times or Washington Post would obtain elevated priority.
Zhang’s memo also reveals new information about a large-scale fake account network used to amplify and manipulate information about COVID-19, as well as a political influence operation that used fake accounts to influence 2018 elections in the US and Brazil. Facebook had not previously disclosed some of these details, suggesting the company’s regular takedown announcements remain selective and incomplete.
UK and US, On Thin Ice
(NASA via Getty Images)
- A new analysis of satellite images, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows a further, more rapid disintegration of the natural buffer system that is preventing two major Antarctic glaciers from tearing loose from their restraints.
- The buffer system has been hemming in the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers, keeping them from flowing outward and potentially unleashing far more ice into the sea. The glaciers already contribute 5 percent of sea-level rise, and the survival of Thwaites is deemed so critical that the US and Britain have launched a targeted multimillion-dollar research mission to the glacier.
- Were Thwaites to be lost, it could trigger the broader collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which contains enough ice to eventually raise seas by about 10 feet. Multiple ice-shelf collapses have already been seen in Canada, Greenland, and the warmer Antarctic Peninsula, where the onetime Larsen A and Larsen B ice shelves fractured and no longer exist today.
- “When the ice shelves are damaged by climate change, as we saw in the Antarctic Peninsula in the last several decades, their buttressing effect is reduced and the ice streams speed up and raise sea levels,” said a glaciologist at the University of California at Irvine, commenting on the new study. “The speed-up increases damage, a positive feedback which is not good news.” (WaPo)
- Warmth shatters section of Greenland ice shelf (BBC)
The Chinese Data Vacuum
- A huge database collected by Zhenhua Data, a Chinese company with links to Beijing’s government and intelligence service, was leaked to a US academic who once worked at the elite Peking University. Professor Christopher Balding told journalists that “China is absolutely building out a massive surveillance state both domestically and internationally.”
- The database has information on 2.4 million people — including more than 35,000 Australians — that consists of names, dates of birth, addresses, marital status, along with photographs, political associations, relatives, and social media IDs. Zhenhua Data collates Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and even TikTok accounts, as well as news stories, criminal records, and corporate misdemeanors. Much of the information has been “scraped” from open-source material, but some profiles have information apparently sourced from confidential bank records, job applications, and psychological profiles, even the “dark web.”
- This latest data dump goes much further than the trove of personal information sourced from Facebook profiles collected by Cambridge Analytica in 2016. It looks much more like a complex global operation, using artificial intelligence to trawl publicly available data to create intricate profiles of individuals and organizations. Zhenhua boasts it has about 20 “collection nodes” scattered around the world to vacuum enormous amounts of data and send back to China.
- Two of the nodes have been identified as being in the state of Kansa and the South Korean capital of Seoul. The Australian node has not been detected. The company’s chief executive, Wang Xuefeng, has boasted of using data to wage “hybrid warfare.” (ABC)
Additional World News
- Breaking longtime taboo, UAE and Bahrain to sign deals with Israel at White House (Reuters). These normalizations are far from normal.
- Trump hails ‘dawn of new Middle East’ with UAE-Bahrain-Israel deals (BBC)
- Referendumb: Britain’s Coming Brexit Humbling (Atlantic, $)
- Yoshihide Suga Set to Become Japan’s Next Prime Minister (NYT, $)
- Everyone Wants to Crack Down on China—Except Silicon Valley (Wired). Software gets soft on China.
- Pompeo to visit Brazil border as U.S. ramps up pressure on Maduro (Reuters)
- South Africa’s Private Game Reserves Are Struggling to Survive Without Tourists. The Animals Are, Too (Time). Without tourism dollars, there’s an elephant in the room on private game reserves.
- The Covid-19 reality: There are no good choices (Vox)
- This Is Why We Couldn’t Control the Pandemic (NYT)
- Study hints Covid-19 may have been in the US as early as December (CNN)
- Coronavirus kills far more Hispanic and Black children than White youths, CDC study finds (WaPo)
- NIH ‘Very Concerned’ About Serious Side Effect in Coronavirus Vaccine Trial (Scientific American)
Third Time’s A Harm
- At a large indoor rally in Nevada on Saturday night, President Trump told the adoring, mostly maskless crowd packed shoulder-to-shoulder that he wanted to serve three terms in office, and that he was probably entitled to an additional four years because of the awful way he’d been treated.
- “Fifty-two days from now, we’re going to win Nevada, and we’re going to win four more years in the White House,” after which, Trump said, he’d “negotiate” a third term. Trump has suggested several times that he would win a second term, then go for four more years because “they spied on my campaign,” referencing his baseless ‘Obamagate’ conspiracy theory.
- Former Trump counselor Michael Cohen has argued the comment isn’t to be treated lightly, as Trump actually believes he should be the “ruler” or “dictator” of the US, and that he wants to “change the Constitution.” Were Trump to win reelection, Cohen predicts “he is going to automatically day number one start thinking how he can change the Constitution for a third term, and then a fourth term.”
- Not an easy task, since the 22nd Amendment prohibits a president from serving more than two terms, and amending that amendment would take either a 2/3 majority of both houses of Congress, or 2/3 of all 50 state legislatures calling a constitutional convention. (Slate)
- What If Trump Loses And Won’t Leave? (FiveThirtyEight)
- Michael Cohen’s Memoir of Jilted Love (New Yorker)
ICE’s Hysterectomy Hysteria
- Inmate sterilizations still occur in the US, but the procedures are mostly voluntary in exchange for a reduced sentence. What’s happening to immigrant women being held at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia is something else. The Detention Center is run by the private prison company LaSalle South Corrections and houses people incarcerated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
- A whistleblower complaint filed Monday by several legal advocacy groups accuses the center of performing a staggering number of hysterectomies on immigrant women, as well as failing to follow procedures meant to keep both detainees and employees safe from COVID-19. The complaint details several accounts of recent “jarring medical neglect.”
- One woman said that immigrants at Irwin are often sent to see one particular gynecologist outside of the facility. “It was like they’re experimenting with their bodies.” Dawn Wooten is a nurse who was employed full time at Irwin until July. Wooten said she’d talked to several detained immigrants who’d had hysterectomies but didn’t know why. One detained immigrant told a Georgia nonprofit that, ahead of the scheduled procedure, she was given multiple different explanations about what would happen and why it was necessary.
- Wooten also said she believed the number of COVID-19 cases reported at the center was much higher than 41, because women housed in multiple units in the facility allegedly exhibited Covid-19 symptoms, but were not tested for the virus for weeks. Immigrants also continued to be transferred in and out of the facility against guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and the advice of Irwin’s own medical director. (Vice)
Additional USA News
- Income inequality, examined: America’s 1% Has Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90% (Time)
- How Much Richer The Wealthiest Americans Got in the Last Economic Expansion (Bloomberg)
- Louisville Agrees To $12 Million Settlement With Breonna Taylor’s Family (NPR)
- NPR reporter Josie Huang tackled, arrested by LA County Sheriff’s deputies while covering protest (WaPo, $)
- This air pollution really blows: Smoke from west coast wildfires has drifted to New York and Washington DC (Guardian)
- Climate Change Will Force a New American Migration (ProPublica)
- The Covid-19 reality: There are no good choices (Vox)
- Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak slams Trump for holding indoor rally, defying state’s covid-19 rules (WaPo, $). Indoor rallies find Trump in the dog house.
Let’s Keep This One In-House
- More than 40 percent of Americans are working from home these days, and mortgage interest rates are very low. These are just two reasons many people may be thinking it’s a good time to look for that larger “work nest.” But economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci wants you to know a pandemic is a terrible time to buy real estate.
- Right now the housing inventory is low, meaning prices are going higher and higher. However, the housing market may be soaring because of bad information and short-term thinking. There’s still a whole lot of uncertainty: whether bosses will make work-from-home permanent, or who will be targeted for downsizing.
- People who pulled the trigger are already ruing their decision. The financial information website LendEDU surveyed 1,000 mortgage holders in August and found that most people who bought houses after March 2020 already regretted taking out a mortgage.
- It’s not a scientific survey, but the results make sense. Record low mortgage rates enticed new buyers, while urban hotspots for the virus drove people out of cities. In July, there was a 56 percent drop in Manhattan property sales and a 44 percent increase in neighboring suburbs. Home prices in nearby New Jersey counties increased over 11 percent, while New York City prices fell 13 percent compared to last summer.
- Buying in a sellers’ market is not a good move. Ghilarducci suggests people wait to buy a home until the economy, the virus, and Congressional policies stabilize. Sharing a small space is tough. But paying for a bigger one can be even tougher. (Bloomberg)
- We’ve been saying this for awhile: Why Congress Should Make Daylight Saving Time Permanent (Time)
- John Cusack Never Understood His Cusackness (NYT, $)
- Possible sign of life on Venus stirs up heated debate (NatGeo). The temperature of that debate? About 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Microsoft’s underwater data centre resurfaces after two years (BBC)
- Hollywood’s ‘Tenet’ Experiment Didn’t Work (Atlantic, $). Christopher Nolan and the film industry’s dark night.
- Microsoft’s underwater server experiment resurfaces after two years (The Verge)
- Horse that tested positive for cocaine finally disqualified and Noseda fined (Guardian). Makes sense that the trainer’s name was Noseda.
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