Socialschadenfreude

I’m enjoying reading about the mess Facebook is in, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. We all like to see successful things in trouble, I guess.

Remember when the ‘fake news’ style of direct marketing first hit Facebook by storm, allowing Trump to win the presidency? This first article from 2016 explains how these highly personalised posts worked.

Cambridge Analytica and the secret agenda of a Facebook quiz
In this election, dark posts were used to try to suppress the African-American vote. According to Bloomberg, the Trump campaign sent ads reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” line. It targeted Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with messages about the Clinton Foundation’s troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Federal Election Commission rules are unclear when it comes to Facebook posts, but even if they do apply and the facts are skewed and the dog whistles loud, the already weakening power of social opprobrium is gone when no one else sees the ad you see — and no one else sees “I’m Donald Trump, and I approved this message.”

It turns out those staggeringly large datasets were obtained in a somewhat underhand way.

How Trump consultants exploited the Facebook data of millions
So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.

Surprise surprise, the company as a whole is far from ethical.

Trump’s election consultants filmed saying they use bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians
An undercover investigation by Channel 4 News reveals how Cambridge Analytica secretly campaigns in elections across the world. Bosses were filmed talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.

And so the powers that be are wanting answers.

Cambridge Analytica: Facebook boss summoned over data claims
In a letter to Mr Zuckerberg, Mr Collins accused Facebook of giving answers “misleading to the Committee” at a previous hearing which asked whether information had been taken without users’ consent.

He said it was “now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process”.

Requesting a response to the letter by 26 March, the MP added: “Given your commitment at the start of the New Year to “fixing” Facebook, I hope that this representative will be you.”

Here’s someone willing to help.

Facebook whistleblower gives evidence to MPs on Cambridge Analytica row
Sandy Parakilas, who has claimed covert harvesting was routine at the social network, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Facebook did not do enough to prevent, identify – or act upon – data breaches

But so far nothing.

Where is Mark Zuckerberg?
That is the most prevalent question from people following Facebook’s data scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, the data firm Trump hired to help with his 2016 presidential campaign. Over the weekend, we learned that Cambridge Analytica collected data from some 50 million Facebook users without their consent back in 2015, a revelation that has led to a public outcry about Facebook’s data policies, a tanking stock price and fear of increased regulation.

What can we do? How should we respond to all this? #DeleteFacebook?

WhatsApp co-founder tells everyone to delete Facebook
The tweet came after a bruising five-day period for Facebook that has seen regulators swarm and its stock price plunge following concerns over data privacy in the wake of revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of user data.

Hating Facebook’s easy. Deleting everything, not so much.

You want to quit Facebook, but will you really click the button? These folks tried.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 68 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook, three quarters of them checking the platform daily. When Facebook reaches a moment of crisis — and it has had a lot of them recently — there’s a wave of users who wonder why they are on the platform in the first place. With the news late last week that Facebook had suspended the data firm Cambridge Analytica for improperly collecting data from Facebook users, this viral discussion about quitting for good has started once again.

[…]

But the idea of quitting always seems to spread further than the follow-through. Even as we learn more about what Facebook does to us, that knowledge comes into conflict with what Facebook has grown to do for us. For many, that moment of hovering over the deactivate button feels a lot like trying to leave a store that’s giving away candy.

If only we all did this earlier.

Should I delete Facebook? The Cambridge Analytica files explained
To avoid this kind of data breach being used to target you, you need to be very careful about the data permissions you give to your connected apps – but even if you do that, you’re still at risk of your friends offering your data to third parties when they give their apps certain permissions. Highly personalised adverts are probably on your feed already.

So should you delete your Facebook account? Let’s hear from Theresa Hong again. “Without Facebook”, the Trump campaigner said last year, “we wouldn’t have won.”

You have your answer.

But perhaps there’s no need to worry, because we don’t really care about any of this, after all.

The only privacy policy that matters
Do you care? We’ve gone so far down the internet highway that we rarely ask that question anymore. But it’s still pertinent. Do you care that your privacy has been, and will be, repeatedly invaded — and that anything you share (willingly or otherwise) on the internet can and will be used against you?

I think I know the answer. I don’t have access to your information. I didn’t pose as an academic to download a treasure trove of social media data. I haven’t coded a programmatic advertising platform aimed at enabling a pair of machines to automatically decide which marketing messages you’ll be more receptive to at any given moment. And yet, just by sharing this medium with you, I feel I know you well enough to know your answer.

You don’t give a shit.

Caught out by their own documents

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager currently tied up with the ongoing Russia investigation, must have skipped a few MS Office training seminars at work, as he seems to be unaware of Word’s Save As function.

How Manafort’s inability to convert a PDF file to Word helped prosecutors
“Manafort emailed Gates a .pdf version of the real 2016 DMI P&L, which showed a loss of more than $600,000,” the indictment claims. “Gates converted that .pdf into a Word document so that it could be edited, which Gates sent back to Manafort. Manafort altered the Word document by adding more than $3.5 million in income.”

Then, according to the indictment, Manafort “sent this falsified P&L to Gates and asked that the Word document be converted back to a .pdf, which Gates did and returned to Manafort.”

By sending these documents back and forth by email, Manafort and Gates made it easy for prosecutors to pinpoint exactly who changed the documents and when.

It reminded me of this story, linking corruption to a popular Microsoft font.

A Microsoft font may have exposed corruption in Pakistan
The Microsoft font Calibri is now a key piece of evidence in a corruption investigation surrounding Pakistan’s prime minister. Investigators noticed that documents handed over by the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, were typed up in the font Calibri. But the documents were dated from 2006 — and Calibri wasn’t widely available at that point, making a good case that they were forged.

How Wikipedia found itself at the centre of a major corruption scandal in Pakistan
As I am part of Wikipedia’s counter-vandalism team, I have been engaged in the reverting of unverified information being added to the Calibri page by anonymous users. But as the edit war grew and the sensitivity of the issue became obvious, I had to ask an administrator to lock the page to restrict any further edits in order to avoid misleading information being spread outside of Wikipedia.

A university union rep unhappy with their university’s spending?

I think it’s traditional to mock corporate rebrands and be appalled at the sums of money involved swapping one little logo for another little logo, but the timing of this one could have been better.

University of Portsmouth under fire over £800,000 rebrand costs as departments face cuts
Dr James Hicks, city university branch secretary of the University and College union, said: ‘I don’t understand why they would spend so much money on a logo and shortly after that say we’re having difficulties and might need to make savings. ‘You would assume they would have thought this through and it would be a little more joined up.’

I wouldn’t like to comment on the levels of marketing and recruitment expertise the UCU rep has – obviously it’s not £800,000 on just a logo – but after yesterday’s post about strike action, and the attention currently on VC pay, this could have been managed better.

Times Higher Education v-c pay survey 2018
Times Higher Education’s survey of vice-chancellors’ pay in the most recently reported financial year, 2016-17, reveals that Snowden’s total remuneration rose to £433,000 in 2016-17, while that of Breakwell – who announced last November that she would retire at the end of the current academic year – reached £471,000, a rise of 4.4 per cent. But even that salary looked paltry compared with the headline-grabbing £808,000 earned by Christina Slade of neighbouring Bath Spa University, a figure that – as THE revealed in December – included a £429,000 pay-off for “loss of office”.

Bath University vice-chancellor quits after outcry over £468k pay
“Professor Breakwell will receive more than £600,000 from the university, an enormous reward for failure, and will continue to exercise the authority which has generated the ‘climate of fear’ now openly talked-of on campus,” a joint statement from the campus unions UCU, Unite and Unison, said.

[…]

Ana Dinerstein, a member of the senate who last week voted no-confidence in Breakwell, said: “This is great opportunity for change that will start at Bath University and can spread throughout the sector. It can be a turning point.”

Or not.

 

Tougher talk this time

I was about to comment along the lines of ‘haven’t we been here before’, but it does seem a little different this time.

Tensions mount on campus as USS pensions strike looms
In a sign of the growing tensions, management at the University of Leeds were accused of “bullying” after they wrote to academics warning them that, as well as withholding pay for each day of strike action, the institution would deduct a quarter of their daily salary if they refused to reschedule lectures or cover for absent colleagues.

100 year old suffrage posters

“Our weapon is public opinion” – Posters of the women’s suffrage movement at the University Library
“These posters are fantastic examples of the suffrage publicity machine of the early twentieth century,” says Chris Burgess, exhibitions officer at the Library. “They were created to be plastered on walls, torn down by weather or political opponents, so it is highly unusual for this material to be safely stored for over a hundred years.”

Counting scapegoats

Two articles from The Guardian caught my eye recently, about immigration.

That working-class lives are more fraught is not down to immigration
Economic, social and political developments have, in recent years, coalesced to make working-class lives far more precarious – the imposition of austerity, the rise of the gig economy, the savaging of public services, at the same time as the growing atomisation of society, the erosion of the power of labour movement organisations and the shift of the Labour party away from its traditional constituencies.

Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes.

2VCs on … what does 2018 look like for universities?
“There can be few if any rational arguments for including international students in the net migration figures,” Humphris says unequivocally. “The evidence is there. They do not overstay. They add hugely to the enrichment of our universities that should be global and outward-looking. They make a massive contribution. The whole debate around immigration and international students creates very unhelpful mood music.”

Some things are easier to quantify than others, but just because something is countable doesn’t mean that that is where we should be focusing attention or laying blame, surely.

Pernicious Facebook

There’s a Pernicious Anaemia page on Facebook, but not an actual Pernicious Facebook page. Perhaps I should start one. I’m sure George Soros would give me a like.

George Soros: Facebook and Google a menace to society
“Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment,” said the Hungarian-American businessman, according to a transcript of his speech. “This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.”

There’s more from him on his webpage. (I’m guessing he doesn’t have a Facebook page.)

George Soros: Remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum
Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind.” There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.

You wouldn’t think those in charge of these social media companies would agree, but perhaps they do?

‘Never get high on your own supply’ – why social media bosses don’t use social media
“It’s possible that in 20 years we’ll look back at the current generation of children and say: ‘Look, they are socially different from every other generation of humans that came before and as a result this is a huge problem and maybe we need to regulate these behaviours.’ Or perhaps we’ll look back and say: ‘I don’t know what the fuss was – I’m not sure why we were so concerned.’ Until we have some evidence, until there’s something that seems tangible, I think it’s going to be very hard to get people en masse to change how they behave.”

Ambivalent, to say the least.

I’ve heard of ‘gutter’ politics…

Trump asked to borrow a Van Gogh, and the Guggenheim offered him a gold toilet
“We are pleased that they are interested in demonstrating their support for the arts… I am sorry, however, to inform you that we are unable to participate in this loan,” it begins. “Fortuitously, a marvellous work by the celebrated contemporary Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan, is coming off view today after a year’s installation at the Guggenheim, and he would like to offer it to the White House for a long-term loan…. The work beautifully channels the history of 20th-century avant-garde art by referencing Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal of 1917.”

Indeed. And speaking of Duchamp’s Fountain, here’s a great story from Brian Eno.

When Brian Eno and other artists peed in Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal
I thought, how ridiculous that this particular … pisspot gets carried around the world at—it costs about thirty or forty thousand dollars to insure it every time it travels. I thought, How absolutely stupid, the whole message of this work is, “You can take any object and put it in a gallery.” It doesn’t have to be that one, that’s losing the point completely. And this seemed to me an example of the art world once again covering itself by drawing a fence around that thing, saying, “This isn’t just any ordinary piss pot, this is THE one, the special one, the one that is worth all this money.” So I thought, somebody should piss in that thing, to sort of bring it back to where it belonged. So I decided it had to be me.

And for more Trump-inspired art, check out Edel Rodriguez’s magazine cover artworks for Der Spiegel and Time.

Truth with a small t but a capital Trump

This book about Trump seems to be less biography and more gossip column. But I guess that’s appropriate?

Fire and Fury is a perfectly postmodern White House book
If Michael Wolff is writing fiction in Fire and Fury, this is the kind of fiction he is writing. Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, in an author’s note, Wolff declares himself an unreliable narrator: “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book,” he writes. The traditional promise of the journalist is to find the single, fundamental truth obscured by all the partial, biased accounts he elicits. But Wolff explicitly declines to make that promise; he offers not the story but a whole chorus of stories.

Tackling loneliness

Steps from the government, as well as research from the Co-op Group.

May appoints minister to tackle loneliness issues raised by Jo Cox
“I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.” May paid tribute to Cox’s work, saying she hoped the initiative would aim “to see that, in Jo’s memory, we bring an end to the acceptance of loneliness for good”.

Loneliness is harming our society. Your kindness is the best cure
The commission will be outlining its thinking at the end of the year with requests for government and business. But we’ll also be explaining how we all have a role to play. Jo knew this. She said that tackling loneliness is “something many of us could easily help with – whether looking in on a neighbour, visiting an elderly relative or making that call or visit we’ve been promising to a friend”.

What loneliness costs UK employers
Our latest research shows 4 key ways that loneliness is a financial cost to employers. 1. Sickness absence associated with ill health effects of loneliness costs £20 million. 2. Lost working days caring for someone suffering from the ill health effects of loneliness costs £220 million. 3. Reduced productivity costs related to lower wellbeing from loneliness are £665 million. 4. Costs associated with increased voluntary staff ‘turnover’ are £1.62 billion.