The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The Social Network 2: Zuckerberg Testifies

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before congressional committees regarding the company’s use and protection of user data on April 10, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Oof, what a day already! House speaker Paul Ryan is ready to hang it up, President Trump tells Russia and Syria to “get ready!” and I’ve got a lot of thoughts about Mark Zuckerberg testifying before the Senate.

Zuckerberg Meets the Senate: Grandpa Tries to Interrogate Your Company’s IT Guy

Yesterday’s joint Senate Commerce and Judiciary hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made clear that, with a couple of exceptions, we don’t have a U.S. Senate that is ready to rise to the challenges of the world in 2018. It was depressingly clear that most of the older senators were reading questions that were prewritten by staffers and that they had only the vaguest understanding of what Facebook does, what should worry them, and what, if anything, the federal government should do about it.

For a long time, Facebook insisted they’re a technology company, not a media company, and thus they are no more responsible for what gets written on Facebook then the people who build bathroom stall walls are for someone writing “for a good time call Jenny at 867-5309.”

But the bathroom stall wall doesn’t delete messages it deems inappropriate, meaning that Facebook has already subtly acknowledged some responsibility for what ends up written on it. This is not necessarily a bad instinct. But we need clear criteria for what sorts of things are acceptable on Facebook and what isn’t, and so far, the company’s criteria seem extraordinarily arbitrary.

Last September, ProPublica revealed that the company’s algorithm for advertising categories had no way to filter out explicitly hateful criteria:

Until this week, when we asked Facebook about it, the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”

To test if these ad categories were real, we paid $30 to target those groups with three “promoted posts” — in which a ProPublica article or post was displayed in their news feeds. Facebook approved all three ads within 15 minutes.

After we contacted Facebook, it removed the anti-Semitic categories — which were created by an algorithm rather than by people — and said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers.

But while Facebook is slow to remove groups like “SS” or “Nazi Party,” they also come down like a ton of bricks on non-controversial groups and conservative individuals. As Ted Cruz laid out yesterday:

Gizmodo reported that Facebook had purposely and routinely suppressed conservative stories from trending news, including stories about CPAC, including stories about Mitt Romney, including stories about the Lois Lerner IRS scandal, including stories about Glenn Beck. In addition to that, Facebook has initially shut down the Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day page, has blocked a post of a Fox News reporter, has blocked over two dozen Catholic pages, and most recently blocked Trump supporters Diamond and Silk’s page, with 1.2 million Facebook followers, after determining their content and brand were, quote, ‘unsafe to the community.’

Zuckerberg answered, “Facebook in the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place, and I — this is actually a concern that I have and that I try to root out in the company, is making sure that we do not have any bias in the work that we do, and I think it is a fair concern that people would at least wonder about.”

I’ve written that some of the coverage of Cambridge Analytica seems to treat the company as if it has a mind-control ray. I don’t think there’s a form of Facebook advertising that can make you do something you don’t have some preceding willingness or interest in doing. But that doesn’t change the fact that Cambridge Analytica said it wanted the Facebook data for academic-research purposes, and then turned around and used it for a political campaign’s purposes. That’s fraud. What guarantees can Facebook give that other companies and institutions haven’t obtained data for one promised purpose and then used it for another purpose?

It’s hard to shake the feeling this Facebook simply sees itself as an efficient mechanism to collect, collate, and organize as much information about you as possible and then offer that data as a tool to anyone willing to pay. It’s like the National Security Agency, but capable of keeping secrets.

A corporate philosophy like that should not be described in technical bureaucratic jargon very deep in a frequently updated user agreement. Look, Zuckerberg, we signed on to your gizmo to see which high-school classmates had gotten fat and to quietly check on our exes. If we wanted to enable some sort of massive information-gathering database about ourselves, we would have just bought an Amazon Alexa.

Given a rare moment where one of the biggest most influential companies in the country had attracted bipartisan anger for its actions and significant public interest . . . a lot of our senators just whiffed, preened, or offered questions in the form of long, rambling diatribes.

Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, one of the younger and allegedly tech-savvy senators, wanted to know if Facebook ads flipped the swing states in the 2016 election: “On the subject of Cambridge Analytica, were these people, the 87 million people, users, concentrated in certain states? Are you able to figure out where they’re from?” If there are 87 million Facebook users, and about 139 million total votes cast in 2016, then yes, it is likely that a lot of those 87 million voted and a lot of them reside in swing states.

Senator Orrin Hatch, God bless him, seemed surprised to learn that Facebook’s business model depends upon running ads. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, only 45, asked about what can be seen when he’s “emailing within WhatsApp,” which is a text-messaging and voice-call app.

There were a few bright spots. Lindsey Graham raised the fair point that if Facebook isn’t a monopoly, it should be easy to think of competitors, but obviously no other social-media company quite collects and organizes user data the way Facebook does. Dick Durbin made something of a point on privacy by asking if Zuckerberg wanted to say publicly which hotel he was staying in, although his metaphor didn’t quite work. (Hackers and cyber-thieves love to hack customer data from hotels, too.)

One senator who did understand the dangers ahead was Nebraska’s Ben Sasse. Earlier in the hearing, Zuckerberg had suggested that Facebook will eventually develop algorithms that will sniff out hate speech and be able to address it immediately. “Hate speech — I am optimistic that, over a five to ten-year period, we will have A.I. tools that can get into some of the nuances — the linguistic nuances of different types of content to be more accurate in flagging things for our systems.”

When Sasse’s turn to question Zuckerberg arrived, he asked a simple question: “Can you define hate speech?”

Zuckerberg said it would be hard to pin down a specific definition, and mentioned speech “calling for violence” as something Facebook does not tolerate.

Does anyone at Facebook understand the ramifications of a vague definition of hate speech? Does Zuckerberg think that the sometimes-violent opposition to any viewpoint that is even remotely conservative on college campuses happened in a vacuum?

House Speaker Paul Ryan Won’t Run for Reelection

There have been hints and suggestions of this for a while, but apparently today it will become official: “House Speaker Paul Ryan has told confidants that he will announce soon that he won’t run for reelection in November, according to sources with knowledge of the conversations.”

Who wants to be the next GOP House minority leader? Because at this rate, the Democrats are going to take the House in November 2018, and it’s not even going to be that difficult. Republican-leaning suburban women are repelled by the Trump-era GOP, the 2016 Trump voters aren’t showing up for candidates not named Trump, everybody and their brother is retiring, Democrats have multiple candidates in every district they need, and Republicans are finding that beyond the tax cuts, this White House has too much tumult and rapidly changing priorities to get much done on DACA, guns, repealing the rest of Obamacare, a big infrastructure bill, higher-education reform, welfare reform, or any other GOP priorities.

Weather Forecast for Damascus: Cloudy with a Chance of Incoming Cruise Missiles

So much for the element of surprise. Trump tweeted this morning, “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

The good news: We’re hitting Syria for chemical-weapons use, Trump is accurately labeling Assad a “Gas Killing Animal” with his traditional Germanic capitalization, and the argument that Trump is a Russian stooge seems less plausible than ever.

The bad news: Apparently the plan is to give Syria as much time as possible to move and hide their chemical weapons and anything valuable before the airstrikes hit.

ADDENDA: After yesterday’s Jolt hit emailboxes, new information arrived that modified yesterday’s argument about the raid on Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s office. ABC News reported that U.S. attorney Geoffery Berman was not involved in the decision to raid Cohen’s office, as he is recused from the case. Others in the SDNY attorney’s office handled the decision. “The recusal was approved by senior Justice Department officials who report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the sources said. Rosenstein himself was notified of the recusal after the decision was made.”

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