Facebook whistleblower says network profits as it hurts kids, fuels division

Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen appears before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee during a hearing entitled 'Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower'. (AFP)
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Updated 05 October 2021

Facebook whistleblower says network profits as it hurts kids, fuels division

  • Facebook’s leadership had rejected recommendations made to make its sites, which include Instagram, safer
  • Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, said Facebook had also done too little to prevent its platform from being used by people planning violence

WASHINGTON: A former Facebook data scientist told Congress on Tuesday that the social network giant’s products harm children and fuel polarization in the US while its executives refuse to change because they elevate profits over safety. And she laid responsibility with the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Frances Haugen testified to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. Speaking confidently at a charged hearing, she accused the company of being aware of apparent harm to some teens from Instagram and being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation.
“Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”
“Congressional action is needed,” she said. “They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”
Haugen said the company has acknowledged publicly that integrity controls were crucially needed for its systems that stoke the engagement of users, but then it disabled some of those controls.
In dialogue with receptive senators of both parties, Haugen, who focused on algorithm products in her work at Facebook, explained the importance to the company of algorithms that govern what shows up on users’ news feeds. She said a 2018 change to the content flow contributed to more divisiveness and ill will in a network ostensibly created to bring people closer together.
Despite the enmity that the new algorithms were feeding, she said Facebook found that they helped keep people coming back — a pattern that helped the social media giant sell more of the digital ads that generate most of its revenue.
Senators agreed.
“It has profited off spreading misinformation and disinformation and sowing hate,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, the panel’s chairman. “Facebook’s answers to Facebook’s destructive impact always seems to be more Facebook, we need more Facebook — which means more pain, and more money for Facebook.”
Haugen said she believed Facebook didn’t set out to build a destructive platform. But “in the end, the buck stops with Mark,” she said referring to Zuckerberg, who controls more than 50 percent of Facebook’s voting shares. “There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself.”
Haugen said she believed that Zuckerberg was familiar with some of the internal research showing concerns for potential negative impacts of Instagram.
The government needs to step in with stricter oversight of the company, Haugen said.
Like fellow tech giants Google, Amazon and Apple, Facebook has enjoyed minimal regulation. A number of bipartisan legislative proposals for the tech industry address data privacy, protection of young people and anti-competitive conduct. But getting new laws through Congress is a heavy slog. The Federal Trade Commission has adopted a stricter stance recently toward Facebook and other companies.
The subcommittee is examining Facebook’s use of information from its own researchers on Instagram that could indicate potential harm for some of its young users, especially girls, while it publicly downplayed the negative impacts. For some of the teens devoted to Facebook’s popular photo-sharing platform, the peer pressure generated by the visually focused Instagram led to mental health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, the research leaked by Haugen showed.
One internal study cited 13.5 percent of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17 percent of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.
Because of the drive for user engagement, Haugen testified, “Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content. ... It’s just like cigarettes. Teenagers don’t have any self-regulation. We need to protect the kids.”
Haugen has come forward with a wide-ranging condemnation of Facebook, buttressed with tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit. She also has filed complaints with federal authorities alleging that Facebook’s own research shows that it amplifies hate, misinformation and political unrest, but the company hides what it knows.
“The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the US government and from governments around the world,” Haugen said. “The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages.”
The former employee challenging the social network giant with 2.8 billion users worldwide and nearly $1 trillion in market value is a 37-year-old data expert from Iowa with a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in business from Harvard. Prior to being recruited by Facebook in 2019, she worked for 15 years at tech companies including Google, Pinterest and Yelp.
After recent reports in The Wall Street Journal based on documents she leaked to the newspaper raised a public outcry, Haugen revealed her identity in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview aired Sunday night.
As the public relations debacle over the Instagram research grew last week, Facebook put on hold its work on a kids’ version of Instagram, which the company says is meant mainly for tweens aged 10 to 12.
Haugen said that Facebook prematurely turned off safeguards designed to thwart misinformation and incitement to violence after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump last year, alleging that contributed to the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol.
After the November election, Facebook dissolved the civic integrity unit where Haugen had been working. That, she says, was the moment she realized “I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.”
Haugen says she told Facebook executives when they recruited her that she wanted to work in an area of the company that fights misinformation, because she had lost a friend to online conspiracy theories.
Facebook maintains that Haugen’s allegations are misleading and insists there is no evidence to support the premise that it is the primary cause of social polarization.
“Even with the most sophisticated technology, which I believe we deploy, even with the tens of thousands of people that we employ to try and maintain safety and integrity on our platform, we’re never going to be absolutely on top of this 100 percent of the time,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of policy and public affairs, said Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
That’s because of the “instantaneous and spontaneous form of communication” on Facebook, Clegg said, adding, “I think we do more than any reasonable person can expect to.”


Pakistan's PM orders restoration of Wikipedia 'with immediate effect'

Updated 39 min 45 sec ago

Pakistan's PM orders restoration of Wikipedia 'with immediate effect'

  • Pakistan blocked Wikipedia last week on grounds it failed to remove "blasphemous content" from its platform
  • "Unintended consequences" of blanket ban on Wikipedia outweigh its benefits, says committee formed by PM Sharif

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Monday ordered the restoration of online encyclopedia Wikipedia "with immediate effect", a couple of days after it was banned for uploading "blasphemous" content on its platform. 

Pakistan last week banned Wikipedia across the country, accusing the platform of deliberately not removing blasphemous content. Pakistan's telecommunication regulator said it provided the platform multiple chances to present its stance in a hearing but it failed to do so. 

Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, and social media giants Facebook and YouTube have previously been banned for publishing content deemed sacrilegious.

The move drew flak from digital rights activists and proponents of free speech, who pointed out how the move would deprive millions across the country of free knowledge and research material. 

According to a statement by the Prime Minister's House (PMO), the premier constituted a three-member ministerial committee comprising the ministers of law, information and economic affairs to deliberate on the matter. 

The committee said Wikipedia is a "useful" website that supports the dissemination of knowledge and information for the general public. "Blocking the site in its entirety was not a suitable measure to restrict access to some objectionable contents / sacrilegious matter on it," the committee said. 

The committee said further that the "unintended consequences" of the blanket ban outweigh its benefits.

"Based on the above recommendation, the Prime Minister is pleased to direct that the website (Wikipedia) may be restored with immediate effect," the PMO stated.

The statement said that the prime minister had constituted a separate cabinet committee comprising the ministers of IT, law, information, commerce and communications that may "co-opt any expert members or seek opinion from expert individuals/organizations to reach its findings."

The committee would review the suitability of the PTA's action of blocking Wikipedia to restrict access to blasphemous content. It would also explore and recommend alternative measures to remove or block blasphemous material on Wikipedia and other online sites and provide any other recommendations to control unlawful online content "in a balanced manner."

In September 2020, Pakistan blocked Tinder, Grindr and three other dating apps for not adhering to local laws, with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) saying it had taken the decision to curb the “negative effects of immoral/indecent content streaming.”


Tesla’s Elon Musk found not liable in trial over 2018 ‘funding secured’ tweets

Updated 05 February 2023

Tesla’s Elon Musk found not liable in trial over 2018 ‘funding secured’ tweets

  • Tesla shareholders claimed Musk misled them when he tweeted on Aug. 7, 2018, that he was considering taking the company private at $420 per share
  • Shares of Tesla rose 1.6 percent in after-hours trading following the verdict and Musk tweeted that "he wisdom of the people has prevailed"

SAN FRANCISCO: A US jury on Friday found Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk and his company were not liable for misleading investors when Musk tweeted in 2018 that he had “funding secured” to take the electric car company private.
Plaintiffs had claimed billions in damages and the decision also had been seen as important for Musk himself, who often takes to Twitter to air his views.
The jury came back with a unanimous verdict roughly two hours after beginning deliberations.
Musk was not present in court when the verdict was read but soon tweeted that he was “deeply appreciative” of the jury’s decision.
“Thank goodness, the wisdom of the people has prevailed,” he said.
Nicholas Porritt, a lawyer for the investors, said in a statement, “We are disappointed with the verdict and are considering next steps.”
Shares of Tesla rose 1.6 percent in after-hours trading following the verdict.
“A dark chapter is now closed for Musk and Tesla,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said. Ives added that some Tesla investors feared Musk might have to sell more Tesla stock if he lost.
The world’s second-richest person has previously created legal and regulatory headaches through his sometimes impulsive use of Twitter, the social media company he bought for $44 billion in October.
Minor Myers, who teaches corporate law at the University of Connecticut and who had previously called the investors’ case strong, called the outcome “astounding.”
The US anti-securities fraud law “has always been thought to be this great bulwark against misstatements and falsehoods,” he said. “This outcome makes you wonder if it is up to the job in modern markets,” he said, adding that Musk himself was likely to “double down” on his communication tactics after the verdict.
Musk’s attention has been divided in recent months between Tesla, his rocket company SpaceX and now Twitter. Tesla investors have expressed concerns that running the social media company has taken up too much of his focus.
’Bad word choice’
Tesla shareholders claimed Musk misled them when he tweeted on Aug. 7, 2018, that he was considering taking the company private at $420 per share, a premium of about 23 percent to the prior day’s close, and had “funding secured.”
They say Musk lied when he tweeted later that day that “investor support is confirmed.”
The stock price soared after the tweets and then fell again after Aug. 17, 2018, as it became clear the buyout would not happen.
Porritt during closing arguments said the billionaire CEO is not above the law, and should be held liable for the tweets.
“This case ultimately is about whether rules that apply to everyone else should also apply to Elon Musk,” he said.
Musk’s lawyer Alex Spiro countered that Musk’s “funding secured” tweet was “technically inaccurate” but that investors only cared that Musk was considering a buyout.
“The whole case is built on bad word choice,” he said. “Who cares about bad word choice?“
“Just because it’s a bad tweet doesn’t make it fraud,” Spiro said during closing arguments.
An economist hired by the shareholders had calculated investor losses as high as $12 billion.
During the three-week trial, Musk spent nearly nine hours on the witness stand, telling jurors he believed the tweets were truthful. 
Musk later testified that he believed he could have sold enough shares of his rocket company SpaceX to fund a buyout, and “felt funding was secured” with SpaceX stock alone.
Musk testified that he made the tweets in order to put small shareholders on the same footing as large investors who knew about the deal. But he acknowledged he lacked formal commitments from potential backers.
The verdict is another victory for Musk and his lawyer Spiro after they won a defamation lawsuit against the billionaire in 2019 over his tweet calling a cave explorer a “pedo guy.” 


ChatGPT maker fields tool for spotting AI-written text

Updated 01 February 2023

ChatGPT maker fields tool for spotting AI-written text

  • But the company said the detection tool is still "imperfect"

SAN FRANCISCO: Creators of a ChatGPT bot causing a stir for its ability to mimic human writing on Tuesday released a tool designed to detect when written works are authored by artificial intelligence.
The announcement came amid intense debate at schools and universities in the United States and around the world over concerns that the software can be used to assist students with assignments and help them cheat during exams.
US-based OpenAI said in a blog post Tuesday that its detection tool has been trained “to distinguish between text written by a human and text written by AIs from a variety of providers.”
The bot from OpenAI, which recently received a massive cash injection from Microsoft, responds to simple prompts with reams of text inspired by data gathered on the Internet.
OpenAI cautioned that its tool can make mistakes, particularly with texts containing fewer than 1,000 characters.
“While it is impossible to reliably detect all AI-written text, we believe good classifiers can inform mitigations for false claims that AI-generated text was written by a human,” OpenAI said in the post.
“For example, running automated misinformation campaigns, using AI tools for academic dishonesty, and positioning an AI chatbot as a human.”
A top French university last week forbade students from using ChatGPT to complete assignments, in the first such ban at a college in the country.
The decision came shortly after word that ChatGPT had passed exams at a US law school after writing essays on topics ranging from constitutional law to taxation.
ChatGPT still makes factual mistakes, but education facilities have rushed to ban the AI tool.
“We recognize that identifying AI-written text has been an important point of discussion among educators, and equally important is recognizing the limits and impacts of AI generated text classifiers in the classroom,” OpenAI said in the post.
“We are engaging with educators in the US to learn what they are seeing in their classrooms and to discuss ChatGPT’s capabilities and limitations.”
Officials in New York and other jurisdictions have forbidden its use in schools.
A group of Australian universities have said they would change exam formats to banish AI tools and regard them as cheating.
OpenAI said it recommends using the classifier only with English text as it performs worse in other languages.

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Russian court fines Amazon’s Twitch $57,000 over Ukraine content

Updated 31 January 2023

Russian court fines Amazon’s Twitch $57,000 over Ukraine content

  • Court said Twitch failed to remove “fakes” from its platform

LONDON: A Russian court on Tuesday fined streaming service Twitch 4 million roubles ($57,000) for failing to remove what it said were “fakes” about Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, the Interfax news agency reported.
Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Moscow has long objected to foreign tech platforms’ distribution of content that falls foul of its restrictions, with Russian courts regularly imposing penalties.


Facebook seeks to block $3.7 bln UK mass action over market dominance

Updated 30 January 2023

Facebook seeks to block $3.7 bln UK mass action over market dominance

  • Tech giant claims lawsuit is “entirely without merit,” ignore added “economic value”

LONDON: Facebook on Monday asked a London tribunal to block a collective lawsuit valued at up to 3 billion pounds ($3.7 billion) over allegations the social media giant abused its dominant position to monetise users’ personal data.
Meta Platforms Inc, the parent company of the Facebook group, is facing a mass action brought on behalf of around 45 million Facebook users in Britain.
Legal academic Liza Lovdahl Gormsen, who is bringing the case, said Facebook users were not properly compensated for the value of personal data that they had to provide to use the platform.
Her lawyers said users should get compensation for the economic value they would have received if Facebook was not in a dominant position in the market for social networks.
But Meta said the lawsuit was “entirely without merit” and should not be allowed to proceed. Its lawyers said the claimed losses ignore the “economic value” Facebook provides.
Lovdahl Gormsen’s lawyers on Monday asked the Competition Appeal Tribunal to certify the case under the UK’s collective proceedings regime – which is roughly equivalent to the class action regime in the United States.
A decision to certify collective proceedings will depend on whether the tribunal decides that the individual cases can appropriately be dealt with together, rather than on their merits.
Ronit Kreisberger, representing Lovdahl Gormsen, told the tribunal that “Meta’s data practices violate the prohibition on abusive conduct by dominant firms”.
“There is unquestionably a case for Meta to answer at trial,” Kreisberger argued.
But lawyers representing Meta said the lawsuit wrongly assumes that any “excess profits” it might make equates to a financial loss suffered by individual Facebook users.
This approach “takes no account whatsoever of the significant economic value of the service provided by Facebook”, Marie Demetriou said in court documents.
She said Lovdahl Gormsen’s estimate of potential claimants’ total losses – 3 billion pounds, including interest – is “at the very least wildly inflated”.