Facebook whistleblower fears the metaverse

The metaverse is sort of the Internet brought to life, or at least rendered in 3D. (File/AFP)
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Updated 09 November 2021

Facebook whistleblower fears the metaverse

  • Haugen’s documents have exposed an internal crisis at the social media giant, which provides free services to 3 billion people

BRUSSELS: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen warned Tuesday that the “metaverse,” the all-encompassing virtual reality world promised by the social media giant, will be addictive and rob people of yet more personal information while giving the embattled company another monopoly online.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Haugen said her former employer rushed to trumpet the metaverse because of the intense pressure it is facing after she revealed deep-seated problems at the company and energized legislative and regulatory efforts around the world to crack down on big tech companies.
“If you don’t like the conversation, you try to change the conversation,” the former product-manager-turned whistleblower said. The documents she has turned over to authorities and her testimony to lawmakers have drawn global attention for providing insight into what Facebook may have known about the damage its social media platforms can cause. She is in the midst of a series of appearances before European lawmakers and experts drawing up rules for social media companies.
Meta, the new name for the parent company of Facebook, denied it was trying to divert from the troubles it faces by pushing the metaverse. “This is not true. We have been working on this for a long time internally,” the company said in a statement.
It stressed that it’s working to responsibly build the metaverse — sort of the Internet brought to life, or at least rendered in 3D. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described it as a “virtual environment” you can go inside of — instead of just looking at on a screen — and refocused Facebook’s business model on it, including renaming the company Meta.
Launching that new brand, in fact, draws attention to the company, it said in a statement, adding that if it didn’t want the scrutiny it would have delayed or scrapped the launch altogether.
But the new focus on metaverse creates a whole new set of dangers, Haugen said. In “Snow Crash,” the 1992 the sci-fi novel that coined the phrase, “it was a thing that people used to numb themselves when their lives were horrible,” she said.
“So beyond the fact that these immersive environments are extremely addictive and they encourage people to unplug from the reality we actually live,” she said, “I’m also worried about it on the level of — the metaverse will require us to put many, many more sensors in our homes and our workplaces,” forcing users to relinquish more of their data and their privacy.
She said employees of companies that use the metaverse would have little option but to participate in the system or leave their jobs.
“If your employer decides they’re now a metaverse company, you have to give out way more personal data to a company that’s demonstrated that it lies whenever it is in its best interests,” she said.
And she cautioned the public not to expect more transparency.
“They’ve demonstrated with regard to Facebook that they can hide behind a wall. They keep making unforced errors, they keep making things that prioritize their own profits over our safety,” she said.
Haugen has said Facebook’s systems amplify online hate and extremism, fail to protect young people from harmful content and that the company lacks any incentive to fix the problems, in revelations that shed light on an internal crisis at the company that provides free services to 3 billion people.
To back up her allegations, she made a series of disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission that were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions received by Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including the AP.
In Tuesday’s interview, she expressed astonishment that the company would shift focus to a whole new realm while it is under such intense criticism about the areas where it is already working.
“They’re going to hire 10,000 engineers to work on video games when they haven’t actually gotten safety right on their main product,” Haugen said.
For that, she faulted Zuckerberg personally.
“So given that I see this pattern of choices where he prioritizes growth and expansion over making sure what he has is good, I think that is a failure of leadership,” she said.
The company denied that it’s putting profits over safety. “Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie,” it said, adding that it plans to spend more than $5 billion in 2021 on safety and security and employs more than 40,000 people work on keeping users safe.
Zuckerberg has previously dismissed Haugen’s claims as a “coordinated effort” to paint a false picture of the company.
But officials in Washington and European capitals are taking her claims seriously. European Union lawmakers questioned her intensely Monday, before applauding her at the end of the 2 1/2 hour hearing.
The EU is drafting new digital rules for the 27-nation bloc that call for reining in big “digital gatekeepers,” requiring them to be more transparent about algorithms that determine what people see on their feeds and making them more accountable for the content on their platforms.
Facebook has said it largely supports regulations, with legislative efforts in the EU and United Kingdom much further along than those in the US
Haugen has made stops in London and Berlin to speak to officials and lawmakers and spoke at a tech conference in Lisbon. She also will address French lawmakers in Paris on Wednesday.


Biden caught insulting Fox News journalist

Updated 25 January 2022

Biden caught insulting Fox News journalist

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden was caught on a live microphone Monday calling a Fox News journalist a “stupid son of a bitch” on the sidelines of a White House photo op.
As journalists were leaving the room after the event, a reporter from Fox News, the favorite channel of conservatives, asked whether inflation is a political liability.
The Democratic leader, possibly unaware that his microphone was still on, began by deadpanning: “It’s a great asset. More inflation.”
And then muttered, “What a stupid son of a bitch,” before glancing briefly down.
A pool reporter who was in the room at the time admitted to not being able to hear what Biden actually said over the noise.
But he added that he would “direct your attention to video of the event if you are curious how the president really feels about being asked about inflation from Fox’s Peter Doocy.”
Doocy shrugged the insult off in a later interview on Fox.
“Yeah nobody has fact-checked him yet and said it’s not true,” he said, nonchalantly.


Meta removes Iran-based fake accounts targeting Instagram users in Scotland

Updated 20 January 2022

Meta removes Iran-based fake accounts targeting Instagram users in Scotland

  • The network used fake accounts to pose as locals in England and Scotland
  • The accounts posted commentary about Scottish independence and organized their content around common hashtags promoting the cause

DUBAI: Facebook parent Meta Platforms removed a network of fake accounts that originated in Iran and targeted Instagram users in Scotland with content supporting Scottish independence, the company’s investigators said on Thursday.
The network used fake accounts to pose as locals in England and Scotland, posting photos and memes about current events and criticism of the United Kingdom’s government, Meta said.
The accounts posted commentary about Scottish independence and organized their content around common hashtags promoting the cause, though they at times misspelled them, the company said. The accounts also posted about football and UK cities, likely to make the fictitious personas seem more authentic.
The network used photos of media personalities and celebrities from the UK and Iran as well as profile pictures likely created through AI techniques, Meta said.
In a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, Scots voted 55 percent-45 percent to remain in the United Kingdom, but both Brexit and the British government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis have bolstered support for independence among Scots and demands for a second vote.
Meta said its investigation found links to individuals in Iraq, including people with a background in teaching English as a foreign language.
It said the operation had some connections with a small Iran-based network it previously removed in December 2020, which mostly targeted Arabic, French and English-speaking audiences using fake accounts, but did not provide further details on who might be behind the activity.
“We’ve seen a range of operations coming from Iran over the last few years,” said Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead for influence operations, in a press briefing. “It’s not a monolithic environment.”
The social media company said it had removed eight Facebook accounts and 126 Instagram accounts as part of this network in December for violating its rules against coordinated inauthentic behavior.


German journalist acquitted of terror charges in Turkey

Updated 18 January 2022

German journalist acquitted of terror charges in Turkey

  • Mesale Tolu was accused of engaging in terror propaganda and being a member of a banned left-wing group
  • Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey at 153 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index of 2021

ISTANBUL: A Turkish court has acquitted German journalist Mesale Tolu after years on trial for terror-related charges.
“After 4 years, 8 months and 20 days: Acquitted of both charges!” Tolu tweeted after her acquittal. She was accused of engaging in terror propaganda and being a member of a banned left-wing group — the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party.
Tolu, 38, was placed in pre-trial detention for eight months in 2017. She was later released but was barred from leaving Turkey until August 2018. She lives in Germany.
Before her arrest, Tolu worked as a translator and journalist for the Turkish ETHA news agency.
German-Turkish relations were tense at the time of Tolu’s arrest, when eight other German or German-Turkish citizens were imprisoned. Berlin considered the arrests to be politically motivated.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey at 153 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index of 2021. At least 34 media employees are currently behind bars, according to Turkey’s Journalists Union.


Russia demands Facebook unblock foreign ministry-linked page

Updated 17 January 2022

Russia demands Facebook unblock foreign ministry-linked page

  • Russia demanded that Facebook immediately lift all restrictions on the official page of Russian foreign ministry
  • The block was instigated on Friday for publishing “illegal content”
MOSCOW: Russia’s media regulator has demanded that Facebook “immediately” lift all restrictions on the official page of the country’s delegation for arms control talks in Vienna.
The Facebook page, which is affiliated to Russia’s foreign ministry, was taken down on Friday for publishing “illegal content,” according to delegation head Konstantin Gavrilov.
Media watchdog Roskomnadzor said Sunday evening that it has sent a letter to Meta, Facebook’s parent company, “with the demand to immediately lift all restrictions” from the Facebook page and “explain the reasons for introducing them.”
“Such actions of the administration of the Facebook social network violate the key principles of free distribution of information,” Roskomnadzor said.
The regulator added that it considers this an “act of censorship.”
The page was still unavailable on Monday morning.
Gavrilov told state news agency TASS on Sunday that the delegation uses the Facebook page to post statements from Russia’s leadership or the foreign ministry.
“This is a blatant act of censorship in the information space,” Gavrilov said in a statement on Twitter, requesting support from the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In February 2021, the delegation’s account on Twitter had also been temporarily blocked, TASS reported.
Russia has repeatedly fined US tech giants, including Meta, for ignoring content moderation requests as the country ramps up its control of Internet platforms.
In December, Meta was slapped with its largest fine yet — the equivalent of $27 million — for repeatedly failing to delete illegal content.

Gaza TV studio produces Hamas response to Israeli hit shows

Updated 17 January 2022

Gaza TV studio produces Hamas response to Israeli hit shows

  • “We want to flip the equation, to show the Palestinian point of view," says Gaza director Mohammed Soraya

GAZA CITY: In a Gaza TV studio of the ruling Islamist armed movement Hamas, a set features Israeli flags, Hebrew documents and a portrait of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism.
The make-believe office of enemy state Israel’s security service is being used to shoot a “pro-resistance” television series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is Hamas’s answer to Israeli hit shows such as the special forces drama “Fauda” that have gained millions of viewers on platforms such as Netflix, HBO and Apple TV+.
“Fauda,” which in Arabic means chaos, portrays a military unit led by commander Doron Kavillio that launches raids inside Palestinian territories.

A portrait of the founder of of modern political Zionism Theodor Hertzl hangs on the set as Palestinian actors and crew shoot a scene of "Qabdat al-Ahrar" in Gaza city on Jan. 10, 2022. (Photo by Mahmud Hams / AFP)

Admitting to having watched “Fauda,” though, is not a good idea in Gaza, the Palestinian coastal enclave blockaded by Israel, said local director Mohammed Soraya.
To watch any Israeli TV series means supporting the “normalization” of relations with the Jewish state, argued Soraya, who is directing Hamas’s own TV series on the conflict.
He charged that such shows “support the Zionist occupation” because their plots “criminalize the Palestinian people,” speaking with AFP in the Gaza City studio.
“We want to flip the equation, to show the Palestinian point of view, to broadcast a drama about the spirit of our resistance.”
Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union. The Islamist group controls the Gaza Strip, an impoverished territory of 2.3 million people.
It also runs the Al-Aqsa channel, and has been investing in series inspired by Hollywood, and by Turkish soap operas that are popular across the Middle East.
The series now in production, “Qabdat Al-Ahrar” (Fist of the Free), revisits a 2018 Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip that resulted in the deaths of seven Hamas fighters and an Israeli officer.
The protagonists are the fighters of Hamas, which has fought four wars against the Jewish state since 2008.

Unlike Israeli series that often feature actors from the country’s Arab-Israeli minority, productions in Gaza do not use any Israeli actors. (Photo by Mahmud Hams / AFP)

Budgets are meagre, actors’ salaries are low, sets are basic and deadlines are tight, with the production team expected to deliver some 30 episodes by April, in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
While Israeli series often feature actors from the country’s Arab-Israeli minority, productions in Gaza do not use any Israeli actors.
This forces studios to recruit local actors to play Israelis — a job that, the performers say, can expose them to real-world hostility and danger.
One of them is Jawad Harouda, aged in his early sixties and with a husky voice, who portrays the head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service in the new TV series.
To get into character, Harouda said he “soaked up the script,” but added that being too convincing can lead to trouble.
“Some women look at me and pray that I die,” he said, leaning back in his boss’s chair in the fake Shin Bet office.
“I’m happy when people insult me. It means I’ve succeeded ... The actor is a chameleon, he must be able to act out all colors.”
In Gaza productions, Israeli characters speak in Arabic. And, at the request of the Hamas mufti, or Islamic jurist, women wear their headscarves even if they play Jewish characters.

Palestinian women actors have to wear the hijab even if they are playing the part of Israeli women in the film. (Photo by Mahmud Hams / AFP)


“In one series, I played a Jewish woman,” said one actress, Kamila Fadel, who added that she may have been just a little too convincing for her own good.

“After the series was broadcast, a woman tried to strangle me,” she recounted.
“She told me: ‘I hate you, you are hurting us so much’. On another day a 13-year-old boy threw a stone at my head thinking I was Jewish... This means I played my part well.”
Not everyone is a fan of the Hamas productions, which are firmly focused on the conflict.
“There is no love” in the dramas, argued Palestinian director and critic Jamal Abu Alqumsan, who expressed regret that the rare local productions served primarily as a “tool of resistance.”
Abu Alqumsan said the potential for such productions to tell Palestinians’ stories was huge, but the challenges were many.
“In Gaza, we live under a blockade, it’s a unique situation in the world,” he said, speaking in his art gallery, which he hopes to turn into a small film library.
“So we need producers to invest in quality series and tell the rest of the world our story. We have good actors, they just need good directors and means.”
For now, Abu Alqumsan said he was unsure of the impact such shows would have.
“TV dramas are a weapon, but in the face of Israel, local productions are of a low level,” he said.