Facebook hits anti-vaccine campaign harassing doctors

This update comes as the tech giant battles accusations that it puts profit over user safety. (File/AFP)
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Updated 02 December 2021

Facebook hits anti-vaccine campaign harassing doctors

  • Meta said it had derailed an anti-vaccine campaign that harassed medical workers, journalists and elected officials
  • The social media giant took down accounts in France and Italy that were linked to a conspiracy movement called “V_V”

SAN FRANCISCO: Facebook’s parent company Meta said Wednesday it had derailed an anti-vaccine campaign that harassed medical workers, journalists and elected officials, in a signal of the ongoing pressure from coronavirus pandemic-tied misinformation.
The social media giant took down accounts in France and Italy that were linked to a conspiracy movement called “V_V,” which inundated pro-vaccine posts with potentially tens of thousands of comments.
“V-V” supporters also “mass-harassed” people on YouTube, Twitter, VKontakte and other online platforms, using swastikas or other images as well as calling doctors and media workers “Nazi supporters” for backing vaccines, Meta said.
The company’s update regarding efforts to counter misinformation and harassment on its platform comes as the tech giant battles accusations that it puts profit over user safety.
The firm changed its parent company name to “Meta” in October as it tries to move past the reputation of Facebook as a scandal-plagued social network to the company’s virtual reality vision for the future.
A report by social network analysis firm Graphika offered additional information on “V_V,” which it says touts itself as engaged in guerilla “psychological warfare” that targets vaccine supporters.
Graphika estimates that “V_V” has about 20,000 followers and said the group has been linked to vandalism of hospitals and efforts to disrupt vaccination programs by repeatedly booking and canceling medical appointments.
The group’s campaign used messaging service Telegram to train recruits and spread word of who to target, according to Meta head of emerging harms investigations Mike Dvilyanski.

“While we aren’t banning all V_V content, we’re continuing to monitor the situation and will take action if we find additional violations,” Meta said.
Since the start of the pandemic, misinformation has taken many forms, from false and dangerous health advice to so-called miracle cures, conspiracy theories, racist rhetoric and online scams.
The United States in March denounced what it called a Russian disinformation campaign against US-made Covid-19 vaccines, saying Moscow was putting lives at risk.
Meta also reported taking down a “sprawling and unsuccessful” network out of China that used fake accounts to promote a bogus claim that a Swiss biologist contended the United States was putting pressure on World Health Organization scientists to blame China for the pandemic.
Investigators on the Meta security team equated the campaign to a “hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona” with even Chinese state media citing the fabricated claim.
“Clusters of fake accounts attempted post-amplification, which only took root when media picked up the stories,” Meta head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher said in the briefing.
“But, that was quickly debunked and fizzled out quickly,” he added.
The tactic reflected a trend of trying to get legitimate news outlets to spread misinformation promoted by networks of fake accounts, Gleicher noted.
“Operations like these will also target media, marketers and influencers, who need defenses against these kinds of campaigns,” he said.
Meta found links to employees of people associated with Chinese state infrastructure companies based around the world.
“This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way,” Meta said.
“Our investigation also found that a number of Chinese government officials began interacting with the operation’s content less than an hour after it first posted.”


Fake news or free expression: Top CEO Conference panel examines the hazards of digital media age

Updated 18 May 2022

Fake news or free expression: Top CEO Conference panel examines the hazards of digital media age

  • Top CEO Conference panel explores the case for digital media regulation to fight misinformation 
  • Examples of truth-telling and conspiracy theories show social media can be a double-edged sword

DUBAI: Fake news, a term popularized by former US President Donald Trump to berate sections of the media, is viewed by many in civil society and the business community as one of the most harmful phenomena of the digital age.

There are several recent examples of misinformation, or indeed deliberate disinformation, published online and then amplified by social media, having real-world consequences, from stirring up ethnic tensions to undermining public health initiatives. 

Take, for instance, the case of Edgar Welch, a 28-year-old father of two from Salisbury, North Carolina, who in December 2016 read an article online about an alleged elite pedophile ring operating out of a pizzeria in Washington D.C.

“Pizzagate,” as it became known, was a far-right conspiracy theory, which sought to connect several high-ranking Democratic Party officials with an alleged human trafficking and child sex ring linked to a restaurant named Comet Ping Pong.

After reading the article, Welch picked up a gun and drove the full six hours from his home to Washington D.C. where he opened fire on the restaurant. No one was injured in the attack, and the allegations have since been thoroughly debunked. 

Compare this example with the footage that emerged on May 13 of Israeli security forces attacking Palestinian pallbearers carrying the coffin of veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead two days earlier. 

Thanks to video captured by witnesses on their smartphones and shared on social media, the whole world was able to bear witness to this shocking incident instantaneously, spurring world leaders to condemn the funeral assault.  

During a panel discussion at the Top CEO Conference in Dubai on May 17, both of these incidents were raised as examples of the tremendous power of social media as a means, on the one hand, of spreading misinformation, and, on the other, of exposing the truth. 

It is because of the positive traits of social media as a weapon of truth that media outlets and civil society are cautious about onerous government regulation of these platforms, which might undermine freedom of expression.

“Nobody is against freedom, but we should also be against chaos,” Faisal J. Abbas, the editor-in-chief of Arab News, told Tuesday’s panel. 

“We are talking about billions of people, billions of posts, it is physically impossible to monitor everything and by the time they get to it, the damage would most probably have been done.  

“If you remember from 2016 the fake story which was spreading on Facebook and other platforms about the pizzeria that had a child abuse ring, and somebody took a gun and went and shot up the place.

“The story got more views than the rebuttals. The more crazy the news, the more content it creates, the more websites like Facebook get traction,” Abbas said. 

“There is no end to fake news but we must continue to battle it.”  

Indeed, the digital transformation, which has revolutionized the sharing of information in just a matter of years, has left regulators and companies fighting to keep up with some of its more damaging manifestations.

Hussein Freijeh, general manager of Snap Inc. MENA, who also participated in Tuesday’s panel, said that the efforts of governments to regulate online platforms should not “take away the responsibility of the tech platforms” to tackle fake news.

“When we talk about regulations, there is a component of thoughtful regulation with the government, and we want to engage in that, and help the government to come up with what that means,” Freijeh told Arab News on the sidelines of Tuesday’s forum. 

“Then there is self-regulation, or platform regulation. And this is our responsibility and how we deal with product design, and how to do the policy to control that. 

“And then (there is) self-responsibility from (content) creators and the community, and that is an educational process. It requires a lot of technology to allow self-regulation, and it is a process that we have to commit to.” 

While fake news was in no way created by social media, the sheer speed and accessibility these networks provide means that harmful and malicious behavior now has a greater reach than ever before. 

“Social media gave people freedom,” Khaled Janahi, chairman of Vision 3, told Tuesday’s panel. But, he warned, people need to use it correctly.  

In separate comments to Arab News, Thomas Hughes, executive director of Meta’s oversight board, said that social media companies have a role to play in combating fake news. 

“Content moderation policies have to be crafted in a way that reflects the kinds of standards we want to set globally,” he said. 

“As the (oversight) board cannot hear every appeal, when we select cases, we are thinking about what kind of precedent our decision might create, and we prioritize cases that have the potential to affect lots of users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse or raise important questions about Meta’s policies.” 

He added that Meta — formerly known as Facebook — has already issued more than 100 recommendations and committed to implementing the majority of them. 

But conflicts like those raging in Ukraine and Ethiopia, according to Hughes, add fuel to the fire of fake news. 

Conflict and instability “unfortunately, go hand in hand with rises in mis- and disinformation — although this issue is very much global,” he told Arab News.

Journalists can play a key role in tackling fake news, according to Hughes, which is why many of Meta’s board members have worked in the traditional media in the past. 

“They feel passionately about these issues and about ensuring that more is done to protect journalists and free speech, while also working to protect people from harm.”


Russia not planning to block YouTube, says digital development minister

Updated 17 May 2022

Russia not planning to block YouTube, says digital development minister

  • Russia has blocked other foreign social media platforms
  • Moscow restricted access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in early March

Russia is not planning to block Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, the minister for digital development said on Tuesday, acknowledging that such a move would likely see Russian users suffer and should therefore be avoided.
Russia has blocked other foreign social media platforms, but despite months of fines and threats against YouTube for failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal and for restricting access to some Russian media, it has stopped short of delivering a killer blow to the video-hosting service.
With around 90 million monthly users in Russia, YouTube is extremely popular and plays an important role in the digital economy. Though Russia has domestic versions of other social media, a viable YouTube alternative on that scale is yet to emerge.
“We are not planning to close YouTube,” Maksut Shadaev, who is also minister of communications and mass media, told an educational forum. “Above all, when we restrict something, we should clearly understand that our users won’t suffer.”
Competition is the engine of progress and blocking is an extreme measure, he told a vast auditorium of mostly young Russians, some scattered around the room on bean bags.
Alphabet’s Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Simmering tensions between Moscow and Big Tech erupted into a full-on information battle after Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Russia restricted access to Twitter and Meta Platform’s Facebook and Instagram in early March. It vowed in April to punish Google for shutting out Russian state-funded media globally on YouTube, accusing it of spreading fakes about what Russia calls its special military operation in Ukraine.


Elon Musk says Twitter purchase will not go ahead without clarity on spam accounts

Updated 17 May 2022

Elon Musk says Twitter purchase will not go ahead without clarity on spam accounts

  • ‘Yesterday, Twitter’s CEO publicly refused to show proof of <5 percent. This deal cannot move forward until he does’

NEW YORK: Billionaire Elon Musk said Tuesday that his purchase of Twitter would not go ahead unless he was assured that fewer than five percent of accounts on the platform were fake.
“Yesterday, Twitter’s CEO publicly refused to show proof of <5 percent,” tweeted Musk, who has almost 94 million followers on the social network.
“This deal cannot move forward until he does.”


Georgia jails prominent critical journalist

Updated 16 May 2022

Georgia jails prominent critical journalist

  • Lawyer: Political repressions are under way in Georgia
  • Rights groups have also concern over media freedom in Georgia

TBILISI: Georgia on Monday jailed for three and a half years a prominent journalist and owner of the country’s most popular television station critical of the Black Sea nation’s government.
Nika Gvaramia, an anchor and owner of the pro-opposition Mtavari TV, was found guilty of harming financial interests of a television station he had earlier run, a judge of the Tbilisi city court said.
Gvaramia has also been a lawyer of Georgia’s ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili who is serving a six-year jail term for abuse of power — a conviction he has denounced as politically-motivated.
Gvaramia has said his case was aimed at silencing critical media.
His lawyer Dito Sadzaglishvili said that the verdict was illegal, adding that “Gvaramia was taken into political captivity.”
“Political repressions are under way in Georgia,” he said.
“In democratic countries, journalists are not jailed for their dissenting views.”
Georgia’s prominent TV personalities and managers have long accused the ruling Georgian Dream party’s government of using the judiciary to stifle independent voices.
Rights groups have also expressed concern over media freedom in Georgia, saying managers and owners of nearly all independent TV stations critical of the Georgian government are under investigation.
Georgia’s rights ombudsperson, Nino Lomjaria, and Transparency International said Sunday they had studied Gvaramia’s case and found no proof of wrongdoing.
In October 2015, Gvaramia said a government middleman had threatened to release secretly-recorded videos showing what he described as his “private life” in an attempt to force him to quit journalism.
In 2007-2009, Gvaramia held several government posts in Saakashvili’s cabinet, overseeing his anti-corruption crusade.
Independent media in Georgia has often had fraught relations with authorities since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.


Facebook: from Harvard dorm to global phenomenon

Updated 16 May 2022

Facebook: from Harvard dorm to global phenomenon

  • Young users increasingly desert it for the likes of TikTok or Snapchat, but with 1.96 billion users, one-quarter of the globe’s population, it remains the biggest social media platform

WASHINGTON: Key chapters in the history of Facebook, the world’s biggest social media application, which marks the tenth anniversary Wednesday of its stock market debut.

In 2003, 19-year-old Harvard computer whiz Mark Zuckerberg begins working out of his dormitory room on an online network aimed initially at connecting Harvard students.
The following year he launched thefacebook.com with three Harvard roommates and classmates: Chris Hughes, Eduardo Saverin and Dustin Moskovitz.
As membership is opened up to other colleges around North America Zuckerberg quits his studies and moves to Silicon Valley.
The new company receives its first investment from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who stumps up $500,000, and officially changes its name to Facebook in 2005.

In 2006, US media conglomerate Viacom and Yahoo make separate plays for Facebook, but both are turned down.
Microsoft takes a $240 million stake in the company a year later, by which time Facebook has 50 million users.
That year sees Zuckerberg admitting to privacy-related “mistakes” for the first time, over an ad platform called Beacon that tracked purchases made by Facebook members and let their friends know what they had bought.
In 2008, the platform topples MySpace to become the world’s most popular social networking website and launches its first mobile app the following year.

David Fincher’s story of the origins of Facebook, “The Social Network,” hits movie theaters in 2010 and wins Oscars for best adapted screenplay, original score and film editing.
Time magazine that year names Zuckerberg as Person of the Year for “transforming the way we live our lives every day.”
As membership rockets, Facebook plays a growing role in shaping public debate.
In 2011, the platform plays a key role in giving a voice to disillusioned Arab youth in the Arab Spring of revolts that began that year in Tunisia.

In 2012, Facebook snaps up photograph-sharing app Instagram for $1 billion and files for an initial public offering.
The biggest IPO ever in the tech sector raises some $16 billion and values the company at $104 billion.
A hoodie-clad Zuckerberg remotely rings the Nasdaq bell from Facebook’s California headquarters on the first day of trading.
By October 2012, Facebook’s membership has topped one billion.

In 2014, Facebook pays a small fortune to try boost its popularity among younger smartphone users by buying messaging platform WhatsApp in a cash and stock deal valued at $19 billion.
As it continues moving up in the world, it moves into new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters in Silicon Valley, with a rooftop park and “the largest open floor plan in the world.”

In 2016, Facebook is embroiled in controversy over Russia’s alleged use of it and other social media platforms to try influence the outcome of the election that brought Donald Trump to the White House.
In 2018, Facebook is again at the center of scandal after it emerges that British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica stealthily harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users and used it for political purposes, including trying to rally support for Trump.
Zuckerberg is grilled in the US Congress over Facebook’s handling of user data and the way the network is being manipulated to undermine democracy.
The Facebook boss vows to do more to combat fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech and to tighten data privacy.

In 2021, Zuckerberg announces that Facebook has changed its company name to Meta — Greek for “beyond” but also meaning the metaverse — the virtual world which he sees as representing the future of the Internet.
On February 3, 2022, the company’s share price plunges, wiping more than $200 billion off its market value after it warns of slowing revenue growth.
As young users increasingly desert it for the likes of TikTok or Snapchat, the company admits to losing a million active daily users. But with 1.96 billion users, one-quarter of the globe’s population it remains the biggest social media platform.