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Far-right extremists keep evading social media bans

When Facebook told me this morning that it would ban Alex Jones and Infowars from its platform, my initial reaction was one of deja vu. Haven’t we been through this before? Indeed, it was nine months ago that Facebook first acted to remove Jones’ public page, after previously suspending him.

But banning a Jones page and removing Jones’ network are different things. And despite Facebook’s move — along with many other tech platforms — to remove his influence, Jones continued to thrive. It was only in February when Facebook found another 22 pages related to him and his businesses. And while his diminished reach has certainly limited his ability to attract new followers and profit from vile conspiracy theories, he has continued to have a home even in places where he was supposed to be unwelcome.

That’s what makes today’s move by Facebook an important escalation of the effort to scrub Jones from social networks. The company has officially designated him — along with fellow extremist influencers Louis Farrakhan, Paul Nehlen, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, and Infowars itself — as dangerous individuals and organizations. From my story today in The Verge:

“We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” the company said in a statement. “The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.” […]

As some observers pointed out, it’s quite a stretch for Facebook to say that it has “always banned” people who promote hate. “Always” is offensive here to the individuals who’ve had to spend countless hours pointing out clear rule violations,” Charlie Warzel tweeted.

And the actual ban took longer than expected. Facebook began removing accounts at 10:30AM PT on Thursday, but some accounts remained up for an hour or more, Paris Martineau reported in Wired.

Asked about the “banned” accounts remaining active for an hour or more after the ban was disclosed, the Facebook spokesperson said it was the result of a plan gone awry. Facebook had originally intended for the six users and Infowars to be banned from the platform and told of the ban before they read about it in the press.

However, actually scrubbing all of the accounts from the platforms took much longer than Facebook had anticipated, the spokesperson said, leading to more than an hour of lag time in some cases.

Some reporters made hay of the fact that in delaying the actual ban, some of the affected accounts were able to change their bios to promote other remaining social presences, such as an email newsletter or a Telegram account. While that’s unfortunate, any superfan making hourly visits to the Facebook or Instagram page of any of these accounts almost certainly would have found those other social presences somehow through other means.

Of greater concern, I think, is that Jones in particular continued to thrive on Facebook for nearly a year after he was purportedly banned. The other extremists who lost their accounts benefited similarly from Facebook’s excessively deliberate approach to enforcing its own policies. How many followers did they accrue over the past year, thanks in part to Facebook’s own viral sharing mechanics? How much farther did their ideology spread around the world than it otherwise might have?

One heartening aspect of today’s bans is the reasoning behind them. From my story again:

First in December and again in February, Jones appeared in videos with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Facebook has designated McInnes as a hate figure.

Yiannopoulos publicly praised McInnes and British far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who Facebook has designated as a hate figure.

Loomer appeared with McInnes in December, and more recently declared her support for far-right activist Faith Goldy, who was banned after posting racist videos to her account.

In citing those examples, Facebook has acknowledged that right-wing extremism is a global network, in which the most prominent influencers regularly collaborate and promote each other. By banning the extremists because they collaborated, Facebook both begins to root out its hate-speech network and discourage others from joining in. (Let’s hope YouTube is paying attention here.)

But perhaps the biggest lesson to learn here is that banning an account is not a one-time action. Jones’ existence on Facebook has lasted for nearly a year since the ban hammer first came down. Keeping these extremists off the network is going to be an ongoing challenge. Here’s hoping Facebook is up to it.


Exclusive: New privacy oversight on the table for Facebook, Zuckerberg

Nancy Scola reports that the FTC’s proposed settlement with Facebook over privacy violations would require the company to take several steps in addition to paying a fine:

The steps, which are subject to change until a deal is final, would include appointing a federally approved privacy official at the social network and creating an “independent” privacy oversight committee that may include Facebook board members, said the person, who requested anonymity because the discussions are ongoing.

Separately, Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg would take on the role of “designated compliance officer” responsible for carrying out the company’s privacy policies, the person said. That would make him personally accountable for Facebook’s handling of the issue.

Facebook users are posting videos of themselves lighting wood on fire to spread hoaxes about the Notre Dame fire

Daniel Funke reports on a conspiracy theory related to the cathedral burning that is spreading on Facebook:

The videos, which together had more than 5 million views as of publication, depict internet users trying to ignite the wood as part of a conspiracy theory about the origin of the Notre Dame fire in Paris more than two weeks ago. Since the oaks beams wouldn’t burn, both Facebook and YouTube users claimed that the cathedral’s destruction could not possibly have been an accident — it had to be a criminal act.

It wasn’t, both the Agence France-Presse and Le Monde’s Les Décodeurs have reported. But that hasn’t stopped the user-generated videos from getting massive reach on Facebook — more than 200 times more likes, shares and comments than the two fact checks combined.

Googlers Protest Retaliation; Even Some Facebook Staff Join Fray

Interesting detail in Bloomberg’s story on the Google protest of retaliation against walkout organizers:

Facebook employees associated with Workers for Workers, an advocacy group for contingent workers at the social network, posted anonymous stories about retaliation on its website on Wednesday. Outside the company’s office in San Francisco, organizers with Unite Here, a service worker union, passed out flyers accusing FlagShip Facility Services, a vendor that staffs Facebook’s cafeteria, with firing an employee for labor activism. “Since winning union recognition, FlagShip management has disciplined several of our union’s key leaders,” the flyer read. Unite Here representatives declined to comment, citing ongoing bargaining discussions.

A Google Scion Is Starting A New Publication With Focus On International Tech Issues

Sophie Schmidt, daughter of longtime Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, is coming after this newsletter with a new publication, Joseph Bernstein reports:

The publication, which does not yet have a name or any full-time staffers aside from Schmidt, will be “focused on exploring the surprising and complex effects of technology internationally, specifically outside the US and Europe,” the source wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “We’re most curious about human impact: social, cultural and political phenomena driven by the interaction between new tech and different cultures, institutions and norms abroad.”

California synagogue shooting casts harsh light on mutual-fund darling Cloudflare

Tim McLaughlin and Ross Kerber examine Cloudflare’s decision to continue providing service to 8Chan as it has become a more prominent home of terrorist content:

The alleged gunman who killed one person and wounded three at a San Diego synagogue on Saturday, as well as one who massacred 50 people at New Zealand mosques in March, had posted hate-filled screeds on the 8chan message board, a Cloudflare client. The man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October did likewise on Gab, also a Cloudflare client, according to Internet records.

Cloudflare helped both those sites mask their real Internet protocol addresses. The service obfuscates where its customers are hosted, making it more difficult to hold them accountable, said Micah Schaffer, a technology policy consultant and former Snap Inc executive.

How Mass Surveillance Works in Xinjiang, China: ‘Reverse Engineering’ Police App Reveals Profiling and Monitoring Strategies

Human Rights Watch deconstructs the mobile app that Chinese law enforcement uses to connect to the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, “the Xinjiang policing program that aggregates data about people and flags those deemed potentially threatening.” It’s the program used to create a surveillance state for 13 million Uighur Muslims:

“Our research shows, for the first time, that Xinjiang police are using illegally gathered information about people’s completely lawful behavior – and using it against them,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government is monitoring every aspect of people’s lives in Xinjiang, picking out those it mistrusts, and subjecting them to extra scrutiny.”


Facebook Building Cryptocurrency-Based Payments System

AnnaMaria Andriotis, Liz Hoffman, Peter Rudegeair, and Jeff Horwitz have new details on Facebook’s payment plans:

Facebook aims to wiggle more deeply into the lives of its users. It is building a type of checkout option that users could port around the internet, some of the people said. Similar to how a Facebook profile can be used to log into hundreds of websites (including The Wall Street Journal), Facebook envisions allowing those credentials to be selected as a payment method when users buy goods online.

One idea under discussion is Facebook paying users fractions of a coin when they view ads, interact with other content or shop on its platform—not unlike loyalty points accrued at retailers, some of the people said.

Making Facebook more ephemeral could make it harder to fact-check false claims

Daniel Funke considers the impact of Facebook’s move to make messages disappear after a limited period of time:

He agreed that ephemeral content, like word-of-mouth communications, can convey errors that are hard to correct, but said the limited audience can circumscribe the damage. “On balance,” he said, “I think Facebook’s move is promising because it breaks away from Facebook’s current model of rewarding sensationalist viral content.”

A Former Alt-Right Member’s Message: Get Out While You Still Can

Rosie Gray profiles Katie McHugh, a former far-right activist who now regrets her time with the movement:

“People like me should be given a chance to recognize how bad this is and that the alt-right is not a replacement for any kind of liberal democracy whatsoever, any kind of system; they have no chance, and they’re just harmful,” McHugh said. “There is forgiveness, there is redemption. You have to own up to what you did and then forcefully reject this and explain to people and tell your story and say, ‘Get out while you can.’”

Unraveling Mark Zuckerberg’s Secret Deal for a $59 Million Tahoe Compound

Facebook’s CEO has a fancy new property in Lake Tahoe, Katherine Clark reports:

A few months ago, the 34-year-old CEO of Facebook quietly closed on $59 million worth of real estate on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe, a popular vacation destination for Northern Californians. And he’s looking to buy more, according to people familiar with the transactions, reported here for the first time.

The deals were kept under wraps through the use of a limited-liability company, a high-end wealth manager and a series of nondisclosure agreements, which even required that listing pictures of the homes be removed from the internet.

Jack Dorsey Is Gwyneth Paltrow for Silicon Valley

Nellie Bowles examines the Twitter CEO’s improbable rise as a lifestyle guru.

Just as an endorsement from Ms. Paltrow can make even the most spurious self-help objects instantly covetable, an endorsement from Mr. Dorsey can put products out of stock for weeks.

“We’re just really glad he’s spreading the message,” said Harpreet Rai, the chief executive of Oura Ring, which makes a sleep tracking device Mr. Dorsey endorsed.


Google’s latest AI art project turns your face into a ‘poem portrait’

Sure, why not:

Google is always sponsoring weird and inventive projects with the help of artificial intelligence, and its latest is characteristically odd. Named PoemPortraits, the web app takes a word of your suggestion and combines it with a selfie to create the eponymous poem portrait. Basically, it’s an Instagram filter paired with a few lines of AI-generated poetry.


Facebook is trying to make the word “private” meaningless

Casey Johnston takes issue with Facebook’s rather narrow definition of “privacy.”

What his presentation elided was the fact that Facebook does not need to see the content of what people are saying in order to advertise to them. The metadata — who, or what (as in a business), you’re talking to, and even where you are or what time the conversation is taking place as it comes together with other pieces of information — provides more than enough information to make a very educated guess about what you’re interested in, to the point that knowing specifically what you are saying adds almost nothing.

The value of metadata, not just in advertising but in building an understanding of a person, has been well-studied for years; Facebook is neither inventing it nor even just beginning to use it. It’s easy to forget that while Facebook builds all of these “private” features into its own products, it still has not only an immense body of information that we gave to it freely in its earlier days, but also an extremely robust tracking apparatus across the entire Internet.

I Trashed the Sonic Movie Trailer And I Already Regret It

When anything happens online, lots of folks rush to Twitter to make fun of it. Brian Altano mocked the (admittedly bizarre) trailer for an upcoming movie about a popular video game hedgehog, but now he has regrets:

Why did I even do that? What did I even gain from amplifying such a miserably negative take for thousands of people to see? I don’t want to be known for that. I probably won’t even see this movie. I don’t even care if this thing is good or bad. At best I’ll be on a cross country flight a year from now and I’ll see most of it out of the corner of my eye on somebody else’s screen. I liked some Sonic games when I was a kid, but why does it matter if his first live action movie looks weird or stupid? It’s not even for me. I’m in my thirties. I’m tired constantly. I spent the last thirty minutes at my Endgame screening thinking about when I could go to the bathroom. What am I gaining from trashing this kid’s movie anyway?

Being critical of things is good. Analyzing why things work or don’t work is necessary with all types of art. Calling out things that are problematic and confronting things that are reprehensible with deliberation and nuance is an important part of what defines us as humans. On the flip side, being mean just for the sake of it feels cheap and easy. Everybody should be allowed to dump a point or two into their own “dickhead skill tree.” Maxing it out feels as dirty and obnoxious as the rewards it yields.

And finally …

Authorities: Alleged Russian spy whale is refusing to leave and seeking Norwegians’ devotion

Earlier this week in this space I noted the discovery of Russia’s latest platform interference — a beluga spy whale that turned up in Norway. Today Rick Noack reports that the whale appears to have defected:

An alleged Russian spy whale is refusing to leave a Norwegian port city, in what appears to be a high-profile defection after a week of global attention on the unnamed beluga.

Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries official Jorgen Ree Wiig told The Washington Post that the beluga “was the first thing I saw outside of the window” of his patrolling ship in the morning. Speaking from the city of Hammerfest, he said the whale had moved only about 25 nautical miles within the last week and appeared to enjoy the proximity to humans, which he noted was “strange” for a beluga.

Getting really excited about the movie version of this one.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and jury duty stories: casey@theverge.com.

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