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Another former Facebook employee sounds the alarm

Dipayan Ghosh once worked to improve Facebook from the inside. According to his biography at the New
January 24 · Issue #68 · View online
The Interface
Dipayan Ghosh once worked to improve Facebook from the inside. According to his biography at the New America Foundation, where he is now a fellow, Ghosh “helped lead strategic efforts to address public concerns around privacy and other issues.” He also “helped coordinate and develop the company’s public policy positions on matters related to privacy, telecommunications policy, and algorithmic ethics.”
Then came the US presidential election. Cecelia Kang and Daisuke Wakabayashi pick up the story in the New York Times:
As Mr. Ghosh, a former White House technology adviser to President Barack Obama, made the four-hour drive, troubling questions started nagging him. What if fake news on Facebook and other sites had an impact on voters? How did the campaigns and any outsiders use ads on the site to influence the election?
A few months later, Mr. Ghosh quit his job at Facebook, where he worked on privacy and public policy issues. On Tuesday, a Washington think tank, New America, and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy published a report he co-wrote, asserting that technology behind digital advertising — the financial lifeblood of Facebook, Google and Twitter — has made disinformation campaigns more effective.
“The problems were much broader than we imagined, and it was not just about one tool or platform,” said Mr. Ghosh, who with his co-author, Ben Scott, worked on devising Mrs. Clinton’s tech policy platform. “It’s the profit model underlying the whole digital advertising system.”
I spent some time today reading the report: “Digital Deceit: The Technologies Behind Precision Propaganda on the Internet.” In it, Ghosh and his co-author argue that Russian interference in the 2016 election was the tip of a very large iceberg — and that everything is about to get worse. Here’s their thesis in one sentence:
“Political disinformation succeeds because it follows the structural logic, benefits from the products, and perfects the strategies of the broader digital advertising market.”
What to do about it? It’s tricky, they say, because under the First Amendment nearly all of it is legal. But they offer a few thoughts. Bolstering consumer privacy could help, they say — it starves disinformation campaigns of personalization data they need to be effective. (The flip side is that it could make legitimate digital ads less effective, too.) The authors also suggest regulations that encourage competition, which would result in smaller networks and make it difficult for disinformation campaigns to spread so quickly through entire populations.
None of it will be easy:
The simple fact that disinformation campaigns and legitimate advertising campaigns are effectively indistinguishable on leading internet platforms lies at the center of our challenge. They use the same technologies to influence people—reaching a share of the national market with targeted messages in ways that were inconceivable in any prior media form. But if the market continues to align the interests of the attention economy with the purposes of political disinformation, we will struggle to overcome it. 
Among former Facebook employees who have gone on to distance themselves from the company, Ghosh chooses his words more carefully than, say, Chamath Palihapitiya. But his report deserves at least as much attention. This is a serious effort to understand the systems that support our current information crisis — and one that lays out, in exhaustive detail, how Facebook has unwittingly come to serve as its foundation.
“The nature of this crisis in media and democracy requires an ambitious approach to reform from Silicon Valley C-Suites to Capitol Hill to the handsets of everyday internet users,” the authors write. “The American political resilience has through the ages hinged on our implicit commitment that markets must take a backseat to democracy.”

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And finally ...
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