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Why we love fake stuff on Facebook

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One of my favorite essays for understanding modern life was published in May of 2016 by Jeremy Gordon
 
August 1 · Issue #360 · View online
The Interface
One of my favorite essays for understanding modern life was published in May of 2016 by Jeremy Gordon. In “Is Everything Wrestling?”, Gordon examined the way that the news cycle had come to resemble a scripted WWE spectacle. As in a wrestling match, the boundaries between reality and fiction had become permanently blurred. Gordon writes:
With each passing year, more and more facets of popular culture become something like wrestling: a stage-managed “reality” in which scripted stories bleed freely into real events, with the blurry line between truth and untruth seeming to heighten, not lessen, the audience’s addiction to the melodrama. The modern media landscape is littered with “reality” shows that audiences happily accept aren’t actually real; that, in essence, is wrestling. (“WWE Raw” leads to “The Real World,” which leads to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and so forth.)
And “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” I’d argue, led to our social feeds. There, too, we find a mix of truth and fiction, and are left forever to sort out who’s telling the truth, who’s not who they say they are, and so on. Critically, Gordon highlights the fact that our uncertainty around what’s real and fake makes everything more interesting, not less. Platforms generally regard fakers as bad actors, and invest billions in “integrity” teams to eliminate them. But their presence has hardly driven us away from Facebook or Twitter, and there’s reason to wonder if it might actually help keep us glued to them.
What’s real? What’s fake? Figuring it out can be a lot of fun. And even when it doesn’t feel fun, exactly, it’s rarely less than interesting.
I thought about all this today while reading this week’s stories about phony stuff discovered on Facebook, which were more numerous than usual. For example, there was the Christian satire site that objected to its article being labeled fiction by Snopes. The objection seemed to be that while it does publish fiction, the particular thing that Snopes objected to was less fiction than an actual news article that included some misleading details. A fine-grained dispute, clearly, but one that was still promoted by conservatives who thrill at painting Snopes as a leftist outlet.
There was Facebook’s own announcement that it had found two networks of propaganda outlets: one originating from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and another originating from Saudi Arabia. The networks had 13.7 million (!) and 1.4 million followers, respectively. Here’s what Facebook found in that big UAE network:
The people behind this network used compromised and fake accounts — the majority of which had already been detected and disabled by our automated systems — to run Pages, disseminate their content, comment in Groups and artificially increase engagement. They also impersonated public figures and managed Pages — some of which changed names and admins — posing as local news organizations in targeted countries and promoting content about UAE. The Page admins and account owners posted about non-country specific topics like fashion, animals, humor and crafts. They also frequently posted about local news, politics, elections and topics including alleged support of terrorist groups by Qatar and Turkey, Iran’s activity in Yemen, the conflict in Libya, successes of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and independence for Somaliland. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to two marketing firms — New Waves in Egypt, and Newave in the UAE.
The Saudi network was smaller and apparently connected to its awful government, according to Facebook.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Jim Waterston highlights how a politically connected public relations firm has “secretly built a network of unbranded ‘news’ pages on Facebook for dozens of clients ranging from the Saudi government to major polluters.” According to the report, Boris Johnson ally Lynton Crosby has exploited the fact that all news pages on Facebook look the same, whether built by real publishers or public relations firms, to flood the network with news favoring paid clients. Waterson writes:
One former employee described how Crosby’s business created Facebook pages on specific topics to spread disinformation to interested members of the public in the UK and abroad. “It would all be anonymised and made to look as though they are a news aggregator with a specialist angle,” the employee said. “For instance, if we were working to promote the use of coal, it would be an anti-environmental page. You might make a page designed to attract pro-Trump types and get them revved up about green subsidies.”
Staff members said that they created websites and Facebook pages which appeared to be independent online news sources with names such as Why Electricity Matters, Reporting Yemen and Londoners for Transport, but instead could be used to distribute highly selective information which reached tens of millions of readers.
Finally — for today! — the May election in Australia was marred by a false propaganda campaign suggesting the Labor Party planned to implement a an inheritance tax. As is its policy in this cases, Facebook didn’t remove the propaganda — it just ranked it lower in the feed. This has led to a fresh round of angst in the Australian press over what Facebook ought to do with this sort of thing.
In wrestling, the boundaries between fact and fiction are never resolved — they feed one another endlessly. Real-life happenings are worked into storylines, and storylines wind up warping real life. The same thing is now happening across our social networks every day — amplified and accelerated by the algorithms that make them unique actors human history. And while it can all make for good entertainment, it’s unsettling to live in a world that’s increasingly governed by the same logic as WWE.

Facial recognition
Is it just me, or has anxiety about facial recognition quickly snowballed into a full-blown reckoning? Let’s take a look at a few stories that have bubbled up over the past few days.
One, Joseph Goldstein and Ali Watkins examine current practices in New York City:
The New York Police Department has been loading thousands of arrest photos of children and teenagers into a facial recognition database despite evidence the technology has a higher risk of false matches in younger faces.
For about four years, internal records show, the department has used the technology to compare crime scene images with its collection of juvenile mug shots, the photos that are taken at an arrest. Most of the photos are of teenagers, largely 13 to 16 years old, but children as young as 11 have been included.
For those and other reasons, San Francisco led the nation earlier this year in banning the use of facial recognition technologies by government agencies. As Blake Montgomery reports in the Daily Beast, it was soon followed by Somerville, a suburb of Boston, and Oakland. He says the national mood is turning against the technology:
Until now, misgivings around the technology didn’t seem to be slowing it down. Privacy groups and officials that spoke to The Daily Beast often referenced the “mission creep” of facial recognition tech. Its opponents say facial recognition poses an existential threat to digital privacy.
“This is something that’s happening right now,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight For The Future. “It’s not some dystopian, theoretical future harm. It’s a real, immediate threat that’s spreading very quickly.”
And while Americans aren’t particularly known for their robust consumption of international news, I wonder if at least some of them haven’t been drawn to the stories about the lengths to which protesters in Hong Kong have gone to evade facial recognition technology there. Here’s Shibani Mahtani and Jennifer Hassan:
Front-line protesters — who always cover their faces and sometimes even the brands of their shoes to prevent identification — have fixed the strong beams at surveillance cameras to stop themselves from being easily spotted and identified. As night falls, when peaceful rallies tend to turn chaotic and sometimes violent, protesters point the laser beams at police cameras and riot officers’ shields and faces, turning streets into surreal theaters of colored, flashing lights.
Man, that really does sound dystopian.
In any case, even if the tide is turning against facial recognition, other surveillance technologies continue to develop faster than our policy debates around them. Dell Cameron has a great story about how Amazon’s home security division is rapidly developing a nexus with US police departments. Basically, Amazon gets access to emergency dispatch data in exchange for access to video footage captured by the company’s Ring security cameras. Amazon blasts out crime alerts to its Ring app, called Neighbors, which stokes the kind of anxiety that leads people to buy Ring security cameras.
More alerts, more camera sales, more personal data collected. It’s a tight little flywheel — and it feels like something we ought to be talking about.
Democracy
FTC Antitrust Probe of Facebook Scrutinizes Its Acquisitions
Senator seeks to prevent next Cambridge Analytica scandal with new voter privacy bill
Another Victim of Facebook Romance Scams: A U.S. Congressman
Google will pause listening to EU voice recordings while regulators investigate
Exclusive: FBI document warns conspiracy theories are a new domestic terrorism threat
Elsewhere
Ninja, the biggest name in Fortnite, is leaving Twitch for Mixer
Twitch gave out 24 hour suspensions after last night’s Democratic debates
Capital One Hacker Threatened Shooting at Social Media Company
SexTech startups are protesting outside of Facebook's offices, claiming the social network bars them from running ads
Pinterest and YouTube Shine While Facebook User Satisfaction Suffers Amid Privacy Concerns, ACSI Data Show
YouTube Overhauled Its Algorithms for Kids’ Content Amid FTC Talks
Fired by Google, a Republican Engineer Hits Back: ‘There’s Been a Lot of Bullying’
Where Everyone's an Influencer
Launches
Facebook open-sources algorithms for detecting child exploitation and terrorism
WhatsApp ‘Frequently Forwarded’ message label starts rolling out in India: Report
YouTube Rabbit Hole
Takes
The clock’s ticking for regulators on TikTok
And finally ...
Casey Newton
Oh wow, is THAT why Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp????? https://t.co/dg4Aql2F2K
12:21 PM - 1 Aug 2019
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and shadowy networks of phony Facebook pages: casey@theverge.com.
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