How YouTube Is Changing Our Viewing Habits

NPR interview with Dr. Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina:

SIMON: Of course, YouTube personalizes recommended playlists. You see one cute cat video – six more will be lined up for you. You watch one video that purports to show the Abominable Snowman at Starbucks – you get 10 more videos for the snowman, the Loch Ness monster and UFO abductions. What are some of the implications for more and more people making YouTube more and more their source for information entertainment?

TUFEKCI: A platform like YouTube has algorithms designed to recommend to you things that it thinks will be more engaging. And what I’ve found is that whatever I watched, it would push a more hardcore version of whatever it was I was watching across the political spectrum. So something that I found really striking was that if I watched Donald Trump rallies, I would get recommended white supremacist conspiracy theories. And you have examples from radicalized, you know, extremists when, some of their interviews, they talk about going down the rabbit hole of YouTube.

SIMON: I remember somebody once sent me a video purporting to show that man never landed on the moon. And there – for a couple of days thereafter, I had eight or 10 similar videos, each of them more convincing than the other, showing me why man never landed on the moon. Now, I don’t mind crawling out on a limb and saying, that is false, man landed on the moon. But at the same time, it makes you wonder, you know, people, who don’t consider themselves dumb will watch some of those videos and say, see, this proves it. I mean, that was the case of the person who sent it to me. Does YouTube or any other platform have some kind of responsibility not to put misinformation on their site?

TUFEKCI: So there’s two things going on. On the one hand, we do have freedom of speech. So if somebody wants to claim we never landed on the moon, I can see that as freedom of speech. But there’s no freedom to necessarily be recommended by YouTube, right? So what I see happening and what I see as troublesome is that if you watch something like that, YouTube could recommend to you something debunking falsehoods saying hey, check this out, right? Or…

SIMON: I mean, after seeing that video, I got a lot of stuff saying 9/11 never happened.

TUFEKCI: Right, that’s exactly right. So if you look at it from ISIS to white supremacists, it’s the key platform that they put their stuff on. And they rely on that recommendation engine to draw more and more people, preferably young, vulnerable, gullible people, to their message.

Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media

Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian:

On its website, Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters – its USP is to use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly. The system, according to Albright, amounted to a “propaganda machine”.

A few weeks later, the Observer received a letter. Cambridge Analytica was not employed by the Leave campaign, it said. Cambridge Analytica “is a US company based in the US. It hasn’t worked in British politics.”

Which is how, earlier this week, I ended up in a Pret a Manger near Westminster with Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s affable communications director, looking at snapshots of Donald Trump on his phone. It was Wigmore who orchestrated Nigel Farage’s trip to Trump Tower – the PR coup that saw him become the first foreign politician to meet the president elect.

Wigmore scrolls through the snaps on his phone. “That’s the one I took,” he says pointing at the now globally famous photo of Farage and Trump in front of his golden elevator door giving the thumbs-up sign. Wigmore was one of the “bad boys of Brexit” – a term coined by Arron Banks, the Bristol-based businessman who was Leave.EU’s co-founder.

Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”

I have this horrible feeling that regulation is running quite a bit behind current practice. And the main vector is once again Facebook.


Tech and the Fake Market tactic

Insightful essay by Anil Dash on how the internet went from opening up new free markets to creating a series of fake markets that exploit society, without most media or politicians even noticing:

Uber‘s promise is simple: you use their app to hail a car, and one driver from a pool of independent drivers agrees to pick you up, and everybody’s happy. In their formulation, they’re a neutral marketplace connecting customers and service providers — kinda like eBay!

But unlike competitive sellers on eBay, Uber drivers can’t set their prices. In fact, prices can be (and regularly have been) changed unilaterally by Uber. And passengers can’t make informed choices about selecting a driver: The algorithm by which a passenger and driver are matched is opaque—to both the passenger and driver. In fact, as Data & Society’s research has shown, Uber has at times deliberately misrepresented the market of available cars by showing “ghost” cars to users in the Uber app.

It seems this “market” has some awfully weird traits.

  1. Consumers can’t trust the information they’re being provided to make a purchasing decision.
  2. A single opaque algorithm defines which buyers are matched with which sellers.
  3. Sellers have no control over their own pricing or profit margins.
  4. Regulators see the genuine short-term consumer benefit but don’t realize the long-term harms that can arise.

This is, by any reasonable definition, no market at all. One might even call Uber a “Fake Market”. Yet, by carefully describing drivers in their system as “entrepreneurs” and appropriating the language of true markets, Uber has been welcomed by communities and policymakers as if they were creating a new marketplace. That has serious implications for policy, regulation and even civil rights. For example, we can sincerely laud Uber for making it easier for African American passengers to reliably hail a car when they need a ride, but if persistent patterns of bias from drivers arise again in the Uber era, we’ll have a harder time regulating those abuses because Uber doesn’t usually follow the same policies as licensed taxis.

This is a very useful set of metrics to evaluate new services.  Regulators please note.

Encouraging individual sovereignty and a healthy commons

Another response to Zuckerman’s letter, this time from Aral Balkan:

In his grand vision for humanity, Mark keeps returning to how Facebook fundamentally “brings us closer together” by “connecting friends and families.” What Mark fails to mention is that Facebook does not connect people together; Facebook connects people to Facebook, Inc.

Facebook’s business model is to be the man in the middle; to track every move you, your family, and your friends make, to store all that information indefinitely, and continuously analyse it to understand you better in order to exploit you by manipulating you for financial and political gain.

Facebook isn’t a social network, it is a scanner that digitises human beings. It is, for all intents and purposes, the camera that captures your soul. Facebook’s business is to simulate you and to own and control your simulation, thereby owning and controlling you.

Facebook wants us to think that it is a park when it’s actually a shopping mall. The last thing we need is more privately owned centralised digital infrastructure to solve the problems created by an unprecedented concentration of power, wealth, and control in a tiny number of hands. It’s way past time we started funding and building the digital equivalents of parks in the digital age instead of building ever-larger shopping malls.


The Emperor Zuckerberg writes…

His “letter” wasn’t well received.

Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian:

Because what Zuckerberg’s letter to the world shows is that he’s making a considered, personal attempt to answer… the wrong question. He is wrestling with the question of how Facebook can change the world. Whereas the question is: do we actually want Facebook to change the world? Do we want any corporation to have so much unchecked power?

John Naughton:

One way of viewing it is to find Zuckerberg’s naïveté touching. Aw, shucks, what a sweet guy. But a more sceptical way of viewing it would be to read his epistle as a proposition for Facebook becoming the Internet. In other words: the world wide Internet has become a nasty, unsafe place. But we can make Facebook a warm cosy place. So why not give up on the public Internet and come inside where it’s safe?

Ben Thompson in Stratechery:

Anyone who has read Stratechery for any length of time knows I have great reservations about regulation; the benefits are easy to measure, but the opportunity costs are both invisible and often far greater. That, though, is why I am also concerned about Facebook’s dominance: there are significant opportunity costs to the social network’s dominance. Even then, my trepidation about any sort of intervention is vast, and that leads me back to Zuckerberg’s manifesto: it’s bad enough for Facebook to have so much power, but the very suggestion that Zuckerberg might utilize it for political ends raises the costs of inaction from not just opportunity costs to overt ones.

Moreover, my proposals are in line with Zuckerberg’s proclaimed goals: if the Facebook CEO truly wants to foster new kinds of communities, then he ought to unleash the force that can best build the tools those disparate communities might need. That, of course, is the market, and Facebook’s social graph is the key. That Zuckerberg believes Facebook can do it alone is evidence enough that for Zuckerberg, saving the world is at best a close second to saving Facebook; the last thing we need are unaccountable leaders who put their personal interests above those they purport to govern.

New York Magazine:

The manifesto contains one important admission from Zuckerberg (Facebook is vastly influential), but lacks a corresponding truth (that power is what makes people skeptical of Facebook). In fact, what Zuckerberg has done is provide an inadvertent argument for the decentralization of the internet — small groups and communities with the ability to access a larger global network when necessary. The idea of a global communication network is very popular already: It’s called the internet. The manifesto reads like Mark Zuckerberg has never encountered an email client or a LISTSERV. That network grew and thrived thanks to the proliferation of open standards, like email and web protocols. Facebook, conversely, is a technological black box whose breakthroughs exist to enrich itself, first and foremost. If Mark Zuckerberg truly cares about global communication, he might want to think about putting more of the company’s tremendous resources toward developing the types of open standards that can exist outside of Facebook.

Update:  from the FT, Why be president when you could be pope?

Thompson finds Facebook’s centralisation and lack of accountability worrying. Adrienne LaFrance from The Atlantic says the social network will kill journalism as we know it.

Those concerns are appropriate. Indeed they might not be sounding the alarm bells loudly enough. Zuckerberg’s ambition seems to extend beyond making Facebook a central (and yes, unaccountable) venue for information exchange — or even making it an arbiter of truth, which is in itself an unnerving idea.

The post says outright that Zuckerberg wants to use his network to repair tears in the social fabric of the world.

Such a comprehensive push, one that disintegrates borders in the pursuit of social conformity harmony, has traditionally been attempted by religions rather than governments or political movements. Even the attempted reach of Communism was limited in comparison. Why favour only the oppressed proletariat when, with Facebook in place of religion, you can recruit Labour and Capital alike?


Inspired Media


Consider the mechanics of reaching voters/customers/users:

  • Before the Internet, when distribution was the bottleneck, the optimal strategy was to maximize the available throughput. The best example is consumer packaged goods: companies like Proctor & Gamble built massive brands that were designed to appeal to the broadest swaths of population possible, maximizing the return on the effort and expense necessary to advertise and secure retail space. In the case of politics, this manifested as a push by the parties for broadly acceptable candidates who could appeal to the middle.
  • Internet companies, on the other hand, have effectively infinite throughput. Amazon, for example, unbound by the need for shelf space and capitalizing on its transformation into an e-commerce platform, can plausibly bill itself as “The Everything Store”; products are found not through browsing but by search. This, by extension, means that products need to be wanted, not simply recognized — and the same goes for Google’s impact on politics.
  • Facebook, as is its wont, supercharges these effects: instead of users “pulling” out content they are interested in, the algorithm “pushes” content based on its capability of driving engagement. And what drives engagement? Emotion and passion. That may mean a funny product video, or, in the case of politics, politicians who eschew the middle and run to the extremes.

Given the fundamentally different mechanics of Internet distribution, those Facebook numbers make a lot more sense: the extremes inspire passion which drives engagement; “broadly acceptable” doesn’t go anywhere.

This has profound implications for products and politics. First and foremost, it is fundamentally misguided to simply view “digital” as another channel that you layer on top of traditional marketing/campaign tactics like TV advertisements. In fact, products and politicians designed for the TV age — that is, meant to be palatable to the greatest number of people — are at a fundamental disadvantage on platforms like Facebook. The products and politicians that win inspire passion, stirring up a level of engagement that breaks through on a scale that far exceeds an ad buy. To put it another way, above I mentioned “paid” media and “earned” media; what matters on the Internet is “inspired” media.

The second implication is just as profound: campaigns — both for products and presidential candidates — used to be discrete events. This too sprang from the constraints of media: it takes a significant logistical effort to get a campaign off the ground. That, however, is not the case for “inspired” media: customers/voters are not passive recipients, they are active participants, and the speed with which a campaign can be created is breathtaking.


Why Does China Allow Freer Social Media? Protests versus Surveillance and Propaganda

Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR):

This paper documents basic facts regarding public debates about controversial political issues on Chinese social media. Our documentation is based on a dataset of 13.2 billion blog posts published on Sina Weibo – the most prominent Chinese microblogging platform – during the 2009-2013 period. Our primary finding is that a shockingly large number of posts on highly sensitive topics were published and circulated on social media. For instance, we find millions of posts discussing protests and an even larger number of posts with explicit corruption allegations. This content may spur and organize protests. However, it also makes social media effective tools for surveillance. We find that most protests can be predicted one day before their occurrence and that corruption charges of specific individuals can be predicted one year in advance. Finally, we estimate that our data contain 600,000 government-affiliated accounts which contribute 4% of all posts about political and economic issues on Sina Weibo. The share of government accounts is larger in areas with a higher level of internet censorship and where newspapers have a stronger pro-government bias. Overall, our findings suggest that the Chinese government regulates social media to balance threats to regime stability against the benefits of utilizing bottom-up information.

My emphasis.