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How Big Tech created a data ‘treasure trove’ for police

When U.S. law enforcement officials need to cast a wide net for information, they’re increasingly turning to the vast digital ponds of personal data created by Big Tech companies via the devices and online services that have hooked billions of people around the world.

Data compiled by four of the biggest tech companies shows that law enforcement requests for user information — phone calls, emails, texts, photos, shopping histories, driving routes and more — have more than tripled in the U.S. since 2015. Police are also increasingly savvy about covering their tracks so as not to alert suspects of their interest.

That’s the backdrop for recent revelations that the Trump-era U.S. Justice Department sought data from Apple, Microsoft and Google about members of Congress, their aides and news reporters in leak investigations — then pursued court orders that blocked those companies from informing their targets.

In just the first half of 2020 — the most recent data available — Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft together fielded more than 112,000 data requests from local, state and federal officials. The companies agreed to hand over some data in 85% of those cases. Facebook, including its Instagram service, accounted for the largest number of disclosures.

Consider Newport, a coastal city of 24,000 residents that attracts a flood of summer tourists. Fewer than 100 officers patrol the city — but they make multiple requests a week for online data from tech companies.

That’s because most crimes — from larceny and financial scams to a recent fatal house party stabbing at a vacation rental booked online — can be at least partly traced on the internet. Tech providers, especially social media platforms, offer a “treasure trove of information” that can help solve them, said Lt. Robert Salter, a supervising police detective in Newport.

TikTok sued for billions over use of children’s data

Lawyers will allege that TikTok takes children’s personal information, including phone numbers, videos, exact location and biometric data, without sufficient warning, transparency or the necessary consent required by law, and without children or parents knowing what is being done with that information. TikTok has more than 800 million users worldwide and parent firm ByteDance made billions in profits last year, with the vast majority of that coming via advertising revenue.

Conspiracy Theorists Who’d First Popularized QAnon Now Accused of Financial Motives

In November 2017, a small-time YouTube video creator and two moderators of the 4chan website, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet, banded together and plucked out of obscurity an anonymous and cryptic post from the many conspiracy theories that populated the website’s message board. Over the next several months, they would create videos, a Reddit community, a business and an entire mythology based off the 4chan posts of “Q,” the pseudonym of a person claiming to be a high-ranking military officer. The theory they espoused would become Qanon, and it would eventually make its way from those message boards to national media stories and the rallies of President Donald Trump.

Now, the people behind that effort are at the center of a fractious debate among conspiracy enthusiasts, some of whom believe the three people who first popularized the Qanon theory are promoting it in order to make a living. Others suggest that these original followers actually wrote Q’s mysterious posts…

Qanon was just another unremarkable part of the “anon” genre until November 2017, when two moderators of the 4chan board where Q posted predictions, who went by the usernames Pamphlet Anon [real name: Coleman Rogers] and BaruchtheScribe, reached out to Tracy Diaz, according to Diaz’s blogs and YouTube videos. BaruchtheScribe, in reality a self-identified web programmer from South Africa named Paul Furber, confirmed that account to NBC News. “A bunch of us decided that the message needed to go wider so we contacted Youtubers who had been commenting on the Q drops,” Furber said in an email… As Diaz tells it in a blog post detailing her role in the early days of Qanon, she banded together with the two moderators. Their goal, according to Diaz, was to build a following for Qanon — which would mean bigger followings for them as well… Diaz followed with dozens more Q-themed videos, each containing a call for viewers to donate through links to her Patreon and PayPal accounts. Diaz’s YouTube channel now boasts more than 90,000 subscribers and her videos have been watched over 8 million times. More than 97,000 people follow her on Twitter.

Diaz, who emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, says in her YouTube videos that she now relies on donations from patrons funding her YouTube “research” as her sole source of income. Diaz declined to comment on this story. “Because I cover Q, I got an audience,” Diaz acknowledged in a video that NBC News reviewed last week before she deleted it.

To reach a more mainstream audience (older people and “normies,” who on their own would have trouble navigating the fringe message boards), Diaz said in her blog post she recommended they move to the more user-friendly Reddit. Archives listing the three as the original posters and moderators show they created a new Reddit community… Their move to Reddit was key to Qanon’s eventual spread. There, they were able to tap into a larger audience of conspiracy theorists, and drive discussion with their analysis of each Q post. From there, Qanon crept to Facebook where it found a new, older audience via dozens of public and private groups…

As Qanon picked up steam, growing skepticism over the motives of Diaz, Rogers, and the other early Qanon supporters led some in the internet’s conspiracy circles to turn their paranoia on the group. Recently, some Qanon followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers. Other pro-Trump online groups have questioned the roles that Diaz and Rogers have played in promoting Q, pointing to a series of slip-ups that they say show Rogers and Diaz may have been involved in the theory from the start.

Those accusations have led Diaz and Rogers to both deny that they are Q and say they don’t know who Q is.

New Survey Reveals Teens Get Their News from Social Media and YouTube

Celebrities, influencers, and personalities have as much influence as a source of current events as friends, family, and news organizations.

Teens today are not only getting the majority of their news online, but they are turning away from traditional media organizations to find out about current events on social media sites and YouTube, often from online influencers and celebrities, according to a new poll by Common Sense and SurveyMonkey.

The survey found that more than half of teens (54%) get news at least a few times a week from social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and 50% get news from YouTube.

Teens’ news habits reflect the diversity of the modern media landscape. And, while most news organizations maintain accounts on social media and other platforms, they are competing for attention with corporate brands, celebrities, influencers, and personal connections. Of those teens who get their news from YouTube, for example, six in 10 say they are more likely to get it from celebrities, influencers, and personalities rather than from news organizations utilizing the platform.

What’s noteworthy is that, even with so many relying on alternative sources for the majority of their news, teens are more confident in the news they get directly from news organizations. Of teens who get news of current events from news organizations, 65% say it helps them better understand what is going on. In contrast, just 53% of teens who get news from social media say it helps them better understand what is going on, while 19 percent say it has made them more confused about current events.

Amid ongoing concerns about the impact of information disseminated through social media on elections, older teens’ news habits may have political implications. Of the teens age 16 and 17 who say they’ll be eligible to vote in the 2020 election, 85% are likely to cast a ballot, including 61% who say they’re “very likely.”

“These findings raise concerns about what kind of news the next generation is using to shape their decisions,” said James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense. “There are few standards for what constitutes news and how accurately it’s portrayed on the platforms teens use. With the 2020 election coming up, we need to make sure teens are getting their news from reliable sources, thinking critically, and making informed decisions.”

This latest survey is part of a Common Sense partnership with SurveyMonkey to examine media and technology trends affecting kids and their parents and to share actionable data and insights with families.

“While it’s notable that teens rely heavily on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to stay informed, their reliance on news from celebrities and influencers rather than journalists may have pernicious implications,” said Jon Cohen, chief research officer at SurveyMonkey. “It’s a bit of a paradox: Overwhelmingly teens say they are interested in keeping up with the news, but they’re not seeking out either traditional or new media to do so.”

Selected key findings

  1. A large majority of teens age 13 to 17 in the U.S. (78%) say it’s important to them to follow current events.
  2. Teens get their news more frequently from social media sites (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) or from YouTube than directly from news organizations. More than half of teens (54%) get news from social media, and 50% get news from YouTube at least a few times a week. Fewer than half, 41%, get news reported by news organizations in print or online at least a few times a week, and only 37% get news on TV at least a few times a week.
  3. YouTube recommendations drive news consumption. Among all teens who get their news from YouTube—regardless of how often—exactly half (50%) say they most often find news on YouTube because it was recommended by YouTube itself (i.e., as a “watch next” video or in the sidebar). Almost half as many (27%) say they follow or subscribe to a specific channel for news on YouTube, and fewer say they find their news on YouTube through search (10%) or because it was shared by someone they know in real life (7%).
  4. Sixty percent of teens who get news from YouTube say they are more likely to get it from celebrities, influencers, and personalities as compared to news organizations (39%). The difference is even more apparent among daily YouTube news consumers (71% vs. 28%).
  5. Nearly two in three teens (65%) who get news directly from news organizations say doing so has helped them better understand current events, compared with 59% of teens who get their news from YouTube (56%) and 53% who get their news from social media sites (53%). Nearly two in 10 teens (19%) say that getting news from social media has made them more confused about current events.
  6. Teens clearly prefer a visual medium for learning about the news. A majority (64%) say that “seeing pictures and video showing what happened” gives them the best understanding of major news events, while just 36% say they’d prefer to read or hear the facts about what happened.
  7. Politically, teens are more likely to be moderate and identify as Democrats, but they are open to ideas from sources whose opinions differ from their own. Just under half of teens (45%) say they get news from sources that have views different from their own once a week or more, and only 14% say they never get news from sources with different views. Slightly fewer (35%) say they discuss political issues with people who have different views once a week or more, and 19% say they never discuss politics with people who have opposing views.

The study comes on the heels of the release of Common Sense’s revamped Digital Citizenship Curriculum, which gives teachers lessons to help students develop skills to be critical consumers of news at a time when they are navigating a fast-changing digital terrain fraught with fake media, hate speech, cyberbullying, and constant digital distraction.

Methodology: This SurveyMonkey Audience survey was conducted June 14 to 25, 2019, among 1,005 teenagers age 13 to 17 in the United States. Respondents for these surveys were selected from more than 2 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. The modeled error estimate for the full sample is +/-4.0 percentage points. Data has been weighted for age and sex using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of people in the United States age 13 to 17. Find the full survey results and more information about Common Sense research here.

Why Teens Are Falling for TikTok Conspiracy Theories

TikTok–the platform skews young—reportedly one-third of its daily users in the US are 14 or younger—and celebrity gossip has long been the lingua franca of social media for people of all ages. Right-wing conspiracy groups like QAnon have been spreading made up stories about those in power on networks like Facebook for years. Now those ideas have jumped to TikTok where they’re being metabolized by much younger consumers. Those things all scan. What doesn’t, however, is why teens believe them.

The short answer? TikTok is full of crazy ideas—conspiracies are no different. They’ve been normalized by the platform where many young people spend most of their time. “Many of these conspiracy sites and stories are entertaining. They are social gathering spots. They are exciting,” says Nancy Rosenblum, Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University and co-author of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. “It’s small wonder that teenagers who ‘live on the screen’ would be drawn to the drama.”

Easy access to social media’s redistribution tools worsens this problem. With every like, share, send, and retweet, teenagers are popularizing this content worldwide. “On social media, repetition substitutes for validation,” says Russel Muirhead, a professor of democracy and politics at Dartmouth College and Rosenblum’s co-author. “Repetition is what breathes air into conspiracy theories, and social media is all about repetition. But repeating something that’s false does not make it more true! Teenagers are just as vulnerable to this as grown ups.”

This wouldn’t be such a problem if teenagers weren’t so attached to social media. So fond, in fact, that some 54 percent of teens get the bulk of their news from it. If this sounds concerning, that’s because it is. With teenagers relying on TikTok as their sole source of information, it makes sense for my generation to become absorbed in webs of falsities and to live as largely uninformed citizens.

Zuckerberg Acknowledges ‘Risk of Civil Unrest’ After US Elections, Promises Newsfeed Updates, too little too late

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told analysts on a conference call Thursday evening that the company plans to post notices at the top of users’ news feeds on November 3rd discrediting any claims by either candidate in the U.S. presidential election that they have won the election if the site deems the claim premature… The move, said Zuckerberg, is being made because “There is a risk of civil unrest across the country, and given this, companies like ours need to go well beyond what we’ve done before.”

The conference call with analysts followed a third-quarter earnings report Thursday afternoon in which Facebook’s results topped expectations, helped by gains in active users that also were higher than Wall Street expected.

Zuckerberg said Facebook “helped 4.4 million people register [to vote] exceeding the goal that we set for ourselves this summer.”

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The Left and the Right Speak Different Languages—Literally

A study analyzing patterns in online comments found that liberals and conservatives use different words to express similar ideas.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University collected more than 86.6 million comments from more than 6.5 million users on 200,000 YouTube videos, then analyzed them using an AI technique normally employed to translate between two languages.

The researchers found that people on opposing sides of the political divide often use different words to express similar ideas. For instance, the term “mask” among liberal commenters is roughly equivalent to the term “muzzle” for conservatives. Similar pairings were seen for “liberals” and “libtards” as well as “solar” and “fossil.”

“We are practically speaking different languages—that’s a worrisome thing,” KhudaBukhsh says. “If ‘mask’ translates to ‘muzzle,’ you immediately know that there is a huge debate surrounding masks and freedom of speech.”

In the case of politically tinged comments, the researchers found that different words occupy a similar place in the lexicon of each community. The paper, which has been posted online but is not yet peer reviewed, looked at comments posted beneath the videos on four channels spanning left- and right-leaning US news—MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, and OANN.

KhudaBukhsh says social networks might use techniques like the one his team developed to build bridges between warring communities. A network could surface comments that avoid contentious or “foreign” terms, instead showing ones that represent common ground, he suggests. “Go to any social media platform; it has become so toxic, and it’s almost like there is no known interaction” between users with different political viewpoints, he says.

But Morteza Dehghani, an associate professor at the University of Southern California who studies social media using computational methods, finds the approach problematic. He notes that the Carnegie Mellon paper considers “BLM” (Black Lives Matter) and “ALM” (all lives matter) a “translatable” pair, akin to “mask” and “muzzle.”

“BLM and ALM are not translations of each other,” he says. “One makes salient centuries of slavery, abuse, racism, discrimination, and fights for justice, while the other one tries to erase this history.”

Dehghani says it would be a mistake to use computational methods that oversimplify issues and lack nuance. “What we need is not machine translation,” he says. “What we need is perspective-taking and explanation—two things that AI algorithms are notoriously bad at.”

Long Before Cambridge Analytica, Simulmatics Linked Data and Politics

NPR reporter Shannon Bond reports of a little-known — and now nearly entirely forgotten — company called Simulmatics, which had technology that used vast amounts of data to profile voters and ultimately help John F. Kennedy win the 1960 election. From the report:
The […] company was called Simulmatics, the subject of Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore’s timely new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. Before Cambridge Analytica, before Facebook, before the Internet, there was Simulmatics’ “People Machine,” in Lepore’s telling: “A computer program designed to predict and manipulate human behavior, all sorts of human behavior, from buying a dishwasher to countering an insurgency to casting a vote.”

Lepore unearths Simulmatics’ story and makes the argument that, amid a broader proliferation of behavioral science research across academia and government in the 1960s, the company paved the way for our 21st-century obsession with data and prediction. Simulmatics, she argues, is “a missing link in the history of technology,” the antecedent to Facebook, Google and Amazon and to algorithms that attempt to forecast who will commit crimes or get good grades. “It lurks behind the screen of every device,” she writes.

If Then presents Simulmatics as both ahead of its time and, more often than not, overpromising and under-delivering. The company was the brainchild of Ed Greenfield, an advertising executive straight out of Mad Men, who believed computers could help Democrats recapture the White House. He wanted to create a model of the voting population that could tell you how voters would respond to whatever a candidate did or said. The name Simulmatics was a contraction of “simulation” and “automation.” As Greenfield explained it to investors, Lepore writes: “The Company proposes to engage principally in estimating probable human behavior by the use of computer technology.” The People Machine was originally built to analyze huge amounts of data ahead of the 1960 election, in what Lepore describes as, at the time, “the largest political science research project in American history.”

Trolls Are Swarming Young Climate Activists Online

On the morning of August 25, 11-year-old Lilly Platt tweeted a video clip of a Brazilian Amazon tribe speaking out against deforestation. Awareness of the Amazon wildfires was already at a fever pitch, and the tweet exploded. Then, within an hour, a swarm of troll accounts started flooding her mentions with porn. Shortly after the attack, her mom, Eleanor Platt, made an online plea for help: “Dear Friends of Lilly, this is Lillys mum she is being targeted by revolting trolls who are spamming her feed with pornography. There is only so much i can do to block this. Please if you see these posts report them.” Over the course of the day, some of Lilly’s nearly 10,000 followers did just that.

Young girls like Lilly, who has been striking in her hometown of Utrecht, Netherlands, every Friday for the last year, are overwhelmingly leading a growing global movement to draw attention to the climate crisis. They spurred an estimated 4 million people across seven continents to walk out of work and school on September 20 — and they are getting attacked for it. They have faced a barrage of daily insults, seemingly coordinated attacks (like the one that targeted Lilly), creepy DMs, doxing, hacked accounts, and death threats. This is the new normal for young climate leaders online, according to BuzzFeed News interviews with nearly a dozen of the kids and their parents.

Personal attacks have always been a part of the climate denial playbook, even as fossil fuel companies secretly funded campaigns and researchers to question the scientific consensus on climate change. The most famous incident, 2009’s Climategate, involved scientists getting their emails hacked and then facing death threats. And as the politics of climate change begins to mirror the broader dark trends of global politics, weaponized social media — in the form of intimidation, memes, and disinformation — has emerged as the dominant vehicle for climate denial. But the rise of a new climate movement means there’s now a much more visible — and especially vulnerable — target: kids.

To Keep Trump From Violating Its Rules…Facebook Rewrote the Rules

After Trump’s infamous “the shooting starts” post, Facebook deputies contacted the White House “with an urgent plea to tweak the language of the post or simply delete it,” the article reveals, after which Trump himself called Mark Zuckerberg. (The article later notes that historically Facebook makes a “newsworthiness exception” for some posts which it refuses to remove, “determined on a case-by-case basis, with the most controversial calls made by Zuckerberg.”) And in the end, Facebook also decided not to delete that post — and says now that even Friday’s newly-announced policy changes still would not have disqualified the post:
The frenzied push-pull was just the latest incident in a five-year struggle by Facebook to accommodate the boundary-busting ways of Trump. The president has not changed his rhetoric since he was a candidate, but the company has continually altered its policies and its products in ways certain to outlast his presidency. Facebook has constrained its efforts against false and misleading news, adopted a policy explicitly allowing politicians to lie, and even altered its news feed algorithm to neutralize claims that it was biased against conservative publishers, according to more than a dozen former and current employees and previously unreported documents obtained by The Washington Post. One of the documents shows it began as far back as 2015…

The concessions to Trump have led to a transformation of the world’s information battlefield. They paved the way for a growing list of digitally savvy politicians to repeatedly push out misinformation and incendiary political language to billions of people. It has complicated the public understanding of major events such as the pandemic and the protest movement, as well as contributed to polarization. And as Trump grew in power, the fear of his wrath pushed Facebook into more deferential behavior toward its growing number of right-leaning users, tilting the balance of news people see on the network, according to the current and former employees…

Facebook is also facing a slow-burning crisis of morale, with more than 5,000 employees denouncing the company’s decision to leave Trump’s post that said, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” up… The political speech carveout ended up setting the stage for how the company would handle not only Trump, but populist leaders around the world who have posted content that test these boundaries, such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India…

“The value of being in favor with people in power outweighs almost every other concern for Facebook,” said David Thiel, a Facebook security engineer who resigned in March after his colleagues refused to remove a post he believed constituted “dehumanizing speech” by Brazil’s president.

In Fast-Moving Pandemic, Sources of Falsehoods Spread by Text, Email, WhatsApp and TikTok

Misleading text messages claiming that President Trump was going to announce a national quarantine buzzed into cellphones across the country over the weekend, underscoring how rapidly false claims are spreading — and how often it is happening beyond the familiar misinformation vehicles of Facebook and Twitter. The false texts spread so widely that on Sunday night the White House’s National Security Council, fearing the texts were an attempt to spook the stock market as it opened Monday, decided to directly debunk the misleading claims in a Twitter post: “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.” But by then the messages already had spread widely, as had similar ones both in the United States and Europe in recent days. Text messages, encrypted communication apps such as WhatsApp and some social media platforms have carried similarly alarming misinformation, much of it with the apparent goal of spurring people to overrun stores to buy basic items ahead of a new wave of government restrictions.

The one claiming that Trump was going to impose a national quarantine included the advice: “Stock up on whatever you guys need to make sure you have a two week supply of everything. Please forward to your network.” In fact, authorities have warned against aggressive buying that could disrupt supply chains and fuel panic. Trump addressed the misleading text messages at an afternoon news conference Monday, saying, “It could be that you have some foreign groups that are playing games.” On the possibility of a national quarantine, Trump said: “We haven’t determined to do that at all. … Hopefully we won’t have to.”

Surveillance Company Banjo Used a Secret Company and Fake Apps To Scrape Social Media

Banjo, an artificial intelligence firm that works with police used a shadow company to create an array of Android and iOS apps that looked innocuous but were specifically designed to secretly scrape social media. The news signifies an abuse of data by a government contractor, with Banjo going far beyond what companies which scrape social networks usually do. Banjo created a secret company named Pink Unicorn Labs, according to three former Banjo employees, with two of them adding that the company developed the apps. This was done to avoid detection by social networks, two of the former employees said.

Three of the apps created by Pink Unicorn Labs were called “One Direction Fan App,” “EDM Fan App,” and “Formula Racing App.” Motherboard found these three apps on archive sites and downloaded and analyzed them, as did an independent expert. The apps — which appear to have been originally compiled in 2015 and were on the Play Store until 2016 according to Google — outwardly had no connection to Banjo, but an analysis of its code indicates connections to the company. This aspect of Banjo’s operation has some similarities with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with multiple sources comparing the two incidents. […] The company has not publicly explained how it specifically scrapes social media apps. Motherboard found the apps developed by Pink Unicorn Labs included code mentioning signing into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Russian social media app VK, FourSquare, Google Plus, and Chinese social network Sina Weibo.
The apps could have scraped social media “by sending the saved login token to a server for Banjo to use later, or by using the app itself to scrape information,” reports Motherboard, noting that it’s not entirely clear which method Banjo used. “Motherboard found that the apps when opened made web requests to the domain ‘pulapi.com,’ likely referring to Pink Unicorn Labs, but the site that would provide a response to the app is currently down.”

Last weekend, Motherboard reported that Banjo signed a $20.7 million contract with Utah in 2019 that granted the company access to the state’s traffic, CCTV, and public safety cameras. “Banjo promises to combine that input with a range of other data such as satellites and social media posts to create a system that it claims alerts law enforcement of crimes or events in real-time.”

Mozilla Hits Google, Facebook For ‘Microtargeting’ Political Ads

Microtargeting, a method which uses consumer data and demographics to narrowly segment audiences, is used by political campaigns to specialize ads for different voting groups. The practice’s critics include Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, who wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that microtargeting makes it “easy to single out susceptible groups and direct political misinformation to them with little accountability, because the public at large never sees the ad.” Mozilla’s call follows reports that Facebook has considered restricting politicians’ access to microtargeting.

Spain and GitHub Are Blocking an App That Helped Protesters Organize

For the last month, hundreds of thousands of people have joined demonstrations in Spain to voice their objection to the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders and support Catalonian independence. As with almost all modern activist and public protest movements, activists are using social media and apps to communicate with and organize public actions. But this week, in a move that puts the Spanish government on par with censorship-heavy places like China and Russia, the country requested that Github block access to one of those apps, by revoking local access to its Github repository. Github, which is owned by Microsoft, complied with the order.

According to Spanish news outlet El Confidencial, last week the government ordered takedowns of websites and app made by Tsunami Democratic, an activist group organizing protests in the region. To try to keep access to the app download alive, Tsunami Democratic moved the .apk file to Github. But the government shut that down, too, blocking the site in Spain. Motherboard tested the download using a VPN, and the Github repo was blocked from Madrid.

When Myspace Was King, Employees Abused a Tool Called ‘Overlord’ to Spy on Users

During the social network’s heyday, multiple Myspace employees abused an internal company tool to spy on users, in some cases including ex-partners, Motherboard reported on Monday.

Named ‘Overlord,’ the tool allowed employees to see users’ passwords and their messages, two former employees said. While the tool was originally designed to help moderate the platform and allow MySpace to comply with law enforcement requests, multiple sources said the tool was used for illegitimate purposes by employees who accessed Myspace user data without authorization to do so. “It was basically an entire backdoor to the Myspace platform,” one of the former employees said of Overlord. (Motherboard granted five former Myspace employees anonymity to discuss internal Myspace incidents.) The abuse happened about a decade ago, closer to the height of the platform’s popularity, according to multiple sources. In fall 2006, the platform signed up its 100 millionth user. Around this time, Myspace was the second most popular website in the U.S., and ranked higher than Google search.

Pentagon Wants to Predict Anti-Trump Protests Using Social Media Surveillance

A series of research projects, patent filings, and policy changes indicate that the Pentagon wants to use social media surveillance to quell domestic insurrection and rebellion.

The social media posts of American citizens who don’t like President Donald Trump are the focus of the latest US military-funded research. The research, funded by the US Army and co-authored by a researcher based at the West Point Military Academy, is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to consolidate the US military’s role and influence on domestic intelligence.

The vast scale of this effort is reflected in a number of government social media surveillance patents granted this year, which relate to a spy program that the Trump administration outsourced to a private company last year. Experts interviewed by Motherboard say that the Pentagon’s new technology research may have played a role in amendments this April to the Joint Chiefs of Staff homeland defense doctrine, which widen the Pentagon’s role in providing intelligence for domestic “emergencies,” including an “insurrection.”

It’s no secret that the Pentagon has funded Big Data research into how social media surveillance can help predict large-scale population behaviours, specifically the outbreak of conflict, terrorism, and civil unrest.

Much of this research focuses on foreign theatres like the Middle East and North Africa — where the 2011 Arab Spring kicked off an arc of protest that swept across the region and toppled governments.

Since then, the Pentagon has spent millions of dollars finding patterns in posts across platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and beyond to enable the prediction of major events.

But the Pentagon isn’t just interested in anticipating surprises abroad. The research also appears to be intended for use in the US homeland.

Datasets for the research were collected using the Apollo Social Sensing Tool, a real-time event tracking software that collects and analyses millions of social media posts.

The tool was originally developed under the Obama administration back in 2011 by the US Army Research Laboratory and US Defense Threat Reduction Agency, in partnership with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of Illinois, IBM, and Caterva (a social marketing company that in 2013 was folded into a subsidiary of giant US government IT contractor, CSC). Past papers associated with the project show that the tool has been largely tested in foreign theatres like Haiti, Egypt, and Syria.

But the use of the Apollo tool to focus on protests in the US homeland has occurred under the Trump administration. The ‘election’ dataset compiled using Apollo for the 2018 US Army-funded study is comprised of 2.5 million tweets sent between October 26, 2016, and December 20, 2016, using the words “Trump”, “Clinton,” and “election.”

Tweets were geolocated to focus on “locations where protests occurred following the election” based on user profiles. Locations were then triangulated against protest data from “online news outlets across the country.”

The millions of tweets were used to make sense of the “frequencies of the protests in 39 cities” using 18 different ways of measuring the “size, structure and geography” of a network, along with two ways of measuring how that network leads a social group to become “mobilized,” or take action.

In short, this means that “the social network can be a predictor of mobilization, which in turn is a predictor of the protest.” This pivotal finding means that extensive real-time monitoring of American citizens’ social media activity can be used to predict future protests.

Most Americans say they can’t tell the difference between a social media bot and a human

A new study from Pew Research Center found that most Americans can’t tell social media bots from real humans, and most are convinced bots are bad. “Only 47 percent of Americans are somewhat confident they can identify social media bots from real humans,” reports The Verge. “In contrast, most Americans surveyed in a study about fake news were confident they could identify false stories.”

The Pew study is an uncommon look at what the average person thinks about these automated accounts that plague social media platforms. After surveying over 4,500 adults in the U.S., Pew found that most people actually don’t know much about bots. Two-thirds of Americans have at least heard of social media bots, but only 16 percent say they’ve heard a lot about them, while 34 percent say they’ve never heard of them at all. The knowledgeable tend to be younger, and men are more likely than women (by 22 percentage points) to say they’ve heard of bots. Since the survey results are self-reported, there’s a chance people are overstating or understating their knowledge of bots. Of those who have heard of bots, 80 percent say the accounts are used for bad purposes.

Regardless of whether a person is a Republican or Democrat or young or old, most think that bots are bad. And the more that a person knows about social media bots, the less supportive they are of bots being used for various purposes, like activists drawing attention to topics or a political party using bots to promote candidates.

Social Media Manipulation Rising Globally, New Oxford Report Warns

A new report from Oxford University found that manipulation of public opinion over social media platforms is growing at a large scale, despite efforts to combat it. “Around the world, government agencies and political parties are exploiting social media platforms to spread junk news and disinformation, exercise censorship and control, and undermine trust in media, public institutions and science.”

“The number of countries where formally organized social media manipulation occurs has greatly increased, from 28 to 48 countries globally,” says Samantha Bradshaw, co-author of the report. “The majority of growth comes from political parties who spread disinformation and junk news around election periods. There are more political parties learning from the strategies deployed during Brexit and the U.S. 2016 Presidential election: more campaigns are using bots, junk news, and disinformation to polarize and manipulate voters.”

This is despite efforts by governments in many democracies introducing new legislation designed to combat fake news on the internet. “The problem with this is that these ‘task forces’ to combat fake news are being used as a new tool to legitimize censorship in authoritarian regimes,” says Professor Phil Howard, co-author and lead researcher on the OII’s Computational Propaganda project. “At best, these types of task forces are creating counter-narratives and building tools for citizen awareness and fact-checking.” Another challenge is the evolution of the mediums individuals use to share news and information. “There is evidence that disinformation campaigns are moving on to chat applications and alternative platforms,” says Bradshaw. “This is becoming increasingly common in the Global South, where large public groups on chat applications are more popular.”

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