Sacha Baron Cohen’s criticism of Facebook is his funniest joke

Yes, there is hate speech on social media, but is that all there is to it?

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Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California on September 22, 2019 [Reuters/Mario Anzuoni]
Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California on September 22, 2019 [Reuters/Mario Anzuoni]

In late November, actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen gave a talk at the Anti-Defamation League about hate speech and anti-Semitism on social media. He called Big Tech and social media “the greatest propaganda machine in history,” adding: “Just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.”

Shortly after, Facebook rejected the accusation, releasing a statement saying that hate speech is banned on the platform.

Baron Cohen’s speech has received much attention and widespread support, particularly in mainstream media which echoed and disseminated his observations.

The charge of being “the greatest propaganda machine in history” is, of course, loaded and draws our attention to other propaganda machines that existed long before Facebook and which might have a claim to that dubious distinction. Among them are the American war machine and the Israeli hasbara, neither of which Baron Cohen seems to reject. 

State propaganda and monopoly of information

There is some element of truth to what Baron Cohen says. There are people on the racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and white supremacist lunatic fringe that take advantage of social media to propagate hate.

But is that all there is to Facebook?

Has it, perhaps inadvertently, also provided a venue for those at the mercy of state and corporate propaganda to talk back at it, reasserting alternative narratives to those presented by, let’s say, the BBC and the New York Times?

I would daresay that those media organisations are, if not the greatest, then certainly major propaganda machines supporting a settler colony that the UK and US have been chiefly responsible for creating and sustaining. They have had that monopoly for decades – deciding and determining the terms of debate on Israel’s colonisation of Palestine.

Facebook and other social media platforms have, all their troubling dimensions notwithstanding, offered sites of resistance to their hegemony.

For those of us old enough to remember the mode of media coverage prior to the emergence of the internet, Baron Cohen’s observations actually sound quite ludicrous.

I remember vividly when the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979 broke out. Then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt despair at being at the mercy of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any one of the three major US networks (ABC, CBS or NBC) – or particularly BBC radio – to tell me what was happening in Iran.

I remember driving to a Radio Shack shop in the King of Prussia suburb of Philadelphia to buy a short-wave device in order to listen to Tehran Radio and find out what was happening in my homeland. This is not to say that Tehran Radio told the truth and the New York Times spread lies. It just means we all needed more than one dominant and hegemonic source of news to make up our own minds.

Books have been written on how the New York Times and other major corporate media have helped state propaganda machineries. Consider Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media or Richard Falk and Howard Friel’s 2007 book The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy. They both document how monopoly over information, whether state or corporate, has helped justify to the public enormous atrocities and kept it purposefully ignorant of the truth.

Breaking the monopoly

Perhaps the case of the Palestinian national liberation struggles of the last 70 years is the most potent example of how the internet and social media has enabled Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause to counter the sustained course of Israeli propaganda in order to put the history of their dispossession and the robbery of their homeland on the global stage.

The internet started to break the powerful monopoly on how Palestine was portrayed in the 1990s. At first, it gave dissenting voices access to a wider audience.

I remember how one day, shortly after he had started his column for the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly in 1993, my colleague and eminent literary theorist Edward Said came to me on campus at Columbia University and declared, “Al-Ahram has liberated me!”

Forget about the New York Times, the chief organ of liberal Zionism, even the so-called progressive outlets like The Nation would not publish his critical assessments of Israeli thievery pre- and post-Oslo Accords.

What was the print circulation of Al-Ahram Weekly? Rather small. But its website gave people around the globe access to Said’s emancipatory writings.

Baron Cohen would most probably not like that. Said’s voice was not racist or anti-Semitic. It was and remains liberating and empowering for the dispossessed around the world.

Then social media not only opened up spaces for wider discussion on the Palestinian cause, connecting the diaspora and foreign supporters to Palestinians in Palestine, but also enabled grassroots organising and public documentation of Israeli violations and crimes.

Take the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Founded in 2005, a year after Facebook started and a year before Twitter was launched, it has managed to grow exponentially thanks to social media, which has helped spread its message and boost the effectiveness of its campaigns. It can rally support for boycott action across the world through a network of organisations and volunteers maintained on social media platforms.

The campaign has managed to make enough noise on social media and otherwise to get major artists to cancel events in Israel, including Snoop Dogg, Shakira, Laurin Hill and many others. In 2017, in response to an online BDS letter, New Zealand artist Lorde tweeted: “Noted! Been speaking w many people about this and considering all options. Thank u for educating me I am learning all the time too” before cancelling her concert in Tel Aviv.

The success of the BDS campaign has much to do with the increasing access to information about Israeli crimes on the internet, and especially on social media. Over the past decade, Palestinians and supporters of their cause have increasingly been able not only to document daily Israeli oppression but to post it online for the world to see.

Whether it is shocking images of children killed by Israeli fire in Gaza, videos of Israeli snipers shooting an unarmed Palestinian and celebrating it, or footage of Israeli soldiers carrying out an extrajudicial killing – Palestinians can broadcast to the world Israeli violence in real-time on social media.

If it were up to the New York Times and BBC, it is unlikely any of these crimes would be properly reported. It is only because Palestinian voices have been empowered and amplified online that we hear in detail about what is happening in Palestinian lands.

Who is to throw the first stone?

I have no love lost for Big Tech. To me, they are big corporations and as such, are as immoral and hazardous as every other big corporation. And there is no doubt of the enormity of the horror of white supremacy and its proponents’ use of these platforms to promote hatred.

But social media and the interconnectedness it has encouraged also mean we are not at the mercy of any state or corporate media to decide what is “fit to print”.

The question is not whether Facebook is or is not vulnerable to abuse by racist and xenophobic groups. Of course it is. But who is the person levelling these charges and where is the podium from which he launches this attack.

Baron Cohen makes money out of perpetuating the worst stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims in his films and shows. And the ADL, where he gave the speech, is itself known for its racist activism

The cause of Zionism that Baron Cohen and the ADL fully embrace has totally discredited the charge of anti-Semitism and weaponised it against those who dare criticise the horrors of the settler colony against Palestinians.

But none of that in and of itself discredits what he says. Even a broken clock is accurate twice a day.

There is rampant racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc and social media can be a cesspool for entertaining such nefarious ideas. But we need to be even and identical in our criticism of all of these terrorising forms of racism in one breath. We cannot denounce just one while trading in the others.

The internet is a blessing and it is a curse. But it has made the world a more level playing ground to oppose and end abuse of power.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

Kos petition: Support “The Honest Ads Act”

Scales of the DragonIn the wake of the 2016 elections, we continue to learn more information about how Russian agents interfered through the use of targeted Facebook and Twitter paid political ads.

There is freedom for these ads to run rampant throughout social media as there is currently no disclosure system for paid, online political advertising.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 requires political advertisements on television, radio, and satellite to disclose the sponsor of the advertisement. The same requirements should apply online.

The Honest Ads Act, introduced by Senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar as one of the first bills introduced to directly counter foreign actor interference in the 2016 election, would achieve this. The Honest Ads Act would require platforms to disclose the purchasers of ads, applying the same rules that exist for TV and radio.

We must demand Congress ensure the requirement for more transparency around online ad purchases is in place. We must protect the security of our elections!

Sign the petition: Demand Congress pass the Honest Ads Act and require transparency for all political ads.

SIGN THE PETITION
Thanks for all you do,
Erin Tulley, Daily Kos

California announces probe of Facebook privacy practices

The social network is under fire in the US state for giving third parties data access and not disclosing its practices.

California attorney general Xavier Becerra, right, speaks as California Governor Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference in Sacramento [File: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP]
California attorney general Xavier Becerra, right, speaks as California Governor Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference in Sacramento [File: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP]

The attorney general of California – the most populous state in the United States – says he has been investigating Facebook privacy practices since 2018.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra offered few details about the probe and said he was disclosing it only because his office was making a public court filing to force Facebook to answer subpoenas, to which he said Facebook had thus far failed to respond adequately.

According to the filing, Facebook took a year to fully respond to an initial June 2018 subpoena related to the scandal in which Cambridge Analytica obtained the data of more than 50 million Facebook users – and used that data to influence political outcomes in the US in 2016.

The attorney general then asked for more information, including communications among executives related to developers’ access to user data and privacy-related news stories.

The filing said that Facebook “broadly refuses to answer the interrogatories or comply with the subpoena”, adding that the company has refused to search the emails of top executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in response to the second subpoena.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The investigation is into Facebook’s practices related to privacy, disclosures and third-party access to user data.

The state is looking into whether Facebook violated California law by deceiving users and misrepresenting privacy practices.

Officials say the probe began in early 2018 as a response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but has since expanded.

The court filing says Facebook has not yet given answers for 19 of the attorney general’s questions, or provided any new documents in response to six document requests.

The filing says Facebook is dragging its feet and also simply not complying with subpoenas or responding to questions.

California did not join a separate probe involving attorneys general from New York and other US states. The New York probe is looking into Facebook’s dominance and any resulting anticompetitive conduct.

The US Federal Trade Commission recently fined Facebook $5bn over privacy violations, though the penalty was criticised by consumer advocates and a number of public officials as being too lenient.

 

SOURCE: AP NEWS AGENCY

US allies’ government officials hacked via Facebook’s WhatsApp

Victims are spread across at least 20 countries on five continents, sources close to the investigation told Reuters.

WhatsApp says a vulnerability in the app let phones be infected with spyware with a missed in-app call alone [Patrick Sison/AP]

WhatsApp says a vulnerability in the app let phones be infected with spyware with a missed in-app call alone [Patrick Sison/AP]

Senior government officials in multiple countries allied with the United States were hit earlier this year with hacking software that used Facebook Inc’s WhatsApp messaging system to take over users’ phones, according to people familiar with the company’s investigation.

Sources familiar with WhatsApp’s internal investigation into the breach told the Reuters news agency that a “significant” portion of the known victims are high-profile government and military officials spread across at least 20 countries on five continents.

More:

Many of the nations are US allies, the people said.

The hacking of a wider group of top government officials’ smartphones than previously reported suggests the WhatsApp cyber-intrusion could have broad political and diplomatic consequences.

Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group was the target of a lawsuit filed by WhatsApp on Tuesday. The Facebook-owned firm alleged that NSO Group built and sold a hacking platform that exploited a flaw in WhatsApp-owned servers to help clients hack into the mobile phones of at least 1,400 users between April 29, 2019, and May 10, 2019.

The total number of WhatsApp users hacked could be even higher. A London-based human rights lawyer, who was among the targets, sent Reuters photographs showing attempts to break into his phone dating back to April 1.

While it is not clear who used the software to hack officials’ phones, NSO has said it sells its spyware exclusively to government customers.

Some victims are in the US, United Arab EmiratesBahrainMexicoPakistan and India, said people familiar with the investigation. Reuters could not verify whether the government officials were from those countries or elsewhere.

Some Indian nationals have gone public with allegations they were among the targets over the past couple of days; they include journalists, academics, lawyers and defenders of India’s Dalit community.

NSO said in a statement that it was “not able to disclose who is or is not a client or discuss specific uses of its technology.” Previously it has denied any wrongdoing, saying its products are only meant to help governments catch groups involved in violent campaigns and criminals.

Cybersecurity researchers have cast doubt on those claims over the years, saying NSO products were used against a wide range of targets, including protesters in countries under authoritarian rule.

Citizen Lab, an independent watchdog group that worked with WhatsApp to identify the hacking targets, said on Tuesday at least 100 of the victims were civil society figures such as journalists and dissidents, not criminals.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, said it was not surprising that foreign officials would be singled out as well.

“It is an open secret that many technologies branded for law enforcement investigations are used for state-on-state and political espionage,” Scott-Railton said.

Prior to notifying victims, WhatsApp checked the target list against existing law enforcement requests for information relating to criminal investigations, such as violent campaigns or child exploitation cases. But the company found no overlap, said a person familiar with the matter. Governments can submit such requests for information to WhatsApp through an online portal the company maintains.

WhatsApp has said it sent warning notifications to affected users earlier this week. The company has declined to comment on the identities of NSO Group’s clients, who ultimately chose the targets.

SOURCE: REUTERS NEWS AGENCY

Twitter bans political advertisements from its platform!

Platform’s CEO says ‘reach’ of social media raises ‘significant risks’ to politics, raising pressure on Facebook to act.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, said he believed political reach should be earned, not bought [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, said he believed political reach should be earned, not bought [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

Twitter has announced a ban on all political advertising from its service, saying on Wednesday that social media companies give advertisers an unfair advantage in proliferating highly targeted, misleading messages.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted the change, declaring that the company had realised “paying for reach” on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms had “significant ramifications” for civic discourse.

The majority of money spent on political advertising in the United States goes to television ads.

Twitter’s policy will start on November 22 with the full policy published by November 15.

Some exceptions will be allowed, including advertisements in support of voter registration.

“We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” said Dorsey, on his personal Twitter account.

“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions,” he added.

“Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimisation of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes,” said Dorsey. “All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”

Eric Ham, a political analyst and author of The GOP Civil War, told Al Jazeera the move would have ramifications across the world.

“This is huge,” Ham said. “Not only for the business and social media communities but more importantly for the political landscape in the US and across the globe. We are talking about a major vehicle for getting out one’s message now being closed off completely.”

The decision drew a swift response from the Trump campaign, which said in a statement posted to Twitter that the ban was a “very dumb decision.”

Pressure on Facebook

Ham said Twitter’s move was likely to increase pressure on Facebook.

It has already been under fire in the US and UK over the use of millions of people’s user data in political campaigns to create highly targeted advertising.

On Wednesday, the social media firm agreed to pay a fine of 500,000 British pounds ($643,000) to the UK regulator for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which was linked to the 2016 Brexit referendum. The now-defunct company had also worked on political campaigns in other countries around the world.

US Zuckerberg
Twitter’s move is likely to intensify pressure on Facebook whose chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress last week that the platform would not fact-check ads by politicians or campaigns. [File: Erin Scott/Reuters]

In October, Facebook said that it would not fact-check ads by politicians or their campaigns, which could allow them to lie freely.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress last week that politicians have the right to free speech on Facebook, angering those who support stronger controls on what politicians can say online.

The issue flared up again in September when Twitter, along with Facebook and Google, refused to remove a misleading video advertisement from US President Donald Trump‘s campaign that targeted former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate.

In response, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, another presidential hopeful, ran an advertisement on Facebook taking aim at its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The ad falsely claimed that Zuckerberg endorsed Trump for re-election, acknowledging the deliberate falsehood as necessary to make a point.

Critics have called on Facebook to ban all political ads.

Dorsey also urged legislators and regulators to work harder to develop new laws governing social media.

“We need more forward-looking political ad regulation (very difficult to do). Ad transparency requirements are progress, but not enough,” he tweeted. “The internet provides entirely new capabilities, and regulators need to think past the present day to ensure a level-playing field.”

Facebook on Wednesday reported a profit of more than $6b in the three months ending in September, as revenue climbed by 28 percent.

 

SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies

Rashida Tlaib to Mark Zuckerberg: Why Haven’t You Stopped Hate Groups From Organizing on Facebook?

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We feature more highlights from the five-hour grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week on Capitol Hill, where Michigan Congressmember Rashida Tlaib said she feared that far-right hate groups were using Facebook event pages to incite violence against Muslims and other minorities — including death threats directed at her office. Tlaib asked to be seen not only as a Congresswoman, but also as “a mother that is raising two Muslim boys in this pretty dark time in our world.” Meanwhile, California Congressmember Katie Porter pinned Zuckerberg down on Facebook’s privacy policies. “You are arguing in federal court that in a consumer data privacy lawsuit, in which your own lawyers admit that users’ information was stolen, that the plaintiffs fail to articulate any injury,” Porter said. “In other words, no harm, no foul. Facebook messed up, but it doesn’t matter. Is that your position?”

“You Won’t Take Down Lies or You Will?”: AOC Grills Facebook’s Zuckerberg on Lies in Political Ads

OCTOBER 25, 2019

This week, as Facebook said it will not fact check political ads or hold politicians to its usual content standards, the social media giant’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled for more than five hours by lawmakers on Capitol Hill on the company’s policy of allowing politicians to lie in political advertisements, as well as its role in facilitating election interference and housing discrimination. We play highlights from New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ohio Congressmember Joyce Beatty, who asked Zuckerberg about Facebook’s record on civil rights, which she called “appalling and disgusting.” Beatty said the company “should have known better” and might have if “you had real diversity and inclusion on your team.”