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“Facebook is a harmful presence in our lives.” Jathan Sadowski

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Facebook is a harmful presence in our lives. It’s not too late to pull the plug on it Jathan Sadowski

Facebook is in perpetual crisis mode. For years now, the company has confronted waves of critical scrutiny on issues caused or exacerbated by the platform. Recent revelations have lengthened the charge sheet.

That list includes the mass data collection and privacy invasion by Cambridge Analytica; the accusations of Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election; unrestrained hate speech, inciting, among other things, genocide in Myanmar; the viral spread of disinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines, with Joe Biden proclaiming about Facebook and other social media platforms: “They’re killing people”. Add to that Facebook Marketplace: with a billion users buying and selling goods, ProPublica found a growing pool of scammers and fraudsters exploiting the site, with Facebook failing “to safeguard users”.

The latest wave of investigative reporting focused on the company, meanwhile, comes from the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series. After pouring over a cache of the company’s internal documents, the WSJ reported that “Facebook’s researchers have identified the platform’s ill effects”. For instance, the company downplayed findings that using Instagram can have significant impacts on the mental health of teenage girls.

Meanwhile, it has been implementing strategies to attract more preteen users to Instagram. The platform’s algorithm is designed to foster more user engagement in any way possible, including by sowing discord and rewarding outrage. This issue was raised by Facebook’s integrity team, which also proposed changes to the algorithm that would suppress, rather than accelerate, such animus between users. These solutions were struck down by Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, because he prioritised growing engagement above other objectives.

What’s more, the WSJ reported, Facebook employees “raised alarms” about drug cartels and human traffickers in developing countries using the platform, but the company’s response has been anaemic. Perhaps because executives are, yet again, hesitant to impede growth in these rapidly expanding markets.

This is consistent with claims by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who said at the weekend, in an interview with 60 Minutes, “Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety.” It also emerged that Haugen has filed at least eight complaints with the US financial watchdog over Facebook’s approach to safety. Haugen testified before the US Senate on Tuesday, backing up her revelations. “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” she said. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.” We shouldn’t be surprised that making money hand over fist is any company’s primary motivation. But here we have further evidence that Facebook is a uniquely socially toxic platform.

Despite the executive team’s awareness of these serious problems, despite congressional hearings and scripted pledges to do better, despite Zuckerberg’s grandiose mission statements that change with the tides of public pressure, Facebook continues to shrug off the great responsibility that comes with the great power and wealth it has accumulated.

In August, Zuckerberg signed off on an initiative called Project Amplify, which aims to use Facebook’s news feed “to show people positive stories about the social network”, according to the New York Times. By pushing pro-Facebook stories, including some “written by the company”, it hopes to influence how users perceive the platform. Facebook is no longer happy to just let others use the news feed to propagate misinformation and exert influence – it wants to wield this tool for its own interests, too.

With Project Amplify under way, Facebook is mounting a serious defence against the WSJ Facebook Files. In an article posted on Facebook Newsroom by Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs, , accusations of “deliberate mischaracterisations” by the WSJ reporters are lobbed in without supplying any specific details or corrections. Similarly, in an internal memo sent by Clegg to pre-empt Haugen’s interview, Clegg rejected any responsibility for Facebook being “the primary cause of polarisation”, blamed the prevalence of extreme views on individual bad actors like “a rogue uncle” and provided talking points for employees who might “get questions from friends and families about these things”.

It’s all spin, with no substance. A trained politician deflecting accusations while planting seeds of doubt in the public’s mind without acknowledging or addressing the problems at hand.

In another response to the WSJ, Facebook’s head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, made a strange analogy between social media and cars: “We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy,” Mosseri said. “And I think social media is similar.” Mosseri can no longer deny that platforms like his are forces for destruction. His tactic is to convince us that a simple cost-benefit analysis comes out in his favour. He happens to elide the fact that cars cause more than crashes; they are also responsible for systemic social and environmental consequences at every level. Of course, this is exactly the kind of self-interested myopia we should expect from a tech executive under fire.

Beyond pushing back against critical reporting, however, an initiative like Project Amplify should be understood as Facebook attempting to pave the way for its deeper penetration into every facet of our reality. After all, when asked last year by Congress why Facebook is not a monopoly, Zuckerberg said it’s because he views all possible modes of “people connecting with other people” as a form of competition for his business. And if we know anything about Facebook, they are very good at capturing market share and crushing competitors – no matter what it takes.

Facebook needs users to form an intimate relationship with the platform. In quick succession this summer, it announced two new products that represent the company’s next planned phase of existence – both its own and ours.

First is the “metaverse”. Named after an explicitly dystopian sci-fi idea, the metaverse is, for now, pitched as essentially a virtual reality office – accessed through VR goggles like Facebook Oculus – where you go to see colleagues, attend meetings, and give presentations without having to leave home. Zuckerberg proclaimed that over the next five years, Facebook “will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”

Second is Ray-Ban Stories, Facebook’s attempt to succeed where Google Glass failed. Ray-Ban Stories are pitched as a frictionless way to stay constantly connected to Facebook and Instagram without that pesky smartphone getting in the way. Now you can achieve the dream of sharing every moment of your day with Facebook – and the valuable data produced from it – without ever needing to think about it.

Importantly, access to both kinds of reality – virtual and augmented – are mediated by Facebook. The executives at Facebook would like you to believe that the company is now a permanent fixture in society. That a platform primarily designed to supercharge targeted advertisements has earned the right to mediate not just our access to information or connection but our perception of reality. And Facebook’s aggressive attempts to combat any scepticism, combined with its reality-shaping ambitions, shows how desperate it is to convince us to accept the social poison it peddles and ask for more.

Days before Facebook’s latest congressional hearing – this time on the mental impacts of Instagram on teenagers – Mosseri announced his team was pausing Instagram Kids, a service aimed at people under 13 years old, and developing “parental supervision tools”. It seems yet again that they will do the bare minimum only when forced to do so. Speaking about this change of direction in her Senate hearing, Haugen was sceptical: “I would be sincerely surprised if they do not continue working on Instagram Kids, and I would be amazed if a year from now we don’t have this conversation again.”

For Facebook, all this negative attention amounts to an image problem: bad publicity that can be counteracted by good propaganda. For the rest of us, this is indicative that Facebook doesn’t just have a problem; Facebook is the problem. Ultimately, an overwhelming case is growing against Facebook’s right to even exist, let alone continue enjoying unrestricted operation and expansion.

We must not forget that Facebook is still young. It was founded in 2004, but didn’t really come into itself, becoming the behemoth we know today, until going public in 2012, buying Instagram for $1bn (£760m) that same year and then acquiring WhatsApp for $19bn two years later. True to its original informal motto – “Move fast and break things” – Facebook has wasted no time wreaking a well-documented path of destruction.

When Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp temporarily went offline this week due to a technical problem, we saw just how dependent we have already become on these services for so many everyday activities. It was a shock to suddenly be without them. The company would probably see this as evidence that our lives are too intertwined with its services for them to ever go away. But, as the company has proven time and time again, our interests and its interests are rarely aligned. We should instead recognise that allowing a rapacious company to design and own critical infrastructure with zero accountability is the worst of all possible options.

If its executives want to compare social media to cars, then at the very least this dangerous technology must be subjected to the same level of heavy regulation and independent oversight as the automotive industry. Otherwise, Facebook must be reminded that it’s not too late for the public to pull the plug on this social experiment gone wrong. Right now, almost any alternative would be better.

Jathan Sadowski is a research fellow in the emerging technologies research lab at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

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UN chief warns of ‘catastrophe’ from global food shortage

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UN chief warns of ‘catastrophe’ from global food shortage

The head of the United Nations warned Friday that the world faces “catastrophe” because of the growing shortage of food around the globe.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the war in Ukraine has added to the disruptions caused by climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and inequality to produce an “unprecedented global hunger crisis” already affecting hundreds of millions of people.

“There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022,” he said in a video message to officials from dozens of rich and developing countries gathered in Berlin. “And 2023 could be even worse.”

Guterres noted that harvests across Asia, Africa and the Americas will take a hit as farmers around the world struggle to cope with rising fertilizer and energy prices.

“This year’s food access issues could become next year’s global food shortage,” he said. “No country will be immune to the social and economic repercussions of such a catastrophe.”

Guterres said U.N. negotiators were working on a deal that would enable Ukraine to export food, including via the Black Sea, and let Russia bring food and fertilizer to world markets without restrictions.

He also called for debt relief for poor countries to help keep their economies afloat and for the private sector to help stabilize global food markets.

The Berlin meeting’s host, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, said Moscow’s claim that Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were to blame for food shortages was “completely untenable.”

Russia exported as much wheat in May and June this year as in the same months of 2021, Baerbock said.

She echoed Guterres’ comments that several factors underlie the growing hunger crisis around the world.

“But it was Russia’s war of attack against Ukraine that turned a wave into a tsunami,” Baerbock said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that Russia has no excuse for holding back vital goods from world markets.

“The sanctions that we’ve imposed on Russia collectively and with many other countries exempt food, exempt food products, exempt fertilizers, exempt insurers, exempt shippers,” he said.

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Bandits release Zamfara wedding guests after payment of ransom

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Bandits release Zamfara wedding guests after payment of ransom

Local and federal highways in the North-west have become vulnerable as bandits continue to ambush and abduct travellers.

The gunmen who abducted 29 people returning to Zamfara State from Sokoto State where they had gone to attend the wedding of colleagues have released them after the payment of an unspecified ransom.

The victims, who were mostly dealers of mobile phones and phone accessories at Bebeji Communication Market (Bebeji Plaza) in Gusau, the capital of Zamfara State were abducted in Sokoto 13 days ago.

Secretary of the GSM Dealers Association in the state, Ashiru Zurmi, confirmed the release of the victims but didn’t give details.

One of the victims reportedly died in captivity.

Though the amount paid as ransom to secure the release of the hostages has not been revealed, Abdullahi Lawal, whose brother was among those abducted, said their relatives were asked to make donations. He said his family raised N33,000 while the phone sellers’ association “provided the remaining money.”

“Every family was told to gather N400,000 while the members of the plaza and their colleagues in the state provided the remaining money. Some family members were able to raise the money in full, but we couldn’t. I took the money to the plaza and I was told that they were still negotiating with the bandits” he said.

He said he didn’t know how much was given to the bandits “but I’m happy that my brother is okay,” he said.

From N5m to N700,000

A phone accessories seller, Sharhabilu Muhammad, told PREMIUM TIMES over the phone that the officials of the phone dealers association negotiated with the bandits to reduce the ransom they originally demanded to release the captives.

“You know that the initial money they said was N5m for each of the captives but our officials kept negotiating with them (bandits) until they reduced the money to N700k,” he said.

When asked about the person who reportedly died in captivity, Mr Muhammed said his identity has not been revealed.

“We don’t know because even the bandits didn’t tell but we’ll surely find out when they (captives) arrive at Gusau tonight,” he added.

The police command spokesman, Mohammed Shehu, didn’t respond to calls and SMS sent to him on the development.

Backstory

PREMIUM TIMES reported that the wedding guests were abducted when bandits opened fire on the two buses they were travelling in a few kilometres after Bimasa in the Dogon Awo junction, Sokoto State.

They were returning from Tambuwal town in Sokoto State where they had attended the wedding of a colleague, Jamil Umar.

The captives were travelling on a Toyota Coaster bus belonging to the Universal Basic Education Commission UBEC and another bus owned by Gusau Local Government.

The bandits had demanded a ransom of N145 million to release the 29 hostages.

Bandits have been terrorising North-west states and a part of North-central Nigeria, killing and displacing hundreds of people and rustling domestic animals.

Travelling on federal and local highways is becoming dangerous as bandits block roads, abduct and kill motorists.

Major federal highways including Abuja-Kaduna, Gusau-Sokoto-Birnin Kebbi, and Birnin Gwari-Kaduna have become travellers’ nightmares with attacks and abduction or killing of travellers becoming a daily occurrence.

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Reps demand review of public officers’ salaries, allowances

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Reps demand review of public officers’ salaries, allowances

A motion seeking the intervention of the House of Representatives in the conflict between the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, and Justices of the Supreme Court, over issues bordering on welfare and working conditions suffered a setback on Thursday.

While the House called for a general review of salaries and allowances of all political office holders and public servants, the members were divided over which committees should handle the task.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, Onofiok Luke, had moved a motion to seek the intervention of the chamber in the crisis rocking the apex court and better welfare package for judicial officers across the courts.

Luke, who moved the motion titled, ‘Need to Address the Deteriorating Working Conditions of Judicial Officers,’ prayed the House to urge the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission to upwardly review the remuneration of judicial officers in line with present economic realities.

The lawmaker prayed the House to urge the Federal Government to increase the budgetary allocation of the judiciary for the upcoming fiscal year and provide special intervention funds for the development of the arm

He further prayed the House to mandate the Committee on Judiciary to ensure compliance and report back within six weeks for further legislative action.

While the lawmakers were making amendments to the prayers, the Deputy Speaker, Ahmed Wase, called for an upward review of the welfare package of all public office holders.

Wase, who stated that he appreciated the memo from the Justices to the CJN, noted that only the RMAFC had the responsibility to review remuneration of government officials.

The Deputy Speaker made reference to a part of the motion that read, ‘The remuneration of judicial officers was last reviewed in 2008 by the RMAFC when the official exchange rate was N117.74 to $1, whereas the naira has considerably depreciated.’

Wase partly said, “I think this particular element does not affect just judicial officers, maybe because they cried out now. I don’t think it is right that we have to wait every time until people write letters of complaints and there is protest before we begin to do the right thing.”

Rephrasing Wase’s proposed amendment, Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, said: “The DSP’s amendment is that we should not isolate the Judiciary and all those enumerated constitutional bodies and public office holders. They should be reviewed; a comprehensive review based on all the things that Hon Luke said – the exchange rates and this and that.”

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