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Facebook Removes More Accounts Due to Manipulation Efforts, Including New Push by Right-Wing ‘Proud Boys’



With the US Presidential Election looming, Facebook has this week outlined its latest round of account removals due to ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ – or, in other words, groups that have sought to use Facebook’s tools to manipulate Facebook’s users and their subsequent activities.

This latest set of removals, which includes operations originating from Canada, Brazil and Ukraine, also, includes a group connected to the far-right Proud Boys in the US, which Facebook initially banned back in 2018. 

As per Facebook:

The people behind this activity used fake accounts – some of which had already been detected and disabled by our automated systems – to pose as residents of Florida, post and comment on their own content to make it appear more popular than it is, evade enforcement, and manage Pages.”

The group also posted conspiracy theory posts, spreading misinformation through their networks.

Proud Boys example

Facebook says that the Pages and profiles had seemingly purchased followers to inflate their presence, but overall, the banned cluster consisted of 54 Facebook accounts, 50 Pages, and 4 accounts on Instagram.

“Around 260,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages, and around 61,500 people followed one or more of these Instagram accounts.”

That’s significant – but even more than this, Facebook says that this cluster of accounts spent “less than $308,000” on Facebook and Instagram ads. 

“Less than $308,000” seems like an odd way to put it – these pages spent a huge amount on promoting their posts, and pushing their various agendas.

To get an estimate on the impact of such activity, I put $308k as my ad budget into Facebook ads manager just now, and it estimated that my ad would reach around 17.8 million people. And while there is more to it than that (relating to targeting, scheduling, etc.), spending that amount of money would have enabled this group to reach a lot of people, spreading misinformation and hate speech throughout the platform.

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Facebook has removed the group, so this particular issue has been addressed. But those loose estimates once again underline the potential scope of such activities, and how Facebook can be weaponized for indoctrination through skewed views. 

As noted, Facebook banned Proud Boys back in 2018 after designating them as a hate group. More recently, Facebook has taken further action against Proud Boys linked groups, and other right-wing organizations, in response to content and activity around the #BlackLivesMatter protests. That, in some ways, represents a more proactive approach to hate speech by The Social Network – but Facebook has also come under fire for allowing controversial comments from US President Donald Trump to remain up on its platform, which many say is still facilitating hate speech.

Facebook is yet to shift its stance on such, but the pressure continues to mount. Currently, Facebook is in the midst of an advertiser boycott, which will cost it millions, or more, over the course of 2020, while this week, a Facebook-commissioned civil rights audit savaged the company’s handling of Trump’s comments.

Given the opposition to its approach, Facebook may still decide to take more action on hate speech, in all forms, and from all users – and as this latest finding of a comparatively small cluster of activist accounts shows, any action at all on this front is important.

The fact is that Facebook’s distribution system favors extremist groups, as their messaging is more incendiary, more biased, and more likely to spark debate and argument. Facebook would term such ‘engagement’, and its entire eco-system is built around fueling that activity.    

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Given this, every step that Facebook can take to address this, due to its massive scale and reach, is significant in the battle against divisive groups. As the community responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and official directives around such, have shown, this is about more than facts and reason, the movements being formed are guided by political idealism, beyond logical stances, and, in large part, misinformation which construes the facts to support certain agendas.

Would such opposition gain so much traction if posts like this weren’t getting millions of clicks on Facebook?

Fake news

Now consider this – would the same information gain such traction if the President of the United States, for example, had opted to take a more definitive stance on mask use?

And then, what role is Facebook, which has 1.7 billion daily active users, playing in amplifying such commentary?

Even on a smaller scale, the impact can be massive, and Facebook, whether it likes it or not, needs to assess its part in the distribution chain that fuels such movements.

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Meta’s Developing and ‘Ethical Framework’ for the Use of Virtual Influencers



Meta's Developing and 'Ethical Framework' for the Use of Virtual Influencers

With the rise of digital avatars, and indeed, fully digital characters that have evolved into genuine social media influencers in their own right, online platforms now have an obligation to establish clear markers as to what’s real and what’s not, and how such creations can be used in their apps.

The coming metaverse shift will further complicate this, with the rise of virtual depictions blurring the lines of what will be allowed, in terms of representation. But with many virtual influencers already operating, Meta is now working to establish ethical boundaries on their application.

As explained by Meta:

From synthesized versions of real people to wholly invented “virtual influencers” (VIs), synthetic media is a rising phenomenon. Meta platforms are home to more than 200 VIs, with 30 verified VI accounts hosted on Instagram. These VIs boast huge follower counts, collaborate with some of the world’s biggest brands, fundraise for organizations like the WHO, and champion social causes like Black Lives Matter.”

Some of the more well-known examples on this front are Shudu, who has more than 200k followers on Instagram, and Lil’ Miquela, who has an audience of over 3 million in the app.

At first glance, you wouldn’t necessarily realize that this is not an actual person, which makes such characters a great vehicle for brand and product promotions, as they can be utilized 24/7, and can be placed into any environment. But that also leads to concerns about body image perception, deepfakes, and other forms of misuse through false or unclear representation.

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Deepfakes, in particular, may be problematic, with Meta citing this campaign, with English football star David Beckham, as an example of how new technologies are evolving to expand the use of language, as one element, for varying purpose.

The well-known ‘DeepTomCruise’ account on TikTok is another example of just how far these technologies have come, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where they could be used to, say, show a politician saying or doing something that he or she actually didn’t, which could have significant real world impacts.

Which is why Meta is working with developers and experts to establish clearer boundaries on such use – because while there is potential for harm, there are also beneficial uses for such depictions.

Imagine personalized video messages that address individual followers by name. Or celebrity brand ambassadors appearing as salespeople at local car dealerships. A famous athlete would make a great tutor for a kid who loves sports but hates algebra.

Such use cases will increasingly become the norm as VR and AR technologies are developed, with these platforms placing digital characters front and center, and establishing new norms for digital connection.

It would be better to know what’s real and what’s not, and as such, Meta needs clear regulations to remove dishonest depictions, and enforce transparency over VI use.

But then again, much of what you see on Instagram these days is not real, with filters and editing tools altering people’s appearance well beyond what’s normal, or realistic. That can also have damaging consequences, and while Meta’s looking to implement rules on VI use, there’s arguably a case for similar transparency in editing tools applied to posted videos and images as well.

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That’s a more complex element, particularly as such tools also enable people to feel more comfortable in posting, which no doubt increases their in-app activity. Would Meta be willing to put more focus on this element if it could risk impacting user engagement? The data on the impact of Instagram on people’s mental health are pretty clear, with comparison being a key concern.

Should that also come under the same umbrella of increased digital transparency?

It’s seemingly not included in the initial framework as yet, but at some stage, this is another element that should be examined, especially given the harmful effects that social media usage can have on young women.

But however you look at it, this is no doubt a rising element of concern, and it’s important for Meta to build guardrails and rules around the use of virtual influencers in their apps.

You can read more about Meta’s approach to virtual influencers here.

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Meta Publishes New Guide to the Various Security and Control Options in its Apps



Meta Publishes New Guide to the Various Security and Control Options in its Apps

Meta has published a new set of safety tips for journalists to help them protect themselves in the evolving online connection space, which, for the most part, also apply to all users more broadly, providing a comprehensive overview of the various tools and processes that it has in place to help people avoid unwanted attention online.

The 32-page guide is available in 21 different languages, and provides detailed overviews of Meta’s systems and profile options for protection and security, with specific sections covering Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

The guide begins with the basics, including password protections and enabling two-factor authentication.

It also outlines tips for Page managers in securing their business profiles, while there are also notes on what to do if you’ve been hacked, advice for protection on Messenger and guidance on bullying and harassment.

Meta security guide

For Instagram, there are also general security tips, along with notes on its comment moderation tools.

Meta security guide

While for WhatsApp, there are explainers on how to delete messages, how to remove messages from group chats, and details on platform-specific data options.

Meta security guide

There are also links to various additional resource guides and tools for more context, providing in-depth breakdowns of when and how to action the various options.

It’s a handy guide, and while there are some journalist-specific elements included, most of the tips do apply to any user, so it could well be a valuable resource for anyone looking to get a better handle on your various privacy tools and options.

Definitely worth knowing either way – you can download the full guide here.

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Twitter bans account linked to Iran leader over video threatening Trump



Twitter bans account linked to Iran leader over video threatening Trump

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with relatives of slain commander Qasem Soleimani ahead of the second anniverary of his death in a US drone strike in Iraq – Copyright POOL/AFP/File Tom Brenner

Twitter said Saturday it had permanently suspended an account linked to Iran’s supreme leader that posted a video calling for revenge for a top general’s assassination against former US president Donald Trump.

“The account referenced has been permanently suspended for violating our ban evasion policy,” a Twitter spokesperson told AFP.

The account, @KhameneiSite, this week posted an animated video showing an unmanned aircraft targeting Trump, who ordered a drone strike in Baghdad two years ago that killed top Iranian commander General Qassem Soleimani.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s main accounts in various languages remain active. Last year, another similar account was suspended by Twitter over a post also appearing to reference revenge against Trump.

The recent video, titled “Revenge is Definite”, was also posted on Khamenei’s official website.

According to Twitter, the company’s top priority is keeping people safe and protecting the health of the conversation on the platform.

The social media giant says it has clear policies around abusive behavior and will take action when violations are identified.

As head of the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Soleimani was the architect of its strategy in the Middle East.

He and his Iraqi lieutenant were killed by a US drone strike outside Baghdad airport on January 3, 2020.

Khamenei has repeatedly promised to avenge his death.

On January 3, the second anniversary of the strike, the supreme leader and ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi once again threatened the US with revenge.

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Trump’s supporters regularly denounce the banning of the Republican billionaire from Twitter, underscoring that accounts of several leaders considered authoritarian by the United States are allowed to post on the platform.

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