Why the world must pay attention to the fight against disinformation and fake news in Taiwan

On Saturday, Taiwan will hold its presidential election. This year, the outcome is even more important than usual because it will signal what direction the country’s people want its relationship with China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, to move in. Also crucial are efforts against fake news. Taiwan has one of the worst disinformation problems in the world and how it is handled is an important case study for other countries.

Yesterday, Twitter said in a blog post that it has held trainings for the two main political parties in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), and Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, in addition to setting up a portal for feedback during the election. Late last month, the state-owned Central News Agency reported that Facebook will set up a “war room” to counteract disinformation before the election, echoing its efforts in other countries (the company previously established a regional elections center at its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore).

But the fight against disinformation in Taiwan started years before the current presidential election. It now encompasses the government, tech companies and non-profit groups like the Taiwan FactCheck Center, and will continue after the election. As in other countries, the fake news problem in Taiwan takes advantage of complex, deep-rooted ideological, cultural and political rifts among Taiwan’s population of 24 million, and it demonstrates that fake news isn’t just a tech or media literacy problem, but also one that needs to be examined from a social psychological perspective.

How Fake News Spreads in Taiwan

This year’s election is taking place as the Chinese government, under President Xi Jinping, makes increasingly aggressive efforts to assert control over Taiwan, and as the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong underscore the fissures in China’s “one country, two systems” model. The two leading candidates are incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the DPP, and opponent Han Kuo-yu of the KMT, who favors a more conciliatory relationship with China.

The Chinese government has been linked to disinformation campaigns in Taiwan. Last year, the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden researched foreign influence in domestic politics and placed Taiwan in its “worst” category, along with Latvia and Bahrain, as the countries where foreign governments most frequently use social media to spread false information for “all key political issues.” By comparison, the United States ranked 13th worst on the list, despite being targeted by Russian disinformation operations.

But disinformation also comes from many other sources, including Taiwanese politicians from different parties and their supporters, “cyber armies” whose aim is to influence voters, and content farms that sensationalize and repost content from media outlets. It is spread through platforms including Facebook, Twitter, messaging app Line, online bulletin board PTT and YouTube.

The problem has escalated over the past five years, according to an April 2019 report by CommonWealth magazine reporters Rebecca Lin and Felice Wu. During the previous presidential election, cyber armies consisting of supporters for some politicians, or workers for political parties and public relations companies, began engaging in online information wars, creating an opportunity for foreign influence. Wu Hsun-hsiao, former legal counsel to PTT, told the magazine that in 2015, more dummy accounts entering from China began to appear on the bulletin board and Facebook. “The rise of emerging online media has generated a considerable amount of noise, and China has discovered the influence it has,” he told CommonWealth.

Over the last two years, YouTube has also become an increasingly potent way to spread disinformation, often through short videos that take clips and photos from news outlets and re-edit them to present misleading narratives about major news events. “They take advantage of the myth that ‘to see is to believe’ by massively disseminating false information in the run-up to the election,” Wang Tai-li, a professor in National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism told the Liberty Times.

Earlier this month, Taiwan’s legislature passed the DPP-backed Anti-Infiltration Bill, meant to stop Chinese influence in Taiwanese politics. The legislation was opposed by KMT politicians, including former president Ma Ying-jeou, who made controversial statements comparing the bill to restoring Taiwan’s four decades of martial law, which ended in 1987.

But part of the challenge of fighting fake news in Taiwan is lack of awareness. After local elections in November 2018, Wang conducted a survey that found 52% of respondents did not believe there was foreign interference, or said they did not know enough to judge.

Fighting Back

Much of the work, however, is being done by volunteers and private citizens. Last month, Los Angeles Times’ reporter Alice Su wrote about organizations like the Taiwan FactCheck Center, a non-profit that does not receive funding from the government, political parties or politicians. In July 2018, the group began collaborating with Facebook, where posts flagged as containing false information bring up a screen with a link that takes users to a Taiwan FactCheck Center report before they are allowed to view the content.

Su also covered other groups like DoubleThink Labs, which monitors Chinese disinformation networks in Taiwan, and CoFacts, a crowdsourced database that operates a factchecking Line chatbot. But these groups and social media platforms are up against thousands of posts containing disinformation each day, including in private chat groups that can’t be monitored.

Last month, Facebook said it had removed 118 fan pages, 99 groups and 51 accounts, including an unofficial fan page for Han called “Kaohsiung Fan Group” that had more than 150,000 members, for rules violations.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson said “Over the last three years, we have dedicated unprecedented resources to fighting malicious activity on our platform and, in particular, to protecting the integrity of elections on Facebook–including this week’s election in Taiwan. Our approach includes removing fake accounts, reducing the spread of misinformation, bringing transparency to political advertising, disrupting information operations and working with Taiwan’s Central Election Commission to promote civic engagement. We have teams of experts dedicated to protecting Taiwan’s election, and we look forward to ensuring that Facebook can play a positive role in the democratic process.”

The Pervasiveness of Fake News

Efforts to combat fake news often results in more disinformation spread by people who believe their views have been unfairly targeted. According to the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), by the time the Kaohsiung Fan Group was removed, it had 109 admins and moderators, a number the SIO said was “unusually high compared to the average admin and moderator counts for Taiwanese political groups of either affiliation (pro-Han Kuo-yu groups averaged 27, and pro-Tsai Ing-wen Groups, 10).” Furthermore, several moderators had “suspicious” profiles, including zero or one friend, profile photos that were not of people and “minimal human engagement” on their posts.

But despite that evidence, the SIO also noted that the mass removal “prompted conspiratorial theories about why they were taken down in the first place,” with posts in other pro-KMT groups speculating that it had been done in coordination with the DPP.

An illustration of how sticky fake news can be once it takes root is disinformation about the validity of Tsai’s PhD from the London School of Economics, which continue to circulate through Taiwan even though the university issued a statement confirming the degree.

As in other countries, disinformation in Taiwan also highlight and widen existing political social and cultural rifts. In the United States, for example, fake news campaigns by Russian agents capitalize on already highly polarizing issues, including race, immigration and gun control.

In Taiwan, the specific issues may be different, but the objective is the same. As Su wrote in the Los Angeles Times, many posts “try to stir emotions on hot-button issues–for example, false claims that Tsai’s government has misused pension funds to lure Korean and Japanese tourists to make up for a drop in visitors from the mainland, and that organizers of Taiwan’s annual gay-rights parade received stipends to invite overseas partners to march with them.”

Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage last year, despite aggressive efforts by conservative groups to stop it. Before it was passed, CoFacts documented viral posts that linked same-sex marriage with the spread of of HIV. Creators of fake news continue to take advantage of the issue by spreading homophobic disinformation, including claims that the DPP spent NT$30 million (about $980,000) to organize Taipei’s Pride Parade, even though the event is funded by its organizers and does not receive sponsorship from political parties.

Disinformation is difficult to combat and the use of online platforms to spread it is rapidly emerging as one of this century’s most serious problems. But online tools, vigilance by social media platforms and observers, and understanding the social and cultural issues exploited by disinformation, can also be used to fight it. Taiwan’s rampant fake news and disinformation problem has reached the point of crisis, but it may also reveal what solutions are most effective at combating it around the world.

Spotify to ‘pause’ running political ads, citing lack of proper review

Ever since the run up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election (and, arguably, well before that), political ads have become a major sticking point on social media sites looking to crack down on misinformation. Facebook has grappled with the issue to the satisfaction of virtually no one, while Twitter has shut them down altogether.

Ad Age noted this week that Spotify is going to follow in the footsteps of the latter — for the time being. The world’s premier music streaming service is pumping the breaks on political amid the 2020 presidential rate.

The company confirmed the (in)decision in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

Beginning in early 2020, Spotify will pause the selling of political advertising. This will include political advertising content in our ad-supported tier and in Spotify original and exclusive podcasts. At this point in time, we do not yet have the necessary level of robustness in our processes, systems and tools to responsibly validate and review this content. We will reassess this decision as we continue to evolve our capabilities.

There’s certainly something to be said for knowing one’s limitations. And since so much of the company’s revenue arrives from ads run on its free offering, Spotify should be commended for opting to pull the plug on a solid revenue stream, as the campaign is entering the primary season. Spotify wouldn’t comment on how much money is being left on the table, but as Ad Age notes, political organizations ranging from the Bernie Sanders campaign to the RNC use to platform to get the word out. 

Apple partners with ABC on 2020 presidential coverage in the Apple News app

Apple announced today it will collaborate with ABC News on coverage of the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election in its Apple News app. The efforts will kick off with the Democratic primary debate on February 7, 2020, in New Hampshire, and will feature ABC News videos, live streams, plus FiveThirtyEight polling data, infographics and analysis during key moments in the 2020 election.

The collaboration will extend through Super Tuesday, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the general election debates, election night and the 2021 presidential inauguration, Apple says.

ABC News, Apple News, and WMUR-TV will also partner for the February debate, the first to be held after primary voting begins.

This isn’t the first time Apple has added special coverage to its News app in the months leading up to a U.S. election. The company began to push its own election coverage after the 2016 election controversies that saw large tech companies, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, facing congressional inquiries and investigations regarding the Russian interference with elections that took place across their networks.

In the months since, Apple News rolled out its own guide to the U.S. midterms, followed by a real-time election results hub on Nov. 6, 2018. And most recently, it added a guide to the 2020 Democratic candidates and debates.

The need for news platforms users can trust is a key part of Apple’s agenda with its News app. Apple cites ABC’s winning of four Edward R. Murrow Awards this year, including for overall excellence in television. It also hosted the most-watched debate of the 2020 presidential cycle so far in September 2019, with over 14 million viewers across ABC and Univision, and 11 million online video views.

FiveThirtyEight, meanwhile, is known for its statistical analysis, data visualization, and reporting on politics and the election, which includes things like trackers on the latest polling, candidate endorsements, and fundraising.

“Access to quality news and trusted information is always important, and never more so than in an election year,” said Lauren Kern, editor-in-chief of Apple News, in a statement about the collaboration. “We’re proud to partner with ABC News to present the millions of people who use Apple News each day with dynamic live coverage and responsible analysis during the major news moments of the 2020 election.”

“This election is one of the most consequential in modern history, and this unprecedented partnership with Apple News will deliver our world-class political journalism to more people than ever before,” noted James Goldston, president of ABC News. “It will enable millions more people to have a deeper understanding of the key issues, candidates, and events by providing straightforward information, insight, and context during the entire 2020 cycle — reaching our audience anywhere and anytime they want breaking and in-depth news,” he said.

Prior Apple News election coverage involved a range of media partners, such as Axios, Politico, The Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, CBS and others.

It’s notable that Apple has this time selected ABC as its coverage partner. Apple has historically had close ties with Disney, which owns ABC, thanks to Disney CEO Bob Iger’s close relationship with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Disney’s acquisition of Jobs’ company, Pixar, in 2006. However, with Apple’s launch of Apple TV+, a Disney+ competitor, Iger resigned from Apple’s board of directors, saying the two companies’ paths were conflicting. But as tihs 2020 election news partnership demonstrates, the two companies can still work closely together, at times.

 

 

Facebook says government demands for user data are at a record high

Facebook’s latest transparency report is out.

The social media giant said the number of government demands for user data increased by 16% to 128,617 demands during the first-half of this year compared to the second-half of last year.

That’s the highest number of government demands its received in any reporting period since it published its first transparency report in 2013.

The U.S. government led the way with the most number of requests — 50,741 demands for user data resulting in some account or user data given to authorities in 88% of cases. Facebook said two-thirds of all of the U.S. government’s requests came with a gag order, preventing the company from telling the user about the request for their data.

But Facebook said it was able to release details of 11 so-called national security letters (NSLs) for the first time after their gag provisions were lifted during the period. National security letters can compel companies to turn over non-content data at the request of the FBI. These letters are not approved by a judge, and often come with a gag order preventing their disclosure. But since the Freedom Act passed in 2015, companies have been allowed to request the lifting of those gag orders.

The report also said the social media giant had detected 67 disruptions of its services in 15 countries, compared to 53 disruptions in nine countries during the second-half of last year.

And, the report said Facebook also pulled 11.6 million pieces of content, up from 5.8 million in the same period a year earlier, which Facebook said violated its policies on child nudity and sexual exploitation of children.

Read more:

Just 6% of U.S. adults on Twitter account for 73% of political tweets…and they disapprove of Trump

A small number of prolific U.S. Twitter users create the majority of tweets, and that extends to Twitter discussions around politics, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center out today. Building on an earlier study which discovered that 10% of users created 80% of tweets from U.S. adults, the organization today says that just 6% of U.S. adults on Twitter account for 73% of tweets about national politics.

Though your experience on Twitter may differ, based on who you follow, the majority of Twitter users don’t mention politics in their tweets.

FT 19.10.23 PoliticsTwitter Most prolific political tweeters make up small share US adults Twitter public accounts

In fact, Pew found that 69% never tweeted about politics or tweeted about the topic just once. Meanwhile, across all tweets from U.S. adults, only 13% of tweets were focused on national politics.

 

The study was based on 1.1 million public tweets from June 2018 to June 2019, Pew says. 2,427 users participated.

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Similar to its earlier report about how prolific users dominate the overall conversation, Pew found there’s also a small group of very active Twitter users dominating the conversation about national politics — and they all tend to be heavy news consumers and more polarized in their viewpoints.

Only 22% of U.S. adults even have a Twitter account, and of those, only 31% are defined as “political tweeters” — that is, they’ve posted at least 5 tweets and have posted at least twice about politics during the study period.

Within this broader group of political tweeters, just 6% are defined as “prolific” — meaning they’ve posted at least 10 tweets and at least 25% of their tweets mention national politics.

This small subset then goes on to create 73% of all tweets from U.S. adults on the subject of national politics.

What’s concerning about the data is that it’s those who are either far to the left or far to the right who are the ones dominating the political conversation on Twitter’s platform. A majority of the prolific political tweeters (55%) say they identify as either “very liberal” or “very conservative.” Among the non-political tweeting crowd, only 28% chose a more polarized label for themselves.

This polarized subgroup also heavily leans left. For example, those who strongly approve of President Trump generated 25% of all tweets mentioning national politics. But those who strongly disapprove of Trump generated 72% of all tweets mentioning national politics. (They’re also responsible for 80% of all tweets from U.S. adults on the platform.)

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This isn’t a fully representative picture of U.S. politics. The share of U.S. adults on Twitter who strongly disapprove of Trump (55%) is 7 percentage points higher than the share of the general public that holds this view (48%).

Trump supporters, as a result, are under-represented on Twitter. Perhaps this is because they’ve flocked to alternate platforms; or because don’t tweet their views as often in public; or because they violate Twitter’s policies more often, resulting in bans. Or as is likely, it’s a combination of factors. In any event, the reasoning was beyond the scope of this study.

The study also found the prolific tweeters are highly engaged with the news cycle. 92% follow the news “most of the time,” compared to 58% of non-prolific political tweeters and 53% of non-political tweeters. They’re also civically engaged, as 34% have attended a political rally or event, 57% have contacted an elected official, and 38% have donated to campaigns.

Also of note, the political tweets are more likely to come from older users. Those ages 65 and older produce only 10% of all tweets from U.S. adults, but they contribute 33% of tweets related to national politics. And those 50 and older produce 29% of all tweets but contribute 73% of tweets mentioning national politics.

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These political tweeters also create so-called “filter bubbles” where they mostly follow people who think the same as they do. 45% of Democrats said they did this, compared with 25% of Republicans. Across all U.S. adults, 31% of Democrats said they did this, versus 15% of Republicans.

But there is one thing a majority of U.S. Twitter users can agree on: most (57%) believe any news they see on social media is “largely inaccurate.”

The full report is available here.

Trump gets on Twitch

The reelection campaign will be livestreamed. US president Donald Trump has joined Amazon-owned livestreaming platform Twitch.

Twitch is best known as a social video streaming platform for gamers but does host other content, including politics.

The verified DonaldTrump Twitch account, spotted earlier by Reuters, has just one video in the recent broadcast section so far: A livestream of a Trump rally which took place in Minneapolis yesterday evening.

Alongside the saved video of this broadcast is a growing selection of user generated clips culled from the stream, with titles such as “This is our president.”, “LOL”, “KEK” and “pepelaugh”.

Another clip remarks on how a single black man — who’s visible in the top corner of the shot of the audience behind Trump — vanishes as “they zoom him out of the picture”.

Trump is not the only high profile US politician to be taking to Twitch to broadcast campaign rallies in real time ahead of next year’s presidential election.

Democratic senator Bernie Sanders, who is making a pitch to be the party’s presidential candidate, joined the platform a few months ago. And at the time of writing Sanders still has more followers than Trump on Twitch (88,795 vs 37,754).

Over on Twitter, meanwhile — Trump’s go-to social media soapbox for skewering opponents and deflecting criticism, via his preferred medium of the early morning attack tweet — the president has ~65.6M followers.

So Twitter is very unlikely to be concerned that its highest profile user is flirting with Amazon’s social streaming platform. (Though it’s much less clear how happy “Jeff Bozo” will be about Trump getting on Twitch.)

Trump has dabbled with using Twitter’s own video streaming tool, Periscope. But the choice of Twitch for streaming his campaign rallies looks mostly like a case of horses for courses. Periscope is more for on-the-fly mobile streaming, whereas Twitch is a platform built for playing to (and building) a ‘lean back’ audience.

Troll culture also thrives on gamer Twitch. And Trump is of course edgelord of the trolls. Ergo he should fit right in.

With Periscope Twitter has been taking a stronger approach to tackling abusive comments in recent years (and also trying to fight fake and spam content) — in line with its stated desire to increase ‘conversational health’ on its platforms. So it’s probably happy to have dodged a bullet here.

Certainly Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has more enough flying his way over whatever Trump choses to tweet next.

Silicon Valley’s competing philosophies on tech ethics with The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz

“If Silicon Valley is going to keep telling itself the story that the only uses of their technology will be the most optimistic, the most hopeful, the most salubrious, the most prosocial,” New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz told me in Part 1 of this recent conversation for Extra Crunch, “you can try to rebut that logically, or you can just disprove it by showing a very glaring counterexample. If somebody is going around and saying, ‘all swans are white,’ you can argue against that logically, or you can just show them a black swan.”

Author Photo Andrew Marantz credit Luke Marantz fix

Image via Penguin Random House

Marantz, a brilliant and eclectic writer, has in recent years trained his attention on the tech world and its contribution to social unrest in the United States and beyond. He has just published a new book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation“, which, along with recent New Yorker essays expanding on the book’s themes, is sure to provoke debate.

In part 2 of our conversation below, we discuss the Alt-Right and White Nationalists in tech and politics; Silicon Valley spirituality today; competing philosophies of tech ethics; and more.

Greg Epstein: If you look at the alt-right later that year and in 2017, I myself spent a lot of time poring over these figures like Richard Spencer and Gavin McInnes, and their videos, and their writings, and whatever thinking, ‘These guys are really taking over our society right now.

TikTok explains its ban on political advertising

Already under fire for advancing Chinese foreign policy by censoring topics like Hong Kong’s protests and pro-LGBT content, the Beijing-based video app TikTok is now further distancing itself from U.S. social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with a ban on political ads on its app.

The company today says it will not allow political ads on TikTok, noting they don’t fit in with the experience the short-form video app aims to offer.

“Any paid ads that come into the community need to fit the standards for our platform, and the nature of paid political ads is not something we believe fits the TikTok platform experience,” says Blake Chandlee, TikTok’s VP of Global Business Solutions, who recently joined the company from Facebook.

“To that end, we will not allow paid ads that promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group, or issue at the federal, state, or local level – including election-related ads, advocacy ads, or issue ads,” he says.

TikTok further explains that it wants to be known as a place for creative expression, and one that creates a “positive, refreshing environment” that inspires that creativity.

It will further encourage these goals through its products like its fun filters and effects as well as its brand partnerships.

Today, TikTok offers a range of ad opportunities, including in-feed video ads, launch screen ads, and other native ads like its sponsored hashtag challenges. It also more recently launched a beta version of the TikTok Creator Marketplace, which will help to connect brands with TikTok creators for their marketing campaigns.

“Throughout all of this, however, our primary focus is on creating an entertaining, genuine experience for our community,” Chandlee continues. “While we explore ways to provide value to brands, we’re intent on always staying true to why users uniquely love the TikTok platform itself: for the app’s light-hearted and irreverent feeling that makes it such a fun place to spend time,” he says.

Political ads don’t fit with this agenda, the company believes.

But running those sorts of ads also come with significant challenges, as Facebook has found.

It had to create a system to verify the credentials of political advertisers, for example, which requires them to submit identification information like their street address, phone number, business email and website matching the email, tax ID number, or U.S. Federal Election Commmission ID number. It also launched a publicly searchable database of political ads, for transparency’s sake.

As a Chinese-run company, TikTok may not have the resources to run a similar operation. In fact, it seemed to be having trouble cracking down on the hate speech found on its app last year, VICE had reported.

The ban on political ads isn’t really new to TikTok, it’s more of a reiteration of the existing policy — but it’s a statement that TikTok hadn’t made before.

 

 

SmartNews’ latest news discovery feature shows users articles from across the political spectrum

Even before the 2016 election, political polarization was increasing, with Americans so entrenched in the news sources they rely on that the Pew Research Center said “liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds.” Now SmartNews, the news aggregation app that recently hit unicorn funding status, wants to give users a way to step out of their bubbles with a feature called News From All Sides.

News From All Sides is an option located under the politics tab in SmartNews’ app. A slider at the bottom allows users to see articles about a specific news event sorted into five groups, ranging from most liberal to most conservative. Now available for new users in the United States, the feature will gradually roll out as the company fine-tunes it.

SmartNews News From All Sides feature

News From All Sides was created for readers who want to see other points of view, but might be overwhelmed by an online search, says Jeannie Yang, SmartNews’ senior vice president of product. It also aims to provide more transparency about news algorithms, which have been blamed for exacerbating political polarization.

Before developing the feature, SmartNews team conducted research and focus groups in places including Minneapolis and cities in North Carolina to understand how people across the country consume political news online.

“We found that across the board, the last [presidential] election was not just a wakeup call about what news reporting is, but users also expressed that they are much, much more aware of algorithms running underneath what they see. They might not know how it works, but they know there is something else going on,” Yang says.

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The political leanings of publications that appear in News From All Sides were categorized by Smartnews’ content team, which includes journalists who previously worked at the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Fox News and other major news outlets. An AI-based algorithm decides which headlines appear in each category. As the feature goes through new iterations, Yang says SmartNews will make changes based on reader feedback. For example, future versions might look at the positions taken in specific articles and include more than five categories on the slider.

News From All Sides is an eye-opener along the lines of “Blue Feed, Red Feed,” an interactive feature (now archived) by the Wall Street Journal that demonstrated how much someone’s political leanings can influence what Facebook’s algorithms display on their News Feed.

Of course, there are many people who are content to be ensconced in their own news bubbles and may not be interested in News From All Sides, even with the upcoming presidential election. Features like it won’t fix political polarization, but for people who are curious about different points of view, even ones they strongly disagree with, News From All Sides gives them a simple way to explore more coverage.

“We definitely discussed that,” says Yang. “The feature is not initially targeted to everyone. It targets people who are more political news junkies, who are checking their phones for news multiple times a day and will actively seek out other sources, so they might go on Google News and go down a rabbit hole.”

“As more readers consider how they are going to vote, it will also help them with perspectives,” Yang adds. “It’s not something that will appeal to everyone broadly, but we hope that we will adjust a pain point for this core group and then iterate it to something more universal.”

SmartNews was founded in Japan, but the slider is currently only on its app for the U.S., since political polarization is a major issue there. Yang says the feature is one part of of SmartNews’ goal to improve discovery in all news topics.

“Our mission is to break people out of filter bubbles and personalize discovery with the idea that recommendation algorithms can expand interests, instead of narrowing your interests,” she says. “We’re thinking of how to create more transparency and also expose readers to something they might not usually see, but present it in a fun way, like a serendipitous discovery.”

Brexit means clear your cookies for democracy

Brexit looks set to further sink the already battered reputation of tracking cookies after a Buzzfeed report yesterday revealed what appears to be a plan by the UK’s minority government to use official government websites to harvest personal data on UK citizens for targeting purposes.

According to leaked government documents obtained by the news site, the prime minister has instructed government departments to share website usage data that’s collected via gov.uk websites with ministers on a cabinet committee tasked with preparing for a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

It’s not clear how linking up citizens use of essential government portals could further ‘no deal’ prep.

Rather the suspicion is it’s a massive, consent-less voter data grab by party political forces preparing for an inevitable general election in which the current Tory PM plans to campaign on a pro-Brexit message.

The instruction to pool gov.uk usage data as a “top priority” is also being justified internally in instructions to civil servants as necessary to accelerate plans for a digital revolution in public services — an odd ASAP to be claiming at a time of national, Brexit-induced crisis when there are plenty more pressing priorities (given the October 31 EU exit date looming).

A government spokesperson nonetheless told Buzzfeed the data is being collected to improve service delivery. They also claimed it’s “anonymized” data.

“Individual government departments currently collect anonymised user data when people use gov.uk. The Government Digital Service is working on a project to bring this anonymous data together to make sure people can access all the services they need as easily as possible,” the spokesperson said, further claiming: “No personal data is collected at any point during the process, and all activity is fully compliant with our legal and ethical obligations.”

However privacy experts quickly pointed out the nonsense of trying to pretend that joined up user data given a shared identifier is in any way anonymous.

 

For those struggling to keep up with the blistering pace of UK political developments engendered by Brexit, this is a government led by a new (and unelected) prime minister, Boris ‘Brexit: Do or Die’ Johnson, and his special advisor, digital guru Dominic Cummings, of election law-breaking Vote Leave campaign fame.

Back in 2015 and 2016, Cummings, then the director of the official Vote Leave campaign, masterminded a plan to win the EU referendum by using social media data to profile voters — blitzing them with millions of targeted ads in final days of the Brexit campaign.

Vote Leave was later found to have channelled money to Cambridge Analytica-linked Canadian data firm Aggregate IQ to target pro-Brexit ads via Facebook’s platform. Many of which were subsequently revealed to have used blatantly xenophobic messaging to push racist anti-EU messaging when Facebook finally handed over the ad data.

Setting aside the use of xenophobic dark ads to whip up racist sentiment to sell Brexit to voters, and ongoing questions about exactly how Vote Leave acquired data on UK voters for targeting them with political ads (including ethical questions about the use of a football quiz touting a £50M prize run on social media as a mass voter data-harvesting exercise), last year the UK’s Electoral Commission found Vote Leave had breached campaign spending limits through undeclared joint working with another pro-Brexit campaign — via which almost half a million pounds was illegally channeled into Facebook ads.

The Vote Leave campaign was fined £61k by the Electoral Commission, and referred to the police. (An investigation is possibly ongoing.)

Cummings, the ‘huge brain’ behind Vote Leave’s digital strategy, did not suffer a dent in his career as a consequence of all this — on the contrary, he was appointed by Johnson as senior advisor this summer, after Johnson won the Conservative leader contest and so became the third UK PM since the 2016 vote for Brexit.

With Cummings at his side, it’s been full steam ahead for Johnson on social media ads and data grabs, as we reported last month — paving the way for a hoped for general election campaign, fuelled by ‘no holds barred’ data science. Democratic ethics? Not in this digitally disruptive administration!

The Johnson-Cummings pact ignores entirely the loud misgivings sounded by the UK’s information commissioner — which a year ago warned that political microtargeting risks undermining trust in democracy. The ICO called then for an ethical pause. Instead Johnson stuck up a proverbial finger by installing Cummings in No.10.

The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary committee, which tried and failed to get Cummings to testify before it last year as part of a wide-ranging enquiry into online disinformation (a snub for which Cummings was later found in contempt of parliament), also urged the government to update election law as a priority last summer — saying it was essential to act to defend democracy against data-fuelled misinformation and disinformation. A call that was met with cold water.

This means the same old laws that failed to prevent ethically dubious voter data-harvesting during the EU referendum campaign, and failed to prevent social media ad platforms and online payment platforms (hi, Paypal!) from being the conduit for illegal foreign donations into UK campaigns, are now apparently incapable of responding to another voter data heist trick, this time cooked up at the heart of government on the umbrella pretext of ‘preparing for Brexit’.

The repurposing of government departments under Johnson-Cummings for pro-Brexit propaganda messaging also looks decidedly whiffy…

Asked about the legality of the data pooling gov.uk plan as reported by Buzzfeed, an ICO spokesperson told us: “People should be able to make informed choices about the way their data is used. That’s why organisations have to ensure that they process personal information fairly, legally and transparently. When that doesn’t happen, the ICO can take action.”

Can — but hasn’t yet.

It’s also not clear what action the ICO could end up taking to purge UK voter data that’s already been (or is in the process of being) sucked out of the Internet to be repurposed for party political purposes — including, judging by the Vote Leave playbook, for microtargeted ads that promote a no holds barred ‘no deal’ Brexit agenda.

One thing is clear: Any action would need to be swiftly enacted and robustly enforced if it were to have a meaningful chance of defending democracy from ethics-free data-targeting.

Sadly, the ICO has yet to show an appetite for swift and robust action where political parties are concerned.

Likely because a report it put out last fall essentially called out all UK political parties for misusing people’s data. It followed up saying it would audit the political parties starting early this year — but has yet to publish its findings.

Concerned opposition MPs are left tweeting into the regulatory abyss — decrying the ‘coup’ and forlornly pressing for action… Though if the political boot were on the other foot it might well be a different story.

Among the cookies used on gov.uk sites are Google Analytics cookies which store information on how visitors got to the site; the pages visited and length of time spent on them; and items clicked on. Which could certainly enable rich profiles to be attached to single visitors IDs.

Visitors to gov.uk properties can switch off Google Analytics measurement cookies, as well as denying gov.uk communications and marketing cookies, and cookies that store preferences — with only “strictly necessary” cookies (which remember form progress and serve notifications) lacking a user toggle.

What should concerned UK citizens to do to defend democracy against the data science folks we’re told are being thrown at the Johnson-Cummings GSD data pooling project? Practice good privacy hygiene.

Clear your cookies. Indeed, switch off gov.uk cookies. Deny access wherever and whenever possible.

It’s probably also a good idea to use a fresh (incognito) browser session each time you need to visit a government website and close the session (with cookies set to clear) immediately you’re done. And use a good tracker blocker.

When the laws have so spectacularly failed to keep up with the data processors, limiting how your information is gathered online is the only way to be sure. Though as we’ve written before it’s not easy.

Privacy is personal and unfortunately, with the laws lagging, the personal is now trivially cheap and easy to weaponize for political dark arts that treat democracy as a game of PR, debasing the entire system in the process.