Going Undercover at Facebook

Inside Facebook: Secrets of the Social Network

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

In this documentary an Al Jazeera reporter goes undercover with CBL, an Irish company contracted to moderate “offensive” content posted on Facebook UK. Over a period of weeks he undergoes training to become an official moderator. His findings are revealing.

Rather than undertaking independent monitoring of offensive posts, moderators only act on inappropriate content reported by other Facebook users. Moreover they bend over backwards to leave extremist content online, as it generates the most page shares, as well as keeping people on Facebook longer (so they can view more ads).

CBL guidelines divide offensive posts into four broad. categories: graphic violence, bullying, suicide and self harm and hate speech. Each CBL moderator has three choices in dealing with user complaints: ignore, delete or mark and disturbing and require user to click a tab confirming they’re over 18.

  • Graphic violence: Filmmakers give the example of a video of an adult male repeatedly and brutally beating and kicking an 2 1/2 year old child. CBL moderators marked this content “disturbing” and allowed it to remain on site because it had 44,000 shares. They didn’t report the abuse to police – they only report child abuse if it’s live streamed.
  • Bullying: CBL moderators marked a video of a teenage girl beating the shit out of another girl as “disturbing” and left it on site. Both were clearly identified by name. CBL justified their decision based on the post’s “condemning caption.” CBL only deletes bullying videos if parents request them removed. Psychologists condemn this policy of placing the burden on parents. Where a victim’s identity is clearly established, they are re-traumatized every time the video is shared.
  • Suicide/self-harm Suicide and self-harm photos and videos are only deleted if they contain a promotional statement. CBL justifies leaving them up as follows: “If we took it down, their friends and families wouldn’t know they were at risk.” Owing to clear evidence that viewing self-ham posts increases self-harm, this policy also contradicts the professional advice of mental health workers.
  • Hate speech (by definition advocates exclusion, death or harm to specific ethnic or religious groups): Statements that denigrate Muslims are deleted. Identical statements that denigrate Muslim immigrants are ignored because “people have a right to express their views on immigration policy.”

Why I’m Not on Facebook

Why I’m Not on Facebook

Brant Pinvodic (2014)

Film Review

This is a documentary by a father struggling with the decision whether to allow his 13 year old son to join Facebook. After interviewing the Winklevoss twins, who claim to be the true originators of Facebook,* Pinvodik conducts a weird experiment in which a group of young Facebook fanatics construct a glamorous fake profile for him. When he’s instantly bombarded by “friend” requests, he phones a number of his new “friends” and attempts visits them at home. He’s extremely surprised by the number of celebrities who “friend” him, including Roseanne Barr.

He then consults an investigator who demonstrates how easy it is to access our personal information online – even when we aren’t on Facebook. Within minutes the investigator locates Pinvodic’s drivers license number, tax information and Amazon purchases, as well as the school his kids attend.

Pinvodic finishes with an examination of Facebook addiction. In addition to interviewing a teenager who spends 12+ hours a day on Facebook, he visits a psychologist specializing in narcissism. The latter maintains that Facebook appeals to two of the most powerful human emotions: narcissism and insecurity. By making ordinary people feel famous and significant, it enables them to become stars in their own limited universe.

In the end, the filmmaker concludes Facebook has both advantages and drawbacks. It can help people find jobs, kidney donors and long lost friends. On the downside are its addictive potential and the immense amount of personal information it collects for the benefit of US intelligence and corporate advertisers.


*The twins eventually sued Mark Zuckerberg, who currently runs Facebook, and won a $65 million settlement Winklevoss Twins Win Facebook Settlement

Offline is the New Luxury

Offline is the New Luxury

VPRO (2017)

Film Review

This documentary is about taking back control of our Internet connectivity. Ironically it starts by recommending a new app that allows you to identify increasingly rare “white spots” – areas of the earth that aren’t blanketed with WiFi signals. One MIT psychology professor, who bans cellphones, laptops and tablets in her classes, is part of a movement to create sacred spaces in these white spots – areas where people fully engage with each other instead of their electronic devices.

The filmmakers also talk about the late Steve Jobs and other prominent Silicon Valley moguls not allowing their kids to have cellphones and tablets and sending them to low tech Montessori and Waldorf schools. Increasingly the well-to-do are seeking out expensive retreats and detox facilities to cure their Internet addiction. While growing numbers of law firms and security agencies patronize a highly successful Dutch firm selling Faraday cages and microwave shields to protect clients from electronic snooping and damaging microwave radiation.

The Amish, of course, have a cheap low-tech solution to Internet addiction – namely a value system that rejects most advanced electronic technology.

The video concludes by explaining the concept of “surveillance capitalism,” in which our personal information is “monetized,” ie in which the data Google, Facebook and Amazon collect on us is sold to advertisers.

A key strategy of surveillance capitalism is to use drones, satellites and giant balloons to expand connectivity to remote areas of the developing world. At the time of filming, Facebook was pressuring the Indian government to allow the introduction of Free Basics (free Internet connectivity) to all Indian residents, with Facebook retaining control of their Internet access. Google, meanwhile, is pushing to extend 100% connectivity to Sri Lanka by launching giant WiFi balloons.

According to one analyst, the drive to acquire massive troves of Indian personal data is a ploy to placate shareholders. The latter are understandably concerned about a drop-off in Facebook users in the developing world – due to privacy concerns and the recognition that most Facebook content is meaningless drivel.

The Myth of Internet Freedom

Stare Into the Lights My Pretties

Jordan Brown (2017)

Film Review

This documentary takes an honest look at the dark side of what they call “screen culture.” The notion that the Internet is “free” is a total myth propagated by the corporate PR industry. The Internet has maximized corporate power more than any other technology, while significantly accelerating globalization.  It also enables government and corporations to spy on virtually every aspect of our lives

The overall premise of the film is that technology never arises in a vacuum. Although falsely portrayed as fulfilling our needs and desires., it ALWAYS serves the ideology and interests of ruling elites who pay for its development. Moreover once people allow new technology into their lives, it changes the way they think.

In Stare Into the Lights My Pretties, neuroscientists express concern about the harmful effect of six-plus hours a day of screen time on concentration, memory, problem solving, empathy and collective awareness.

Far more alarming, though, are the social control aspects of screen culture, all the while masquerading as Internet freedom.

Previously I had no idea of the absolute gatekeeping function of giant monopolies like Google and Facebook in filtering information that reaches individual Internet users. Despite the apparent wealth of information that bombards us via the Internet, the average American is less knowledgeable about US foreign and domestic affairs than prior to the 1990s Internet explosion. This mainly relates to sophisticated algorithms used by Google, Facebook, Yahoo News and even the Huffington Post, Washington Post and New York Times to selectively show us information they think we want to see (based on our clicking behavior).

I suddenly understand why climate deniers are so unshakable in their beliefs. When they search for the term, “climate change,” they end up with a totally different set of articles than I do – thus strongly reinforcing their existing beliefs.

Other more sinister elements of this social control relate to sophisticated behavioral modification techniques that addict us to our screens and to get us to click on specific sites and remain there as long as possible. When we use the Internet, we get confused what the real product is. The real product isn’t the web content we are offered – the real product is us and the massive amount of data collected every time we go online. This, in turn, is sold on to corporate advertisers who use it to entice us to buy their products.

 

 

 

The Commodification of Female Sexuality

Sexy Baby

Directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus (2012)

Film Review

Sexy Baby is a documentary about the commodification of female sexuality and its destructive effect on young women’s identity and self-esteem. It follows three particular women over two years: a 13 year old girl in conflict with her parents over her sexually provocative Facebook postings, a 23 year old who undergoes labioplasty to make her genitals conform to what her boyfriends are seeing in on-line pornography and a pole dancer struggling to cast off her stripper persona for her to be fully appreciated for her intelligence, assertiveness and compassion.

I felt all three stories were very sensitively portrayed. They were interspersed with images of soft porn that most modern teenagers with Internet see from age 12-13 on via the Internet and interviews with teenage boys and men about their attitudes towards pornography and female sexuality.

I found the 13 year old Winifred’s story the most engaging. Winnie is a highly intelligent high achiever. Despite a close and loving relationship with both parents, she succumbs to massive peer pressure to dress provocatively and to post revealing images of herself on Facebook.

I strongly empathized with the parents’ struggle to deal with this behavior. I also strongly support their decision to ban her from Facebook (eight times over six months) whenever her postings became too extreme.

I must admit I prefer her father’s approach to her scanty outfits to her mother’s. Her mom takes the attitude: “It’s your body – you can dress the way you want to.” In contrast, her father is honest about the anxieties her provocative dress provokes in him.

Over time, this seems to be quite effective.

Facebook’s Billionaire Tax Refugee

depardieu

French actor Gerard Depardieu

In January, Forbes reported that Facebook’s billionaire co-founder Eduardo Severin had renounced his U.S. citizenship to move to Singapore, where the top tax rate is 20%. The article about millionaires and billionaires fleeing high western tax rates was triggered by French actor Gerard Depardieu’s renunciation of his French citizenship to move to Russia. He chose Russia based on its top tax rate of 13% on individuals and 20% on corporations (except for the oil and gas industry – see below). France had just enacted a 75% tax on millionaires to pay off the 1.7 trillion euros it owes to international banksters. Socialist president Francois Hollande sees taxing the rich as a better alternative than laying off public servants and cutting health care, education, and pensions like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

Forbes clearly disagrees. Predictably the article represents the traditional neo-classical economic viewpoint – slashing public services is always a better alternative than increasing taxes on the rich. They also leave out the most important part of the story – namely why income taxes in Singapore and Russia are so low.

The real reason income is taxed at a low rate in Singapore and Russia is because both countries have adopted a modified Land Value Tax (LVT). An LVT is a tax on unimproved land, resources and the cultural commons (e.g. public airwaves). It was journalist Henry George who first proposed replacing taxes on income and capital with a single LVT in his 1879 international bestseller Progress and Poverty. See Progress and Poverty: the Suppressed Economics Classic.

Singapore’s Economic Miracle

Singapore, a flourishing city-state of 5.3 million people, faced massive unemployment and a major housing crisis when it first gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965. Its leaders immediately launched a modernization program funded by an LVT. Although Singapore no longer relies on a single tax, income taxes still remains extremely low with corporate rates between 8.5 and 17%.

Thanks to the LVT, Singapore recovered much more rapidly than western countries from the 2008 economic collapse. In 2011 a 12% increase in GDP enabled them to pay a dividend to all adult citizens of approximately $269 each (total $1.22 billion).

How Putin Saved Russia’s Moribund Economy

Russia’s LVT, introduced by President Vladimir Putin as part of a 2001 tax reform package, falls more heavily on mineral (e.g. oil and gas) extraction than unimproved land. Taxes on oil and gas revenues amount to approximately 45% of net sales (compared to 12 percent in the construction industry and 16.5 percent in the telecommunications industry). Property owners pay a tax ranging from 0.1 – 0.3% on land value (and a comparable rate on state-owned land that they lease).

Experience with LVT in other countries

Hong Kong (1985) – thanks to LVT, enjoys low taxes, low inflation, high investment and high salaries. Often voted the world’s best city for business and the freest for residents. According to Bloomberg’s they, too, paid a $700 dividend to all adult residents in 2011. Unfortunately since rejoining China, Hong Kong has been gradually replacing land and resource taxes with income tax. This has resulted in a return of land speculation and increasing income inequality. The Hong Kong real estate holdings of China’s multimillionaire president Xi Jinping are valued at more than $24.1 million.

Taiwan (1949) – following the Communist takeover of mainline China, Chinese nationalists under General Chiang Kai-shek fled to Formosa (Taiwan), a brutally poor feudal island controlled by a handful of rich farmers. Chiang Kai-Sheck, a follower of Sun Yat-Sen, the first Chinese president and  a great admirer of Henry George, introduced a LVT. When plantation owners found themselves paying as much in taxes as they were collection in rent, they sold off their excess land to peasant farmers. Taiwan went on to set world records with growth rates of 10% per annum.

Denmark (1957) – the small Georgist Justice Party won seats in parliament and a role in the ruling coalition. A year later, inflation had gone from 5% to under 1%; bank interest dropped from 6.25% to 5%. By 1960, 100,000 unemployed (out of a population of 5 million) had found jobs and received the highest average pay increase in Danish history. In the 1960s, a media backlash funded by wealthy bankers and corporations caused the Justice Party to lose its seats. Land taxes were decreased and income tax and sales tax (currently at 25%) drastically increased. Inflation quickly rose to 5% and by 1964 reached 8%. Land prices began to sky-rocket, increasing 19-fold from 1960 to 1981 increasing 19-fold.

Estonia (1990s).- enacted a 2% LVT following the break-up of the Soviet Union. It was much easier to collect than the income taxes enacted by other former Soviet republics, more successful than trying to collect from others, succeeding over 95% of the time. It’s largely the LVT that has enabled Estonia to become the electric car capitol of the world. In addition to installing 165 electric vehicle fast-charging stations country-wide, it provides a 50% subsidy for residents who purchase electric vehicles.

Other jurisdictions that opted for LVT:

  • Ethiopia 1990s
  • Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAR – resource-based LVT on oil and gas exports
  • Baja California (Mexico) 1990s
  • British Columbia (1912) – resource-based LVT on forestry
  • Vermont 1978
  • Kansas City 1930s
  • Pennsylvania – Pittsburgh and Scranton in 1975 and 18 other cities following suit in the 1990s. Housing costs and crime in both Pittsburgh and Scranton have trended the lowest in the US, despite the collapse of the steel industry. Both avoided the 2000-2007 real estate bubble and 2008 collapse. Foreclosure rates in Pittsburgh remain the lowest in the country.

Single tax colonies founded by Henry George’s American followers:

  • Free Acres (New Jersey) 1910
  • Arden (Delaware) 1900
  • Fairhope (Alabama) 1894

 

photo credit: igorjan via photopin cc