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Freedom of Speech, Abuse and Social Media

August 9, 2013 1 comment

Over the last year or so, social media sites have been attacked for allowing users to post abuse about other people onto their sites. These include examples of cyber-bullying on ask.fm or tweets on twitter calling for other users to be raped. The ask.fm posts have been implicated in a number of suicides while in one notable case, Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the UK Parliament, was found guilty of libel for a tweet she posted implying somebody else was a paedophile.

Abuse via social media seems new. In fact this sort of abuse is old. The difference is not the abuse itself, but the level of publicity it receives. In the middle of the 19th century an anonymous individual sent letters to various people in the rural English town of Tetbury threatening to burn their property. Agatha Christie‘s 1942/43 detective novel “The Moving Finger” tells a story of letters sent to people in the quiet town of Lymstock that resulted in the recipients committing suicide. Not so different from the ask.fm cyber-bulling (except that as a Mrs Marple story, things were not so simple and in fact the letters were used as a cover for murder).

Hate letters – often called poison pen letters – go along with anonymous or silent phone calls as one way warped minds try and subvert the minds of opponents or people they dislike. (“The Moving Finger” includes the following: “The letters are sent indiscriminately and serve the purpose of working off some frustration in the writer’s mind. As I say, it’s definitely pathological. And the craze grows….“)

Hate letters are the ancestors of today’s abusive tweets and social media comments. There is, however, a difference. Whereas hate mail isn’t public, abusive tweets threatening rape or calling the victim an “ugly cow” are. This has a larger impact as the hatred is seen by many more people and so is much more distressing.

Social media platforms must take such abuse seriously. It can, and does, lead to suicides – especially if the victims already have low self-esteem. It can escalate and lead to false rumours, as happened with Lord McAlpine – libelled by Sally Bercow. Even worse, it could lead to action against the victim.

This is not a case of freedom of speech being blocked. It’s a case of free speech that is liable to cause harm to others being punished. Anybody who tries to justify abuse using arguments that they support freedom of speech is confusing “freedom of speech” with “free speech”. Freedom of Speech is the right to communicate opinions and ideas – and censoring these is one of the first signs of a restrictive society that can, and does, lead to totalitarianism. It is not, however, a right to “free speech” where you can call for the rape of women, or abuse others through words or images. Freedom of Speech also implies responsibilities that justify that freedom.

There are people who would happily ban or restrict social media and even much of the Internet completely.  In the latter case, this includes David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, who has called on search engines to create blocks for searches for abusive pornography or be forced to do so by law. Such calls will increase, unless the relevant sites (social media, search engines, etc.) show that they accept the responsibilities of their public position, and actively look at ways of fighting, blocking or reporting abuse themselves.    

Social Media – networking to the future

March 27, 2011 3 comments

On Friday this arrived in my email inbox – a timely reminder of how the world has changed over the last few years.

Linked In Letter

 

I joined LinkedIn.com in August 2004, fifteen months after the site was launched in May 2003, and two years before Facebook allowed for open-access. (Facebook itself launched in February 2004 but was restricted to university / colleges and a few others until September 2006).

I’d been interested in social networks for several years – and my membership of the UK networking site, FriendsReunited.com dates from a few years earlier.

Initially social networking seemed to be more about re-connecting with people from real life rather than communicating on a regular basis. That’s all changed now.  Online social networking – through sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn is the way many people keep up-to-date with what’s going on in their social circles.

I’ve been invited to parties via Facebook, and have also invited people to my own events. It’s the way I find out what’s going on in my friend’s lives – or those that keep up on Facebook. In fact I find it now more difficult to keep up with some people who still resist the online world – as the phone lacks the immediacy that we’ve come to expect. I’m not alone: 10% of the world’s population is now on Facebook (which claims over 600m members).

In the business world, the same sort of thing is happening. I find LinkedIn incredibly useful for contacting colleagues and potential colleagues – and finding people to contact when I’m doing research. It lets me know what people are doing and it is difficult to imagine how I’d do business without such sites now. Again – I’m not alone, with LinkedIn now claiming over 100m members.

These changes promise to do more than just change the way people communicate and do business. For many years, people have talked about computers bringing about a paperless office. In my opinion that’s bunkum – or is so far. (I personally believe that technologies such as the iPad and e-Paper may eventually mean that printed material will become the exception rather than the rule in the business world – but that is some years in the future). However another development may come more quickly: the email-less office. In February 2011 Atos Origin, the French IT consulting and services company, put out a press release setting out an ambition to become a zero-email company by 2014. The company pointed out online social networking was now more popular than email and even searching for information. (Bing is integrating with Facebook – recognising the importance of social networking sites, with some people preferring to search from within the site than to go to an external site). The prevalence of spam – even with efficient anti-spam software has also meant that email was becoming ineffective as a communication tool. Guy Kawasaki, the well known blogger and Internet guru has commented that email is too long, wishing that it could be limited to 140 characters i.e. like Twitter.com, the social networking communication tool. He echoes views that see email as a flawed communication medium.

So what is the future. I find it interesting that the current revolution in the Middle East seems to be driven by social media – with both Egyptian and Tunisian regimes falling as a result of campaigns launched on Facebook and Twitter. Personal contacts however were still important: the revolutions may have been organised virtually, via online social media, but it was the mass street protests that led to the change. I think that this states the position of all online social media. It’s a communication medium, but ultimately, that is all. In this it is not new. Over the last 120 years, mankind has seen several new communication media: telex; telephone; fax; email…. Each promised additional speed and immediacy. Now Facebook, LinkedIn and especially Twitter and instant messaging (e.g. via Skype) promise even faster ways for people to communicate. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, human contact still has to be physical to have any real meaning.

Google versus Bing – a competitive intelligence case study

February 2, 2011 7 comments

Search experts regularly emphasise that to get the best search results it is important to use more than one search engine. The main reason for this is that each search engine uses a different relevancy ranking leading to different search results pages. Using Google will give a results page with the sites that Google thinks are the most relevant for the search query, while using Bing is supposed to give a results page where the top hits are based on a different relevancy ranking. This alternative may give better results for some searches and so a comprehensive search needs to use multiple search engines.

You may have noticed that I highlighted the word supposed when mentioning Bing. This is because it appears that Bing is cheating, and is using some of Google’s results in their search lists. Plagiarising Google’s results may be Bing’s way of saying that Google is better. However it leaves a bad taste as it means that one of the main reasons for using Microsoft’s search engine can be questioned, i.e. that the results are different and that all are generated independently, using different relevancy rankings.

Bing is Microsoft’s third attempt at a market-leading, Google bashing, search engine – replacing Live.com which in turn had replaced MSN Search. Bing has been successful and is truly a good alternative to Google. It is the default search engine on Facebook (i.e. when doing a search on Facebook, you get Bing results) and is also used to supply results to other search utilities – most notably Yahoo! From a marketing perspective, however, it appears that the adage “differentiate or die” hasn’t been fully understood by Bing. Companies that fail to fully differentiate their product offerings from competitors are likely to fail.

The story that Bing was copying Google’s results dates back to Summer 2010, when Google noticed an odd similarity to a highly specialist search on the two search engines. This, in itself wouldn’t be a problem. You’d expect similar results for very targeted search terms – the main difference will be the sort order. However in this case, the same top results were being generated when spelling mistakes were used as the search term. Google started to look more closely – and found that this wasn’t just a one-off. However to prove that Bing was stealing Google’s results needed more than just observation. To test the hypothesis, Google set up 100 dummy and nonsense queries that led to web-sites that had no relationship at all to the query. They then gave their testers laptops with a new Windows install – running Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 and with the Bing Toolbar installed. The install process included the “Suggested Sites” feature of Internet Explorer and the toolbar’s default options.

Within a few weeks, Bing started returning the fake results for the same Google searches. For example, a search for hiybbprqag gave the seating plan for a Los Angeles theatre, while delhipublicschool40 chdjob returned a Ohio Credit Union as the top result. This proved that the source for the results was not Bing’s own search algorithm but that the result had been taken from Google.

What was happening was that the searches and search results on Google were being passed back to Microsoft – via some feature of Internet Explorer 8, Windows or the Bing Toolbar.

As Google states in their Blog article on the discovery (which is illustrated with screenshots of the findings):

At Google we strongly believe in innovation and are proud of our search quality. We’ve invested thousands of person-years into developing our search algorithms because we want our users to get the right answer every time they search, and that’s not easy. We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there—algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results from a competitor. So to all the users out there looking for the most authentic, relevant search results, we encourage you to come directly to Google. And to those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we’d like for this practice to stop.

Interestingly, Bing doesn’t even try to deny the claim – perhaps because they realise that they were caught red-handed. Instead they have tried to justify using the data on customer computers as a way of improving search experiences – even when the searching was being done via a competitor.  In fact, Harry Shum, a Bing VP, believes that this is actually good practice, stating in Bing’s response to a blog post by Danny Sullivan that exposed the practice:

“We have been very clear. We use the customer data to help improve the search experience…. We all learn from our collective customers, and we all should.”

It is well known that companies collect data on customer usage of their own web-sites – that is one purpose of cookies generated when visiting a site. It is less well known that some companies also collect data on what users do on other sites (which is why Yauba boasts about its privacy credentials). I’m sure that the majority of users of the Bing toolbar and other Internet Explorer and Windows features that seem to pass back data to Microsoft would be less happy if they knew how much data was collected and where from. Microsoft has been collecting such data for several years, but ethically the practice is highly questionable, even though Microsoft users may have originally agreed to the company collecting data to “help improve the online experience“.

What the story also shows is how much care and pride Google take in their results – and how they have an effective competitive intelligence (and counter-intelligence) programme, actively comparing their results with competitors. Microsoft even recognised this by falsely accusing Google of spying via their sting operation that exposed Microsoft’s practices – with Shum commenting (my italics):

What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking. It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment. But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience.

To me, this sounds like sour-grapes. How can copying a competitor’s results improve the user experience? If it doesn’t accurately portray how customer data IS used, maybe now would be the time for Microsoft to reassure customers regarding their data privacy. And rather than view the comment that Google’s exposure of Bing’s practices was a back-handed compliment, I’d see it as slap in the face with the front of the hand. However what else could Microsoft & Bing say, other than Mea Culpa.

Update – Wednesday 2 February 2011:

The war of words between Google and Bing continues. Bing has now denied copying Google’s results, and moreover accused Google of click-fraud:

Google engaged in a “honeypot” attack to trick Bing. In simple terms, Google’s “experiment” was rigged to manipulate Bing search results through a type of attack also known as “click fraud.” That’s right, the same type of attack employed by spammers on the web to trick consumers and produce bogus search results.  What does all this cloak and dagger click fraud prove? Nothing anyone in the industry doesn’t already know. As we have said before and again in this post, we use click stream optionally provided by consumers in an anonymous fashion as one of 1,000 signals to try and determine whether a site might make sense to be in our index.

Bing seems to have ignored the fact that Google’s experiment resulted from their observation that certain genuine searches seemed to be copied by Bing – including misspellings, and also some mistakes in their algorithm that resulted in odd results. The accusation of click fraud is bizarre as the searches Google used to test for click fraud were completely artificial. There is no way that a normal searcher would have made such searches, and so the fact that the results bore no resemblance to the actual search terms is completely different to the spam practice where a dummy site appears for certain searches.

Bing can accuse Google of cloak and dagger behaviour. However sometimes, counter-intelligence requires such behaviour to catch miscreants red-handed. It’s a practice carried out by law enforcement globally where a crime is suspected but where there is insufficient evidence to catch the culprit. As an Internet example, one technique used to catch paedophiles is for a police officer to pretend to be a vulnerable child on an Internet chat-room. Is this fraud – when the paedophile subsequently arranges to meet up – and is caught? In some senses it is. However saying such practices are wrong gives carte-blanche to criminals to continue their illegal practices. Bing appears to be putting themselves in the same camp – by saying that using “honeypot” attacks is wrong.

They also have not recognised the points I’ve stressed about the ethical use of data. There is a big difference between using anonymous data tracking user  behaviour on your own search engine and tracking that of a competitor. Using your competitor’s data to improve your own product, when the intelligence was gained by technology that effectively hacks into usage made by your competitor’s customers is espionage. The company guilty of spying is Bing – not Google. Google just used competitive intelligence to identify the problem, and a creative approach to counter-intelligence to prove it.

The pursuit of justice and social media.

January 2, 2011 8 comments

You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Deut. 16:19-20)

The world in 2011 is still split between the haves and the have-nots, the rich versus the less rich and the poor. Despite a global recession, many have profited – while millions look for work and struggle daily to survive. There has been reason for optimism in the last year – at the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from unjust detention by the Burmese generals. However, this is the exception – and when it comes to justice it is difficult to be optimistic for many countries.

I think that it is worthwhile looking at a few news stories of the last month of 2010 and what they say about different views on justice, the rights of the individual, and also the potential impact of social media on calls for justice.

The first news story concerns the President of Iran’s bete-noire, Israel. Moshe Katsav was born in Iran, and moved to Israel in 1951, aged 5, as a refugee. He spent the next 4 years of his life, living in tents and a transit camp which eventually was built up to become the Israeli town of Kriyat Malakhi. At the age of 24, he was elected mayor of this town – the start of a life in the political limelight. He was elected to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) in 1977 and served as Minister of Housing & Construction; Labour & Welfare; Transportation; Tourism; and was Deputy Prime Minister between 1996-1999. In 2000 he stood for, and was elected President. In 2006 however, he was accused of sexual molestation and rape, and forced to resign in 2007. He was subsequently indicted and tried for rape. On 30 December 2010, Katsav was found guilty by a three judge panel and will shortly be sentenced, He can expect a mandatory jail term.

Although this is a highly unflattering story it is important as it shows how justice should work. It doesn’t matter how influential or senior somebody is, he or she should not be above the law. If they commit crimes then they should be tried and sentenced. The fact that a former President was accused, tried and found guilty shows that in Israel, nobody is above the law. Katsav is not alone – there are other public figures within Israel who have been or are being investigated for various crimes, and this is how it should be. As the Bible says “You shall not pervert judgement…” and have two levels of justice – one for those in positions of authority or with ability to pay, and one for everybody else.

In contrast, a recent news story from Bangkok shows how power and privilege can corrupt calls for justice as well as the potential influence of social media to ensure that justice does take place.

A few days before the Katsav judgement – 27 December 2010 – a road accident took place resulting in the deaths of 9 people (although the first news stories reported only 8). Initial media reports blamed a van driver for the deaths, but subsequently a different story emerged that was suppressed by Thai news outlets. This was rapidly circulated via a Facebook site calling for justice. Within 24 hours, the page had generated over 180,000 likes.  Currently over 270,000 people have said that they like the page, and there are numerous comments.

Driver on Blackberry after road accidentThe story that was suppressed, apparently backed up by CCTV and witness accounts, told of an impetuous 16-year old girl without a driving licence who got impatient with a slow moving van and tried to push it out of the way with her Honda Civic. The van crashed, resulting in the loss of life of a number of students at Thammasat University – one of the best in Thailand – plus an assistant to the dean at the university’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning, and researchers including a promising scientist from a very poor family who had won a national scholarship. The girl that caused the accident, in contrast, came from a well known family. Her father had been a general and her great great grandfather was King Rama V (1853 – 1910) – the king whose policies ensured that Thailand stayed independent (and not colonised like neighbouring countries) and who is viewed as having put the country on the road to modernization. Following the accident, the girl was photographed calmly using her Blackberry – apparently posting to a social networking site (although subsequently claiming to be calling her father).

Although some of the latest reports suggest that the girl will be prosecuted, the fact that she is described as a “minor” may give a get-out clause. (“ persons of that age were not entitled to a driver’s licence, nor could they be fully subject to criminal and civil liability for deaths and damage.“)

Although the comments from Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, that “nobody is above the law” suggest that Thailand, like Israel, will treat miscreants equally, that does not seem to be the belief of those who set up the Facebook page, especially taking account the initial reports blaming the van driver.

In 1991, Alvin Toffler published PowerShift (US). The book is a “study of power in the 1990s and beyond” and traced “the shifting global power structures and describes how the very definition of power has changed in modern times”. PowerShift was written before the Internet had become mainstream, and well before today’s social media tools. The book suggested that the balance of power was changing from the traditional sources to those who controlled information. Although such ideas have circulated for some years, social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – are allowing for injustices to be quickly publicised, and as such, it becomes easier to call for justice. They are an example of the democratisation of information and allow for genuine expressions of “people power”, the “power of the crowd” as well as the “power of the many over the few”. Such calls are challenges to the existing elites of the world – who are likely to do what they can to suppress them. One approach is that taken by China, who, as the year 2010 closed,  was reported to have  banned sites like Skype, Facebook and Twitter. Other ways are to attack challengers to the existing order and some rumours suggest that the Thai Facebook page supporters may even be punished.

Nevertheless, I believe that a genie has been let out of a bottle. Although most of the time, social media is used to communicate with friends and colleagues, it has a power of its own – to change the world. With over 500 million people connected to Facebook – around 10% of all people in the world – it becomes very difficult to suppress injustices and much easier to spread the concepts of freedom, justice and the truth – however much dictatorial and corrupt regimes may try and stop it. However with power comes responsibility. The responsibility is to ensure that what is spread is the truth. There is a real danger that such tools can also be used to spread false propaganda, lies and untruths – allowing for injustice to spread. There is the danger of mob-rule, where a suspect is condemned, without being given a chance to defend themselves – the 21st century equivalent of a lynch mob.

Social media can help ensure that privileged people don’t escape justice. In this, it will serve a positive purpose. It can also act to reinforce prejudice, irrational hatred and bigotry – as can be seen in groups that try to delegitimise and condemn Israel, despite ample evidence to the contrary, as in the example of Katsav’s trial.

You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.(Exodus, 23:2)

Note: After I wrote this Blog post, I came across a link to a fascinating article by the Internet Guru, Clay Shirky, on the Political Power of Social Media – where he discusses issues relating to the power of social media to change governments, etc. He also considers the potential for change, and also the potential for achieving nothing positive. (Article is free but registration required. The article was summarised in the Economist – with comments. Evidently it was written prior to the Wikileaks affair – as some of the comments put the USA in the “control” corner rather than the “freedom” corner!)

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics & Facebook

June 10, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been impressed with the numbers of people using social networking sites – and the importance of social networking for marketing has become significant over the last few years.

Facebook claims 400 million users (i.e. nearly 6% of the global population that is approaching 7 billion people). I’ve always thought that this figure must include duplicate accounts – as I don’t believe that most people in China, India, Africa and many other areas of the world have Facebook accounts (or even computers – although the numbers are growing). The World Bank stated that there were just under 300m Internet users in China and 52m in India in 2008. (There’s a great graph of this at Google’s Public Data tool – that shows that in 2008 there were around 1.5bn web-users).

Even taking account the exponential growth – let’s assume that web users globally are now over 2 billion  people – Facebook’s figures imply that 1 in 5 users have a Facebook account.

I know of many people who don’t have an account and some who refuse to get one. In my age group (over 40), I’d guess that the majority don’t. So where this 400m figure came from and what it includes is a key question.

It now seems that Facebook has been boosting it’s membership figures. I just read this article from one of my favorite sites (www.pandia.com). Apparently Facebook has been telling advertisers that it has 1.6m users in Oslo. The trouble is that the greater Oslo metropolitan area only has 900,000 people. Facebook apparently counts members by IP address – and I guess that it is feasible that this could include users who access the site via Oslo based web-servers. However not if you consider the next statistic given. The Facebook advertiser tool says that there are 850,000 Facebook users between the ages of 20-29 in Norway – which is 235,000 more than the total numbers (613,000) in that age group.

This over-inflation isn’t just a Norwegian issue. According to CheckFacebook.com (a site that tracks data from the Facebook advertising tool giving Facebook membership numbers), almost 63% of online users in the UK now have a Facebook account. That’s 27m out of a total UK population of 62m. In some countries it’s even higher. Apparently all (100%) Nicaraguan, Qatari and Bangladeshi web users also have a Facebook account, as do 99% of Indonesians, 98% of Filipinos, 97% of Venezuelans, and 85% of Turks.

It’s possible that these statistics are true. However, if so, I’m sure that they also include occasional and infrequent users as well as dormant and duplicated accounts.

One of the most important types of competitive intelligence analysis is to not take everything at face value. When presented with figures, it’s important to sense check them – wherever possible by using other sources (e.g. official population statistics). Only then should such data be used in decision making. You should also ask whether there is an incentive to exaggerate or under-estimate statistics. If there is such an incentive, it is likely that this will be done, at least in the published data. Decisions made using such erroneous or manipulated figures will probably be poor decisions and fail to achieve the expected results. In the case of Facebook, the incentive in exaggerating membership figures is that they can then boost their attractiveness to advertisers, and consequently their advertising revenues.

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