A worryingly flippant advert for a riot control drone. Photo: screenshot of "the Skunk" from Desert Wolf's website
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South African mining firm is the first to purchase riot control drone

The first purchase orders have been made for the Skunk Riot Control Copter, a terrifying unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with paintballs, pepper spray and blinding flashlights.

Drones are the latest buzzword. They're technologically advanced enough that we can marvel at their powers, but also surrounded by so much controversy that we fear their potential. From Amazon’s ridiculous and unlikely courier bots to military-grade Predators and Reapers that have already claimed thousands of lives in the Middle East and Pakistan, the media buzz surrounding drones can make discerning the genuine dangers lurking amidst innocent advancements tricky.

The latest development in remote-controlled aircraft is nothing new, technologically-speaking. “The Skunk” – as the South African makers, Desert Wolf, affectionately refer to their highly-armed robot – appears to be a simple mishmash of four paintball guns, an HD video camera and a light-and-sound system, all sitting atop an eight-bladed mini-helicopter. It's the world's first drone aimed at the riot control market.

Admittedly, it’s a little more complicated than that – the drones are linked up to a ground control station and are equipped with a variety of high-tech gadgets ranging from thermal cameras to strobe lights. But the real danger lies more in its applications than its circuitry. A single operator can control an entire formation of Skunks, which can be outfitted with more damaging ammunition. Each barrel is capable of firing up to 20 rounds per second and the paintballs can be easily replaced by pepper spray ammo or even solid plastic bullets. Desert Wolf claims this makes it capable of “stopping any crowd in its tracks".

The company, who specialise in military and surveillance applications, says the “Skunk Riot Control Copter is designed to control unruly crowds without endangering the lives of the protestors or the security staff". The Pretoria-based firm unveiled the heavily-armed octocopter at the IFSEC security trade show in May. Though the purchaser of the riot police robot is yet to be named, director Henry Kiesser told the BBC “it will be used by an international mining house”.

The thought of a private company equipped with crowd control security robots is scary. Various workers’ rights groups have expressed fear the drones will be abused by unscrupulous firms and police forces to harass and attack civilians striking or protesting.

On the Desert Wolf website the manufacturers claim they just want to reduce the risks to police and protesters:

The system also has a number of safety systems and features. Desert Wolf will continue to improve the design and ensure a safe and reliable product. Our aim is to assist in preventing another Marikana, we were there and it should never happen again.”

The devastating 2012 Marikana massacre was the country’s single most deadly use of force on civilians since apartheid. 34 striking miners were mercilessly shot dead by South African security forces during a strike over low pay and poor working conditions. This wasn’t a stand-alone dispute between employees and police. The owners of the multi-million dollar platinum mine, Belgravia-based firm Lonmin, have been implicated in the deaths; senior officials, including the head of security and executive vice-president, are accused of petitioning police chiefs to take a hard line with protesters.

Desert Wolf claim a robot would be safer in such scenarios. Speaking to the Guardian, Kiesser said drone control is the best solution"Anyone who was at Marikana would rather have this technology than live ammunition. People who say it's inhumane compared to 9mm bullets are idiotic."

Relative to killing people, merely wounding them with rubber bullets or pepper spray for daring to demand fair treatment might seem somehow reasonable - but, of course, it isn't. Solicitor James Nichols – who represents the families of the dead Marikana miners – told the Guardian the use of the drone was “absolutely outrageous”. “Using pepper spray like ammunition to scatter the crowd. People are entitled to be on strike. Who would make the decision? It's absurd."

A mining firm with 25 drones specifically designed to target its employees is immensely worrying, particularly as the ongoing strikes have lasted five months without a satisfactory end in sight and the families of the Marikana miners are still waiting for the conclusion of the official inquiry.

Even more perturbing is the huge interest in the drone from security personnel and police forces. Desert Wolf intends to export the product to other areas of Africa where legislation restricting drone use is weaker, and to run demonstration flights in Europe and America. Given the high degree of misuse and inaccuracy in the American military – the Brookings Institution estimates ten civilians are killed for each militant – the suggestion that these anti-riot robots could become ubiquitous is unsettling. Yet the Skunk claims to be different: Desert Wolf insist the drone system is both safe and accountable:

What makes the [ground control system] unique is the operator and his team are also under full video and audio surveillance. Every move, every decision, every command is recorded."

This may be (slightly) welcome news to civil liberties groups and trade unions, but the idea seems to be unique to the Skunk. Without laws stipulating this as a requirement for all civilian-targeting drones, protesters will forever be at risk from drone-controllers' blasé attitudes to targeting civilians.

In addition, this ignores the growing trend to remove humans from the decision making process in combat drone use. Speaking at the Convention on Conventional Weapons, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said:

The increasing involvement of a pre-programmed machine in several steps of the targeting and attacking process further blurs the question of who is accountable when something goes wrong. Clear accountability is essential to upholding the laws and norms of international humanitarian law."

Accountability was dispensed with over Marikana, where almost three hundred miners were charged with the murder of their fellow strikers. Private firms with poor human rights track records are the last people who should be entrusted with such dangerous technology.

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.