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Would the internet be a better place without Twitter?

The social network is struggling to find a buyer.

For those of us with what could probably be described as an unhealthy addiction to Twitter, life without the social network seems almost unthinkable. Where would we get our news? Where would we meet new people? Where, importantly, would we so easily be able to remain unchallenged in a perfect echo chamber of our own views?

Perhaps unfortunately, the wider world may not find it so easy to see the inherent value in the site. Despite hyped up reports of a bidding war to buy Twitter, two of the prospective buyers, Google and Disney, have pulled out. This leaves just one remaining buyer, Salesforce, who aren’t even guaranteed to buy the company at all.

It’s led to a fall in Twitter shares of almost a fifth – the latest in a string of financial bad news for the site.

In the last three months of 2015, Twitter had a net loss of £62m – which is, granted, a slight improvement from the year before, when it lost £86m in the same time frame. The losses don’t square with expenditure, either – in 2015, Twitter’s expenses increased by £408m, a 52% increase from 2014.

Finances aside, the value of Twitter as a product seems to be questionable, too. User growth has massively stalled, and the last time it released figures for monthly active users it had failed to grow for the first time in the company’s history.

Compare this to the significant growth that rival social networks have been experiencing – Instagram’s massive increase in users, Snapchat’s 100m daily users, Facebook’s billion monthly users – and it’s obvious that Twitter has a serious problem.

If you use the site regularly, it’s easy to see why. When Jack Dorsey was reappointed CEO he said that changes to the platform were merely an attempt to “make Twitter more Twitter-y”. Users didn’t quite agree; when Twitter suggested that timelines would become algorithmic rather than chronological, the hashtag “#RIPTwitter” trended for days.

Other amends came to the site, too: “favourites” were replaced with “hearts” to the chagrin of many, and Dorsey suggested that the 140 character brevity so key to the appeal of Twitter could be replaced by a significantly larger 10,000 character limit on tweets.

These may be fairly superficial changes – who really cares if a fave is now a heart? But they didn’t endear the site to prolific users and they certainly did nothing to encourage new signups.

This superficiality was also particularly galling when you consider some of the day to day issues people experience on Twitter – in particular, the prevalence of harassment against minority groups.

Right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was recently banned from the site for encouraging his fans to troll Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones — who received a torrent of racist and misogynistic tweets.

What was particularly appalling about the incident wasn’t just the way a woman’s privacy and autonomy was violated, nor the violently gendered and racialised abuse that she received. It was also the fact that, for many of us, it wasn’t really surprising at all.

The scale of the attack was unprecedented, and the racialised element particularly shocking. But many Twitter users – women, people from the LGBTQI community, people of colour – recognised in it their daily experience of the site. Ask almost anyone from a minority group whether they’ve received online abuse and the answer is highly likely to be yes.

Twitter might have banned Yiannopoulos but appalling harassment remains on the site, despite being reported, and accounts that send personalised, targeted and continuous abuse are hard for moderators to weed out.

It’s not like it doesn’t have the tools, either – videos that infringe copyright are removed almost immediately. Abuse is not.

Companies like Disney, Google and Salesforce are obviously unlikely to care as much about harassment and abuse as they are the dismal financial performance the company is experiencing. But the two are linked.

Twitter is a company, and of course some of its attention is going to be focused on its financial goals and progress. But it’s also a product used by millions of people, and it has a responsibility to balance its brand partnerships and promotions and financial growth with proactive steps to protect those people. If Twitter isn’t careful it won’t just lose its financial backers – it will lose all of its users, too. 


Emily Reynolds is a freelance journalist and author who lives in Berlin.

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No, Facebook political ads didn't “cause Brexit” – but that doesn't mean there is no scandal

Everything you need to know about how Cambridge Analytica used a quiz to harvest data from 50m Facebook users.

For a company which somehow managed to amass one in three of the world’s population among its regular users without attracting serious scrutiny, Facebook suddenly cannot catch a break.

Following a series of bombshell reports in the Observer, New York Times and Channel 4 News, Facebook is once again on the ropes, this time over an apparent data breach affecting 50 million users, connected to Cambridge Analytica – the company accused of using political advertising to convince voters of the merits of Brexit and Donald Trump.

The three outlets have done solid reporting, boosted by the presence of an articulate, on-record, on-camera former employee sporting a shock of pink hair – but, as ever with in-depth tech reporting in the modern era, the story is widely misunderstood and has been prompting all the wrong questions.

What actually happened

At the core of most headlines around this story lies the allegation that Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of around 50 million users, through the use of an online quiz.

This is roughly how it worked: some Cambridge academics designed a quiz which could use your public Facebook likes and other information to predict your personality, based on the widely used OCEAN scale.

Cambridge Analytica, seeing potential in this quiz, started a subsidiary with one of those academics, which then promoted a new version of the quiz designed to harvest data. This quiz was heavily promoted to US users through advertising, and through paying US users to take the quiz.

It’s believed a total of around 270,000 people did some version of this quiz. However, when those users gave Facebook access to their accounts, they were also granting access to the public profile information of all of their Facebook friends – so if your Likes, relationship status, location and similar were set to “viewable by anyone”, they were open to be harvested.

The average Facebook user has more than 300 friends, so it’s not hard to see how this sample of 270,000 users taking the quiz amassed a dataset of 50 million people. This information is at the centre of the story.

Was this against the rules?

This bit gets a little bit complex – but not overly so. Facebook has a set of tools that developers can use to build Facebook features – like open login, or social sharing, or more – into their websites or apps. This is known as an “API”, and at the time the data-harvesting quiz was in operation Facebook’s API allowed for this kind of information to be harvested.

This was controversial at the time, and provoked a privacy backlash – even though the app or website would tell users as they gave authorisation what information it could access, many were (correctly) worried people didn’t properly read those.

Partly in response to these concerns, and partly owing to the fact Facebook hadn’t anticipated people using the API in quite this way to harvest data, an update across 2014/2015 removed this functionality – collecting data in the way this app did has been impossible for more than two years.

Eagle-eyed users of Mechanical Turk – the Amazon-owned service Cambridge Analytica used to recruit test-takers – noticed from privacy notices at the time that the test-takers were being used to collect data on their Facebook friends, and raised concerns on public forums at the time: this was done in plain sight.

That means that to call this a “hack” or a “breach” would be to extend either term to the point of meaningless (obviously that hasn’t stopped lots of outlets doing just that). But just because it lined up with Facebook rules doesn’t mean it’s OK.

The companies can try to say this was at the time possibly within Terms of Service – more on this later – and only took data set to “public”, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t violate users’ reasonable expectations of privacy and responsible data handling. And despite this tool being targeted at US Facebook users, given the international nature of many people’s friendships, there will inevitably be UK and EU citizens within the database – and it’s not clear this would be compliant with EU data rules.

So who knew what, when?

This is the big and important question – and one outlets everywhere have managed to get angry MPs, regulators, and congressmen to ask: when did Facebook know about this data harvesting, and when could politicians have found out about it?

It’s also a very, very easy question to answer: Facebook knew about this in 2015, if for no other reason than a journalist asked them about it and then published their answer – along with all of the other information above.

The actual fact of the data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica was reported in an extensive Guardian investigation in 2015 (which was duly credited in the Observer reporting this week), and has been around for any member of the public, Facebook staff, or any politician around the world.

As occasionally happens with the world’s media (and politicians), everyone has centred in on a point which if they’d followed the story – or done a good search of newspaper cuttings – they could have answered years ago.

The new reporting does reveal some significant new facts for the timeline, though. Between Facebook’s statement and the new articles, it is clear Facebook wrote to Cambridge Analytica in 2016 and said it was their view that the company’s app had violated Facebook rules, and demanded they send back a certified statement saying they had deleted all information harvested in this way. The company did so.

However, sources speaking to the New York Times and Observer appear to have – carefully and cautiously – contradicted that statement, saying they thought it was possible or likely some copies of the data, which they said had been poorly handled and sent without encryption, could still exist.

It’s this allegation which prompted the new action from Facebook of (temporarily, at least for now) suspending Cambridge Analytica from its services, until it has received assurances and evidence all this data was deleted. This is also Facebook’s explanation for suspending the on-record source of the stories from their services – he did, after all, admit to being behind a lot of this data use.

How powerful is all of this data?

It’s been said in some more breathless quarters of the internet that this is the “data breach” that could have “caused Brexit”. Given it was a US-focused bit of harvesting, that would be the most astonishing piece of political advertising success in history – especially as among the big players in the political and broader online advertising world, Cambridge Analytica are not well regarded: some of the people who are best at this regard them as little more than “snake oil salesmen”.

One of the key things this kind of data would be useful for – and what the original academic study it came from looked into – is finding what Facebook Likes correlate with personality traits, or other Facebook likes.

The dream scenario for this would be to find that every woman in your sample who liked “The Republican Party” also liked “Chick-Fil-A”, “Taylor Swift” and “Nascar racing”. That way, you could target ads at people who liked the latter three – but not the former – knowing you had a good chance of reaching people likely to appreciate the message you’ve got. This is a pretty widely used, but crude, bit of Facebook advertising.

When people talk about it being possible Cambridge Analytica used this information to build algorithms which could still be useful after all the original data was deleted, this is what they’re talking about – and that’s possible, but missing a much, much bigger bit of the picture.

So, everything’s OK then?

No. Look at it this way: the data we’re all getting excited about here is a sample of public profile information from 50 million users, harvested from 270,000 people.

Facebook itself, daily, has access to all of that public information, and much more, from a sample of two billion people – a sample around 7,000 times larger than the Cambridge Analytica one, and one much deeper and richer thanks to its real-time updating status.

If Facebook wants to offer sales based on correlations – for advertisers looking for an audience open to their message, its data would be infinitely more powerful and useful than a small (in big data terms) four-year-out-of-date bit of Cambridge Analytica data.

Facebook aren’t anywhere near alone in this world: every day your personal information is bought and sold, bundled and retraded. You won’t know the name of the brands, but the actual giants in this company don’t deal in the tens of millions with data, they deal with hundreds of millions, or even billions of records – one advert I saw today referred to a company which claimed real-world identification of 340 million people.

This is how lots of real advertising targeting works: people can buy up databases of thousands or millions of users, from all sorts of sources, and turn them into the ultimate custom audience – match the IDs of these people and show them this advert. Or they can do the tricks Cambridge Analytica did, but refined and with much more data behind them (there’s never been much evidence Cambridge Analytica’s model worked very well, despite their sales pitch boasts).

The media has a model when reporting on “hacks” or on “breaches” – and on reporting on when companies in the spotlight have given evidence to public authorities, and most places have been following those well-trod routes.

But doing so is like doing forensics on the burning of a twig, in the middle of a raging forest fire. You might get some answers – but they’ll do you no good. We need to think bigger.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk