Facebook And The Age Of Disinformation

In the first of three Senate judiciary subcommittees investigating Russian meddling in the 2017 U.S. Presidential Election, there were no shortage of hard questions for representatives of the big 3 tech giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google. 10 months on since the inauguration of Donald Trump and the prevalance of disinformation circulating social media networks remains a concerning trend online. The power to influence election outcomes, particularly on Facebook, has become a central theme of the Senate investigations.

Significantly, why did Facebook accept political advertisements paid for in Russian roubles. In the video clip Senator Al Franken put Facebook’s Chief Legal Counsel Colin Stretch on the hot seat for Facebook’s seeming inability to connect 2 rather obvious (and highly suspicious) data points:

Franken: “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia? Those are two data points! American political ads and Russian money: roubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”

“People are buying ads on your platform with roubles. They’re political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time. That’s what I hear that these platforms do: they’re the most sophisticated things invented by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together roubles with a political ad and go hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?”

The Blocked Web

The use of ad blocking software went up a whopping 30% in 2016. Their popularity, particularly among web-savvy millennials, has been on the rise for several years and shows no signs of slowing down. PageFair, a company that studies the digital landscape says in their 2017 Global Adblock Report that 11% of the global internet population (using 615 million global devices) are now actively blocking ads. Anyone who works in the digital advertising industry might be slightly alarmed by these numbers.

Many high profile web sites have begun to institute rather drastic measures to recoup lost advertising revenues. Visit Wired or the LA Times with an ad blocker enabled browser lately? You’ll be greeted with an ad block wall politely asking you to deactivate your ad blocker if you want to continue consuming content.

Looks like the free ride is over. The days of free-to-consume news appear to be coming to a close on the web. Newspapers, faced with declining print circulation, are moving more resources to their digital editions. Quality journalism cost money. The free access/ad supported model clearly isn’t sustainable in the face of growing ad blocker usage.
Partial paywalls like on The Globe & Mail provide free access to some articles while restricting access to ‘premium’ content with the aim of converting the casual readers into monthly paid subscribers.
But getting people to pay for news and infotainment online seems to be a slow uphill battle as evident when you consider 74% of ad block users say they leave websites with ad block walls.

The Ruthlessness of Navigation Apps


The Washington Post published an eye-opening article examining the downside effects of popular navigation apps. Drivers armed with apps like Waze and Google Maps are able to very effectively thwart the ill effects of modern commuter hell: road closures, accidents, and traffic jams —all previously hidden obstacles prior to mobile networks. Sharing information with one another drivers can react to changing traffic conditions in real time finding the quickest route along their given commute.

The ruthless efficiency of waze for instance can be problematic for once tranquil neighbourhoods inundated with excessive traffic volume (and noise/pollution) on streets that were never designed to function as main thoroughfares. Residents are getting the short end of the stick. But the makers of these apps don’t seem to empathize with the homeowners predicament. Attempts among residents to divert traffic away from their streets by ‘gaming’ routes with false information are swiftly removed by the app developers. Other ‘wazers’ logged-in to the app and driving in the vicinity are also quick to debunk fake reports of traffic bottlenecks or closures. For homeowners seeking peace and quiet it’s a losing battle.

The other perhaps unintended consequence of these navigation apps is the growing incidence of distracted driving. There’s no denying the distraction inducing effects associated with using these apps while behind the wheel —and now apparently studies confirm talking on a hands-free phone is equally distracting as picking up a device. It’s incredible to think how many technological distractions already exist in the modern automobile, and now we’re adding to it with our phones.

As a motorcyclist who routinely commutes in to work most days I find this trend really concerning. Not a day goes by that I’m not either cut-off or nearly smashed by a driver with their head buried down in their phone texting away. Is it any wonder the number of traffic accidents involving distracted drivers, particularly Uber and Lyft drivers, is on the rise?