Nel's New Day

February 2, 2019

How Facebook Damages Our Future

Love it or hate it, Facebook is ubiquitous around the world—making Mark Zuckerberg a multi-billionaire and helping elect Dictator Donald Trump (DDT) to the highest office in the United States. On Monday, February 4, it celebrates its 15th anniversary. With over 2.2 billion active users, Facebook has devastated people through the ability to “defriend” others and been the cause of millions of cyberattacks, especially among teenagers. A prevalence of violence, hate speech, and fake news has caused concerned people to look for solutions, but no one, not even creator Zuckerberg, knows how to counteract the negative aspects of Facebook.

Zuckerberg’s early use of social media was well known when he attended Harvard University, according to a piece by Claire Hoffman published ten years ago in Rolling Stone. In 2002, sophomore Zuckerberg got drunk after his girlfriend dumped him and hacked into the university websites. He downloaded female classmates’ photographs and put them next to ones of farm animals for people to rate which ones were more desirable. Pleased with himself, he blogged the process along the way. More than 450 people signed up before Harvard tracked the source and shut off Zuckerberg’s web access. In a hearing, he was accused of violating student privacy and downloading school property without permission. The praise he gained from his peers taught him a lesson that he recorded in a deposition:

“People are more voyeuristic than what I would have thought.”

After Zuckerberg launched Facebook, three classmates sued him, arguing that he stole their invention of a social-networking site after they hired him to code their creation. Zuckerberg liked the idea but dragged his heels in completing his agreement, finally telling them that they should get another programmer. He claimed that he probably didn’t start his own Facebook until after that, but he used his classmates prototype for Facebook. Zuckerberg also failed to tell his former employers that he officially registered the original Facebook site with his web provider before he told the three employers that he couldn’t finish the project. A fourth classmate said that he had already invented an online facebook. On his launch of his Facebook on February 4, 2004, he described himself as “Founder, Master and Commander [and] Enemy of the State.”

In Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg continued to take advantage of people. Former suite-mate Eduardo Saverin gave him $20,000 as a co-investor in Facebook but stayed in New York while Zuckerberg played and worked in Palo Alto. When they had a falling out, Zuckerberg sued Saverin, claiming that he froze Facebook’s bank accounts. Saverin sued, claiming that Zuckerberg never matched his $20,000 and that he used Saverin’s money for personal expenses. Zuckerberg transferred all intellectual-property rights and membership interests to a new version of the company in Delaware, unhinged Saverin’s stock from any further Facebook growth, and fired Saverin as an employee. Then, as now, Zuckerberg let no one stand in his way.

In 2007, Zuckerberg did lose one round—with his users. He sold advertisers Beacon, a program allowing them to put information about users’ purchasers on their Facebook identity. The ensuing revolt made him back off. At the same time, those close to him started to leave him. Lawyers accused Zuckerberg of hiding the code to create Facebook, and key data was missing when the hard drives were final found.

In 2015, a DDT-supporting data company, Cambridge Analytica, took personal data from tens of millions of Facebook profiles without their consent to collect voting patterns, supposedly at the request of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and for support of DDT during the 2016 presidential campaigns. Once again, Zuckerberg apologized for the “leak” that occurred when Facebook allowed a Cambridge University researcher to persuade users to share both their own and their friends’ user data. He said that Facebook stopped letting app creators access data about “friends” without their authorization, but the damage was done, damage that wasn’t discovered until after the 2016 election.

As users burgeoned, Zuckerberg used his “social media” to promote conspiracy theories and pass along misinformation, some of which greatly influenced voters. A Russian company bought Facebook ads for the 2016 presidential election. Zuckerberg enabled hate groups to proselytize, for example his selling ads targeting Facebook users self-identified as “Jew Haters.” Zuckerberg excused himself by claiming that users are self-reporting the data, seemingly ignoring his claim that his algorithms can detect and eliminate hate speech.

In one example of dangerous conspiracies promoted on Facebook, “Pizzagate” made up a story before the 2016 election that Hillary Clinton was running a child trafficking operation out of a Washington, D.C. pizza place. One believer showed up at the restaurant, waving a gun and demanding the children. The ridiculous and thoroughly debunked claim recently reemerged with an act of arson in the restaurant. Facebook’s mechanisms can radicalize users to support these conspiracy groups. Like gravitates to like, as Renée DiResta, a researcher of disinformation online, explains:

“Facebook’s recommendation engine says, ‘If you like pseudoscience, I’ll show you chemtrails and flat earth.’ Because of the increase of ominous conspiracies, you’re seeing groups around these conspiracy theories like QAnon or pizzagate being referred to people who would never search for them in the first place.”

Facebook’s “Suggested Groups” includes “Pizzagate Reports,” with this vivid photo-shopped image. From there, people are encouraged to move to groups such as “Real UFO Sightings & Strange Phenomenon,” “Official Flat Earth & Globe Discussion,” and “Q Angels.” While condemning misinformation and “fake news,” Zuckerman defends these groups, as well as Infowars, on his powerful social media. He said he would not ban Infowars although it shares “conspiracy theories or false news” and said that “there are things that different people get wrong—I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.” He plans to leave up offensive or deliberately inaccurate posts but downgrade them so that algorithms show them to fewer people. Although Zuckerberg claims that he’ll take down misinformation that incites violence, Pizzagate is still up, and the restaurant is still being threatened with posts on Facebook bragging about frightening the owner to readers’ praise.

Last year, investigators discovered that Facebook uses “ethnic affinity” (aka race) that then permitted advertisers to target or exclude users based on this category. This Facebook characteristic allowed advertisers to deny opportunities for housing and employment. Zuckerberg claimed that he couldn’t see the impact of this category, and backlash caused Facebook to stop using this category—supposedly. Facebook’s abetting racism is profitable because every user is a possible source of revenue for the corporation. The more users, the more ads, and the more user insight to generate money for Facebook.

As Zuckerberg promises to fix one Facebook scam, he creates another. Facebook is secretly paying people to install a “Facebook Research” VPN allowing the company to obtain all the user’s phone and web activity, like Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June. That one was removed in August. The new Facebook approach may violate Apple policy because the social network can decrypt and analyze the users’ phone activity. Since 2016, Facebook paid users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month and more in referral fees to install this iOS or Android app. To hide its involvement with “Facebook Research,” Facebook documented the app as “Project Atlas” and administers the program through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest. Instagram and Snapchat ads for VPN run by uTest targeted teens 13-17 years old for a “paid social media research study” and promise compensation.

Apple blocked the app the day before Facebook promised to voluntarily pull it from Apple but continue to run the Android version. Collected data includes private messages in social media apps, chats from in instant messaging apps, photos/videos sent to others, emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and ongoing location information from tracking apps. It works whether users’ screens and the VPN are on or off. Facebook claimed that the program is to learn how people use their phones and other services. The spokesperson said, “We don’t share this information with anyone.”

Zuckerberg plans to integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger, originally independent companies. The result may be more privacy issues because WhatsApp currently doesn’t require a person’s identity, just a telephone number. It also doesn’t store messages and keeps minimal user data. Disturbed by the change, employees at all these companies are leaving. Facebook will also have additional problems in finding and stopping illicit activity and disinformation. WhatsApp blocked disinformation before the Brazilian presidential election by limiting the number of times a message could be forwarded.

In the past, I’ve worried about negative effects of Facebook usage, especially on teens. Studies show problems with self-esteem, feelings of envy, dissatisfaction, narcissism, antisocial behavior, and aggressiveness. Those concerns have moved to fears about radicalization of the far-right and control of elected officials. And Zuckerman just keeps apologizing and raking in the billions with new scams.

July 14, 2017

That Russia ‘Thing’

The drip-drip of information about collusion between Dictator Donald Trump (DDT) and Russia has developed into a steady flow as the dam against information starts to break down. Last week saw the publicity about a meeting between DDT associates at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya because she promised that she could provide them damaging information about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Early information showed that those attending included DDT’s son Donald Trump, Jr., DDT’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who helps run both DDT and the family business, and one-time DDT campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has a history of business ties with Russian and pro-Russia Ukrainian kleptocrats. Now it appears that more people were present, including Russian businessman and former counterintelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin.

The story put Jr. on the cover of Time. It began with Jr. claiming that he didn’t meet and then moved on to his claim that it was just about foster children, followed by admission that she Veselnitskaya offered information but didn’t provide any useful information against Clinton. Paul Manafort told his investigators about the meeting and that Jr. had set it up.

Jr. blatantly released emails proving he knew the offer to the meeting came directly from the Russian government and that possible information about be “very high level and sensitive.” The emails explicitly refer to “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” as well as Jr. agreeing to a meeting with a “Russian government attorney” to obtain documents from the Russian government. Jr.’s response to the emails is that “I love it especially later in the summer,” the time when the hacked emails from the DNC were released to the public.

The shifting story about DDT’s involvement with Russia to meddle in the presidential election: no, we didn’t talk to anybody; yes, we talked to somebody but it wasn’t about the election; yes, we talked about the election but didn’t get any useful information. The question is what’s next. That’s why all these people need lawyers. This fascinating view of who hired whom is missing the latest hire, Alan Futerfas. The lawyer for organized crime mobs including the Gambino, Genovese, and Colombo families is representing Jr.

Jr.’s emails support the chain of people from the Kremlin to DDT. The timeline of 20 denials about Russian collusion in the past year is accompanied by six more lies about Jr.’s meeting.

DDT claimed he knew nothing about the meeting, but a trail exists. Four hours after Jr. confirmed his meeting with Veselnitskaya on June 7, DDT promised a speech “discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.” He said that it would be “very, very informative.” Two days later, DDT lacked the information and talked about national security. A few hours after the meeting,  DDT asked Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s so-called “deleted” 33,000 emails.

DDT’s spin on the meeting is blaming former AG Loretta Lynch for allowing the lawyer into the country. Veselnitskaya came to the U.S. with the claim that she was an attorney for Prevezon Holdings, a Russian company accused of money-laundering for the mob by buying expensive real estate. Prevezon’s actions are related to DDT’s firing Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for New York’s Southern District, while he was overseeing a money laundering case against Russian mobsters who allegedly hid $230 million in NYC real estate, some of it belong to DDT. The Russian lawyer who revealed the fraud met a suspicious death. Veselnitskaya called the DOJ settlement of $5.9 million in lieu of $230 million “almost an apology from the [U.S.] government.”

Richard Painter, George H.W. Bush’s ethics counsel, described Jr.’s actions as “treason.” As to the question of collusion, the term is defined as “secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy, especially in order to cheat or deceive others.” Ryan Goodman, former Defense Department special counsel, declared that the meeting was prohibited by federal criminal law.

“The law states that no person shall knowingly solicit or accept from a foreign national any contribution to a campaign of an item of value. There is now a clear case that Donald Trump Jr. has met all the elements of the law, which is a criminally enforced federal statute.”

The statute governing foreign contributions to U.S. campaigns, 52 USC 30121, 36 USC 510, has two key passages. The first:

“A foreign national shall not, directly or indirectly, make a contribution or a donation of money or other thing of value, or expressly or impliedly promise to make a contribution or a donation, in connection with any Federal, State, or local election.”

The second:

“No person shall knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation prohibited by [this law].”

The term “solicit” has a specific meaning in this context:

“A solicitation is an oral or written communication that, construed as reasonably understood in the context in which it is made, contains a clear message asking, requesting, or recommending that another person make a contribution, donation, transfer of funds, or otherwise provide anything of value.”

The Committee of the Federal Register defines “solicitation”:

“To ask, request, or recommend, explicitly or implicitly, that another person make a contribution, donation, transfer of funds, or otherwise provide anything of value.”

Jr. knew that he was soliciting information from a foreign source and that damaging information in “political opposition research” would cost a great deal of money. The illegal part was trying to get the information, not Jr.’s success. Everyone at the meeting was trying to solicit information from a foreign government, i.e., the Russians. Jr. may have solicited other times because he told Sean Hannity on Fox that he “probably met with other people from Russia” during the campaign.

Charles Krauthammer said:

 “If you get a call to go to a certain place in the middle of the night to pick up stolen goods, and it turns out stolen goods don’t show up but the cops show up, I think you’re going to have a weak story saying, ‘well, I got swindled here….’ It’s a hell of a defense to say your collusion wasn’t competent and it didn’t work out.”

DDT counsel Kellyanne Conway may be expecting more drips in her use of the word “yet”:

“‘Collusion’? No. We don’t have that yet.”

Most  congressional Republicans are trying to cover DDT’s illegal acts of Russian collusion. They ignore the questions, refuse to answer them, or obfuscate. Denials of DDT’s collusion have morphed into claims that collusion isn’t illegal. Jr.’s emails about collusion with Russia? No problem? Hillary Clinton’s private email service? Horrifying! Rep. Steve King (R-IA) threatens to investigate Anthony Weiner’s 650,000 emails if the Democrats won’t ignore Jr.’s emails. GOP senators such as Ted Cruz (TX), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Lindsey Graham (SC) used Senate hearing time to question witnesses about Clinton instead of Russian collusion. GOP leaders of the intelligence committees in the House and Senate have called the media to challenge stories about the collusion.

Early reporting from the Fox network omitted any reference to Russia in Jr.’s emails.

Most of the attention surrounding the meeting has been on Jr., but Kushner may be in trouble too. His security clearance is based on lies about his past meetings, and Democrats want Kushner’s access to classified information rescinded. Since his presence at the meeting was revealed, Kushner remembered over 100 foreign contacts that he had omitted from earlier high-security clearance applications.

VP Mike Pence might also be in hot water. On Fox, his press secretary Marc Lotter refused to respond to a question about whether Pence met with the Russians. Six months ago, Pence denied that anyone with DDT’s campaign had met with Russians trying to meddle in the election, but now the world knows differently.

Two Democratic donors and a DNC staffer are suing DDT and his longtime adviser Roger Stone for their public release of emails stolen from the DNC. Congressional committees are competing to be the first to question Jr.

For several days, this was DDT’s only response to Jr.’s scandal: “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.” He left for Paris and embarrassed the people of the United States there.

Last February, New York Times David Leonhardt wrote:

“This combination—an anti-democratic president and a quiescent Congress—is very dangerous. Even though many members of Congress think [Trump’s] approach is wrong, they have refused to confront him because he is a member of their party. He has the power to sign bills that Republican legislators have long favored, and their political fortunes are tied to his popularity.”

Most Republicans just want to keep DDT healthy enough to sign papers—and right now they’re in control. But the hacking continues.

September 21, 2016

CEO John Stumpf, Candidate Donald Trump Caught Scamming

“Eight rhymes with great.” That’s the reason that Wells Fargo demanded that its employees squeeze eight accounts out of every customer—and the reason that employees were fired if they failed. (Do you have eight bank accounts with your bank of choice?) Then, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) emphatically announced during a Senate hearing, CEO John Stumpf fired employees for “cheating” employees and went off to get hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation. CEO John Stumpf claims that Wells Fargo knew nothing about these scams until the LA Times published information about it in 2013 although it appeared to have started as early as 2011.

The scam came to light when it was discovered that battered employees opened unneeded accounts for customers, ordered them credit cards without their permission, and forged client signatures. Employees begged family members to open ghost accounts and opened duplicate accounts for themselves. A homeless woman was talked into opening six checking and savings accounts with fees of $39 per month. When the forced scams were discovered, Wells Fargo fired 30 workers just in southern California, and other workers were put on leave. A total of 5,300 lower-level employees had to leave Wells Fargo. Senior-level executives kept their jobs.

The purpose of the scam was to drive up stock value, and Wells Fargo reported a $5.6 billion quarterly profit last year in October. The bank averaged 6.15 financial products per household—almost four times the industry average. A former branch manager said that if he didn’t make his goal that he was “severely chastised and embarrassed in front of 60-plus managers in your area by the community banking president.”

Wells Fargo has agreed to pay $185 million in fines but won’t admit wrongdoing. It claims that the company will end its aggressive sales targets in another three months by January 1.

Carrie Tolstedt, the executive in charge of the division causing the problems, retired—instead of being fired—in July with a payout of $100 million and the hopes that more compensation throughout the coming year. Stumpf said that he talked to her weekly during the three years after the fake accounts were revealed and employees were being fired. Despite the illegal activity, he didn’t fire her because she did well with branding and improving customer loyalty.

Asked if the bank plans to “clawback” compensation for these acts from the top-level bank employees who make millions, Stumpf said that the responsibility lay with the bank’s board. He is the board chairman but said that he could not get involved and doesn’t plan to “prejudice their process.” Also asked how the bank will help customers with damaged credit ratings from the fake accounts or whether the case is one of fraud, Stumpf said that he was not a lawyer, a compensation expert, or a credit consultant. After being a micro-manager for many years, Stumpf now depicts himself as an innocent bystander.

Warren showed 12 transcripts of Wells Fargo earnings in which Stump “personally cited Wells Fargo’s success at cross-selling retail accounts as one of the main reasons to buy more stock in the company.” When Stumpf refused to answer how much his Wells Fargo stock holdings had gained during these three years, she said that his 6.75 million shares had increased by $30 each during that time—more than $200 million in gains from employees forcing customers to each have the “Great Eight” accounts. Much of Stumpf’s increase in wealth came from the creation of 200 million fraudulent accounts. As Warren announced in the hearing, Stumpf is not resigning, not returning any of his earnings from fraudulent actions, and not firing any senior executives.

In chastising Stumpf’s actions, Warren said:

“Here’s what really gets me about this, Mr. Stumpf. If one of your tellers took a handful of $20 bills out of the crash drawer, they’d probably be looking at criminal charges for theft. They could end up in prison. But you squeezed your employees to the breaking point so they would cheat customers and you could drive up the value of your stock and put hundreds of millions of dollars in your own pocket. And when it all blew up, you kept your job, you kept your multi-multimillion-dollar bonuses, and you went on television to blame thousands of $12-an-hour employees who were just trying to meet cross-sell quotas that made you rich.”

In yesterday’s hearing, Warren accused Stumpf of “gutless leadership” and called for his resignation. She also demanded that he return his personal compensation and face criminal investigation. Hillary Clinton wrote, “We need to make sure that no financial institution is too big to manage. And if any bank can’t be managed effectively, it should be broken up.” According to Democratic legislators, Wells Fargo and Stumpf highlight the reason for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that GOP leaders want to dismantle.

Senate Republicans, especially those up for re-election, didn’t defend Stumpf’s wrongdoing. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) called it “fraud,” but last year he fought to eliminate the CFPB. Republicans claim that Stumpf is an example of their belief that regulations don’t do any good.

Stumpf’s tentacles go much farther than just Wells Fargo: he serves on the Federal Advisory Council, 12 bankers who guide the Federal Reserve’s board members on U.S. financial policy and act as the nation’s leading bank regulator.

Donald Trump has said nothing about John Strumpf; he has his own fraud issues. Weeks ago, a few media sources published information about the illegal campaign donation from Trump’s charitable foundation, totally composed of other people’s money, to keep the fraudulent Trump University from being investigated in Florida. More recently, Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold revealed much greater wrongdoing. Using the Trump Foundation as his personal slush fund, Trump took $258,000 to again benefit himself, this time to pay his businesses’ fines. Jeffrey Tenenbaum, who advises charities at the Venable law firm in Washington, said, “I represent 700 nonprofits a year, and I’ve never encountered anything so brazen.” Trump has been known to say, “There’s nothing like doing things with other people’s money.”

GOP VP candidate, Mike Pence, attempted to defend his new boss. After the Trump campaign accused the article about the “slush fund” of being “peppered with inaccuracies,” MSNBC Brian Williams asked Pence what they were. Pence couldn’t identify any. The campaign staff couldn’t name any specific “inaccuracies” either.

GuideStar, an organization that tracks nonprofits, compared the foundations connected with the presidential candidates and found that the Clinton Foundation is he more transparent of the two. It tracks the Foundation’s philanthropic programs to determine the number of people benefitting, such as women getting job training. The Trump Foundation has no such tracking; the report said that it would “appear to indicate an unfocused generosity.” The Clintons also most likely donated more money to charity than the Trumps—who haven’t donated more than $10,000 in the past several years. But no one knows for sure because Donald Trump refuses to release his tax returns.

Asked about their candidate’s use of a charitable foundation to illegally satisfy his personal needs, House Republicans who skewered the Clinton Foundation either said that they hadn’t heard anything about problems with the Trump Foundation or that the conservative Washington Post is a Democratic propaganda machine. Once again, Clinton is judged by a different standard as the Clinton Foundation, which has not been found of any wrongdoing, is used against her, and the illegal activities of the Trump Foundation are ignored by millions of people.

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