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A tech body backed by the Australian units of Facebook, Google and Twitter said on Monday it has set up an industry panel to adjudicate complaints over misinformation, a day after the government threatened tougher laws over false and defamatory online posts.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week labeled social media “a coward’s palace,” while the government said on Sunday it was looking at measures to make social media companies more responsible, including forcing legal liability onto the platforms for the content published on them.
The issue of damaging online posts has emerged as a second battlefront between Big Tech and Australia, which last year passed a law to make platforms pay license fees for content, sparking a temporary Facebook blackout in February.
The Digital Industry Group Inc. (DIGI), which represents the Australian units of Facebook Inc., Alphabet’s Google and Twitter Inc., said its new misinformation oversight subcommittee showed the industry was willing to self-regulate against damaging posts.
The tech giants had already agreed a code of conduct against misinformation, “and we wanted to further strengthen it with independent oversight from experts, and public accountability,” DIGI Managing Director Sunita Bose said in a statement.
A three-person “independent complaints sub-committee” would seek to resolve complaints about possible breaches of the code conduct via a public website, DIGI said, but would not take complaints about individual posts.
The industry’s code of conduct includes items such as taking action against misinformation affecting public health, which would include the novel coronavirus.
DIGI, which also represents Apple Inc. and TikTok, said it could issue a public statement if a company was found to have violated the code of conduct or revoke its signatory status with the group.
Reset Australia, an advocate group focused on the influence of technology on democracy, said the oversight panel was “laughable” as it involved no penalties and the code of conduct was optional.
“DIGI’s code is not much more than a PR stunt given the negative PR surrounding Facebook in recent weeks,” said Reset Australia Director of tech policy Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran in a statement, urging regulation for the industry.
Facebook, in the aftermath of damning testimony that its platforms harm children, will be introducing several features including prompting teens to take a break using its photo sharing app Instagram, and “nudging” teens if they are repeatedly looking at the same content that’s not conducive to their well-being.
The Menlo Park, California-based Facebook is also planning to introduce new controls on an optional basis so that parents or guardians can supervise what their teens are doing online. These initiatives come after Facebook announced late last month that it was pausing work on its Instagram for Kids project. But critics say the plan lacks details, and they are skeptical that the new features would be effective.
The new controls were outlined on Sunday by Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, who made the rounds on various Sunday news shows including CNN’s “State of the Union” and ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” where he was grilled about Facebook’s use of algorithms as well as its role in spreading harmful misinformation ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.
“We are constantly iterating in order to improve our products,” Clegg told Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday. “We cannot, with a wave of the wand, make everyone’s life perfect. What we can do is improve our products, so that our products are as safe and as enjoyable to use.”
Clegg said that Facebook has invested $13 billion over the past few years in making sure to keep the platform safe and that the company has 40,000 people working on these issues. And while Clegg said that Facebook has done its best to keep harmful content out of its platforms, he says he was open for more regulation and oversight.
“We need greater transparency,” he told CNN’s Bash. He noted that the systems that Facebook has in place should be held to account, if necessary, by regulation so that “people can match what our systems say they’re supposed to do from what actually happens.”
The flurry of interviews came after whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist with Facebook, went before Congress last week to accuse the social media platform of failing to make changes to Instagram after internal research showed apparent harm to some teens and of being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation. Haugen’s accusations were supported by tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit.
Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, a children’s digital advocacy group, said that he doesn’t think introducing controls to help parents supervise teens would be effective since many teens set up secret accounts.
He was also dubious about how effective nudging teens to take a break or move away from harmful content would be. He noted Facebook needs to show exactly how they would implement it and offer research that shows these tools are effective.
“There is tremendous reason to be skeptical,” he said. He added that regulators need to restrict what Facebook does with its algorithms.
He said he also believes that Facebook should cancel its Instagram project for kids.
When Clegg was grilled by both Bash and Stephanopoulos in separate interviews about the use of algorithms in amplifying misinformation ahead of Jan. 6 riots, he responded that if Facebook removed the algorithms people would see more, not less hate speech, and more, not less, misinformation.
Clegg told both hosts that the algorithms serve as “giant spam filters.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, told Bash in a separate interview Sunday that it’s time to update children’s privacy laws and offer more transparency in the use of algorithms.
“I appreciate that he is willing to talk about things, but I believe the time for conversation is done,” said Klobuchar, referring to Clegg’s plan. “The time for action is now.”
Congress appears poised to pass a bipartisan, $1 trillion plan that would be the largest federal investment in infrastructure in more than a decade. History shows that investing in infrastructure can transform the United States, changing how Americans move, bolstering economic prosperity, and significantly improving the health and quality of life for many.
“When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, we changed the way we moved forever, opening up the entire country and from the way humans had moved previously for thousands of years by animal to machine,” Greg DiLoreto, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), told VOA via email. “[And] I think we all would agree that construction of the interstate highway system changed America in ways that greatly contributed to our economic prosperity.”
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which authorized the building of 65,000 kilometers (41,000 miles) of interstate highways — the largest American public works program in history at the time. Another earlier transformation occurred in 1936, when Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act, extending electricity into rural areas for the first time.
And the wave of projects that created modern sewage and water systems in urban areas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left a lasting mark, providing reliable, clean water in cities and extracting pollution from sewage.
“American cities in the late 19th, early 20th century were incredibly unhealthy places,” says Richard White, professor emeritus of American history at Stanford University in California. “High child death rates, repeated epidemics, and much of that was waterborne disease that came from both ineffective sewage and impure water. And infrastructure projects changed that dramatically. Probably it’s been the most effective public health effort ever in the history of the United States.”
DiLoreto also names the construction of dams across the western United States, which increased America’s ability to farm and feed the world, as infrastructure successes. But he points out that the projects created problems for migrating fish. In fact, many of the so-called successful infrastructure projects, like interstate highways, had dark consequences.
“They increased racial stratification in the cities. They were built in such a way that they went through poorer neighborhoods, very often minority neighborhoods, walling them off from the city as a whole,” White says. “They set them apart and set in motion a set of social changes which we suffer from still. So, they hurt poorer areas, minority areas, even if they helped middle-class areas.”
White, who wrote the book “Railroaded,” about the building of the transcontinental railroads, contends the federal government funded too many railroads into areas without the traffic to sustain them.
“The railroads took government money and then went bankrupt,” White says. “They were very often utterly corrupt. The money was taken off into the private pockets behind some of the great fortunes in American history, and they never really delivered the economic and social benefits that they promised.”
And Native Americans ended up paying the price, White adds.
“Many of these railroads ended up costing Indian peoples huge amounts of land for no particular benefit,” he says. “It’s not like white settlement was particularly successful in the land the Indians lost. So, even though it was intended to raise the standard of living for everybody in the West, it didn’t necessarily do so, and the great cost was paid very often by Indian people.”
The stripped-down bipartisan version of President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan (AJP) pours money into transportation, utilities — including high-speed internet for rural communities — and pollution cleanup. What the bill does not appear to contain is a single transformative project.
“From the information I have, funds will be used to help us repair, replace and make our infrastructure more robust to withstand climate change and seismic risks,” DiLoreto says. “One might consider that transformative in the sense that our quality of life and economic prosperity depend on a functioning infrastructure.”
White views the bill as backward-looking rather than forward-thinking at a time when the United States needs to transform itself to adjust to a changing world, doing things differently in the future than it has in the past.
“We have our first great infrastructure bill, which is mostly intended to protect things we built in the past, which, I think, in the long run, that’s going to be seen as a failing,” White says. “And again, I’m not saying that you should allow bridges to fall into rivers, or that the roads don’t need repair. But it’s not transformative.”
There is one potentially sweeping project that could help revolutionize life in the United States.
“Broadband has had a tremendous impact on our lives,” DiLoreto says. “Without a broadband system, our ability to economically survive COVID would have been difficult.”
The current bipartisan plan provides $65 billion for broadband infrastructure.
“If broadband in this bill works as they intend it … and they bring it into poor areas which now lack broadband, that would be a good thing, that could be transformative,” White says. “That could have the same kind of consequences that rural electrification had in terms of education and lightening people’s workload and allowing them to do the kinds of work they otherwise couldn’t do. … But if they simply make it more effective for those who have it already, it’s not going to be transformative.”
Mustang Panda is a Chinese hacking group that is suspected of attempting to infiltrate the Indonesian government last month.
The reported breach, which the Indonesians denied, fits the pattern of China’s recent cyberespionage campaigns. These attacks have been increasing over the past year, experts say, in search of social, economic and political intelligence from Asian countries and other nations across the globe.
“There’s been an upswing,” said Ben Read, director of cyberespionage analysis at Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm, in an interview with VOA. Cyber operations stemming from China are “pretty extensive campaigns that haven’t seemed to be restrained at all,” he said.
‘Large-scale and indiscriminate’
For years, China was considered the United States’ main cyber adversary, having coordinated teams both inside and outside the government conducting cyberespionage campaigns that were “large-scale and indiscriminate,” Josephine Wolff, an associate professor of cybersecurity policy at Tufts University, told VOA.
The 2014-15 hack on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, in which the personnel records of 22 million federal workers were compromised, was a case in point — a “big grab,” she said.
After a 2015 cybersecurity agreement between then-U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, attacks from China declined, at least against the West, experts say.
Hacking rising with rhetoric
But as tensions rose between Beijing and Washington during the Trump presidency, Chinese cyberespionage also increased. Over the past year, experts have attributed notable hacks in the U.S., Europe and Asia to China’s Ministry of State Security, the nation’s civilian intelligence agency, which has taken the lead in Beijing’s cyberespionage, consolidating efforts by the People’s Liberation Army.
TAG-28, a Chinese state-sponsored hacking team focused on the Indian subcontinent, reportedly infiltrated targets that included the Indian government agency in charge of a database of biometric and digital identity information for more than 1 billion people, according to The Record, a media site focused on cybersecurity.
A Microsoft report released in October accuses the Chinese hacking group Chromium of targeting universities in Hong Kong and Taiwan and going after other countries’ governments and telecommunication providers.
Hafnium, the name Microsoft gave to a Chinese hacking group, was behind the Microsoft Exchange hack earlier this year, according to the company and the Biden administration. Chinese hacking teams, Microsoft reported, took advantage of a weakness in the software to grab what they could before an emergency patch could be issued.
Scooping up data
A National Public Radio investigation asserted that the Microsoft Exchange hack may have been, in part, an information scoop aimed at acquiring large amounts of data to train China’s artificial intelligence assets.
Hafnium also targets higher education, defense industry firms, think tanks, law firms and nongovernmental organizations, the Microsoft report said. Another group from China, Nickel — also known as APT15 and Vixen Panda — targets governments in Central and South America and Europe, Microsoft said.
“What you are seeing now is this realization that Chinese espionage never disappeared and has become more technologically sophisticated,” Wolff said.
White House response
The Biden administration has stepped up its response to Chinese hacking. Over the summer, the U.S. and its allies, including the European Union, NATO and the United Kingdom, accused China of being behind the Microsoft hack and called on Beijing to cease the activity.
The Biden administration has not indicted anyone related to the Microsoft Exchange hack, nor has it instituted economic or other sanctions against China.
However, the U.S. unsealed in July an indictment against four members of China’s Ministry of State Security in a separate attack conducted by a group that security researchers call Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 40, Bronze, Mohawk and other names.
A Chinese government spokesman demanded that the U.S. drop the charges and denied the nation was behind the Microsoft Exchange hack.
“The United States ganged up with its allies to make unwarranted accusations against Chinese cybersecurity,” said Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in a July statement. “This was made up out of thin air and confused right and wrong. It is purely a smear and suppression with political motives.”
While China has stepped up its use of hacking, it has not crossed what some cyber experts say is a bright line in cyberespionage: public, overt hacks, such as the Russian disinformation campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and, in May, the Colonial Pipeline ransomware hack, which was attributed to Russian-based cybercriminals.
China’s aims appear to be long term and both economic and strategic, such as shoring up its capabilities “so they are not only well defended but surpass capacities,” Philip Reiner, the CEO of the Institute for Security and Technology, told VOA.
A collective push from world leaders that cyberespionage is unacceptable might resonate with Chinese leaders in Beijing, who want to be accepted on the world stage, he said. Detailing clear consequences for state-sponsored hacks is also critical, he said.
Without a strong push from the U.S. and its allies, experts say, China’s state-sponsored cyberattacks will continue.
Facebook confirmed on Friday that some users were having trouble accessing its apps and services, days after the social media giant suffered a six-hour outage triggered by an error during routine maintenance on its network of data centers.
Some users were unable to load their Instagram feeds, while others were not able to send messages on Facebook Messenger.
“We’re aware that some people are having trouble accessing our apps and products. We’re working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible and we apologize for any inconvenience,” Facebook said in a tweet.
People swiftly took to Twitter to share memes about the second Instagram disruption this week.
Web monitoring group Downdetector showed there were more than 36,000 incidents of people reporting issues with photo-sharing platform Instagram on Friday. There were also more than 800 reported issues with Facebook’s messaging platform.
Downdetector only tracks outages by collating status reports from a series of sources, including user-submitted errors on its platform. The outage might have affected a larger number of users.
The outage on Monday was the largest Downdetector had ever seen and blocked access to apps for billions of users of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Nearly all Americans agree that the rampant spread of misinformation is a problem.
Most also think social media companies, and the people that use them, bear a good deal of blame for the situation. But few are very concerned that they themselves might be responsible, according to a new poll from The Pearson Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Ninety-five percent of Americans identified misinformation as a problem when they’re trying to access important information. About half put a great deal of blame on the U.S. government, and about three-quarters point to social media users and tech companies. Yet only 2 in 10 Americans say they’re very concerned that they have personally spread misinformation.
More — about 6 in 10 — are at least somewhat concerned that their friends or family members have been part of the problem.
For Carmen Speller, a 33-year-old graduate student in Lexington, Kentucky, the divisions are evident when she’s discussing the coronavirus pandemic with close family members. Speller trusts COVID-19 vaccines; her family does not. She believes the misinformation her family has seen on TV or read on questionable news sites has swayed them in their decision to stay unvaccinated against COVID-19.
In fact, some of her family members think she’s crazy for trusting the government for information about COVID-19.
“I do feel like they believe I’m misinformed. I’m the one that’s blindly following what the government is saying, that’s something I hear a lot,” Speller said. “It’s come to the point where it does create a lot of tension with my family and some of my friends as well.”
Speller isn’t the only one who may be having those disagreements with her family.
The survey found that 61% of Republicans say the U.S. government has a lot of responsibility for spreading misinformation, compared to just 38% of Democrats.
There’s more bipartisan agreement, however, about the role that social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, play in the spread of misinformation.
According to the poll, 79% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats said social media companies have a great deal or quite a bit of responsibility for misinformation.
And that type of rare partisan agreement among Americans could spell trouble for tech giants like Facebook, the largest and most profitable of the social media platforms, which is under fire from Republican and Democrat lawmakers alike.
“The AP-NORC poll is bad news for Facebook,” said Konstantin Sonin, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago who is affiliated with the Pearson Institute. “It makes clear that assaulting Facebook is popular by a large margin — even when Congress is split 50-50, and each side has its own reasons.”
During a congressional hearing Tuesday, senators vowed to hit Facebook with new regulations after a whistleblower testified that the company’s own research shows its algorithms amplify misinformation and content that harms children.
“It has profited off spreading misinformation and disinformation and sowing hate,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said during a meeting of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. Democrats and Republicans ended the hearing with acknowledgement that regulations must be introduced to change the way Facebook amplifies its content and targets users.
The poll also revealed that Americans are willing to blame just about everybody but themselves for spreading misinformation, with 53% of them saying they’re not concerned that they’ve spread misinformation.
“We see this a lot of times where people are very worried about misinformation but they think it’s something that happens to other people — other people get fooled by it, other people spread it,” said Lisa Fazio, a Vanderbilt University psychology professor who studies how false claims spread. “Most people don’t recognize their own role in it.”
Younger adults tend to be more concerned that they’ve shared falsehoods, with 25% of those ages 18 to 29 very or extremely worried that they have spread misinformation, compared to just 14% of adults ages 60 and older. Sixty-three percent of older adults are not concerned, compared with roughly half of other Americans.
Yet it’s older adults who should be more worried about spreading misinformation, given that research shows they’re more likely to share an article from a false news website, Fazio said.
Before she shares things with family or her friends on Facebook, Speller tries her best to make sure the information she’s passing on about important topics like COVID-19 has been peer-reviewed or comes from a credible medical institution. Still, Speller acknowledges there has to have been a time or two that she “liked” or hit “share” on a post that didn’t get all the facts quite right.
“I’m sure it has happened,” Speller said. “I tend to not share things on social media that I didn’t find on verified sites. I’m open to that if someone were to point out, ‘Hey this isn’t right,’ I would think, OK, let me check this.”
The AP-NORC poll of 1,071 adults was conducted Sept. 9-13 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Russia appears to be getting more aggressive and more successful as the nation’s hackers launch a growing number of cyberattacks against the United States and other nations, according to a new report by Microsoft.
Microsoft’s 2021 Digital Defense Report warns that what it labels as “Russian nation-state actors” are responsible for 58% of all nation-state cyberattacks, and that they are now successful almost one out of every three times.
“Russia-based activity groups have solidified their position as acute threats to the global digital ecosystem,” the report said, cautioning that Russian cyber actors have been adaptable, getting better at using open-source tools “that make them increasingly difficult to detect.”
Microsoft also said Russia’s most frequent target was the United States, followed by Ukraine and Britain, and that the focus seems to be shifting toward intelligence gathering, with more than half of Russian attacks now targeting agencies involved with foreign policy, national security or defense, up from just 3% a year earlier.
According to Microsoft, after Russia, the greatest number of cyberattacks came from North Korea, Iran and China.
North Korea’s top target was cryptocurrency companies, while Iran quadrupled its attacks on Israel as tensions between the two countries grew steadily.
China also was active, focusing much of its cyber efforts on intelligence gathering.
Microsoft said a large part of Beijing’s efforts, through a threat actor called Chromium, focused on gathering social, economic and political intelligence from India, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan and Thailand.
Another prominent Chinese threat actor, known as Nickel, focused its efforts on foreign ministries in Central and South America.
The report also said that South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam were increasingly active in cyberspace, though the volume of attacks carried out from those countries paled in comparison with Russia, North Korea, Iran and China.
Top U.S. officials have shared their concerns about the growing danger from cyberattacks, especially from nation-state adversaries, in recent weeks. And many have voiced support for legislation that would require private companies to notify the U.S. government if their systems were breached.
“I think we’re at a point, seeing the arc of cybercrimes and the cyberthreats, that really there’s an urgency to it,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a virtual cybersecurity conference earlier this week. “We’re optimistic the legislation will pass.”
Speaking at the same summit Thursday, U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly said that while many of the threats are not new, they remain worrisome, given “how vulnerable some of our critical infrastructure sectors are.”