Technological solutions to technology’s problems feature in “How to Fix The Future”


In this edition of Innovate 2018, Andrew Keen finds himself in the hot seat.

Keen, whose new book, “How to Fix the Future”, was published earlier this month, discusses a moment when it has suddenly become fashionable for tech luminaries to abandon utopianism in favor of its opposite.  The first generation of IPO winners have now become some of tech’s most vocal critic—conveniently of new products and services launched by a younger generation of entrepreneurs.

For example, Tesla’s Elon Musk says that advances in Artificial Intelligence present a “fundamental risk to the existence of civilization.”  Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff believes Facebook ought to be regulated like a tobacco company because social media has become (literally?) carcinogenic.  And Russian zillionaire George Soros last week called Google “a menace to society.”

Eschewing much of the over-the-top luddism that now fills the New York Times (“Silicon Valley is Not Your Friends”), the Guardian (“The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia”), and other mainstream media outlets, Keen proffers practical solutions to a wide range of tech-related woes.  These include persistent public and private surveillance, labor displacement, and fake news.

From experiments in Estonia, Switzerland, Singapore, India and other digital outposts, Keen distills these five tools for fixing the future:

  • Increased regulation, particularly through antitrust law
  • New innovations designed to solve the unintended side-effects of earlier disruptors
  • Targeted philanthropy from tech’s leading moneymakers
  • Modern social safety nets for displaced workers and disenfranchised consumers
  • Educational systems geared for 21st century life

Facebook staff reportedly interviewed in Mueller investigation


At least one Facebook employee has been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into potential Russian interference with the 2016 election, reports Wired. But don’t put on your conspiracy hats just yet.

Wired’s source indicated that the Facebook staffer was associated with the Trump campaign, which could mean just about anything. For a major spender on social media, which that campaign certainly was, it is common for Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other properties selling ads to have a liaison with the client.

Since Facebook is also up to its eyes on Russia-related inquiries, it makes perfect sense that someone acting as go-between or advisor for the company and the campaign would be interviewed as a matter of course. Certainly no wrongdoing is implied.

The Facebook staffer would be the primary source for any information relating to Trump campaign spending, including whether or not there was any knowledge of or involvement in the Russian side of things — again, not to imply anything, just to say if there’s anything to know, that person would know it.

As Facebook was more strongly targeted by Russian bots and trolls during the election than its rivals, it makes sense that it would be pulled in like this, but don’t be surprised if others have a chance to chat with the special counsel’s team as well. I’ve asked Facebook for comment.

Featured Image: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Facebook and Twitter face a short deadline on Russian bot #ReleaseTheMemo reports for Congress


Two leading Democrats in Congress are calling for new disclosures from Facebook and Twitter about Russian disinformation campaigns on their platforms.

In a letter, Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, minority leads on the House Intel and Senate Judiciary committees respectively, called for the two tech companies to release any information that have about Russian ties to the recent social media campaign around a controversial memo written by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes. The pair argues that there is evidence that Russian bots promoted Nunes’ political agenda and the public deserves to know about it, citing last week’s Business Insider story “Russia-linked Twitter accounts are working overtime to help Devin Nunes and WikiLeaks.”

The new Russian bot debate surrounds a hashtag known as #releasethememo. #Releasethememo sprung up to call on Congress to declassify the Nunes memo, which is either a damning account of corruption in the investigation into Russia’s efforts to undermine the 2016 election or a craven gesture to create political cover for a doomed president, depending on who you ask.

As Feinstein and Schiff’s letter argues, #releasethememo is tainted by Russian influence:

Specifically, on Thursday, January 18, 2018, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Majority voted to allow Members of the U.S. House of Representatives to review a misleading talking points “memo” authored by Republican staff that selectively references and distorts highly classified information.  The rushed decision to make this document available to the full House of Representatives was followed quickly by calls from some quarters to release the document to the public.

Several Twitter hashtags, including #ReleaseTheMemo, calling for release of these talking points attacking the Mueller investigation were born in the hours after the Committee vote. According to the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, this effort gained the immediate attention and assistance of social media accounts linked to Russian influence operations.

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal also published a similar letter on Tuesday calling on Twitter specifically to answer questions about Russian disinformation campaigns and related political hashtags.

The letter goes on to request that Twitter and Facebook examine these links to “Russian influence operations,” including “the frequency and volume of their postings on this topic” and “how many legitimate Twitter and Facebook account holders have been exposed to this campaign.” With a request for this information by January 26, the members of Congress give the two companies a deadline they’re unlikely to meet, assuming they choose to cooperate. If the companies do conduct an investigation and issue reports on #releasethememo, Feinstein and Schiff’s play could easily backfire. We should know by now that 1) these companies aren’t particularly good at conducting comprehensive internal analyses on foreign disinformation campaigns and 2) tons of fake news and political propaganda is generated domestically too. Still, the more info on this kind of stuff that Congress can wring out of Facebook and Twitter, the better.

Nunes, who serves as the chairman of the House Intel Committee, is a controversial figure. That committee, along with considerably less chaotic Senate counterpart, is investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election. Last year, Nunes created a lot of attention for himself by amplifying misleading claims that the Obama administration had “wiretapped” President Trump (for clarification on this bit, read a little about how a FISA warrant is obtained. Hint: It doesn’t involve the White House). His memo purports to provide evidence, or at least talking points, around the claim that the FBI somehow abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in its effort to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Given his proven track record of partisanship and pandering to the White House, it’s difficult to take something authored by Nunes that seriously, regardless of what it claims to prove. Still, a broader Republican effort to release the memo suggests that a chunk of Congress thinks (or hopes) it might cause a stir. Oddly enough, many of those same Republican members of Congress just voted overwhelmingly to support Section 702, a portion of FISA that would appear to contradict the position of outrage over recent “wiretapping” claims.

Whatever ends up coming of the potentially Russia-influenced effort to #releasethememo, it’s clear that after dragging Facebook and Twitter over the coals on Russia, some members of Congress are happy to casually knock on tech’s door for evidence that might undermine their political opposition. Whether that’s good (transparency!) or bad (partisanship!), it’s definitely strange, and we can expect tech’s relationship with Congress to get even stranger in 2018.

The full letter is embedded below.

Featured Image: Matt McClain/Getty Images

As David Letterman’s first Netflix guest, Barack Obama warns against the ‘bubble’ of social media


David Letterman seems to be taking the title of his new Netflix show very seriously: On the very first episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, he’s joined by former U.S. President Barack Obama.

The episode has plenty of funny moments, like Obama ribbing Letterman about his nearly Biblical beard. But they cover substantive political topics, too — not just during the onstage interview, but also in Letterman’s walk across Selma’s famous Edmund Pettus Bridge with Congressman John Lewis.

In fact, Letterman seems to be treating the new show as an opportunity to move a little bit away from his usual sardonic style and offer more depth and seriousness. He ended the interview by telling Obama, “Without a question of a doubt, you are the first president I really and truly respect.”

On the tech front, Obama repeated some of the points he made in a recent BBC interview with the U.K.’s Prince Harry. After being asked about threats to our democracy, Obama warned against “getting all your information off algorithms being sent through a phone.”

He noted that he owes much of his own political success to social media, which helped him build “what ended up being the most effective political campaign, probably in modern political history.” So he initially had “a very optimistic feeling” about the technology, but he said, “I think that what we missed was the degree to which people who are in power … special interests, foreign governments, etc., can in fact manipulate that and propagandize.”

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Obama then recounted a science experiment (“not a big scientific experiment, but just an experiment that somebody did during the revolution that was taking place in Egypt”) where a liberal, a conservative and a “quote-unquote moderate” were asked to search for “Egypt,” and Google presented each of them with very different results.

“Whatever your biases were, that’s where you were being sent, and that gets more reinforced over time,” he said. “That’s what’s happening with these Facebook pages where more and more people are getting their news from. At a certain point you just live in a bubble, and that’s part of why our politics is so polarized right now.”

Appropriately for a politician who was so closely associated with hope, Obama also offered some optimism: “I think it is a solvable problem, but I think it’s one that we have to spend a lot of time thinking about.”

It seems that Facebook and the other big platforms are at least trying to address the issue. Yesterday, for example, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced that the social network will be prioritizing “meaningful social interactions” over news and publisher content.

Facebook adds support for live streaming and video chats to Messenger games


Last November, Facebook launched Instant Games, a new platform for gaming with friends inside the Messenger chat app. Today, the company is announcing a couple of notable new features for this gaming platform, including support for live streaming via Facebook Live and video chatting with fellow gamers.

The idea with Instant Games is to boost people’s time spent in Messenger by giving them something else to do besides just chat.

It also serves as Facebook’s newest attempt to return to dominance in social gaming. The company’s gaming platform years ago had earned a peak of a quarter-billion dollars per quarter on its 30 percent tax on in-game purchases, and it leveraged Facebook’s network effects to help games go viral.

But with the shift to mobile, Facebook’s position in gaming declined. These days, people spend more time gaming in native mobile apps built for iOS and Android devices.

When Instant Games first launched it offered 20 games across 30 markets, including titles like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Words With Friends Frenzy. Now that number has grown to over 70 games from more than 100 developers worldwide, the company says, including recently launched Tetris.

It will soon add other big names, like Angry Birds (built by CoolGames, who also built Tetris); Sonic Jump from SEGA; Disney Tsum Tsum, published by LINE; and a new game from Puzzle & Dragons maker, GungHo Online Entertainment, Inc.

To mark its one-year anniversary, Facebook is also debuting a couple of new features for its Instant Games: live streaming and video chat.

Live streaming begins rolling out today.

The feature, powered by Facebook Live, lets Messenger users broadcast their gameplay to their Facebook Page or profile. To use live streaming, you just tap on the new camera icon at the top right of the screen while gaming, then add a short description to be shared alongside your post. To start recording, you press the “Start Live Video” button.

The live broadcast is then shared to your Page or profile. When it ends, friends and fans can watch the saved recording.

With the live streaming feature, Facebook is playing catch up rivals like Twitch, YouTube and Microsoft, all of which today offer their own tools and services for live streaming games. However, in Facebook’s case, the addition is more casual – it’s more about sharing with friends, not monetizing a community through subscriptions, game sales, or custom chat icons, as you’d find on Twitch or YouTube, for example. (At least, not yet).

Facebook says it will soon start testing a feature that lets users video chat while gaming, as well. The feature will initially debut next year in Zynga’s Words with Friends, before expanding to other titles.

According to the company, over 245 million people video chat every month on Messenger. That makes for a large potential audience for a video chatting feature, which adds interactive element to the gaming experience. The feature will also challenge other popular video chatting and hangout apps popular with teens and young adults, like Fam, the app for group video chat via iMessage, for example, or Microsoft’s Skype, among others.

As part of today’s news, Facebook shared a few stats from its gaming partners. You can see these below: