Facebook, data sharing, and broken promises

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said on Monday that it plans to share more data about political ad targeting on its platform with social scientists and other researchers, as part of what the company calls its Open Research and Transparency project. According to CNN, Meta will provide “detailed targeting information for social issue, electoral or political ads” on the platform to “vetted academic researchers.” Jeff King, Meta’s vice president of business integrity, said in a statement that the information could include the different categories of interest that were used to target users, such as environmentalism or travel. Starting in July, the New York Times reported, the company’s publicly available advertising library will include a summary of this targeting information, including a user’s location. King said that by sharing the data, Meta hoped “to help people better understand the practices used to reach potential voters on our technologies.”

Monday’s announcement, including King’s reassurance, gave the impression that Meta wants to be as transparent as possible about its ad targeting and other data-related practices. Researchers who have dealt with the platform in the past tell a different story, however, including Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford who co-founded and co-chaired Social Science One, a highly touted data-sharing partnership with Facebook that Persily said he resigned from in frustration. Persily and others say they have spent years trying to get Meta to provide even the smallest amount of useful information for research purposes, but even when the company does so, the data is either incomplete—Meta admitted last year that it supplied researchers with faulty data, omitting about 40 percent of its user base—or the restrictions placed on how it can be used are too onerous. In either case, researchers say the resulting research is almost useless.

In some cases, Meta has shut down potentially promising research because the process didn’t comply with its rules. Last August, the company blocked an NYU research effort called the Ad Observatory, part of the Cybersecurity for Democracy Project, because it said the group was using a browser extension to “scrape” information from Facebook without the consent of users. The company not only blocked the research group from getting any data, but also shut down the researchers’ personal accounts. Laura Edelson, a post-doctoral researcher at New York University who worked on the project, and Damon McCoy, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at NYU, wrote in Scientific American that Facebook wants people to see it as transparent, “but in reality, it has set up nearly insurmountable roadblocks for researchers seeking shareable, independent sources of data” (Edelson also talked with CJR last September about the shutdown of her research and the implications for social science.)

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Elon Musk, Twitter, and the spam bot problem

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer.

Elon Musk’s bid to acquire Twitter for $44 billion is only a month old, but it has already had more high-speed twists and turns than any Coney Island rollercoaster. After Musk filed notice of his offer with the Securities and Exchange Commission on April 13, Twitter’s board of directors implemented a “poison pill” defense, which would have flooded the market with cheap stock if Musk went ahead with his bid. Only a few days later, Twitter accepted his offer, in part because it was well above the stock’s recent trading price. This triggered a wave of speculation about what Musk planned to do with the service; among other things, he said that he would make the service’s recommendation algorithm public, and confirmed last week that he would reverse the permanent ban on Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

Then late last week (on Friday the 13th, no less) came a series of tweets in which Musk declared that his offer for Twitter was “on hold,” until he could verify the company’s recent statement that spam bots and other fake accounts make up less than five percent of Twitter’s total user base. At a technology conference in Miami on Monday, Musk expanded on this concern, saying he believed that the true number of spam or fake accounts could be 20 percent of Twitter’s total user base or higher, although he didn’t provide any evidence to support his estimate. Musk also said a deal for Twitter at a lower price “wouldn’t be out of the question” (Twitter’s share price is currently in the $36 range, more than 30 percent below where it was after Musk filed his offer.) The company responded that it plans to “enforce the merger agreement.”

Some observers believe Musk’s concern about the percentage of fake accounts is a ruse to either back out of the takeover deal, or at least negotiate a lower price. Matt Levine, an opinion columnist for Bloomberg, wrote recently that he doesn’t believe Musk really cares about spam bots. “I think it is important to be clear here that Musk is lying,” he said. Musk “has produced no evidence at all that Twitter’s estimates are wrong, and certainly not that they are materially wrong or made in bad faith,” Levine wrote. He added that the only way Musk could get out of the deal would be to prove that such a mistake would have a “material adverse effect” on the business, which he called “vanishingly unlikely” (although Musk did question whether advertisers are getting what they paid for, which he said was “fundamental to the financial health of Twitter”.)

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A kayak trip up Grindstone Creek

I often bring my kayak with me when we go to different places, because there’s almost always a lake or river or creek worth paddling around, and it’s a great way to see different aspects of the places we visit. Last year when we came in the spring, I paddled around a huge wetland called Cootes’ Paradise and saw a ton of turtles and hawks and other wildlife. So this past weekend, when we went to our daughter and son-in-law’s place in Ancaster, Ontario — which is just outside Hamilton — I looked for a different place nearby where I could take the kayak and see some wildlife and natural scenery.

Hamilton has historically been a pretty industrial city, with a number of giant steel mills that belch smoke as you drive by. But they have tried to make things a little nicer in different ways, and one of those ways is Bayfront Park, which is a lovely park right by the bay (obviously). So I checked out a few sites and one talked about paddling from Bayfront across the bay to a creek called Grindstone Creek, which winds its way past the Botanical Gardens and through a wetland area.

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Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and the future of Twitter

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer.

On April 14, Elon Musk filed a notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission saying he intended to acquire Twitter for $43 billion, and since then, average Twitter users and media analysts alike have speculated about his motivation for the acquisition, and his plans for the company. For the most part, Musk has talked in general terms about his desire to own Twitter, describing it as being like a town square, and expressing concern about how it handles free speech. He has also said that he will be happy if both the far right and the far left are equally upset by the way he runs the company, but some note that he has responded more favorably to conservative and even right-wing commentators like Mike Cernovich, who helped promote the Pizzagate conspiracy. In a recent resonse to Cernovich, Musk said Twitter “has a strong left-wing bias” (although social-media researchers say this is not accurate.)

On Tuesday, Musk provided one of the first concrete examples of what he plans to do if he acquires the company, and—whether by design or by accident—it seemed to cater to conservative users. When Musk first indicated he was interested in buying Twitter, right-wing commentators were excited by the possibility he might reverse the company’s ban on Donald Trump, whose account was permanently banned following the January 6 attack on the Capitol because his tweets promoted violence. At a Financial Times conference on Tuesday, Musk said he plans to restore Trump’s account if he acquires Twitter. He called the ban “a mistake because it alienated a large part of the country and did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice,” the New York Times reported. Musk added that the ban was “morally wrong and flat-out stupid” and that “permanent bans just fundamentally undermine trust in Twitter.”

Jack Dorsey, a co-founder and former CEO of Twitter, appears to agree with Musk, saying on Tuesday that permanent suspensions of individual users “are a failure” of the company and “don’t work” (Trump, for his part, has said that he won’t rejoin Twitter even if his account is reinstated). Dorsey, who was running the company when Trump was banned, said last year that the decision, while difficult, was ultimately the right one, but on Tuesday he said that “it was a business decision [and] I still believe that permanent bans of individuals are directionally wrong.” Musk and Dorsey aren’t the only ones who feel this way: Gilad Edelman, writing in Wired, argued that they both have a point. “It’s probably not a good idea for important platforms to be in the business of frequently banning users for life,” he said, especially one like Twitter, which Edelman says “occupies a unique place in American political life.”

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Pay attention at that garage sale

A Roman bust, determined to be from the late 1st century B.C. or early 1st century A.D., still had a price sticker on its right cheek — $34.99 — as its new owner drove it home from a Goodwill store in Austin,

Laura Young was browsing through a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas, in 2018 when she found a bust for sale. It was resting on the floor, under a table, and had a yellow price tag slapped on its cheek: $34.99. She bought it.Turns out, it wasn’t just another heavy stone curio suitable for plunking in the garden. It was an actual Roman bust from the late 1st century B.C. or early 1st century A.D., which had been part of a Bavarian king’s art collection from the 19th century until it was looted during World War II.

Turns out, it wasn’t just another heavy stone curio suitable for plunking in the garden. It was an actual Roman bust from the late 1st century B.C. or early 1st century A.D., which had been part of a Bavarian king’s art collection from the 19th century until it was looted during World War II.

How it got to Texas remains a mystery. But the most likely path suggests it was taken by an American soldier after the Bavarian king’s villa in Germany was bombed by Allied forces.

via the New York Times

How to write a PhD thesis in mathematics

An amusing story about how Stefan Banach, a Polish mathematician and the founder of functional analysis got his PhD:

“He was being forced to write a Ph.D. paper and take the examinations, as he very quickly obtained many important results, but he kept saying that he was not ready and perhaps he would invent something more interesting. At last the university authorities became nervous. Somebody wrote down Banach’s remarks on some problems, and this was accepted as an excellent Ph.D. dissertation.

But an exam was also required. One day Banach was accosted in the corridor and asked to go to a Dean’s room, as “some people have come and they want to know some mathematical details, and you will certainly be able to answer their questions”. Banach willingly answered the questions, not realising that he was just being examined by a special commission that had come to Lvov for this purpose.”

via Math Overflow

The bachelor tax and unintended consequences

“A bachelor tax existed in Argentina around 1900. Men who could prove that they had asked a woman to marry them and had been rebuffed were exempt from the tax. In 1900, this gave rise to the phenomenon of “professional lady rejectors”, women who for a fee would swear to the authorities that a man had proposed to them and they had refused.”

This reminds me of a recent conversation with an Italian friend when we were traveling around Puglia, in southern Italy. She said it used to be commonplace for landowners to burn down forests or olive groves so they could build or expand their existing property. So the government passed a law saying landowners couldn’t build anything for 10 years anywhere there had been a fire. Then people started to set fires on their neighbour’s land, to prevent them from building or expanding their real estate. The law of unintended consequences at work 😀