Facebook’s Shifting Attitude To Controversy

Would you tell Facebook you’re happy to see all the bared flesh it can show you? And that the more gratuitous violence it pumps into your News Feed the better?

Obtaining answers to where a person’s ‘line’ on viewing what can be controversial types of content lies is now on Facebook’s product roadmap, explicitly stated by CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a lengthy blog post recently, not-so-humbly entitled Building a global community.

Make no mistake, this is a huge shift from the one-size fits all ‘community standards’ Facebook has peddled for years, crashing into controversies of its own when, for example, it disappeared an iconic Vietnam war photograph of a naked child fleeing a napalm attack.

In the recent wordy essay, in which Zuckerberg generally tries to promote the grandiose notion that Facebook’s future role is to be the glue holding the fabric of global society together, even as he fails to flag the obvious paradox: that technology which helps amplify misinformation and prejudice might not be so great for social cohesion after all, the Facebook CEO sketches out an impending change to community standards that will see the site actively ask users to set a ‘personal tolerance threshold’ for viewing various types of less-than-vanilla content.

On this Zuckerberg writes:

The idea is to give everyone in the community options for how they would like to set the content policy for themselves. Where is your line on nudity? On violence? On graphic content? On profanity? What you decide will be your personal settings.

We will periodically ask you these questions to increase participation and so you don’t need to dig around to find them. For those who don’t make a decision, the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum. Of course you will always be free to update your personal settings anytime.

With a broader range of controls, content will only be taken down if it is more objectionable than the most permissive options allow. Within that range, content should simply not be shown to anyone whose personal controls suggest they would not want to see it, or at least they should see a warning first.

Although we will still block content based on standards and local laws, our hope is that this system of personal controls and democratic referenda should minimize restrictions on what we can share.

A following paragraph caveats that Facebook’s in-house AI does not currently have the ability to automatically identify every type of (potentially) problematic content. Though the engineer in Zuck is apparently keeping the flame of possibility alive, by declining to state the obvious: that understanding the entire spectrum of possible human controversies would require a truly super-intelligent AI.

(Meanwhile, Facebook’s in-house algorithms have shown themselves to be hopeless at being able to correctly ID some pretty bald-faced fakery. And he’s leaning on third party fact-checking organizations, who do employ actual humans to separate truth and lies, to help fight the spread of Fake News on the platform, so set your expectations accordingly… )

“It’s worth noting that major advances in AI are required to understand text, photos and videos to judge whether they contain hate speech, graphic violence, sexually explicit content, and more. At our current pace of research, we hope to begin handling some of these cases in 2017, but others will not be possible for many years,” is how Zuck frames Facebook’s challenge here.

The problem is this, and indeed much else in the ~5,000-word post, is mostly misdirection.

The issue is not whether Facebook will be able to do what he suggests is its ultimate AI-powered goal (i.e. scan all user-shared content for problems; categorize everything accurately across a range of measures; and then dish up exactly the stuff each user wants to see in order to keep them fully engaged on Facebook, and save Facebook from any more content removal controversies), rather the point is Facebook is going to be asking users to explicitly give it even more personal data.

Data that is necessarily highly sensitive in nature, being as the community governance issue he’s flagging here relates to controversial content. Nudity, violence, profanity, hate speech, and so on.

Yet Facebook remains an advertising business. It profiles all its users, and even tracks non-users‘ web browsing habits, continually harvesting digital usage signals to feed its ad targeting algorithms. So the obvious question is whether or not any additional data Facebook gathers from users via a ‘content threshold setting’ will become another input for fleshing out its user profiles for helping it target ads.

You might also wonder whether, given the scale of Facebook’s tracking systems and machine learning algorithms, couldn’t it essentially infer individuals’ likely tolerance for controversial content? Why does it need to ask at all?

And isn’t it also odd that Zuckerberg didn’t suggest an engineering solution for managing controversial content, given, for example, he’s been so intent on pursuing an engineering solution to the problem of Fake News. Why doesn’t he talk about how AI might also rise to the complex challenge of figuring out personal content tastes without offending people?

“To some extent they probably can already make a very educated, very good guess at [the types of content people are okay seeing],” argues Eerke Boiten, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Kent. “But… telling Facebook explicitly what your line in the sand is on different categories of content is in itself giving Facebook a whole lot of quite high level information that they can use for profiling again.

“Not only could they derive that information from what they already have but it would also help them to fine-tune the information they already have. It works in two directions. It reinforces the profiling, and could be deduced from profiling in the first place.”

“It’s checking their inferred data is accurate,” agrees Paul Bernal, law lecturer at the University of East Anglia. “It’s almost testing their algorithms. ‘We reckon this about you, this is what you say, and this is why we’ve got it wrong’. It can actually, effectively be improving their ability to determine information on people.”

Bernal also makes the point that there could be a difference, in data protection law terms, if Facebook users are directly handing over personal information about content tolerances to Facebook (i.e. when it asks them to tell it) vs such personal information being inferred by Facebook’s indirect tracking of their usage of its platform.

“In data protection terms there is at least some question if they derive information, for example sexuality from our shopping habits, whether that brings into play all of the sensitive personal data rules. If we’ve given it consensually then it’s clearer that they have permission. So again they may be trying to head off issues,” he suggests. “I do see this as being another data-grab, and I do see this as being another way of enriching the value of their own data and testing their algorithms.”

Facebook users are able to request to see some of the personal data Facebook holds on them. But, as Boiten points out, this list is by no means complete. “What they give you back is not the full information they have on you,” he tells TechCrunch. “Because some of the tracking they are doing is really more sophisticated than that. I am absolutely, 100 per cent certain that they are hiding stuff in there. They don’t give you the full information even if you ask for it.

“A very simple example of that is that they memorise your search history within Facebook. Even if you delete your Facebook search history it still autocompletes on the basis of your past searches. So I have no doubt whatsoever that Facebook knows more than they are letting on… There remains a complete lack of transparency.”

So it at least seems fair that Facebook could take a shot at inferring users’ content thresholds, based on the mass of personal data it holds on individuals.

TechCrunch

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