TED 2019: How to kill a zombie rumour and fix Facebook

From so-called zombie rumours – viral online stories that refuse to die – to the difference between misinformation and fake news, much of the talk at TED 2019 has been about the need to improve online conversation.

And this is not just because it would be nice to counter the vast amounts of online lies and propaganda with truthful and respectful debate, something the TED audience always prefers.

But because, a series of speakers said, misinformation is having alarming real world consequences – from influencing elections to causing deaths.

Claire Wardle is the founder of First Draft News, a charity that fights misinformation. She recently set up the Coalition to Integrate Values into the Information Commons (Civic). It aims to build new infrastructure for quality information, something she described as a “Wikipedia of trust”.

At TED, she asked “citizens of the internet” – whether everyday users, journalists, educators or software developers – to take part in the project, which will build a depository of the rumours, memes and propaganda circulating online. It will attempt to throw light on where they came from and suggest ways to filter such content in future.

She began her talk with a typical online zombie rumour: a photo of a banana with a red mark on it. The post suggested that the fruit had been injected with the HIV virus.

“Every day we see new memes like this. Rumours that tap into people’s deepest fears and their fears for their families. Lies and facts sit side by side,” she said.

It was not good enough for Facebook and Google to have their own fact checkers, or even for governments to regulate the web. Such viral content needed to be gathered, stored and analysed in an open database, she said.

It is also time to stop using the term “fake news”, which itself has become a false narrative.

“Fake news covers lies, rumours, conspiracy theories but it is also used as a term by politicians around the world to attack a free and independent press,” she said.

Zuckerberg’s ephiphany

Roger McNamee is a venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook. He became so disillusioned with the direction the firm was taking that he wrote a book called ‘Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook catastrophe’.

He spoke at TED about how the unintended consequences of Facebook’s business model, which relies on keeping users engaged, was also making the sharing of questionable content all too easy.

But, he said, it can be fixed.

“Mark Zuckerberg is one good night’s sleep away from the epiphany where he wakes up and realises he can do more good by fixing the business model of Facebook than he can with a thousand Chan-Zuckerberg initiatives,” he said, referring to the philanthropic organisation Mr Zuckerberg runs with his wife Priscilla Chan.

In conversation with TED curator Chris Anderson, Mr McNamee talked about how he had spoken to Mr Zuckerberg and Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg nine days before the 2016 US presidential election. He told them the company had a problem: he had seen a Facebook group, claiming to be part of the Bernie Sanders campaign, distributing misogynistic viral memes that looked like someone was paying for them to spread.

Mr McNamee was also concerned about a firm that had recently been expelled from the platform for selling data on people who had expressed an interest in Black Lives Matter and selling that data to police departments.

He told the TED audience that Mr Zuckerberg told him that they were “isolated incidents”.

Shortly after the presidential election, it became obvious that Facebook had a much bigger problem when it emerged that 126 million Facebook users had been targeted by Russian trolls spreading misinformation.

Facebook has now acted on Russian interference and introduced new rules around elections, with tools to make political ads more transparent, listing who is placing ads and requiring them to have an address in the country the election is taking place in.

But, said Mr McNamee, much more needed to be done because the effects of online bad actors has now spread offline too.

“You did not need to be on Facebook in Myanmar to be dead. You just needed to be a Rohingya,” he said.

“You did not need to be on Facebook or YouTube in Christchurch, New Zealand, to be dead. You just needed to be in one of those mosques.”

He accused the tech giants of using “behavioural manipulation” to learn more about their users and improve services.

He gave an example from Google Maps and Google-owned navigation app Waze.

“Do you know how they get route timings for all the different routes? Some percentage of the people have to drive inferior routes in order to them to know what the timing is.”

This was helpful to building better routes but it was also “creepy”, he said.

“The actual thing that’s going on inside these companies is not that we’re giving them a little bit of personal data and they’re getting better ad targeting. There is way more going on here than that. And the stuff that’s going beyond that is having an impact on people’s lives.”

Zombie rumour-mongers

Andrew Marantz is a writer for the New Yorker who has spent the last three years tracking down the people that make manipulative viral content.

At TED he said that he discovered a complex picture, with the content makers ranging from disillusioned teenagers to white supremacists living in California.

“Some saw it as a way to make money online,” he said. “Some wanted to be as outrageous as possible – but I also talked to true ideologues.

“Many start something a sick joke and then they get so many likes and shares that they start believing their own jokes,” he added.

He described one young woman who he spoke to who went from being an Obama supporter to attending white supremacist rallies after spending months viewing misleading political propaganda online.

The social networks need to take responsibility, he said, and it could start with a recode.

“Social media algorithms were never built to distinguish between good and bad or true and false.”

“If the algorithms were build for emotional engagement, and that is having bad real world consequences, then they have to be optimised for something else,” he said.

Gorillas pose for selfie with DR Congo anti-poaching unit

Two gorillas have been photographed posing for a relaxed selfie with the rangers who rescued them as babies.

The image was taken at a gorilla orphanage in Virunga National Park, DR Congo, where the animals were raised after poachers killed their parents.

The park’s deputy director told BBC Newsday that they had learned to imitate their carers, who have looked after them since they were found.

The gorillas, he added, think of the rangers as their parents.

Innocent Mburanumwe, deputy director of Virunga, told the BBC that that the gorillas’ mothers were both killed in July 2007.

The gorillas were just two and four months old at the time.

Shortly afterwards, they were found and taken to Senkwekwe Sanctuary in Virunga, where they have lived ever since.

Because they’ve grown up with the rangers who rescued them, Mr Mburanumwe added, “they are imitating the humans” – and standing on two legs is their way of “learning to be human beings”.

But it “doesn’t happen normally”, he said.

“I was very surprised to see it… so it’s very funny. It’s very curious to see how a gorilla can imitate a human and stand up.”

Being a ranger, however, is not always fun – it is mainly dangerous work.

Five rangers were killed in Virunga National Park last year in an ambush by suspected rebels, and more than 130 park rangers have been killed in Virunga since 1996.

Eastern DR Congo is mired in conflict between the government and various armed groups.

Some of these armed groups are based in the park, where they often poach animals.

'My heart shattered'

St Anthony’s Shrine is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous churches, and the scene of a deadly bomb attack on Sunday during Easter Mass.

Eyewitnesses who rushed to the scene have told the BBC of the horrific scenes they saw when they stepped into the church.

No street name? Simply draw your address

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sierra Leonean-Gambian writer Ade Daramy explains why it is easy to get lost in The Gambia.

“Turn right at the red shipping container, opposite the school on the highway, you’ll see two roads, take the one to the right and then left at the unpainted corner shop at the second junction…”

This is part of what passes for giving directions to an address in many parts of The Gambia.

Once you leave the capital, Banjul, and head into the surrounding cities, you find yourself struggling to find anything more than a few named streets.

When I went online to look at maps of the country, the full horror of the situation dawned on me: there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of nameless streets.

I have often wondered whether Irish rock band U2 were actually thinking of The Gambia when they wrote their hit Where the Streets Have No Name.

‘Note the landmarks’

The exception is Banjul, where roads with names like Clarkson, Wellington, Anglesea, Lancaster, Peel and Haddington retain the legacy of the British colonial era, when this neat little city was called Bathurst.

More recent-ish ones in Banjul bear names such as Nelson Mandela Street, OAU Avenue and Ecowas Street.

But most Gambians, some in their dotage, have never lived in a street with a name or a house with a number.

Ade Daramy

Sierra Leoneans, by comparison, revel in recounting street names and the country even has a tradition of streets competing in football games against each other”

And yet everywhere you go and are asked to fill in a form, which happens a lot, there is a box marked “address”.

After having negotiated this at several places, I went to open a bank account and joked with the account manager: “Why bother with asking people’s addresses, if they live in unnumbered houses in unnamed streets?”

I certainly was not prepared for the answer, delivered with a casualness bordering just this side of nonchalance: “The box is big enough for you to draw where your house is, in relation to the nearest landmarks.”

So it was that I put my especially poor drawing skills to giving a vague representation of my abode in relation to the local petrol station and police station.

Though when I went back recently to the bank, the manager almost had the last laugh, saying the forms had been redesigned – no longer was there the big box to test one’s drawing skills, but there is still an “address” box, followed by “nearest bus stop/landmark”.

‘I give up explaining’

As I recently walked along one of Gambia’s long main thoroughfares – Kairaba Avenue, a name taken from the middle name of independence leader President Dawada Kairaba Jawara – I thought I’d make an enquiry in one of about 30 or so side streets that lead off it.

On a properly paved street, I asked the Lebanese owner, who said his mini-supermarket had been there for many years: “Can you tell me the name of this street, please? I want to tell someone to come and meet me here later.”

“Err, I don’t know about a name – just tell them: ‘The street opposite Pipeline Mosque, off Kairaba Avenue.'”

So for people fielding 10 phone calls in a day from those wanting to pay a visit, they could spend a large part of that day giving directions.

And yet, when I mention this to folks who have lived here for a while or for all their lives (and don’t mind losing the odd hour or two a day giving directions), they act as if it is the most normal thing in the world.

I frequently give up explaining and say: “Meet me at the turntable” – as roundabouts are called here – or the “traffic light” and proceed to meet the person at one of these obvious landmarks, saving us both lots of time.

Am I missing something? Is there a local custom or superstition about naming streets? If so, it must be a recent phenomenon; after all, those old streets in Banjul pretty much all have names.

Parcel-delivery problems?

Or is it just that successive governments, including the rapidly unravelling current coalition, have always had better things to do than attend to this “small” matter?

Other former colonies in the region – English and Portuguese – have street names. Sierra Leoneans, by comparison, revel in recounting street names and the country even has a tradition of streets competing in football games against each other. Hard to “announce” a winner if there is no street name.

More on The Gambia:

I have been coming regularly to The Gambia since 1997 and I have yet to hear anything approaching an answer to this conundrum. Even a ridiculous one would suffice.

If they addressed this, think of the number of jobs that could be created: postal workers would have addresses to deliver to – so more parcels might be sent, those selling house numbers might suddenly have a market to cater to.

On my way home from work earlier this month, I drove by the local office of a well-known, international delivery company and was tempted to go in and ask how they coped.

Curiosity got the better of me and I called DHL. Of course, I should have guessed: the sender provides the full name and telephone number of the recipient – once the package arrives, arrangements are made between the recipient and the company about where to take or collect the parcel.

Yours, baffled and increasingly exasperated, of somewhere near a petrol station, opposite the hardware shop, just a few feet past the abandoned container, on the highway leading to the airport, Old Yundum, The Gambia.

More Letters from Africa

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Carlos Ghosn: Former Nissan boss hit with fresh charge

Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn has been indicted by prosecutors in Japan on a fresh charge of aggravated breach of trust.

It is the fourth charge brought against Mr Ghosn and relates to the alleged misuse of company funds.

The 65-year-old is in detention in Tokyo and his lawyers have applied for bail.

Mr Ghosn, who denies any wrongdoing, has said the allegations are a result of a plot against him.

He was first arrested in November and spent 108 days in custody. While out on bail pending a trial, the former auto boss was re-arrested in Tokyo on 4 April.

Prosecutors allege that Mr Ghosn made a multi-million-dollar payment to a Nissan distributor in Oman, and that as much as $5m (£3.8m) was funnelled to an account controlled by Mr Ghosn.

The company he once ran, Nissan, has filed its own criminal complaint against Mr Ghosn, accusing him of directing money from the company for his own personal enrichment.

Mr Ghosn was first charged with under-reporting his pay package for the five years to 2015.

In January, a new charge claimed he understated his compensation for another three years. He was also indicted on a fresh, more serious charge of breach of trust.

The fall from grace for the industry titan has attracted global attention. The case has also put a spotlight on fighting within the carmaker alliance and on Japan’s legal system.

Mr Ghosn was the architect of the alliance formed between Japan’s Nissan and French carmaker Renault, and brought Mitsubishi on board in 2016.

He is credited with turning around the fortunes of Nissan and Renault over several years.

Earlier this month Mr Ghosn said the allegations were a plot and conspiracy against him, accusing Nissan executives of “backstabbing”.

Top climbers die in Canadian avalanche

Three professional mountaineers have been found dead after an avalanche at Canada’s Banff National Park.

Austrian climbers David Lama, 28, and Hansjörg Auer, 35, and US citizen Jess Roskelley, 36, had been attempting to climb the east face of Howse Peake.

The group were reported missing last Wednesday and later presumed dead, but recovery efforts were hampered by weather conditions.

The men were part of a team sponsored by outdoor clothing line North Face.

Canadian authorities said air rescuers had seen “signs of multiple avalanches” where they were found.

In a statement, Parks Canada said it “[extended its] sincere condolences to [the men’s] families, friends and loved ones”.

“We would also like to acknowledge the impact that this has had on the tight-knit, local and international climbing communities,” it added.

During their expedition, the group had been taking a route up Howse Peake, known as M16, which has only been climbed once before.

All three were renowned within the mountaineering community.

Mr Lama was part of a duo that carried out the first free ascent of Cerro Torre’s Compressor route in Southern Patagonia.

Recently, Mr Auer had also completed a solo ascent of Lupghar Sar West, a 23,559ft (7,181m) peak in Pakistan’s Karakorum range.

In 2003, Mr Roskelly became the youngest American to climb Mount Everest – the world’s highest peak – aged 20 at the time.

His father, John, was also a mountaineer and climbed Howse Peak via a different route in the 1970s.

“It’s just one of those routes where you have to have the right conditions or it turns into a nightmare,” he said in an interview last week with The Spokesman-Review newspaper.

“This is one of those trips where it turned into a nightmare.”