Facebook ‘Ugly Truth’ Memo Triggers New Firestorm Over Ethics

Was a leaked internal Facebook memo aimed at justifying the social network’s growth-at-any-cost strategy? Or simply a way to open debate on difficult questions over new technologies?

The extraordinarily blunt memo by a high-ranking executive — leaked this week and quickly repudiated by the author and by Facebook — warned that the social network’s goal of connecting the world might have negative consequences, but that these were outweighed by the positives.

“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies,” the 2016 memo by top executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth said. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

While Bosworth and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said the memo was only a way to provoke debate, it created a new firestorm for the social network mired in controversy over the hijacking of personal data by a political consulting firm linked to Donald Trump.

David Carroll, a professor of media design at the New School Parsons, tweeted that the memo highlighted a “reckless hubristic attitude” by the world’s biggest social network.

“What is so striking is that an executive chose to have this conversation on a Facebook wall,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor who studies social networks. “He showed poor judgment and poor business communication skills. It speaks to Facebook’s culture.”

Grygiel said these kinds of issues require “thoughtful discussion” and should take place within a context of protecting users. “When these companies build new products and services, their job is to evaluate the risks, and not just know about them, but ensure public safety.”

Bosworth, considered part of chief executive Zuckerberg’s inner circle, wrote: “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is ‘de facto’ good.”

On Thursday, he said he merely wanted to open a discussion and added that “I don’t agree with the post today and I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it.”

Zuckerberg responded that he and many others at Facebook “strongly disagreed” with the points raised.

‘Offloading’ ethical questions

Jim Malazita, a professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said it was not surprising to see the memo in an industry whose work culture is highly compartmentalized.

Malazita said the memo frames the discussion with the assumption that technology and connecting people is always positive.

“By the assumptions built into that framework they are already shutting down a whole bunch of conversations,” he said.

Malazita added that most people who learn computer science are taught to make these technologies work as well as possible, while “offloading” the question of moral responsibility.

“It’s not that they don’t care, but even when they care about the social impact, there’s a limit to how much they practice that care.”

Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, said it may be too easy to blame Facebook for misuse of the platform.

“I’m rarely in a position to defend Facebook,” he said, but the view that a technology is worth spreading even though some people will use it for terrible ends “is something you could have believed about the telegraph, the telephone, email, SMS, the iPhone, etc,” Benton tweeted.

Doing the right thing

Patrick Lin, director of the ethics and emerging sciences group at California Polytechnic State University, said he sees “no evidence that Facebook’s culture is unethical, though just one senior executive in the right place can poison the well.”

“I’d guess that most Facebook employees want to do the right thing and are increasingly uncomfortable with how the proverbial sausage is made,” Lin added.

Copies of internal responses at Facebook published by The Verge website showed many employees were angry or upset over the Bosworth memo but that some defended the executive.

Others said the leaks may suggest Facebook is being targeted by spies or “bad actors” trying to embarrass the company.

Rivers and Tides Can Provide Affordable Power

While wind turbines and solar cells generate power only when there is wind and sun, most rivers always flow and most ocean shores always experience tidal currents. At a recent energy summit organized by the U.S. Energy Department, a company from Maine displayed an innovative submersible generator that effectively harvests power from shallow rivers and tidal currents. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Despite Setbacks, Automakers Move Forward with Electric and Self-Driving Cars

A recent fatality involving one of Uber’s self-driving cars may have created uncertainty and doubt regarding the future of autonomous vehicles, but it’s not stopping automakers who say autonomous and self-driving vehicles are here to stay. At the New York International Auto Show this week, autonomous vehicles and electric cars were increasingly front and center as VOA’s Tina Trinh reports.

State Department: Russia Not Justified in Retaliating After Expulsions

The State Department responded swiftly to an announcement by the Kremlin that Russia will retaliate for the expulsions of Russian diplomats from the U.S., Britain and other countries. Moscow announced Thursday it is expelling 60 U.S. diplomats and closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters that is not justified and the U.S. reserves the right to respond. VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine has more from the State Department.

Social Media Use in Tween Girls Tied to Well-Being in Teen Years

Girls who spend the most time on social media at age 10 may be unhappier in their early teens than peers who use social media less during the tween years, a U.K. study suggests.

Researchers looked at social media use and scores on tests of happiness and other aspects of well-being among boys and girls at age 10 and each year until age 15. Overall, well-being decreased with age for boys and girls, but more so for girls. And high social media use early on predicted sharper increases in unhappiness for girls later.

For boys, social media use at 10 had no association with well-being in the midteens, which suggests that other factors are more important influences on well-being changes in boys, the authors note in BMC Public Health.

A pattern for girls

“Our findings suggest that young girls, those aged 10, who are more interactive with social media have lower levels of well-being by age 15 than their peers who interact with social media less at age 10. We did not find any similar patterns for boys, suggesting that any changes in their well-being may not be due to social media,” said lead author Cara Booker, a researcher at the University of Essex.

Booker’s research group had done a previous study of social media use and well-being in adolescents, but wanted to explore how it changes over time, she said in an email. They had also noticed gender differences and wanted to look more closely at them, she added.

The study team analyzed data on nearly 10,000 teens from a large national survey of U.K. households conducted annually from 2009 to 2015. The researchers focused on how much time young participants spent chatting on social media on a typical school day.

The survey also contained questions about “strengths and difficulties” that assessed emotional and behavioral problems, and researchers generated a happiness score based on responses to other questions about school, family and home life.

Social media use

The researchers found that adolescent girls used social media more than boys, though social media interaction increased with age for both boys and girls.

At age 13, about half of girls were interacting on social media for more than one hour a day, compared to just one-third of boys.

By age 15, girls continued to use social media more than boys, with about 60 percent of girls and just less than half of the boys interacting on social media for one or more hours per day.

Social and emotional difficulties declined with age for boys, but rose for girls.

It’s possible that girls are more sensitive than boys to social comparisons and interactions that impact self-esteem, the authors write. Or that the sedentary time spent on social media impacts health and happiness in other ways.

“Many hours of daily use may not be ideal,” Booker said.

Digitally literacy needed

The study cannot prove whether or how social media interactions affect young people’s well-being. The authors note that compared to girls, boys may spend more time gaming than chatting online, yet gaming has become increasingly social so it’s possible that it also has an effect that they did not examine in this study.

Parents should become more digitally literate as well as teach their children how to positively interact with social media, Booker said. Dealing with filtered posts and mostly positive posts may lead to incorrect conclusions about others’ lives that lead to lower levels of well-being, she noted.

“I don’t want people to come away with the idea that social media is bad, just that increased use at a young age may be detrimental for girls,” she said.

More research needs to be done on why and whether this persists into adulthood, Booker added.

Under Armour: 150 Million Fitness App Accounts Breached

Under Armour Inc. said Thursday that data from 150 million MyFitnessPal diet and fitness app accounts were compromised in February, in one of the biggest hacks in history, sending shares of the athletic apparel maker down 3 percent in after-hours trade.

The stolen data include account user names, email addresses and scrambled passwords for the popular MyFitnessPal mobile app and website, Under Armour said in a statement. Social Security numbers, driver license numbers and payment card data were not compromised, it said.

It is the largest data breach this year and one of the top five to date, based on the number of records compromised, according to SecurityScorecard, a cybersecurity rating and remediation company.

Larger hacks include 3 billion Yahoo accounts compromised in a 2013 incident and credentials for more than 412 million users of adult websites run by California-based FriendFinder Networks Inc. in 2016, according to breach notification website LeakedSource.com.

Under Armour said it was working with data security firms and law enforcement, but it did not provide details of how the hackers got into its network or pulled out the data without getting caught.

While the breach did not include financial data, large troves of stolen email addresses can be valuable to cybercriminals.

Email addresses retrieved in a 2014 attack that compromised data on 83 million JPMorgan Chase customers were later used in schemes to boost stock prices, according to U.S. federal indictments in the case in 2015.

Under Armor said in an alert on its website that it would require MyFitnessPal users to change their passwords, and it urged users to do so immediately.

“We continue to monitor for suspicious activity and to coordinate with law enforcement authorities,” the company said, adding that it was bolstering systems that detect and prevent unauthorized access to user information.

Under Armour said it started notifying users of the breach Thursday, four days after it learned of the incident.

Under Armour bought MyFitnessPal in 2015 for $475 million.

It is part of the company’s connected fitness division, whose revenue last year accounted for 1.8 percent of Under Armour’s $5 billion in total sales. 

Facebook’s Zuckerberg Disavows Memo Saying All User Growth Is Good

A Facebook Inc. executive said in an internal memo in 2016 that the social media company needed to pursue adding users above all else, BuzzFeed

News reported Thursday, prompting disavowals from the executive and Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg.

The memo from Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook vice president, had not been previously reported as Facebook faces inquiries over how it handles personal information and the tactics the social media company has used to grow to 2.1 billion users.

Zuckerberg stood by Bosworth, who goes by the nickname “Boz,” while distancing himself from the memo’s contents.

Bosworth confirmed the memo’s authenticity but in a statement he disavowed its message, saying its goal had been to encourage debate.

Facebook users, advertisers and investors have been in an uproar for months over a series of scandals, most recently privacy practices that allowed political consultancy Cambridge Analytica to obtain personal information on 50 million Facebook members. Zuckerberg is expected to testify at a hearing with U.S. lawmakers as soon as April.

​’Provocative’ statements

“Boz is a talented leader who says many provocative things. This was one that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly. We’ve never believed the ends justify the means,” Zuckerberg said in a statement.

Bosworth wrote in the June 2016 memo that some “questionable” practices were all right if the result was connecting people.

“That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends,” he wrote in the memo, which BuzzFeed published on its website.

He also urged fellow employees not to let potential negatives slow them down.

“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people,” he wrote.

Bosworth said Thursday that he did not agree with the post today “and I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it.

“Having a debate around hard topics like these is a critical part of our process and to do that effectively we have to be able to consider even bad ideas, if only to eliminate them,” Bosworth’s statement said.

UK Lawmakers Publish Evidence from Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower

A committee of British lawmakers published written evidence on Thursday provided by a whistleblower who says information about 50 million Facebook users ended up in the hands of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica said the documents did not support whistleblower Christopher Wylie’s testimony to the committee this week.

Wylie, who formerly worked for Cambridge Analytica (CA), alleges the data was used to help to build profiles on American voters and raise support for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Wylie also alleges that CA was linked to Canadian firm AggregateIQ (AIQ), which he says was involved in the development of the software used to target voters. AggregateIQ, he says, received payment from a pro-Brexit campaign group before the 2016 referendum when Britain voted to quit the European Union.

This was co-ordinated with the lead “Vote Leave” group in a breach of British electoral funding rules, Wylie alleged.  Vote Leave denies any wrongdoing.

Wylie appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the British parliament on Tuesday. The committee said Wylie provided it with documents including a services agreement between AIQ and SCL Elections, an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica, dated September 2014.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the documents made public by the committee.

“None of these documents support the false allegations made in Tuesday’s hearing,” Cambridge Analytica said in a statement, adding that Wylie had left the company in July 2014 and would have no direct knowledge of its work or practices since then.

“It is wrong to suggest that Cambridge Analytica’s earlier relationship with Aggregate IQ implies that we were involved with their work for Vote Leave. Cambridge Analytica did no work in any capacity in the 2016 EU referendum.”

AIQ did not respond to a Reuters request for comment after Tuesday’s committee hearing, but in an earlier statement said it had never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica and had never been part of the firm.

The parliamentary committee’s chairman has said it was “astonishing” that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided not to answer lawmakers’ questions, given the claims that Wylie had made about how data was used.

In Cuba, Vietnam Communist Party Chief Advocates Economic Reforms

The head of Vietnam’s Communist Party advocated for the importance of market-oriented economic reforms on a two-day visit to old ally Cuba, which is struggling to liberalize its poorly Soviet-style command economy.

Vietnam and Cuba are among the last Communist-run countries in the world but Hanoi set about opening up its centralized economy in the 1980s, two decades before Havana started to do so in earnest under President Raul Castro.

Castro leaves office on April 19 after two consecutive five-year mandates without having been able to unleash in Cuba the same kind of rapid economic growth as that experienced by Vietnam. He remains head of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) until 2021.

“The market economy of its own cannot destroy socialism,” Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said in a lecture at Havana University.

“But to build socialism with success, it is necessary to develop a market economy in an adequate and correct way.”

Hanoi had managed to lift around 30 million Vietnamese out of poverty over 20 years, Trong said.

The PCC this week admitted a slowdown in its market reforms it attributed to the complexity of the process, low engagement of the bureaucracy and mistakes in oversight.

The number of self-employed workers in the Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million residents has more than tripled to around 580,000 workers since the start of the reforms.

But the government last year froze the issuance of licenses for certain activities amid fears of rising inequality and a loss of state control. It has also backtracked on some reforms in recent years, particularly in the agricultural sector.

Trong said it was clear Cuba, like Vietnam, wanted to avoid shock therapy.

“With the clear vision of the PCC … [Cuba] will surely reach great achievements and successfully reach a prosperous and sustainable socialism,” Trong said.

Cubans complain their economy suffers two types of blockades, the internal one, namely stifling state controls, and the external one: the U.S. trade embargo.

Vietnam also suffered U.S. sanctions, but Washington lifted them more than two decades ago. Analysts say it is unlikely it will do the same for Cuba any time soon.

U.S. President Donald Trump has shifted back to hostile Cold War rhetoric and partially rolled back the detente forged with Havana by his predecessor Barack Obama.