Unintended Social Consequences Catching up to Facebook

Years of limited oversight and unchecked growth have turned Facebook into a force with incredible power over the lives of its 2 billion users. But the social network has also given rise to unintended social consequences, and they’re starting to catch up with it:

House and Senate panels investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections have invited Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, to testify this fall. Facebook just agreed to give congressional investigators 3,000 political ads purchased by Russian-backed entities, and announced new disclosure policies for political advertising
Facebook belatedly acknowledged its role purveying false news to its users during the 2016 campaign and announced new measures to curb it. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg even apologized, more than 10 months after the fact, for calling the idea that Facebook might have influenced the election “pretty crazy.”
The company has taken flack for a live video feature that was quickly used to broadcast violent crime and suicides; for removing an iconic Vietnam War photo for “child pornography” and then backtracking; and for allegedly putting its thumb on a feature that ranked trending news stories.

Facebook is behind the curve in understanding that “what happens in their system has profound consequences in the real world,” said Fordham University media-studies professor Paul Levinson. The company’s knee-jerk response has often been “none of your business” when confronted about these consequences, he said.

Moving fast, still breaking things

That response may not work much longer for a company whose original but now-abandoned slogan — “move fast and break things” — sometimes still seems to govern it.

Facebook has, so far, enjoyed seemingly unstoppable growth in users, revenue and its stock price. Along the way, it has also pushed new features on to users even when they protested, targeted ads at them based on a plethora of carefully collected personal details, and engaged in behavioral experiments that seek to influence their mood.

“There’s a general arrogance — they know what’s right, they know what’s best, we know how to make better for you so just let us do it,” said Notre Dame business professor Timothy Carone, who added that this is true of Silicon Valley giants in general. “They need to take a step down and acknowledge that they really don’t have all the answers.”

Hands-off Facebook

Facebook generally points to the fact that its policies prohibit misuse of its platform, and that it is difficult to catch everyone who tries to abuse its platform. When pressed, it tends to acknowledge some problems, offer a few narrowly tailored fixesand move on.

But there is a larger question, which is whether Facebook has taken sufficient care to build policies and systems that are resistant to abuse.

Facebook declined to address the subject on the record, although it pointed to earlier public statements in which Zuckerberg described how he wants Facebook to be a force for good in the world. The company also recently launched a blog called “Hard Questions” that attempts to address its governance issues in more depth.

But Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s No. 2 executive, offered an unexpected perspective on this question in a recent apology. Facebook “never intended or anticipated” how people could use its automated advertising to target ads at users who expressed anti-Semitic views. That, she wrote, “is on us. And we did not find it ourselves — and that is also on us.”

As a result, she said the company will tighten its ad policies to ensure such abuses don’t happen again.

Researchers Seek Cheaper, Energy-efficient Ways of Producing Clean Water

Having enough clean drinking water has been a challenge in many parts of the world, whether it’s a place where water is scarce or abundant. The World Health Organization finds 3 in 10 people globally still lack safe drinking water at home.

The U.S. Department of Energy has just announced it is providing up to $15 million in funding for projects to develop solar desalination technology to create freshwater at a lower cost. Even before the announcement, researchers had been working on better ways to desalinate water.

“We can take any quality of water that we’re starting with and we can turn it into any quality of water that we desire at the end, and the only real challenge or limitation has to be overcome is how much does it cost and how much energy does it take to go from here to here,” said Eric Hoek, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Water Planet Inc.

Cheaper energy

Water treatment plants are largely driven by electricity. A cheaper source of energy is the sun.

“What’s changed in the last five to 10 years, solar has gotten cheap,” Hoek said.

“The only reason that that has not taken over the world at this point is that it’s still intermittent. The sun goes up and it comes down. You have power when it’s up and don’t when it’s down. What you need to make that a continuous base load is you need batteries, which you can charge up during the day, discharge at night, and the cost of batteries is still currently pretty high.”

Household system

Qilin Li at Rice University is building a desalination system that uses solar energy with broad drinking water applications for “individual households or small communities that live in remote locations, especially those who don’t have access to municipal water supply, don’t have a stable supply of electricity. This technology can be an ideal technology,” Li said.

Her solar-powered desalination system can “also benefit megacities in developing countries that don’t have the extensive water and power infrastructure we enjoy here in developed countries, and that kind of relief perhaps in not providing all the water for the whole city, but can relieve some of their need or dependency on the power grid,” Li said.

The goal of Li’s system is to make it modular and cost efficient so it could either meet the needs of a small household or a large community.

Li and her team created a reactor to distill water using heat from the sun. Water turns into vapor, goes through a porous membrane and becomes pure water. Li says a low cost coating on the membrane developed at Rice University makes this unique.

“So it (membrane) harvests the sunlight, converts the photon energy in the sunlight to heat highly efficiently to generate water vapor, and it also serves a separation function to keep the contaminants on the dirty side of the membrane and only allow pure water vapor to go through,” Li said.

Waste heat

The sun is not the only low cost source of energy. Amy Childress’ lab at the University of Southern California (USC) looks at how waste heat that comes from manufacturing can be used as a resource.

“With waste heat you’re going to have cycles and spikes. We’ve gone out to the field, measured waste heat at an industrial site. We come back. We plug that into our system, so that we can repeat that waste heat curve over and over and watch the response of membranes to the waste heat,” said Childress, who directs USC’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department’s environmental engineering program.

Her lab looks at how waste heat would impact the longevity and properties of a membrane.

Childress says the work in her lab will be helpful in the development of better membranes.

Filters in demand

There is high demand for membranes that help produce clean water. Water Planet’s PolyCera® membrane used to treat wastewater, is finding broader applications.

“We have a lot of interest now around the world, not just in industrial wastewater, but we’re actually making point-of-use under-the-sink water filters for applications in India, in China and here in the U.S. We’re making membranes that are being tested now for deployment offshore in sea water desalination to produce drinking water in barges and in platforms,” Hoek said.

With nearly 30 percent of the world’s population lacking safe drinking water at home, researchers will continue to work on harnessing free energy to clean water.

Search for Cheaper, Energy-efficient Ways of Creating Clean Water

Having enough clean drinking water has been a challenge in many parts of the world, whether it is a place where water is scarce or abundant. The U.S. Department of Energy has just announced it is providing $15 million in funding for projects to develop solar desalination technology at a lower cost. But even before this announcement, researchers had been working on better ways of desalinating water. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details.

US Officials Say Damaged Infrastructure Slows Aid Distribution in Puerto Rico

U.S. officials say damaged infrastructure in Puerto Rico has made it difficult to distribute aid and restore power quickly on an island devastated by Hurricane Maria. The Trump administration Thursday responded to critics for the second time this week, saying huge amounts of food, water and personnel have arrived, but damaged roads and debris are slowing distribution to the communities. Officials also said some of the reports about shortages are outdated. VOA’S Zlatica Hoke has more.

As Germany Vows to Speed Integration, Refugees Unfazed by Rise of Far Right

The influx of more than a million asylum-seekers into Germany in 2015 is widely seen as driving the upsurge of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany or AfD party, which gained 13 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election. The government hopes to stem that rise by integrating the refugees as quickly as possible. Henry Ridgwell visited Berlin and spoke to some of the newcomers about their experience settling in Germany and their feelings over the success of the AfD.

Telescope Moves Forward on Land Sacred to Native Hawaiians

A long-running effort to build one of the world’s largest telescopes on a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians is moving forward after a key approval Thursday, reopening divisions over a project that promises revolutionary views into the heavens but has drawn impassioned protests over the impact to a spiritual place.

Hawaii’s land board granted a construction permit for the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope atop the state’s tallest mountain, called Mauna Kea, but opponents likely would appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. Protesters willing to be arrested were successful in blocking construction in the past.

“For the Hawaiian people, I have a message: This is our time to rise as a people,” said Kahookahi Kanuha, a protest leader. “This is our time to take back all of the things that we know are ours. All the things that were illegally taken from us.”

No construction soon

Telescope officials don’t have any immediate construction plans and will consider its next steps, said Scott Ishikawa, a project spokesman. Officials previously have said they want to resume building in 2018.

“In moving forward, we will listen respectfully to the community in order to realize the shared vision of Mauna Kea as a world center for Hawaiian culture, education and science,” TMT International Observatory Board Chairman Henry Yang said in a statement.

Richard Ha, a Native Hawaiian farmer who supports the project, urged opponents to avoid confrontation.

“The possibility of getting the best telescope in the world … I don’t feel is the right battle to fight,” he said. “It will hurt our own people.”

While opponents say constructing the telescope will desecrate Mauna Kea, supporters tout the instrument’s ability to provide long-term educational and economic opportunities.

“This was one of the most difficult decisions this board has ever made,” state Board of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case said in a statement about the 5-2 decision.

Plans for the project date to 2009, when scientists selected Mauna Kea after a five-year around-the-world campaign to find the ideal site for what telescope officials said “will likely revolutionize our understanding of the universe.”

The project won a series of approvals from Hawaii, including a permit to build on conservation land in 2011. Protesters blocked attempts to start construction. Then in 2015, the state Supreme Court invalidated the permit, saying the board’s approval process was flawed, and ordered the project to go through the steps again.

​Protests from the beginning

Protests disrupted a groundbreaking in 2014 and intensified after that. Construction stopped in 2015 after 31 demonstrators were arrested for blocking the work.

A second attempt to restart construction a few months later ended with more arrests and crews retreating.

Mehana Kihoi said being arrested while praying on the mountain was one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. She started going there to help heal from domestic violence, Kihoi told the land board earlier this month.

“For years, I carried grief and pain … until I went to the mauna,” she said, using the Hawaiian word for mountain.

Culture over money

Kanuha, a protest leader, dismissed the millions that telescope officials have paid toward educating youth on the Big Island in science, technology, engineering and math. So far, $3.5 million has been paid into the educational fund, even while the project’s construction permit was invalid.

That money isn’t the answer to improving the lives of Native Hawaiian youth, Kanuha said. Revitalization of language and culture through Hawaiian-focused education is what’s important, he said.

A group of Native Hawaiian telescope supporters formed a group called Perpetuating Unique Educational Opportunities. Some members had been against the telescope in the past, said the group’s attorney, Lincoln Ashida.

“We believe that with increased opportunities for children, that results in stronger families, which in turn benefits our community,” Ashida told the board.

A group of universities in California and Canada make up the telescope company, with partners from China, India and Japan. The instrument’s primary mirror would measure 98 feet (30 meters) in diameter. Compared with the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world, it would be three times as wide, with nine times more area.

Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, has been the first choice, telescope officials said, calling it the best location in the world for astronomy. Its summit provides a clear view of the sky for 300 days a year, with little air and light pollution. They selected an alternate site in Spain’s Canary Islands if the telescope couldn’t be built in Hawaii.

North Korean Workers Overseas Feeling Sanctions’ Squeeze

North Korean overseas workers are feeling the heat as countries are stepping up their efforts to implement U.N. sanctions against their motherland.

On Wednesday, the Polish foreign ministry told VOA’s Korea Service that Poland does not intend to issue new work permits to North Korean workers to comply with the two latest U.N. Security Council resolutions. These measures were passed in response to the Kim Jong Un regime’s long-range intercontinental ballistic missile launches and sixth nuclear test.

“The Ministry of the Family, Labour and Social Policy has sent out a communication to voivodship [provincial] offices asking them to withhold all decisions regarding applications for work permits concerning [North Korean] citizens,” the foreign ministry said in an email to VOA, “until the process of transposition and development of a common position by European Union member states regarding the scope and method of implementing the resolution is completed.”

Fewer North Koreans working in Poland

With not one work visa being issued to a North Korean national in 2016 and 2017, the number of North Koreans employed in Poland stood at about 400 as of January this year, a decline from 550 in July last year, according to the Polish government’s estimates. In 2014, the Polish consul in Pyongyang issued 147 work visas, and in 2015, 129 such visas were issued.

The Polish foreign ministry said Poland, which is one of the European Union countries that hires many North Korean laborers, does not have any systemic measures in place that would prevent citizens of other countries, including North Koreans, from taking up work in the country, imposing a work ban would represent “an unequivocal demonstration of discrimination on the grounds of nationality.”

“In this context, we welcomed Resolution 2371 of 5 August 2017 and 2375 of 11 September 2017, the first to refer to the employment of [North Korean] citizens abroad in so decisive terms,” the ministry said.

Since North Korea has long been accused of using money paid to its overseas workers to finance its weapons programs, the two latest U.N. resolutions for the first time included restrictive measures on North Korean laborers abroad, first banning the hiring of additional North Korean workers, then barring the renewal of their work contracts when they expire.

Residency permits not renewed

Similar action was taken by Kuwaiti authorities, who have stopped issuing entry visas of any kind to North Korean nationals and forbidding them from transferring their residency permits from one company to another, according to the country’s implementation report on U.N. Security Council resolution 2371 submitted to the council in late August.

“Expired residency permits are not renewed, and permit holders are requested to leave the country promptly once the permit has expired,” reads the report.

Also taking heed of the Security Council resolutions on North Korea are Senegal and Qatar. Senegal suspended the issuance of entry and short-stay visas to North Korean workers. Qatar discontinued issuing the approvals of employment requests and the renewal of residence of workers.

Jenny Lee contributed to this report.

Turkey and Russia Agree on Need for De-escalation Zone in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday agreed to push for the creation of a “de-escalation” zone in Syria’s key northern province of Idlib to help end the civil war.

Erdogan said after talks in Ankara the pair agreed to “pursue more intensely” the implementation of a de-escalation zone in Idlib, which currently is under jihadist control.

The agreement is seen as a key step toward ending the civil war and ushering in the start of a peace process.

“All conditions are now created to stop the war in the Syria,” Putin declared at the joint press conference.

Civilian deaths concern Erdogan

According to reports, Erdogan raised concerns with Putin over the numbers of civilians being killed by the Russian bombing in Syria. Ankara and Moscow back rival sides in the Syrian civil war. Relations were plunged into a deep freeze following the 2015 downing of a Russian bomber by a Turkish jets. However, relations have recovered since rapprochement efforts began last year.

But analysts warns these ties are not binding.

“There will be always be a limit as to how significant and how convergent that relationship can be,” warned Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Institute in Brussels. “There is history, there are differences how the two countries look at regional developments. So there will always be a limit.”

After several hours of talks over dinner, the two leaders underlined the importance of the deepening relationship between the two countries.

“The bilateral relations is getting stronger and stronger, and it’s very pleasing to both parties. We hope they prove to be much better in the future,” Erdogan said at the press conference, describing Putin as a “valuable friend.”

“The meeting was a good opportunity to exchange ideas,” Putin added. Both leaders described the talks as “fruitful.”

Missile system discussed

Putin stressed the importance of increasing bilateral trade. Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s sophisticated S400 missile system reportedly featured prominently in talks. The deal has irked Ankara’s NATO allies adding to fears over Turkey’s possible drift toward Russia

The rising tensions over Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum vote also were featured in deliberations. Erdogan is taking a tough stance over the vote, fearing it could fuel secessionist demands among its own Kurdish minority.  

No change on PKK​​

Moscow continues to resist Ankara’s calls to designate as a terrorist group the Kurdish rebel group the PKK which is fighting the Turkish state. Moscow supports the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG in its fight against Islamic State, despite Ankara accusing the group of being linked to the PKK.

“Turkish policymakers are well aware of the ambiguities of the Russia position that is the case in Russia’s relationship with the PKK. That has been the case of Russia’s backing of the YPG. There is no romantic expectation with Russia. It’s about hard politics,” according to analyst Ulgen.

But with Ankara currently continuing to have strained ties with some of its traditional western partners, in particular Washington, Erdogan appears ready to continue deepening ties with Moscow, with the implicit message to its NATO partners that Turkey always has alternatives.