Tag Archives: Washington Post

Force Facebook to Shut Down WhatsApp

Defects in the design of Facebook’s WhatsApp platform may have led to as many as two dozen people losing their lives in India. With its communications encrypted end-to-end, there is no way for anyone to moderate posts; so WhatsApp has become “an unfiltered platform for fake news and religious hatred,” according to a Washington Post report.

WhatsApp is not used as broadly in the U.S. as in countries such as India, where it has become the dominant mode of mobile communication. But imagine Facebook or Twitter without any filters or moderation — the Wild Wild West they were becoming during the heyday of Cambridge Analytica. Now imagine millions of people who have never been online before becoming dependent on and trusting everything they read there. That gives you a sense of what kind of damage the messaging platform can do in India and other countries.

Earlier this month, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology sent out a stern warning to WhatsApp, asking it to immediately stop the spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation.” The Ministry said the platform “cannot evade accountability and responsibility specially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence.”

WhatsApp’s response, according to The Wire, was to offer minor enhancements, public education campaigns, and “a new project to work with leading academic experts in India to learn more about the spread of misinformation, which will help inform additional product improvements going forward.” The platform defended its need to encrypt messages and argued that “many people (nearly 25 percent in India) are not in a group” — in other words, only 75 percent of the population is affected!

One of the minor enhancements WhatsApp offered was to put the word “Forwarded” at the top of such messages. But this gives no information about the source of the original message, and even highly educated users could be misled into thinking a source is credible when it isn’t.

WhatsApp owner Facebook is using the same tactics it used when the United Nations found it had played “a determining role” in the genocide against Rohingya refugees in Myanmar: pleading ignorance, offering sympathy and small concessions, and claiming it was unable to do anything about it.

Here is the real issue: Facebook’s business model relies on people’s dependence on its platforms for practically all of their communications and news consumption, setting itself up as their most important provider of factual information — yet it takes no responsibility for the accuracy of that information.

Facebook’s marketing strategy begins with creating an addiction to its platform using a technique that former Google ethicist Tristan Harris has been highlighting: intermittent variable rewards. Casinos use this technique to keep us pouring money into slot machines; Facebook and WhatsApp use it to keep us checking news feeds and messages.

When Facebook added news feeds to its social-media platform, its intentions were to become a primary source of information. It began by curating news stories to suit our interests and presenting them in a feed that we would see on occasion. Then it required us to go through this newsfeed in order to get to anything else. Once it had us trained to accept this, Facebook started monetizing the newsfeed by selling targeted ads to anyone who would buy them.

It was bad enough that, after its acquisition by Facebook, WhatsApp began providing the parent company with all kinds of information about its users so that Facebook could track and target them. But in order to make WhatsApp as addictive as Facebook’s social-media platform, Facebook added chat and news features to it — something it was not designed to accommodate. WhatsApp started off as a private, secure messaging platform; it wasn’t designed to be a news source or a public forum.

WhatsApp’s group-messaging feature is particularly problematic because users can remain anonymous, identified only by a mobile number. A motivated user can create or join unlimited numbers of groups and share hate-filled messages and fake news. What’s worse is that message encryption prevents law-enforcement officials and even WhatsApp itself from viewing what is being said. No consideration was given in the design of the product to the supervision and moderation necessary in public forums.

Facebook needs to be held liable for the deaths that WhatsApp has already caused and be required to take its product off the market until its design flaws are fixed. It isn’t making its defective products available only to sophisticated users who know what they have signed up for; it is targeting people who are first-time technology users, ignorant about the ways of the tech world.

Only by facing penalties and being forced to do a product recall will Facebook be motivated to correct WhatsApp’s defects. The technology industry always finds a way of solving problems when profits are at stake.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering at Silicon Valley. This piece is partly derived from his new book, “Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain — and How to Fight Back”. This has been reprinted with his permission.

 

Making America Great Again?

Every year NASA celebrates its past glory by inducting an ever-dwindling number of American astronauts to the Hall of Fame at a glittering gala. I had the opportunity to attend the latest one on April 21, 2018 at the Kennedy Space Center, courtesy of Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturing company. I was also very fortunate to be seated next to Kent “Rommel” Rominger who has logged over 1,600 hours in space shuttle missions.

Growing up in India, in high school and in engineering college, I was captivated by the space missions of American and Soviet astronauts. I would devour  any news, any book, that I could lay my hands on, in those dark days without the internet. Alan Shepard, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Valentina Tereshkova, Neil Armstrong and all the Mercury, Vostok, Gemini, Voskhod, Apollo and Soyuz astronauts were my heroes.

Imagine my excitement when I found myself sitting below that massive Saturn-V rocket and dining with these brave hearts! I was ecstatic.

But I was also sad!

NASA was once the crown jewel of America, and Florida was the proud home of this space giant. From halfway around the globe I knew of Florida only because of NASA, not because it had beaches, was home to Disney World or was a great place to live post-retirement.

Florida  was the home of the world’s premium space research agency that  enriched our lives: from the stickiest Velcro to high technology that eventually fueled the Internet. NASA helped create the demand for high technology to solve problems they faced in space, thus fueling development of new materials and processes. Development in rocket science was directly applicable in defense. And, it provided economic stimulus for Melbourne, FL  and the cities and towns around it. California and Florida were the two states in America which were identified as the home of aerospace research and technology.

Came the 1980s and they killed the space program. Beginning with the Reagan administration, all successive administrations in Washington had enough of this “white elephant” that was spending millions of taxpayer dollars to send one person in space and doing nothing for recession-hit America.

Such was, and is, the myopia of the political leadership of the right and left that they refused to continue with the funding of NASA and keep up the work it was doing to make, umm…America Great.

Disintegration of the USSR took away another incentive of keeping pace with the enemy. Immediately, the economy of the region tanked. The wise men and women making those policies didn’t realize the long term effect of this decision. Subsequently they spent a good amount of the same “saved” dollars to prop up the economy of the region. They offered incentives to bring in manufacturers to revive the economy and it did, to some extent. But they couldn’t bring the glamor, the status, the brand name it once enjoyed.

America stopped on its tracks before finishing the race. It became complacent after its nearest overseas rival folded. It didn’t see the distant rival that was catching up fast. China was already close.

It was said in the 19th and 20th centuries that whoever controlled the oceans, ruled the world. The British built an empire that the Sun didn’t set in, until they ceded the supremacy at seas to US and USSR.

In 21st century, whoever controls the space will rule the world. Does this world want to be led by values which don’t include respect for fundamental human rights? I doubt it.

Unless America converts this “stop” in space exploration to a temporary “pause” and resumes the race, it has no chance of gaining the leadership position it once enjoyed.

Wake up America!

The next time somebody tells you that he or she will make America Great, please ask a simple but pointed question: Will it be done by digging coal or sending American men and women to Mars?