If Facebook wants to be completely transparent, then its time for them to reveal their algorithm | Liam O’Dell

With the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee calling for more transparency around the business models used by social media platforms such as Facebook, the rise of data politics means that the algorithms can no longer be kept a secret.

It’s a system so mysterious that it’s become a game to content creators and data miners – a series of hoops to jump through that can get them to the audience they want. Crack the algorithm, and you crack a system which is, in essence, the hive mind of those which use said platform. Cambridge Analytica have shown that it can be done, which is why it’s time that the inner workings of social media sites are revealed to the public.

Photo: Anthony Quintano/Flickr.

This level of transparency was also called for by a report by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee (DCMSC), along with a new definition for social media websites which are “not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher'”.

There has been ongoing talk about Facebook’s precise role in the tech and media industries, and whether it is indeed a ‘publisher’. Yet, as the DCMSC notes: “Facebook is continually altering what we see, as is shown by its decision to prioritise content from friends and family, which then feeds into users’ newsfeed algorithm.”

More importantly, it’s time for social media platforms to fully disclose what exactly their algorithm is. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that this is a serious ethical issue. It’s essential that something so impactful and manipulative is out in the open, so the public knows just how they are being influenced.

Recently, Channel 4’s Dispatches investigated how Facebook moderates content on its platform, and questions are being asked about what sort of content the site decides not to take down. Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management, told the DCMSC that “our community would not want us, a private company, to be the arbiter of truth”, yet their systems display content in a particular way, and they still have to make decisions about what content they do not allow on their platform.

In turn, social media sites may claim that publishing extensive details about their algorithms may harm their company when it comes to competition, but this issue covers freedom of expression and democracy – two things which cannot continue to be sacrificed for protecting ‘trade secrets’.

Granted, knowing how such a system works may be a gold mine for those who seek to exploit it (clickbaiters, data miners and so forth), but when the general public know how a system can be cheated, they can also know how others can use it for monetary gain. Those who publish fake news will be faced with a fresh wave of scepticism when people know the tactics that they use.

If Facebook doesn’t want to be seen as an “arbiter of truth”, then the solution is simple: make the algorithm more transparent, and then the people can decide the truth for themselves.

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The Global Disability Summit 2018: Disabled people must be at the heart of change | Liam O’Dell

As the first ever Global Disability Summit – organised by the Department for International Development – gets underway, we must remember that disabled people have to be at the heart of all positive change.

The sheer hypocrisy of having the UK Government host an event on disability following last year’s “human catastrophe” verdict by the UN is more significant than you may think.

With delegates discussing topics such as “tackling stigma and discrimination, inclusive education, technology and innovation” and looking to ways of implementing change, it’s important to consider the actions and attitudes which both underpin and hinder social progress.

Photo: Department for International Development (DfID).

At the centre of all this is media and political representation. Disabled people long for accurate portrayals in film and television of those with similar impairments to their own, devoid of the ‘inspiration porn’ and warped fascination that surrounds disability. In politics, decisions on benefits and support for disabled people stir up negative stereotypes, and in some cases, they aren’t even consulted on government changes.

Both of these issues combine to dramatically limit the power and voice of disabled people in society. Charities launch campaigns aimed at ‘ending the awkward’ around disability because the actions of politicians – supported by the press – create an atmosphere where the only understanding people have of impairments, conditions and disabled people is through government policy and the limited media representation – that is unless they visit charity websites or know someone who is disabled, of course.

However, there’s a possibility that this awkwardness and issue has transferred into education and other areas of society. While my experience at school regarding additional support was absolutely incredible, not everyone has the same opportunities during their time in the education system. For some, if measures are put in place to help them, it’s with little involvement from the disabled person themselves.

So now, as organisations look to implement the Charter for Change, it’s reassuring that one of the ten clauses within it is to:

“promote the leadership and diverse representation of all persons with disabilities to be front and centre of change; as leaders, partners and advocates. This includes the active involvement and close consultation of persons with disabilities of all ages.”

Summits are a great opportunity for discussion and debate – to talk, and to listen. If there’s a global effort to enforce the above pledge, then we can elevate the platforms of disabled people around the world, informing policy and breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions in our society that have existed for far too long.

Are you disabled and between 11 and 30 years old? If so, the Global Disability Summit is inviting you to share your thoughts on some of the issues disabled people face around the world. The survey is online now. I’ve completed it, and I hope you do too.

Trump’s UK visit cannot be ignored | Liam O’Dell

Just like you shouldn’t fight fire with fire, you can’t defeat bigotry with ignorance.

The comments on the official Facebook page for protesting Trump’s UK visit makes for interesting reading. In amongst the comments opposing Donald’s presidency are a few suggesting a different reaction to POTUS’s arrival, which is to simply ignore him.

Donald Trump
First people wanted Trump’s UK visit to be revoked outright, now they’re suggesting we ignore him completely. Both are the wrong approach. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode.

This is particularly interesting when one considers the response to the news already. When May made the extremely premature offer to Trump just a few months after he was elected, petitions were launched calling for the invitation to be revoked. It hasn’t, and rightly so. At a time where people voice concerns over speakers being censored on university campuses (a place people say is the centre for debate, critical analysis and discussion), it would be incredibly hypocritical for us to take the stance of banning him outright, rather than allowing him to visit the UK to be met with opposition. The former shows ignorance and hostility, the latter sees a fair and decent approach to differing opinions which we need to see in our society.

Now that that option is off the table, the next idea seems to be simply ignoring the fact that the so-called ‘leader of the free world’ is visiting the UK – something which is not only completely impossible, but has failed to get the President’s attention in the past.

Those holding this opinion most likely believe that for a man who came from the world of reality television, not getting the attention of a large audience is the most irritating thing to happen to Trump. Quite possibly, but in all the times that the leader has unleashed anger and frustration in less than 280 characters, it has been with regards to more public acts of defiance. Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and others have all succeeded in getting the President riled through high-profile political messages, not members of the public who have decided to not pay attention when Trump is in their country on a visit.

Donald’s affinity for Fox and Friends and extensive rants on Twitter paint the picture of a man who is, primarily, a man who prefers visual, easily understandable information – something which both platforms provide.

This brings me to the planned protests on Friday, 13 July. When images surfaced of the crowd size for Trump’s inauguration, the 45th President didn’t take the news too well. Some might argue that protesting may lead to further unnecessary hostility or Trump seeing it as a positive, but if enough people protest, and it makes the news, he’ll realise that all the attention is for all the wrong reasons.

Not only that, but the right to protest is an essential part of British democracy, and would be a welcome return to a peaceful and civilised approach to public discourse around socio-political issues. As one of the organisers, columnist Owen Jones wrote on the Facebook event: “We’re not just protesting against Trump, we’re protesting against Trumpism, including in our own country: where minorities are blamed for the injustices caused by the powerful.”

People thinking of ignoring Trump fail to realise the bigger issue here and to separate personalities from politics. As Owen says, the protest will also take a stand against Trumpism. Ignoring the president when he visits could very well be the right response when it comes to an individual with such an ego, but we must remember to protest what he stands for – something which cannot be ignored, no matter what.

By not paying attention to Trump, we would also reveal the polar opposite of the hostile political debate which we see in our society. While anonymous Twitter users fire hate and personal attacks at politicians and commentators online instead of criticising the issue itself, a new idea has emerged where outright refusing to acknowledge or challenge political ideas is considered the best approach. It is not, and such an idea must be tackled before it finds itself nestled in our political discourse.

In today’s climate, we must strike the middle ground which is devoid of ad hominem remarks or plain ignorance. A return to passionate but civilised discussions on the topic at hand is needed now more than ever.

To meme or not to meme? Thoughts on the EU Commission’s Article 13 copyright directive | Liam O’Dell

Try to regulate the Internet, and you will get memed.

In the middle of a controversial debate around net neutrality in the United States, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai tried to win support with a cringeworthy promotional video. In addition to the strong opposition to the new plans, the video was repeatedly mocked and parodied by Internet creators around the world.

Photo: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode.

Next in line to propose new regulations on the Internet is the European Commission, who, through a new copyright directive known as Article 13, want to “[improve] the position of rightholders to negotiate and be remunerated for the exploitation of their content by online services giving access to user-uploaded content” and make sure that “authors and rightholders receive a fair share of the value that is generated by the use of their works and other subject-matter”.

The concern comes from campaign groups such as Save Your Internet, who argue that websites will have to “implement complex and expensive filtering systems and will be held liable for copyright infringement, potentially incurring fines that threaten their economic viability”.

“The days of communicating through gifs and memes, listening to our favourite remixes online or sharing videos of our friends singing at karaoke might be coming to an end,” it goes on to add. It was these specific concerns about memes which made the headlines in media organisations such as BBC News and Sky News, and led to many young and witty remainers to joke that they now support the vote to leave the EU in 2016’s referendum.

As with most policies, there is a degree of ambiguity and over-the-top formality in the EU Commission’s proposal, but campaigners are right to voice concerns about Article 13 affecting memes. In the UK, there’s certain instances where duplicates of copyrighted work such as photos and videos can be monetised – provided the new version is transformative. In other words, creative forms such as reviews and parodies are covered under fair use or fair dealing because they bring new ideas to the table, and thus don’t infringe upon the market of the original work.

Before I elaborate, I should stress and issue a disclaimer that I am not a legal expert or lawyer, and so my knowledge of copyright and fair use comes from my time on YouTube and as a journalism student whose dabbled a little bit in media law.

Upon hearing this news for the first time, I was curious to know how such a proposal – if fully backed and passed within the different organisations within the EU – would be enforced. However, after seeing the term “recognition technologies” within the document, it’s clear that we’re talking about systems similar to YouTube’s Content ID function. Yet, even that has it’s problems…

With any legislation – especially those regarding any form of expression (e.g. free speech laws or copyright laws) – it’s important that it allows for context. On a site like YouTube, for example, video game cutscenes may be flagged for copyright infringement when they may be a part of a play through by a games reviewer. YouTube film critics face issues around copyrighted movie footage which, for a video-sharing site, is essential for illustrating their review. In all of these instances a computer system may struggle to understand the underlying context in which the copyrighted content is placed. Searches for matching content can be easily coded and incorporated into an algorithm – context cannot.

Therefore, I am mainly sceptical of this proposal, but that’s not to say that I don’t see where the EU Commission is coming from. Whilst the possible restriction on memes is ridiculous and nonsensical and falls under transformative fair use, I do believe that more adequate protection needs to be put in place for talented artists who may find companies using their drawings and illustrations online without credit.

Although, this brings me to another issue with this policy. Whilst legislation can be a blanket law to address a rare event or a small instance, group etc., on this occasion, using algorithms to scan whole websites for this one specific issue may actually do more harm than good. We have to protect artists and illustrators who are having their content duplicated without no transformative element, but a dragnet algorithm is not the right way. Instead, much like some sites already have flagging and reporting systems, each platform should have a report button which allows creators to request to have the duplicate taken down.

As much as we should be concerned about what Article 13 means for memes, we should also question what alternative laws there needs to be to protect artists’ work.

UKIP: Why it’s the beginning of the end for the single issue party which thrived on personality politics | Liam O’Dell

After UKIP’s National Executive Committee’s vote of no confidence in his leadership today, leader Henry Bolton was right: “the party is probably over”, and here’s why.

Photo: Derek Bennet/Flickr.

It was a bitter stalemate for a party which rose to success of the back of personality politics before it was ‘cool’. With a couple of resignations recently during Bolton’s time as UKIP leader, who knows if any more could follow should the former police officer manage to hold on to his position. No matter what happens now (whether Bolton resigns or members vote him out), a replacement is on the horizon in what would be an election for the fifth UKIP leader in the space of 18 months. When one considers June 2017’s snap election in amongst all these contests, could so-called ‘voter fatigue’ take its toll and finally bring an end to the UK Independence Party?

When Nigel Farage announced his resignation as leader after the 2016 EU referendum, numerous media outlets and commentators said such a decision had created a ‘power vacuum’. Now, three leaders later and it seems as though such a vacuum at the heart of the party is yet to be filled – for one good reason.

Whilst the media circus hasn’t bothered to explore the specific details of the in-fighting in UKIP (or, arguably, such details haven’t come to light), it seems as though the party longs for Farage’s return. Putting the politician’s popularity within the party aside, it was Nigel Farage that created the image of UKIP. Throughout the referendum campaign, journalists mentioned how leaving the European Union was an issue for which Farage had campaigned for many years. There’s a reason why US President Donald Trump has described the politician as ‘Mr Brexit’ – it’s because, even before the referendum was called, Brexit has been seen as ‘his baby’.

Since Farage’s departure as leader, the Conservatives – tasked with delivering Brexit – has soaked up the slogans and obsession that UKIP left out in the open during the power vacuum. The Tory claims about Labour MPs going against ‘the will of the people’ during the EU Withdrawal Bill debate is a type of whinging and complaining one would expect from UKIP, if they had becoming the strong ‘pro-Brexit voice’ the party has said they want to be.

However, with no MPs in Parliament, it’s a bit hard to be that voice when there’s no representation in the House of Commons, and the Conservatives are the only right-wing party pushing for a successful Brexit and have the responsibility and power to do so. Why should members support a ‘pro-Brexit voice’ outside of Westminster and add a further degree of separation when they can call on the Prime Minister (or, even their local constituency MP if they’re a Tory) to take direct action?

Granted, the fact that the UK still hasn’t left the EU yet may warrant such a voice in the debate, but the fact that UKIP are still the United Kingdom Independence Party following such a vote is baffling. An attempt to refresh the party with a new logo – despite it leading to some issues with the Premier League – may indeed have been a welcome move in terms of pushing the party forward post-Brexit, but it still grounded them to a single political issue.

In order to survive, UKIP must find a bold and likeable personality to fill the Farage-shaped hole in their party, and branch out from one single issue. Yet, with reports that the ex-leader may set up his own pro-Brexit party, the former seems unlikely. As for the latter, UKIP would have to go to the drawing board to think of national policies – besides Brexit – for which to campaign on. At a time of problematic leadership and in-fighting, it seems unlikely that the party would be able to agree on much as members’ patience runs thin.

With another leadership contest looming, this is the beginning of the end for UKIP.

Trump’s Fake News Awards show a perception of the press warped by his own sensationalism | Liam O’Dell

Wednesday evening in the United States. US President Donald Trump unveils the publications that are the winners of the Fake News Awards – in an event met with levels of interest ‘far greater than anyone could have anticipated’. Well, given the fact that the GOP site which hosted the award winners crashed shortly after Trump announced it was live, he’s not wrong there. The ‘importance’ of the awards, however, is subjective, and is primarily according to him – subjectivity being the crucial word at the heart of Trump’s relationship with ‘fake news’.

US President Donald Trump criticised publications for spreading. Photo: Gage Skidmore (Licensed under Creative Commons – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode).

To begin with, Trump’s attitude towards the media is an intricate chain of perceptions and beliefs that stem from his own characteristics. With a strong aversion to criticism (as demonstrated by his pulling out of a UK visit last week) and an isolationist approach to foreign policy, the two combine to paint the press – in his eyes – as the enemy. In pursuit of the truth and the latest goings on in Washington D.C., journalists pierce the White House bubble in which Trump resides.

However, it’s not just the initial process of breaking the separation between the public and the President – through the media – which is of concern to Trump. As the awards show, it is also the coverage that follows which the businessman disagrees with, too.

Latching on to a phrase the majority of people didn’t know until the President’s usage of it, Donald was quick to label reports as ‘fake news’. By one of its many definitions – in this case, Collins English Dictionary – the term means: “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. Yet, with the word still being quite ‘young’ and ambiguous (to some) in terms of its word usage, the question of what makes an article ‘fake news’ is often subjective unless it has been clearly disproven or it is a satirical article-level of obvious.

It’s a type of subjectivity which means that we can choose for ourselves what stories we want to believe, and who to listen to. Coupled together with the fact that we live in a society where the media is so heavily distrusted as ‘the arbiters of truth’, the rise of subscription news, echo chambers and freedom of choice over narratives, influential figures like Trump pose a very big threat in terms of ‘fake news’ and journalism.

It’s especially concerning when one considers the lens which Trump uses when consuming news and communicating on sites like Twitter. Known for his role in The Apprentice, the President has predominantly earned his fame through the reality TV machine. As a result of being in an industry packed full of sensationalism, he now views negative press as sensationalist ‘fake news’, and decides that certain words in his tweets warrant ALL CAPS like your typical right-wing newspaper.

“Despite some very corrupt and dishonest media coverage, there are many great reporters I respect and lots of GOOD NEWS for the American people to be proud of,” President Trump stressed on Twitter. It’s a tweet which subtly suggests once again that Americans should only support news if it has the ‘Trump seal of approval’. Such a statement does not excuse the unnecessary targeting of the mainstream media.

In addition to the sensationalist lens in which he views the media, it is clear that upon adopting the term ‘fake news’ to use for his own benefit, it was not a case of him knowing the original definition and deciding to twist it. As other outlets (like The Telegraph and The Guardian) have reported, most of the reports cited in Trump’s awards were corrected or led to much harsher consequences for the reporters in question post-publication.

In this regard, the President has confused fake news (that is, content deliberately designed to mislead) with the basic journalistic principle of announcing when one has made a mistake. Even if he fails to admit that, surely the fact that reporters are actively correcting themselves – and telling the public when their articles are erroneous – nullifies the claim that they’re being misleading and producing ‘fake news’? Crying out ‘fake news’ and saying that something’s misleading when the individuals themselves point out the ‘deceptive’ part of the story is like saying you’ve been tricked by a magician after they’ve revealed the secret.

We have always been surrounded by metanarratives or ‘belief structures’ such as religion and science, but we must now all accept that we have new versions of metanarrative which we can choose to follow – that being truth. Now, more than ever, we must consider whose ‘truth’ we believe.

UN’s ‘human catastrophe’ verdict is the latest dent to the Tories’ disability rights record | The Friday Article

How a Conservative government can even begin to dispute the damning report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) this week beats me. After numerous disability organisations complained to the UN about the Tories’ treatment of disabled people, the Chair of the UNCRPD, Theresia Degener described it as a ‘human catastrophe’.

Photo: Pixabay.

“The austerity measures that they have taken – they are affecting half a million people, each disabled person is losing between £2,000 and £3,000 pounds per year, people are pushed into work situations without being recognised as vulnerable, and the evidence that we had in front of us was just overwhelming,” said Degener, as quoted in an article by the Mirror.

Yet, when one looks at the government’s response to the comments, a spokeswoman said it ‘fails to recognise all the progress we’ve made to empower disabled people in all aspects of their lives’, before going on to mention statistics such as them spending ‘over £50 billion a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions’, that they’re a ‘recognised world leader in disability rights and equality’, and that ‘almost 600,000 disabled people have moved into work in the UK over the last four years’.

It is a response which can be picked apart in a rather hilarious fashion, even when the data appears positive. With regards to the 600,000 disabled people in work since 2013, they fail to mention the recent news that the disability employment gap has remained stagnant at over 30% since 1998, despite launching a commitment to halve the gap in ten years.

As for being a ‘recognised world leader in disability rights and equality’, one does not need to showcase the biggest disability news stories of the past decade to show that this is completely laughable. A UN inquiry last November had some harsh words for the Conservatives, a disabled student took the government to court in 2015 due to it failing to consult with disabled people over changes to Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), and without a doubt one of the most appalling statistics which seems to suggest otherwise is that 2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 because they were declared ‘fit for work’ after claiming for Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

The Tories ignoring yet another damning report on their disability rights record would not only show a disregard for any public scrutiny, but it would only prove the lack of consideration for one of the most marginalised groups in our society.

It’s why, as always, we must support charities in holding the government to account and demanding change. Granted, saying that we need to continue campaigning is a typical call-to-action when it comes to these sort of social issues, but applying pressure on MPs around disability issues has worked wonders before. Aside from the DSA example mentioned above, the British Deaf Association (BDA) has pushed tirelessly for British Sign Language to be given legal status, and after the UN’s latest verdict, it seems as though that is getting closer to becoming a reality.

“We were impressed with the openness of the committee to listen to our evidence and apply their significant legal experience,” said Dr Terry Riley OBE, Chairman of the BDA. “Therefore we are glad to see that the committee has expressly recommended that the UK government finally legislate to protect language rights of deaf people, and that so many of the committee’s remarks related to this. Deaf people have been passed over too long; there can now be no doubt that the government has been taken to task. Without language rights, we have no human rights.”

There are 13.3 million people in the UK. Whether or not the Government will choose to listen to such a large group of people is another matter for debate (this article suggests that for many years, they haven’t), but now more than ever we must support the charities that are giving a voice to a community which is being unfairly targeted – especially when they claim they are being ‘gagged’ by the Lobbying Act 2014.

The incredible young voter turnout in the recent snap election has shown the Conservative government what can happen when they continue to target a specific group of people in our society. Now, they’ve tried desperately to win back students from Corbynism with a right-wing ‘ideas festival’ and most recently, a grassroots movement called Activate which some people have called ‘the Tory Momentum’.

It’s time for disabled people to do the same, and shock the Conservative Party into making long overdue changes to improve our lives for the better.