A Reasonable ask for Social Media Sites

No more bots.

They must be shut down completely.

The value aspect of highly personal social sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc is that a substantial part of their content is real. Real people you once knew, might meet, or may do business with. Well, that is what they used to be, what their intended value was.

And to the engineers, product managers and idea folks at those companies I ask this: do you have any idea how harmful bots are to that ecosystem?

Once any information system has been compromised by a bad actor, in this case a person who appears to be real but is being used to impersonate someone real or create a fake identity, that information system is fully compromised.

I once was manager of the Ortega taco shells website. We got hit by an automated sql injection attack that replaced all the hundreds of pictures of taco shells, etc on the site with picture of dead Armenian children. 5am one Tuesday morning.

The code to do this was less than 80 characters long. Once the database was compromised it was easy to comb every table in one second and replace all the images with a new link. Luckily I had a backup of the database, the shells were saved and the security holes plugged.

This is how memes can work in an overloaded human brain. And if those memes involve kids running into things it’s cool and funny, but if it’s propaganda and things that trigger overtaxed stress system, it’s Immoral.

As Mark Twain once said, a lie can make it twice around the world before the truth can put on their pants. Or maybe it was Roy Rodgers? Either way, the image of the truth struggling with its trousers has always struck me as amazing.

Propaganda is spread by false actors. And that is the key to knowing propaganda, the true message is always buried in falsehood.

Here is why I like LinkedIn. Because its purpose is clear as an extended business network. If some of you are bots, and post ads described as news via automated networks, it’s part of the schtick here. It’s actually the entire schtick of capitalism, so…I would judge everything critically, as we do professionally. Deal. Yes, get rid of bots, but business social networks are the least susceptible to manipulation by bad actors because they are already manipulation marketplaces. I mean that in a good way.

But if a friend of a friend hears false news, you will not be able to trace the source, which might be nefarious. You will simply value the information more because it comes via the friend. The belief we have that our small tribe is better than other tribes can be instantly turned against us.

Which brings me to my message to Facebook. I am completely sure your amazing data scientists can identify fake accounts with fancy ML. You have purged the most obvious candidates, and now I am guessing that you have another x million or so fake accounts in there, but you can’t purge them because you know there are some real people who just don’t use the product a lot or use it in a weird way.

Here is my advice. Purge all accounts who even have a hint of being false. Any entity that even appears to be a bot, knock them out. The real folks you accidentally kicked will come back, even more once they know your network can be trusted.

Before that, make sure you lock down your identity creation and validation process. Require people to have live video with others in their group to others to confirm their Identity for critical purposes. I am sure the problem of identity confirmation can be solved, even without a blockchain.

Facebook is in range of becoming our global identity system. All for the price of a few ads, a few slices of our attention worth trillions to them. It could turn the narrative and be a force for good. But if it’s not about using your real-world network to identify you as a real person, well…they are missing the forest fire for the trees.

Imagine if the original website that Zuckerberg built in college was hacked with a script that inserted a bunch of random people. It would have lost all its value.

I know there are folks in Facebook who are turning the company in this direction. Stories come out daily about another batch of accounts they have rooted out. I hope they are not just for PR reasons.

Twitter, your problem is far far larger than Facebook’s. In fact, I am going to go ahead and say I am not sure you should exist as a social or information network at all. You are a microblog and link agregation machine, and your confusion that you are social and news also has led directly to our current disorder in the government, which will pass. But treating Twitter as a place to conduct policy and public debate should pass also.

Twitter having false actors is like a concert having a fake audience. And I don’t see how they fix this. And clearly they don’t want to. So I say let’s let Twitter exist, of course, but treat it like AM radio. Used to be a thing, but sort of crappy signal.

Painting by Simon Stålenhag

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