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Why the Chinese Internet Is Cheering Russia’s Invasion

The countries’ friendship has “no limits,” they declared.

Given that the leaders met just weeks before the invasion, it would be understandable to conclude that China should have had better knowledge of the Kremlin’s plans. But growing evidence suggests that the echo chamber of China’s foreign policy establishment might have misled not only the country’s internet users, but its own officials.

My colleague Edward Wong reported that over a period of three months, senior U.S. officials held meetings with their Chinese counterparts and shared intelligence that detailed Russia’s troop buildup around Ukraine. The Americans asked the Chinese officials to intervene with the Russians and tell them not to invade.

The Chinese brushed the Americans off, saying that they did not think an invasion was in the works. U.S. intelligence showed that on one occasion, Beijing shared the Americans’ information with Moscow.

Recent speeches by some of China’s most influential advisers to the government on international relations suggest that the miscalculation may have been based on deep distrust of the United States. They saw it as a declining power that wanted to push for war with false intelligence because it would benefit the United States, financially and strategically.

Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, told the state broadcaster China Central Television, or CCTV, on Feb. 20 that the U.S. government had been talking about imminent war because an unstable Europe would help Washington, as well the country’s financial and energy industries. After the war started, he admitted to his 2.4 million Weibo followers that he was surprised.

Just before the invasion, Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, ridiculed the Biden administration’s predictions of war in a 52-minute video program. “Why did ‘Sleepy Joe’ use such poor-quality intelligence on Ukraine and Russia?” he asked, using Donald Trump’s favorite nickname for President Biden.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Shen had held a conference call about the Ukraine crisis with a brokerage’s clients, titled, “A war that would not be fought.”

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Facebook Debates What to Do With Its Like and Share Buttons

SAN FRANCISCO — In 2019, Facebook researchers began a new study of one of the social network’s foundational features: the Like button.

They examined what people would do if Facebook removed the distinct thumbs-up icon and other emoji reactions from posts on its photo-sharing app Instagram, according to company documents. The buttons had sometimes caused Instagram’s youngest users “stress and anxiety,” the researchers found, especially if posts didn’t get enough Likes from friends.

But the researchers discovered that when the Like button was hidden, users interacted less with posts and ads. At the same time, it did not alleviate teenagers’ social anxiety and young users did not share more photos, as the company thought they might, leading to a mixed bag of results.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and other managers discussed hiding the Like button for more Instagram users, according to the documents. In the end, a larger test was rolled out in just a limited capacity to “build a positive press narrative” around Instagram.

misinformation, privacy and hate speech, a central issue has been whether the basic way that the platform works has been at fault — essentially, the features that have made Facebook be Facebook.

Apart from the Like button, Facebook has scrutinized its share button, which lets users instantly spread content posted by other people; its groups feature, which is used to form digital communities; and other tools that define how more than 3.5 billion people behave and interact online. The research, laid out in thousands of pages of internal documents, underlines how the company has repeatedly grappled with what it has created.

What researchers found was often far from positive. Time and again, they determined that people misused key features or that those features amplified toxic content, among other effects. In an August 2019 internal memo, several researchers said it was Facebook’s “core product mechanics” — meaning the basics of how the product functioned — that had let misinformation and hate speech flourish on the site.

“The mechanics of our platform are not neutral,” they concluded.

hide posts they do not want to see and turning off political group recommendations to reduce the spread of misinformation.

But the core way that Facebook operates — a network where information can spread rapidly and where people can accumulate friends and followers and Likes — ultimately remains largely unchanged.

Many significant modifications to the social network were blocked in the service of growth and keeping users engaged, some current and former executives said. Facebook is valued at more than $900 billion.

“There’s a gap between the fact that you can have pretty open conversations inside of Facebook as an employee,” said Brian Boland, a Facebook vice president who left last year. “Actually getting change done can be much harder.”

The company documents are part of the Facebook Papers, a cache provided to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to Congress by a lawyer representing Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who has become a whistle-blower. Ms. Haugen earlier gave the documents to The Wall Street Journal. This month, a congressional staff member supplied the redacted disclosures to more than a dozen other news organizations, including The New York Times.

In a statement, Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, criticized articles based on the documents, saying that they were built on a “false premise.”

“Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or well-being misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie,” he said. He said Facebook had invested $13 billion and hired more than 40,000 people to keep people safe, adding that the company has called “for updated regulations where democratic governments set industry standards to which we can all adhere.”

post this month, Mr. Zuckerberg said it was “deeply illogical” that the company would give priority to harmful content because Facebook’s advertisers don’t want to buy ads on a platform that spreads hate and misinformation.

“At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted,” he wrote.

When Mr. Zuckerberg founded Facebook 17 years ago in his Harvard University dorm room, the site’s mission was to connect people on college campuses and bring them into digital groups with common interests and locations.

Growth exploded in 2006 when Facebook introduced the News Feed, a central stream of photos, videos and status updates posted by people’s friends. Over time, the company added more features to keep people interested in spending time on the platform.

In 2009, Facebook introduced the Like button. The tiny thumbs-up symbol, a simple indicator of people’s preferences, became one of the social network’s most important features. The company allowed other websites to adopt the Like button so users could share their interests back to their Facebook profiles.

That gave Facebook insight into people’s activities and sentiments outside of its own site, so it could better target them with advertising. Likes also signified what users wanted to see more of in their News Feeds so people would spend more time on Facebook.

Facebook also added the groups feature, where people join private communication channels to talk about specific interests, and pages, which allowed businesses and celebrities to amass large fan bases and broadcast messages to those followers.

Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, has said that research on users’ well-being led to investments in anti-bullying measures on Instagram.

Yet Facebook cannot simply tweak itself so that it becomes a healthier social network when so many problems trace back to core features, said Jane Lytvynenko, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy Shorenstein Center, who studies social networks and misinformation.

“When we talk about the Like button, the share button, the News Feed and their power, we’re essentially talking about the infrastructure that the network is built on top of,” she said. “The crux of the problem here is the infrastructure itself.”

As Facebook’s researchers dug into how its products worked, the worrisome results piled up.

In a July 2019 study of groups, researchers traced how members in those communities could be targeted with misinformation. The starting point, the researchers said, were people known as “invite whales,” who sent invitations out to others to join a private group.

These people were effective at getting thousands to join new groups so that the communities ballooned almost overnight, the study said. Then the invite whales could spam the groups with posts promoting ethnic violence or other harmful content, according to the study.

Another 2019 report looked at how some people accrued large followings on their Facebook pages, often using posts about cute animals and other innocuous topics. But once a page had grown to tens of thousands of followers, the founders sold it. The buyers then used the pages to show followers misinformation or politically divisive content, according to the study.

As researchers studied the Like button, executives considered hiding the feature on Facebook as well, according to the documents. In September 2019, it removed Likes from users’ Facebook posts in a small experiment in Australia.

The company wanted to see if the change would reduce pressure and social comparison among users. That, in turn, might encourage people to post more frequently to the network.

But people did not share more posts after the Like button was removed. Facebook chose not to roll the test out more broadly, noting, “Like counts are extremely low on the long list of problems we need to solve.”

Last year, company researchers also evaluated the share button. In a September 2020 study, a researcher wrote that the button and so-called reshare aggregation units in the News Feed, which are automatically generated clusters of posts that have already been shared by people’s friends, were “designed to attract attention and encourage engagement.”

But gone unchecked, the features could “serve to amplify bad content and sources,” such as bullying and borderline nudity posts, the researcher said.

That’s because the features made people less hesitant to share posts, videos and messages with one another. In fact, users were three times more likely to share any kind of content from the reshare aggregation units, the researcher said.

One post that spread widely this way was an undated message from an account called “The Angry Patriot.” The post notified users that people protesting police brutality were “targeting a police station” in Portland, Ore. After it was shared through reshare aggregation units, hundreds of hate-filled comments flooded in. It was an example of “hate bait,” the researcher said.

A common thread in the documents was how Facebook employees argued for changes in how the social network worked and often blamed executives for standing in the way.

In an August 2020 internal post, a Facebook researcher criticized the recommendation system that suggests pages and groups for people to follow and said it can “very quickly lead users down the path to conspiracy theories and groups.”

“Out of fears over potential public and policy stakeholder responses, we are knowingly exposing users to risks of integrity harms,” the researcher wrote. “During the time that we’ve hesitated, I’ve seen folks from my hometown go further and further down the rabbit hole” of conspiracy theory movements like QAnon and anti-vaccination and Covid-19 conspiracies.

The researcher added, “It has been painful to observe.”

Reporting was contributed by Davey Alba, Sheera Frenkel, Cecilia Kang and Ryan Mac.

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Lithuania vs. China: A Baltic Minnow Defies a Rising Superpower

VILNIUS, Lithuania — It was never a secret that China tightly controls what its people can read and write on their cellphones. But it came as a shock to officials in Lithuania when they discovered that a popular Chinese-made handset sold in the Baltic nation had a hidden though dormant feature: a censorship registry of 449 terms banned by the Chinese Communist Party.

Lithuania’s government swiftly advised officials using the phones to dump them, enraging China — and not for the first time. Lithuania has also embraced Taiwan, a vibrant democracy that Beijing regards as a renegade province, and pulled out of a Chinese-led regional forum that it scorned as divisive for the European Union.

Furious, Beijing has recalled its ambassador, halted trips by a Chinese cargo train into the country and made it nearly impossible for many Lithuanian exporters to sell their goods in China. Chinese state media has assailed Lithuania, mocked its diminutive size and accused it of being the “anti-China vanguard” in Europe.

In the battlefield of geopolitics, Lithuania versus China is hardly a fair fight — a tiny Baltic nation with fewer than 3 million people against a rising superpower with 1.4 billion. Lithuania’s military has no tanks or fighter jets, and its economy is 270 times smaller than China’s.

met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who pledged “ironclad U.S. support for Lithuania in the face of attempted coercion from the People’s Republic of China.”

European Council on Foreign Relations indicate that most Europeans don’t want a new Cold War between the United States and China. But they also show growing wariness of China.

“There is a general shift in mood,” said Frank Juris, a researcher at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute who tracks Chinese activities in Europe. “Promises have not materialized and countries are tired of being constantly threatened with the whip.”

That whip is now being brought down hard on Lithuania, a member of the European Union and also NATO.

Particularly galling for Beijing was Lithuania’s announcement in July that it had accepted a request by Taiwan to open a “Taiwanese representative office” in Vilnius.

by Lithuania’s Defense Ministry Cyber Security Center was yet another provocation. The hidden registry found by the center allows for the detection and censorship of phrases like “student movement,” “Taiwan independence,” and “dictatorship.”

The blacklist, which updates automatically to reflect the Communist Party’s evolving concerns, lies dormant in phones exported to Europe but, according to the cyber center, the disabled censorship tool can be activated with the flick of a switch in China.

The registry “is shocking and very concerning,” said Margiris Abukevicius, a deputy defense minister responsible for cybersecurity.

The maker of the Chinese phones in question, Xiaomi, says its devices “do not censor communications.”

In addition to telling government offices to dump the phones, Mr. Abukevicius said in an interview that ordinary users should decide “their own appetite for risk.”

The Global Times, a nationalist news outlet controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, derided the Lithuanian report as a “new trick” by a small “pawn” in Washington’s anti-China agenda.

China has steadily ramped up pressure on Lithuania, last month recalling its ambassador from Vilnius and urging Lithuania’s envoy in Beijing to go home, which she did. It halted a regular cargo train to Lithuania, though it still lets other trains transit through the Baltic country filled with Chinese goods destined for Germany.

While not announcing any formal sanctions, China has added red tape to block Lithuanian exporters from selling goods in China.

Lithuania’s economy minister, Ausrine Armonaite, downplayed the damage, noting Lithuania’s exports to China accounted for only 1 percent of total exports. Losing that, she said, “is not too harmful.”

A bigger blow, according to business leaders, has been the disruption in the supply of Chinese-made glass, electronic components and other items needed by Lithuanian manufacturers. Around a dozen companies that rely on goods from China last week received nearly identical letters from Chinese suppliers claiming that power cuts had made it difficult fulfill orders.

“They are very creative,” said Vidmantas Janulevicius, the president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, noting that the delays were “targeted very precisely.”

Lithuania has made “a clear geopolitical decision” to side decisively with the United States, a longtime ally, and other democracies, said Laurynas Kasciunas, the chairman of the national security and defense committee. “Everyone here agrees on this. We are all very anti-communist Chinese. It is in our DNA.”

Tomas Dapkus in Vilnius, Monika Pronczuk in Brussels, and Claire Fu contributed reporting

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In Submarine Deal With Australia, U.S. Counters China but Enrages France

PARIS — President Biden’s announcement of a deal to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines has strained the Western alliance, infuriating France and foreshadowing how the conflicting American and European responses to confrontation with China may redraw the global strategic map.

In announcing the deal on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said it was meant to reinforce alliances and update them as strategic priorities shift. But in drawing a Pacific ally closer to meet the China challenge, he appears to have alienated an important European one and aggravated already tense relations with Beijing.

France on Thursday reacted with outrage to the announcements that the United States and Britain would help Australia develop submarines, and that Australia was withdrawing from a $66 billion deal to buy French-built submarines. At its heart, the diplomatic storm is also a business matter — a loss of revenue for France’s military industry, and a gain for American companies.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, told Franceinfo radio that the submarine deal was a “unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision” by the United States, and he compared the American move to the rash and sudden policy shifts common during the Trump administration.

“America-is-back” foreign-policy message, had promised to revive the country’s alliances, which were particularly undermined by Mr. Trump’s dismissiveness of NATO and the European Union. Hopes ran high from Madrid to Berlin. But a brief honeymoon quickly gave way to renewed tensions.

The French were disappointed that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken did not make Paris, where he lived for many years, one of his first destinations in Europe. And they were angered when Mr. Biden made his decision on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan with scant if any consultation of European allies who had contributed to the war effort.

“Not even a phone call,” Ms. Bacharan said of the Afghan decision.

In his comments on Wednesday, Mr. Biden called France a key ally with an important presence in the Indo-Pacific. But the president’s decision, at least in French eyes, appeared to make a mockery of that observation.

The French statement on Thursday said that France was “the only European nation present in the Indo-Pacific region, with nearly two million citizens and more than 7,000 military personnel” in overseas territories like French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

Next week, Mr. Biden will meet at the White House with leaders of “the Quad” — an informal partnership of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — in what amounts to a statement of shared resolve in relations with Beijing. He will also meet with Mr. Johnson, apparently before the Quad gathering.

Given the Australian deal, these meetings will again suggest to France that in the China-focused 21st century, old allies in continental Europe matter less.

For Britain, joining the security alliance was further evidence of Mr. Johnson’s determination to align his country closely with the United States in the post-Brexit era. Mr. Johnson has sought to portray himself as loyal partner to Mr. Biden on issues like China and climate change.

London’s relations with Washington were ruffled by the Biden administration’s lack of consultation on Afghanistan. But the partnership on the nuclear submarine deal suggests that in sensitive areas of security, intelligence sharing and military technology, Britain remains a preferred partner over France.

Reporting was contributed by Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt in Washington; Aurelien Breeden in Paris; Mark Landler in London; and Elian Peltier in Brussels.

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Inside Politico’s Billion-Dollar Drama

Old resentments among Mr. VandeHei, Mr. Harris and Mr. Allbritton then boiled over. Mr. VandeHei, Mr. Allen and the company’s chief revenue officer, Roy Schwartz, quit Politico and started the newsletter outfit Axios, an immediate success that became a serious competitor. The move brought an end to what had seemed to outsiders like a close friendship between Mr. Allbritton and Mr. VandeHei, though Mr. Allbritton said he didn’t take it personally.

“A lot of other people had much bigger emotional reactions than I did,” he said brightly.

He also said that he did not consider Axios a competitor, given that its coverage was “broader” than Politico’s. He pointed to recent Axios articles on Apple News and the hurricane approaching New Orleans.

“We would never do a piece on meteorology,” Mr. Allbritton said.

But Mr. VandeHei’s exit did not sit well with his former longtime editorial partner, Mr. Harris, and the site’s new editor, Carrie Budoff Brown. “Politico implodes,” gloated The Post. And as Axios took on the sheen of hot new thing, the rivalry between the two publications turned bitter. (At this point, assigning blame for the breach is a little like trying to glibly arbitrate the Israel-Palestine conflict.)

Mr. Harris spent the next year persuading Politico’s reporters and editors not to abandon ship, while Ms. Budoff Brown restructured the newsroom and worked to improve a workplace culture some employees described as grinding and sometimes sexist.

In May, Mr. Allbritton said he caught wind that Mr. VandeHei was in talks to sell Axios to Axel Springer. Did he start negotiating with the Germans to spoil Mr. VandeHei’s deal? I supposed that might have been part of the attraction. And in Politico’s news release announcing the planned sale, a quote from Mr. Allbritton suggested as much: “Particularly in recent years,” he said, “we have put the emphasis on doing rather than boasting.” A spokesman denied that the line was aimed at his former colleagues, and Mr. Allbritton said he was simply, after years of flirtation with Axel Springer, ready to acknowledge that his family business didn’t have the “horsepower” necessary to keep growing.

“We’re better off with this publication going to a big global company,” he said.

On the day of the announcement, The New York Times reported that Axel Springer might still pursue a deal for Axios — perhaps Mr. VandeHei would be chief executive after the two publications merged? (I’d always assumed he would run for office in his native Wisconsin one of these days.) Politico’s executives in Washington pressed the German company to add a firm denial to the story, which they did.

Asked why he had chosen Politico over Axios, Mr. Döpfner told me in a telephone interview, “It’s an easy decision that you go for the No. 1.” Mr. VandeHei called the sale “great news” for companies that produce quality journalism in a text to me.

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