Have we all become slaves to algorithms?

Here I am, a human, recommending Kyle Chayka’s book about the negative impact of algorithms on our culture. Hopefully that will calm him down a bit, because he worries a lot, possibly far too much, at least as it seems to someone who is less online. Chayka is a staff writer at the New Yorker and he is concerned about the effect of the Filterworld, his word for the ‘network of algorithms that influence our lives today, which has had a particularly dramatic impact on culture and the ways it is distributed and consumed’. He is referring to the songs Spotify cues up, the films Netflix suggests, the stories Facebook

Zuckerberg’s curious confession

Well, there you have it. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, has confirmed that Facebook did indeed censor news of the New York Post’s 2020 Hunter Biden laptop story. But The Zuck had a rather curious tale to tell. Appearing on The Joe Rogan Experience, Zuckerberg was questioned by Rogan on Facebook’s approach to fake news and misinformation. In the discussion, the question of Hunter Biden’s laptop arose. Zuckerberg was keen to point out that he had been as much of a good boy as he could have been Zuckerberg told Rogan that Facebook had been approached, shortly before the 2020 US presidential election, by shadowy figures from the FBI, who bore foreboding news that a malodorous misinformation ‘dump’ was about to drop. Lo and behold – a scandalous story hit the headlines. Or rather it didn’t. The New York Post reported that a laptop belonging to Hunter, son of the now President, held evidence of dodgy dealings within

I’ve been bitten by the TikTok bug

In theory TikTok knows nothing about me. I have posted two videos: one of my grandsons kicking a football in a garden, the other of their much younger selves running through the dry desert house at Paignton zoo. They are the most unremarkable clips imaginable. The last time I looked, the football being kicked in the garden had been watched 3,700 times and ‘liked’ by 650 people. Astonishing. Apart from those two videos, I haven’t posted. My grandsons love TikTok. They are on it every day. They post videos of football cards they have collected and the ones they want to swap. Except when my grandsons post one, I never

Boris is about to give Silicon Valley censors more power than ever

Four years in the making, the Online Safety Bill has now been sent to senior ministers for review — a process that allows them to protest, to shout if anything obvious that has been missed. In this case, the process is invaluable because something huge has been missed. The Bill, if passed, would empower the Silicon Valley firms it’s designed to suborn. It would formalise and usher in a new era of censorship of UK news — run from San Francisco. This Bill would backfire in a way that its Tory advocates have so far proven unable to understand let alone address. That’s why it needs to be halted, and a rethink

Facebook has called the Australian media’s bluff

In 2021, it’s not uncommon to hope that everyone involved in an argument can lose, or to suspect that pretty much everyone is in the wrong. So it is with the long-running saga involving Australia’s mainstream media outlets, its government, and the tech giants, which has led this week to Facebook banning users from sharing posts from Australian media on its platform. The ban has been badly implemented: it has led to performative outrage at the apparent censorship from the outlets themselves, and has clumsily also included official government agencies and some of Facebook’s own pages. But, leaving aside the errors in the rollout, the wails from Australia’s media should

Why windfall taxes are a rotten idea

Annual profits of £9.5 billion at BP this week followed a £20 billion jackpot at Shell last week, thanks to soaring global wholesale energy prices that BP boss Bernard Looney recently said had turned his company into a ‘cash machine’. For the very same reason, Ofgem has announced a 54 per cent (roughly £700) increase in the energy price cap for 22 million UK customers, while the Chancellor is scrabbling to keep at least some of those households out of ‘fuel poverty’ by offsetting half the rise with a £200 energy discount, to be recouped over five years, plus a £150 council tax rebate. As investors in the oil giants

The good and bad news about the Online Safety Bill

If you care about free speech, the just-published report of the Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill – a cross-party parliamentary committee composed of six MPs and six peers – is a mixed bag. This is the Bill which began life as a White Paper under Theresa May. Its aim? To make the UK the safest place in the world to go online. It will achieve this by subjecting social media platforms and internet search engines to state regulation, empowering Ofcom to impose swingeing fines on companies that fail to observe a new ‘duty of care’. Let’s start with the good news. The Joint Committee recommends that the current

Don’t let China’s climate sins cloak its crushing of Hong Kong

China’s failure to bring anything new to COP26 surprised no one. The world’s worst carbon emitter offered no advance on President Xi Jinping’s earlier promise to reduce coal use after 2025 and bring overall emissions to a peak in 2030 — thereby negating for at least a decade much of the rest of the world’s efforts to clean up the planet. But spotlighting China as a climate sinner should not be allowed to cloak its other villainhood, as an abuser of human rights: so let’s not forget Hong Kong. The fate of the once-British enclave and its future as an international business centre have been much on my mind lately.

Are we ready for the metaverse?

Facebook has rebranded itself as Meta and last month chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced the creation of 10,000 jobs to help build the ‘metaverse’ — a concept so radical nobody yet knows what it really is. People in the media tend to describe it as ‘a 3D version of the internet’. Facebook describes it rather vaguely as a network of ‘virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you’. Some suspect it might actually be hell. The term metaverse first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, in which future humans distract themselves from economic collapse by submerging

The tragic embarrassment of Sir Nick Clegg

If you thought Nick Clegg’s career reached its nadir with the ‘I’m sorry’ video then think again. The former Deputy Prime Minister is re-enacting the stunning success of his political career out in Silicon Valley where he’s paid £2.7 million a year to sell his soul to Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest of the Facebook – today rebranding as Meta – cabal. Whereas Sir Nick is all too familiar for us here in Britain, Americans were not au fait with the former Lib Dem leader when he was appointed as vice president of the social media behemoth back in 2018. But all that has changed in the last month, with Clegg

Frances Haugen: a very convenient whistleblower

Facebook wants to move its business model towards the metaverse, that virtual future in which we will all hang out online through headsets and pretend it isn’t weird. The trouble is, we already appear to live in an alternate reality created by communications specialists with highly political agendas. Just look at the clearly PR-orchestrated Online Safety vs Facebook story which the media is playing out before our non-digital eyes. This week’s protagonist is Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who appeared yesterday in parliament to give evidence to MPs scrutinising the Online Harms Bill. That is the bill through which the government says it intends to regulate social media companies to

A new name isn’t enough to save Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg emerged from his walk-in T-shirt closet last week to make a stunning announcement: Facebook will be changing its name. And while we don’t yet know what the new name will be, I think I may be able to help here. How about this: Boomerware? Or in keeping with Silicon Valley’s penchant for trendy misspellings: LyfeSuck? Or instead of a name, there’s just the sound of Rome burning? The reason that ‘Facebook’ is getting retired, per Zuck, is that he wants to ‘transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.’ What that means is that he’s trying to distance himself

Nick Clegg’s Facebook nightmare

There have been many ironic fates for the lead actors in the Coalition government. For David Cameron, the premier who pledged to ‘clean up’ the ‘culture of excessive lobbying’ there was the Greensill scandal. For George Osborne, the austerity Chancellor who decimated the culture sector, there was a smorgasbord of jobs and the chairmanship of the British Museum.  Chris Huhne was jailed, Oliver Letwin lost the whip while Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, now works at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – an institution used to front China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative.’ But none of these have been as both paradoxically high-profile and humiliating as Sir Nick Clegg’s strange parliamentary

Facebook’s empire is beginning to crumble

When empires crumble they slide slowly at first, then the temple walls come crashing down. Facebook is not quite at the latter stage yet, but you can hear the creaking in the pillars and lintels. This week, the social media giant suffered two blows: an outage which took down its platform, along with Instagram and WhatsApp, and an expose by a disillusioned ex-employee who accuses the company of saying one thing about social responsibility in public – while behaving quite differently in private. Many of us might not notice if Facebook suddenly wasn’t there. But it is a different story for the many businesses which have built their model on

WhatsApp collapse throws Tory plots into chaos

The world’s oldest democratic party has had a few problems with technology in recent years. Famously it was the 2018 Tory conference which saw a security breach where the official party app allowed anyone to access the private phone numbers of members of the Cabinet – or in the case of Boris Johnson change his profile picture to that of a pig. Once again, tech issues are plaguing Tory conference, with three of the world’s most popular apps – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – all being offline since 4:30 p.m. today. The last of these is the favoured platform for disloyal backbenchers and scheming hacks to conspire mischievously to make life harder for long-suffering Tory

The rise of Taliban Twitter

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was swift, but this victory wasn’t won overnight. For years, the Taliban has been waging a softer fight: one on social media. Since it was removed from power, the Taliban has dedicated enormous resources to developing its presence online.  As it successfully recaptured Afghanistan, the propaganda opportunities which it put to use on Twitter as the eyes of the world watched suggested these efforts have paid off. Images and videos of Taliban forces easily gaining ground and advancing into Afghanistan’s cities – picking up military hardware left by the Americans along the way – spread like wildfire online. Islamists around the world were delighted.  In the years since it

Beware Boris’s sinister crackdown on free speech

A Conservative government that boasts it is a defender of free speech against the attacks of ‘the woke’ is about to impose the severest censorship this country has seen in peacetime since parliament abolished press controls in the 1690s. In an extraordinary power grab – which is all the more extraordinary for the absence of opposition – ministers want to silence views that carry no criminal penalty. This is more than a much-needed crackdown on racial attacks on black footballers or incitements to violent crime or any other crime; it is an unmerited attack on free speech. The government’s draft Online Safety bill imposes a ‘duty of care’ on internet companies to remove content that

Television, not social media, is fracturing our society

All it took for the Twitter mob to descend on me was a retweet from Michael Gove. Message after message called for a resignation. Often it wasn’t entirely clear who the target was: me, the leader of a medium-sized youth charity, or him, the second best known member of the Cabinet. What on earth was in this few short sentences that had unlocked the world’s bile and aggression? Gove had committed the cardinal sin of recommending a book I have written. Ironically enough, it is a book on why our societies have become so divided and how we fix them. It is blindingly obvious to most of us why our societies have become

What happens when Facebook pays for news?

The recently departed head of MI6, Sir Alex Younger, wants to balance China’s ideological antagonism to the West with the need for coexistence. Commenting on the government’s new ‘integrated review’, he says we must fight back with technological innovation and stronger alliances but avoid a second Cold War. He advocates ‘One Planet: Two Systems’ — a globalised echo of the Anglo-Chinese Hong Kong Agreement by which Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 under the principle of ‘One Country: Two Systems’. Sir Alex’s is an interesting analogy, but the important thing to note about ‘One Country: Two Systems’ is that China adhered to it only for 20 years

The problem with Facebook’s ‘Supreme Court’

He might now be one of the most powerful men in global media, but I find whenever I see a photograph of Nick Clegg, Orwell’s quote about everyone getting the face they deserve by 50 comes to mind. Now 54, the remnants of the boyish idealist are still just about there, but the eyes to me are ledgers of too much unhappy compromise – deadened, I always assume, by the principles he felt forced by David Cameron to sacrifice for personal advancement, and by the amazing decision to see out the remaining years of a career spent failing upwards as Mark Zuckerberg’s lavishly remunerated PR lickspittle. For a decade and