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Cambridge University hits back at Zuckerberg’s shade

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to the House yesterday was a mostly bland performance, punctuated by frequent claims not to know or remember certain fundamental aspects of his own business. But he gave a curiously specific and aggressive response to a question from congressman Eliot Engel.

Starting from the premise that Facebook had been “deceived” by other players in the data misuse scandal it’s embroiled in, the congressman wondered whether Facebook intends to sue Cambridge Analytica, professor Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge University — perhaps for unauthorized access to computer networks or breach of contract?

“It’s something that we’re looking into,” replied Zuckerberg. “We already took action by banning [Kogan] from the platform and we’re going to be doing a full audit to make sure he gets rid of all the data that he has as well.”

But the Facebook founder also seized on the opportunity to indulge in a little suggestive shade throwing which looked very much like an attempt to blame-shift responsibility for the massive data scandal embroiling his company onto, of all things, one of the UK’s most prestigious universities. (Which, full disclosure, is my own alma mater.)

“To your point about Cambridge University what we’ve found now is that there’s a whole program associated with Cambridge University where a number of researchers — not just Aleksandr Kogan, although to our current knowledge he’s the only one who sold the data to Cambridge Analytica — there are a number of the researchers who are building similar apps,” said Zuckerberg.

“So we do need to understand whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us.”

What’s curious about this response is that Zuckerberg elides to mention how Facebook’s own staff have worked with the program he’s suggesting his company “found now” — as if it had only discovered the existence of the Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre, whose researchers have in fact been working with Facebook data since at least 2007, since the Cambridge Analytica story snowballed into a major public scandal last month.

A Facebook data-related project that the center is involved with, called the myPersonality Project — which started as a student side project of the now deputy director of the Psychometrics Centre, David Stillwell — was essentially the accidental inspiration for Kogan’s thisismydigitallife quiz app, according to testimony given to the UK parliament by former Cambridge Analytica employee Chris Wylie last month.

Here’s how the project is described on the Centre’s website:

myPersonality was a popular Facebook application that allowed users to take real psychometric tests, and allowed us to record (with consent!) their psychological and Facebook profiles. Currently, our database contains more than 6,000,000 test results, together with more than 4,000,000 individual Facebook profiles. Our respondents come from various age groups, backgrounds, and cultures. They are highly motivated to answer honestly and carefully, as the only gratification that they receive for their participation is feedback on their results.

The center itself has been active within Cambridge University since 2005, conducting research, teaching and product development in pure and applied psychological assessment — and claiming to have seen “significant growth in the past twelve years as a consequence of the explosion of activity in online communication and social networks”.

And while it’s of course possible that Zuckerberg and his staff might not have been aware of the myPersonality Facebook app project — after all 4M Facebook profiles harvested is rather less than the up to 87M Kogan was able to extract, also apparently without Facebook noticing — what’s rather harder for Zuckerberg to deny knowledge of is the fact his company’s own staff have worked with Cambridge University researchers on projects analyzing Facebook data for psychological profiling purposes for years. Since at least 2015.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch yesterday, the University expressed surprise at Zuckerberg’s remarks to the house.

“We would be surprised if Mr Zuckerberg was only now aware of research at the University of Cambridge looking at what an individual’s Facebook data says about them,” a spokesperson told us. “Our researchers have been publishing such research since 2013 in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, and these studies have been reported widely in international media. These have included one study in 2015 led by Dr Aleksandr Spectre (Kogan) and co-authored by two Facebook employees.”

The two Facebook employees who worked alongside Kogan (who was using the surname Spectre at the time) on that 2015 study — which looked at international friendships as a class marker by examining Facebook users’ friend networks — are named in the paper as Charles Gronin and Pete Fleming.

It’s not clear whether Gronin still works for Facebook. But a LinkedIn search suggests Fleming is now head of research for Facebook-owned Instagram.

We’ve asked Facebook to confirm whether the two researchers are still on its payroll and will update this story with any response.

In its statement, Cambridge University also said it’s still waiting for Facebook to provide it with evidence regarding Kogan’s activities. “We wrote to Facebook on 21 March to ask it to provide evidence to support its allegations about Dr Kogan. We have yet to receive a response,” it told us.

For his part Kogan has maintained he did nothing illegal — telling the Guardian last month that he’s being used as a scapegoat by Facebook.

We’ve asked Facebook to confirm what steps it’s taken so far to investigate Kogan’s actions regarding the Cambridge Analytica misuse of Facebook data — and will update this story with any response.

During his testimony to the House yesterday Zuckerberg was asked by congressman Mike Doyle when exactly Facebook had first learned about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data — and whether specifically it had learned about it as a result of the December 2015 Guardian article.

In his testimony to the UK parliament last month, Wylie suggested Facebook might have known about the app as early as July 2014 because he said Kogan had told him he’d been in touch with some Facebook engineers to try to resolve problems with the rate that data could be pulled off the platform by his app.

But giving a “yes” response to Doyle, Zuckerberg reiterated Facebook’s claim that the company first learned about the issue at the end of 2015, when the Guardian broke the story.

At another point during this week’s testimony Zuckerberg was also asked whether any Facebook staff had worked alongside Cambridge Analytica when they were embedded with the Trump campaign in 2016. On that he responded that he didn’t know.

Yet another curious aspect to this story is that Facebook hired the co-director of GSR, the company Kogan set up to license data to Cambridge Analytica — as the Guardian reported last month.

According to its report Joseph Chancellor was hired by Facebook, around November 2015, about two months after he had left GSR — citing his LinkedIn profile (which has since been deleted).

Chancellor remains listed as an employee at Facebook research, working on human computer interaction & UX, where his biography confirms he also used to be a researcher at the University of Cambridge…

I am a quantitative social psychologist on the User Experience Research team at Facebook. Before joining Facebook, I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, and I received my Ph.D. in social and personality psychology from the University of California, Riverside. My research examines happiness, emotions, social influences, and positive character traits.

We’ve asked Facebook when exactly it hired Chancellor; for what purposes; and whether it had any concerns about employing someone who had worked for a company that had misused its own users’ data.

At the time of writing the company had not responded to these questions either.

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Inside the pay-for-post ICO industry

In a world where nothing can be trusted and fake news abounds, ICO and crypto teams are further muddying the waters by trying – and often failing – to pay for posts. While bribes for blogs is nothing new, sadly the current crop of ICO creators and crypto projects are particularly interested in scaling fast and many ICO CEOs are far happier with scammy multi-level marketing tricks than real media relations. The worst part of this spammy, scammy ecosystem is the service providers. A new group of media organizations are appearing where pay-to-post is the norm rather than the rare exception. I’ve been looking at these groups for a while now and recently found a few egregious examples. But first some background. Oh yeah, Mr. Smart Guy? How do I get press? Say you’re trying to publicize a startup. You’ve emailed all the big names in the industry and the emails have gone unanswered. 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Also, like velociraptors, they are tenacious and will follow up multiple times on your behalf. A bad PR person, on the other hand, will cold-call hundreds of journalists and read a script that is half the length of Moby Dick. They produce little more than spam and their efforts begin and end with pressing the “Send” button. It’s also interesting to note that many bad PR people, of late, have found new life as ICO specialists. Now meet the pay-for-post hucksters. As I wrote before, there is now a subset of the PR world that offers to get your press release or story on the top of various websites for the low, low price of between $500 and $13,000. For example, one set of hucksters created a small business selling posts on Harvard.edu by creating garbage WordPress blogs and posting press releases to increase SEO coverage. Further, I received a document that outlined the prices for placement in various blogs including this one. While it is impossible to buy a post on TechCrunch this way, it doesn’t stop many from trying. What’s the difference between that price list and the job a PR person will do for you? The difference is trust. A pay-for-post huckster is dependent on convincing poorly paid freelance writers to add links and other dross to their posts in order to get a “placement.” I get requests like this almost every day and almost all the journalists I talked to reported the same. Some entrepreneurs are savvy enough to avoid these scams. Even more aren’t. “I’ve never paid since I think it’s almost always a waste of money but I’ve been offered this type of coverage many times,” said Rick Ramos, of HealthJoy.com. “The last offer was for Kathy Ireland’s Worldwide Business… A TV show that I’ve never heard of in my life. I’ve also been approached by niche publications like InsuranceOutlook and HealthCareTechOutlook that want $3,000 for a ‘reprint branding package.’ A quick Alexa.com search shows their rank as 1,725,207 and 1,054,501 globally. I think I get pitched at least every six months for one of these types of packages. Unfortunately, many of these organizations hide their request for payment until the last minute. That said, how do you know when it’s someone selling pay-for-play vs. a real editor? It’s usually obvious. “It’s usually pretty easy to sniff out based on their email blast. It’s pretty untargeted with no reference to what your company does or how it related to a story. Some people are up front about the payment but others want a ’15 min call to discuss.’ A quick LinkedIn search always shows them as a sales person versus a reporter or editor,” said Ramos. It’s getting worse This is a document I received from a company attempting an ICO. This sort of menu was quite uncommon until fairly recently when the “on-demand” economy melded with PR scammers. The completeness of the document is unique – you could feasibly plan your own PR efforts just by reaching out to journalists who work at all of these places. But you’ll also note that each spot has its own price, often in the low hundreds of dollars, which means that those spots are mostly pay-for-play anyway. ICOLists by on Scribd No PR company can promise coverage. In fact, many pay-for-play folks mention this in their communications, hiding it in plain sight. This snippet of text appeared in a contract for work from one of the pay-for-play providers. In short, you’re paying for something they cannot guarantee to get. Interestingly, the PR company below calls their product an IO – an insertion order – which is language used in ad sales. Further, they take great pains in explaining that it is almost impossible to achieve what they promise. None of the pay-for-post folks I mentioned here would respond to my requests for comment. Counter-point: Journalists are also at fault Journalists should never expect money for coverage. Yet many do. “Lately I have worked on a number of blockchain technology pieces and I have encountered a wide variety of these asks,” said Brittany Whitmore, CEO at Exvera Communications. “A lot of the new, smaller blockchain-focused outlets seem to do a lot of pay-to-play, likely trying to capitalize on the ICO gold rush. The strangest request that I received was that the outlet would do a an article about the news for free but only if we paid them over $1,000 to promote the article with ads. I did not proceed.” In one very detailed article on The Outline, Jon Christian explored this world and found that many writers received small sums for a single brand mention in a story, a sort of SEO flogging that rarely helps. He wrote: An unpaid contributor to the Huffington Post, also speaking on condition of anonymity because, in his words, “I would be pretty fucked if my name got out there,” said that he has included sponsored references to brands in his articles for years, in articles on the Huffington Post and other sites, on behalf of six separate agencies. Some agencies pay him directly, he said, in amounts that can be as small as $50 or $175, but others pay him through an employee’s personal PayPal account in order to obfuscate the source of the funds. In a statement, Huffington Post said “Using the HuffPost Contributors Network to self-publish paid content violates our terms of use. Anyone we discover to be engaging in such abuse has their post removed from the site and is banned from future publication.”The Huffington Post writer also described specific brands he’d written about on behalf of one of the agencies, which ranged from a popular ride-hailing app, to a publicly-traded site for booking flights and hotels, to a large American cell phone service provider.“This is a classic example of payola,” he said of the brand mentions, invoking a term that’s been used to describe radio DJs who accept payments from record companies in order to play certain artists on the air. Further, many influencers – folks who sell their Internet fame to the highest bidder – masquerade as journalists, asking for outrageous sums to flog an ICO on their YouTube channel or Instagram page. Pay-for-play services can also put out organic content like this in hopes of appearing in the news. The rule of thumb? Paid posts and native advertising are not journalism. Ultimately, journalists who charge for coverage are marketers. No one at any reputable news organization will ask for cash but, sadly, there are a number of disreputable news organizations making the rounds. ICO spamming/Don’t do it All this still doesn’t answer the question: Should you pay-to-post? “The short answer is no,” said Kevin Bourke of BourkePR. “I get asked all the time, and in fact, turned down another request just today. And I advise my clients to decline these offers as well.” Pay-for-post disrupts journalism in a way that should be familiar and desirable to any modern-day entrepreneur. Middlemen are being knocked out everywhere and brands are approaching consumers from every angle including native ads in Instagram and Twitter. But the value of coverage – real coverage – from a journalists perspective is the opportunity to explain complex ideas to a ready audience. While posting a picture of a blockchain on Facebook and hoping for clicks is one strategy, explaining your views, opinions, and insights is far more important even if you approach it from a mercenary position. “When you start paying for placement, you remove objectivity and credibility, and in my opinion, this is the reason you look for coverage of your company/products in the first place. That’s what influences readers/viewers. But I understand the temptation for startups. You come to believe that ‘all visibility is good visibility.’ I just can’t agree with that,” said Bourke. “I see the trend toward paid placements (now called sponsored content), paid awards and I can’t stand it – especially with the trade show awards in high tech. They’ve completely devalued the Best of Show awards in so many cases. Typically, only the big companies with budgets can afford them, so many of the smaller guys with no money but amazing products get left out. I understand that the publishing industry needs to figure out new revenue streams – these are very difficult times for them. But they need to figure out smarter business models and maintain the integrity of editorialized content, built on the opinions and perspectives of journalists and influencers.”

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