Take Zuck, Please

This is interesting, and I’m not sure what it means.

On BBC [bbc] there is a piece about how, apparently, the Chinese government decided to strong-arm Jack Ma, the multibillionaire founder of Alibaba, to moderate his anti-government comments.

In November 2020, on the eve of another commercial success, the outspoken billionaire suddenly went missing.

Ma’s company Alibaba has risen from an online store run from his apartment, to one of the world’s largest tech giants.

Today, it reaches nearly 800 million users with services including online shopping, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

The tech magnate is known for his flamboyant presence and publicity stunts.

On 24 October in Shanghai, Ant Group was ready to launch the world’s biggest initial public offering on the stock exchange.

Ahead of this, Ma addressed an assembly of high-profile figures with a controversial speech that criticised the Chinese financial system.

He was not seen in public again until late January. In the interim, there were rumours that he might have been placed under house arrest or otherwise detained.

Interesting, huh? It’d be as though Elon Musk’s mouthing off netted him a brief stay in a CIA-owned safe-house in Virginia, where he got a chance to talk (at length) with securities industry regulators. Midozalam optional.

Soon Ma and his close colleagues were summoned for a meeting with the regulators, and Ant Group’s flotation was halted in its tracks.

Shares in Ma’s companies fell, wiping nearly $76bn (£54bn) off its value.

After that meeting, Jack Ma was nowhere to be seen.

I’m not saying this is the right way to do things, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking.

Remember when, early in the Trump administration, they held big meetings with the big tech companies, and the big tech companies collectively walked out? It makes me wonder whether one of the subtexts was that “if you play nice with us” (or, in the case of Facebook, “if you continue to play nice with us…”) you won’t get your copyright safe harbor removed, effectively reducing your value and causing you massive expenses. The implication of the BBC piece on Jack Ma is that the Chinese government decided to step in and not let a piece of their financial infrastructure fall under that control of someone who had just demonstrated that they were willing to criticize the government publicly.

Here’s a related piece: [nyt] I know it’s popular to complain about how poorly Facebook polices user-provided content, but…

Facebook and Accenture have rarely talked about their arrangement or even acknowledged that they work with each other. But their secretive relationship lies at the heart of an effort by the world’s largest social media company to distance itself from the most toxic part of its business.

I feel as though I suffered a “lack of cynicism failure” in this matter. Of course Facebook doesn’t do their own content cleanup; they outsource it. To Accenture. To the tune of $500mn/year, which is basically a tax on doing business.

For years, Facebook has been under scrutiny for the violent and hateful content that flows through its site. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, has repeatedly pledged to clean up the platform. He has promoted the use of artificial intelligence to weed out toxic posts and touted efforts to hire thousands of workers to remove the messages that the A.I. doesn’t.

But behind the scenes, Facebook has quietly paid others to take on much of the responsibility. Since 2012, the company has hired at least 10 consulting and staffing firms globally to sift through its posts, along with a wider web of subcontractors, according to interviews and public records.

Plus, of course, AI will save us!

Their contracts, which have not previously been reported, have redefined the traditional boundaries of an outsourcing relationship. Accenture has absorbed the worst facets of moderating content and made Facebook’s content issues its own. As a cost of doing business, it has dealt with workers’ mental health issues from reviewing the posts. It has grappled with labor activism when those workers pushed for more pay and benefits. And it has silently borne public scrutiny when they have spoken out against the work.

There are general problems with social media: it takes a certain amount of time to create content and a certain amount of time to moderate discussion. But, in my opinion, moderation is what makes social media social – otherwise, it’s going to just be a sea of spam and uninformed blatting. If I only had time to write postings, and no time to engage with and nudge conversations in (what I think is…) the right direction, this blog would potentially be a small sea of spew like the vast sea of spew that is Facebook. I don’t think the readers value the content, per se, they value the moderation that keeps most of the spew out and keeps the whole thing from devolving into a mess. Put another way, if facebook didn’t spend a lot of money on moderation, it’d be 100% spam of the worst sort. Right now, it’s still bad, but it’s spam that was decided-upon by a contractual relationship between Facebook and Accenture and other content managers. That may explain why Facebook can’t turn on a dime in this matter, though Zuck tried hard to convince congress that they could.

In the US, when congress or other parts of the government try to pressure the corporations to behave in a certain way, they have a limited set of options for, basically, brow-beating the companies and dropping expensive regulations on them to reduce their profitability – but that’s about it. In the US, the companies are the politicians’ boss. In China, it’s definitely the other way around. This seems to me to be one of those “sucks either way” situations, also known as “be careful what you ask for, you might get it.”

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It’s my opinion that curated content with moderated comments are “social media” whereas uncurated content without moderation on comments are “antisocial media.” The whole thing that makes the media social is the management layer on top of the content that socializes it.


  1. jrkrideau says

    I do not think tha Ma had an all-expenses paid holiday for what he said. It was what he was trying to do. I read this a while ago so I may have the details scrambled but essentially he seems to have been setting up some kind of a parallel retail banking system which would have little if any gov’t oversight. IIRC, it also had the possibility to greatly increase retail debt at a time when the gov’t was trying to control it.

    At the same time there were strong complaints about some of Alibaba’s business practices similar to ones we have been hearing for the last two or three years about Amazon in term of things like product placement….

    The CCP does not mind people getting rich but they do NOT appreciate any untoward interference in policy.

    I think the quick summary is that he was getting a bit too big for his boots and starting to encroach on on government prerogatives . The Chinese Gov’t & CCP are well aware of the oligarchical mess that Putin inherited and the rent-a-senator situation in the USA and want neither. Was not Senator Biden known as the Senator from MasterCard?

  2. kestrel says

    I agree 100% about moderation making all the difference. If you have a conversation with someone IRL, and you start to get a little out of line, someone usually steps in and says “hey, that’s a shitty thing to say” or whatever. The group keeps you a little more sane than you might be all alone. Of course IRL, if you do start to say shitty things and get called on it and you choose not to listen, normally that means you go stomping off mad. But at least the rest of us don’t have to listen to you anymore.

    Ironically Facebook appears to be down as I type this. I think even their messaging system is down. I’m getting a “Are you sure there isn’t a typo in the URL?” message. Since I have a microscopic business, I use FB for selling stuff. That’s the reason I know…

  3. says

    And the day after an ex-facebook whistleblower exposes multiple improprieties and potentially criminal acts, the site goes down for fourhours (and counting). This is starting to get fun.

  4. says

    Yeah there is a lot of scuttlebutt about what is going on but for now those that know aren’t talking and those that don’t are.

    I’m willing to bet its independent hackers. Why would the Russians or Chinese or Israelis shut off their own propaganda vehicle? But I’m sure there will be a lot of red-baiting (or should I say “redbating”?) from the chattering class.

  5. says

    As I’ve noted many times in the past: In the absence of active moderation, any online forum will degenerate into a troll-infested wasteland. The specific details of how that active moderation gets accomplished don’t appear to be significant; any form of active moderation seems to do the trick.

  6. says

    The specific details of how that active moderation gets accomplished don’t appear to be significant; any form of active moderation seems to do the trick.

    I agree. My theory is that the trolls know that an active moderator will come delete all their “hard work” and render the exercise futile, so they go elsewhere.

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