Facebook Messenger used to fight extremism

Facebook Messenger has been used to try to deradicalise extremists in a pilot project funded entirely by the company.

People posting extreme far-right and Islamist content in the UK were identified and contacted in an attempt to challenge their views.

Of the 569 people contacted, 76 had a conversation of five or more messages and eight showed signs it had a positive impact, researchers claim.

Privacy campaigners say it means Facebook is straying into surveillance.

Technology companies have been urged to do more to stop extremist material littering their sites following a series of cases involving people who were radicalised online.

This pilot was led by the counter-extremism organisation Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which says it was trying to mimic extremists’ own recruitment methods.

It told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme and BBC World Service’s World Hacks it used software to scan several far-right and Islamist pages on Facebook for targets. It then manually looked at their profiles looking for instances of violent, dehumanising and hateful language.

Terrorism survivors

It employed 11 “intervention providers” – either former extremists, survivors of terrorism or trained counsellors, who were paid £25 per hour for eight hours’ work a week.

One was Colin Bidwell, who was caught up in the Tunisia terror attack in 2015.

Under a fake profile, he spoke to people who appeared to support Islamist extremism, including some who may support the Tunisia gunman, and was tasked with challenging their views with chatty conversation and questions.

“I think I’m entitled to ask those questions after what I’ve been through,” he explained. “If there’s the smallest chance that I could make some form of difference or awareness, for me I’m in.”

Many did not respond, but some entered into long conversations. Mr Bidwell would talk a little about religion, about the effect the attack has had on his wife and how he worries for the future of his children in “such a violent world”.

“One of the things I would say is, ‘You can have your extreme beliefs, but when it gets to the extreme violence – that’s the bit I don’t understand’,” he said.

Other intervention providers would use different tactics depending on their background – a former extremist targeted young women telling them she used to think like they did, but that violence was not the answer.

‘Back from the edge’

Roughly half the people they chose to try and chat with had showed support for Islamist extremism and half had far-right sympathies. The group was also split evenly between men and women.

The aim was to “walk them back from the edge, potentially, of violence”, said Sasha Havlicek, the chief executive of the ISD.

“We were trying to fill a really big gap in responses to online recruitment and radicalisation and that gap is in the direct messaging space.

“There’s quite a lot of work being done to counter general propaganda with counter-speech and the removal of content, but we know that extremists are very effective in direct messaging,” she explained.

“And yet there’s no systematic work being done to reach out on that direct engagement basis with individuals being drawn into these groups.”

Privacy campaigners are concerned about the project, especially that Facebook funded something that broke its own rules by creating fake profiles.

Millie Graham Wood, a solicitor at the Privacy International charity, said: “If there’s stuff that they’re identifying that shouldn’t be there, Facebook should be taking it down.

“Even if the organisation [ISD] itself may have been involved in doing research over many years, that does not mean that they’re qualified to carry out this sort of… surveillance role.”

‘Really authentic’

Facebook funded the initiative but would not disclose how much it had spent. It said it did not give ISD special access to its users’ profiles.

Its public policy manager, Karim Palant, said the company does not allow the creation of fake profiles – which the project relied on – and said that the research was done without Facebook interference.

“The research techniques and exactly what they did was a matter for them,” he said.

During conversations, the intervention providers did not volunteer the fact that they were working for the ISD, unless asked directly. This happened seven times during the project, and on those occasions the conversation ended, sometimes after a row.

Overall, of the 569 people contacted, researchers claim eight of the people contacted showed signs, in the conversations, of rethinking their views.

Despite the small numbers involved, the ISD argue the pilot showed online counter-extremism conversations can make a difference.

It wants to now explore how it could be expanded both in the UK, and overseas, and how a similar method could be used on platforms such as Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter.

Watch the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel.

Millennials ‘set to be fattest generation’

UK millennials are on track to be the most overweight generation since records began, health experts say.

Based on population trends, more than seven in every 10 people born between the early 1980s and mid-90s will be too fat by the time they reach middle age.

In comparison, about half of the “baby boomer” generation, born just after World War Two, were fat at that age.

Being fat as an adult is linked to 13 different types of cancer, says Cancer Research UK, who did the analysis.

The list includes breast, bowel and kidney cancer, but only 15% of people in the UK are aware of the link, according to the charity.

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‘Generation fat?’

Britain is the most obese nation in Western Europe, with rates rising faster than in any other developed nation.

Obesity prevalence has been increasing in the UK, from 15% in 1993 to 27% in 2015.

In 2015, the highest obesity levels were seen in people aged 55 to 64, but experts are concerned that younger generations are on track to become fatter still.

Cancer Research UK wants to make the associated health risks clear to the wider public.

Spokeswoman Prof Linda Bauld said: “Extra body fat doesn’t just sit there; it sends messages around the body that can cause damage to cells.

“This damage can build up over time and increase the risk of cancer in the same way that damage from smoking causes cancer.

“While these estimates sound bleak, we can stop them becoming a reality.

“Millennials are known for following seemingly healthy food trends, but nothing beats a balanced diet.

“Eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and other fibre filled foods like whole grains, and cutting down on junk food is the best way to keep a healthy weight.”

Prof Russell Viner, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “There is a danger that being overweight is becoming normalised, as we know that many people struggle to recognise obesity in themselves, and often are unable to see when their child is overweight.

“Knowledge of the links between cancer and smoking have driven smoking rates down dramatically amongst our young people.

“We need the same recognition of the dangers of obesity.”

Did the British Empire resist women’s suffrage in India?

The US took 144 years to give equal voting rights to women. Suffragettes in UK took nearly a century to win the vote. Women won the vote in some cantons of Switzerland as recently as 1974. But Indian women got the right to vote the year their country was born.

Ornit Shani, author of an excellently researched new book on how India received universal adult franchise in 1947, says the move was a “staggering achievement for a post-colonial nation” in the midst of a bloody partition that killed up to a million people and displaced 18 million others.

In independent India, the number of voters leapt more than five-fold to 173 million people – nearly half of the total population – and included 80 million women. Some 85% of them had never voted before. (Unfortunately, 2.8 million women voters had to be excluded from the rolls because they failed to disclose their names.)

But, as Dr Shani’s book, How India Became Democratic: Citizenship at the Making of the Universal Franchise, shows women’s suffrage, unlike under colonial rule was not questioned.

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    British officials had unfailingly argued that the universal franchise was a “bad fit for India,” says Dr Shani. Elections in colonial India were exercises in restricted democracy with a limited number of voters casting their ballots in seats allotted along religious, community and professional lines.

    In the beginning, Mahatma Gandhi did not support women gaining the vote, and urged them to help men fight the colonial rulers. But, as historian Geraldine Forbes writes, Indian women’s organisations fought hard to demand voting rights for women.

    In 1921, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Madras (now Chennai) became the first provinces to give the limited vote to women. Between 1923 and 1930, seven other provinces allowed women franchise.

    The House of Commons ignored demands for voting rights by a number of Indian – and British – women’s organisations, writes Dr Forbes, in her engaging book, Women in Modern India.

    Women who lived in the purdah (female seclusion) appeared to be a convenient excuse for this denial.

    “Obviously, the British promise to safeguard the rights of minorities meant only male minorities. In the case of women, the majority were denied rights because the minority lived in seclusion,” writes Dr Forbes.

    Colonial administrators and legislators – both Indian and British – resisted moves to expand the franchise. Opponents of the vote, according to Dr Forbes, “talked of women’s inferiority and incompetence in public affairs”.

    Some said giving women the vote would result in the neglect of husbands and children; “one gentleman even argued that political activity rendered women incapable of breast feeding,” she writes.

    A suffragette, Mrinalini Sen, wrote in 1920 that although women were subject to “all the laws and rules of the land exercised by the British government” and had to pay taxes if they owned property, they could not vote. “It was as if the British were telling women not to go to the courts for justice but rather seek it at home,” she said.

    Under the The Government of India Act, 1935 – the last colonial legal framework for India – suffrage was extended to a little more than 30 million people or about a fifth of the adult population. A small number of them were women.

    The government of the province of Bihar and Orissa (the two states made up a single province at the time) attempted to reduce the number of voters and take away voting rights from women. The government, writes Dr Shani, also believed that a “woman’s name should be removed from the electoral roll if she is divorced, or if her husband dies or loses his property”.

    But when officials came across a matriarchal community – as they did in the Khasi hills in India’s northeast – where women held property in their names, they saw this as a “pretext for an exception”.

    Provinces also made their own rules over enrolling women. In Madras, a woman could qualify to be a voter only if she was a pensioned widow or the mother of an officer or soldier or her husband was a tax-payer, implying that he owned property.

    So a woman’s eligibility to vote largely depended on her husband – and his qualifications and his social position.

    “The notion of conferring the right to vote and bringing women genuinely into the electoral roll was beyond the purview of the bureaucratic colonial imagination,” says Dr Shani.

    “It was also consistent with the colonial government’s lack of faith in India’s illiterate masses and their negative attitudes towards enfranchisement of people at the margins of the franchise, such as the poor and rural, illiterate people.”

    Things changed when independent India decided to give the universal franchise to its people.

    Work on preparing the draft electoral roll began in November 1947. By the time India had her own constitution in January 1950, the “notions of universal franchise and electoral democracy were already grounded,” says Dr Shani.

    But there were problems when the preparation of the draft electoral roll began in 1948.

    Officials in some provinces said the recording of women’s names presented difficulties. Many women refused to give their names, introducing themselves as the wife, daughter or widow of a man. The government made it clear that this was not permissible, and that women had to register as individuals.

    Contrary to the earlier colonial practices, the government had made it clear that women had to be registered as individual voters and not as relations of others. The government began media publicity to encourage women to register by their names. Women’s organisations also appealed to women to register as voters so that they could send their representatives to safeguard their interests.

    A candidate who contested a parliamentary seat in the first elections – held between October 1951 and February 1952 – in a rural constituency in Madras reported that “rural voters, men and women, waited patiently for hours and cast their ballots. Veiled Muslim women, he reported, had exclusive booths to themselves.”

    This was a major triumph.

    Of course, the fight continues. A bill to reserve 33% of the seats in the lower house of India’s parliament for women has been stuck since 1996 in the face of stiff opposition.

    Even though more women are voting than before and sometimes even outnumbering men, this is not translating into parliamentary seats for women. A 2017 UN report ranked India 148 among 190 countries for the number of women in its parliament – they accounted for just 64 seats in the 542-member lower house.

    Ornit Shani’s book How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise, is published by Cambridge University Press. The South Asia edition is with Penguin Random House.

Twitter bot purge prompts backlash

The hashtag #TwitterLockout has trended after an apparent purge of suspected malicious bots on the social network.

Dozens of users report having had their accounts suspended until they provided a telephone number which they then had to verify, to prove they were real.

Some members have raised concerns about their amount of lost followers, and claimed discrimination against right-wing political beliefs.

Others have in turn mocked allegations of bias.

“Twitter’s tools are apolitical, and we enforce our rules without political bias,” the social network has said in response.

“Every day we proactively look for suspicious account behaviours that indicate inorganic or automated activity, violations of our policies around having multiple accounts, or abuse.

“And every day we take action on any accounts we find that violate our terms of service, including by asking account owners to confirm a phone number so we can confirm a human is behind it.

“This is part of our ongoing, comprehensive efforts to make Twitter safer and healthier for everyone.”

The firm allows automated software to be used to send tweets under some circumstances, but forbids the posted content from being misleading.

It has also issued new guidance about the use of automation and having multiple accounts.

The action follows an indictment announced last week by special counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian firms.

They are alleged to have used fake accounts on Twitter and other social media platforms to conduct “information warfare against the United States”.

Twitter and Facebook had faced criticism from US lawmakers earlier in the year for not having taken the problem seriously enough.

‘Junk news’

One researcher who has studied digital disinformation campaigns said a Twitter crackdown should come as no surprise.

“This is a company that’s under a lot of heat to clean up its act in terms of how its platform has been exploited to spread misinformation and junk news,” said Samantha Bradshaw from the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project.

“It now needs to rebuild trust with users and legislators to show it is trying to take action against these threats against democracy.”

Ultra-processed foods ‘linked to cancer’

A link between highly processed foods and cancer has been suggested by French researchers.

They classified foods including cakes, chicken nuggets and mass-produced bread as “ultra-processed”.

A study of 105,000 people hinted the more of such foods people ate, the greater their risk of cancer.

A lot of caution is being expressed about the study, but experts said a healthy diet is best.

What counts as ultra-processed

  • Mass-produced packaged breads and buns
  • Sweet or savoury packaged snacks including crisps
  • Chocolate bars and sweets
  • Sodas and sweetened drinks
  • Meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets
  • Instant noodles and soups
  • Frozen or shelf-life ready meals
  • Foods made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats

    Diet is already known to affect the risk of cancer.

    Being overweight is the biggest preventable cause of the disease after smoking and the World Health Organization says processed meat does slightly increase the risk of cancer.

    But what about ultra-processed foods?

    The team – at Universite Sorbonne Paris Cite – used food surveys on two days to work out what people were eating.

    Those on the study, who were mostly middle-aged women, were followed for an average of five years.

    The results, in the British Medical Journal, showed that if the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet increased by 10%, then the number of cancers detected increased by 12%.

    During the study:

    • On average, 18% of people’s diet was ultra-processed
    • On average, there were 79 cancers per 10,000 people each year
    • Upping the proportion of processed food by 10% would lead to nine extra cancers per 10,000 people per year

      The researchers concluded: “These results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.”

      But they said the findings need to “be confirmed by other large-scale” studies and research was needed to establish what could be behind the link.

      A ‘warning signal’

      This study is far from the definitive take on ultra-processed foods and cancer.

      It cannot say ultra-processed foods are a cause of cancer.

      There are also factors that muddy the waters as people who ate a lot of ultra-processed foods had other behaviours that have been linked to cancer.

      They were much more likely to smoke, were less active, consumed more calories overall and were more likely to be taking the oral contraceptive.

      While the researchers did adjust their analysis for this they say their impact “cannot be entirely excluded”.

      Prof Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “It’s already known that eating a lot of these foods can lead to weight gain, and being overweight or obese can also increase your risk of cancer, so it’s hard to disentangle the effects of diet and weight.”

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        Overall she said the study was a “warning signal to us to have a healthy diet” but people should not worry about eating a bit of processed food “here and there” as long as they were getting plenty of fruit, vegetables and fibre.

        Dr Ian Johnson, from the Quadram Institute in Norwich, said the study had “identified some rather weak associations”.

        But he criticised the vagueness of the term ultra-processed.

        He said: “The problem is that the definition of ultra-processed foods they have used is so broad and poorly defined that it is impossible to decide exactly what, if any, causal connections have been observed.”

        For Prof Tom Sanders at King’s College London, the definition of ultra-processed foods throws up too many quirks.

        He said mass-produced bread would be classed as ultra-processed, but a home-made loaf or bread from a posh local bakery would not.

        “This classification seems arbitrary and based on the premise that food produced industrially has a different nutritional and chemical composition from that produced in the home or by artisans. This is not the case,” Prof Sanders said.

        Even the accompanying commentary in the British Medical Journal warned against jumping to conclusions.

        Martin Lajous and Adriana Monge from the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico, warned “we are a long way from understanding the full implications of food processing for health and well-being”.

        They said the study was simply “an initial insight”.

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Criminals hide ‘billions’ in crypto-cash – Europol

Three to four billion pounds of criminal money in Europe is being laundered through cryptocurrencies, according to Europol.

The agency’s director Rob Wainwright told the BBC’s Panorama that regulators and industry leaders need to work together to tackle the problem.

The warning comes after Bitcoin’s value fell by half from record highs in December.

UK police have not commented to the programme.

Mr Wainwright said that Europol, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, estimates that about 3-4% of the £100bn in illicit proceeds in Europe are laundered through cryptocurrencies.

“It’s growing quite quickly and we’re quite concerned,” he said.

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    There many different types of cryptocurrencies but the best known is Bitcoin. They are intended to be a digital alternative to pounds, dollars or euros.

    However, unlike traditional currencies, they are not printed by governments and traditional banks, nor controlled or regulated by them.

    Instead, digital coins are created by computers running complex mathematical equations, a process known as “mining”. A network of computers across the world then keeps track of the transactions using virtual addresses, hiding individual identities.

    The anonymous and unregulated nature of virtual currencies is attracting criminals, making it hard for police to track them as it is difficult to identify who is moving payments.

    ‘Money mules’

    Mr Wainwright said: “They’re not banks and governed by a central authority so the police cannot monitor those transactions.

    “And if they do identify them as criminal they have no way to freeze the assets unlike in the regular banking system.”

    Another problem Europol has identified involves the method that criminals use to launder money.

    Proceeds from criminal activity are being converted into bitcoins, split into smaller amounts and given to people who are seemingly not associated with the criminals but who are acting as “money mules”.

    These money mules then convert the bitcoins back into hard cash before returning it to the criminals.

    “It’s very difficult for the police in most cases to identify who is cashing this out,” Mr Wainwright said.

    He said that police were also seeing a trend where money “in the billions” generated from street sales of drugs across Europe is being converted into bitcoins.

    He called on those running the Bitcoin industries to work with enforcement agencies.

    “They have to take a responsible action and collaborate with us when we are investigating very large-scale crime,” he said.

    “I think they also have to develop a better sense of responsibility around how they’re running virtual currency.”

    ‘Too slow’

    Although British police have yet to respond to requests from Panorama, Parliament is seeking to step up regulations.

    The Treasury Select Committee is looking into cryptocurrencies and details of EU-wide regulations to force traders to disclose identities and any suspicious activity are expected later this year.

    Alison McGovern, Labour MP for Wirral South who is serving on the committee, has been calling for an inquiry into cryptocurrencies.

    “I think that will draw the attention of the Treasury and the Bank [of England] and others to how we put in place a regulatory system,” she said.

    “I think probably hand on heart we have all been too slow, but the opportunity is not lost, and we should all get on with the job now.”

    “Who Wants to be a Bitcoin Millionaire?” is a collaboration between BBC Click and Panorama and airs on BBC One on 12 February at 20:30 GMT.

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Facebook moderator: I had to be prepared to see anything

“It’s mostly pornography,” says Sarah Katz, recalling her eight-month stint working as a Facebook moderator.

“The agency was very upfront about what type of content we would be seeing, in terms of how graphic it was, so we weren’t left in the dark.”

In 2016, Sarah was one of hundreds of human moderators working for a third-party agency in California.

Her job was to review complaints of inappropriate content, as flagged by Facebook’s users.

She shared her experience with BBC Radio 5 live’s Emma Barnett.

“They capped us on spending about one minute per post to decide whether it was spam and whether to remove the content,” she said.

“Sometimes we would also remove the associated account.

“Management liked us not to work any more than eight hours per day, and we would review an average of about 8,000 posts per day, so roughly about 1,000 posts per hour.

“You pretty much learn on the job, specifically on day one. If I had to describe the job in one word, it would be ‘strenuous’.

Illegal images

“You definitely have to be prepared to see anything after just one click. You can be hit with things really fast without a warning.

“The piece of content that sticks with me was a piece of child pornography.

“Two children – the boy was maybe about 12 and the girl about eight or nine – standing facing each other.

“They weren’t wearing pants and they were touching each other. It really seemed like an adult was probably off camera telling them what to do. It was very disturbing, mostly because you could tell that it was real.

Reappearing posts

“A lot of these explicit posts circulate. We would often see them pop up from about six different users in one day, so that made it pretty challenging to find the original source.

“At the time there was nothing in the way of counselling services. There might be today, I’m not sure.”

Sarah says she would probably have taken up counselling if it had been offered.

“They definitely warn you, but warning you and actually seeing it are different.

“Some folks think that they can handle it and it turns out they can’t, or it’s actually worse than they expected.”

Graphic violence

“You become rather desensitised to it over time. I wouldn’t say it gets any easier but you definitely do get used to it.

“There was obviously a lot of generic pornography between consenting adults, which wasn’t as disturbing.

“There was some bestiality. There was one with a horse which kept on circulating.

“There’s a lot of graphic violence, there was one when a woman had her head blown off.

“Half of her body was on the ground and the torso upwards was still on the chair.

“The policy was more stringent on removing pornography than it was for graphic violence.”

Fake news

“I think Facebook was caught out by fake news. In the run-up to the US election, it seemed highly off the radar, at least at the time I was working there.

“I really cannot recall ever hearing the term ‘fake news’.

“We saw a lot of news articles that were circulating and reported by users, but I don’t ever recall management asking us to browse news articles to make sure that all the facts were accurate.

“It’s very monotonous, and you really get used to what’s spam and what’s not. It just becomes a lot of clicking.

“Would I recommend it? If you could do anything else, I would say no.”

Facebook responds

The BBC shared Sarah’s story with Facebook.

In response, a Facebook spokesman said: “Our reviewers play a crucial role in making Facebook a safe and open environment.

“This can be very challenging work, and we want to make sure they feel properly supported.

“That is why we offer regular training, counselling, and psychological support to all our employees and to everyone who works for us through our partners.

“Although we use artificial intelligence where we can, there are now over 7,000 people who review content on Facebook, and looking after their wellbeing is a real priority for us.”

Chinese police spot suspects with surveillance sunglasses

Police in China have begun using sunglasses equipped with facial recognition technology to identify suspected criminals.

The glasses are connected to an internal database of suspects, meaning officers can quickly scan crowds while looking for fugitives.

But critics fear the technology will give even more power to the government.

The sunglasses have already helped police capture seven suspects, according to Chinese state media.

Police used the new equipment at a busy train station in the central city of Zhengzhou to identify the suspects.

The seven people who were apprehended are accused of crimes ranging from hit-and-runs to human trafficking.

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    Police also identified 26 people who were using fake IDs, the ruling communist party’s People’s Daily newspaper reported.

    The technology allows police officers to take a photograph of a suspicious individual and then compare it to pictures stored in an internal database. If there is a match, information such as the person’s name and address will then be sent to the officer.

    But there are fears that China’s authoritarian leaders will use the sunglasses to track political dissidents or profile ethnic minorities.

    China is a world leader in facial recognition technology and regularly reminds its citizens that such equipment will make it almost impossible to evade the authorities.

    The country has been building what it calls “the world’s biggest camera surveillance network”.

    An estimated 170 million CCTV cameras are already in place and some 400 million new ones are expected be installed in the next three years.

    Many of the cameras use artificial intelligence, including facial recognition technology.