A top Facebook exec told a whistleblower her concerns about widespread state-sponsored disinformation meant she had ‘job security’

facebook ceo mark zuckerberg
In this April 11, 2018, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

  • Facebook let dictators generate fake support despite employees’ warnings, the Guardian reported.
  • Whistleblower Sophie Zhang repeatedly raised concerns to integrity chief Guy Rosen and other execs.
  • But Rosen said the amount of disinformation on the platform meant “job security” for Zhang.
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Facebook allowed authoritarian governments to use its platform to generate fake support for their regimes for months despite warnings from employees about the disinformation campaigns, an investigation from the Guardian revealed this week.

A loophole in Facebook’s policies allowed government officials around the world to create unlimited amounts of fake “pages” which, unlike user profiles, don’t have to correspond to an actual person – but could still like, comment on, react to, and share content, the Guardian reported.

That loophole let governments spin up armies of what looked like real users who could then artificially generate support for and amplify pro-government content, what the Guardian called “the digital equivalent of bussing in a fake crowd for a speech.”

Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist on the company’s integrity team, blew the whistle dozens of times about the loophole, warning Facebook executives including vice president of integrity Guy Rosen, airing many of her concerns, according to the Guardian.

BuzzFeed News previously reported on Zhang’s “badge post” – a tradition where departing employees post an internal farewell message to coworkers.

But one of Zhang’s biggest concerns was that Facebook wasn’t paying enough attention to coordinated disinformation networks in authoritarian countries, such as Honduras and Azerbaijan, where elections are less free and more susceptible to state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, the Guardian’s investigation revealed.

Facebook waited 344 days after employees sounded the alarm to take action in the Honduras case, and 426 days in Azerbaijan, and in some cases took no action, the investigation found.

But when she raised her concerns about Facebook’s inaction in Honduras to Rosen, he dismissed her concerns.

“We have literally hundreds or thousands of types of abuse (job security on integrity eh!),” Rosen told Zhang in April 2019, according the Guardian, adding: “That’s why we should start from the end (top countries, top priority areas, things driving prevalence, etc) and try to somewhat work our way down.”

Rosen told Zhang he agreed with Facebook’s priority areas, which included the US, Western Europe, and “foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc,” according to the Guardian.

“We fundamentally disagree with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform. We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois told Insider in a statement.

“As a result, we’ve already taken down more than 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior. Around half of them were domestic networks that operated in countries around the world, including those in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and in the Asia Pacific region. Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority. We’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue before taking action or making public claims about them,” she said.

However, Facebook didn’t dispute any of Zhang’s factual claims in the Guardian investigation.

Facebook pledged to tackle election-related misinformation and disinformation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russia’s use of its platform to sow division among American voters ahead of the 2016 US presidential elections.

“Since then, we’ve focused on improving our defenses and making it much harder for anyone to interfere in elections,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post.

“Key to our efforts has been finding and removing fake accounts – the source of much of the abuse, including misinformation. Bad actors can use computers to generate these in bulk. But with advances in artificial intelligence, we now block millions of fake accounts every day as they are being created so they can’t be used to spread spam, false news or inauthentic ads,” Zuckerberg added.

But the Guardian’s investigation showed Facebook is still delaying or refusing to take action against state-sponsored disinformation campaigns in dozens of countries, with thousands of fake accounts, creating hundreds of thousands of fake likes.

And even in supposedly high-priority areas, like the US, researchers have found Facebook has allowed key disinformation sources to expand their reach over the years.

A March report from Avaaz found “Facebook could have prevented 10.1 billion estimated views for top-performing pages that repeatedly shared misinformation” ahead of the 2020 US elections had it acted earlier to limit their reach.

“Failure to downgrade the reach of these pages and to limit their ability to advertise in the year before the election meant Facebook allowed them to almost triple their monthly interactions, from 97 million interactions in October 2019 to 277.9 million interactions in October 2020,” Avaaz found.

Facebook admits that around 5% of its accounts are fake, a number that hasn’t gone down since 2019, according to The New York Times. And MIT Technology Review’s Karen Hao reported in March that Facebook still doesn’t have a centralized team dedicated to ensuring its AI systems and algorithms reduce the spread of misinformation.

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Home prices in Seoul rose by 22% last year, the biggest increase in any major city in Asia

Seoul South korea
Home prices in Seoul increased by 22%.

  • The average home price in Seoul, South Korea, rose by 22% year over year in 2020.
  • That’s the biggest price increase of any major city in Asia, per a new report from Knight Frank.
  • Home prices in New Zealand, Turkey, and Russia also saw major increases.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Home prices in Seoul are taking off.

The South Korean city saw a 22% increase in home prices from Q4 2019 through Q4 2020, according to a new report from global wealth consultancy Knight Frank.

It’s the biggest price increase among all major cities in Asia, and it far eclipses the next-highest price change amongst cities in the region. No other Asian city tracked a greater than 10% increase in the same time period.

Seoul, a city of around 9.9 million, is trying to position itself as an alternative to Asia’s financial hubs, and many locals are finding themselves priced out of the real estate market.

The city has faced an increasingly dire affordability crisis since President Moon Jae-in took office in 2017. Despite the government announcing nearly two dozen measures to curb increases over the past three years, home prices in Seoul have risen by 50% since 2017, per a Reuters report.

Skyrocketing home prices in cities across New Zealand and Russia

Urban home prices globally increased by an average of 5.6% in 2020, Knight Frank reported. That’s up from 2019, when home prices saw a 3.2% increase.

In a press release, Victoria Garrett, head of residential, Asia-Pacific, for the firm said buyer confidence is expected to grow with vaccine rollout and addressed fears of a housing bubble.

“Governments are now starting to watch residential markets closer to minimise the risk of asset bubbles,” Garrett said.

The three biggest home price changes over the 12-month period were all recorded in Turkey, though the report notes price growth in Turkey is linked to high inflation and changes with the lira. Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul led the ranking with 30.2%, 29.4%, and 27.9% changes respectively.

New Zealand’s home prices are also taking off, with two major cities – Auckland at a 26.4% increase and Wellington at 18.4% – ranking among the top 10 cities globally. Bloomberg recently reported that the housing market in New Zealand is “brutal,” citing a dilapidated bungalow in an Auckland suburb that sold for NZ$1.81 million and a national median home price that’s 6.7 times higher than the average annual income.

Russian cities, too, made appearances in the report’s top ten rankings with St. Petersburg (25.4% increase) and Moscow (21.2% increase) at No. 5 and No. 7 respectively.

For its global residential cities index, Knight Frank tracks the movement in mainstream residential prices across 150 cities worldwide.

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Biden can’t afford to laugh-off Kim Jong Un’s provocations

september missile north korea 2017 kim
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea on September 16, 2017.

  • President Joe Biden seemed to laugh off North Korea’s latest missile tests over the weekend.
  • With that attitude, Biden may miss a chance at diplomacy, leading to more back and forth tension-creating events by both sides in the months ahead.
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We can fill a book full of troubling adjectives to describe the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, and all of the times they have needless raised international tensions to the point that many analysts worried about the possible resumption of the Korean War – a conflict that almost certainly would go nuclear.

Whatever the case, we rarely talk about the times when US policy toward the DPRK adds unneeded kindling to an already smoldering situation, when policymakers in Washington and even our own chief executive make a rhetorical or tactical mistake that makes a bad situation on the Korean Peninsula even worse.

So when President Joe Biden seemed to laugh off North Korea’s latest missile tests over the weekend, missing a chance at more needed diplomacy, the stage was set for what Pyongyang always seems to do best: match pressure or perceived loss of face by a show of strength, or its own style of maximum pressure.

And this is just the beginning. We should expect more back and forth tension-creating events coming from both sides in the months ahead.

joe biden korea
Joe Biden, then vice president, meets South Korean and US soldiers at Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone near the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, December 7, 2013.

First up is the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review findings, which will set the direction for Korean Peninsula strategy for years to come. Having failed to learn from the Trump years that there is a possibility of talking with the Kim regime, Team Biden seems to have all but determined to apply more pressure and double down on sanctions that have so many holes in them one could drive a truck through them.

Washington also seems set to want to try and make China somehow responsible for sanctions enforcement, and is already trying a shaming strategy to get them to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile advances. Clearly this is something Beijing won’t do, as it will never allow North Korea to become destabilized in any way – and that is what it would take for the Kim family to come to the bargaining table on its knees.

Sadly it seems we are set to replay what every administration has tried to do for nearly three decades now, apply some sort of new pressure strategy to get North Korea to give up the only weapon it has to fend off its greatest fear, a future US military campaign that seeks to change the regime in Pyongyang.

Considering the billions of dollars invested and likely hundreds of thousands of North Koreans that have died due to a lack of investment in the most basic of societal needs because of its nuclear quest, there is no magic formula to get them to denuclearize.

NOrth Korea missile launch kim may 2017
Kim Jong a Hwasong-12, May 15, 2017.

And yet, we play what politicians here in Washington have determined is a necessary game of posturing, as if we have some way to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons or missiles, because no administration wants to take on what is perceived as the political fallout of such an admission that only arms control and threat mitigation are the only rational policies left.

What does all of this mean? Well, most likely, North Korea will lash out when it knows for sure the squeeze from Washington is coming once again, and will show off a weapon system that can do real damage, like a new medium or intermediate missile platform that can range US bases in the Pacific, such as Guam.

North Korea could also even show off in some way that its longer-range missiles can survive atmospheric reentry, settling the silly debate once and for all that, yes, even a third-world state like North Korea can develop missile technology from the 1950s to hit the US with a nuclear missile.

This could come in the form of a test that shows off an ICBM going deep into the Pacific Ocean and dropping a dummy warhead into the sea or something more static, but the point would be clear: US cities could be turned into nuclear fireballs within 30 minutes.

North Korea's new ICBM
North Korea’s new ICBM.

From here, what would the Biden team decide to do? Clearly with pressure off the table as a viable denuclearization strategy, the administration would find itself historically at the same crossroads as every other group of US policymakers finds itself when it comes to Pyongyang.

My hope is for as short of an escalatory period as possible followed by a push toward diplomacy coming from Washington with major prodding courtesy of the Moon government in Seoul.

If the Biden Administration can learn from its likely mistakes fast enough and pivot toward an agreement that caps the size of the North Korean nuclear and missile arsenal for sanctions relief, the faster it can move to what it seems to be its more important task, figuring out what it will do about China’s rise and moves to alter the status quo in Asia to its liking.

The only question now is how many weeks or months we will waste on a pointless pressure campaign, and can we avoid an accidental escalation that could cost lives or spark a horrific war no one wants?

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Biden has settled one of Trump’s feuds with a close US ally, but there are still thornier issues to deal with

south korea military exercise
South Korean marines in blue headbands and US Marines take position during a joint amphibious landing exercise in Pohang, South Korea, March 12, 2016.

  • By signing a new military cost-sharing agreement with South Korea, the Biden administration has settled a fight picked by the Trump administration.
  • But the US-South Korea relationship still faces long-term bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The completion of a long-term, military cost-sharing deal resolves a point of tension between the United States and South Korea, signaling a renewed US emphasis on regional allies.

But it still leaves thornier bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region, which will change the US-South Korea defense relationship over the next 10 years.

On March 8, US and South Korean negotiators reached an agreement in principle on the renewal of their military cost-sharing Special Measures Agreement (SMA) after three successive days of talks in Washington, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced March 8.

The US State Department said on March 7 that the agreement would extend through 2025 and include a “meaningful increase” in South Korea’s share of the expenses to support US troop deployments in the country.

  • Although the full details have not been released, earlier leaks indicated that as part of an effort to smooth over ties with South Korea, the Biden administration was willing to accept a 13% increase in South Korean contributions over the previous $925.3 million agreement. If confirmed, this is far short of the administration of former US President Donald Trump’s reported hardline push for a fivefold increase to $5 billion per year.
  • As part of a global push to increase the military burden-sharing of allies, Trump had pressured South Korea to substantially expand its contributions. A one-year 2018-2019 agreement expired and gave way to over a year of fruitless talks that saw South Korean personnel furloughed for three months from April before Seoul offered $200 million in stopgap funding.
  • On February 17, a US-Japan cost-sharing agreement was reached on their deal expiring in March that extended the current agreement to April 2022. The deal didn’t change the $1.9 billion in annual Japanese contributions to allow time for negotiations on a longer pact. The Trump administration had reportedly been pushing for an annual payment of $8 billion.
us korea joint training
A South Korean K1 tank fires during a joint military exercise with the US in Pohang, South Korea, July 6, 2016.

Inking this cost-sharing deal, however, was relatively easy compared with ongoing thornier discussions on issues, such as South Korea’s desire to regain wartime control of its armed forces from the United States.

With around one year before South Korea’s next presidential election, such talks will be highly politicized given the internal divisions in South Korea between progressives favoring greater military independence and conservatives focused on continuity in the US alliance.

  • Before the March 2022 presidential election, the administration of President Moon Jae-in aims to regain Operational Control Authority (OPCON) from the United States, which would allow the South Korean government to control its military during wartime in contrast to the current arrangement in which such forces would be led by a US general. The progressive arm of South Korean politics sees this as necessary to allow greater latitude in dealing with North Korea.
  • The United States, however, may hesitate to make sweeping changes in OPCON given the continued North Korean threat amid the stagnation in the US-North Korea outreach on denuclearization – a factor that former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said in 2018 could allow for a drawdown during progress with Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. army soldiers take part in a U.S.-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
US soldiers take part in a US-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016.

The precise nature of the US-South Korea defense relationship is still in flux.

While the United States will continue to focus on South Korea as a key regional partner, it may shift away from massive troop deployments on the Korean Peninsula in favor of flexible and mobile troop deployments with greater standoff distance from the Asian mainland, with a particular focus on Japan.

  • With countering China’s regional rise firmly established as the key US objective in the Indo-Pacific, Japan offers greater latitude for the US military to maneuver without the liabilities of South Korean troop deployments, which are costly and leave US personnel in the line of fire in the event of a deterioration in North Korean relations.
  • On March 8, Biden’s nominee for undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US troop numbers in South Korea were not fixed and pointed to Biden’s pledge to carry out a global posture review to realign military deployments with the global threat environment.
  • On March 5, US leaks indicated long-term plans to station precision-strike missiles along the so-called “first island chain,” which geographically runs from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines, as part of the $27.4 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative military fund that aims to counter Chinese regional clout.
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US military apologizes for ‘poor judgement’ after troops attended dance parties on base without wearing masks

United Nations Command honor guards during an opening ceremony for the new headquarters of the US Forces Korea (USFK) at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, June 29, 2018.

  • US military leaders stationed in South Korea on Wednesday apologized for the “poor judgement” of troops who attended a pair of dance parties on base without wearing masks.
  • Dozens of people on base were reportedly seen dancing in close proximity with one another.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

US military leaders stationed in South Korea on Wednesday apologized for the “poor judgment” of troops who attended a pair of dance parties without wearing masks.

The parties were held at the recreational centers at Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, according to South Korean media reports. Dozens of people were reportedly seen dancing in close proximity with one another, without wearing masks.

The South Korean government pressed their US counterparts for an explanation, to which the command in charge of US troops responded with a statement.

“United States Forces Korea is aware of two recent on-installation events that displayed poor judgment and actions inconsistent with USFK’s core tenets and COVID-19 health protection mitigation measures,” the command said. “These recent activities … do not reflect USFK’s commitment to mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”

USFK added that both recreation centers have been closed until further notice.

Other incidents involving US troops who broke COVID-19 restrictions have occurred this year. In April, three junior US Army soldiers stationed in Camp Humphreys were docked pay and demoted to the lowest enlisted rank after they were caught sneaking off to a bar and illegally returning to their base.

Read more: Meet Donald Trump’s new nemeses: The 15 prosecutors and investigators from New York who are primed to pepper the ex-president with history-making civil and criminal probes

The three soldiers were all demoted, forfeited $866 per month for two months, placed under restrictions for 45 days, and received 45 days of extra duty.

Roughly 400 USFK-affiliated personnel tested positive for the coronavirus, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News.

News of the dance party comes as South Korea experiences an uptick in the number of coronavirus cases. Although the country was heralded for containing the spread earlier this year, it reported over 600 new positive cases this week, bringing the country’s total to roughly 38,755, according to Yonhap News.

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Chinese and South Korean companies are buying lots of land near Japanese military bases, and Japan is suspicious

Japanese F 35 Misawa Air force base
An F-35A at Misawa Air Force Base in Japan.

  • At least 80 plots of land near sensitive sites in Japan have been sold to Chinese and South Korean companies in the past decade, and transactions are increasing.
  • The intent of the buyers is not clear, but “we do not believe it can be a coincidence,” an official within the Japanese Cabinet Secretariat said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A suspicious increase in the number of foreign companies purchasing plots of land close to Japanese military installations has prompted Tokyo to consider restricting such sales.

At least 80 plots of land close to Japanese military bases have been sold to either Chinese or South Korean companies in the last decade or so, a government panel has found, and an official within the Cabinet Secretariat says the transactions appear to be rising.

“We first started closely monitoring these sales seven years ago, but the situation has become much more acute in the last few years,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

“Work is under way on the outline of a basic policy and that will be completed before the end of this year,” the official said, adding that the agency was looking into deals the length and breadth of Japan.

“One of the proposals is for a more complete examination of the reason for the purchase of the land by a foreign company, something that is not specifically required at present,” the official said.

“That means that at the moment, we do not have a clear understanding of the buyer’s objective, but we do not believe it can be a coincidence [that the land is close to sensitive military sites],” he added.

US Air Force Japan paratrooper Keen Sword C-130J Super Hercules
Japan soldiers board a US Air Force C-130J Super Hercules at Tsuiki Air Base, Japan, November 4, 2018.

In late 2016, a Chinese corporation was planning to buy 2.4 hectares of land on the remote island of Taketomi, one of the most southerly islands in the Okinawa archipelago and just 170 km from the Senkaku Islands, which Japan controls but which China claims sovereignty over and knows as the Diaoyus. The town council stepped in at the last minute to buy the residential land so that it did not fall into foreign ownership, but that has not happened elsewhere.

More than 8 hectares of land were obtained by a Chinese company just 3km from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Chitose Air Base in Hokkaido. The transaction was raised for discussion by the local government, but officials declined to comment to the South China Morning Post about the sale or what the land was presently being used for.

A South Korean company in 2013 bought a piece of land alongside the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s radar facility on the islands of Tsushima, off Nagasaki Prefecture in southern Japan. The island is around 50km from the coast of South Korea and its strategic location has long made it a critical outpost for the Japanese military.

To further complicate the problem, there are some in South Korea who claim the island should be recognised as part of the Korean peninsula and, since 2005, residents of the town of Masan have staged a festival in June demanding the return of Daemado, the Korean name for the island.

It was this deal that first caught the attention of Japanese officials and aroused suspicions that there may be an ulterior motive behind such transactions.

“When the Korean investor bought the land on Tsushima, we began to look into the legal issues, but the additional cases have prompted these proposals,” the official said.

Part of the problem has been determining whether a purchase is a legitimate development project or whether the company doing the deal is fronting for another entity, he said.

“We cannot answer whether the Chinese government is behind some of these deals because it is often difficult to trace a purchase back to the real investor or find a connection to the government because there can be layers of front companies involved,” the official added.

Garren Mulloy, a professor of international relations at Japan’s Daito Bunka University and an authority on defence issues, said the Japanese authorities had good reason to be concerned.

“For any country in the world, when you have a foreign firm that appears to be a shell company or some other entity that is buying land close to your defence establishments, then you have cause for concern,” he said.

Some of these deals might turn out to be genuine business opportunities, he said, such as the Korean firm that bought land on Tsushima, as there was little likelihood of Japan and South Korea engaging in military action against each other. But deals with other countries might seem more concerning to Tokyo.

Chinese firms are far less open to scrutiny than those in other countries and they are ultimately beholden to their government,” Mulloy said.

japan battleship maritime jmsdf choka kongu
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ballistic-missile defense ships Chokai, right, and Kongou at JMSDF’s base in Sasebo, southwestern Japan, March 28, 2009.

Government officials declined to comment on whether any Russian companies might also be looking to purchase land in sensitive areas, but Mulloy said it was likely in parts of northern Hokkaido that face Russia.

Some 5,000 square metres of land close to a Self-Defense Force radar and signals monitoring base on the outskirts of Wakkanai was in 2016 sold to a foreign firm that reportedly wanted to develop the site for wind power turbines, although none have as yet been built on the site. Mulloy said that would be of concern to the Japanese military.

“The signals monitoring station there is focused on tracking Russian chatter in the region, but we know that militaries dislike wind turbines being placed close to their facilities as they can interfere with low-level radar,” he said.

Should any of the sites have been obtained by the militaries of a foreign power, the most likely reason was to conduct close-range signals monitoring, Mulloy said.

In the event of an incident in the region – a foreign military aircraft entering Japanese airspace or another North Korean missile launch, for example – there would be a sharp increase in military communications that could be monitored and provide intelligence on the frequencies used, where the messages originated and were sent and what responses were triggered.

“They would be looking for patterns in the communications and any weaknesses that could be exploited,” he said. “That is why the security of bases such as those in Hokkaido and Okinawa is so critical.”

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