Saturday, July 17, 2021

How facebook helps the Authoritarian Regime in Vietnam

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

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How facebook helps the Authoritarian Regime in Vietnam


Global Views 360

Publication Date

July 17, 2021


Representative Image, Facebook and Surveillance

Representative Image, Facebook and Surveillance | Source: Glen Carrie via Unsplash

The ability of coercing American tech giants like Facebook into compliance is definitely a talking point to brag for the Vietnamese leaders. In October 2019, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that “Facebook stands for free expression. In a democracy, a private company shouldn’t have the power to censor politicians or the news.” However, Facebook’s double standard is no novelty. In August 2019, the Minister of Information and Communications, Nguyen Manh Hung took the parliamentary floor and stated that Facebook was restricting access to “increasing amounts” of content in Vietnam. Further, Hung stated that Facebook was complying with 70-75% of the Vietnamese government’s requests for post restrictions. In October 2020, this number went up to 95% for Facebook. Facebook acknowledged that the amount of content on which restrictions were imposed jumped by over 500% in the second half of 2018 alone.

Unlike China, Vietnam has adopted a relatively open attitude to western social media. Vietnamese politicians consider social media beneficial, perhaps it helps the promotion of their missions, personal agendas and even propagandas. In fact, Vietnam happens to have a military unit—called Force 47—with the purpose to correct “wrong views” on the internet. Whereas, there is no set set definition of the “wrong views,” people—if found guilty—can be jailed upto 20 years.

Furthermore, blocking western social media might not be in the self-interest of Vietnam, as doing so can hamper relations with the U.S.—with whom Vietnam desires to strengthen ties. The top communist strata of Vietnam for decades, have been single-minded on what they identify as “toxic information”. The definition of “toxic information” has only broadened over the years and has enabled the authorities to bend the term as per their whims. Vietnamese leaders have misused the threat of “toxic information” by branding content unfavorable to their regime with the term.

Facebook removed over 620 supposed fake accounts, over 2,200 links and several thousand posts which are deemed to be ‘anti-state’ from Vietnam in 2020. In a country without independent media, Vietnamese people are reliant on platforms like Facebook to read and discuss vital and controversial issues such as the dispute in Dong Tam. Dong tam is a village outside Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, where residents were fighting the authorities’ plans to seize their farmlands in order to build a factory. 40-year-old Bui Van Thuan, a chemistry teacher and blogger, showed his solidarity to the fight and condemned the country’s leaders in one of his Facebook posts which stated “Your crimes will be engraved on my mind. I know you, the land robbers, will do everything, however cruel it is, to grab the people’s land.” On government’s insistence, Facebook blocked his account the very next day preventing over 60-million Vietnamese users from seeing his posts. A day later, Dong tam village was stormed by police with grenades and tear gas. A village leader and three officers were killed just as Thuan had anticipated. Thuan’s account remained suspended for three months after which Facebook informed him that the ban would be permanent. “We have confirmed that you are not eligible to use Facebook,” the message read in Vietnamese. Towards the end of murder trial held over the clash, a Facebook spokesperson said Thuan’s account was blocked due to an error and the timing of the lifting of restrictions was coincidental. The spokesperson denied censoring profiles as per the demands of the government. Thuan’s blacklisting illustrates how willingly Facebook submits to the authoritarian government’s censorship demands.

In April 2018, 16 activist groups and media organizations and 34 well-known Facebook users wrote an open letter to the CEO Mark Zuckerberg, accusing Facebook of assisting Vietnam to suppress dissenting voices. Force 47 or E47, a 10,000-member cyber unit was singled out in the letter. The letter called the unit “state-sponsored trolls” that spread misinformation about the Vietnamese pro-democracy activists.

Force 47 was deployed in 2016 by the state to maintain a “healthy” internet environment. The cyber unit took advantage of the very apparent loophole in Facebook’s community guidelines which automatically removes content if enough people lodge a complaint or report the post/account. The letter alleged that the government used Force 47 to target and suspend accounts or content.

According to a report by The Intercept, the modus operandi of E47 is that a member shares a target who is often a pro-democratic political dissident writer or activist. The information of the target who is nominated for censorship is accompanied with an image of the target with a red “X” marked over it. Anyone interested in victimizing the target needs to just report the account or post for violating Facebook’s pliant community standards regardless of whether the rules were actually broken. The E47 users are asked to rate the targeted page one out of five stars, falsely flag the post and report the page itself.  

Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, a singer and a pro-democracy activist, popularly known as “the Lady Gaga of Vietnam” has been tirelessly trying for over two years to get Facebook to care about the censorship in Vietnam. She has tried to get Facebook’s attention to the fact that groups like Force 47, a pro-government Facebook group of police, military, and other Communist party loyalists have actively been collaborating to suppress the voice of dissidents both offline and online. Her evidence has been substantial and her arguments carry ample clarity. Despite several interactions with Alex Warofka, a Facebook product policy manager for human rights, Mai khoi’s efforts have not been sincerely addressed. Instead, what they claimed was more infuriating. They said “We were not able to identify a sufficient level of community standards violations in order to remove that particular group (E47) or those particular actors.” Since E47 actors are under real names, photos and authentic identities, Facebook dismissed Mai Khoi’s evidence. “At a high level, we require both widespread coordination, as well as the use of inauthentic accounts and identity,” Warofka told Khoi.

Dipayan Ghosh, a former public policy advisor at Facebook and the co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School stated:

“I think for Zuckerberg the calculus with Vietnam is clear: It’s to maintain service in a country that has a huge population and in which Facebook dominates the consumer internet market, or else a competitor may step in. The thought process for the company is not about maintaining service for free speech. It’s about maintaining service for the revenue.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to note that the inconsistency of Facebook’s ostensible community guidelines and policies extend beyond Vietnam. In 2016, during the time of political unrest in Turkey, access to Facebook and other social media were repeatedly restricted and further complied to the Turkish government’s request to restrict 1,823 pieces of content which the government deemed unlawful. In 2018, Facebook owned Instagram complied with demands of the Russian government to remove content related to opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption investigation therefore making it inaccessible for over 5 million users who watched and followed Navalny’s investigation. Facebook also routinely restricts posts that governments deem sensitive or off-limits in countries including Cuba, India, Israel, Morocco and Pakistan.

While the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, claims that the platform protects free expression, Facebook has been an active facilitator and flag-bearer of autocratic regimes. The social media giant’s apparent indifference and ignorance has failed its users terribly.

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July 19, 2021 11:59 AM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 10<sup>18</sup> eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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