Facebook blocks the Spinner’s ‘brainwashing’ tech

Facebook has issued a cease and desist notice to an Israeli firm that claims to be able to subconsciously alter people’s behaviour.

The Spinner charges a fee to “subconsciously influence” targets by exposing them to online posts “disguised as editorial content”.

But Facebook has objected to the start-up using its services to achieve this.

And the tech giant has barred the firm and its chief from using Facebook or Instagram for any reason.

In response, the Spinner’s co-founder and chief operating officer Elliot Shefler told the BBC that it would continue to sell targeted online campaigns and refused to rule out using Facebook in the future.

Policy violation

The Spinner claims to be able to “brainwash” loved ones to:

  • quit smoking
  • lose weight
  • propose marriage
  • initiate sex with their partners more often
  • consider having breast implants

To do this, it shows dozens of articles about the issue to targets over a period of months via the internet, including in their social media feeds.

Facebook’s law firm Perkins Coie has sent a letter to Mr Shefler to complain.

“It appears that the Spinner uses fake accounts and fake Facebook Pages to ‘strategically bombard’ Facebook users with advertisements,” it reads.

“These activities violate Facebook’s terms and advertising policies. Facebook demands that you stop this activity immediately.”

The Californian firm told the BBC that it had already removed the Spinner’s accounts.

“We have no tolerance for bad actors that try to circumvent our policies and create bad experiences for people on Facebook,” a spokesman said.

Mr Shefler pointed out that the Spinner had bought advertising slots on Facebook for more than a year, and each of its ads had been reviewed and approved.

Facebook uses both humans and automated software to vet ads submitted via its self-service tools.

But Mr Shefler added: “The Spinner’s ability to deliver content to targeted users is not dependent on any specific social account or page. It’s a concept.”

Does it work?

The Spinner operates by sending a link to the target’s phone. When opened, it places a small file known as a cookie on the target’s device, which allows them to be identified and exposed to specially created articles and other media.

The idea was originally pitched to the public via the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, but only raised £192 of its £47,800 target. Despite this, the firm decided to press on.

But some have questioned whether its methods work.

Rich Leigh, who works in public relations, put it to the test.

He bought a campaign that supposedly encouraged women to want more sex. But instead of sending the link to a friend or loved one, he delivered the campaign to himself.

A few months later, his Facebook feed began to show sponsored posts featuring articles with headlines such as 9 Ways To Initiate Sex.

But he says he only saw only four or five examples. He also reported seeing ads from a campaign he did not purchase, encouraging him to stop riding motorcycles.

Mr Shefler insists the service is legitimate.

“This is not a technical hack,” he said.

“We use common tools. The hack is in the pricing. We buy the media for $5 per 1,000 impressions. We sell the media for $49 per 180 impressions. That’s a high margin,” he said.

Mr Shefler did not refer the BBC to any customers who had previously bought campaigns.

One critic said that while many people might find the Spinner’s tactics objectionable, the tracking techniques commonly used by other advertising companies were arguably worse.

“By getting outraged at obvious stuff that the Spinner does, we tend to overlook its true significance,” said Doc Searls, author of the The Intention Economy.

“It exemplifies the methods and purposes of the entire online surveillance economy, and the participation of most publishers in that same economy.”

Could diplomacy come after tragedy in Iran? Is it still has a chance?

The downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 in which 176 people were killed is indeed a human tragedy of immense proportions. Its fallout is that much more complicated as it comes amid a totally unnecessary crisis.

We now know that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired the missiles at the plane by mistake. That the Iranian airspace was open for civilian aircraft at a time of such tensions and threats of retaliation – which gave space for human error – is a concerning sign of Iran’s inability to manage such crises.

That said, it is clear that the heightened expectation of an American counterstrike, even against the capital Tehran, put Iranian air defences on high alert. While I do not agree with Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who tweeted that the cause of the crash was human error due to American adventurism, the incident can still be seen as a warning that Trump’s opportunism comes with unforeseen consequences for the region and could lead to a significant loss of civilian lives.

The tragedy
The vast majority of those on board were Iranian citizens who lived abroad or foreign nationals of Iranian descent, many with exceptional talent and potential. In many ways, these members of the Iranian diaspora who maintained links to their homeland represented the best that Iran could have hoped for in building bridges with the West.

The tragic loss is a reminder of how deadly political and military escalations can be in the region. The airliner incident was preceded by a string of aggressive attacks and counterattacks in Iraq: The December 27 rocket attack on the K-1 base, which killed an American contractor, followed by the December 30 US strikes on positions of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs), which killed dozens, then the attempt to storm the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3 and the latest missile strikes on Iraqi military bases hosting US troops on January 8.

It is clear that the escalating tensions in the region have exacerbated its already high level of vulnerability and brought it to the brink of another conflict, with potentially devastating consequences for the region and the world.

The Middle East is a major transportation, trade, and financial hub; almost a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, while tens of millions of passengers transfer through airports in the Gulf, such as Dubai and Doha.

The tragic plane crash is testament to the fact that in this crowded region you cannot play politics with missiles and expect there to be no casualties.

Moving forward
Iran did the right thing to admit that its air defences shot down the Ukrainian aircraft. Yet this admission of guilt came after days of public denials. The Iranian authorities should have bought time by pledging to investigate the full facts rather than issuing an instant blanket denial that has so enraged the Iranian public.

At this point, Iran needs to demonstrate its commitment to openness to its own people and recognise that it can no longer pull the wool over their eyes. It also needs to demonstrate to the rest of the world that it is what it claims to be – a sovereign state which respects international law and values the sanctity of life. It has a golden opportunity to do so by allowing an independent investigation into what has happened.

There are internationally-established procedures in such cases and Iran should follow these to the letter. Ukraine itself has already been through the process after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. By following international rules, Iran would be seen as a country maintaining higher standards and commitment to international law – stepping on a higher moral ground than US President Donald Trump and his brazen threats of targeting Iranian cultural heritage and breaking international norms.

The opportunity
As tragic as it is, this catastrophic incident has unintentionally de-escalated the situation. Just a few days ago, Iran announced that the missiles fired on Iraqi bases hosting US troops were only the first wave of retaliatory strikes in response to the assassination of General Soleimani.

Many observers noted that the lack of casualties and limited damage from the missile strikes were a signal that Iran “shot to miss” and that no further retaliation would be forthcoming.

With protesters inside Iran decrying the ineptitude of the IRGC and international condemnation of the Iranian regime growing, the chances of a major state-sponsored attack on US interests in the Middle East have dwindled.

However, the possibility for revenge by many of Iran’s proxies remains high; on January 12, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that further retaliations would be coming soon.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution mobilised the masses to topple a repressive dictatorial regime, but it quickly became a chief source of anxiety for the Arab world – and it remains so today. Iran cannot exist in a permanent state of revolution and the Iranian people have clearly had enough of sectarian division and regional instability sown largely by a state within a state in the form of the IRGC.

Real change
Iran should use the opportunity, with Soleimani out of the picture, to rein in the Revolutionary Guards, end the era of proxy warfare, and curtail its misadventures throughout the Middle East. This would allow Iran and the US to sit together at the negotiating table and address the central issue driving tensions in the region – the collapsing nuclear deal and international sanctions.

Neither the US nor Iran has an interest in the situation escalating into a full-blown war. This is clear from reports that the two sides maintained secret communication channels through Swiss intermediaries throughout the crisis to avoid missteps that could have led to a major escalation.

The instinct of the US has been to rely on the Swiss as a trusted interlocutor with Iran ever since the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Yet in moving towards mediation to reach a bigger solution to the crisis, nations in the region with equidistance from all sides can play a valuable role.

After finding itself on the front line and fearing Iranian retaliation, Dubai has recently shifted to a more conciliatory tone vis-a-vis Tehran, which is a positive sign. It was also a positive sign that on the January 12, the Qatari Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Tehran and on January 15, his foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani travelled to Baghdad in a bid to calm international tensions and ensure that all parties respect Iraq’s sovereignty.

The experience of Qatar and Oman in mediating regional conflicts, including those involving the US and Iran, should be recognised and more space should be given for these regional actors to work towards diplomatic solutions.

‘Love marriages’ in Nepal have become curse for girls

Teenager Asha Charti Karki told her parents she was going out to study, but instead she ran off to wed her boyfriend – one of a growing number of Nepali teenagers who are marrying young by choice.

“There were rumours about us in the village and I had fights at home. I felt I had no choice but to run away,” Karki told AFP at her home in the western district of Surkhet.

Nepal has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage even though the practice was banned five decades ago and the legal marrying age is 20.

Some 50 percent of Nepali women aged between 25 to 49 were married by their 18th birthday, according the Himalayan nation’s 2016 Demographic Health Survey.

Marriages in the conservative country were traditionally arranged by parents, with many forcing their children to marry for cultural reasons or out of poverty.

Such marriages are declining but child rights activists warn an increasing number of underage couples are eloping for “love marriage” – a term used to describe unions by choice.

A 2014 survey by Girls Not Brides Nepal, which is part of a global network set up to end child marriage, found that one-third of such unions were initiated by young couples, and that the trend was increasing.

“This practice is posing a challenge for us and for the government. We can tell the parents but it is hard to convince young boys and girls when they marry by choice,” Anand Tamang of Girls Not Brides Nepal told AFP.

‘Betraying my future’ 
Tamang said voluntary child marriages, like forced unions, still pose the same risks, including dropping out of school, domestic violence and health problems.

Girls in particular lose the support of their families when they elope, he added.

Karki was among those who quit school early after getting married, as she struggled to cope with household chores and family responsibilities. 

Soon after, she found out she was pregnant.

“I was only 16, too young to understand what I was getting into,” she said, cradling her two-year-old daughter.

“I had lied to my parents and run away, but I was actually betraying myself and my future.”

Her early pregnancy left her with uterine prolapse, a painful condition which sees the uterus or womb descend and protrude out of the vagina.

“It is difficult. I often see my friends and wonder where I would be if I had not married,” she added.

While the Nepali government has implemented a national strategy to end child marriages – punishable by jail terms and a fine – by 2030, it acknowledges the programme can only be successful if the roots of the problem are tackled.

 ‘It was a mistake’ 
Some girls elope to avoid a potential forced marriage, or to escape poverty or chores at home.

With teen romances seen as socially unacceptable in much of rural Nepal, young couples feel they have to run away and get married to legitimise their relationships. Others feel pushed to marry if they fall pregnant.

Meanwhile, underage love marriages are rarely reported to authorities, with families only seeking legal recourse if they disapprove of unions such as inter-caste marriages.

“(The) main (thing) is education. It is important that they understand that being sexually active does not equate to marriage,” Krishna Prasad Bhusal of the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens told AFP.

Karki hopes she can help other girls by sharing her experiences with them as part of a programme called Sisters for Sisters’ Education run by British charity VSO Nepal.

“I tell them that they should not have to marry and teach others like me that they should learn from my mistakes now,” she said.

In her role as “big sister”, Karki persuaded 17-year-old Aradhana Nepal to leave her abusive marriage and return to school.

Nepal was only 13 when she eloped with a boy she barely knew. There had been gossip about them and she didn’t know what else to do to protect her reputation.

It was only after they married that she discovered he was a violent drug addict. She endured beatings for months before she escaped.

She recalled: “It was a mistake. Leaving that marriage saved my life.”

Too Young for Wedding: Child Marriages in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, 13-year-old Beezly Roy is preparing for her wedding.

She is to be married the following day.

Despite child marriage being illegal, it is not unusual. Almost a third of all Bangladeshi girls marry before they are 15 years old.

Their futures are not good – they face dangerous childbirth, even death, sexual violence and virtual slavery.

But help is coming from an unexpected source, a young man from a rural community who has made it his life’s goal to end child marriages.

101 East travels to Bangladesh where young girls are being married off too young.