Sunday, February 03, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 3.2.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
 Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • It's reported that there's going to be a low-cost AVE high speed train option between Madrid and Barcelona. After 30 years of failed promises, I suspect we in Galicia would be happy with any bloody option.
  • Another thing we're waiting patiently for is the A57 national road which will bypass Pontevedra  north-south. Quite why it's so necessary - other than for avoiding tolls above and below the city - has never been very clear to me.
  • And yet another source of discontent here is that the forecasts that Galicia would suffer because money was being slated by Madrid to pacify at least some Catalans are turning out to be very accurate.
  • One of our drug barons has just been sent to gaol, along with some members of his family. Their (ex)assets being sold by the state include a 16m long speedboat with a cocaine capacity of 60kilos and motors with with a combined 2,100 horsepower. So, probably quite fast.
  • I had a curry dinner last night for 6 friends, 5 Spaniards and 1 Dutchman. I wasn't terribly surprised that 2 of the former - having confirmed their presence in the morning - found, by eventide, some reason not to come. If you're new to Spain, you need to know that it doesn't do to believe Spanish acceptances. You should always assume there'll be a  no-show or two and, maybe, check just before the event. That said, excess curries - or stews/casseroles - are no problem; I can always freeze them. In truth, I get annoyed if they're all consumed by those guests who do arrive.
  • I see Pontevedra's beggar curse hasn't diminished during my absence. But at least only 1 of the 5 who came to tables near me yesterday was stupid enough to ask me for a handout.
The EU
  • Brussels, it says here, should be worrying less about a Brexit than the state of Deutsche Bank, which the author describes as a filthy, systemically dirty bank. But one which the German state is going to save, using taxpayers' money. Of course.
Social Media
  • The suicide rate among teenagers has nearly doubled in eight years, according to new figures that have prompted fears that Britain is raising “a suicidal generation”. Amid growing alarm at the impact of social media on young people, The Sunday Times has learnt that provisional data for last year compiled by the Office for National Statistics show the rate among children aged 15 to 19 has climbed while that of nearly all older age groups is declining.
  • See the pungent article below
Finally . . .
  • During my 3.5 month absence, a spider has established itself behind a picture in my loo. From the debris in its web, this seems to be a good place for it. I hope it's getting at least some of the moths that get into my pullovers every year, no matter what I do to prevent this.
  • Something you might find useful . . . How to live longer:-


Suicidal girls are just a nuisance to tech giants: Janice Turner

Social media firms had the means all along to save children like Molly Russell but chose to wait until they were busted

What if The Times ran an article on teenage self-harm illustrated with graphic photographs of a girl’s wrist glistening with blood and a noose strung from a wardrobe rail? This would breach the Ipso Editors’ Code on not encouraging “imitative acts”; the Samaritans would condemn us for promoting suicide as a solution, and depicting methods. A newspaper is rightly constrained by these and other factors, from responsibility to younger readers to human decency and good taste.

What did it take for Instagram this week finally to address thousands of photographs and videos of pale arms covered in open wounds, tapestries of old scars, bloody fingers gripping razor blades and endless hanging imagery? It took the suicide of a 14-year-old girl, Molly Russell, whose father says “I have no doubt that Instagram helped kill my daughter”; a Sunday Times campaign; the mounting fury of politicians and, most crucially, the looming threat that if social media doesn’t show a “duty of care” to children, it faces government regulation.

Like a drug gang flushing its stash as police hammered on the door, Instagram knew it was busted. More than 30 other parents whose children had also taken their own lives had come forward to support Mr Russell’s clear condemnation, and teenagers were speaking up about how they’d display their fresh cuts to thousands of followers, how hashtags like #cutting or #worthless felt like being in a club, where slashing your wrist was normalised and thus felt safe. Yet Molly Russell had finished her homework, packed her school bag for the next morning: whatever she was trying out, she didn’t expect to die.

For years desperate, disgusted parents tried in vain to report the most gruesome images and received only a shrugging automated response: “This does not violate Instagram’s community standards”. As charities raised concerns, Instagram brought in a pop-up screen so if you searched #selfharm a message suggested you go for a walk, take a nap or phone a helpline. But you could override that with a click, and then scroll through thousands of bloody images, plus little death homilies like “One Day This Will All Be Over” or “Just let me fly away” and the faces of distressed, tearful, smudged-mascara girls.

But Instagram, owned by Facebook, did not take down the self-harm photographs and has still not banned these hashtags. Up until the moment their dereliction of responsibility was the top item on the BBC Ten O’Clock News, they held the line they were a neutral platform. They tried their best, but the site was too vast with too much content uploaded hourly: their moderators were swamped. Besides, what about freedom of expression — hey, we’re not like China!

Now Instagram has made it a little harder to find self-harm material, making some hashtags non-searchable and promising to put “sensitivity screens” over gruesome images, although these are easily clicked through. It took me mere moments to find more blood and nooses. When the fuss has died down, how careful will the site remain?

What is most disgraceful is that online firms had the technology all along. If Pinterest’s algorithm could detect that Molly Russell liked bloody wrist images and thus recommend more (even after she was dead) it could be used to take them down. Tumblr used technology to wipe itself clean of pornography; Facebook deployed an algorithm to erase every last nipple. Only when driving web traffic becomes a lower priority than the tainting of a brand’s image (and lowered share price) will social media companies find a way.

Nor does Instagram lack the funds for proper moderation. Facebook’s fourth quarter profits for 2018 were $6.9 billion, up from $4.3 billion last year. It claims to employ thousands of people in all countries to scan images, but in interviews low-paid moderators report that they must adjudicate instantly on thousands of horrific images a day without specialist training. Why, asks the technology journalist Jamie Bartlett, author of The People Vs Tech, can they not contract out self-harm moderation to experts like the Samaritans?

The global truth, from Pakistan to Palo Alto, is that teenage girls are always just collateral. Why should the tech warriors of Silicon Valley, mainly single male geeks, have their open internet compromised by hormonal, self-dramatising females? Nick Clegg, Facebook’s new head of global affairs, was asked if he would let his sons view these bloody images: “Of course not!” But then Bill Gates and Steve Jobs denied their children access to the same technology they hard-sold to ours, while Silicon Valley kids are sent to screen-free schools. Those who preach that parents should install adult content filters know they aren’t good enough.

What Instagram wants is to put the Molly Russell affair behind it, prove it has listened and fulfilled its corporate duties, and swerve regulation. But its parent company Facebook has proved, from its US election interference to its recent purchase of children’s phone data, that it cannot be trusted. Germany has introduced fines of about £44 million for social media companies that do not instantly remove hate speech. In France, civil servants are to be embedded with Facebook for six months in what President Macron has called “smart regulation”.

The British government’s online harms white paper will soon be published, with findings on social media transparency. Time and again, vast secretive and rapacious companies have been allowed to float above democracy and morality under the premise of being neutral and ephemeral. It is time for proper regulation, spot checks and hefty fines. Images that suggest suicide is the solution to a 14-year-old girl’s passing storms are no less evil on social media than on the pages of The Times.

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