San Diego, Jul 3 (AP/UNB) — Before the rise of social media, Border Patrol agents gathered in parking lots at the end of their shifts for what was known as "choir practice" — a chance to share what they saw that day and anything else on their minds.
T.J. Bonner, who led the National Border Patrol Council during much of his 32-year career as an agent, recalled the defunct tradition while trying to explain a secret Facebook group for agents that included sexually explicit posts about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and questioned the authenticity of a recent photo of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande.
"That outlet faded away and was replaced by social media, where people thought they had a safe place they could vent and process," said Bonner, whose career ended in 2010 and who does not belong to the group. "That would explain some of the callous comments. The vile stuff? There's no excuse. I'm certainly not going to try to defend it."
Billed as "fun, serious and just work related," the group boasts about 9,500 members. "We are family, first and foremost," it states, according to ProPublica, which reported its existence on Monday, igniting a fierce outcry.
A former agent who belongs to the group said Tuesday that members had to provide the administrator with their graduating class number from the Border Patrol Academy and have a current member vouch for their credentials. The agent, who retired last year in San Diego, spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he feared a public backlash.
The agent likened the forum to a bar where agents would gather after work and swap stories. He said any agent active on Facebook would have likely received an invitation to join.
Some posts were graphic, doctored images of Ocasio-Cortez, including one that shows a smiling President Donald Trump forcing her head toward his crotch, according to screenshots obtained by ProPublica. Other comments refer to Ocasio-Cortez and fellow Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas as "hoes," and one member encouraged agents to throw a "burrito at these bitches."
A news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in Border Patrol custody in May elicited a response from one member, "If he dies, he dies." Another member posted a GIF of the "Sesame Street" character Elmo with the quote "Oh well."
The posts threaten to tarnish the Border Patrol's image at one of the most challenging times in its 95-year history. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost called the posts "completely inappropriate" and "offensive" and vowed to hold employees accountable.
"Most importantly, the words of these few individuals directly undermine public trust in the Border Patrol and the dedication and compassion with which the rest of you undertake your duties each and every day," Provost wrote to staff.
George Allen, who retired in 2017 after a 31-year career, most recently as an assistant chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson, Arizona, sector, said he had heard of the group, which is named "I'm a 10-15," a reference to the agency's internal code for "aliens in custody." Although he was not a member, he belongs to another Facebook forum where the group has occasionally been mentioned.
"I've heard other agents talk about it," Allen said. "The ones that talk about it talk about it in a negative manner. Some of the posts really bash the older agents."
The political fallout revived criticism of the agency's culture, which was a subject of extensive news coverage after a string of migrant deaths in Barack Obama's presidency but faded from public view after Trump took office.
The National Border Patrol Council, an early supporter of Trump's presidential bid whose leader, Brandon Judd, advises the White House on immigration, said Monday that it "strongly condemns" the posts and that they do a "great disservice to all Border Patrol agents, the overwhelming majority of whom perform their duties honorably."
The union produces a radio show, "The Green Line," that mixes discussions about border security with shoptalk and freewheeling news commentary. The hosts alternate between workplace gripes like radios that don't work in remote areas and topics in the news. They have called the Black Lives Matter activists "domestic terrorists" and Mexico "a corrupt country."
Gil Kerlikowske, who was commissioner of parent agency U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2014 to 2017, riled the union by recruiting Mark Morgan from the FBI to be the first outsider to run the Border Patrol. Morgan was ousted during Trump's first week in office but impressed Trump as a television commentator and was recently named acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, with union support this time.
"Changing culture is pretty difficult," Kerlikowske said. "You can change the behavior to some extent. You can punish, suspend people. You can terminate people."
Dhaka, Jul 3 (UNB) - Video-sharing app TikTok says it is "sorry" that some children and other young people have felt pressured into sending money to their favourite influencers on the app, reports the BBC.
TikTok lets fans send their favourite videomakers "digital gifts", which can cost up to £48.99.
A BBC investigation found influencers promising to share their phone numbers with fans in exchange for the gifts.
TikTok said it would strengthen its policies and guidelines but did not explain exactly how.
Claire (not her real name) told BBC News she regretted spending £100 to obtain her favourite TikTok star's phone number - and he had never answered his phone.
Claire, 12, who lives in the north-west of England, sent TikTok star Sebastian Moy a £48.99 "drama queen" gift to show her appreciation for his videos.
And when he had asked for another one in exchange for his personal phone number, she said she was swept up in the moment.
The US-based video-maker has 3.8 million fans on TikTok and has not broken any of the app's rules.
He has not responded to the BBC's requests for comment.
Taking a cut
TikTok is the fastest-growing social media app, with about 500 million regular users, although the company doesn't disclose its userbase. It's estimated to have been downloaded more than a billion times on app stores.
The app lets people post 15-second videos. It is known for clips of teenagers lip-syncing and dancing to the latest trending music.
The company says it is most popular with 16- to 24-year-olds but there is evidence that many users are under 13, which is against the app's rules.
The firm has already been fined $5.7m (£4.5m) by a US regulator after being accused of collecting under-13s' personal details without their parents' consent. And on Tuesday, the UK's Information Commissioner revealed she had also launched an inquiry into whether the app was doing enough to safeguard its youngest users.
"We do have an active investigation into TikTok right now, so you can watch that space," said Elizabeth Denham.
Videomakers with more than 1,000 followers are allowed to broadcast live on the platform. It is during these live streams that fans can send digital gifts to show their appreciation.
Gifts appear as on-screen animations and cost between 5p and £48.99. The app's biggest stars can earn thousands of pounds in one live stream.
TikTok declined to say how much of that money it kept - but several influencers told the BBC they took home 50% of all gift revenue earned.
Over 10 weeks, the BBC monitored dozens of live streams in which the app's stars asked fans for gifts.
In exchange, they promised shoutouts on their live streams, said they would follow back fans on social media or offered to make "duets", which allow users to collaborate with TikTok stars in a split-screen video.
One creator promised to talk to a fan on Instagram "for a week" and was given three gifts worth a total of £147.
Some creators routinely offered personal messaging details and phone numbers in exchange for gifts.
The BBC also found a group who scoured the app for people giving gifts and then contacted them directly asking for money in exchange for "likes" and "follows".
Stephanie Barbour, from Toronto, found her 11-year-old daughter had run up a bill for $400 (£240).
"I was shocked when I found out what the money was spent on," she said.
"I said to my daughter, 'So you don't actually get anything for it?' and she said, 'No.'
"Adults should know better. And even other teenagers should know better - that you do not ask children for money."
Another TikTok fan, Kelly, told the BBC she had spent £500-£600 of her own money on digital gifts. She no longer sends them because she feels she was exploited.
"I understand people need to make money these days off social media but I just think it's force-fed down young people's throats that they need to pay money to get attention or feel appreciated," Kelly said.
Rhys, 20 said he had spent more than £1,000 without realising it.
"Gifting on TikTok is a little bit like gambling," he said "It gets addictive. I really didn't see anything wrong with it at the time but now I don't think it's worth it.
"I have nothing to show for it. It was my personal choice but I do think there should be some sort of age restriction or timeout function."
The BBC contacted several of the TikTok stars seen using such techniques but most of them did not reply.
The Neffati brothers have amassed 2.5 million followers in just six months on the platform.
The 25-year-old Polish twins who live in Blackburn, Lancashire, are famous for their dancing and comedy sketches.
They offer to follow back fans in exchange for a "drama queen" gift, worth £49 and promise to write fans' names on their heads if they send multiple gifts.
They told the BBC that they had only started offering perks in exchange for gifts because they had been receiving them regularly.
They said they were simply following the lead of other creators on the platform and that most of the fans that sent gifts were about 30 years old.
But they said they did feel guilty when they received gifts from young fans.
"We don't like it when our gifters are young, so basically we ask them if their parents know about it," they said.
"But we can't stop them. We can't stop it. We are going live not only for the money but we are going on the live to get more audience."
Rhia, from south Wales, and has 2.5 million fans thanks to her creative video-editing skills.
She said her average fan was about 10 to 14 years old and they were always happy with the perks she offered in exchange for gifts.
But she also feels uncomfortable when she receives several gifts from very young followers.
And she would like to see stricter age limits on gifting.
"It would give us peace of mind as creators," she told the BBC.
"It would make you feel more ethical because taking money from children is not a good way to earn a living really."
Livestream gifting originated in China, where the practice is far more popular. Professional "cam girls" earn huge amounts from their audiences.
In the West, tipping has become more common especially on gaming platform such as Twitch.
However, the rapid rise of TikTok is testing the business model like never before.
Bytedance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, declined to answer specific questions but told the BBC it was investigating digital gifting.
In a statement, it said: "We do not tolerate behaviours that are deceptive in nature and we are sorry to hear some of the users' experiences.
"We recognise there is always room for improvements in terms of making guidelines and information more accessible, clear and easy-to-understand for all users.
"We value your feedback and will further strengthen our policies and product features."
The company gave no details on what policies or community guidelines it would change.
Alessandro Bogliari, from the Influencer Marketing Factory, said there was wider pressure on TikTok to make changes.
"These sorts of stories are not good for a social network that is becoming popular with brands and marketers," he said.
"The app has major potential but there is clearly work to do to improve things.
"I think more parental-control features would be a good idea and some sort of cap on the amount users can gift per day or per livestream.
"They could also make the guidelines more clear and ban the use of certain terms that 'hard sell' to users."
Dhaka, Jul 3 (AP/UNB) - Aleksandr Kogan, the data scientist at the center of Facebook's Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, said he is dropping a defamation lawsuit against the social network rather than engage in an expensive, drawn-out legal battle.
Kogan, 33, sued the social giant in March, claiming it scapegoated him to deflect attention from its own misdeeds, thwarting his academic career in the process. The suit sought unspecified monetary damages and a retraction and correction of what Kogan said were "false and defamatory statements."
"We thought there was a one percent chance they would do the right thing," Kogan told The Associated Press. Facebook is "brilliant and ruthless," he added. "And if you get in their way they will destroy you."
A Facebook spokesperson said the company had "no comment to share concerning this development."
The former Cambridge University psychology professor created an online personality test app in 2014 that vacuumed up the personal data of as many as 87 million Facebook users . The vast majority of those were unwitting online friends of the roughly 200,000 people Kogan says were paid about $4 to participate in his "ThisIsYourDigital Life" quiz.
Cambridge Analytica, a political data-mining firm founded by conservative power brokers including billionaire Robert Mercer and former White House aide Steve Bannon, paid Kogan $800,000 to conduct his research and to provide the firm with a copy of the data. The project's aim was to create voter profiles based on Facebook users' online behavior to help in tailored political-ad targeting, according to Christopher Wylie, a former data scientist at the firm.
In March 2018, when the scandal broke, Facebook executives charged that Kogan had lied to them about how the data he harvested would be used. Facebook deputy general counsel Paul Grewal claimed at the time in a statement to The New York Times that Kogan perpetrated "a scam — and a fraud." CEO Mark Zuckerberg accused Kogan of violating Facebook rules "to gather a bunch of information, sell it or share it in some sketchy way."
Kogan said such accusations were "either unfair or untrue." Facebook shut down Kogan's app in late 2015 after it was exposed in press accounts and he said he then destroyed his copy of the rogue data at its request. But it didn't ban him from the social media platform until the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last year.
Evidence presented to a U.K. parliamentary committee indicated that Cambridge Analytica had not deleted the Kogan-acquired dataset on 30 million Facebook users by February 2016. Britain's Information Commissioner's Office said Cambridge Analytica used some of that data "to target voters during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign process." Data collected included age, gender, posts, email addresses and pages users "liked," depending on their privacy setting, the regulator said.
Cambridge Analytica worked for the eventual 2016 GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Had Trump not won the election, "my life (would be) very different," Kogan said.
Kogan and other developers say Facebook allowed such wholesale gathering of friend data at the time, although access was later throttled back for all but select partners.
"They created these great tools for developers to collect the data and made it very easy. This is not a hack. This was 'Here's the door. It's open. We're giving away the groceries. Please collect them," Kogan told CBS News' 60 Minutes last year.
Other developers tell similar tales of Facebook's lax attitude toward user data and their own naïve complicity. If true, Facebook would have been in direct violation of a 2011 consent order with the Federal Trade Commission for allowing third-party apps like Kogan's to collect data on users without their knowledge or consent.
Kogan's university appointment ended in September, his company has gone bust and he has been doing freelance programming, he said. "I think it would be damn near impossible to get an academic job," Kogan said by phone from Buffalo, New York, where he currently lives with his wife.
Facebook's privacy transgressions are also the subject of investigations in Europe and by a number of U.S. state attorney generals. Canada has sued the company over its alleged failure to protect user data, as has the attorney general of the District of Columbia. As well, A federal judge in northern California last month allowed a class action lawsuit over Facebook's privacy transgressions to move forward.
Kogan told the AP he now regrets invading so many people's privacy. "In hindsight it was clearly a really bad idea to do that project."
Dhaka, July 2 (UNB) - Over the past few months, Mark Zuckerberg has spoken at length about his grand plan for fixing Facebook, reports BBC.
In short, it involves “pivoting” - as they say - to a more private social network. One which focuses on closed spaces, like groups or messaging, rather than the public News Feed.
He unveiled this plan in March, a year after the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit.
At the time, I noted that critics were concerned that the shift would mean Facebook was abdicating some of its responsibilities. Making Facebook more private would arguably not remove the problems of abuse - though it would make it harder for outsiders to find instances of Facebook’s failures.
Recent stories have demonstrated that concern was perhaps justified.
On Monday, ProPublica revealed the existence of a private Facebook group which contained disturbing jokes allegedly posted by US Border Patrol agents.
The investigative site said comments included mockery of migrants that had died in custody, as well as aggressive, sexist remarks about prominent female politicians. The group has existed for more three years and has almost 10,000 members.
A Facebook spokesperson told the BBC: "We want everyone using Facebook to feel safe. Our community standards apply across Facebook, including in secret groups. We're co-operating with federal authorities in their investigation."
Separately, a report last month from California-based investigative group Reveal exposed groups where police officers, from more than 50 different departments across the country, shared racist memes, islamophobia and conspiracy theories.
And the Washington Post detailed a flurry of groups offering bogus cancer treatment “advice”, such as to "use baking soda or frankincense” instead of chemotherapy. These groups are able and allowed to flourish - the Post reported at least two with more than 100,000 members.
Facebook said it provides related news stories to posts that might contain misinformation, but we don’t have any statistics on how effective this measure is.
(Facebook has, however, banned some women who had shared mastectomy scars as an act of solidarity and encouragement with others facing their own battle with cancer.)
Hidden from view
What makes these examples of abuse more significant than what we’ve seen in the past? They show how Facebook’s strategy has the ability to push its problems into the shadows.
ProPublica was only able to observe the Border Patrol group thanks to someone sending them screenshots - otherwise it was entirely hidden from view.
Reveal had to use specially-written software code that cross-referenced members of hate groups against users who were signed up to legitimate pages about police work.
The Washington Post reporter was able to access some groups, but was swiftly banned and blocked when it became clear who she was.
Even Facebook finds it more difficult to find itself accountable when it comes to groups.
The site has said its ability to use algorithms and AI to detect hate speech and misinformation still falls short, and therefore it still relies heavily on users reporting inappropriate content.
In groups, this of course becomes far less likely: the inappropriate content is the reason people joined the group in the first place. And Facebook has shown limited willingness to proactively look for these kind of abuses itself.
Groups have, of course, been a feature on Facebook since the early days. But never before have they had such prominence.
Facebook, as directed by its leader, is aggressively pushing users to use groups more often. There’s an advertising campaign - which includes hand-painted murals - and a new button placed front and centre in its mobile app. Private is the new public.
“This vision could backfire terribly,” warned French journalism professor, Frederick Pilloux, in 2018. “An increase in the weight of 'groups' means reinforcement of Facebook’s worst features - cognitive bubbles - where users are kept in silos fueled by a torrent of fake news and extremism.”
Make no mistake: few, if any, of the problems Facebook is “working hard” on at the moment would have come to light were it not for external pressure from journalists, lawmakers, academics and civil rights groups.
The examples I’ve raised here pose a question: is Facebook fixing itself, or merely making it harder for us to see it's broken?
Menlo Park, Jul 2 (AP/UNB) — A Facebook mail facility near company headquarters was evacuated Monday after a routine check found mail possibly containing the nerve agent sarin.
Authorities put the site under quarantine as they conducted additional testing. Four buildings were evacuated and three have been cleared for people to come back in, said Facebook spokesman Anthony Harrison in a statement. The suspicious package was delivered around 11 a.m. to one of the company's mail rooms, he said.
"Authorities have not yet identified the substance found," Harrison wrote.
There were no reports of injuries, Menlo Park Fire Marshal Jon Johnston said. Incoming mail undergoing routine processing by machine tested positive for sarin, but it could have been a false positive, Johnston said.
"Right now we don't have anybody that has any symptoms," he said. "We're just doing verification."
The FBI is assisting in the investigation, as is common in incidents such as this one.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sarin is a chemical warfare agent that is a clear, colorless, odorless and tasteless liquid. It can evaporate into the environment, prompting symptoms within seconds.
A drop of sarin on skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching, and exposure to large doses can result in paralysis and respiratory failure leading to death.
The CDC says people who are mildly exposed usually recover completely.