Tech Tent: Safer social networks and retro phones

How do social media giants cope with an ever increasing torrent of offensive material posted by their users? On this week’s Tech Tent we look at the problem of moderation, after Facebook’s training manual detailing how it decides what to allow and what to delete was leaked.

We also talk about the future of work as the robots advance, and we ask whether a retro phone is a sign that we are getting tired of being connected all the time.

UK PM Theresa MayUK PM Theresa May urged action against online extremism when she addressed the G8 summit

The Moderation Game

When the Guardian published leaked documents showing how Facebook’s army of content moderators are trained, two things struck me. First, the huge scale of the problem – 6.5 million complaints a week just about fake accounts.

And then the impossibly thin line the moderators have to tread between the demands of free speech and the need to purge the network of content which will offend millions of its users.

But Professor Sarah Roberts tells us not to feel too bad for Facebook and other social networks – after all their businesses are all about getting users to post more and more content:

“Social media platforms are dependent on user-generated content to gain and keep users… and at the end of the day they are interested in delivering those users to advertisers.”

Prof Roberts has spent many years talking to the people who work as moderators for Facebook and other firms – a stressful and challenging job which is usually outsourced and not well paid. She says it’s not a glamorous aspect of the social-network industry and firms would rather spend their money on tools to get their users to share more.

But now they are suddenly waking up to the fact that they have to police content which often showcases the worst aspects of human behaviour, And the political pressure on them is rising – witness the call at the G8 summit from UK Prime Minister Theresa May for an international effort to stamp out extremist content online.

Framing policies on extremism that will work around the world won’t be easy. The British government’s view of what is extremist may differ from that of the Turkish or Russian authorities, but moderators will have to apply the same rules in both countries.

But these are the same challenges faced by global media organisations – so Facebook, a far more profitable business than any of them, won’t get a lot of sympathy as it grapples with the moderation challenge.

Rory Cellan-Jones holds up Nokia 3310
Rory tried swapping his smartphone for the retro Nokia 3310

Nokia’s retro rebrand

This week saw the rebirth of the Nokia phone business, with a brand new device going on sale, Well I say brand new, but in fact the Nokia 3310 is a retread of a much loved old model. It’s very much not a smartphone – instead it is aimed at people who mainly want to call and text on a phone that will easily last a week without a recharge.

I tried putting my smartphone away and living with the 3310 – you can see the results here.

When we visited a shop as the phone went on sale we found quite a few people who were enthusiastic about returning to a simpler time when you didn’t need to be glued to Snapchat or Twitter on the move,

But it is worth remembering that the 3310 is really just a clever PR stunt to get the Nokia brand talked about again. The real priority for HMD Global, the firm licensing the brand, is to to sell new high-end Android smartphones. The danger is that the phone-buying public will see Nokia as a charming retro brand, rather than a rival to Samsung and Apple in shaping our mobile future.

Robot
Not all robots would be good to live with

A future with robots

It seems every week we hear a new doom-laden prediction about the impact of robots and other forms of automation on jobs. But are we looking at this the wrong way – too inclined to hang on to the world of work as it is today, too unimaginative about how it could be transformed for the better by technology?

That is the view of Riel Miller, who rejoices in the wonderful title of head of foresight at Unesco. For many years he has been paid to think ahead and he tells us that only by imagining a different future for work can we make things better today.

We spoke at the Innorobo robots fair in Paris, surrounded by devices which looked as though they could soon be replacing humans in all sorts of functions. But he wants us to relax about that.

“When you project a future where we’re all going to work in coal mines for ever, you see the future in one way, and you see the present in one way, When you see a future where robots do the mining and you have to do something else you see the present in a different way,” he said.

Miller tells us that everyone, from prime ministers to van drivers, wants to find meaning and value in their lives – and that by imagining different ways of working we can achieve that.

And he feels we can exaggerate the scale of the change we are going through – what he calls the hubris of the now. “I look to the generation that came out of World War Two where female labour force participation changed dramatically, and changed the power structures of our society.”

He says we need to stand back and accept that the future is coming at us.

The robots, like other tools invented by humans, can help us or harm us. But they are not going away.

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