Watched Towards a Small Web – Howest 2020 by Aral Balkan from Small Technology Foundation
Aral’s live stream to students at Howest in Kortrijk, December 2020

In this talk, Aral starts by distinguishing between the “Big Web” and “Small Web.” Their explanation of the Big Web is a good explanation of how companies like Facebook provide “free” services. They then set up the “Small Web” as a contrast, and define it as a decentralized Web.

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In 2009, as the world was going through a recession, Russian social-media mogul Yuri Milner invested $200m in Facebook, with a valuation of $10b, without requesting a seat on the board or voting rights.

The investment was financed by Alisher B. Usmanov, who provided funds from Gazprom, a Russian natural gas-and-more conglomerate. It’s likely the investment is what pushed out Facebook’s early CFO Gideon Yu.

The investments were facilitated by Ryan Williams, a friend and former classmate of Jared Kushner. At a similar time, Yuri Milner also invested in Cadre, a company founded by Williams, Kushner, and Kushner’s brother, Josh Kushner. However, Jared Kushner failed to disclose his ownership of the company.

Shortly after, Milner & Zuckerberg became close associates, meeting monthly, even speaking together at events. In 2012, Milner attended Zuckerberg’s wedding, and in 2014, paid 100% above value for a home in California.

Alisher B. Usmanov spent 6 years (1980-1986) in a Soviet prison for fraud and embezzlement, before becoming a manager of Gazprom-owned steel mills. In 2008/2009, he fired the editor at one of Russia’s most-respected newspapers for an article detailing Russian electoral fraud. The article said, “[Usmanov’s] ties to the Kremlin and Facebook have stirred concerns that he might influence the company’s policies in subtle ways to appease governments in markets where Facebook is also an important tool of political dissent, such as Russia.”

Usmanov is known to be a close friend of Roman Abramovich, whose wife during this period was in turn close friends with Ivanka Trump, thanks to Wendi Deng. This led to Ivanka attending a lunch hosted by Lev Leviev, an associate of Abramovich’s, where Deng introduced her to Jared Kushner. (Concurrently, Leviev was hosting the bris for the grandson of Tamir Sapir, who’s daughter Zina Sapir married Africa-Israel CEO Roten Rosen. Trump, a few months earlier,, had hosted the wedding of Sapir and Rosen.

The Sapir Organization, with the Trump Organization, built Trump SoHo. (Which was an absolute scandalous mess, not going to get into that here.) They attempted to mimic the process with Trump Tower Moscow, as well.

Gazprom – the conglomerate which both Abramovich and Usmanov have been senior executive at, and which provided the funds for Milner’s investment in Facebook – may be familiar to you because of their recent mentions in the news. They are the financiers of the spy ring which, in 2013, tried to recruit Trump advisor Carter Page.

When Facebook was first confronted about the “fake news” epidemic and its influence on our election, Zuckerberg said it was “crazy.” In April 2017 when they put out a report on the issue, they left out any mention of Russia.

Political ads were paid for in rubles. Facebook had “embeds” working directly with the Trump campaign.

“[People from Facebook, Google, and YouTube] were helping us… they were basically our hands-on partners… …Without Facebook, we wouldn’t have won.” – Theresa Wong, Trump campaign.

“We found that Facebook and digital targeting were the most effective ways to reach the audiences. After the primary, we started ramping up because we knew that doing a national campaign is different than doing a primary campaign. That was when we formalized the system because we had to ramp up for digital fundraising. We brought in Cambridge Analytica. I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley who were some of the best digital marketers in the world. And I asked them how to scale this stuff.” – Jaren Kushner.

Cambridge Analytica is the firm who coordinated with Julian Assange about Hillary Clinton and the DNC’s stolen emails. Michael Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was an advisor at Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook has early investment ties to Russian financiers and openly worked with them for years. The Trump family has ties to those same people. Facebook then worked directly with the Trump family to implement the methodology of those people.

It was not an accidental failure of a novel invention.

After facing criticism from users, politicians, bureaucrats, and shareholders, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his personal 2018 New Year’s Resolution, to “fix Facebook.” In previous years, Zuckerberg has publicly announced his resolutions, and his followthrough. He’s visited every U.S. state, built an artificial intelligence for his home, ran 365 miles, and learned Mandarin. So I had some hope that he’d be able to complete this one – after all, as CEO, “fixing Facebook” should be a core part of his job.

About a week and a half into 2018, Zuckerberg announced the first change, which would be to reduce the priority of public content in our newsfeeds. The goal was to reduce branded posts from 5% to 4% of the content – which doesn’t sound like a big difference, mostly because it isn’t. The problem posts on Facebook weren’t advertisements for Audible and fabric softener.

Yesterday, January 19th, he announced the second big change: “to make sure the news you see, while less overall, is high quality.”

Academics, journalists, and armchair pundits are all still trying to make sense of what happened to “the news” over the past few years, and there are a lot of different schools of thought. Some explanations are simple (more literacy, more written stupidity), and others are incredibly complex (we’re living out the result of a 1960s Soviet intelligence operation.) But they all rely on the same premise:

People are truly terrible at figuring out the truth.

And we are. We don’t know what we don’t know, we think we know more about the things we know a little about, and we’re almost unable to follow a logical flow if we have even the slightest emotional connection to the subject.

However, Zuckerberg has faith that people can do it, this time… with the help of surveys. From his announcement:

We decided that having the community determine which sources are broadly trusted would be most objective. Here’s how this will work. As part of our ongoing quality surveys, we will now ask people whether they’re familiar with a news source and, if so, whether they trust that source. The idea is that some news organizations are only trusted by their readers or watchers, and others are broadly trusted across society even by those who don’t follow them directly.

Now, there’s some problems off-the-bat with this sort of data collection: self-selection bias, aware observer bias, and so on. But there’s also a more specific problem: Gallup (and others) already did a study on this, and the results weren’t good. Here’s some of their key findings:

  • While 54% of Democrats view the media favorably, 68% of Republicans do not.
  • Republicans have less trust in the media to provide accurate & politically balanced news.
  • Four in ten Republicans think accurate news reports which cast a politician or political group in a negative light are always “fake news.”
  • 67% of Republicans view there as a “great deal” of political bias in the news, versus 26% of Democrats.
  • When asked to name an objective news source, 60% of Republicans said Fox News.
  • Those with annual household incomes of >$100,000 rank the media’s trustworthiness at 32/100, versus a mean 38.5/100 among lower income households.
  • Only 55% of Republicans view choosing news sources that align with your own politics as problematic, versus 61% of Democrats (and 67% of Independents). (Interestingly, it is very liberal people who are the most likely to only consume news from agreeable sources.)

And so on. My point here is not to pick on Republicans, but to highlight that not only do different political demographics have vastly different definitions of things like objectivity and truth, but that different demographics have differing opinions on whether or not media bias is even important.

Facebook won’t be able to resolve these differences through user surveys any more than they were able to do it with algorithms. I actually don’t think Facebook can do anything about it – the solutions need to come from news outlets.

There’s optimism to be found in that Gallup study. Americans are getting more and more critical of existing news sources, while simultaneously consuming more news. Basic economics indicates that with this increased demand for good news sources, we should see a supply to match.

But getting there will take some time – and will take each of us doing our part to be good consumers of media… like maybe not saying that Fox News is an objective news source, or discounting anything disagreeable to our politics as fake.

I woke up to a bunch of messages asking me if the checking in at Standing Rock on Facebook actually is helpful, so figured I’d answer everyone at once with a post:

No, not really. In fact, in the past, I have encouraged people to check in at an event SPECIFICALLY to make it easier to find out who’s there.

How it works:

  1. Morton Co. claims to use FB check-ins to locate protesters.
  2. Some scriptkiddy (or straightup a Morton County Sheriff employee) makes a viral post telling people from around the globe to check in.
  3. This makes a subpoena of FB’s data more necessary, so Morton Co has less hurdles to jump through to get a judge to get them the data.
  4. Now Morton County, instead of a list of people who voluntarily check in at the protest, has a list of EVERYONE who is there with a telecom device – which is, in fact, the thing step #2 was trying to prevent.

The first time this mass check-in was used was in 2009 when a bunch of people set their FB profile pics to green and checked in Tehran. The check-in was curated by Sedazad (that’s my free speech group) and ultimately backfired horribly, as many of the people who were checking in illegitimately had some tie to the protesters which the local state exploited – usually by threatening to hold remittances. There’s also a suspected instance where a young woman who was unaffiliated with the GR88 was killed by security forces, because she matched the name and description of one of the fake check-ins.

The biggest use of the fake check-in in America was a couple days before Occupy Wall St. got shut down, and about the same thing happened – the fake check-ins, while fake, were a good way of getting a list of people tangentially associated with the protest, and became a good operating list of donors.

Since then it’s been done several times, usually to very little effect beyond speeding up court hearings related to the event.

Not to be too personal about it, but like I said, when me and my team did this the first time, it led to someone’s death. While that’s unlikely to be the consequence this time, since these events are occurring within the States, seeing the multitudes of check-ins was a heartbreaking reminder of the consequences that ignorance can have, no matter how helpful you’re trying to be.


  1. Should I delete my check-in?
    • No, the damage was done as soon as the check-ins started to go viral, if not before. /(If the check-ins were a LEO operation, they would plan it, then justify the subpoenas with “fake check-ins,” simultaneous to the check-ins going viral.)/ May as well leave them up as a sign of solidarity.
  2. Isn’t it worth the risks, since even the Sacred Stone Camp FB Page has said the media coverage has increased?
    • There’s no evidence yet that there’s more media coverage today than there would have been without the checkin campaign. If you want more media coverage, I would suggest a more direct route. Call into your local broadcast stations and request they syndicate coverage of this topic.
  3. Are there other resources to learn about the up-to-date protest methods.
    • Generally, organizations which work against state intelligence operations tend to keep their information as close to the vest as the people they’re fighting. I reference it in the comments of the post you share, but essentially the activists and state are engaged in a multi-faceted arms race, and it is to the activists’ benefit to slow that race as much as possible. Widely educating people who don’t need to know these tactics does the opposite, accelerating the state to move up the escalation of force.