Category Archives: Politics
The dismantling of democracy, manipulation by algorithm, and what to do next; Part 2 ofAlgorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy
Updates 26 April: Faceook’s chief technology officer tells UK Parliament they did not read terms and conditions that enabled Cambridge Analytica’s data grab; 22 April, Facebook reported moving 1.5 billion users out of reach of pending EU privacy law; 2 May, Cambridge Analytica ceases trading, at least under that name, in US and UK. Part 1 here
Computational propaganda; a structural problem
Political bullshit was with us before the rise to dominance of on-line news sources, but developments over the past decade have made things far worse. Philip N. Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford, studies of fake news and elections, and way back in 2014 he coined the phrase “computational propaganda” to describe what was happening.
Opportunity for such propaganda is built into the very fabric of mass social media. Targeted ads and “suggestions” protocols are not optional features; they are what Facebook is for. People join groups that they agree with, and discussion among like-minded people moves consensus further away from the middle ground. Facebook’s recommendation system makes things even worse. An investigator for Buzzfeed, having signed up for antivaxx sites, found herself getting recommendations for groups about Pizzagate, the perils of fluoride, chemtrails, and Flat Earth.
Facebook also makes it easy to propagate fake news under false flags. Thus the page “Native Americans United”, apparently from the Dakota Pipeline protesters, with the message “Love water Not Oil, Protect Our Mother,” was produced by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm. The same people also gave us a page “Black matters”, ostensively part of the Black lives Matter movement. Special Prosecutor Mueller has indicted 13 members of this troll farm, though they are clearly unlikely to ever enter his jurisdiction.
False news has a further advantage over reality on social media because it is generally more novel and attention-grabbing. Thus an analysis of Twitter shows that false news spreads faster, deeper (longer chains of transmission), and more broadly (total number of tweets) than true news. This seems to be the work of individuals, rather than bots. See here; full report here.
Facebook algorithms automatically promote those messages that keep people spending more time on the site. Read the rest of this entry
Bullshit is sticky, and by trying to stamp on it you spread it. Because its appeal is directly to the emotions, rational critique is beside the point, while virtuous outrage is as effective as support in sending it viral.
The term bullshit was introduced in its current sense by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 2005, and has been the subject of a rash of books since Trump’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with. I have chosen this particular volume as my jumping off point, because I am familiar with the author’s UK perspective, and because the author himself, as a contributor to Buzzfeed, is part of the revolution in electronic publishing that has made bullshit so much easier to propagate.
Lying is lying; bullshit is different
Lying is misrepresentation of reality. Bullshit is something far more serious. Bullshit invites us to follow the leader into a world of subjectivity, where reality comes second to what we choose to believe. Bullshit is the delegitimisation of reality, designed to make rational discussion impossible. It is the triumph of assertion over reality.
This book names names. Boris Johnson (for more on Johnson’s chronic mendacity, see here) the Daily Mail (which is world’s largest news website, because of focus on celebrities), the Canary,1 Brexit, the Daily Express, and, of course, Trump. He also mentions Read the rest of this entry
“Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner.The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue… [C]lear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.”
These are among the talking points distributed to EPA staffers this week.
Have you seen this kind of language before? Yes, you have indeed, from Pruitt himself almost actually a year ago. At that time, I pointed out that Pruitt was following the script of BBC’s satire, Yes Minister. I have now tracked down the relevant episode, where UK Cabinet Minister (later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker, asks his trusted Civil Servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, how to deal with evidence that one would rather ignore. Sir Humphrey’s advice:
Discredit the evidence that you are not publishing. This is, of course, much easier than discrediting evidence that you do publish… You say: (a) that it leaves important questions unanswered (b) that much of the evidence is inconclusive (c) that the figures are open to other interpretations (d) that certain findings are contradictory (e) that some of the main conclusions have been questioned. Points (a) to (d) are bound to be true. In fact, all of these criticisms can be made of a report without even reading it. There are, for instance, always some questions unanswered — such as the ones they haven’t asked. As regards (e), if some of the main conclusions have not been questioned, question them!
That, by the way, was about the safety of a chemical processing by-product.
You might perhaps be concerned about the degree of contact with reality with which the EPA (to quote further talking points distributed this week) “promotes science that helps inform states, municipalities and tribes on how to plan for and respond to extreme events and environmental emergencies, recognizes the challenges that communities face in adapting to a changing climate, [and] will continue to advance its climate adaptation efforts.”
But really there’s no cause to worry, because, according to Reuters, Pruitt has “reaffirmed plans for the EPA to host a public debate on climate science sometime this year that would pit climate change doubters against other climate scientists.” It’s not clear where he’ll find his climate change doubters, but I’m sure he’ll manage, and no doubt the debate will take place with the same level of intellectual content and integrity that we have seen from the Senate Environment Committee, or would expect to see in a debate on evolution organised by Vice President Pence.
So stop making a silly fuss about the Government telling scientists to misrepresent the science.
Image and quotations from EPA talking points via Washington Post, 28 March 2018. Quotation from Yes Minster via http://moksheungming.tripod.com/yes.html. Hacker/Appleby image via yes-minister.com. Temperature image from NASA Goddard via Wikipedia; public domain
I am Jewish. I have known holocaust survivors, as well as families who narrowly escaped the Nazi advance across Europe. I am old enough to remember the images that came out of Belsen, and was old enough and aware enough at the time to realise that but for minor accidents of time and place, that could have been me. To this day, I cannot write of these things without emotion. I have also, to compare small things with large, experienced antisemitism both personal and institutionalised.
I am therefore, presumably, among those whom Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 would most wish to shield from offence in this case. But the law itself is an offence against my freedom of expression, and I know that there are many who find my own publicly expressed views highly offensive. For this reason, I have written to my MP asking him to support repeal of ths section of the law, and urge my readers in the UK to do likewise.
The facts are not in dispute. A Mr Meechan, apparently annoyed with his girlfriend, trained her dog to raise his paw in imitation of a Nazi salute in response to the cues “Sieg Heil” and “Gas the Jews”, and posted this performance on YouTube, where Read the rest of this entry
L: Cambridge Analytica’s front page image. Message superposed: “Data drives all we do. Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.”
This for starters. Further suggestions welcome. Remember that the way Cambridge Analytica used the Facebook data of 50 million Americans in 2016 is no mere loophole, but built into Facebook’s very nature.
Remember that sharing your personal information with paying customers is not some kind of glitch on Facebook. It is what Facebook is for. And (actual example) while the shoe company may be interested in your politics because it correlates (indeed it does!) with your taste in shoes, Cambridge Analytica used (uses?) information about people’s taste in shoes in order to target political messages. And if, like me, you have answered online political or personality tests, you may well have helped them.
Remember in what follows that “Friends of friends” is likely to include trolls and spybots.
Click on the tiny downwards arrow at the far right of the blue bar along the top of the page.
Click on “Settings”
First, go to “Apps“. I was shocked to discover here a list of all the organisations I had enabled to see my Facebook information, including such details as my Friends list. Ehich I had made accessible to the Daily Express, because I must have signed on to it at one time using Facebook.
Hover in turn over each name listed. If you have any doubts about it, x it out to remove it. Otherwise, click on the pencil icon that appears, in order to edit.
REMOVE permission to see your list of Friends (of course you never consciously gave it; that’s the point), your birthday (for financial security reasons, I gave a fake, which I noted elsewhere, in case I need it to unlock my account), and anything else that you are not happy for that organisation to have. In particular, scan down to remove (I was shocked to discover I had even given) permission to see “likes”. Do you really want these companies to know that much about you? And set “App visibility” to “Only me”.
You can ask the companies whose Apps are shown to delete information they hold about you, but there is no way that Facebook or anyone else can tell if they have actually done so.
Security and login: change your password
Privacy settings and Tools: IMPORTANT – set “Who can see your friends list?” to “Only me”. Otherwise, you are giving away usable information about your friends without their permission. The other settings here depend on how you use Facebook, who you want to see everything you do there, and who you want to be able to find and contact you.
Timeline and tagging: “Only me” for the right to carrying on your timeline,”Review posts”, and “Review tags” should be On.
Ad preferences: read what Facebook says about these on this page. Once you have done so, you may want to remove some of the information that you have placed on your public profile. Notice that categories of ads you have clicked on then appear on the sub-page “Your interests”,although you may remove these by hovering and x-ing out. I just removed several of these in order to protect my own privacy.
App preferences: this is different from “Apps” and is, designedly, diffcult to get to.I followed the istructions given here; which were: While logged in, open a tab and go to https://www.facebook.com/settings?tab=applications
Then either click the Edit button under “Apps, Websites and Plugins” and disable platform or, my choice, go to “Apps Others Use”, run your eye down what you’ve checked for such apps to read about you (I was horrified), uncheck as necessary, and save changes.
Reporting fake news: details from here; Click on the three dots to the right of the title of the pot, then to “give feedback on this post”, then to “False news” and follow obvious links.
And when you’ve done all that, go to the bottom of the list that came up when you clicked that little arrow and log off. That may make it a bit more difficult for companies (or others carrying out surveillance) to spy on you.
And while we’re at it, why just Facebook? see Pigliucci’s Against the Four (Amazon, Apple, facebook, and Google). I have now replaced Google’s Chrome browser with Firefox, and set my default search engine to DuckDuckGo, which does not record my search history.
I do not claim any special competence in this kind of technical area (the very reverse in fact). So I am sure that this post has many inadequacies, and would strongly welcome comments and suggestions for improvement.
h/t Jim Stone for information on App preferences and on Reporting fake news. Disclosure: WordPress has access to my Facebook friends list. This may be totally unnecessary, but I did not want to risk disrupting communication.
I am in the middle of a series of posts about scientific method, so this seemed very much to the point. especially, how to avoid acting like a Doctor Authority Figure Type (DAFT), while still defending the value of expert evidence over anecdote (and, I would add, over ideology)?
There’s a book out there that seems to be attracting lots of lightning bolts (Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!). GG is not interested in reading or discussing that, per se. It sounds as though logic and empirical observation got confused in there (they are not the same). What got his attention was one of the responses by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who essentially argues that smugness by those who purport to know better will stifle real science. The nub of the argument is in this quote:
I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the…
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I learnt about this pledge from the Skeptic Reading Room. And while I generally loathe public pledges (too much virtue signalling for my liking), I am making an exception for this one, in response to our exceptional times. And the fine print makes admirable reading. Besides, several hundred public figures and organizations have signed it, including Steven Pinker and Peter Singer, and what’s good enough for them is good enough for me. Many dozens of politicians have signed it as well, and one of the aims is to persuade more to do so, and hold them accountable.
Truth matters. Propagating untruth is big business and big politics. The traditional guardians of truth have abdicated, are compromised, or lack traction. By default, the job of protecting truth falls to us. We need to take our responsibility seriously.
We are all drawn towards confirmation bias, group think (our own group, of course!), lack of diligence in verifying material that agrees with us, lack of charity towards opponents, and more besides. So the pledge is no trivial commitment and I certainly found that reading it gave me much pause for thought about my own behaviour.
Here’s what the pledge commits you to. You can sign it here. I have. Hold me to it.
I Pledge My Earnest Efforts To:
- Verify: fact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it
- Balance: share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support my opinion
- Cite: share my sources so that others can verify my information
- Clarify: distinguish between my opinion and the facts
- Acknowledge: acknowledge when others share true information, even when we disagree otherwise
- Reevaluate: reevaluate if my information is challenged, retract it if I cannot verify it
- Defend: defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when we disagree otherwise
- Align: align my opinions and my actions with true information
- Fix: ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved even if they are my allies
- Educate: compassionately inform those around me to stop using unreliable sources even if these sources support my opinion
- Defer: recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
- Celebrate: celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth
“With every ‘I told you so’ and demand that they apologize to you, personally, for the sin of being wrong, you are hardening [them] against the possibility of changing their minds. I know you may feel that you cannot be happy until they apologize, admit they were wrong, that they were stupid, that everything they ever believed about the war was in error. They know it too… [But] they don’t want to make you happy. Frankly, you haven’t given them any reason to.” Megan McArdle, The Atlantic, writing in 2008, about why so many people still refused to admit that the 2003 invasion of Iraq had led to disaster, and even persisted in believing in the face of the evidence that Saddam Hussein really had had weapons of mass destruction.
Now think how this applies to Trump supporters, as they get more and more opportunities to see what was really meant by “getting rid of Obamacare” or by “cutting taxes” or by “draining the swamp” or by “Make America Great Again”, or by “crooked” or by having someone of Trump’s moral and intellectual calibre in the White House.
Of course, with a little bit of effort you can do even worse than that. You can insult them. Ignore that many of them had voted for Obama (see map on right). Ignore the long slow steady slide of Democratic support in Middle America. Ignore how six decades of business as usual had done nothing or less than nothing for small town rural America. Ignore the loss of American (and other!) lives in undeclared wars that most Americans hadn’t even heard of. Ignore that the alternative to Trump was someone who saw nothing wrong in taking six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs (“that’s what they offered“). Just remind them how stupid you think they are. Call them bigots too, if you like. Or deplorables. Works every time.
The McArdle quotation is from a long and thoughtful essay entitled Anger Management, on the importance of bridge-building, originally written during Iraq’s descent into chaos, but now more relevant than ever. I came across it through Being Wrong, Kathryn Schultz’s splendid account of how we are all more or less wrong (even you and me, dear reader) most of the time, how essential this is to our growth, and how difficult it is for all of us to admit it. Especially when the Other Lot are self-righteously asking us to do so.
A final quote from McArdle: “I as well as anyone know the delights of unloading one’s accumulated venom on richly deserving targets… But I also understand that unloading, while making me feel better, does not usually advance my cause.”
Venom is not, and should not be, enough to win elections.