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
“My vote won’t make the difference.” Of course it won’t. But you are part of a community of like-minded people with shared interests. Collectively, such communities make all the difference in the world. So you can do your bit, or you can let your friends do all the work without you. Up to you.
First, make sure you’re registered. This cannot be taken for granted, especially if you have moved in the past couple of years, and even if you had been automatically registered before that. The Cameron Government changed the rules, in a way a highly unfavourable to students and others who change addresses. I wonder why.
It takes less than 5 minutes. Go to https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote?gclid=COaV5_HL7NMCFawp0wod-ykCSw and follow instructions. You will generally need your National Insurance number. You must be 18 or over, a British citizen, a qualifying Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. And you can’t vote if you’re in the House of Lords, or in jail. You will also find instructions for armed service or overseas voting, and for postal voting.
How to vote? The UK system is First past the post. You only get to vote for one candidate. So
- If your most preferred (or lease unpreferred) candidate has a real chance of winning in your constituency, vote for them
- Otherwise, vote for your choice, however reluctant, between the candidates who do have a chance of winning there.
- If your top priority is to stop one particular party from being elected, vote for whoever is most likely to defeat them in your constituency. For many (not all) of my friends, this will mean voting for whoever is most likely to defeat the Tory. You can find guidance on that here, and although I have not checked the site’s credentials, I have looked at a number of its recommendations and they seem reasonable.
Finally, if you have not yet decided your preference, I have a very old-fashioned solution. Look at the record of this Government, what it has to offer, and compare it with the alternatives. For example, if you think that the railways are better under private ownership, that Brexit negotiations are being conducted with skill and competence, that the NHS in England is well supported, that Government finances are under control, and that poverty and homelessness are no longer real problems in Britain, you should definitely vote Tory.
“Is this proof dinosaurs lived with HUMANS? Creationist claims REAL truth COVERED UP”
The Express, an ostensibly serious right wing UK newspaper, reports under “SCIENCE”.
The evidence? A display at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum. Ham is quoted as saying that the standard scientific evidence is a coverup, as his own dinosaur fossils show, for some unstated but presumably non-standard reason:
“Ken Ham, founder of Creation Museum in Kentucky, United States, has put the supposed evidence on display at his centre. Standard scientific evidence shows dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago … and the anatomically modern man did not emerge until around 200,000 years ago. But Mr Ham believes this is a cover-up … the dinosaur fossils were found in Colorado about a decade ago and seem to represent a tyrannosaurus rex [sic].”
(Fuller quotations supplied by the Sensuous Curmudgeon, here)
Ham complains that evolutionists “use dinosaurs … to promote their worldview”. How dare they! But do not accuse the Express of bias. It does refer to what it calls “the standard scientific evidence”, and they do quote two sentences from Bill Nye, before showing the image on the right:
And compared with the image below, the paper’s front page in the runup to the Brexit referendum, the dinosaur story is factually balanced reporting reporting; fake news is not the invention of the Trump campaign.
The Express group is wholly-owned by Richard Desmond, a UK billionaire and former publisher of such informative periodicals as Penthouse and Asian Babes. circulation is close to 400,000, in addition to online readership. In 2002, Desmond made a £100,000 donation to Blair’s Labour Party, but in 2004 switched allegiance to the Conservatives.
The lead story of this post would seem to be based on the February 4 2014 debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, which did so much to restore the former’s finances. Why it should have resurfaced now in the Express, I have no idea. But it does concern me. Desmond does not make a habit of backing longterm losers.
I’ve been listening to the Brexit fall out from outside Britain, which gives me a different perspective to some. I’m able to see the reactions both north and south of the border, and the reactions of the international media and other EU members. Some things are very striking.
North of the Border in Scotland, the reaction has been one of relatively short-lived outrage, which was quickly subordinated to pragmatic concerns for how to deal with this. Nicola Sturgeon had obviously seriously entertained this possible outcome and planned for it, putting her leadership head and shoulders above the rest of Britain’s politicians. In my estimation, she is the only prominent politician to have come out of this debacle looking competent, measured and calm. Her plans are being well received in Europe, and Scotland will, according to what I am hearing, shortly be independent and remain as an EU member without having to reapply [PB: I think this is optimistic].
South of the border, politicians have imploded. There is no leadership anywhere, no plan, no clue, and bickering is the order of the day. The public reaction is split into three; remainers who are understandably furious and only getting more so as no one steps up to the plate to deal with the problem, leavers who are struck with sudden comprehension and horror at what they did, and leavers who are perfectly happy with the result and now quite content to wait for their prize. My feed is filled with contradictory stories, some trying to claim that Brexit will never happen for a variety of reasons, some urging we get on with it, and some braying happily that the Federal Republic of Cuckoostan will be next and there will be no EU within 10 days. Such hatred for an institution which benefits millions is bizarre.
The international perspective is one of bridges burned. There is huge distaste now for Britain and a strong desire to divorce us as quickly as possible. Many wish to ensure that the EU gets all the china and the dog in the settlement so that no one else is this stupid in future. Having said that, excluding countries like Spain with an obvious self interest, Scotland is getting a warm reception and a general but vague sense of support.
As we sit in political limbo, waiting for someone to take control, the ironic position is building that if no one triggers Article 50, Britain will find itself a political pariah within the EU, diminished by the loss of Scotland which is now inevitable, suffering the loss of influence which occurs when everyone realises that we’re basically pretty dumb as a nation, and having placed itself in the position that our concessions, both existing and negotiated, might well be lost because of our own intransigence. All this clamour and pain, all the turmoil of Brexit, and the end position might yet be that we stay in the EU, smaller, less powerful, and immensely poorer for the hatred and divisions which now run rife in our once green and pleasant land. Brexit will go down in history, in Shakespeare’s words, as a Tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
An excellent analysis, including well-chosen images, by the invaluable Kenan Malik: https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/britain-europe-a nd-the-real-crisis/
(Left: The Sleep of reason produces monsters, Goya)
The Leave campaign used brilliant iconography; a pampered Old Etonian disguised as an ordinary bloke, either wearing a hard hat or at the wheel of a Labour red London bus carrying a mendacious advertisement, despite the fact that both Labour and London supported Remain. Its more disreputable wing also used emotional linkage between East European immigrants and immigrants from the Muslim world, as in the notorious Daily Mail front page showing Afghans intercepted in a people-smuggling lorry under the headline “We’re from Europe; let us in”.
For decades, Progressives like Lakoff (“Don’t Think of an Elephant”) have been telling us of the importance of framing our arguments. The point has been well taken, unfortunately, not by his intended audience but by their opponents. It is time we woke up.
A comment on the Remain campaign. I am a scientist, a strong Remain supporter, and take some trouble to keep myself reasonably well-informed. Yet I did not know, until I read Wandering Gaia’s post below, that 17 Nobel Prize scientists had come out for Remain. Something is wrong.
And an uneasy comment on how some of my Remain friends have reacted to the vote; insulting those whom you have failed to convince is not necessarily the most constructive response.
There’s been a trend over the past decade in translating forgotten Eastern European plays from the 1930s and 40s, resetting them in a contemporary Britain and staging them to new London audiences. The problem I’ve always found with these adaptations is that the plays – often satires – only really make sense in the context of the time and place for which they were written. Emerging into a relaxed 21st century London after curtainfall, stretches the “it could happen here” premise too far.
The events of of the past week have undone this certainty – have undone me.
As I write, Britain faces a deep economic recession with cuts areas already struggling in the wake of years of austerity policy, including our cherished National Health Service, social care, transport and infrastructure, housing, regeneration for deprived areas, education and environmental services. Food, energy, oil prices are set to rise. Jobs will…
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“Dumping regulations in areas such as working hours, gender equality and climate change would boost business.” Source: Prof Miford of Economists for Brexit, summarised in Financial Times on June 15:
Vote Leave if you think that (a) Prof Minford is right in saying that these things will boost the economy enough to overcome the financial costs of leaving (most economists strongly disageee), and (b) the economy is more important than people or planet.