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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.


L: Via New York Times, A false Facebook claim from Sri Lanka : “23,000 sterilization pills caught in Ampara. Thank you to the police. Muslim pharmacy owner from Akkaraipattu arrested. Who wants to sterilize the Sinhalese?”

Facebook algorithms automatically promote those messages that keep people spending more time on the site. Read the rest of this entry

What to do about your Facebook settings *right now*

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.

Christopher Wylie describes his part in Cambridge Analytica’s work for Bannon

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

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.

Nonsense from Nagel, and the myth of “common sense”

The appearance of Nagel’s assault on evolutionary science, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, from a position of self-confessed ignorance regarding the underlying science, prompts me to post what I wrote about his methods a few years ago (note BTW the giveaway description of 21st Century science by a mid-19th Century label):

Common sense or utter nonsense?

“Sophisticated members of the contemporary culture have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they easily lose sight of the fact that evolutionary reductionism defies common sense. A theory that defies common sense can be true, but doubts about its truth should be suppressed only in the face of exceptionally strong evidence.” (Thomas Nagel, Philosophy & Public Affairs 36, 187-205, 2008; posted on FaceBook by Glasgow’s very own Centre for Intelligent Design)

It is difficult to see how one could cram a larger number of logical errors into so small a space.

We begin with an extraordinary smear on the writer’s opponents. The well-informed are labelled “sophisticated”, while to be convinced by the evidence is to be “indoctrinated”. And so, by a populist inversion, the near unanimity of informed opinion in support of evolution becomes an ad hominem argument against it. The suggestion that doubts are “suppressed” is another gratuitous smear, based on pretended ignorance of the robust reevaluation to which all scientific theories are continually exposed.

Reductionism is not defined in Nagel’s paper (in fact, the passage quoted is the only place where the concept is used), so I don’t know how he is using this notoriously slippery word, nor why purported explanations in terms of intelligent design (the proffered alternative) escape this fate, if indeed they do. However, it is worth pointing out that evolutionary explanations by their very nature describe the behaviour of systems, or even (if we restrict ourselves to the last billion years or so) of interlocking populations of systems, the very opposite of reductionism. I find it shocking that a philosopher of mind, of all people, should be unaware of this.

Worst of all is the appeal to common sense. Common sense is an amalgam of received and unquestioned wisdom, unexamined and often unconscious philosophical assumptions, and extrapolations from everyday experience. What appears to be in accord with common sense must depend on how much one already knows. Thus separate creation of kinds may appear to be in accord with common sense to someone who is completely ignorant of the richness of the fossil record, its relationship to the classification of modern organisms from Linnaeus onwards, the reappearance of the same Linnaean patterns in family trees based on molecular phylogeny, and the overwhelming evidence of the antiquity of the Earth. To someone familiar with these things, it will be the concept of separate creation that violates common sense.

Nagel does not tell us what he would regard as “exceptionally strong evidence”, just as he does not tell us what counts as “evolutionary reductionism”, but the evidence for evolution is presumably strong enough to persuade him to renew his annual flu jab. Since he is writing in a journal concerned with public affairs, it is also worth pointing out that it is strong enough to have led to changes in public policy on the use of antibiotics and pesticides, so as to avoid encouraging the (reductionist?) evolution of resistant strains.

However, the appeal to common sense is an intrinsically weak argument for other, much deeper, reasons. Common sense is an appeal to common experience. Much like the “intuition” discussed in Bertrand Russell’s essay, Mysticism and Logic, it is within the domain of common experience that it has the greatest credibility. Common sense tells us that we are standing still on solid ground, that animals and vegetables are different kinds, that space is Euclidean, that the heavens are unchanging, that an object will eventually come to rest if no force is acting on it, and that tables are solid. That the earth is moving, and that the continents themselves are moving across its surface, that a man shares half his genetic information with a mushroom, that matter distorts the space around it, that the universe is expanding, that a moving object will continue along its trajectory until something stops it, that matter is made up out of atoms and that almost all the mass of these atoms is crammed into a tiny nucleus less than one billionth of the total volume, all of these are violations of common sense. Nonetheless, they are fundamental facts of which any educated person should be aware, even at the cost of being described by Professor Nagel as “sophisticated” or, worse yet, “thoroughly indoctrinated”.

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