Quote of the Day

“You can never underestimate the effect in American public life of complete and utter incomprehensibility.”

Henry Kissinger, quoted in today’s Financial Times

Reactionary rhetoric

” I must have an inbred urge toward symmetry. In canvassing for the principal ways of criticizing, assaulting, and ridiculing the three successive “progressive” thrusts of Marshall’s story, I have come up with another triad: that is, with three principal reactive-reactionary theses, which I call the perversity thesis or thesis of the perverse effect, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to ‘make a dent.’ Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the code of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.”

From Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, 1991.

Facebook won’t fix fake news or filter bubbles for one simple reason: its business model depends on them

I’ve had a few goes at this (for example here and here) but Frederic Filloux has done an even better job:

Setting aside the need to fix its current PR nightmare, Facebook has no objective interest in fixing its fake stories problem.

In the end, it all boils down to this:

Facebook is above all an advertising machine. A fantastic one. I encourage everyone to explore its spectacular advertising interface and, even better, to spend a few bucks to boost a post, or build an ad. Its power, reach, granularity and overall efficiency are dizzying.

Facebook’s revenue system depends on a single parameter: page views. Pages views come from sharing. Which page criteria lead to the best sharing volumes?

You know the answer:

  • Emotions, preferably positive ones
  • Fun – LOLcats, listicles, cartoons,…
  • Proximity – stuff from friends and family
  • Affinities – stuff that resonates with your feelings, values and politics (and thereby locks you into your own personal filter bubble)

Sharing is key to Facebook’s business model because it leads to higher page consumption which, in turn, leads to multiple personalised advertising exposures.

It’s a great post, well worth reading in full. What I particularly enjoyed is Filloux’s takedown of young Zuckerberg’s cant about connecting everybody. This is what the lad said:

We stand for connecting every person. For a global community. For bringing people together. For giving all people a voice. For a free flow of ideas and culture across nations. And this idea of connecting the world has gotten stronger over the last century. You can now travel almost anywhere in the world in less than a day. Countries trade more openly and cooperate more easily than ever. And the Internet has enabled all of us to access and share more ideas and information than ever before. We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we’re all better off for it.

Sounds good? Only problem: it’s BS. As Filloux puts it:

Facebook might have created a “global community” but its components are utterly segregated and fragmented.

Facebook is made up of dozens of millions of groups carefully designed to share the same views and opinions. Each group is protected against ideological infiltration from other cohorts. Maintaining the integrity of these walls is the primary mission of Facebook’s algorithm.

Yep. QED.

Trump: Erdogan 2.0?

Interesting OpEd piece — by a former CIA officer, Evan McMullin:

As a C.I.A. officer, I saw firsthand authoritarians’ use of these tactics around the world. Their profound appetite for absolute power drives their intolerance for any restraint — whether by people, organizations, the law, cultural norms, principles or even the expectation of consistency. For a despot, all of these checks on power must be ignored, undermined or destroyed so that he is all that matters.

Mr. Trump has said that he prefers to be unpredictable because it maximizes his power. During his recent interview with The New York Times, he casually abandoned his fiery calls during the campaign for torture, prosecuting Hillary Clinton and changing libel laws. Mr. Trump’s inconsistencies and provocative proposals are a strategy; they are intended to elevate his importance above all else — and to place him beyond democratic norms, beyond even the Constitution…

So what is this “populism”, then?

A useful WashPo review of Jan-Werner Müller’s book on populism quotes the three defining features identified by Müller:

First, populists are anti-elitists, meaning they criticize the established political, cultural and economic leadership. Second, they must be anti-pluralist, claiming sole representation of the people. When Trump says that “I alone can fix” what ails us, or assures supporters that “I am your voice,” he is asserting uncontested, unmediated leadership. Finally, populism is exclusionary, in the sense that “the people” are an increasingly circumscribed set; though they might begin as the white working class or another loosely defined group, they are quickly reduced to supporters of the leader. Otherwise, you are traitorous, inauthentic. “This is the core claim of populism,” Müller writes. “Only some of the people are really the people.”

‘Respect’ is a two-edged sword

One of the most outrageous things that’s going on at the moment is the attempted appropriation of the moral high ground by Brexiteers and Trump. In the former case, they secured the approval of just over half of UK voters while in the US Trump actually lost in the the popular vote even though he won the Electoral College. And yet both sets of insurgents behave as if they had secured a 99% mandate. And Trump, being a narcissist, will doubtless start whinging that he deserves ‘respect’ when he takes the oath of office.

Well, two can play at that game. Trump denied Obama that vaunted respect when he was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in a splendid New Yorker piece:

America loves winners, but victory does not absolve. Victory, especially a slender one decided by a few thousand votes in a handful of states, does not guarantee respect. Nobody automatically deserves deference on ascending to the leadership of any country. American journalists know this only too well when reporting on foreign leaders—their default mode with Africans, for instance, is nearly always barely concealed disdain. President Obama endured disrespect from all quarters. By far the most egregious insult directed toward him, the racist movement tamely termed “birtherism,” was championed by Trump.

Yep. So if the UK government invites Trump on a State Visit and he expects ‘respect’, then he should be treated with the same disrespect that we would have shown to Idi Amin or any other tyrant. And nobody should be surprised if Princes William and Harry refused to meet a man who once boasted that he could have “nailed” (i.e. screwed) their late mother.

How do you throw the book at an algorithm?

This morning’s Observer column:

When, in the mid-1990s, the world wide web transformed the internet from a geek playground into a global marketplace, I once had an image of seeing two elderly gentlemen dancing delightedly in that part of heaven reserved for political philosophers. Their names: Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.

Why were they celebrating? Because they saw in the internet a technology that would validate their most treasured beliefs. Smith saw vigorous competition as the benevolent “invisible hand” that ensured individuals’ efforts to pursue their own interests could benefit society more than if they were actually trying to achieve that end. Hayek foresaw the potential of the internet to turn almost any set of transactions into a marketplace as a way of corroborating his belief that price signals communicated via open markets were the optimum way for individuals to co-ordinate their activities.

In the 1990s, those rosy views of the online world made sense…

Read on