This from The Washington Post:
Facebook has removed fake accounts, possibly from Russia, that may have tried to influence the midterm elections. The company banned 32 accounts and pages on Facebook and Instagram after identifying what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The accounts and pages spent about $11,000 in advertising to promote posts that focused on divisive topics ranging from abolishing ICE to a “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C. According to the New York Times, Facebook officials told lawmakers that Russia may be behind the campaign, but had yet to confirm the country’s involvement. The news comes after a Russian troll farm, known as the Internet Research Agency, (IRA) was accused of purposely interfering in the 2016 election. In a statement, Facebook said that “It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths” to hide their true identities than IRA did in the past.
Interesting essay by Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela who is now an academic at Harvard. His argument is basically that societies which impose an ethnic rather than a civic idea of citizenship inevitably doom themselves to technological backwardness. The reason is that
implementing many technologies also requires ingredients that can be provided only through non-market mechanisms, and here governments play a critical role. Consider high-speed rail. Without government authorization and cooperation, no private company can build a rail line. Western Europe has more than 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) of high-speed rail, and China has over 25,000. The United States claims to have 56 kilometers, in a short stretch that covers less than 8% of the distance between Boston and Washington, DC. The reason is obvious: this is a technology that, like the electric car, requires a social decision and a government that enables that choice.
In short, technology requires a society that connects to the world, both through trade and openness to talent, in order to exploit the gains from modularization. It also requires a society that is able to develop a shared sense of purpose, one that is deep and powerful enough to direct the government to provide the public goods that new technologies require. The first requirement is facilitated by a society having a broader and more inclusive sense of who is a member. The second is facilitated by a deeper and more meaningful sense of membership.
Developing these attitudes is not easy. It requires a civic rather than an ethnic sense of nationhood. This is why the stakes in today’s policy debates in the West are not just about values. In a competitive world, societies pay dearly for being unable – or unwilling – to deliver what technology wants.
The Spanish Empire made the choice to expel the Jews and the Moors from its realm in the late fifteenth century. It tried and failed to impose its intolerance on its dominions in the Low Countries in the sixteenth century. But after an 80-year bloody war of independence, the Netherlands emerged as a beacon of tolerance and attracted some of Europe’s greatest talent, from Descartes to Spinoza. Not surprisingly, it became the world’s richest country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
It’s a good essay, marred only by Hausmann’s inexplicable endorsement of Kevin Kelly’s daft book, What Technology Wants.
This morning’s Observer column:
Who – or what – is Mark Zuckerberg? Obviously he’s the founder and CEO of Facebook, which is, in theory, a public company but is in fact his fiefdom, as a casual inspection of the company’s SEC filings confirms. They show that his ownership of the controlling shares means that he can do anything he likes, including selling the company against the wishes of all the other shareholders combined.
But the fact that Zuck wields autocratic power over a huge corporation doesn’t quite get the measure of him. A better metaphor is that he is the Dr Frankenstein de nos jours. Readers of Mary Shelley’s great 19th-century novel will know the story: of how an ingenious scientist – Dr Victor Frankenstein – creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Repulsed by the monster he has made, Frankenstein flees, but finds that he cannot escape his creation. In the end, Frankenstein dies of exposure in the Arctic, pursuing the monster who has murdered his bride. We never learn what happened to the creature.
Facebook is Zuckerberg’s monster. Unlike Frankenstein, he is still enamoured of his creation, which has made him richer than Croesus and the undisputed ruler of an empire of 2.2 billion users. It has also given him a great deal of power, together with the responsibilities that go with it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that his creature is out of control, that he’s uneasy about the power and has few good ideas about how to discharge his responsibilities…
From John Cassidy:
If you thought that Donald Trump’s bowing and scraping to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki would put a big dent in his approval ratings, think again. Two new polls suggest that the President standing next to his Russian counterpart and publicly questioning U.S. intelligence findings about Russian interference in the 2016 election didn’t change anything much. That’s a testament to the unprecedented level of polarization in the American electorate. And it suggests that, as the midterms get closer, Trump will descend further into race-baiting and demagoguery as a way to keep his supporters engaged.
The weekly Gallup poll, which was released on Monday afternoon, estimated Trump’s approval rating at forty-two per cent, which represents a drop of one percentage point from the previous week. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, which was released over the weekend, put Trump’s rating at forty-five per cent—a one-point gain since last month. Since there are substantial margins of error attached to both polls, the over-all picture that they draw is one of stasis. Most Americans disapprove of the rogue President, but Trump’s base of support remains solid, and it encompasses more than eight in ten self-identified Republicans…
The only development that might change things is if the Republicans do badly in the mid-term elections. At that point they may decide that Trump has outlived his usefulness to them. (Just as the GOP decided Joe McCarthy’s fate in the 1950s.) We’ll have to wait and see.
Useful essay in the Guardian by Oscar Schwartz on the clickbait-driven inanity of public discourse about AI. Sample:
Zachary Lipton, an assistant professor at the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, watched with frustration as this story transformed from “interesting-ish research” to “sensationalized crap”.
According to Lipton, in recent years broader interest in topics like “machine learning” and “deep learning” has led to a deluge of this type of opportunistic journalism, which misrepresents research for the purpose of generating retweets and clicks – he calls it the “AI misinformation epidemic”. A growing number of researchers working in the field share Lipton’s frustration, and worry that the inaccurate and speculative stories about AI, like the Facebook story, will create unrealistic expectations for the field, which could ultimately threaten future progress and the responsible application of new technologies.
Good stuff. Lipton’s blog is terrific btw.
One quick tip for improving coverage. Most stuff labelled as “AI” is actually just machine learning. So why not say that?
This — from Bloomberg — is interesting:
Facebook Inc. hasn’t been able to do anything right — except when it comes to making money, where it could do nothing wrong.
That changed on Wednesday, when the company posted disappointing growth in revenue, profits and the number of visitors to its digital hangouts. Results are still stellar by the standards of most companies, but investors in fast-growing technology companies react badly when their high hopes aren’t met, as Netflix recently found out. Facebook hit a record stock price on Wednesday, but after the release of its financial results, its shares dropped a stunning 24 percent in after-hours trading.
And no wonder. The company’s financial results, and especially its glimpse into a more pessimistic financial future, were utter disaster for investors. If what the company predicts comes to pass, the internet’s best combination of fast revenue growth and plump profit margins is dead. All at once, it seemed, reality finally caught up to Facebook.
Well, among other things (including plans for its very own earth-orbiting satellites), those 20,000+ content ‘moderators’ have to be paid for somehow.
Interesting NYT piece by Kevin Roose in which he points out that the key question about regulating Facebook is not that lawmakers know very little about how it works, but whether they have the political will to regulate it. My hunch is that they don’t, but if they did then the first thing to do would be fix on some clear ideas about what’s wrong with the company.
Here’s the list of possibilities cited by Roose:
- Is it that Facebook is too cavalier about sharing user data with outside organizations?
- Is it that Facebook collects too much data about users in the first place?
- Is it that Facebook is promoting addictive messaging products to children?
- Is it that Facebook’s news feed is polarizing society, pushing people to ideological fringes?
- Is it that Facebook is too easy for political operatives to exploit, or that it does not do enough to keep false news and hate speech off users’ feeds?
- Is it that Facebook is simply too big, or a monopoly that needs to be broken up?
How about: all of the above?
Martin Wolf has a brilliant review of Adam Tooze’s Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World in Saturday’s FT ($). His review touches on two things in particular that have preoccupied me ever since the crash. One is the failure to hold those responsible to account; the other is about the way the losses run up by capitalist irresponsibility were then socialised — by loading them onto ordinary citizens. (If I remember correctly, the bailing out of the banks dumped a debt of Euro 30,000 on every Irish citizen.). The other was the way politicians conned the public into accepting that it was public excess rather than private greed that caused the crisis.
Two excerpts from Wolf’s review elegantly make these points. Here’s the first:
The scale and nature of the required response had significant political consequences. The public was enraged by the size of support for the banks and, even worse, by the payment of the bonuses apparently due to the bankers. This was made even more infuriating by the fact that hundreds of millions of ordinary people suffered by losing their homes and jobs, or by being the victims of post-crisis austerity. Many were also enraged that so few senior individuals were charged. The trust that must exist in any democracy between elites and everybody else collapsed. With trust gone, conspiracy-mongers and political mountebank had their day.
Yep. And here’s the second gem:
Perhaps most startlingly, conservative politicians in the US, the UK and Germany successfully reframed the crisis as the result of out-of-control fiscal policy rather than the produce of an out-of-control financial sector. Thus, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK’s coalition government, shifted the blame for austerity on to alleged Labour profligacy. German politicians shifted the blame for the Greek mess from their banks onto Greek politicians. Transforming a financial crisis into a fiscal crisis confused cause with effect. Yet this political prestidigitation proved a brilliant coup. It diverted attention from the failure of the free-market finance they believed in to the costs of welfare states they disliked.
Osborne’s hypocritical dishonesty made him, for me, the most loathsome politician in Britain. (Boris Johnson runs him close, of course, but whereas Johnson is loathsome-but-chaotic, Osborne is loathsome-but-coherent: he always believed in shrinking the state and was the brains behind Cameron’s leadership.) The idea of a trust-fund baby delightedly imposing economic hardship on poorer citizens turns the stomach. Just about the only good thing about Theresa May’s ascent to the premiership was the cool, calculated cruelty of the way she sacked Osborne.
All of which suggests that the best explanation for the waves of populism now breaking on our shores is simply that they are the long-delayed explosion of rage at the way people have been screwed by neoliberal capitalism. And the storm has some way to go before its force is spent.
This morning’s Observer column:
In their book, The Future of Violence, Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum point out that one of the things that made the Roman empire so powerful was its amazing network of paved roads. This network made it easy to move armies relatively quickly. But it also made it possible to move goods around, too, and so Roman logistics were more efficient and dependable than anything that had gone before. Had Jeff Bezos been around in AD125, he would have been the consummate road hog. But in the end, this feature turned out to be also a bug, for when the tide of history began to turn against the empire, those terrific roads were used by the Goths to attack and destroy it.
In a remarkable new paper, Jack Goldsmith and Stuart Russell point out that there’s a lesson here for us. “The internet and related digital systems that the United States did so much to create,” they write, “have effectuated and symbolised US military, economic and cultural power for decades.” But this raises an uncomfortable question: in the long view of history, will these systems, like the Roman empire’s roads, come to be seen as a platform that accelerated US decline?
I think the answer to their question is yes…