Challenging earthly powers

From this morning’s Observer: the Introduction to my 95 Theses project.

A new power is loose in the world. It is nowhere and yet it’s everywhere. It knows everything about us – our movements, our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our secrets, who our friends are, our financial status, even how well we sleep at night. We tell it things that we would not whisper to another human being. It shapes our politics, stokes our appetites, loosens our tongues, heightens our moral panics, keeps us entertained (and therefore passive). We engage with it 150 times or more every day, and with every moment of contact we add to the unfathomable wealth of its priesthood. And we worship it because we are, somehow, mesmerised by it.

In other words, we are all members of the Church of Technopoly, and what we worship is digital technology. Most of us are so happy in our obeisance to this new power that we spend an average of 50 minutes on our daily devotion to Facebook alone without a flicker of concern. It makes us feel modern, connected, empowered, sophisticated and informed.

Suppose, though, you were one of a minority who was becoming assailed by doubt – stumbling towards the conclusion that what you once thought of as liberating might actually be malign and dangerous. But yet everywhere you look you see only happy-clappy believers. How would you go about convincing the world that it was in the grip of a power that was deeply hypocritical and corrupt? Especially when that power apparently offers salvation and self-realisation for those who worship at its sites?

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Vive la France! (For the time being)

This morning’s Observer column:

The two biggest lessons of 2016 were the discovery of how social media could be used for “voter suppression” and how the open web could be “weaponised” by the “alt-right” to pollute the public sphere. The conventional wisdom that Trump did not have a data operation was mistaken. He did have a “digital operations division” based in San Antonio with about 100 programmers, web developers, network engineers, data scientists, graphic artists, ad copywriters and media buyers. Their main approach seems to have involved using social media and other data to identify Democratic voters in swing states who were unenthusiastic about Clinton and to target them with messages likely to reduce the likelihood that they would vote for her. On other words, to engage in data-driven vote suppression.

The other insight of 2016 was provided by Jonathan Albright’s revelations of the extent of the far right’s online ecosystem and its ingenuity in exploiting YouTube and other legitimate sites to disseminate fake news and conspiracy theories. In doing this, the movement exploited both the business models of Google and Facebook, which depend on increasing “user engagement” (ie sharing, likes, links), and human psychology (which seems to find fake news more interesting and “shareable” than more sober, reliable information).

It is now surmised that the Brexit campaign in the UK may have been a dry run for these techniques and we know that they were deployed in France, presumably to increase the chances of a Le Pen victory…

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Jimmy Wales goes after fake news. Brave man.

This morning’s Observer column:

What has come to be called “fake news” is a hard problem to solve, if indeed it is solvable at all. This is because it is created by the interaction of human psychology with several forces: the affordances of digital technology, the business models of giant internet companies and the populist revolt against globalisation. But that hasn’t stopped people trying to solve the problem.

To date, most well-intentioned people have gone down the “fact-checking” route, on the assumption that if only people knew the facts then that would stop them believing lies. This suggests a touching faith in human nature. People have been believing nonsensical things since the beginning of time and nothing we have seen recently indicates that they plan to change the habits of millenniums.

Think, for example, of the infamous lie put about by the Leave campaign in the referendum – that the £350m that the UK supposedly pays every week to the EU could be better spent on the NHS…

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One Nation Under Fox

If anyone thought that old-style media power was over, then Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox, is the living refutation of that comforting hypothesis. Fox News, according to the New York Times “has been the most watched cable news network for 15 years, but depending on the hour, the news narrative it presents to its large and loyal conservative audience can sharply diverge from what consumers of other media outlets may be seeing.”

Times reporters watched Fox News from 6 a.m. until midnight last Thursday to see how its coverage varied from that of its rivals on a day when cable news was dominated by the health care debate in Congress, the terrorist attack in London and the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

One notable way Fox News stood apart from its competition, as it has been known to do for years, was in the stories it chose to highlight and the tone — in some of its opinion shows, unapologetically supportive of Mr. Trump and his agenda — with which it covered them.

There was extensive coverage of the health care vote, for example, but there was also considerable time given to topics, like a rape case in Maryland, that viewers would not have heard about if they had turned to CNN or MSNBC. The rape case, which involved an undocumented immigrant and went virtually uncovered on most networks, received almost hourly updates on Fox, and at times was used as proof that Mr. Trump’s calls for tighter borders and a crackdown on immigration were justified.

The key role played in the US election by TV is also a cautionary tale for those who thought that the Internet would eventually wipe out TV. This is the most common misconception about new communications technologies: what John Seely Brown calls “endism” — the belief that new media wipe out older media. That’s why I’ve argued for many years that a better metaphor for our communications environment is ecological. New media don’t wipe out older ones; but new relationships (many of them symbiotic, and sometimes parasitic) evolve. Broadcast TV has, of course, been eroded by the rise of ‘on-demand’ viewing, Netflix, etc. But TV hasn’t gone away, and Fox’s dominance confirms that.

Is Snapchat the canary in the post-literate mine?

This morning’s Observer column:

To the average grownup [Snapchat] seems weird. And it is. Just when we’d got used to the idea that digital technology never forgets – that there’s no way of being sure that the embarrassing photograph you posted to Facebook five years ago will not stay on some server somewhere for ever – here’s a digital service that runs completely counter to that. And of course Snapchat’s wild popularity must owe something to the ephemerality of its messages.

But some perceptive observers are beginning to think that there’s more to it than that. One clue can be found in something that Evan Spiegel, the chief executive of Snap, recently said to a reporter. “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day,” he said. “What they don’t realise is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” Another clue is hiding in plain sight in the name of the app: “snap” (the term introduced by Kodak for the act of taking a photograph) plus “chat” (which has connotations of oral conversation). So, in some strange way, is Snapchat beginning to assume the qualities of an oral medium?

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Understanding Snapchat

Now that the IPO has valued Snap at $30B, perhaps the adult world will grasp that there’s something interesting here. Joel Stein has had a pretty good go at explaining it for them. Here’s the gist from his piece in Time:

Snapchat makes visual communication so frictionless that, according to Nielsen, it is used by roughly half of 18-to-34-year-olds, which is about seven times better than any TV network. Those who use it daily open the app 18 times a day for a total of nearly 30 minutes. Last fall, Snapchat passed Instagram and Facebook as the most important social network in the semiannual Taking Stock With Teens poll by the investment bank Piper Jaffray. Tweens used to count the days until they turned 13 so they could open a Facebook account; now they often don’t bother. And just as Facebook matured years ago, Snapchat is starting to be used by adults. The company says the app is now used by 158 million people daily, though that growth has slowed a bit lately.

Snapchat’s ethos is largely about the seemingly contrary values of control and fun: the company prospectus is one of the few in Wall Street history to use the word poop, employing it to explain just how often people use their smartphones. Snapchat gives users such tight control of their disappearing messages so that they feel safe taking an imperfect photo or video, and then layering information on top of it in the form of text, devil horns you can draw with your finger, a sticker that says “U Jelly?” or a filter that turns your face into a corncob that spits popcorn from your mouth when you talk. Snapchat is aware that most of our conversations are stupid.

But we want to keep our dumb conversations private. When Snapchat first launched, adults assumed it was merely a safe way for teens to send nude pictures, because adults are pervs. But what Spiegel understood is that teens wanted a safe way to express themselves.

Many teens are so worried about projecting perfection on Instagram that they create Finstagram (fake Instagram) profiles that only their friends know about. “Teens are very, very interested in safety, including something they call ’emotional safety,'” says San Diego State psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of the forthcoming iGen: The 10 Trends Shaping Today’s Young People–and the Nation. “They know on Snapchat, ‘If I make a funny face or use one of the filters and make myself look like a dog, it’s going to disappear. It won’t be something permanent my enemies at school can troll me about.'”

The Economist also has a kindly explanation for baffled oldies.

Trump’s media strategy: “darkly brilliant”

Bret Stephens of the WSJ gave the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture this week at UCLA. It’s well worth reading in full, but this bit is really fine:

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

But again, that’s not all the president is doing.

Consider this recent exchange he had with Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly asks:

“Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things that you can’t back up factually, and as the President you say there are three million illegal aliens who voted and you don’t have the data to back that up, some people are going to say that it’s irresponsible for the President to say that?”

To which the president replies:

“Many people have come out and said I’m right.”

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention then certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument. [Emphasis added]

He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.

This is brilliant. Really nails it.

Why fake news won’t be easy to fix

This morning’s Observer column:

The debate about “fake news” and the “post-truth” society we now supposedly inhabit has become the epistemological version of a feeding frenzy: so much heat, so little light. Two things about it are particularly infuriating. The first is the implicit assumption that “truth” is somehow a straightforward thing and our problem is that we just can’t be bothered any more to find it. The second is the failure to appreciate that the profitability, if not the entire business model, of both Google and Facebook depends critically on them not taking responsibility for what passes through their servers. So hoping that these companies will somehow fix the problem is like persuading turkeys to look forward to Christmas…

Read

Sad but true: ‘Digital natives’ can be, er, naive

This morning’s Observer column:

If Facebook thinks it can outsource the detection of fake news to its users (and thereby avoid accepting editorial responsibility) then Stanford University has some bad news for it. Over the past 18 months the university’s history education group has been testing the ability of 7,800 “digital natives” (ie at middle school, high school and college students) in 12 states to judge the credibility of online information…

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Why the moral panic about fake news might have an unpalatable outcome

Jack Shafer is right: the moral panic about fake news on social media — especially Facebook — looks like becoming serious. But, he warns, the cure (Zuckerberg becoming the world’s censor) would be worse than the disease.

Already, otherwise intelligent and calm observers are cheering plans set forth by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to censor users’ news feeds in a fashion that will eliminate fake news. Do we really want Facebook exercising this sort of top-down power to determine what is true or false? Wouldn’t we be revolted if one company owned all the newsstands and decided what was proper and improper reading fare?

Once established to crush fake news, the Facebook mechanism could be repurposed to crush other types of information that might cause moral panic. This cure for fake news is worse than the disease.

As we applaud Facebook’s decision to blue-pencil the News Feed, we need to ask why fake news exists and—as I previously wrote—why it has existed for centuries…

Good question. And the answer:

The audience for fake news resembles the crowds who pay money to attend magic shows. Magic-show patrons know going in that some of what they’re going to see is genuine. But they also know that a good portion of what they’re going to see is going to look real but be phony. Like a woman sawed in half. Or an act of levitation. Being shown something fantastical that is almost true brings delight to almost everybody. People like to be fooled…

Spot on. That’s why millions of people in the UK pay good money every day to buy the Sun and (worse) the Daily Express. It also partly explained why they liked Trump. Sad but true fact about human nature. Or, as Shafer puts it, “Deep in the brain exists a hungry lobe that loves to be deceived.” Sigh.