How network effects amplify lies

This morning’s Observer column:

In the 1930s, a maverick young journalist named Claud Cockburn resigned from the Times and, with £40 borrowed from an Oxford friend, bought a mimeograph machine (a low-cost duplicating machine that worked by forcing ink though a stencil on to paper). With it he set up the Week, a weekly newsletter available by subscription in which Cockburn printed news and gossip that came to him from his diverse group of contacts in both the British and German establishments.

From the beginning the Week printed stuff that the mainstream newspapers wouldn’t touch because of fears of running foul of the Official Secrets Act, the libel laws or the political establishment. Cockburn, having few assets and a rackety lifestyle, proceeded as if none of this applied to him. But people in the know – the third secretaries of foreign embassies, for example, or City bankers – quickly recognised the value of the Week (for the same reasons as they now read Private Eye). Nevertheless the circulation of Cockburn’s scandal sheet remained confined to this small elite circle – and its finances were correspondingly dodgy.

And then one day everything changed…

Read on

Empire 2.0

Now that it’s becoming clear to the Brexiteers that unless they come up with a solution to the Irish border question then everything could fall apart when the UK next meets the EU in December. Fintan O’Toole neatly decodes the xenophobic rants now emerging from the UK tabloids:

The “political process” is the Brexit negotiations, in which Britain was supposed to table “specific solutions” on Ireland by October. That deadline had to be extended to mid-December. Yet here, a month before a decision has to be made, we have the most senior British officials stating openly that they still don’t understand the problem, let alone envisage a concrete solution.

So what is the Irish government supposed to do? What happens with the border is a vital national interest. Ireland is desperate to hear what Britain has in mind. Instead, it has been told not to worry its pretty little head about it, but trust in the reassurances of its betters. It is being placed in the position of a 1950s wife, whose husband is betting the house on a horse race while he tells her, with increasingly irritation, to stop worrying because the nag is sure to romp home.

Behind this reckless arrogance, there is an assumption that Ireland is an eccentric little offshoot of Britain that must shut its gob and stop asking awkward questions. It is, in fact, a sovereign country with the full backing of 26 other EU member states – and how strange it is that we have reached a point where this comes as an unpleasant surprise to so many people in London.

The end of The End of History

Sombre column in Spiegel Online occasioned by the political infighting in Berlin:

The idea that democracy was somehow the endpoint of development was megalomaniac. As long as there is something to redistribute, every system has it easy. But in the past 11 years, freedom around the world has receded. Of 195 states only 87 are still free, 59 are partially free and 49 are not free at all according to the NGO Freedom House. Turkey and Russia have turned their backs on the group of democracies while Poland and Hungary look to be not far behind. Meanwhile, the United States is foundering. One would hope that should be enough to focus minds in Berlin. There is, after all, a lot at stake.

There is. The thing that struck me about the column, though, was the reference to our complacency about the inevitability of liberal democracy. I love Francis Fukuyama’s two books about political order (‘origins’ and ‘decay’), but the first volume, in particular, is a bit like Darwin’s Origin of Species — with liberal democracy coming to serve as the political version of Homo Sapiens. (That’s what “getting to Denmark” was all about.)

The problem is that evolution is an ongoing process. Even Homo Sapiens continues to evolve, but at a relatively leisurely pace. Political evolution, on the other hand, runs at a much faster pace. Liberal democracy might, in the longer view of history, just turn out to be a blip.

High IQ + childlike naiveté = Silicon Valley

Today’s Observer column:

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid?

Read on

Sexual predation and power

Sobering editorial by Gideon Lichfield of Quartz:

Nobody can deny the ground has shifted in America. Formerly invincible men are tumbling one by one as victims come out with their stories of sexual assault. Some, like Harvey Weinstein, were already fading from power, but others, like Louis CK, were still at the height of it.

Yet one man continues to defy America’s new moral norm: its president. Seventeen women have accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment. Their claims are more numerous and no less credible than those against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for senator in Alabama. Senate leader Mitch McConnell said this week, “I believe the women” who accused Moore, and that he “should step aside.” But asked if he believes the women who accused Trump, McConnell refused to answer. (Trump’s position: Every one of those 17 women is lying.)

So yes, the ground has shifted, but some still stand high enough on it to escape the cold, swirling waters of justice. In other words, it’s still, in the end, about power. Trump’s power is that the party still needs him (or believes it does). That means it will blatantly ignore accusations that would put any other man on the street, if not in jail.

Still, if you have to be president to achieve that sort of immunity, things aren’t so bad, right? Wrong. What Trump proves is not that you have to be president, just that you have to have leverage…

Yep. And, right on cue, comes this from the New York Times:

A year later, after a wave of harassment claims against powerful men in entertainment, politics, the arts and the news media, the discussion has come full circle with President Trump criticizing the latest politician exposed for sexual misconduct even as he continues to deny any of the accusations against him.

In this case, Mr. Trump focused his Twitter-fueled mockery on a Democratic senator while largely avoiding a similar condemnation of a Republican Senate candidate facing far more allegations. The turn in the political dialogue threatened to transform a moment of cleansing debate about sexual harassment into another weapon in the war between the political parties, led by the president himself.

Brexit: Fawlty Towers redux

Nice Observer piece by Fintan O’Toole:

We have been witnessing a very English farce, but one with a wholly new twist. In this version of Fawlty Towers, it is not Manuel the stereotypical foreigner who goes around saying: “Qué?” and: “I know nawthing!” It is the all-too-English Basil, acting out a pantomime of feigned perplexity.

Yeah, but Fawlty Towers was funny. This farce is anything but.

Political theatre in Washington

This morning’s Observer column:

Summing up: the companies have no incentive to change their ways. And there’s no real political will in the US to make them. All of which perhaps explains why Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t on Capitol Hill but in China to meet the great Thought Leader Xi Jinping. Now there’s a politician worth sucking up to.

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Google+ is a social network? No way, says Google

Lovely NYT report today:

SAN FRANCISCO — After years of trying unsuccessfully to build a social network to rival Facebook, Google finally got something out of all of its failures: cover.

Members of Congress grilled the executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter this week in a trio of hearings focused on the role that social media played in advancing a Russian disinformation campaign before the 2016 election. Google’s representative at two of the hearings, Kent Walker, the company’s general counsel, made a point of distinguishing the search giant from its internet brethren. Repeatedly and unequivocally, he answered questions at the hearings by saying, “We’re not a social network.”

Tech companies have taken a pounding in the court of public opinion in recent months. In the eyes of their critics, they have become too big, too powerful and too unmindful of their influence. And this week’s congressional hearings cast added and unflattering light on the industry’s growing embarrassment over the Russian election meddling.

Funny the way ‘social’ has suddenly become toxic.

Democracy as an ecosystem

Marvellous Guardian OpEd by Rafael Behr. Here’s the nub of it:

Inability to accept that truth and justice operate independently from the person who wields power is the essence of Trump’s unfitness for office. It is what makes him not just intellectually incapable of doing the job, but morally hostile to American political tradition. Elections, parliaments and courts are the necessary apparatus of democracy. But, as I witnessed in Chechnya, they can be quickly assembled in flatpack form. Russia’s constitution promises political rights that have no bearing on Vladimir Putin’s governing methods. The 1936 Soviet constitution guaranteed elections and a free press. It did not inhibit Stalin’s atrocities.

Democracy can be enshrined in words but it thrives through an accumulated culture and habit of honouring those words. It is an ecosystem, like a coral reef that is marvellous not just because of its solid structures but because of the diverse flora and fauna they host – the competition for resources, the interaction of predator and prey, all sustained in delicate equilibrium.

Spot on. Reminds me of something Ralf Dahrendorf wrote in 1989 in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, where he talked about democracy being a pretty fragile plant which grows only in certain, well-prepared soils.