Café culture and the Public Sphere

From Adam Gopnik’s lovely New Yorker essay on Shachar Pinsker’s book, A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture:

The still extant Café Central had an interior like a miniaturized San Marco, with hallucinatory Byzantine columns and swooping enclosing spandrels and squinches. (The fin-de-siècle modernist writer Peter Altenberg listed his address as “Vienna, First District, Café Central.”) Yet in its prime it was a “place of politics,” and crowded with émigré revolutionaries. A famous story had Leopold Berchtold, the Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, being warned that a great war might spark a revolution in Russia. “And who will lead this revolution?” he scoffed. “Perhaps Mr. Bronshtein sitting over there at the Café Central?” Mr. Bronshtein took the name Leon Trotsky, and did.

So what’s undemocratic about having a second referendum?

One of the things that really baffles me about British politics at the moment is Brexiteers’ insistence that putting the Theresa May deal to a second referendum would be “undemocratic”. Au contraire, I think it’s the only democratic thing to do. One of the basic principles of good interface design in software is that whenever a user indicates that s/he deliberately or inadvertently intends to do something that would be damaging or that s/he might regret, the system first puts up a dialog box to check that the signalled action was in fact deliberate and that the user is comfortable with the consequences. If there were a second referendum and a majority voted to leave on the May terms or remain in the EU then that would be a truly democratic decision (you could call it informed consent) and even those of us who disagreed with it would have to accept it.

An existential threat to liberal democracy?

This morning’s Observer column:

At last, we’re getting somewhere. Two years after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, we’re finally beginning to understand the nature and extent of Russian interference in the democratic processes of two western democracies. The headlines are: the interference was much greater than what was belatedly discovered and/or admitted by the social media companies; it was more imaginative, ingenious and effective than we had previously supposed; and it’s still going on.

We know this because the US Senate select committee on intelligence commissioned major investigations by two independent teams. One involved New Knowledge, a US cybersecurity firm, plus researchers from Columbia University in New York and a mysterious outfit called Canfield Research. The other was a team comprising the Oxford Internet Institute’s “Computational Propaganda” project and Graphika, a company specialising in analysing social media.
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Last week the committee released both reports. They make for sobering reading…

Read on

Facebook: (yet) another scandalous revelation

If you’re a cynic about corporate power and (lack of) responsibility — as I am — then Facebook is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider this from the NYT this morning:

For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.

The special arrangements are detailed in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. The records, generated in 2017 by the company’s internal system for tracking partnerships, provide the most complete picture yet of the social network’s data-sharing practices. They also underscore how personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.

The deals described in the documents benefited more than 150 companies — most of them tech businesses, including online retailers and entertainment sites, but also automakers and media organizations, and include Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo. Their applications, according to the documents, sought the data of hundreds of millions of people a month, the records show. The deals, the oldest of which date to 2010, were all active in 2017. Some were still in effect this year.

Is there such a condition as scandal fatigue? If there is, then I’m beginning to suffer from it.

Obstructionism: Google and Facebook style

The Register has a rather good report of the two investigations carried out for the Senate Intelligence Committee — and it highlights something that other reports seem to have missed — how the social media giants did their best to be, er, unhelpful.

The second Senate-commissioned report, written by Oxford University’s Internet Institute, reached the same conclusion: that the Russian campaign was large, sophisticated, and focused on Donald Trump’s election as president.

Thanks, no thanks

In this report, however, researchers also take time to criticize the response of the social networking giants to their efforts to understand what had happened: the internet titans were extremely unhelpful, even after being publicly chastised in the press and in Congress.

The worst offender may have been Google, which supplied very little information and when it did, supplied in it hard-to-search PDFs, making it difficult and time-consuming to analyze. Facebook was no better: simply refusing to hand over information and limiting what it did send to English-language pages. Even the most responsive company – Twitter – only sent the researchers shortlinks, as opposed to full URLs, making it harder to use other tools to track their impact and links across the internet.

The New Knowledge report says the same, noting that the companies also appear to have stripped meta data from the information they sent i.e. they actively tried to disrupt efforts to understand the reach and impact of Russian propaganda efforts.

In short, the two reports tell us what we already knew: that there was a large, organized Russian campaign in favor of Donald Trump; that the campaign used divisive social issues to attract people’s attention and push its messages; and the tech companies were caught completely unawares and then responded incredibly defensively when the size and scope of the propaganda campaign was revealed.

The difference from previous dossiers is that these reports are comprehensive and detailed. And they clearly identify the strategies and targets where previously much of the detail was anecdotal or intelligent conjecture. And, of course, we learned that Instagram punches above its weight, and the Russian campaign was so well resourced that it even bothered to post on Google+.

The ‘good chap’ theory of government

From the Christmas edition of The Economist:

Britain’s ramshackle constitution allows plenty of scope for such shenanigans. [Deciding not to hold an important Parliamentary vote that you are certain to lose.] Whereas every other Western democracy has codified its system of government, Britain’s constitution is a mish-mash of laws and conventions, customs and courtesies. Britain sees no need for the legalistic or (worse) European idea of writing down its constitution in one place. Instead it relies on the notion that its politicians know where the unwritten lines of the constitution lie, and do not cross them. “The British constitution is a state of mind,” says Peter Hennessy, a historian who calls this the “good chap” theory of government. “It requires a sense of restraint all round to make it work.” Yet amid Britain’s current crisis, such restraint has been lacking.

In 2018 the good-chap principle has taken a battering. Gaming the rules has become the only way for the Conservative government, which lacks an effective majority in the Commons, to cling on. Brexit has strained the hardware of Britain’s constitution, such as the civil service and the courts. But the software—the norms that govern day-to-day politics—has been infected with a virus, too. The chaps in government are less inclined to be good…

Endless infowar has arrived

The NYT’s Kevin Roose sums up the Senate’s Intelligence Committee reports about Russian weaponisation of social media:

If anything has changed since 2016, it’s that social media is no longer seen as just a useful tool for influencing elections. It’s the terrain on which our entire political culture rests, whose peaks and valleys shape our everyday discourse, and whose possibilities for exploitation are nearly endless. And until we either secure that ground or replace it entirely, we should expect many more attacks, each one in a slightly different form, and each leaving us with even more doubt that what we see online reflects reality, or something close to it.

And then this from one of the researchers who worked on the Senate report:

In official statements to Congress, tech executives have said that they found it beyond their capabilities to assess whether Russia created content intended to discourage anyone from voting. We have determined that Russia did create such content. It propagated lies about voting rules and processes, attempted to steer voters toward third-party candidates and created stories that advocated not voting.

Our analysis underscores the fact that such influence operations are not specific to one platform, one malign actor or one targeted group. This is a global problem. The consolidation of the online social ecosystem into a few major platforms means that propagandists have ready audiences; they need only blanket a handful of services to reach hundreds of millions of people. And precision targeting, made possible by a decade of gathering detailed user behavior data (in the service of selling ads), means that it is easy and inexpensive to reach any targeted group.

And here are five takeaways from the two reports:

  1. To a degree not fully appreciated, the Russian operation relentlessly targeted African-Americans.
  2. One clear Russian goal, pursued on multiple fronts, was to suppress Democratic turnout in 2016.
  3. All of the emphasis on Facebook has obscured the huge role of Instagram, as well as the Russian activity on many smaller platforms.
  4. Why are we still talking about this more than two years after the election? (Answer: because it’s still going on.)
  5. After the United States government and the social media companies exposed their operations, did the Russians stop doing this? (Answer: of course not.)

The dream of augmentation

This morning’s Observer column:

Engelbart was a visionary who believed that the most effective way to solve problems was to augment human abilities and develop ways of building collective intelligence. Computers, in his view, were “power steering for the mind” – tools for augmenting human capabilities – and this idea of augmentation has been the backbone of the optimistic narrative of the tech industry ever since.

The dream has become a bit tarnished in the last few years, as we’ve learned how data vampires use the technology to exploit us at the same time as they provide free tools for our supposed “augmentation”…

Read on


Bearing in mind that it is fanatics in the Tory party who have landed the country in its current mess, it’s interesting to read the (conservative) political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, on conservatism. “To be conservative”, he wrote, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays,

”is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”.

None of the current band of Tory ‘Eurosceptics’ is a conservative in that sense.