The dark underbelly of social media

My Observer review of Behind the Screen, Sarah T. Roberts’s remarkable exploration of the exploitative world of content ‘moderation’.

The best metaphor for the net is to think of it as a mirror held up to human nature. All human life really is there. There’s no ideology, fetish, behaviour, obsession, perversion, eccentricity or fad that doesn’t find expression somewhere online. And while much of what we see reflected back to us is uplifting, banal, intriguing, harmless or fascinating, some of it is truly awful, for the simple reason that human nature is not only infinitely diverse but also sometimes unspeakably cruel.

In the early days of the internet and, later, the web, this didn’t matter so much. But once cyberspace was captured by a few giant platforms, particularly Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, then it became problematic. The business models of these platforms depended on encouraging people to upload content to them in digital torrents. “Broadcast yourself”, remember, was once the motto of YouTube.

And people did – as they slit the throats of hostages in the deserts of Arabia, raped three-year-old girls, shot an old man in the street, firebombed the villages of ethnic minorities or hanged themselves on camera…

All of which posed a problem for the social media brands, which liked to present themselves as facilitators of creativity, connectivity and good clean fun, an image threatened by the tide of crud that was coming at them. So they started employing people to filter and manage it. They were called “moderators” and for a long time they were kept firmly under wraps, so that nobody knew about them.

That cloak of invisibility began to fray as journalists and scholars started to probe this dark underbelly of social media…

Read on

Silicon Valley discovers politics

This morning’s Observer column:

For many years, Silicon Valley companies didn’t even bother to have lobbyists in Washington. As late as 2015, Eric Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google, was predicting that authoritarian governments would wither away in a comprehensively networked world, which made some of us wonder what exactly Dr Schmidt was smoking.

During that period, governments generally played along with this myth of their irrelevance. Presidents and prime ministers queued up for invitations to the campuses of the Silicon Valley giants. And insofar as the tech moguls paid any attention to presidential politics, it was to support the Democrats. Schmidt, for example, played a big role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.

Unsurprisingly, the valley was thunderstruck by the election of Donald Trump…

Read on

Longhand

Quote

I’m insatiably curious about how writers write — and accordingly loved this section of Tyler Cowen’s interview with Masha Gessen:

COWEN: What is your most unusual writing habit?

GESSEN: I write by hand.

COWEN: You write by hand?

GESSEN: I write by hand. I write longhand.

COWEN: And someone types it into a computer? Or that never happens?

GESSEN: [laughs] No, I write books longhand, and then I type them up chapter by chapter. I write a chapter out longhand and then type it.

COWEN: Why is that good for you?

GESSEN: Because I think that the process of writing longhand is more linear. If you ever look at how you write, or if I ever look at how I write, if I just write on a computer, unless it’s . . . A column is also pretty linear. I outline it, and then I just fill in every paragraph, and I do that on a computer.

But if I write a very long piece, I don’t notice how much I jump around when I’m writing on a computer. You can’t do that on paper. You have to keep going. Then it poses a narrative structure that is unbreakable. One sentence has to follow the previous sentence. You can’t go back and reinsert it. It keeps me very focused, I find.

The other thing it does is that when I’m typing it up, I’m reading it on paper, and I think that there’s a difference. When the book is ready, I will then print it out and edit it again on paper. But every time you read, when you’re reading on paper and you’re reading on screen, you’re seeing completely different things.

Interesting. Maybe I should go back to writing longhand.

Want a job? There’s a great future in cybersecurity

From an interesting New Yorker piece by Sue Halpern:

There are currently more than three hundred thousand unfilled cybersecurity jobs in both government and the private sector in the United States alone. Worldwide, the number is expected to be three and a half million by 2021; that year, cybercrime is expected to cost six trillion dollars. Even the United States military is at risk, according to last year’s Defense Department Inspector General report, which found that insecure systems left the country susceptible to missile attacks. This year’s cybersecurity-readiness review of the Navy found that “competitors and potential adversaries have exploited [Department of the Navy] information systems, penetrated its defenses, and stolen massive amounts of national security” intellectual property. And, of course, as we now know, our elections, the essential engine of our democracy, are also poorly defended. “I don’t think any of us are questioning the fact that there is a lack of cybersecurity professionals across the board, in all different types of professions,” Emmel said.

Halpern’s piece was sparked by the fact that, this summer,

the N.S.A. is running a hundred and twenty-two cybersecurity camps across the country. There are camps for girls in South Dakota, Maryland, Puerto Rico, and South Carolina; a camp in Pennsylvania that simulates an airport hack; and one in Georgia that disarms a car hacking. On the last Monday in July, as news broke that a hundred million Capital One bank accounts had been breached, I attended Camp CryptoBot, at Pace University’s Westchester campus, the only cyber camp affiliated with the Navy. A few years ago, the camp director, Pauline Mosley, a professor of information technology, found herself sitting next to an admiral at a conference and used the opportunity to deploy her pre-digital networking skills.

GCHQ, are you listening?

Denmark offers to buy US — with some conditions

From the New Yorker:

COPENHAGEN (The Borowitz Report)—After rebuffing Donald J. Trump’s hypothetical proposal to purchase Greenland, the government of Denmark has announced that it would be interested in buying the United States instead.

“As we have stated, Greenland is not for sale,” a spokesperson for the Danish government said on Friday. “We have noted, however, that during the Trump regime pretty much everything in the United States, including its government, has most definitely been for sale.”

“Denmark would be interested in purchasing the United States in its entirety, with the exception of its government,” the spokesperson added.

Lovely!

Now and then

I had lunch yesterday with an old (and elderly) friend who is in a despairing mood about what is happening to his country (the US) and the UK. Part of our conversation was about the nature of the seismic change that we both sense in those two democracies. (This was a theme of my earlier post below.)

Later in the evening, I sent him an excerpt from a column by my Observer colleague, Andrew Rawnsley, which illustrated one aspect of the change.

When people refer to the British constitution, they are talking about a hotch-potch of such conventions, combined with ancient charters, precedents, international agreements, legislative bolt-ons and unwritten understandings. The fabric of this messy tapestry is held together by a crucial thread. That is an underlying assumption that everyone can be trusted to behave in a proper way. In the absence of a formal constitution, British democracy is heavily reliant on politicians acting with honour and playing fair.

What if they don’t? What happens then? We may be about to find out if Boris Johnson faces a no-confidence vote this autumn, loses, refuses to quit as prime minister and barricades himself in Number 10 for long enough to force through a no-deal Brexit before an election can take place. This is a scenario so grotesque as to be scarcely believable. That doesn’t make it an impossible one.

What Rawnsley’s article illustrates is what we are discovering about the fragility of our democracies. Their survival depends on politicians respecting norms. But they seem to have no recourse to people who don’t respect — indeed flaunt their contempt for — those norms. So Johnson could lose a confidence vote and yet ignore the conventions. And as far as one can see there’s nothing that we could do about it — even if two million people marched in protest in London, he could sit it out.

Ah well, people say, that’s what you get when you don’t have a written constitution and make do with an ad-hoc patchwork quilt of conventions, precedents, jumbo jumbo and laws that passes for one in Britain. But the Americans do have a written constitution and a fat lot of use that seems to be in dealing with Trump. Again, what’s so shocking to liberals is the way the president is contemptuously flouting norms that were once regarded as semi-sacred. For example, it was more or less unthinkable until 2016 that a sitting president would use his office to enrich himself and his family in flamboyant style. (Think of the way the Trump hotel in Washington is now being milked for profits derived from foreign clowns who stay there in the hope that it might gain them some favour in the White House.)

The other topic in yesterday’s gloomy conversation was the awful sense of impotence many citizens (or subjects, in the UK case) feel as they watch this wanton despoliation of democratic norms. In that context, this quotation from a piece by Niamh Cullen in the London Review of Books, puts a nice historical spin on it:

“When I began to research my book on Piero Gobetti”, she writes,

the precocious young anti-fascist journalist and early victim of Mussolini, the world in which he lived seemed very remote to me. I could relate little of the post-1918 anger and desperation – the obsession with borders and national grievance, the struggle to make ends meet in times of unemployment and rising inflation, the angry men convinced they had been dispossessed – to my own circumstances. It was Dublin in the mid-2000s and the city was still feeling pretty boomy, with little hint of the global recession to come. The ideas and institutions of the EU seemed broadly secure and democracy was taken for granted. Now with the rise of populism and nationalism across Europe and the US, as responses both to the global recession and to the migration crisis, the anxiety, anger and fear of the 1920s and 1930s seem a little more real.

And now?

I feel as if I now have a little more insight into how it might feel to see the ideas and institutions of the state collapse around you, and yet still go about your life as if nothing much has changed. In the last several years, with the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, Brexit, the migration crisis and the increasingly palpable effects of climate change, the world has profoundly shifted on its axis. Yet I have done little about it. I imagine these feelings of inertia and dread – the conviction that something should be done to prevent this downward slide combined with the strong sense that I can do nothing – is what it might have been like to live through the normalisation of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. This is not to suggest that Johnson, Trump et al. are similar to Mussolini – they may be, but that is a whole different issue – but rather that the sense of crisis that people lived with in the 1920s has parallels to our own time, as the extreme becomes normal, and it becomes gradually more difficult to imagine how things could be different.

Who elected tech CEOs?

This morning’s Observer column:

Sites that host extremist content are themselves vulnerable to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Anyone can go to the murkier regions of the internet and rent a botnet that will then overwhelm the target site with millions of pings. Easy as pie. And DDoS can be turned on and off like a tap. So if you run a controversial site you need protection against that kind of thing.

For 8chan, that protection was provided by Cloudflare, a service with the resources to ensure that sites can remain online no matter how severe a DDoS attack is. But on Monday, Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s CEO, pulled the plug. He announced that the company was terminating 8chan as a customer.

“The rationale is simple,” he wrote on the company’s blog. “They have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths. Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law, in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.”

Prince clearly agonised over the decision, not because he was sympathetic to 8chan, but because he found himself wielding a kind of power that corporate executives are not prepared for…

Read on

How times change.

In writing my Observer column this week I had to check something about the Watergate episode – in which a sitting US President was forced to resign after the Washington Post revealed that a slush fund that had been used to finance the Watergate burglars (among many other sleazy operators) had been run from the White House by HR Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s most senior aide.

Those activities (according to the Wikipedia summary) included such dirty tricks as bugging the offices of political opponents and people of whom Nixon or his officials were suspicious. Nixon and his close aides also ordered investigations of activist groups and political figures, using the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as political weapons.

The scandal led to the discovery of multiple abuses of power by members of the Nixon administration, the commencement of an impeachment process against the president, and Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. The scandal also resulted in the indictment of 69 people, with trials or pleas resulting in 48 being found guilty, many of whom were top Nixon officials.

Having been catapulted back into that period, I then re-watched one of my favourite movies, All the President’s Men, which I haven’t seen for years. It tells the story of how two junior reporters – Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) – traced the money given to the burglars to the inner sanctums of the White House. It’s a great, romantic story about journalism at its best, and so very comforting to those of us who believe in our trade.

But then an uncomfortable thought struck me. The Watergate story is reassuring because it shows how a democracy should work. The journalism produced evidence of a dangerous high-level conspiracy – a conspiracy which was of course energetically denied by all those involved in it. But once the journalists had done their work, the action passed to Congress – which in turn did its job, by launching an impeachment process against the sitting president. Nixon resigned before that process could run its course.

Like I say, this is how the system ought to work. But then consider the difference between then and now. One lesson from the Mueller Report is that no amount of evidence that Trump had – for example – colluded with the Russians would have prompted a dysfunctional, partisan, Republican-dominated Congress to launch an impeachment process. And although the Democrats are now in charge of the House of Representatives (and therefore of impeachment) it’s hard to see them making any real progress before 2020, when it’s likely (IMHO) Trump will have been re-elected.

Which of course makes one wonder what kind of crime this president would have to commit before Congress would act? It all reminds me of something he said during the 2016 Election campaign: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

I gloomily suspect that that judgement was accurate. It doesn’t seem to matter what he does: his ‘base’ of 30% seems unaffected.