Trump is a virus, and mainstream media are the host

Insightful piece in The Atlantic:

The most recent controversy provides the perfect metaphor for Trump’s part-symbiotic, part-parasitic relationship with the media: infection. In epidemiology, a virus cannot multiply on its own. First, it must find a host, whose cellular machinery it commandeers to reproduce. For a virus, all distribution—all amplification—is infection.

So it is for Trump. The president’s conspiratorial language is an odious virus that has found a variety of hosts in the U.S. media ecosystem. The traditional news media amplify his words for a variety of reasons, including newsworthiness (he is, after all, the president), easy ratings (cable-news audiences have soared in his term), and old-fashioned peer pressure (the segment producer’s lament: “If everybody else is carrying Trump, shouldn’t we?”).

But a virus doesn’t just borrow a host’s cellular factory to reproduce; it often destroys the host in the process. So, too, does the president seek to destroy the traditional news media that have often amplified his messages…

So why do editors publish headlines which essentially just paraphrase Trump’s tweets? Especially when they know that most readers only read (and remember) the headline.

Neoliberal overreach

Simon Wren-Lewis on Osborne & Co:

You do not need experts, or you are only interested in experts who are one of us, because you have an ideology to guide you to the truth, or you are suspicious of any expertise that does not share your ideology. One of us is one who shares an ideology, in this case the ideology of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism wants as much as possible to be organised as a market. If that includes democracy itself (democracy is just a market for votes) then there is nothing preventing you employing all the tricks of advertising, preferably not encumbered by any regulators. Politics becomes the art of selling, rather than the assessment of policy.

Why do I call the period after 2010 in the US and UK neoliberal overreach, as opposed to straight neoliberalism in the 1980s? After all there are some similarities in the UK between the two periods. Both Osborne and Thatcher started their terms in government with economic experiments that went against received economic wisdom. Both tried austerity (a fiscal contraction in a recession). I don’t want to minimise the harm Thatcher did to parts of the country, but her austerity was temporary [2] and the monetarist experiment was quickly abandoned, with the result that the recovery was only delayed by a year or two and the economy in aggregate eventually recovered in the true sense of the term. In contrast the slow recovery in the UK, US and Europe since 2010 seems to have had permanent and large negative effects. An interesting question is how much this difference between the two periods in the UK reflects different degrees of control over the media.

But the main reason I call what happened after 2010 overreach is that the neoliberalism of both Reagan and Thatcher was in many ways popular, and so there was less need to dress policies up as something they were not. In 2010 there was no popular demand for a reduction in the size of the state, so it required a form of subterfuge: what I call deficit deceit. Tight targets for immigration made no sense for neoliberals who wanted to reduce red tape for firms, but it was useful as a way to deflect anger over austerity and win votes.

A better way to describe Brexit than heart over head is the triumph of ideology over knowledge. Neoliberalism isn’t the only ideology behind Brexit. There are elements of English nationalism that William Davies discusses in his piece noted above and Anthony Barnett discusses so well in the Lure of Greatness. But the disinterest in facts or experts and the absence of shame in telling whatever lie is required to get what they want is very much part of what I call neoliberal overreach. To those to whom evidence based policy is natural they appear fools, but they know exactly what they are doing and in terms of deception they are rather good at it.

Trump on democracy

From the New Yorker:

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling for an “immediate end” to the recount in Florida, Donald J. Trump warned on Monday that it could set a dangerous precedent of the person with the most votes winning.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said that those in favor of the recount had a “sick obsession with finding out which candidate got the most votes.”

“Democrats are going on and on about counting every last vote until they find out who got the most,” Trump said. “Since when does getting the most votes mean you win?”

Trump said that, if the recounts are allowed to proceed, “We could be looking at a very bad, very sad situation where to be considered legitimately elected you have to get more votes than the other candidate.”

Just for the avoidance of doubt, this is a satirical piece.

Hypocrisy on stilts

Terrific FT column by Rana Foroohar. Sample:

If the Facebook revelations prove anything, they show that its top leadership is not liberal, but selfishly libertarian. Political ideals will not get in the way of the company’s efforts to protect its share price. This was made clear by Facebook’s hiring of a rightwing consulting group, Definers Public Affairs, to try and spread misinformation about industry rivals to reporters and to demonise George Soros, who had a pipe bomb delivered to his home. At Davos in January, the billionaire investor made a speech questioning the power of platform technology companies.

Think about that for a minute. This is a company that was so desperate to protect its top leadership and its business model that it hired a shadowy PR firm that used anti-Semitism as a political weapon. Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, founded by Mr Soros, wrote in a letter last week to Ms Sandberg: “The notion that your company, at your direction”, tried to “discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me”.

I couldn’t agree more. Ms Sandberg says she didn’t know about the tactics being used by Definers Public Affairs. Mr Zuckerberg says that while he understands “DC type firms” might use such tactics, he doesn’t want them associated with Facebook and has cancelled its contract with Definers.

The irony of that statement could be cut with a knife. Silicon Valley companies are among the nation’s biggest corporate lobbyists. They’ve funded many academics doing research on topics of interest to them, and have made large donations to many powerful politicians…

There is a strange consistency in the cant coming from Zuckerberg and Sandberg as they try to respond to the NYT‘s exhumation of their attempts to avoid responsibility for Facebook’s malignancy. It’s what PR flacks call “plausible deniability”. Time and again, the despicable or ethically-dubious actions taken by Facebook apparently come as a complete surprise to the two at the very top of the company — Zuckerberg and Sandberg. I’m afraid that particular cover story is beginning to look threadbare.

Are humans smarter than frogs?

This morning’s Observer column:

And then the penny dropped (I am slow on the uptake). I realised that what I had been doing was adding to a dataset for training the machine-learning software that guides self-driving cars – probably those designed and operated by Waymo, the autonomous vehicle project owned by Alphabet Inc (which also happens to own Google). So, to gain access to an automated service that will benefit financially from my input, I first have to do some unpaid labour to help improve the performance of Waymo’s vehicles (which, incidentally, will be publicly available for hire in Phoenix, Arizona, by the end of this year).

Neat, eh? But note also the delicious additional irony that the Captcha is described as an “automated Turing test”. The Turing test was conceived, you may recall, as a way of enabling humans to determine whether a machine could respond in such a way that one couldn’t tell whether it was a human or a robot. So we have wandered into a topsy-turvy world in which machines make us jump through hoops to prove that we are humans!

The strangest aspect of this epochal shift is how under-discussed it has been…

Read on

Sheryl Sandberg: now visible in her true colours

Seems that I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about Sheryl Sandberg’s malign role in Facebook’s cynical campaign to evade responsibility for the damage the company is doing. The NYT investigation of Facebook’s campaign to escape the consequences of its actions (and of its business model) highlighted the aggressive role she played in that. Here’s an interesting take on Sandberg from Jessica Crispin in today’s Guardian:

Whether those problems are caused by Russians who sought to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump or the Myanmar military seeking to cleanse its state of the Rohingya people, Facebook has stubbornly delayed examining its role in geopolitical shifts all over the world. But people have been writing articles about the misdeeds of social media platforms for years, and little oversight, internal reform, or mass exodus of users ever follows.

The newest piece did reveal one thing, however: the vital role COO Sheryl Sandberg played in all of this. This is not the story, however, of the one woman bravely speaking truth to power. Nor is it the ethical influence a celebrated feminist leader had on a company concerned primarily with protecting its economic well being and that of its shareholders. Rather, Sandberg yelled at her employee, Facebook’s security chief, for daring to investigate these issues, and then tried to cover up all he had found. Sandberg also played a pivotal role in lobbying top lawmakers in Washington DC to limit unwanted regulation and scrutiny.

Sandberg, of course, became an aspirational heroine among mainstream, self-empowerment feminists with her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

In January 2015, when the Davos elite-fest was in full swing, I wrote an Observer column ridiculing the fatuous ‘reports’ Facebook used to issue round that time, asserting that the company’s impact on jobs and prosperity was substantial and very positive. It was all hooey, of course. But on the Sunday morning when the piece was published, Sandberg came up to a friend of mine who is a senior figure in the World Economic Forum (the outfit that runs the Davos event) at breakfast and asked him plaintively: “Why does John Naughton hate us?”

Looks like I was ahead of the pack — for once.

What makes this doubly interesting is that Sandberg reportedly was at one time fantasising about running for President (of the US).

Poverty is a political choice — and guess who made it?

From this morning’s Guardian

The UK government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity, the United Nations poverty envoy has found.

Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, ended a two-week fact-finding mission to the UK with a stinging declaration that levels of child poverty were “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”, even though the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy,

About 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty and 1.5 million are destitute, being unable to afford basic essentials, he said, citing figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. He highlighted predictions that child poverty could rise by 7% between 2015 and 2022, possibly up to a rate of 40%.

“It is patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty,” he said, adding that compassion had been abandoned during almost a decade of austerity policies that had been so profound that key elements of the postwar social contract, devised by William Beveridge more than 70 years ago, had been swept away.

Yep. Now, two questions:

Q1: Who was the author of the “social engineering” mentioned in the first paragraph?

A: Why, none other than George ‘Oik’ Osborne, whose main aim in life was to “shrink the state”.

Q2: Of which political party was he a leading member?

A: The Conservative and Unionist party — aka the Tories.

Unhinged

From David Remnick, writing in the New Yorker:

Speaking to the Daily Caller, a right-wing Web site, Trump declared, without a crumb of proof, that the reason for the Republican losses in the election last week was people dressing up in disguises. Seriously. “The Republicans don’t win and that’s because of potentially illegal votes, which is what I’ve been saying for a long time,” Trump said. “I’ve had friends talk about it when people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again.”

The headline over the piece is “The case for optimism”. Oh yeah?

Good news?

Well, well. Maybe we’re — finally — making progress. This from Recode:

Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and other top Facebook leaders should get ready for increased scrutiny after a damning new investigation shed light on how they stalled, stumbled and plotted through a series of crises over the last two years, including Russian meddling, data sharing and hate speech. The question now: Who does Facebook fire in the aftermath of these revelations? Meanwhile, the difficult past year has taken a toll on employee morale: An internal survey shows that only 52 percent of Facebook staff are optimistic about its future, down from 84 percent of employees last year. It might already be time for a new survey.

Finally…

… something on which I can agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson:

Theresa May’s government faces becoming the first to suffer a defeat on its own budget bill in 40 years after Tory MPs including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and David Davis joined a rebellion over fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).

More than 70 MPs from both sides of the House of Commons have signed two amendments designed to force the government to bring forward the timing of the planned cut in FOBT maximum stakes to April 2019.

Tracey Crouch resigned as sports minister this month after the chancellor, Philip Hammond, revealed in the budget that the policy would not take effect until October 2019.

These machines are one of the most pernicious devices ever devised for parting poor people from their money. They ought to have been illegal from the outset. It was a scandal that it took the government as long as it did to propose a palliative remedy — to reduce the maximum stake that people could wager. And then the industry — furious at the loss of its cash-cow — ambushed the Treasury with a ‘report’ that persuaded the Chancellor to delay the introduction of the new regulation. If you wanted an indictment of neoliberal governance, then this was/is a pretty good example.