Mainstreaming atrocity

This morning’s Observer column:

The most worrying thought that comes from immersion in accounts of the tech companies’ struggle against the deluge of uploads is not so much that murderous fanatics seek publicity and notoriety from livestreaming their atrocities on the internet, but that astonishing numbers of other people are not just receptive to their messages, but seem determined to boost and amplify their impact by “sharing” them.

And not just sharing them in the sense of pressing the “share” button. What YouTube engineers found was that the deluge contained lots of copies and clips of the Christchurch video that had been deliberately tweaked so that they would not be detected by the company’s AI systems. A simple way of doing this, it turned out, was to upload a video recording of a computer screen taken from an angle. The content comes over loud and clear, but the automated filter doesn’t recognise it.

That there are perhaps tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of people across the world who will do this kind of thing is a really scary discovery…

Read on

No matter what happens now with Brexit, everybody loses

Terrific, perceptive Guardian column by Rafael Behr:

The people’s vote campaign often gets the argument about how to keep EU membership and whether to do so the wrong way round. Anyone who wants a second poll already hates Brexit. People who liked Brexit in 2016 but think it might have gone sour need something more positive to believe in than parliamentary process and referendums. The pitch has to open with the image of a happier, confident Britain, relieved of the grinding burden of endless Brexit bickering, taking its rightful seat at the top table of continental power, ready to lead. If enough people think that is the country we want to be, the case for a public vote makes itself as the way to get there.

That doesn’t mean everyone should learn the Ode to Joy and paint their face blue. It does mean that remainers must challenge the conventional wisdom that British voters are culturally immune to pro-EU arguments. There are too many MPs waiting for the architects of Brexit to soil themselves so thoroughly in absurdity and paranoia that their cause is ruined and their ideas discredited forever. But the humbling of leavers and the obstruction of their plans is not all good for remain. Not if it can be cast as the work of a conspiracy by Brussels, Whitehall and parliament.

Extension to the article 50 period is the most probable next move, which looks like a tactical gain for pro-Europeans. But engineering a situation where Britain’s EU membership survives beyond the original 29 March deadline was the easy part. The hard bit is making it look like a victory for common sense, not a defeat for national pride. Otherwise a setback for leave is no advance for remain. The crisis in British politics is severe enough that both sides can be losing at the same time.

Yep. The crisis is systemic. Even if we had a second Referendum and Remain won, the toxic divisions will continue to fester. And vice versa.

Focussing on the difficulty of ‘moderating’ vile content obscures the real problem

Good OpEd piece by Charlie Warzel:

Focusing only on moderation means that Facebook, YouTube and other platforms, such as Reddit, don’t have to answer for the ways in which their platforms are meticulously engineered to encourage the creation of incendiary content, rewarding it with eyeballs, likes and, in some cases, ad dollars. Or how that reward system creates a feedback loop that slowly pushes unsuspecting users further down a rabbit hole toward extremist ideas and communities.

On Facebook or Reddit this might mean the ways in which people are encouraged to share propaganda, divisive misinformation or violent images in order to amass likes and shares. It might mean the creation of private communities in which toxic ideologies are allowed to foment, unchecked. On YouTube, the same incentives have created cottage industries of shock jocks and livestreaming communities dedicated to bigotry cloaked in amateur philosophy.

The YouTube personalities and the communities that spring up around the videos become important recruiting tools for the far-right fringes. In some cases, new features like “Super Chat,” which allows viewers to donate to YouTube personalities during livestreams, have become major fund-raising tools for the platform’s worst users — essentially acting as online telethons for white nationalists.

Are the English ready for self-government?

Lovely acerbic Irish Times column by Fintan O’Toole:

Let’s just say that if Theresa May were the head of a newly liberated African colony in the 1950s, British conservatives would have been pointing, half-ruefully, half-gleefully, in her direction and saying “See? Told you so – they just weren’t ready to rule themselves. Needed at least another generation of tutelage by the Mother Country.”

There is a surreal kind of logic to this. If, as the Brexiteers do, you imagine yourself to be an oppressed colony breaking away from the German Reich aka the European Union, perhaps you do end up with a pantomime version of the travails of newly independent colonies, including the civil wars that often follow national liberation.

What lies behind all this Brexit mania is basically English nationalism. And, as O’Toole points out,

As every former colony knows, nationalism is a great beast for carrying you to the point of independence – and then it becomes a dead horse. [George Bernard] Shaw wrote to his friend Mabel FitzGerald (mother of the future taoiseach Garret) in December 1914: “Even the subject nations like Ireland must never forget that the moment they gain home rule, the horse will drop down under them, and reveal, by a sudden and horrible decomposition, that he has been dead for years.”

Brexit is a dead horse, a form of nationalist energy that started to decompose rapidly on June 24th, 2016, as soon as it entered the field of political reality. It can’t go anywhere. It can’t carry the British state to any promised land. It can only leave it where it has arrived, in a no-man’s land between vague patriotic fantasies and irritatingly persistent facts. But equally, because of the referendum result, the British state can’t get down off the dead horse and has to keep flogging it.

I love this last image. It’s the best description of where we’re at just now.

Bercow delivers a Googly

Rafael Behr, writing in today’s Guardian on Commons Speaker John Bercow’s ruling that Theresa May cannot bring her Brexit proposal back to the House for a third time without significant changes to it.

That doesn’t mean his decision is capricious or unconstitutional. The relevant procedural scriptures seem pretty clear on the matter, so the Speaker is well within his rights to interpret them as he has done. But it is still a matter of interpretation, and so unavoidably a heavily political action. It blasts the prime minister’s plans for the week off course. It transforms the calculations that MPs make about what should happen next. It also retrospectively casts a darker, more terminal shadow over the decision a majority of them made to reject the deal last Tuesday. Might some Tories or members of the DUP have acted differently had they known it was May’s last shot at getting her deal through?

Certainly the prime minister’s strategy has depended on eliminating options, so that eventually MPs would conclude that the only feasible Brexit on the table was hers. For that to work, she needed to keep bluffing and keep raising the stakes. She didn’t realise that ultimately, in parliament, it’s the Speaker who runs the game. And now all bets are off.

Footnote: In cricket, a googly is a type of deceptive delivery bowled by a right-arm leg spin bowler.

The Christchurch atrocity, extremism and the Internet

Thoughtful and sombre commentary by Kevin Roose:

Now, online extremism is just regular extremism on steroids. There is no offline equivalent of the experience of being algorithmically nudged toward a more strident version of your existing beliefs, or having an invisible hand steer you from gaming videos to neo-Nazism. The internet is now the place where the seeds of extremism are planted and watered, where platform incentives guide creators toward the ideological poles, and where people with hateful and violent beliefs can find and feed off one another.

So the pattern continues. People become fluent in the culture of online extremism, they make and consume edgy memes, they cluster and harden. And once in a while, one of them erupts.

In the coming days, we should attempt to find meaning in the lives of the victims of the Christchurch attack, and not glorify the attention-grabbing tactics of the gunman. We should also address the specific horror of anti-Muslim violence.

At the same time, we need to understand and address the poisonous pipeline of extremism that has emerged over the past several years, whose ultimate effects are impossible to quantify but clearly far too big to ignore. It’s not going away, and it’s not particularly getting better. We will feel it for years to come.

So Facebook does exercise editorial control after all

Senator Elizabeth Warren is running for President — or at any rate for the Democratic nomination. One of her policy proposals is to break up the tech giants. Like all other presidential hopefuls, her campaign advertises on Facebook. The ads included a video which pointed users to a petition on Warren’s campaign website urging them “to support our plan to break up these big tech companies.” “Three companies have vast power over our economy and our democracy”, said one ad that Warren’s campaign had placed on Friday. “Facebook, Amazon, and Google. We all use them. But in their rise to power, they’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field in their favor.”

Guess what happened next? Facebook removed the ads on the grounds that they violated the company’s terms and conditions for advertisers. Politico reported the takedown, after which Facebook hurriedly restored the ads. “We removed the ads because they violated our policies against use of our corporate logo,” explained a spokesperson. “In the interest of allowing robust debate, we are restoring the ads.”

Warren then tweeted

“Curious why I think FB has too much power? Let’s start with their ability to shut down a debate over whether FB has too much power,” she tweeted. “Thanks for restoring my posts. But I want a social media marketplace that isn’t dominated by a single censor.”