Tuesday 7 April, 2020

Where those Florida beach celebrants went after partying

You know the story: lots and lots of people congregated on a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida during the Spring break weekend. A couple of geo-tracking companies, one of which was Tectonix (Slogan: “Reshape Your Data Experience) posted an fascinating video showing where those celebrants went afterwards.

Donie O’Sullivan of CNN has a good report on this. Apparently there are at least two companies — Tectonix and X-mode — doing this.

The map generated from X-Mode’s data by Tectonix, a data visualization firm, is indeed powerful and underlines why the US government might be considering using location data from Americans’ cell phones to try to track and possibly curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

It also may point to a potential sea change in how some in the tech industry talk about the data they possess. Silicon Valley has endured years of high-profile data privacy scandals. But now smaller companies like X-Mode, unheard of unknown by the majority of Americans, are publicly touting demonstrations of their technology — suggesting businesses like theirs see the potential of helping track the spread of the coronavirus as an opportunity to show how their often maligned data can be used for good. Cuebiq, another location tracking company, has been similarly public about its abilities.

For people who don’t understand the tracking capabilities of smartphones this will probably be startling info. For those who follow the industry it is, sadly, old hat.


IT support staff are critical workers too

One overlooked group of critical workers is the folks who are doing IT support to enable thousands and thousands of people who have never worked out of an office to do it at home. I see it in my college and in the wider university. But a colleague who works for a large corporation tells me that their IT staff are stretched to breaking point — having to prep 300-500 new laptops a day with the security and other specialised software needed for secure home working. IT Support is one of the most stressful occupations there are (partly because their clients are often angry and/or frustrated when they call them in). And getting beginners onto Zoom, Teams, VPNs etc. isn’t often easy.


How the telephone failed to make the Spanish flu bearable

This isn’t the first time technology was supposed to make isolation easier.

This is from the St Louis Post-Despatch of November 17, 1910, years before the Spanish flu outbreak. Harry McCracken, the Tech Editor of Fast Company, has a lovely of the role the Bell system played in that crisis.

Cities and entire states imposed emergency measures similar to those in place today, aiming to flatten the flu’s curve by keeping people apart from each other. Places of business, education, and worship were temporarily closed, and masks were required in some areas.

For a time, it looked like the telephone might help people carry on their lives with minimal disruption. In Holton, Kansas, the local Red Cross distributed placards that local merchants could place in their windows, encouraging customers—especially those who might be ill—to call rather than enter the premises. (Even before the epidemic, telephone ordering was becoming a popular form of commerce—grocery stores, for instance, offered Instacart-like delivery services.)

But then…

Guess what? There was a category of ‘critical’ workers that nobody had thought of. Switchboard operators. Overwhelmingly female. And they were as vulnerable to the flu as our critical workers. SO you can guess the rest of the story — encapsulated in these ads:

It’s a lovely essay — worth reading in full.


YouTube and 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories.

You may not have noticed but seriously crackpot conspiracy theories about 5G mobile telephony causing COVID-19 have been circulating on social media, including YouTube. And nutters have apparently been so moved by them that they ahve started to set fire to mobile phone masts. This has led to demands to YouTube to shape up and stop this nonsense circulating.

According to a Guardian report by Alex Hern, YouTube has

“reduced the amount of content spreading conspiracy theories about links between 5G technology and coronavirus that it recommends to users, it has said, as four more attacks were recorded on phone masts within 24 hours.

The online video company will actively remove videos that breach its policies, it said. But content that is simply conspiratorial about 5G mobile communications networks, without mentioning coronavirus, is still allowed on the site.”

This is standard-issue First Amendment cant. YouTube (like Facebook and Twitter) believes it has a responsibility to let nutters broadcast so long as they do not violate those sacred Terms and Conditions. But the First Amendment applies only to the government. YouTube is a private platform, owned and controlled by Google (well, Alphabet, Google’s parent company). It can do what it likes. It has no obligation to give a platform to anyone.

“There are lots of things wrong about 5G, says Cory Doctorow

But 5G doesn’t give you cancer. It won’t make you sick. And…god, I am getting stupider just thinking about typing this, coronavirus is not a false-flag op to disguise the illnesses that 5G is secretly creating.

The reason I have to mention that is that the conspiracyverse is full of that specific theory, and it’s inspiring people to COMMIT ARSON and torch 5G towers.

No, seriously.

In the wake of multiple attacks on 5G towers, Youtube has announced changes to its moderation guidelines. It will allow 5G conspiracy theories, just not ones that (oh god my fingers are seizing up from the stupid) link 5G with coronavirus.

Corona conspiracy theories are new, but conspiracy theories have have been around for ever. “Even a cursory perusal of the arguments for these conspiracies”, says Cory, ” reveals that they have not gotten better, even as they’ve gained traction”. If the same arguments are attracting more adherents, he argues, then one of two things is going on. Either: YouTube is a mind-control ray that can turn rational people into believers in absurd ideas; or the number of people to whom these ideas seem plausible has grown and/or Youtube has made it more efficient to reach those people.

Cory thinks it’s the latter, and I agree. YouTube is not a powerful hypnotising machine so much as a machine for finding people who are susceptible to nonsense.


Quarantine diary — Day 17

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Thursday 30 January, 2020

Warren Buffett gives up on the news business

He’s selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises. You can guess what he thinks about the prospects for journalism. NYT


Social media will impair society’s ability to control the Corona epidemic

“’It plays to our worst fears’: Coronavirus misinformation fuelled by social media” This is one of the under-appreciated threats posed by social media. And it can be weaponised by bad actors.

And, right on cue, here’s the first report

“Baseless stories claiming that the two scientists are Chinese spies and that they smuggled the coronavirus to China’s only Level 4 lab in Wuhan last year have been spreading on all major social media platforms and on conspiracy theorist blogs. One article from a conspiracy blog was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook on Monday. “


Global (dis)Satisfaction with Democracy Report

My colleague David Runciman launched his new Centre for the Future of Democracy last night with the presentation of a pathbreaking survey of citizens’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their democracies. The report aims to provide a comprehensive answer to questions regarding one measure of democratic legitimacy – satisfaction with democracy – by combining data from almost all available survey sources.

It’s based on a huge dataset which combined more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020 in which citizens were asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. Using this combined, pooled dataset, the researchers now have a time-series for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world.

Among their findings are:

  • Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.
  • Citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events – economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.
  • The picture is not entirely negative. Many small, high-income democracies have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions. In Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs. These countries form part of the “island of contentment” – a select group of nations, containing just 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

The results are sobering. Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy in their countries has risen by almost 10 percentage points globally. The deterioration has been especially deep in high-income, “consolidated” democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens.

From the Report’s Conclusions…

If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies – including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa – it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy, including probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society. Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe. If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.

Boris Johnson, hedge-funds, conspiracy theories and Brexit

Last Saturday the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, claimed that Boris Johnson was pursuing the interests of financial backers who are set to gain from a no-deal Brexit. Hammond said he was only repeating a comment made by Rachel Johnson, the Prime Minister’s sister. Since some of Johnson’s financial backers run hedge-funds, this sounded like a good conspiracy theory. Indeed Robert Harris, the best-selling thriller writer, tweeted that the claim that Johnson wanted a hard Brexit so that his backers in the City wouldn’t lose billions alleged “corruption on a scale I wouldn’t dare put in fiction”.

Frances Coppola, writing for Forbes, isn’t impressed by this particular conspiracy theory. “To be sure”, she writes,

some hedge fund managers make no secret of their desire for no-deal Brexit. Crispin Odey, for example, not only backed Johnson for Prime Minister but – according to a recent Channel 4 documentary – also advised him to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament to force through no-deal Brexit. Johnson’s attempt to follow Odey’s advice ended ignominiously when the U.K.’s highest court ruled it unlawful.

Coppola’s point seems to be that most of the journalists covering this particular story doen’t seem to know much about how hedge-funds work. It is possible to profit from no-deal Brexit even if you don’t support it. “Shorting the pound”, she writes, “would be a no-brainer for anyone in the hedge fund fraternity, however pristine their Remain credentials.”

The conspiracy theory suggests that as October 31 approaches with no sign of a deal, hedge-funds might short the pound whether or not they backed Johnson’s campaign.

But that’s not what is being alleged by those who claim that speculators are placing billions of pounds of bets on no-deal Brexit. No, the focus is on equities. According to The Sunday Times, hedge funds like Odey are shorting British companies in expectation of a stock market crash if the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal. Allegedly, Odey has placed £300m ($370m) of bets against a variety of U.K. companies.

Investigating the list of his 14 currently active shorts, Coppola thinks that they are standard hedge-fund operations — betting against companies that are in trouble for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Brexit. “In short”, she concludes,

In short, despite his vocal support for no-deal Brexit, I don’t see any evidence that Odey’s funds are shorting U.K. companies in anticipation of no-deal Brexit. If I were to criticize Odey for anything, it would be for high fees and an uninspiring performance.

Nice piece of debunking. And of good journalism. And I wouldn’t put it past Robert to use the plot in one of his next books!

Conspiracy theories, the Internet and democracy

My OpEd piece from yesterday’s Observer:

Conspiracy theories have generally had a bad press. They conjure up images of eccentrics in tinfoil hats who believe that aliens have landed and the government is hushing up the news. And maybe it’s statistically true that most conspiracy theories belong on the harmless fringe of the credibility spectrum.

On the other hand, the historical record contains some conspiracy theories that have had profound effects. Take the “stab in the back” myth, widely believed in Germany after 1918, which held that the German army did not lose the First World War on the battlefield but was betrayed by civilians on the home front. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the theory was incorporated in their revisionist narrative of the 1920s: the Weimar Republic was the creation of the “November criminals” who stabbed the nation in the back to seize power while betraying it. So a conspiracy theory became the inspiration for the political changes that led to a second global conflict.

More recent examples relate to the alleged dangers of the MMR jab and other vaccinations and the various conspiracy theories fuelling denial of climate change.

For the last five years, my academic colleagues – historian Richard Evans and politics professor David Runciman – and I have been leading a team of researchers studying the history, nature and significance of conspiracy theories with a particular emphasis on their implications for democracy…

Read on

Conspiracist thinking and social media

This morning’s Observer column:

The prevalence of conspiracy theories online explains why they tend to crop up whenever we track the cognitive path of someone who, like the alleged Pittsburgh killer, commits or attempts to commit an atrocity. A case in point is Dylann Roof, a South Carolina teenager who one day came across the term “black on white crime” on Wikipedia, entered that phrase into Google and wound up at a deeply racist website inviting him to wake up to a “reality” that he had never considered, from which it was but a short step into a vortex of conspiracy theories portraying white people as victims. On 17 June 2015, Roof joined a group of African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, before opening fire on them, killing nine.

We find a similar sequence in the case of Cesar Sayoc, the man accused of sending mail bombs to prominent Democrats. Until 2016, his Facebook postings looked innocuous: decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games – what the New York Times described as “the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity”.

But then something changed. He opened a Twitter account posting links to fabricated rightwing stories and attacking Hillary Clinton. And his Facebook posts began to overflow with pro-Trump images, news stories about Muslims and Isis, ludicrous conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News…

Read on