Sunday 7 June, 2020

One man stands between Joe Biden and the US presidency – Mark Zuckerberg

This morning’s Observer column:

…my mind goes back to this time in 2016, when similar sentiments were the conventional wisdom about the chances of Trump defeating Hillary Clinton. And one of the most agonising questions in the aftermath of that election was: how could Nate Silver and co have got it so wrong?

The answer is simple: nobody, including opinion pollsters, knew about the Trump campaign’s astonishing mastery of social media, especially Facebook. Trump may not have known much about that at the time – he really only understood Twitter – but Brad Parscale and his team sure knew how to make use of Facebook’s micro-targeting machine. And they did.

Spool forward to now. Trump knows that if things continue as they are – with no party conventions or mass rallies and if the election is held in November (a sizable “if” IMHO) – then Biden will win. The only thing that could change that is – you guessed it! – Facebook…

Read on


The Protests Remind Us Why Social Media Is Worth Fixing

Very thoughtful post by Will Oremus arguing that while Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok are distorting our view of a crisis, they’re also countering the distorted view we had before. And the trouble is, that’s correct. We have to abandon the notion of a world without social media (though not the idea that it could have better, less societally damaging, business models). That genie is long out of the bottle. So the question is: how can we improve the current situation so that we have a less polluted public sphere? As Oremus puts it:

It’s on Facebook, Twitter, and even TikTok that shaky smartphone videos of police brutality are going viral, and once-radical demands such as defunding the police are picking up steam.

Without these platforms, we’d still be totally reliant on a press corps whose demographics and values skew white and upper-middle-class, and which for decades has helped to prop up — or at least failed to topple — a status quo of white supremacy. The problem with Zuckerberg’s framing of Facebook as a net positive, then, is not that it’s absurd, per se — although it is conveniently unfalsifiable, as the New York Times’ Kevin Roose points out. The problem is that, when deployed as a shield against criticism, it’s a red herring — a hand-waving thought experiment that’s irrelevant to the question of how Facebook should regulate its platform. What matters now is not judging whether social platforms are a force for good or ill, but figuring out what it would take to make them better.

In the essay (which is well worth reading in full), he points to a couple of significant ideas that Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, advanced in a remarkable public memo to employees following his decision to follow Twitter in taking a stand, saying it will no longer promote Trump’s snaps in its influential Discover tab. The relevant passage reads:

As for Snapchat, we simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform. Our Discover content platform is a curated platform, where we decide what we promote. We have spoken time and again about working hard to make a positive impact, and we will walk the talk with the content we promote on Snapchat. We may continue to allow divisive people to maintain an account on Snapchat, as long as the content that is published on Snapchat is consistent with our community guidelines, but we will not promote that account or content in any way.

There are two significant ideas embedded here, says Oremus.

The first is that ‘free speech’ does not equal ‘free reach’. Much of the poisonous impact of social media lies not in the fact that people can post all kinds of obnoxious content online, but that the algorithms that are calibrated to maximise engage (and revenue) effectively amplify that content by giving it massive reach. The world is full of cretins, but if one states on the street or outside his house spouting hatred or nonsense then his reach is limited by physical proximity. Much the same is true for any individual post on any platform. It just resides in the infinitely ‘long tail’ of posts which are read or seen by tiny numbers of people. And if it stayed that way, then the world would be a safer and a better place. It’s Algorithmically giving violent or divisive content exaggerated reach that’s the problem.

The second implicit idea in Spiegel’s post discerned by Oremus is, I suppose, more difficult for social media to handle — namely that platforms can (and should?) decide whether some people are inadmissible simply because of their off-platform behaviour. This would have barred Trump, for example, from ever being on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, if those platforms had the wit initially — and later the courage — to bar him.

Both essays — Oremus’s and Spiegel’s are worth reading in full. Spiegel’s is particularly wide-ranging and impressive. He sounds like an admirable young man.


Errol Morris: The Umbrella Man

If you haven’t ever seen this short film, then take ten minutes and draw up a chair. It’s beautifully crafted and shot, and it contains an important lesson about conspiracy theories that everyone should know.


Quarantine diary — Day 78

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Thursday 28 May, 2020

Deconstructing Cummings’s Downing Street statement

Wonderful analysis of the Cummings document by the FT’s David Allen Green. Takes the form of a 25-minute video going through the document line by line, but there’s also a transcript if you’re in a hurry. It’s a fascinating piece of work. Allen thinks that the entire document was drawn up by a (no doubt expensive) lawyer because it reads like a witness statement as used in trials. (But there’s no signature at the bottom attesting that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!).

The only thing he misses is the fact (mentioned in the Wired report discussed on this blog yesterday) that Cummings retrospectively added to his blog post of March 4, 2019 to make it look as thought he was exceedingly prescient about this kind of pandemic.

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Charlie Warzel on de-platforming Trump

Useful piece by Charlie sparked by the thought that Twitter might ban Trump.

“The strategy of power now is not to dominate the whole narrative,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality” told me recently. “It’s to polarize citizens and construct a very potent worldview and to alienate them from the truth. When journalists speak truth to power they’re by nature giving the powerful the opposition they want.”

Naturally, media outlets and reporters, not wanting to be bullied or discredited, adopt an adversarial approach. This leads to some great, important journalism but also a fair amount of grandstanding, which then become ammunition for the president and his supporters.

This situation is hard for journalists to get their heads around, Mr. Pomerantsev says. “We’re trained to stand up to the powerful,” he Pomerantsev said. “But now the powerful are comfortable with us doing the punching — just look at how they’re attacking.”

It’s basically a cycle that requires participation from all parties: the president (who initiates it), Twitter (which tolerates it) and the media (which amplifies, frequently to the president’s advantage). Removing one participant gums up the cycle, but does not stop it outright.


How Trump proposes to go after Twitter for labelling his tweets

He’s gone for the ‘nuclear strike’ — to try to modify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, (which is Title V of the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act). The Section is the one that exempts platform providers from legal liability for stuff that users post on their platforms. It’s essentially the bedrock of their impunity.

The key part of the Section reads as follows:

(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material

(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(2) Civil liability No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or

(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

This is what Trump’s draft Executive Order targets.

The thrust of the Order is that Twitter’s labelling of Trump’s tweets as inaccurate is not protected under Subparagraph C(2).

“The provision does not extend to deceptive or pretextual actions restricting online content or actions inconsistent with an online platform’s terms of service. When an interactive computer service provider removes or restricts access to content and its actions do not meet the requirements of Subparagraph C (2) (A), it is engaged in editorial conduct.”

So the Order directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct an inquiry to “clarify”

This is going to be interesting. If nothing else, it guarantees that all the tech companies will be pouring money into Joe Biden’s campaign, because Section 230 has always been their get-out-of-gaol card. Indeed, for social-media companies it’s what underpins their business model.

And… Right on cue, up pops Mark Zuckerberg (who has had a couple of dinners recently with Trump, I believe) on Fox News yesterday criticising Twitter for fact-checking Trump’s tweets, saying private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”. Zuckerberg is keeping his political options open. Creep.


Every stock is a vaccine stock

What’s the value of a Covid vaccine — and to whom? General Electric stock was rocketing up on Tuesday, but not because of anything the company did or announced. What’s going on is that any positive news about a Covid vaccine Recent Covid-19 vaccine serves as a catalyst, making every stock feel like a vaccine stock.

Fascinating post by Tyler Cowen:

It’s not surprising that when Moderna reports good vaccine results, Moderna does well. It’s more surprising that Boeing and GE not only do well they increase in value far more than Moderna. On May 18, for example, when Moderna announced very preliminary positive results on its vaccine it’s market capitalization rose by $5b. But GE’s market capitalization rose by $6.82 billion and Boeing increased in value by $8.73 billion.

A cure for COVID-19 would be worth trillions to the world but only billions to the creator. The stock market is illustrating the massive externalities created by innovation. Nordhaus estimated that only 2.2% of the value of innovation was captured by innovators. For vaccine manufacturers it’s probably closer to .2%.

The disconnect between stock markets and the real world is truly mysterious.


Quarantine diary — Day 68

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Friday 17 April, 2020

Emmanuel Macron says it is time to think the unthinkable

Today’s Financial Times has a very interesting, wide-ranging interview with the French President. One segment in particular stood out for me:

There is a realisation, Mr Macron says, that if people could do the unthinkable to their economies to slow a pandemic, they could do the same to arrest catastrophic climate change. People have come to understand “that no one hesitates to make very profound, brutal choices when it’s a matter of saving lives. It’s the same for climate risk,” he says. “Great pandemics of respiratory distress syndromes like those we are living through now used to seem very far away, because they always stopped in Asia. Well, climate risk seems very far away because it affects Africa and the Pacific. But when it reaches you, it’s wake-up time.”

“Mr Macron likened the fear of suffocating that comes with Covid-19 to the effects of air pollution. “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air,” he says. “People will say . . . ‘I do not agree with the choices of societies where I’ll breathe such air, where my baby will have bronchitis because of it. And remember you stopped everything for this Covid thing but now you want to make me breathe bad air!’”

This is the top story today IMHO. One way of looking at the Coronavirus crisis is as a dry run for the really existential crisis that’s on its way further down the line — catastrophic climate change. And the question is: will the trauma of the pandemic persuade publics worldwide that we can’t go on as before?

Just now, though, the yearning is for the current crisis to be over. Alas, that moment might be some way off. So it’s worth thinking trying to figure out what a realistic scenario might look like, and what needs to be prioritised as we make the transition into that new future.

In that context, a recent YouGov survey of British public opinion is interesting. According to one report, the survey found that:

  • Only 9% of Britons want life to return to “normal” after the coronavirus outbreak is over.

  • People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown, including cleaner air, more wildlife and stronger communities.

  • More than half (54%) of 4,343 people who took part in the poll hope they will make some changes in their own lives and for the country as a whole to learn from the crisis.

  • 42% of participants said they value food and other essentials more since the pandemic, with 38% cooking from scratch more.

  • 61% of people are spending less money and 51% noticed cleaner air outdoors, while 27% think there is more wildlife.

  • Two-fifths said there is a stronger sense of community in their area since the outbreak began and 39% say they are catching up with friends and family more.

A global poll conducted by Ipsos/Mori found wide divergences of views when people were asked if they believed that things would get back to normal soon.

Personally, I don’t take this poll seriously simply because the question it was asking (“do you expect things to return to normal by June?”) is daft. But it does suggest wide cultural divergence in expectations on how long this crisis will last.

The YouGov poll was commissioned by a number of organisations, one of which was the Royal Society of Arts. Matthew Taylor, its Chief Executive, has an interesting essay on what comes next. “It is natural to think about the next few months of the pandemic as ‘the crisis’ and ‘the world afterwards’”, he writes. “But it may be more useful to think of three stages:”

  • the immediate crisis
  • the transitional period
  • the emergence of a new normal.

The transition period may last some time and it is important to start exploring the principles that could and should govern it. Emergency powers and measures aren’t right for an extended period of time.

Democracy, transparency, devolution, protecting health, and protecting the most vulnerable should be some of our priority principles for transition.

Taylor’s essay spells some of this out in more detail.


The WHO shouldn’t be a plaything for great powers

Just because Trump is scapegoating it doesn’t mean the WHO hasn’t made mistakes. Trump’s ploy to de-fund the WHO is a transparent effort to distract from his administration’s failure to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic. It would also be disastrous because many countries, especially poor ones, currently depend on the WHO for medical help and supplies. However, writes Zeyney Tufecki, it is also true that in the run-up to this pandemic, the WHO failed the world in significant ways.

It failed, she argues, because it’s unduly attentive to the whims of the nations that fund it and choose its leader. In July 2017, China moved aggressively to elect its current leadership, for example. Instead of fixing any of the problems with the way the WHO operates, though, Trump seems to merely want the United States to be the bigger bully than China.

Tufecki’s argument is that one can see the desire not to offend China in the WHO’s initial response to the outbreak in Wuhan. The organisation, she continues, should

not have brazenly tweeted, as late as January 14, that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” That claim was false, and known by the authorities in Wuhan to be false.. Taiwan had already told the WHO of the truth too. On top of that, the day before that tweet was sent, there had been a case in Thailand: a woman from Wuhan who had traveled to Thailand, but who had never been to the seafood market associated with the outbreak—which strongly suggested that the virus was already spreading within Wuhan.

The trouble with the WHO is the problem that every major UN organisation has — it’s dominated by the countries that fund it. And ever since China has begun to become more involved in international organisations — and stumping up funding for them — they have become more attentive. Much the same seems to be happening to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which is being pushed by China and a number of other authoritarian states to change Internet protocols to make the network more susceptible to central control — using as a rationale the need to update the network to be able to serve the Internet of Things.

Still, Facebook hasn’t yet caught up with Trump’s disapproval of the WHO. It will will steer users who interact with coronavirus misinformation to the WHO!


Libra turns out to be a feeble duck, but, sadly, one that is not yet dead.

When Facebook unveiled its Libra cryptocurrency project last June, the company described it as a futuristic global money that could serve as the foundation for a new kind of financial system. But on Thursday it rolled out a feebler design for Libra after the effort encountered numerous hurdles and heavy regulatory scrutiny. It’ll basically be just another PayPal. Couldn’t happen to nastier people.


Twitter, masks and expertise.

So, it turns out that the medical establishment is no longer quite so sure that wearing masks in public is not necessary. That, at any rate, is my reading of this editorial in the British Medical Journal, a pukka source if ever there was one.

“Covid-19: should the public wear face masks?”, it asks. And the answer: “Yes — population benefits are plausible and harms unlikely”. This is really interesting because the “expert” advice relied upon by the government was dismissive of the importance of masks except in clinical settings, and the only places where the case for wearing masks was consistently argued were social media, and especially Twitter.

This makes uncomfortable reading for those of us — including me — who are deeply suspicious of much of the stuff that circulates on those media. What it highlights — as Ben Thompson has been pointing out in his (paywalled) newsletter — is that the abundance of information on social media has both a good and a bad side: there’s a lot of crap but there’s a lot of good stuff too. And in a situation like the current pandemic, where so much is unknown (for example the mortality rate and the proportion of the population that is asymptomatically infected) then mainstream media has been too dependent on ‘expert’ opinion — that has been shown to be faulty.


The tech giants are here to stay

One of the few certainties about the post-pandemic world is that the dominance of the big five tech giants we be further enhanced. See Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the NYT for a fuller exposition. This will change the regulatory landscape; and the debate about what to do about this kind of corporate power.


“It’ll be all over by Christmas”

No it won’t. But if you want a real dystopian take on the next phase of this, then Charlie Stross’s blog post should see you right.


Quarantine diary — Day 27

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Sunday 16 February, 2020

Reports of social media’s influence on (UK) voters may be exaggerated

This morning’s Observer column:

While it would obviously be ridiculous to deny that social media played some role in these political upheavals [Brexit and Trump’s election], it would be foolish to assign it the critical role. Apart from anything else, putting social media centre stage ignores what had been happening to democratic electorates during decades of globalisation, neoliberal economic policy, rising inequality and austerity. But because the rise of Facebook et al was one of the biggest changes over the last two decades, the temptation to see them as the place to look for explanations seems to have been well-nigh irresistible.

Fortunately, it was resisted by researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford when they set out to understand where UK voters got their news during the 2019 general election. They tracked the online news consumption of 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices throughout the campaign and also surveyed a subset of 752 panellists before and after the vote. What the researchers were seeking to understand was the relative importance for voters of offline and online news and their attitudes to the media and politics more widely.

Their findings make intriguing reading, not least because they challenge some of the anecdotal conventional wisdom about the predominance of social media…

Read on


In the boxing business, only the promoter wins every fight

Same applies on social media.

Both of these sites are owned by the same jokester. Heads he wins, tails he wins. ‘Engagement’ is all.

“Are you glad to see Conway gone?” asked Liberal Society at the end of its post.

“Will you miss seeing Conway on TV?” asked Conservative 101.

The stories read like they were stamped out of the same content machine because they were. Using domain registration records and Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, BuzzFeed News determined that both sites are owned by American News LLC of Miami.

That company also operates another liberal site, Democratic Review, as well as American News, a conservative site that drew attention after the election when it posted a false article claiming that Denzel Washington endorsed Trump. It also operates GodToday.com, a site that publishes religious clickbait.

Source


What the composition of the Johnson Cabinet actually portends

Insightful analysis by James Butler in the LRB:

It’s the move to control and centralisation that is most significant, and gives us the clearest sign of what to expect from the government over the next five years: personalised authority, a tussle over economic intervention intended to reshape the nation, hostility to legal and journalistic accountability, and a host of convenient public enemies as villainous Brussels recedes from view. The new appointees, and the new priorities, inaugurate a new mode of British Conservatism – and any opposition that fails to grasp that, and its internal weaknesses, may find it takes longer than five years to defeat it.