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As Cuomo Sought $4 Million Book Deal, Aides Hid Damaging Death Toll

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Jesse McKinley, Danny Hakim, and Alexandra Alter report in the NY Times:

As the coronavirus subsided in New York last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had begun pitching a book proposal that would center on his image as a hero of the pandemic. But by early last summer, both his book and image had hit a critical juncture.

Mr. Cuomo leaned on his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, for assistance. She attended video meetings with publishers, and helped him edit early drafts of the book. But there was also another, more pressing edit underway at the same time.

An impending Health Department report threatened to disclose a far higher number of nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus than the Cuomo administration had previously made public. Ms. DeRosa and other top aides expressed concern about the higher death toll, and, after their intervention, the number — which had appeared in the second sentence of the report — was removed from the final version.

The revisions occurred as the governor was on the brink of a huge payoff: a book deal that ended with a high offer of more than $4 million, according to people with knowledge of the book’s bidding process.

A New York Times examination of the development of Mr. Cuomo’s lucrative book deal revealed how it overlapped with the move by his most senior aides to reshape a report about nursing home deaths in a way that insulated the governor from criticism and burnished his image.

Mr. Cuomo also utilized the resources of his office — from his inner circle to far more junior personnel — to help with the manuscript. In late June and early July, for example, a top aide to the governor, Stephanie Benton, twice asked assistants to print portions of the draft of the book, and deliver them to Mr. Cuomo at the Executive Mansion in Albany, where he lives.

One of Ms. Benton’s directives came on June 27, the same day that Ms. DeRosa convened an impromptu teleconference with several other top advisers to discuss the Health Department draft report.

On Wednesday, Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, rejected any link between Mr. Cuomo’s book and the Health Department report.

“There is no connection between the report and this outside project, period,” Mr. Azzopardi said. “And any suggestion otherwise is just wrong.”

The book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” was a dramatic retelling of the battle against the virus in a state where nearly 50,000 people have died. It would garner Mr. Cuomo a fleeting spot on the best-seller list.

Emails and an early draft of Mr. Cuomo’s book obtained by The New York Times indicate that the governor was writing it as early as mid-June, relying on a cadre of trusted aides and junior staffers for everything from full-scale edits to minor clerical work, potentially running afoul of state laws prohibiting use of public resources for personal gain. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. MUCH more, and in damning detail: names, dates, actions. This is from the inside, and probably (given Cuomo’s management style) multiple sources.

To take a few paragraphs at random from a long sequence of such paragraphs:

Ms. DeRosa, the highest nonelected official in Mr. Cuomo’s office, was particularly involved with the development of the book, and was present during some online pitch meetings with Mr. Cuomo. The July 5 request, in fact, was to print a 224-page draft entitled “MDR edits” — a reference to Ms. DeRosa, who had sent the draft to Ms. Benton on July 4, according to the emails. The staffers communicated via personal Gmail accounts, not official governmental email addresses.

Mr. Azzopardi said that Ms. DeRosa and Ms. Benton had “volunteered on this project” during their free time, something he added was “permissible and consistent with ethical requirements” of the state.

As for the junior aides’ participation in tasks related to the book, he said, “Every effort was made to ensure that no state resources were used in connection with this project.”

“To the extent an aide printed out a document,” he said, “it appears incidental.”

Ms. DeRosa also had significant input on the July 6 report issued by the Department of Health, which basically cleared Mr. Cuomo’s administration of fault in its handling of nursing homes — discounting the impact of a March 2020 state memo that had asked such facilities to take in or readmit residents who had tested positive for the disease.

Critical changes had been made to the final version of the Health Department report, after concerns were raised about the data by Ms. DeRosa and a second Cuomo aide, Linda Lacewell, according to interviews and documents.

In two earlier drafts of the report, which were both reviewed by The Times, the second sentence said that “from March 1, 2020, through June 10, 2020, there were 9,844 fatalities among NYS nursing home residents with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.”

The earlier drafts were written by . . .

And it goes on, naming names. Cuomo is looking at criminal charges.

Later:

Mr. Cuomo, 63, has declined to confirm exactly how much he was paid for “American Crisis,” which was published by Crown Publishing Group in mid-October, just as a second wave of the coronavirus began to swell in New York.

Crown declined to comment on the sale price or confirm that it slightly exceeded $4 million, a large sum for an author whose previous memoir, “All Things Possible,” from 2014, sold fewer than 4,000 hardcover copies.

The governor’s office said he would donate a “significant portion” of the book’s proceeds to a Covid-related charity, though he has not indicated how much; on Wednesday, Mr. Azzopardi reiterated that the governor’s book payment and charitable contributions would be released with his tax returns and state-mandated financial disclosures, both of which are due in mid-May.

Since the book’s publication, . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2021 at 9:44 pm

Three groundbreaking journalists saw the Vietnam War differently. It’s no coincidence they were women.

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Cambodian Prime Minister Long Boret, center, meets with war correspondent Elizabeth Becker in Cambodia in 1974. (Elizabeth Becker)

Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post:

Frances FitzGerald paid her own way into Vietnam. She was an “on spec” reporter with no editor to guide her, no office to support her, and no promise that anyone would publish what she wrote about the war.

She knocked out her first article on a blue Olivetti portable typewriter she had carried from New York and mailed it the cheap and slow way from a post office in the heart of Saigon’s French quarter to the Village Voice, nearly 9,000 miles away.

It arrived, and on April 21, 1966, the Voice published FitzGerald’s indictment of the chaotic U.S. war policy.

“The result was a highly original piece written in the style of an outsider, someone who asked different questions and admitted when she didn’t have answers,” wrote Elizabeth Becker in her new book, “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War,” which celebrates the work of FitzGerald, Kate Webb and Catherine Leroy.

Becker, a former war correspondent in Cambodia toward the end of the decades-long conflict, wrote about these women in part because she had experienced much of what they did — just a little later, and with appreciation for the paths they’d broken.

“I went through it at the tail end, and they were my role models,” Becker told me last week. She admired them because they had broken gender barriers, endured sexual harassment and been belittled by journalistic peers who thought women had no place near a war zone.

But “I wanted to write more than a ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ book,” said Becker, who has broken a few of her own: It’s likely that, as a stringer in Cambodia in the early 1970s, she was the first woman to regularly report from a war zone for The Washington Post. Later, she became the senior foreign editor at NPR and a New York Times correspondent.

What struck Becker about her subjects went far beyond gender. It was the women’s approach to their work. They were more interested in people than in battlefields, quicker to see the terrible cost of violence to the Vietnamese as well as to Westerners, less likely than many of their male colleagues to swallow the government’s party line.

“They brought this common humanity and an originality to their work,” Becker said.

Remarkably early, FitzGerald clearly described what American officials didn’t want the public to see: the chaos, the lack of sensible purpose.

“For the Embassy here the problem has not been how to deal with the crisis — there is no way to deal with it under U.S. Standard Operating Procedures — but rather how to explain what is happening in any coherent terms,” she wrote in that 1966 article for the Voice. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2021 at 6:22 pm

To quell misinformation, use rewards as well as punishments

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Tali Sharot writes in Nature:

In 2020 alone, social-media shares, likes and similar interactions with misleading online news doubled to 17% of all engagements. This staggering growth has consequences: polarization, violent extremism, racism and resistance to climate action and vaccines. Social-media companies have taken some steps to combat misinformation by using warnings and ‘sticks’, such as removing a few virulent spreaders of falsities and flagging misleading content. Facebook and Instagram users can report concerning posts, and Twitter prompts users to read articles before retweeting them.

How social-media companies should revamp their recommendation algorithms to quell misinformation is being discussed, but something is missing from the conversation: how to improve what users want to post and spread. Right now, users lack clear, quick incentives for reliability. Social-media platforms need to offer ‘carrots’ for truth.

As a neuroscientist who studies motivation and decision making, I have seen how even trivial rewards strongly influence behaviour. Most readers have felt an ego boost when their post received ‘likes’. Such engagement also results in followers, which can help people secure lucrative deals.

Thus, if a certain type of content generates high engagement, people will post more content like it. Here is the conundrum: fake news generates more retweets and likes than do reliable posts, spreading 6–20 times faster. This is largely because such content captures attention and confirms existing beliefs. What’s more, people share information even when they do not trust it. In one experiment (G. Pennycook et al. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03344-2; 2021), 40% of users who were shown fake news articles congruent with their political affiliation would consider sharing them, even though only 20% thought they were accurate.

At the moment, users are rewarded when their post appeals to the masses — even if it’s of poor quality. What would happen if users were rewarded for reliability and accuracy? A system that explicitly provides visible rewards for reliability has never, to my knowledge, been introduced by any major social-media platform. Such a system would work with the natural human tendency to select actions that lead to the greatest reward. It could thus both reinforce user behaviour that generates trustworthy material and signal to others that the post is dependable.

Reward systems have been successfully implemented before. In Sweden, drivers were offered prizes for obeying the speed limit, and average speed was reduced by 22%. In South Africa, a health-insurance company offered clients points whenever they purchased fruits and vegetables in the supermarket, visited the gym or attended a medical screening. Points could be exchanged for items, and were made visible to participants and their social circles. Participants’ behaviour changed enough to reduce hospital visits.

A challenge to implementing such a system on social media is how to

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 March 2021 at 5:01 pm

In the US it’s okay to kill journalism if you can make money from it.

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An email from The Intercept:

The journalism industry just received another body blow, and this one is devastating.

A vulture hedge fund that’s been called the “grim reaper of American newspapers” just bought Tribune Publishing, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, and six other major U.S. dailies.

Everyone knows what’s coming next. When Alden Global Capital bought the Denver Post in 2018, they canned one-third of the newsroom on day one. Regional newspapers in Northern California saw 850 out of 1,000 reporting jobs eliminated. As Vanity Fair put it, the “hedge fund vampire that bleeds newspapers dry now has the Chicago Tribune by the throat.”

Written by LeisureGuy

25 February 2021 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Media

Sheryl Sandberg and Top Facebook Execs Silenced an Enemy of Turkey to Prevent a Hit to the Company’s Business

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Facebook upper management are a morally corrupt loot, Sandberg perhaps especially. Jack Gillum and Justin Elliott report in ProPublica:

As Turkey launched a military offensive against Kurdish minorities in neighboring Syria in early 2018, Facebook’s top executives faced a political dilemma.

Turkey was demanding the social media giant block Facebook posts from the People’s Protection Units, a mostly Kurdish militia group the Turkish government had targeted. Should Facebook ignore the request, as it has done elsewhere, and risk losing access to tens of millions of users in Turkey? Or should it silence the group, known as the YPG, even if doing so added to the perception that the company too often bends to the wishes of authoritarian governments?

It wasn’t a particularly close call for the company’s leadership, newly disclosed emails show.

“I am fine with this,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s No. 2 executive, in a one-sentence message to a team that reviewed the page. Three years later, YPG’s photos and updates about the Turkish military’s brutal attacks on the Kurdish minority in Syria still can’t be viewed by Facebook users inside Turkey.

The conversations, among other internal emails obtained by ProPublica, provide an unusually direct look into how tech giants like Facebook handle censorship requests made by governments that routinely limit what can be said publicly. When the Turkish government attacked the Kurds in the Afrin District of northern Syria, Turkey also arrested hundreds of its own residents for criticizing the operation.

Publicly, Facebook has underscored that it cherishes free speech: “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and we work hard to protect and defend these values around the world,” the company wrote in a blog post last month about a new Turkish law requiring that social media firms have a legal presence in the country. “More than half of the people in Turkey rely on Facebook to stay in touch with their friends and family, to express their opinions and grow their businesses.”

But behind the scenes in 2018, amid Turkey’s military campaign, Facebook ultimately sided with the government’s demands. Deliberations, the emails show, were centered on keeping the platform operational, not on human rights. “The page caused us a few PR fires in the past,” one Facebook manager warned of the YPG material.

The Turkish government’s lobbying on Afrin-related content included a call from the chairman of the BTK, Turkey’s telecommunications regulator. He reminded Facebook “to be cautious about the material being posted, especially photos of wounded people,” wrote Mark Smith, a U.K.-based policy manager, to Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy. “He also highlighted that the government may ask us to block entire pages and profiles if they become a focal point for sharing illegal content.” (Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization, although neither the U.S. nor Facebook do.)

The company’s eventual solution was to “geo-block,” or selectively ban users in a geographic area from viewing certain content, should the threats from Turkish officials escalate. Facebook had previously avoided the practice, even though it has become increasingly popular among governments that want to hide posts from within their borders.

Facebook confirmed to ProPublica that it made the decision to restrict the page in Turkey following a legal order from the Turkish government — and after it became clear that failing to do so would have led to its services in the country being completely shut down. The company said it had been blocked before in Turkey, including a half-dozen times in 2016.

The content that Turkey deemed offensive, according to internal emails, included photos on Facebook-owned Instagram of “wounded YPG fighters, Turkish soldiers and possibly civilians.” At the time, the YPG slammed what it understood to be Facebook’s censorship of such material. “Silencing the voice of democracy: In light of the Afrin invasion, YPG experience severe cyberattacks.” The group has published graphic images, including photos of mortally wounded fighters; “this is the way NATO ally Turkey secures its borders,” YPG wrote in one post.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone provided a written statement in response to questions from ProPublica. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 February 2021 at 2:49 pm

“Mark Changed The Rules”: How Facebook Went Easy On Alex Jones And Other Right-Wing Figures

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It’s difficult not to see Facebook as a serious problem whose root cause is Mark Zuckerberg’s shallowness and immaturity coupled with arrogance and power. Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman report in Buzzfeed News:

In April 2019, Facebook was preparing to ban one of the internet’s most notorious spreaders of misinformation and hate, Infowars founder Alex Jones. Then CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally intervened.

Jones had gained infamy for claiming that the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre was a “giant hoax,” and that the teenage survivors of the 2018 Parkland shooting were “crisis actors.” But Facebook had found that he was also relentlessly spreading hate against various groups, including Muslims and trans people. That behavior qualified him for expulsion from the social network under the company’s policies for “dangerous individuals and organizations,” which required Facebook to also remove any content that expressed “praise or support” for them.

But Zuckerberg didn’t consider the Infowars founder to be a hate figure, according to a person familiar with the decision, so he overruled his own internal experts and opened a gaping loophole: Facebook would permanently ban Jones and his company — but would not touch posts of praise and support for them from other Facebook users. This meant that Jones’ legions of followers could continue to share his lies across the world’s largest social network.

“Mark personally didn’t like the punishment, so he changed the rules,” a former policy employee told BuzzFeed News, noting that the original rule had already been in use and represented the product of untold hours of work between multiple teams and experts.

“That was the first time I experienced having to create a new category of policy to fit what Zuckerberg wanted. It’s somewhat demoralizing when we have established a policy and it’s gone through rigorous cycles. Like, what the fuck is that for?” said a second former policy employee who, like the first, asked not to be named so they could speak about internal matters.

“Mark called for a more nuanced policy and enforcement strategy,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said of the Alex Jones decision, which also affected the bans of other extremist figures.

Zuckerberg’s “more nuanced policy” set off a cascading effect, the two former employees said, which delayed the company’s efforts to remove right wing militant organizations such as the Oath Keepers, which were involved the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. It is also a case study in Facebook’s willingness to change its rules to placate America’s right wing and avoid political backlash.

Internal documents obtained by BuzzFeed News and interviews with 14 current and former employees show how the company’s policy team — guided by Joel Kaplan, the vice president of global public policy, and Zuckerberg’s whims — has exerted outsize influence while obstructing content moderation decisions, stymieing product rollouts, and intervening on behalf of popular conservative figures who have violated Facebook’s rules.

In December, a former core data scientist wrote a memo titled, “Political Influences on Content Policy.” Seen by BuzzFeed News, the memo stated that Kaplan’s policy team “regularly protects powerful constituencies” and listed several examples, including: removing penalties for misinformation from right-wing pages, blunting attempts to improve content quality in News Feed, and briefly blocking a proposal to stop recommending political groups ahead of the US election.

Since the November vote, at least six Facebook employees have resigned with farewell posts that have called out leadership’s failures to heed its own experts on misinformation and hate speech. Four departing employees explicitly cited the policy organization as an impediment to their work and called for a reorganization so that the public policy team, which oversees lobbying and government relations, and the content policy team, which sets and enforces the platform’s rules, would not both report to Kaplan.

Facebook declined to make Kaplan or other executives available for an interview. Stone, the company spokesperson, dismissed concerns about the vice president’s influence.

“Recycling the same warmed over conspiracy theories about the influence of one person at Facebook doesn’t make them true,” he said. “The reality is big decisions at Facebook are made with input from people across different teams who have different perspectives and expertise in different areas. To suggest otherwise is absurd.”

An integrity researcher who worked on Facebook’s efforts to protect the democratic process and rein in radicalization said the company caused direct harm to users by rejecting product changes due to concerns of political backlash.

“Out of fears over potential public and policy stakeholder responses, we are knowingly exposing users to risks of integrity,” they wrote in an internal note seen by BuzzFeed News. They quit in August.

Those most affected by Jones’ rhetoric have taken notice, too. Lenny Pozner, whose 6-year-old son Noah was the youngest victim of the Sandy Hook shooting, called the revelation that Zuckerberg weakened penalties facing the Infowars founder “disheartening, but not surprising.” He said the company had made a promise to do better in dealing with hate and hoaxes following a 2018 letter from HONR Network, his organization for survivors of mass casualty events. Yet Facebook continues to fail to remove harmful content.

“At some point,” Pozner told BuzzFeed News, “Zuckerberg has to be held responsible for his role in allowing his platform to be weaponized and for ensuring that the ludicrous and the dangerous are given equal importance as the factual.”

“Different Views On Different Things”

Kaplan’s close relationship with Zuckerberg has led the CEO to weigh politics more heavily when making high-profile content policy enforcement decisions, current and former employees said. Kaplan’s efforts to court the Trump White House over the past four years — from his widely publicized support for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to his interventions on behalf of right-wing influencers in Facebook policy decisions — have also made him a target for civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers.

In June 2020, three Democratic senators asked in a letter what role Kaplan played “in Facebook’s decision to shut down and de-prioritize internal efforts to contain extremist and hyperpolarizing activity.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren called him out for overseeing a lobbying effort that spends millions of dollars to influence politicians. With a new presidential administration in place and a spate of ongoing antitrust lawsuits, Zuckerberg must now grapple with the fact that his top political adviser may no longer be a Washington, DC asset but a potential liability.

“I think that everybody in DC hates Facebook. They have burned every bridge,” said Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project and a former member of Joe Biden’s presidential transition team. Democrats are incensed with the platform’s tolerance of hate speech and misinformation, while “pulling Trump off the platform” has brought new life to Republican gripes with the company, she said.

“Facebook has fires to put out all across the political spectrum,” Miller added. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s damning

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2021 at 12:55 pm

Facecrook: Dealing with a Global Menace

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Matt Stoller has a very interesting post in BIG. The blurb:

Facebook is engaged in a giant crime spree to steal ad money. A battle over speech in Australia shows what top executives really think of the rule of law.

The post begins:

On Wednesday of this week, Facebook blocked the nation of Australia from sharing news on its dominant platform, censoring an entire content. The corporation is reacting to a law mandating dominant digital platforms negotiate terms with publishers over news distribution. On Thursday, unsealed court California documents revealing that the firm has been defrauding advertisers, with the knowledge and participation of Sheryl Sandberg.

Today I’ll explain how these events are connected. I’ll describe what’s in the controversial Australian law and how it works, and why Biden’s Department of Justice should probably be investigating Sheryl Sandberg for fraud.

In other words, what happens when Facebook’s crime spree meets the rule of law?

Also…

  • A reader shares a story of how Logitech monopolized universal remotes with its Harmony line, and is now going to shut down the entire industry because it doesn’t feel like competing with voice assistants.
  • Another reader who does live jazz music recordings got blocked from sharing them on Spotify’s podcast service with the note from the audio giant: “Our podcast service is not intended to be a music distribution tool.” Hmmm…
  • What does hyper-aggressive semiconductor monopolist Nvidia want?
  • Odds and ends on private equity, supermarket consolidation, and airline regulation.

The Latest Facebook Crime

On Thursday night, a judge allowed the unsealing of legal documents showing that Facebook has been engaged in fraud against advertisers. The firm told advertisers that its ads reach many more people than they actually do, inducing ad buyers to spend more money on the platform than they otherwise would have. The documents revealed that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg directly oversaw the alleged fraud for years.

The scheme was simple. Facebook deceived advertisers by pretending that fake accounts represented real people, because ad buyers choose to spend on ad campaigns based on where they think their customers are. Former employees noted, that the corporation didn’t care about the accuracy of numbers as long as the ad money was coming in. Facebook, they said, “did not give a shit.”

The inflated statistics sometimes led to outlandish results. For instance, Facebook told advertisers that its services had a potential reach of 100 million 18 to 34-year-olds in the United States, even though there are only 76 million people in that demographic. After employees proposed a fix to make the numbers honest, the corporation rejected the idea, noting that “the “revenue impact” for Facebook would be “significant.” One Facebook employee wrote, “My question lately is: how long can we get away with the reach overestimation?”

According to these documents, Sandberg aggressively managed public communications over how to talk to advertisers about the inflated statistics, and Facebook is now fighting against her being interviewed by lawyers in a class action lawsuit alleging fraud.

Facebook’s Decade of Crime

Antitrust law can be complex, but these actions aren’t. It’s just stealing. Facebook wants people to see this suit as just some disgruntled media outlets or advertisers, and some frustrated ex-employees angry at a successful business. The problem, for Facebook, is that this isn’t a one-off. It is the THIRD time Facebook has been caught for lying to advertisers in order to steal their money.

The first time was the famous ‘pivot to video’ moment when Facebook lied to advertisers and media outlets about video metrics, causing media outlets to rearrange their business models and then lay off journalists. Facebook eventually paid off some advertiser to go away after they sued, but the scandal also came up in the House Antitrust Subcommittee hearing, when Congressman Jerry Nadler confronted Mark Zuckerberg with it. Then, late last year, Facebook told advertisers in November it had been over-estimating the performance of their ad campaigns. It had known about the lie for two months before telling the defrauded parties, and, chalking it up to a technical glitch, gave advertisers not money back but coupons for Facebook services.

There’s more bad behavior. In 2018, there was the Cambridge Analytica Federal Trade Commission settlement where Facebook paid a $5 billion fine for mishandling customer data, which was itself a response to a 2011 consent decree over Facebook mishandling customer data. And guess what? Facebook has likely violated the 2018 decree already! The New York Department of Financial Services just criticized the firm for “collecting unauthorized data about people’s medical conditions, religious practices and finances” and then using this data to engage in targeted advertising. So that’s a violation of a consent decree over data fraud that was reached as a result of an earlier consent decree reached over data fraud.

I’ve been saying for awhile that big tech executives need to face handcuffs, not just civil penalties. And this attitude is becoming mainstream. After the lax response to the financial crisis under Obama, anger over corporate repeat criminality has become increasingly widespread among Democrats. For example, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra in 2018 noted in an internal memo to the enforcement agency that corporations who repeatedly break the law should be restructured and their executives held personally accountable, with the famous line “FTC orders are not suggestions.”

This latest fraud is a good example. Facebook commits crime after crime after crime, often overseen by top officials concerned about revenue impacts. After the first couple of times, it’s reasonable to criticize Facebook. But now, the question is simply, where are the cops? If no one will stop firms from committing crimes, then the result is the rise of corporate warlords like Facebook, who just bludgeon and steal without consequence. These firms will in turn finance public relations specialists who make arguments about how all of this theft is the result of technology, that the ‘internet killed media,’ as if lying to advertisers so you can steal their money is magic sorcery.

There’s one other dynamic here in the public debate. The reason Facebook’s arguments have currency is because its victims – seeing no action from law enforcers against this crime spree – are afraid of fighting back. Facebook and Google are dominant providers of services, revenue, and ad inventory to publishers, ad buyers, and advertising agencies. Their power is immense; Facebook uses 400 law firms, simply to ensure that every firm is conflicted out of representing any opponents who might sue them. Google and Facebook can withhold services or revenue and pretty much destroy anyone in publishing or ad buying at this point, and then hire corrupt economists to explain to credulous enforcers that blackmail is efficient.

Digiday reported on fear in the publishing industry over the behavior of Google and Facebook, reporting that few will go on the record critical of the monopolists for fear they will be downgraded in search results or lose ad deals. “Google and Facebook have such power that I’m afraid of repercussions, so we play nice with them,” said one anonymous publishing executive. As a result, the armies of Facebook PR people, often laundered through fancy schools and prestigious media outlets, have little public opposition from those industries most immediately affected by the firm.

The rising anti-monopoly movement, inchoate but increasingly influential, is a cultural response to this lawlessness. And this movement isn’t just U.S. based, it is global. And it is getting results. Finally, this week, a big tech oligarch finally met the rule of law.

Which brings me to Australia.

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Australian Object

Facebook stopped allowing the sharing of news in Australia, after the government put forward a law requiring the firm to negotiate with news publishers over the terms of content distribution. The firm also stopped letting Australian publishers be shared anywhere in the world on Facebook. Facebook also did their usual ‘move fast and break things,’ accidentally censoring much of the South Pacific, but the result is that when you try to post Australian news, this is the message you get.

There’s much more. Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 2:40 pm

The backstory to the Texas power catastrophic failure

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Heather Cox Richardson in her column today provides some good historical perspective on what led to Texas’s failure to ensure that its people have power and drinking water: it was not simply a failure, but a deliberately chosen high-risk approach. She writes:

The crisis in Texas continues, with almost 2 million people still without power in frigid temperatures. Pipes are bursting in homes, pulling down ceilings and flooding living spaces, while 7 million Texans are under a water boil advisory.

Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, put on Facebook: “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!… If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your lazy is direct result of your raising! [sic]…. This is sadly a product of a socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW will work and others will become dependent for handouts…. I’ll be damned if I’m going to provide for anyone that is capable of doing it themselves!… Bottom line quit crying and looking for a handout! Get off your ass and take care of your own family!” “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic],” he said.

After an outcry, Boyd resigned.

Boyd’s post was a fitting tribute to talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who passed today from lung cancer at age 70. It was Limbaugh who popularized the idea that hardworking white men were under attack in America. According to him, minorities and feminists were too lazy to work, and instead expected a handout from the government, paid for by tax dollars levied from hardworking white men. This, he explained, was “socialism,” and it was destroying America.

Limbaugh didn’t invent this theory; it was the driving principle behind Movement Conservatism, which rose in the 1950s to combat the New Deal government that regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and promoted infrastructure. But Movement Conservatives’ efforts to get voters to reject the system that they credited for creating widespread prosperity had little success.

In 1971, Lewis Powell, an attorney for the tobacco industry, wrote a confidential memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce outlining how business interests could overturn the New Deal and retake control of America. Powell focused on putting like-minded scholars and speakers on college campuses, rewriting textbooks, stacking the courts, and pressuring politicians. He also called for “reaching the public generally” through television, newspapers, and radio. “[E]very available means should be employed to challenge and refute unfair attacks,” he wrote, “as well as to present the affirmative case through this media.”

Pressing the Movement Conservative case faced headwinds, however, since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enforced a policy that, in the interests of serving the community, required any outlet that held a federal broadcast license to present issues honestly, equitably, and with balance. This “Fairness Doctrine” meant that Movement Conservatives had trouble gaining traction, since voters rejected their ideas when they were stacked up against the ideas of Democrats and traditional Republicans, who agreed that the government had a role to play in the economy (even though they squabbled about the extent of that role).

In 1985, under a chair appointed by President Ronald Reagan, the FCC stated that the Fairness Doctrine hurt the public interest. Two years later, under another Reagan-appointed chair, the FCC abolished the rule.

With the Fairness Doctrine gone, Rush Limbaugh stepped into the role of promoting the Movement Conservative narrative. He gave it the concrete examples, color, and passion it needed to jump from think tanks and businessmen to ordinary voters who could help make it the driving force behind national policy. While politicians talked with veiled language about “welfare queens” and same-sex bathrooms, and “makers” and “takers,” Limbaugh played “Barack the Magic Negro,” talked of “femiNazis,” and said “Liberals” were “socialists,” redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to the undeserving.

Constantly, he hammered on the idea that the federal government threatened the freedom of white men, and he did so in a style that his listeners found entertaining and liberating.

By the end of the 1980s, Limbaugh’s show was carried on more than 650 radio stations, and in 1992, he briefly branched out into television with a show produced by Roger Ailes, who had packaged Richard Nixon in 1968 and would go on to become the head of the Fox News Channel. Before the 1994 midterm elections, Limbaugh was so effective in pushing the Republicans’ “Contract With America” that when the party won control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952, the Republican revolutionaries made him an honorary member of their group.

Limbaugh told them that, under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Republicans must “begin an emergency dismantling of the welfare system, which is shredding the social fabric,” bankrupting the country, and “gutting the work ethic, educational performance, and moral discipline of the poor.” Next, Congress should cut capital gains taxes, which would drive economic growth, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and generate billions in federal revenue.

Limbaugh kept staff in Washington to make sure Republican positions got through to voters. At the same time, every congressman knew that taking a stand against Limbaugh would earn instant condemnation on radio channels across the country, and they acted accordingly.

Limbaugh saw politics as entertainment that pays well for the people who can rile up their base with compelling stories—Limbaugh’s net worth when he died was estimated at $600 million—but he sold the Movement Conservative narrative well. He laid the groundwork for the political career of Donald Trump, who awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a made-for-tv moment at Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address. His influence runs deep in the current party: former Mayor Boyd, an elected official, began his diatribe with: “Let me hurt some feelings while I have a minute!!”

Like Boyd, other Texas politicians are also falling back on the Movement Conservative narrative to explain the disaster in their state. The crisis was caused by a lack of maintenance on Texas’s unregulated energy grid, which meant that instruments at coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants froze, at the same time that supplies of natural gas fell short. Nonetheless, Governor Greg Abbott and his allies in the fossil fuel industry went after “liberal” ideas. They blamed the crisis on the frozen wind turbines and solar plants which account for about 13% of Texas’s winter power. Abbott told Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity that “this shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” Tucker Carlson told his viewers that Texas was “totally reliant on windmills.” [Wind turbines work fine in cold weather if they have been winterized. The Antarctic research station uses wind turbines just fine, as do northern states like Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, and others. It’s simply that Texas regulations do not require power plants to be winterized so the plant operators and owners protected profits (if not their customers) by skipping that. – LG]

The former Texas governor and former Secretary of Energy under Trump, Rick Perry, wrote on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s website to warn against regulation of Texas’s energy system: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” he said. The website warned that “Those watching on the left may see the situation in Texas as an opportunity to expand their top-down, radical proposals. Two phrases come to mind: don’t mess with Texas, and don’t let a crisis go to waste.” . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

18 February 2021 at 1:10 pm

Matt Yglesias has an interesting column in defense of writing on controversial topics

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I had read the NY Times article Yglesias references, but knew little more, so his column was quite enlightening to me. He writes:

Some time ago, Scott Alexander, the pseudonymous author of the Slate Star Codex blog, announced that he was abandoning his site. The reason was that a New York Times reporter had been in touch with him explaining that he was doing a profile of the blog, and in the course of writing it he was compelled by some NYT policy to disclose Alexander’s real name.

Alexander is a practicing psychiatrist and felt that for reasons of professional ethics, this would jeopardize his job — so he shut the blog down in a rather dramatic fashion. This, in turn, led to a lot of condemnatory rhetoric from his fans and admirers, many of whom work in the technology industry and had a set of preexisting grievances with what they call “the media” and what I would call “the technology coverage of a half dozen outlets, notably including The New York Times.” Much of the ensuing rhetoric from the pro-SSC camp (though not from Alexander, who if anything is even-tempered to a fault in his public persona) struck me as overheated, but I was sad it had driven Alexander from the internet.

The good news is that he has since resurfaced on Substack at Astral Codex Ten. He also has a new job as the founder of Lorien Psychiatry, an innovative effort to use telemedicine to make psychiatric treatment much more affordable.

Then, on Saturday, Cade Metz’s NYT article about SSC finally dropped. And it’s terrible. (Read Alexander’s post about it, though I think he has too much of a conspiratorial view of this.1)

I tend to think that too much time and mental energy is expended, including by me, on critiquing bad articles, and not enough time and energy is spent on praising good ones. So I feel kind of bad about writing a detailed criticism of a single bad article. But, given the larger context in which this story appeared, my sense is it’s going to become a flashpoint for a whole bunch of interesting struggles, so I think it’s useful and informative to say what I think.

A tortured premise

On its face, the idea of profiling an obscure blog written by a pseudonymous psychiatrist that has a surprisingly high-clout readership is perfectly good. Alexander’s readers include many Silicon Valley people, including — as Metz details — some very high-ranking executives. It’s an interesting story.

But I think Metz kind of misses what’s interesting about it from the get-go.

  • Ross Douthat reads SSC, and so does Ezra Klein.
  • David Brooks has quoted him in The New York Times.
  • Tyler Cowen praises SSC and the larger “rationalist community” that it was a flagship publication of, but also critiques them, saying “I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community.”

As you’ll see in Metz’s story, the Vox writer Kelsey Piper is an SSC reader and a rationalist. But she works primarily for Vox’s Future Perfect vertical, which is a whole rationalist-inspired cornucopia of content.

In other words, this is an intellectual movement that’s somewhat influential in highbrow circles broadly, and that deserves to be situated as such. Well-known books like Toby Ord’s “The Precipice” and Philip Tetlock’s “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” are important parts of the rationalist firmament. There’s also Julia Galef’s excellent podcast “Rationally Speaking” on which you can hear me yacking.

There’s a lot more going on than “some tech executives read this blog,” in other words.

But Metz does not seem interested in actually exploring rationalist ideas or understanding their content or the scope of their influence. Instead, the article is structured as a kind of syllogism:

  • Scott Alexander’s blog is popular with some influential Silicon Valley people.
  • Scott Alexander has done posts that espouse views on race or gender that progressives disapprove of.
  • Therefore, Silicon Valley is a hotbed of racism and sexism.

One time years ago, I went to Silicon Valley for a few days. As a white guy, I would not be well-situated to assess the extent to which it’s a hotbed of racism and sexism anyway, so I won’t comment on the conclusion. But the logic is specious, and the whole thing is an incredible missed opportunity to help people understand some valuable and interesting ideas.

Rationalism as I understand it

When I first heard about rationalists I was intensely confused, because in college I took a few different classes that involved reading “rationalist” philosophers from the Early Modern period, and contemporary rationalists’ ideas are totally unlike early modern philosophical rationalists’ ideas.2 I should also note that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 February 2021 at 3:57 pm

Texas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents

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Maybe things in the US really are starting to improve. Tal Axelrod reports in The Hill:

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to dismiss four defamation lawsuits against him from parents whose children were killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

The rulings, which came without comment from the justices, upheld decisions by two lower courts allowing the lawsuits to proceed.

The parents sued Jones in Travis County, where his popular, far-right website Infowars is based, alleging Jones defamed them and caused emotional distress when he repeatedly claimed the shooting and subsequent news coverage of the attack were hoaxes.

Twenty-six people were killed in the Newtown, Conn., shooting, including 20 children and six adults.

The suits against Jones cite various comments he made about the shooting, including that the shooting was “a giant hoax” and a “false flag” intended to promote support for gun control measures.

Friday’s ruling noted that Justices Jeff Boyd and John Devine would have granted Jones’s petition for review in one of the suits but did not include any reasoning behind their dissents.

The ruling also permitted a lawsuit to proceed against Infowars and reporter Kit Daniels filed by a man the website mistakenly said was a suspect in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Jones, who runs and . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 January 2021 at 10:15 am

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Law, Media, Politics

An ethical stance regarding QAnon

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David Troy wrote an excellent thread on how to respond ethically and appropriately to QAnon. He quite correctly (in my view) defines it as a virulent and highly infectious meme entity. His thread begins:

It’s time to clarify an ethical stance regarding QAnon, and those who research and report on it. It is a disease — a mind virus — with real victims, people who have been lied to and alienated from their families and communities.

2/ First, we must help the victims, and focus on helping them restore their bonds to family and community. Second, we must hold the perpetrators accountable. Third, we must shun all those who profit from its continuance.

3/ We need to make fringe ideas fringe again. They will always be with us, but fringe groups should remain small and in dark corners. If we think of QAnon as a virus, we need to shrink the number of infected people.

4/ While QAnon has suffered a major blow with the failure of its prophecies, it is slithering along, trying to find new narratives that stick; and it likely will.

But we must not allow it to grow again. Some suggest that’s impossible. I disagree.

5/ By declining to give . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 January 2021 at 10:07 am

Excellent questions from Jill Psaki, President Biden’s press secretary

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Written by LeisureGuy

22 January 2021 at 11:36 pm

Where Journalism Fails

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Doc Searls blogged in July 2019:

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: The Story.

Or, in the parlance of the moment, The Narrative. (Trend.)

I was just 22 when I wrote my first stories as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around three elements:

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement toward resolution

Subtract one or more of those and all you’ll have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. Which won’t run. So let’s unpack those elements a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way.

For a case-in-point of how this can go very wrong, we have the character now serving as President of the United States, creating problems and movement around them with nearly everything he says and does.

We have never seen Donald Trump’s like before, and may never again. His genius at working all three elements are without equal in our time—or perhaps any time. So please, if you can, set your politics aside and just look at the dude through the prism of Story.

Donald Trump spins up stories at least four ways:

  1. Through constant characterization of others, for example with nicknames (“Little Mario,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Failing New York Times”)
  2. By finding or creating problems, and characterizing those too: “witch hunt,” “fake news,” “illegal ballots,” “Dominion-izing the Vote.”
  3. By creating movement via the Roy Cohn and Roger Stone playbook: always attack or counter-attack, sue constantly, claim victory no matter what. (Roy Cohn was a lawyer Frank Rich felicitously called “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” Talk about character: Cohn was absolutely interesting. As Politico puts it here, “Cohn imparted an M.O. that’s been on searing display throughout Trump’s ascent, his divisive, captivating campaign, and his fraught, unprecedented presidency. Deflect and distract, never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.”)
  4. By playing the ultimate alpha. That’s why he constantly calls himself the winner, no matter what.
  5. By de-legitimizing facts, truths, norms, and those who traffic in them. Key to this is accusing others of wrongs he commits himself. This is why he labels CNN and other news organizations “fake news” while turning the generation of it into an art form. Also why his accusations against others are a reliable tell of his own guilt for doing the same thing.
  6. As for movement, every new problem Trump creates or intensifies is meant to generate an emotional response, which is movement in itself.

Look closely: the news Trump makes is deliberate, theatrical and constant. All of it is staged and re-staged, so every unavoidably interesting thing he says or does pushes the last thing he said or did off the stage and into irrelevance, because whatever he’s saying or doing now demands full attention, no matter what he said or did yesterday.

There is true genius to this, and it requires understanding and respect—especially by those who report on it.

You can call this trolling, or earned media coverage, meaning the free kind. Both are true. So is comparing Trump to The Mule in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (The Mule was a mutant with exceptional influence over the emotions of whole populations. It was by noting this resemblance that I, along with Scott Adamsexpected Trump to win in 2016.)

Regardless of what one calls it, we do have two big fails for journalism here:

  1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.
  2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2021 at 6:09 pm

A Truth Reckoning: Forbes Will Hold Accountable Those Who Lied For Trump

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Randall Lane, chief content officer and editor of Forbes, writes:

Yesterday’s insurrection was rooted in lies. That a fair election was stolen. That a significant defeat was actually a landslide victory. That the world’s oldest democracy, ingeniously insulated via autonomous state voting regimens, is a rigged system. Such lies-upon-lies, repeated frequently and fervently, provided the kindling, the spark, the gasoline.

That Donald Trump devolved from commander-in-chief to liar-in-chief didn’t surprise Forbes: As we’ve chronicled early and often, for all his billions and Barnum-like abilities, he’s been shamelessly exaggerating and prevaricating to our faces for almost four decades. More astonishing: the number of people willing to lend credence to that obvious mendacity on his behalf.

In this time of transition – and pain – reinvigorating democracy requires a reckoning. A truth reckoning. Starting with the people paid by the People to inform the People.

As someone in the business of facts, it’s been especially painful to watch President Trump’s press secretaries debase themselves. Yes, as with their political bosses, spins and omissions and exaggerations are part of the game. But ultimately in PR, core credibility is the coin of the realm.

From Day One at the Trump White House, up has been down, yes has been no, failure has been success. Sean Spicer set the tone with the inauguration crowd size – the worst kind of whopper, as it demanded that people disbelieve their own eyes. The next day, Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s lie with a new term, “alternative facts.” Spicer’s successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders lied at scale, from smearing those who accused Trump of sexual harassment to conjuring jobs statistics. Her successor, Stephanie Grisham, over the course of a year, never even held a press conference, though the BS continued unabated across friendly outlets. And finally, Kayleigh McEnany, Harvard Law graduate, a propaganda prodigy at 32 who makes smiling falsehood an art form. All of this magnified by journalists too often following an old playbook ill-prepared for an Orwellian communication era.

As American democracy rebounds, we need to return to a standard of truth when it comes to how the government communicates with the governed. The easiest way to do that, from where I sit, is to create repercussions for those who don’t follow the civic norms. Trump’s lawyers lie gleefully to the press and public, but those lies, magically, almost never made it into briefs and arguments – contempt, perjury and disbarment keep the professional standards high.

So what’s the parallel in the dark arts of communication? Simple: Don’t . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 January 2021 at 1:31 pm

Facebook fails Georgia

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Judd Legum writes in Popular Information:

Over the last two weeks, Facebook has repeatedly allowed a top Republican Super PAC, American Crossroads, to run dishonest attacks against Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock — in violation of Facebook’s own misinformation rules. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Georgians have been exposed to misinformation about Warnock on Facebook in the critical days leading up to the January 5 run-off election.

Internal Facebook communications concerning the American Crossroads ads, obtained by Popular Information, reveal dysfunction and confusion about Facebook’s advertising policies, even among executives purportedly in charge of such matters.

Beginning on Election Day, November 3, Facebook banned all political ads on the platform. But it partially lifted the ban on December 16 to allow ads about the Georgia runoffs targeting Facebook users in Georgia. The announcement said that Facebook would activate its “Elections Operations Center” to “.fight…misinformation” about the Georgia runoffs in “real time.”

On December 17, American Crossroads, a Republican Super PAC run by Karl Rove and funded by Mitch McConnell’s political operation, began running an ad with a short snippet of Warnock saying, “God damn America.” The ad presents Warnock’s statement as an expression of his own views, saying his comments represented “anti-American hate.” This is blatantly dishonest. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2021 at 10:31 am

Propaganda, PSYOPS, and the End of Democracy

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David Troy blogs:

I wrote this piece in mid-2017 and declined to publish it at the time — I considered it to be perhaps too dark, or an overstatement of the situation. Now, over three years later, I think it was an accurate, if partial, assessment of where things stand. This week I plan to write more on this topic, and I think this is an appropriate time to revisit this piece.

We have all heard about “fake news” and most of us have some sense that there has been a concerted effort to manipulate online news media for political influence.

But for all the discussion, there has been relatively little analysis of the underlying strategy: how exactly does this work? What is the goal? And why does it seem so difficult to fight? This essay is an attempt to answer these questions as concisely as possible and is the product of a considerable amount of study of this topic.

Here is how and why propaganda and psyops techniques are being used by right-wing (and far left) political operators, specifically in the United States, but also in Europe and elsewhere.

How does modern propaganda work? There are three main tactics that define today’s efforts.

When we think about mass media, we think of television, radio, and newspapers, where a relatively small number of outlets and content producers can reach a very large audience. Historically, there has been a wariness of the power concentrated in these producers, as well as regulation that has aimed to ensure that these broadcasters do not have undue influence.

By contrast, contemporary propagandists aim to build up many smaller audiences. This is made possible by the internet, where a single blogger, YouTube star, or small website can garner audiences in the hundreds of thousands or low millions. That’s not a lot by mainstream media standards, but when taken together, an array of small audiences can reach many millions of people.

People only have so much time and attention. The more that people believe that mainstream media is biased — or worse, incorrect—the more they will distrust it and seek outlets that reinforce their own worldview. So the cultivation and growth of these smaller audiences is aided by the gradual chipping away at mainstream media.

Democracies place a high value on independent thinking and rational analysis, and having an “open mind” is a desirable quality. Those seeking to build small audiences for the purposes of propaganda can thus appeal to the ideal of an “open mind,” and prompt people to question both mainstream media and conventional wisdom, causing them to search for ‘alternative’ voices that comport with their own predispositions. This reinforces their self-image as an “independent thinker,” and accrues social capital with others who also question dominant narratives about reality.

By clawing away at consensus-reality, modern propaganda efforts aim to build a bloc of constituents composed of a wide range of small audiences. Because all of these audiences are built on opposition to consensus-reality, they can be relied upon to oppose it.

Now that we understand exactly what is being done, we can try to identify what it actually is. Today’s propaganda techniques borrow heavily from three other concepts: fascism, PSYOPS, and reflexive control.

The term fascism is widely used but broadly misunderstood. It is derived from the ancient Roman word fasces, which is a bundle of rods (or arrows) bound together with a strap, and an axe blade projecting from the bundle. This symbol was used to signify the power of a magistrate in Ancient Rome.

The modern idea of fascism came from Mussolini’s Italy, and was borrowed from the Sicilian concept of fasci, meaning “men organized for political purposes.”

Fascism is thus a literal bundling together of interest groups to wield political power and to achieve political ends. It is an aggregation of aggrieved audiences.

Contemporary right-wing propaganda is thus literally fascist in nature, inasmuch as it aims to build a voting bloc from many smaller audiences.

PSYOPS is a military term meaning “psychological operations.” It was developed as a technology rooted in modern behavioral science and psychology, and aims to exert control over a population to achieve military objectives.

For example, in managing the aftermath of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was desirable that the many factions present in those countries support US military operations, or at the very least, that any opposition be minimized and managed.

To do this, coalition military forces deployed PSYOPS techniques as a kind of weapon aimed at achieving its goals.

According to SCL Group, a leading practitioner of military PSYOPS techniques, here are the steps involved in planning an effective behavioral modification campaign:

  1. Identify the objective: what do you want people to do; how do you want them to behave, or not behave?
  2. Strategic Communication Planning: what messages do you want to convey to produce the desired behavior?
  3. Target Audience Analysis: what audiences exist, and what are their belief systems and goals that may affect whether you can get them to adopt the desired behavior?
  4. Campaign Intervention Strategy: how does your strategic communication need to be tailored to produce the desired behavior in each of your target audiences?

In PSYOPS, the goal is . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s important and urgent.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 4:17 pm

Backstory to Apple’s new M1 System on a Chip: How an obscure British PC maker invented ARM and changed the world

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Image by Jason Korchinsky

Jason Torchinsky has in Ars Technica a fascinating article that includes videos. His article begins:

Let’s be honest: 2020 sucks. So much of this year has been a relentless slog of bad news and miserable events that it’s been hard to keep up. Yet most of us have kept up, and the way most of us do so is with the small handheld computers we carry with us at all times. At least in America, we still call these by the hilariously reductive name “phones.”

We can all use a feel-good underdog story right now, and luckily our doomscrolling 2020 selves don’t have to look very far. That’s because those same phones, and so much of our digital existence, run on the same thing: the ARM family of CPUs. And with Apple’s release of a whole new line of Macs based on their new M1 CPU—an ARM-based processor—and with those machines getting fantastic reviews, it’s a good time to remind everyone of the strange and unlikely source these world-controlling chips came from.

If you were writing reality as a screenplay, and, for some baffling reason, you had to specify what the most common central processing unit used in most phones, game consoles, ATMs, and other innumerable devices was, you’d likely pick one from one of the major manufacturers, like Intel. That state of affairs would make sense and fit in with the world as people understand it; the market dominance of some industry stalwart would raise no eyebrows or any other bits of hair on anyone.

But what if, instead, you decided to make those CPUs all hail from a barely-known company from a country usually not the first to come to mind as a global leader in high-tech innovations (well, not since, say, the 1800s)? And what if that CPU owed its existence, at least indirectly, to an educational TV show? Chances are the producers would tell you to dial this script back a bit; come on, take this seriously, already.

And yet, somehow, that’s how reality actually is.

In the beginning, there was TV

The ARM processor, the bit of silicon that controls over 130 billion devices all over the world and without which modernity would effectively come to a crashing halt, has a really strange origin story. Its journey is peppered with bits of seemingly bad luck that ended up providing crucial opportunities, unexpected technical benefits that would prove absolutely pivotal, and a start in some devices that would be considered abject failures.

But everything truly did sort of get set in motion by a TV show—a 1982 BBC program called The Computer Programme. This was an attempt by the BBC to educate Britons about just what the hell all these new fancy machines that looked like crappy typewriters connected to your telly were all about.

The show was part of a larger Computer Literacy Project started by the British government and the BBC as a response to fears that the UK was deeply and alarmingly unprepared for the new revolution in personal computing that was happening in America. Unlike most TV shows, the BBC wanted to feature a computer on the show that would be used to explain fundamental computing concepts and teach a bit of BASIC programming. The concepts included graphics and sound, the ability to connect to teletext networks, speech synthesis, and even some rudimentary AI. As a result, the computer needed for the show would have to be pretty good—in fact, the producers’ demands were initially so high that nothing on the market really satisfied the BBC’s aspirations.

So, the BBC put out a call to the UK’s young computer industry, which was then dominated by Sinclair, a company that made its fortune in calculators and tiny televisions. Ultimately, it was a much smaller upstart company that ended up getting the lucrative contract: Acorn Computers.

An Acorn blooms

Acorn was a Cambridge-based firm that started in 1979 after developing computer systems originally designed to run fruit machines—we call them slot machines—then turning them into small hobbyist computer systems based on 6502 processors. That was the same CPU family used in the Apple II, Atari 2600, and Commodore 64 computers, among many others. This CPU’s design will become important later, so, you know, don’t forget about it.

Acorn had developed a home computer called the Atom, and when the BBC opportunity arose, they started plans for the Atom’s successor to be developed into what would become the BBC Micro.

The BBC’s demanding list of features ensured the resulting machine would be quite powerful for the era, though not quite as powerful as Acorn’s original Atom-successor design. That Atom successor would have featured two CPUs, a tried-and-true 6502 and an as-yet undecided 16-bit CPU.

Acorn later dropped that CPU but kept an interface system, called the Tube, that would allow for additional CPUs to be connected to the machine. (This too will become more important later.)

The engineering of the BBC Micro really pushed Acorn’s limits, as it was a pretty state-of-the-art machine for the era. This resulted in some fascinatingly half-ass but workable engineering decisions, like having to replicate the placement of an engineer’s finger on the motherboard with a resistor pack in order to get the machine to work.

Nobody ever really figured out why the machine only worked when a finger was placed on a certain point on the motherboard, but once they were able to emulate the finger touch with resistors, they were just satisfied it worked, and moved on.

Here, listen to one of the key engineers tell you himself: . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s fascinating (to me, at any rate).

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2020 at 1:16 pm

Russian Media Mourn as Putin Acknowledges Biden’s Win—But Say Trump ‘Burned’ U.S. on His Way Out

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The attitude — possessive and grateful — Russian media have for Donald Trump is remarkable. Julia Davis reports in The Daily Beast:

On Tuesday, the Kremlin finally acknowledged that U.S. President Donald J. Trump has been defeated by President-elect Joe Biden, by sending an official congratulatory message to the incoming American president. Russian state media immediately noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin was the last leader of the G20 to recognize Biden’s indisputable victory.

Russian state TV hosts, pundits and lawmakers were also quick to point out the unusually dry language of Putin’s greetings, noting that—unlike his prior telegrams to Trump and Obama—Putin didn’t express any hope that U.S.-Russia relations might improve in the near future. “There are no hopes expressed in Putin’s letter to Biden, none whatsoever,” noted Olga Skabeeva, the co-host of Russia’s state TV program 60 Minutes. She added: “We’re disappointed in Americans.”

Describing American president as “our candidate Trump,” “our friend Donald,” “our Grandpa” and “poor, poor Trump,” Kremlin-controlled state TV shows conceded that Trump’s days in the Oval Office are numbered. While the doom and gloom in Russian state media inevitably surrounded most discussions acknowledging Trump’s electoral defeat, pundits and experts celebrated the bright side of their favored candidate’s four-year reign. “Mission accomplished,” rejoiced Karen Shakhnazarov, CEO of Mosfilm Studio and an ever-present pundit on Russian state TV news talk shows. Appearing on state TV program The Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, Shakhnazarov opined that Trump’s mission was to destroy the political system of the United States, and he successfully did exactly that.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 December 2020 at 11:33 am

Murder in Malta

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The 21 December issue of the New Yorker has a long and absorbing article by Ben Taub. The article’s blurb reads: “After a journalist was assassinated, her sons found clues in her unfinished work that cracked the case and brought down the government.” The government involved was the government of Malta, and it was astonishingly corrupt, up to and including murder. The detailed and gripping account begins:

Daphne’s sons worried about her. She was fifty-three and lived in an old stone farmhouse on the edge of Bidnija, a hilltop hamlet on the island of Malta. From the dining-room table, where Daphne wrote, she could see the morning sunlight glisten on the Mediterranean. But she hadn’t been to the beach in four years. When she left the house, people spat at her, followed her, photographed her, and hurled insults and abuse. Once, when she was taking an afternoon walk in a nearby village, a former mayor gathered a mob and began chasing her. She took refuge in a monastery, where the villagers pounded on the heavy wooden doors. All over the island, there were people who were certain that they hated her but had never read a word she had written. They simply knew her as is-sahhara tal-Bidnija—the witch of Bidnija.

Beyond “this little rock,” as Daphne referred to Malta, she was known for her reporting, which exposed malfeasance and hypocrisy within the governing class. She had come to think of the country as fractured by time, with all the worst elements of globalization grafted onto a population that was otherwise stuck in the past. “Malta is 17 miles by nine and flooded with cocaine, corruption, and filthy money,” she wrote. Her blog, Running Commentary, laced deep investigations with withering taunts, and had an online readership as large as all of Malta’s newspapers combined. In late 2016, Politico Europe included Daphne—along with George Soros, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Sadiq Khan—on its list of “people who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe.” She was “the blogging fury,” the list read, “a one-woman WikiLeaks, crusading against untransparency and corruption in Malta, an island nation famous for both.”

But her subjects were her neighbors—the Prime Minister lived just down the hill. In recent years, he and his Cabinet had sought to smother her with libel lawsuits. People in his office used their work computers to post cruel gossip about her, accompanied by unflattering photographs. There was little serious effort to refute Daphne’s reports—only to disdain her as an élitist, partisan fraud. (Her surname, Caruana Galizia, had become redundant—everyone knew her as Daphne.) “The greatest difficulties I encounter come from the fact that they have made me into what in effect is a national scapegoat,” she once said.

On the afternoon of October 16, 2017, Daphne prepared a plate of tomatoes and mozzarella for Matthew, her eldest son. He was thirty-one, a computer scientist and a journalist himself. An expert on shell companies, he had shared a Pulitzer Prize for the Panama Papers leak. He sometimes got so caught up in his work that he forgot to eat.

Daphne set down the plate and put on her shoes to go to the bank. Her husband, Peter, a lawyer, had left her a stack of blank checks with his signature. She could not access her own accounts: after she claimed that Malta’s economy minister had visited a brothel while on an official mission to Germany, he persuaded a court to freeze her assets.

Across the valley, a man peered at the house. He watched Daphne climb into her car, and called his brother, who was waiting on a boat just offshore. When she was partway down the hill, the man on the boat sent a text message: “REL 1 = ON.”

A local farmer heard a pop and a scream, and watched Daphne yank the emergency brake. Then the gas tank exploded, launching her car into a field. The boom resonated throughout Bidnija valley.

Matthew ran down the hill, barefoot, squinting in the afternoon sun. When he reached the fireball, he thought for a few seconds that the twisted chassis couldn’t be that of his mother’s car, because it was burning white, and hers was charcoal gray. But then Matthew saw the beginning of the license plate—QQZ—and circled the car, helpless, screaming, searching for his mother’s silhouette, his skin as hot as he could stand it.

“I don’t think she made it,” Matthew told Paul, his youngest brother, an academic in London, in a phone call later that afternoon. Andrew, the middle brother, who was a Maltese diplomat, walked out of the foreign-ministry building and never returned. Paul took the first flight home. During the descent, he could frame the entire island within the window. Somewhere in that vista were the men who had ordered the hit. For the first time in a decade, all three brothers slept in their childhood bedrooms.

Supporters of the government posted memes with images of champagne flutes and witches burning at the stake, and made explosion sounds when they saw Daphne’s family in public. “This isn’t like the troll factory in St. Petersburg,” Paul told me. “These are real people. These were her neighbors.”

Daphne’s sons carried her coffin, then left the island to regroup. They suspected that their mother’s murder had been arranged by someone who believed that, in Malta, it was less dangerous to assassinate a reporter than to let her complete her work. To kill to protect a secret—it was a crime as old as any. Somewhere in their mother’s files, they thought, there must be a series of clues.

When Daphne was growing up in Malta, there was only one brand of chocolate, one brand of toothpaste, one brand of bluejeans. After attaining independence from the United Kingdom, in September, 1964—a month after she was born—the island suffered a post-colonial hangover, dominated by a repressive socialist Labour Party. For thousands of years, the island’s language, culture, and architecture had been shaped by invasions from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Now, as the Maltese government distanced itself from the most recent colonial empire, it aligned with China, the Soviet Union, Libya, and North Korea. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 December 2020 at 1:59 pm

The End of the Facebook Crime Spree

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

The Government Asks to Break Up Facebook

Today, 48 state attorneys general, plus Trump’s Federal Trade Commission, filed antitrust suits against Facebook.

There are two complaints, one from the states and one from the FTC. The state AG complaint is stronger, but both tell the same story. Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp to stop nascent competitors from challenging its monopoly power in social networking. It also used a variety of other tactics to foreclose competitors it could not buy from entering the market and challenging its dominance. Then, after it became a monopoly, it increased prices or downgraded user experiences to profit from the conspiracy it had arranged.

The narrative comes from legal scholar and former ad executive Dina Srinivasan’s remarkable 2019 paper on Facebook. In her analysis, Srinivasan showed that Facebook actually beat out MySpace by offering users a product differentiated with better privacy guarantees. But after monopolizing the market and killing its competitors, Facebook immediately started degrading the quality of the product with intrusive surveillance of its users, contra their wishes.

The complaints from enforcers mirror her argument. They claim Facebook’s anti-competitive tactics made the product worse, not just by spying on people when they wanted a product that protected their privacy, but also by increasing the number of ads people had to wade through to get to content they sought. Advertisers were harmed as well, not just with higher prices but also because Facebook putting their ads next to offensive content.

“It is better to buy than compete.”

The enforcers proved their case with internal emails showing that the company deliberately and routinely engaged in acquisitions to eliminate competition, and then eroded user privacy when users had nowhere else to go. The FTC starts off its case with one email in 2008 from Zuckerberg in which he writes, “it is better to buy than compete.”

And it’s true. These mergers were harmful to competition, intended to fortify Facebook’s control of the social media market. Here’s another example, but again, the complaints are chock full of these (as is the Antitrust Subcommittee report):

In January 2012, just three months before Facebook acquired Instagram, Facebook’s Business Development Manager Amin Zoufonoun told his colleagues that gaining better functionality in photos was “one of the most important ways we can make 15 switching costs very high for users – if we are where all users’ photos reside because the uploading (mobile and web), editing, organizing, and sharing features are best in class, will be very tough for a user to switch if they can’t take those photos and associated data/comments with them.”

Facebook was locking in its users.

And the corporation understood the value of locking in its customers, even going so far as to stop forms of intrusive surveillance when users could flee to a different product (as indeed they had fled to Facebook from MySpace). One Facebook official warned that the company should not violate user privacy while under competitive threat from Google Plus. “IF ever there was a time to AVOID controversy, it would be when the world is comparing our offerings to G+.” He then recommended that Facebook save any controversial changes “until the direct competitive comparisons begin to die down.”

The goal, in other words, was to stop users from switching by locking them into Facebook products by eliminating competitors and raising switching costs. Then, the company would show them more ads and spy on them more, in the process making the user experience worse, reducing investment and innovation in social media, and raising prices on advertisers. That’s illegal. And fortunately for the FTC and 48 state AGs, Zuckerberg and company helpfully wrote it all down in email.

Facebook’s main defense is that the government allowed these mergers in the first place. That’s true and certainly embarrassing to the enforcers who let the mergers through, though it is irrelevant to whether the mergers were illegal. (The company was also gracious enough to thank the two FTC Commissioners, Republicans Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson, who voted against bringing the case. That will become important, but I won’t go into why in this issue.)

The important part of this case is that it’s a statement by policymakers that what Facebook did was illegal. The Sherman Act is a criminal statute as well as a civil statute, and while this case is civil, monopolization is criminal behavior. It’s a form of theft, of economic violence. And Facebook makes a lot of money from engaging in crimes of various forms, monopolization being only one of them.

Scams are rampant on its properties, with fake military romances being a tragic and routine route for con artists to prey on lonely people. I noted how the shoe company Rothy’s is routinely robbed by counterfeiters who pay money to Facebook for the privilege of stealing. Tens of thousands of journalists have been laid off because Facebook and Google redirected ad revenue to themselves, through monopolization or just fraud. Here’s one satisfied customer making the point:

[And click that link at the date shown and read the thread. It’s stunning. – LG]

And yet, despite this harm, for years, policymakers and a small guild of technocratic antitrust ‘experts’ refused to take any monopolization law seriously. The cases against Facebook filed today are an indictment of that guild, which staffed the FTC when it approved these mergers. This antitrust bar and antitrust economists endorsed and lobbied for lawlessness and corruption, and the result of this lawlessness was, among other things, a massive collapse in the financing for news-gathering, as well as social dysfunction, violent ethnic conflict, and political manipulation all over the world.

So what changed?. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s interesting.

See also this Wired article about the smoking gun in the case: Facebook emails.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2020 at 3:24 pm

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