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Why Facebook is afraid of Robert Mueller

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Anne Applebaum writes in the Washinton Post:

Who is afraid of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III? President Trump is afraid. So are those who worked on his campaign. But they are not alone.

Over the weekend, Rob Goldman made it clear that some of America’s biggest social media companies are scared of Mueller, too. Goldman is Facebook’s vice president for advertising, and according to his Twitter bio, a “student, seeker, raconteur, burner.” On Friday, he took to Twitter to proclaim his company’s innocence. He was, he wrote, “very excited to see the Mueller indictment today,” since Facebook had “shared Russian ads with Congress, Mueller and the American people.” But “still, there are key facts about the Russian actions that are still not well understood.”

He went on: “Most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to effect the outcome of the 2016 US election. I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.” Instead, he said, the main goal was to “divide America by using our institutions, like free speech and social media, against us. It has stoked fear and hatred amongst Americans. It is working incredibly well.”

In a short string of tweets, in other words, Facebook’s vice president for advertising twisted and obfuscated the issues almost beyond recognition. For one, the indictment states clearly that the Russians were not merely buying ads: It alleges that they used fake American identities, fraudulently obtained PayPal accounts and fraudulent Social Security numbers to set up Facebook pages for groups such as “Blacktivist,” “Secured Borders” and “Army of Jesus.” They did indeed use those pages to spread fear and hatred, reaching tens and possibly hundreds of millions of people.

They began this project in 2014, well before the election. And when the election began, they were under clear instructions, according to the indictment, to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except [Bernie] Sanders and Trump—we support them).” By the time the election began in earnest, the attempt to “divide America” was an attempt to elect Trump. They pushed anti-Clinton messages on websites aimed at the far-right fringe and tried to suppress voter turnout on websites aimed at minorities. I’m not sure where Goldman’s idea that “swaying the election was not the main goal” comes from, but it is diametrically opposed to the content of Mueller’s indictment. No wonder Trump tweeted this on Saturday: “The Fake News Media never fails. Hard to ignore the fact from the Vice President of Facebook Ads, Rob Goldman!”

But Goldman is right to be afraid. The social media companies, including Facebook as well as Twitter, YouTube and Reddit, really do bear a part of the responsibility for the growing polarization and bitter partisanship in American life that the Russians, and not only the Russians, sought to exploit. They have not become conduits for Russian propaganda, and not only Russian propaganda, by accident. The Facebook algorithm, by its very nature, is pushing Americans, and everybody else, into ever more partisan echo chambers — and people who read highly partisan material are much more likely to believe false stories.

At the same time, Facebook has declared itself free of responsibility: The company continues to argue that it is not legally liable for material that appears on its platform because it is not a “publisher,” even though it behaves in every other way like a publisher, including by collecting advertising revenue that used to go to publishers. The result is that anyone who seeks to spread false information on Facebook or any other social media site is, in practice, no longer bound by laws on libel or false advertising that were explicitly designed to stop them.

This is not the only problem: There is plenty of evidence now that the very nature of the platforms encourages ever more extreme, ever more offensive material. Studies of YouTube have shown how automated video production, governed by algorithms, not humans, leads inexorably to more violent and more disturbing videos. One recent survey suggests that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts — some 48 million — may not be human at all.  Many think that is a gross underestimate.

Don’t let them off the hook: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2018 at 11:53 am

How the Russians did it

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Donie O’Sullivan reports at CNN:

The operation sounds like a normal tech-savvy ad agency.

There’s a graphics team. There is a team devoted to making sure the company’s content shows up near the top of search results. There are IT people and a finance department controlling a budget in the millions.

Employees track their social media posts to see how they’re doing — how many likes, comments and shares they’ve gotten. They do post-mortems on their work to make sure it’s up to the company’s standards.

If you didn’t know that it had just been indicted for trying to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, you might well want to hire the Internet Research Agency.

federal indictment against 13 Russian nationals made public on Friday provides new insight into how the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked Russian troll group, set up a vast network of fake American activist groups and used the stolen identities of real Americans in an attempt to wreak havoc on the U.S. political system.

According to the indictment, the group, which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia, began monitoring the social media pages of real American activist organizations in 2014, before setting up fake pages and personas that became, the indictment says, “leaders of public opinion.”

The pages were designed to look like they were run by real Americans. They focused on a number of divisive issues in American life, including race relations, religion, immigration, and the 2016 presidential election.

On Facebook alone, an estimated 126 million Americans may have been exposed to material the group produced, the social media company told Congress last fall. The indictment provides a fuller picture of how the Internet Research Agency worked. It details a sophisticated operation that allowed the group to achieve such wide reach. The agency had a budget of over $1.25 million by September 2016 — big enough to include money for bonuses.

“To measure the impact of their online social media operations, Defendants and their co-conspirators tracked the performance of content they posted over social media,” it says. “They tracked the size of the online U.S. audiences reached through posts, different types of engagement with the posts … changes in audience size, and other metrics. Defendants and their co-conspirators received and maintained metrics reports on certain group pages and individualized posts.”

The group worked hard to make its work look like it came from real Americans. Apart from the occasional typo — or a phrase that, in hindsight, was clearly written by a non-native English speaker — the group’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr pages were convincing. They looked like many other politically-themed pages on social media: Designed to take advantage of Americans’ divisions, to get engagement by stoking outrage.

The sophistication may have been aided by a fact-finding mission that some of the defendants made to the United States in 2014. The Russians traveled under false pretenses to collect intelligence to inform their operations, the indictment says.

Once the operation was up and running, staff in St. Petersburg worked day and night and were instructed to post in accordance with U.S. time zones. They worked with a graphics department, the indictment says, which may explain why some of the group’s pages, like “Secured Borders” and “Blacktivist,” had slick custom logos.

The pages were not solely or even mostly devoted to talking about the election, and the operation was running before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. But eventually the group decided on a goal, the indictment says. In February 2016 employees at the IRA were instructed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them,” the indictment alleges.

In September 2016, according to the indictment, an internal review criticized the person running the “Secured Borders” Facebook page for its “low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

17 February 2018 at 11:01 am

The Empty Rituals of an American Massacre

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James Fallows has a powerful column in the Atlantic:

The financial and political power of the National Rifle Association leaves many politicians terrified of crossing it. And because of its ideological and propaganda power, a segment of Americans now equates any proposed limit on gun use or ownership as a catastrophic step toward the extinction of individual liberties and the dawn of a confiscatory, totalitarian state.

Americans recognize that public-safety controls on use of a car—licensing laws, speed limits, insurance requirements, DUI penalties—don’t threaten the “right to drive.” They recognize that restrictions on some prescription drugs don’t threaten their right to buy aspirin, nor do limits on what they can carry onto a plane threaten their right to travel or fly. But the NRA and its allies have succeeded in making gun control an absolute issue. If you believe in the Second Amendment, then whatever the potential control—on gun-show sales, on bulk purchases of ammunition, on waiting times for background checks—it must be fought as a step not so much onto a slippery slope as over a cliff and into the abyss.

Thus even a restriction that seemed common sense a generation ago—for instance, banning a weapon like the AR-15 that was explicitly designed for use by troops in combat, and was never meant to be in civilian hands—now is anathema. A weapon meant for soldiers or perhaps SWAT teams has now been sold by the millions to civilians in the United States, who use it mainly for “personal protection” and “hunting,” but also in most mass killings. “I think the shift you’re seeing now is the military-style weapon is here to stay because it’s appealing to a whole new generation,” Steve Denny, owner of a gun shop in North Carolina, told John Boyle of the Asheville, North Carolina, Citizen Times back in 2014. “You can see it in the industry,” Denny said, according to Boyle. “The industry had to change from military-style weapons being something that they sold sometimes to them being something that is at the forefront of all their advertising—the tactical use of a firearm.”

There are things that can be done to reduce the frequency of gun massacres. We know that because in every other developed country on Earth they have been done, and have made a difference. Australia, Scotland, Norway, Canada, Germany, Finland—these and other countries have had occasional horrific mass shootings. These countries have just as high a proportion of mentally ill people as the United States does, just as many with pent-up grievances. But only America has an endless series of gun killings.

As Margot Sanger-Katz and Quoctrung Bui pointed out in The New York Timesafter one of the U.S. massacres last fall, there’s substantial overlap between the moderate gun-control measures that international experts think would be reduce killings, and those that have majority or near-unanimous support in opinion polls of Americans. But we know that in the terrain of modern American politics, such measures have no place. We’ll be talking about something else in a week or two.


We know something else as well, which is the sequence of political and press response that will unfold after this latest schoolyard gun massacre in Florida. The sequence is the one I described nearly six years ago, after what was then an attention-getting massacre—the one in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, which with “merely” 12 fatalities is no longer in America’s top 10. It’s the sequence I discussed in a video last fall, after what is for now still the highest-casualty gun killing, in Las Vegas. The sequence is:

  • As news of the killing comes in, cable channels give it wall-to-wall coverage.
  • The NRA ducks its head down and goes dark for hours or days, in its Twitterand other social-media outlets.
  • Politicians who have done everything possible to oppose changes in gun laws, and who often are major recipients of NRA contributions, offer “thoughts and prayers” to the victims, say they are “deeply saddened,” praise the heroes of law enforcement and of medical treatment who have tried to limit the damage, and lament the mental-health or cultural problems that have expressed themselves via an AR-15.
    “Thoughts and prayers” are of course admirable. But after an airline crash, politicians don’t stop with “thoughts and prayers” for the victims; they want to get to the bottom of the cause. After a fatal fire, after a botched response to a hurricane, after a food-poisoning or product-safety failure or a nursing-home abuse scandal, “thoughts and prayers” are the beginning of the public response but not the end. After a shooting they are both.
  • These same politicians say that the aftermath of a shooting is “not the right time” to “politicize” the tragedy by talking about gun laws or asking why only in America do massacres happen week after week after week.
    The right time to discuss these policies is “never.”
  • The news moves on; everyone forgets except the families and communities that are forever changed.
  • The next shooting comes, “thoughts and prayers” are offered, and the cycle resumes.
    If this summary sounds too cynical, think back to what has happened since a gunman killed or wounded more than 900 people in Las Vegas less than five months ago.

In this familiar sequence, the role of one man deserves study, as emblematic of the age as a whole. That person is of course Mitch McConnell, 75-year-old senator from Kentucky, leader of Republicans in the Senate for the past decade.

A history of our era will show Mitch McConnell as both the most effective purely partisan figure of the time—LBJ in the Senate, Sam Rayburn in the House, their records will pale—and a person uniquely destructive of trans-partisan governing norms. How has he changed norms? For the full picture I refer you to a wonderful short 2014 book about McConnell by Alec MacGillis, called The Cynic (well reviewed in The New York Review of Books by Robert Kaiser), and a prescient 2011 profile in The Atlantic by Joshua Green, called “Strict Obstructionist.”

Of course since those accounts, McConnell changed national and political history with his unprecedented refusal to consider Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, and by blocking the Obama administration’s efforts to issue a bipartisan warning about Russian election interference during the summer of 2016. Both moves enhanced the chances of Donald Trump’s election: the Garland stonewall in giving conservatives a clear-cut reason to vote for a man whose policies and personality might otherwise leave them queasy, and the Russian-interference stonewall in making that issue seem a fringe concern. Although no one suggests that this is the reason for McConnell’s actions, it’s a matter of historical record that his wife, Elaine Chao, who had been secretary of labor for George W. Bush, was named to another cabinet position, as secretary of transportation, by the victorious Donald Trump.

McConnell’s effect on gun legislation is representative of the politics of this issue and of McConnell’s instincts and influence overall. The crucial moment came after Obama’s reelection victory over Mitt Romney, in 2012.

Five weeks after the election, on December 14, a disturbed 20-year-old with an AR-15 went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot dead 20 little six- and seven-year-old children, plus six staff members.

At the time, it seemed unimaginable. At the time, it seemed that this atrocity might be the one that finally changed the public mind and thus public policy about dealing with guns. At the time, it seemed that pictures of these children and their families might have an effect like that of horrific images from the Vietnam era, for instance 9-year-old Kim Phuc running in terror, naked, after a napalm attack.

Associates of Barack Obama say that he considered the day he got the Sandy Hook news the worst day of his presidency. And two months later, in the first State of the Union address of his second term, he made the case for gun legislation with a passion and intensity quite rare in these big, formal speeches.

The ending of his speech was built around the phrase and concept that people devastated by gun violence deserved at least the respect of a formal up-or-down congressional vote on gun-control laws. He saidwith a cadence I noted at the time and will illustrate with italic emphases: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

16 February 2018 at 11:41 am

Nudging, shoving, and manhandling

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Mark Kleiman has an interesting post at The Reality-Based Community:

I’ve been puzzled why Richard Thaler’s “nudge” idea attracts such hostility from some people to my political left (including very smart people such as Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi). The worst thing you can say about nudging as I understand it is that it’s not very powerful; other than that, nudging is like chicken soup: it can’t do any harm.

So I’m grateful to Tyler Cowen for clarifying matters for me. Either Cowen or I badly misunderstands Thaler’s idea; if Cowen is right, you can add me to the list of anti-nudgers. But I’m pretty sure the Cowen is wrong about what Thaler says, and certain that his account confuses things that ought to be distinguished.

Nudging, as I understand it, involves changing “choice architecture” – altering the way options are presented or the time choices are made, or changing the “default outcome” if no option is explicitly chosen – in order to bring people’s actual choices more closely in line with their true preferences, as measured by the choices they would make with full information after serious reflection. That is, nudging is simply the opposite of temptation.

One of the defining features of a nudge (understood this way) is that it doesn’t narrow the range of outcomes available to the chooser. For example: presented with a menu of retirement-savings options, many employees will pick none of them, in part because of the psychological costs of decision-making and the fear of getting it wrong (“analysis paralysis”). This can be true even in the case when inaction is clearly the worst option (e.g., when the employer is picking up all of the cost). In that case, a nudge strategy would be to make enrollment in the plan that seems to experts most appropriate for the largest number of employees the default option: i.e., what happens if an employee just doesn’t fill out the form.

Crucially to the definition of a nudge, an employee who doesn’t want that option can costlessly (other than the effort of making the decision) switch to another, or none at all. As long as there’s no deception involved, and the people designing the choice architecture know what they’re doing and have the welfare of the people making the choices in mind, nudging seems to me almost entirely benign. A program that doesn’t limit freedom of choice can’t properly be said to reduce liberty, so replacing “opt-in” with “opt-out” should be thought of as facilitative rather than coercive. The same is true of, e.g., putting the salad bar first in the cafeteria line.

However, Cowen’s understanding of nudgery has a much harder edge. He gives examples where a choice less preferred by the government (or whoever is setting up the system) is made materially less attractive or more expensive, such as legally complicated and expensive divorce procedures, or abortion restrictions that force women to travel inconvenient distances. Cowen even wants to call restrictive immigration laws “nudges,” because would-be immigrants who can’t get visas can always forge documents or sneak across the border!

In my view, that sort of cost-imposing policy is radically distinct from “nudging;” Steve Teles calls it “shoving.” I don’t doubt that some such “shoves” are justified on paternalistic grounds: taxation to reduce cigarette consumption is an example. (Shoves are often justifiable on non-paternalistic grounds, such as taxes to reduce air pollution.) But such strategies aren’t always benign; people who keep smoking in the face of heavy tobacco taxes wind up just as sick as they would have otherwise, and poorer. And of course for those with limited means making something expensive can amount to barring it entirely.

Now, I agree with Cowen that the “shoving” for paternalistic reasons he wants to label as “nudging” is often preferable to more drastic means of protecting people from their own bad decisions: means that we might call “manhandling.” A tax on cigarettes is more respectful of liberty, and less prone to generate bad side effects, than an outright prohibition would be. But – in contrast to nudging – shoving is like  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

16 February 2018 at 9:51 am

The Deadly Rule of the Oligarchs

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Chris Hedges writes at TruthDig:

Oligarchic rule, as Aristotle pointed out, is a deviant form of government. Oligarchs care nothing for competency, intelligence, honesty, rationality, self-sacrifice or the common good. They pervert, deform and dismantle systems of power to serve their immediate interests, squandering the future for short-term personal gain. “The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments that rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, of the few or of the many, are perversions,” Aristotle wrote. The classicist Peter L.P. Simpson calls these perversions the “sophistry of oligarchs,” meaning that once oligarchs take power, rational, prudent and thoughtful responses to social, economic and political problems are ignored to feed insatiable greed. The late stage of every civilization is characterized by the sophistry of oligarchs, who ravage the decaying carcass of the state.

These deviant forms of government are defined by common characteristics, most of which Aristotle understood. Oligarchs use power and ruling structures solely for personal advancement.

Oligarchs, though they speak of deconstructing the administrative state, actually increase deficits and the size and power of law enforcement and the military to protect their global business interests and ensure domestic social control. The parts of the state that serve the common good wither in the name of deregulation and austerity. The parts that promote the oligarchs’ power expand in the name of national security, economic growth and law and order.

For example, the oligarchs educate their children in private schools and buy them admissions into elite universities (this is how a mediocre student like Jared Kushner went to Harvard and Donald Trump went to the University of Pennsylvania), so they see no need to fund good public education for the wider population. Oligarchs can pay teams of high-priced lawyers to bail them and their families out of legal trouble. There is no need, in their eyes, to provide funds for legal representation for the poor. When oligarchs do not fly on private jets, they fly in first class, so they permit airlines to fleece and abuse “economy” passengers. They do not use subways, buses or trains, and they slash funds for the maintenance and improvement of these services. Oligarchs have private clinics and private doctors, so they do not want to pay for public health or Medicare. Oligarchs detest the press, which when it works shines a light on their corruption and mendacity, so they buy up and control systems of information and push their critics to the margins of society, something they will accelerate with the abolition of net neutrality.

Oligarchs do not vacation on public beaches or in public parks. They own their own land and estates, where we are not allowed. They see no reason to maintain or fund public parks or protect public land. They hand such land over to other oligarchs to exploit for profit. Oligarchs cynically view laws as mechanisms to legalize their fraud and plunder. They use their lobbyists in the legislative branch of government to author bills that increase and protect their wealth, through the avoidance of taxes and other means. Oligarchs do not allow free and fair elections. They use gerrymandering and campaign contributions to make sure other oligarchs are elected over and over to office. Many run unopposed.

Oligarchs look at regulations to protect the environment or the safety of workers as impediments to profit and abolish them. Oligarchs move industries to Mexico or China to increase their wealth while impoverishing American workers and leaving U.S. cities in ruins. Oligarchs are philistines. They are deaf, dumb and blind to great works of art, reveling in tawdry spectacles, patriotic kitsch and mindless entertainment. They despise artists and intellectuals who promote virtues and self-criticism that conflict with the lust for power, celebrity and wealth. Oligarchs always unleash wars on culture, attacking it as elitist, irrelevant and immoral and cutting its funding. All social services and institutions, such as public housing programs, public parks, meals for the elderly, infrastructure projects, welfare and Social Security, are viewed by oligarchs as a waste of money. These services are gutted or turned over to fellow oligarchs, who harvest them for profit until they are destroyed.

Oligarchs, who do not serve in the military and who ensure their children do not serve in the military, pretend to be great patriots. They attack those who oppose them as anti-American, traitors or agents for a foreign power. They use the language of patriotism to stoke hatred against their critics and to justify their crimes. They see the world in black and white—those who are loyal to them and those who are the enemy. They extent this stunted belief system to foreign affairs. Diplomacy is abandoned for the crude threats and indiscriminate use of force that are the preferred forms of communication of all despots.

There is little dispute that we live in an oligarchic state.  . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2018 at 12:17 pm

W.Va. candidate removed from hearing after speaking out against oil and gas drilling legislation

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The interesting part is that the legislators stopped her from speaking because of what they called “personal attacks”: reading out the names of legislators and the amount each received from oil and gas industry lobbyists. Legislators apparently do not want that information known. Rebecca Savransky has the report in The Hill (with video). From the report:

. . . She was reportedly told during her testimony that she should not be making “personal comments” regarding members of the House Judiciary Committee.

“The people who are going to be speaking in favor of this bill are all going to be paid by the industry,” Lucas said, according to the Huffington Post.

“The people who are going to be voting on this bill are often also paid by the industry,” she added.

“I have to keep this short because the public only gets a minute and 45 seconds while lobbyists can throw a gala at the Marriott with whiskey and wine and talk for hours to the delegates,” she added.

Her microphone was cut off during her testimony and her request for more time was denied, according to the Huffington Post.

She then told lawmakers to “drag me off.”

On her personal blog, Lucas wrote that as she tried to give her remarks in defense of “constitutional property rights,” she was “dragged out of House chambers.”

“Allow me to point out that if Delegates genuinely think that my talking about who their campaign donors are ― and how much they’re receiving from corporate lobbyists/corporate PACs ― is an ad hominem attack … then they should be refusing those donations,” she wrote.

She also wrote that lawmakers should refuse any donation that, “if someone mentions it, makes you feel personally attacked.”

“Because that’s not an attack. That’s guilt. And you SHOULD be feeling that. Let that guilt about who you’re really working for inform your votes; don’t let the corporate money do it.” . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2018 at 10:33 am

He Predicted The 2016 Fake News Crisis. Now He’s Worried About An Information Apocalypse.

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Charlie Warzel reports at BuzzFeed News:

In mid-2016, Aviv Ovadya realized there was something fundamentally wrong with the internet — so wrong that he abandoned his work and sounded an alarm. A few weeks before the 2016 election, he presented his concerns to technologists in San Francisco’s Bay Area and warned of an impending crisis of misinformation in a presentation he titled “Infocalypse.”

The web and the information ecosystem that had developed around it was wildly unhealthy, Ovadya argued. The incentives that governed its biggest platforms were calibrated to reward information that was often misleading and polarizing, or both. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google prioritized clicks, shares, ads, and money over quality of information, and Ovadya couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all building toward something bad — a kind of critical threshold of addictive and toxic misinformation. The presentation was largely ignored by employees from the Big Tech platforms — including a few from Facebook who would later go on to drive the company’s NewsFeed integrity effort.

“At the time, it felt like we were in a car careering out of control and it wasn’t just that everyone was saying, ‘we’ll be fine’ — it’s that they didn’t even see the car,” he said.

Ovadya saw early what many — including lawmakers, journalists, and Big Tech CEOs — wouldn’t grasp until months later: Our platformed and algorithmically optimized world is vulnerable — to propaganda, to misinformation, to dark targeted advertising from foreign governments — so much so that it threatens to undermine a cornerstone of human discourse: the credibility of fact.

But it’s what he sees coming next that will really scare the shit out of you.

“Alarmism can be good — you should be alarmist about this stuff,” Ovadya said one January afternoon before calmly outlining a deeply unsettling projection about the next two decades of fake news, artificial intelligence–assisted misinformation campaigns, and propaganda. “We are so screwed it’s beyond what most of us can imagine,” he said. “We were utterly screwed a year and a half ago and we’re even more screwed now. And depending how far you look into the future it just gets worse.”

That future, according to Ovadya, will arrive with a slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for manipulating perception and falsifying reality, for which terms have already been coined — “reality apathy,” “automated laser phishing,” and “human puppets.”

Which is why Ovadya, an MIT grad with engineering stints at tech companies like Quora, dropped everything in early 2016 to try to prevent what he saw as a Big Tech–enabled information crisis. “One day something just clicked,” he said of his awakening. It became clear to him that, if somebody were to exploit our attention economy and use the platforms that undergird it to distort the truth, there were no real checks and balances to stop it. “I realized if these systems were going to go out of control, there’d be nothing to reign them in and it was going to get bad, and quick,” he said.

Today Ovadya and a cohort of loosely affiliated researchers and academics are anxiously looking ahead — toward a future that is alarmingly dystopian. They’re running war game–style disaster scenarios based on technologies that have begun to pop up and the outcomes are typically disheartening.

For Ovadya — now the chief technologist for the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility and a Knight News innovation fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia — the shock and ongoing anxiety over Russian Facebook ads and Twitter bots pales in comparison to the greater threat: Technologies that can be used to enhance and distort what is real are evolving faster than our ability to understand and control or mitigate it. The stakes are high and the possible consequences more disastrous than foreign meddling in an election — an undermining or upending of core civilizational institutions, an “infocalypse.” And Ovadya says that this one is just as plausible as the last one — and worse.

Worse because of our ever-expanding computational prowess; worse because of ongoing advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning that can blur the lines between fact and fiction; worse because those things could usher in a future where, as Ovadya observes, anyone could make it “appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did.”

And much in the way that foreign-sponsored, targeted misinformation campaigns didn’t feel like a plausible near-term threat until we realized that it was already happening, Ovadya cautions that fast-developing tools powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented reality tech could be hijacked and used by bad actors to imitate humans and wage an information war.

And we’re closer than one might think to a potential “Infocalypse.” Already available tools for audio and video manipulation have begun to look like a potential fake news Manhattan Project. In the murky corners of the internet, people have begun using machine learning algorithms and open-source software to easily create pornographic videos that realistically superimpose the faces of celebrities — or anyone for that matter — on the adult actors’ bodies. At institutions like Stanford, technologists have built programs that that combine and mix recorded video footagewith real-time face tracking to manipulate video. Similarly, at the University of Washington computer scientists successfully built a program capable of “turning audio clips into a realistic, lip-synced video of the person speaking those words.” As proof of concept, both the teams manipulated broadcast video to make world leaders appear to say things they never actually said.

As these tools become democratized and widespread, Ovadya notes that the worst case scenarios could be extremely destabilizing.

There’s “diplomacy manipulation,” in which a malicious actor uses advanced technology to “create the belief that an event has occurred” to influence geopolitics. Imagine, for example, a machine-learning algorithm (which analyzes gobs of data in order to teach itself to perform a particular function) fed on hundreds of hours of footage of Donald Trump or North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which could then spit out a near-perfect — and virtually impossible to distinguish from reality — audio or video clip of the leader declaring nuclear or biological war. “It doesn’t have to be perfect — just good enough to make the enemy think something happened that it provokes a knee-jerk and reckless response of retaliation.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2018 at 9:11 am

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