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What To Make of the New Facebook-Russia Revelation?

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Josh Marshall has an intriguing column on the TPM Editor’s Blog. From the column:

. . . What is highly interesting to me is the reference to the ‘Internet Research Agency’, which is either a Russian intelligence front or the work of a Putin-aligned oligarch who does work on behalf of Putin and the Russian state. That’s the Russian company apparently doing the buying and then pumping up those ads with its army of trolls and fake accounts. This is the St. Petersburg ‘troll farm’ that Adrian Chen chronicled in that seminal 2015 New York Times Magazine that I’ve referenced numerous times.

I’ve always been a huge admirer of Chen’s since way back when he was at Gawker. Mainly he’s just a good writer and reporter. But his stories were usually ones that you’d never think were stories. You wouldn’t think the subject matter even existed (or wished it didn’t) or if they did that they were worthy of being stories. They were outlandish, bizarre, sometimes grotesque. But either at the time of publication or sometimes months or years later you’d realize they weren’t examples of random exoticism but actually topics of great significance operating outside of mainstream public view.

When I first read the 2015 troll farm piece I was amazed. The whole idea sounded preposterous and unreal. Some major operation in Russia – either informally or formally tied to the state – was investing lots of time and money building networks of bots and propaganda accounts to disrupt conversations, build counter-narratives and even test fire elaborate and potentially lethal hoaxes in the United States. Many of us have long known that teenagers with personality problems and sociopaths do this stuff. But this was an operation at scale, sophisticated and state-backed. What was it for and what was the end game? (Here are two posts from last year where I try to answer that question: one and two.)

In any case, some time after the troll farm piece ran, Chen noticed that a number of the accounts he had identified spreading conspiracy theories about Ebola or other fake stories had rebranded as Trump/MAGA accounts. It’s quite fascinating. The Trump revelation comes in a December 2015 podcast interview Chen at He clearly didn’t think that much of it at the time. It comes up sort of parenthetically at about 35:12 into the podcast. But there it is: perhaps the political scandal of the early 21st century, months before anyone had any inkling of it, briefly sketched in its outlines. The momentary exchange still amazes me. Here it is.

Chen said: “A lot of them have turned into like conservative accounts, like fake conservatives. I don’t know what’s going on but they’re all like tweeting about Donald Trump and stuff.” Interviewer: “Who’s paying for that?” Chen: “I don’t know … I feel like maybe it’s some kind of really opaque strategy of like electing Donald Trump to undermine the US or something.” . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 September 2017 at 11:30 am

Can You Get Addicted to Trolling?

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Very interesting article in Motherboard by Virginia Pelley.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 September 2017 at 2:06 pm

The smartphone has destroyed a generation

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Cultural norms and structures are fragile: just the interruption of one generation is enough to seriously weaken if not kill them.  has an intriguing article in the Atlantic. From the article:

. . . Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.

What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2017 at 8:08 pm

This miracle weed killer was supposed to save farms. Instead, it’s devastating them.

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Caitlin Dewey reports in the Washington Post:

Clay Mayes slams on the brakes of his Chevy Silverado and jumps out with the engine running, yelling at a dogwood by the side of the dirt road as if it had said something insulting.

Its leaves curl downward and in on themselves like tiny, broken umbrellas. It’s the telltale mark of inadvertent exposure to a controversial herbicide called dicamba.

“This is crazy. Crazy!” shouts Mayes, a farm manager, gesticulating toward the shriveled canopy off Highway 61. “I just think if this keeps going on . . .”

“Everything’ll be dead,” says Brian Smith, his passenger.

The damage here in northeast Arkansas and across the Midwest — sickly soybeans, trees and other crops — has become emblematic of adeepening crisis in American agriculture.

Farmers are locked in an arms race between ever-stronger weeds and ever-stronger weed killers.

The dicamba system, approved for use for the first time this spring, was supposed to break the cycle and guarantee weed control in soybeans and cotton. The herbicide — used in combination with a genetically modified dicamba-resistant soybean — promises better control of unwanted plants such as pigweed, which has become resistant to common weed killers.

The problem, farmers and weed scientists say, is that dicamba has drifted from the fields where it was sprayed, damaging millions of acres of unprotected soybeans and other crops in what some are calling a man-made disaster. Critics say that the herbicide was approved by federal officials without enough data, particularly on the critical question of whether it could drift off target.

Government officials and manufacturers Monsanto and BASF deny the charge, saying the system worked as Congress designed it.

The backlash against dicamba has spurred lawsuits, state and federal investigations, and one argument that ended in a farmer’s shooting death and related murder charges.

“This should be a wake-up call,” said David Mortensen, a weed scientist at Pennsylvania State University. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the report:

According to a 2004 assessment, dicamba is 75 to 400 times more dangerous to off-target plants than the common weed killer glyphosate, even at very low doses. It is particularly toxic to soybeans — the very crop it was designed to protect — that haven’t been modified for resistance.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2017 at 4:59 pm

Wirecutter reviews DNA ancestry kits

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An interesting review.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 August 2017 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Technology

If you’ve been wondering at the visibility of the US Neo-Nazis and white supremacists: Russia’s propaganda machine amplifies alt-right

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Morgan Chalfant in The Hill:

Russia’s army of media influencers, social media bots and trolls has increasingly amplified alt-right and far-right narratives in the United States since the 2016 presidential election.

Russia’s efforts to push propaganda and disinformation, experts say, are nothing new and extend beyond the U.S. to nations in Europe. But they have seemed to evolve in recent months, increasingly infiltrating and engaging with alt-right and far-right Americans online.

Moscow’s aim is widely viewed as exploiting divides and sowing distrust of democratic institutions, the latter a conclusion reached by the U.S. intelligence community in its initial investigation of Russia’s interference in the presidential election, including overt efforts to push propaganda.

“Promoting content that is divisive – that is the ultimate goal here,” said Lee Foster, manager of information operations analysis at FireEye iSIGHT Intelligence.

“It’s the same in Europe, but the specific themes change,” Foster said. “There, one of the most prominent themes is migration and the refugee crisis.”

In some cases, it is pro-Russia personalities, trolls or automated accounts magnifying right-wing messages.

The latest example is the recent flood of negative coverage of President Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, which originated on right-wing media outlets like Breitbart News and has been picked up by prominent conservative personalities, including Sean Hannity.

The campaign, coined #FireMcMaster, was also picked up by automated Twitter accounts—commonly known as “bots”—that are linked to Russia, according to Hamilton 68, a new dashboard developed to monitor fake news. Separately, researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab identified Lee Stranahan, a host on Russian state-run outlet Sputnik, as one of the most prominent voices behind the anti-McMaster campaign. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 August 2017 at 11:33 am

How to handle robocalls

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Christopher Mele has a good column on various ways to combat robocalls. Here are just two:

Turn the tables

And then there is the Jolly Roger Telephone Company, which turns the tables on telemarketers. This program allows a customer to put the phone on mute and patch telemarketing calls to a robot, which understands speech patterns and inflections and works to keep the caller engaged.

Subscribers can choose robot personalities, such as Whiskey Jack, who is frequently distracted by a game he is watching on television, or Salty Sally, a frazzled mother.

The robots string the callers along with vocal fillers like “Uh-huh” and “O.K., O.K.” After several minutes, some will ask the callers to repeat their sales pitch from the beginning, prompting the telemarketers to have angry meltdowns, according to sample recordings posted on the company’s website.

Watch what you say

One recent scheme involves getting consumers to say “yes” and later using a recording of the response to allow unauthorized charges on the person’s credit card account, the F.C.C. warned in March.

When the caller asks, “Can you hear me?” and the consumer answers “yes,” the caller can gain a voice signature that can later be used to authorize fraudulent charges by telephone.

Best to answer with “I can hear you,” Mr. Kalember said.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 August 2017 at 3:26 pm

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