I should also add here that, in my limited experience, social media is God’s gift to grandiose psychiatric patients. None of them are “a guy with a Facebook page”. They’re all “social media celebrities with hundreds of followers”. It’s always “YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME! DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I HAVE HUNDREDS OF FOLLOWERS ON TWITTER! EVEN [NAME OF TWITTER PERSON I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF] FOLLOWS ME! THIS IS GOING TO GO VIRAL!” One patient even told me, in a threatening manner, that his blog had over a thousand hits. “You mean a day?” I asked. “No, total,” he answered. Then he wondered why I was so utterly failing to look impressed.
Scott Alexander, “The Case Of The Famous Physicist”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-07-03.
March 19, 2017
March 3, 2017
I think it’s time to declare the internet a failure. At least with respect to its early promises of increased knowledge sharing and positive impact on collaboration.
Decentralization of media, Social media, has increased the rate in which misinformation is being transmitted. Once learned invalid information has to be unlearned and that is a much harder task than educating people with accurate information in the first place.
Social media also appears to have increased the rate that people cluster around misinformation and create specialized groups of individuals that aggressively seek to disseminate their ideas.
The asocial aspect of social media encourages individuals to behave in ways that they normally wouldn’t when face-to-face with people that don’t share their views. It has made intolerant people more belligerent and it has forced tolerant people to adopt less tolerant stances.
The trend seems to be to continue to partition people into increasingly specialized and narrowly focused groups. At the extreme we see individuals with highly individualized views agitating groups with more generally accepted views.
People have become more militant, intolerant, and unaccepting of society. The impact on society is a weakening of collaborative spirit, increased cynicism, and further increases to militancy.
In the mid-90s I was very excited at the opportunities collective information sharing could produce. We’ve realized some of those but I simply didn’t foresee the degradation of democratic values that reveal the best in the humanity.
Social media has increased the ability to create social anxiety by pouring misinformation into peoples’ lives with ideas that they are directly threatened or that there are limits to resources, ideas that are often mere fabrication.
Today we are bombarded daily with absurdity, aggression, fear mongering, and intolerance. It’s as if we unwound the clock a hundred years and abandoned the great freedom experiment. Only now the weapons to resolve differences of opinion are much more destructive.
Hard to be bullish on the consequences of increased nationalism around the globe.
The world does face some difficult issues we need to address but things are not nearly as bad as what has become status quo thinking.
Douglas Gunn, posting to Facebook, 2017-02-20.
March 1, 2017
Cory Doctorow on the various types of propaganda in use around the world:
Jonathan Stray summarizes three different strains of propaganda, analyzing why they work, and suggesting counter-tactics: in Russia, it’s about flooding the channel with a mix of lies and truth, crowding out other stories; in China, it’s about suffocating arguments with happy-talk distractions, and for trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos, it’s weaponizing hate, outraging people so they spread your message to the small, diffused minority of broken people who welcome your message and would otherwise be uneconomical to reach.
Stray cites some of the same sources I’ve written about here: Tucker Max’s analysis of Yiannopoulos’s weaponized hate and The Harvard Institute for Quantitative Science team’s first-of-its kind analysis of leaked messages directing the activities of the “50-cent army, which overwhelms online Chinese conversation with upbeat cheerleading (think of Animal Farm‘s sheep-bleating, or Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s quackspeak).
But I’d never encountered the work he references on Russian propaganda, by RAND scholar Christopher Paul, who calls Russian disinformation a “firehose of falsehood.” This tactic involves having huge numbers of channels at your disposal: fake and real social media accounts, tactical leaks to journalists, state media channels like RT, which are able to convey narrative at higher volume than the counternarrative, which becomes compelling just by dint of being everywhere (“quantity does indeed have a quality all its own”).
Mixing outright lies with a large dollop of truth is key to this tactic, as it surrounds the lies with a penumbra of truthfulness. This is a time-honored tactic, of course: think of the Christian Science Monitor‘s history of outstanding international coverage, accompanied by editorials about God’s ability to heal through prayer; or Voice of America‘s mixture of excellent reporting on (again) international politics and glaring silence on US crises (see also: Al Jazeera as a reliable source on everything except corruption in the UAE; the BBC World Service‘s top-notch journalism on everything except UK complicity in disasters like the Gulf War, etc).
In addition to this excellent taxonomy of propaganda, Stray proposes countermeasures for each strain: for Russia-style “firehoses of falsehood,” you have to reach the audience first with an alternative narrative; once the firehose is on, it’s too late. For Chinese quackspeak floods, you need “organized, visible resistance” in the streets. For pathetic attention-whores like Yiannopoulos, Stray says Tucker Max is right: you have to ignore him.
February 23, 2017
A huge coalition of human rights groups, trade groups, civil liberties groups, and individual legal, technical and security experts have signed an open letter to the Department of Homeland Security in reaction to Secretary John Kelly’s remarks to House Homeland Security Committee earlier this month, where he said the DHS might force visitors to America to divulge their social media logins as a condition of entry.
The letter points out that the years’ worth of private data — including commercially sensitive information; privileged communications with doctors, therapists and attorneys; and personal information of an intimate and private nature — that the DHS could access this way would not belong only to non-US persons (who are, of course, deserving of privacy!), but also US persons, whose lives the DHS would be able to peer into without warrant, oversight or limitation.
The letter also points out that once America starts demanding this of foreigners visiting its shores, other governments will definitely reciprocate — so American travelers would be forced to reveal everything from trade secrets to the most personal moments with their loved ones with governments hostile to US interests.
Trade disputes tend to devolve into tit-for-tat retaliation. Initiatives like this will work exactly the same way (except you can be certain that politicians will hold out for their own right to privacy while demanding that private citizens and foreigners give up theirs).
February 13, 2017
Jazz Shaw on the nascent anti-Trump groups that some in the media are hopefully describing as a progressive version of the Tea Party movement:
What we’re seeing today is almost entirely different [from the Tea Party]. I do not doubt the sincerity of many of the liberal activists expressing their outrage, but the mechanisms being used to engage and coordinate their efforts are both obvious and very different from the early days of the Tea Party. Social media chains erupt on a moments notice directing protesters to show up at town halls, airports, municipal centers or wherever else they may be needed. These “grassroots activists” seem to arrive in large groups, frequently with buses provided, carrying pre-printed professional signage and well orchestrated chants which they read off of their mobile devices like an army of Stepford wives whose programming has run into a critical error loop.
Another key difference is the fact that the Tea Party groups generally had a specific agenda of items in matters of governance which they wish to see changed. They were seeking to throw out the old guard regardless of party affiliation before even beginning a discussion of what the new agenda might be. Conversely, today’s liberal activists seem to have only one thought in mind: finding a way to end the Trump presidency before it even begins. Rather than fighting for change, they are heeding a call from someone – we don’t know who yet – to forcibly roll back the clock and replay the last eight years of the Obama administration.
These activities are certainly newsworthy and I don’t begrudge the media for covering them. But let’s not make a mistake here… this is not the Tea Party. It’s not even remotely similar. This is a finely tuned protest machine, bitter about the recent defeat and seeking to harness friendly forces in the mainstream media to reinforce a daily narrative that the winner of the election as failed before he’s even begun. If there’s any good news on the horizon, it’s the fact that much of the public doesn’t seem to be paying attention, or at least not blindly accepting everything they see on cable news.
February 11, 2017
While I have no particular affection for Toronto mayor John Tory, I have to agree that he doesn’t actually deserve the rough ride he’s gotten from the Toronto media and grandstanding local politicians for his “broken promise” on municipal swimming pools. Chris Selley detailed the “story” and the facts on the ground and pointed out the non-obvious:
In short, this is a bog-standard managerial decision the likes of which gets made every day in every big city that’s trying to keep costs under control: reducing a library’s hours for lack of demand; altering swimming pool or ice rink seasons based on recent years’ weather; raising the price of greens fees or tennis court bookings; not clearing little-used pathways in parks in winter. Of course people are going to raise a fuss; you manage the fuss as best you can and soldier on.
But in Toronto, especially when a celebrity gets involved, these minor decisions inform a sort of battle-of-civilizations narrative in which the mayor of the day seeks the ruination of all things good about the city — and they all end up on the floor of council.
Even in apocalyptic times for media, City Hall is relatively well covered; council meetings in particular will bring out the cameras, in certain knowledge some elected officials will make hairy asses of themselves and others will burst into tears over the smallest things, let alone the largest.
You could hardly do any worse for entertainment value, but if you wonder why city councillors can’t seem to make any big decisions properly, tune in next Wednesday for budget deliberations and watch them try to make a bunch of small ones. You will wonder no more.
February 6, 2017
Scott Adams linked to this video (which is very NSFW), discussing how social media platforms can use their analytic tools to “shape” communications among their users:
February 5, 2017
It’s been interesting watching the conservatives begin to adapt to (and in some cases surpass) the “everything is political” message that US progressives had embraced a decade earlier:
Which leads me to social media, Facebook specifically.
As this dramatic shift occurred, we began to see another shift within social media, one that reached its apex during the 2016 presidential election. That was the politicization of everything, not just by the institutional left, but by the soft left as well.
Where before the voters on the left were mostly passive receivers of Cultural Marxism, they had now become active participants via propaganda, slander, social shaming, and otherizing. This meant that conservatives were now being assaulted on two fronts, both from the institutional left and the soft left.
Every conservative who is active on Facebook knows what I’m talking about. After decades of Americans keeping their politics mostly to themselves, suddenly our feeds were jammed up with political invective.
It wasn’t just directed at politicians. It was personal — a relentless litany of insults and abuse, first at the Tea Party and then Trump supporters. Most of it was generalized, but the message was clear. They held our kind in contempt and didn’t care who knew it. In fact, they seemed to be in a contest to see who could broadcast it the loudest.
Most conservatives were hurt by this. We tend to keep our politics relatively private, both out of decorum and respect for our relationships with people whose politics differ from ours. The message that these public posts sent to us was that our “friends” on the left didn’t respect or value us enough to avoid giving offense.
As someone who has been following politics since high school, I tend not to trust my own instincts what the average voter thinks. I’m simply to close to the subject. My wife, however, is a fairly low-key traditionalist who doesn’t care to immerse herself in that world and so I use her as my political weather vane.
And so I knew that there was a storm brewing when she snapped down her phone over breakfast one day after reading Facebook and told me how sick and tired she was of her friends’ political posts.
“When they say those things,” she fumed, “they’re talking about our family.”
“I’m so sick and tired of being told that I’m a bad person because I disagree with someone’s position on abortion or transgender bathrooms. Who do they think they are to tell everyone what they’re required to believe?”
The hurt had turned to anger and quiet resolve.
The left sought to reprimand the right. What they did was alienate it. Their social media echo chamber only served to steel conservative misgivings about Donald Trump, if for no other reason than we simply couldn’t abide by being pushed around for another 4-8 years.
It’s one thing to know that your friends disagree with you. It’s another to realize that they think you’re stupid, uneducated, a bigot, bully, sexist, jerk and everything that’s wrong with the world.
My Facebook feed has almost completely bifurcated into two silos that don’t communicate much at all (Americans more than Canadians, but even my Canadian lefty friends are less likely to interact with folks on the right than they used to be). The libertarians are, as usual, not statistically significant (we’re used to that).
February 2, 2017
Twitter is bad, but FB is worse. Twitter tells you random strangers are obnoxious assholes, FB tells you your friends & family are. /27
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) February 1, 2017
January 30, 2017
At Samizdata, Perry de Havilland considers the historical footnote that was #GamerGate:
Looking back, it’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of GamerGate: it marked when the Left suddenly and unexpectedly lost control of social media, right at the point where the influence of social media actually started to matter. In a sense, it was the second wave of discontent that started with the arrival of anti-MSM blogs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but within a very different internet environment compared to ‘The Golden Age of Blogging’ 2001-2010. As has often been the case in military campaigns, when one side becomes greatly overextended, they only realise they have lost the initiative when they seek to advance and experience a completely unexpected reversal: a result that may seem obvious and perhaps even inevitable to a historian looking back, but which was far from obvious to the people on the ground at the time.
So certain was the Left that they had won the culture war, so confident with the established media under their effective control that ‘truth’ was theirs to declare, that they gave up on any pretence of objectivity. After all, their enemies had been swept from both airwaves and print (I sometimes cannot tell the difference between the Times and the Guardian and the Economist). And so they began to manoeuvre with the assurance and arrogance of an army under an umbrella of complete air(wave) supremacy, a supremacy that suddenly proved to be illusory because opinions had moved on-line.
January 24, 2017
Bretigne Shaffer on the intensely partisan American political scene:
It’s been a weird couple of months. I’ve seen more people unfriend each other on FaceBook than in the past few years combined; There have been several reports of both Trump supporters and minorities being physically attacked; I’ve been asked to wear a safety pin to proclaim to the world that I am not a racist, because the presumption now is that everyone is a racist and you have to (secretly – only not so secretly) announce to everyone if you’re not; and the senior editor of ThinkProgress is afraid of his plumber. (This, based solely on whatever profiling techniques they use over at ThinkProgress – “…a middle-aged white man with a southern accent who seemed unperturbed by this week’s news.” – rather than anything resembling a conversation with the man.)
Here’s the thing: I’m a libertarian. I’ve been surrounded by people who don’t agree with me for as long as I can remember and it has never occurred to me to isolate myself from everyone because of our political differences. Certainly not to assault them. Nor am I filled with anxiety by the thought that people who work in my home might have different political views than mine. To me, you’re all a bunch of fascists. But I’ve somehow learned to live with you.
For me, watching people unravel over this election has been instructive. The – yes, I’m going to say it – bigotry of many on the left, in their caricaturing of Trump supporters, has never before been so blatant. Nor has the jaw-dropping, mass-hypnosis level of selective partisan-driven outrage. I understand that a lot of people are worried, upset, even frightened over the prospect of a Trump presidency. Good. They should be. But they should have been worried eight years ago, or at the very least, four years ago.
January 12, 2017
Annalisa Merelli recounts her experiences after she voted “no” in the Italian referendum, unlike the majority of her friends:
On Dec. 4, Italians went to the polls to decide on a reform referendum that would redefine the power of local governments and reduce the power of the senate. With a high turnout, my countrymen rejected the reform. In the press, the voters’ decision was described as an Italian Brexit, and a triumph of populism. Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, arguably Europe’s largest populist party, celebrated with Matteo Salvini, leader of the xenophobic Northern League; Marine Le Pen sent congratulations via Twitter, claiming that Italians’ had disavowed not just their prime minister, but the entire European Union.
What had actually happened, however, was more nuanced. And yet, the disappointment amongst liberals — the majority of whom had supported the reforms — was palpable.
It was a difficult vote, and while I stand by it, I don’t discount the possibility that history may prove me wrong. So I was eager to hear the reasons why so many of my friends had voted “yes.” Before and after the vote, I wanted to understand their points, and I certainly respected their choices.
But they — the yes voters, whose opinions and commentary filled my social media platforms — didn’t seem to have the same respect for my reasoning. As an opinionated citizen with consistently liberal views, I am used to being attacked and insulted by conservatives for my choices and opinions. But the liberal critiques I read weren’t so much attacking my decision as they were questioning my intelligence and my ability to understand the issue.
For the first time in my life, I was on the outside of the so-called liberal bubble, looking in. And what I saw was not pretty. I watched as many of my highly educated friends and contacts addressed those who disagreed with them with contempt and arrogance, and an offensive air of intellectual superiority.
H/T to John Donovan for the link.
January 4, 2017
ESR linked to this article, saying “This was kind of eye-opening. I’m not sure I believe all the fact claims, but it’s good for understanding what Donald Trump thinks he’s doing and why his opponents have consistently misunderestimated him.”
Think about this notion, that part of what Trumpism is about is applying Taleb’s model of, intellectual yet idiot. A good case study is Trump’s skepticism about consultants. Jeb Bush raised $110 million dollars, and had one delegate. Trump kept wondering why he was paying these, intellectual yet idiots, to run his campaign. It never occurred to Trump to hire people who were truly stupid to run a campaign, so Trump ran his own campaign. People said, well he doesn’t know anything. This is the guy who, The Apprentice was the number one TV show in the country, he’d been on the air 13 years, but they thought he didn’t know anything.
He had the most popular tie in the country. He ran a $10 billion dollar empire, but of course, he didn’t know anything. He made Miss Universe a success. They said, yeah, but what do you really know about the voters? Well, he knew that they were consumers. What does he know about consumers? Branding matters. What did he say from day one? Let’s Make America Great Again. If you’re on the left that’s a frightening concept, but if you are a normal, everyday, blue collar American, the kind of people who built Trump’s buildings, you thought, yeah, I like the idea of making America great again, so then they bought a hat. The hat didn’t say Trump. It said, Make America Great Again.
He went around the country, and he figured out, this is how you appeal to people. Start with the idea that using common sense, if I can get this through to the Pentagon, this will be one of the greatest revolutions in military affairs you’ve ever seen. […]
You have to get it in your head. The current system is broken. It is obsolete, so don’t try to fix it. Try to replace it. Trumpism also means they use modern technology. Trump has 25 million people on Twitter and Facebook. His great realization, which occurred around October of 2015, you can actually reach all these people for free. He decides on Tuesday, let’s do a rally in Tampa. They email, and Tweet, and Facebook, everybody in Florida that’s in their list, and says, hi, I’m going to be in Tampa on Friday at 5 o’clock, and 20,000 people show up.
The other candidates are all buying TV ads. He’s showing up at a mass rally, which is covered live on television. He then has 20,000 people with smartphones who take his picture. They all send it out on Facebook and Instagram. If you figure 40 people per person, a 20,000 person rally, is an 800,000 person system, about twice the size of MSNBC. For free. There’s no exchange rate you can create that makes sense. It’s like trying to compare Polish cavalry and the Wehrmacht in 1939. These are totally different exchange rates.
Trump also understands that you have to be on permanent offense. If you look at the Wehrmacht, the Army of Northern Virginia, and the Israeli Army, they all have the same doctrine. If you are surprised, one third of your forces go into defense, two thirds go on counterattack. You never give up the initiative. That’s Trump. Trump’s core model is, you hit me, I hit back, and I hit harder than you hit. He learned it in the New York media when he was a business man. He’s on permanent offense. He gets up in the morning figuring out, how am I going to stay on offense? He understands that the media has to chase rabbits, so he gives them rabbits to chase, because if he doesn’t give them rabbits to chase, they’ll invent a rabbit.
If you were to go back, for the last two weeks, and look at how many stories there were about Mitt Romney, and say to yourself, do you think Trump minded that the media was fascinated by whether or not Mitt Romney would be Secretary of State? He bought two weeks of non coverage because he gave them junk they could talk about, and the media has to talk about something. The simpler and more stupid it is, the easier it is for them to do it. He doesn’t try to give them lectures that are complicated, because they can’t cover it. He just releases a rabbit, often by tweet, and the media goes trotting after it happily.
December 19, 2016
A while back, someone my mother knows went crazy. The details of this insanity, or how it led them to focus on my lovely, inoffensive mother, are not important. What matters is that a deluge of emails started, and one of them contained a sentence along the lines of “The world would be a better place without you in it.”
Needless to say, like any normal person who gets an email like that, she became understandably worried. I rushed to reassure her. “Mom,” I said, “I get death threats all the time. They never do anything about it.”
Fun fact: “Mom, I get death threats all the time” are not words that reassure mothers. That was an interesting learning for me. But it is not the main point of my story. The point is that what I said remains true: death threats, or even quasi threats, are really nerve wracking the first hundred or so times someone emails you a picture of your house with a crosshairs superimposed on your bedroom window. Then over time, you notice something: the people who sent things like that haven’t followed through.
Am I saying that you never have to worry about people who email you on the internet? No. If someone emails you something like “We are destined to be together, why won’t haven’t you responded to my last 47 notes?” or “I know you are helping the CIA spy on me through my tooth fillings, and if you don’t stop, I will have to take action”, then you should be very worried, and contact the authorities immediately.
For this was at midday on a Saturday. Think about that; let it marinate for a while. These were adult men and women who had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than to vent their political spleen through culinary criticism. Think about how lame your life has to be for you to say “It’s my day off. How should I spend it? Oh, yeah, I’m finally going to get that [expletive deleted]. I’m going to [censored] all over her [bleeping] recipe.”
From that day to this, every time someone winds up the spittle-flecked outrage, I shake my head a little and think “I’m sorry your life is so sad that this is the best use you could find for your spare time.”
That is what you should be thinking every time someone sends you a horrible note, or forwards on someone else’s vituperation in case you haven’t seen it. That’s usually what you should be thinking even when that someone expresses a fond desire to see you exit this mortal life as early as possible. These are people whose lives are so joy-impoverished, so empty of meaning, that they are driven to seek pleasure in someone else’s pain, and power by denuciation. They can only have that pleasure and that power if you give it to them. If they were worthy of either, they wouldn’t need to write these things to you.
You should feel sorry for them. You should not, however, feel the slightest interest in what they think about you.
I especially want to address this to the ladies: this happens to us a lot, and there’s a temptation to reach out to your followers for support, telling them how awful and afraid this makes you feel. That’s classic lady bonding, and I’m all for sisterhood and support. Nonetheless: Don’t. They can see it, and they’re enjoying that they’re making you afraid. You don’t win with these folks by sending a mob of your own followers after them. You win — with them, and at life — by *not being upset*, because what the hell do you care what some anonymous coward thinks about you? Your soundtrack should be “I am Woman, Hear me Roar” and “I Will Survive”, not “Help!” If there are missives that seem genuinely threatening, pass them onto the police. Then stick the rest in your digital circular file and do something fun.
Megan McArdle, posted to Facebook, 2016-12-09.
December 10, 2016
ESR has been busy with absorbing technical projects, so he’s not blogging as frequently as he used to. Here’s his take on the alt-right phenomenon:
First, while I’m not entirely sure of everything the alt-right is (it’s a rather amorphous phenomenon) it is not the KKK and neo-Nazis. The most that can truthfully be said is that ‘alt-right’ serves as a recent flag of convenience to which some old-fashioned white supremacists are busily trying to attach themselves.
Also, the alt-right is not Donald Trump and his Trumpkins, either. He’s an equally old-fashioned populist continuous with William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long. If you tossed a bunch of alt-right memes at him, I doubt he’d even understand them, let alone agree.
The defining characteristic of the alt-right is, really, corrosive snarkiness. To the extent an origin can be identified, it was as as a series of message-board pranks on 4chan. There’s no actual ideological core to it – it’s a kind of oppositional attitude-copping without a program, mordantly nasty but unserious.
There’s also some weird occultism attached – the half-serious cult of KEK, aka Pepe, who may or may not be an ancient Egyptian frog-god who speaks to his followers via numerological coincidences. (Donald Trump really wouldn’t get that part.)
Some elements of the alt-right are in fact racist (and misogynist, and homophobic, and other bad words) a la KKK/Nazi, but that’s not a defining characteristic and it’s anyway difficult to tell the genuine haters from those for whom posing as haters is a form of what 4chan types call “griefing”. That’s social disruption for the hell of it.
It is worth noting that another part of what is going on here is a visceral rejection of politically-correct leftism, one which deliberately inverts its premises. The griefers pose as racists and misogynists because they think it’s the most oppositional stance they can take to bullies and rage-mobbers who position themselves as anti-racists and feminists.
My sense is that the true haters are a tiny minority compared to the griefers and anti-PC rejectionists, but the griefers are entertained by others’ confusion on this score and don’t intend to clear it up.
As has been pointed out many times, the habit of all too many on the left to describe anyone to the the right of them politically as being racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, etc., has reduced the effectiveness and even encouraged otherwise sensible people to start describing themselves in those terms. In the same way that the epithet “fascist” no longer has any meaning beyond “something or someone I don’t like”, these other terms have also lost much of their power through massive over-use.