A history of hype behind Cambridge Analytica

Nigel Oakes, the founder of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, once described his work in this way: “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler. We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”

As an Old Etonian, his ties to royalty, the aristocracy, and the rich and famous, seemed to foster (at least in his own mind) the notion that he had the skills and connections required for shaping global events.

But as Claudio Gatti noted while Donald Trump took office, Oakes’ primary business skill seems to have been identical to Trump’s: the art of self-promotion.

Oakes’ bio in the SCL webpage says that he “was educated at Eton College and UCL, where he studied Psychology”, although according to a 2008 letter the University College London sent to David Miller, a UK sociologist who studies propaganda, there were no records of him ever studying there.

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Facebook employees feel increasingly responsible for the world’s problems

At an all-hands meeting for Facebook employees at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park on Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg didn’t show up. Fielding questions for just 30 minutes was the company’s deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal. In its dealings with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook had not acted improperly, he insisted. But as Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

One employee asked the same question twice: Even if Facebook played by its own rules, and the developer followed policies at the time, did the company ever consider the ethics of what it was doing with user data? Grewal didn’t answer directly.

As the report notes, Facebook has weathered complaints about violating user privacy since its inception. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Novichok chemical attack near Porton Down fed catnip to conspiracy theorists

Vladimir Putin has long understood that Russia can easily exploit the cynicism that permeates political perceptions across the West.

The use of the Soviet chemical weapon, Novichok, in close proximity to the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, hardly seems coincidental. It accomplished two things:

1. By deploying this agent so close to the lab, operatives could be fairly confident that British authorities with the required expertise would be able to positively identify the chemical, i.e. Russia’s calling card would be relatively easy to decipher.

2. Carrying out an attack so close to such a controversial facility would instantly provide fodder for conspiracy theories promoting the idea that Porton Down itself was the origin of the Novichok used in the attack. Russia did not hesitate to seed such speculation:


Predictably, Craig Murray and others (with the support of the Russian government and media) were swift to hoist “false flag” claims of one kind or another. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Quinn Norton and the New York Times’ short-lived courage

How fascism is coming to America: It’s happening when people decide the ideal society is one where everyone thinks the same way. And it’s happening when people who know better, kowtow to the dictates of social media instead of doing the right thing.

I didn’t know the New York Times hired Quinn Norton until I saw news they’d parted ways. Without question, this is a greater loss to the Times and its readers, than it is to Norton — although there’s no doubt it must be a major disruption to her life and that of her family.

The irony of the situation, representative of this perverse cultural moment, is that the people most likely to take satisfaction in this turn of events probably neither read the Times nor previously had heard of Norton.

These would be the folks who take pride in their own ideological purity while failing to see that ideological purity — whatever the ideology — is a really form of fascism.

Anyone who in thought and action marches in lockstep with others and who attaches supreme value to their allegiance to a cause (however noble that cause might appear), has crossed a threshold qualitatively no different from that crossed by every German who once declared: Heil Hilter!

It doesn’t matter what the cause is. The choice of surrendering to some kind of external ideological authority has the same effect irrespective of the ideology: it makes the individual’s conscience and capacity to make independent judgments subordinate to what that individual has designated as a higher authority. It is a form of subservience that corrodes the foundations of an open society. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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With the very best technology, humanity is digging its own grave

Technology is generally thought of as extending human capabilities by facilitating everyday actions more easily or allowing us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

From this expansive perspective, technological advance has become synonymous with human progress. Conversely, the less technology populations possess, the more they are viewed as developing or even less evolved.

What these views mask are the multiplicity of ways in which technology feeds human regression.

The regressive mechanism built into technology in most of its manifestations is its propensity to externalize human skills.

If there’s something a person can do but a machine can do with greater economy, then the human skill soon becomes redundant. Having become redundant, it falls into disuse and soon atrophies.

This is not a small problem. It’s the reason that humanity is rapidly filling its ranks with a mass of diseased and disfigured bodies. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Britain First and the first Britons

The white supremacists who chant “blood and soil” (borrowing this phrase from the Nazis’ Blut und Boden) think white-skinned people have a special claim to the lands of Europe and North America.

This is an arrogant and ignorant belief to hold on this side of the Atlantic where every white person has immigrant ancestry originating from Europe, but European whiteness in terms of origin (not superiority) is a less controversial notion. That is to say, even among those of us who support the development and protection of inclusive, racially diverse societies, it’s generally believed that prior the modern era of mass migration, European societies were overwhelmingly white because, to put it crudely, Europe is where white people come from.

It turns out that European whiteness has surprisingly shallow roots, as new research findings based on a DNA analysis of “Cheddar Man” indicate. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Trump’s national security strategy is a farce

Roger Cohen writes: The Trump Administration has put out its new national security strategy. This is a farce. On any one issue, President Trump and his team have several contradictory positions. That’s what happens when your priority as president is to use foreign policy to throw red meat to your base while other cabinet members are scrambling to stop Armageddon.

“It’s impossible to know what the United States position is on any number of subjects,” a European ambassador told me last week. “We could go sleepwalking into a war.”

Let’s start with North Korea, whose small but growing nuclear arsenal is overseen by Kim Jong-un, a leader as volatile as Trump. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump Administration’s policy toward North Korea is “really quite clear.” He said, “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition.”

That was Tuesday at the Atlantic Council. By Friday, at the United Nations, Tillerson was setting conditions.

North Korea must cease “threatening behavior” before talks can begin; it must “earn its way back to the table;” and pressure will “continue until denuclearization is achieved.”

Denuclearization is not going to happen in the real world. If that’s the condition, there will be no talks. As for Trump, he has said Tillerson is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” He has warned that the United States is “locked and loaded.” He has never embraced talks without preconditions, favored by France, Britain and sometimes Tillerson.

Clear enough already?

Oh, I should add that Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, was not present when Tillerson spoke. Great optics there: Haley and Tillerson are known to be at loggerheads, with the secretary of state (regarded by some as a dead man walking) suspecting Haley wants to succeed him.

Now, effective pressure on North Korea has three components: China, China and China. Trump’s new national security strategy identifies China as “a strategic competitor.” It suggests the United States will get tough on Chinese “cheating or economic aggression.”

Great timing there: Trump is asking President Xi Jinping to cut off crude oil exports to North Korea as his “strategy” lambasts China. Our president believes everyone will do his bidding because he says so. Hello! You want a favor? You don’t double down on confrontation. [Continue reading…]

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China unveils an ambitious plan to curb climate change emissions

The New York Times reports: China is the world’s No. 1 polluter. It burns more coal than the rest of the world combined. It produces more than a quarter of the world’s human-caused global warming gases, nearly as much as North America and Europe put together.

On Tuesday, the country set out to claim another title that reflects its ambitions to change all that: keeper of the world’s largest financial market devoted to cleaning up the air.

China released plans on Tuesday to start a giant market to trade credits for the right to emit planet-warming greenhouse gases. The nationwide market would initially cover only China’s vast, state-dominated power generation sector, which produced almost half of the country’s emissions from the burning of fossil fuels last year.

The long-awaited announcement could give global efforts to combat climate change a boost after President Trump signaled this year that the United States would back away from Obama-era promises to curb emissions. It could also serve as a big — though ultimately government-controlled — laboratory for such carbon markets, after earlier efforts in Europe and at the local level in China stumbled.

“China’s move to create the world’s largest carbon market is yet another powerful sign that a global sustainability revolution is underway,” Al Gore, the former vice president and a prominent voice in reducing climate change, said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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Senate Russia investigation now looking into Jill Stein

BuzzFeed reports: The top congressional committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has set its sights on the Green Party and its nominee, Jill Stein.

Dennis Trainor Jr., who worked for the Stein campaign from January to August of 2015, says Stein contacted him on Friday saying the Senate Intelligence Committee had requested that the campaign comply with a document search.

Trainor, who served as the campaign’s communications director and acting manager during that time, told BuzzFeed News that he was informed of the committee’s request because during his time on the campaign, his personal cell phone was “a primary point of contact” for those looking to reach Stein or the campaign. That included producers from RT News, the Russian state-funded media company that booked Stein for several appearances, Trainor said. [Continue reading…]

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FBI warned Trump in 2016 Russians would try to infiltrate his campaign

NBC News reports: In the weeks after he became the Republican nominee on July 19, 2016, Donald Trump was warned that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would probably try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign, according to multiple government officials familiar with the matter.

The warning came in the form of a high-level counterintelligence briefing by senior FBI officials, the officials said. A similar briefing was given to Hillary Clinton, they added. They said the briefings, which are commonly provided to presidential nominees, were designed to educate the candidates and their top aides about potential threats from foreign spies.

The candidates were urged to alert the FBI about any suspicious overtures to their campaigns, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Hunger in North Korea is devastating. And it’s our fault

Kee B. Park writes: One cool morning last April in Pyongyang, North Korea, I watched a woman squat over a patch of grass along the Daedong River. A large handkerchief covering her head was knotted below her chin, encircling her sunburned and wrinkled face. As a van passed by blaring patriotic hymns from the oversize speakers on its roof, she weeded the riverbank. In North Korea, keeping the neighborhood clean is a civic duty. But she was far from any neighborhood. She was gathering the weeds for food.

On Nov. 13, a North Korean soldier in his 20s was shot multiple times as he ran across the demilitarized zone into South Korea. His surgeons reported finding dozens of parasitic intestinal worms inside his abdominal cavity, some as long as 11 inches, suggesting severe malnutrition.

As these stories show — and as I have seen during my 16 visits to North Korea in the past decade — hunger remains a way of life there. Forty-one percent of North Koreans, about 10.5 million people, are undernourished, and 28 percent of children under 5 years old have stunted growth. When my 4-year-old daughter visited Pyongyang in 2013, she, all of three feet, towered over children twice her age.

The hunger is devastating. And it’s our fault. [Continue reading…]

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Trump and allies are trying to destroy Mueller

Julian Zelizer writes: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has come under fierce political attack. President Donald Trump and his allies are systematically attempting to destroy the legitimacy of the investigation in the eyes of the public. And without a strong congressional investigative counterpart, Mueller finds himself increasingly isolated and alone.

While the White House issued a recent statement that it has no intention of firing Mueller, that is almost beside the point. In what should now be considered the classic Trumpian playbook, the President has moved aggressively to raise doubts about the credibility of his opponent. Ironically, he and his allies are attempting to crush an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russians by insinuating that the Hillary Clinton campaign may, in fact, be at fault for such behavior.

The President’s attacks should not be taken lightly. As Brian Stelter has argued on CNN, Trump and the conservative media have perfected echo chamber politics, whereby the multiple charges about the investigation — that FBI agents were out to systematically bring down this presidency, that the agency is damaged by rampant conflict of interest problems, that Mueller is illegally obtaining information about the transition — have moved to the forefront of the national conversation regardless of the veracity or relevance of any of these claims.

Peter Carr, a Mueller spokesman, made a statement soon after the allegation emerged: “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

The stories bleed into the rest of the media as well. On Sunday morning, a Washington Post headline read, “Mueller unlawfully obtained emails, Trump transition team claims,” which was likely music to the President’s ears. An allegation by the Trump for America legal team had quickly made its way into the headlines.

Indeed, it is telling of how effective Trump can be that Mueller’s decision to fire an FBI agent for his email conversations about the campaign was somehow turned into a black mark against him, rather than a sign of how cautiously the process has been handled. [Continue reading…]

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Key officials push back against Trump campaign’s claim that a federal office illegally turned over emails to special counsel

BuzzFeed reports: A lawyer for the Trump transition team on Saturday accused a federal agency of illegally and unconstitutionally turning over thousands of emails to the Special Counsel’s Office.

Specifically, the General Services Administration (GSA) turned over emails written during the transition — the period between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017 — and the Trump campaign is claiming in a letter that the decision to do so violated the law.

Officials with both the Special Counsel’s Office and GSA, however, pushed back against the Trump campaign lawyer’s claims in the hours after the letter was issued. [Continue reading…]

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Doug Jones doesn’t believe that sexual harassment is a ‘real issue.’ If it concerned enough voters, he argues, Trump wouldn’t be president

BuzzFeed reports: In the wake of Democratic Sen. Al Franken announcing his resignation after being accused of sexual misconduct, several Senate Democrats have called on Trump to step down because of the allegations against him leveled by more than a dozen women.

On Sunday, Jones broke with some of his fellow Democrats, saying he didn’t believe the president should resign and that “we need to move on and not get distracted by those issues.”

Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper, the Alabama senator-elect said, “Those allegations were made before the election, and so people had an opportunity to judge before that election.” [Continue reading…]

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As Saudi prince cracks down on corruption, he buys himself ‘the world’s most expensive home’

The New York Times reports: When the Chateau Louis XIV sold for over $300 million two years ago, Fortune magazine called it “the world’s most expensive home,” and Town & Country swooned over its gold-leafed fountain, marble statues and hedged labyrinth set in a 57-acre landscaped park. But for all the lavish details, one fact was missing: the identity of the buyer.

Now, it turns out that the paper trail leads to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the Saudi throne and the driving force behind a series of bold policies transforming Saudi Arabia and shaking up the Middle East.

The 2015 purchase appears to be one of several extravagant acquisitions — including a $500 million yacht and a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting — by a prince who is leading a sweeping crackdown on corruption and self-enrichment by the Saudi elite and preaching fiscal austerity at home.

“He has tried to build an image of himself, with a fair amount of success, that he is different, that he’s a reformer, at least a social reformer, and that he’s not corrupt,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and author. “And this is a severe blow to that image.” [Continue reading…]

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Could Aung San Suu Kyi face Rohingya genocide charges?

Justin Rowlatt writes: Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is determined that the perpetrators of the horrors committed against the Rohingya face justice.

He’s the head of the UN’s watchdog for human rights across the world, so his opinions carry weight.

It could go right to the top – he doesn’t rule out the possibility that civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the armed forces Gen Aung Min Hlaing, could find themselves in the dock on genocide charges some time in the future.

Earlier this month, Mr Zeid told the UN Human Rights Council that the widespread and systematic nature of the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar (also called Burma) meant that genocide could not be ruled out.

“Given the scale of the military operation, clearly these would have to be decisions taken at a high level,” said the high commissioner, when we met at the UN headquarters in Geneva for BBC Panorama.

That said, genocide is one of those words that gets bandied about a lot. It sounds terrible – the so-called “crime of crimes”. Very few people have ever been convicted of it.

The crime was defined after the Holocaust. Member countries of the newly founded United Nations signed a convention, defining genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy a particular group.

It is not Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s job to prove acts of genocide have been committed – only a court can do that. But he has called for an international criminal investigation into the perpetrators of what he has called the “shockingly brutal attacks” against the Muslim ethnic group who are mainly from northern Rakhine in Myanmar.

But the high commissioner recognised it would be a tough case to make: “For obvious reasons, if you’re planning to commit genocide you don’t commit it to paper and you don’t provide instructions.”

“The thresholds for proof are high,” he said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me in the future if a court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see.” [Continue reading…]

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Why your brain hates other people

Robert Sapolsky writes: As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups.

It’s been said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.” In reality, there’s lots more of the former. And it can be vastly consequential when people are divided into Us and Them, ingroup and outgroup, “the people” (i.e., our kind) and the Others.

Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture. We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality. Pretty depressing.

But crucially, there is room for optimism. Much of that is grounded in something definedly human, which is that we all carry multiple Us/Them divisions in our heads. A Them in one case can be an Us in another, and it can only take an instant for that identity to flip. Thus, there is hope that, with science’s help, clannishness and xenophobia can lessen, perhaps even so much so that Hollywood-extra chimps and gorillas can break bread together. [Continue reading…]

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How Doug Jones won

Anne Applebaum writes: “How did he do it?” That’s the question I was asked more than once by European friends the day after Alabama’s Senate election: How did Doug Jones win? The question was not idle. In many ways, the electoral challenge Jones faced in Alabama was strikingly similar to the challenge facing European politicians of the center-left and even — or maybe especially — the center-right: How to defeat racist, xenophobic or homophobic candidates who are supported by a passionate, unified minority? Or, to put it differently: How to get the majority — which is often complacent rather than passionate, and divided rather than unified — to vote?

This was the same question asked after the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French elections, and part of the answer, in both cases, was luck. Nobody predicted a Roy Moore sex scandal. Nobody predicted that the French political establishment would fold so quickly either. France’s previous, center-left president was so unpopular that he discredited his party; France’s center-right leader, François Fillon, was knocked out of the race by a scandal. Macron wound up as the leader of a new centrist coalition, the electoral arithmetic was in his favor, and he won.

But beyond luck, both Macron and Jones also tried to reach across some traditional lines, in part by appealing to traditional values. Macron, fighting a nationalist opponent in the second round of the elections, openly promoted patriotism. Instead of fear and anger, he projected optimism about France and its international role. He spoke of the opportunities globalization brought to France instead of focusing on the dangers, and he declared himself proud to be both French and a citizen of the world.

He wasn’t the only European to take this route: Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party leader who is now president of Austria, used a similar kind of campaign to beat a nationalist opponent. Van der Bellen’s posters featured beautiful Alpine scenes, the Austrian flag and the slogan “Those who love their homeland do not divide it.”

In Alabama, Jones used remarkably similar language. [Continue reading…]

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