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.

[Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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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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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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The FCC just voted to repeal its net neutrality rules, in a sweeping act of deregulation

The Washington Post reports: Federal regulators voted Thursday to allow Internet providers to speed up service for websites they favor — and block or slow down others — in a decision repealing landmark Obama-era regulations overseeing broadband companies such as AT&T and Verizon.

The move by the Federal Communications Commission to deregulate the telecom and cable industries was a prominent example of the policy shifts taking place in Washington under President Trump and a major setback for consumer groups, tech companies and Democrats who had lobbied heavily against the decision.

The 3-2 vote, which was along party lines, enabled the FCC’s Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, to follow through on his promise to repeal the government’s 2015 net neutrality rules, which required Internet providers to treat all websites, large and small, equally. The agency also rejected some of its own authority over the broadband industry in a bid to stymie future FCC officials who might seek to reverse the Republican-led ruling.

The result was a redrawing of the FCC’s oversight powers, at a time of rapid transformation in the media and technology sectors. [Continue reading…]

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NY Attorney General Schneiderman: I will sue to stop illegal rollback of net neutrality

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman writes: The FCC’s vote to rip apart net neutrality is a blow to New York consumers, and to everyone who cares about a free and open internet. The FCC just gave Big Telecom an early Christmas present, by giving internet service providers yet another way to put corporate profits over consumers. Today’s rollback will give ISPs new ways to control what we see, what we do, and what we say online. That’s a threat to the free exchange of ideas that’s made the Internet a valuable asset in our democratic process.

Today’s new rule would enable ISPs to charge consumers more to access sites like Facebook and Twitter and give them the leverage to degrade high quality of video streaming until and unless somebody pays them more money. Even worse, today’s vote would enable ISPs to favor certain viewpoints over others.

New Yorkers deserve the right to a free and open Internet. That’s why we will sue to stop the FCC’s illegal rollback of net neutrality.

Today’s vote also follows a public comment process that was deeply corrupted, including two million comments that stole the identities of real people. This is a crime under New York law – and the FCC’s decision to go ahead with the vote makes a mockery of government integrity and rewards the very perpetrators who scammed the system to advance their own agenda.

This is not just an attack on the future of our internet. It’s an attack on all New Yorkers, and on the integrity of every American’s voice in government – and we will fight back. [Continue reading…]

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Russia could cut off internet to NATO countries, British military chief warns

The Guardian reports: Russia could pose a major threat to the UK and other Nato nations by cutting underwater cables essential for international commerce and the internet, the chief of the British defence staff, Sir Stuart Peach, has warned.

Russian ships have been regularly spotted close to the Atlantic cables that carry communications between the US and Europe and elsewhere around the world.

Air Chief Marshall Peach, who in September was appointed chair of the Nato military committee, said Russia had continued to develop unconventional warfare. He added that threats such as those to underwater cables meant the UK and its allies had to match the Russian navy in terms of modernising its fleet.

“There is a new risk to our prosperity and way of life, to the cables that crisscross our sea beds, disruption to which through cable-cuts or destruction would immediately – and catastrophically – fracture both international trade and the internet,” he said.

The warning came a fortnight after the centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange issued a report saying 97% of global communications and $10tn in daily financial transactions were transmitted through such cables. [Continue reading…]

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Former Facebook exec says social media is ripping apart society

The Verge reports: Another former Facebook executive has spoken out about the harm the social network is doing to civil society around the world. Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business, before recommending people take a “hard break” from social media.

Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

He went on to describe an incident in India where hoax messages about kidnappings shared on WhatsApp led to the lynching of seven innocent people. “That’s what we’re dealing with,” said Palihapitiya. “And imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that shit.” He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s uncontrollable tweeting triggers deeper anxiety among advisers

Politico reports: It took nearly 24 hours for President Donald Trump to tweet about the news that his former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents — a delay that Trump’s advisers said was not uncommon for the president, who often tweets after catching up on cable news.

Many Republicans at first saw the radio silence as a welcome sign of restraint.

But by Sunday, the notoriously hot-headed president had already claimed Flynn was fired earlier this year in part for lying to the FBI and had moved on to accusing the nation’s top law-enforcement agency of being “in tatters.”

“Worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness,” he tweeted.

The tweets all combined to reignite fears among people close to Trump that the president is not taking the special counsel’s investigation seriously enough and is getting bad advice from his legal team.

Trump supporters, former campaign aides and former administration officials are beginning to privately raise red flags that the White House can’t keep up with the president’s own tweets and doesn’t have a coherent messaging strategy on the Russia investigation, according to interviews with a half-dozen people close to the president.

The people close to the president stressed that they are not worried that special counsel Robert Mueller will ensnare the president or find evidence of collusion. But they nonetheless fear that the near-daily revelations about the investigation will overtake Trump’s presidency.

“There’s no quarterback. There’s no strategy. They’re literally making it up as they go along,” said one of the people. “We’re in very dangerous territory.” [Continue reading…]

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We’re all part of Trump’s show

Bret Stephens writes: If you want to understand the ways in which Donald Trump’s presidency is systematically corrupting the American mind, I have a book recommendation for you. It’s about Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The book is Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.” It was published in 2014, and it brilliantly tells the story of the (Soviet-born) British author’s sojourn as a producer for Russian TV. As the title suggests, at its heart it’s the tale of the substitution of reality with “reality,” of factual truth with interpretive possibility.

That’s also the central task of Donald Trump’s presidency.

We were reminded of this again this week, on news that Trump is backing away from his public admission last year that he said what he said on the infamous Access Hollywood tape. Then there was his appalling insinuation Wednesday that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have killed an office intern in 2001. And his hallucinatory tweet last week in which he claimed to turn down an approach from Time magazine to make him Person of the Year for the second time in a row.

Before that it was his multiple attacks against his attorney general. Or his tweeting of a video pastiche in which he physically assaults CNN. Or his voter fraud claims. Or the ones about the size of his inaugural crowds.

All this has given rise to the suggestion that Trump is mentally unwell. That’s the charitable interpretation. But the president also gives signs that he is perfectly well, can communicate relatively coherently when he wants to do so, and knows exactly what he is tweeting (and subtweeting), and to what effect.

This is where Pomerantsev is so instructive. In one of his book’s early scenes, he relates a professional homily from a man he identifies as prominent Russian TV presenter. “We all know there will be no real politics” in Putin’s Russia, the man says at a staff conference.

“But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. So what should we play with? Shall we attack the oligarchs? Who’s the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like … like a movie!”

This is why there’s a Colosseum in Rome, and why public spectacle, theater, cinema, TV and now the internet have always been handmaids of dictators. [Continue reading…]

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Mark Zuckerberg’s fantasy world vs. the world Facebook is actually creating

John Harris writes: Zuckerberg’s new sense of mission was laid out in the commencement address this Harvard dropout delivered at his alma mater in May. He wants to stop climate change. He intends to be part of a generation “that ends poverty, that ends disease”. He talks about “a level of wealth inequality that hurts everyone”, and says he “wants a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful”. He talks about being on the side of “freedom, openness and global community” against “authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism”. But every word highlights the same absence. The ends seem nice. What of the means?

In Zuckerberg’s case, the sense of liberal cant is made even more glaring by the contradictions that swirl around him. As he sketches out his nebulous utopia, he says: “People like me should pay for it.” But he makes no mention of his company’s questionable record on tax, instead emphasising his belief in charity. He affects to worry about social and political polarisation while the very algorithms that power his platform encourage it. He superficially sets himself against the global forces of reaction while they make merry on his servers.

And though Facebook’s continuing travails have evidently rattled him, he inevitably has no sense that its ethos and operations need any reining-in. Quite the reverse, in fact. Judging from his recent pronouncements in response to the way that society and politics have become more divided and fractious, Zuckerberg wants Facebook “to develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us”.

He thinks there is a small subset of Facebook’s 2 billion users who make up “meaningful communities” on the platform, and that via a reinvention of Facebook’s Groups, more of us should follow their example. All this is as vague as everything else, but it boils down to something captured in a headline from Wired magazine: “Mark Zuckerberg’s answer to a world divided by Facebook is more Facebook”. [Continue reading…]

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More than a million pro-repeal net neutrality comments were likely faked

Jeff Kao writes: NY Attorney General Schneiderman estimated that hundreds of thousands of Americans’ identities were stolen and used in spam campaigns that support repealing net neutrality. My research found at least 1.3 million fake pro-repeal comments, with suspicions about many more. In fact, the sum of fake pro-repeal comments in the proceeding may number in the millions. In this post, I will point out one particularly egregious spambot submission, make the case that there are likely many more pro-repeal spambots yet to be confirmed, and estimate the public position on net neutrality in the “organic” public submissions.

Key Findings:

  1. One pro-repeal spam campaign used mail-merge to disguise 1.3 million comments as unique grassroots submissions.
  2. There were likely multiple other campaigns aimed at injecting what may total several million pro-repeal comments into the system.
  3. It’s highly likely that more than 99% of the truly unique comments were in favor of keeping net neutrality.

[Continue reading…]

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Twitter facing serious questions over its efforts to deal with disinformation

BuzzFeed reports: BuzzFeed News has uncovered a new network of suspected Twitter propaganda accounts – sharing messages about Brexit, Donald Trump, and Angela Merkel – that have close connections to the Russian-linked bot accounts identified by the social media platform in its evidence to the US Congress.

The 45 suspect accounts were uncovered through basic analysis of those that interacted or retweeted accounts cited by Twitter to Congress, yet none of them appeared on the company’s list.

The relative ease of discovery raises serious questions as to just how many Russian-linked bots may still be active on Twitter, how the company identifies and removes such accounts, and whether its process for identifying accounts for its evidence was inadequate.

Until BuzzFeed News approached Twitter on Tuesday afternoon with details of the accounts, they all remained active on the platform, though dormant. But within 24 hours, all 45 had been suspended. [Continue reading…]

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Doomsday preppers expect civilization to collapse but the internet will survive

Bloomberg reports: Wendy McElroy is ready for most doomsday scenarios: a one-year supply of nonperishable food is stacked in a cellar at her farm in rural Ontario. Her blueprint for survival also depends upon working internet: part of her money, assuming she needs some after civilization collapses, is in bitcoin.

Across the North American countryside, preppers like McElroy are storing more and more of their wealth in invisible wallets in cyberspace instead of stockpiling gold bars and coins in their bunkers and basement safes.

They won’t be able to access their virtual cash the moment a catastrophe knocks out the power grid or the web, but that hasn’t dissuaded them. Even staunch survivalists are convinced bitcoin will endure economic collapse, global pandemic, climate change catastrophes and nuclear war. [Continue reading…]

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Mark Zuckerberg’s latest fig leaf for his Russian propaganda problem

Justin Hendrix writes: Since Facebook disclosed that at least 150 million Americans were exposed to Russian propaganda on Facebook in the run up to the 2016 election, pressure has been growing for the company to demonstrate transparency and notify its users. During testimony by Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch on Capitol Hill at the beginning of November, members of Congress called on the social media giant to do just that. At the same time, I started a public petition calling for notification that swelled to nearly 90,000 signatories.

Stretch argued such a disclosure would be technically difficult, but lawmakers pressed the company to explore it. It was remarkable that he did not come prepared and willing to offer any specifics of such difficulties, and appeared to be saying more that it would be difficult to reach every person rather than difficult to do a lot of the job. In a strongly worded follow up letter, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) gave the company an explicit assignment.

“Consumer service entities like yours have long understood their duty to inform their users after mistakes are uncovered,” Senator Blumenthal wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “You too have an obligation to explain to your users exactly how Russian agents sought to manipulate our elections through your platform.” Blumenthal set November 22nd as the deadline for a response from Facebook.

On Nov. 22, the company announced its plan in a blog post entitled “Continuing Transparency on Russian Activity.”

“We will soon be creating a portal to enable people on Facebook to learn which of the Internet Research Agency Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts they may have liked or followed between January 2015 and August 2017,” the company said. “This tool will be available for use by the end of the year in the Facebook Help Center.”

Certainly, this proposal is a step in the right direction, especially for a company that has been slow to divulge details of what ultimately may go down in history as one of the most extensive and effective propaganda campaigns by a foreign adversary against the United States, and also for a company that has in fact made it harder for independent researchers to investigate the problem. But is it enough? Did Facebook answer Congress’s call to notify users?

On balance, the answer is clearly no. [Continue reading…]

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Extreme digital vetting of visitors to the U.S. moves forward under a new name

ProPublica reports: The Department of Immigration & Customs Enforcement is taking new steps in its plans for monitoring the social media accounts of applicants and holders of U.S. visas. At a tech industry conference last Thursday in Arlington, Virginia, ICE officials explained to software providers what they are seeking: algorithms that would assess potential threats posed by visa holders in the United States and conduct ongoing social media surveillance of those deemed high risk.

The comments provide the first clear blueprint for ICE’s proposed augmentation of its visa-vetting program. The initial announcement of the plans this summer, viewed as part of President Donald Trump’s calls for the “extreme vetting” of visitors from Muslim countries, stoked a public outcry from immigrants and civil liberties advocates. They argued that such a plan would discriminate against Muslim visitors and potentially place a huge number of individuals under watch.

ICE officials subsequently changed the program’s name to “Visa Lifecycle Vetting.” But, according to the ICE presentation, the goal of the initiative — enhanced monitoring of visa holders using social media — remains the same. [Continue reading…]

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FCC has obstructed criminal investigation of corruption of its notice and comment process on net neutrality

New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman writes in an open letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai: As you recently announced, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under your leadership, soon will release rules to dismantle your agency’s existing “net neutrality” protections under Title II of the Communications Act, which shield the public from anti-consumer behaviors of the giant cable companies that provide high-speed internet to most people. In today’s digital age, the rules that govern the operation and delivery of internet service to hundreds of millions of Americans are critical to the economic and social well-being of the nation. Yet the process the FCC has employed to consider potentially sweeping alterations to current net neutrality rules has been corrupted by the fraudulent use of Americans’ identities — and the FCC has been unwilling to assist my office in our efforts to investigate this unlawful activity.

Specifically, for six months my office has been investigating who perpetrated a massive scheme to corrupt the FCC’s notice and comment process through the misuse of enormous numbers of real New Yorkers’ and other Americans’ identities. Such conduct likely violates state law — yet the FCC has refused multiple requests for crucial evidence in its sole possession that is vital to permit that law enforcement investigation to proceed.

In April 2017, the FCC announced that it would issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking concerning repeal of its existing net neutrality rules. Federal law requires the FCC and all federal agencies to take public comments on proposed rules into account — so it is important that the public comment process actually enable the voices of the millions of individuals and businesses who will be affected to be heard. That’s important no matter one’s position on net neutrality, environmental rules, and so many other areas in which federal agencies regulate.

In May 2017, researchers and reporters discovered that the FCC’s public comment process was being corrupted by the submission of enormous numbers of fake comments concerning the possible repeal of net neutrality rules. In doing so, the perpetrator or perpetrators attacked what is supposed to be an open public process by attempting to drown out and negate the views of the real people, businesses, and others who honestly commented on this important issue. Worse, while some of these fake comments used made up names and addresses, many misused the real names and addresses of actual people as part of the effort to undermine the integrity of the comment process. That’s akin to identity theft, and it happened on a massive scale. [Continue reading…]

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FCC plans net neutrality repeal in victory for telecoms

The New York Times reports: The Federal Communications Commission announced on Tuesday that it planned to dismantle landmark regulations that ensure equal access to the internet, clearing the way for companies to charge more and block access to some websites.

The proposal, put forward by the F.C.C. chairman, Ajit Pai, is a sweeping repeal of rules put in place by the Obama administration. The rules prohibited high-speed internet service providers from blocking or slowing down the delivery of websites, or charging extra fees for the best quality of streaming and other internet services for their subscribers. Those limits are central to the concept called net neutrality.

The action immediately reignited a loud and furious fight over free speech and the control of the internet, pitting telecom giants like AT&T against internet giants like Google and Amazon, who warn against powerful telecom gatekeepers. Both sides are expected to lobby hard in Washington to push their agendas, as they did when the existing rules were adopted. [Continue reading…]

Ars Technica reports: In addition to ditching its own net neutrality rules, the Federal Communications Commission also plans to tell state and local governments that they cannot impose local laws regulating broadband service.

This detail was revealed by senior FCC officials in a phone briefing with reporters today, and it is a victory for broadband providers that asked for widespread preemption of state laws. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed order finds that state and local laws must be preempted if they conflict with the US government’s policy of deregulating broadband Internet service, FCC officials said. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: Citing an “unprecedented power grab of the Obama-era FCC” that is a “trojan horse for censorship,” pro-Trump websites like InfoWars and Reddit’s r/The_Donald applauded the Republican-controlled FCC for its plans to strip Net Neutrality protections on Tuesday.

Experts say, however, sites like InfoWars and fringe communities like 4chan would likely be the first to have their websites slowed down by telecoms in the new plan, unveiled by Trump-appointed FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai on Tuesday.

Tim Karr, the Senior Director of Strategy at the internet rights nonprofit Free Press, said Pai’s plan would allow telecom giants like Comcast to prioritize their own websites and properties, like Comcast-owned NBC sites.

In turn, this would slow traffic to fringe or non-mainstream political sites like InfoWars and 4chan—unless users paid more for a “higher tier” internet, which currently doesn’t exist. [Continue reading…]

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