Internet

The Earth may not be flat, but it just might be doomed | David Mitchell

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 19/11/2017 - 8:59pm in

A rise in the belief that scientists are lying about the planet being spherical is just one aspect of an internet-fuelled, progress-threatening suspicion of facts

“Nobody likes this uncomfortable feeling of being this tiny ball flying through space,” Mark Sargent, who believes that the world is flat, told the BBC the other day. I thought that was a revealing statement. I mean, don’t they? Personally, I don’t mind it. In fact, I’m not sure you can really feel it at all. Then again, I wouldn’t say I positively liked it either. I’m not against the world being flat. I’d be fine if it were. I’m content for the world to be whatever shape the world is. Unlike Mark Sargent, I don’t have a preference.

The remark gives an interesting insight into his approach. I’d say, if you’re trying to convince people of something that flies in the face of scientific orthodoxy, it’s advisable not to let slip that, before you started your researches, you had a huge emotional preference for what you ended up concluding. It may lead people to believe you’ve attached more weight to evidence supporting your theory than to evidence refuting it. And, let’s be honest, people are going to be pretty ready to believe that anyway because you’ve been trying to convince them that the world is flat. And it isn’t.

Boundless doubting could take us back to the stone age – and not in a time machine we’ve invented

Continue reading...

Radio 4 Programme Next Week Asking ‘Where Are All the Working Class Writers?’

Next Thursday, 23rd November 2017, at 11.30 in the morning, Radio 4 are broadcasting a programme, Where Are All the Working-Class Writers? by the writer Kit de Waal. The blurb for the programme on page 137 of the Radio Times runs

Birmingham-raised writer Kit de Waal published her first novel in 2016, aged 55. She used part of the advance to set up a scholarship in an attempt to improve working-class representation in the arts. She talks to writers, agents and publishers about barriers for writers from working-class backgrounds.

More information about her and the programme is in another piece on the opposite page, 135. This states

“I never expected to be a writer,” says Kit de Waal in this thoughtful exploration of class and writing. “I was working class, I was the daughter of immigrants. People like me weren’t even expected to go to university. ” De Waal did go to university, but at 51; she’d left school at 16. She knows that her background and – and how it influences the stories she tellls – makers her an oddity in literary circles. As she speaks to writers, agents and publishers to find out why this is, it becomes clear that class is an intrinsic part of the under-representation question, overlapping with race and gender. She gleans erudite contributions – take Tim Lott’s description of working-class writing as “the literary equivalent of soul music”, as he asks, “who’s making the soul music?’ Who’s making the rock ‘n’ roll?’

This is an issues that the great British comics writer, Pat Mills, raised in some of the interviews I posted up on here. Mills, who created the classic anti-war strip, Charley’s War, and wrote and created many of the classic characters in the SF comic, 2000 AD, has said that he felt angry that there were no working class characters in comics and very few in mainstream literature. Worse, there was an attitude amongst the media that was determined to exclude them. He has described how he was working on a story for Dr. Who in the 1980s, which was to have a working-class spaceship captain. This was rejected by the script editor, who really didn’t like the idea.

As for popular music, I was told by a friend of mine a little while ago that this was another traditional working class area that was being taken over by the middle classes. Most of the stars now in the charts, or at least at the time, were graduates of university courses in music or the performing arts. The pub rock scene, which emerged in the ’70s and which the launched the careers of many of the great working class bands of the ’70s and ’80s is now very much disappearing.

Once upon a time, back in the 1980s and 1990s, Private Eye’s literary column took a somewhat similar view of the contemporary literary scene. The reviewer back then was acutely critical of the snobbishness and cliquishness of literature and the publishing industry. The Eye believed and very strongly argued that British literature was dominated by a small clique of writers, who were largely vastly overhyped, to the exclusion of better writers and aspiring authors, who were rejected out of hand. They gave as an example of this a conversation they’d heard about with one of the editors of Granta. When the editor was asked about a piece submitted by one aspiring author, they responded by asking what colour the enveloped it was send in was. This, the Eye’s reviewer went on, showed precisely what the attitude towards outside submissions at the magazine was. It was geared entirely towards people within the literary clique. Those outside were automatically rejected, manuscript unread.

The Eye wasn’t particularly interested in the class aspects of this question. Which isn’t surprising, as Richard Ingrams, the former editor pointed out during a talk one year at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that the magazine’s founders – himself, Willie Rushton, Peter Cook and so on, were all middle-class and privately educated. The Eye’s reviewer said several times that there was no reason why working class writers should be particularly promoted over others. They also made the occasional sneering comments directed at left-wing authors stressing their very working class roots that they were ‘prolier than thou’. I think they may even have made a comment about ‘Prole-lit’ for a type of very stereotypical ‘working class’ literature.

But they also attacked authors, who seemed to be published solely on snob value, because they were members of the aristocracy or the upper-middle classes, rather than because their writing had any intrinsic merit. Regarding one such author, the Eye’s reviewer said that any miner, who ever picked up a pen to write a sonnet, was of far more interest and value than them. They also savaged authors from the upper classes, who struck them as having a particularly patronising attitude to the lower orders, who read her books. There’s one review, which takes Jilly Cooper to task for this, whether the reviewer writing as her, sends her up by describing her readers as ‘pawps’ as an example of the class snobbishness in her novels. I’ve never read Cooper, so can’t really say whether this attitude is entirely fair or not, or, if it is, whether Cooper is any worse than many other authors.

I think that in more recent years the Eye’s literary column lost a little of that fierce opposition to the cliquishness of the literary scene, and particularly the London literary milieu. It still attacks and parodies overhyped, bad writing, but this seems part of a simple attack on overrated, mediocre literature. This now includes the works of the stars of reality TV shows and vapid, but inexplicably popular, bloggers and vloggers on the Net. But working class representation in writing, and other areas of the arts is a genuine part of the wider issues of access and exclusivity. Whether the Net will have an impact here, in popularising the work of working class writers, who would otherwise remain unpublished if left to the world of traditional literary agents and publishers, remains to be seen.

How communication technology became a tool of repression: the case of the UAE

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/11/2017 - 6:52pm in

With the help of international ‘cyber security dealers’, the internet has been transformed into a central component of authoritarian control.

Giant poster dedicated to Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, located near the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. Picture by Artur Widak/NurPhoto USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In the aftermath
of the ‘Arab Spring’, as counter-revolution casts its repressive
shadow across the Middle East and North Africa, the tools that a
short while ago enabled revolutionary organisation on a mass scale
have subsequently changed hands.

Once celebrated, and in some quarters credited, as playing the
defining role in the Arab uprisings of 2011, social media and the
internet more broadly have now been transformed into a central
component of authoritarian control, as the balance of power has
shifted firmly away from the masses in the region.

This is evident
in the United Arab Emirates where government critics, bloggers and
human rights defenders have been disappearing at an alarming rate as
a result of their social media activity, while dozens of online news
publications from the Huffington Post to Al Jazeera have been blocked
by the authorities for publicly expressing views counter to that of
the state.

Since 2011, Gulf
rulers have passed legislations that effectively criminalise
criticism of their regimes. In a bid to quell the harbingers of
revolt, authorities have tightened their control over information and
communication technologies.

For a brief moment, the internet provided a space within Emirati society where debate, criticism and ideas thrived

In the UAE this
control came in the form of the cybercrime law, approved in November
2012 by Emirati president Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed. Its vaguely
worded provisions effectively outlawed the use of information
technology as means to argue for political reform, criticise senior
officials or organise unsolicited demonstrations, enabling Emirati
authorities to clamp down more efficiently on dissenting voices
within their borders.

This cyber
crackdown materialised in response to the faint rumblings of
discontent which began to manifest themselves in the Emirates. As
revolutions engulfed the Arab world in 2011, Emirati lawyers,
academics and human rights activists took to blogs and social media
sites to call for relatively modest democratic reforms and, for a
brief moment, the internet provided a space within Emirati society
where debate, criticism and ideas thrived. A political opposition had
begun to emerge in the 'sleepy Emirates', which was previously dubbed
the 'Switzerland of the Middle East' for its relative internal
stability and seemingly mediatory foreign policy agenda.

These
developments seemed to confirm the long-held view by certain sections
of the academic community that predicted that as the Gulf monarchies
sought to diversify their economies away from reliance on oil
revenues, the development of technological and communication
infrastructure, alongside inward capital flows from western tech
companies, would result in the emergence of a civil society that
would eventually democratise the political apparatus of the state.

This
modernisation drive has been no more evident than in the UAE, where
in the last decade a burgeoning tech start-up scene has developed, to
the extent that Apple and Google have opened headquarters in Dubai.
The Emirate has consciously marketed itself as the ‘Silicon Valley
of the Middle East’, even setting up ‘the Dubai Silicon Oasis
Authorities’ that the Prime Minister of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid
al-Maktoum promises will make Dubai the “world’s leading centre
of advanced electronic innovation, design and development.”
Crucially, this sort of discourse enables the Emirati authorities to
project an image of the UAE as a beacon of openness, tolerance and
modernity to the outside world.

As technological advancement has increased, so too has the repressive arm of the state

The impact of
this new digital economy has resulted in a 91% internet penetration
in 2016, with social media activity at one of the highest rates in
the Middle East. Yet, as technological advancement has increased, so
too has the repressive arm of the state, as the Emirati authorities
have sought to utilise these developments to curtail freedom of
speech and suppress dissenting voices. Through the cybercrime law
they have all but crushed the emergent movement that began to develop
inside the country.

Since the Arab
uprisings of 2011, the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority
(TRA) have worked closely with cyber-crime units attached to the
security apparatus to implement a suffocating internet censorship and
surveillance system. A cyber-police force, officially termed the
department of Anti-Electronic Crimes, constitutes a special unit
within the Dubai police force which works around the clock to monitor
the internet, disproportionately targeting political dissenters and
human rights activists.

The vague
provision of what constitutes a cyber-crime has meant that in
particular, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and
government critics find themselves tracked by the authorities. In
recent years, they have been arbitrarily detained, forcefully
disappeared and in some cases tortured because of their social media
activities. According to the Emirates Media and Studies Centre, in
2016 alone around 300 people were detained for comments on social
media sites that allegedly criticised the ruling regime. Furthermore,
in March of this year, Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar and
prominent Emirati academic Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith received jail
sentences of three to ten years respectively due to Facebook and
Twitter comments that the authorities deemed to be critical of the
state.

It is important
to note that this tightly controlled police state has, in the UAE,
been facilitated by a new network of global ‘cyber-arms dealers’
that have been only too happy to cater to a burgeoning gap in the
market, created by oil-rich Gulf monarchies with an eye to quell any
form of dissent. Earlier this year, a BBC investigation revealed that
British based arms manufacturer BAE systems had been exporting
cyber-surveillance software to the UAE, and other Middle Eastern
states, which has subsequently been used by the Emirati authorities
to spy on their citizens. Furthermore, in 2016, QintetiQ, a UK
company formerly part of the Ministry of Defence that specialises in
cyber security ‘providing comprehensive monitoring and alerting
software’ opened an office in Abu Dhabi to provide ‘technical
advice and support to security clients primarily within the UAE’.

This tightly controlled police state has, in the UAE, been facilitated by a new network of global ‘cyber-arms dealers’ that have been only too happy to cater to a burgeoning gap in the market

In a story that
garnered international attention last year, the prominent Emirati
human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was dubbed ‘the million-dollar
dissenter’ by media outlets after it was discovered that his iPhone
had been hacked by the UAE authorities with software supplied by the
Israeli security company NOS Group. The Emirati government reportedly
paid the Israeli firm $1 million dollars for the software. Mansoor
received a text message promising him information on political
prisoners in the UAE if he clicked on a link in the message.
Suspicious and alert to such threats, he passed the phone on to
Toronto based Citizen Lab, who specialise in communications
technologies and human rights. They discovered that the hacking
software would have enabled authorities to track Mansoor’s every
movement and conversation, essentially turning his phone into a
mobile surveillance device. Commonly referred to as the last man
speaking out about human rights in the UAE, Mansoor was arrested for
his social media activity and disappeared in March this year. He
remains in an unknown location without access to a lawyer.

The case of the
United Arab Emirates sheds light on the fact that these technologies,
when in the hands of repressive authoritarian regimes, can be used to
eliminate any kind of democratisation of social media, or the
internet more broadly. Cyber technology cannot be viewed out of the
context of the material conditions in which they are embedded.
Instead, they should be seen as enabling and enhancing a state’s
control over its citizens. As the balance of power has shifted away
from the masses so too has social media, which is now situated within
the confines of authoritarian rule. For a flicker of a moment it
provided an alternative space in which political dissent thrived and
organised, but now with the assistance of an international network of
'cyber security dealers' this space, for now, has well and truly
closed.

Sideboxes
Related stories: 

UAE recruiting ‘elite task force’ for secret surveillance state

UAE: when tweets become a matter of national security

Abu Dhabi announces launch of Israeli-installed mass surveillance system

Race and exploitation in the Gulf

Human Rights Council condemns reprisals amidst unprecedented rate of cases in MENA region

Country or region: 

United Arab Emirates

Topics: 

Democracy and government

Internet

Rights: 

CC by NC 4.0

How communication technology became a tool of repression: the case of the UAE

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/11/2017 - 6:52pm in

With the help of international ‘cyber security dealers’, the internet has been transformed into a central component of authoritarian control.

Giant poster dedicated to Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, located near the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. Picture by Artur Widak/NurPhoto USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In the aftermath
of the ‘Arab Spring’, as counter-revolution casts its repressive
shadow across the Middle East and North Africa, the tools that a
short while ago enabled revolutionary organisation on a mass scale
have subsequently changed hands.

Once celebrated, and in some quarters credited, as playing the
defining role in the Arab uprisings of 2011, social media and the
internet more broadly have now been transformed into a central
component of authoritarian control, as the balance of power has
shifted firmly away from the masses in the region.

This is evident
in the United Arab Emirates where government critics, bloggers and
human rights defenders have been disappearing at an alarming rate as
a result of their social media activity, while dozens of online news
publications from the Huffington Post to Al Jazeera have been blocked
by the authorities for publicly expressing views counter to that of
the state.

Since 2011, Gulf
rulers have passed legislations that effectively criminalise
criticism of their regimes. In a bid to quell the harbingers of
revolt, authorities have tightened their control over information and
communication technologies.

For a brief moment, the internet provided a space within Emirati society where debate, criticism and ideas thrived

In the UAE this
control came in the form of the cybercrime law, approved in November
2012 by Emirati president Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed. Its vaguely
worded provisions effectively outlawed the use of information
technology as means to argue for political reform, criticise senior
officials or organise unsolicited demonstrations, enabling Emirati
authorities to clamp down more efficiently on dissenting voices
within their borders.

This cyber
crackdown materialised in response to the faint rumblings of
discontent which began to manifest themselves in the Emirates. As
revolutions engulfed the Arab world in 2011, Emirati lawyers,
academics and human rights activists took to blogs and social media
sites to call for relatively modest democratic reforms and, for a
brief moment, the internet provided a space within Emirati society
where debate, criticism and ideas thrived. A political opposition had
begun to emerge in the 'sleepy Emirates', which was previously dubbed
the 'Switzerland of the Middle East' for its relative internal
stability and seemingly mediatory foreign policy agenda.

These
developments seemed to confirm the long-held view by certain sections
of the academic community that predicted that as the Gulf monarchies
sought to diversify their economies away from reliance on oil
revenues, the development of technological and communication
infrastructure, alongside inward capital flows from western tech
companies, would result in the emergence of a civil society that
would eventually democratise the political apparatus of the state.

This
modernisation drive has been no more evident than in the UAE, where
in the last decade a burgeoning tech start-up scene has developed, to
the extent that Apple and Google have opened headquarters in Dubai.
The Emirate has consciously marketed itself as the ‘Silicon Valley
of the Middle East’, even setting up ‘the Dubai Silicon Oasis
Authorities’ that the Prime Minister of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid
al-Maktoum promises will make Dubai the “world’s leading centre
of advanced electronic innovation, design and development.”
Crucially, this sort of discourse enables the Emirati authorities to
project an image of the UAE as a beacon of openness, tolerance and
modernity to the outside world.

As technological advancement has increased, so too has the repressive arm of the state

The impact of
this new digital economy has resulted in a 91% internet penetration
in 2016, with social media activity at one of the highest rates in
the Middle East. Yet, as technological advancement has increased, so
too has the repressive arm of the state, as the Emirati authorities
have sought to utilise these developments to curtail freedom of
speech and suppress dissenting voices. Through the cybercrime law
they have all but crushed the emergent movement that began to develop
inside the country.

Since the Arab
uprisings of 2011, the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority
(TRA) have worked closely with cyber-crime units attached to the
security apparatus to implement a suffocating internet censorship and
surveillance system. A cyber-police force, officially termed the
department of Anti-Electronic Crimes, constitutes a special unit
within the Dubai police force which works around the clock to monitor
the internet, disproportionately targeting political dissenters and
human rights activists.

The vague
provision of what constitutes a cyber-crime has meant that in
particular, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and
government critics find themselves tracked by the authorities. In
recent years, they have been arbitrarily detained, forcefully
disappeared and in some cases tortured because of their social media
activities. According to the Emirates Media and Studies Centre, in
2016 alone around 300 people were detained for comments on social
media sites that allegedly criticised the ruling regime. Furthermore,
in March of this year, Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar and
prominent Emirati academic Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith received jail
sentences of three to ten years respectively due to Facebook and
Twitter comments that the authorities deemed to be critical of the
state.

It is important
to note that this tightly controlled police state has, in the UAE,
been facilitated by a new network of global ‘cyber-arms dealers’
that have been only too happy to cater to a burgeoning gap in the
market, created by oil-rich Gulf monarchies with an eye to quell any
form of dissent. Earlier this year, a BBC investigation revealed that
British based arms manufacturer BAE systems had been exporting
cyber-surveillance software to the UAE, and other Middle Eastern
states, which has subsequently been used by the Emirati authorities
to spy on their citizens. Furthermore, in 2016, QintetiQ, a UK
company formerly part of the Ministry of Defence that specialises in
cyber security ‘providing comprehensive monitoring and alerting
software’ opened an office in Abu Dhabi to provide ‘technical
advice and support to security clients primarily within the UAE’.

This tightly controlled police state has, in the UAE, been facilitated by a new network of global ‘cyber-arms dealers’ that have been only too happy to cater to a burgeoning gap in the market

In a story that
garnered international attention last year, the prominent Emirati
human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was dubbed ‘the million-dollar
dissenter’ by media outlets after it was discovered that his iPhone
had been hacked by the UAE authorities with software supplied by the
Israeli security company NOS Group. The Emirati government reportedly
paid the Israeli firm $1 million dollars for the software. Mansoor
received a text message promising him information on political
prisoners in the UAE if he clicked on a link in the message.
Suspicious and alert to such threats, he passed the phone on to
Toronto based Citizen Lab, who specialise in communications
technologies and human rights. They discovered that the hacking
software would have enabled authorities to track Mansoor’s every
movement and conversation, essentially turning his phone into a
mobile surveillance device. Commonly referred to as the last man
speaking out about human rights in the UAE, Mansoor was arrested for
his social media activity and disappeared in March this year. He
remains in an unknown location without access to a lawyer.

The case of the
United Arab Emirates sheds light on the fact that these technologies,
when in the hands of repressive authoritarian regimes, can be used to
eliminate any kind of democratisation of social media, or the
internet more broadly. Cyber technology cannot be viewed out of the
context of the material conditions in which they are embedded.
Instead, they should be seen as enabling and enhancing a state’s
control over its citizens. As the balance of power has shifted away
from the masses so too has social media, which is now situated within
the confines of authoritarian rule. For a flicker of a moment it
provided an alternative space in which political dissent thrived and
organised, but now with the assistance of an international network of
'cyber security dealers' this space, for now, has well and truly
closed.

Sideboxes
Related stories: 

UAE recruiting ‘elite task force’ for secret surveillance state

UAE: when tweets become a matter of national security

Abu Dhabi announces launch of Israeli-installed mass surveillance system

Race and exploitation in the Gulf

Human Rights Council condemns reprisals amidst unprecedented rate of cases in MENA region

Country or region: 

United Arab Emirates

Topics: 

Democracy and government

Internet

Rights: 

CC by NC 4.0

Have the Internet Giants Censored Mike due to Tory Lies Spouted by Chris Stevens

I’m amending this piece, as I wrote it in haste late last night because I couldn’t get on Mike’s site to read his article responding to Chris Stevens’ denouncement of the journalists showing how the Tories are murdering benefits claimants as ‘inflammatory rubbish’. I’ve talked to Mike since then, and he’s managed to correct me on a few points.

Mike put his article up, which can be found at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/11/11/tory-tv-plant-peddles-ugly-lie-to-hide-the-uglier-truth-about-dwp-deaths/ after last Thursday’s edition of Question Time, in which Chris Stevens, a Tory councillor from Horley in Surrey, was planted in the audience as an ‘ordinary man’. Picked out by the man Private Eye describes as ‘Dimblebore’, Stevens responded to Aditya Chakrabortty’s remarks on the deaths caused by the Tories’ policies to the disabled and long term sick as ‘inflammatory rubbish’. Chakrobortty is a Guardian columnist. Real journalists, as opposed to the hacks writing for the Scum, the Heil and the Torygraph, have to check their facts.

I thought that this was a personal attack on Mike, as I couldn’t get through to Mike’s blog. It seemed that the internet providers had taken Mike off the air. I got on to his website and read the long, long list of articles he put up refuting Stevens’ bilge about his documentation of the Tory crimes against the disabled being ‘inflammatory nonsense’.

Then I tried to get through to the previous article, describing Stevens’ smears against the many journalists and disability rights activists documenting this issue.

I failed to get through to it. And despite repeated attempts I couldn’t get through to his later post or his website. This was with Internet Explorer. I tried with Google, and had no more success with that. I was told that my computer was configured correctly, but the website could not be found.

So it appeared that Mike’s been censored.

Talking to Mike today, it appears that he probably wasn’t. He said that afterwards he had been inundated by people asking for his response to the show. Hence the long list of articles he put up, which, by no means exhaustive, extensively documents just how this government and its predecessor are killing the disabled.

All to give the rich 25 per cent a whopping tax break. And create a cowed workforce, which will accept any starvation wages.

It reminded me very much of how Mike was smeared by another Tory, Chris Davies, the Tory MP in Mike’s part of the principality. He smeared Mike as an anti-Semite based on the entirely false accusations and sheer lies of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, a pro-Israel lobby group that was founded in 2014 when the Zionist lobby got worried that severely normal Brits, Jews, Gentiles, whatever, were turning away from supporting Israel due to the Israeli state’s bombardment of Gaza. They have been responsible for smearing anyone, who raises difficult questions about the Zionists long and bloody history of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians, and their willingness, over and over again, to make deals with real anti-Semites and outright Nazis, ending in the persecution of diaspora Jews, in order to provide more prospective colonists for Israel. Very many of the people smeared by the CAA are Jews, ranging from secular liberals, to the Torah-observant and devoutly ultra-orthodox. So many, in fact, that Alexei Sayle, himself the son of Jewish communists, observed that it was strange that the majority of those smeared were Jews.

Mike was smeared because he dared to speak up for those smeared as anti-Semites. People like Ken Livingstone, who was notorious for his opposition to racism, whether against the Irish, Blacks or anti-Semitism. And Jackie Walker, a Jewish woman of colour, who aroused their ire because she criticised their attempts to conflate anti-Semitism with opposition to Israel, or at least its policy of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

The press took up the story about the smears against Mike, and asked Stevens what he thought of it. So, showing his utter ignorance, Davies opened his mouth and declared Mike to be a disgusting anti-Semite with no place in politics. Stevens knew nothing of the background to the story. He had not asked Mike for his views, or whether the accusations were genuine.

He didn’t even have the decency to ask the people Mike was at College with, who asked him to perform in a theatrical work they staged to commemorate those murdered by the Nazis in the Shoah.

And he didn’t ask Mike, or other members of his family, like myself, about our uncle Bill. Uncle Bill’s surname was Hyman. It used to be Goldberg-Hyman, which is, you reverse the order, an almost stereotypical Ashkenazi surname. But we and Mike just called him ‘Uncle Bill’. As you do.

And now we have another bilious ignoramus, who appeared on TV to claim that articles attacking the government’s merciless persecution of the disabled are ‘inflammatory rubbish’.

They are not. They are sourced, reasoned descriptions of an objective truth, which Mike himself has sought to publicise over and over again.

And Mike speaks from personal experience. He cares for Mrs. Mike, who has fibromyalgia, which has left her in terrible pain. Our uncle, Bill, suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, a terrible, paralysing illness that struck down Michael J. Fox, the star of movies such as TeenWolf and The Frighteners, and the TV series Spin City. Our grandmother was also severely disabled with Alzheimers in the last few years of her life, when our mother gave up her career as a teacher to look after her.

But Mike has suffered from censorship in the past. He has reblogged several of his articles, after he found that they had mysteriously disappeared from Facebook.

Just like the other left-wing bloggers and vloggers, who are finding their sites demonetised or flagged down as ‘controversial’.

This is how the Tories handle criticism, as does that section of the Zionist establishment that is totally behind the massacre, brutalisation and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, and the contemptible vilification of decent, genuinely liberal anti-racist women and men. Simply because they include Israeli racism amongst the other forms, including anti-Semitism, that they have fought and, in very many case, of which they have been a victim.

I have nothing, absolutely nothing, but contempt for this censorship.

As for Chris Stevens, he has shown himself to be totally unfit to stand as an MP. In a party now notorious for its utter mendacity, he has shown himself one of the most mendacious.

He has to go.
Like his fellow Tory Chris Davies.

By siding with the CAA, Davies has shown how willing he is to adopt the postures of real racists, whose own language against Jewish critics of Zionism recalls some of the worst tropes of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

And Stevens has shown himself completely at ease with the Tories’ murderous policies towards the disabled, which have seen hundreds of thousands, if not millions thrown off the benefits that support them, and which has led to the deaths of 700 plus people.

If they has any decency, they should recant and resign. As indeed, should his entire vile government.

Emergent Horrors (?) of Information Technology

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/11/2017 - 2:53am in

These videos, wherever they are made, however they come to be made, and whatever their conscious intention (i.e. to accumulate ad revenue) are feeding upon a system which was consciously intended to show videos to children for profit. The unconsciously-generated, emergent outcomes of that are all over the place… 

What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives. It’s down to that level of the metal.

This, I think, is my point: The system is complicit in the abuse.

And right now, right here, YouTube and Google are complicit in that system. The architecture they have built to extract the maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown to abuse children, perhaps not even deliberately, but at a massive scale…

…I have no idea how they can respond without shutting down the service itself, and most systems which resemble it.

We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the [problem].

That’s from “Something Is Wrong On The Internet,” an essay by artist James Bridle, at Medium. It’s long and rambling and mashes together too many ideas for my taste (and seems to sometimes make use of what may be an overly sensitive conception of what counts as abuse) but it is very interesting.

The core idea is that an enormous amount of online content and its promotion—his main examples are videos aimed at children and the playlists and suggestions that pop up upon watching them—is generated “algorithmically” to produce countless permutations of  highly-viewed materials in a way that takes advantage of how information is organized and presented on the internet, with the result being that there’s a lot of really bizarre and disturbing material out there in places we don’t expect.

On the internet, more views means more money. If a computer-animated video of a cartoon figure moving a certain way with a certain song in the background gets watched enough times, other videos that are slight variations on it will then appear (either created by machines or persons; it’s sometimes not clear), attached to a similar and growing string of search terms, and served up in playlists. These, in turn, will then get views, and further variations of them will get made. So even if the initial video itself wasn’t particularly disturbing, there’s a chance that ultimately something disturbing will get made. That’s in addition to the intentionally disturbing content being created that gets automatically lumped in with superficially similar but substantively different content by internet services like Google and YouTube.

Bridle’s essay is focused on disturbing content served up to children. Weary parents may set their toddler in front of an iPad with a “Peppa Pig” YouTube playlist going so they can actually cook dinner or fold the laundry or if they’re lucky sit down to have a drink and an adult conversation, unaware that some of the videos in that playlist are of Peppa being “basically tortured.”

Bridle has a few examples of the disturbing videos served up on kid-oriented playlists throughout his essay, examples which he stresses are on the very tame side. Here’s one of them:

What Bridle conveys is that the combination of incentives, automation, and content provision on the internet generates an ever-growing uncontrollable monster. It’s appropriate that the above video is entitled “Buried Alive,” because that’s a good metaphor for what he thinks is happening to children and other vulnerable parties on the internet.

I don’t believe I know enough about what’s on the internet, how it’s made, and why it shows up where it does to know whether Bridle is really onto something, but the article has been shared widely, including among prominent long-time bloggers (among other places, at kottke.org) and I thought it was interesting.

I’m inclined to wonder a few things:

  1. Isn’t there an upside to this, and if so, shouldn’t we take that into account in our assessment of the situation? That is, if there is a lot of disturbing content being created automatically (or seemingly so), isn’t there the possibility of a lot of delightful content being created by the same means? (Think of Google Poetics, for example.) I ask this sincerely. Perhaps the current automation and incentives are more likely to generate disturbing rather than delightful content. Or perhaps there are more ways in which variations on a theme can be disturbing than there are ways in which they can be delightful. (This may significantly be a function of people’s tastes, I suppose.)
  2. Assume that the current state of affairs is how Bridle describes it. Do we have reason to think it will get worse or better? Shouldn’t improvements in machine learning, information gathering, and other forms of technology help us better create and filter online content?
  3. Bridle says human oversight is “simply impossible,” by which he means oversight of the production and filtering of massive amounts of online content. But aren’t there other forms of human oversight that are not impossible, such as preventing one’s young child from using the internet unsupervised? That won’t solve all of the problems related to the emergent horrors of information technology he describes, but it will help a little.
  4. The objectionable content is produced because decision makers don’t know it is being consumed (parents don’t know their kids are watching these videos). Are there lessons about how to deal with it, then, from other contexts in which this phenomenon occurs? Think of air pollution, lead paint, or bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic products, for example. In a way, the content Bridle is referring to seems like a kind of pollution.
  5. To what extent is the phenomenon Bridle draws attention to different from what happens more generally  in market economies? If the answer is “not so much,” then is the appropriate response to worry less about what Bridle’s worried about or to worry more about how it happens offline?
  6. Who is responsible for which parts of this phenomenon? And how, if at all, should they be held responsible? And by whom?

    and, of course:

  7. What other questions does this raise?

I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts about this, especially those who work on philosophical questions related to technology, art, economics, psychology, or children.

 

The post Emergent Horrors (?) of Information Technology appeared first on Daily Nous.

Voters Say ‘Yes’ To City Run Broadband In Colorado

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/11/2017 - 12:00am in

Above Photo: Still from an industry-funded ad warning against municipal broadband in Fort Collins, Colorado. Priorities First Fort Collins Google is blocking our site. Please use the social media sharing buttons (upper left) to share this on your social media and help us break through. Municipal broadband wins “David vs. Goliath battle” in Fort Collins, Colorado. Voters in Fort Collins, Colorado, yesterday approved a ballot question that authorizes the city to build a broadband network, rejecting a cable and telecom industry campaign against the initiative. Fort Collins voters said “yes” to a ballot question that gives the city council permission “to establish a telecommunications utility to provide broadband services,” The Coloradoan wrote. “Unofficial, partial returns as of 12:42 a.m. showed the measure passing with 57.15 percent of the vote.” The vote doesn’t require the city to build a broadband network, but it gives the city council the permission it needs to move forward on the plan if it chooses to do so. “Misinformation” campaign Industry groups tried to convince voters to reject the municipal broadband network; the city’s mayor called it a “misinformation” campaign by the broadband incumbents. “I was very encouraged with the passage today, and particularly with the headwinds of incumbents trying to misinform the electorate,” Mayor Wade Troxell said, according to The Coloradoan. The anti-municipal broadband group, called “Priorities First Fort Collins,” spent $451,000 campaigning against the broadband network ballot question. Priorities First Fort Collins received nearly all of its funding from the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association and a group run by the city’s chamber of commerce. Comcast is a member of both groups that funded the anti-municipal broadband campaign, while CenturyLink is a member of the chamber. The pro-municipal broadband group in Fort Collins, the Fort Collins Citizens Broadband Committee, spent less than $10,000 in the campaign. “This is another David vs. Goliath battle,” Glen Akins, who helped lead the Citizens Broadband Committee, told Ars last week. Today, Akins told Ars: We overcame the opponents’ massive, record-setting negative advertising campaign because we had a group of dedicated and passionate volunteers who believed in our cause. Our volunteers’ passion inspired our community and our community once again affirmed their desire for better broadband and denounced the influence of outsized spending campaigns in our local politics. Big money can buy ad spots and air time but it can’t buy votes in Fort Collins. Affordable, symmetric gigabit broadband will make Fort Collins an even more incredible place to live. The anti-municipal broadband campaign had funded ads warning that a publicly funded network in Fort Collins would take money away from other infrastructure initiatives. The network would be funded by bonds, and supporters say it will be self-sustainable because of subscriber fees. The Coloradoan editorial board urged voters to approve the ballot question but said that the city council should back out of the project if it turns out to be too expensive. The newspaper’s editorial board later accused the anti-municipal broadband campaign of taking its editorial out of context in a campaign mailer. Troxell said he was disappointed that the Chamber of Commerce “play[ed] an active role in misinformation.” Comcast and CenturyLink did not comment when we contacted them about the campaign last week. Colorado has a state law requiring municipalities to hold referendums before they can provide cable, telecom, or broadband service. Yesterday, voters in Eagle County and Boulder County authorized their local governments to build broadband networks, “bringing the total number of Colorado counties that have rejected the state law to 31—nearly half of the state’s 64 counties,” Motherboard wrote today. Another 16 municipalities also voted to opt out of that Colorado law yesterday. Fort Collins already took that step in 2015 with a ballot question that passed with 83 percent of the vote. Yesterday’s vote took the further steps of amending the Fort Collins city charter and authorizing the city to issue securities and other debt to fund a network. Comcast’s preferred candidate wins in Seattle Municipal broadband also played a role in the Seattle, Washington, mayoral race. Comcast Cable and CenturyLink each donated $25,000 to a political group that is run by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce; the chamber group campaigned for mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan, who argues that the city cannot afford to build its own broadband network. Durkan defeated opponent Cary Moon with 61 percent of the vote, The Seattle Times reported. Moon had vowed to push for a municipal broadband network if she won the race.

The Fakebook Inside Facebook

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/11/2017 - 6:01am in

Beginning in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg and his companions made a historic contribution to the annals of alchemy: They converted the lust for human contact into gold. Facebook’s current net worth is more than $500 billion, with Zuckerberg’s own share tallied at $74.2 billion, which makes him something like the fifth-wealthiest person in the world.

What can be said about Facebook can also more or less be said of Google, Twitter, YouTube and other internet platforms, but here I’ll confine myself mainly to Facebook. What a business model! Whenever their 2-billion-and-counting users click, the company (a) sells their attention to advertisers, and (b) rakes in data, which it transmutes into information that it uses to optimize the deal it offers its advertisers. Facebook is the grandest, most seductive, farthest-flung, most profitable attention-getting machine ever. Meanwhile, according to a post-election BuzzFeed analysis by Craig Silverman, who popularized the term “fake news”:


RELATED: Media


Reporters surround Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) after a brief press conference before an Armed Services Conference Committee meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act in Washington, DC, on Oct. 25, 2017. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Bruce Bartlett on Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks

BY Michael Winship | November 1, 2017

In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement [industry jargon for shares, reactions and comments] than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York TimesWashington PostHuffington Post, NBC News and others.

What has to be faced by those aghast at the prevalence of online disinformation is that it follows directly from the social-media business model. Ease of disinformation — so far, at least — is a feature, not a bug.

Zuckerberg presents himself (and has often been lionized as) a Promethean bringer of benefits to all humanity. He is always on the side of the information angels. He does not present himself as an immoralist, like latter-day Nazi-turned-American-missile-scientist Wernher von Braun, as channeled by Tom Lehrer in this memorable lyric:

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical
Say rather that he’s apolitical
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department!” says Wernher von Braun.

To the contrary, Zuckerberg is a moralist. He does not affect to be apolitical. He wants his platform to be a “force for good in democracy.” He wants to promote voting. He wants to “give all people a voice.” These are political values. Which is a fine thing. Whenever you hear powerful people purport to be apolitical, check your wallet.

There’s no evidence that in 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard computer-savvy buddies devised their amazing apparatus and wrote the code for it, that they intended to expose Egyptian police torture and thereby mobilize Egyptians to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, or to help white supremacists distribute their bile, or to throw open the gates through which Russians could cheaply circulate disinformation about American politics. They were ingenious technicians who wholeheartedly shared the modern prejudice that more communication means more good for the world — more connection, more community, more knowledge, more, more, more. They were not the only techno-entrepreneurs who figured out how to keep their customers coming back for more, but they were among the most astute. These engineer-entrepreneurs devised intricate means toward a time-honored end, pursuing the standard modern media strategy: package the attention of viewers and readers into commodities that somebody pays for. Their product was our attention.

Sounds like a nifty win-win. The user gets (and relays) information, and the proprietor, for supplying the service, gets rich. Information is good, so the more of it, the better. In Zuckerberg’s words, the goal was, and remains, “a community for all people.” What could go wrong?


Cover of The Economist, Nov. 4-10, 2017. (Economist Facebook feed)

So it’s startling to see the cover of this week’s Economist, a publication not hitherto noted for hostility to global interconnection under the auspices of international capital. The magazine’s cover graphic shows the Facebook “f” being wielded as a smoking gun. The cover story asks, “Do social media threaten democracy,” and proceeds to cite numbers that have become fairly familiar now that American politicians are sounding alarms:

Facebook acknowledged that before and after last year’s American election, between January 2015 and August this year, 146 million users may have seen Russian misinformation on its platform. Google’s YouTube admitted to 1,108 Russian-linked videos and Twitter to 36,746 accounts. Far from bringing enlightenment, social media have been spreading poison.

Facebook’s chief response to increasingly vigorous criticism is an engineer’s rationalization: that it is a technological thing — a platform, not a medium. You may call that fatuously naïve. You may recognize it as a commonplace instance of the Silicon Valley belief that if you figure out a way to please people, you are entitled to make tons of money without much attention to potentially or actually destructive social consequences. It’s reminiscent of what Thomas Edison would have said if asked if he intended to bring about the electric chair, Las Vegas shining in the desert, or, for that matter, the internet; or what Johannes Gutenberg have said if asked if he realized he was going to make possible the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. Probably something like: We’re in the tech business. And: None of your business. Or even: We may spread poison, sure, but also candy.

This candy not only tastes good, Zuckerberg believes, but it’s nutritious. Thus on Facebook — his preferred platform, no surprise — Mark Zuckerberg calls his brainchild “a platform for all ideas” and defends Facebook’s part in the 2016 election with this ringing declaration: “More people had a voice in this election than ever before.” It’s a bit like saying that Mao Zedong succeeded in assembling the biggest crowds ever seen in China, but never mind. Zuckerberg now “regrets” saying after the election that it was “crazy” to think that “misinformation on Facebook changed the outcome of the election.” But he still boasts about “our broader impact … giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote.”

Senators as well as journalists are gnashing their teeth. Hearings are held. As always when irresponsible power outruns reasonable regulation, the first recourse of reformers is disclosure. This is, after all, the age of freedom of information (see my colleague Michael Schudson’s book, The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945–1975). On the top-10 list of cultural virtues, transparency has moved right up next to godliness. Accordingly, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner and John McCain have introduced an Honest Ads Act, requiring disclosure of the sources of funds for online political ads and (in the words of the senators’ news release) “requiring online platforms to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate. (A parallel bill has been introduced in the House.) And indeed, disclosure is a good thing, a place to start.


RELATED: Society


The Twitter Inc. accounts of President Donald Trump, @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

How Social Media Abet the Political Right (It’s Not How You Might Think)

BY Neal Gabler | October 25, 2017

But it’s a start, not a finish. Consider how disclosure was supposed to remedy deficiencies in the laissez-faire system of political donations. Thanks to the post-Watergate reforms, any curiosity-seeker can today readily find out who donated to whom in which election. Data piles higher than mountains. But you may have noticed that disclosure has not drained any swamps. As the law and political science professor Richard L. Hasen wrote in 2010, just after the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United that corporations (and unions) could donate as much as they like to any political committee, the disclosure rules are not only largely toothless but “porous.” That’s one word for the plutocratic chew-up of American political finance.

What to do? That’s the question of the hour. The midterm elections of 2018 are less than a year away.

Europeans have their own ideas, which make Facebook unhappy, though it ought not be surprising that a global medium runs into global impediments — and laws. In September the European Union told Facebook, Twitter and other social media to take down hate speech or face legal consequences. In May 2016, the companies had “promised to review a majority of hate speech flagged by users within 24 hours and to remove any illegal content.” But 17 months later, the EU’s top regulator said the promise wasn’t good enough, for “in more than 28 percent of cases, it takes more than one week for online platforms to take down illegal content.” Meanwhile, Europe has no First Amendment to impede online (or other) speech controls. Holocaust denial, to take a conspicuous example, is a crime in 16 countries. And so, consider a German law that went into effect on Oct. 1 to force Facebook and other social-media companies to conform to federal law governing the freedom of speech. According to The Atlantic:

The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, or the “Network Enforcement Law,” colloquially referred to as the “Facebook Law,” allows the government to fine social-media platforms with more than 2 million registered users in Germany … up to 50 million euros for leaving “manifestly unlawful” posts up for more than 24 hours. Unlawful content is defined as anything that violates Germany’s Criminal Code, which bans incitement to hatred, incitement to crime, the spread of symbols belonging to unconstitutional groups and more.

As for the United Kingdom, Facebook has not responded to charges that foreign intervention through social media also tilted the Brexit vote. As Carole Cadwalladr writes in The Guardian:

No ads have been scrutinized. Nothing — even though Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council think tank, asked to testify before the Senate intelligence committee last week, says evidence of Russian interference online is now “incontrovertible.” He says: “It is frankly implausible to think that we weren’t targeted too.”

Then what? In First Amendment America, of course, censorship laws would never fly. Then can reform be left up to Facebook management?

Unsurprisingly, that’s what the company wants. At congressional hearings last week, their representatives said that by the end of 2018 they would double the number of employees who would inspect online content. But as New York Times reporters Mike Isaac and Daisuke Wakabayashi wrote, “in a conference call with investors, Facebook said many of the new workers are not likely to be full-time employees; the company will largely rely on third-party contractors.”


RELATED: Money & Politics


An attendee wears a sticker against money in politics during a rally calling for an end to corporate money in politics and to mark the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in Washington, DC, on Jan. 21, 2015. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

How to End Crony Capitalism

BY Robert Reich | October 26, 2017

Suppose that company is serious about scrubbing their contacts of lies and defamations. It’s unlikely that temps and third-party contractors, however sage, however algorithm-equipped, can do the job. So back to the question: Beyond disclosure, which is a no-brainer, what’s to be done, and by whom?

For one thing, as the fierce Facebook critic Zeynep Tufekci notes, many on-the-ground employees are troubled by less-than-forceful actions by company owners. Why don’t wise heads in the tech world reorganize Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (which existed through 2013)? Through recent decades, we have seen excellent organizations of this sort arise from many professional quarters: scientists — nuclear scientists in particular, lawyers, doctors, social workers and so on. Ever since 1921, when in a short book called The Engineers and the Price System the great economic historian Thorstein Veblen looked to engineers to overcome the venality of the corporations that employed them, such dreams have led a sort of subterranean, but sometimes aboveground, life.

The Economist is not interested in such radical ideas. Having sounded an alarm about the toxicity of social media, The Economist predictably — and reasonably — goes on to warn against government intrusion. Also reasonably, it allots responsibility to thoughtless consumers, though while blaming the complicit victims it might well reflect on the utter breakdown of democratic norms under the spell of Republican fraudulence and insanity:

[P]olitics is not like other kinds of speech; it is dangerous to ask a handful of big firms to deem what is healthy for society. Congress wants transparency about who pays for political ads, but a lot of malign influence comes through people carelessly sharing barely credible news posts. Breaking up social-media giants might make sense in antitrust terms, but it would not help with political speech — indeed, by multiplying the number of platforms, it could make the industry harder to manage.

Not content to stop there, though, The Economist offers other remedies:

The social-media companies should adjust their sites to make clearer if a post comes from a friend or a trusted source. They could accompany the sharing of posts with reminders of the harm from misinformation. Bots are often used to amplify political messages. Twitter could disallow the worst — or mark them as such. Most powerfully, they could adapt their algorithms to put clickbait lower down the feed. Because these changes cut against a business model designed to monopolize attention, they may well have to be imposed by law or by a regulator.

But in the US, it’s time to consider more dramatic measures. Speaking of disclosure, many social scientists outside the company would like Facebook to open up more of its data — for one reason among others, to understand how their algorithms work. There are those in the company who say they would respond reasonably if reformers and researchers got specific about what data they want to see. What specifically should they ask?

Should there be, along British lines, a centrally appointed regulatory board? Since 2003, the UK has had an Office of Communications with regulatory powers. Its board is appointed by a Cabinet minister. Britain also has a press regulation apparatus for newspapers. How effective these are I cannot say. In the US, should a sort of council of elders be established in Washington, serving staggered terms, to minimize political rigging? But if so, what happens when Steve Bannon gets appointed?

Columbia law professor Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, advocates converting Facebook into a public benefit or nonprofit company. The logic is clear, though for now it’s a nonstarter.

But we badly need the debate.

The Economist’s conclusion is unimpeachable:

Social media are being abused. But, with a will, society can harness them and revive that early dream of enlightenment. The stakes for liberal democracy could hardly be higher.

The notion of automatic enlightenment through clicks was, of course, a pipe dream. What’s more plausible today is a nightmare. It is no longer a decent option for a democracy — even a would-be democracy — to stand by mumbling incantations to laissez faire while the institutions of reason are shaking.

The post The Fakebook Inside Facebook appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

From Fake to Fact – and then?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/11/2017 - 2:43am in

Do
all of us need to move outside our ‘comfort zones’ and self-imposed ‘echo
chambers’, both  to come up with better
diagnoses of the populist challenge, and to define constructive political
action collectively ?  

lead Portrait statue of Plato along the balustrade of main reading room. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Wikicommons/ Carol M. Highsmith archive. Some rights reserved.This
online exchange put together by Rosemary Bechler and myself has mobilised a great number of
engaged and passionate articles (see here).
The trigger for that endeavour here and also in the related ‘live’ roundtable discussion in the Council of Europe’s World
Forum for Democracy 2017 in Strasbourg, 8-10 November, has been the frustrating
observation that currently facts do not matter as much as they should, either
in public discourse addressing burning problems, or in the design of policies.

Behind
that diagnosis, lies, however, a much older clash: the clash between different
ways of accessing trustworthy knowledge, particularly when it comes to issues
of great moment and consequence for our everyday lives as citizens, such as those
concerning social policy, education and employment, security, or collective
identity. To be sure, this clash is scarcely visible most of the time: many of
us are continuing to maintain the same beliefs and opinions, while regularly
ignoring how and why others have diverging beliefs and opinions. Yet, this
results in us living in different, and not shared realities. 

Theocracy, democracy, technocracy

If
we look at the venerable forms of knowledge we rely upon to identify the true
‘facts’, then we can roughly distinguish at least three types of knowledge: religious knowledge, political knowledge,
and scientific knowledge
. The paths leading there are distinct – although
they often intersect – and I would describe them as belief-driven, power- and interest-driven, and methodology-driven, respectively. The first one is also the oldest
in the history of humankind, drawing its legitimacy from an externalised,
metaphysical entity; the second, political knowledge, started to differentiate itself
from the first via deliberations about collective decision-making within a
given community around 2,500-3,000 years ago; last, ‘scientific’,
methodology-based knowledge about patterns and mechanisms in physical and
social phenomena also began to develop at that time. But it really took off, in
terms of influence, some 300 years ago in the western world.

The
multiple tensions among – let us dub those three ways of making sense of
reality, Theocracy, Democracy, and Technocracy – still define peoples’
lives all around the world, albeit to different degrees and in different
mixtures in various nation state contexts. Since we consciously want to avoid
narrowing down the discussion only to fake news in social media, we will focus
in this commentary upon the interplay between those ‘knowledge’ kinds and their
interplay with decision-making, particularly within contentious public policy
domains, such as those on refugees, security, extremism, and radicalisation,
that have been stirring major controversies. In the following, we will briefly
sketch out the general context, and single out three dimensions of the debate conducted
so far:

First, the current mismatch between the
supply and the demand sides for evidence and facts. These are shaped by
self-inflicted echo chambers in a polarised landscape, and they result in a
lose-lose game for all sides.  

Second, the widespread conflation of
concepts such as ‘data’, ‘information’, ‘evidence’, ‘facts’, and (actionable)
‘knowledge’. All these impact differently on meaning-giving and decision-making
processes of different individuals, social groups, or institutions.

Third, the dilemma of how to regain
trust by engaging with fake, distortive, manipulative acts, and those
responsible for diffusing them, given the slow processes that fact-finding and
democratic deliberation involve.

The current context: ‘post-fact’
politics in controversial fields of public policy

‘Post-fact’
politics are prevalent particularly in contested fields of public policy, such
as social and minority rights, external relations and migration/refugee affairs,
and, extremism and radicalisation. The relatively high level of uncertainty, of
complexity, and above all of value divergences in those fields has proved very
vulnerable to manipulation and distortion in public discourse. Such discourses
promote simplistic, slick, and for that reason, catchy narratives, which blend
out uncomfortable facts, disqualify opposing views, and polarise public
opinion, in order to advance more restrictive legislation, and more centralised
control of opinion.

Recent
and ongoing efforts in that direction in states such as the US, Turkey, Poland,
or Hungary, among many others, pay sad testimony to that. The intensity of
aggressive ‘hate’ rhetoric towards social and ethnic groups, and the
‘scapegoating’ of political elites, governments, media and international bodies,
such as the European Union, has reached unprecedented levels. What is more, democratic
values and civil liberties, the rule of law and the tripartite checks-and-balances
among the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicative,
have been increasingly undermined in a number of cases. Diversity, pluralism and
fundamental rights seem currently to be under serious attack in a worrying
number of democratic states. 

The supply/demand
discrepancy in the market for facts

Cherry-picking,
distortion, or silencing of evidence in such partisan ‘information wars’ is
nothing new. However, the relationship between
science, policy-making, and society has entered a new and salient phase
:
given the proliferation of fake news via social media, and the spread and
‘normalisation’ of uncivil behaviours in the public sphere, the need for
evidence-based resistance has become urgent as seldom before.

The
demand, however, is not always there.
Political opportunism, along with ideological conformity to party politics,
obstructs a culture of evidence-informed policy committed to the benefit of
society. On the supply side, knowledge production sites, such as universities,
are often unsurprisingly reluctant to mix with practitioners in order to define
and address societal challenges together.

Whenever
relevant, robust, and timely research has been available to inform future
policy-making, or to warn against risky trends, e.g. the political
repercussions of socio-economic inequalities, or the unintended negative
consequences of counter-terrorism policies, such uncomfortable evidence,
critical to dominant political agendas, has often found itself up against a
brick wall.

This
results in a lose-lose game, since
both researchers, particularly from the socio-economic sciences and humanities,
are often discredited for not foreseeing ‘crises’, or for not delivering
relevant insights and remedies. But policy makers too miss the chance to design
effective and sustainable policies to benefit their constituents and vindicate
their own careers in positions of trust. Both capacity and will to
engage are necessary functions if we are to argue with facts incompatible with
long-held beliefs, and mainstream master narratives.

Particularly
in polarised public policy arenas, dealing with social welfare, the inclusion
and integration of migrants, counter-terrorism and civic liberties, the whole
range of societal stakeholders involved, whether they are from policymaking, civil
society, the media, or academia – tend to talk to their peers, but not so much
to each other. They generate, in a non-intended and non-anticipated manner ‘echo-chambers’ for themselves, without
always being conscious that this is taking place.

This
effect highlights the need for all of us to move outside our ‘comfort zones’, to
enable us to come up with a valid diagnosis of the problem, let alone define
desirable solutions, and appropriate actions to get us there.   

Conflation of ‘data’,
‘information’, ‘evidence’, ‘facts’, and ‘knowledge’

We
live in an age not so much reconciled to the ‘end of history’, as contemplating
all meta-narratives with incredulity. In such an era of extreme divergences in
opinions and perspectives, including a variety of voices hitherto subdued or
concealed, we cannot expect any of the above knowledge categories to have an
easy passage. The question arises whether we are equipped as societies to cope
with the resulting complexity – for example, how to deal with all those religious,
political, or scientific sources of knowledge validation? Should citizens be
encouraged, as a starting point, to acknowledge that facts are, also, socially fabricated?
And that knowledge can never claim an objective vantage point, since it is always
institutionally sanctioned, and can also within democracies, at times, be
controlled, suppressed, and even destroyed?  

What,
more often than not, gets blurred in any debate among politicians, civil
society representatives, journalists, and scholars are the specific ways in
which ‘data’, ‘information’, ‘evidence’, ‘facts’, and ‘knowledge’ are distinct
from each other. These are epistemic artefacts with different scientific,
political, or legal pedigrees. Each one is associated with very different
conditions (and risks) for making sense of, and making use of what we call
‘reality’.

Data are for many the ‘raw givens’,
which, e.g. in the current hype about Big Data Analytics, are expected to
deliver reliable hints about peoples’ behaviour and even prognosticate trends. In
contrast to that, information, differentiates
itself according to selected criteria from all the rest (e.g. ‘noise’), by
linking certain data with meaning, and furnishing them with intelligible
contours and content, so that eventually they ‘in-form’.

Scientific
research is aiming at more: Evidence,
as the result of methodological analysis and synthesis of data and information,
entails patterns and mechanisms that render visible the dynamics of a
phenomenon, physical or social. To give an example, there has been evidence
about the correlation of tobacco with cancer since the end of the 1950s: yet it
was not until after decades that this validated evidence gained political
traction and got legally codified into a range of bans. This turn in political
attitude is what it took to embed the
concrete evidence into a cultural, institutional, and organisational context,
and ultimately transform it into a societal fact
.

The
issue with what we call ‘knowledge
may be a little more complicated. On the one hand, it is strongly linked with
experience, it is a ‘lived’ fact, while on the other, community-held beliefs,
or peer pressure, or trusted persons or institutions may strongly influence
what we ‘know’. In an environment where there is a naïve attachment to the
empirical ‘facts’, this can well be why evidence and facts can after all appear
to many as not being credible or reliable. People are alarmed and even
disillusioned when ‘facts’ contradict their own long held beliefs. But how do
we equip our pluralist democracies with the skills citizens need to make sense
of this sheer complexity?

We
should resist blanket claims that ‘facts do not matter’. At different times to
different audiences, facts can matter in
many different ways
. At their most systematically contested state, as in
science, facts can be highly creative! But in highly politicized issues, such
as global warming, or the linkage of refugees and terrorism, or that between
neo-liberal policies and anti-EU populism, polarisation and enemy images have
all too often replaced and displaced the nuanced pursuit of facts.
Civilised democracy should not only tolerate, but, moreover, provide the space
for contestation. Robbed of conversation, we are left with little but power or
ideological conflicts, dressed in whatever garb comes to hand.

How to engage with populists
without undermining trust?

Research
often produces insights with an expiry date, until new, more valid and reliable
knowledge challenges the old nostrums. Despite this lack of a lasting certainty,
inherent in the scientific knowledge production process, research seems still
to be indispensable in providing alternative diagnoses and paths for action, in
questioning the goals and objectives of political endeavours, and not least, in
resisting ideological truisms, or distortion of facts through vested particular
interests.

Assuming responsibility
and rebuilding trust in the interface between politics, research, and society
is key. Yet, fact-finding and democratic
deliberation, those two weapons against arbitrariness, are
awfully slow compared to the speed with
which intentionally fake information travels and gets itself endorsed in the
public sphere. In the absence of better alternatives, we should nevertheless,
invest and foster spaces for exchange and confrontation among holders of
opposing ‘truths’ within a democratic setting. This would be a step toward breaking
out of the many echo chambers we occupy in the current landscape, even if our
hands get a little dirty in the process.

Politics
in open democracies is bound to remain a controversial arena, yet, the struggle
to defend pluralism, diversity, and the resolve to counter racist, sexist,
homophobic, and fascist doctrines is a necessary component of the equation.
This online exchange here, but also the debates in the context of the Council
of Europe’s World Forum for Democracy, are somehow reminiscent of the dilemma
identified quite some time ago by Plato (primarily in his dialogues Politeia, Protagoras, and Kriton). Should good governance be
entrusted to the decisions of the Knowledgeable, of the Many, or of the
Powerful? The negotiation process of informing policies serving the public good
is and will remain, for the foreseeable
future, bumpy and long
.  

The
self-defence capacities of democracy depend upon free, yet accountable
expression of diverse views, but, crucially, also upon providing evidence and
justifying values to support those views. Populism of the extremist kind that
attacks the body politic resembles, in this respect, an auto-immune, self-destroying disease of democracy. Instead of
resorting to suppression, we should perhaps be strengthening other immune
reflexes, such as those related to better fact circulation, and to more inclusive
deliberation. This, to be sure, would not eliminate controversies, but it could
help many more of us to navigate better in the stormy seas to come.

All
the above notwithstanding, facts need to get contextualized in experienced realities and link to peoples’ concerns
and needs
, if they are to speak to their hearts and minds. Only then will
they become a trusted ground for taking
action
, and for making a positive
difference to peoples’ lives
.

Sideboxes
Sidebox: 

At WFD 2017, Georgios Kolliarakis is moderating the panel discussion, From Fake to Fact: how to strengthen ties between research, policy, and society to counter populism, 9 November 2017 - 9.00-10.30 - Palais de l'Europe, Room 6. Anna Krasteva and Rosemary Bechler are two of the discussants.

openDemocracy will be at this year's World Forum for Democracy,
exploring the impact of populism on our media, political parties and democracy (see the programme for more details).

Related stories: 

Introducing this week's theme: Strasbourg's World Forum for Democracy 2017 looks at 'media, parties and populism'

Facts will not save (the youth) from Fake. Citizenship will

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Facts will not save (the youth) from Fake. Citizenship will

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 05/11/2017 - 2:49am in

How can we reconquer the capital city, symbolically – both in real and
virtual terms – to capture the imagination of youth, to reorient it towards
creativity, imagination and engagement?

lead Members of nationalist organisations march with torches in the centre of Sofia on February 13, 2017. NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.Facts will not save the
youth from Fake. This provocative statement does not apply to all
young people today, yet it is largely valid for the increasing number of populist
youth.

“We have no need of your
politics of youth, youth is our politics. Among us, youth command youth. We are
comrades, friends, brothers, a clan. More than a youth movement, we are the
youth itself in movement”[1]
The Manifesto of the French Les
Identitaires
illustrates the systemic affinities between youth and radical
populism. The world of populist youth is not populated by the opposition facts
vs. fake, but in a different manner which we must understand before we can
communicate with it. Paradoxically, a mistrust of facts seems
a healthy attitude towards the authors of the simulacrum that has replaced the
world.

This different world is
apparently attractive, because – even before Trump – it has been enticing a
growing number of young people, both inside the fragile post-communist
democracies, where I come from, and the more consolidated but also “wearier” western
(post-) democracies. Post-democratic populism and youth have been actively
reinforcing each other. Max Weber once said that myth and facts, despite their status
as antonyms, can play the same role – of unifying a community. He reflected on
the origin of ethnic communities, comparing their factual historical origin
with the myths about it. If people strongly believe in the symbolic
mythological narratives, these narratives serve to consolidate the groups in
the same manner.

Astute strategists have
transformed Weber’s insightful idea into political engineering, and charismatic
leaders have catalyzed the transition from facts to identities, from arguments
to affinities, from critical thinking to belonging. I will reconstruct this
world through the lens of youth, structuring it around three poles:
post-democracy and post-truth as an empty shell; aestheticized identities,
untouchable by facts; rhizomatic networks as a self-checking mechanism.

Facts have not been
replaced by fake; they have been dethroned and marginalized, expelled from the
focus of public debate and political identities in three different but equally
radical ways.

Post-democracy and post-truth as an empty shell, waiting
to be filled

Colin Crouch defined
post-democracy as a political stage that continues to
have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but they have become an
increasingly formulaic shell. The energy and innovative drive is passing away
from the democratic arena into the small circles of a politico-economic elite.

In the fluid world of a
post-democratic society, things both are and are not themselves. Previously
clear-cut phenomena ­– democracy, truth, facts – become void of all content, a
shell, an empty symbol. The more of a formality this shell becomes, the easier
it is to fill it with contradictory contents, such as electoral
authoritarianism or illiberal democracy. In a post-democracy, the truth does
not turn into a lie, but the boundary with fake becomes blurry, and the two can
easily sink into the penumbra of conspiracy.

This emptying out of the contents of
democracy is deeply frustrating, and citizens react in three ways: anger and
contestation; mistrust of elites; and attempts to fill the now-void shell.
Paradoxically, a mistrust of facts seems a healthy attitude towards the authors
of the simulacrum that has replaced the world – politicians, experts, public
intellectuals. The fluid relations between fact and fake revitalize an old
genre: conspiracy.

Just as paradoxically, because of its
facility in mixing facts and fake, certainties and suspicions, explanations and
passions, conspiracy turns out to be an appropriate genre, the only one that
undertakes to account for phenomena that have been subjected to a deafening public
silence, phenomena that look impossible but are completely real, such as the
theft of a dam[2]
in post-communist Bulgaria[3]
or the theft of a bank ­– not theft from a bank but the pillage of a
major bank in Bulgaria.

When élites empty democracy of its meaning
and leave inexplicable facts floating in public space, citizens have no choice
but to fill the void. Conspiracy theories are one such filling. The other two
are the aestheticization of exalted identities and rhizomatic networking.

Mediatized, aestheticized
and glorified identities, untouchable by facts

During the refugee
crisis, Bulgaria entered world media with its vigilantes who ‘hunted’ and
‘arrested’ refugees. Unlike critical international coverage, Bulgarian TV
transmuted these perpetrators of physical and symbolic violence into heroes and
stars. This political/media episode illustrates three significant trends. One
is the utter immunization of the numerous fans of vigilantes and other populist
icons against factual discourses – both when it come to data about the decrease of
refugee flows and with respect to the principle that the state has the sole monopoly
on legitimate violence. The
heroic interpretation of citizenship replaces party politics with body politics
– bodies rendered heroic.

The other trend has to do
with a new surrogate of facts and liberal democracy: the heroic revival of the
Spartan ideal of citizens as soldiers, as guardians of national identity and
its borders, national and symbolic alike. This heroic interpretation of
citizenship is extremely appealing to young people, because it replaces party
politics with body politics, hollow and dysfunctional institutions with bodies
rendered heroic.

Paradoxically, media
transform real national populists into media images and imaginaries of bad guys,
instituted as role models. If vigilantes did not exist, media would have
invented them. This is my formulation of the third trend: the Berlusconization
of the media and the Herderization of public discourses, where spectacle,
provocations, violence are not mere media tools for attracting audiences but
political instruments for fundamentally transforming interest- and ideology-based
politics into identity politics, for moving away from party politics and toward
symbolic politics.

Identities can neither be
verified nor falsified by facts. The more aestheticized and glorified, ergo
symbolically significant, politically influential, publicly all-encompassing
identities become, the narrower the impact that facts can have.

Rhizomatic networking as a self-checking mechanism

The Net is evolving from
arborescent to rhizomatic networks[4].
Arborescent networks sprout from a common trunk that branches out, each branch
sprouting new ramifications. Rhizomatic networks do not have a common trunk;
they have multiple hubs and nodes that interconnect or not in various ways.
Rhizomatic networks are a powerful mechanism for turning off fact checking.
They are the digital version of communities made up of ‘Us,’ where one’s
identities and interpretations do not get scrutinized in the critical mirror of
facts or other interpretations, let alone different identities. The David of facts will not be able to take on
the Goliath of fake in combat unless the political setting for the battle
evolves.

Rhizomatic citizens
perceive themselves to be both right and energized. Rhizomatic networks expand
the groundwork for the tweeterization of hate and digitalization of Othering.
Digital defeat seems to mark the outcome of the symbolic battle of the liberal
Web, aimed at information sharing and citizen empowerment, with the Dark Net of
hate, Othering, conspiracy.

Facts are weakened in
three different, equally powerful ways – political, symbolic, digital. Facts
are undermined and destabilized in terms of 1/legitimacy, because produced by élites from whom trust has been
withdrawn for transforming democracy and facts into empty shells; 2/symbolic weight in a realm of symbolic
politics untouchable by factual verification; 3/ digital irrelevance in the
self-checking rhizometric networks.

Facts are weakened by
both the rise of populism and the conditions that make possible the populist
turn. The David of facts will not be able to take on the Goliath of fake in
combat unless the political setting for the battle evolves. One way of
countering populism is through citizenship[5] – contestatory, solidary,
digital, and creative.

Contestatory citizenship vs. populism

Youth stands on both sides of populism: they are among the most active
and most passionate radical populists; and are among the most active and dedicated
champions of human rights, green and solidary values. Populists and Greens are
the two major political innovations that have emerged since the second world
war. The green ‘future’ is as much a construct as the populist ‘past’, but they
are asymmetrically hospitable to facts and fake. It allows rage and contestation to
be transformed into a legitimate critique of the irresponsible and corrupt élites who fail to represent.

Paradoxically, despite their opposite political messages, the two groups
stem from the same ground, structured around three poles: ‘why we hate
politics’[6] or a rejection
of ‘politics as usual’; protest as the ‘expansion of conflict’[7] and
the perfect ‘anti-politics’[8]; the
Internet in its rebellious and hacker spirit. Combined, I conceptualize this as
contestatory citizenship. It has a powerful potential for change. It allows rage and
contestation to be transformed into a legitimate critique of the irresponsible
and corrupt élites who fail to represent. The critic of the élites is far more willing to welcome facts and fact-checking platforms: Decodeurs of Le Monde in France and True or no of Mediapool in Bulgaria are read with great interest by
my students of all political colors.

Citizenship means filling the void of post-democracy with citizens’
participation and engagement. A group of Bulgarian journalists, intellectuals[9], most-awarded
artists, top Internet experts have decided symbolically to re-appropriate the
city. Every February a neo-Nazi march is organized in the streets of Sofia
mapping the capital symbolically in terms of radical national populism: the
flaming torches at night-fall create a spectacular effect, securing a spot on
the prime-time news, and attracting a lot of young fans.

How can we reconquer the capital city, symbolically – both in real and
virtual terms – to capture the imagination of youth, to reorient it towards
creativity, imagination and engagement? I hope to be able to report on the
success/failure of the transformative power of citizenship over populism in
February 2018.

[1]  Generation Identitaire’s ‘Declaration
of war’.

[2]
In the 1990s, the dam that supplies water to the capital city of Sofia ended up
empty, and not for natural reasons. As a result, Sofia had to implement a water
rationing program. No-one has ever been held responsible for this egregious
theft.

[3]
Several examples refer to Bulgarian phenomena; the analysis has a larger
validity.

[4] Roos J. and Oikonomakis L.
(2014) “They don’t represent Us” The global resonance of the real democracy
movement from Indignados to Occupy in della Porta D. and Mattoni a. (eds)
Spreadig protest. Social movements in time of crisis. Colchester:ECPR Press,
117-136. p. 119.

[5]
Krasteva A. (forthcoming) Being a
citizen in times of mainstreaming of populism: building post-communist
contestatory and solidary citizenship in: Siim B, Saarinen A., Krasteva A.
(eds) Citizens activism and solidarity movements in contemporary Europe.
Palgrave Macmillan.

[6]
Hay C. (2007) Why we hate politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[7]
Schattaschneider E. E. (1975) The
semi-sovereign people. New York: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.

[8] Rosanvallon P. (2006) La
contre-democratie. Paris : Seuil.

[9]
The author being one of them.

Sideboxes
'Read On' Sidebox: 

The author will join WFD2017 Panel discussion 1 - From Fake to Fact: How to strengthen ties between research, policy, and society to counter populism? on November 9, 2017 - 9.00-10.30 - Palais de l'Europe, Room 6

Sidebox: 

openDemocracy will be at this year's World Forum for Democracy,
exploring the impact of populism on our media, political parties and democracy (see the programme for more details).

Country or region: 

Bulgaria

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