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Cartoon: Elon Musk's freak speech spending spree

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 21/05/2022 - 7:50am in

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Cambridge Analytica Reborn? Private Spy Agency Weaponizes Facebook Again

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 2:37pm in

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DeMENLO PARK, CA — On April 4, plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit brought against Facebook over its data-sharing practices following the eruption of the Cambridge Analytica scandal filed a fresh motion, charging that the social media giant deliberately obstructed discovery of information revealing the scale of its malfeasance.

It’s the latest development in a wide-ranging controversy that began in the first months of 2017 and shows little sign of abating. In brief, Cambridge Analytica exploited a Facebook loophole to harvest the personal data of up to 50 million Americans, in order to manipulate voters on behalf of a number of right-wing candidates — potentially including Donald Trump — and political campaigns in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Since then, the company and its parent, SCL Group, have folded, with official investigations into their activities conducted in several countries, while Facebook has been fined a record $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for egregious breaches of user confidentiality. The entire dispute raised serious public concerns about online privacy and the malign influence of behavioral advertising and microtargeting, which endure to this day.

In September 2020, Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO, Alexander Nix, was disqualified from serving as a U.K. company director for seven years for offering unethical services, including “bribery or honey-trap stings, voter disengagement campaigns, obtaining information to discredit political opponents and spreading information anonymously in political campaigns.”

By contrast, one senior SCL staffer seemingly pivotal to many of those unethical practices – although they deny it — has been unaffected by the scandal’s fallout. In fact, they have profited and prospered immensely in its wake.

One week prior to Cambridge Analytica’s closure on May 1, 2018, Gaby van den Berg – who, among other things, created SCL’s patented, DARPA-approved “Behavioral Dynamics Methodology,” which analyzes and profiles particular target audiences in order to identify optimal strategies for influencing their perceptions and actions — founded a new company in London, Emic Consulting. Ever since, she has taught Cambridge Analytica-style information warfare techniques to militaries the world over.

Gaby van den Berg

This undated photo is one of the few published online believed to show Gaby van den Berg, center, in Muscat, Oman

For example, the Canadian armed forces spent vast sums on Emic’s services in 2019 and 2020. Its intelligence branch went on to be embroiled in a string of high-profile scandals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, harassing citizens with bizarre psychological operations and mining social media profiles for data without users’ approval, provoking outcry.

The findings of a subsequent inquiry into the unit’s cloak-and-dagger activities were absolutely damning. While Emic was unmentioned, it borders on inconceivable the tactics so contentiously deployed weren’t influenced by the firm’s tutelage.

 

“Advantage of positioning”

It appears that van den Berg is involved in other cloak-and-dagger efforts to surreptitiously influence unwitting target audiences. Leaked files reviewed by MintPress name her as a key staffer on a secret psychological warfare effort in Syria, funded by the British Foreign Office and delivered by shadowy communications firm Global Strategy Network.

The company was founded by MI6 veteran Richard Barrett, who led the agency’s counter-terror operations before and after 9/11, a period in which British intelligence became intimately implicated in Washington’s monstrous extraordinary-rendition program. Questions abound about his complicity in the CIA’s torture of terror suspects as a result.

According to its Foreign Office submissions, Global Strategy began operating in Syria from “the earliest days” of Western attempts to destabilize the government of Bashar al-Assad, by convincing Syrians, Western citizens and foreign states that the Free Syrian Army was a legitimate, moderate alternative, while flooding international media with pro-opposition propaganda.

The company boasted that its “wildly impactful” informational output had influenced perceptions the world over, having been seen by “many hundreds of millions of people and attracting comment as far as the UN Security Council.”

By Global Strategy’s reckoning, its success is attributable to “programming that is not designed on day one and delivered ‘come what may,’ but instead is rapidly iterated and re-deployed as the situation on-the-ground and our adversaries change.”

Referencing the military and intelligence concept of infiltrating an enemy’s “OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop,” Global Strategy spoke of “getting inside” the decision-making processes of the Assad government and extremist groups in Syria, “to make good decisions faster” than their opponents did, “be strategically proactive and tactically reactive,” and “achieve an advantage of positioning.”

OODA

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Key to this process is Global Strategy’s extensive use of innovative in-house technology. For example, it has created “Daeshboard,” which provides analysis of terrorist group communications, and draws heavily on the company’s “historical and ongoing access” to “closed communication groups” on Telegram, Rocket.Chat and other ostensibly encrypted platforms.

By tracking these groups’ public statements and the manner in which their “themes change over time and geographically,” Global Strategy pinpoints “emerging trends” in extremist propaganda, “and how to stifle them.” A cited example of this capability was northeast Nigeria in September 2019, after Boko Haram’s private chat channels indicated the terror group intended to target Christians.

Daeshboard

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Daeshboard enabled Global Strategy “to identify and visualize how this threat was taking shape” before Boko Haram duly began executing Christians three months later, in turn altering its propaganda messaging “on a weekly basis” to promote religious tolerance, “thereby getting ahead of [Boko Haram’s] efforts to provoke sectarian conflict.”

All of which might be well and good, but as we shall soon see, the company has the avowed ability to do this with far less positive motivations in other contexts, and target innocent everyday people in the process.

Daeshboard operates in tandem with Murmurate, “social listening” software enabling Global Strategy to monitor online conversations “trending geographically,” which provides insight into how target audiences react to certain messaging, how responses and discussions diverge in different regions of a given country, and “how digital audiences are connected to each other.”

 

“Creative war approaches”

It would be entirely unsurprising if van den Berg played a role in the creation of these resources, and indeed ExTrac – a big data platform combining “real-time attack and communications data with artificial intelligence,” and providing “actionable insights” on the communications of violent extremist groups for use by counter-terror and “countering violent extremism” (CVE) “policymakers and practitioners” – launched by Global Strategy March 2021.

That same month, van den Berg was one of two “experts” who led an online discussion convened by NATO’s Riga-based Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. Among the topics under consideration were, “What are the limitations of big data to understand [sic] our audiences?” and “Can social listening predict behaviors?”

Evidently, van den Berg has an intense professional interest in the precise disciplines Global Strategy has harnessed. The reference to social listening predicting behaviors is particularly tantalizing too, given this is precisely what Cambridge Analytica’s “psychographic” techniques attempted to achieve, although apparently with little success. Perhaps given the failure of the company’s methods, van den Berg is investigating new means of achieving the same intrusive objective.

In any event, what ExTrac’s classified client reports contain is anyone’s guess, although it’s likely highly sensitive: “Access is granted on a case-by-case basis via subscriptions,” its website’s footer notes, underlining the platform’s exclusivity and secrecy. Strikingly though, repeated reference to the Facebook activities of extremist actors, and their audiences, is made in ExTrac’s publicly-available threat assessments.

In one such report, extremist activity on the social network is mentioned in the same passage as private discussions conducted through Telegram and “illicit offline networks and covert communications,” strongly suggesting it’s not purely “open” Facebook content that ExTrac scrutinizes.

Furthering this interpretation, listed directly alongside van den Berg in the leaked Global Strategy files is Charlie Winter, ExTrac’s research director, who runs the initiative alongside nameless “former intelligence personnel.” A long-time academic investigator of extremist groups, his PhD – which examined how “contemporary militant groups cultivate creative approaches to governance and war” online – was directly funded by Facebook.

Charlie Winters bio

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The social network moreover financed his five-year spell as a research fellow at London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, through its Online Civil Courage Initiative, as did the U.K. Home Office and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Declassified emails reveal he has given in-person briefings on ISIS propaganda to representatives of the latter.

Winter’s tenure at the Centre led him to write a book, “The Terrorist Image,” which examined 20,000 images “collected from the Islamic State’s covert networks online.” Its content speaks to extensive knowledge of the internal workings of elite ISIS propaganda units and their private discussions via various chat platforms on the part of the author, including the Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

Charlie Winters

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All this raises the obvious question of whether Global Strategy directly or indirectly accesses Facebook user data, and weaponizes it in the exact manner of Cambridge Analytica, with the assistance of van den Berg, an individual centrally connected to that firm and its malicious methods of mass manipulation.

Notably, both companies, and Emic, have ignored repeated requests for clarity from MintPress.

 

“Aggressive commercial organization”

If private Facebook data is being exploited by Global Strategy for counter-terror purposes, one might argue the ends justify the means, as such intrusion undermines barbarous extremist groups, prevents further radicalization, and potentially averts future atrocities.

However, Global Strategy’s clandestine crosshairs aren’t solely trained on extremists and their supporters. Over the course of its Syrian operations, it avowedly used Murmurate to collect information on online discussions between target audiences in the U.K., including Syrian refugees, which was then fed back to the Foreign Office.

Such indiscriminate infringement highlights a wider failing of CVE programs: they are founded on the flawed, unsupported axiom that literally anyone exposed to extremist propaganda in any way represents a prospective terror threat, therefore effectively pre-criminalizing countless innocent people – overwhelmingly Muslims – and making them targets for manipulation and surveillance.

Given the ease and fluidity with which memes travel on social media, a great many users may inadvertently — and involuntarily — become part of an extremist group’s “audience,” and thus included in Global Strategy’s sweeping dragnet. Without elucidation on how ExTrac categorizes an extremist “audience”, or indeed even what constitutes “extremist”, we have no way of knowing how sweeping its data collection is.

It may be incumbent to note though that the UK government has previously designated distrust of the mainstream media, and belief in “conspiracy theories” and criticism of the government, particularly in the field of foreign policy, as signifiers of potential extremist radicalization. The Department of Homeland Security has also published official guidance leveling much the same charges.

Even if ExTrac is merely hoovering up their public information and communications, law-abiding individuals are unlikely to acquiesce to such data being secretly collected and analyzed by a sinister state-funded propaganda merchant run by intelligence operatives, let alone the fruits of this research being sold on to unknown actors for profit, then used for uncertain ends.

That techniques originally honed for use in war to effect “behavior change” in enemy targets were trained on citizens was a core component of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. ExTrac unambiguously represents a tool influenced by military and intelligence techniques adapted for commercial purposes, with unsuspecting civilians in the firing line.

In March 2020, the domain Daeshboard.net was registered using WhoisGuard, which shields a registrant’s identity. It expired one year later, although today a Google search for the website turns up ExTrac’s customer login page, implying the two are either one and the same, or that the latter is a technologically evolved version of the former, now opened up for wider usage by the private sector and state entities.

On top of its record-breaking $5 billion FTC fine, Facebook still faces further major penalties elsewhere due to its lackadaisical approach to protecting user data. Once harvested by Cambridge Analytica – among a great many others – the company had no way of knowing where that data ended up or the purposes to which it was put.

There is little indication Facebook takes privacy any more seriously today, but a hitherto unexplored question is whether controls are in place to prevent individuals such as Charlie Winter from sharing sensitive insights into its platform and users with others.

Facebook spying

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Winter’s cloak-and-dagger operations in Syria, which placed him in such close quarters with van den Berg, were conducted concurrently to his researching extremists’ use of social media, at Facebook’s invitation and with its financial sponsorship. The social network is cited by Global Strategy as a key conduit for its anti-regime, anti-ISIS propaganda. During this time, Winter was also an “expert” adviser to another covert Foreign Office endeavor, which targeted Lebanon’s refugee camps with anti-extremist messaging.

Winter’s Facebook work, and resultant insider knowledge, may well have been one of the factors that led to his recruitment – particularly in the latter instance, given that one element of the campaign was the creation of a private Facebook group for camp inhabitants to discuss local issues, a group that was “closely monitored” by the contractor delivering the project, unbeknownst to those using it. At the very least, his multiple simultaneous roles represent a massive conflict of interest.

Both Foreign Office operations were conducted under the auspices of London’s Counter-Daesh Communications Cell. A scathing internal Whitehall review of the Cell’s efforts in Syria, not intended for public consumption, found they were “poorly planned, probably illegal and cost lives.”

Syrians employed by contractors, such as Global Strategy, were killed by the extremist groups they were targeting. The extent of the bloodshed was substantial. One operator “suffered losses of core staff that damaged the organization quite fundamentally.” Another was condemned as “an aggressive commercial organization,” which took “personal and political” risks, and endangered its employees by “[going] too far.”

It’s uncertain whether either description refers to Global Strategy, but that the firm was entangled at all in what was a clearly dangerous and possibly criminal conspiracy means it is particularly vital that Facebook clarify whether it was aware of Winter’s involvement in it, whether its relationship with him endures to this day, and of course whether their connection one way or another grants ExTrac admission to privileged private user information without user knowledge or consent.

What’s abundantly clear, though, is that – for all the public outcry, official probes and hearings, financial penalties, apologies and proposed regulation, Facebook remains the world’s foremost surveillance tool, weaponized in all manner of malevolent ways by any number of hostile elements, the extent of which the public will likely never know. And the same unaccountable individuals are using the same methods to do so, with the support and financial backing of Western governments, and the compliance of Facebook itself.

Feature photo | Noah Berger | AP

Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist and MintPresss News contributor exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. His work has previously appeared in The Cradle, Declassified UK, and Grayzone. Follow him on Twitter @KitKlarenberg.

The post Cambridge Analytica Reborn? Private Spy Agency Weaponizes Facebook Again appeared first on MintPress News.

Palmer Puts In 45 Billion Dollar Bid For Myspace

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 28/04/2022 - 8:01am in

Australia’s most annoying billionaire Clive ‘National Treasure’ Palmer has taken a break from spamming the country to announce that he has bid 45 billion dollars to buy antiquated social media site Myspace.

”Who says you can’t buy friends?” Asked Mr Palmer. ”I mean once I own Myspace I will have all the friends in the World,including that Tom bloke.”

”Politicians will do my bidding in an effort to make my top 8 friends list.”

When asked if this is a real thing or just another pie in the sky scheme like Titanic 2 or his many, many impossible election promises, Mr Palmer said: ”Titanic 2 is real and will be delivered at some stage in the next one or two hundred years.”

”As for Myspace, I shall be holding meetings and releasing press releases later this week.”

”Unless of course I think of something else more interesting to do before then.”

”Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I saw a dog down the road with a puffy tail, I might chase it, here puff, puff.”

Mark Williamson

@MWChatShow

You can follow The (un)Australian on twitter @TheUnOz or like us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/theunoz.

We’re also on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/theunoz

The (un)Australian Live At The Newsagency Recorded live, to purchase click here:

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An Intellectual No-Fly Zone: Online Censorship of Ukraine Dissent Is Becoming the New Norm

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 26/04/2022 - 6:00am in

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA – Google has sent a warning shot across the world, ominously informing media outlets, bloggers, and content creators that it will no longer tolerate certain opinions when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Google AdSense sent a message to a myriad of publishers, including MintPress News, informing us that, “Due to the war in Ukraine, we will pause monetization of content that exploits, dismisses, or condones the war.” This content, it went on to say, “includes, but is not limited to, claims that imply victims are responsible for their own tragedy or similar instances of victim-blaming, such as claims that Ukraine is committing genocide or deliberately attacking its own citizens.”

This builds on a similar message Google’s subsidiary YouTube released last month, stating, “Our Community Guidelines prohibit content denying, minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events. We are now removing content about Russia’s invasion in Ukraine that violates this policy.” YouTube went on to say that it had already permanently banned more than a thousand channels and 15,000 videos on these grounds.

Journalist and filmmaker Abby Martin was deeply troubled by the news. “It is really disturbing that this is the trend that we are on,” she told MintPress, adding:

It is a preposterous declaration considering that the victim is whoever we are told by our foreign policy establishment. It really is outrageous to be told by these tech giants that taking the wrong side of a conflict that is quite complicated will now hurt your views, derank you on social media or limit your ability to fund your work. So you have to toe the line in order to survive as a journalist in alternative media today.”

The most prominent victim of the recent banning spate has been Russian state media such as RT America, whose entire catalog has been blocked throughout most of the world. RT America was also blocked from broadcasting across the U.S., leading to the network’s sudden closure.

“Censorship is the last resort of desperate and unpopular regimes. It magically appears to make a crisis go away. It comforts the powerful with the narrative they want to hear, one fed back to them by courtiers in the media, government agencies, think tanks, and academia,” wrote journalist Chris Hedges, adding:

YouTube disappeared six years of my RT show, “On Contact,” although not one episode dealt with Russia. It is not a secret as to why my show vanished. It gave a voice to writers and dissidents, including Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, as well as activists from Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, third parties and the prison abolitionist movement.”

Smaller, independent creators have also been purged. “My stream last night on RBN was censored on Youtube after debunking the Bucha Massacre narrative… Unreal censorship going on right now,” wrote Nick from the Revolutionary Black Network. “My video ‘Bucha: More Lies’ has been deleted by YouTube’s censors. The Official Narrative is now: ‘Bucha was a Russian atrocity! No dissent allowed!’” Chilean-American journalist Gonzalo Lira added.

Other social media platforms have pursued similar policies. Twitter permanently suspended the account of former weapons inspector Scott Ritter over his comments on Bucha and journalist Pepe Escobar for his support for Russia’s invasion.

Googe Adsense Ukraine

A notice to MintPress from Google threatening demonetization

Those views are certainly currently in the minority, with testimonies from locals pointing the finger at Russian forces, who have carried out similar acts during other conflicts. Yet even the Pentagon has refused to categorically conclude Russian culpability without a full investigation.

Beyond Bucha, where the line is in terms of accepted speech is being kept vague, leading to confusion and consternation among independent media outlets and content creators. “This is going to limit reporting on the Ukraine crisis because people are going to be scared,” Martin said. “People [in alternative media] are going to opt to not publish or not report on something because of fear of retaliation. And once you start to get demonetized, the next fear is that your videos are going to get blanket banned,” she added.

While support for Russia has essentially been prohibited, glorification of even the most unsavory elements of Ukrainian society on social media is now all-but-promoted. In February, Facebook announced that it would not only reverse its ban on discussing the Azov Battalion, a Nazi paramilitary now formally incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard, but also allow content praising and promoting the group – as long as it was in the context of killing Russians.

Facebook and Instagram also instituted a change in policy that allows users to call for harm or even the death of Russian and Belarussian soldiers and politicians. This rare allowance was also given in 2021 to those calling for the death of Iranian leaders. Needless to say, violent content directed at governments friendly to the U.S., such as Ukraine, is still strictly forbidden.

 

The media demands more censorship

Leading the campaign for more intense censorship has been corporate media itself. The Financial Times successfully lobbied Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch to delete a number of pro-Russian streamers. The Daily Beast attacked Gonzalo Lira, going so far as to contact the Ukrainian government to make them aware of Lira’s work. Lira confirmed that, after The Daily Beast’s article, he was arrested by the Ukrainian secret police.

Meanwhile, The New York Times published a hit piece on anti-war journalist Ben Norton, accusing him of spreading a “conspiracy theory” that the U.S. was involved in a coup in Ukraine in 2014, while claiming that he was helping promulgate Russian disinformation. This, despite the fact that the Times itself reported on the 2014 coup at the time in a not-too-dissimilar fashion, thereby incriminating its own previous reporting as Russian propaganda. If referencing The New York Times’s own previous reporting becomes grounds for suppression, then meaningful online discourse is under threat. As journalist Matt Taibbi wrote last week, the West is in danger of establishing an “intellectual no-fly zone,” where deviating from orthodoxy will no longer be tolerated.

An image shared in the NYT hit against Norton

An image shared in the NYT hit against Norton. Credit | Multipolarista

The invasion of Ukraine has also raised a number of troubling questions for Western anti-war figures: How to oppose Russian aggression without providing more political ammunition to NATO governments to further escalate the conflict? And how to critique and highlight our own governments’ roles in creating the crisis without appearing to justify the Kremlin’s actions? Yet this new perilous media environment raises a further quandary: How to express views online without being censored?

Google’s new updated rules are vaguely worded and open to interpretation. What constitutes “exploiting” or “condoning” the war? Does discussing NATO’s eastward expansion or Ukraine’s aggressive campaign against Russian-speaking minorities constitute victim blaming? And is referencing the seven-year-long civil war in the Donbas region, where the UN estimates that over 14,000 people have been killed, now illegal under Google’s policy of not allowing content about Ukraine attacking its own citizens?

For some, the answer to at least some of these questions should be an emphatic “yes.” On Thursday, journalist Hubert Smeets attacked longtime anti-war activist Noam Chomsky, explicitly accusing him of blaming President Zelensky and Ukraine for its fate. Chomsky has previously described Russian actions as incontestably “a major war crime, ranking alongside the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Hitler-Stalin invasion of Poland in September 1939.” Yet he has also for years warned that NATO actions in the region were likely to provoke a Russian response. If Google and other big-tech monopolies decide an intellectual giant like Chomsky’s voice must be suppressed, it will mark a new era of official censorship not seen since the decline of McCarthyism.

 

Old propaganda, new Cold War

The United States was allied with the Soviet Union during World War II. However, as the Cold War began to set in, so did attacks on dissenting voices. The postwar anti-communist push began in earnest in 1947, after President Harry S. Truman mandated a loyalty oath for all federal employees. As a result, the political beliefs of two million people were investigated, with authorities attempting to ascertain whether they belonged to any “subversive” political organizations.

Those in positions of influence were most aggressively vetted, leading to purges of academics, educators, and journalists. Many of the most celebrated individuals from the world of entertainment – including actor Charlie Chaplain, singer Paul Robeson, and writer Orson Welles – had their careers destroyed because of their political beliefs. “Socialism was canceled, dissent was canceled after World War Two,” Breakthrough News host Brian Becker recently said, warning that this new Cold War with Russia and China could usher in a new McCarthyist era.

The old Cold War against Russia ended in 1991. However, the new Cold War arguably started 25 years later with the electoral victory of Donald Trump. On November 8, 2016, the Clinton campaign alleged that the Kremlin had used social media to spread fake news and misleading information, leading to Trump’s victory. Despite the lack of hard evidence, corporate media immediately took up Clinton’s message. Only two weeks after the election, The Washington Post published a report claiming that hundreds of fake news websites had pushed Trump over the line and that a credible group of nonpartisan expert researchers had created an organization called “PropOrNot” to track this effort.

Using what it called sophisticated “internet analytics tools,” PropOrNot published a list of over 200 websites that they claimed were “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.” Included on the list were publisher WikiLeaks, Trump-supporting websites like The Drudge Report, libertarian ventures such as The Ron Paul Institute and Antiwar.com, as well as a host of left-wing websites like Truthout, Truthdig, and The Black Agenda Report. MintPress News was also featured on the list. While there were some obviously fake-news websites included, the political orientation of the list was obvious for all to see: this was a catalog of outlets – right- and left-wing – that was consistently critical of the centrist Washington establishment.

A sure sign that you are reading Russian propaganda, PropOrNot claimed, was if the source criticizes Obama, Clinton, NATO, the “mainstream media,” or expresses worry about a nuclear war with Russia. As PropOrNot explained, “Russian propaganda never suggests [conflict with Russia] would just result in a Cold War 2 and Russia’s eventual peaceful defeat, like the last time.”

Despite the blatantly shoddy list, one that even included the websites of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, The Washington Post’s article went viral, being shared millions of times. PropOrNot’s list was subsequently signal-boosted by hundreds of other outlets. And despite calling for McCarthyist investigation into and suppression of hundreds of outlets, PropOrNot categorically refused to reveal who they were, how they were funded, or any methodology whatsoever.

It is now almost certain that it was not a neutral, well-meaning independent organization but the creation of Michael Weiss, a non-resident senior fellow of NATO think tank The Atlantic Council. A scan of PropOrNot’s website showed that it was controlled by The Interpreter, a magazine of which Weiss is editor-in-chief. Furthermore, one investigator found dozens of examples of the Twitter accounts of PropOrNot and Weiss using the identical and very unusual turn of phrase, strongly suggesting they were one and the same. Thus, claims of a huge [foreign] state propaganda campaign were themselves state propaganda.

The reaction to this crude “propaganda about propaganda” campaign was both swift and wide-ranging. In early 2017, Google launched Project Owl, a massive overhaul of its algorithm. It claimed that it was purely a measure to stop foreign fake news from taking over the internet. The main outcome, however, was a catastrophic, overnight collapse in search traffic to high-quality alternative media outlets – drops from which they have never recovered. MintPress News lost nearly 90% of its organic Google search traffic and Truthout lost 25%. Websites that were not on PropOrNot’s list also suffered devastating losses. AlterNet experienced a 63% reduction, Common Dreams 37% and Democracy Now! 36%. Even liberal sources only moderately critical of the status quo, such as The Nation and Mother Jones, were penalized by the algorithm. Google search traffic to alternative media has never recovered and has, in many cases, gotten worse.


Credit | WSWS

This, for Martin, is a sign of the increasingly close relationship between Silicon Valley and the national security state. “Google willingly changed their algorithm to backpage all alternative media without even a law in place to mandate them to do so,” she said. Other social media juggernauts, such as Facebook and YouTube rolled out similar changes. All penalized alternative media and drove people back towards establishment sources like The Washington Post, CNN and Fox News.

The consequence of all this was to retighten the elite’s grip over the means of communication, a grip that had slipped owing to the rise of the internet as an alternative model.

 

The “nationalization” of social media

Since 2016, a number of other measures have been taken to bring social media under the wing of the national security state. This was foreseen by Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who wrote in 2013, “What Lockheed Martin was to the twentieth century, technology and cyber-security companies will be to the twenty-first.” Since then, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and IBM have become integral parts of the state apparatus, signing multibillion-dollar contracts with the CIA and other organizations to provide them with intelligence, logistics and computing services. Schmidt himself was chairman of both the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, bodies created to help Silicon Valley assist the U.S. military with cyberweapons, further blurring the lines between big tech and big government.

Google’s current Global Head of Developer Product Policy, Ben Renda, has an even closer relationship with the national security state. From being a strategic planner and information management officer for NATO, he then moved to Google in 2008. In 2013, he began working for U.S. Cybercommand and in 2015 for the Defense Innovation Unit (both divisions of the Department of Defense). At the same time, he became a YouTube executive, rising to the rank of Director of Operations.

Defense Secretary James Mattis chats with Amazon founder and Washington Post owner, Jeff Bezos , during a visit to west coast tech and defense companies. Jeff Bezos | Twitter

Jeff Bezo meets with Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis during a visit to west coast tech and defense companies. Jeff Bezos | Twitter

Other platforms have similar relationships with Washington. In 2018, Facebook announced that it had entered a partnership with The Atlantic Council whereby the latter would help curate the news feeds of billions of users worldwide, deciding what was credible, trustworthy information, and what was fake news. As noted previously, The Atlantic Council is NATO’s brain-trust and is directly funded by the military alliance. Last year, Facebook also hired Atlantic Council senior fellow and former NATO spokesperson Ben Nimmo as its head of intelligence, thereby giving an enormous amount of control over its empire to current and former national security state officials.

The Atlantic Council has also worked its way into Reddit’s management. Jessica Ashooh went straight from being Deputy Director of Middle East Strategy at The Atlantic Council to Director of Policy at the popular news aggregation service – a surprising career move that drew few remarks at the time.

Also eliciting little comment was the unmasking of a senior Twitter executive as an active-duty officer in the British Army’s notorious 77th Brigade – a unit dedicated to online warfare and psychological operations. Twitter has since partnered with the U.S. government and weapons manufacturer-sponsored think tank ASPI to help police its platform. On ASPI’s orders, the social media platform has purged hundreds of thousands of accounts based out of China, Russia, and other countries that draw Washington’s ire.

Last year, Twitter also announced that it had deleted hundreds of user accounts for “undermining faith in the NATO alliance and its stability” – a statement that drew widespread incredulity from those not closely following the company’s progression from one that championed open discussion to one closely controlled by the government.

 

The first casualty

Those in the halls of power well understand how important a weapon big-tech is in a global information war. This can be seen in a letter published last Monday written by a host of national security state officials, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA directors Michael Morell and Leon Panetta, and former director of the NSA Admiral Michael Rogers.

Together, they warn that regulating or breaking up the big-tech monopolies would “inadvertently hamper the ability of U.S. technology platforms to … push back on the Kremlin.” “The United States will need to rely on the power of its technology sector to ensure” that “the narrative of events” globally is shaped by the U.S. and “not by foreign adversaries,” they explain, concluding that Google, Facebook, Twitter are “increasingly integral to U.S. diplomatic and national security efforts.”

Commenting on the letter, journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote:

[B]y maintaining all power in the hands of the small coterie of tech monopolies which control the internet and which have long proven their loyalty to the U.S. security state, the ability of the U.S. national security state to maintain a closed propaganda system around questions of war and militarism is guaranteed.”

The U.S. has frequently leaned on social media in order to control the message and promote regime change in target countries. Just days before the Nicaraguan presidential election in November, Facebook deleted the accounts of hundreds of the country’s top news outlets, journalists and activists, all of whom supported the left-wing Sandinista government.

When those figures poured onto Twitter to protest the ban, recording videos of themselves and proving that they were not bots or “inauthentic” accounts, as Facebook Intelligence Chief Nimmo had claimed, their Twitter accounts were systematically banned as well, in what observers coined as a “double-tap strike.”

Meanwhile, in 2009, Twitter acquiesced to a U.S. request to delay scheduled maintenance of its app (which would have required taking it offline) because pro-U.S. activists in Iran were using the platform to foment anti-government demonstrations.

More than 10 years later, Facebook announced that it would be deleting all praise of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani from its many platforms, including Instagram and WhatsApp. Soleimani – the most popular political figure in Iran – had recently been assassinated in a U.S. drone strike. The event sparked uproar and massive protests across the region. Yet because the Trump administration had declared Soleimani and his military group to be terrorists, Facebook explained, “We operate under U.S. sanctions laws, including those related to the U.S. government’s designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its leadership.” This meant that Iranians could not share a majority viewpoint inside their own country – even in their own language – because of a decision made in Washington by a hostile government.

In this light, then, Google’s message to creators about victim-blaming Ukraine or trivializing and condoning violence is a threat: toe the line or face the consequences. While we continue to consider tech monopolies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook to be private companies, their overwhelming size and their increasing proximity to the national security state means that their actions are tantamount to state censorship.

While fake news – including that emanating from Russia – continues to be a genuine problem, these new actions have far less to do with combatting disinformation or denial of war crimes and far more to do with reestablishing elite control over the field of communication. These new rules will not be applied to corporate media downplaying or justifying U.S. aggression abroad, denying American war crimes, or blaming oppressed peoples – such as Palestinians or Yemenis – for their own condition, but instead will be used as excuses to derank, demote, delist or even delete voices critical of war and imperialism. In war, they say, truth is always the first casualty.

Feature photo | Image by MintPresss News

Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.orgThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.

The post An Intellectual No-Fly Zone: Online Censorship of Ukraine Dissent Is Becoming the New Norm appeared first on MintPress News.

2022 State Legislative Preview

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 25/01/2022 - 6:23am in

Legislative sessions in most states either started recently or will start soon, so it seems like a good time to take stock of what’s happening at the state level and what I’ll be paying attention to in the coming year when it comes to corporate subsidies and the larger effort to rein in corporate power—which has gained a lot of momentum in the last couple of years, hence the length of this post. Exciting!...

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Censorship By Algorithm Does Far More Damage Than Conventional Censorship

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 25/01/2022 - 12:12am in

Listen to a reading of this article:

https://medium.com/media/4035bef2d9a73006608e78fe4dffeb48/href

Journalist Jonathan Cook has a new blog post out on his experience with being throttled into invisibility by Silicon Valley algorithmic suppression that will ring all too familiar for any online content creators who’ve been sufficiently critical of official western narratives over the last few years.

“My blog posts once attracted tens of thousands of shares,” Cook writes. “Then, as the algorithms tightened, it became thousands. Now, as they throttle me further, shares can often be counted in the hundreds. ‘Going viral’ is a distant memory.”

“I won’t be banned,” he adds. “I will fade incrementally, like a small star in the night sky — one among millions — gradually eclipsed as its neighbouring suns grow ever bigger and brighter. I will disappear from view so slowly you won’t even notice.”

Cook says this began after the 2016 US election, which was when a major narrative push began for Silicon Valley corporations to eliminate “fake news” from their platforms and soon saw tech executives brought before the US Senate and told that they must “quell information rebellions” and come up with a mission statement expressing their commitment to “prevent the fomenting of discord” online.

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Arguably the most significant political moment in the United States since 9/11 and its immediate aftermath was when Democrats and their allied institutions concluded that Donald Trump’s election was a failure not of establishment politics but of establishment narrative control. From that point onwards, any online media creator who consistently disputes the narratives promoted by the same news outlets who’ve lied to us about every war has seen their view counts and new follows slashed.

By mid-2017 independent media outlets were already reporting across ideological lines that algorithm changes from important sources of viewership like Google had suddenly begun hiding their content from people who were searching for the subjects they reported on.

“In case anyone wants to know how Facebook suppression works — I have 330,000 followers there but they’ve stopped showing my posts to many people,” Redacted Tonight host Lee Camp tweeted in January 2018. “I used to gain 6,000 followers a week. I now gain 500 and FB unsubscribes people without their knowledge — so my total number never increases.”

I saw my own shares and view counts rapidly diminish in 2017 as well, and saw my new Facebook page follows suddenly slow to a virtual standstill. It wasn’t until I started using mailing lists and giving indie media outlets blanket permission to republish all my content that I was able to grow my audience at all.

And Silicon Valley did eventually admit that it was in fact actively censoring voices who fall outside the mainstream consensus. In order to disprove the false right-wing narrative that Google only censors rightist voices, the CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet admitted in 2020 to algorithmically throttling World Socialist Website. Last year the CEO of Google-owned YouTube acknowledged that the platform uses algorithms to elevate “authoritative sources” while suppressing “borderline content” not considered authoritative, which apparently even includes just marginally establishment-critical left-of-center voices like Kyle Kulinski. Facebook spokeswoman Lauren Svensson said in 2018 that if the platform’s fact-checkers (including the state-funded establishment narrative management firm Atlantic Council) rule that a Facebook user has been posting false news, moderators will “dramatically reduce the distribution of all of their Page-level or domain-level content on Facebook.”

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People make a big deal any time a controversial famous person gets removed from a major social media platform, and rightly so; we cannot allow such brazen acts of censorship to become normalized. The goal is to normalize internet censorship on every front, and the powerful will push for that normalization to be expanded at every opportunity. Whether you dislike the controversial figure being deplatformed on a given day is entirely irrelevant; it’s not about them, it’s about expanding and normalizing internet censorship protocols on monopolistic government-tied speech platforms.

But far, far more consequential than overt censorship of individuals is censorship by algorithm. No individual being silenced does as much real-world damage to free expression and free thought as the way ideas and information which aren’t authorized by the powerful are being actively hidden from public view, while material which serves the interests of the powerful is the first thing they see in their search results. It ensures that public consciousness remains chained to the establishment narrative matrix.

It doesn’t matter that you have free speech if nobody ever hears you speak. Even in the most overtly totalitarian regimes on earth you can say whatever you want alone in a soundproof room.

That’s the biggest loophole the so-called free democracies of the western world have found in their quest to regulate online speech. By allowing these monopolistic megacorporations to become the sources everyone goes to for information (and even actively helping them along that path as in for example Google’s research grants from the CIA and NSA), it’s possible to tweak algorithms in such a way that dissident information exists online, but nobody ever sees it.

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You’ve probably noticed this if you’ve tried to search YouTube for videos which don’t align with the official narratives of western governments and media lately. That search function used to work like magic; like it was reading your mind. Now it’s almost impossible to find the information you’re looking for unless you’re trying to find out what the US State Department wants you to think. It’s the same with Google searches and Facebook, and because those giant platforms dictate what information gets seen by the general public, that wild information bias toward establishment narratives bleeds into other common areas of interaction like Twitter as well.

The idea is to let most people freely share dissident ideas and information about empire, war, capitalism, authoritarianism and propaganda, but to make it increasingly difficult for them to get their content seen and heard by people, and to make their going viral altogether impossible. To avoid the loud controversies and uncomfortable public scrutiny brought on by acts of overt censorship as much as possible while silently sweeping unauthorized speech behind the curtain. To make noncompliant voices “disappear from view so slowly you won’t even notice,” as Cook put it.

The status quo is not working. Our ecosystem is dying, we appear to be rapidly approaching a high risk of direct military confrontation between nuclear-armed nations, and our world is rife with injustice, inequality, oppression and exploitation. None of this is going to change until the public begins awakening to the problems with the current status quo so we can begin organizing a mass-scale push toward healthier systems. And that’s never going to happen as long as information is locked down in the way that it is.

Whoever controls the narrative controls the world. And as more and more people get their information about what’s happening in the world from online sources, Silicon Valley algorithm manipulation has already become one of the most consequential forms of narrative control.

____________________

My work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, following me on Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud or YouTube, or throwing some money into my tip jar on Ko-fi, Patreon or Paypal. If you want to read more you can buy my books. The best way to make sure you see the stuff I publish is to subscribe to the mailing list for at my website or on Substack, which will get you an email notification for everything I publish. Everyone, racist platforms excluded, has my permission to republish, use or translate any part of this work (or anything else I’ve written) in any way they like free of charge. For more info on who I am, where I stand, and what I’m trying to do with this platform, click here.

Bitcoin donations:1Ac7PCQXoQoLA9Sh8fhAgiU3PHA2EX5Zm2

Meta Censors Anti-Imperialist Speech In Obedience To The US Government

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 05/01/2022 - 12:44pm in

Listen to a reading of this article:

https://medium.com/media/2a09752aec7c493164a227c3e404e657/href

Anti-imperialist commentator Richard Medhurst reports that Instagram has deleted some 20 images from his account and given him a warning that he could face a permanent ban if he continues making similar posts. The posts in question are screenshots from a Twitter thread Medhurst made to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Trump administration’s assassination of renowned Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani.

Go ahead and read the thread; here’s the hyperlink again. There’s nothing in there that comes anywhere remotely close to violating Instagram’s terms of service as they are written; Medhurst condemns the assassination and the bogus justifications provided for it, and discusses Soleimani’s crucial role in the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda. The reason for Instagram’s censorship of Medhurst’s political speech is that Instagram’s parent company Meta (then called Facebook) determined after Soleimani’s assassination that anything which seems supportive of him constitutes a violation of US sanctions and must therefore be removed.

In 2019 the Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, which was as hypocritical and arbitrary as any other government designating any other branch of another government’s military a terrorist organization. Despite this completely baseless designation, both the Meta-owned social media platforms Facebook and Instagram have been actively censoring political speech about Soleimani, who was the commander of the IRGC’s Quds force when he was assassinated. Medhurst reports that he has been censored on Instagram under the same justification for posting about Hamas as well.

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We don’t talk enough about how completely insane it is that a social media company with billions of users is censoring worldwide political speech about a major historical figure in alignment with US government decrees. Even if you were to accept the ridiculous justifications for designating a branch of the Iranian military a terrorist organization, and even if you were to accept it as perfectly sane and normal for a communications company of unprecedented influence to take its marching orders on censorship from US government dictates, Soleimani is dead. He’s a dead man, he could not possibly pose any threat to anybody, and yet they’re censoring people from voicing opinions about his assassination.

I think I’ve been failing to appreciate the madness of this situation over the last two years because it’s simply too crazy to take in all at once. You have to really sit with it a minute and let it absorb. This is a person who shaped the world, whose impact on human civilization will be studied for generations. And the largest social media company on earth is actively censoring discussion about him because the US government said it’s not allowed.

Whenever I talk about the dangers of online censorship I always get a bunch of propagandized automatons bleating “It’s not censorship! Censorship is when the government restricts freedom of speech; this is just a private company enforcing its terms of service!”

This line of argumentation is plainly born of sloppy analysis. All the largest online platforms have been working in conjunction with the US government to censor speech, and doing so with greater and greater degrees of intimacy. A monopolistic Silicon Valley megacorporation censoring political speech about an important historical figure because the US government says he was a terrorist is about as brazen an act of government censorship as you could possibly come up with. The fact that that censorship is outsourced to a putatively private company is irrelevant.

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The outsourcing of censorship to private corporations is just one more iteration of the way neoliberalism privatizes duties that would otherwise be done by the government. That’s all we’re seeing here. In a corporatist system of government, corporate censorship is government censorship.

The US government is the single most tyrannical and oppressive regime on this planet. It terrorizes entire populations and works to destroy any nation which disobeys its dictates, it has spent the 21st century slaughtering people by the millions to preserve its unipolar domination of the planet, it imprisons and tortures journalists for exposing its war crimes, and it aggressively censors political speech around the world.

Every evil the US accuses other nations of perpetrating, it does on a far grander scale itself. It just does it under the pretence of promoting freedom and democracy and fighting terrorism, under cover of outsourcing and narrative management. It inflicts the most psychopathic acts of violence upon human beings around the world, but wraps it in a package of justice and righteousness. The US government is a blood-spattered serial killer wearing a plastic smiley face mask.

______________________

My work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, following me on Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud or YouTube, or throwing some money into my tip jar on Ko-fi, Patreon or Paypal. If you want to read more you can buy my books. The best way to make sure you see the stuff I publish is to subscribe to the mailing list for at my website or on Substack, which will get you an email notification for everything I publish. Everyone, racist platforms excluded, has my permission to republish, use or translate any part of this work (or anything else I’ve written) in any way they like free of charge. For more info on who I am, where I stand, and what I’m trying to do with this platform, click here.

Bitcoin donations:1Ac7PCQXoQoLA9Sh8fhAgiU3PHA2EX5Zm2

Feature image via Wikimedia Commons.

Hidden Unpersuaders: How we mistook the digital giants for all-powerful manipulators

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 04/01/2022 - 1:59pm in

The Hidden Persuaders

The Hidden Persuaders, in the flesh

The twin threats of “hidden persuasion” and artificial intelligence have now convinced most of us that Google and its ilk are almost uniquely powerful. These threats are overrated. The digital giants can do less than we fear – and we risk regulating them where we should not.1

Imagine for a moment that a writer grabs the public’s imagination by arguing the marketing industry is composed of well-informed tricksters. This writer believes that marketers use modern psychological insights to manipulate citizens without their knowledge. In effect, he says, marketers are misleading people into buying products and services. His book sells more than a million copies.

Imagine, too, that a group of psychologists, engineers and mathematicians gather to explore the future of artificial intelligence (AI). They are confident that AI can let computers form concepts, solve the kinds of problems that humans solve, and improve their own programs. They start with an attempt to better translate languages. Their vision stretches far beyond that, to computers that can form their own concepts and improve their own reasoning.

All this indeed happened. But the year in which it happened was 1956.

Indeed, these two big ideas of 1956 have arguably had outsized effects on how we see the controversies of 2021, almost two-thirds of a century later. Most of the people alive today in the western world grew up with these views in the air, and rarely saw them contradicted. In particular, it seems likely that these ideas have shaped how we see one of the biggest industries in today’s world – online advertising.

And yet in the more than six decades since 1956, the leading thinkers in both psychology and AI have quietly but thoroughly reshaped their ideas about the workings of their fields. While those two big ideas have settled into the public’s consciousness, experts have quietly disowned them.

Could it be that the public understanding of much online advertising and its effects is simply wrong?

If so, the current noisy debate about the future of Google, Facebook and their fellow digital giants is likely built on shaky foundations.

The Hidden Persuaders …

The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard’s book about marketing, became a publishing hit in 1957, just as US households’ TV ownership was swelling. Packard did not know the effect he would later have on perceptions of online advertising; computing itself was not yet a decade old. But he did hope to change perceptions about the burgeoning ads on TV and radio, in the cinemas and on billboards, and in newspapers and magazines.

Despite plenty of attention-grabbing phrases, Packard seems to have been an honest journalist building a case, reporting marketing studies with apparent accuracy2. Advertising up to that point had very often been regarded with scorn; he painted it as altogether a darker art. At a time when Sigmund Freud was regarded as having unique insight into the human mind, Packard wrote of how Freud’s disciples were reshaping advertising. He focused on Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew and a founder of the US public relations industry, and Ernest Dichter, whose family had once lived across the road from Freud, and who had fled the Nazis in 1938 to become “the Freud of Madison Avenue”.

The western public embraced Packard. The Hidden Persuaders soared to the top of the bestseller lists in the US and elsewhere. Packard followed up with 1964’s The Naked Society, another bestseller on how marketers use private information to create sales. A third Packard book, 1977’s The People Shapers, introduced me to the psychology of marketing when, as a teenager, I pulled it from the family bookshelf.

Unusually for a work of journalism, The Hidden Persuaders reached far beyond popular culture. It influenced French sociologists and Harvard Business School economists. Its ideas have echoed since in works from economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society to marketing author Martin Lindstrom’s Brandwashed. Most people, including many academics, now seem to accept that advertisers successfully manipulate us. The idea has moved from controversial popular concept to widely accepted wisdom.

… and the AI manipulators

As Packard was starting to set out the ideas of The Hidden Persuaders in Boston, a couple of hours’ drive north in the New Hampshire town of Dartmouth, a group of engineers, mathematicians, psychologists and others was gathering to work on a different issue. The Dartmouth group wanted to make computers think. Their eight-week workshop is widely considered to mark the founding of what we now call artificial intelligence (AI).

The Dartmouth AI group set the pattern for artificial intelligence research almost immediately, by trying to teach a computer the Russian language. The ANU anthropologist and AI researcher Professor Genevieve Bell tells the probably apocryphal story of the researchers feeding their machine the phrase “the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak”; it translated back, she says, “the meat is bad, and the vodka is strong”.

Within a decade, Bell notes, the US government decided human translators were better than machines, and the first AI boom ended. But in the decades since, through more booms and busts, AI research has given us some powerful tools. Among its achievements has been to at least partially conquer language translation. We now also possess a more powerful understanding of what computers can do.

Alongside AI’s real accomplishments is a psychological one: in the public mind, AI has turned itself into a juggernaut. Nudged along by cinematic inventions like 2001’s HAL 9000 and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original Terminator, many people now believe that AI is inhumanly powerful – that it can use a combination of data and calculation to make us do things we would not otherwise do. This fear of not-quite-human manipulation appears to have deep roots – “in everything from the golem stories to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein“, as Bell put it to Australia’s ABC radio network.

Our understanding of AI and our understanding of marketing psychology share more than a common birthdate. Since the end of the 1950s, both areas of knowledge have been subject to long divergences between expert and popular views. Experts have concluded that marketing psychology and artificial intelligence both have some insights, but that they are of limited power. Neither Vance Packard nor the Dartmouth group was entirely off-track, but they both misunderstood the size of the effects they were studying.

The public, meanwhile, fears the worst about both marketing psychology and AI.

The limits of understanding 1: Marketing psychology

Take marketing psychology first. When Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, Freud was at the height of his academic esteem. Today he is still casually saluted as the populariser of the idea of the unconscious mind. But over the past six decades, Freud’s standing with psychologists has steadily dwindled as it has been undermined. First his idea of “p***s envy” and his thoughts on female sexuality wilted under the laughing and pointing of a new generation of 1960s feminists. Then, from the 1970s on, critics chipped away first at his theories on topics like dreams and homosexuality, and then also at his methodological failings. Today, though he is lauded as a pioneer, few noted psychologists take his specific ideas seriously. That in turn imperils Packard’s work, founded as it was on Freud’s theories and those of his followers.

And at a more practical level, advertising research has long struggled to show that a lot of advertising can make consumers do anything much. Sophisticated consumers might in general be sure advertising was sneakily subverting their psychology – or other people’s, anyway. Yet through the 1990s and into the 2000s, economists in particular could find little evidence that advertisers could use psychology to persuade. Successful inducements to buy seem surprisingly rare, no matter what we all see on TV’s Mad Men.

Advertising can boost sales. I’ve been involved first-hand in exploiting its ability to turn people on to a new product: at an online startup back in 2000, we could literally see our server load rise in the minutes after our television ads aired on the Nine Network’s old Sunday show. Yet most consumer advertising does not aim for this sort of direct response: it aims for a branding effect, embedding an idea in the consumer’s head over time. It promises that consumers will get a good experience from a Ford car or a Bosch power tool – a “drip-drip-drip” effect that is traceable not to Freud but to another popular psychological thinker, B.F. Skinner.

Advertising’s ability to actually achieve an effect is variable, and measured results surprisingly rare. Much of the industry is used to operating in a sort of informational vacuum, where its own practitioners remain largely ignorant as to its real effects. For sure, they tell each other that they know stuff, and they tell everyone else as well. But hey, this is the advertising industry. It’s not ridiculous to suggest that many of its staff might spread the message zealously, to each other as well as the clients, without taking too close a look at the truth.

When economic researchers from outside the industry do rigorous studies, they rarely find successful subversion. Often it’s quite the opposite: they end up concluding that ad industry people are … well, kidding themselves about their abilities. A famous experiment for eBay by economist Steve Tadelis suggests online advertising suffers from the same problem as TV advertising – low impact.

If these data detectives are right, advertising’s greatest power seems to be to remind consumers that brands they know about are still around and available. In the words of advertising academic Byron Sharp, it works by “reinforcing existing propensities“. That seems a good deal short of all-powerful.

Ironically, advertising’s shortcomings are growing clearer just as our popular culture has convinced itself – and quite possibly you – that today’s marketers, descendants of Manhattan’s Mad Men, can just about rewrite people’s minds.

The limits of understanding 2: Artificial intelligence

And if the public was growing convinced of advertising’s power, new technology has reinforced that impression. In particular, we see widespread concern that artificial intelligence is amplifying the marketing power of Google and Facebook. In the English-speaking world, in particular, people worry about whether AI has any value to society, in part because of its use by advertisers.

Typical of the concern has been the longstanding concern over Cambridge Analytica, a company widely believed to have used its “psychographic marketing” skills to “mine” Facebook user data and target voters in the 2016 US election and the UK’s Brexit vote. Yet investigations such as that of the UK Information Commmissioner’s Office have fairly well established that Cambridge Analytica exerted no real influence in either case.

Why have so many people come to believe in the power of IT-driven marketing firms like Cambridge Analytica?

Some of that effect comes from the mystery of the term “artificial intelligence”, which few have ever understood. But probably more comes from the marketing industry’s lifetime habit of inflating its own power. Brittany Kaiser, a Cambridge Analytica marketing executive, famously described Cambridge Analytica’s technology this way: “It’s like a boomerang. You send your data out, it gets analysed, and it comes back at you as targeted messaging to change your behaviour.”

Yet the analysis done by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office analysis suggests this was – surprise, surprise – marketing spin not supported by the company’s actual capabilities. Cambridge Analytica appears to have been a nasty operation; it suggested one potential client use Ukrainian “girls” to entrap a political opponent. But the less well-known Cambridge Analytica scandal seems to have been that its data manipulation techniques did not work.

This is a common story in the AI world. While the public imagines AI juggernauts, many AI experts confront the practical problem that in a wide range of circumstances, AI fails at predicting what people will do next. Fed by huge streams of data, AI stares relentlessly backwards. Computer algorithms are “inherently conservative”, notes Genevieve Bell. So you buy a new pair of hiking boots online and then suddenly find your screens full of … ads for hiking boots. Those who seek to use data-mining and AI for political purposes face the same problem.

The next time you see this behaviour, ask yourself: What are your ads telling you about the AI capabilities of the ad industry? Put aside what all the allusions to advertisers’ creepy control of your mind: how good a predictor of your own behaviour does AI-driven advertising really seem to be?

When the culture adds the myth of all-powerful marketing AI to the myth of all-powerful marketing psychology, strange new arguments seem to flourish.

A hunger for victimisation

Today most people just know that the combination of psychology and AI makes advertisers tremendously powerful. A lot of the research suggests the opposite, but that story is being consistently pushed to the side. People seem almost hungry for the message that all-powerful cybernetic marketers are programming their brains without their consent.

One thinker to realise this has been Harvard social psychologist and philosopher Professor Shoshanna Zuboff. Her 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism sets out to make the case against Silicon Valley’s push into advertising. Understandably, she uses the 60-year-old ingredients that the culture prepared beforehand: hidden psychological persuasion, and artificial intelligence. She employs them to accuse the digital giants of flagrant misuse of that power.

Zuboff decries “the computational products that predict human behaviour”, such as click-through ad measurement. She maintains that Google, Facebook, Twitter and their digital ilk have birthed a terrible new system – one where “private human experience is reinterpreted as a free source of raw material for translation into behavioural data”. Zuboff argues that her “surveillance capitalism” produces “the compulsion towards totality”. It abounds in colourful claims (“hijacking the future”, ““a coup from above”), neologisms (“instrumentarian”) and quotations (Marx! Durkheim! Arendt!).

Zuboff leads the pack, but it has become almost standard practice for people writing about the digital giants to claim that they subvert society, using a black bag of mysterious psychological tricks and “algorithms” and AI routines and programmatic buying and such. “With the inscrutable arcana of data science,” declares writer Matthew B. Crawford in New Atlantis magazine, “a new priesthood peers into a hidden layer of reality that is revealed only by a self-taught AI program — the logic of which is beyond human knowing … Today, the platform firms appear to many as an imperial power.” Journalist Matt Taibbi calls the latest round of AI technology “a completely new and terrifying and dystopian development”. Declares former Harvard Business Review editor Nicholas Carr, reviewing Zuboff’s work: “Big Brother would be impressed”. The message is the same as Packard’s: the hidden persuaders’ techniques, supercharged by AI that you cannot understand, will overpower your puny human intellect. You can practically hear that weird Terminator soundtrack music playing in the background.

Yet all of Zuboff’s work collides with an unexpected problem not shared with The Terminator: a lack of actual victims. It is hard even for digital giants to impose totalitarianism without imposing noticeable damage on the world, without hurting actual people. And in the case of Google and Facebook, the victims are especially hard to spot.

This gaping hole in the Zuboff thesis appears not just in Surveillance Capitalism itself but also, more noticeably, in a friendly yet revealing 2019 interview by podcaster and economics professor Russ Roberts. He repeatedly asked Zuboff to identify some victims of the digital giants, and the damage that had been wrought on them. Repeatedly, she ducked the question. Really, don’t trust me; the internet lets you hear for yourself.

When an author gets an hour to lay out her allegation of a civilisation-threatening new development, and yet can’t explain any of the damage it is allegedly doing, we’re justified in thinking: maybe these ideas are not as powerful as they seem.

Demonising our information infrastructure

The currently known facts about the ad industry suggest the core advertising businesses of Google and Facebook are nowhere near as dangerous as many of us now seem to think.

None of this means that these two companies are without sin. Facebook’s algorithm sometimes seems an ideal machine to amplify the extremes. Google these days seems too ready to blur the line between search guidance and advertising. The digital giants’ actions remain a long way from many of their customers’ expectations about privacy. We need specific remedies for these and other problems, as is normal when new institutions impose themselves on our information landscape.

Instead, critics left and right want to portray Google and Facebook as modern Hidden Persuaders and AI Manipulators. And the public seems surprisingly ready to embrace this characterisation. That is in turn producing some bizarrely ill-designed fixes. They now include Australia’s “news media bargaining code”, an elaborate regulatory fix apparently crafted to ease the decline of print media owners rather than aid the public interest.

This mis-diagnosis of the problem and its solution really matters. Google, in particular, is an important part of our information infrastructure. If society comes to systematically distrust it, that will likely have repercussions, even if we cannot foresee them today.

And such repercussions can easily spread right across the world. After Australia’s federal government and its competition regulator forced Google and other digital giants to pay fees to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and other legacy media corporations, for instance, France quickly followed suit.

Say over and over that Google and Facebook are up to no good, and we risk eventually degrading the world’s information culture.

Before we do that, it would be good to make sure that we are not just acting on outdated concepts – concepts that captured our imaginations 60 years ago and have never let them go.

Note 1: This is the latest in a series of posts about public policy towards the digital giants, particularly Google. Previous instalments cover the pricing error underlying the ACCC’s news media bargaining code, and the ill-chosen mechanism for the code’s compulsory bargaining.

Note 2: A summary of The Hidden Persuaders and the reaction to it appears in Michelle R. Nelson, 2008, “‘The Hidden Persuaders’: Then and Now“, Journal of Advertising, Vol. 37 No 1, pp 113-126.

ScoMo Calls An Emergency Summit After His TikTok Fails To Go Viral

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 04/01/2022 - 7:00am in

Australia’s Prime Minister Scotty who was fired from marketing has today called an emergency summit after his debut on the social media site TikTok failed to go viral.

”The PM prides himself on his social media game, often saying that when the PM’s posts are getting likes then the Nation is doing well, said a Prime Ministerial Spokesperson. ”So, his failure to go huge on TikTok has really shook his confidence.

”Poor dude, not even his alleged Mate Christian Porter shared his post.”

When asked why given that the Nation was currently deep in a Covid crisis the PM has chosen to focus on his TikTok game, the Spokesperson said: ”It’s not like he holds a RAT test is it mate?”

”The PM has one job and that’s to win the next election. You think Albo isn’t out there TikToking and Instagraming?”

”Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and get a new dog for the PM as his current one doesn’t test well with the focus groups.”

Mark Williamson

@MWChatShow

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Cartoon: Incredible global news 2021

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 25/12/2021 - 9:50am in

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