Still waiting

Well, it’s just gone 13:15 GMT and there’s no clear winner — or even a consensus on where we are. The BBC are saying it’s currently 224 to Biden and 213 to Trump …

… whereas The New York Times have Biden at 227 …

… and The Guardian have him at a lofty 238.


Still not enough yet, though. The wait continues. Here’s a summary.

Update 05/11/2020

A helpful clarification from the BBC.

US election 2020: Why do different news sites have different tallies?BBC News
This is because some news sites have projected wins in Arizona (meaning an extra 11 electoral college votes) and Wisconsin (10 electoral college votes) for Joe Biden. The BBC still considers these too early to project. … In Wisconsin, 99% of the votes have been counted, with the candidates neck and neck. In Arizona, 85% of votes have been counted, and Biden is leading with 51% of the votes, with Trump on 48%.

Either way, it’s a day to remember

After a long build-up, the USA has finally reached election day.

US election: A wild three-year campaign in three minutesBBC News
Billions of dollars spent, dozens of candidates, two nominees, one pandemic. What started with a little-known congressman in the summer of 2017 ended as the most expensive US presidential election of all time. It featured 26 candidates for the Democratic Party nomination, the first black and Asian-American woman vice-presidential nominee, and some other historic firsts.

Now we just have to wait.

You’re waiting for election results. It’s agony. Here’s what to do.The New York Times
All elections elicit this feeling to some degree. But the 2020 contest has raised the stakes, adding looming threats of disinformation and interference, contested results and a president who has repeatedly antagonized a deeply polarized electorate. It is an extremely stressful moment. The best description I’ve seen of our collective anxiety was from Mother Jones editor in chief Clara Jeffery: “The entire country is awaiting a biopsy result.”

For posterity, here’s the latest forecast from The Economist.

Forecasting the US 2020 electionsThe Economist
Our final pre-election forecast is that Joe Biden is very likely to beat Donald Trump in the electoral college.

We’ll have to wait and see. Are you staying up?

US election 2020 guide: what time results are expected – and what to watch forThe Guardian
Just like that, things get exciting. The 7pm hour [midnight GMT] sees most polls close in the titanically important state of Florida, which counts votes quickly – except when it doesn’t. As results begin to come in, look for election wonks (here’s a Twitter list) to begin raising their eyebrows significantly at whether Trump is matching his 2016 margins in this county or that. This is when election night can really start to feel one way or the other, so, expect emotions.

I think I might stay away from the TV till it’s all over.

‘It’s not up to him’: how media outlets plan to sidestep any Trump ‘victory’ newsThe Guardian
The president’s reported intention to make a premature – and potentially false – victory speech by the end of Tuesday night, with large numbers of mail-in ballots yet to be counted, has provoked intense journalistic debate. TV channels would be under pressure to air such an event on grounds that it is “news”, while aware that it amounted to dangerous misinformation that could stir violence across the nation and undermine the democratic process.

And I don’t expect social media to be any better either.

What to expect from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on election dayThe New York Times
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were misused by Russians to inflame American voters with divisive messages before the 2016 presidential election. The companies have spent the past four years trying to ensure that this November isn’t a repeat. They have spent billions of dollars improving their sites’ security, policies and processes. In recent months, with fears rising that violence may break out after the election, the companies have taken numerous steps to clamp down on falsehoods and highlight accurate and verified information.

But will it be enough?

What social media companies have fixed since the 2016 electionOneZero
Over the past four years, the major social platforms have reluctantly acknowledged that they have a role to play in preventing blatant abuse and exploitation of their platform by obviously bad-faith actors, and they’ve taken real steps toward addressing that. Halting, often confusing, and in many ways unsatisfying steps, but real steps nonetheless. … But reining in the most obvious and clear-cut abuses does very little to change the overall impact of social media on political discourse.

Whoever wins, things are different now.

How Donald Trump changed the internetThe Atlantic
But even though online life has changed for the better in at least a few tangible ways, it still feels bad—and Trump has made sure of that. We know how to describe a deluge of disinformation, but generally we can’t personally stamp it out. We can recognize the absurdity of the president tweeting over and over, in all caps, from a hospital, but we can’t do anything but gesture at it with a weak “???” We expect to see politicians making gross jokes about one another now, which are usually not even funny. We’ll continue to live this way whether Trump wins or loses.

Top flight fakery

A while ago I shared news of the world’s first AI presenter. And there’s lots here about fake news. But what about taking deepfake-style technology to produce true news?

Reuters uses AI to prototype first ever automated video reportsForbes
Developed in collaboration with London-based AI startup Synthesia, the new system harnesses AI in order to synthesize pre-recorded footage of a news presenter into entirely new reports. It works in a similar way to deepfake videos, although its current prototype combines with incoming data on English Premier League football matches to report on things that have actually happened. […]

In other words, having pre-filmed a presenter say the name of every Premier League football team, every player, and pretty much every possible action that could happen in a game, Reuters can now generate an indefinite number of synthesized match reports using his image. These reports are barely indistinguishable from the real thing, and Cohen reports that early witnesses to the system (mostly Reuters’ clients) have been dutifully impressed.

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(via Patrick Tanguay)

Update 26/02/2020

Just found another example of a deepfake video being used in a, if not true, at least positive sense.

We’ve just seen the first use of deepfakes in an Indian election campaignVice
When the Delhi BJP IT Cell partnered with political communications firm The Ideaz Factory to create “positive campaigns” using deepfakes to reach different linguistic voter bases, it marked the debut of deepfakes in election campaigns in India. “Deepfake technology has helped us scale campaign efforts like never before,” Neelkant Bakshi, co-incharge of social media and IT for BJP Delhi, tells VICE. “The Haryanvi videos let us convincingly approach the target audience even if the candidate didn’t speak the language of the voter.”

Just what we need, more news

Via a Ben Evans newsletter, news of a new news aggregator from News Corp called ‘Knewz’.

Start spreadin’ the KnewzNews Corp
“Knewz is unique in that readers can, at a single glance, see multiple sources. It is not egregious aggregation but generous aggregation. There are mastheads from across the political and regional spectrum, and premium publishers will not be relegated in the rankings,” said Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp.

Knewz.com works by combining cutting edge, proprietary artificial intelligence with experienced editors. The technology constantly scans hundreds of real news sources, and editors curate a selection of headlines that provide a broad perspective on stories of the day.

Of course they mention artificial intelligence. But there’s more.

“Readers will have access to publishers large and small, niche and general, located in all 50 states,” said Mr. Thomson. “We live in a world of vexatious verticals, of crass clickbait, of polarized perspectives and fallacious, fact-free feeds – Knewz is knowing and needed. Knewz nous is in the house.”

Do people really talk like that? I guess they’re trying to compete with Google News, but I think the look of it is a bit shouty and off-putting.

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Twitter news echoes

Grumpy old man alert! I know everyone uses Twitter to find news these days, but I can do without news organisations passing off as news what’s simply a report on what’s been said on Twitter. Hashtag: lazy-journalism-question-mark; hashtag: these-are-not-slow-news-days-after-all; hashtag: 24-hour-news-filler-I-can-do-without; hashtag: yes-I-know-hashtags-don’t-work-like-this.

Trump’s new Space Force logo looks awfully familiar to Star Trek fansThe Verge
Although, as one user on Twitter noted, the designers did seem to take some cues from the NASA logo, predominantly the exact placement of the stars that appear to have been copied over directly.

Philip Pullman calls for boycott of Brexit 50p coin over ‘missing’ Oxford commaThe Guardian
“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” wrote the novelist on Twitter, while Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell wrote that, while it was “not perhaps the only objection” to the Brexit-celebrating coin, “the lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me”.

Broadcasters speak up for Alastair Stewart after ITV News exitBBC News
ITV presenter Julie Etchingham wrote on Twitter: “So sad to learn this – we have worked on many big stories together & Al is a trusted friend and guide to many of us.”

Time to take Media Studies seriously

There’s nothing new about fake news and misinformation, now. These topics are part of our landscape, unfortunately, and we must do our best to deal with them. A thorough understanding of the media is needed now more than ever.

Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in SchoolsNational Literacy Trust
[T]he final report from the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools, published on 13 June 2018, found that only 2% of children and young people in the UK have the critical literacy skills they need to tell if a news story is real or fake. It also found that almost two-thirds of teachers believe fake news is harming children’s well-being by increasing levels of anxiety, damaging their self-esteem and skewing their world view.

Only 2%? That’s shocking.

Why media education in schools needs to be about much more than ‘fake news’The Conversation
A growing number of educators, policy makers and third-sector groups are calling for news and critical digital literacy to be taught in schools, with over half of teachers reporting that the current national curriculum does not equip pupils with the literacy skills they need to tackle fake news.

In its final report on Fake News, published in February 2019, the UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee reiterated its calls for digital literacy to be the fourth pillar of education alongside reading, writing and maths. But thus far these calls have fallen on deaf ears.

It’s not just our young people that need upskilling in this area, of course. Remember that photo of the boy lying on the floor of the LGI during the election campaign?

‘Do not believe a stranger on social media who disappears into the night’ – An open letter from our editor to youYorkshire Post
Margaret, it may well be that those who will benefit the most by breaking the bond of trust you have with the likes of The Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post have already won, but I urge you to consider which news source you can get in touch with. Who is willing to look you in the eye and tell you they did their best to get it right versus those who pop up on Facebook, spout something so compelling that others share it, and with that undermine the truth and discombobulate decent citizens.

So much to read, so little time

Somhow Robert Cottrell, the man behind the Browser newsletter, manages to read almost the entire web every day, in order to find and share the best with his thousands of subscribers, including me.

The man who reads 1,000 articles a daySuperorganizers
But the verb ‘to read’ isn’t exactly right to describe what he does. Ingest is a little bit closer. But it doesn’t quite hit it on the nose, either. Ingestion implies that what he’s doing is a mechanical, rote activity. No, Robert Cottrell eats articles. With gusto and verve.

It’s encouraging to learn he uses some of the same tools I use for this blog—Feedly and Pinboard.

Feedly is an RSS reader for the iPad that aggregates all of the articles I want to read from publications I’ve selected. Currently, I’ve got about 700 RSS feeds in my Feedly — meaning it’s aggregating about 700 publications for me every day. …

I follow quite a lot of people on Pinboard, and so between MetaFilter and Pinboard that adds about another 360 posts a day to the feed.

I have a similar, albeit much reduced, system here, though I can only snatch a few moments each day on it.

Something I worry about with all these feeds and newsletters and blogs that I look through to find things to share here is FOMS, Fear Of Missing Something. When there’s so much to read you have to skip through a lot, and leave many articles unread. But what if you missed something really interesting, something worth highlighting and sharing?

You just have to let it go, I guess, and move on. It’s ok.

We need some new news

2019 has been an … interesting year for political news reporting and current affairs.

What we learned about the media this electionThe Guardian
The British public were more than capable of creating their own disinformation. Ahead of the election there were concerns about foreign manipulation of the electoral process. Although there were some issues – the prime minister refused to let a report into Russian money be released pre-election, and Reddit suggested a Russian-linked account may have helped distribute leaked US-UK trade papers – ordinary, politicised Britons proved more than capable of creating their own fake posts.

Looking forward to 2020, here are 10 themes for newsNew York Times
People crave transparency. Similar to the shift we’ve seen in the farm-to-table movement around food sourcing and production, people want to know what goes into news production. In dozens of conversations with people around the world, we heard that people want more than just the story: they want to know why it’s being told, who is telling it and how it came together. News consumers want to pull back the curtain to understand why a headline was written a certain way, or why a particular story was featured over another on a home page. They want to know that specific information was verified by multiple sources, or that reporters pored over thousands of pages of documents for a particular story.

The public hears claims of “fake news” just as often as people who work in media. When people understand the process and people involved in telling a story, they are more likely to trust it.

It’s not all bad news, of course.

99 good news stories you probably didn’t hear about in 2019Future Crunch
If we want to change the story of the human race in the 21st century, we have to change the stories we tell ourselves.

But even here, we need to be careful.

The year in good news 2019 (and the bad news about good news)Kottke
But at this point I feel obligated to remind myself (and perhaps you as well) that focusing mostly on positive news isn’t great either. A number of thinkers — including Bill Gates, Steven Pinker, Nicholas Kristof, Max Roser — are eager to point out that the world’s citizens have never been safer, healthier, and wealthier than they are now. And in some ways that is true! But in this long piece for The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman addresses some of the reasons to be skeptical of these claims.

Let’s see what the new year has in store.

A year of unrest

It’s that time of year again.

Top 25 news photos of 2019The Atlantic
As we approach the end of a year of unrest, here is a look back at some of the major news events and moments of 2019. Massive protests were staged against existing governments in Hong Kong, Chile, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Haiti, Algeria, Sudan, and Bolivia, while climate-change demonstrations and strikes took place worldwide. An impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump was started, conflict in Syria continued, the United States won the Women’s World Cup, Hurricane Dorian lashed the Bahamas, and so much more.

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See also 2019: The year revolt went global.

The year in pictures 2019The New York Times
5.6 million. That’s roughly the number of images photo editors of The New York Times sift through each year to find the perfect photographs to represent the news for our readers. This collection of images is a testament to a mere fraction of the conflicts and triumphs, catastrophes and achievements and simple but poignant moments of everyday life in the past 365 days.

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Not an easy task.

From 500,000 photos to 116: How our editors distill the year in picturesThe New York Times
Mr. Furst described the initial stage as daunting: “When you feel like you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you’re reminded that you missed a dozen different news events or these 20 photographers or these 15 projects in the newsroom.” …

“One of the big balances is news value versus craftsmanship and beauty,” Mr. Henson Scales said. “We’re always having to juggle those kinds of elements.”

Getting just the right mix of images was the most challenging part. The editors considered a number of factors, such as the impact of a photo or its ability to delight, and the variety of images in each month. A beautiful, poignant picture could edge out a more newsworthy one, and vice versa.

Resisting political negativity

It’s hard to stay positive about politics these days.

Chief Rabbi launches unprecedented attack on ‘mendacious’ Jeremy Corbyn over Jew hateThe Jewish Chronicle
Also highlighting shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s claim that the party is now “doing everything” to tackle the crisis, the Chief Rabbi says: “The claims by leadership figures in the Labour Party that it is ‘doing everything’ it reasonably can to tackle the scourge of anti-Jewish racism and that it has ‘investigated every single case’ are a mendacious fiction.” …

In a clear reference to Jewish MPs such as Dame Louise Ellman, Luciana Berger and also to the whistleblowers who spoke out about Labour’s failure to tackle the problem in a BBC Panorama documentary, he writes: “We sit powerless, watching with incredulity as supporters of the Labour leadership have hounded parliamentarians, party members and even staff out of the party for facing down anti-Jewish racism.”

Harry Dunn’s family urge voters to unseat Dominic RaabThe Guardian
They said: “We are not political people. Whatever political thoughts we hold we generally keep to ourselves. But the enormity and shocking nature of what has happened to us have left us feeling compelled to come to Esher and Walton this evening in the midst of the current election campaign. We feel that his handling of our situation has been so outrageously dishonourable and disrespectful that we have a duty to respectfully bring these matters to the direct attention of that local community that have until now voted him into this position.”

Tony Blair says Tories and Labour engaged in ‘populism running riot’The Guardian
“We’re a mess,” Blair said. “The buoyancy of the world economy has kept us going up to now, but should that falter, we will be in deep trouble. Investment is down; jobs in certain sectors are already moving; our currency stays devalued sharply; and market sentiment swings between anxiety and alarm.

“And across a range of international issues which matter to us, we’re irrelevant – too preoccupied to spare overstretched bandwidth of attention. Our politics is utterly dysfunctional.”

Nine key facts about the election everyone keeps getting wrongWired UK
The 2019 general election is proving to be one of the most complicated to discern, as candidates and political parties move away from traditional truth-stretching and fact-massaging to more malicious potential falsehoods.

The public have also picked up on it, too, becoming more tribal, overlooking obvious facts when they do not chime with their viewpoint. It’s also an immensely important election, so we’ve taken the time to look at several key areas and bust some “facts” you may hear from the mouths of politicians, pundits and the general public that prove to be… less than factual.

I need to revisit my earlier post, I think, It’s not all bad news, and its links to Hans Rosling’s work. I’m currently reading and thoroughly enjoying his “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think”, a book needed now more than ever.

FactfulnessGapminder
Factfulness is a relaxing habit for critical thinking. It helps you maintain a fact-based worldview. It teaches you how to recognise and avoid the most common ways information gets misinterpreted.

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The Twitter Presidency

Some people think Twitter’s latest announcement about banning political ads is one others should copy.

The Irish Times view on Twitter’s ad ban: over to you, Facebook
In an important announcement on Wednesday, Twitter chief executive and co-founder Jack Dorsey promised the platform would ban all political advertisements – including ads about political issues – by late November. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” he said. …

On Wednesday, Dorsey pointedly tweeted: “This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.” He’s right. Facebook and others should follow Twitter’s example.

Here’s a different take on that, though.

Twitter’s political ad ban is disingenuous: The platform will continue spreading false political statements free of charge — and benefiting from it
In fact, I’d rather see a misleading statement by a politician clearly marked as an ad than endlessly replicated on my Twitter feed as organic content. It’s hard to disagree with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s contention that it makes more sense to increase political advertising transparency than to impose a complete ban on such paid content.

Of course, some “politicians” are getting their message out for free. Here’s a visually striking, in-depth article from The New York Times on how crazy Trump’s Twitter tantrums and tactics have become.

How Trump reshaped the Presidency in over 11,000 tweets
When Mr. Trump entered office, Twitter was a political tool that had helped get him elected and a digital howitzer that he relished firing. In the years since, he has fully integrated Twitter into the very fabric of his administration, reshaping the nature of the presidency and presidential power. …

“Boom. I press it,” Mr. Trump recalled months later at a White House conference attended by conservative social media personalities, “and, within two seconds, ‘We have breaking news.’”

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Less elder-statesman, more oversugared-bullying-kid-in-sweet-shop. We’ll need to amend the dictionary definition of presidential, when all this is over.

There are other articles in this series, but I’m reluctant to subject myself to more of this craziness.

Googling Boris

Google turned 21 the other day. According to a Google search, Boris Johnson is 55.

Is Boris Johnson really trying to game Google search results?
One theory is that Johnson is trying to downplay negative news coverage of events by seeding news stories into Google search results by using similar phrases and key terms that are more positive. For instance – the hypothesis goes – by saying he was the “model of restraint”, Johnson was attempting to divert attention from stories detailing his alleged affair with former model Jennifer Arcuri, which became less visible in search results for “Boris Johnson model”.

His speech in front of the police was meant to distract from reports that the police were called to the flat he shared with girlfriend Carrie Symonds following an alleged domestic dispute, while the kipper incident was meant to downplay connections with UKIP (whose supporters are called kippers). The claim about painting buses, finally, was supposedly intended to reframe search results about the contentious claim that the UK sends £350 million to Europe branded on the side of the Brexit campaign bus.

“It’s a really simple way of thinking about it, but at the end of the day it’s what a lot of SEO experts want to achieve,” says Jess Melia of Parallax, a Leeds-based company that identified the theory with Johnson’s claim to paint model buses.

But, as that article from Parallax goes on to explain, this could all be coincidental nonsense.

Boris Johnson: the unlikely SEO strategist
And yet, all that being said, perhaps we’re giving him too much credit here. Maybe, when questioned, he was merely grasping for something other than “running through a field of wheat”. Or maybe he was simply staring out of the window and saw a bus go past. Or perhaps he really does enjoy making model buses out of crates.

Complete and utter genius, or an accidental fluke? Whatever you think, it’s certainly made one thing happen for Boris – we’re all talking about him. Again.

Damn. Now I am, too.

Political persuasion 2.0

I’ve been enjoying (if that’s the right word) Wired UK’s recent articles on how technology is being used against us.

A bitter turf war is raging on the Brexit Wikipedia page
Other debates revolve around the Brexit jargon and the page’s 19-word-strong glossary. Is Leaver the best way to refer to Brexit supporters, or is Brexiteer more common? And is “Remoaner” the remain-supporting version of “Brextremist” or is the latter somehow nastier? A recent question on the Brexit talk page, where editors discuss changes to the article, raises another question about the term Quitlings. Is it something to do with quislings, and if so, shouldn’t the glossary mention that? For now, the consensus is that yes, it is a reference to the Norwegian Nazi sympathiser Vidkun Quisling – whose name has evolved into a synonym for traitor – but that the term isn’t widely used enough to justify including it in the article.

The Brexit Party is winning social media. These numbers prove it
The extraordinary level of this online engagement is inextricable from the populist nature of Farage’s message. “Polarised content does brilliantly, hence Farage has significantly more reach than any of the main political figures of the UK,” says Harris. “His content will receive significant numbers of shares, comments (both positive and negative) and likes and negative dislikes, and will have more organic reach than content from mainstream political parties that people like to see in their timeline but don’t like or comment on it because they passively agree with it.”

The EU elections are next week. Fake news is not the problem
Information operations are rarely about changing the things people believe, but changing the way they feel. Anger and fear are not things we can correct with better facts. As we head into the EU election, this fact should be at the forefront of our minds. Media monitoring is vital, and the work of fact-checking organisations to identify, correct and call out false information is a necessary and valuable part of this. But it is crucial that we look beyond the accuracy of the news, and zero in on how the media ecosystem as a whole is being manipulated. Inflammatory trending stories, harassment of journalists, feverish online debates – the public discourse behind all of these is being pushed and prodded by those who want to see us angry, divided, and mistrustful of each other.

The secret behind Gina Miller’s anti-Brexit tactical voting crusade
Miller’s Remain United campaign uses a technique called multilevel regression and poststratification (MRP) to analyse polling data and identify which Remain-supporting party stands the best chance of winning seats in the European elections on May 23. Remainers are encouraged to vote for those parties in order to secure a sizeable pro-EU representation from the United Kingdom in the European parliament.

No change

Another great find from Futility Closet.

Unquote
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” — Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, Jan. 21, 1980

I wonder why that quote, from 1980, made me think of this news item from just the other day, in 2019.

Why the attack on our cameraman was no surprise
President Trump interrupted his speech and checked that Ron was OK. But there was no condemnation. No statement that this was unacceptable. The Trump campaign issued a two-line statement on the incident, but equally did not condemn what happened. What conclusion should we draw from that? What message does it send to people who feel hostile towards the media?

A strange morning

The Quartz Daily Brief is just one of several email newsletters I like to start my day with, on my commute to work on the number 97. A variety of topics are covered, some catch my eye more than others—politics, yes; business, not so much—but today’s ‘Surprising Discoveries’ section was so odd I just have to share it all with you.

Jack Dorsey sent his facial hair to Azealia Banks. The Twitter CEO wanted the rapper to make a protective amulet out of his beard shavings.

A judge ordered a Missouri poacher to watch Bambi on repeat. He has to watch the Disney classic at least once a month during his year-long jail sentence.

Actual witches want Trump to stop saying “witch hunt.” They say his comparison of the Mueller investigation to their painful history is disrespectful.

A diamond the size of an egg was unearthed in Canada. The value of the 552-carat “fancy yellow” gem will depend on the cutting (subscription).

The year 536 was the worst to be alive. A mysterious global fog covered half of the planet for 18 months, leading to constant darkness, crop failure, and mass starvation.

That’s quite a collection of strangeness for one morning. Sign up for your own odd start to the day.

Less talk, more thinking

Two recent articles, from within different contexts but with the same unconventional conclusion: most political debates are pointless and serve just to reinforce division and animosity.

Against debate
The confident assertion of a clear statement beats caution and caveats. Experiments tell us that people often mistake overconfidence for competence thereby selecting for it and against actual ability. Debates favour articulate overconfident posh folk who in fact know nothing – which is why we got into this mess.

Resolved: Debate is stupid
People — yes, even you — do not make decisions on an entirely rational basis. An audience is more easily won over with a one-liner that inspires applause or laughter than a five-minute explanation of a complicated phenomenon. A false statistic repeated confidently will be more convincing than a truth stated haltingly by some guy you’ve never heard of.

And here’s another article that I think is related. It’s from Slate and wants to be about how Twitter is finally proving itself to be a useful, benevolent platform for debate, with historians acting as fact-checkers and context-providers. I’m not so sure.

Viral history Twitter threads: 2018 was the year historians embraced the platform.
Historians used the Twitter thread to add context and accuracy to the news cycle in 2018. Here’s how they did it.

I’m growing more and more disillusioned with Twitter, and social media in general. Yes, these longer sets of tweets can provide ‘explanations of complicated phenomena’, and are interesting to read. But are we really saying that Twitter, with its average tweet length of about 50 characters, can overcome those problems with political debates, highlighted above? Or are they just preaching to the converted?

How many tweets have you seen that have included the words, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

A year of (mostly bad?) news

They say we all love bad news, which is all we ever get these days.

The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences
News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up.

And so we have another something of the year article, this time a hundred news photographs from Reuters.

Pictures of the year 2018

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Lots of shouting, lots of people in dreadful situations, lots of heart-wrenching tragedies. None of it I really want to show here, to be honest.

It wasn’t all like that, though, thankfully. Remember these, for instance?

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And if you want more, there’s this year’s Atlantic In Focus series:

2018 in photos: How the first months unfolded

2018 in photos: A look at the middle months

2018 in photos: Wrapping up the year

Will 2019 look any different, I wonder.

What’s the rush?

Pinch and a punch for the first of the month, and all that. But doesn’t Christmas seem to start earlier and earlier each year?

How long before we see Santa in July? Consult Quartz’s Christmas Creep Calculator™
Quartz has fed the latest data into its Christmas Creep Calculator™, which for years has harnessed cutting-edge artificial intelligence, sophisticated machine learning, and the “Add Trendline” function in Microsoft Excel to project the path of the Christmas shopping season creeping ever earlier in the calendar. Behold:

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In short, 2130. And they have a Mariah Carey calculator now, too.

Is this headlong rush into the festive season symptomatic of our culture speeding up more generally? This piece from the Verge thinks so.

Time is different now
There was an Olympics this year. Black Panther, too. If that surprises you to remember — as it surprises me — that’s because so much else has happened since. (“Everything happens so much,” wrote the Twitter account @horse_ebooks in the summer of 2012, which is as good a motto for these days as any.) Things are speeding up, or at least they seem to be.

I wonder, though. Maybe we’re just getting bored quicker, and more keen to move on to the next thing on the conveyor belt, and the next, and the next.

 

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bq1qi3NloQu/

YouTube’s conspiracy problem rears its ugly head again

The recent wildfire in California has been devastating for the towns and communities involved. This video gives us a glimpse of what some people have had to face. It’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t filmed at night.

Family drive through flames escaping California wildfire

A video on YouTube, shared via the Guardian News channel. But it’s YouTube that’s again in the news, over the blatantly false videos it hosts and the mechanisms for publicising them.

YouTube lets California fire conspiracy theories run wild
The Camp Fire in California has killed at least 79 people, left 699 people unaccounted for, and created more than a thousand migrants in Butte County, California. In these circumstances, reliable information can literally be a matter of life [and] death. But on YouTube, conspiracy theories are thriving.

I don’t want to go into the theories themselves, the specifics aren’t important.

But the point isn’t that these conspiracy theorists are wrong. They obviously are. The point is that vloggers have realized that they can amass hundreds of thousands of views by advancing false narrative, and YouTube has not adequately stopped these conspiracy theories from blossoming on its platform, despite the fact that many people use it for news. A Pew Research survey found that 38% of adults consider YouTube as a source of news, and 53% consider the site important for helping them understand what’s happening in the world.

Combine those statistics with these, from the Guardian, and you can see the problem.

Study shows 60% of Britons believe in conspiracy theories
“Conspiracy theories are, and as far as we can tell always have been, a pretty important part of life in many societies, and most of the time that has gone beneath the radar of the established media,” said Naughton. “Insofar as people thought of conspiracy theories at all, we thought of them as crazy things that crazy people believed, [and that] didn’t seem to have much impact on democracy.”

That dismissive attitude changed after the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in 2016, he said.

And that’s why these accounts of conspiracy theory vloggers manipulating YouTube to get millions of views for their blatantly false videos are so important.

The issue of conspiracy theorists in a society far predates platforms like YouTube. However, platforms such as YouTube provide new fuel and routes through which these conspiracy theories can spread. In other words, conspiracy theories are the disease, but YouTube is a whole new breed of carrier.

How on (the round) earth can we fix this?