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.

An ugly problem, a possible solution

Taylor Lorenz at The Atlantic takes a long, hard look at Instagram and the extent of the misinformation and extremist ideologies that riddle the site.

Instagram is the internet’s new home for hate
Following just a handful of these accounts can quickly send users spiraling down a path toward even more extremist views and conspiracies, guided by Instagram’s own recommendation algorithm. On March 17, I clicked Follow on @the_typical_liberal. My account lit up with follow requests from pages with handles alluding to QAnon, and the app immediately prompted me to follow far-right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Laura Loomer, Alex Jones, and Candace Owens, as well as a slew of far-right meme pages such as @unclesamsmisguidedchildren and @the.new.federation. Following these pages resulted in suggestions for pages dedicated to promoting QAnon, chemtrails, Pizzagate, and anti-vaccination rhetoric.

On and on it goes.

@q_redpillworld17, for instance, which requested to follow me after I followed @the_typical_liberal, has posted several videos and images claiming proof that the New Zealand shooting was a “false flag”; one post compares the mosque’s blood-spattered carpet with another image, implying that the carpets don’t match so the shooting was staged. Another is a graphic video of the shooting, with a caption claiming that the bullets disappeared mid-air. Another suggests 200 examples of proof that the Earth is flat. Another falsely claims that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is secretly connected to the Clintons, who feed baby blood to George Soros.

It’s interesting, vital reading, with links to Instagram accounts I’m certainly not going to follow or even link to here.

But what can be done? Ignore the worries of the privacy, anti-censorship and free-speech activists and regulate the whole tech industry? Yes, let’s start with that.

The white paper on online harms is a global first. It has never been more needed
Some of the worries seemed rooted in the classic error of confusing the internet with a few giant companies that have come to dominate that world. In reality, the problem we have is not the internet so much as those corporations that ride on it and allow some unacceptable activities to flourish on their platforms, activities that are damaging to users and, in some cases, to democracy, but from which the companies profit enormously. Sooner or later, democracies will have to bring these outfits under control and the only question is how best to do it. The white paper suggests one possible way forward.

It does so by going to the heart of the problem – corporate responsibility.

[…]

The white paper says that the government will establish a new statutory duty of care on relevant companies “to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services”. Fulfilment of this duty will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator with formidable powers and sanctions at its disposal. Companies will have to fulfil their new legal duties or face the consequences and “will still need to be compliant with the overarching duty of care even where a specific code does not exist, for example assessing and responding to the risk associated with emerging harms or technology”.

You can read the White Paper online and judge for yourself.

Still being led by donkeys

I’ve mentioned them before, but I’m more than happy to share another article about them. It was great to see one of their billboards just down the road from me here in Leeds, and here they are again, on that recent Brexit march.

How the viral Led by Donkeys anti-Brexit campaign is haunting flip-flopping politicians
On a weekend that featured an array of aesthetically creative Brexit protest signs, the most memorable was perhaps the simplest: just a quote from arch-Brexiteer David Davis, blown up to massive size and unfurled over the thousands of protestors gathered in London’s Parliament Square.

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I thin they’re right about the impact of these physical, in-your-face representations of what could be seen as throwaway lines.

Richard says that the effectiveness of the group’s tactics has something to do with relationship between offline and online speech. “We discovered that if you take a digital format, a digital message and you put it up on a six-meter-by-three-meter billboard in a town centre, in a physical space, it forces that politician to own those words,” he says. Bringing an online quote into the offline world seems to overcome the internet’s ephemerality; it makes a statement more substantial.

Another take on all that.

The Brexit farce is about to turn to tragedy
Welcome to Disneyland. Leading Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg is playing Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice from Fantasia; Theresa May is the wicked witch from Snow White — though she is short on magic. Across the pond, an evil ogre known as Donald Trump is waiting to eat us all up.

It’s grim; but it’s a great learning experience. Has anyone learnt? Has former Brexit secretary David Davis worked out that his plan to leave the EU while retaining “the exact same benefits” as staying in the single market, was a little ambitious? Or that the Germans actually care more about the integrity of the EU than about selling Brits BMWs? Has Michael Gove finally noticed that we did not after all “hold all the cards” the day after we voted to leave? Has anyone worked out that frictionless trade is quite complicated, and that the dreary Brussels machinery does a good job for us?

We shouldn’t count on it.

I loved this last line. An inquiry is coming, surely?

Government by slogan does not work. Are we taking back control or handing it over to Brussels? By the time we find out, it will be too late. If the UK prime minister had a sense of humour, she would set up the committee of inquiry now, so it could take evidence in real time, as the tragedy unfolds.

MySpace isn’t your space anymore

Rolling Stone reflects on the news that MySpace has deleted all the music, photos and videos uploaded before 2016, seemingly as a result of a dodgy server migration project.

The internet is not your friend: MySpace and the loss of memories
But the loss was also deeply felt by nostalgia-happy millennials who came of age on MySpace, of which there are many: at its peak in 2006, MySpace had about 100 million users, many of whom were adolescents at the time. For those who were in their teens during those heady post-Friendster, pre-Facebook years, MySpace was nothing less than an introductory course in the fledgling field of How to Be Extremely Online — for better or, more likely than not, for worse.

So much of our lives is online now. Or rather, the memories of key events in our lives are tied to images and information kept online, outside of our control.

“There’s no way to recover the information we entrust to third parties,” Sarah Ditum wrote last week in a prophetic op-ed for the New Statesman. “We use Facebook, Gmail and Dropbox in the expectation that whatever we put there today will still exist tomorrow, but that can be a misplaced faith.” And that faith can come with some seriously devastating consequences, as evidenced by the posts from distraught posters on Reddit, one of whom is a father whose son passed away at 20, who now no longer is able to access a guitar demo he recorded at the age of seven. While we may refer to the disappearance of our embarrassing post-sex selfies and Taking Back Sunday-lyric-laden status updates as a “blessing,” it certainly doesn’t feel that way to those of with lost loved ones, whose connections to their online lives, however tenuous they may be, are some of the only connections they still have.

Kids and screens

There’s a lot of talk about today’s children oversharing on social media. But what kind of example are the parents setting?

When kids realize their whole life is already online
While many kids may not yet have accounts themselves, their parents, schools, sports teams, and organizations have been curating an online presence for them since birth. The shock of realizing that details about your life—or, in some cases, an entire narrative of it—have been shared online without your consent or knowledge has become a pivotal experience in the lives of many young teens and tweens.

It seems we’re all on our screens, all the time. That plural is key, though, isn’t it? It used to be that there was only the one screen at home — the TV in the living room — but now everyone has their own screen and we sit and watch them all separately.

Here’s a report on research Ofcom carried out on what children are watching, and what they’re watching it on.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why
The evidence gives a sense of what attracts them to online video rather than traditional TV – and just how much has changed in the course of a generation.

We’ve got a couple of teenagers in the house, and so some of these conclusions struck a nerve. Here’s an extract about live TV.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why – A report for Ofcom (pdf)

What role does live TV play in children’s lives?

Key findings

• Most children viewed live TV as a family ritual, often watching programmes routinely every year (e.g. Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!)

• Parents welcomed live TV as an opportunity for “family time”, and were often actively encouraging their children to join them for communal TV watching

• Children were often using live TV as ’background noise’ while doing another task or to fill time while they were waiting for something

• Most live TV viewing was on a communal screen or device and therefore usually it was a compromised choice between those watching (e.g. parents and siblings)

[…]

Conclusions

The children loved being able to find whatever they wanted, whenever they liked. As YouTube responds to demand, it can offer a seemingly limitless choice of content. YouTube offers everything they could possibly want, and then allows them to easily access more of what they like the most. […]

Live TV is explicitly thought of by the children and their parents as an opportunity for “family time”, when they all sit down to watch something together. However, the children tended to feel that they weren’t choosing the content themselves, or it was a compromised choice. At other times children put live TV on for a few minutes as a ‘time filler’ while they were waiting for something or had a few minutes to spare. Overall, children seem most attracted to content that they can view on their own device, over which they can exercise maximum choice, and which directly feeds the things that interest them.

I think I miss that “family time”. It feels less natural now than it did when the kids were little.

Stop, we want to get off

Shortly before he died in 2015, Oliver Sacks wrote this slightly melancholic article about his fears for the future of a society so obsessed with “pee ring into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces”, oblivious to their surroundings.

I’m not sure why the New Yorker has published this now, four years later, but I must admit to sharing some of his concerns.

The Machine Stops, by Oliver Sacks
In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing.

[…]

I have only to venture into the streets of my own neighborhood, the West Village, to see such Humean casualties by the thousand: younger people, for the most part, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.

Out of curiosity, I took the option on the New Yorker webpage of having this article read to me. I enjoyed the irony of listening, right at the end, to an advert for an iPhone app.

Here comes nobody

Yesterday there were millions of us, today there’s nobody here at all.

AI fake face website launched
A software developer has created a website that generates fake faces, using artificial intelligence (AI). Thispersondoesnotexist.com generates a new lifelike image each time the page is refreshed, using technology developed by chipmaker Nvidia. Some visitors to the website say they have been amazed by the convincing nature of some of the fakes, although others are more clearly artificial.

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They look like us, and now they can write like us too.

AI text writing technology too dangerous to release, creators claim
Researchers at OpenAI say they have created an AI writer which “generates coherent paragraphs of text, achieves state-of-the-art performance on many language modeling benchmarks and performs rudimentary reading comprehension, machine translation, question answering and summarisation — all without task-specific training.”

But they are withholding it from public use “due to our concerns about malicious applications of the technology”.

Of course, it’s not just AI that’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

How to catch a catfisher
Last year, I found out someone was using my photos to catfish women. He stole dozens of my online photos – including selfies, family photos, baby photos, photos with my ex – and, pretending to be me, he would then approach women and spew a torrent of abuse at them.

It took me months to track him down, and now I’m about to call him.

Machines pretending to be people, people pretending to be other people. At least we’re truthful with ourselves, right?

Be honest, how much do you edit YOUR selfies?
“It’s time to acknowledge the damaging effects that social media has on people’s self-image,” says Rankin of the project, which is part of a wider initiative to explore the impact of imagery on our mental health.

“Social media has made everyone into their own brand. People are creating a two-dimensional version of themselves at the perfect angle, with the most flattering lighting and with any apparent ‘flaws’ removed. Mix this readily-available technology with the celebrities and influencers flaunting impossible shapes with impossible faces and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

here-comes-nobody-2

Better off without it?

It seems every day there’s a new delete-your-Facebook-account article doing the rounds, but what happens if you did? Would the effects on your wellbeing really be as positive as people suggest? New research would suggest the answer is yes.

What would happen if Facebook were turned off?
Those booted off enjoyed an additional hour of free time on average. They tended not to redistribute their liberated minutes to other websites and social networks, but chose instead to watch more television and spend time with friends and family. They consumed much less news, and were thus less aware of events but also less polarised in their views about them than those still on the network. Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

When Facebook’s troubles began

(Or rather, when our troubles with Facebook began.)

Things were very different in 2004.

15 moments that defined Facebook’s first 15 years
At that point, success meant having 250,000 users on the platform. In the decade and a half since, Facebook has added four zeroes to that figure, transforming from a website for poking your college crush to, arguably, the most powerful engine of communication in the world. Zuckerberg’s creation has, for better and for worse, forever changed how people connect, how businesses make money, how politicians seize power, and how information flows across communities and cultures. It’s where grannies share pictures of their grandkids and where state-sponsored trolls wage cyberwar against other countries. It’s how volunteers raise money for hurricane victims and how hate-mongers rally their followers to kill people.

I think this moment is the key one.

2. News Feed launches.
… But News Feed did more than alert users to the privacy risks inherent in all this sharing. It also began the process of consolidating a world of information into one, ceaseless scroll, personalized to every individual user’s interests and beliefs. The News Feed wrested control away from publishers, putting it in the hands of Facebook’s almighty algorithms.

Another take on that, from 2014.

How Facebook’s design has changed over the last 10 years
September 2006, a major development: Mini-Feed and News Feed debuted. These additions shook up the look of Facebook by shifting emphasis away from the profile and towards the actions people took on Facebook, moving the service from a directory to a feed. And people were not happy.

And this one, from 2013.

Facebook news feed changed everything
Looking back, it’s clear that news feed is one of the most important, influential innovations in the recent history of the Web. News feed forever altered our relationship to personal data, turning everything we do online into a little message for friends or the world to consume. You might not like this trend—or, at least, you might claim you don’t like this trend. But the stats prove you probably do. News feed is the basis for Facebook’s popularity, the thing that initially set it apart from every other social network, and the reason hundreds of millions of us go back to the site every day.

But news feed is bigger than that. Either directly or indirectly, it’s the inspiration for just about every social-media feature that has come along since. News feed paved the way for Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Flipboard, and Quora—for every site that thrives off of the communities created by lots of people’s individual contributions. News feed changed the media (it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed without it), advertising, politics, and, to the extent that it altered how we all talk to one another, society itself.

Who would have thought, at the time, that all that would lead us here — fake news and post truth.

Facebook partners with Snopes and Associated Press to tackle fake news
The update will make it easier for users to report hoax stories and also bring in third-party fact checking to investigate and flag reported stories. Facebook will also be looking at how many people share articles after they’ve read them and combine this data with disputed flags to push fake stories to the bottom of news feeds. Fact-checkers at ABC News, FactCheck.org, the Associated Press, Snopes and Politifact will be using a tool created by Facebook to help evaluate the truthfulness of stories that have been flagged as fake news.

That turned out not to be so easy.

Snopes ends their ‘debunking false stuff’ partnership with Facebook. Here’s why.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re striving to make third-party fact checking more practical for publishers — it seems like we’re striving to make it easier for Facebook. At some point, we need to put our foot down and say, ‘No. You need to build an API,’” Green said. “The work that fact-checkers are doing doesn’t need to be just for Facebook — we can build things for fact-checkers that benefit the whole web, and that can also help Facebook.”

Sounds like it wasn’t just a ‘bandwidth’ issue, but more a commitment to open systems versus closed. Once again, the people behind Snopes.com have my respect.

And for some further background reading, try these from Roger McNamee, author of Zucked – Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.

How to fix Facebook—before it fixes us
An early investor explains why the social media platform’s business model is such a threat—and what to do about it.

How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy
The sad truth is that Facebook and Google have behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits. And this has come at a cost to our health.

Hashtag political satire

Perhaps Twitter is good for something after all?

Four men with a ladder: the billboard campaigners battling Brexit
It all began, as most good ideas do, in the pub. They were talking about the infamous David Cameron tweet – “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong government with me or chaos with Ed Miliband” – which was doing the rounds again after Theresa May cancelled the vote on her deal in December. And someone said: why don’t they slap it on a billboard, make it the tweet you can’t delete?

hastag-political-satire

How an army of farcical fakes ruined Turning Point UK’s big day
The result was a surreal farrago of misunderstanding and noise. Fake accounts would call out Turning Point’s genuine handle as a fake set up by antifa extremists, and sometimes would even go as far as exposing other fellow fakes as fakes. It was fakes calling out convincing-looking fakes as fakes in order to reroute Twitter’s attention to other fakes.

hastag-political-satire-2

Social media’s biggest challenge

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has issued a challenge to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others that I think may be beyond them.

Social media urged to take ‘moment to reflect’ after girl’s death
In an open letter to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Pinterest and Snapchat, Anne Longfield said the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell has highlighted the “horrific” material that children were able to easily access online.

Here’s the letter, on the Children’s Commissioner website.

A public call for online platforms to do more to tackle social media content which is harmful to children
I do not think it is going too far to question whether even you, the owners, any longer have any control over their content. If that is the case, then younger children should not be accessing your services at all, and parents should be aware that the idea of any authority overseeing algorithms and content is a mirage. […]

The potential disruption to all user experiences should no longer be a brake on making the safety and wellbeing of young people a top priority. Neither should hiding behind servers and apparatus in other jurisdictions be an acceptable way of avoiding responsibility.

The recent tragic cases of young people who had accessed and drawn from sites that post deeply troubling content around suicide and self-harm, and who in the end took their own lives, should be a moment of reflection. I would appeal to you to accept there are problems and to commit to tackling them – or admit publicly that you are unable to. […]

It is your responsibility to support measures that give children the information and tools they need growing up in this digital world – or to admit that you cannot control what anyone sees on your platforms.

I really hope something comes of this. The social media companies say they’re working hard to create safe spaces, free from harmful content and disinformation, but where’s the evidence of that? Imagine if they did publicly admit they were unable to “accept there are problems and to commit to tackling them.”

Update 05/02/2019 A response from Instagram.

Instagram to launch ‘sensitivity screens’ after Molly Russell’s death
Adam Mosseri, who took over Instagram after the app’s founders departed suddenly in 2018, has promised a series of changes following the death of the British teenager Molly Russell, whose parents believe she took her own life after being exposed to graphic images of self-harm and suicide on Instagram and Pinterest.

 

“The most wonderful time of the year”

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The competitive business of recruiting pro Santas
“It’s incredibly demanding work,” says Ferrell. “If you’re at a big mall, you might see upwards of 3k kids per day. And with each one, you get 3-5 pictures. You’re looking at 10k bright flashes per day. When you get off, you can hardly see.” […]

In the line of duty, Ferrell has been sneezed on, vomited on, peed on — “everything that can come out” of a child has ended up in his lap. One Christmas, a 6-year-old headbutted him and split his eyebrow open, speckling his white fur lapel with blood. He now carries 3 extra suits for back-up.

Noerr Programs Santa University

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Merry Christmas cards give wrong message about alcohol, experts warn
Henry Cole is widely credited with creating the first commercial Christmas card, depicting a scene showing people drinking, in 1843. In 1980, an analysis of greetings cards revealed themes that suggested getting drunk is a natural and desirable element of celebrations and that drunkenness is humorous, enjoyable and harmless.

Instabrag humbug: why I’m giving up social media for Christmas
We went there just before Christmas last year. A great place to tweet #Christmasmagic from, without doubt, but unfortunately when we arrived, it rained so much it made Brexit look like a spa day. We were surrounded by cold, damp, bored kids. For three solid, awful days. Thing is, you’d never know that if you’re a Facebook fan/friend of mine. I lied, OK? I just wanted my life to look good, all right? I was only ever after the dopamine hit of the Likes. I’m only in this for the Likes. In the digital age, the only place we ever go on family holidays now is the Like District.

12-year-old’s Christmas list demonstrates heartbreaking awareness of family’s financial predicament
“A new controller would be great too, but honestly, the one I have isn’t that bad.”

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.”

Just Go+

The planned demise of Google+ isn’t going according to plan, it seems.

Google+ is shutting down sooner than expected
On Monday (Dec. 10), the company revealed that a security flaw could have exposed profile information such as names, email addresses, jobs, and ages of 52.5 million Google+ users without their permission in November. The Alphabet-owned company now says it will close down the main Google+ platform by April 2019, four months earlier than planned.

Well, at least they tried. Anyone remember this, from 2011?

Google takes buzz saw to Buzz, other appendages
“Changing the world takes focus on the future, and honesty about the past,” wrote Google VP for products Bradley Horowitz in a blog post on Friday. “We learned a lot from products like Buzz, and are putting that learning to work every day in our vision for products like Google+.”

By “honesty”, we can only assume that Horowitz means that Buzz – beset with a host of privacy problems from its inception – honestly never caught on.

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.

 

Online ‘truth decay’

Fake news is old news, but I came across a new phrase today — well, new to me, anyway.

You thought fake news was bad? Deep fakes are where truth goes to die
Citron, along with her colleague Bobby Chesney, began working on a report outlining the extent of the potential danger. As well as considering the threat to privacy and national security, both scholars became increasingly concerned that the proliferation of deep fakes could catastrophically erode trust between different factions of society in an already polarized political climate.

In particular, they could foresee deep fakes being exploited by purveyors of “fake news”. Anyone with access to this technology – from state-sanctioned propagandists to trolls – would be able to skew information, manipulate beliefs, and in so doing, push ideologically opposed online communities deeper into their own subjective realities.

“The marketplace of ideas already suffers from truth decay as our networked information environment interacts in toxic ways with our cognitive biases,” the report reads. “Deep fakes will exacerbate this problem significantly.”

Maybe I need to stop reading about fake news, it’s not good for my blood pressure. Just a couple more, then I’ll stop.

After murder and violence, here’s how WhatsApp will fight fake news
WhatsApp has announced it is giving 20 different research groups $50,000 to help it understand the ways that rumours and fake news spread on its platform. The groups are based around the world and will be responsible for producing reports on how the messaging app has impacted certain regions.

The range of areas that are being studied highlight the scale of misinformation that WhatsApp faces. One set of researchers from the UK and US are set to see how misinformation can lead to disease outbreaks in elderly people, one will look at how information was shared on WhatsApp in the 2018 Brazilian elections and another is examining how posts can go viral on the messaging service.

Inside the British Army’s secret information warfare machine
This new warfare poses a problem that neither the 77th Brigade, the military, or any democratic state has come close to answering yet. It is easy to work out how to deceive foreign publics, but far, far harder to know how to protect our own. Whether it is Russia’s involvement in the US elections, over Brexit, during the novichok poisoning or the dozens of other instances that we already know about, the cases are piling up. In information warfare, offence beats defence almost by design. It’s far easier to put out lies than convince everyone that they’re lies. Disinformation is cheap; debunking it is expensive and difficult.

Even worse, this kind of warfare benefits authoritarian states more than liberal democratic ones. For states and militaries, manipulating the internet is trivially cheap and easy to do. The limiting factor isn’t technical, it’s legal. And whatever the overreaches of Western intelligence, they still do operate in legal environments that tend to more greatly constrain where, and how widely, information warfare can be deployed. China and Russia have no such legal hindrances.

Are we doing the right thing?

As a parent of teenagers, I worry about this topic a lot.

What do we actually know about the risks of screen time and digital media?
The lumping of everything digital into a monolith is a framing that makes Oxford Internet Institute psychologist Andrew Przybylski groan. “We don’t talk about food time,” he points out. “We don’t talk about paper time. But we do talk about screen time.” […]

The new series of papers includes a look at childhood screen use and ADHD, the effects of media multitasking on attention, and the link between violent video games and aggression. The separate papers are a good reminder that these are really separate issues; even if screen time ends up being problematic in one area, it doesn’t mean it can’t have a positive effect in another.

Nothing’s ever straightfoward, is it? Like its conclusion, for instance.

So, is digital media a concern for developing minds? There’s no simple answer, in part because the uses of media are too varied for the question to really be coherent. And, while some research results seem robust, the catalogue of open questions is dizzying. Answering some of those questions needs not just a leap in research quality, but, argues Przybylski, a reframing of the question away from the way we think about tobacco and toward the way we think about information: “What are the most effective strategies parents can employ to empower young people to be proactive and critical users of technology?”

Others have firmly made up their minds, however.

A dark consensus about screens and kids begins to emerge in Silicon Valley
For longtime tech leaders, watching how the tools they built affect their children has felt like a reckoning on their life and work. Among those is Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company. He is also the founder of GeekDad.com. “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Mr. Anderson said of screens.

Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Is Instagram doing enough to stop bullying?

Instagram are rolling out some new mechanisms to reduce bullying, including comment filters and a new camera effect to promote kindness.

New tools to limit bullying and spread kindness on Instagram
While the majority of photos shared on Instagram are positive and bring people joy, occasionally a photo is shared that is unkind or unwelcome. We are now using machine learning technology to proactively detect bullying in photos and their captions and send them to our Community Operations team to review.

But is it enough? As a parent of teenagers (or for anyone really), this article from The Atlantic makes for depressing reading.

Teens are being bullied ‘constantly’ on Instagram
Teenagers have always been cruel to one another. But Instagram provides a uniquely powerful set of tools to do so. The velocity and size of the distribution mechanism allow rude comments or harassing images to go viral within hours. Like Twitter, Instagram makes it easy to set up new, anonymous profiles, which can be used specifically for trolling. Most importantly, many interactions on the app are hidden from the watchful eyes of parents and teachers, many of whom don’t understand the platform’s intricacies. […]

Sometimes teens, many of whom run several Instagram accounts, will take an old page with a high amount of followers and transform it into a hate page to turn it against someone they don’t like. “One girl took a former meme page that was over 15,000 followers, took screencaps from my Story, and Photoshopped my nose bigger and posted it, tagging me being like, ‘Hey guys, this is my new account,’” Annie said. “I had to send a formal cease and desist. I went to one of those lawyer websites and just filled it out. Then she did the same thing to my friend.” […]

Aside from hate pages, teens say most bullying takes place over direct message, Instagram Stories, or in the comments section of friends’ photos. “Instagram won’t delete a person’s account unless it’s clear bullying on their main feed,” said Hadley, a 14-year-old, “and, like, no one is going to do that. It’s over DM and in comment sections.”

Google+, we hardly knew ye

I admit, I did use this for a while, but I’m as surprised as others to learn that Google+ made it this far. ( I still miss Google Reader.)

The death of Google+ is imminent, says Google
Google’s decision follows the Wall Street Journal’s revelation. also published on Oct. 8, that the company exposed hundreds of thousands of Google+ users’ data earlier this year, and opted to keep it a secret:

A software glitch in the social site gave outside developers potential access to private Google+ profile data between 2015 and March 2018, when internal investigators discovered and fixed the issue, according to the documents and people briefed on the incident. A memo reviewed by the Journal prepared by Google’s legal and policy staff and shared with senior executives warned that disclosing the incident would likely trigger “immediate regulatory interest” and invite comparisons to Facebook’s leak of user information to data firm Cambridge Analytica.

That doesn’t make them look good, does it? But then, should we be surprised anymore?

Read books, not status updates

Another example of social media turning what should be a relaxing activity into a competitive sport, it seems.

Goodreads and the crushing weight of literary FOMO
Every few days or weeks, just when I started feeling positive about my biblio advancements, one of these messages would come across the transom: “Updates from…” Upon opening it, I’d find out that someone who I knew had a full-time job and active social life had finished two novels in the time it’d taken me to get through the jacket blurbs on David Sedaris’ latest essay collection. Deflation followed.

I know it’s just a light-hearted bit of filler from Wired which I shouldn’t take seriously, but surely we’re mature enough to stop comparing ourselves to others all the time? It’s a book, not a race.