All posts by Sheila

Data, Privacy And Propaganda

Every so often, I become convinced that we are entering a not-so-brave new world dominated by the wunderkind who are able to manipulate the internet and social media.

I’m old enough to remember–vividly!–when the internet was hailed as the great gift to democracy. Finally, people could express themselves free of the gatekeepers–the reporters, editors and other obstacles to unfettered communication. Instead, as one Brookings Institution scholar has noted, the business model of the internet—collecting and manipulating personal information to sell targeted services—has become a  tool for attacking democracy. Worse, as we learned in 2016, Russia and other foreign adversaries have proven especially talented in exploiting this capability.

Of course, the assaults on American electoral integrity don’t all come from other countries. In January–before media reporting became all Covid-19 all the time–the Independent Media Institute interviewed the producer of a film warning about the (mis)use of the Internet and social media by Republican operatives intent upon re-electing Trump.

The producer was Josh Fox, an Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker; his last documentary was “Gasland,” which has been credited with jump-starting the global anti-fracking movement. His new project, commissioned by HBO, is “The Truth Has Changed,” described in the article as “a live theater-based project that sounds the alarm on the right-wing disinformation campaign working to secure President Trump’s reelection.”

The Fox interview began with a fairly chilling description of the multiple  sophisticated ways in which fossil fuel companies had tried to discredit him and “Gasland.”

They created hate emails specifically designed for my personality. There were tweets threats; there were death threats on Twitter. They highlighted my life in the theater, my hairline, the fact that my family’s Jewish; they found out that I had quit smoking several years ago, but they found a picture of me with a cigarette in my hand online from the past, and they ran that as a pro-fracking TV ad in Ohio saying, “This environmentalist is a smoker.” They followed me around the country for years. They booked shadow tours of our films. They tapped into ethnic and regional stereotyping. And then they tried to paint me as some kind of rich, intellectual, New York City liberal, which is not the case. They flung all of these stereotypes at me. They gathered all this information about me—my background, my ethnicity, my age, my race, where I live, where I went to school, how much money I made, what I had done in my previous life before the films.

One of the people heavily involved in the campaign to discredit Fox was Steve Bannon. It didn’t take long for Fox to recognize that the techniques Bannon had used against him were being deployed against Hillary Clinton and the entire American electorate in 2016.

In developing “The Truth Has Changed,” I made two startling realizations. One was that the people who ran those campaigns against me had a very strong hand in influencing the 2016 election: Steve Bannon, who was running Breitbart when all these attacks were happening against me, took over the Trump campaign and his team profiled the electorate in the exact same way.

 Fox explained how the  techniques that allow advertisers to selectively segment audiences are used to influence voters. Political operatives have access to the personal data of tens of millions of people, and they use that information to create highly personalized ads that appeal to different personality types–and play to different prejudices.

The same folks are currently rallying white supremacists all across the world and are making a bid to get Trump reelected in 2020. Their digital campaign created 5.9 million different ad variations in 2016, versus just 66,000 ads created by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was so key to Trump’s victory that Trump’s digital campaign manager Brad Parscale is now his campaign manager.

Fox says that we have entered the “age of misinformation,” and the subsequent explosion of conspiracy theories about the  Coronavirus would seem to support that thesis. Perhaps his most chilling observation, however, was this:

If you put out a racist ad and only racists can see it, it causes absolutely no controversy, but it’s deeply effective in rallying people.

This is why privacy matters.

In our not-so-brave new world, if We the People don’t own and control our own data, it will be used by the corrupt and power-hungry in massive disinformation campaigns–campaigns of which we are totally  unaware–with truly terrifying consequences.

 

Yes, Donald, It Is Your Fault

I still remember being furious with my middle son over something (a high school test he’d blown off, as I recall); I was beginning a long “motherly” diatribe when he absolutely shut me down by saying “yes, it was my fault.”

Admitting when one is wrong isn’t just a sign of maturity–although it is certainly that. As my son had figured out, it’s also an effective counter to other people’s anger. That’s one of the many, many things our profoundly immature President doesn’t get.

In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman recently noted an exchange between a (simpering) Maria Bartiromo and Trump, in which Trump insisted that “no one” blames him for the economic havoc wreaked by the pandemic.  And of course, he has also disclaimed any and all responsibility for the spread of the virus–it was The W.H.O. or the CDC or China, or his favorite target, Obama.

Medical professionals beg to differ.

My cousin, a cardiologist, recently blogged about a recent editorial in the Lanceta well-regarded medical journal.  The editorial pinned responsibility squarely on the Trump administration for its  marginalization of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It called the extent of that marginalization dangerous for both the U.S. and the world. In the editorial, the journal pled with Americans to put a president in the White House who will understand that “public health should not be guided by partisan politics,” and enumerated the ways in which the Trump administration had weakened the agency.

As Waldman pointed out, absolving Trump of responsibility for our economic disaster requires accepting the “misleading formulation” that we must choose between saving lives or reopening the economy. In his opinion,

this depression is absolutely Trump’s fault. He made a series of disastrous decisions that led us to this point, and other countries that have had far different experiences illustrate what might have happened if we had a president who wasn’t so utterly incompetent…we lost two months when we could have been preparing for the pandemic that would inevitably arrive in the United States. Though Trump was repeatedly warned by people inside and outside his administration beginning in early January that a pandemic was on its way, he continued to dismiss the threat, praise the Chinese government for its response and insist that there was nothing to worry about.

It is now late May, and the U.S. still doesn’t have a national testing and tracing strategy to contain the pandemic. Meanwhile, Waldman points to the experience of countries fortunate enough to have competent leadership.

South Korea saw its first case of covid-19 on the same day we did, Jan. 20. But its government acted quickly with an aggressive program of testing and tracing to contain the spread. The result is that, as of this writing, we have nearly 85,000 deaths, while South Korea has just 260.

Like us, South Korea is facing economic challenges stemming from the pandemic. But its unemployment rate in April was 3.8 percent.

To take another example, Germany has been hit harder than many places by the virus. The Germans have recorded a few less than 8,000 deaths — a lot, but still only about a third as many as the United States on a per capita basis. But because Germany had a system in place in which the government covers payrolls in an emergency, its unemployment rate is only 5.8 percent, while ours heads past 20 percent.

I have a son who lives in Amsterdam. The Netherlands, like Germany, has covered payrolls, and is projecting an eventual “cataclysmic” unemployment rate of something under 9%. (The Netherlands also keeps its infrastructure in tip-top shape, but that’s a matter for a different rant.)

Waldman says our disastrous situation could have been avoided “if Trump wasn’t so shortsighted, so ignorant, so inept and so unwilling to believe what experts were telling him.”

True. And if he wasn’t a walking, incessantly-talking illustration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, or even if he was enough of an adult to acknowledge when he was wrong. But then, he’d be a different person.

A functioning adult.

A Picture’s Worth A Thousand Words…

Sometimes, visuals convey more information than text. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

As our mentally-ill President pretends he knows what he’s talking about and brags about what a “great” job his administration has done, and as too many states are fudging the numbers of dead and dying so that they can open much too quickly, a reality check is in order.

These pictures are from EndCoronavirus.com.They show the progress of various countries in combatting the pandemic. Spoiler alert: America is far–far--from being number one.

These countries do best:

 

A second, nearly equal number of countries, was shown at the link as “almost there.”

The third set was “Countries that need to take action”–i.e., countries doing the worst:

Picture this the next time Trump declares that we’re doing more testing than any other country–we aren’t, not even close–or that we’re ready to “re-open.” Better still, if you happen to come across Trump’s tweet about his proposed new motto–“Transition to Greatness”–click on this URL of the same name for the real story.

If his perverse refusal to listen to experts or learn only threatened the morons who insist that their “liberty” entitles them to ignore your safety, I might be inclined to say “let them go for it!” Unfortunately, they are endangering the rest of us.

As a friend pointed out recently, their “liberty” doesn’t allow them to drive 100 miles per hour on city streets, or to dispense with wearing clothing in public, either. Until they understand the legitimate limits of individual liberty, the “land of the free” won’t be free of the Coronavirus.

Climate Denial Coming Back To Bite Us

It’s all connected.

Not just climate change and the incidence of pandemics–which, it turns out, is a connection we need to understand and take seriously–but science denial and destructive public policies, among many other relationships.

As Talking Points Memo and Pro Publica have reported, scientists and medical researchers are just beginning to unravel the ways in which climate change affects the emergence of new diseases. It isn’t as though the relationship between the two was unknown; for many years now, experts in the field have been warning about the likelihood that a warming planet would accelerate the rate at which new diseases appear. But the mechanisms are just beginning to be understood.

The numbers are jaw-dropping: A new emerging disease surfaces five times a year. One study estimates that more than 3,200 strains of coronaviruses already exist among bats, just waiting for an opportunity to jump to people.

Those strains have always been there–but the planet previously had “natural defenses” that fought them off.

Today, climate warming is demolishing those defense systems, driving a catastrophic loss in biodiversity that, when coupled with reckless deforestation and aggressive conversion of wildland for economic development, pushes farms and people closer to the wild and opens the gates for the spread of disease.

The effect of climate change on the way diseases are transmitted from bats and other animals or insects to humans is anything but intuitive, which is why it would be helpful to elect legislators and other policymakers who have a modicum of scientific literacy. (Actually, it would be nice if at least a few GOP lawmakers knew the difference between science and religion…)

The article explains how it works.

There are three ways climate influences emerging diseases. Roughly 60% of new pathogens come from animals — including those pressured by diversity loss — and roughly one-third of those can be directly attributed to changes in human land use, meaning deforestation, the introduction of farming, development or resource extraction in otherwise natural settings. Vector-borne diseases — those carried by insects like mosquitoes and ticks and transferred in the blood of infected people — are also on the rise as warming weather and erratic precipitation vastly expand the geographic regions vulnerable to contagion. Climate is even bringing old viruses back from the dead, thawing zombie contagions like the anthrax released from a frozen reindeer in 2016, which can come down from the arctic and haunt us from the past.

Not only does climate change facilitate contagion, but once new diseases are introduced into the human environment, changing temperatures and precipitation change how–and how fast– those diseases spread. Harsh swings from hot to cold, or sudden storms — exactly the kinds of climate-change-induced patterns we’re already experiencing— make people more likely to get sick.

The bottom line: climate policy is inseparable from efforts to prevent new pandemics. The relationship of the two cannot be ignored.

What’s known as biodiversity is critical because the natural variety of plants and animals lends each species greater resiliency against threat and together offers a delicately balanced safety net for natural systems. As diversity wanes, the balance is upset, and remaining species are both more vulnerable to human influences and, according to a landmark 2010 study in the journal Nature, more likely to pass along powerful pathogens.

Losses of biodiversity have accelerated. Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact–the others have been so degraded that the natural ecosystems that depend on them have been disrupted. When forests die, and grasslands and wetlands are destroyed, biodiversity decreases further.

The United Nations has warned that the planet has already lost 20% of all species– and that more than a million more animal and plant species currently face extinction.

Speaking of interrelationships–politics is intimately and unavoidably involved with our efforts to avoid planetary-wide extinctions. Losses of biodiversity and the increasing prevalence of pandemics cannot be addressed by MAGA-believing xenophobes who fear globalization and dark people, and think border walls will repel viruses and brown people, and return America to the 1950s.

We are facing life-and-death issues, and they can only be resolved by global collaborations led by people who respect science and trust scientists–and aren’t afraid of people who look or pray differently.

 

 

Excellent Analogies

Thanks to my lack of technical skills, some of you may have received a link to this previously. (Don’t ask….)

This misbegotten administration has spawned humor as well as despair–not only are satirists and comedians having a field day, but recently, as Trump’s disastrous, fumbling response to the pandemic continues to endanger us all, pundits and others have looked for explanatory analogies to our current predicament.

The “go to” analogy, of course, has been to Germany in the 1930s–mostly but not exclusively to Hitler. Max Boot–one of the “Never Trump” Republicans–went with a different  angle.

Boot recently penned a column for the Washington Post titled “If Trump Had Been In Charge In WWII, This Column Would Be in German.” (The headline reminded me of a cartoon I saw recently, showing American soldiers in WWII, with one of them saying to a comrade something along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be weird if 75 years from now, the Germans were the good guys and we were the threat?)”

As Boot very plausibly rewrote history, with Trump instead of FDR in charge:

Picture the scene a few months after Pearl Harbor. The first U.S. troops have arrived in England, and the Doolittle raiders have bombed Tokyo. But even though the war has just begun, the Trumpified FDR is already losing interest. One day he says the war is already won; the next day that we will just have to accept the occupation of France because that’s the way life is. He speculates that mobilization might be unnecessary if we can develop a “death ray” straight out of a Buck Rogers comic strip. He complains that rationing and curfews are very unpopular and will have to end soon. He tells the governors that if they want to keep on fighting, they will have to take charge of manufacturing ships, tanks and aircraft. Trumpy FDR prefers to hold mass rallies to berate his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. He even suggests that Hoover belongs in jail along with the leading Republican congressmen — “Martin, Barton and Fish.”

Probably the most compelling analogy I’ve seen, however, was on a Twitter thread my son shared on FaceBook. It was an effort to explain reality to the anti-mask “freedom fighters” who want the “liberty” to infect the rest of us. (I know it isn’t a “politically correct” thing to say, but if they were just endangering each other, I’d urge them on…)

At any rate, the tweeter- Jeremy TEST/TRACE/ISOLATE Konyndyk–analogized the virus to poop in the swimming pool. As he pointed out, when a kid poops in the water, which  happens a few times every summer, everyone clears the pool. “That’s the initial step to protect people from the poop.”

Then some poor soul on pool staff has to go fish out the poop. It’s a pretty thankless job.

Then they have to shock the pool with chlorine to kill off bacteria. And then everyone waits half and hour or so til it’s safe to swim again.

If the lifeguards tell everyone to clear the pool, but the pool staff declines to actually get rid of the poop, what happens? No one can go back in. The poop is still there. Limbo.

Whose fault is it that it’s not safe to go back in the water? Who is accountable?

Do you focus on the people saying “clean up the poop before we can go back in safely!”? Or do you focus on the staff whose job it is to clean up the poop? And what would you think if the staff started saying – look, just get back in. Be a warrior.

As Jeremy points out, right now America is a big swimming pool with a poop problem and a President who– rather than clean up the poop– is urging everyone back into the pool. According to him, the *real* problem is those people who think the pool’s not safe yet. They must hate the pool.

The President’s whole play here is to distract from his failure to fix the mess by focusing the country’s attention on people who don’t want to swim in a pooped-in pool.

He wants you to believe they’re saying you should never go back in. And if you buy that, he’s off the hook. He doesn’t have to clean up the poop, and he doesn’t get blamed for failing to do so. Win-win for him.

But NO ONE is saying “never go back in the pool.” They’re saying – please clean out the poop first.

It’s an analogy even the limited intellects who are demanding the “freedom” to ignore everyone else’s rights ought to understand. But I’m not holding my breath…