Tag Archives: internet

How The Internet Facilitates Dishonesty

Sometimes, just skimming the news is enough to trigger heartburn.

In addition to the hourly reminders that our country is being “governed” (note quotation marks) by a dangerously ignorant lunatic and the daily disclosures of corruption and cronyism, we are routinely reminded of the difficulty of separating all manner of informational wheat from both inadvertent and purposeful chaff.

The other day, the Guardian carried a story about dishonesty in–of all things– a women’s fertility app.

I didn’t even know such things existed. It would never have occurred to me that fertility could be managed on line–but evidently, in the age of the Internet, pretty much everything is subject to online interventions.

The problem is, it turns out that this particular app comes with an agenda.

A popular women’s health and fertility app sows doubt about birth control, features claims from medical advisers who are not licensed to practice in the US, and is funded and led by anti-abortion, anti-gay Catholic campaigners, a Guardian investigation has found.

The Femm app, which collects personal information about sex and menstruation from users, has been downloaded more than 400,000 times since its launch in 2015, according to developers. It has users in the US, the EU, Africa and Latin America, its operating company claims.

Although it markets itself as a way to “avoid or achieve pregnancy,” what the app really does is create doubts about the safety of birth control.

Femm receives much of its income from private donors including the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a charity backed almost exclusively by Sean Fieler, a wealthy Catholic hedge-funder based in New York.

Fieler’s foundation has long supported organizations– and politicians such as the vice-president, Mike Pence – that oppose birth control and abortion. Fieler has criticized Republicans for failing to outlaw abortion, calling their reticence “the tyranny of moderation” in a recent editorial.

The Chiaroscuro Foundation, with Fieler as its chairman and main backer, provided $1.79m to the developers of the Femm app over the last three years, according to IRS statements. Fieler also sits on the board of directors for the Femm Foundation, a not-for-profit which operates the app.

The Femm app asserts that “hormonal” birth control–i.e., the pill– may be “deleterious to a woman’s health” and promotes learning one’s “cycles” as  a safer, “natural” way to avoid pregnancy. This is medically inaccurate information.

“The birth control pill is one of the greatest health achievements of the 20th century,” said Dr Nathaniel DeNicola, an OB-GYN with the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which has studied fertility apps extensively. “This is part of standard women’s healthcare.”

“Natural” family planning methods using fertility awareness are known to have a failure rate of about 25 unintended pregnancies for every 100 women a year in the US.

I wonder how many women have downloaded this app in good faith, relying on the professional advice of “doctors” who are unlicensed in the U.S. and who are peddling information inconsistent with sound science and best practices.

For that matter, I wonder how many other apps, websites and blogs are providing information they know or should know is both untrue and potentially damaging, whether for ideological reasons or financial ones. We already know about the so-called “dark web,” where alt-right white nationalist propaganda radicalizes the vulnerable, and conspiracy theories ensnare the gullible. Add to that the new “deep fake” technologies, and the potential for mischief (and worse) is enormous.

I have no idea how we combat the avalanche of misinformation that is facilitated by the Internet’s low entry barriers. It seems clear that the “big guys”–the social media mavens–don’t know how either.

Ultimately, better education (and better mental healthcare), plus development of some sort of “Good housekeeping seal of approval” denoting credibility might act as warning devices, but for right now, it’s a Wild West–and the bad guys aren’t wearing black hats so that we can recognize them.

Sending A (Hateful) Message

The New York Times recently reported on yet another outrage perpetrated by our persistently outrageous administration; the refusal to sign on to a global “call to action” addressing online hate. The call to action came in the aftermath of the horrific slaughter of worshippers in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The White House on Wednesday announced it would not sign the Christchurch call to action, an informal international pact among France’s and New Zealand’s leaders and social media platforms to combat online extremism.

The call to actionis a broad statement of intent, rather than a detailed policy proposal. It urges nations and private tech companies to address terrorist content online. Specifically it urges signers to “ensure its efficient and fast removal and to prevent the use of live-streaming as a tool for broadcasting terrorist attack.” The White House refused to sign the accord on the ground that it violated constitutional free-speech protections.

Anyone who believes that this administration gives a rat’s patootie about freedom of speech should check into a mental hospital without delay.

Of course, in its announcement that the U.S. would not be signing on, the nature of those Free Speech “concerns” was not addressed. Nor could they be, since the “Call” wasn’t a legal decree. It was and is merely a non-binding pledge, lacking any provisions for enforcement or even suggestions for regulations. It was– and is–simply an official acknowledgment of a growing problem that has been exacerbated by the total lack of internet regulation. As the Times article pointed out,

Without legally binding mechanisms or strict policy enforcements, the stakes of signing are low. So the act of not signing sends a strong message and cheapens the free-speech protections the administration claims to hold dear, using the First Amendment as a political tool and an excuse for inaction.

Trump’s sudden solicitude for the First Amendment reminded me of Nat Hentoff’s 1992 book, “Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee.”

The administration’s trepidation at intervening in the content moderation processes of social media platforms is also wildly inconsistent with the president’s own behavior on tech-platform oversight. For months, Mr. Trump has used his Twitter feed to rail against perceived social media censorship of conservatives and threatened to intervene.

Last August, he accused Googleof “suppressing” conservative voices and “hiding information and news that is good” about him after seeing an infographic on cable news from a “not scientific” study. In April, the president met with Twitter’s C.E.O., Jack Dorsey, where he derailed a conversation on public health to complain about losing followers of his personal Twitter account. Mr. Trump hinted at intervening in tech-platform moderation as recently as this month after Facebook banned a number of pro-Trump media figures for “extremism.” His response on Twitter: “We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”

As if to make its priorities regarding online freedom even clearer, just hours after declining to sign the Christchurch call, the White House announced an online tool for reporting tech-platform bias. “No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump,” it said.

Trump’a free-speech solicitude is limited to right-wingers and racists.

If there was ever any doubt that Trump’s appeal has always been grounded in bigotry, misogyny and white nationalism, we can add his refusal to sign the “Call” to the mountain of evidence that already exists.

There is a reason David Duke and his ilk claim Trump as one of their own.  For confirmation, you need only read the report in the most recent issue of the Atlantic: “An oral history of Donald Trump’s Bigotry.” It’s a devastating”in his own words” documentation of the life-long bigotry of a man whose only claim to superiority is dependent upon inherited money and skin color.

Thanks to our antiquated and undemocratic Electoral College, we are saddled with a President who repeatedly tells the world that America is now on the side of hatred and white nationalism. Trump’s “Muslim ban,” his ridiculous “wall,” his administration’s appallingly inhumane treatment of would-be refugees at our southern (but not our northern) border, his defense of the “very fine” people among the Charlottesville neo-Nazis, his disdain for “shithole” countries, his move to deny transgender individuals the right to serve in the armed forces….the examples go on and on.

In 2020, if the electorate doesn’t massively repudiate this repulsive, reptilian man and his nest of vipers and idiots, we are no longer the (imperfect but aspirational)  America so many of us thought we were.

The 2020 election will also send a message–it will tell us just what percentage of our neighbors share Trump’s ignorant and hateful attitudes– just how many are willing to vote for a sub-human incompetent because he hates and fears the same people they do.

 

And The Evidence Accumulates…

“Hate is a normal part of life. Get over it.”

Offensive as that sentiment about the “normalcy” of hate is, it’s probably correct. I prefer a different version of “getting over it,” however; the challenge of our time–made critical by Trump and Trumpism–is indeed “getting over it.” As in, refusing to normalize or condone it.

The quotation itself came about halfway through a recent Washington Post article documenting the rise of racist and anti-Semitic messages in the wake of Trump’s election.

Racist and anti-Semitic content has surged on shadowy social media platforms — spiking around President Trump’s Inauguration Day and the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville — spreading hate speech and extremist views to mainstream audiences, according to an analysis published this week.

The findings, from a newly formed group of scientists named the Network Contagion Research Institute who studied hundreds of millions of social media messages, bolster a growing body of evidence about how extremist speech online can be fueled by real-world events.

It’s actually pretty predictable that messages from “real world” events would be discussed and amplified on social media. What is far more disturbing is the iterative relationship between social media and the “real world,” revealed by the article. The cycle begins with a real-world event–in this case, Trump’s election–that triggers a burst of online response–in this case, a celebration of bigotry. That online response begins in the dark corners of the Internet, but thanks to its connection to the “real world,” it doesn’t stay there.  It infects more mainstream outlets.

One of the studies referenced in the article identified two such fringe forums, and found that

[a]lthough small relative to leading social media platforms, exerted an outsize influence on overall conversation online by transmitting hateful content to such mainstream sites as Reddit and Twitter, the researchers said. Typically this content came in the form of readily shareable “memes” that cloaked hateful ideas in crass or humorous words and imagery. (Facebook, the largest social media platform, with more than 2 billion users, is harder to study because of the closed nature of its platform and was not included in the research.)

“There may be 100 racists in your town, but in the past they would have to find each other in the real world. Now they just go online,” said one of the researchers, Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “These things move these radicals, these outliers in society, closer, and it gives them bigger voices as well.”

Niche hate movements that were once relegated to what the article calls the “dark corners of the Web” are increasingly influencing the mainstream.

The QAnon conspiracy theory began circulating on the same platforms last fall before exploding into public view in August, after months of refining its central allegations, purportedly from a top-secret government agent, that President Trump is secretly battling a shadowy cabal of sex rings, death squads and deep-state elites.

Trump is central to the most recent explosion of online racism and anti-Semitism. Surges in the number and intensity of “alt-right’ messaging occurred immediately after his inauguration and again after his “fine people on both sides” comments after Charlottesville. The alt-right celebrated–and continues to hail– the legitimacy they believe his election and rhetoric have conferred upon the white Christian supremicist worldview.

The article compares the spread of these tribal and racist sentiments to a virus for which there is not, as yet, an antidote.

The findings, researchers wrote, suggested a “worrying trend of real-world action mirroring online rhetoric” — and a possible feedback loop of online and offline hate.

That feedback loop requires both online and real-world support. We may not be able to do much about the rancid corners of the web, but we can vote to replace Trumpworld’s spineless enablers in the House and Senate.

Think of your midterm vote as an antibiotic.

A Different Kind Of Weapon

A story about the recent Santa Fe school shooting highlighted what worries me most of all about America’s future–not to mention humanity’s–and our ability to engage in fact-based, rational discussion and debate.

In the first hours after the Texas school shooting that left at least 10 dead Friday, online hoaxers moved quickly to spread a viral lie, creating fake Facebook accounts with the suspected shooter’s name and a doctored photo showing him wearing a “Hillary 2016” hat.

Several were swiftly flagged by users and deleted by the social network. But others rose rapidly in their place: Chris Sampson, a disinformation analyst for a counterterrorism think tank, saidhe could see new fakes as they were being created and filled out with false information, including images linking the suspect to the anti-fascist group Antifa.

The immediacy and reach of the disinformation about gun violence are nothing new, nor is this tactic limited to the gun debate–and that’s the problem.

Thanks to technology, we are marinating in propaganda and falsehood–weapons that are ultimately far more powerful than assault rifles.

There have always been efforts to mislead the gullible, to confirm the suspicions of cynics and the certainties of ideologues. No matter how diligently we try not to indulge in confirmation bias, most of us are susceptible to the “facts” that have been slanted in a direction we’re predisposed to accept. But we have never seen anything like the onslaught of utter fabrication that has been made possible by our new communication mediums, and the result is beginning to emerge: Americans are increasingly distrustful of all information.

We don’t know who or what to believe, so we suspend belief altogether.

When people occupy incommensurate realities, they can’t communicate with each other. The one thing Donald Trump does understand–and unfortunately, it is the only thing he appears to understand–is that lies and “alternate” facts undermine citizens’ ability to make decisions based in reality. Thus his attacks on the “fake” news media and his assertions of “achievements” that exist only in the precincts of his grandiose imagining.

The effectiveness of this technique of cultivating uncertainty was prominently displayed during the so-called “tobacco wars,” when flacks for the tobacco industry realized that a frontal attack on medical reports linking smoking to cancer were doomed, but that efforts to muddy the waters–to suggest that the “jury was still out”–could be very effective. If the attack was on the reliability of science, the public would discount it, but if the message was “scientists still aren’t sure,” people who wanted to be fair–and those who wanted to keep smoking– would withhold judgment.

That same tactic has been used–very effectively–by fossil fuel interests to undermine settled science on the reality and causes of climate change.

The problem is that people of good will–and, of course, those who are not so well-intentioned–no longer know what to believe. What is factual, and what is self-serving bullshit? And how do we tell the difference?

 Unless we can address this issue–unless we can reclaim the ability to determine what is fact and what is fiction, what is credible evidence and what is “disinformation”– humanity is in a world of hurt.

Humans: Clever, But Not Wise….

The election of Donald Trump (aka “Agent Orange”) is only one of many, many signs that we humans aren’t as smart as we think we are.

Consider our ability to invent technologies we then prove unable to use wisely.

Actually, being destroyed or enslaved by the machines we’ve created is a favorite theme of science fiction. Robots who turn on their makers, unanticipated consequences of laboratory experiments, the dehumanizing substitution of human-machine interaction for human contact–all are familiar scenarios of “futuristic” fantasy.

Being overwhelmed by our own inventions, however, is neither “futuristic” nor “fantastic.” Anyone who doesn’t believe that human society is being inexorably changed by social media and the Internet hasn’t been paying attention.

The Guardian recently ran a chilling column about those changes, and about our tendency to see new threats and challenges in terms of the past, rather than as harbingers of our future.

Both sides of the political divide seem to be awakening to the possibility that letting the tech industry do whatever it wants hasn’t produced the best of all possible worlds. “I have found a flaw,” Alan Greenspan famously said in 2008 of his free-market worldview, as the global financial system imploded. A similar discovery may be dawning on our political class when it comes to its hands-off approach to Silicon Valley.

But the new taste for techno-skepticism is unlikely to lead to meaningful reform, for several reasons. One is money. The five biggest tech firms spend twice as much as Wall Street on lobbying Washington. It seems reasonable to assume that this insulates them from anything too painful in a political system as corrupt as ours.

The FCC’s decision to repeal Net Neutrality despite the fact that 83% of the public want to retain the policy would certainly seem to validate the author’s assertion that our government responds to money, not public opinion.

The columnist, Ben Tarnoff, is especially concerned that the focus on Russia’s efforts to weaponize the Internet and influence the election is diverting our attention from far more serious issues. It is unlikely that Russian game-playing had much of an effect on the Presidential election (racism aka White Nationalism clearly played a far greater role), and while Congress fixates on Russia, far more significant threats go unnoticed.

As Tarnoff sees it, the focus on Russia isn’t just misplaced because that country’s social media influence wasn’t really all that effective. It’s misplaced because the Russians used the Internet platforms in precisely the way they’re designed to be used.

As Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, the business model of social media makes it a perfect tool for spreading propaganda. The majority of that propaganda isn’t coming from foreigners, however – it’s coming from homegrown, “legitimate” actors who pump vast sums of cash into shaping opinion on behalf of a candidate or cause.

Social media is a powerful weapon in the plutocratization of our politics. Never before has it been so easy for propagandists to purchase our attention with such precision. The core issue is an old one in American politics: money talks too much, to quote an Occupy slogan. And online, it talks even louder.

Unfortunately, the fixation on Russian “cyberwarfare” isn’t likely to bring us any closer to taking away money’s megaphone. Instead, it will probably be used as a pretext to make us less free in other ways – namely by justifying more authoritarian incursions by the state into the digital sphere….

The tragedy of 9/11 has long been weaponized to justify mass surveillance and state repression. The myth of the “cyber 9/11” will almost certainly be used for the same ends.

Tarnoff reminds readers that–as usual–America’s wounds are largely self-inflicted.  We could and should take note of Russia’s efforts to subvert our election without ignoring the “deep domestic roots” of that catastrophe. As he reminds us,

Russia didn’t singlehandedly produce the crisis of legitimacy that helped put a deranged reality television star into the White House. Nor did it create the most sophisticated machinery in human history for selling our attention to the highest bidder.

It’s odd to blame Russian trolls for the destruction of American democracy when American democracy has proven more than capable of destroying itself. And rarely is it more self-destructive than when it believes it is protecting itself from its enemies.

We Americans are really, really good at whiz-bang technology. Creating a society that is just, fair and free? Not so much.