Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Jobs the Computers Can't Steal Yet

Charlie Warzel, for Buzzfeed News, asks a pretty simple question: Why Can Everyone Spot Fake News But The Tech Companies? Warzel begins by discussing the misinformation promoted by Google Search, Facebook, and YouTube in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting in October 2017.

Over the next two days, journalists and misinformation researchers uncovered and tweeted still more examples of fake news and conspiracy theories propagating in the aftermath of the tragedy. The New York Times’ John Herrman found pages of conspiratorial YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views, many of them highly ranked in search returns. Cale Weissman at Fast Company noticed that Facebook’s crisis response page was surfacing news stories from alt-right blogs and sites like End Time Headlines rife with false information. I tracked how YouTube’s recommendation engine allows users to stumble down an algorithm-powered conspiracy video rabbit hole. In each instance, the journalists reported their findings to the platforms. And in each instance, the platforms apologized, claimed they were unaware of the content, promised to improve, and removed it.

I think that paragraph could just as easily have been written in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, or the Aurora movie theater shooting, or the Sandy Hook shooting, or whatever the next mass shooting will be. Which is kind of Warzel’s point:

All of this raises a mind-bendingly simple question that YouTube, Google, Twitter, and Facebook have not yet answered: How is it that the average untrained human can do something that multi-billion dollar technology companies that pride themselves on innovation cannot? And beyond that, why is it that — after multiple national tragedies politicized by malicious hoaxes and misinformation — such a question even needs to be asked?

Look, of course Google and Facebook and Twitter can’t monitor all of the content on their platforms posted by their billions of users. Nor does anyone really expect them to. But policing what’s taking off and trending as it relates to the news of the day is another matter. Clearly, it can be done because people are already doing it.

Seriously, if a handful of Buzzfeed’s reporters can flag this in near real-time for free, surely Facebook and YouTube can hire a dozen folks to watch stuff trend and flag it. Heck, Facebook used to have exactly that thing. It worked great, except for the part where the conspiracy theorists complained that Facebook unfairly blocked right-wing conspiracy theories from trending.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, has called this phenomenon the “View From Nowhere”. Rosen coined this term in 2003, when there was no Facebook; it originally applied to things like the New York Times’s coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War. But here, when Facebook fired the team of people meant to keep the Trending Stories algorithm from promoting conspiracy theories, I see the View From Nowhere striking again. Facebook fired its team because its team couldn’t suppress as many left-wing conspiracy theories as right-wing conspiracy theories. That means that either Facebook hired a bunch of liberal ideologues who brought their politics to work every day, or conspiracy theories find more traction in conservative media than liberal media.

This isn’t new, either. Toward the end of his first term, President Obama famously predicted the Republican fever would break during his second term. I think a national conversation on this is long overdue. Perhaps we’ll get one after the next set of teen crisis actors stage a school shooting.

Published on under Who uses a tanning salon in a dorm anyway

The Washington Posts’s Marc Fisher and Sari Horwitz published a pair of profiles on two of the people at the center of the biggest political scandal in a generation, titled Mueller and Trump: Born to wealth, raised to lead. Then, sharply different choices.

I didn’t know much about Bob Mueller before this (he was on a high school ice hockey team with John F. Kerry?!), and this is a fascinating glimpse into his upbringing and career. For my money, the way Fisher and Horwitz contrast Mueller and Trump even as young men is the most entertaining part of this whole thing. For example, this episode from Trump’s military school tenure as Captain:

Promoted to captain of A Company, Trump won respect from some of the other boys, who said they never wanted to disappoint him. Trump introduced them to a world of fun, setting up a tanning salon in his dorm room, bringing beautiful women to campus and leading the baseball team to victory.

But other cadets said Trump tried to break boys who didn’t bend to his will. During Trump’s senior year, when one of his sergeants shoved a new cadet against a wall for not standing at attention quickly enough, Trump was relieved of his duty in the barracks, said Lee Ains, the student who was shoved.

Trump denied being demoted, saying he was actually moved up. “You don’t get elevated if you partake in hazing,” he told The Post in 2016. He was put in charge of a drill team that would perform in New York City’s Columbus Day Parade.

Is immediately followed by a smash cut to Second Lieutenant Bob Mueller’s tour of duty in Vietnam:

Mutter’s Ridge was a killing ground, a craggy hellscape in Quang Tri province where the Marines had been fighting for years, setting up and abandoning bases as they tried over and over to assert control of one of the main routes the North Vietnamese used to infiltrate the South.

Year after year, the ridge, hard by the demilitarized zone that separated North from South, was the scene of fierce assaults, fleeting victories and fiery retreats.

On Dec. 11, 1968, Mueller led a platoon of Marines into an eight-hour battle around an extensive complex of North Vietnamese army bunkers. The enemy hit Mueller’s men with a “heavy volume of small arms, automatic weapons, and grenade launcher fire,” according to a Marine Corps account.

I love the editorial contrast here. Apart from noting that Trump applied for and received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, that’s about as far as Fisher and Horwitz explicitly take the comparison. Also worth noting, this profile was published before Trump’s absurd remarks about how he’d personally storm into a school shooting. It’s just a coincidence that this impeachment of his character appeared in the Post around the same time as his macho posturing.

Published on under The nuclear war is going to kill us first anyway

The other day, I posted my 15,000th tweet since I first signed up for Twitter in July 2007. Back then, it was called Twttr, and there were no hashtags or @mentions conventions. The homepage was a live stream of every single tweet, and a loaf of bread cost only a nickel.

In the decade since, a lot of things have changed about Twitter. For one, the risk of nuclear war being set off via a tweet has increased enormously. For another, there are a lot more people on Twitter. Bread also costs more. But what really strikes me about social media—Twitter and everything else—is that it seems like the same conversation over and over again. Sure, the conversations are about new things, but isn’t it always the same conversation? Something happens, and you’re either for it or against it, but you’re mad either way because you can’t believe half the country is against it or for it.

After this year’s The Super Bowl, The Outline’s Alex Nichols explored the unseemly parentage of some of these conversations in a piece titled Lady Doritos, the patron saint of outrage marketing:

These brief ping-pong games of feigned outrage can be entertaining, but they ultimately accomplish nothing. Each side digs in its heels until the discussion becomes a parody of itself. The only appreciable effect of any given micro-controversy is that the phrase in question — whether it be “well-done steak,” “shithole countries,” or “covfefe” — sees a brief uptick in search traffic and appears organically in millions of users’ feeds. This proposition is undoubtedly highly attractive to advertisers, who normally have to fork over $200,000 to get something trending on Twitter. Here’s my theory: corporate marketing departments are setting out to hijack this process, thus accomplishing the same thing — but for free.

Set aside the tedium in endless cycles of (genuine, but nonetheless) performative outrage. It’s hard to argue with Nichols’s theory. I mean, I’ve been convinced for a while that Urban Outfitters’s marketing strategy seems to revolve around a bimonthly outrage.

Published on under Who Watches the Watchdogs

Here’s one from NPR that’s sad but not necessarily surprising. Trump Administration Plans To Defang Consumer Protection Watchdog:

The CFPB is considered a powerful and independent watchdog. But many Republicans have wanted to shut it down since day one because they think it’s too powerful. [Acting CFPB Director] Mulvaney is one of them. As a Congressman, Mulvaney called the agency a “sick sad joke.” He drafted legislation to abolish it. So people at the bureau were shocked when the president appointed him to run this consumer protection agency.

Within weeks of coming on board, Mulvaney has worked to make the watchdog agency less aggressive. […] In another move that particularly upset some staffers, the new boss also dropped a lawsuit against an alleged online loan shark called Golden Valley Lending. The suit says the lender illegally charges people up to 950 percent interest rates. It took CFPB staffers years to build the case. […]

Mulvaney hasn’t officially offered details about why the case was dropped. Meanwhile, staffers at the bureau say they are worried Mulvaney will block more of their efforts to go after shady financial firms. He’s reviewing numerous ongoing lawsuits and investigations.

So this guy that runs the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau doesn’t like the CFPB, and thinks consumers are already protected well enough. I think companies like Golden Valley shouldn’t be allowed to charge 950% interest. Reasonable minds can disagree, right? Well, this story isn’t as simple as “hey look another market Republicans don’t want to regulate,” although I do continue to be impressed at the breadth of that belief. Rather, the NPR article explains the other shifty things lenders like Golden Valley are doing, and introduces one of the debtors:

For her part, Julie Bonenfant of Detroit still hasn’t paid off her debt to Golden Valley. And she feels “betrayed” by the president, whose appointee dropped the lawsuit.

“To be honest I’m really mad, really pissed, because I actually voted for Trump,” Bonenfant says. “So knowing that his guy threw out this case that affects people like me. I feel kind of like stupid — just kind of like betrayed.”

I do wonder whether these sorts of profiles in buyers’ remorse over the 2016 election are productive or helpful in any way. On the one hand, actions have consequences and if you vote for someone whose policies are going to make your life worse, that’s kind of on you. Trump’s outlandish promises and visible lack of comprehension about just about every issue made him sound like a grifter on the campaign trail.

On the other hand, who could have imagined the guy with the gold-plated Manhattan penthouse wouldn’t stand up for the little guy?

Ah, crap, that was just the same hand again, wasn’t it?

Published on under Exeunt, Pursued by a Bear

After the 2016 election, one of the ways I dealt with my anxiety was trying to grapple with the extent to which I lived in a news bubble. It was pretty clear that I didn’t understand the world that a lot of other people lived in. A big part of other peoples’ bubble seemed to be Facebook. While I check Facebook maybe three times a year, everyone I know checks it virtually daily. Immediately after the election, there was no shortage of accounts of how Facebook turned itself into a faulty news powerhouse, and I took some notes on my favorites mostly to order my own thoughts.

Well, just about a year into the Trump presidency, Facebook is getting itself out of the news business. Charlie Warzel for Buzzfeed:

In many ways, Facebook’s planned changes to News Feed are a retreat from the online public square the company helped create. They’re a tacit admission that the company’s great news experiment — which made it one of the most successful publishers in the world — failed. And now Facebook wants to go back to an idealized safe space, free of hyperpartisan pages, misinformation, and fake news. But when you’re home to nearly 2 billion humans, no change is ever simple; Facebook moved fast, broke things, and changed the way that the world produces, consumes, and shares information. And changing course more than a decade into one of the most disruptive social experiments ever might prove more than just a little difficult.

So Facebook is adjusting the algorithm to show fewer posts from Pages in favor of more posts from People. I suppose that’s a start, but what happens when People share propaganda from Pages?

Warzel continues:

While it may cut down incidental exposure to misinformation, the changes could, in some cases, only harden filter bubbles with a steady stream of content from people with similar ideologies. Meanwhile, a retrenchment from News Feed into more walled-off Groups and communities could exacerbate exposure to misinformation. As one platform executive told BuzzFeed News, “the people who end up being chemtrailers or anti-vaxxers do so because of friend and community groups.”

According to one of Facebook’s executives, even if conspiracy theorists and agitprop outfits like “End The Fed” and the “George W Bush Did 9/11 Herald-Gazette” aren’t going to get quite as much bang for their advertising buck anymore, you’ll go back to getting your misinformation from your friends. What a horrible, horrible platform.

Also, none of this addresses the clickbait ads. While Facebook is far from the only offender here, they’re the biggest and it’s especially ironic that even their mea culpas are accompanied by bullshit:

“We take misinformation seriously,” Facebook’s CEO posted Saturday. Right next to two very obvious pieces of misinformation… Note the lying advertisers to the right of his status update? (No, Hugh Hefner [wasn’t] dead, and no, Tiger Woods hasn’t left the PGA forever.) Those ads don’t even lead to news stories. The first one leads to a site selling cures for erectile dysfunction, and the second leads to a site selling testosterone booster. But there’s something even worse about these two advertisers. Both of their web sites are designed to look like actual news sites.

Facebook is not up to the task, whether it’s Pages, the overall News Feed, or even its own ads. I can’t help but recall what Rick Webb wrote last year to Facebook about their business:

In short, you’ve set foot into being a player in the news media, with zero interest in actually helping the news media, or in the social responsibilities that come with it. Now sure. You share ad revenue. But only popular stories garner ad revenue. You’ve aggravated the fundamental problem with internet news: only the most sensationalist stories generate the revenue. Whether the income came from subscriptions or ad revenue, in the old days, revenue to a paper was revenue to a paper. […] You could have helped fix this on the internet, but you didn’t. You made it worse.

What bothers me is not necessarily that Facebook failed, it’s that they so carelessly entered, destroyed, and departed the publisher market. They built something they can’t control to replace something they don’t understand, and they’re blowing it up once the market has adapted to accommodate it for better or worse.

Published on under The Nope Nope Nope Files

Joshua Rothman for the New Yorker, reviews Kate Cole-Adams’s new book “Anesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness,” which—in addition to having a remarkably poetic subtitle—explores a variety of stories and studies on the weird stuff that happens when people go under general anesthesia:

In her attempts to understand what going under anesthesia really entails, Cole-Adams encounters what Kate Leslie, an Australian anesthesiologist, calls “spooky little studies”—odd, suggestive, and often unreplicable experiments. In one such study, from 1993, Ian Russell, a British anesthesiologist, ties a tourniquet around the forearms of thirty-two women undergoing major gynecological surgery. He administers his anesthetic cocktail—the hypnotic drug midazolam, along with a painkiller and a muscle relaxant—then, by tightening the tourniquet, prevents the muscle relaxant from entering each woman’s hands and wrist.

During surgery, a recorded message plays through headphones in which Russell addresses each patient by name. “If you can hear me, I would like you to open and close the fingers of your right hand,” he says. If the woman moves her hand, Russell lifts one of the earpieces and asks her to squeeze his fingers; if she squeezes, he asks her to do it again if she is in pain.

Of the thirty-two patients Russell tested, twenty-three squeezed to suggest they could hear, and twenty squeezed again to say they were in pain. Although Russell was supposed to test sixty patients, he was so unnerved by these results that he ended the trial early. It’s possible, he suggests, that the women were​ conscious and suffering on the operating table. If that’s the case, then general anesthesia might be better described as “general amnesia.” (Afterward, none of the women recalled hearing Russell’s voice or squeezing his hand.)

On my very first date with my now-partner, I explained how terrified I was of general anesthesia because I’d heard a handful of stories not unlike this. It’s only right to make sure she knew what kind of neurotic ride she was boarding fairly early on.

While I won’t be able to bring myself to read Cole-Adams’s book, this review definitely piques one’s curiosity; just how much do—and don’t— we understand about anesthesia? As one of the doctors interviewed by Cole-Adams explains: we don’t really understand consciousness, so how can we possibly understand what turns it off? If we don’t know how the sun rises, what makes us think we can make it set? ​