The short version: one company surreptitiously and unethically gathered data on 1/3 of US Facebook users and used it to precision-target them with political messages on behalf of the Trump campaign.
The algorithm at the heart of the Facebook data breach sounds almost too dystopian to be real. It trawls through the most apparently trivial, throwaway postings –the “likes” users dole out as they browse the site – to gather sensitive personal information about sexual orientation, race, gender, even intelligence and childhood trauma.
A few dozen “likes” can give a strong prediction of which party a user will vote for, reveal their gender and whether their partner is likely to be a man or woman, provide powerful clues about whether their parents stayed together throughout their childhood and predict their vulnerability to substance abuse. And it can do all this without an need for delving into personal messages, posts, status updates, photos or all the other information Facebook holds.
This week the Conservative MP David Davies (not the successful one; that’s David Davis. This one’s the MP for Monmouth) held a meeting of anti-trans militants in the House of Commons. The speakers are well known for their extreme views.
As Newsweek reports (the UK media hasn’t covered it beyond LGBT magazine Pink News; it contradicts the narrative of brave women standing up against wicked trans):
An academic who reportedly compared trans people to parasites during an event held at the British Parliament has been accused by LGBT rights advocates of using “fascist” and “dehumanizing” language.
I’ve read pretty detailed reports of what was said at the meeting and none of it was surprising, but it’s surprising that it was welcomed in the House of Commons.
Or maybe it isn’t, because Davies’ voting record is spectacularly anti-LGBT and arguably anti-women too. He was famously described as being on the “far right of the Conservative party”, is a climate change sceptic, was a passionate opponent of equal marriage, has problems with charities such as Save The Children and has repeatedly voted against legislation to make LGBT people’s lives and poor people’s lives better.
You might think he’s an arsehole. I couldn’t possibly comment. But supporting anti-trans bigots is hardly a stretch for him.
But then, it’s also ironic to see the same activists gleefully fuelling anti-trans hit pieces in right-wing newspapers, those famed supporters of women’s equality and LGBT rights.
I can’t help thinking that in the future, the activists rushing into alliances with hard-right conservatives here and in the US will become like the Twitter joke: “I can’t believe leopards are eating my face, says the woman who voted for the Leopards Eating Your Face Party.”
But disgust makes people do strange things, and disgust is clearly the background here. “Parasites” may be a relative newcomer, but the sentiment behind it isn’t.
The members of the Gender Cynical wiki on the social media site Reddit collated the various terms and allegations made against trans people by self-declared “gender critical” people on just that website. When you see them all listed it’s really something.1
As the wiki notes (with references for each; often, lots and lots of references), our heroes claim trans people — and primarily trans women — are:
Dangerous, rapists, “the bad guys”, “easy to spot”, “paedophile rights activists”, “men’s rights activists”, “men’s rights activists with a sissy fetish”, “like men’s rights activists who go on shooting sprees”, mentally ill, too mentally ill to consent to changing sex, too mentally ill to work, too mentally ill to fly planes, disgusted by mentally ill people, insane, psychopaths, sociopaths, untrustworthy, delusional, obsessed with Wikipedia, narcissists, whiny women, screeching, shrieking, a bunch of entitled assholes, a cult, armed robbers, just another dangerous fad, submissives, “natural slaves”, unworthy of empathy, openly paedophilic, autistic, sexually exhibitionistic, stereotypical, not stereotypical enough, “correctively raping young lesbians”, “lying and deceptive creeps appropriating the experiences of an oppressed class they cannot ever be a part of”, contagious, predators, death metal fans who befriend men, representatives of rapists, in need of humiliation, sick, disgusting, unnatural, drag queens, a deviant minority, more socially accepted than gay people, mistaken, subhuman, male supremacists, male supremacist victims of psychological warfare, inherently sexualised, an elite aristocracy funded by 76 large corporations, femme gay men, straight men with low self esteem, socially awkward autistic men who hate lesbians, hysterical, fetishists, “outright perverts and criminals”, abusers, latent mass murderers, “the worst thing to happen to gay people since AIDS”.
It’s quite the list. I’m surprised nobody’s claiming we can’t swim or that we have lower IQs.
Bear this in mind the next time you hear these people say they want a reasoned debate.
YouTube has recently come under fire for recommending videos promoting the conspiracy theory that the outspoken survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., are “crisis actors” masquerading as victims. Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia, recently “seeded” a YouTube account with a search for “crisis actor” and found that following the “up next” recommendations led to a network of some 9,000 videos promoting that and related conspiracy theories, including the claim that the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax.
What we are witnessing is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire
We like conspiracies. We want to know the news THEY don’t want us to see, the products THEY tried to ban, the secrets THEY don’t want us to know. And such bullshit has been around for centuries.
What’s different is that previously, the bullshit wasn’t mainstream. The much-derided media “gatekeepers” ensured that this shit didn’t spread beyond very small groups of people. Extreme and unhinged voices were largely unable to get a platform.
Now, we don’t have gatekeepers. For younger people YouTube and Facebook are their BBC and CNN, and there’s often an assumption that if it’s on these sites it must be okay. And it’s not okay. It’s far from okay.
Extremist content isn’t just being uploaded; it’s staying up. Good luck reporting actual Nazis to Twitter, or actual Nazi propaganda to Facebook, or bigotry and hate speech on any social network.
Free speech über alles. Fuck the consequences.
The “if it’s outrageous it’s contagious” approach prioritises the worst of us. It has turned social media into a very dangerous weapon.
We’ll be reaping the whirlwind for a long time to come.
Show a neural network enough examples of faces from two celebrities and it’ll develop its own mental model of what they look like, capable of generating new faces with specific expressions.
Ask it to generate a set of expressions on one face that are mapped onto a second face, and you have the beginnings of a convincing, automatically generated, utterly fake video. And so, naturally, the internet created a lot of porn.
I haven’t seen the porn – I have no interest in seeing videos created without people’s consent – but I have seen what the technology can do in the hands of ethical people.
Beyond just pure fun, I can only imagine how people will start turning this tech into business ideas. Fashion will be huge (what would I look like with this kind of hair, this kind of dress…), fitness could be interesting (do I look good with muscles, will I really look better skinny), travel (this is you standing on a beach is going to be quite convincing). It’ll bring advertising to a whole new level. No need to imagine what if, they’ll tell you what your “better” life will look like! And it’ll be hard to get that picture out of your head…
This technology is in its infancy, but it’s getting smarter by the day. And the potential ramifications for everything from revenge porn to political propaganda are enormous and disturbing.
Back to The Guardian:
It’s grim. But it’s not going to go away. The technology is publicly available, extensively documented, and the subject of research around the globe. This is our world now. As Lucas warned MPs: “Please don’t spend too much time looking in the mirror at what Russia did to us; look through the windscreen at what’s coming down the road. That’s much more dangerous.”
Good news for anybody stuck in 1818: The Sun and The Times have both shared the incredible revelation that according to “snowflake students”, the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus should be pitied.
Here’s The Sun:
Next the snowflakes will be telling us that The Metamorphosis wasn’t really about cockroaches and that Jonathan Swift didn’t really want us to eat children.
YouTube viewers who started searching for information on “crisis actors” — people who supposedly play roles as mass shooting survivors to push gun control — could soon find themselves tumbling down a rabbit hole of conspiracies about the the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the JFK assassination and Pizzagate, the hoax about a supposed child molestation ring run by Democratic Party luminaries out of a Washington pizzeria.
“It’s a conspiracy ecosystem,” said Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “It’s growing, not only in size but in depth.”
Exactly the same thing happens on Facebook.
The problem is “trending” content, the stuff you’re recommended by Facebook and YouTube’s algorithms, which then leads to other things.
For both YouTube (the world’s main provider of videos) and Facebook (the dominant vector of fake news), solving this problem would actually be easy: kill Trending Topics, which has a terrible track record. But neither tech giant will do that, because that’s where the advertising money is.
That money is mainstreaming extreme views. Some of the people who subscribe to the “crisis actor” bullshit are violent bigots; therefore if you view some crisis actor bullshit you’re likely to see other content relevant to violent bigots. It’s not long before you’re in very disturbing territory.
As the columnist Christopher Mims notes:
Facebook is a unique enabler of extremism, full stop. “If it’s outrageous, it’s contagious” is literally the bedrock, fundamental modus operandi of its engagement-optimizing algorithms.
Police were called when a tutor refused to address a transgender pupil by the correct pronoun, it emerged yesterday. Officers became involved because the behaviour counted as a hate crime, it was alleged.
The article quotes Susie Green of the charity Mermaids:
“Recently we had to get the police involved because a young student was being regularly misgendered by his tutor. The tutor dismissed it until he was informed that it counted as a hate crime. The matter has now been resolved by the police.”
And that’s pretty much it. I’m quite sure many people would read that and think “Police? For God’s sake, what an overreaction.”
Susie Green, CEO of Mermaids, a charity which supports transgender children and their families, told how the teacher had laughed in the child’s face and said “if you don’t want to be called a girl then don’t look like one”.
She said that the teacher and school’s management ignored three months of pleas from the transgender child and their parents and dismissed their requests, until she was informed by police that her actions constituted a hate crime.
…She said that the child was so distressed by the teacher’s actions that their mental health suffered, and they took two weeks off school with anxiety and depression.
The pupil’s parents contacted Mermaids, and with their help, escalated the matter to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and the police.
Ms Green said: “We spoke to a member of the police force, who contacted the CPS and clarified the position. The CPS said it was a hate crime.” [Emphasis mine]
Reading that, it’s a completely different story: here we have a teacher who deliberately flouts the Equality Act 2010, who deliberately bullies a child for three months and who only stopped when they were informed that they could be prosecuted.
In this version I’d suggest that the reaction is likely to be “Police? Quite right. What an arsehole.”
The majority of people aren’t trans and don’t have trans kids, of course, so whether The Times has some kind of anti-trans agenda may not seem relevant to them. But if the paper is willing to mislead its readers about something as easily checked as this, what else is it misleading you about?
The BBC reports that a new study, published in The Lancet, finds that anti-depressants really do work.
The study, which analysed data from 522 trials involving 116,477 people, found 21 common anti-depressants were all more effective at reducing symptoms of acute depression than dummy pills.
It’s timely given the massive and largely uncritical publicity recently given to admitted plagiarist Johann Hari, whose book Pull Your Socks Up You Miserable Bastards (I’m paraphrasing) argues that everything we – that is you, me and the medical establishment – know about depression is wrong.
Dean Burnett’s critique is worth your time; it’s a rare bit of common sense in a sea of credulous coverage. He debunks many of Hari’s key claims, such as the idea that anti-depressants are the only treatment offered for depression or that nobody but Hari has considered the link between life events and depression.
Anti-depressants work. They work differently for different people, and some people respond differently to different antidepressants. Others develop a tolerance or intolerance. Regimes may need changed, or doses adjusted. Some people experience side-effects, or don’t get the outcomes they expect. But that’s medicine for you.
What anti-depressants don’t do is magically make everything okay, and nobody sensible claims that they do.
They’re medicine, not magic. If part of your depression is because your life is shit in every conceivable way, a course of Sertraline (or whatever drug) isn’t going to change that.
Think of it this way. Forget what you know about depression and just imagine being followed around all day by
a man who
for no reason
keeps punching you
in the face.
It’ll take more than
Nurofen to stop
him from doing that
but it’s impossible
to think about what
you need to
do to make him
stop when you’ve
got a constant
Anti-depressants don’t stop life from punching you in the face, but they can help you feel less punch-drunk. They can give you the clarity to see where the punches are coming from and to maybe dodge the next one, and the one after that.
I was on anti-depressants for a couple of years. I don’t need them any more. The drugs didn’t cure me, but they gave me the space I needed to see what had to change.