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For The Record  

FTR #946 In Your Facebook: A Virtual Panopticon, Part 2

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This broadcast was recorded in one, 60-minute segment.

Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel

Introduction: In FTR #718 (recorded on Independence Day weekend of 2010), we noted that the new social medium–Facebook-might very well be the opposite of the liberating, empowering entity many believed it to be.

On the contrary, we said–it received financial backing from the CIA, permits unprecedented gathering and databasing of users’ personal information, and might very well be a “panopticon”–a type of prison in which the interned can never see his or her jailers, but their keepers can see the interned at all times.

In particular, we noted the prominent position of major Facebook investor Peter Thiel in “Mondo Zuckerberg.” Of German (and probable I.G. Farben) origins, we opined that Thiel was Underground Reich. Opposed to democracy because he feels it is inimical to wealth creation and doesn’t believe women should be allowed to vote, Thiel has now emerged as one of the most prominent of Donald Trump’s supporters, transition team creators and influential policy wonks.

Whereas we explored the “virtual panopticon” concept of Facebook with a question mark in 2010, we now feel affirmatively on the issue.

A very important story from New York magazine sets forth Facebook’s role in the just-concluded election.

A Panopticon

A Panopticon

” . . . . Facebook’s size, reach, wealth, and power make it effectively the only one that matters. And, boy, does it matter. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I think there are few events over the last decade more significant than the social network’s wholesale acquisition of the traditional functions of news media (not to mention the political-party apparatus). Trump’s ascendancy is far from the first material consequence of Facebook’s conquering invasion of our social, cultural, and political lives, but it’s still a bracing reminder of the extent to which the social network is able to upend existing structure and transform society — and often not for the better. . . .

” . . . . Facebook’s enormous audience, and the mechanisms of distribution on which the site relies — i.e., the emotionally charged activity of sharing, and the show-me-more-like-this feedback loop of the news feed algorithm — makes it the only site to support a genuinely lucrative market in which shady publishers arbitrage traffic by enticing people off of Facebook and onto ad-festooned websites, using stories that are alternately made up, incorrect, exaggerated beyond all relationship to truth, or all three. . . .

trump-hat” . . . . And at the heart of the problem, anyway, is not the motivations of the hoaxers but the structure of social media itself. Tens of millions of people, invigorated by insurgent outsider candidates and anger at perceived political enemies, were served up or shared emotionally charged news stories about the candidates, because Facebook’s sorting algorithm understood from experience that they were seeking such stories. Many of those stories were lies, or ‘parodies,’ but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying. As those people and their followers clicked on, shared, or otherwise engaged with those stories — which they did, because Trump drives engagement extremely bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engagement-driving feedback loop reached the heights of Facebook itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occasion after firing the small team of editorial employees tasked with passing news judgment. . . .

” . . . . Something like 170 million people in North America use Facebook every day, a number that’s not only several orders of magnitude larger than even the most optimistic circulation reckonings of major news outlets but also about one-and-a-half times as many people as voted on Tuesday. Forty-four percent of all adults in the United States say they get news from Facebook . . . “

Symptomatic of Facebook’s filter of what its users see concerns the social medium’s recent non-coverage of the women’s march:

” . . . . We don’t usually post on Pando at the weekend, but this is too topical and too shameful to wait until Monday. As you certainly know, today is the day of the Women’s March on Washington in protest of Donald Trump. The main event is in DC, where something close to 500,000 protesters of all genders and ages have packed the streets — but there are also major protests in Chicago, New York and around the world. Including Antarctica.

You certainly know this because the protest march is the top story on every major news outlet, and because updates and photos from the event are flooding your Twitter and Facebook feeds.

And yet, here’s what Facebook’s trending news feed looked like at the height of the march…
[see image of Carr’s news feed]
And here’s its trending politics feed…
[see image of trending politics fee]
Notice anything missing?

Like, say, a half million women.

In case you think I’m seeing something different from the rest of the world, be assured I’m not….”

Facebook has changed its algorithm, no longer factoring in “likes” and other personal preferences in determining its news feed.

This, however, does not bode as well as Facebook would like us to believe. Facebook has promoted, among others, Campbell Brown, to an important position in structuring its news feed:  ” . . . . Brown has longstanding ties not just to the traditional news media, but also to conservative politics, although she describes herself as a political independent. She is a close personal friend of Betsy DeVos, the Republican megadonor who is Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, and is married to Dan Senor, a former top advisor to Mitt Romney who also served as spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. . . .

. . . . And alongside her mainstream media experience, Brown is familiar with the world of non-traditional news outlets springing up online. In 2014, she founded a nonprofit news site, The 74, which bills itself as nonpartisan but which critics have said functions as advocacy journalism, tilted in favor of charter schools and against teachers’ unions. The site was launched with money from donors including the foundation run by DeVos, Trump’s proposed Education Secretary. When the nomination was announced, Brown said she would recuse herself from The 74’s coverage of DeVos. . .”  

Brown is joined by Tucker Bounds, a former John McCain adviser and spokesman for the McCain/Palin campaign.

Exemplifying the terrifying possibilities of the virtual panopticon, we examine the nexus of Cambridge Analytica, its principal investors, Robert and Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon, a key member of the firm’s board of directors and a political guru to Rebekah. ” . . . . For several years, a data firm eventually hired by the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, has been using Facebook as a tool to build psychological profiles that represent some 230 million adult Americans. A spinoff of a British consulting company and sometime-defense contractor known for its counterterrorism ‘psy ops’ work in Afghanistan, the firm does so by seeding the social network with personality quizzes. Respondents — by now hundreds of thousands of us, mostly female and mostly young but enough male and older for the firm to make inferences about others with similar behaviors and demographics — get a free look at their Ocean scores. Cambridge Analytica also gets a look at their scores and, thanks to Facebook, gains access to their profiles and real names.

“Cambridge Analytica worked on the ‘Leave’ side of the Brexit campaign. In the United States it takes only Republicans as clients: Senator Ted Cruz in the primaries, Mr. Trump in the general election. Cambridge is reportedly backed by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire and a major Republican donor; a key board member is Stephen K. Bannon, the head of Breitbart News who became Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman and is set to be his chief strategist in the White House. . .

” . . . . Their [the Mercers] data firm, Cambridge Analytica, was hired by the Cruz campaign. They switched to support Trump shortly after he clinched the nomination, and he eventually hired Cambridge Analytica, as well. Their top political guru is Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chairman and White House chief strategist. They’re close, too, with Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who also has a senior role in the White House. They never speak to the press and hardly ever even release a public statement. Like Trump himself, they’ve flouted the standard playbook for how things are done in politics. . . .”

Bannon’s influence on Rebekah Mercer is particularly strong: ” . . . Another of the Republican operatives described Bannon as the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ to Rebekah Mercer, and a third was even more pointed: ‘Svengali.’ Bannon is ‘really, really, really influential’ with Mercer, said the former Breitbart employee. The Mercers, the former employee said, made their wishes known through Bannon, who would sometimes cite the company’s financial backers as a reason for Breitbart not to do a story. Bannon didn’t respond to a request for comment about this. . . .”

In turn, the influence of Steve Bannon within the Facebook virtual panopticon is even more sinister considering Bannon’s political outlook: ” . . . . But, said the source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Bannon, ‘There are some things he’s only going to share with people who he’s tight with and who he trusts.’

Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years—a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history. . . .”

One of the influences on Bannon is Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug, who has actually opened a backchannel advisory connection to the White House: ” . . . . Before he emerged on the political scene, an obscure Silicon Valley computer programmer with ties to Trump backer and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was explaining his behavior. Curtis Yarvin, the self-proclaimed ‘neoreactionary’ who blogs under the name ‘Mencius Moldbug,’ attracted a following in 2008 when he published a wordy treatise asserting, among other things, that ‘nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth.’ When the organizer of a computer science conference canceled Yarvin’s appearance following an outcry over his blogging under his nom de web, Bannon took note: Breitbart News decried the act of censorship in an article about the programmer-blogger’s dismissal.

Moldbug’s dense, discursive musings on history—’What’s so bad about the Nazis?’ he asks in one 2008 post that condemns the Holocaust but questions the moral superiority of the Allies—include a belief in the utility of spreading misinformation that now looks like a template for Trump’s approach to truth. ‘To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable [sic] demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army,’ he writes in a May 2008 post.It’s been a while since I posted anything really controversial and offensive here,’ he begins in a July 25, 2007, post explaining why he associates democracy with ‘war, tyranny, destruction and poverty.’

Moldbug, who does not do interviews and could not be reached for this story, has reportedly opened up a line to the White House, communicating with Bannon and his aides through an intermediary, according to a source. Yarvin said he has never spoken with Bannon. . . .”

After discussing Facebook’s new AI technology being employed to search users’ photos, the program concludes with the shift of Silicon Valley money to the GOP.

Program Highlights Include: 

  • Review of Steve Bannon’s role on the NSC.
  • Review of the martial law contingency plans drawn up by Oliver North during the Reagan administration, involving the deputizing of paramilitary right-wingers.
  • Review of Erik Prince’s relationship to the Trump administration and Betsy De Vos, Trump’s education secretary.

1. A very important story from New York magazine sets forth Facebook’s role in the just-concluded election.

” . . . . Facebook’s size, reach, wealth, and power make it effectively the only one that matters. And, boy, does it matter. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I think there are few events over the last decade more significant than the social network’s wholesale acquisition of the traditional functions of news media (not to mention the political-party apparatus). Trump’s ascendancy is far from the first material consequence of Facebook’s conquering invasion of our social, cultural, and political lives, but it’s still a bracing reminder of the extent to which the social network is able to upend existing structure and transform society — and often not for the better. . . .

” . . . . Facebook’s enormous audience, and the mechanisms of distribution on which the site relies — i.e., the emotionally charged activity of sharing, and the show-me-more-like-this feedback loop of the news feed algorithm — makes it the only site to support a genuinely lucrative market in which shady publishers arbitrage traffic by enticing people off of Facebook and onto ad-festooned websites, using stories that are alternately made up, incorrect, exaggerated beyond all relationship to truth, or all three. . . .

” . . . . And at the heart of the problem, anyway, is not the motivations of the hoaxers but the structure of social media itself. Tens of millions of people, invigorated by insurgent outsider candidates and anger at perceived political enemies, were served up or shared emotionally charged news stories about the candidates, because Facebook’s sorting algorithm understood from experience that they were seeking such stories. Many of those stories were lies, or ‘parodies,’ but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying. As those people and their followers clicked on, shared, or otherwise engaged with those stories — which they did, because Trump drives engagement extremely bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engagement-driving feedback loop reached the heights of Facebook itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occasion after firing the small team of editorial employees tasked with passing news judgment. . . .

” . . . . Something like 170 million people in North America use Facebook every day, a number that’s not only several orders of magnitude larger than even the most optimistic circulation reckonings of major news outlets but also about one-and-a-half times as many people as voted on Tuesday. Forty-four percent of all adults in the United States say they get news from Facebook . . . “

“Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook” by Max Read; New York Magazine; 11/09/2016.

A close and — to pundits, journalists, and Democrats — unexpected victory like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s is always overdetermined, and no one particular thing pushed Trump over the edge on Tuesday night. His chosen party’s lately increasing openness to explicit white nationalism, the still-recent global-scale failure of the liberal economic consensus, the apparently deep-seated misogyny and racism of the American electorate, Hillary Clinton’s multiple shortcomings as a candidate, or even the last-minute intervention of FBI director James Comey might each have been, on its own, sufficient to hand the election to a man who is, by any reckoning, a dangerous and unpredictable bigot.

Still, it can be clarifying to identify the conditions that allowed access to the highest levels of the political syste a man so far outside what was, until recently, the political mainstream that not a single former presidential candidate from his own party would endorse him. In this case, the condition was: Facebook.

To some extent I’m using “Facebook” here as a stand-in for the half-dozen large and influential message boards and social-media platforms where Americans now congregate to discuss politics, but Facebook’s size, reach, wealth, and power make it effectively the only one that matters. And, boy, does it matter. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I think there are few events over the last decade more significant than the social network’s wholesale acquisition of the traditional functions of news media (not to mention the political-party apparatus). Trump’s ascendancy is far from the first material consequence of Facebook’s conquering invasion of our social, cultural, and political lives, but it’s still a bracing reminder of the extent to which the social network is able to upend existing structure and transform society — and often not for the better.

The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news. Fake news is not a problem unique to Facebook, but Facebook’s enormous audience, and the mechanisms of distribution on which the site relies — i.e., the emotionally charged activity of sharing, and the show-me-more-like-this feedback loop of the news feed algorithm — makes it the only site to support a genuinely lucrative market in which shady publishers arbitrage traffic by enticing people off of Facebook and onto ad-festooned websites, using stories that are alternately made up, incorrect, exaggerated beyond all relationship to truth, or all three. (To really hammer home the cyberdystopia aspect of this: A significant number of the sites are run by Macedonian teenagers looking to make some scratch.)

All throughout the election, these fake stories, sometimes papered over with flimsy “parody site” disclosures somewhere in small type, circulated throughout Facebook: The Pope endorses Trump. Hillary Clinton bought $137 million in illegal arms. The Clintons bought a $200 million house in the Maldives. Many got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of shares, likes, and comments; enough people clicked through to the posts to generate significant profits for their creators. The valiant efforts of Snopes and other debunking organizations were insufficient; Facebook’s labyrinthine sharing and privacy settings mean that fact-checks get lost in the shuffle. Often, no one would even need to click on and read the story for the headline itself to become a widely distributed talking point, repeated elsewhere online, or, sometimes, in real life. (Here’s an in-the-wild sighting of a man telling a woman that Clinton and her longtime aide Huma Abedin are lovers, based on “material that appeared to have been printed off the internet.”)

Profit motive, on the part of Macedonians or Americans, was not the only reason to share fake news, of course — there was an obvious ideological motivation to lie to or mislead potential voters — but the fake-news industry’s commitment to “engagement” above any particular political program has given it a terrifyingly nihilistic sheen that old-fashioned propagandists never displayed. (Say what you will about ratfuc king, dude, at least it’s an ethos.) And at the heart of the problem, anyway, is not the motivations of the hoaxers but the structure of social media itself. Tens of millions of people, invigorated by insurgent outsider candidates and anger at perceived political enemies, were served up or shared emotionally charged news stories about the candidates, because Facebook’s sorting algorithm understood from experience that they were seeking such stories. Many of those stories were lies, or “parodies,” but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying. As those people and their followers clicked on, shared, or otherwise engaged with those stories — which they did, because Trump drives engagement extremely bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engagement-driving feedback loop reached the heights of Facebook itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occasion after firing the small team of editorial employees tasked with passing news judgment. Flush with Trump’s uniquely passionate supporter base, Facebook’s vast, personalized sewer system has become clogged with toxic fatbergs.

And it is, truly, vast: Something like 170 million people in North America use Facebook every day, a number that’s not only several orders of magnitude larger than even the most optimistic circulation reckonings of major news outlets but also about one-and-a-half times as many people as voted on Tuesday. Forty-four percent of all adults in the United States say they get news from Facebook, and access to to an audience of that size would seem to demand some kind of civic responsibility — an obligation to ensure that a group of people more sizable than the American electorate is not being misled. But whether through a failure of resources, of ideology, or of imagination, Facebook has seemed both uninterested in and incapable of even acknowledging that it has become the most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history.

Facebook connected those supporters to each other and to the candidate, gave them platforms far beyond what even the largest Establishment media organizations might have imagined, and allowed them to effectively self-organize outside the party structure. Who needs a GOTV database when you have millions of voters worked into a frenzy by nine months of sharing impassioned lies on Facebook, encouraging each other to participate?

Even better, Facebook allowed Trump to directly combat the hugely negative media coverage directed at him, simply by giving his campaign and its supporters another host of channels to distribute counterprogramming. This, precisely, is why more good journalism would have been unlikely to change anyone’s mind: The Post and the Times no longer have a monopoly on information about a candidate. Endless reports of corruption, venality, misogyny, and incompetence merely settle in a Facebook feed next to a hundred other articles from pro-Trump sources (if they settle into a Trump supporter’s feed at all) disputing or ignoring the deeply reported claims, or, as is often the case, just making up new and different stories.

2. Paul Carr over at Pando had a rather troubling observation during the anti-Trump Woman’s March about Facebook’s coverage of the Million Woman March in its news feed. Specifically, his observation that he was unable to observe any news on Facebook about the historic march at all:

“Hundreds of Thousands of Women March in Protest against Trump: Facebook News Tries to Silence Them All” by Paul Bradley Carr; Pando ; 1/21/2017.

We don’t usually post on Pando at the weekend, but this is too topical and too shameful to wait until Monday.

As you certainly know, today is the day of the Women’s March on Washington in protest of Donald Trump. The main event is in DC, where something close to 500,000 protesters of all genders and ages have packed the streets — but there are also major protests in Chicago, New York and around the world. Including Antarctica.

You certainly know this because the protest march is the top story on every major news outlet, and because updates and photos from the event are flooding your Twitter and Facebook feeds.

And yet, here’s what Facebook’s trending news feed looked like at the height of the march…
[see image of Carr’s news feed]
And here’s its trending politics feed…
[see image of trending politics fee]
Notice anything missing?

Like, say, a half million women.

In case you think I’m seeing something different from the rest of the world, be assured I’m not….

@paulbradleycarr wow. just looked. very poor. i have one mention (for chicago march) under politics— Rachel Clarke (@rachelclarke) January 21, 2017

@rachelclarke@paulbradleycarr I don’t see any in top trends OR politics… and I’m in Chicago so I thought it might show up— Aesha (@heyitsaesh) January 21, 2017

…Facebook’s trending news feed really has obliterated the entire Women’s March in favor of stories about pastry chefs and professional wrestlers.

I’ve written plenty (most recently this) about Facebook’s increasing coziness with Donald Trump, and there’s plenty more to be written about the growing unhappiness inside the company with the right-ward direction that senior management are taking in an attempt to please (/avoid conflict with) the incoming administration. Stay tuned.

For now, I’ve contacted Facebook to ask if the trending news feed is yet another example of that attempt, or if there’s some mystery glitch that has caused the voices of hundreds of thousands of women to be silenced in favor of stories that, by Facebook’s own numbers, only a thousand or so people are talking about. I’ll update this post if I hear back.

Update: A Facebook spokesperson responded to me on Tuesday afternoon, insisting that “some number” of the following terms “began trending on Saturday.”

#whyimarch

#WomensMarch

Women’s March on Boston

Women’s March on Los Angeles

Women’s March on Chicago

Sundance Women’s March

He was unable to provide supporting evidence for which of the terms trended when, and who might have seen them. “Trending is algorithmically driven based on conversations on the platform,” he explained.

I also asked whether it was accurate that Facebook is staffing up its policy team with right-wingers or others sympathetic to Donald Trump. The spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

Update II:

Facebook announces it is “updating how topics are identified as trending on Facebook”

3. So was Facebook intentionally suppressing the Women’s March or is this is a case of an algorithmic hiccup that, for whatever reason, concluded that Paul Carr wouldn’t care about such things. Well, according to the article below, the number of people unable to find any trace of the Women’s March in their trending news feed wasn’t limited to Carr. But it also wasn’t limited to suppressing the Women’s March in trending news feeds either since others reported that they were seeing the Women’s March in their news feed but no mention of Trump’s inauguration. So while it’s unclear what cause the numerous reports of major stories not reaching some users’ news feeds but not other feed, it’s pretty clear that relying on Facebook for your news is probably bad news (which shouldn’t be news to anyone):

“People Want to Know Why the Women’s March Was Absent from Facebook Trending News” by Katie Perry; Social Media Week; 1/23/2017.

Some people are questioning why the Women’s March was absent from Facebook’s Trending news section on Jan. 21. Other users say they failed to see the Inauguration on the list the day prior.

Journalists and onlookers are seeking answers as to why Saturday’s Women’s March—fueled by some 3 million participants in dozens of cities and towns worldwide—failed to appear on Facebook’s Trending topics list for some users during the height of the event.

According to Facebook, Trending news items are determined algorithmically based on engagement, timelines, location and Page like data. Those topics appear on the right-rail of the Facebook home screen and link to popular articles and posts that are relevant to each item. These articles generally line up with the top news stories of the day, as determined and reported on by more traditional news outlets.

But something puzzling happened on Jan. 21. Despite the Women’s March capturing mainstream and local media attention and spurring a flood of photos and commentary from those who marched, some users noted that the event was nowhere to be found within Facebook’s Trending topics list. For Pando reporter Paul Bradley Carr, it didn’t even appear within the Political sub-section of Trending topics.

Other onlookers seem to have verified Carr’s finding; however, some people did see limited coverage (within the Political sub-section, for example). So far, Facebook has declined to comment, which has left room for rampant speculation as to whether this was a mere technological glitch or something more deliberate. Note: By Sunday evening Jan. 22, the march had made its way to my News Feed.

What’s also interesting is that many people reported not seeing the Inauguration as a Trending topic the day before. Scrolling through public commentary and screenshots shared on Twitter, the situation gets even murkier. Some users saw the Women’s March trending but not the Inauguration. Others saw the opposite. The thing about a personalized “front page” is that absent a large pool of data, it’s tough to know what really went on behind the scenes.

So, why is what appears in Trending so important? As was oft-discussed during and after the last Election cycle, Americans are increasingly relying on social media as their leading source of news. A Pew study from 2015 found that 40 percent of U.S. Facebook users primarily view it as a destination for news-gathering. Among users age 34 and younger, 60 percent say social platforms like Facebook and Twitter are “the most or an important way” to get news.

For critics of Trending and its influence on the political landscape, there are two issues at play. The first involves the alleged interference of human editors in what has been positioned as an algorithmic curation by Facebook. The second debate is more philosophical in nature, as it questions the so-called “bubbles” that an algorithmic editor naturally creates.

In fairness, right now there is limited data available to prove that the Women’s March was absent in a universal capacity. That said, anecdotally, it appears that many people who should have seen the march did not. Drawing some assumptions, it would have made sense that a tech reporter living in a major metropolitan area would be exposed to news of the march—perhaps even in an over-indexed capacity—given that it’s likely he or she would have known people participating.

Other journalists noted that it seemed strange for Twitter to be showing the march on its own curated news list, but not Facebook.

I think Twitter deserves the win for the coverage around Women’s March today. Facebook? Hmm…suspect w/no mention in trending topics.— Ken Yeung (@thekenyeung) January 22, 2017

In May 2016, Vox published an article which claimed that “Facebook has more influence over Americans than any media company in history.” Whether curated content, such as what appears in Trending, has been skewed by users’ personal data or directionally manipulated by human editors, the net effect is significant: “So many people spend so much time on Facebook that even a small shift in the platform’s approach could have a big impact on what people read online,” says Vox’s Timothy B. Lee.

4.  Now that Facebook announced that it’s totally changing its news feed algorithm so that everyone in the same region will see the same trending news it’s also a bit of a moot mystery going forward. Sure, it’s not an entirely moot mystery since it would still be nice to know if Facebook was somehow using its algorithm as an excuse to suppress very negative news for Trump. But at least it sounds like there will be new and different reasons for Facebook’s crappy news feeds going forward:

“Facebook Tweaks Its ‘Trending Topics’ Algorithm To Better Reflect Real News” by Laura Sydell; Nation Public Radio; 1/25/2017.

An article in an online publication accusing Facebook of suppressing the Women’s March in its trending topics caused a little tempest on social media over the weekend. Facebook says it did not intentionally block any story and is revealing a new way its trending-topics algorithm will now operate.

Paul Bradley Carr, writing for online outlet Pando, on Saturday posted what he said were screen shots of his Facebook pages at the height of the worldwide marches, which brought more than a million people into the streets around the globe to protest the agenda of the Trump administration.

Despite images and stories from the marches filling many people’s personal Facebook feeds and the day’s media coverage, Carr’s screenshots showed no signs of the march in Trending Topics — a feature supposed to reflect popular discussed topics.

And Carr says he discovered he was not the only one who didn’t see the Women’s March reflected on Trending Topics, accusing Facebook of trying to cozy up to the Trump administration. A very unscientific poll by this reporter found that among people in my Facebook and Twitter network most did see the Women’s March or something related trending on their page. However, a few did not.

According to Facebook, the Trending Topics — seen to the right of the main news feed on desktop and in search on mobile — are “based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location.” (Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams.)

Facebook representatives told NPR that the reason why some people did not see the march as trending had to do with the algorithm behind the feature. Although it took into account major news events and what’s popular on the site, it also accounted for the preferences of each person. It’s possible that Carr’s algorithmic profile indicated he wouldn’t be interested in the Women’s March.

In addition, some people may have seen trending topics they didn’t realize were about the Women’s March. For example, Ashley Judd and Madonna were trending — both women gave speeches at the main march in Washington, D.C.

And, Facebook says, none of this will happen in the future.

As of Wednesday, the company has once again changed its trending algorithms. Personal preferences are now out of the equation. “Facebook will no longer be personalized based on someone’s interests,” Facebook says in a press release. “Everyone in the same region will see the same topics.” For now, a region is considered a country, so everyone in the U.S. should see the same topics.

The latest algorithm changes are part of Facebook’s ongoing effort to curtail the spread of fake news. Some fabricated stories show up in Trending Topics, despite often originating on sites with no history of visitors and getting no coverage from legitimate news media. It’s a lucrative business, explored by NPR in November, when we tracked down one notorious fake-news creator.

The new algorithm would make hoax articles less likely to trend because it will look at “the number of publishers that are posting articles on Facebook about the same topic,” accounting for coverage by multiple news outlets, Facebook says.

 

5.  No more personalized reality bubbles for Facebook users. Now it’s regional reality bubbles. That’s progress! Maybe. It’s unclear. Especially since the new head of Facebook’s news division is a right-winger with close ties to Trump’s new education secretary:

“Facebook’s New Head Of News Has Close Ties To Conservative Politics” by Molly Hensley-Clancy; BuzzFeed; 1/6/2017.

Campbell Brown, a former TV news anchor and education reform activist, has personal and professional links to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary.

Facebook has chosen Campbell Brown, a former television news anchor who worked most recently as an education reform activist, as its head of news partnerships, tasked with rebuilding relationships with news outlets in the wake of a wave of fake news stories that dominated the site during the presidential election.

Brown has longstanding ties not just to the traditional news media, but also to conservative politics, although she describes herself as a political independent. She is a close personal friend of Betsy DeVos, the Republican megadonor who is Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, and is married to Dan Senor, a former top advisor to Mitt Romney who also served as spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But she, and Senor, were central to the losing battle against Donald Trump inside the Republican Party. Last June, in a closed-door interview with Paul Ryan, she grilled the House Speaker on his decision to back Trump, asking him how he would justify his decision to a small child. She had earlier blamed the news media for aiding Trump’s rise. “He is not a politician. He is not a leader. He is a supreme narcissist,” wrote in December, 2015, criticizing TV networks for their saturation coverage of the then-candidate. “You can deprive him of the one thing that keeps him going—airtime.”

At Facebook, she will work to navigate the social network’s sometimes fraught role as a central player in the news industry. She won’t, however, be making editorial or content-related decisions, such as deciding what stories get play on Facebook, the company said.

“Right now we are watching a massive transformation take place in the news business – both in the way people consume news and in the way reporters disseminate news,” Brown wrote in a Facebook post Friday. “Facebook is a major part of this transformation.”

In the wake of the election, Facebook has weathered criticism over its inability to stem a tide of fake political news stories. It has also scrambled to mend ties with conservative publications after reports claimed its trending news team suppressed stories from conservative news outlets.

In her post-media career as an education activist, Brown founded an advocacy group, the Partnership for Educational Justice, whose donors she chose to keep secret, that frequently battles with teachers’ unions. And she has worked in favor of charter school expansion, a pet project of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

And alongside her mainstream media experience, Brown is familiar with the world of non-traditional news outlets springing up online. In 2014, she founded a nonprofit news site, The 74, which bills itself as nonpartisan but which critics have said functions as advocacy journalism, tilted in favor of charter schools and against teachers’ unions.

The site was launched with money from donors including the foundation run by DeVos, Trump’s proposed Education Secretary. When the nomination was announced, Brown said she would recuse herself from The 74’s coverage of DeVos.

Earlier this year, The 74 published an undercover sting video made by conservative activist James O’Keefe, who posed undercover as a teacher and filmed union representatives advising him on how to handle a hypothetical assault of a child.

6. The guy just hired as the new Facebook Communications Director who will be focused on product communications, specifically on the news feed, is Tucker Bounds.

“Axios AM” by Mike Allen; Axios ; 1/16/2017.

Good Monday morning! Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a perfect time to reflect on historic days for our country, as we head into Inauguration Week. It’s three days and a wake-up till President Trump.

Scoop … Facebook adds a well-known operative: Tucker Bounds — co-founder of Sidewire, the online conversation platform — is stepping away from his operational role and returning to Facebook, where he was director of corporate communications from 2011 to 2014. Tucker, who’ll keep his seat on the Sidewise board, starts Jan. 30 as Communications Director, focused on product communications, specifically on News Feed. . . .

 

7. Fun fact: those Facebook personality tests that allegedly let you learn things about what make you tick allows whoever set up that test learn what makes you tick too. Since it’s done through Facebook, they can identify your test results with your real identity. It’s a rather obvious fun fact.

Here’s a less obvious fun fact: if the Facebook personality test in question happens to report your “Ocean score” (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism), that means the test your taking was created by Cambridge Analytica, a company with one of Donald Trump’s billionaire sugar-daddies, Robert Mercer, as a major investor. And it’s Cambridge Analytica that gets to learn all those fun facts about your psychological profile too. And Steve Bannon sat on its board:

“The Secret Agenda of a Facebook Quiz” by McKenzie Funk; The New York Times; 1/19/2017.

Do you panic easily? Do you often feel blue? Do you have a sharp tongue? Do you get chores done right away? Do you believe in the importance of art?

If ever you’ve answered questions like these on one of the free personality quizzes floating around Facebook, you’ll have learned what’s known as your Ocean score: How you rate according to the big five psychological traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. You may also be responsible the next time America is shocked by an election upset.

For several years, a data firm eventually hired by the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, has been using Facebook as a tool to build psychological profiles that represent some 230 million adult Americans. A spinoff of a British consulting company and sometime-defense contractor known for its counterterrorism “psy ops” work in Afghanistan, the firm does so by seeding the social network with personality quizzes. Respondents — by now hundreds of thousands of us, mostly female and mostly young but enough male and older for the firm to make inferences about others with similar behaviors and demographics — get a free look at their Ocean scores. Cambridge Analytica also gets a look at their scores and, thanks to Facebook, gains access to their profiles and real names.

Cambridge Analytica worked on the “Leave” side of the Brexit campaign. In the United States it takes only Republicans as clients: Senator Ted Cruz in the primaries, Mr. Trump in the general election. Cambridge is reportedly backed by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire and a major Republican donor; a key board member is Stephen K. Bannon, the head of Breitbart News who became Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman and is set to be his chief strategist in the White House.

In the age of Facebook, it has become far easier for campaigners or marketers to combine our online personas with our offline selves, a process that was once controversial but is now so commonplace that there’s a term for it, “onboarding.” Cambridge Analytica says it has as many as 3,000 to 5,000 data points on each of us, be it voting histories or full-spectrum demographics — age, income, debt, hobbies, criminal histories, purchase histories, religious leanings, health concerns, gun ownership, car ownership, homeownership — from consumer-data giants.

No data point is very informative on its own, but profiling voters, says Cambridge Analytica, is like baking a cake. “It’s the sum of the ingredients,” its chief executive officer, Alexander Nix, told NBC News. Because the United States lacks European-style restrictions on second- or thirdhand use of our data, and because our freedom-of-information laws give data brokers broad access to the intimate records kept by local and state governments, our lives are open books even without social media or personality quizzes.

Ever since the advertising executive Lester Wunderman coined the term “direct marketing” in 1961, the ability to target specific consumers with ads — rather than blanketing the airwaves with mass appeals and hoping the right people will hear them — has been the marketer’s holy grail. What’s new is the efficiency with which individually tailored digital ads can be tested and matched to our personalities. Facebook is the microtargeter’s ultimate weapon.

The explosive growth of Facebook’s ad business has been overshadowed by its increasing role in how we get our news, real or fake. In July, the social network posted record earnings: quarterly sales were up 59 percent from the previous year, and profits almost tripled to $2.06 billion. While active users of Facebook — now 1.71 billion monthly active users — were up 15 percent, the real story was how much each individual user was worth. The company makes $3.82 a year from each global user, up from $2.76 a year ago, and an average of $14.34 per user in the United States, up from $9.30 a year ago. Much of this growth comes from the fact that advertisers not only have an enormous audience in Facebook but an audience they can slice into the tranches they hope to reach.

One recent advertising product on Facebook is the so-called “dark post”: A newsfeed message seen by no one aside from the users being targeted. With the help of Cambridge Analytica, Mr. Trump’s digital team used dark posts to serve different ads to different potential voters, aiming to push the exact right buttons for the exact right people at the exact right times.

Imagine the full capability of this kind of “psychographic” advertising. In future Republican campaigns, a pro-gun voter whose Ocean score ranks him high on neuroticism could see storm clouds and a threat: The Democrat wants to take his guns away. A separate pro-gun voter deemed agreeable and introverted might see an ad emphasizing tradition and community values, a father and son hunting together.

In this election, dark posts were used to try to suppress the African-American vote. According to Bloomberg, the Trump campaign sent ads reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” line. It targeted Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with messages about the Clinton Foundation’s troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Federal Election Commission rules are unclear when it comes to Facebook posts, but even if they do apply and the facts are skewed and the dog whistles loud, the already weakening power of social opprobrium is gone when no one else sees the ad you see — and no one else sees “I’m Donald Trump, and I approved this message.”

While Hillary Clinton spent more than $140 million on television spots, old-media experts scoffed at Trump’s lack of old-media ad buys. Instead, his campaign pumped its money into digital, especially Facebook. One day in August, it flooded the social network with 100,000 ad variations, so-called A/B testing on a biblical scale, surely more ads than could easily be vetted by human eyes for compliance with Facebook’s “community standards.”

On Monday, after a similar announcement from Google, Facebook said it would no longer allow fake-news websites to show ads, on their own sites, from Facebook’s ad network — a half-step that neither blocks what appears on your newsfeed nor affects how advertisers can microtarget users on the social network.

There are surely more changes to come. Mr. Zuckerberg is young, still skeptical that his radiant transparency machine could be anything but a force for good, rightly wary of policing what the world’s diverse citizens say and share on his network, so far mostly dismissive of Facebook’s role in the election. If Mr. Zuckerberg takes seriously his oft-stated commitments to diversity and openness, he must grapple honestly with the fact that Facebook is no longer just a social network. It’s an advertising medium that’s now dangerously easy to weaponize.

A Trump administration is unlikely to enforce transparency about who is targeted by dark posts and other hidden political ads — or to ensure that politicians take meaningful ownership of what the ads say. But Facebook can.

 

8. So what do we know about Robert Mercer, the man who first backed Ted Cruz in the 2016 race and then quickly switched to Trump? Well, there reportedly isn’t very much known about his politics…except that he’s a libertarian who backed Donald Trump after backing Ted Cruz. Which is pretty much all we need to know to know that he’s up to no good:

“What Does the Billionaire Family Backing Donald Trump Really Want?” by Rosie Gray; The Atlantic; 1/27/2017.

The Mercers are enjoying more influence than ever with their candidate in the White House—but no one seems to know how they intend to use it.

She owns a cookie store. He loves model trains. They both hate the Clintons. And beyond that, not much is clear about the motivations of the Mercer father-daughter duo of Republican megadonors who have become two of the most powerful people in the country over the last 18 months.

Hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah were among the earliest and strongest backers of Donald Trump while other elite donors still disdained him. It turned out to be a good investment. But now, with their favored candidate freshly installed as president of the United States, it remains unclear what they believe, or what they hope their investment will yield.

The Mercers have been a quiet but constant presence in the background of Republican politics since the beginning of the 2016 cycle. They started the campaign as backers of Ted Cruz, pouring millions into one of the main super PACs supporting his candidacy. Their data firm, Cambridge Analytica, was hired by the Cruz campaign. They switched to support Trump shortly after he clinched the nomination, and he eventually hired Cambridge Analytica, as well. Their top political guru is Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chairman and White House chief strategist. They’re close, too, with Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who also has a senior role in the White House. They never speak to the press and hardly ever even release a public statement. Like Trump himself, they’ve flouted the standard playbook for how things are done in politics.

Clues to their policy preferences can be found in their family foundation’s pattern of giving. For example, they have given more than once to groups questioning climate-change science. But their donations have flown to groups all over the conservative political map, ranging from libertarian organizations to movement conservative groups to the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners Action Fund to Breitbart. That scattershot approach suggests the family has some ideological flexibility.

No one seems to know what motivates the Mercers or what policies they want to see enacted, even people who have worked closely with them or for projects funded by them. While they’ve poured money into conservative causes, they’ve also invested in projects explicitly aimed at overturning the modern conservative movement, like Breitbart News, in which they reportedly invested $10 million, and Trump himself. And the mystery of their ideological motivations is made all the more striking by their success in helping Trump reach the White House. A recent Wall Street Journal story on the Mercers concluded: “It isn’t clear what specific policies or positions, if any, the Mercers are seeking for their support of Mr. Trump.”

“All I can take away is that they just want to be power players,” said a former Breitbart News staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a non-disclosure agreement. “I don’t know what their principles are. I don’t know how you switch from Ted Cruz to Donald Trump so quickly.”

“Most of these people I think I understand,” said a Republican operative who has been engaged on several Mercer-led efforts. (Like most people quoted in this story, the operative declined to be identified for fear of legal or professional consequences for speaking publicly about the Mercers.) “I don’t understand the Mercers.”

Rebekah Mercer “talks business. She talks data, she talks trends, she talks messaging,” said another Republican operative who has worked with the Mercers. “I have never really been in her presence where she’s talked policy.”

Asked to describe what’s motivating them, Bannon himself was vague.

“Really incredible folks,” Bannon said in an email. “Never ask for anything. Very middle class values as they came to their great wealth late in life.”

* * *

Robert Mercer got his start at IBM, working there for over 20 years. He went to Renaissance Technologies in 1993. It’s there that Mercer, already well into middle age, became wealthy. Renaissance, based in East Setauket, Long Island, includes three hedge funds managing over $25 billion in assets, as well as the mysterious Medallion Fund, an employees-only fund that has made its investors unimaginably rich. Mercer’s co-CEO is Jim Simons, a major donor to Democrats; one Republican operative with connections to the Mercers who spoke on condition of anonymity joked that the pair were trying to “hedge the political system.”

Rebekah, known as Bekah, is one of Bob and Diana Mercer’s three daughters. Along with her sisters Heather Sue and Jennifer (“Jenji”), she owns Ruby et Violette, a cookie store in New York (the cookies are now sold exclusively online). Rebekah, 43, is married to a French Morgan Stanley executive, Sylvain Mirochnikoff, with whom she has four children. Mercer did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Bob Mercer, 70, is an enigmatic figure who has a reputation for rarely speaking publicly. Nearly everyone spoken to for this story used some variation of the word “brilliant” to describe him. There’s a touch of eccentricity, too; “I know a couple things you can bond with Bob Mercer over is he hates the Federal Reserve and loves model trains,” said one Republican operative who has worked on Mercer-backed initiatives. (Mercer once sued a model train manufacturer, alleging that he was overcharged for a model train set installed in Owl’s Nest, his expansive Long Island estate).

Whatever her actual beliefs, there’s one thing upon which people who have worked with Rebekah Mercer agree: She has a keen understanding of politics and likes to be involved in the day-to-day running of projects she’s involved in. Many donors like to play strategist, much to the annoyance of the actual strategists in their employ. But Mercer appears to be more successful at it than most.

“Almost all donors want to pretend they’re Karl Rove. They all want to play political mastermind,” said one of the Republican operatives who has worked on Mercer-funded projects. But “I would say that Rebekah is as smart at politics as you could be without ever having been at the grunt level.”

“Her political instincts were always on the money,” said Hogan Gidley, a former Mike Huckabee aide who served as spokesman for the Make America Number One PAC which became the Mercers’ pro-Trump vehicle during the general election. “We would be talking about how a certain ad should look or changes we should make to an ad, and she would just offer an idea that would just elicit instantaneous agreement. It wasn’t because they were largely funding the PAC, it was because she was right.”

Gidley said Mercer was on every conference call related to the super PAC’s operations. Even so, he didn’t get a clear sense of Mercer or her father’s ideology.

“They’re libertarians who understand that they might have to make compromises with social conservatives,” said one person in the non-profit world who is a recipient of multiple Mercer grants. “They’re just as at home at the Cato Institute as they would be at the Heritage Foundation on general issues.”

The Mercers, the non-profit activist said, appeared to have two goals this election cycle: “They’ve been fighting the Clintons forever, and they wanted to back the winning horse.”

That first goal has been clear for some time. The Mercers have for years had their hands in the cottage industry of anti-Clinton activity in and around the conservative movement. According to tax records from the Mercer Family Foundation, they gave nearly $3.6 million to Citizens United between 2012 and 2014, which sued for access to Clinton Foundation-related emails last year and whose president David Bossie also got a senior job on the Trump campaign. They’ve also invested in the Government Accountability Institute, which publishes the conservative author Peter Schweizer. Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash was an influential source of talking points for Trump allies during this election cycle, providing fodder for one of Trump’s early salvos against Clinton in a speech in June and regularly populating the pages of Breitbart. Bannon co-founded GAI with Schweizer; Rebekah Mercer has sat on the board.

The Mercers’ activities during the election cycle are among the clearest public evidence of how their beliefs, whatever they might be, translate into action.

At first, the Mercers went in for Cruz. They backed Keep the Promise 1, one of the main super PACs supporting Cruz, to the tune of $11 million. Like other campaigns with which the Mercers have been involved, including Trump’s, the Cruz campaign engaged the Mercers’s data firm Cambridge Analytica. Cruz campaign officials clashed with Cambridge over the particulars of the contract and lodged complaints about the product itself, according to multiple sources familiar with what happened; in one instance, the Cruz campaign was paying for a database system, RIPON, that had not been built yet, leading to a contentious argument. They also caught wind of work Cambridge had done for the Ben Carson campaign; working on more than one primary campaign is a no-no for vendors. Elsewhere in Mercer-world, there were other signs of trouble when it came to Cruz. In January, before the primaries had even begun, Breitbart News began attacking Cruz, insinuating that he was ineligible to be president because of his Canadian birth (a line also in heavy use by Trump at the time). Meanwhile, the Mercers were still publicly behind Cruz.

“Cambridge Analytica’s data science team had an excellent relationship with the Cruz campaign: we were part of the campaign starting from day one and all the way through the primaries and caucuses until the final day, and we continue to work with many of the principals from the campaign,” a spokesman for Cambridge Analytica said. On the work they had done for the Carson campaign, the spokesman said “Cambridge Analytica is large enough to work on more than one campaign at any given time, and we take FEC firewall regulations very seriously. We would not work with multiple clients if we did not have the scale to provide devoted resources to ensure full compliance with firewalling procedures.” And on RIPON, the Cambridge Analytica spokesman said “Ripon was being used by many senatorial and gubernatorial candidates in the 2014 mid-terms. Some bespoke modifications were requested by the Cruz campaign and we were of course happy to make those for them.”

The Breitbart stories were troubling to Cruz staff, who had seen Breitbart as an ally and who didn’t think they had any reason to doubt the Mercers’ loyalty.

What Cruz’s staff may not have taken into account was the behind-the-scenes influence of Steve Bannon.

“I don’t think [the Mercers are] as nationalistic as Steve,” said a Republican operative who has worked for the Mercers. “Steve is an unapologetic nationalist. I don’t think the Mercers are as much.” But “they share a real disdain for elitism. That’s what sort of binds them together.”

Another of the Republican operatives described Bannon as the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” to Rebekah Mercer, and a third was even more pointed: “Svengali.” Bannon is “really, really, really influential” with Mercer, said the former Breitbart employee. The Mercers, the former employee said, made their wishes known through Bannon, who would sometimes cite the company’s financial backers as a reason for Breitbart not to do a story. Bannon didn’t respond to a request for comment about this.

That highlights a third apparent goal, which became clearer over the course of the campaign: dismantling the establishment. . . .

9. Guess which major world leader is reportedly taking the advice of Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug, the pro-monarchy, pro-eugenics founder of the contemporary “Dark Enlightenment”?

“What Steve Bannon Wants You to Read” by Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols; Politico; 2/07/2017.

President Trump’s strategic adviser is elevating a once-obscure network of political thinkers.

The first weeks of the Trump presidency have brought as much focus on the White House’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, as on the new president himself. But if Bannon has been the driving force behind the frenzy of activity in the White House, less attention has been paid to the network of political philosophers who have shaped his thinking and who now enjoy a direct line to the White House.

They are not mainstream thinkers, but their writings help to explain the commotion that has defined the Trump administration’s early days. They include a Lebanese-American author known for his theories about hard-to-predict events; an obscure Silicon Valley computer scientist whose online political tracts herald a “Dark Enlightenment”; and a former Wall Street executive who urged Donald Trump’s election in anonymous manifestos by likening the trajectory of the country to that of a hijacked airplane—and who now works for the National Security Council.

Bannon, described by one associate as “the most well-read person in Washington,” is known for recommending books to colleagues and friends, according to multiple people who have worked alongside him. He is a voracious reader who devours works of history and political theory “in like an hour,” said a former associate whom Bannon urged to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. “He’s like the Rain Man of nationalism.”

But, said the source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Bannon, “There are some things he’s only going to share with people who he’s tight with and who he trusts.”

Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years—a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history. His ascendant presence in the West Wing is giving once-obscure intellectuals unexpected influence over the highest echelons of government.

Bannon’s 2015 documentary, “Generation Zero,” drew heavily on one of his favorite books, “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book explains a theory of history unfolding in 80- to 100-year cycles, or “turnings,” the fourth and final stage of which is marked by periods of cataclysmic change in which the old order is destroyed and replaced—a current period that, in Bannon’s view, was sparked by the 2008 financial crisis and has now been manifested in part by the rise of Trump.

“The West is in trouble. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, and Trump’s election was a sign of health,” said a White House aide who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It was a revolt against managerialism, a revolt against expert rule, a revolt against the administrative state. It opens the door to possibilities.”

All of these impulses are evident in the White House, as the new administration—led by Bannon and a cadre of like-minded aides—has set about administering a sort of ideological shock therapy in its first two weeks. A flurry of executive orders slashing regulation and restricting the influx of refugees bear the ideological markings of obscure intellectuals in both form and content. The circumvention of the bureaucracy is a hallmark of these thinkers, as is the necessity of restricting immigration.

Their thinking has a clear nationalist strain, and Bannon has considered hiring a staffer responsible for monitoring nationalist movements around the world, according to two sources familiar with the situation. French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s visit to Trump Tower in mid-January was his handiwork. Le Pen has devoted her political career to softening the image and broadening the appeal of the nationalist movement in France by marginalizing its most extremist members. Her views are typically nationalist: She is hostile to the European Union and free trade and opposes granting foreigners from outside the EU the right to vote in local elections. Bannon’s former employer, Breitbart News, has covered Le Pen obsessively, casting her as the French Trump.

***

Many political onlookers described Trump’s election as a “black swan” event: unexpected but enormously consequential. The term was popularized by Nassim Taleb, the best-selling author whose 2014 book Antifragile—which has been read and circulated by Bannon and his aides—reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insurgency.

It’s a broadside against big government, which Taleb faults for suppressing the randomness, volatility and stress that keep institutions and people healthy. “As with neurotically overprotective parents, those who are trying to help us are hurting us the most,” he writes. Taleb also offers a withering critique of global elites, whom he describes as a corrupt class of risk-averse insiders immune to the consequences of their actions: “We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.”

It might as well have been the mission statement of the Trump campaign. Asked in a phone interview this week whether he’s had meetings with Bannon or his associates, Taleb said he could not comment. “Anything about private meetings would need to come from them,” he said, though he noted cryptically he’s had “coffee with friends.” He has been supportive of Trump but does not define himself as a supporter per se, though he said he would “be on the first train” to Washington were he invited to the White House.

“They look like the incarnation of ‘antifragile’ people,” Taleb said of the new administration. “The definition of ‘antifragile’ is having more upside than downside. For example, Obama had little upside because everyone thought he was brilliant and would solve the world’s problems, so when he didn’t it was disappointing. Trump has little downside because he’s already been so heavily criticized. He’s heavily vaccinated because of his checkered history. People have to understand: Trump did not run to be archbishop of Canterbury.”

Trump’s first two weeks in office have produced a dizzying blur of activity. But the president has also needlessly sparked controversy, arguing, for example, that his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever and that millions of people voted illegally in last November’s election, leaving even seasoned political observers befuddled.

Before he emerged on the political scene, an obscure Silicon Valley computer programmer with ties to Trump backer and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was explaining his behavior. Curtis Yarvin, the self-proclaimed “neoreactionary” who blogs under the name “Mencius Moldbug,” attracted a following in 2008 when he published a wordy treatise asserting, among other things, that “nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth.” When the organizer of a computer science conference canceled Yarvin’s appearance following an outcry over his blogging under his nom de web, Bannon took note: Breitbart News decried the act of censorship in an article about the programmer-blogger’s dismissal.

Moldbug’s dense, discursive musings on history—“What’s so bad about the Nazis?” he asks in one 2008 post that condemns the Holocaust but questions the moral superiority of the Allies—include a belief in the utility of spreading misinformation that now looks like a template for Trump’s approach to truth. “To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable [sic] demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army,” he writes in a May 2008 post.

In one January 2008 post, titled “How I stopped believing in democracy,” he decries the “Georgetownist worldview” of elites like the late diplomat George Kennan. Moldbug’s writings, coming amid the failure of the U.S. state-building project in Iraq, are hard to parse clearly and are open to multiple interpretations, but the author seems aware that his views are provocative. “It’s been a while since I posted anything really controversial and offensive here,” he begins in a July 25, 2007, post explaining why he associates democracy with “war, tyranny, destruction and poverty.”

Moldbug, who does not do interviews and could not be reached for this story, has reportedly opened up a line to the White House, communicating with Bannon and his aides through an intermediary, according to a source. Yarvin said he has never spoken with Bannon. . . . .

***

If Taleb and Yarvin laid some of the theoretical groundwork for Trumpism, the most muscular and controversial case for electing him president—and the most unrelenting attack on Trump’s conservative critics—came from Michael Anton, a onetime conservative intellectual writing under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus.

Thanks to an entree from Thiel, Anton now sits on the National Security Council staff. Initial reports indicated he would serve as a spokesman, but Anton is set to take on a policy role, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. A former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush’s National Security Council, Anton most recently worked as a managing director for BlackRock, the Wall Street investment firm.

 

10. Facebook has been developing new artificial intelligence (AI) technology to classify pictures on your Facebook page:

“Facebook Quietly Used AI to Solve Problem of Searching Through Your Photos” by Dave Gershgorn [Quartz]; Nextgov.com; 2/2/2017.

For the past few months, Facebook has secretly been rolling out a new feature to U.S. users: the ability to search photos by what’s depicted in them, rather than by captions or tags.

The idea itself isn’t new: Google Photos had this feature built in when it launched in 2015. But on Facebook, the update solves a longstanding organization problem. It means finally being able to find that picture of your friend’s dog from 2013, or the selfie your mom posted from Mount Rushmore in 2009… without 20 minutes of scrolling.

To make photos searchable, Facebook analyzes every single image uploaded to the site, generating rough descriptions of each one. This data is publicly available—there’s even a Chrome extension that will show you what Facebook’s artificial intelligence thinks is in each picture—and the descriptions can also be read out loud for Facebook users who are vision-impaired.

For now, the image descriptions are vague, but expect them to get a lot more precise. Today’s announcement specified the AI can identify the color and type of clothes a person is wearing, as well as famous locations and landmarks, objects, animals and scenes (garden, beach, etc.) Facebook’s head of AI research, Yann LeCun, told reporters the same functionality would eventually come for videos, too.

Facebook has in the past championed plans to make all of its visual content searchable—especially Facebook Live. At the company’s 2016 developer conference, head of applied machine learning Joaquin Quiñonero Candela said one day AI would watch every Live video happening around the world. If users wanted to watch someone snowboarding in real time, they would just type “snowboarding” into Facebook’s search bar. On-demand viewing would take on a whole new meaning.

There are privacy considerations, however. Being able to search photos for specific clothing or religious place of worship, for example, could make it easy to target Facebook users based on religious belief. Photo search also extends Facebook’s knowledge of users beyond what they like and share, to what they actually do in real life. That could allow for far more specific targeting for advertisers. As with everything on Facebook, features have their cost—your data.

11. Here’s something worth noting while sifting through the 2016 election aftermath: Silicon Valley’s long rightward shift became official in 2016. At least if you look at the corporate PACs of tech giants like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Sure, the employees tended to still favor donating to Democrats, although not as much as before (and not at all at Microsoft). But when it came to the corporate PACs Silicon Valley was seeing red.

A new Oxfam study found that the just eight individuals – including tech titans Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison – own as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population. So, you know, wealth inequality probably isn’t a super big priority for their super PACs.

“Silicon Valley Takes a Right Turn” by Thomas B. Edsall; The New York Times; 1/12/2017.

In 2016, the corporate PACs associated with Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon broke ranks with the traditional allegiance of the broad tech sector to the Democratic Party. All four donated more money to Republican Congressional candidates than they did to their Democratic opponents.

As these technology firms have become corporate behemoths, their concerns over government regulatory policy have intensified — on issues including privacy, taxation, automation and antitrust. These are questions on which they appear to view Republicans as stronger allies than Democrats.

In 2016, the PACs of these four firms gave a total of $3.6 million to House and Senate candidates. Of that, $2.1 million went to Republicans, and $1.5 million went to Democrats. These PACs did not contribute to presidential candidates.

The PACs stand apart from donations by employees in the technology and internet sectors. According to OpenSecrets, these employees gave $42.4 million to Democrats and $24.2 million to Republicans.

In the presidential race, tech employees (as opposed to corporate PACs) overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Workers for internet firms, for example, gave her $6.3 million, and gave $59,622 to Trump. Employees of electronic manufacturing firms donated $12.6 million to Clinton and $534,228 to Trump.

Most tech executives and employees remain supportive of Democrats, especially on social and cultural issues. The Republican tilt of the PACs at Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook suggests, however, that as these companies’ domains grow larger, their bottom-line interests are becoming increasingly aligned with the policies of the Republican Party.

In terms of political contributions, Microsoft has led the rightward charge. In 2008, the Microsoft PAC decisively favored Democrats, 60-40, according to data compiled by the indispensable Center for Responsive Politics. By 2012, Republican candidates and committees had taken the lead, 54-46; and by 2016, the Microsoft PAC had become decisively Republican, 65-35.

In 2016, the Microsoft PAC gave $478,818 to Republican House candidates and $272,000 to Democratic House candidates. It gave $164,000 to Republican Senate candidates, and $75,000 to Democratic Senate candidates.

Microsoft employees’ contributions followed a comparable pattern. In 2008 and 2012, Microsoft workers were solidly pro-Democratic, with 71 percent and 65 percent of their contributions going to party members. By 2016, the company’s work force had shifted gears. Democrats got 47 percent of their donations.

This was not small change. In 2016 Microsoft employees gave a total of $6.47 million.

A similar pattern is visible at Facebook.

The firm first became a noticeable player in the world of campaign finance in 2012 when employees and the company PAC together made contributions of $910,000. That year, Facebook employees backed Democrats over Republicans 64-35, while the company’s PAC tilted Republican, 53-46.

By 2016, when total Facebook contributions reached $3.8 million, the Democratic advantage in employee donations shrank to 51-47, while the PAC continued to favor Republicans, 56-44.

While the employees of the three other most valuable tech companies, Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Apple, remained Democratic in their giving in 2016, at the corporate level of Alphabet and Amazon — that is, at the level of their PACs — they have not.

Google’s PAC gave 56 percent of its 2016 contributions to Republicans and 44 percent to Democrats. The Amazon PAC followed a similar path, favoring Republicans over Democrats 52-48. (Apple does not have a PAC.)

Tech giants can no longer be described as insurgents challenging corporate America.

“By just about every measure worth collecting,” Farhad Manjoo of The Times wrote in January 2016:

American consumer technology companies are getting larger, more entrenched in their own sectors, more powerful in new sectors and better insulated against surprising competition from upstarts.

These firms are now among the biggest of big business. In a 2016 USA Today ranking of the most valuable companies worldwide, the top four were Alphabet, $554.8 billion; Apple, $529.3 billion; Microsoft, $425.4 billion; and Facebook, $333.6 billion. Those firms decisively beat out Berkshire Hathaway, Exxon Mobil, Johnson & Johnson and General Electric.

In addition to tech companies’ concern about government policy on taxation, regulation and antitrust, there are other sources of conflict between tech firms and the Democratic Party. Gregory Ferenstein, a blogger who covers the tech industry, conducted a survey of 116 tech company founders for Fast Company in 2015. Using data from a poll conducted by the firm SurveyMonkey, Ferenstein compared the views of tech founders with those of Democrats, in some cases, and the views of the general public, in others.

Among Ferenstein’s findings: a minority, 29 percent, of tech company founders described labor unions as “good,” compared to 73 percent of Democrats. Asked “is meritocracy naturally unequal?” tech founders overwhelmingly agreed.

Ferenstein went on:

One hundred percent of the smaller sample of founders to whom I presented this question said they believe that a truly meritocratic economy would be “mostly” or “somewhat” unequal. This is a key distinction: Opportunity is about maximizing people’s potential, which founders tend to believe is highly unequal. Founders may value citizen contributions to society, but they don’t think all citizens have the potential to contribute equally. When asked what percent of national income the top 10% would hold in such a scenario, a majority (67%) of founders believed that the richest individuals would control 50% or more of total income, while only 31% of the public believes such an outcome would occur in a meritocratic society.

One of the most interesting questions posed by Ferenstein speaks to middle and working class anxieties over global competition:

In international trade policy, some people believe the U.S. government should create laws that favor American business with policies that protect it from global competition, such as fees on imported goods or making it costly to hire cheaper labor in other countries (“outsourcing”). Others believe it would be better if there were less regulations and businesses were free to trade and compete without each country favoring their own industries. Which of these statements come closest to your belief?

There was a large difference between tech company officials, 73 percent of whom chose free trade and less regulation, while only 20 percent of Democrats supported those choices.

Ferenstein also found that tech founders are substantially more liberal on immigration policy than Democrats generally. 64 percent would increase total immigration levels, compared to 39 percent of Democrats. Tech executives are strong supporters of increasing the number of highly trained immigrants through the HB1 visa program.

Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University who writes about demographic, social and economic trends, sees these differences as the source of deep conflict within the Democratic Party.

In a provocative August, 2015, column in the Orange County Register, Kotkin wrote:

The disruptive force is largely Silicon Valley, a natural oligarchy that now funds a party teetering toward populism and even socialism. The fundamental contradictions, as Karl Marx would have noted, lie in the collision of interests between a group that has come to epitomize self-consciously progressive mega-wealth and a mass base which is increasingly concerned about downward mobility.

The tech elite, Kotkin writes, “far from deserting the Democratic Party, more likely will aim take to take it over.” Until very recently, the

conflict between populists and tech oligarchs has been muted, in large part due to common views on social issues like gay marriage and, to some extent, environmental protection. But as the social issues fade, having been “won” by progressives, the focus necessarily moves to economics, where the gap between these two factions is greatest.

Kotkin sees future partisan machination in cynical terms:

One can expect the oligarchs to seek out a modus vivendi with the populists. They could exchange a regime of higher taxes and regulation for ever-expanding crony capitalist opportunities and political protection. As the hegemons of today, Facebook and Google, not to mention Apple and Amazon, have an intense interest in protecting themselves, for example, from antitrust legislation. History is pretty clear: Heroic entrepreneurs of one decade often turn into the insider capitalists of the next.

In 2016, Donald Trump has produced an upheaval within the Republican Party that shifted attention away from the less explosive turmoil in Democratic ranks. . . .

 

 

Discussion

3 comments for “FTR #946 In Your Facebook: A Virtual Panopticon, Part 2”

  1. Oh what a surprise: Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, is trying to worm its way into the US’s privatized intelligence industry:

    The Washington Post

    After working for Trump’s campaign, British data firm eyes new U.S. government contracts

    By Matea Gold and Frances Stead Sellers February 17

    During last year’s race, President Trump’s campaign paid millions of dollars to a data science firm, Cambridge Analytica, that touted its ability to target voters through psychological profiling.

    Now, with Trump in office, Cambridge’s British parent company is ramping up its U.S. government business by pursuing contracts that could be driven by the new president’s policy agenda, according to multiple people with knowledge of the firm’s activities who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions.

    The company, SCL Group, has hired additional staffers who are working out of a new office down the street from the White House. It has in recent weeks pitched officials in key national security agencies on how its technology could be used to deter terrorism, bolster the military’s capacities as it prepares for a possible buildup and help assess attitudes about immigrants.

    SCL Group has ties to people in Trump’s inner circle, including White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who until recently was on the board of Cambridge Analytica.

    In addition, one of Cambridge’s main financiers is hedge fund magnate Robert L. Mercer, whose daughter Rebekah is one of the most influential donors in Trump’s orbit, according to people with knowledge of Mercer’s investment.

    Company executives say they are not exploiting their ties to the White House and are simply building on government work they have done in the past. But SCL’s move to expand its government business reflects how corporate interests connected to the administration see new opportunities in Trump’s Washington, even as the president vows to “drain the swamp.” And it shows how contractors are viewing the new administration’s spending priorities as potentially lucrative opportunities.

    SCL’s effort is being driven by a former aide to now-departed national security adviser Michael Flynn, who served as an adviser to the company in the past.

    As part of its outreach to U.S. officials, SCL is touting more than 20 years of experience in shaping voter perceptions and advising militaries and governments around the world on how to conduct effective psychological operations. In materials obtained by The Washington Post, the company suggests it could help the Pentagon and other government agencies with “counter radicalization” programs. At the State Department, SCL is offering to assess the impact of foreign propaganda campaigns, while the company says it could provide intelligence agencies with predictions and insight on emerging threats, among other services.

    Government officials familiar with the company said that SCL just finalized a $500,000 contract with the State Department in the works before the election and that its executives recently met with procurement officials at the Department of Homeland Security.

    Alexander Nix, a senior SCL executive who has overseen its U.S. expansion, confirmed the recent outreach to federal agencies and acknowledged that the company was stepping up its efforts to secure U.S. government business. He said that the push is an extension of the work the company has done as a subcontractor on a variety of government projects during the last 14 years — and that SCL would have sought the new work no matter who had won the election.

    “We’re clearly seeking to augment our existing client services and products with some of the new technologies we’ve been developing in our other sectors, such as the political field,” he said in a phone interview. “But this is not a radical shake-up or anything new.”

    “I’d like to think that regardless of the outcome of the election, we’d be working in this space,” Nix added and said he has not communicated with Bannon about the company’s work. “We’ve survived different administrations from left and right of the aisle, with different policy agendas.”

    Cambridge Analytica collected at least $6 million from the Trump campaign for its data-analytics work, federal filings show. Bannon was a key driver of the company’s push into the U.S. political market in 2014, according to multiple people familiar with his role.

    Company officials declined to comment on Bannon’s relationship with Cambridge.

    Nix said that any involvement Bannon “may have had with the company is being discussed” with federal ethics officials. Bannon, like other top White House staff, is required to file a personal financial disclosure form that will become public later this year.

    “They will be, I’m sure, making all that information available in due course,” Nix said.

    White House officials did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the Mercers said they could not be reached for comment.

    Trump’s surprise win has meant boom times for Cambridge, which is now in hot demand by political campaigns and corporate clients across the globe.

    “It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge’s head of product, said in an interview at the company’s new Pennsylvania Avenue offices. “Besides Antarctica, we’ve gotten interest from every continent.”

    Much of the curiosity is driven by Cambridge’s emphasis on psychographics, the study of personality traits. By measuring qualities such as openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism, officials say they can craft more effective appeals and drive people to take action.

    The Mercers were early investors in the company, dismayed that the Republican Party had lost the data war in the 2012 elections.

    Bannon, who was then operating as the family’s political adviser, was a participant in strategy meetings as the company worked to sign up American campaign clients. “He was instrumental in the rollout of Cambridge Analytica in the United States,” said one person familiar with his role.

    The company first garnered attention in 2015 when it was tapped by the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). In the end, Cambridge’s work proved uneven, according to campaign officials, who said that while its data scientists were impressive, its psychographic analysis did not bear fruit. Company officials said they were still learning how to apply the approach in a tightly compressed primary environment.

    Cambridge then moved on to serve asthe Trump campaign’s data-science provider. While company officials said they did not have sufficient time to employ psychographics in that campaign, they did data modeling and polling that showed Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest, shaping a homestretch strategy that led to his upset wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

    Headquartered in a non­descript building on New Oxford Street in central London, SCL Group has the look of a staid insurance agency, with employees working at rows of computer screens. But along with project managers, IT specialists and “creatives” who design websites are psychologists and a team of data-scientists, many of whom hold doctorates in physics, quantum mechanics and astrophysics.

    SCL’s main offering, first developed by its affiliated London think tank in 1989, involves gathering vast quantities of data about an audience’s values, attitudes and beliefs, identifying groups of “persuadables” and then targeting them with tailored messages. SCL began testing the technique on health and development campaigns in Britain in the early 1990s, then branched out into international political consulting and later defense contracting.

    Emma Briant, who wrote about SCL’s work in her 2015 book “Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change,” said its approach can be used to manipulate the public, which is largely unaware how much of their personal information is available.

    “They are using similar methodologies to those the intelligence agencies use with openly available data in order to create a commercial advantage for themselves,” said Briant, a journalism studies lecturer at the University of Sheffield in Britain, who is on leave to conduct research at George Washington University. “They are exploiting our dependence on social media.”

    Nix, who serves as Cambridge’s chief executive, said that none of the information the company collects is “particularly intrusive,” adding that SCL’s data-science techniques were predominantly developed in the political space, not for military clients.

    “This is not medical data or health data or financial data,” he said of the U.S. data that Cambridge collects. “It’s what cereal you eat for breakfast and what car you drive.”

    SCL, which says it has worked in 100 countries, offers military clients techniques in “soft power.” Nix described it as a modern-day upgrade of early efforts to win over a foreign population by dropping propaganda leaflets from the air.

    In a 2015 article for a NATO publication, Steve Tatham, a British military psyops expert who leads SCL’s defense business outside of the United States, explained that one of the benefits of using the company’s techniques is that it “can be undertaken covertly.”

    “Audience groups are not necessarily aware that they are the research subjects and government’s role and/or third parties can be invisible,” he wrote.

    In the United States, the company’s efforts to win new government contracts are being led by Josh Weerasinghe, a former vice president of global market development at defense giant BAE Systems who previously worked with Flynn at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Flynn served as an adviser to SCL on its efforts to expand its contracting work, according to two people familiar with his role.

    Weerasinghe declined to comment. Flynn, ousted this week as Trump’s national security adviser amid questions about his conversations with Russian officials, could not be reached for comment.

    In early February, Weerasinghe met with several procurement officials at the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS official said the gathering was focused on “whether their data analytics services could benefit the department.”

    The company also just finalized a contract with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center to provide audience analysis for the center’s efforts to dissuade military-age males from joining the Islamic State, according to people familiar with the details. A State Department spokesman declined to comment on why SCL was selected.

    SCL’s efforts to land new government contracts come as Trump has vowed to vastly expand the military. In late January, he signed an executive order to launch the “great rebuilding of the Armed Forces,” pledging support for more troops, weapons, ships and planes.

    Nix said that while an increase in defense spending could “help” the company’s business, SCL’s government division sees potential beyond the Pentagon and Homeland Security. “We see the applications for these technologies as much in tourism and health care and treasury,” he said.

    He rejected the idea that SCL’s intensifying pursuit of government contracts could be viewed as a conflict of interest because of its role in helping elect the president.

    “Look, clearly the decision-makers on the campaign are very different people than the ­decision-makers in government,” he said, noting that the responsibility for contracts falls with procurement officials. “There is a code of ethics in order to make sure that is the case, and we adhere to that.”

    Cambridge now has a database of 230 million American adults, with up to 5,000 pieces of demographic, consumer and lifestyle information about each individual, as well as psychological information people have shared with the company through quizzes on social media and extensive surveys, Nix has said.

    “By having hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans undertake this survey, we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America,” Nix declared in a speech at a New York conference in September 2016.

    “As part of its outreach to U.S. officials, SCL is touting more than 20 years of experience in shaping voter perceptions and advising militaries and governments around the world on how to conduct effective psychological operations. In materials obtained by The Washington Post, the company suggests it could help the Pentagon and other government agencies with “counter radicalization” programs. At the State Department, SCL is offering to assess the impact of foreign propaganda campaigns, while the company says it could provide intelligence agencies with predictions and insight on emerging threats, among other services.

    If Cambridge Analytica’s creepy secret psychological profiling and data collecting on hundreds of millions of Americans for the 2016 election didn’t seem creepy and psyop-ish enough, now it’s going to get to use those services for actual formal psyops. Oh goodie. And without any conflicts of interest *snicker*:

    Cambridge Analytica collected at least $6 million from the Trump campaign for its data-analytics work, federal filings show. Bannon was a key driver of the company’s push into the U.S. political market in 2014, according to multiple people familiar with his role.

    Bannon, who was then operating as the family’s political adviser, was a participant in strategy meetings as the company worked to sign up American campaign clients. “He was instrumental in the rollout of Cambridge Analytica in the United States,” said one person familiar with his role.

    In the United States, the company’s efforts to win new government contracts are being led by Josh Weerasinghe, a former vice president of global market development at defense giant BAE Systems who previously worked with Flynn at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Flynn served as an adviser to SCL on its efforts to expand its contracting work, according to two people familiar with his role.

    He rejected the idea that SCL’s intensifying pursuit of government contracts could be viewed as a conflict of interest because of its role in helping elect the president.

    “Look, clearly the decision-makers on the campaign are very different people than the ­decision-makers in government,” he said, noting that the responsibility for contracts falls with procurement officials. “There is a code of ethics in order to make sure that is the case, and we adhere to that.”

    Yep, no conflicts of interest there.

    You also have to wonder what Peter Thiel thinks of all this. After all, being the US government’s private CIA is sort of his thing. But he’s probably ok with sharing the privatized intelligence spoils with Cambridge Analytica. After all, there’s no doubt going to be an abundance of government contracts to go around. Like contracts to identify individuals for mass round ups and deportations. If there’s a contract for stuff like that, Palantir is probably getting it:

    Truthout

    Peter Thiel Advises the President While Palantir Plays Shadow CIA

    By Tim Tolka, Truthout | News Analysis
    Thursday, February 16, 2017

    Palantir Technologies tried to keep a low profile, but with the Wall Street Journal hailing it in 2009 as the “team of geeks who cracked the spy trade,” the firm drew a lot of attention. If providing the software equivalent of a crystal ball to every US spy agency caused Palantir to be regarded as an omen of dystopian portent, there is now more chatter about Peter Thiel, chairman of Palantir, serving as a shadowy special adviser to Trump. Palantir made data-mining sexy and saves the lives of US soldiers, but there are good reasons to ferret out the secrets of the firm and its founder. Palantir’s mission is avowedly to “reduce terrorism” while preserving privacy and civil liberties, but its products in the hands of the Trump regime are a grave threat to both.

    When they first met, Trump told Thiel, “You are terrific. We’re friends for life.” Trump identified in Thiel a huge asset for his campaign strategy and for his policy agenda. Trump and Thiel think alike when it comes to the press and immigrants, yet they are both similarly hypocritical in their concern for privacy and litigiousness when they feel violated. Palantir’s mission is avowedly to “reduce terrorism” while preserving privacy and civil liberties, but its products in the hands of the Trump regime are a grave threat to both.. Judging by his ponderous statements about computers, Trump knows nothing whatsoever about technology, so Thiel — as the only adviser other than Bannon from the tech industry — can showcase his libertarian futurist Big Brother vision in the Oval Office, generating more business for Palantir.

    Move over CIA! Along with Cambridge Analytica, which features Bannon as a board member, and the other private intelligence company Thiel founded, Quid, Trump has access to three private intelligence companies. Palantir’s exploits aren’t limited to helping US military locate improvised explosive devices. In 2011, federal contractor HBGary’s hacked emails revealed Palantir’s involvement, which Barrett Brown went to prison to expose, in retaliatory campaigns against WikiLeaks, labor unions and ThinkProgress. Palantir’s CEO Alex Karp apologized “to progressive organizations in general and [Glenn Greenwald] in particular,” reaffirming the company’s commitment to building software “that protects privacy and civil liberties.”

    A Palantir employee explained in a promotional video: “If you have multiple analysts working on the problem, you have to have collaboration, and collaboration doesn’t make sense without access control. Each person in your enterprise has a limited view because you have to respect the privacy of your users, of your customers, of citizens.” Considering that Palantir was originally funded by the CIA and has the NSA as a major client, that statement borders on absurd.

    A recent post on Harvard Business School’s tech blog noted “[Palantir’s] operating model, combined with motives for growth and profitability have recently created conflict between their business and operating model,” suggesting Palantir’s business development arm distributes its software to as many clients as possible, after which, tech support eventually leaves them to use it as they please. This poses a privacy dilemma of disgruntling proportions, manufactured by Palantir.

    Though his firm has various government contracts, Thiel has not signed any standard ethics form. The former ethics counsel of President George H.W. Bush, University of Minnesota Professor Richard Painter, stated in an email to Truthout that Thiel “seems to be one more behind-the-scenes guy who will not be subject to any of the ethics rules, along with [Carl] Icahn and perhaps even the Trump children.”

    House Democrats’ Move to Protect Dreamers’ Privacy

    On December 5, 2016, 60 Democratic House Representatives delivered a letter to President Obama, urging him to draft an executive order to protect the privacy rights of 740,000 Dreamers enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from attempts by the Trump administration to use their personal biometric data, social media profiles, home addresses and criminal histories to track and deport them.

    Two weeks later, The Verge reported on Palantir’s role as the secret engineer of the Analytical Framework for Intelligence, a tool that can be used to limit migration by tracking people, analyzing their activities and assessing or “vetting” their risk. The Dreamers’ uncertainty ended when Vox published six leaked executive orders, one of which scraps the DACA program and leaves the Dreamers slated for deportation once their current visas expire. Though Trump says his plan will “have a lot of heart,” there is still great uncertainty over the DACA program. Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durban have reintroduced the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act, which could offer Dreamers protection as long as they have lived in the country continuously and have not been convicted of any significant crimes.

    A Plot to Expose Thiel’s Secrets and Conflicts

    The nonprofit news site MuckRock, in collaboration with the Motherboard news site, has filed six (of 500) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for its Thiel Fellowship, which employs three journalists to investigate Thiel’s activities. The NYPD, the CIA and the NSA claimed that any responsive documents were exempted to protect national security. Michael Morisy, cofounder of MuckRock, acknowledged in an interview that Thiel has driven tech forward and that Palantir could help government improve cyber security, but he cautioned, “It gets worrisome when tools are created for mass surveillance with little public oversight or control.” He continued, “Increasingly, local police are acting like intelligence agencies. There’s not much scrutiny. [Palantir] has won a lot of contracts with cities, states and federal agencies, but the public doesn’t know what it’s paying for.”

    For Thiel, conflicts of interest are often a sign that “someone understands something way better than if there’s no conflict of interest.” In an interview with The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, Thiel turned every question on its head, but such sophistry may not be sufficient for Palantir’s competitors and legal ethics experts. Professor Painter warned that if Thiel is still involved with the administration post-inauguration, the US Department of Justice or an agency inspector general could start investigations of his conflicts of interest. Palantir’s competitors could also contest awards of future government contracts.

    Palantir did not respond to requests for comment and has sought to distance itself from Trump’s agenda, denying that it would build a Muslim registry. Regardless, Palantir already provided the “seeing stone” that Trump’s administration needs to become the most sophisticated dictatorship in history, in which Chairman Thiel is set to play a mostly shrouded role. Morisy of MuckRock, concluded, “I hope our institutions live up to their obligations to protect the interest of taxpayers and citizens. There was already a problem of the revolving door, now everybody’s on the same side of the door, involved in the private sector and government at the same time.” As a sign of the times, Thiel is considering a run for governor of California.

    “Palantir did not respond to requests for comment and has sought to distance itself from Trump’s agenda, denying that it would build a Muslim registry. Regardless, Palantir already provided the “seeing stone” that Trump’s administration needs to become the most sophisticated dictatorship in history, in which Chairman Thiel is set to play a mostly shrouded role. Morisy of MuckRock, concluded, “I hope our institutions live up to their obligations to protect the interest of taxpayers and citizens. There was already a problem of the revolving door, now everybody’s on the same side of the door, involved in the private sector and government at the same time.” As a sign of the times, Thiel is considering a run for governor of California.”

    While Cambridge Analytica might be the hot new thing on the private intelligence block, it’s not going be easy to replace Palantir. Especially after it uses Thiel’s connections to privatize even more intelligence community services and provide Trump with the tools it needs to effectively destroy targeted populations:


    On December 5, 2016, 60 Democratic House Representatives delivered a letter to President Obama, urging him to draft an executive order to protect the privacy rights of 740,000 Dreamers enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from attempts by the Trump administration to use their personal biometric data, social media profiles, home addresses and criminal histories to track and deport them.

    Two weeks later, The Verge reported on Palantir’s role as the secret engineer of the Analytical Framework for Intelligence, a tool that can be used to limit migration by tracking people, analyzing their activities and assessing or “vetting” their risk. The Dreamers’ uncertainty ended when Vox published six leaked executive orders, one of which scraps the DACA program and leaves the Dreamers slated for deportation once their current visas expire. Though Trump says his plan will “have a lot of heart,” there is still great uncertainty over the DACA program. Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durban have reintroduced the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act, which could offer Dreamers protection as long as they have lived in the country continuously and have not been convicted of any significant crimes.

    Yep, there’s plenty of work to go around. And, of course, despite Thiel’s growing role as one of Trump’s close advisors, there’s not going to be any conflicts of interest:


    Though his firm has various government contracts, Thiel has not signed any standard ethics form. The former ethics counsel of President George H.W. Bush, University of Minnesota Professor Richard Painter, stated in an email to Truthout that Thiel “seems to be one more behind-the-scenes guy who will not be subject to any of the ethics rules, along with [Carl] Icahn and perhaps even the Trump children.”

    See, no problems. So, yeah, Peter Thiel probably isn’t complaining about the rise of his Cambridge Analytica. They might be competitors in one sense, but they’re partners in a much deeper sense.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | February 22, 2017, 7:44 pm
  2. The Guardian has a long and critical piece on Robert Mercer and the Mercer clan’s role in the rise of Brietbart as the dominant ‘outsider’ conservative media outlet and how deeply intertwined that endeavor is with the Mercers’ other big investments. Specifically in the firms Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL, where Cambridge Analytica specializes in using AI and Big Data psychometric analysis on the data they collect on hundreds of millions of Americans to model individual behavior and then SCL develops strategies to use that information and manipulate search engine results to change public opinions (the Trump campaign was apparently very big into AI and Big Data during the campaign). As the article describes, not only does it looks like Cambridge Analytica/SCL are using their propaganda techniques to shape the US public opinion in a far-right direction, but it looks like one of the ways its going about achieving this shift in attitudes is by using its propaganda machine to the meme that all news outlets that to the left of Brietbart are “fake news” and can’t be trusted. Only far-right media can be trusted. That’s the meme getting pushed by this far-right Brietbart-investor’s meme-machine companies Cambridge Analytica/SCL.

    So, yes, the secretive far-right billionaire who runs multiple firms that specialize in mass psychometric profiling using data collected from Facebook and other social media and who is, of course, close friends with Steve Bannon, is using AI and Big Data to develop mass propaganda campaigns to turn the public against everything that isn’t like Brietbart by convincing the public that all non-Brietbartian media outlets are in a conspiracy to lie to the public, and especially lie about Trump:

    The Guardian

    Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media

    With links to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage, the rightwing US computer scientist is at the heart of a multimillion-dollar propaganda network

    Carole Cadwalladr

    Sunday 26 February 2017 04.00 EST
    Last modified on Sunday 26 February 2017 04.03 EST

    Just over a week ago, Donald Trump gathered members of the world’s press before him and told them they were liars. “The press, honestly, is out of control,” he said. “The public doesn’t believe you any more.” CNN was described as “very fake news… story after story is bad”. The BBC was “another beauty”.

    That night I did two things. First, I typed “Trump” in the search box of Twitter. My feed was reporting that he was crazy, a lunatic, a raving madman. But that wasn’t how it was playing out elsewhere. The results produced a stream of “Go Donald!!!!”, and “You show ’em!!!” There were star-spangled banner emojis and thumbs-up emojis and clips of Trump laying into the “FAKE news MSM liars!”

    Trump had spoken, and his audience had heard him. Then I did what I’ve been doing for two and a half months now. I Googled “mainstream media is…” And there it was. Google’s autocomplete suggestions: “mainstream media is… dead, dying, fake news, fake, finished”. Is it dead, I wonder? Has FAKE news won? Are we now the FAKE news? Is the mainstream media – we, us, I – dying?

    I click Google’s first suggested link. It leads to a website called CNSnews.com and an article: “The Mainstream media are dead.” They’re dead, I learn, because they – we, I – “cannot be trusted”. How had it, an obscure site I’d never heard of, dominated Google’s search algorithm on the topic? In the “About us” tab, I learn CNSnews is owned by the Media Research Center, which a click later I learn is “America’s media watchdog”, an organisation that claims an “unwavering commitment to neutralising leftwing bias in the news, media and popular culture”.

    Another couple of clicks and I discover that it receives a large bulk of its funding – more than $10m in the past decade – from a single source, the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. If you follow US politics you may recognise the name. Robert Mercer is the money behind Donald Trump. But then, I will come to learn, Robert Mercer is the money behind an awful lot of things. He was Trump’s single biggest donor. Mercer started backing Ted Cruz, but when he fell out of the presidential race he threw his money – $13.5m of it – behind the Trump campaign.

    It’s money he’s made as a result of his career as a brilliant but reclusive computer scientist. He started his career at IBM, where he made what the Association for Computational Linguistics called “revolutionary” breakthroughs in language processing – a science that went on to be key in developing today’s AI – and later became joint CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets.

    One of its funds, Medallion, which manages only its employees’ money, is the most successful in the world – generating $55bn so far. And since 2010, Mercer has donated $45m to different political campaigns – all Republican – and another $50m to non-profits – all rightwing, ultra-conservative. This is a billionaire who is, as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.

    Robert Mercer very rarely speaks in public and never to journalists, so to gauge his beliefs you have to look at where he channels his money: a series of yachts, all called Sea Owl; a $2.9m model train set; climate change denial (he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute); and what is maybe the ultimate rich man’s plaything – the disruption of the mainstream media. In this he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his media plays. There are other bigger, and even more deliberate strategies, and shining brightly, the star at the centre of the Mercer media galaxy, is Breitbart.

    It was $10m of Mercer’s money that enabled Bannon to fund Breitbart – a rightwing news site, set up with the express intention of being a Huffington Post for the right. It has launched the careers of Milo Yiannopoulos and his like, regularly hosts antisemitic and Islamophobic views, and is currently being boycotted by more than 1,000 brands after an activist campaign. It has been phenomenally successful: the 29th most popular site in America with 2bn page views a year. It’s bigger than its inspiration, the Huffington Post, bigger, even, than PornHub. It’s the biggest political site on Facebook. The biggest on Twitter.

    Prominent rightwing journalist Andrew Breitbart, who founded the site but died in 2012, told Bannon that they had “to take back the culture”. And, arguably, they have, though American culture is only the start of it. In 2014, Bannon launched Breitbart London, telling the New York Times it was specifically timed ahead of the UK’s forthcoming election. It was, he said, the latest front “in our current cultural and political war”. France and Germany are next.

    But there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercer’s name: because of his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)

    Cambridge Analytica worked for the Trump campaign and, so I’d read, the Leave campaign. When Mercer supported Cruz, Cambridge Analytica worked with Cruz. When Robert Mercer started supporting Trump, Cambridge Analytica came too. And where Mercer’s money is, Steve Bannon is usually close by: it was reported that until recently he had a seat on the board.

    Last December, I wrote about Cambridge Analytica in a piece about how Google’s search results on certain subjects were being dominated by rightwing and extremist sites. Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, who had mapped the news ecosystem and found millions of links between rightwing sites “strangling” the mainstream media, told me that trackers from sites like Breitbart could also be used by companies like Cambridge Analytica to follow people around the web and then, via Facebook, target them with ads.

    On its website, Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters – its USP is to use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly. The system, according to Albright, amounted to a “propaganda machine”.

    A few weeks later, the Observer received a letter. Cambridge Analytica was not employed by the Leave campaign, it said. Cambridge Analytica “is a US company based in the US. It hasn’t worked in British politics.”

    Which is how, earlier this week, I ended up in a Pret a Manger near Westminster with Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s affable communications director, looking at snapshots of Donald Trump on his phone. It was Wigmore who orchestrated Nigel Farage’s trip to Trump Tower – the PR coup that saw him become the first foreign politician to meet the president elect.

    Wigmore scrolls through the snaps on his phone. “That’s the one I took,” he says pointing at the now globally famous photo of Farage and Trump in front of his golden elevator door giving the thumbs-up sign. Wigmore was one of the “bad boys of Brexit” – a term coined by Arron Banks, the Bristol-based businessman who was Leave.EU’s co-founder.

    Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.

    Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”

    It sounds creepy, I say.

    “It is creepy! It’s really creepy! It’s why I’m not on Facebook! I tried it on myself to see what information it had on me and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ What’s scary is that my kids had put things on Instagram and it picked that up. It knew where my kids went to school.”

    They hadn’t “employed” Cambridge Analytica, he said. No money changed hands. “They were happy to help.”

    Why?

    Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Robert Mercer introduced them to us. He said, ‘Here’s this company we think may be useful to you.’ What they were trying to do in the US and what we were trying to do had massive parallels. We shared a lot of information. Why wouldn’t you?” Behind Trump’s campaign and Cambridge Analytica, he said, were “the same people. It’s the same family.”

    There were already a lot of questions swirling around Cambridge Analytica, and Andy Wigmore has opened up a whole lot more. Such as: are you supposed to declare services-in-kind as some sort of donation? The Electoral Commission says yes, if it was more than £7,500. And was it declared? The Electoral Commission says no. Does that mean a foreign billionaire had possibly influenced the referendum without that influence being apparent? It’s certainly a question worth asking.

    In the last month or so, articles in first the Swiss and the US press have asked exactly what Cambridge Analytica is doing with US voters’ data. In a statement to the Observer, the Information Commissioner’s Office said: “Any business collecting and using personal data in the UK must do so fairly and lawfully. We will be contacting Cambridge Analytica and asking questions to find out how the company is operating in the UK and whether the law is being followed.”

    Cambridge Analytica said last Friday they are in touch with the ICO and are completely compliant with UK and EU data laws. It did not answer other questions the Observer put to it this week about how it built its psychometric model, which owes its origins to original research carried out by scientists at Cambridge University’s Psychometric Centre, research based on a personality quiz on Facebook that went viral. More than 6 million people ended up doing it, producing an astonishing treasure trove of data.

    These Facebook profiles – especially people’s “likes” – could be correlated across millions of others to produce uncannily accurate results. Michal Kosinski, the centre’s lead scientist, found that with knowledge of 150 likes, their model could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse. With 300, it understood you better than yourself. “Computers see us in a more robust way than we see ourselves,” says Kosinski.

    But there are strict ethical regulations regarding what you can do with this data. Did SCL Group have access to the university’s model or data, I ask Professor Jonathan Rust, the centre’s director? “Certainly not from us,” he says. “We have very strict rules around this.”

    A scientist, Aleksandr Kogan, from the centre was contracted to build a model for SCL, and says he collected his own data. Professor Rust says he doesn’t know where Kogan’s data came from. “The evidence was contrary. I reported it.” An independent adjudicator was appointed by the university. “But then Kogan said he’d signed a non-disclosure agreement with SCL and he couldn’t continue [answering questions].”

    Kogan disputes this and says SCL satisfied the university’s inquiries. But perhaps more than anyone, Professor Rust understands how the kind of information people freely give up to social media sites could be used.

    “The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It’s what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It’s how you brainwash someone. It’s incredibly dangerous.

    “It’s no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. I find it incredibly scary. I really do. Because nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.”

    Mercer invested in Cambridge Analytica, the Washington Post reported, “driven in part by an assessment that the right was lacking sophisticated technology capabilities”. But in many ways, it’s what Cambridge Analytica’s parent company does that raises even more questions.

    Emma Briant, a propaganda specialist at the University of Sheffield, wrote about SCL Group in her 2015 book, Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change. Cambridge Analytica has the technological tools to effect behavioural and psychological change, she said, but it’s SCL that strategises it. It has specialised, at the highest level – for Nato, the MoD, the US state department and others – in changing the behaviour of large groups. It models mass populations and then it changes their beliefs.

    SCL was founded by someone called Nigel Oakes, who worked for Saatchi & Saatchi on Margaret Thatcher’s image, says Briant, and the company had been “making money out of the propaganda side of the war on terrorism over a long period of time. There are different arms of SCL but it’s all about reach and the ability to shape the discourse. They are trying to amplify particular political narratives. And they are selective in who they go for: they are not doing this for the left.

    In the course of the US election, Cambridge Analytica amassed a database, as it claims on its website, of almost the entire US voting population – 220 million people – and the Washington Post reported last week that SCL was increasing staffing at its Washington office and competing for lucrative new contracts with Trump’s administration. “It seems significant that a company involved in engineering a political outcome profits from what follows. Particularly if it’s the manipulation, and then resolution, of fear,” says Briant.

    It’s the database, and what may happen to it, that particularly exercises Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician and data activist who has been investigating Cambridge Analytica and SCL for more than a year. “How is it going to be used?” he says. “Is it going to be used to try and manipulate people around domestic policies? Or to ferment conflict between different communities? It is potentially very scary. People just don’t understand the power of this data and how it can be used against them.”

    There are two things, potentially, going on simultaneously: the manipulation of information on a mass level, and the manipulation of information at a very individual level. Both based on the latest understandings in science about how people work, and enabled by technological platforms built to bring us together.

    Are we living in a new era of propaganda, I ask Emma Briant? One we can’t see, and that is working on us in ways we can’t understand? Where we can only react, emotionally, to its messages? “Definitely. The way that surveillance through technology is so pervasive, the collection and use of our data is so much more sophisticated. It’s totally covert. And people don’t realise what is going on.”

    Public mood and politics goes through cycles. You don’t have to subscribe to any conspiracy theory, Briant says, to see that a mass change in public sentiment is happening. Or that some of the tools in action are straight out of the military’s or SCL’s playbook.

    But then there’s increasing evidence that our public arenas – the social media sites where we post our holiday snaps or make comments about the news – are a new battlefield where international geopolitics is playing out in real time. It’s a new age of propaganda. But whose? This week, Russia announced the formation of a new branch of the military: “information warfare troops”.

    Sam Woolley of the Oxford Internet Institute’s computational propaganda institute tells me that one third of all traffic on Twitter before the EU referendum was automated “bots” – accounts that are programmed to look like people, to act like people, and to change the conversation, to make topics trend. And they were all for Leave. Before the US election, they were five-to-one in favour of Trump – many of them Russian. Last week they have been in action in the Stoke byelection – Russian bots, organised by who? – attacking Paul Nuttall.

    You can take a trending topic, such as fake news, and then weaponise it, turn it against the media that uncovered it

    “Politics is war,” said Steve Bannon last year in the Wall Street Journal. And increasingly this looks to be true.

    There’s nothing accidental about Trump’s behaviour, Andy Wigmore tells me. “That press conference. It was absolutely brilliant. I could see exactly what he was doing. There’s feedback going on constantly. That’s what you can do with artificial intelligence. You can measure ever reaction to every word. He has a word room, where you fix key words. We did it. So with immigration, there are actually key words within that subject matter which people are concerned about. So when you are going to make a speech, it’s all about how can you use these trending words.”

    Wigmore met with Trump’s team right at the start of the Leave campaign. “And they said the holy grail was artificial intelligence.”

    Who did?

    “Jared Kushner and Jason Miller.”

    Later, when Trump picked up Mercer and Cambridge Analytica, the game changed again. “It’s all about the emotions. This is the big difference with what we did. They call it bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes your physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, how they react emotionally.”

    Bio-psycho-social profiling, I read later, is one offensive in what is called “cognitive warfare”. Though there are many others: “recoding the mass consciousness to turn patriotism into collaborationism,” explains a Nato briefing document on countering Russian disinformation written by an SCL employee. “Time-sensitive professional use of media to propagate narratives,” says one US state department white paper. “Of particular importance to psyop personnel may be publicly and commercially available data from social media platforms.”

    Yet another details the power of a “cognitive casualty” – a “moral shock” that “has a disabling effect on empathy and higher processes such as moral reasoning and critical thinking”. Something like immigration, perhaps. Or “fake news”. Or as it has now become: “FAKE news!!!!”

    How do you change the way a nation thinks? You could start by creating a mainstream media to replace the existing one with a site such as Breitbart. You could set up other websites that displace mainstream sources of news and information with your own definitions of concepts like “liberal media bias”, like CNSnews.com. And you could give the rump mainstream media, papers like the “failing New York Times!” what it wants: stories. Because the third prong of Mercer and Bannon’s media empire is the Government Accountability Institute.

    Bannon co-founded it with $2m of Mercer’s money. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, was appointed to the board. Then they invested in expensive, long-term investigative journalism. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon told Forbes magazine. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”

    Welcome to the future of journalism in the age of platform capitalism. News organisations have to do a better job of creating new financial models. But in the gaps in between, a determined plutocrat and a brilliant media strategist can, and have, found a way to mould journalism to their own ends.

    In 2015, Steve Bannon described to Forbes how the GAI operated, employing a data scientist to trawl the dark web (in the article he boasts of having access to $1.3bn worth of supercomputers) to dig up the kind of source material Google can’t find. One result has been a New York Times bestseller, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, written by GAI’s president, Peter Schweizer and later turned into a film produced by Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon.

    This, Bannon explained, is how you “weaponise” the narrative you want. With hard researched facts. With those, you can launch it straight on to the front page of the New York Times, as the story of Hillary Clinton’s cash did. Like Hillary’s emails it turned the news agenda, and, most crucially, it diverted the attention of the news cycle. Another classic psyops approach. “Strategic drowning” of other messages.

    This is a strategic, long-term and really quite brilliant play. In the 1990s, Bannon explained, conservative media couldn’t take Bill Clinton down because “they wound up talking to themselves in an echo chamber”.

    As, it turns out, the liberal media is now. We are scattered, separate, squabbling among ourselves and being picked off like targets in a shooting gallery. Increasingly, there’s a sense that we are talking to ourselves. And whether it’s Mercer’s millions or other factors, Jonathan Albright’s map of the news and information ecosystem shows how rightwing sites are dominating sites like YouTube and Google, bound tightly together by millions of links.

    Is there a central intelligence to that, I ask Albright? “There has to be. There has to be some type of coordination. You can see from looking at the map, from the architecture of the system, that this is not accidental. It’s clearly being led by money and politics.”

    There’s been a lot of talk in the echo chamber about Bannon in the last few months, but it’s Mercer who provided the money to remake parts of the media landscape. And while Bannon understands the media, Mercer understands big data. He understands the structure of the internet. He knows how algorithms work.

    Robert Mercer did not respond to a request for comment for this piece. Nick Patterson, a British cryptographer, who worked at Renaissance Technologies in the 80s and is now a computational geneticist at MIT, described to me how he was the one who talent-spotted Mercer. “There was an elite group working at IBM in the 1980s doing speech research, speech recognition, and when I joined Renaissance I judged that the mathematics we were trying to apply to financial markets were very similar.”

    He describes Mercer as “very, very conservative. He truly did not like the Clintons. He thought Bill Clinton was a criminal. And his basic politics, I think, was that he’s a rightwing libertarian, he wants the government out of things.”

    He suspects that Mercer is bringing the brilliant computational skills he brought to finance to bear on another very different sphere. “We make mathematical models of the financial markets which are probability models, and from those we try and make predictions. What I suspect Cambridge Analytica do is that they build probability models of how people vote. And then they look at what they can do to influence that.”

    Finding the edge is what quants do. They build quantitative models that automate the process of buying and selling shares and then they chase tiny gaps in knowledge to create huge wins. Renaissance Technologies was one of the first hedge funds to invest in AI. But what it does with it, how it’s been programmed to do it, is completely unknown. It is, Bloomberg reports, the “blackest box in finance”.

    Johan Bollen, associate professor at Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing, tells me how he discovered one possible edge: he’s done research that shows you can predict stock market moves from Twitter. You can measure public sentiment and then model it. “Society is driven by emotions, which it’s always been difficult to measure, collectively. But there are now programmes that can read text and measure it and give us a window into those collective emotions.”

    The research caused a huge ripple among two different constituencies. “We had a lot attention from hedge funds. They are looking for signals everywhere and this is a hugely interesting signal. My impression is hedge funds do have these algorithms that are scanning social feeds. The flash crashes we’ve had – sudden huge drops in stock prices – indicates these algorithms are being used at large scale. And they are engaged in something of an arms race.”

    The other people interested in Bollen’s work are those who want not only to measure public sentiment, but to change it. Bollen’s research shows how it’s possible. Could you reverse engineer the national, or even the global, mood? Model it, and then change it?

    “It does seem possible. And it does worry me. There are quite a few pieces of research that show if you repeat something often enough, people start involuntarily to believe it. And that could be leveraged, or weaponised for propaganda. We know there are thousands of automated bots out there that are trying to do just that.”

    THE war of the bots is one of the wilder and weirder aspects of the elections of 2016. At the Oxford Internet Institute’s Unit for Computational Propaganda, its director, Phil Howard, and director of research, Sam Woolley, show me all the ways public opinion can be massaged and manipulated. But is there a smoking gun, I ask them, evidence of who is doing this? “There’s not a smoking gun,” says Howard. “There are smoking machine guns. There are multiple pieces of evidence.”

    “Look at this,” he says and shows me how, before the US election, hundreds upon hundreds of websites were set up to blast out just a few links, articles that were all pro-Trump. “This is being done by people who understand information structure, who are bulk buying domain names and then using automation to blast out a certain message. To make Trump look like he’s a consensus.”

    And that requires money?

    “That requires organisation and money. And if you use enough of them, of bots and people, and cleverly link them together, you are what’s legitimate. You are creating truth.”

    You can take an existing trending topic, such as fake news, and then weaponise it. You can turn it against the very media that uncovered it. Viewed in a certain light, fake news is a suicide bomb at the heart of our information system. Strapped to the live body of us – the mainstream media.

    One of the things that concerns Howard most is the hundreds of thousands of “sleeper” bots they’ve found. Twitter accounts that have tweeted only once or twice and are now sitting quietly waiting for a trigger: some sort of crisis where they will rise up and come together to drown out all other sources of information.

    Like zombies?

    “Like zombies.”

    You can take an existing trending topic, such as fake news, and then weaponise it. You can turn it against the very media that uncovered it. Viewed in a certain light, fake news is a suicide bomb at the heart of our information system. Strapped to the live body of us – the mainstream media.”

    The right-wing media-verse, which is by far the biggest creator and consumer of what is actually ‘fake news’, is on the verge of using modern propaganda techniques to help Donald Trump label all non-far-right media as ‘fake news’. Yeah, that’s scary.

    And note how the Mercers aren’t just pyscho-analyzing everyone and running a mass-psychological profiling/shaping empire. They’re also funding long-term investigative journalism via the Government Accountability Institute, which pays researchers to trawl the Dark-Web for facts that that won’t show up on Google so the rest of the Mercer propaganda machine can proceed to blast those facts, true or not, across venues like Youtube:


    How do you change the way a nation thinks? You could start by creating a mainstream media to replace the existing one with a site such as Breitbart. You could set up other websites that displace mainstream sources of news and information with your own definitions of concepts like “liberal media bias”, like CNSnews.com. And you could give the rump mainstream media, papers like the “failing New York Times!” what it wants: stories. Because the third prong of Mercer and Bannon’s media empire is the Government Accountability Institute.

    Bannon co-founded it with $2m of Mercer’s money. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, was appointed to the board. Then they invested in expensive, long-term investigative journalism=. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon told Forbes magazine. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”

    Welcome to the future of journalism in the age of platform capitalism. News organisations have to do a better job of creating new financial models. But in the gaps in between, a determined plutocrat and a brilliant media strategist can, and have, found a way to mould journalism to their own ends.

    In 2015, Steve Bannon described to Forbes how the GAI operated, employing a data scientist to trawl the dark web (in the article he boasts of having access to $1.3bn worth of supercomputers) to dig up the kind of source material Google can’t find. One result has been a New York Times bestseller, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, written by GAI’s president, Peter Schweizer and later turned into a film produced by Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon.

    This, Bannon explained, is how you “weaponise” the narrative you want. With hard researched facts. With those, you can launch it straight on to the front page of the New York Times, as the story of Hillary Clinton’s cash did. Like Hillary’s emails it turned the news agenda, and, most crucially, it diverted the attention of the news cycle. Another classic psyops approach. “Strategic drowning” of other messages.

    This is a strategic, long-term and really quite brilliant play. In the 1990s, Bannon explained, conservative media couldn’t take Bill Clinton down because “they wound up talking to themselves in an echo chamber”.

    As, it turns out, the liberal media is now. We are scattered, separate, squabbling among ourselves and being picked off like targets in a shooting gallery. Increasingly, there’s a sense that we are talking to ourselves. And whether it’s Mercer’s millions or other factors, Jonathan Albright’s map of the news and information ecosystem shows how rightwing sites are dominating sites like YouTube and Google, bound tightly together by millions of links.

    So, that’s all going to be something to keep in mind as Trump’s war on ‘fake news’ unfolds: he’s got a crazy far-right billionaire backing him who has a business empire specializing in full-spectrum personalized influence peddling, literally covert personalized psychological influence peddling where the target is everywhere. And this same billionaire has his own media empire that specializes in pushing highly questionable news and that media empire is intended to replace the current media landscape after they’ve finished convincing everywhere that almost all news is ‘fake news’ unless its super-right-wing news.

    Also note how Trump himself appears to be using the AI/psychological profiling techniques and services offered by Cambridge Analytica/SCL: Trump is using them to find his keywords of choice for the topic at hand:

    There’s nothing accidental about Trump’s behaviour, Andy Wigmore tells me. “That press conference. It was absolutely brilliant. I could see exactly what he was doing. There’s feedback going on constantly. That’s what you can do with artificial intelligence. You can measure ever reaction to every word. e has a word room, where you fix key words. We did it. So with immigration, there are actually key words within that subject matter which people are concerned about. So when you are going to make a speech, it’s all about how can you use these trending words.”

    Wigmore met with Trump’s team right at the start of the Leave campaign. “And they said the holy grail was artificial intelligence.”

    Who did?

    “Jared Kushner and Jason Miller.”

    Later, when Trump picked up Mercer and Cambridge Analytica, the game changed again. “It’s all about the emotions. This is the big difference with what we did. They call it bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes your physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, how they react emotionally.”

    So, yes, while Steve Bannon is clearly Trump’s brain, Robert Mercer – the secretive far-right mass propaganda billionaire who doesn’t like to speak to the public – is apparently Trump’s mouth. As we can see, Frankstein’s monster has a really scary brother, and he’s the president. You have to wonder about the the psychometrics of the kind of nation that elected Dr. Frankenstein’s monster president but you can be sure they are off the charts in at least a few ways and not in a good way. And in some ways just as the doctor ordered.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | February 26, 2017, 4:15 pm
  3. Hi all,
    I just came across this video. It’s about the power of data collection and starts with a family’s continuous video recording of their son’s language acquisition over about 3 years. It’s actually very sweet.

    But then…

    About 11 minutes into the video, the ‘big data’ concepts and visualizations explained in the first part are expanded into the larger world of social media and television content and you begin to see something extremely unnerving — I think it could rightly be called the face of Big Brother. Connections are made and massive data trends of millions of links are assembled into a coherent, and in my opinion, frighteningly explicit depiction of our current fascist technocracy and it’s propaganda mechanisms. It’s right there in the data. And it’s a Muthafugga!

    Of course, the presenter is totally infatuated with the technology; ‘Gee whiz, aren’t we clever?’

    The only thing going through my mind was the Cambridge/Mercer/Bannon/Underground Reich nexus playing this thing like a 21at century Wurlizter while the masses dance to their tune.

    Here is the link…

    http://www.ted.com/talks/deb_roy_the_birth_of_a_word

    It helps if you watch the whole thing to understand how the data is extracted and correlated.

    God help us all.

    Posted by KalKanChowder | March 1, 2017, 1:52 pm

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