China’s Social Credit System Sounds Orwellian, And Like An Extension Of Current Facebook Censorship

Recent reports on China’s  social credit system sound Orwellian, or like something out of Black Mirror. The Verge summarized how the system works:

Starting in May, Chinese citizens who rank low on the country’s burgeoning “social credit” system will be in danger of being banned from buying plane or train tickets for up to a year, according to statements recently released by the country’s National Development and Reform Commission.

With the social credit system, the Chinese government rates citizens based on things like criminal behavior and financial misdeeds, but also on what they buy, say, and do. Those with low “scores” have to deal with penalties and restrictions. China has been working towards rolling out a full version of the system by 2020, but some early versions of it are already in place.

Previously, the Chinese government had focused on restricting the travel of people with massive amounts of debt, like LeEco and Faraday Future founder Jia Yueting, who made the Supreme People’s Court blacklist late last year.

The new travel restrictions are the latest addition to this growing patchwork of social engineering, which has already imposed punishments on more than seven million citizens. And there’s a broad range when it comes to who can be flagged. Citizens who have spread “false information about terrorism,” caused “trouble” on flights, used expired tickets, or were caught smoking on trains could all be banned, according to Reuters.

But the system, as it stands, is opaque; citizens are seemingly just as likely to be flagged for minor infractions like leaving bikes parked in a footpath or issuing apologies that are deemed “insincere” as major credit defaulters like Jia. And it’s often unclear whether they’re on a blacklist in the first place, let alone what kind of recourse is available. “Chinese government authorities clearly hope to create a reality in which bureaucratic pettiness could significantly limit people’s rights,” Maya Wang, senior researcher for the non-profit NGO Human Rights Watch, wrote in December.

Wired has further information on how the system works:

Individuals on Sesame Credit are measured by a score ranging between 350 and 950 points. Alibaba does not divulge the “complex algorithm” it uses to calculate the number but they do reveal the five factors taken into account. The first is credit history. For example, does the citizen pay their electricity or phone bill on time? Next is fulfilment capacity, which it defines in its guidelines as “a user’s ability to fulfil his/her contract obligations”. The third factor is personal characteristics, verifying personal information such as someone’s mobile phone number and address. But the fourth category, behaviour and preference, is where it gets interesting.

Under this system, something as innocuous as a person’s shopping habits become a measure of character. Alibaba admits it judges people by the types of products they buy. “Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,” says Li Yingyun, Sesame’s Technology Director. “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.” So the system not only investigates behaviour – it shapes it. It “nudges” citizens away from purchases and behaviours the government does not like.

Friends matter, too. The fifth category is interpersonal relationships. What does their choice of online friends and their interactions say about the person being assessed? Sharing what Sesame Credit refers to as “positive energy” online, nice messages about the government or how well the country’s economy is doing, will make your score go up…

Posting dissenting political opinions or links mentioning Tiananmen Square has never been wise in China, but now it could directly hurt a citizen’s rating. But here’s the real kicker: a person’s own score will also be affected by what their online friends say and do, beyond their own contact with them. If someone they are connected to online posts a negative comment, their own score will also be dragged down…

…people with low ratings will have slower internet speeds; restricted access to restaurants, nightclubs or golf courses; and the removal of the right to travel freely abroad with, I quote, “restrictive control on consumption within holiday areas or travel businesses”. Scores will influence a person’s rental applications, their ability to get insurance or a loan and even social-security benefits. Citizens with low scores will not be hired by certain employers and will be forbidden from obtaining some jobs, including in the civil service, journalism and legal fields, where of course you must be deemed trustworthy. Low-rating citizens will also be restricted when it comes to enrolling themselves or their children in high-paying private schools. I am not fabricating this list of punishments. It’s the reality Chinese citizens will face. As the government document states, the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.

This sounds a  lot like what was depicted on an episode of The Orville entitled Majority Rule.

The system is voluntary now and becomes mandatory in 2020. Wired suggests that people are signing up now out of fear of reprisals if they do not, and as high scores can be a status symbol:

Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch. A citizen’s score can even affect their odds of getting a date, or a marriage partner, because the higher their Sesame rating, the more prominent their dating profile is on Baihe.

Sesame Credit already offers tips to help individuals improve their ranking, including warning about the downsides of friending someone who has a low score. This might lead to the rise of score advisers, who will share tips on how to gain points, or reputation consultants willing to offer expert advice on how to strategically improve a ranking or get off the trust-breaking blacklist.

Wired compares this to “a big data gamified version of the Communist Party’s surveillance methods.” People are also likely to seek ways around the system:

We’re also bound to see the birth of reputation black markets selling under-the-counter ways to boost trustworthiness. In the same way that Facebook Likes and Twitter followers can be bought, individuals will pay to manipulate their score. What about keeping the system secure? Hackers (some even state-backed) could change or steal the digitally stored information…

In China, certain citizens, such as government officials, will likely be deemed above the system. What will be the public reaction when their unfavourable actions don’t affect their score? We could see a Panama Papers 3.0 for reputation fraud.

While this sounds absolutely Orwellian, businesses here are regularly rated on line, and their success can be affected by the whims of anonymous reviewers.

While we do not face restrictions as severe as those described in China, this is also analogous to the current censorship we are facing on Facebook. While the internet can increase opportunities for free expression when anyone can write from their own web page,  increasingly communication is being channeled through limited sources. Facebook has become indispensable for communicating, now with over two billion active users worldwide. Facebook will often cite violation of Community Standards to justify restricting individuals, but quite often there is no evidence of violating any of the Community Standards actually posted by Facebook, and no response to appeals. This has led many people to start using social media sites including MeWe, Steemit, Minds, and Tremr. Unfortunately it is far harder for Chinese to change where they live to avoid repression based upon unclear standards than it is to use alternative social media sites here.

Rational Voices In Response To Recent Charges Of Russian Assassination By Poisoning And Infiltration Of The Power Grid

Before the 2016 election I feared that a Clinton presidency would turn Democrats into a pack of neocon warmongers and we would see attempts to limit free speech in protest. What I didn’t anticipate was that her loss would do the same thing. Democrats are spreading hysteria about Russia which is comparable to the misinformation spread about Iraq in the run up to that war. Many Democrats are spreading claims which are not supported by either the Congressional investigations or the information in Robert Mueller’s indictments. Many are adopting McCarthyist tactics to attack those who attempt to question their misinformation, failing to understand that debunking false claims about Russia no more makes one pro-Putin than debunking false claims about Iraq and WMD made one pro-Saddam. Fortunately there are still some sane voices in the world. Today I will look at responses to the Russian assassinations in London and to the reports of Russian infiltration of the power grid.

For the sake of discussion I am assuming that the accusations made regarding these two events are true, but we must keep in mind that repeatedly there have been examples of accusations being made, the claims later being retracted, yet many people continued to spread the false claims. This includes the  retracted claims of agreement by seventeen intelligence agencies agreeing when in reality all that existed was a fact-free assessment by a small number of anti-Russian individuals in the intelligence community. NBC has repeatedly raised the debunked claims of Russian hacking of our voting systems. Previous claims that the Russians infiltrated the electrical grid in Vermont were later retracted. Many Democrats act as if collusion between Trump and Russia has been established, and that Russia altered the election results, when there is no evidence of either, and no charges that this was done in any of Robert Mueller’s indictments to date.

While leaders of the Democratic Party in the United States are spreading anti-Russian hysteria, primarily to avoid responsibility for nominating a candidate so terrible that she could not even beat Donald Trump, the leader of the Labour Party in the UK sounds far more rational. Jeremy Corbyn has this op-ed in The Guardian in response to the recent poisonings in London:

As I said in parliament, the Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence, and our response must be both decisive and proportionate. But let us not manufacture a division over Russia where none exists. Labour is of course no supporter of the Putin regime, its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption. And we pay tribute to Russia’s many campaigners for social justice and human rights, including for LGBT rights.

However, that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a “new cold war” of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent. Instead, Britain needs to uphold its laws and its values without reservation. And those should be allied to a foreign policy that uses every opportunity to reduce tensions and conflict wherever possible…

There can and should be the basis for a common political response to this crime. But in my years in parliament I have seen clear thinking in an international crisis overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgments too many times. Flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers led to the calamity of the Iraq invasion. There was overwhelming bipartisan support for attacking Libya, but it proved to be wrong. A universal repugnance at the 9/11 attacks led to a war on Afghanistan that continues to this day, while terrorism has spread across the globe.

The continuing fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the virtual collapse of the Russian state in the 1990s must be addressed through international law and diplomacy if we are to reverse the drift to conflict.

Right now, the perpetrators of the Salisbury attack must be identified and held to account. Only through firm multilateral action can we ensure such a shocking crime never happens again.

Just as we should work to ensure that such a crime never happens again, we should work to increase cyber-security, including security for the electrical grid. Philip Bump, who previously added some sanity to the claims that Russian altered the election by using social media, now is looking at the facts regarding the electrical grid. He wrote a column entitled Why Russian hackers aren’t poised to plunge the United States into darkness:

The natural question that emerges is: How serious is this hacking? The idea of Russian hackers having access to the control switches of America’s power infrastructure is particularly unnerving, raising the idea of waking up one morning to learn that the United States has simply been switched off.

Several experts who spoke with The Washington Post, though, explained that this is not only oversimplistic but also that it is almost certainly impossible. The effects of infiltration of America’s power grid would be much more geographically limited thanks to the distributed, redundant nature of the system.

In fact, it’s more than a little like another alert issued by the government about Russian infiltration efforts: the one on Oct. 7, 2016, warning about Russian efforts to tamper with state voting systems.

That announcement came from the director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security and indicated that Russian hackers were “scanning and probing” election-related systems. The message, one of the few public responses to Russian interference from the Obama administration, didn’t get as much play as it might have, given that it came out the same day as The Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape.

Meaning that the caveats in the announcement — that our voting mechanisms were protected by being disconnected from the Internet during the election, by being distributed throughout thousands of counties and by having after-the-fact statistical checks on accuracy — weren’t really absorbed. The idea that Russian hackers might have significantly altered election results in 2016 persists out of a misunderstanding of how remarkably hard it would be to subvert the process, particularly without being noticed…

…this damage would be localized. Perhaps, Bauch said, a hacker who’d gained access to a regional power provider or generation system might be able to knock out power to tens or hundreds of thousands of people at a time. That would be significant, but it’s not taking out the whole grid. Attacking multiple providers across the country at specific times of vulnerability — like on a hot day in the west when power supplies are strained — could multiply those effects. But it would require a significant amount of planning, coordination and access to have an impact on a massive scale…

Thanks to the distributed nature of our elections and the barriers to changing votes, hacking our elections is trickier than most people realize. Thanks to the distributed and often disconnected nature of our electrical system and the barriers to accessing it, the same can be said of hacking the grid…

It’s a serious situation, warranting the sort of dramatic response we saw from the government on Thursday. But do not expect to wake up some day soon and learn that Russian President Vladimir Putin now controls the flow of electricity to your house. Real life, as always, is less dramatic than the movies.

Bump has a lot more detail in his full article, including the belief that Russian hackers gained access through spear-phishing. While there is controversy over whether the DNC’s email was released to Wikileaks due to hacking or a leak from the inside, the possibility has also been raised that access to the DNC’s email was through spear-phishing. We would be much safer if the media and politicians spent half the time they spend on misleading stories about Russia to better educate the public about how to respond to such attempts to gain access to our computer systems.

Clinton Reminds The World Why She Really Lost–And It Has Nothing To Do With Russia


Most losing candidates keep a low profile after losing an election. Despite being robbed of victory, Al Gore kept quiet at first, and reemerged more liberal, and a vocal opponent of the Iraq war. Hillary Clinton in contrast has been spending the time since her election making excuses, and her popularity has fallen even further since the election. Her recent statement in India are even angering many Democrats who have supported her. The Hill reports:

Democrats are angry that Hillary Clinton continues to discuss what went wrong during the 2016 presidential election against President Trump.

Even some of Clinton’s own former aides and surrogates say the former Democratic presidential nominee should back away from the discussion about her failed campaign because it’s harmful to the party.

During a conference in India this weekend, Clinton called states that supported her in the election more economically advanced than the states that backed Trump.

The remarks reminded many of the former secretary of State’s comments in 2016 that some of Trump’s supporters fit in a “basket of deplorables,” a line the Republican then used against her repeatedly during the final stretch of the campaign.

She also insinuated that women who voted for Trump were motivated by “ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should.”

In interviews with The Hill on Tuesday, even the staunchest Clinton allies as well as longtime advisers say the comments were cringeworthy and ultimately detrimental to Democrats.

“She put herself in a position where [Democrats] from states that Trump won will have to distance themselves from her even more,” said one former senior Clinton aide. “That’s a lot of states.”

Another Clinton surrogate questioned the decisionmaking behind Clinton’s remarks. For months, some Democrats have been arguing that Clinton’s sentiments have been counterproductive to the party’s rebuilding efforts. And some have told her she should emulate former President Obama’s model to only make statements when it’s essential.

Even before she launched her book tour last fall for “What Happened,” party strategists have said Clinton should lay low.

“She’s annoying me. She’s annoying everyone, as far as I can tell,” said one 2016 Clinton surrogate. “Who lets her say these things?”

The Washington Post added:

Like Trump, Clinton has lost popularity since the 2016 election in national polls.

In early December, Gallup found 36 percent of Americans viewed her favorably, the same percentage that approved of Trump’s presidential performance. The result marked a record low for Clinton in the Gallup poll, which has tracked her favorability since 1993. Just 5 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of independents had a favorable view of her.

Several studies of the 2016 election have found that Trump overperformed Clinton in economically struggling parts of the nation, a likely motivator for voters seeking change in the party control of the White House. Parts of the country that shifted their support from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 were also more likely to be negatively affected by globalization.

Another post-election study showed that Clinton’s hawkish views were also harmful to her campaign.

As was revealed in Shattered, Hillary Clinton decided upon the strategy of blaming others such as Russia for her loss within twenty-four hours of losing. The Congressional testimony showed that Russian activities on social media were trivial compared to the actions of the two major party campaigns. While we have known for some time that the Clinton campaign had used paid internet trolls, new information came out today in an article at Huffington Post regarding the use of fake accounts used by Clinton supporters to oppose Bernie Sanders.

While Democrats express frustration with Clinton continuing to blame others for her loss, many Democrats do continue to support her unfounded claims. For example, after the House Intelligence Committee reported that there was no collusion between Russia and Donald Trump to alter the election, Democrats have continued to make arguments which are not supported by the facts. While it is true that House Republicans very likely would have denied the presence of collusion if it existed, and it is possible that Robert Mueller might uncover new information in the future, the fact remains that the evidence available at present shows no such evidence of collusion.

Despite the lack of evidence of meaningful cooperation between the Trump  campaign and Russia to effect the election result, Democrats such as Joaquin Castro have been giving interviews distorting the facts following the committee report. In this interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, Castro both made unfounded claims and moved the goal post a tremendous distance to promote actions which do not show any meaningful collusion as if they were evidence of collusion. While not in the transcript on the web site, during the actual broadcast host David Greene debunked Castro’s claims after the interview. Democrats who continue to make unfounded claims look like Republicans who continued to justify the Iraq war long after it was clear to most that we were never threatened by WMD from Iraq.

If Democrats are going to move forward from the 2016 election, they need to do more than just cringe when Clinton makes asinine statements. They need to acknowledge that Clinton lost because of her own mistakes, both during the campaign and in making bad decisions throughout her career. They must admit that they were wrong to rig the nomination for her, and reform the nominating process. Finally they must repudiate both the corrupt personal behavior of the Clintons in using their  public positions to unethically enrich themselves, and the conservative positions she has promoted throughout her career.

The New Republic Warns About Hysteria Over Russia And The Danger Of A New Cold War

To repeat what I said yesterday, with so much of the media feeding into the Russia hysteria, it is good to see that there have been exceptions. Yesterday I quoted the editor of Politico Magazine who gave excellent reasons to be skeptical over the unproven claims from many Democrats that the election results were altered due to collusion between Donald Trump and Russia. I also noted other examples such as at from The Nation and a historian writing at The London Review of Books. The New Republic has now posted a warning to Stop Inflating The Russian Threat.  Some excerpts from Jeet Heer’s article at The New Republic follow:

…Russia’s interference in the election, at least what’s known thus far, is hardly enough to justify a global struggle comparable to the Cold War or the war on terror. These earlier conflicts consumed trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. The details in the Mueller indictment are troubling, but not an existential threat worth losing a single life over. New Yorker reporter Adrien Chen, who has been following Russian troll accounts for years, tweeted that the election interference waged on social-media was “90 people with a shaky grasp of English and a rudimentary understanding of U.S. politics shitposting on Facebook.”

…“Russia is not working according to a master plan carefully laid-out laid out by President Vladimir Putin,” Henry Farrell, of George Washington University, argued last month in Foreign Policy. “Instead, a loose collective of Russians, with incredibly meager resources, have been working together in a disorganized way to probe American democracy for weaknesses. Instead of persuading people to vote for Donald Trump, and against Clinton, they have wanted to create chaos and paranoia—and they have succeeded in stirring confusion only because there were so many weaknesses for them to exploit in the first place.” Similar Russian attempts to sway elections in France and Germany were much less successful, Farrell notes, because they don’t suffer from he calls a “basic failure of democratic knowledge” in America.

This crisis, which long predates Russian interference, stems from a polarized polity where one party actively encourages its followers to distrust news from non-partisan outlets. It’s enhanced by low voter turnout, active voter suppression, and an electoral system that is constantly manipulated by gerrymandering. The result is a citizenry that does not agree on basic facts, and many of whom distrust the system.

If democratic fragility is the root problem, launching a new Cold War is not going to solve it. Rather, there has to be an active effort to strengthen potential targets, like voting systems (many of which are old and run on outdated technology that’s vulnerable to hackers). The U.S. also needs a comprehensive civics education initiative, for children and adults alike, to instruct Americans on the U.S. Constitution and teach them how to detect propaganda and discount motivated reasoning.

Framing the election meddling as strictly a matter of outside interference will only encourage the conspiracy-mongering that already makes it hard to form a democratic consensus. “By exaggerating the actual consequences of foreign influence operations, American elites are further undermining the confidence and shared knowledge that American democracy needs to function,” Farrell argued. “They are tacitly encouraging Americans on the liberal left to build their own private universe of facts, in which Russian influence has pervasive political consequences.”

Some Democrats think that launching a new Cold War will solve the problem of polarization by unifying the country against a foreign enemy and isolating Republicans who stand with Trump in appeasing Russia. “The Democrats should and must start using Russia as a way to break through the vicious cycle consuming the parties, Washington, and the whole country,” John Stoehr argued in Washington Monthly in January. “Russia is our enemy. This is a fact. It attacked our presidential election. It continues to attack us in what is emerging as a new Cold cyberwar. In tying the Republicans to an enemy, the Democrats have the potential to break the Republicans.”

The actual history of the Cold War belies this fantasy. While Cold War liberals like President Harry Truman did use anti-communism to promote national unity, this only laid the groundwork for Republican demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eventually, in the 1960s, the Democrats were torn apart by internal divisions over the Vietnam War. A foreign enemy is no assurance of unity, and perfectly compatible with more polarization.

Trump is the most divisive American president in at least generation. Reversing the damage he’s done to American democracy, let alone fixing the systemic flaws that predate him, is an arduous task that will require many years of political organization and education. There’s no swift solution to this crisis, and whipping up hysteria about Russia will only make it worse.

There are many dangers from distortions by partisans on both sides regarding “Russiagate.” The risk of playing into the hands of hawks like Hillary Clinton and her neocon allies who see desire resuming a Cold War atmosphere with Russia, if not outright attempts at regime change, is probably the greatest danger. I have previously quoted Jackson Lears, Professor of History at Rutgers University, on how the Democratic Party’s fixation on Russiagate has led to them ignoring other issues, including the need to take a stand against the military interventionism advocated by Clinton.

Glenn Greenwald also wrote a column yesterday regarding the dangers of politicians from both parties falsely equating “Russiagate” to an act of war, with some making false comparisons ot Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attack. Greenwald wrote:

All of this underscores the serious dangers many have pointed to for more than a year about why all this unhinged rhetoric is so alarming. If you really believe that Russia — with some phishing links sent to Podesta and some fake Facebook ads and Twitter bots — committed an “act of war” of any kind, let alone one on par with Pearl Harbor and 9/11, then it’s inevitable that extreme retaliatory measures will be considered and likely triggered. How does one justify a mere imposition of sanctions in the face of an attack similar to Pearl Harbor or 9/11? Doesn’t it stand to reason that something much more belligerent, enduring, and destructive would be necessary?

The advice in the article above for greater education of Americans is sensible, but such education should include lessons on how we were lied into military intervention including the Iraq war, the regime change in Libya orchestrated by Hillary Clinton based upon lies, and Vietnam. The lack of such knowledge by Americans increases the risk of us being lied into yet another war, this time with a nuclear power.

How Facebook Might Have Actually Helped Trump Win–And It Had Nothing To Do With Russia

As was highlighted in yesterday’s indictment, there is a lot of attention being paid to Russian actions on Facebook, giving a false impression that this was the deciding factor in the election. As I pointed out again yesterday, the evidence presented in the Congressional testimony regarding Russian actions on social media showed that their actions, such as purchasing $100,000 in Facebook ads were very trivial considering the vast amount of activity on social media and other campaign advertising. The Congressional testimony revealed that information from Russian Facebook pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Over half the ads were not even seen until after the election, and many had nothing to do with promoting Trump over Clinton. The Russian purchased Facebook ads also targeted deep blue states over battleground states or the rust belt states which cost Clinton the election.

While the overall influence of Facebook on the election is unknown, if Facebook did influence the election there were factors far more important than the Russian activities. Both sides had many supporters who posted substantially far more on line for their candidate than anything coming from Russia. The Clinton campaign and its allies also utilized an army of paid trolls which were  more prevalent on social media than the Russians. The Trump campaign effectively used social media in a manner which was totally legal and had nothing to do with Russia–Facebook employees embedded in the campaign to instruct them in the most effective way to use social media.

The Guardian looked at how the Trump campaign used the Facebook embeds, based upon a story on CBS News:

The Trump presidential campaign spent most of its digital advertising budget on Facebook, testing more than 50,000 ad variations each day in an attempt to micro-target voters, Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale, told CBS’s 60 Minutes in an interview scheduled to air on Sunday night.

“Twitter is how [Trump] talked to the people, Facebook was going to be how he won,” Parscale said…

Parscale said the Trump campaign used Facebook to reach clusters of rural voters, such as “15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for”.

“I started making ads that showed the bridge crumbling,” he said. “I can find the 1,500 people in one town that care about infrastructure. Now, that might be a voter that normally votes Democrat.”

Parscale said the campaign constantly tested minute variations in the design, color, background and phrasing of Facebook ads, in order to maximize their impact. Typically 50,000 to 60,000 variations were tested each day, he said, and sometimes as many as 100,000.

But Parscale’s comments highlight how actively Facebook has pursued election advertising as a business strategy, even as its platform has come under attack as a fertile ground for Russian-backed political propaganda, conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation.

Among other services, Facebook’s elections advertising allows campaigns to take lists of registered voters drawn from public records and find those people on Facebook.

Parscale said he asked the Facebook “embeds” to teach staffers everything the Clinton campaign would be told about Facebook advertising “and then some”…

Parscale told CBS he was told the Clinton campaign did not use Facebook employee embeds. “I had heard that they did not accept any of [Facebook’s] offers,” he said.

While Clinton did not take advantage of this opportunity, there are other ways in which Facebook has been biased towards Clinton which might have offsetted this potential advantage for Trump.

Yesterday’s indictment by Robert Mueller was about violations of federal election laws by Russians. As Rod Rosenstein verified, it was not about altering the election result. It is less clear how much legal activities on Facebook contributed to the ultimate result.

Today’s Indictments Do Not Support Narratives Of Either Republican Or Democratic Partisans Regarding Russia

Once again the objective facts released with regards to the Russia investigation run counter to the narratives of both Republican and Democratic partisans. The details presented in today’s indictment issued by Robert Mueller again contradicts claims from some Republicans that there was absolutely no Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Of course that was an absurd stand from the start. Russian has meddled in our elections for years, as the United States has meddled in their elections, and both countries have meddled in elections in multiple other countries. On the other hand, the indictments provide nothing to back the Democratic conspiracy theories of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign which somehow stole the election from Hillary Clinton.

We have known for some time that Russians have been active on social media. With the long history of both sides meddling in each other’s affairs, and with the growth of social media, those who are shocked by this are astonishingly naive. Nor is it a surprise that such actions violated federal election laws. As the indictment states, “FECA prohibits foreign nationals from making any contributions, expenditures, independent expenditures, or disbursements for electioneering communications. FECA also requires that individuals or entities who make certain independent expenditures in federal elections report those expenditures to the Federal Election Commission.” A far more interesting potential development would be, as I’ve speculated in the past, if there are grounds for a future indictment against Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kusnher for their attempts to obtain information from Russians at the Trump Tower meeting.

We know from the Trump Tower meeting that the Trump campaign had no qualms against colluding with Russia. However, while the Russians enticed them to attend, they had no information to actually offer. The indictment indicates other contacts between Russians and the Trump Campaign, however without the knowledge of the Trump Campaign. As the indictment states, “Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”

While it would hardly surprise me if there were to turn out to be some members of the Trump campaign who did knowingly communicate with Russians, at this time there remains no evidence of any collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia, even if members of Trump’s family did show a willingness to collude with Russians. Obtaining the actual facts, as opposed to promoting the claims of partisans on either side, remains the top priority.

As Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stressed, “There is no allegation in the indictment on the outcome of the election.” After over a year of investigations, there remains no evidence that Russia had any effect on the election result, no matter how much Hillary Clinton and her supporters wish to claim this.

While the activities of the Russians very well might have violated federal election laws, the evidence presented in the Congressional testimony regarding their actions on social media showed that their actions, such as purchasing $100,000 in Facebook ads were very trivial considering the vast amount of activity on social media and other campaign advertising. The Congressional testimony revealed that information from Russian Facebook pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Over half the ads were not even seen until after the election, and many had nothing to do with promoting Trump over Clinton. The Russian purchased Facebook ads also targeted deep blue states over battleground states or the rust belt states which cost Clinton the election.

The hysteria spread by many establishment  Democrats over Russian actions on social media, along with other false media reports regarding Russia, has had many adverse consequences including providing the Democratic establishment a bogus excuse for not correcting the actual mistakes which cost them the election after giving the nomination to a candidate so weak that she could not beat a candidate as terrible as Donald Trump, increasing Cold War style tensions with a nuclear power, playing into the desires of neocons who have been exaggerating Russian influence on the 2016 election, and increasing censorship of Americans (not Russians) on Facebook. Using Russian activity on social media to censor Americans is a far greater threat to our democracy than any actions done by Russians.

Facebook “Techno-Fascism” Is Killing Everything From Independent News To Comedy On The Internet

Facebook is bringing communities together–and deciding what we might say and read. This includes both outright Facebook censorship in which posts are taken down and people are placed in “Facebook Jail,” to new algorithms which limit what we see on our timeline. The new algorithms have greatly reduced traffic to many outside sources harming blogs, the independent media, and even internet comedy.

Antimedia writes that Facebook Begins Killing the Independent News Industry. While Facebook has had considerable impact on internet traffic for years, the problem became more severe with the spread of anti-Russia hysteria based on highly exaggerated claims regarding the role of social media on the results of the 2016 election. The response from Facebook has to fight “fake news,” which, as Glenn Greenwald has warned, is often used as an excuse for censorship. Presumably the writings of those of us who warned about the dubious arguments for the Iraq war, along with the revelations of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war, would have been classified as “fake news” by the mainstream in the past. Today alternative views on both the left and right are being restricted. Anti-Media saw the turning point as when Barack Obama spoke with Mark Zuckerberg about battling “fake news.”

…Zuckerberg has slowly been chipping away at “fake news” sites even when he previously believed that they were not even a particular issue. Following the infamous PropOrNot report barely a week later, which effectively labelled every single site that criticizes U.S. foreign policy as a Russian agent, alternative media has faced a slow and inevitable decline.

In September last year, acclaimed writer Chris Hedges of Truthdig wrote:

“In the name of combating Russia-inspired ‘fake news,’ Google, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, Agence France-Presse and CNN in April imposed algorithms or filters, overseen by ‘evaluators,’ that hunt for key words such as ‘U.S. military,’ ‘inequality’ and ‘socialism,’ along with personal names such as Julian Assange and Laura Poitras, the filmmaker. Ben Gomes, Google’s vice president for search engineering, says Google has amassed some 10,000 ‘evaluators’ to determine the ‘quality’ and veracity of websites. Internet users doing searches on Google, since the algorithms were put in place, are diverted from sites such as Truthdig and directed to mainstream publications such as The New York Times. The news organizations and corporations that are imposing this censorship have strong links to the Democratic Party. They are cheerleaders for American imperial projects and global capitalism. Because they are struggling in the new media environment for profitability, they have an economic incentive to be part of the witch hunt.”

At first, it was corporate gate-keepers like the Guardian who were begging for donations in the age of Trump, as they had lost all credibility in keeping up with the needs and interests of the people. Now, we are all asking for donations, as Facebook’s algorithms are cutting off close to 100 percent of our Facebook audiences…

This has nothing to do with combating “fake news.” I have written over 400 articles online, and close to 100 percent of my sources are from mainstream outlets like Reuters, the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC, the Washington Post, and others. Why should we be censored for referencing the very news outlets that people like Obama want us to trust in the first place?

We are being censored because we look for the paragraphs in those reports which need highlighting, or the hidden reports that go overlooked, and we broadcast it to millions of people on a daily basis.

Many other sites on both the left and right are reporting similar difficulties. As Hedges pointed out, this has often been pushed by the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. Supporters of Hillary Clinton have been especially aggressive in filing bogus complaints with Facebook regarding those who disagree with them, and Clinton has outright attacked sources such as Wikileaks, while using what she claims is “fake news” critical of her (even when it is often true) as justification for censorship. Donald Trump has taken a position similar to Clinton’s in backing censorship.

While not true of all, many of us in the blogosphere and alternative press also frequently use mainstream news outlets as a major source of information, even if we do highlight key facts which are often ignored by the talking heads who try to tell us what to think on cable and broadcast news. Articles coming from a small site such as this typically are backed up with multiple references from major media sources, but Facebook algorithms now hide what we write.

The alternative press is probably suffering the most, but Funny or Die also complains about How Facebook Is Killing Comedy:

The whole story is basically that Facebook gets so much traffic that they started convincing publishers to post things on Facebook. For a long time, that was fine. People posted things on Facebook, then you would click those links and go to their websites. But then, gradually, Facebook started exerting more and more control of what was being seen, to the point that they, not our website, essentially became the main publishers of everyone’s content. Today, there’s no reason to go to a comedy website that has a video if that video is just right on Facebook. And that would be fine if Facebook compensated those companies for the ad revenue that was generated from those videos, but because Facebook does not pay publishers, there quickly became no money in making high-quality content for the internet…

Facebook is essentially running a payola scam where you have to pay them if you want your own fans to see your content. If you run a large publishing company and you make a big piece of content that you feel proud of, you put it up on Facebook. From there, their algorithm takes over, with no transparency. So, not only is the website not getting ad revenue they used to get, they have to pay Facebook to push it out to their own subscribers. So, Facebook gets the ad revenue from the eyeballs on the thing they are seeing, and they get revenue from the publisher. It’s like if TheNew York Times had their own subscriber base, but you had to pay the paperboy for every article you wanted to see.

The worst part is that as an artist, it feels like your own fault. We’re used to a world where if you put something out there that’s good, people see it and share it. But that’s just not true in this world. Someone can make something really good, and just because of some weird algorithmic reasons, or if it’s not designed specifically for Facebook, it doesn’t do well. And then it becomes impossible to know what a good thing to make is anymore…

Facebook says that they are building communities, but really they’re fracturing us. We are all on our own little news bubbles and on our own little islands. It’s also fracturing our own creative projects. The internet has turned into a place where you can’t have many different people speaking as one entity and expect those people to make a living. And to me, those are the most exciting, rewarding projects, and I can’t make those now. I am looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, but you can say categorically that the internet was a better place 3-4 years ago. It used to be fruitful, but it’s like a desert now.

It looks like we have been warned about this. Back in 2015, Mark Carrigan warned about Mark Zuckerberg’s philosophy of techno-fascism.

Facebook Misses The Point Regarding The Effects of Social Media on Democracy In Censoring Posts


Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook Product Manager, Civic Engagement has a post up entitled Hard Questions: What Effect Does Social Media Have on Democracy? The post is part of a series on social media and democracy which Facebook has started.

In light of all the problems with Facebook censoring discussion I entered this comment:

Democracy thrives with open discussion, but instead Facebook had been censoring political discussion, using algorithms which incorrectly label comments as spam, or perhaps due to falling for partisans who file false complaints because they disagree with a post.

Democracy thrives with the free spread of information, but instead Facebook also frequently blocks posts with links, falsely calling them spam, or perhaps seeing them as fake news. Labels of fake news have far too often been used as an excuse for censorship.

Rather than finding ways to restrict discussion, if you believe in democracy you should be getting out of way and allow us to freely discuss the issues and share information.

I subsequently saw another post discussing this from Cass Sunstein and added a similar response.

Washington Post Columnist Debunks Claims Of Russia Affecting Election Result Despite Many Other Misleading Articles At The Post On Russia

The Washington Post has been spreading a lot of false stories which increase hysteria about Russia, similar to stories about fictitious WMD in Iraq prior to the Iraq war. However, despite the general fallacious editorial view of the newspaper, one columnist actually got matters right recently, debunking claims that Russian ads on social media affected the election results.

Glenn Greenwald once again criticized the coverage in The Washington Post yesterday in an article entitled  WashPost Is Richly Rewarded for False News About Russia Threat While Public Is Deceived:

In the past six weeks, the Washington Post published two blockbuster stories about the Russian threat that went viral: one on how Russia is behind a massive explosion of “fake news,” the other on how it invaded the U.S. electric grid. Both articles were fundamentally false. Each now bears a humiliating editor’s note grudgingly acknowledging that the core claims of the story were fiction: The first note was posted a full two weeks later to the top of the original article; the other was buried the following day at the bottom.

The second story on the electric grid turned out to be far worse than I realized when I wrote about it on Saturday, when it became clear that there was no “penetration of the U.S. electricity grid” as the Post had claimed. In addition to the editor’s note, the Russia-hacked-our-electric-grid story now has a full-scale retraction in the form of a separate article admitting that “the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility” and there may not even have been malware at all on this laptop.

But while these debacles are embarrassing for the paper, they are also richly rewarding. That’s because journalists — including those at the Post — aggressively hype and promote the original, sensationalistic false stories, ensuring that they go viral, generating massive traffic for the Post (the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron, recently boasted about how profitable the paper has become).

After spreading the falsehoods far and wide, raising fear levels and manipulating U.S. political discourse in the process (both Russia stories were widely hyped on cable news), journalists who spread the false claims subsequently note the retraction or corrections only in the most muted way possible, and often not at all. As a result, only a tiny fraction of people who were exposed to the original false story end up learning of the retractions.

Baron himself, editorial leader of the Post, is a perfect case study in this irresponsible tactic. It was Baron who went to Twitter on the evening of November 24 to announce the Post’s exposé of the enormous reach of Russia’s fake news operation, based on what he heralded as the findings of “independent researchers.” Baron’s tweet went all over the place; to date, it has been re-tweeted more than 3,000 times, including by many journalists with their own large followings:

But after that story faced a barrage of intense criticism — from Adrian Chen in the New Yorker (“propaganda about Russia propaganda”), Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone (“shameful, disgusting”), my own article, and many others — including legal threats from the sites smeared as Russian propaganda outlets by the Post’s “independent researchers” — the Post finally added its lengthy editor’s note distancing itself from the anonymous group that provided the key claims of its story (“The Post … does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings” and “since publication of the Post’s story, PropOrNot has removed some sites from its list”)…

Greenwald proceeded to provide many more examples of poor media coverage. Of course misleading coverage is not limited to The Washington Post as I described here. There have been multiple examples of various news sources posting material on Russia which was later retracted as false. Then there is the hysterical coverage at MSNBC.

Despite the overall misleading coverage, there is a recent exception at The Washington Post. Philip Bump wrote, There’s still little evidence that Russia’s 2016 social media efforts did much of anything. This overlaps with the material  I previously posted here, but includes some additional facts worth reading. As I previously noted, the information released after the Congressional investigations showed that material from Russian pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook.

Bump discussed the false narrative that Russia was responsible for Clinton’s loss, and wrote:

All of that, though, requires setting aside what we actually know about the Russian activity on Facebook and Twitter: It was often modest, heavily dissociated from the campaign itself and minute in the context of election social media efforts.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released a series of examples of the sorts of ads purchased by the Russians in November. Many, as The Washington Post reported, focused on highlighting divisive cultural issues, like the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration.

Of the 30 ads shared by the Democrats, six, viewed 1.2 million times in total, ran in 2015. Only seven ran in the last month of the campaign, totaling about 340,000 views. The ads targeted none of the four closest states in the election — New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — specifically; most were national ad buys. States that were targeted specifically included Texas and New York, neither of which was considered a swing state.

A little-noticed statement from Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, detailed how unsophisticated the Russian ad targeting actually was in the context of the election. Among the points he made:

  • Maryland was targeted by nearly five times as many ads as was Wisconsin (262 to 55).
  • Thirty-five of the 55 ads targeting Wisconsin ran during the primary.
  • More ads targeted DC than Pennsylvania.
  • A total of $1,979 was spent in Wisconsin — $1,925 of it in the primary.
  • The spending in Michigan and Pennsylvania were $823 and $300, respectively.
  • More of the geographically targeted ads ran in 2015 than in 2016.

Facebook’s own public numbers hint at how the ads were weighted relative to the campaign. Ten million people saw ads run by the Russian agents — but 5.6 million of those views were after the election.

Bump also debunked the claims regarding Twitter:

Just before Election Day in 2016, Twitter announced 1 billion tweets had been sent from August 2015 through that point. Even assuming all 202,000 of those tweets from the Russian accounts were in that period, it means they constituted 0.02 percent of the election-related tweets. On Election Day itself, there were another 75 million election-related tweets. If all of the Russian-linked tweets had been dropped on Election Day — closer to the point at which they would have directly helped suppress or boost turnout — they would still only have constituted 0.27 percent of the tweets that day. But they weren’t.

Perhaps, one might argue, there is classified information about Russia’s meddling that suggests a more dramatic problem. Perhaps. On Thursday morning, though, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) of the House intelligence committee told CNN he hadn’t seen much evidence of any criminal collusion the American people weren’t already aware of. (There’s also the argument that, in an election as close as that of 2016, even small efforts by Russian actors might have had an outsized effect. This is true, but it is also true of hundreds of other small things that happened (and didn’t) in the closing days of the presidential race.)

As it stands, the public evidence doesn’t support the idea that the Russians executed a savvy electoral strategy on social media to ensure Trump’s victory. In fact, it seems less the case that they did so now than seemed might be possible back in July.

In other words, while there is evidence of Donald Trump acting to cover-up crimes such as money laundering, the evidence disputes Clinton’s claims of a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russia which altered the election results.

Study Casts Doubt On Fake News Affecting Election Results

Fake news was probably the most over-used word of 2016-7. This was used to refer to both false information (as if this was a brand new problem) and subsequently used to refer to any material people did not like, regardless of its veracity. Hillary Clinton has used claims that fake news affected the election to support censorship. Facebook has been censoring legitimate news in their overreaction to fake news. While I don’t think that anyone doubts that the internet is full of false information, the more important question is whether people are actually fooled by it. While providing no definitive answer, The New York Times reported on a study which presents reasons to question whether fake news had a significant effect on the 2016 election results.

Not surprisingly fake news is widespread, and more widespread in conservative circles.  The study found that, “the most conservative 10 percent of the sample accounted for about 65 percent of visits to fake news sites.” That comes as little surprise after the 2016 election. There were both factual and totally fictitious reasons spread in 2016 as to vote against Hillary Clinton. In contrast, while some attacks on Donald Trump might have had some minor errors, the case against him was generally based upon reality. Plus there is a long history of false information coming from conservative sites, such as the Birther claims when Obama was president, and much of what is on Fox every night. (Unfortunately MSNBC is now acting increasingly like Fox).

From the description of the study:

In the new study, a trio of political scientists — Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College (a regular contributor to The Times’s Upshot), Andrew Guess of Princeton University and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter — analyzed web traffic data gathered from a representative sample of 2,525 Americans who consented to have their online activity monitored anonymously by the survey and analytic firm YouGov.

The data included website visits made in the weeks before and after the 2016 election, and a measure of political partisanship based on overall browsing habits. (The vast majority of participants favored Mr. Trump or Hillary Clinton.)

The team defined a visited website as fake news if it posted at least two demonstrably false stories, as defined by economists Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow in research published last year. On 289 such sites, about 80 percent of bogus articles supported Mr. Trump.

A key finding was that, “false stories were a small fraction of the participants’ overall news diet, regardless of political preference: just 1 percent among Clinton supporters, and 6 percent among those pulling for Mr. Trump. Even conservative partisans viewed just five fake news articles, on average, over more than five weeks.”

Most of the people reading fake news were both intensely partisan, probably making them unlikely to change their minds based upon fake claims, and obtained information from a variety of sources (hopefully making them more likely to see through fake news):

“For all the hype about fake news, it’s important to recognize that it reached only a subset of Americans, and most of the ones it was reaching already were intense partisans,” Dr. Nyhan said.

“They were also voracious consumers of hard news,” he added. “These are people intensely engaged in politics who follow it closely.”

Given the ratio of truth to fiction, Dr. Watts said, fake news paled in influence beside mainstream news coverage, particularly stories about Mrs. Clinton and her use of a private email server as secretary of state. Coverage of that topic appeared repeatedly and prominently in venues like The New York Times and the Washington Post.

Of course many Democratic partisans are likely to see the email scandal as fake news. As I noted at the start of this post, fake news has increasingly been used to refer to material people do not like, regardless of whether it is factual.

It was not terribly surprising to see that, “Facebook was by far the platform through which people most often navigated to a fake news site.” However the article does not compare this to the amount of factual information which is also navigated to through Facebook. Regardless, Facebook is hardly the best way for people to get their news, as this post at Mashable pointed out.

This data does not say definitely whether fake news affected the election result. Is possible that some people did vote against Clinton based upon false information in the battleground states which cost her the election. However, considering what the study shows about the readers of fake news, it is more likely that economic conditions in the rust belt, along with Clinton’s many mistakes while campaigning, as opposed to reading some of the more outlandish fake stories about Hillary Clinton, cost her the election. It is doubtful that fake news had any more impact than the rather insignificant Russian ads on social media.