A Welcome Reduction In Hysteria As We Are Hearing Less About Foreign Hacking Of The 2018 Election (For Now)

The New York Times today asks, Where Are The Russians? In other words, they have bought the sensationalized and highly exaggerated media accounts of Russia’s impact on the 2016 election, and are now surprised that they cannot find evidence that Russia is trying to hack the 2018 election.

Aaron Maté has a more reality-based view at The Nation in writing,With Just Days to the Midterms, Russiagate Is MIA–And that’s a good thing. He wrote, that despite all the “histrionics,” Russia has been found to have done little of consequence:

Russia’s alleged midterm sabotage to date has been disclosed in a newly unsealed criminal complaint against an employee of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian troll farm previously indicted for using fake accounts to spread divisive content on social media. The defendant, Elena Khusyaynova, is not even directly accused of online manipulation. Instead, she is singled out for being the chief accountant for “Project Lakhta,” an IRA initiative that targeted audiences in Russia and around the world, including the United States. The only actions directly ascribed to Khusyaynova concern her “meticulous record-keeping and management” of IRA funds.

As with the initial indictment of 13 IRA employees in February, prosecutors accuse IRA trolls of using social media “to sow discord in the U.S. political system and to undermine faith in our democratic institutions,” including in the upcoming midterms. But reading the fine print, it is difficult to see how that purported aim can be taken seriously. In the first six months of 2018, Khusyaynova submitted expenditures of $60,000 for advertisements on Facebook and $6,000 on Instagram. The only advertising-related activity that gets detailed in the complaint is an alleged IRA employee’s offering to give organizers of an anti-Trump protest $80 for a Facebook ad. (It’s unclear if the proposal was accepted). The IRA’s alleged social-media accounts impersonated both liberal and conservative personas. The complaint shows six images that were posted by Russian trolls to Facebook; the most impactful of the bunch appears to be a thinly disguised anti-Muslim ad that attracted 104 comments.

Some of this content is overtly racist and bigoted; other posts are banal. All are so juvenile or inconsequential that it is difficult to see how they could have vastly greater influence than the millions of other pieces of political clickbait littering the Internet. The IRA’s social-media imprint seems to have as much impact now as it did during the 2016 election. Back then, the IRA spent a reported on $100,000 on Facebook ads, with most of those ads having nothing to do with the election, and more than half of that total spent after the election.

According to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, posts generated by suspected Russian accounts between 2015 and 2017 represented “a tiny fraction of the overall [News Feed] content on Facebook.… about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.” The widely cited figure that “material generated by the Kremlin had reached a hundred and twenty-six million American Facebook users,” (The New Yorker) is in fact a creative take on Facebook’s own speculation. “Our best estimate,” Stretch testified to Congress in October 2017, “is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one of these [IRA] stories at some time during the two year period.” So the 126 million figure is an “estimate” of how many people “may have been served” one piece of IRA content—most unrelated to the 2016 election—in their Facebook feeds over two years. Over on Twitter, a new analysis by the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab finds that “Russia’s troll operation primarily targeted Russian speakers,” posting “significantly more in Russian than in English.”

Maté went on to further debunk many of the Russiagate claims, seeing them as no more than “fodder for ongoing efforts intent on convincing Americans that unsophisticated social-media trolling could somehow divide and weaken their society.” He showed problems with claims that Russia penetrated state voting systems and the many problems with media coverage of Russiagate, as I, and others, have also done many times in the the past.

Matt Taibbi also discussed the problems with coverage of Russia in an interview with Recode, pointing out, “You see a lot of stories where there are four unnamed intelligence sources all saying something that is totally unverifiable.” He discussed additional problems with some stories:

So recently we had a story that … I’ll give you two. Okay? There was one from pretty early on where the New York Times said, “Trump campaign officials had repeat contacts with Russian intelligence.” All right? And again, it was four current and former officials, none of them named. Now, I knew and anybody who lived in Russia knew that you constantly have contact with intelligence officials there often, whether you know it or not. And the story didn’t specify whether the contract was knowing or unknowing, like what the nature of it was, but the headline was incredibly damning, right?

I was very concerned about the vagueness of it, the inability to verify it. And then, sure enough, James Comey came out months later and said, “Well, that story isn’t true.” All right? And so if I’m the reporters, I’m really pissed about that, right? Like, “you burned me on this.”

Right.

Then later, more recently, we had a story that said, “Oh, all of our informants in Moscow have gone dark.” Now, I get that the sources in that story had to be high level.

Sure.

Of course they were, but how do you confirm that story? Think about it as a journalist. If you get a call, it doesn’t matter to me if the source is the head of the CIA.

It’s not like you can go find those intelligence sources and confirm with them.

Right? I mean, can you look at the string of cables that have suddenly ceased? You can’t, right? I even called the paper and asked about that. I said, “What’s the deal with this?”

Taibbi noted a time when The New York Times fell into a similar trap in reporting unverified intelligence claims: FROM THE EDITORS; The Times and Iraq.

While talk of Russia rigging our elections has calmed down going into the midterms, this might also be a temporary break, with politicians on both sides likely to be searching for people to blame for losses after the results are in. However, if there really should be a threat of election rigging, it is notable that, despite all the hysteria since 2016, The New York Times is right on one thing. Very little has been done to change how our elections are held and to deal with the risks in our electronic voting systems. If politicians (along with journalists who called 2016 incorrectly) really took the risk of election hacking seriously, as opposed to a convenient excuse for why Hillary Clinton could not beat Donald Trump, we might expect a strong movement towards paper ballots and more secure voting systems.

ACLU Joins Other Civil Libertarians In Warning About Dangers Of Censorship On Social Media

Censorship on social media has been an ongoing problem involving people on both the left and the right, but the recent banning of Alex Jones has increased attention to the issue. While many civil libertarians have seen the dangers, others have allowed their views of Alex Jones to distract from the urgent civil liberties issues at stake. Attacks on civil liberties have often started with unpopular targets, and then extending to others. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned about the worrisome implications:

Several companies, including Facebook and YouTube, have removed Jones and his radio show for violating their hate speech policies. But doing so may set a dangerous precedent, according to Ben Wizner, director of ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

As private institutions, these sites have the constitutional right to decide whether to host Jones. But a hate speech policy defining when an individual warrants being banned could be “misused and abused,” Wizner told HuffPost on Monday.

“If [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions, for example, were deciding what’s hate speech, he would be less likely to think KKK and more likely to think [Black Lives Matter],” Wizner said. “It turns out to be an extremely subjective term.”

“I have some of the same concerns about platforms making those decisions,” he added. “Governments at least purport to be acting solely in the public interest, but platforms are making these decisions based on what’s in their financial interest. So their interest might be in avoiding controversy, but do we want the most important speech platforms in the world to avoid controversy?”

“Who should decide what’s fake? … It’s not so easy to do in a way that is objective,” he said. “If these platforms get in the business of trying to be the arbiters of truth or falsity, pretty soon everyone is going to have something to complain about.”

“Do we really want corporations that are answerable to their shareholders and their bottom lines being the ones who decide which political speech Americans should see or not see?” he added. “Because that’s what we’re asking for here.”

Some have questioned whether this is a civil liberties issue as on the surface it involves private companies as opposed to the government. The point is not that whether this is a First Amendment issue, but that our concept of censorship and the First Amendment must be updated due to how social media is being used by government to restrict speech. Social media has become the equivalent of the old fashioned town square. When we have a near monopoly controlling social media on the internet (which happened to be developed with taxpayer’s money), and government then instructs these companies to restrict the speech of people, it can be more dangerous than our conventional concept of censorship. Making matters worse, there is no due process when done with supposedly private companies in this manner.

The purpose of the First Amendment was to protect free speech–not to give excuses to support censorship when it does not strictly fall under the wording of the First Amendment. Wired had  warnings about allowing Facebook to censor free speech, and responded to the argument that this is not a First Amendment issue:

The lamest of counterarguments to Zuckerberg’s absolutist position is the drearily predictable one of “the First Amendment doesn’t apply to companies.” It’s the nitpicky point of the eighth-grade know-it-all. How about I quarter troops from my private army in your house, and when you cite the Third Amendment, I’ll reply with “well, they’re not government troops,” and see how you feel about it?

Concepts like “trespassing” and “privacy” are not mentioned in the Constitution and did not then exist in the form we know today. We have extended the animating spirit of the Third and Fourth Amendments—respecting a person’s property and privacy—more broadly, because it’s a foundational value we want to see respected everywhere. Ditto the First Amendment: We want companies to embrace it too.

Internet censorship greatly increased as a result of pressure from Democrats who blame Russian ads and “fake news” for the defeat of Hillary Clinton, as opposed to being willing to acknowledge the serious problems in nominating Clinton, and the terrible campaign she ran, which caused her defeat. Clinton herself called on Congress to regulate what she considered to be fake news after her defeat–a rather serious attack on First Amendment rights.

It is easy to look the other way when someone as vile as Alex Jones is the target, but internet censorship has extended to many others on both the left and the right. If censorship is justified based upon expressing hatred, promoting violence, and spreading false information, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are far more dangerous. If kooky right wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones should be banned, the same could just as easily be said about kooky left wing conspiracy theorist Rachel Maddow, whose conspiracy theories risk starting a war with a nuclear power.

Before the government pushed internet companies to act as their censors, they preferred to be regarded as common carriers who are not responsible for regulating content. Either we go with that concept, or we have a handful of executives in Silicon Valley deciding what any of us can say. There is no middle ground. As Matt Taibbi pointed out, “as was obvious during the Senate hearing with Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year, politicians are more interested in using than curtailing the power of these companies. The platforms, for their part, will cave rather than be regulated. The endgame here couldn’t be clearer. This is how authoritarian marriages begin, and people should be very worried.”

After Alex Jones was removed by multiple social media companies, Senator Chris Murphy tweeted: “Infowars is the tip of a giant iceberg of hate and lies that uses sites like Facebook and YouTube to tear our nation apart. These companies must do more than take down one website. The survival of our democracy depends on it.”

Instead of falling into the trap of saying this is not a First Amendment issue as it is not the government doing the censorship (at least directly), we should be exerting pressure on both members of Congress and the social media companies to consider social media companies as common carriers rather than taking on the job of censoring speech. The alternative would be as if AT&T, when they had a monopoly, was also entrusted with determining what types of speech could be allowed over its telephone lines.

In a follow up article to the one I quoted from above, Taibbi wrote on this topic in greater detail:

Two weeks ago, we learned about a new campaign against “inauthentic” content, conducted by Facebook in consultation with Congress and the secretive think tank Atlantic Council — whose board includes an array of ex-CIA and Homeland Security officials — in the name of cracking down on alleged Russian disinformation efforts.­ As part of the bizarre alliance of Internet news distributors and quasi-government censors, the social network zapped 32 accounts and pages, including an ad for a real “No Unite the Right 2” anti-racist counter-rally in D.C. this past weekend.

Last week, we saw another flurry of censorship news. Facebook apparently suspended VenezuelaAnalysis.com, a site critical of U.S. policy toward Venezuela. (It was reinstated Thursday.) Twitter suspended a pair of libertarians, including @DanielLMcAdams of the Ron Paul Institute and @ScottHortonShow of Antiwar.com, for using the word “bitch” (directed toward a man) in a silly political argument. They, too, were later re-instated.

More significantly: Google’s former head of free expression issues in Asia, Lokman Tsui, blasted the tech giant’s plan to develop a search engine that would help the Chinese government censor content…

Both the Jones situation and the Facebook-Atlantic Council deletions seem an effort to fulfill a request made last year by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last October, Facebook, Google and Twitter were asked by Hawaii Senator Mazie Hizono to draw up a “mission statement” to “prevent the foment of discord.”

Companies like Facebook might have balked before. They have long taken a position that’s very Star Trek, very Prime-Directive: We do not interfere. Mark Zuckerberg, as late as 2016, was saying, “editing content… that’s not us.”

…After Trump’s shocking win in 2016, everyone turned to Facebook and Google to fix “fake news.” But nobody had a coherent definition of what constitutes it.

Many on the left lamented the Wikileaks releases of Democratic Party emails, but those documents were real news, and the complaint there was more about the motives of sources, and editorial emphasis, rather than accuracy…

Within a year, Google bragged that it had deleted 8 million videos from YouTube. A full 6.7 million videos were caught by machines, 1.1 million by YouTube’s own “trusted flaggers” (we’re pre-writing the lexicon of the next dystopian novels), and 400,000 by “normal users.”

Subsequently, we heard that Facebook was partnering with the Atlantic Council — which, incidentally, accepts donations from at least 25 different foreign countries, including United Arab Emirates and the king of Bahrain, in addition to firms like weapons manufacturer Raytheon and my old pals at HSBC — to identify “potential abuse.”

…For more than half a century, we had an effective, if slow, litigation-based remedy for speech violations. The standards laid out in cases like New York Times v. Sullivan were designed to protect legitimate reporting while directly remunerating people harmed by bad speech. Sooner or later, people like Alex Jones would always crash under crippling settlements. Meanwhile, young reporters learned to steer clear of libel and defamation. Knowing exactly what we could and could not get away with empowered us to do our jobs, confident that the law had our backs.

If the line of defense had not been a judge and jury but a giant transnational corporation working with the state, journalists taking on banks or tech companies or the wrong politicians would have been playing intellectual Russian roulette. In my own career, I’d have thought twice before taking on a company like Goldman Sachs. Any reporter would.

Now the line is gone. Depending on the platform, one can be banned for “glorifying violence,” “sowing division,” “hateful conduct” or even “low quality,” with those terms defined by nameless, unaccountable executives, working with God Knows Whom…

Google and Facebook have long wrestled with the question of how to operate in politically repressive markets — Google launched a censored Chinese search engine in 2006, before changing its mind in 2010 — but it seems we’re seeing a kind of mass surrender on that front.

The apparent efforts to comply with government requests to help “prevent the foment of discord” suggest the platforms are moving toward a similar surrender even in the United States. The duopolistic firms seem anxious to stay out of headlines, protect share prices and placate people like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who just said deleting Jones was only a “good first step.”

Americans are not freaking out about this because most of us have lost the ability to distinguish between general principles and political outcomes. So long as the “right” people are being zapped, no one cares.

But we should care. Censorship is one of modern man’s great temptations. Giving in to it hasn’t provided many happy stories.

Slate warned that, “placing the distribution of information in the hands of a few tech companies will remain a very big problem.”

Did anyone vote to make Google and Facebook monopolies. Did anyone vote to say we are going to make private actors make these decisions? There hasn’t been such a vote. People are just waking up to the fact that these guys are monopolies. People are just waking up to the fact that these guys have built these machines and amplified these kinds of voices. We only had our first major hearing in Congress last summer. This is pretty fresh, pretty new. I think if you put it to a vote, you sure as hell wouldn’t have anybody say, “We will choose these people to be our censors, we will choose these people to be our regulators.” And remember that this is a two-edged story. Any time you say that you are going to allow for this type of private action or private censorship, it is something that can be used against your friends next year, tomorrow.

Caitlin Johnstone, who herself was the target of internet censorship this month, further discussed how In A Corporatist System Of Government, Corporate Censorship Is State Censorship:

In a corporatist system of government, wherein there is no meaningful separation between corporate power and state power, corporate censorship isstate censorship. Because legalized bribery in the form of corporate lobbying and campaign donations has given wealthy Americans the ability to control the US government’s policy and behavior while ordinary Americans have no effective influence whatsoever, the US unquestionably has a corporatist system of government. Large, influential corporations are inseparable from the state, so their use of censorship is inseparable from state censorship.

This is especially true of the vast megacorporations of Silicon Valley, whose extensive ties to US intelligence agencies are well-documented. Once you’re assisting with the construction of the US military’s drone program, receiving grants from the CIA and NSA for mass surveillance, or having your site’s content regulated by NATO’s propaganda arm, you don’t get to pretend you’re a private, independent corporation that is separate from government power. It is possible in the current system to have a normal business worth a few million dollars, but if you want to get to billions of dollars in wealth control in a system where money translates directly to political power, you need to work with existing power structures like the CIA and the Pentagon, or else they’ll work with your competitors instead of you.

For more on this topic, I would also recommend the following video discussion with Glenn Greenwald (who has written extensively on civil liberties and social media), Sam Biddle, and Briahna Joy:

Federal Judge Rules That Trump Blocking Users On Twitter Is A Violation Of First Amendment Rights

Our ideas about freedom of speech and First Amendment rights need to evolve in this social media age. Almost a year ago I wrote about a lawsuit against Donald Trump for banning people from his Twitter feed. Usual ideas about a private Twitter account did not seem to apply in this case with Trump making frequent public proclamations on Twitter. Sean Spicer, while White House press secretary, had stated that Trump’s tweet’s should be considered official statements. A federal judge has issued a ruling that it is a violation of the First Amendment for Trump to ban people from his Twitter feed. The Hill reports:

A federal district court judge on Wednesday ruled that President Trump can’t block people from viewing his Twitter feed over their political views.

Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said President Trump’s Twitter account is a public forum and blocking people who reply to his tweets with differing opinions constitutes viewpoint discrimination, which violates the First Amendment.

The court’s ruling is a major win for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of seven people who were blocked from the @realDonaldTrump account because of opinions they expressed in reply tweets.

Buchwald, who was appointed by former President Clinton, rejected Trump’s argument that the First Amendment does not apply in this case and that the president’s personal First Amendment interests supersede those of the plaintiffs.

She suggested in her 75-page opinion that Trump could have ignored his opponents’ reply tweets.

“No First Amendment harm arises when a government’s ‘challenged conduct’ is simply to ignore the [speaker], as the Supreme Court has affirmed ‘that it is free to do,’ ” she wrote. “Stated otherwise, ‘a person’s right to speak is not infringed when government simply ignores that person while listening to others,’ or when the government ‘amplifies’ the voice of one speaker over those of others.”

Buchwald explained that blocking someone on Twitter goes further than just muting them.

“Muting preserves the muted account’s ability to reply to a tweet sent by the muting account, blocking precludes the blocked user from ‘seeing or replying to the blocking user’s tweets’ entirely,” she said…

Josh Geltzer, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said the court’s ruling is a critical victory in preserving free speech in the digital age.

“The court’s thorough decision recognizes that the President’s use of @realDonaldTrump on Twitter makes it the type of public forum in which the government may not, under the First Amendment, silence its critics,” he said in a statement.

While this might help preserve free speech in the digital age, there are many other threats. While Facebook has come under intense scrutiny for its violations of the privacy of its users, I’ve considered the censorship of political views on both the left and right to be an even more serious threat to civil liberties in an era when communication on Facebook has become the digital equivalent of the old fashioned town square.

Warning Will Robinson: Axios Says “A new Clinton wave is coming this spring”

Sounding as ominous as a warning of an impending swarm of locusts, Axios writes today, “A new Clinton wave is coming this spring.” They go on to say, “The Clinton family has made sporadic and often subdued appearances in the 18 months (538 days) since Hillary Clinton lost her presidential election. But we’re about to see a lot more of them this spring.”

The post notes that, “This family has been on the national stage for 26 years — all or most of the lifetime of anyone under 50.” Yet the nightmare never ends, even if “plenty of top Democrats we talk to would prefer new energy and faces to Clinton nostalgia/redemption.”

They report that:

Longtime Clinton supporters last week received an invitation offering access to the family (the green invitation features photos of Bill, Hillary and Chelsea) at a Clinton Foundation benefit on May 24 in New York, at prices ranging from $2,500 (“Friend”) for cocktail party and dinner, up to $100,000 (“Chair”) for “Leadership.”

There have already been reports that Hillary Clinton plans to reenter politics. Axios warns:

Hillary Clinton this morning will lead the first meeting of her Onward Together political group, on New York’s Upper East Side. She and Howard Dean will welcome 11 partner organizations for a day of sessions “about harnessing the energy and activism post-election.” In the afternoon, the groups have the chance to meet with 150 donors. Last year, OT had 33,000 donors and gave over $1 million to partner groups. The group says that figure will be higher for midterms this year.

Remember when Howard Dean claimed to be a peace candidate, before he became a lobbyist for the health care industry, opposing Bernie Sanders’ proposal for a single payer health plan, and before he started working with ultra-hawk Hillary Clinton?

In addition to Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean pretending they are not has-beens, Bill will have a novel which was written with James Patterson coming out on June 4.

They call Chelsey a “prolific tweeter.” She has been tweeting those who talk about Amy Chozick’s new book, Chasing Hillary. That is the book with inside information, such as Hillary Clinton complaining to her campaign staff, “I Am Getting Pretty Tired of Hearing About How Nobody Likes Me.”

Skimming the book I found other huge revelations, such as how her friends talked about her: “Even Hillary’s close girlfriends describe her as mercurial. Each morning, aides would announce Hillary’s mood as if it were the weather. Crabby with a chance of outburst . . .” Amy Chozick is no T.H. White.

Edward Snowden Joins Civil Liberties Groups In Protesting Restrictions On Free Speech In Russia

Edward Snowden has joined civil liberties organizations including Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Freedom of the Press Foundation in condemning Russia for its attempts to suppress a widely used messenger app used to avoid government monitoring of communications. Newsweek reports:

Whistleblower Edward Snowden has backed a prominent critic of the Kremlin in a tense standoff between Russian authorities and a private messaging app used by millions.

The National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower, who fled to Russia from the U.S. in 2013, risked the wrath of the Kremlin when he tweeted his support on Tuesday for messaging app Telegram and its founder Pavel Durov, who is flouting a government request to cease operations in Russia.

“I have criticized Telegram’s security model in the past, but Durov’s response to the Russian government’s totalitarian demand for backdoor access to private communications—refusal and resistance—is the only moral response, and shows real leadership,” Snowden wrote on Twitter.

The messenger tool is facing a formal ban from Russia’s state watchdogs for refusing to allow authorities access to users’ private conversations, despite numerous requests. A Russian court ruled in favor of the ban last week, after authorities argued that Telegram’s encrypted chat feature could be used for criminal or terrorist activities.

Telegram’s privacy is one of its main selling points, and foiling Russian security agents’ attempts to eavesdrop on private chats was part of its raison d’etre, Durov has previously said. The Russian-born developer has refused to comply with the government’s demands and recently pledged millions of dollars toward a “digital resistance” to circumvent the ban.

Durov has said the ban has not resulted in a major disruption of Telegram’s operations, as social media users have shared tips online on tools that help inoculate against blocking the app. The most widely cited tool appears to be the use of so-called VPN anonymizers, which disguise an internet user’s location and allow residents of Russia to access the internet as though they were abroad.

Snowden has also retweeted posts opposing the suppression of Telegraph from civil liberties organizations.

Bloomberg notes that Google and Amazon have become involved in the fight:

Russia’s attempts to ban access to the Telegram messaging service threaten to drag U.S. tech giants including Alphabet Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. into the war with founder Pavel Durov as he turns to proxy servers to bypass the blocking measures.

Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor has already blocked 18 Google and Amazon sub-networks that Telegram used to avoid restrictions, the watchdog’s head Alexander Zharov told the Izvestia daily on Wednesday. More than 15 million IP addresses were blocked as a result, making some third-party internet resources unavailable in Russia, according to Qrator Labs.
 Durov rejected as “unconstitutional” Russian officials’ demands to turn over encryption keys to allow the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, to access users’ messages on Telegram to intercept communications of terrorists. Roskomnadzor started blocking access to the messenger on Monday, after a Moscow court ruled last week that Durov was in breach of Russian law.

Telegram’s Russian founder fought back, offering to pay administrators of proxy servers in bitcoins to help bypass restrictions and saying he plans to spend millions of dollars on what he called “Digital Resistance.” Telegram “remained available for the majority of Russia’s residents” despite the blocking attempts, Durov said Wednesday on Twitter.

Snowden also tweeted, “Journalists working the story of being blocked in Russia should be absolutely clear that if and halt its access to their cloud platform or remove the app from their stores, they are witting collaborators in a censorship campaign, not victims of it.”

In related news, The Verge reports that recent actions by Google to discontinue domain-fronting will hinder attempts at circumventing censorship:

App developers won’t be able to use Google to get around internet censorship anymore. The Google App Engine is discontinuing a practice called domain-fronting, which let services use Google’s network to get around state-level internet blocks.

The article quotes Access Now in protesting this change:

“Google has long claimed to support internet freedom around the world, and in many ways the company has been true to its beliefs,” said Nathan White of Access Now. “Allowing domain fronting has meant that potentially millions of people have been able to experience a freer internet and enjoy their human rights. We urge Google to remember its commitment to human rights and internet freedom and allow domain fronting to continue.”

(more…)

Matt Taibbi Tries To Explain Why We Should Avoid War With A Nuclear Power

Add Matt Taibbi to those I mentioned yesterday warning about going to war in Syria. He has an article in Rolling Stone entitled,  If We’re on the Brink of War, the Fault Is Ours, Not Trump’s or Bolton’s.

So here we are, on the brink. Here’s Donald Trump’s tough-ass tweet about how he’s about to mix it up with both Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin:

Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!  –Donald J. trump 

The fate of humanity now rests in the hands of this Twitter-obsessed dingbat executive and his new national security adviser, John Bolton – one of the most deranged people to have ever served in the United States government, a man who makes Jeane Kirkpatrick look like Florence Nightingale.

With these two at the helm, we are now facing the imminent possibility of direct military conflict with a nuclear enemy. No one in the popular press is saying it, but there could easily be Russian casualties in Trump’s inevitable bombing campaign. Which will then put the onus on a third lunatic, Vladimir Putin, to respond with appropriate restraint.

Ironically, pretty much the only places where you will read today about the frightening possibility of Russian casualties are in military journals, in the nervous musings of Pentagon officials. Here and there you will see reports of concern about what might happen if we kill the wrong Russians, or the wrong quantity of Russians. One outlet calmly suggested the Russians might step up “harassment” of U.S. warplanes and outposts if we kill too many of theirs, as if this would not cause the whole world to soil itself in terror.

So to recap: the most terminally insecure president ever sits in the White House, advised by one of the most war-crazy hacks in the history of federal service, at the outset of a fully avoidable proxy war with an enemy that possesses thousands of lethal thermonuclear warheads aimed directly at us.

Bear in mind that virtually any exchange of nuclear missiles between these two countries would mean the absolute end of civilization. We could all, right now, be minutes away from the end of everything, especially given who holds the respective buttons.

Taibbi notes that there was hope for a different outcome:

But we had a head start in dodging the bullet with Trump, as one of the few not-terrifying qualities he demonstrated as a candidate was his seeming reluctance to get into unnecessary wars. Trump was specifically on record as wanting to “stay out of Syria.”

Taibbi notes that Trump’s isolationism was “at least partly insincere.” He also notes that, “unlike his racism and xenophobia and lack of sympathy for the poor – issues where there are obvious currents visible in what passes for his mind – Trump is highly suggestible in matters military.”

Unfortunately any attempts to influence Trump have been in the wrong direction:

As president, however, the one time he received praise from the Washington consensus was when he bombed Assad last year. You might remember that as the time when Fareed Zakaria gushed on CNN, “Donald Trump became president tonight,” and a tumescent Brian Williams countered by calling the bombs “beautiful” 8 times in 30 seconds, quoting Leonard Cohen as he said, “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Taibbi next showed several examples of Trump receiving criticism for talking about leaving Syria and many, including Democrats like Howard Dean, taking the wrong position. Taibbi wrote:

“Trump’s Syria Policy Isn’t Retrenchement, It’s Pandering,” sneeredForeign Policy.

“Chaos reigns with his president,” said Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono, calling the withdrawal plan “incoherent.”

Howard Dean, a man I once voted for because he at least tepidly opposed a pointless Middle Eastern war, decided to use this occasion to taunt Trump in schoolyard fashion.

“Why are you such a wimp for Assad and Putin?” Dean tweeted.

This is just one of the reasons why I am glad I did not trust or vote for Howard Dean in 2004.

Taibbi concluded by repeating the consequences of those who now advocate attacking Syria over the alleged poison gas attack:

One could maybe understand this attitude from millennials, who weren’t raised amid The Day After or “99 Luftballoons” or “1999” or Failsafe or Dr. Strangelove even, and have never experienced even fake angst about growing up under the specter of nuclear war. But all the preceding generations should know better. We all grew up aware it could all be over in a heartbeat.

This is probably the most serious showdown between nuclear powers since the Cuban missile crisis, or at the very least, the shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007 in 1983.

The oft-derided Doomsday Clock, kept by the Union of Atomic Scientists, describes us as closer to nuclear war than at any time since 1953, when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear weapons for the first time. “The continued existence of urban, technological civilization will soon hang in a precarious balance,” the Scientists predicted then…

That Trump might forget the awesome danger of nuclear war is a given. The man is a fool. But what’s our excuse?

Taibbi’s Twitter page shows that many others are as foolish as Trump. For example: “Hacking our election was an act of war. No different than Pearl Harbor. I’d proudly fight if I were younger. Remember our Hillary!!! ”

Tabbi replied: “How do you think war with Russia goes? With rifles and bayonets, like at Iwo Jima? This is the nuclear age. In the best case, it’s a big noise, most everyone dies, and the lucky ones get fifty years of MREs.”

Remember Hillary? The ultra-hawk who is just barely less dangerous than John Bolton? She’s the one who supported Syria bombing last year, and who previously supported greater intervention in Syria, which would have placed us at considerable risk of confrontation with Russia. To compare trivial meddling in the election, which had no effect on the result, to Pearl Harbor is utterly insane. Yet many have been making exactly that comparison, or comparing it to 9/11.

Another uninformed reader tweeted, “Putin’s possession of nukes does not mean he intends upon using them or HAS THE CAPABILITY OF USING THEM. Putin actually believes his delivery systems are worthless for the exact same reason that i do. our missile defenses are much further developed than disclosed.”

Does anyone in their right mind really think that it is worth risking a nuclear attack?

As I tweeted and posted on Facebook: “My opposition to going to war with a nuclear power over inconsequential Facebook ads or even a suspected poison gas attack does not mean I support either Putin or Assad. It means I oppose the destruction of the earth in a nuclear holocaust.

More Evidence Facebook Helped Trump Beat Clinton, And It Had Nothing To Do With Russia

There has been a lot of question as to whether Russian  activities on social media were responsible for Donald Trump winning. This does not appear likely as 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.

It is also questionable whether people changed their votes from arguments seen on social media, with many people seeking out similar viewpoints and resisting those they disagree with. If Facebook was a benefit to Donald Trump, it was probably due Facebook embedding their employees in the campaign to assist in the use of advertising, as I discussed in January. The Clinton campaign did not take advantage of such assistance, which was likely to be far more helpful to Trump than the amateurish Russian ads.

We have now learned more about how the Trump campaign utilized Facebook more effectively from a paper obtained by Bloomberg News:

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has boasted often that it made better use of Facebook Inc.’s advertising tools than Hillary Clinton’s campaign did. An internal Facebook white paper, published days after the election, shows the company’s data scientists agree.

“Both campaigns spent heavily on Facebook between June and November of 2016,” the author of the internal paper writes, citing revenue of $44 million for Trump and $28 million for Clinton in that period. “But Trump’s FB campaigns were more complex than Clinton’s and better leveraged Facebook’s ability to optimize for outcomes.”

The paper, obtained by Bloomberg and discussed here for the first time, describes in granular detail the difference between Trump’s campaign, which was focused on finding new donors, and Clinton’s campaign, which concentrated on ensuring Clinton had broad appeal. The data scientist says 84 percent of Trump’s budget asked people on Facebook to take an action, like donating, compared with 56 percent of Clinton’s…

Trump ran 5.9 million different versions of ads during the presidential campaign and rapidly tested them to spread those that generated the most Facebook engagement, according to the paper. Clinton ran 66,000 different kinds of ads in the same period.

Using Facebook more effectively is more likely to have helped than the Russian ads did. However, some will always find a way to get back to Russia. The article raises the question, “Did Russian operatives give the Trump campaign a list of names to include or exclude from advertising that was running on Facebook?” Based upon how amateurish the Russian ad campaign was, it is rather doubtful that Russia had such information. It is far more likely that other sources available to a political campaign provided any list of names. This could include sources normally available to major political parties, or possibly Cambridge Analytica.

Study Shows How Ineffective Twitter Bots Are In Changing Political Views

This study is not at all surprising, but provides yet another reason to doubt those who claim that the election was stolen from Hillary Clinton due to Russian trolls or other unfavorable comments on social media. The study looked at people arguing politics on Twitter and, as I could have told them, people do not change their political views based upon arguments on line. Here is the abstract:

There is mounting concern that social media sites contribute to political polarization by creating  “echo chambers” that insulate people from opposing views about current events. We surveyed a large sample of Democrats and Republicans who visit Twitter at least three times each week about a range of social policy issues. One week later, we randomly assigned respondents to a treatment condition in which they were offered financial incentives to follow a Twitter bot for one month that exposed them to messages produced by elected officials, organizations, and other opinion leaders with opposing political ideologies. Respondents were re-surveyed at the end of the month to measure the effect of this treatment, and at regular intervals throughout the study period to monitor treatment compliance. We find that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative post-treatment, and Democrats who followed a conservative Twitter bot became slightly more liberal post-treatment. These findings have important implications for the interdisciplinary literature on political polarization as well as the emerging field of computational social science.

It is very doubtful that people changed their view of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump based upon Russian bots or anything else they read on Twitter.

I bet that the same would apply to Facebook. Of course there are also multiple other reasons to question the claims that Russian bots or others caused Clinton to lose, as I most recently discussed in this post. Censoring social media, as Hillary Clinton has been suggesting, and Facebook has been practicing, would serve no positive purpose. There are obviously strong reasons to resist such censorship, although establishment Democrats appear oblivious to the impact on civil liberties.

(Hat tip to Salon for link to study).

Five Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria

The claim that the 2016 election was stolen due to the actions of Russian trolls is one of the most absurd political arguments ever made. As I’ve noted previously, the Congressional testimony revealed that Russian Facebook ads and Tweets represented a minuscule amount of their traffic. 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. Half of it was not seen until after the election, much of it was not supporting Trump over Clinton, and much of it was hilariously unconvincing and amateurish. Phillip Bump added that, rather than targeting the battleground states, ads were concentrated in states such as New York and Texas which had no impact on the election results.

The claim that Russia stole the election based upon their actions on social media is harmful as it gives establishment Democrats an excuse to resist reform. It plays into the hands of neocons who desire regime change in Russia, with their claims about Russia being no more truthful than their claims about WMD in Iraq. It is also an attack on freedom of speech, and has led to McCarthyism from establishment Democrats who claim that criticism stems from support for Putin.

Reason has produced the above video on 5 Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria.  They also summarized the arguments:

1) Russian trolling was a drop in the bucket.

2) Russian trolls were not very sophisticated.

Russian trolls supposedly had the Machiavellian know-how to infiltrate the American political system, but their social media posts don’t look very sophisticated. The posts often featured broken English and puzzling topic choices. A postpromoting a “buff” Bernie Sanders coloring book, for instance, noted that “the coloring is something that suits for all people.” Another post showed Jesus and Satan in an arm wrestling match under this caption: “SATAN: IF I WIN CLINTON WINS! JESUS: NOT IF I CAN HELP IT!” The post generated very few clicks and shares.

3) Russian troll rallies apparently did not attract many participants.

The indictment makes much of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rallies instigated by Russian trolls, but it does not say how many people participated. The New York Times reported that a Russian-organized rally in Texas opposing Shariah law attracted a dozen people. An anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in Idaho drew four people. Attendance at other rallies was similarly sparse.

4) Russian trolling probably didn’t change anyone’s mind.

Broken English aside, the social media posts were not qualitatively different from content created by American activists, and they seemed to be aimed mainly at reinforcing pre-existing beliefs and divisions. The Russians might have gotten a few Trump supporters to show up at anti-Clinton rallies, but that does not mean they had an impact on the election.

5) Russian troll hysteria depicts free speech as a kind of violence.

The Justice Department describes the messages posted by Russians pretending to be Americans as “information warfare.” But while the posts may have been sophomoric, inaccurate, and illogical, that does not distinguish them from most of what passes for online political discussion among actual Americans. The integrity of civic discourse does not depend on verifying the citizenship of people who participate in it. It depends on the ability to weigh what they say, checking it against our own values and information from other sources. If voters cannot do that, maybe democracy isdoomed. But if so, it’s not the Russians’ fault.

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.