Rumor, Outrage, and “Fake News”

coek9auvuaajigfBack when I started this blog, I had high hopes that the internet would allow people to bring together more and more information, resulting in an explosion of knowledge I referred to as the “Great Informationing.” To some extent, services like Google and Wikipedia have already started this ball rolling by essentially creating searchable databases of crowd-sourced data on a scale and at a speed never known before in human history–indeed, this blog would be much more limited in scope could I not look up at a moment’s notice almost anything I desire to learn.

In the past year, though, I have become disillusioned. While the internet does put a great deal of information at my fingertips, it also puts a great deal of misinformation at my fingertips.

Rumor flies halfway around the world before Truth has got its pants on.–variously misattributed

It’s bad enough to try to delve into subjects where I don’t speak the correct language to read most of the sources and thus can’t even begin properly searching. It’s even worse if the news I am getting isn’t reliable.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “fake news.” I’m not sure which sites, exactly, have been promoting “fake news,” but I noticed toward the tail end of the election a seeming proliferation of websites and news sources I’d never heard of before. Clicking on these links generally led me to a site plastered with adds and images (which had a high probability of instantly crashing my computer) and headlines that looked lifted from other sources.

Since noticing this trend, I’ve tried to avoid linking to or trusting any headline that comes from a site I don’t recognize on the grounds that I have no way to confirm whether they are trustworthy, and further, I don’t like having my computer crash. The downside to this policy is that the internet is vast and I certainly do not know every respectable site out there.

I noticed some time ago that even “respectable” papers like the WaPo and NYTimes had quite a lot of one-sided or otherwise questionable reporting. Lies and more Lies were another theme that got hounded a lot in the early stages of this blog, but my focus was more on society than the media. Since reading a lot of iSteve, however, I’ve grown more sensitive to the ways media shape narratives, especially via what they chose to report and chose to remain silent on.

When you realize that there are stories the media isn’t commenting on, or is giving you a particular spin on, what do you do?

quote found on Twitter
quote found on Twitter

Look for other sources, I guess.

Last summer I noticed prominent papers printing not just mistakes or one-sided stories, but outright false statements that could only have made it into print because someone purposefully decided to make them up. (For privacy reasons I’m not going into more details, but you can probably supply your own cases.)

There are a variety of things going on with the media, but the internet, sadly, appears to be making matters worse.

borders-store-closingIt’s no secret that traditional print media has had a rough time since the information super highway started jazzing up our lives.

I remember when Borders first opened in my neighborhood. I loved that place. I’d bike over there and spend endless hours browsing the shelves, especially during the summer. I found my first anthropology books there.

And I remember when the Borders went out. The empty husk of the building is still there, unoccupied. It’s been empty for years. I wonder what on Earth is wrong with the person who owns that spot. Can’t they find someone to rent it to?

Newspapers have also suffered; with dwindling subscriptions, they’ve simultaneously cut everyone with enough expertise to demand a high salary and turned to generating click-driving content.

Familiar exploits of beloved characters are related from a respectful, prejudice-free perspective: the Emperor is no longer naked in his new clothes but “is endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle,” Snow White escapes to the cottage of “seven vertically-challenged men,” and Goldilocks is an ambitious scientist studying anthropomorphic bears. --
Familiar exploits of beloved characters are related from a respectful, prejudice-free perspective: the Emperor is no longer naked in his new clothes but “is endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle,” Snow White escapes to the cottage of “seven vertically-challenged men,” and Goldilocks is an ambitious scientist studying anthropomorphic bears. (source)

When you have subscribers who actually pay for newspapers, they value thoughtful, high-quality reporting. (Otherwise, what are you spending all of that money on?) When readers are just clicking through, outrage drives the news cycle. Articles don’t even have to be about something outrageous–the article itself can be the outrageous thing, so long as people link to it and say, “OMG, can you believe they wrote this?”

Every hate click makes things worse.

The outrage machine is helping drive the SJW-fueled obsession with “identity politics,” particularly feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT issues. This isn’t the first time this style of political correctness has broken out–remember the much-mocked silliness of the late 80s? But back then, only the National Enquirer could hope to use stories about transgender elementary school kids to sell papers. Now everyone can.

It’s bad enough being the kind of person who worries about whether or not the division between “tree” and “bush” is just a social construct, or the basic unknowablity of what one doesn’t know.

But now we have to consider the effects of hate-clicks and outrage on everything we know.


Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 2)

images(This is Part 2. Part 1 and Part 3 are here.)

Complex systems, because they must be homeostatic to exist at all, can absorb and disguise the symptoms of a great deal of internal stress.

The collapse of the Soviet Union remains one of the great mysteries of Political Science, not because it happened (that is easy enough to understand,) but because Political Scientists did not predict it.

The big problem with planned economies is that their incentive structures make self-correction almost impossible. For example, when the law allowed Soviet officials to confiscate unlimited quantities of grain in 1932, about 7 million people died. The people who could see the famine happening were not the ones with the power to change tax laws nor the incentives pressuring officials to confiscate so much grain in the first place. As Wikipedia relates:

Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor
Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

From the 1932 harvest, Soviet authorities were able to procure only 4.3 million tons as compared with 7.2 million tons obtained from the 1931 harvest.[49] Rations in town were drastically cut back, and in the winter of 1932–33 and spring of 1933 people in many urban areas were starved.[50] The urban workers were supplied by a rationing system (and therefore could occasionally assist their starving relatives of the countryside), but rations were gradually cut; and by the spring of 1933, the urban residents also faced starvation. At the same time, workers were shown agitprop movies, where all peasants were portrayed as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at a time when workers, who were constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving.[51]

cybtak1veaaoko9 cygs2gyxgaafqgn

Excuse me. I need a moment.

Say what you will for libertarianism, it has at least the basic ingredients for a self-correcting system. A farmer, left to his own devices, will not sell so much of his own grain that he starves. A factory owner will not order incorrect parts for his own factory because his profits would suffer. But in a planned economy, the person doing the ordering or deciding how much grain to sell does not personally benefit (or suffer) from these transactions, and so has no interest in their efficiency. Their incentives are totally different–they have a boss higher up in the party to please; they are required to increase the efficiency of Sector G; they are supposed to hire more people people from underrepresented groups; etc.

As Wikipedia notes:

Most information in the Soviet economy flowed from the top down. There were several mechanisms in place for producers and consumers to provide input and information that would help in the drafting of economic plans (as detailed below), but the political climate was such that few people ever provided negative input or criticism of the plan. Thus, Soviet planners had very little reliable feedback that they could use to determine the success of their plans. This meant that economic planning was often done based on faulty or outdated information, particularly in sectors with large numbers of consumers. As a result, some goods tended to be underproduced, leading to shortages, while other goods were overproduced and accumulated in storage. Low-level managers often did not report such problems to their superiors, relying instead on each other for support. Some factories developed a system of barter and either exchanged or shared raw materials and parts without the knowledge of the authorities and outside the parameters of the economic plan. …

The cumbersome procedures for bureaucratic administration foreclosed the free communication and flexible response required at the enterprise level for dealing with worker alienation, innovation, customers, and suppliers. During 1975–85, corruption and data fiddling became common practice among bureaucracy to report satisfied targets and quotas thus entrenching the crisis.

cw3bumxusaavkjbCastellano writes in Causes of the Soviet Collapse:

Around 1975, the Soviet Union entered a period of economic stagnation from which it would never emerge. Increasingly, the USSR looked to Europe, primarily West Germany, to provide hard currency financing through massive loans, while the U.S. became a major supplier of grain.[1] Despite moments of anti-Communist grandstanding, the Americans and Western Europeans maintained trade relations with the cash-strapped Soviet Union, which dipped into its Stalin-era gold reserves to increase availability of consumer goods.

Foreign trade and mild economic reforms were not enough to overcome the inefficiencies of the Soviet command economy, which remained technologically backward and full of corruption. Economic planners were frequently unable to diagnose and remedy problems, since they were given false reports by officials who only pretended to be productive. Soviet living standards remained poor by Western standards. By 1980, only 9 percent of Soviets had automobiles, which was actually a vast improvement under Brezhnev.

Back to Wikipedia:

One of the greatest strengths of Soviet economy was its vast supplies of oil and gas; world oil prices quadrupled in the 1973-74, and rose again in 1979-1981, making the energy sector the chief driver of the Soviet economy, and was used to cover multiple weaknesses. During this period, USSR had the lowest per-capita incomes among the other socialist countries.[49] At one point, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin told the head of oil and gas production, “things are bad with bread. Give me 3 million tons [of oil] over the plan.” [50] Former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, an economist looking back three decades, in 2007 wrote:

The hard currency from oil exports stopped the growing food supply crisis, increased the import of equipment and consumer goods, ensured a financial base for the arms race and the achievement of nuclear parity with the United States, and permitted the realization of such risky foreign-policy actions as the war in Afghanistan.[51]

Awareness of the growing crisis arose initially within the KGB which with its extensive network of informants in every region and institution had its finger on the pulse of the nation. Yuri Andropov, director of the KGB, created a secret department during the 1970s within the KGB devoted to economic analysis, and when he succeeded Brezhnev in 1982 sounded the alarm forcefully to the Soviet leadership. Andropov’s remedy of increased discipline, however, proved ineffective. It was only when Andropov’s protege Gorbachev assumed power that a determined, but ultimately unsuccessful, assault on the economic crisis was undertaken.[52]

And back to Castellano:

 By 1988, private ownership was permitted in certain manufacturing industries. Ironically, these reforms actually caused the Soviet economy to deteriorate further, as unprofitable private enterprises were now subsidized by the state, and the lack of state oversight of supply lines resulted in shortages of food and clothing, which were unknown even under Brezhnev.[8]

By the mid-1980s, the Warsaw Pact satellites had ceased to be an economic asset to the Soviet Union, and in fact Gorbachev’s withdrawal had been motivated in part by economic considerations. There was no longer a real danger of war with Western Europe, so the bloc had lost its strategic significance as well.

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989.
People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989.

You know how this story ends. The Wall comes down, communism crumbles in all but Cuba and North Korea, and Russia is further assaulted by “shock therapy,” which it is in no position to cope with.

And yet, even in the months just before the Wall fell, no one predicted that it was about to happen. It was very easy to see, from an economic position, that the USSR couldn’t just keep limping on–even the KGB knew that. But “Communism is broken” is information we’d had for six decades already, and the USSR looked like it was in no hurry to finally go ahead and kick the bucket.

Socialism fails because it prevents economic feedback from directing the flow of resources to the places where they’re needed, but even a terrible system like the USSR’s can keep limping along like it’s going to last forever right until the day it falls.

There are reports now coming out of socialist Venezuela of people eating pets, rats, and worse, each other (I am not quoting the cannibalism article, you can read it yourself. This is from the one about eating cats, dogs, and garbage):

Ramón Muchacho, Mayor of Chacao in Caracas, said the streets of the capital of Venezuela are filled with people killing animals for food.

Through Twitter, Muchacho reported that in Venezuela, it is a “painful reality” that people “hunt cats, dogs and pigeons” to ease their hunger. … People are also reportedly gathering vegetables from the ground and trash to eat as well. … The week before, various regions of the country saw widespread looting of shopping malls, pharmacies, supermarkets and food trucks, all while people chanted “we are hungry.”

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s currency has become so worthless, shopkeepers are weighing piles of notes instead of counting them.

Command economies just don’t work very well.

cw1htkluuaatpa7We Americans have our own reasons why we should be concerned, from the death of manufacturing to the increasing national debt. The Federal Budget is about 20% of total GDP. The government periodically threatens to default on its debts while funding wars against non-enemies like Iraq. Obligations like pensions and Social Security are often ridiculously under-funded (to the tune of billions of dollars that investments simply haven’t produced) or depend on infinite population growth–which, of course, no nation can ever maintain. As CNBC reports:

Weak investment performance and insufficient contributions will cause total unfunded liabilities for U.S. state public pensions to balloon by 40 percent to $1.75 trillion through fiscal 2017, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report on Thursday. …

It has been a tough year for the funds, which earned a median 0.52 percent on investments in fiscal 2016 versus their average assumed return rate of 7.5 percent, Moody’s said.

Assumptions. The sheer gall of it is flabbergasting.

Steve Bannon gave this rather insightful speech about our deteriorating economic situation several years ago:

(But you know, underwear is racist so let’s ignore the economy…)

To be continued: Return to  Part 1 or continue to Part 3.)


Important Update: Looks like my sources were wrong and Lt. White has not been charged, but is considering charging him. The text below has been changed accordingly.

Anarcho-tyranny is when the state itself imposes anarchy on its population and punishes them for trying to rectify the situation. It refers most egregiously to situations where people cannot legally defend their own lives or property, or where they are charged with crimes after defending themselves.

In today’s anarcho-tyranny, the Navy is considering charging Lt. Commander White with unlawful possession of a firearm on Navy property after he stopped a gunman in the midst of a mass-murder.

You remember this case. A man–we shall call him a Muslim terrorist–walked into a Navy recruitment office and opened fire. The center’s commanding officer, Lt. White, returned fire, probably killing the shooter (there was another gun on the premises that may also have been used, but that shooter is dead and so won’t be charged with any crimes.) and saving the lives of many people. Lt. White faces a minimum of 20 years in prison for bringing a firearm onto a no-guns Federal property.

Now, as far as gun laws themselves are concerned, I’m pretty agnostic. I’m neither on the “everyone should have their own machine gun” side, nor on the “all guns are evil” side. It is pretty obvious to me that different conditions–like, are there bears in your neighborhood?–should probably lead to different laws. I am in favor, however, of not punishing people for good deeds, and for letting them defend themselves.

The whole point of having a gun-free zone is to prevent violence; if the government cannot guarantee the safety of people in those zones, then the government has failed. People must be able to go about their business without fear of random violence; if violence is a problem, then people must be allowed to take steps to protect themselves, like installing metal detectors or taking self-defense classes, or the government must step in and protect them, say, by increasing police patrols. To prevent the former while failing to do the latter creates the conditions of anarcho-tyranny–people are legally prohibited from defending themselves while the gov’t does nothing to defend them.

Lt. White’s violation of the law saved the lives of multiple people. His actions are a clear case that should not be prosecuted; rather,the government should investigate ways to make its no-gun areas safe.

The over-proliferation of laws–legal over-criminalization and over-regulation–is partly a side effect of an over-large government that’s been around for longer than almost any other government on Earth (no, seriously, most governments got their start post-WWII) and so had a long time to make legislation, and partly a side effect of trying to get a bunch of different people with different social norms to get along together in one big country.

For example, Freedom of Speech–one of our core American values–allows one to insult the leaders of major religious groups. But Muslims tend to really dislike seeing their Prophet disrespected. Put both groups in close contact, and one or the other (or both) is liable to be highly unhappy. The result–more laws trying to clarify when it’s okay to be offensive and when it’s not–tends not so much to make people happier, as to make life a bigger pain in the butt for everyone involved. (The obvious solution, IMO, is that people who want to insult Mohammad and people who don’t want to see Mohammad insulted shouldn’t talk to each other.)

More and more regulations are a creeping, silent tax. Small businesses especially hare hard-hit by ever-increasing regulations to keep track of and comply with; eventually the winners are those with the spare budget to afford armies of lawyers to wade through the legislation, or those who cheat. Increasing regulations disincentivise honesty.

Gun laws, as I understand them, have gotten to a similarly complicated state. Of course, there is always some conflict between keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, and keeping guns in the hands of people who would defend themselves from criminals. In this case, I am inclined to think that Navy officers probably aren’t criminals, whether on Federal property or not.

The reasons for the gun-free zones like the one Lt. White was caught in probably stem from the crime wave of the late ’80s/early 90s–the “Gun Free School Zones Act,” for example, was passed in 1990. That crime wave had nothing to do with Naval officers carrying guns at Naval recruitment offices, but everything to do with the impact of the crack/cocaine trade on inner city ghetto (black and Hispanic) homicide rates and gang wars.

Anarcho-tyranny is using laws intended to stop black and Hispanic gang violence to punish whites for defending themselves against Muslim terrorists.

EvolutionistX Manifesto

1. Evolution is real. Incentives are real. Math is real. Their laws are as iron-clad as gravity’s and enforced with the furor of the Old Testament god. Disobey, and you will be eliminated.

2. Whatever you incentivize, you will get. Whatever you don’t incentivize, you will not get. Create systems that people can cheat, and you create cheaters. If criminals have more children than non-criminals, then the future will be full of criminals. Create systems that reward trust and competence, and you will end up with a high trust, competent system.

3. Society is created by people, through the constant interaction of the basic traits of the people in it and the incentives of its systems.

4. Morality is basically an evolved mental/social toolkit to compel you to act in your genetic self-interest. Morality does not always function properly in evolutionary novel situations, can be hijacked, and does not function similarly or properly in everyone, but people are generally capable of using morality to good ends when dealing with people in their trust networks.


5. Whatever you think is wrong with the world, articulate it clearly, attempt to falsify your beliefs, and then look for practical, real-world solutions. This is called science, and it is one of our greatest tools.

6. Create high-trust networks with trustworthy people. A high trust system is one where you can be nice to people without fear of them defecting. (Call your grandma. Help a friend going through a rough time. Don’t gossip.) High trust is one of the key ingredients necessary for everything you consider nice in this world.

7. Do not do/allow/tolerate things/people that destroy trust networks. Do not trust the untrustworthy nor act untrustworthy to the trusting.

8. Reward competency. Society is completely dependent on competent people doing boring work, like making sure water purification plants work and food gets to the grocery store.

9. Rewarding other traits in place of competency destroys competency.

10. If you think competent people are being unjustly excluded, find better ways to determine competency–don’t just try to reward people from the excluded pools, as there is no guarantee that this will lead to hiring competent people. If you select leaders for some other trait (say, religiosity,) you’ll end up with incompetent leaders.

11. Act in reality. The internet is great for research, but kinda sucks for hugs. Donating $5 to competent charities will do more good than anything you can hashtag on Twitter. When you need a friend, nothing beats someone who will come over to your house and have a cup of tea.

12. Respond to life with Aristotelian moderation: If a lightbulb breaks, don’t ignore it and don’t weep over it. Just change the lightbulb. If someone wrongs you, don’t tell yourself you deserved it and don’t escalate into a screaming demon. Just defend yourself and be ready to listen to the other person if they have an explanation.