Speculations on Information flow and Covid

Entering speech-to-text experiment. Please let me know in the comments what you think of this and the previous text to speech experiment. Is it any different from my normal writing style with my fingers? Since this is our second experiment, I’ll be in a little better at using this technology. One thing I noticed last time was that I was talking too fast for the technology to really keep up with, and so in the end I had some very garbled paragraphs that I had to completely discard because I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to say anymore. I’m sure the app was doing its very best to figure out what I was saying, but this time I’m going to speak more slowly–I know you can’t tell that on your end, but I do wonder if it does something to the writing process.

Much as I would like to talk about something other than corona, when everyone is talking about corona, well, you talk about corona. Watching how people react to this pandemic has been very interesting to watch (the pandemic itself, of course, is awful). I can’t discuss corona from the point of view of a doctor or an epidemiologist or a virologist because I’m not one of these things. I can discuss it from my point of view as a lay person, watching the the social dynamics unfold. Early on in China, we had a few doctors noticing that there was an unusually bad flu and pneumonia season going on. I believe the first doctor reported on this was actually an ophthalmologist–an eye doctor–not a not an emergency, not a flu or pneumonia doctor. I’m not sure how this opthamologist actually knew that their bunch of pneumonia was going on–he must have been talking to other doctors, maybe some doctor friends of his. This means he wasn’t really the first person to notice that something bad was happening; he was just the first person to try to convey the information more broadly, perhaps because he already perceived it as well-known among people he knew.

He reported this in, I think, a doctor-based chat group he was in and and then, as we know, he was censored. Interestingly, he wasn’t harshly sensor by the CCP. It’s not like some big censoring agency collects all the chat log information and automatically sensors them, or automatically reads everything produced in China. Somebody actually in his chat must have reported him to the authorities. He reported him for being sensationalist, and this report made its way up the chain of command to the police and then they came and had a talking to him and told him not to raise any more alarms. So I don’t even know if the police had actually looked into what he was saying in any substantive way at that time, or if they were just going on the authority of the guy who’d complained about it. “If someone complained about it, it must be a problem,” kind of thinking.

And I’ve seen people even in the US defending the censors. They’ve compared it to yelling fire in a crowded theater–except, the thing is, the theater was on fire.

It’s reasonable to say “don’t yell fire in a crowded theater” if the theater is not on fire, but first you have to make sure the theater is not actually on on fire. If the theater is on fire and you tell people not to yell fire, then everybody dies in a fire.

And this is the situation we have now in Wuhan and other parts of the world: things got way further out of control than they would have if the doctor had been able in the first place to report what he was seeing to the government or to the right authorities. If he’d  been able to get support instead of being told “hey, you’re being alarmist,” then things would have gone a lot better. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to be alarmist to raise an alarm.

I feel like I’ve had the same pattern of conversation many times–take Galileo. We can talk about Galileo’s theories, whether they were right or wrong, but the fact is Galileo did end up under house arrest, possibly for being rude to the pope and for having theories about the way the universe works that the pope didn’t like.

Here’s where people jump in and argue that Galileo’s theories were wrong, therefore he deserved to be put under house arrest. Utter bullshit. You don’t put people under house arrest just because they have funny theories about the tides. (Disclaimer for the confused: Galileo claimed that the tides were proof that the Earth was sloshing around in space. The Earth does move through space, but the tides are not evidence of this.)

If you want to have scientific inquiry, some of your scientists will come up with funny theories, and if you put every scientist who comes up with a wrong theory under house arrest, you will very quickly run out of scientists. Was Galileo a jerk? Was he rude? I don’t know, but we don’t put people under house arrest for that, either. If you want people who can look at the established orthodoxy, who can look at authors like Galen and Aristotle who’ve been revered for about a thousand years, and proclaim that they’re wrong, then I think you have to accept that those people tend to be, by nature, cranky misanthropes.

If you limit your scientific inquiry only to people who are polite and deferential and never in their whole lives are rude to people (especially people whom they think are imbeciles), you’re not going to get a lot of science. And if you limit your alarm system about pandemics to people who can kiss the right ass while never sounding alarmed in any way, then you’re just going to end up dead.

Looking at the way information has spread, it’s been very striking how may “official” outlets were, early on, exceedingly wrong, eg:

Fox News? Wrong. CNN? Probably wrong. My local news network? Useless. Vox? Wrong. Official British medical experts who came up with the “herd immunity” plan? Wrong. CDC? Run by morons.

At least in the early stages, these folks seemed to know less about corona and its spread than, as I put it, random nobodies on Twitter. I know my little corner of the internet is interested in China–I follow a 3D printing account based in China, for example–I think people who are interested in technology are more likely to have contacts in their information orbit who are either in or reading Chinese publications, because there’s a lot of technological development going on in China, not to mention being home to a ton of technological industry. And of course some people are fascinated by autocratic governments like China (or just like the culture), Nick Land, for example, lives in China. It’s not just right-wingers, either: I know plenty of more liberal people who pay attention to things happening in China. I think it has more to do with being interested in technology or culture, and of course diseases.

I used to have some very nice theories about liberals and conservatives being split by their emotional reactions to disease, but the data in this pandemic is not supporting that.

blog_coronavirus_partisan

The NYTimes has this poll, but broken down by state so you can compare how concerned Republicans in New York are vs Democrats in New York, but the result is the same: in every state, Democrats are much more concerned than Republicans.

What’s the big difference between this outbreak and ebola? Speculatively:

Ebola: makes you explode, terrifying
Corona: suffocates you. Slightly less visually graphic, but still awful.
Ebola: Africa. Corona: China.
Ebola: quarantine would affect mostly people returning from Africa
Corona: quarantine affects everyone
Ebola broke out during Obama’s administration, so Fox News hyped it up to show how Obama wasn’t doing enough to protect us
Corona broke out during Trump’s admin, so Fox News has been downplaying it so Trump doesn’t get blamed.

Operating theory: where you get your news from matters. Those of us who get our news from the internet were plugged into Chinese happenings (not just internet racists). Those of us who get our news from the TV, by contrast, were less informed (even the TV racists).

Or maybe normies just aren’t as concerned about disease.

Whatever was going on, for whatever reasons, people on the internet were talking about the situation in Wuhan back in January. It was difficult to get trustworthy numbers, but it was pretty easy to get very concerning reports about things like “entire cities shut down.” At the time, we didn’t know whether China was overreacting or not, and we didn’t know whether the virus would spread or not. We’ve had previous concerning viruses like Ebola, SARS, MERS; these were bad viruses, but they never spread that well. (Technically, Covid is a SARS virus.)

The early stages in Wuhan were concerning because the CCP was definitely reacting like this was a huge deal, and this is coming from a government that has not historically acted like it has a huge concern for human life and well-being (at least from the outside perspective, eg, things like the Great Leap Forward killed millions of people,) but that makes it all the more concerning. If a government that doesn’t normally seem to care whether people live or die is suddenly concerned that people are going to die, you get worried.

(It may be that the Chinese government has changed a lot in its concern for human life since the Cultural Revolution and now puts in more effort to take care of its people, but that’s waiting into the weeds of Chinese policy and I don’t really know enough about China to comment coherently.) My point is just that the Chinese response certainly looked concerning.

It was concerning enough that very online people in the US were starting to plan ahead for the pandemic shutdown back in January. For example, I have talked to people who said they had started stocking up on food gradually, just buying a little bit extra each time they went to the store, a bag of rice here, a few cans of soup there, etc. This is a sensible way to do it, because if corona had turned out to be nothing, they you’ll eat the food eventually, and if there is a quarantine, you won’t be caught flat-footed. But most people simply ignored the news back in January–I think most people weren’t even aware that anything was going on in China.

Meanwhile, the reaction from governments and governmental bodies was much more muted. It’s been amazing to watch official medical folks working for the British government come out with ideas like “let’s just go for herd immunity,” which any idiot could have told you was terrible terrible idea. At that point, we had the examples of Iran and Italy in addition to China, so there’s really no excuse for proposing this terrible idea. Being ignorant about what an absolute disaster the Italian hospitals were at that point seems like almost willful ignorance, which is rather frightening.

Unfortunately the same thing is true here in the US. The CDC completely flubbed its early response to Corona. I’ve read a few of the emails released from the CDC, and I don’t see a lot of malice in these documents; I simply see a slow-moving organization that can’t get its act together and doesn’t realize how fast it needs to act. Some of this is probably because most of the health problems in the US, prior to Corona, were slow-moving problems. Our biggest issues these days are things like obesity and heart disease, conditions that will only kill you after multiple decades. The only major new communicable disease we’ve had is AIDS, which also takes years to kill you and hasn’t been a huge deal since the 90s. (You also generally have to be involved in some specific activities to catch AIDs. You can catch corona, by contrast, just by breathing.) So the CDC has not had to actually deal with a new, fast-spread epidemic disease in a very long time (if ever) and weren’t ready to act quickly. For example, they tried to deploy a digital questionnaire to airports for screening international arrivals, but the questionnaires had major problems, like an inability to save the information entered. Unfortunately, “predicting pandemics” and “coding questionnaires” are two different skillsets.

I think these people working for the CDC were probably watching ordinary TV news, which hasn’t done a great job of getting on the ground information about what’s going on with corna in different countries–CDC employees aren’t magic, after all. They have to get information from somewhere, and most of them are probably ordinary people who watch ordinary sources. If you watch MSNBC and MSNBC is not airing frontline reports from inside Chinese or Italian hospitals, then you have to go on YouTube to see videos of people dying in the hallways of Italian hospitals (maybe that’s not even on YouTube anymore. Maybe you have to go to LiveLeak). If you’re not the kind of person to seek out this information in the first place, or maybe you’re not in a group of people online who are talking about it, then you might not hear about it. It’s possible that maybe these CDC guys really just did not realize how serious this is and how fast they needed to act. They’re watching the media for information, and meanwhile the media is taking its cues from the CDC, and the whole thing becomes a circle with insufficient “official” sources of information.

As I’ve joked, early on you could have gotten better information from some random guy on Twitter named something like AnimeNaziTits999 than from the official government websites, but the CDC obviously can’t go getting its information from random anons. I can, because I’m just a random person with a blog, but the CDC has to get its information from official sources, or at least sources that don’t have really embarrassing names. The way some information sources are designated “official” is interesting, too. Sometimes that works–sometimes you really need to go to the official experts. For example, if you want to know about quantum thermodynamics, it’s really best to find an actual professor or read a real textbook on the subject, rather than listen to random lay people. People who haven’t put a lot of effort into learning quantum thermodynamics tend not to know anything about it (I don’t know anything about it, either), but there’s a ton of feel-good woo bullshit on anything related to “quantum.”

By contrast, there’s clearly no official route to get information from Wuhan, China, (or Italy) to the CDC–or if there are official routes, they have numerous choke points where people are suppressing information.

It’s not just China that’s suppressing information. I noticed the official news here in the US, until very recently, has had very little coverage of what’s actually been going on at the hospitals. I understand why we didn’t get much information about what was happening in Wuhan hospitals, but what about Italian hospitals? Our media can bring us a drone footage of migrants marching through Mexico, they can get into the front lines of refugees trying to cross from like turkey to Greece, they can even get embedded in military operations in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, but they couldn’t get into an Italian Hospital.

I don’t believe that for an instant.

I think somebody didn’t want this information getting out. Not necessarily because they’re evil, scheming people, but for the same reasons that the police didn’t want that doctor talking in China: they didn’t want people to be alarmist. Or they just weren’t set up to write articles on the subject. Clearly the New York Times was ready to write articles about Catholic highschool students who smiled awkwardly at Native American activists, but they weren’t ready to write articles about pandemics overwhelming Italian hospitals.

So we end up with very strange reports. We get told that in Spain they’ve commandeered ice rinks to store the bodies. That’s pretty graphic, but the net effect is like a media blackout on was actually going on in hospitals in the US.

Or perhaps the doctors don’t want things to reflect badly on their hospital, or are too busy to go pursuing media contacts. As an acquaintance pointed out, it’s very normal for employees to not be allowed to speak directly to the media about their jobs. So in China they have centralized censorship and in the US we have decentralized censorship. Great. Huge improvement.

But even if doctors can’t say much, you’d think media personnel who pride themselves on their investigative journalism heritage as the descendants of Woodward and Bernstein would say, “screw non-disclosure, I’m taking a camera down ER.” Folks who could get themselves embedded in a war ought to be able to manage an Italian ER, but I guess not.

We needed to know just how bad this was back in January. We needed to be making plans in February. At that point, people were still playing games and writing articles about how the flu was a bigger deal than Covid. The CDC needed to be raising the alarm and going on full alert, yelling that this was going to be a huge problem, but I don’t think they realized just how bad it was going to be, because they didn’t have the right information because their information chain, while normally good, wasn’t going through the right people and there were too many people with choke points on crucial information. We’ve got too many HR managers, too many PR guys at the hospitals telling people not to talk with the press, and too many people in the press saying that random anons on the internet are not valid sources of medical information (even though many of these folks on the internet are actually epidemiologists, virologists, doctors, etc).

An this has been happening in tandem with attempts by different organizations like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to crack down on the “invalid” information sources. Censorship, basically. Google has changed parts of their search algorithm to decrease results from blogs and increase results from more official websites, for example (before you run off to Duck Duck Go, I don’t think my blog is even indexed on Duck Duck Go). Shortly before corona really blew up, the social networks were debuting a beta program for identifying “fake news.” We can just imagine in a case like this where there has been a lot of incorrect information just because it’s a developing situation and we don’t know what’s going on yet, (we may never know how many people actually died in Wuhan) many legitimate news stories could get censored. Trying to weed out all of the fake news puts a damper on the real news and too many real things will get labeled as fake because we don’t know they’re real, yet. The real is in the future; it’s still developing. We don’t know what it is, yet. Too many real stories will sound, like the ophthalmologist raising the alarm in Wuhan, like a guy yelling fire in a crowded theater when the theater is actually on fire.

This is why I am against censorship and in favor of letting people run around saying dumb things, like that the tides prove the Earth. Yes, Galileo was wrong–and yet, the Earth moves.

Algorithmic Optimization pt 2

 

There is nothing exceptional about the slowed-down Nancy Pelosi video, and nothing terribly exceptional in reporters saying uninformed things about subjects they aren’t well versed in.

The significance lies far more behind the scenes. From Marketwatch: Facebook Decided to Rethink Policies on Doctored Media two days Before Pelosi Video.

Wow, that is awfully coincidental that Facebook just happened to be thinking about changing these policies anyway right before a doctored video just happened to make it onto the news, prompting millions of people to pressure Facebook into doing exactly what Facebook already wanted to do.

Don’t be fooled: this isn’t spontaneous. Oh, sure, many of the people at the low end, like reporters, are just doing their job of reading the news they have been given into the camera, but there is plenty of active coordination going on behind the scenes by organizations like Facebook and the Democratic Party.

The Democrats realized sometime around 2016 that they have a meme problem. People on the internet thought Trump was funny and Democrats were boring sticks in the mud. People on the internet made videos about Hillary Clinton’s health, the European migration crisis, and other subjects the Dems didn’t approve of.

They don’t want this happening again.

So they are laying the groundwork now to re-write the policies and algorithms to strategically remove problematic conservative voices from the fray. Alex Jones has already been kicked off Youtube, Facebook, PayPal, etc. FB has taken a particularly hard line, threatening not just to delete Jones’s videos, but any account that posts them (excepting those that post them in order to criticize them).

Even Visa and Mastercard are getting in on the act, cutting off banking services to organizations whose political views they don’t like.

The ostensible reason for Alex Jones’s deplatforming is his supposed spread of conspiracy theories post-Sandy Hook (I say “supposedly” because I have not seen the clips in question,) but it is obvious that 1. these concerns surfaced years after Sandy Hook and 2. no one has deplatformed media outlets that pushed the “Iraq has WMDs” conspiracy theory that cost the US trillions of dollars and lead to the deaths of thousands (millions?) of people.

This has all been accompanied by a basic shift in how media platforms and infrastructure are viewed.

The traditional conception is that these are platforms, not publishers, and thus they merely provide something akin to infrastructure without much say over how you, the user, put it to use. For example, the electric company provides electricity to anyone who pays for it, and even if you use your electricity to warm the cages of your illegally gotten, exotic, endangered reptile collection, the electric company will generally keep providing you with electricity. The electric company does not have to approve of what you do with the electricity you buy, and if you break the law with their electricity, they see it as the state’s job to stop you.

A publisher and a platform, like Facebook, traditionally enjoyed different legal rights and safeguards. A publisher checks and decides to publish every single item they put out, and so is held to be responsible for anything they print. A platform merely provides a space where other people can publish their own works, without supervision. Platforms do not check posts before they go up, (as a practical matter, they can’t,) and thus are generally only held legally responsible for taking down material on their site if someone has notified them that it is in violation of some law.

EG, suppose someone posts something really illegal, child porn, on Facebook. If Facebook is a “publisher,” it is now publishing child porn and is in big legal trouble. But since Facebook is just a platform, it deletes the videos and is legally in the clear. (The poster may still go to prison, of course.)

The conceptual shift in recent years has been to portray platforms as “allowing” people to come in and use their platforms, and then ask why they are allowing such shitty people to use their platform. No one asks why the electric company allows you to use their electricity to raise your army of bio mutant squids, but they do ask why Facebook allows right-wingers to be on the platform at all.

This is treating platforms like publishers, and they are absolutely jumping into it with both feet.

Let’s skip forward a bit in the video to the lady in white to see this in action:

It’s been viewed millions of times on the internet, but it’s not real… This is really scary, and not going away, and I’m fearful this is going to be all over the 2020 election.

You know, that’s how I felt when libs kept bringing up Harry Potter in the context of the last election, but for some reason taking a children’s fantasy story about wizards is acceptable in political discourse but slowed-down videos aren’t.

And who is responsible for monitoring this stuff, taking it down? Facebook, Youtube took it down, but after how long?

Other commentator… At Facebook it’s still up because Facebook allows you to do a mock video…

The correct answer is that no one is responsible for monitoring all of Facebook and Youtube’s content, because that’s impossible to do and because Facebook isn’t your mommy. If you want Facebook to be your mom and monitor everything you consume, just stop talking and leave the adults alone.

CNN asks:

So Monika, in the wake of the 2016 election obviously Facebook has repeatedly told Congress and the American people that yo’re serious about fighting disinformation, fake news, and yet this doctored video which I think even your own fact checkers acknowledge is doctored of speaker Pelosi remains on your platform. Why?

Like the previous guy already said, because it’s not against Facebook’s TOS. Of course Anderson Cooper already knows this. He doesn’t need to get an actual Facebook representative on his show to find out that “funny reaction videos are allowed on Facebook.” And if Facebook were serious about maintaining its neutrality as a platform, not a publisher, it would not have bothered to send anyone to CNN–it would have just left matters at a blanket statement that the video does not violate the TOS.

The Facebook Lady (Monika,) then explains how Facebook uses its algorithms to demote and demonitize content the “experts” claim is false. They’re proud of this and want you to know about it.

So misinformation that doesn’t promote violence, but misinformation that portrays the third most powerful politician in the country as a drunk or as somehow impaired, that’s fine? 

Oh no, quick, someone save the third most powerful person in the country from people saying mean things about her on the internet! We can’t have those disgusting peasants being rude to their betters!

Anderson Cooper is infuriatingly moronic; does not “logically understand” why Facebook leaves up videos that don’t violate the TOS but suggests that Facebook should “get out of the news business” if it can’t do it well.

Facebook isn’t in the “news business” you moron, because Facebook is a platform, not a publisher. You’re in the news business, so you really ought to know the difference.

If you don’ know the difference between Facebook and a news organization, maybe you shouldn’t be in the news business.

That said, of course Anderson Cooper actually understands how Facebook works. This whole thing is a charade to give Facebook cover for changing its policies under the excuse of “there was public outrage, so we had to.” It’s an old scam.

So to summarize:

  1. The Dems want to change the algorithms to favor themselves, eg, Facebook decided to rethink policies on doctored media two days before Pelosi video, but don’t want to be so obvious about it the Republicans fight back
  2. Wait for a convenient excuse, like a slowed-down video, then go into overdrive to convince you that Democracy is Seriously Threatened by Slow Videos, eg, Doctored Videos show Facebook willing enables of the Russians; Doctored Pelosi video is leading tip in coming disinformation battle
  3. Convince Republican leadership to go along with it because, honestly, they’re morons: Congress investigating deepfakes after doctored Pelosi video, report says
  4. Deplatform their enemies
  5. Rinse and repeat: Vox Adpocalypse

 

One final note: even though I think there is coordinated activity at the top/behind the scenes at tech companies and the like, I don’t think the average talking head you see on TV is in on it. Conspiracies like that are too hard to pull off; rather, humans naturally cooperate and coordinate their behavior because they want to work together, signal high social status, keep their jobs, etc.

Is the News Bad for You?

Whilst traveling through the darkest depths of the unexplored heartland of America, I encountered a mysterious beast I had only glimpsed in the many years since I left home at 18: 

The News. 

What was this flag-waving, headshot-zooming, sound effects-ridden creature, and why did it care that someone in Ohio doesn’t like “Baby its Cold Outside?” 

I really can’t stay (but baby there’s meth outside) 

Extended viewing (or listening) to what now passes for “news” on the 24-hour cable channels strikes me as bad for one’s mental health (possibly physical, as well.)

What is so bad about the news? 

First, it is a never-ending stream of disasters, and disasters naturally tend to make people anxious and worried. But the disasters featured on the news are rarely relevant to your own life–most of them take place on the other side of the country, if not the planet. 

In the past couple of months, you probably heard about wildfires in California, the War in Yemen, ISIS, someone shooting up a Christmas Market in Europe, Ebola in Africa, protests in France, children being gassed at the border, and of course the dire threat of secular Christmas Carols being taken off the radio in Ohio and rap music in Russia. 

Chances are good that none of these things directly affects you. 

How many news stories can you think of that actually occurred in your local community and have some relevance to your actual life?

The Guardian presents it better than I can:

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you.

Strong words from a newspaper

At the very best, you are spending time and energy worrying about stuff that doesn’t actually affect you, while not learning about stuff–such as your neighbors’ thoughts on pest control–that actually does affect you. 

And at worst, you are making yourself ill by feeding your mind constant disaster footage: 

Witnessing images of extreme violence: a psychological study of journalists in the newsroom

User Generated Content – photos and videos submitted to newsrooms by the public – has become a prominent source of information for news organisations. Journalists working with uncensored material can frequently witness disturbing images for prolonged periods. How this might affect their psychological health is not known and it is the focus of this study. …

Regression analyses revealed that frequent (i.e. daily) exposure to violent images independently predicted higher scores on all indices of the Impact of Event Scale-revised, the BDI-II and the somatic and anxiety subscales of the GHQ-28.  …

The present study, the first of its kind, suggests that frequency rather than duration of exposure to images of graphic violence is more emotionally distressing to journalists working with User Generated Content material. 

If being exposed to the news is bad for journalists, it’s probably bad for you, too: 

The Relationship between Self-Report of Depression and Media Usage:

In this study, we tested if self-report of depression (SRD), which is not a clinically based diagnosis, was associated with increased internet, television, and social media usage by using data collected in the Media Behavior and Influence Study (MBIS) database (N = 19,776 subjects). … These analyses found that SRD rates were in the range of published rates of clinically diagnosed major depression. It found that those who tended to use more media also tended to be more depressed, and that segmentation of SRD subjects was weighted toward internet and television usage, which was not the case with non-SRD subjects, who were segmented along social media use. This study found that those who have suffered either economic or physical life setbacks are orders of magnitude more likely to be depressed, even without disproportionately high levels of media use. However, among those that have suffered major life setbacks, high media users—particularly television watchers—were even more likely to report experiencing depression, which suggests that these effects were not just due to individuals having more time for media consumption.

One woman I know got so worked up reading/watching articles and news reports about the Catholic Priest Scandals that she spent a week weeping and is now undergoing therapy for PTSD. 

Stupid? Yes. Nevertheless, people are doing this to themselves. 

Another woman I know recently announced that she thought “God was weeping” because things have gotten so bad in the world. After some questioning, she claimed that wars and third-world poverty are “worse than ever”–despite the fact that poverty is actually at the lowest it’s ever been and she lived through WWII

Does watching the news make you any better informed? 

No. 

From Pew, Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions

Since the invention of 24 hour Cable News Networks, general knowledge of political matters has gone down slightly. 

If you must follow the news, do so in print or listen to PBS/NPR--these are the sources with a track record for not actively making you dumber

Looking at those who get their news primarily through radio and television, for most, following the news more or less closely had no reliable relation to whether respondents believed clear evidence had been found that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were working closely together. Fox News was the exception. Those who followed the news closely were far more likely to have this misperception. Among those who did not follow the news at all 42% had the misperception, rising progressively at higher levels of attention to 80% among those who followed the news very closely. On the other hand, those respondents who get their news primarily from print sources were less likely to have this misperception if they were following the Iraq situation more closely. Of those not following the news closely, 49% had the misperception–declining to 32% among those who followed the news very closely.

More on this phenomenon.

This analysis is harsh on Fox, but keep in mind that it is specifically looking at misperceptions related to a war championed by Republicans–we might find a similar effect for different networks if we were looking for misperceptions related to something championed by a Democratic president. 

The news makes money by convincing you to watch it–that is, it has a self-interest in being addictive, not in making your life better. The constant parade of anxiety-inducing disasters is one way they capture your attention; the nausea-inducing zooming camera pans and waving flags are another. Some news personalities are actually good at their jobs despite the distractions, but on average, the more boring stations and media do a better job of conveying actual facts, probably because they are less distracting.

The news is one-way communication: it is a voice constantly talking to you, not you talking back (well, you can talk back, but it can’t hear you.) Would you spend so much time listening, in real life, to someone who never listened to you? 

There is something insidious about a voice that talks constantly to you, that decides what is an isn’t concerning, that uses psychological manipulation to keep you listening, and doesn’t listen to you. 

None of which is to say that the news media is intentionally evil or trying to cause harm–these things are just natural side effects of the way media works–the network that convinces more people to watch makes more money than the one that doesn’t. You have a natural desire to hear about disasters, because before the invention of mass media, almost all of them were actually relevant to your life. This also need not condemn any particular news channel–these factors apply to them all.

You can always tell someone who pays too much attention to the news, because their attention shifts radically from week to week. One day, Russia–a nation with a GDP smaller than South Korea’s and a per capita GDP almost as low as Mexico’s–is a critical threat to democracy; the next week Saudi Arabia, a dictatorship well known for things like “funding 9-11,” “women must wear burkas and can’t drive,” and “starving Yemeni children,” is suddenly catapulted from “not a problem” to “defcon 12.”

A week later, all of these things are forgotten because Trump paid off a prostitute, which is clearly a pressing national problem, right up there with Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. 

Remember, the European witch-hunt hysteria was spread via the newly-adopted printing press, which made it easy for reports of broom-riding, devil worshiping, and livestock metamorphosis to spread from town to town. The equally absurd Satanic Daycare Scare of the 1980s was also spread by the News, this time on TV and radio.

There are probably some good sides to the news–it’s probably worthwhile to be informed about the world on some level, and it’s certainly useful to know what’s going on in your local area or economic trends that affect your business. 

But be careful about letting strangers determine what you know and what you care about.

Logan Paul and the Algorithms of Outrage

Leaving aside the issues of “Did Logan Paul actually do anything wrong?” and “Is changing YouTube’s policies actually in Game Theorist’s interests?” Game Theorist makes a good point: while YouTube might want to say, for PR reasons, that it is doing something about big, bad, controversial videos like Logan Paul’s, it also makes money off those same videos. YouTube–like many other parts of the internet–is primarily click driven. (Few of us are paying money for programs on YouTube Red.) YouTube wants views, and controversy drives views.

That doesn’t mean YouTube wants just any content–a reputation for having a bunch of pornography would probably have a damaging effect on channels aimed at small children, as their parents would click elsewhere. But aside from the actual corpse, Logan’s video wasn’t the sort of thing that would drive away small viewers–they’d get bored of the boring non-cartoons talking to the camera long before the suicide even came up.

Logan Paul actually managed to hit a very sweet spot: controversial enough to draw in visitors (tons of them) but not so controversial that he’d drive away other visitors.

In case you’ve forgotten the controversy in a fog of other controversies, LP’s video about accidentally finding a suicide in the Suicide Forest was initially well-received, racking up thousands of likes and views before someone got offended and started up the outrage machine. Once the outrage machine got going, public sentiment turned on a dime and LP was suddenly the subject of a full two or three days of Twitter hate. The hate, of course, got YouTube more views. LP took down the video and posted an apology–which generated more attention. Major media outlets were now covering the story. Even Tablet managed to quickly come up with an article: Want a New Years Resolution? Don’t be Like Logan Paul.

And it worked. I passed up Tablet’s regular article on Trump and Bagels and Culture, but I clicked on that article about Logan Paul because I wanted to know what on earth Tablet had to say about LP, a YouTuber whom, 24 hours prior, I had never heard of.

And the more respectable (or at least highly-trafficked) news outlets picked up the story, the higher Logan’s videos rose on the YouTube charts. And as more people watched more of LP’s other videos, they found more things to be offended at. For example, once he ran through the streets of Japan holding a fish. A FISH, I tell you. He waved this fish at people and was generally very annoying.

I don’t like LP’s style of humor, but I’m not getting worked up over a guy waving a fish around.

So understand this: you are in an outrage machine. The purpose of the outrage machine is to drive traffic, which makes clicks, which result in ad revenue. There are probably whole websites (Huffpo, CNN) that derive a significant percent of their profits from hate-clicks–that is, intentionally posting incendiary garbage not because they believe it or think it is just or true or appeals to their base, but because they can get people to click on it in sheer shock or outrage.

Your emotions–your “emotional labor” as the SJWs call it–is being turned into someone else’s dollars.

And the result is a country that is increasingly polarized. Increasingly outraged. Increasingly exhausted.

Step back for a moment. Take a deep breath. Get some fresh air. Ask yourself, “Does this really matter? Am I actually helping anyone? Will I remember this in a week?”

I’d blame the SJWs for the outrage machine–and really, they are good running it–but I think it started with CNN and “24 hour news.” You have to do something to fill that time. Then came Fox News, which was like CNN, but more controversial in order to lure viewers away from the more established channel. Now we have the interplay of Facebook, Twitter, HuffPo, online newspapers, YouTube, etc–driven largely by automated algorithms designed to maximized clicks–even hate clicks.

The Logan Paul controversy is just one example out of thousands, but let’s take a moment and think about whether it really mattered. Some guy whose job description is “makes videos of his life and posts them on YouTube” was already shooting a video about his camping trip when he happened upon a dead body. He filmed the body, called the police, canceled his camping trip, downed a few cups of sake while talking about how shaken he was, and ended the video with a plea that people seek help and not commit suicide.

In between these events was laughter–I interpret it as nervous laughter in an obviously distressed person. Other people interpret this as mocking. Even if you think LP was mocking the deceased, I think you should be more concerned that Japan has a “Suicide Forest” in the first place.

Let’s look at a similar case: When three year old Alan Kurdi drowned, the photograph of his dead body appeared on websites and newspapers around the world–earning thousands of dollars for the photographers and news agencies. Politicans then used little Alan’s death to push particular political agendas–Hillary Clinton even talked about Alan Kurdi’s death in one of the 2016 election debates. Alan Kurdi’s death was extremely profitable for everyone making money off the photograph, but no one got offended over this.

Why is it acceptable for photographers and media agencies to make money off a three year old boy who drowned because his father was a negligent fuck who didn’t put a life vest on him*, but not acceptable for Logan Paul to make money off a guy who chose to kill himself and then leave his body hanging in public where any random person could find it?

Elian Gonzalez, sobbing, torn at gunpoint from his relatives. BTW, This photo won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News.

Let’s take a more explicitly political case. Remember when Bill Clinton and Janet Reno sent 130 heavily armed INS agents to the home of child refugee Elian Gonzalez’s relatives** so they could kick him out of the US and send him back to Cuba?

Now Imagine Donald Trump sending SWAT teams after sobbing children. How would people react?

The outrage machine functions because people think it is good. It convinces people that it is casting light on terrible problems that need correcting. People are getting offended at things that they wouldn’t have if the outrage machine hadn’t told them to. You think you are serving justice. In reality, you are mad at a man for filming a dead guy and running around Japan with a fish. Jackass did worse, and it was on MTV for two years. Game Theorist wants more consequences for people like Logan Paul, but he doesn’t realize that anyone can get offended at just about anything. His videos have graphic descriptions of small children being murdered (in videogame contexts, like Five Nights at Freddy’s or “What would happen if the babies in Mario Cart were involved in real car crashes at racing speeds?”) I don’t find this “family friendly.” Sometimes I (*gasp*) turn off his videos as a result. Does that mean I want a Twitter mob to come destroy his livelihood? No. It means a Twitter mob could destroy his livelihood.

For that matter, as Game Theorist himself notes, the algorithm itself rewards and amplifies outrage–meaning that people are incentivised to create completely false outrage against innocent people. Punishing one group of people more because the algorithm encourages bad behavior in other people is cruel and does not solve the problem. Changing the algorithm would solve the problem, but the algorithm is what makes YouTube money.

In reality, the outrage machine is pulling the country apart–and I don’t know about you, but I live here. My stuff is here; my loved ones are here.

The outrage machine must stop.

*I remember once riding in an airplane with my father. As the flight crew explained that in the case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, you should secure your own mask before assisting your neighbors, his response was a very vocal “Hell no, I’m saving my kid first.” Maybe not the best idea, but the sentiment is sound.

**When the boat Elian Gonzalez and his family were riding in capsized, his mother and her boyfriend put him in an inner tube, saving his life even though they drowned.

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. --https://www.amazon.com/Politically-Correct-Bedtime-Stories-Garner/dp/0285640410/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480157739&sr=8-1&keywords=politically+correct+bedtime+stories
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.