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.

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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.