What do algorithms give us a reason to do?

Screen shot from BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video

I’m a modern guy, so when I read a title like “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video,” my first question is who came up with it. Shows you what I know. If I were a postmodern guy, I would realize nobody was behind the decision to call a video “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video.” Algorithms settled on those words, and the only human decision involved was the decision to follow the algorithms. Stop what you’re doing and read James Bridle’s essay about automatically-generated YouTube videos for small children. It is the directest look yet at what is wrong with the internet. Bridle uses these videos as a case study in how automation turns what everyone wants into things no one wants, e.g. hourlong videos of Peppa Pig getting her teeth pulled out or million-person conspiracy theories about pedophilia in a pizzeria. Here’s a quote:

Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against.

The more we turn over the content of the internet to automated systems, the more we make the internet into the maximally effective version of something weird and disturbing to us. The things people want most are branded characters, certain screaming sounds, bright colors and simplistic violence, so here’s a video of Marvel villains burying people alive. It feels awful because few humans were involved in creating it, and those who were involved ceded their agency to an algorithm. Anyway, this essay seems like one of those ideas we’re going to refer to in the future, so I encourage you to read it. I’m glad I did.

Sen. Feinstein threatens to “do something” about social media

Photo by Camille Fine

The Senate Intelligence Committee held hearings today on Russia’s use of social media during the 2016 election, questioning representatives of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. These panels come on the heels of yesterday’s Judiciary Committee meeting on the same subject, where Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) was apparently frustrated by the companies’ failure to grasp the extent of the problem. Or she was mad they didn’t send their CEOs. Either way, the senator spoke sharply to the tech company representatives. I quote The Hill:

What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country…You have a huge problem on your hands. You have created these platforms and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.

Um…the federal government is going to do something about social media? Surely Senator Feinstein was not talking about censorship. Perhaps she only meant the government would do something about which foreign entities can post material on American websites. You know, like Americans can see tweets from friendly countries but not from Russia. Or maybe there could be some kind of system where we only see news the government has certified as real. Whatever it is, I’m sure the feds can find some way to prevent people from using social media to “sow conflict and discontent.”

Three problems leap to mind, here. The first is that we still don’t know to what extent Russia influenced the last election, and what portion of that influence can be attributed to social media. You can call phony news stories about Hillary Clinton “the beginning of cyber warfare,” but that doesn’t describe what happened; that describes how you intend to respond. So the first problem is that we’re starting from the assumption that Russia or some other hostile outside force is responsible for the bad consequences of social media, when we’re not actually certain they are.

The second problem is that Feinstein is talking about this presumed foreign meddling as though it were a war. The thing about war is that it justifies a lot of responses that are otherwise unthinkable. Normally, when the American public shows signs of “conflict and discontent,” we do not want the government to do something about it. But when conflict and discontent are the product of malevolent foreign influence, and we’re at war, then maybe the feds should step in to regulate a formerly free exchange of ideas. This country has already shown a willingness, in history and in recent years, to violate basic constitutional principles in the name of war. So the second problem is that the senator is militarizing this issue and, in the same stroke, suggesting that the government might regulate speech.

The third problem is that Senator Feinstein is 84 years old. I bet she’s a canny old lady, but I also bet she refers to each message she receives as “a Facebook.” When she tells executives from these companies that “I don’t think you get it,” she introduces the possibility that in fact she is the one who does not understand how these platforms work. This problem is potentially endemic to the senate. The average age of a US senator is 61 years old. Of all the 61 year-olds you know, how many have a keen grasp of social media and its relevance to American discourse?

Feinstein is facing a primary challenge next year, and it’s entirely possible she was only grandstanding. It doesn’t seem likely that the same Congress that couldn’t repeal Obamacare will agree on a comprehensive plan to regulate social media. Still, these remarks are unsettling. “Hostile agents have infiltrated our discourse to sow division” is a classic rationale for censorship. Show me a government that regulates speech, and I’ll show you one that’s protecting its people from the corrosive influence of foreigners.

Here’s an example of alt-right writers knowingly deceiving readers

Counter-protestors unfurl a fake banner in front of protestors against Mike Cernovich.

Yesterday, we discussed the “fundamentally unanswerable” question of whether people who read and share alt-right media actually believe the reporting. Do the readers of Gateway Pundit really think that “Antifa super-soldiers” plan to behead white parents on November 4th? One hopes not. Maybe they read Gateway Pundit the same way an older generation read the Weekly World News—as a publication that shares their outlook and makes up stories in that vein. There’s no way to know. I bet if you asked die-hard readers of the Weekly World News whether the stories were true, they’d say they believed every word. That’s how they get in on the joke.

Anyway, one thing we could say for certain was that the author of “ANTIFA Leader: ‘November 4th […] millions of antifa supersoldiers will behead all white parents'” did not believe it himself. Bard graduate and credentialed White House correspondent Lucian Wintrich did not mistake an ironic tweet for a leaked terrorist conspiracy. Here’s his intellectually dishonest justification, the next day, for describing a known Twitter ironist as an “Antifa leader.” Quote:

In Anarchist groups, groups with no real organizational structure, those who control the general conversation and are in positions of influence are leaders…Seeing as [the user] has a far left Twitter audience that includes many members of ANTIFA, I stand by the report.

By that reasoning, Bob Dylan is an ANTIFA leader, too. It’s a real stretch from “those who control the conversation are leaders” to a plan for mass beheadings on a specified date, and Wintrich surely knows it. He’s either intentionally misleading his audience or refusing to break kayfabe, or some cynical combination of both. He’s just one guy, though. Maybe other alt-right personalities really do believe their own wildly inaccurate news.

Here’s an example of alt-right “journalists” reporting a story they know isn’t true, though. Last night, demonstrators at Columbia University protested a speech by Mike Cernovich. At some point, unnamed persons approached a group of protestors and asked them to hold the banner pictured above. We don’t know who did that, but we can assume they were not, in fact, joint representatives of Antifa, ResistNY, and the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The banner was fake. Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz tweeted a picture identifying it as fake. Then multiple alt-right personalities, including Cernovich, used that picture in tweets and reports that presented the banner as real. We can be certain that at least one of them read the original tweet and knew the banner was a hoax, because Cernovich took down his tweet after Offenhartz sent him a copyright complaint. Yet the picture has been shared thousands of times as proof that Columbia students marched against Cernovich and in defense of pedophilia.

Again, maybe all those alt-right personalities reported a story they knew to be false with the certainty that their audience was in on the joke. We don’t say pro wrestlers are willfully deceiving their fans; they’re putting on a show. But Cernovich, of all people, should not tell himself that no one takes him seriously. He was a prime exponent of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which led to an armed man trying to raid a Washington, DC pizzeria that he believed housed a child sex ring. At a certain point, Cernovich can no longer tell himself it’s all for fun. At a certain point, he must know that he is simply lying to people, on as a large a scale as he can, for as much money as he can get ahold of. I wonder how he feels.

Gateway Pundit reports that Antifa plans to “behead white parents”

White House correspondent and prematurely evil-looking millennial Lucian Wintrich

Antifa: What is it? We know that it is an organization, although it is the kind of organization with no leadership, structure, or system of membership. We also know they are terrorists: the kind of terrorists who have not been implicated in any deaths or proven to destroy property, although it is generally agreed they start fires at demonstrations. Most importantly, they are the same as Nazis: the kind of Nazis who only target Nazis, and who do not assert the supremacy of any particular ethnic group, but Nazis nonetheless. The important thing about Antifa is that it is a real and dangerous entity bent on destroying America, a la Black Lives Matter or George Soros. This morning, Gateway Pundit warned its readers that an Antifa leader had announced on Twitter that he “can’t wait for November 4th when millions of antifa supersoldiers will behead all white parents and small business owners in the town square.”

The original tweet has since been deleted, but it seems like a joke—specifically, a joke referencing the suspension of lefty Twitter humorist Krang T. Nelson. A mildly popular ironist who has publicly claimed to be the “leader of Antifa” is probably not the leader of Antifa. If he were, he would probably not leak their mass murder plan and its date in a tweet. And if this were the plan, it would probably not involve this homage to Looney Tunes. Yet the Gateway Pundit piece cites that tweet as further evidence of Antifa’s plans, in a barely readable explainer/screed by honest-to-god White House correspondent Lucian Wintrich. It’s amazing that the White House gave this person a credential. But what’s really amazing is how many right-wing personalities seem to believe his article was true.

“Seem to” is the operative phrase here. Gateway Pundit might have the dumbest readership on the whole internet. The site has its own sub-category on Snopes. Its business is built on monetizing the credulity of shut-ins, but Wintrich is presumably not one such credulous weirdo. He went to Bard—an institution that attracts plenty of rich dummies but also coats them in that veneer of sophistication which does not mistake irony for sincerity. Reading that article, the question that leaps to mind is “What kind of person believes this?” The answer is not “Lucian Wintrich.”

Here’s a more interesting question: Do his readers believe it either? It is entirely possible that Gateway Pundit is the Weekly World News for right-wingers. They agree with the sentiment, not the reporting, and it’s fun to pretend they buy it on Facebook. That’s what I hope for, anyway—a readership of provocateurs rather than credulous crypto-fascists. But this is one of those questions that is fundamentally unanswerable. The defining feature of Gateway Pundit is its epistemic instability. Only two things are certain here. One, Bard should produce better writers than this:

The Antifa movement evolved from college level indoctrination and was then fueled by the mainstream media after they began labelling President Trump and his supporters as “Nazis” or “fascists.” Through this, the “Harry Potter” dweebs decided to pickup bike-locks and go bashing their “enemies” over the head (*cough* *cough* Eric Clanton). It is supreme immaturity that leads to one galavanting around the streets under the collective title of Antifa.

And two, Bill Mitchell should know better.

Wait, what were we protesting again?

Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem—photo by Thearon Henderson

Donald Trump has spent the last several days in a Facebook uncle-style tizzy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, which he would totally fire them for doing if he were an NFL owner instead of a failed USFL owner who somehow became president of the United States. There are two things to remember here. One, Colin Kaepernick started kneeling last season to protest unfair treatment of African Americans and other minorities by police officers. Two, his gesture has followed the ironclad progression of American protests: controversy, mischaracterization, co-opting.

A. Ron Galbraith sends us this item from Deadspin, in which the Green Bay Packers encourage their fans to link arms during the national anthem and stand intertwined before Thursday night’s game “like the threads in your favorite jersey.” I quote the Packers’ official statement:

Those of us joining arms on Thursday will be different in so many ways, but one thing that binds us together is that we are all individuals who want to help make our society, our country and our world a better place. We believe that in diversity there can be UNI-versity. Intertwined, we represent the many people who helped build this country, and we are joining together to show that we are ready to continue to build.

First of all “university” is already a word. Why be diverse when you can be universe? Oh, right—because that doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Second, Kaepernick’s original protest was not about how he felt we should be diverse, or that he did or did not want to make our society/country/world a better place. It was about cops killing black people and getting away with it. What possible value could there be in a protest that A) includes everybody and B) expresses the idea that everything should be better? Both of those elements obviate the need for protest, by definition. It’s not a meaningful gesture if everyone does it, and it’s not a meaningful message if everyone agrees with it. Next Thursday, let’s all go to the bathroom to show that despite our differences, we all want to go to the bathroom.

Of course, this linked-arms business is not a plan for a protest or even a demonstration. It’s a marketing strategy. Green Bay has seized part of the zeitgeist and emptied it of its content, leaving a husk to fill with its own important message: Green Bay Packers. That football team believes in making the world a better place, just like you and literally everyone else. It believes we all have the right to protest by delivering an anodyne message that everyone agrees with. It does not believe in, say, hiring Colin Kaepernick. By encouraging us all to do this arms thing instead of what Kaepernick did, it might even imply that it does not believe in the existence of racially motivated police brutality. Probably, though, the only thing the Green Bay Packers want to convey is their vague corporate enthusiasm for society and its freedoms. It’s like when Kendall Jenner gave that Pepsi to a cop while people marched with placards that read “join the conversation.” Public issues: we support your right to debate them, ideally wearing your favorite jersey.