.. there was the stunning revelation that we found out that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, had actually reached out to WikiLeaks. So it had got hold of Julian Assange. And this was in August, before the Trump election. And he offered to help distribute Hillary’s stolen emails.
So that was a kind of mind-blowing moment for me news-wise because the idea that, you know, we knew that WikiLeaks was consequential in the U.S. election, and we knew that Cambridge Analytica was, but we had no idea that there was a sort of channel of communication between them.
.. The second alarm bell was that Chris had this insane presentation that he pulled out which Cambridge Analytica had given to Lukoil, which is a massive Russian state oil company. And the presentation just didn’t make any sense because supposedly it was the sort of advertising pitching Cambridge Analytica do – commercial work. But the presentation was all about influencing elections. Why would you be pitching a Russian oil company in how to manipulate voters?
.. I do think that it was having an American newspaper which forced Facebook as an American company to take note. And that was also what helped force Zuckerberg in front of Congress. So I do kind of give tribute to our American partners in helping bring that about. I kind of think that Facebook considers the rest of the world as lesser, as less consequential, as less important. And, you know, I really feel that’s what’s happening with its refusal to come to parliament. I really do very seriously think that Britain should consider banning Facebook from having any role in any of our elections because if you’ve got a foreign company which is playing an absolutely pivotal role in your elections but yet it’s completely unaccountable and it won’t even answer questions to lawmakers then I think you’ve got a really, really serious problem in terms of national security.
.. another British figure who Americans are probably not familiar with but played a key role in the Brexit campaign and may be a link to Russia. And his name is Arron Banks.
.. So Arron Banks, he’s a businessman based in Bristol, in the West Country here, and he’s the bankroller of it. So Arron Banks gave more money towards the Brexit campaign than any other person in Britain. And he is this strange and – I wouldn’t say strange character, but there’s just so many questions. Essentially, we don’t know where Arron Banks’ money comes from. And that is a source of one other investigation into Britain. He’s married to a Russian woman, Katya Banks.
.. And one of the key people he met in London was Ambassador Yakovenko. And Ambassador Yakovenko is described by Mueller as a high-level contact between the Trump campaign in the Kremlin.
.. We had two Brexit campaigns in Britain. That’s why I have to make the distinction. And on the same day that he launched it, he went to the Russian Embassy with his associates, and at the Russian Embassy, we know that the Russian ambassador introduced him to an oligarch called Siman Povarenkin, and Povarenkin offered him a couple of lucrative potential business deals. One of them was a gold deal. It was about buying into six separate gold mines and consolidating them. And one was this very intriguing one. Alrosa, it was called. And that was a state diamond mining company in Russia.
.. He always said he had met the Russian ambassador. But he’d met him only once. He’d had one boozy lunch with him. And this was something he’d carried on saying for – for two years, he said that. He had that line very consistently. And now – we’re now up to – it’s 11 meetings between him and the ambassador, or between his associates and the political secretary at the embassy.
And it’s just, why did he lie about it? Why did he lie about it? It’s, like, always the question you come back to with these things.
.. People in America, I don’t think, have realized this fully. And people in Britain certainly haven’t realized this fully. But they overlap very, very distinctly. And, you know, one of the points we have in common with America is simply that our laws and our democracy was not prepared for what hit it in 2016. And by that, I mean because all of our laws were around sort of ensuring that our vote was free and fair in terms of a sort of 19th century model of how you run elections and how you control spending. And with the rise of the Internet, that just changed everything.
.. So in just a few years, everything is being done via Facebook, and to some degree, via Google. And that’s all in complete darkness. So the thing about Facebook, and the thing which is so frustrating in terms of being able to get any answers from it, is that these are black boxes.
.. And we know that all of these advertisements, which were shown in the referendum, all the data went through the Facebook’s servers. They know a lot of the answers we’re scratching around as journalists and trying to figure out from the tiny clues left on the surface.
And it comes back to, time and time again, the role of Silicon Valley in these elections is the really, really key thing. And Russia exposed that weakness.
.. The Russian Embassy Twitter account is this extraordinary thing. It trolls me. It trolls other journalists. It trolls, like, MPs. And I thought it was the Russian Embassy first. And it had my article about Arron Banks and the gold deals and his meetings with the embassy. It had a picture – a screenshot of that. It put fake news stamped over it. And then it said, this journalist lies, or this journalist conspirator or something. And it tagged me into it.
And then I realized it wasn’t even the Russian Embassy Twitter account. It was the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Twitter account. So this is the Kremlin. This is the government agency in Moscow, which directs all of Russia’s foreign affairs, targeting me specifically via its Twitter feed and calling me a conspirator and writing, fake news, and going in to defend Arron Banks and Nigel Farage, interestingly.
.. And the thing is about it, this thing is just being normalized. It does it in this jokey way. And this is also what we saw from the Leave EU campaign – Arron Banks and Nigel Farage’s campaign. By doing things in this jokey fashion, it normalizes it. And then you go a bit further.
.. the Russian Embassy started writing me letters and calling my journalism – calling me a bad journalist and with an agenda and spreading lies, et cetera. And at the same time, Arron Banks and Nigel Farage’s campaign were retweeting the Russian Embassy. And then they did this, like, mock video of me, so they took a clip of the film “Airplane!” and it was a woman being hysterical in the film. It’s like a spoof. People come and slap her around the face, and then they threaten her with a gun. They’d Photoshopped my face into that video, and they’d added the Russian national anthem to the music behind it.
.. And again it looked like a joke. It was like ha ha ha ha ha ha (ph), look at this hysterical woman. But it was intended to unnerve me. And initially, I was just kind of like, well, this is just weird. But then hundreds – literally thousands of people actually reported that to Twitter and to the police and to Leave.EU and it didn’t come down. And this is why what is going on on the Internet is – and that the role of the tech giants is so invidious and so problematic because Facebook and Twitter and Google, it look – these look like public spaces. We are all communicating through them and mingling in them, but they’re not. They’re private companies. And this is why the Russian government has been able to exploit these things in the way that it has. And that’s what’s made democracy so vulnerable.
.. because I’m experiencing this kind of viscerally, this information warfare sort of viscerally, and I’m experiencing it from these forces, these campaigns in my own country. So Leave.EU, this is a domestic, political campaign here. And when we get hold of these emails, Arron Banks’ emails, we discovered that they were communicating with the Russian Embassy about social media messaging. This idea that they were actually coordinating in their attacks on certain things that – there’s that those levels of sinister in this which I really don’t think should be treated like a joke.
We’re all trying to understand why people can’t just get along. The emerging consensus in Silicon Valley is that polarization is a baffling phenomenon, but we can fight it with better fact-checking, with more empathy, and (at least in Facebook’s case) with advanced algorithms to try and guide conversations between opposing camps in a more productive direction.
A question few are asking is whether the tools of mass surveillance and social control we spent the last decade building could have had anything to do with the debacle of the 2017 election, or whether destroying local journalism and making national journalism so dependent on our platforms was, in retrospect, a good idea.
We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it?
.. The economic basis of the Internet is surveillance. Every interaction with a computing device leaves a data trail, and whole industries exist to consume this data.
.. It is the primary source of news for a sizable fraction of Americans, and through its feed algorithm (which determines who sees what) has an unparalleled degree of editorial control over what that news looks like.
.. Together, these companies control some 65% of the online ad market, which in 2015 was estimated at $60B. Of that, half went to Google and $8B to Facebook.
.. These companies exemplify the centralized, feudal Internet of 2017. While the protocols that comprise the Internet remain open and free, in practice a few large American companies dominate every aspect of online life. Google controls search and email, AWS controls cloud hosting, Apple and Google have a duopoly in mobile phone operating systems. Facebook is the one social network.
.. There are two interlocking motives for this data hunger: to target online advertising, and to train machine learning algorithms.
.. A considerable fraction (only Google and Facebook have the numbers) of the money sloshing around goes to scammers.
.. The more poorly current ads perform, the more room there is to tell convincing stories about future advertising technology, which of course will require new forms of surveillance.
.. The real profits from online advertising go to the companies running the casino—Facebook and Google.
.. we assumed that when machines reached near-human performance in tasks like image recognition, it would be thanks to fundamental breakthroughs into the nature of cognition. We would be able to lift the lid on the human mind and see all the little gears turning.
What’s happened instead is odd. We found a way to get terrific results by combining fairly simple math with enormous data sets. But this discovery did not advance our understanding. The mathematical techniques used in machine learning don’t have a complex, intelligible internal structure we can reason about. Like our brains, they are a wild, interconnected tangle.
.. The algorithms learn to show people the things they are most likely to ‘engage’ with—click, share, view, and react to. We make them very good at provoking these reactions from people.
.. If you concede that they work just as well for politics as for commerce, you’re inviting government oversight. If you claim they don’t work well at all, you’re telling advertisers they’re wasting their money.
Facebook and Google have tied themselves into pretzels over this. The idea that these mechanisms of persuasion could be politically useful, and especially that they might be more useful to one side than the other, violates cherished beliefs about the “apolitical” tech industry.
.. All the algorithms know is what they measure, which is the same for advertising as it is in politics: engagement, time on site, who shared what, who clicked what, and who is likely to come back for more.
The persuasion works, and it works the same way in politics as it does in commerce—by getting a rise out of people.
But political sales techniques that maximize “engagement” have troubling implications in a democracy.
.. One problem is that any system trying to maximize engagement will try to push users towards the fringes. You can prove this to yourself by opening YouTube in an incognito browser (so that you start with a blank slate), and clicking recommended links on any video with political content. When I tried this experiment last night, within five clicks I went from a news item about demonstrators clashing in Berkeley to a conspiracy site claiming Trump was planning WWIII with North Korea, and another exposing FEMA’s plans for genocide.
This pull to the fringes doesn’t happen if you click on a cute animal story. In that case, you just get more cute animals (an experiment I also recommend trying). But the algorithms have learned that users interested in politics respond more if they’re provoked more, so they provoke. Nobody programmed the behavior into the algorithm; it made a correct observation about human nature and acted on it.
Social dynamics on sites where people share links can compound this radicalizing force. The way to maximize engagement on Twitter, for example, is to say provocative things, or hoist an opponent’s tweets out of context in order to use them as a rhetorical bludgeon. Twitter rewards the captious.
.. So without explicitly coding for this behavior, we already have a dynamic where people are pulled to the extremes. Things get worse when third parties are allowed to use these algorithms to target a specific audience.
.. Political speech that tries to fly below the radar has always existed, but in the past it was possible to catch it and call it out. When no two people see the same thing, it becomes difficult to trace orchestrated attempts to target people in political campaigns. These techniques of micro-targeted political advertising were used to great effect in both the Brexit vote and the US election.
.. This is an inversion in political life that we haven’t seen before. Conversations between people that used to be private, or semi-private, now take place on public forums where they are archived forever. Meanwhile, the kind of political messaging that used to take place in public view is now visible only to an audience of one.
.. Politically engaged people spend more time online and click more ads. Alarmist and conspiracy-minded consumers also make good targets for certain kinds of advertising. Listen to talk radio or go to prepper websites and you will find pure hucksterism—supplements, gold coins, mutual funds—being pitched by the same people who deliver the apocalyptic theories.
Many of the sites peddling fake news during the election operated solely for profit, and field-tested articles on both sides of the political spectrum. This time around, they found the right to be more lucrative, so we got fake news targeted at Trump voters.
.. Apart from the obvious chilling effect on political expression when everything you say is permanently recorded, there is the chilling effect of your own peer group, and the lingering doubt that anything you say privately can ever truly stay private.
.. Orwell imagined a world in which the state could shamelessly rewrite the past. The Internet has taught us that people are happy to do this work themselves, provided they have their peer group with them, and a common enemy to unite against. They will happily construct alternative realities for themselves, and adjust them as necessary to fit the changing facts.
Finally, surveillance capitalism makes it harder to organize effective long-term dissent. In an setting where attention is convertible into money, social media will always reward drama, dissent, conflict, iconoclasm and strife. There will be no comparable rewards for cooperation, de-escalation, consensus-building, or compromise, qualities that are essential for the slow work of building a movement. People who should be looking past their differences will instead spend their time on purity tests and trying to outflank one another in a race to the fringes.
.. Moreover, powerful people have noted and benefited from the special power of social media in the political arena. They will not sit by and let programmers dismantle useful tools for influence and social control. It doesn’t matter that the tech industry considers itself apolitical and rationalist. Powerful people did not get to be that way by voluntarily ceding power.
.. Consider the example of the Women’s March. The March was organized on Facebook, and 3-4 million people attended. The list of those who RSVP’d is now stored on Facebook servers and will be until the end of time, or until Facebook goes bankrupt, or gets hacked, or bought by a hedge fund, or some rogue sysadmin decides that list needs to be made public.
.. We need the parts of these sites that are used heavily for organizing, like Google Groups or Facebook event pages, to become more ephemeral
.. These features are sometimes called ‘disappearing’, but there is nothing furtive about it. Rather, this is just getting our software to more faithfully reflect human life.
.. You don’t carry all your valuables and private documents when you travel. Similarly, social sites should offer a trip mode where the view of your account is limited to recent contacts and messages.
.. I’ve pushed for “Six Fixes” to the Internet. I’ll push for them again!
- The right to examine, download, and delete any data stored about you. A time horizon (weeks, not years) for how long companies are allowed to retain behavioral data (any data about yourself you didn’t explicitly provide).
- A prohibition on selling or transferring collections of behavioral data, whether outright, in an acquisition, or in bankruptcy.
- A ban on third-party advertising. Ad networks can still exist, but they can only serve ads targeted against page content, and they cannot retain information between ad requests.
- An off switch on Internet-connected devices, that physically cuts their access to the network. This switch should not prevent the device from functioning offline. You should be able to stop the malware on your refrigerator from posting racist rants on Twitter while still keeping your beer cold.
- A legal framework for offering certain privacy guarantees, with enforceable consequences. Think of this as a Creative Commons for privacy. If they can be sure data won’t be retained, users will be willing to experiment with many technologies that would pose too big a privacy risk in the current reality.
.. At a minimum, we need to break up Facebook so that its social features are divorced from the news feed.
.. But it cannot simultaneously be the platform for political organizing, political campaigns, and news delivery.
.. Shareholder pressure doesn’t work, because the large tech companies are structured to give founders absolute control no matter how many shares they own.
.. The one effective lever we have against tech companies is employee pressure. Software engineers are difficult to hire, expensive to train, and take a long time to replace. Small teams in critical roles (like operations or security) have the power to shut down a tech company if they act in concert.
.. Unfortunately, the enemy is complacency. Tech workers trust their founders, find labor organizing distasteful, and are happy to leave larger ethical questions to management. A workplace free of ‘politics’ is just one of the many perks the tech industry offers its pampered employees. So our one chance to enact meaningful change is slipping away.
In addition, Mrs. DeVos failed to address the original question I posed to her in her confirmation hearing, which was about why she is comfortable with voucher programs that force parents and students to sign away their rights under IDEA.
“Between her lack of experience with public education, her support for diverting taxpayer dollars to private schools without accountability requirements, and her lack of understanding of the challenges facing students with disabilities, Mrs. DeVos has shown herself to be completely unqualified for this position — and her recent letter has only reinforced that she is unfit to serve as Secretary of Education.
This lack of transparency has not translated into stellar academic results: student standardized-test scores at charter schools, the paper found, were no more than comparable with those at traditional public schools. And, despite the rhetoric of “choice,” lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while the parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system.
.. “It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.” DeVos was at the center of that lobby; her lodestar, Henderson wrote, “has been her conviction that any nontraditional public school is better than a traditional one, simply because it is not operated by government.”