You Should Watch And Share My #NoToLangleyFeeders Videos

In recent weeks I’ve become involved in a campaign against some proposed changes to admissions policies at a pair of local schools. You can read all about the issue on the campaign website, Fair Access Admissions for Langley Schools, and the @KeepLangleyFair Twitter feed.

The campaign is parochial in the best sense of that word. It’s a hyper-local issue and those involved coalesced quite quickly into functioning units working on media, policy, and logistics. We were able to do this because of the existing community infrastructure already in place: WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages for various school Parent-Teacher Associations, plus the fact that we see each other every day at the school gates. Continue reading “You Should Watch And Share My #NoToLangleyFeeders Videos”

Clearly, What This Controversy Needs Is Another White Person’s Thoughts On Racism, And I Am Happy To Oblige

Over on Twitter, the Daily Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges asks a question: has Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, been the target of specifically racist press coverage? Or is it just the double-standards in way the press writes about her, compared to the Duchess of Cambridge, that has led people to conclude that Meghan is the victim of racism?

The answer to the question appears to be ‘no’ – there has not been any mainstream media coverage or commentary that deploys racist tropes or epithets. Continue reading “Clearly, What This Controversy Needs Is Another White Person’s Thoughts On Racism, And I Am Happy To Oblige”

Algorithms and Radicalisation

I’ve been busy recently—work, study, Christmas—and haven’t felt a huge urge to write anything here. So let’s round off the year with some old fashioned web-logging: the mere bookmarking a story on a subject that feels emblematic of the entire decade.

A discussion about a pre-publication research paper with some shoddy methodology leads me to a New York Times article by Kevin Roose, published in June this year, chronicling one young man’s journey into alt.right radicalisation. A key insight:

The radicalization of young men is driven by a complex stew of emotional, economic and political elements, many having nothing to do with social media. But critics and independent researchers say YouTube has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism by combining two things: a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens.

The impact of algorithms on our psyche and society has become very apparent in the last few years. The power to determine who sees what and when can change moods and swing elections. But discussing the issue this week, Roose and other data journalists present some important caveats. The algorithm isn’t everything.

The only thing I’d add, coming at the issue (as I do) with an eye on freedom of expression concerns, is that the way the algos affect our interests is not in itself a bad thing.

We’ve all fallen down algorithm-induced ‘YouTube Rabbit Holes in our time, and when the subject is not political, the way that the system steers users away from mainstream content and into the back-catalogue the results can be delightful. Last night, for example, I watched a load of astonishing videos of ballet performances. I know nothing about ballet and cannot now remember how I happened upon them (perhaps I clicked on a link on someone’s blog?) but it’s possible this could be the start of a deep and consuming interest that we would usually applaud.y

Even political ‘radicalisation’ is not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine that ‘radicalising’ people to fight for racial or gender equality (say) or to become environmental activists, is actually desirable.

The issue, as ever, is not with ‘radicalisation’ per se but ‘violent radicalisation’ or (as the Commission for Counter Extremism recently suggested) with ‘hateful extremism.’ Algorithms that serve us relevant content are useful tools for many that can be misused by a few. Or, as Kevin Roose and Becca Lewis point out above, algorithms don’t radicalise people; people radicalise people.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t intervene to temper the algorithms. Just that the challenge for tech companies and governments is not one of banning, but of balance. This will be the task of the next decade. Let us hope that by 2030 we will have reached a fair settlement.

Trump’s Particular Style of Bullshitting

Donald Trump

Over on Twitter, CNN journalist Daniel Dale highlights Donald Trump’s “speaking mistake”…

Donald Trump has a particular style of bullshitting. He will assert something, and then qualify it with a “maybe” or a “probably.” Politicians the world over will obfuscate and mislead, but the way Trump does it is particularly noticeable. Its almost like he is a child, play-acting at being a politician.

Each of these qualifications — the “maybes” and the “probablies” — has a profound grammatical effect on the sentence. They render the assertion he has just made meaningless. But in the flow of a speech, the audience (and annoyingly, the journalists) don’t always pick up on the trick.

I’ve come to realise that this is the President’s way of trying to give himself plausible deniability for each lie. Those equivocations are Donald Trump’s ‘tell,’ the vocal quirk that betrays the fact that he’s just making shit up as he goes along. Every now and then I bookmark examples.

Continue reading “Trump’s Particular Style of Bullshitting”

Would It Break Journalism If Sources Who Lied Were Named?

Journalists Laura Keunssberg and Robert Peston have egg on their face this week, after they both breathlessly tweeted the news that a Tory staffer had been punched by a Labour activist in Leeds.

When video emerged of the incident, it turned out that no assault had taken place. One man accidentally brushed past the hand of another.

Both Keunssberg and Peston posted follow up tweets to apologise and share the video. But in giving an explanation for their inaccuracy, they enraged people further. Both journalists gave the excuse that ‘sources’ had told them it was true. Continue reading “Would It Break Journalism If Sources Who Lied Were Named?”

Trans rights: a short case study in how the media spreads misinformation

Here’s an interesting example of how misinformation spreads through subtle misrepresentation of the facts.

‘Party refuses to let ‘gender-critical’ woman join’ reports The Times (£):

The Liberal Democrats have told a “gender non-conforming” woman who does not accept that humans can change sex to join another party.

This is accurate. The woman in question wrote an email to the Liberal Democrat’s, describing her views on transgender people and stating “I do not believe people can change biological sex.”

Someone from the Liberal Democrats responded. They recognised that the woman’s views on transgenderism were at odds with party policy, and politely told her she would be better off elsewhere. Continue reading “Trans rights: a short case study in how the media spreads misinformation”

Brexit Silver Linings

A General Election has finally been called. The outcome is by no means certain but there is a good chance that Boris Johnson will secure a majority for the Conservative Party in the House of Commons. They will then be able to deliver Brexit.

Needless to say, I do not favour this outcome, for several reasons: I think exiting the EU is a bad idea; leaving under the current proposed ‘deal’ is one of the worst ways to do it; Scotland will vote for independence; and it’s utterly galling that Boris Johnson’s lies, incompetence and meanness of character might somehow result in political success.

If all that happened, what might be the silver linings around those dark clouds?

I can think of three.

Continue reading “Brexit Silver Linings”

Actually, Nick, ‘Wokeness’ Helps Free Speech

What do people mean when they use the term ‘woke’ in a political context? By the time it crossed my radar, it had come to mean, simply, an acceptance that racism, sexism and other prejudices were still a problem for society.

With that definition in mind, I always thought it slightly weird for anyone to seriously describe themselves as ‘woke’ – especially if one was white and male. For a short time my Twitter bio was tautological-for-fun: Woke Free Speech Bro (until an incredibly embarrassing case of context collapse involving a famous author that I’m too embarrassed to link to).

‘Woke’ has become a term of derision and mockery. Over the summer I asked this:

I just realised that I don’t ever recall hearing the word ‘woke’ (in its new, political/social sense) used in a way that wasn’t pejorative or ironic. Are there still communities where it’s used seriously?

Continue reading “Actually, Nick, ‘Wokeness’ Helps Free Speech”