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”

Let’s rebrand the #PeoplesVote as ‘The Cummings Plan’

Dominic Cummings

In 2016, Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the United States Supreme Court. In a historical break with precedent, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refused to confirm Garland to the Court, or even hold the traditional confirmation hearings.

In doing so, he dredged up a 1992 speech from Joe Biden, who was then a US Senator for Delaware. Back then, Biden had floated the idea that the president (at the time, George H. W. Bush) should wait until after the presidential and congressional elections before appointing a Supreme Court judge. Justifying his inaction in 1992, Senator McConnell cited the ‘Biden Rule’ in speeches, as if it were an established congressional custom. The seat remained open until after the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch instead. Continue reading “Let’s rebrand the #PeoplesVote as ‘The Cummings Plan’”

Proroguing Parliament and the Trampling of Tradition

Houses of Parliament at dusk. Photo by yrstruly on Flickr (CC licence)

Lost in the noise, this tweet from Labour Stephen Doughty MP:

https://twitter.com/SDoughtyMP/status/1072550760314007552

Events have over-taken this prospect. The Chair of the 1922 Committee received the required 48 letters on Tuesday, and so on Wednesday Theresa May had to weather a confidence motion from Conservative MPs. The opposition parties are keeping their powder dry on a confidence motion of their own. There is now no vote to avoid by proroguing parliament.

Nevertheless, the very thought of such manoeuvring should give us pause for thought. In the case of this Government and this embattled Prime Minister, the tactic would have surely backfired. While proroguing parliament is procedurally allowed, the British public would have considered it somehow ‘cheating’ and taken a dim view. Meanwhile, Members of the House of Commons would have been angry at having been denied the opportunity to censure the Government before Christmas, and would have returned in the New Year smarting for a confrontation. Continue reading “Proroguing Parliament and the Trampling of Tradition”

The Awkward Squad and the Horseshoe Nail

Darkness. Brazil elects a proud fascist. A gunman murders eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The EU is becoming unsafe: authoritarians are on the rise in Italy, Hungary, and Poland; Journalists have been murdered in Malta and Bulgaria. All around the world, politicians, the press and the people are asking themselves how and why things have declined so quickly and catastrophically.

Continue reading “The Awkward Squad and the Horseshoe Nail”

When the Myth of American Democracy Explodes

Listening to Carol Anderson talk about her book One Person, No Vote on the Ezra Klein Show podcast; about voter ID laws and other measures that actively prevent black people from voting; about gerrymandering and electoral college distortions that allow the party that loses the vote to win the election…

Watching Brett Kavanaugh testify to the US Senate Judiciary committee; where he refused to answer or evaded questions; where he perjured himself; and where his white male colleagues apologised to him for having his honour questioned…

… I found myself thinking that American democracy is on the decline. That it may even be irreparably damaged.

But then I thought again about what I had witnessed, and what people like Carol Anderson are complaining about. It is not that American democracy is dying, but that the absence of a proper democracy is and always has been entrenched. Continue reading “When the Myth of American Democracy Explodes”

Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme

The propaganda website InfoWars has been banned from Facebook, the Apple iTunes podcasting platform, and Spotify. Most people have welcomed the fact that these technology companies have finally acted to enforce their own terms and conditions, though others (including, obviously, InfoWars itself) says that this is an infringement of free speech.

I was invited onto the BBC Victoria Derbyshire TV programme today to discuss the issue, alongside Karin Robinson from Democrats Abroad; and Neil Heslin, whose son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and who has been taunted and harassed by the InfoWars website and its supporters. Continue reading “Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme”

Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement

Free speech is supposed to be facilitate human progress. In its ideal form, it enables debate and causes us to iterate better political policies, better cultural outputs and a better society.

In reality, the marketplace of ideas, if it exists at all, is corrupt and monopolised by those with money and power.

One aspect of freedom of expression I think about a lot is the way in which disagreements happen. I’ve expressed dismay at how some free speech advocates seem remarkably uninterested in listening to other points of view, and only really care about their own right to offend. And I’ve noted how many spats seem to disintegrate into a competition over who can first reach a place of unassailable piety. Continue reading “Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement”

Someone called the police

In the United States, there is growing discussion on social media about the phenomenon of white people calling the police when they see a black person doing something entirely normal, or when they perceive a black person not showing enough ‘respect’.

When Yale student Lolade Siyonbola fell asleep in the library while writing an essay, someone called the police. When Tenessee real-estate developer inspected a house in Memphis, someone called the police. When Oakland resident Onsayo Abram set up a barbeque in the park, someone called the police.

Today I saw a variation on the theme: someone threatening to call the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when he became annoyed by two women working at a cafe speaking Spanish to each other.

Many people have made the point that this is linked to President Donald J. Trump’s unpleasant rhetoric about ethnic minorities (and indeed, everything). He has set a terrible example which incubates racists attitudes and brings out the worst in people. Others say that this kind of racism was always present in the society and it is only thanks to social media that we know these incidents are systemic, not isolated (it is almost a decade since professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr was arrested for breaking into his own home).

But these incidents also illustrate something about civil rights that I had not understood until I started working for English PEN, and which I don’t think many other people appreciate, which is that ambiguous laws can erode our civil liberties. Continue reading “Someone called the police”

Name-alikeys, Revisited

A long time ago I wrote a post about other people named Robert Sharp. This was prompted by the fact that some guy wearing my name was running for Congress in the USA.

Nothing provokes as much introspection as your own personal homonym achieving something.

For some reason I didn’t link to the pop culture reference point for this, Are You Dave Gorman?

Since then I have created a Twitter list of other Robert Sharps, which I tautologically consider to be a form of narcissistic worldliness. Astonishingly the list contains not one but two professional wrestlers.

I have actually met Rob Sharp and the world did not explode, and I have also chatted on social media with Robert Sharp.

However, a recent Google search threw up a few faces of which I had not been aware. Here they are, in alphabetical order—click on the photographs to read more about each of them. Continue reading “Name-alikeys, Revisited”