Reshaping the American information environment via Russian cyberattack

A well-known intelligence analyst asks a ridiculously simple question: has Russia diverted us with one threat, when the real threat will come from another direction?

“Understanding — or at least learning to identify — the Kremlin’s behavior requires developing a kind of pattern recognition that is cultivated by studying (or living through) past cases and examples. In this last decade or so, I’ve been on the frontlines in multiple countries that were being intensely targeted by the Kremlin, and I’ve had too many opportunities to learn from what we missed until it was too late. It’s a horrible way to learn. The cost is high. It impacts the lives and freedom and security of entire nations. (America is learning a bit about this now, in real time, though we still enjoy long bouts of make-believe about how none of it has really effected us, or really the problem has been us all along, or something.)

It isn’t so much that there is a specific Kremlin “playbook” for certain events, or a checklist of steps they go down when trying to disrupt or subvert target countries. It’s more that there are categories of things that they try, and different kinds of options that they prepare. In a serious campaign, there’s never just one line of effort, reliant on only one side or one main set of actors who are aware of all the parts, or even fully aware of their own. There will be parallel initiatives in different spaces, often quite modest seeming, sometimes integrated with each other or connected by common personalities or financing or infrastructure, but just as often insulated from each other but working toward the same objectives, usually from many sides of a major issue.”

“…Russian information operations were a factor in a radically reshaped American information environment that became the context of how voters made decisions, how they decided to vote or not, and ultimately, how the outcomes Russia was working toward were achieved. This truth is inescapable.”


We think we know but do we really

White people want to see some first hand reactions, try wearing a Black Lives Matter branded theme around a mostly white town, see what comes back at you.  If we can’t walk that walk, we shouldn’t talk that talk. Please say it out loud and be clear as you take it into the real world. 

Back to school

Very excited to enroll in the online version of Michael Sandel’s “Justice” moral philosophy course at Harvard. This may be the first course of this type I’ve taken since I left college, and after watching the first lecture and participating in the activities, I feel energized in ways I haven’t been for decades. Some of those dusty old books will be coming down from the shelves. Why do we think it’s okay to stop learning in group environments when we leave school?

The tyranny of merit

Needs to be a counter to “the ethic of total retaliation.” about which I post regularly, and maybe Michael Sandel is onto something here, that we could move away, step by step, from the language and concepts and principles and reinforcement of meritocracy. Bit of a communitarianism update from Jean-Jacques Rousseau for the modern age, where progressives could better walk their talk. Very interesting discussion. The analysis about the election near the end is devastating–for Democrats.

[from The New Yorker]


Social media without a mask

We’re far past the moment when we can just point to the people who are doing it. They couldn’t be doing it without their base, so we’re also far past the moment when we should hold the supporters accountable too.

I’ve screened my friendships best I can for racists and fascists–there’s a line that’s unforgivable to cross, and I won’t be associated in any way with those people, no matter who they are, no matter how long I’ve known them. I still have friends who have conservative values, who argue against government spending, who are climate deniers, who value their religious beliefs over a woman’s right to choose, but hey, they are not racists and fascists that I know of. Bring the discussion points, and if you have them, the votes. I held the others accountable and took personal responsibility for what’s around me and banished them: dropkicked them to fuckin’ Mars, as a former CEO of a company I used to work for liked to say.

The problem is that there are a lot of those kinds of people still appearing on my social media timelines front and center in the comments of friends who haven’t done the same. It’s a problem because social media is nothing but a network effect–it’s amplification and repetition and oxygen and agency and platform for information and for misinformation, for truth and for lies, for love and for hate, and for people who truly support the democratic republic that is our country and for the fascists and racists who are trying to bring us down to becoming an authoritarian regime. I started blocking those friends of friends, pulled back from it to see if it was maybe me instead of them, and now that I see the effect again, I’m going back to the block button. Was a whole lot happier when I didn’t see what was under the rock.

Here’s one example of why: high school friend, has always been on the right, even the extreme right, but most people I know from high school are still friends with him here because we all grew up together. He’s the kind of guy that shows up immediately on Facebook posts to argue; if you post “hope,” he comes on and says “well what about…” and the conversation immediately changes to the extreme right topic he’s pushing rather than hope. And my friends allow this because, sometimes, they enjoy the quixotic fight to change his mind (they never will), but mostly because they don’t know how far back into the sewer this guy is reaching for his views.

In this case, we only have to look at his Twitter account to see that he follows the most vile racists, fascists and authoritarians available on digital media, and that even his own account is considered toxic by independent services like BotSentinel (see below) that measure for extreme behaviors. So the bottom line is that this guy is a conduit for the worst political and social positions in the world–neo-Nazi organizations, white supremacist organizations, insurgent militias openly calling for civil war–directly to the timelines of my friends who would never consider associating with a person from those groups. Follow the rabbit hole and it gets even worse than what I have described here, all the way back to the Russian military intelligence troll farms that produce the ideas and the content to begin with. He gets a pass though because he often says stuff with an innocent smile and after all, the’s just the guy from town we grew up with.

This has a incredibly corrosive effect on people and their opinions, and further, turns everyone who allows this on their wall to be a megaphone for ideas they would never allow or subscribe to. My friends who still tolerate this from their friends may say that it has no effect on them, and maybe it doesn’t; but one thing I know about social media is, you never know who else is reading silently in the background, and what effect it has on them. Sometimes you only have to follow the ‘share’ path to see how far it goes.

I see this over and over and over again…another friend who allows pandemic misinformation from an executive in the healthcare industry who is likely profiteering off of the government’s inadequate response, plus someone who is clearly in the KKK, both in the same comment thread in the same post. It’s all over the place and it’s very sad that while we bemoan the spread of extremist ideas, we won’t do the very sane and simple things we need to do to stop it. Honestly it’s no different than refusing to put on a mask.

So, I’m back to the block button, level 1, when I see those people pop up in the comments. And in some cases, it may come to a broader unfollow button as well. Step by step until it’s done, because this cannot stand.

The road not taken across the digital divide

Excellent and thoughtful piece on the mistakes we made in 1994. We all talked about and knew the choices, and as usual, money won out. Honestly, what has happened since is simply disgusting and we’re paying a heavy price now.  Parents and teachers should be raising holy hell.

[from Medium OneZero]

Empathy returns fire

Very interesting thinking about how we’ve arrived at this uncaring, un-empathetic time influenced heavily by what is now practiced as an uncaring, un-empathetic religious movement. Responding with caring and empathy only reinforces the damage.
White progressives thus face the same empathy trap today that they did during the Civil Rights era: without understanding that empathy includes prophetic resistance to harm, the liberal Protestant adage supposedly coined by John Watson to “be kind, for every person you meet is fighting a hard battle” becomes the perfect nihilistic ammunition to destroy all ethical responsibility at the altar of political expediency.
This paradoxically means that the costliest political behavior required of white Protestants right now is to disavow the desire to be seen by others as empathetic. While empathy remains a powerful tool, it becomes nothing more than justification for white civility if it is not used as spiritual fuel for protecting one’s vulnerable neighbors. To relinquish solidarity with oppressed Black, Brown, and Indigenous people because of bad-faith political accusations of incivility would be the true end of empathy.


“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”

Important and necessary read in our age, outstanding in every way. Will make you smarter, and a better citizen, immediately.

tl;dr: these are just the headlines.

• Recognize that bullshitters are different from liars, and be alert for both.
• Upon encountering a piece of information, in any form, ask, “Who is telling me this? How does he or she know it? What is he or she trying to sell me?”
• Remember that if a data-based claim seems too good to be true, it probably is.
• Use Enrico Fermi’s guesstimation techniques to check the plausibility of data-based claims.
• Watch out for unfair comparisons.
• Remember that correlation doesn’t imply causation.
• Beware of Big Data hubris.
• Know that machines can be racist (or sexist, or otherwise prejudiced).

And last, the finishing note:

• Mind the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle: the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.

[from The New Yorker]

Asymmetrical misinformation warfare

This is some pretty dense reading, but it clearly outlines some staggering differences in online information behaviors between left- and right-wing audiences.

  • right-wingers keep searching for news items until they find something that supports their point of view, regardless of the legitimacy of the source
  • right-wingers purposely game the system–cheap algorthim tricks and sophistcated bots–to amplify those sources far beyond real human behavior
  • this leads not only to right wing news operations like FoxNews to act as aggregators of manipulated content, but also draws legitimate news organizations into promoting right-leaning content
  • much of the original content is generated or introduced in narrow alt-tech right-wing communities like Parler and 4chan, carefully out of sight of moderating influences and where it’s honed for wider distribution.

It’s all in bad faith. People are not being gullible or stupid. They’re going out of their way to cheat and lie and spread hate.

[from Science magazine]