Computational Propaganda

Sick of all this memo talk? Too bad, because thanks to Lynna, OM in the Political Madness thread I discovered a new term: “computational propaganda,” or the use of computers to help spread talking points and generate “grassroots” activism. It’s a lot more advanced than running a few bots, too. You’ll have to read the article to learn the how and why, but I can entice you with its conclusion:

The problem with the term “fake news” is that it is completely wrong, denoting a passive intention. What is happening on social media is very real; it is not passive; and it is information warfare. There is very little argument among analytical academics about the overall impact of “political bots” that seek to influence how we think, evaluate and make decisions about the direction of our countries and who can best lead us—even if there is still difficulty in distinguishing whose disinformation is whose. Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher with Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project who has helped to document the impact of “polbot” activity, told me: “Often, it’s hard to tell where a particular story comes from. Alt-right groups and Russian disinformation campaigns are often indistinguishable since their goals often overlap. But what really matters is the tools that these groups use to achieve their goals: Computational propaganda serves to distort the political process and amplify fringe views in ways that no previous communication technology could.”

This machinery of information warfare remains within social media’s architecture. The challenge we still have in unraveling what happened in 2016 is how hard it is to pry the Russian components apart from those built by the far- and alt-right—they flex and fight together, and that alone should tell us something. As should the fact that there is a lesser far-left architecture that is coming into its own as part of this machine. And they all play into the same destructive narrative against the American mind.

Democracies have not faced a challenge like this since yellow journalism.

The Nunes Memo

To understand what the memo is talking about, you have to trace back three separate threads.

Carter Page. In 2013, a number of Russian government agents tried to recruit him, via a lucrative deal with Gazprom. In return, Page admits to feeding them documents (which he claims were “basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents”). As luck would have it, at least one of those agents was already under surveillance (which would later lead to a conviction for espionage), so the FBI asked for and got a FISA warrant to ensure Page wasn’t part of a Russian spy network. That would have been scary, as Page was an advisor to then-candidate Donald Trump. These warrants expire every 90 days, and if the government wants them renewed they have to plead their case to a judge in a special court. The warrant against Page was renewed at least four times, by multiple people and multiple judges.

George Papadopoulos. According to the New York Times, “During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.” By “dirt,” he meant “stolen emails;” a spear-phishing campaign against the DNCC by a Russian government hacking group dubbed “Fancy Bear” succeeded in mid-March 2016, and on April 26th a Russian intelligence agent was teasing Papadopoulos with the emails. When they were released to the public in July 2016, the FBI opened an investigation into Papadopoulos. According to his guilty plea to the Special Investigator, Papadopoulos was bullish on getting Trump to meet Vladimir Putin and kept up his contacts with Russian spies during his time on the Trump campaign. As late as December 4th of 2016, Papadopoulos was publicly calling himself a Trump advisor.

Fusion GPS. In multiple congressional testimonies, Glenn Simpson said that his company was hired by The Washington Free Beacon to dig up dirt on Trump. Fusion GPS’s research found a tonne of it, most notably potential money laundering for Russian oligarchs. Simpson hired Christopher Steele, a former British spy with decades of Russia experience and a solid track record, to investigate the Russian angle. Steele’s work would eventually become “the Trump Dossier” (which may need to be renamed, as I somehow missed a second dossier). Partway through generating the 17 separate memos which would become The Dossier, Trump was crowned the official Republican presidential candidate and the Washington Free Beacon stopped funding it; the Democratic National Committee then picked up the tab. What Steele found had him so terrified that he, with Simpson’s approval, started sharing the information around. The first contact was an FBI agent in Rome; when the FBI themselves seemed oddly disinterested, he went to journalist David Corn and later Senator John McCain. The Dossier’s veracity has improved over time, and the Kremlin may have iced one of Steele’s contacts.

You’ll need a bit more background to fully grok it, but I can sprinkle that in while covering the claims of the memo itself.

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Winning Hearts and Minds

I’ll forgive you if haven’t heard of Ian Danskin, if only because he’s primarily known on YouTube as Innuendo Studios. You know, the person behind “Why Are You So Angry?” and more recently “The Alt-Right Playbook.” The latter project is aimed at sharpening the rhetoric of progressives to better defend against the “playbook” the Alt-Right uses in online arguments. It’s still a work in progress, but recently Danskin tried to jump ahead and compress it all into a single lecture.

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The Power Of Representation

I kicked around a number of titles for this one: The Persistence of Bias, Science is Social, Beeing Blind. It’s amazing just how many themes can be packed into a Twitter thread.

Hank Campbell: Resist the call to make science about social justice. Astronomers should not be enthusiastic when told that their cosmic observations are inevitably a reflex of the power of the socially privileged.

Ask An Entomologist: Although we disagree with this tweet…it gives us an opportunity to explore a really interesting topic. What we now call ‘queen’ bees-the main female reproductive honeybees-were erroneously called ‘kings’ for nearly 2,000 years. Why? Let’s explore the history of bees!

We’ve been keeping bees for 5,000 years+ and what we called the various classes of bees was closely tied to the societies naming those classes. For instance, in a lot of societies it was very common to call the ‘workers’ slaves because slavery was common at the time. For awhile, this was the big head-honcho in the biological sciences. This is Aristotle, whose book The History of Animals was the accepted word on animal biology in Europe until roughly the 1600s. This book was published in 350, and discussed honeybees in quite some detail …and is a good reflection on what was known at the time. […] I’d recommend reading the whole thing…it’s really interesting for a number of reasons.

…but in particular, let’s look at how Aristotle described the swarming process. Bees reproduce by swarming: They make new queens, who leave to set up a new hive. The queens take a big chunk of the colony’s workers with them.

“Of the king bees there are, as has been stated, two kinds. In every hive there are more kings than one; and a hive goes to ruin if there be too few kings, not because of anarchy thereby ensuing, but, as we are told, because these creatures contribute in some way to the generation of the common bees. A hive will go also to ruin if there be too large a number of kings in it; for the members of the hives are thereby subdivided into too many separate factions.”

Aristotle didn’t know what we know about bees now…but it was widely accepted that the biggest bees in the colony lead the hive somehow and were essential for reproduction and swarming. …but we now know the queens are female. Why didn’t Aristotle?

Well it turns out that Aristotle, frankly, had some *opinions* about women. He was…uh, a little sexist. Which was, like, common at the time. Without going into all of his views on the topic, it’s apparent his views on women pretty heavily influenced what he saw was going on in the beehive. He thought of reproduction as a masculine activity, and thought of women as property. He…just wasn’t very objective about this. So, when he saw a society led almost entirely of women…it actually makes a lot of sense as to why he saw the ‘queen’ bees as male and called them kings. These ideas of women in his circle were so ingrained that a female ruler literally wouldn’t compute.

Moving on through the middle ages, the name ‘king’ kind of stuck because biological sciences were stuck on Aristotle’s ideas for a very long time. Beekeepers *knew* the queens were female; they were observed laying eggs…but their exact role was controversial outside of them. In fact, in most circles, it was commonly accepted that the workers gathered the larvae which grew on plants. Again, this is from Aristotle’s work.

So…today it’s completely and 100% accepted that queen bees are, in fact, female…and that the honeybee society is led by women. What changed in Western Society to get this idea accepted?

The exact work which popularized the (scientifically accurate) idea of the honeybee as a female-led society was The Feminine Monarchy, by Charles Butler. However, I’d argue this lady also played a role. The woman in the picture … is Queen Elizabeth, who ruled England from 1558 until her death in 1603. Charles Butler (1560-1647) published The Feminine Monarchy in 1609, and had lived under Queen Elizabeth’s reign for most of his life. This is largely a ‘right place, right time’ situation. At this point, there was a lot of science that was just up and starting. There had been female rulers before, but not at the exact point where people were rethinking their assumptions. The fact that Charles Butler was interested in bees, *and* lived under a female monarch for most of his life, I think played a major role in his decision to substitute one simple word in his book.

That substitution? He called ‘king bees’ ‘queen bees’…and it stuck.

At this point in Europe’s history, there had been several female monarchs so the idea of a female leader didn’t seem so odd. Society was simply primed to accept the idea of a female ruler.

…but this thread isn’t just about words, it’s also about *sex*.

How so? Sorry, you’ll have to click through for that one. Bee sure to read to the end for the punchline, too. Big kudos are due to @BugQuestions for such an expansive, deep Twitter thread.

The Gender Inclusivity of Diverse White Privilege Equity

Blame Shiv for this one; she posted about someone at Monsanto inviting Jordan Peterson to talk about GMOs, and it led me down an interesting rabbit hole. For one thing, the event already happened, and it was the farce you were expecting. This, however, caught my eye:

Corrupt universities—and Women’s Studies departments in particular, he says—are responsible for turning students into activists who will one day tear apart the fabric of society. “The world runs on ideas. And the ideas that are in the universities are the ideas that are going to be in the general public in five to ten years. And there’s no shielding yourself from it,” he said.

Peterson also shared a trick for figuring out whether or not a child’s school has been affected by the coming crisis: If a schoolteacher uses any of the five words listed on his display screen—”diversity,” “inclusivity,” “equity,” “white privilege,” or “gender”—then a child has been “exposed.”

What’s Peterson’s solution for all this? “The answer to the ills that our society still obviously suffers from,” he said, is that “people should adopt an ethos of responsibility rather than continually clamoring about their rights, which is something that we’ve been talking about for about four decades too long, as far as I can surmise.”

Four decades puts us back into the 1970’s, when women’s liberation groups were calling to be able to exercise their right to bodily autonomy, to be free from violence, to equal pay for equal work, to equal custody of kids. If Peterson is opposed to that then he’s more radical than most MRAs, who are generally fine with Second Wave feminism. I wonder if he’s a lost son of Phyllis Schlafly.

But more importantly, he appears to be warning us of a crisis coming in 5-10 years, one that invokes those five terms as holy writ. That’s …. well, let’s step through it.

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Are You As Smart As A President?

During his annual physical, Trump petitioned for, and got, a test of his mental abilities. The doc says he got a perfect mark. Let’s set aside that he also makes some questionable claims about Trump’s shape, and accept that part as accurate. The president himself is glowing about the high marks he got.

With North Korea persisting as the major global challenge facing Trump this year, the president cast doubt on whether talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be useful. In the past he has not ruled out direct talks with Kim. “I’d sit down, but I‘m not sure that sitting down will solve the problem,” he said, noting that past negotiations with the North Koreans by his predecessors had failed to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

He blamed his three immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for failing to resolve the crisis and, a day after his doctor gave him a perfect score on a cognitive test, suggested he had the mental acuity to solve it.

“I guess they all realized they were going to have to leave it to a president that scored the highest on tests,” he said.

As luck would have it, the test Trump took has both a work sheet and instructions available online. I recommend you spare a moment for it, but as a teaser I’ll share a few questions.

  • Indicate the right third of the space and give the following instructions: “Draw a clock. Put in all the numbers and set the time to 10 past 11”.
  • The examiner gives the following instructions: “Tell me the date today”. If the subject does not give a complete answer, then prompt accordingly by saying: “Tell me the [year, month, exact date, and day of the week].” Then say: “Now, tell me the name of this place, and which city it is in.”
  • Beginning on the left, point to each figure and say: “Tell me the name of this animal”.
  • The examiner gives the following instructions: “I am going to read you a sentence. Repeat it after me, exactly as I say it [pause]: “I only know that John is the one to help today.” Following the response, say: “Now I am going to read you another sentence. Repeat it after me, exactly as I say it [pause]: “The cat always hid under the couch when dogs were in the room.”

Take the presidential challenge! If you can equal his score, maybe you’re also fit enough to have partial control over the world’s largest military and full control of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

[HJH 2018-01-17] In hindsight, I’m a little worried the above comes off as ablest. The Montreal Cognitive Assessment is a legit test, and quite useful for certain things.

It’s a pretty useful tool to quickly assess dementia symptoms, or to assess cognitive functioning after a stroke. A 2007 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found the Montreal Cognitive Assessment correctly detected 94 percent of patients with mild cognitive impairment, performing better than another test of cognitive wherewithal. It’s been shown to be helpful in identifying symptoms in Parkinson’s patients, and in those who have suffered a stroke.

The point is that it’s a really odd thing to boast about. It’s more difficult to own a driver’s license or graduated high school than pass this test. Breaking out the Champaign tells me you either lack enough intelligence to understand what the test is about, or you are so isolated that you think everyone’s beef with you is that you have dementia. It ain’t, I assure you.

Stephanie Zvan on Recovered Memories

I’ve been hoping for a good second opinion on this topic, and Zvan easily delivers. She has some training in psychology (unlike me), has been dealing with this topic for longer than I have, and by waiting longer to weigh in she’s had more time to craft her arguments. I place high weight on her words, so if you liked what I had to say be sure to read her take as well.

When we look more generally at how memory works, it quickly becomes apparent that focusing exclusively on the recovery of false memories produces lessons that aren’t generally applicable for evaluating memories of traumatic events. We need to continue to be on our guard for the circumstances that produce induced memories, and we have skeptics to thank for very important work on that topic.

However, it’s equally important that we, as skeptics, don’t fall into thinking every memory that people haven’t been shouting from the rooftops from the moment of trauma is induced. Recovered false memories are unusual events that happen under unusual circumstances. Abuse is a common occurrence, typically subject to normal rules of memory.

She also takes a slightly different path than I did. As weird as it may sound, I didn’t cover recovered memories very much in an argument supposedly centred around them; between the science on trauma, the obvious bias of Pendergrast and Crews, the evidence for bias from Loftus, the signs of anomaly hunting, and those court transcripts, I didn’t need to. I could blindly accept their assumptions of how those memories worked, and still have a credible counter-argument. Zvan’s greater familiarity with psychology allows her to take on that angle directly, and it adds much to the conversation. A taste:

Not everyone is susceptible to [false recovered memories]. Brewin and Andrews, writing for The British Psychological Society, characterize the situation thus: “Rather than childhood memories being easy to implant, therefore, a more reasonable conclusion is that they can be implanted in a minority of people given sufficient effort.” Estimates in the studies they look at (including Elizabeth Loftus’s work) show an effect in, on average, 15% of study participants, though they caution actual belief in those memories may be lower.

But enough from me, go read her.