Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Small Guy Can Play that Game too!

Political agendas advance through propaganda, social media, lobbyists, and political infiltration. Bots and trolls work to infiltrate social media platforms and influence public opinion and elections.

Political infiltration is sometimes called entryism. The strategy involves encouraging members or supporters of an organization or a state to join a larger organisation in an attempt to influence ideas and/or subvert the programs and objectives of the larger group.

The threat of political infiltration is not a new one. The Founding Fathers feared foreign interference and took steps to prevent it, as former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter noted in a 2017 speech.
"The founders took steps to guard against such [interference] by including in our Constitution guardrails like the requirement that the president be a 'natural born citizen."
Another measure to protect the new nation from foreign influence was the Emoluments Clause, prohibiting any government official from accepting a title or a gift from a foreign government.

Likewise, journalists who accept money from the large media corporations are not going to bite the hand that feeds them. They will promote the acceptable narrative.

A Marxist view of the struggle between political parties and between the elites and the common man would have us focus on who controls the means of production. These are impersonal entities that influence policies through their seemingly inexhaustible purchasing power. They own the mainstream media outlets. They own the lobbies, and they influence through political infiltration and gaslighting.

In some ways the availability of social media balances the influence of powerful corporations. A discerning and articulate individual can offset the manipulation by naming it. This must be done without violating community standards of discourse. It requires self-promotion with humility.

The secret to having a positive effect as a public critic using social media is to be honest, to back up your claims with substantial sources, and to produce a large body of work. This must be done as an independent writer, and without accepting money from anyone. That is the only way to cut the puppet strings.

Every person exercises influence on someone; a friend, a room mate, or a younger sibling. You may chose how you will you influence those around you. With internet access, a critical thinker can expose a great deal of corruption and manipulation. If you speak the truth grounded in reality, you will gain a following. The small guy can play the influence game too.

Related reading: Public Debate and Search Engine Politics; Do You Know What Your Algorithms Are Up To?; The Facebook Algorithm Explained; Social Media Bots and Political Propaganda;
The Media Stokes Anger and RadicalizationTrapped in a Web of Punditry

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Social Media Bots and Political Propaganda

Wars are launched, waged, and often won by the use of political propaganda. The same can be said for political campaigns. Today the propaganda spreads through social media.

Social media platforms circulate political ideas and hope to sway public opinion through manipulative disinformation campaigns. Some of these campaigns are carried out by individuals and their campaigners, but most are waged by software bots, programmed to perform simple, repetitive, robotic tasks. Individuals can coordinate campaigns made up of bots, fake accounts, and often present themselves as a group of people, to give the illusion of large-scale consensus. The social media platforms usually catch up with these people and neutralize their efforts.

Some social media bots collect and distribute legitimate information. Less benign bots communicate with and harass people, manipulate trending algorithms, and inundate systems with spam. Political regimes use bots to silence opponents and to push the regime's message. These attempt to sway the vote during elections, and to defame political opponents, critics, human rights defenders, and journalists.

A person to follow for information on social media as propaganda is Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at the Computational Propaganda Project and a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute. She’s been tracking the phenomenon of political manipulation through disinformation on social media.

Samantha’s work examines government use of social media for coordinated digital disinformation campaigns. Her research has been featured by numerous media outlets, including the Washington Post, Bloomberg, and the Financial Times. She holds an MA in global governance from the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and a joint honors BA in political science and legal studies from the University of Waterloo. You can find Samantha on Twitter at @sbradshaww.

A timely book on this topic is Computational Propaganda: Political Parties, Politicians, and Political Manipulation on Social Media (Editors: Philip N. Howard and Samuel C. Woolley, Nov. 2018).

The book gives details on how automation and platform manipulation amount to a new political communications mechanism. Howard and Woolley call it “computational propaganda.”

Computational propaganda differs from older styles of propaganda in that it uses algorithms, automation, and human curation to purposefully distribute disinformation over social media networks. At the same time, it learns from and mimics real people so as to manipulate public opinion across a diverse range of platforms and device networks.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Boko Haram Terrorism Spreads

Women from a Christian village in Cameroon recover after having their ears chopped off by members of Boko Haram in July 2019. (Photo: Open Doors)

Nigeria’s decade-long conflict with Boko Haram has resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 civilians and a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Approximately 2.1 million people have been displaced by the conflict while 7 million need humanitarian assistance. The crisis is likely to expand as Boko Haram broadens its ruthless attacks.

Boko Haram terrorists stormed the Christian village of Kalagari in northern Cameroon on July 29, taking eight women hostage and cutting off their ears before releasing them. The women are being treated for their injuries but Open Doors UK said it was not clear whether all of the abducted women had been released.

The militant group has been attacking Christian communities in Nigeria for the last decade and has now spread its violent ideology into Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

Boko Haram was responsible for attacks that killed more than 425 people, including police officers, soldiers, community leaders, politicians, Islamic clerics, Christian pastors, and church members. The attacks on November 4 resulted in the highest death toll in a single day since Boko Haram began its campaign of violence in Nigeria in July 2009.

Boko Haram was was responsible for hundreds of deaths in attacks in Maiduguri on government buildings, markets, schools, media houses and churches, including church bombings that sparked a new wave of sectarian violence in late June 2012. The violence killed about 100 people between the bombings and the fights.

Boko Haram murdered three North Korean medical doctors, beheading one, in Yobe State. Boko Haram also murdered nine female polio workers in Kano.

Boko Haram murdered a Christian pastor and a Muslin cleric who were traveling together. They were ambushed in Zaria. In Feb. 2014 Boko Haram slaughtered 43 students in a Christian school in Buni Yadi.

The 300 schoolgirls abducted by Bolo Haram from the village of Chibok in 2014 are still missing.The names of some of the girls are listed here. Six years later, 112 girls are still missing.

Boko Haram militants razed the town of Baga in north-east Nigeria and attacked surrounding areas. Bodies lay strewn on Baga's streets. At least 2,000 people were killed. Boko Haram now controls 70% of Borno State, which is the worst-affected by the insurgency.

In March, soldiers from Niger and Chad who liberated the Nigerian town of Damasak from Boko Haram discovered the bodies of at least 70 people, many with their throats slit, scattered under a bridge.

In June Boko Haram lauched attacks on the villages of Debiro Hawul and Debiro Bi in Borno state, killing at least 40 persons.

In a separate attack, a 12-year old female suicide bomber killed at least 35 people in a mosquein the town of Gujba in Yobe State.

In Feb. Boko Haram killed at lest 65 people in Dalori in Kaduna State. A suicide bomber infiltrated the group that was hiding.

The same month Boko Haram gunmen in pickups stormed the villages of Yakshari and Kachifa in Damboa district, slaughtering at least 30 villagers, in two separate attacks on Friday night and Saturday morning.

Boko Haram militants kidnapped about 40 young adults, women and children, and killed 18 in the town of Banki in Borno State, on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon. Boko Haram is blamed for the murders of about 400 people between April and September 2017 in the Lake Chad area. 

In 2107, Boko Haram launched 90 armed assaults and 59 suicide attacks.

In June, Boko Haram attacked and killed 9 soldiers and wounded two others in Gajiram, headquarters of the local government of Nganzai in northeastern Nigeria.

In July, Boko Haram swarmed the 81 Division Task Force Brigade in Jilli in Yobe State. Three Nigerian Army officers and 28 soldiers were killed.

Boko Haram began targeting soldiers. In October, Boko Haram attacked and killed 15 soldiers near the Niger Border and around the Lake Chad.

In November, gunmen overran a Nigerian army battalion at Metele Village in Guzamala Local government in Borno State killing 100 soldiers.

In July, Boko Haram attacked a funeral procession, killing at least 60 people and injuring 11.

Earlier in the month Boko Haram attacked soldiers near the village of Damboa, killing five. Another 14 soldiers and two civilians were also wounded.

On 20 January, Pastor Lawan Andimi was murdered by Boko Haram. This launched a protest march of five million people.

On the same day Pastor Andimi was murdered, the terrorist group released video footage of its murder of kidnapped student Ropvil Dalep.

On 10 February, Boko Haram killed at least 30 people and abducted women and children in Auno town on a major highway in Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria.

In March, Boko Haram killed at least 6 soldiers in Banki.

In May, Boko Haram killed 20 Muslims in an attack on villagers in Maiduguri.

In June, Boko Haram murdered 81 in the nomadic community of Faduma Kolomdi in northern Borno. The terrorists stole at least 100 head of cattle.

In July, Boko Haram posted a video of the execution of 3 Christians ad 2 Muslims in Borno.

Related reading: Timeline of Boko Haram Terrorist Attacks; "Boko Haram Beyond the Headlines" (Report of Combating Terrorism Group at West Point); Boko Haram Murders Nine Polio Workers

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Trapped in a Web of Punditry

Alice C. Linsley

The citizens of the United States of America are facing what promises to be another contentious presidential election in 2020. We can expect heated rhetoric and further polarization. The election campaigns will be flashy and pander to fears on all sides. Opponents will be presented in the most unflattering way, with suggestions and accusations of deceit, corruption, and bigotry. The discourse will reach a moral and intellectual low, and the usual gaslighting will occur.

The term "gaslighting" is taken from the movie, Gaslight, in which Charles Boyer manipulates and confuses the mind of Ingrid Bergman. This type of manipulation is found inside both political parties and doubtless it will occur more frequently in the months ahead.

Gaslighting aims at causing confusion in the minds of the public. Confusion makes it difficult for people to make informed decisions. The gaslighter seeks to impose his narrative to prevent people from perceiving the reality. Dr. Bryant Welch writes about this in his book The State of Confusion (2008). He argues that various forms of political manipulation undermine the nation's ability to confront real problems.

Thinking people will be able to cut through the confusion, but few will be able to communicate the reality to others in a clear and concise way. In part, this is because we fall into the traps. We use the language of political slogans instead of simple English. We are caught in a web of punditry.

Punditry involves opinions more than data and resembles entertainment more than reporting. It dominates the mass media, and the examples are often ludicrous. As Dorothy Sayers pointed out in her famous speech "The Lost Tools of Learning" (1949) modernity has produced a climate favorable to bishops airing "their opinions about economics; biologists, about metaphysics; inorganic chemists, about theology; the most irrelevant people are appointed to highly technical ministries; and plain, blunt men write to the papers to say that Epstein and Picasso do not know how to draw."

To further complicate matters, there is a deficit of articulate communicators who hold telling the truth as their first priority. I am reminded of the sage advice Wendell Barry gave to my writing students. He wrote:
The first obligation of a writer is to tell the truth--or to come as near to telling it as is humanly possible. To do that, it is necessary to learn to write well. And to learn to write well, it is necessary to learn to read well. Reading will make you a better writer, provided you will read ever more attentively and critically. You will probably read a lot of contemporary writing in your textbooks, in magazines and newspapers, in popular novels, etc. The contemporary is inescapable. You may more easily escape the writing that is most necessary to you. I mean the books we know as "classics," books that have been read for generations or for centuries and so have proved their excellence.

The first obligation of a communicator should be to tell the truth, and in order to do that, the communicator must read, think, analyze, pay attention to details, and make distinctions. Unfortunately, less than truthful narratives dominate the public domain, and obfuscation has become an art in the political arena.

If there is an antidote to the poison, it must involve turning off the pundits, reading to learn, telling the truth, and taking responsibility for oneself.

Related reading: Wendell Barry: Telling the Truth; The Media Stokes Anger and Radicalization;
Public Debate and Search Engine Politics; Binary is a Bad Word These Days; G.K. Chesterton Explains U.S. Political Insanity

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Media Stokes Anger and Radicalization

The recent mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, and Chicago are still under investigation. However, they have much in common with other mass shootings: they are violent acts of angry men. Angry people find "sinister ideologies" helpful in justifying their aggression.

The anger has been stoked by faceless voices in American society. It is easy to blame President Trump because there we have a face. Homegrown terrorism appears to be stoked in the U.S.A. by the polarizing Media and through social media, both of which should step up their efforts to defuse the anger and to identify the radicals.

In Muslim countries young men are radicalized by Imams and Mullahs. In the United States they are radicalized by a faceless media. When we buy into the polarized narrative of the Media we dehumanize our opponents and it is easier to kill them.

Related reading: Mass Shootings by Country: 2019; Dayton Shooter Truly Sick; Anger Issues From a Young Age; Trapped in a Web of Punditry

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Public Debate and Search Engine Politics

As G.K. Chesterton noted in his book Heretics, the more people debate in a public forum the more firmly entrenched beliefs become. He wrote, "Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them their limits and their plain and defiant shape." (Read the full quotation here.)

Algorithms add to the dynamic shaping of political bias in society. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter stated that within the Twitter organization, “We have folks that are at various points in the political spectrum and they don’t feel comfortable today bringing up certain issues or their viewpoints on certain issues. And I don’t believe that is acceptable.”

Despite his efforts to create an inclusive environment at Twitter’s headquarters, Twitter’s behavior on the internet appears to favor Democrats and liberals. Dorsey admitted that there is a “left-leaning bias” among Twitter employees, but he maintains that this liberal bias does not translate to the algorithm Twitter uses to return search queries.

A recent Harvard University study showed that Google’s search results do have a bias towards Democrats. (Read more here.)

There are growing concerns about the fairness of computer programs in shaping public opinion and political bias. A 2018 survey of the Pew Research Center found that age and ethnicity were factors in how people view the fairness of social media.

The survey also found that people believe that "humans are complex, and these systems are incapable of capturing nuance. This is a relatively consistent theme, mentioned across several of these concepts as something about which people worry when they consider these scenarios. This concern is especially prominent among those who find the use of criminal risk scores unacceptable. Roughly half of these respondents mention concerns related to the fact that all individuals are different, or that a system such as this leaves no room for personal growth or development."

Automated decision making uses automated reasoning to aid or replace human decision-making, and this has been discussed at conferences and policy meetings around the globe. These conversations have revealed that there are "no ethical or legal frameworks comprehensively describing personal responsibility for the tools’ application, safety of their implementation or the rights and obligations of the states and citizens in this regard."

This report states that "none of the researched countries established a coordinating body responsible for monitoring automated decision making implementation, including the creation of tools and their performance."