17 November 2017

'The Economist' is Running Scared

On 4 November, 'The Economist' published a leader entitled, 'Do social media threaten democracy?' Just to give you a hint of their bias, here's the cover of the issue in which it was published.

No doubt about what they consider a 'threat to democracy', eh? No worries about the anti-free speech militias on university campuses, no concern about Antifa attacking everyone and everything they don't agree with, especially unconcerned about Islam, whose very ideology is opposed to free speech and democracy. No, it's obviously those horrible Christians who are the threat! The world must be warned!

Oh, and it's obvious that American Christians are the biggest threat, because, you know, every single one of them has a gun!

My emphasis in the article is in red and I have added a few of my own thoughts in italics and initialled them.-JW.

Do social media threaten democracy?

Facebook, Google and Twitter were supposed to save politics as good information drove out prejudice and falsehood. Something has gone very wrong

Whilst I use Twitter so little that I'm not aware of any bias it may have, I do use Facebook and Google on a daily basis. Facebook's bias is obvious to any slightly right of centre user. They regularly censor posts and ban users that do not toe the 'liberal democratic' line. Google, on the other hand, whilst it is obviously on the left as a corporate body, which anyone can see from the subjects chosen for Google Doodles, for example, is still a fairly unbiased search resource. One may find virtually all political tendencies on the web by using Google's search engine. It is true that the 'censor bots' on Google owned YouTube sometimes get out of hand, resulting in the deletion of videos or of an entire channel, but  this can be rectified, as was proven by the restoration of Thegn Thrand's channel recently. My point here is to ask, 'Where does The Economist think something went wrong?' One site is fairly neutral, the other is firmly in the 'liberal democratic' camp that  TE seems to be so worried about.-JW

IN 1962 a British political scientist, Bernard Crick, published “In Defence of Politics”. He argued that the art of political horse-trading, far from being shabby, lets people of different beliefs live together in a peaceful, thriving society. In a liberal democracy, nobody gets exactly what he wants, but everyone broadly has the freedom to lead the life he chooses. 

I doubt that this was ever true, but it is definitely not the case in Western 'liberal democracies' today. There are certain factions, invariably on the left, that get pretty much everything they want, whilst those of us on the right, individually and corporately get very, very little.-JW

However, without decent information, civility and conciliation, societies resolve their differences by resorting to coercion.

Exactly as the left is doing all over the West!-JW

How Crick would have been dismayed by the falsehood and partisanship on display in this week’s Senate committee hearings in Washington. 

Not long ago social media held out the promise of a more enlightened politics, as accurate information and effortless communication helped good people drive out corruption, bigotry and lies.

I was involved in 'social media' before there was social media. I was active on Usenet news groups and online bulletin boards when Zuckerberg was still in elementary school, Brin and Page were just entering university, and Twitter wasn't yet a gleam in its founders' eyes. I don't know of anyone who thought social media was going to bring a 'more enlightened politics'. We realised, even then, that the web is neutral, and social media is what its owners and users make it.-JW

Yet Facebook acknowledged that before and after last year’s American election, between January 2015 and August this year, 146m users may have seen Russian misinformation on its platform. Google’s YouTube admitted to 1,108 Russian-linked videos and Twitter to 36,746 accounts. Far from bringing enlightenment, social media have been spreading poison.

YouTube gets over 30 million visitors a DAY,  has over a billion videos online, with 300,000 new uploads each day. So, in a thirty month period, we can estimate that YouTube had 27 BILLION visitors and about 146 million may have seen 'Russia connected' videos. That is  a bit under .005 or ONE HALF OF ONE PERCENT of users during that period.

Twitter has over 300 million accounts.   The almost 40,000 accounts affected (I rounded up to help TE's case!) amounts to just over ONE ONE HUNDREDTH OF A PERCENT of Twitter's accounts. Oooohhh! A threat to 'liberal democracy'! Personally, I am neither pro-Trump, nor pro-Putin and Russia, so I would love to be able to blame the Russki dictator for the Buffoon's election, but GET REAL, shall we?-JW

Russia’s trouble-making is only the start. From South Africa to Spain, politics is getting uglier. Part of the reason is that, by spreading untruth and outrage, corroding voters’ judgment and aggravating partisanship, social media erode the conditions for the horse-trading that Crick thought fosters liberty.

Interesting choice of examples. South Africa, far from being a 'liberal democracy' is a one-party state, ruled by the Marxist African National Congress. Spain, on the other hand, does qualify as a liberal democracy. It is instructive that in Spain, the attacks on the rule of law and Constitutional order are coming almost exclusively from the left, specifically the Catalan separatists, who care nothing for 'liberal democracy' or Spain.-JW

A shorter attention spa...oh, look at that!

The use of social media does not cause division so much as amplify it. The financial crisis of 2007-08 stoked popular anger at a wealthy elite that had left everyone else behind. 

The culture wars have split voters by identity rather than class. Nor are social media alone in their power to polarise—just look at cable TV and talk radio. But, whereas Fox News is familiar, social-media platforms are new and still poorly understood. 

Fox News is less than ten years older than Facebook. And it's interesting that TE singles out only 'right-wing' mass media. No mention of Britain's own 'Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation' a/k/a the ' British Bashing Corporation' (during the First Gulf War, it was known amongst the British troops as the 'Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation'), or of CNN, MSNBC (which is actually older than Fox News), and the other MSM outlets that are firmly in the left's pocket, or on their payroll.  And who are those pushing 'identity politics' the hardest? The left! Yes, the so-called alt-right is reacting to the identitarianism of the left in a push back, but I question if their influence would have grown without the left to react to.

AS a friend of mine posted recently:
"If you demonize young white ills, you will turn them into demons. The problem with that is that a good number of them are tougher than you are and are well-armed. Treat them irrationally, and they shall become irrational; Accuse them of being white supremacists, and they will live down to your accusation. Call them racists, and they will embrace racism. Ignore reality via gender fluidity and the like, and you will gain their contempt. We are planting dragon's teeth, and shall reap what we sow."-JW

And, because of how they work, they wield extraordinary influence.

They make their money by putting photos, personal posts, news stories and ads in front of you. Because they can measure how you react, they know just how to get under your skin (see article). They collect data about you in order to have algorithms to determine what will catch your eye, in an “attention economy” that keeps users scrolling, clicking and sharing—again and again and again. 

Anyone setting out to shape opinion can produce dozens of ads, analyse them and see which is hardest to resist. The result is compelling: one study found that users in rich countries touch their phones 2,600 times a day.

Is TE implying that only the enemies of 'liberal democracy' are intelligent enough to do this?-JW

It would be wonderful if such a system helped wisdom and truth rise to the surface. But, whatever Keats said, truth is not beauty so much as it is hard work—especially when you disagree with it. 

Everyone who has scrolled through Facebook knows how, instead of imparting wisdom, the system dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people’s biases.

I suppose it depends on your point of view, and what you look for. I find a great deal of wisdom and truth on Facebook. I think the Old Testament reading at Mass for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year A, which I heard last Sunday, is apropos here. It is from the Book of Wisdom, 6:12-16, 
Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,and she is readily perceived by those who love her,and found by those who seek her.She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire;Whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed,for he shall find her sitting by his gate.For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence,and whoever for her sake keeps vigilshall quickly be free from care;because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her,and graciously appears to them in the ways,and meets them with all solicitude.

This aggravates the politics of contempt that took hold, in the United States at least, in the 1990s. Because different sides see different facts, they share no empirical basis for reaching a compromise. 

And this can be directly tied to the complete breakdown of truly liberal education in the US in the same period. Warnings were issued but ignored by the left-wing educational establishment. Allan Bloom published his The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, which I highly recommend, warning that higher education in the US was failing, creating a void in the souls of Americans, into which demagogic radicals as exemplified by '60s student leaders could leap. How prophetic of the current period! Of course, he was denounced as a 'conservative' and ignored, even tho' he refused the label.

In 1988, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know: A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature (another work I highly recommend) was published, pointing out that secondary education in the US was failing to strengthen the common culture of literacy that had existed until shortly before, and that a civil societal conversation was becoming unlikely. Again, it was dismissed because it did not fit the 'orthodoxy' of the left-wing educational establishment, especially of the National Education Association and the American  Federation of Teachers.-JW

Because each side hears time and again that the other lot are good for nothing but lying, bad faith and slander, the system has even less room for empathy. 

Because people are sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal and outrage, they lose sight of what matters for the society they share.

This tends to discredit the compromises and subtleties of liberal democracy, and to boost the politicians who feed off conspiracy and nativism. 

Consider the probes into Russia’s election hack by Congress and the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, who has just issued his first indictments. After Russia attacked America, Americans ended up attacking each other (see article). Because the framers of the constitution wanted to hold back tyrants and mobs, social media aggravate Washington gridlock. 

In Hungary and Poland, without such constraints, they help sustain an illiberal, winner-takes-all style of democracy. In Myanmar, where Facebook is the main source of news for many, it has deepened the hatred of the Rohingya, victims of ethnic cleansing.

The 'liberal democracies' have a 'winner take all style of democracy' too. It's just that the left tends to win and 'take all'!-JW

Social media, social responsibility

What is to be done? People will adapt, as they always do. A survey this week found that only 37% of Americans trust what they get from social media, half the share that trust printed newspapers and magazines. 

I, and, I assume, most intelligent people do not use social media as a news source. I pity those who actually trust it. When I see 'news' posted on Facebook, I click on the link, read the original article, and, if I'm not familiar with the source, I research it to find its biases (all 'news' sources have biases). There are sites I refuse to share because I know them to be sensationalist, conspiracy theory pushing sites.- JW

Yet in the time it takes to adapt, bad governments with bad politics could do a lot of harm.

'Good' governments with 'good' politics have done immeasurable harm to the fabric of Western society over the last few decades, so what's new?- JW

Society has created devices, such as libel, and ownership laws, to rein in old media. Some are calling for social-media companies, like publishers, to be similarly accountable for what appears on their platforms; to be more transparent; and to be treated as monopolies that need breaking up. All these ideas have merit, but they come with trade-offs. 

When Facebook farms out items to independent outfits for fact-checking, the evidence that it moderates behaviour is mixed. Moreover, politics is not like other kinds of speech; it is dangerous to ask a handful of big firms to deem what is healthy for society. 

The suggestion of using libel laws against social media is horrifying! How is Facebook or Google/YouTube in any way responsible for what is posted? What is being called for is censorship of opinion by an unaccountable,  privately owned corporation, an idea I find detestable.-JW

Congress wants transparency about who pays for political ads, but a lot of malign influence comes through people carelessly sharing barely credible news posts. Breaking up social-media giants might make sense in antitrust terms, but it would not help with political speech—indeed, by multiplying the number of platforms, it could make the industry harder to manage.

Here, TE is spot on. There are already attempts at finding or founding social media platforms that are not part of the giants, because of the left-wing censorship exercised by those companies.- JW

There are other remedies. The social-media companies should adjust their sites to make clearer if a post comes from a friend or a trusted source. They could accompany the sharing of posts with reminders of the harm from misinformation

And who is to decide what is a 'trusted source'?-JW

Bots are often used to amplify political messages. Twitter could disallow the worst—or mark them as such. Most powerfully, they could adapt their algorithms to put clickbait lower down the feed. Because these changes cut against a business-model designed to monopolise attention, they may well have to be imposed by law or by a regulator.

Of course! The leftists favourite tactic!- JW

Social media are being abused. But, with a will, society can harness them and revive that early dream of enlightenment. 

Good luck with that! If 'society' (read the all-encompassing State) 'harnesses' social media, we are one step further on the road to complete, abject subjection to the State.-JW

The stakes for liberal democracy could hardly be higher.

And the stakes for liberty are even higher! Resist!!-JW

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