Disinformation relied on large platforms’ complacency

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Stranger Danger, the more palatable gateway drug to Satanic Panic // wikimedia commons

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of what has now become the only reliably pandemic-proof part of my social life: BYOB on Sunday afternoons in my friend’s backyard. Through conversational circumstances that a few hazies prevent me from recalling in detail, we ended up talking about 1980s Satanic Panic. My friend’s mom had dropped by, and began telling the story of the McMartin Preschool.

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McMartin Preschool in the early 1980s // Investigation Discovery

In 1983, a group of parents in Manhattan Beach began making allegations of pedophilia and assault against a teacher at McMartin Preschool, Ray Buckey. Buckey, who also happened to be the grandson of the school’s founder, was placed under investigation by the local police. After the initial allegations couldn’t be corroborated, detectives sent out a now-infamous letter to parents disclosing the alleged behavior, and telling parents to ask their children to recount any odd behavior by preschool staff. …


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Copyright ExtremeTech 2018 // “Why Google Glass Failed, and What to Expect Next”

Today’s journalism, art, literature, and music are rife with depictions of techno-dystopia and techno-utopia. The battle lines seem more clearly drawn than ever before between pessimists and techno-optimists of all political shades. Perhaps we’ve thrown off the rose-tinted glasses we once used to examine Silicon Valley’s contributions to society, but the debate about the role of technology in our future economy, social order, and personal lives still rages on.

Burn-in, a novel by Peter W Singer and August Cole, looks to extrapolate current trends in technology, to imagine a near-future where technology has penetrated into every space of human existence. In it, we follow Lara Keegan, an ex-marine turned FBI agent, and her android sidekick on their hunt to catch a group of terrorists targeting Washington DC. Every single scene, plot point, or interaction is mediated through some kind of device or algorithm. The novel is full of details based on extensive research into emerging technologies. Every new device or service our authors imagine has an end-note attached, referencing an existing technology or company. Some developments are predictable: drones and robots have become ubiquitous in warfare, policing, customer service, delivery, and households. Others are more surprising, both terrifying and fascinating. Burn-in’s writers are uniquely well-positioned to be the Nostradamuses of the national security world, with their first novel, Ghost Fleet, receiving acclaim from defense policy wonks for its obsessive attention to detail and realism in depicting a future great power conflict. …


“Contagion” is a warning to all those hoping a vaccine rollout will go smoothly

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Jude Law as conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede in “Contagion” // Warner Bros Pictures

In Steven Soderbergh’s newly rediscovered 2011 film Contagion, a hypothetical novel virus called MEV-1 causes a global pandemic, which has to be stopped by the film’s protagonists, epidemiologists working for the Centers for Disease Control.

While the film contains all sorts of exposition sequences that are legitimately educational about the nature and spread of airborne viruses, the real nugget of gold in the film is in its main subplot. Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, an Alex Jones-type conspiracy entrepreneur. He spends his days chasing down sensational stories and posting ranting videos on his website, “Truth Serum”.

Despite the contemporary irrelevance of the “blogosphere”, the Truth Serum subplot is as pertinent today as it was in 2011. In many ways, its implications are more frightening now than ever. In 2011, algorithm-driven social media sites did not have the same preponderance over the information environment that they enjoy today. …


An online battle for websites preceded real world protests

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An anti-social distancing protester confronts a counter-protesting nurse in Denver, CO // credits to Alyson McClaran

Over the weekends of the 17th and 24th of April, thousands of Americans showed up at intersections and state houses across the country to protest against social distancing rules, the closure of businesses, and other measures taken by mayors and governors to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Depending on the location, protestors ranged from the pedestrian to the extreme and bizarre. Some groups were calm, carrying signs calling on governors to reopen businesses. Other groups were toting semi-automatic rifles, combat gear, and QAnon paraphernalia.

Users on reddit, in particular /u/Dr_Midnight, noticed a strange pattern in certain sites purporting to support the anti-quarantine protests. Dozens of sites with the URL format reopen[state code/name].com had all been registered on 17 April within minutes of each other, many from a single round of GoDaddy domain purchases from the same IP address in Florida. The original Reddit posts were removed by moderators because they revealed private information about the individual who had registered the reopen.com domains. …


The newest ironically self-aware brand

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I’ll take my pandemic rare with a side of levity, thanks. On 2 April, Steak-umm, supplier of the sliced frozen beef used in the iconic Philly cheesesteak and other fine hoagies, tweeted a long-winded thread on echo chambers and misinformation in times of crisis:

The initial 2 April thread got thousands of likes and retweets, many from political scientists and media figures. But the storied purveyors of frozen meat weren’t finished. True virality came on 6 April, when the following thread got over 60 thousand likes:

The thread goes on to make several cogent points about sorting good data from bad data, sensationalized claims from reliable conclusions. It’s still racking up likes days later, having been shared by celebrities, prominent journalists, and academics across Twitter. …


A consortium of university labs are using your computing power to treat Coronavirus

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Anyone who’s ever taken a class in cybersecurity, listened to their company’s mandatory security training videos, or watched a hacker movie has heard of botnets: sets of compromised computers that hackers use to launch denial-of-service attacks. The attack technique made headlines in 2007 when Kremlin-affiliated hackers nearly shut down the entire country of Estonia for a few days by launching a massive DoS attack on Estonian ministries, government websites, banks and newspapers.

However, it seems that not all uses of botnets are malicious. One group of medical laboratories is using a program called Folding@home to conduct research on a host of diseases, most recently including COVID-19. The program is based off of software developed in in 2000 by the Trinidadian-American Vijay Satyanand Pande, a computer researcher based at Stanford University. Folding@home asks benevolent users to install its software on their machines, and then harnesses idle processing power to generate simulations of protein behavior. By using thousands of machines remotely, Folding@home is able achieve very high computing speeds — around 98.7 quadrillion “FLOPS” calculations per second. For comparison, IBM’s Summit supercomputer, the fastest in the world, can reach 143.5 …


Twitter and Facebook differentiate their concepts of “Free Speech”

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An 1883 political ad featuring George Washington, intended to encourage citizens to vote // Wikimedia Commons

On 31 October 2019, Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey announced the microblogging site would be banning all political advertising globally, both by candidates and on an issue-by-issue basis. The announcement was made in the early morning eastern time, well before markets opened.

Twitter’s timing could not have been better, on the heels of Libra’s regulatory troubles and Zuckerberg’s uninspiring performance in front of the House Financial Services Committee the week prior.

Twitter

Dorsey outlined Twitter’s reasoning in a lengthy thread, but his central point was simple: reach should be earned, not paid for. His argument centered around a definition of speech which excludes advertising. …


Cloudflare cuts services for Nazi recruiting-ground 8chan

On 3 August, a young white man carrying a Romanian-built semi-automatic rifle entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people, mostly of hispanic descent. Before the rampage, the shooter had posted a lengthy “manifesto” on the site 8chan.

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Mourners in El Paso / Mark Ralston for Agence France-Presse

The site had also been used to post a “manifesto” by the white power terrorist responsible for the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand earlier this year, as well as by the antisemitic terrorist from the Poway synagogue shooting outside San Diego, California. …


Federalist 51 is our best defense against Big Tech’s monopolistic impulses

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The tech and media policy Twitterverse was taken over in early May by a New York Times op-ed from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes arguing that the behemoth he’d helped found at Harvard, and in which he remains a major shareholder, should be broken up by federal authorities. The argument that Facebook is a monopoly has been made before, including by presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, but the Facebook co-founder’s argument had one essential strength. In knowing Zuckerberg personally and having a personal commercial stake in Facebook, Hughes can insulate himself from claims of demonizing success. He specifically states that Zuckerberg is a sound, moral individual, which may well be true. His argument is thus not made on the basis of claiming nefarious intent, quite the opposite. …


Is the Duma just posturing, or is a Great Firewall of Russia possible?

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Google searching for a “Free Internet”. Credit: Shutterstock

As more and more economic, social and political activities have moved online, the question of state sovereignty over the Internet has become a key concern for governments, companies and activists around the world. The paradigm of territorial sovereignty was simple: State A controls Land A, State B controls Land B, these states draw a line and call it a border. The laws of State A apply in Land A and vice versa. This statist vision of sovereignty is at odds with a traditional conceptualization of the internet, typically portrayed as a great border-smashing information superhighway.

This ideal has always chaffed with Russia’s sovereignist outlook, and Moscow has been deeply skeptical of the internet both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin and the former intelligence officers forming his inner circle have viewed the internet at best as a tool for diffusing the state’s narrative to a broad audience and at worst as an American conspiracy to undermine Russian sovereignty. Russian investigative journalists Irina Borogan and Anton Soldatov note that “Vladimir Putin is certain that all things in the world — including the Internet — exist with a hierarchical vertical structure … the Internet must have someone controlling it at the top”. Since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012, this “someone” controlling the Russian internet has increasingly been the federal security services. …

About

Jackson Oliver Webster

Sometimes I write about politics and tech // JFK / LAX / CDG

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