Means and Ends

Street protests in the age of info disorder; Ed Snowden in context; and more.


  • It’s National Voter Registration Day! Go remind folks!!

  • This past Friday, upwards of four million people took part in the global “#ClimateStrike,” a day of protest aimed at forcing more attention to the climate crisis that was timed to draw attention to the United Nations Climate Action Summit, which is taking place now. There’s something important about seeing that many bodies in the street: you can’t fake a mass rally in the same way that you can hire an army of social media trolls or pay a software engineer to build Twitter bots. (For example, 61% of President Donald Trump‘s twitter followers were bots, according to an analysis of every one of the 54 million followers he had as of a year ago; in August Twitter removed 200,000 fake Chinese accounts that were trying to disrupt the protest movement in Hong Kong.)

  • That said, we live in an age where perceptions created by the media seem to matter more than hard facts. Whether you work on tough political issues or “softer” matters like public health or education, and whether you work in a relatively open society like the United States or a country with weaker protections for free speech, it’s high time to wrestle with this new conundrum. As Peter Pomerantsev, the author of the new book, This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, puts it, life in the Information Age has become a mixed blessing:

    “More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful, but it’s also given them new ways to crush and silence dissent. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever. More information was supposed to mean mutual understand across borders, but it has also made possible new and more subtle forms of conflict and subversion. We live in a world of mass persuasion run amok, where the means of manipulation have gone forth and multiplied, a world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, deep fakes, fake news, ISIS, Putin, trolls, Trump…”
  • I highly recommend picking up a copy of This is Not Propaganda, reading it and then finding some friends or coworkers to discuss it with. Those of us who thought that the Internet would be a blessing for small-d democracy because of how it weakens the power of censors—remember John Gilmore’s saying, “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”—would do well to heed the words of Serbian organizer Srdja Popovic, who Pomerantsev profiles in the book. Popopiv, who helped found the Otpor movement that succeeded in bringing down dictator Slobodan Milosevic when the more traditional opposition parties failed, and who now helps train anti-authoritarian activists worldwide in nonviolent organizing, says, “The problem we are facing today is less oppression, more lack of identity, apathy, division, no trust. There are more tools to change things than before, but there’s less will to do so.” On that last point, there is some debate.

  • MIT madness, continued: Wired writer Virginia Heffernan offers some more critical context for understanding the role of literary agent John Brockman in weaving the sexist, misogynist web of scientists and tech overlords that led to Joi Ito squiring Jeffrey Epstein around MIT.

  • Media matters: Edward Snowden is out with a new memoir, and if you’re looking for one thing to read offering new context, make it this piece by Janine Gibson, who was the editor of The Guardian US when Snowden’s first revelations hit the world.

  • Omoyole Somore, a Nigerian-born expat journalist-blogger, anti-corruption activist, and Nigerian 2018 presidential candidate, was arrested last month and is being held in Abuja by a state intelligence agency, Alexis Shanes reports for the North Jersey Record. Here he is speaking at Personal Democracy Forum 2011. His family is now publicizing his arrest and seeking help generating attention to his case, as Camille Augustin reports for Vibe.

  • Life in Facebookistan: As many expected, the true scale of Facebook’s privacy breakdown is only now beginning to surface (nice timing, given their recent $5 billion settlement with the FTC), and instead of just 400 apps that had been suspended for improperly sucking up users’ personal information, the company now says it has suspended “tens of thousands” of apps, Kate Conger, Gabriel J.X. Dance and Mike Isaac report for The New York Times.

  • I Love America is a Facebook page is 1.1 million fans (greater reach than the NY Times or Washington Post) that constantly celebrates American patriotism and in recent weeks has pushed a lot of pro-Trump propaganda, and as Judd Legum reveals, it is managed by ten people based in Ukraine, along with one each from Kazakhstan, France, and the United States. Eight hours after Legum’s report, Facebook took the page down.

  • A provocative art project by privacy researchers Kate Crawford and Trevor Paglen called ImageNet Roulette has caused ImageNet, the source of photos of faces used to train facial recognition programs, to scrub more than half of the 1.2 million pictures in its collection, Alex Johnson reports for NBC News.

  • End times: The President of Facebookistan meets one of his leading subjects, and the captions are to die for.

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