Secret Agents

The white supremacist tech-bro next door; virtual reality disaster tourism; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Gwynn Guilford reports for Quartz on how Global Fishing Watch used artificial intelligence to analyze satellite data and expose the chain of custody of huge caches of illegally caught sharks. (We recently covered how Global Fishing Watch’s parent organization, SkyTruth, is using satellite data to monitor environmental pollution after recent hurricanes.)

  • When candidates for New York City mayor meet to debate tonight, they might be asked to answer questions crowdsourced by the Open Debate Coalition, the first time the organization has solicited questions for candidates at the city level, Alexandra Levine reports in New York Today.

  • Must read: I’m a bit late to this, but ICYMI David Lewis infiltrated Seattle’s top-secret white nationalist convention and reported on the experience for The Stranger. Most fascinating is his account of how contemporary white nationalism resembles workaday white urbanism. Most relevant to this newsletter is how many participants come from the tech sector: “According to my observations, the standard Seattle Nazi is a white male under 30 who either works in the tech industry or is going to school to work in the tech industry. “You’re also a coder? Do you mind if I send you something I’ve been working on?” I heard that more than once.”

    Lewis continues: “Much bleaker is Dr. Johnson’s Seattle-suitable, “secret agent” racism plan. Basically, white nationalists meet in secret at conventions like Northwest Forum while paying “lip service to diversity” at their day jobs. They move into positions of power where they can hire other racists and keep non-whites from getting into the company. Two years ago, this method would have seemed like a total joke, but these guys really do mostly work in tech, and they were doing a lot of networking. When talking about the people he has counseled on the “secret agent” method, Dr. Johnson has written that they include “college professors, writers, artists, designers, publishers, creative people working in the film industry, businessmen, and professionals, some of them quite prominent in their fields.” When I told Dr. Johnson I was reluctant to use my super film editing skills (I can’t even work iMovie) for the movement because I was afraid I would be outed in Hollywood he said, “You know, you can always be a secret agent, there’s no shame in that.””

  • According to a new report by the Oxford Project on Computational Propaganda, veterans and military personnel were among the targets of Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 election, Craig Timberg reports for The Washington Post. The report notes that these information networks are intertwined with genuine accounts created by current and former military personnel.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Honestly, did none of Zuckerberg’s faithful henchpeople tell him that touring hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico as a virtual cartoon might come across as insensitive? Gizmodo’s Tom McKay called it “A tonal mess resembling nothing more than rubberneckng and disaster tourism” and took a lot of cringe-worthy screengrabs.

  • Matthew Hughes took one of Zuckerberg high-fiving an employee in front of a flooded street.

  • The conceit of the presentation was for Zuckerberg to show off Facebook’s humanitarian work, and he announced that the company is working with the Red Cross to use artificial intelligence and satellite imagery to identify the areas most in need of aid, as Lucas Matney reported for TechCrunch. Funny choice, since the Red Cross has been widely criticized in the wake of disaster after disaster, as thoroughly documented by ProPublica.

  • “For all the ways this technology brings us together, the monetization and manipulation of information is swiftly tearing us apart,” Pierre Omidyar writes in The World Post. “From foreign interference in our elections to targeted campaigns designed to confuse and divide on important social issues, groups looking for an effective way to infiltrate and influence our democracy have found generous hosts in the world of social media.” Omidyar shares six ways social media threatens democracy, distilled from a new report by the Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network. At this point they’re all familiar, although if there’s one that isn’t getting as much screen time, it’s the conflation of popularity with legitimacy

  • Beth Kanter considers how evil social media is destructive to us as individuals as well as a society, and mentions our Micah Sifry’s recent piece, “I Wish I Knew How to Quit You, Facebook,” which prompted an interesting discussion on (where else?!) Facebook.

  • “People are coming to grips with the fact that the world’s biggest social network is playing an unprecedented role in politics and in government in the distribution of ideas,” Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, told The Washington Post’s Matea Gold and Elizabeth Dwoskin. “For many people, Facebook is the Internet. It is an extraordinarily powerful force with limited accountability.” Gold and Dwoskin report that half of the Trump campaign’s advertising budget was spent on digital ads, twice what most campaigns spend on digital, and most of those dollars went to Facebook.