Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Information War is Real

It is possible to agree with the general conclusions of an analysis but still have major grievances with the specifics of those conclusions as well as many of the assumptions made by the investigators. Kate Starbird's work, as described in the Seattle Time's recent article UW professor: The information war is real, and we’re losing it is such an example. Let's start with the conclusions and work backward to the premises.
Starbird says she’s concluded, provocatively, that we may be headed toward “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.” Alex Jones, she says, is “a kind of prophet. There really is an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.”
Generally speaking and read without context, this paragraph is perfectly true. Jones really was a prophet when 22 years ago he became so convinced that there was an Infowar waging for your mind that he coined the term as his website's domain name. She is also correct in her use of the phrase menace of unreality. Not only are we headed toward the menace of unreality, but we're already there and have probably been there for a long time. The only difference is we're moving from an era where there was the belief in the availability of objective media sources to an era in which the existence of objective reporting is widely doubted.

It's all a fine conclusion up until the very last sentence. And we're losing it. We? Who's we? Her research team? They aren't media producers; they're analysists. By we she clearly demonstrates that she has already made value decisions within the domain she alleges to be examining with scientific rigor. The phrase "And we're losing it" should be interpreted as, "By the way I'm incredibly biased so all my results should be taken with extreme caution." To her benefit, at least she told us she is biased. Most researchers in the field do not exhibit such carelessness honesty.

We implies a them. To Starbird them is alternative media. And alternative media is anything that promotes an alternative narrative, and in particular a government conspiracy hypothesis to mass shootings. From her upcoming paper due to be published in a computational social science journal:
We collected data using the Twitter Streaming API, tracking on the following terms (shooter, shooting, gunman, gunmen, gunshot, gunshots, shooters, gun shot, gun shots, shootings) for a ten-month period between January 1 and October 5, 2016. This collection resulted in 58M total tweets. We then scoped that data to include only tweets related to alternative narratives of the event—false flag, falseflag, crisis actor, crisisactor, staged, hoax and “1488”. The latter term, which has symbolic meaning for white supremacists, appears often in tweets related to false flag narratives. This final alternative narrative collection contains 99,474 tweets. 
Note that the paper doesn't really have anything to do with the article. The article talks about (the implicitly preferred side) losing an information war to alternative media sources. The paper is a graph analysis of a narrow segment of alternative media based on a small number of tweets. The broad conclusion certainly doesn't follow from just this narrow study. And in fact, the study itself makes a similar conclusion about itself.
In this research, we utilized a systematic approach to map the alternative media ecosystem, deriving the network from tweets about alternative narratives. However, this approach has several potential limitations, as the resulting network is defined by a relatively small number of users (1372), likely shaped by the activity of automated Twitter accounts, and biased towards conspiracy theory domains due to the underlying theme of the tweet data (alternative narratives about mass shooting events). The network analyzed here therefore does not represent all of alternative media, but a particular subset of that ecosystem.
The article's synopsis of the journal submission just doesn't follow.
Starbird argues in a new paper, set to be presented at a computational social-science conference in May, that these “strange clusters” of wild conspiracy talk, when mapped, point to an emerging alternative media ecosystem on the web of surprising power and reach.
How can they say anything about the "surprising power and reach" of a subset of alternative media tweets? Powerful compared to what? These are being looked at in isolation. There is no comparison made. They would have had to have conducted a similar analysis for mainstream narratives to do so, or at least to have given some context of the selected tweets in relations to the larger ecosystem. But actually they did do the latter. In the methodology they mentioned that out of the 58 million tweets caught in their keyword dragnet, 99,474 were chosen as portraying an alternative narrative. So the study found that only 0.17% of the collected tweets conveyed an alternative narrative and yet the article uses that as evidence of surprising power and reach. Talk about fake news!

The same goes for the "strange clusters" observation. The paper's relevant use of the word cluster is as follows.
The graph shows a tightly connected cluster of alternative media domains (upper left)—suggesting that many users are citing multiple alternative news sites as they construct alternative narratives.
Referencing multiple strange indeed!

Despite the non-sequiturs let's assume the assertion that alternative media is growing in power & reach is accurate. I believe it is accurate. Assuming they make the scientific case that the trend exists (which they haven't, at least not in the linked paper), then the following question to ask is Why? Why are people leaving us (the mainstream media channels) for them (the alternative media)? She offers a hypothesis.
Starbird is publishing her paper as a sort of warning. The information networks we’ve built are almost perfectly designed to exploit psychological vulnerabilities to rumor.

“Your brain tells you ‘Hey, I got this from three different sources,’ ” she says. “But you don’t realize it all traces back to the same place, and might have even reached you via bots posing as real people. If we think of this as a virus, I wouldn’t know how to vaccinate for it.”
This is all starting to resemble the analysis I did recently in The Most Ironic Thing You'll Ever Read, where the investigators make commentary that would be highly trenchant if they simply applied it to themselves. Starbird mentions psychological vulnerabilities; do you suppose she's familiar with the concept of psychological projection? Because, while it may be true that the them exhibits the characteristics she describes, the us shows it in spades. Look at the PissGate debacle. The entire mainstream media exploded with the story, with literally all major outlets covering it. And they all referred back to a single source: a Buzzfeed article that provided a fake intelligence report. If "strange clusters" are the problem, there is a much larger and more significant one to be examined: the us. But it would require some level of scientific objectivity to realize that us is in fact a cluster itself.

Why are people leaving us for them? Psychological vulnerability is one hypothesis. But it ignores the possibility that psychological vulnerability is what causes people to cling to the mainstream narrative to begin with. What if people are abandoning the mainstream not primarily for emotions, but because they don't trust the mainstream media to give them truthful information? It really is as simple as that. The examples are endless. Here's my favorite example, from mainstream election polling.


The alternative narrative said it for months: the polls are wrong. They're oversampling Democrats (+16 in some polls!) based on false assumptions, like believing that Hillary would get the same turnout from blacks that Obama got. The "fake polls" narrative was labeled as conspiracy by analysists like Starbird. Well, they were wrong; we were right. Why would anyone trust mainstream polls after that? Wouldn't they be foolish to continue to believe them and not seek other information?

Another example was given by Starbid in her paper.
Almost all [alternative media domains] hosted articles referencing “pedophile rings” of high-powered people around the world.
What a perfect example of why people would go to alternative media. Sure, there's not proof of these rings, but there's lots of evidence, and the mainstream media avoids it like the plague. There are have been hundreds of arrests made since Trump took office with barely a mention of it in the press. (Besides the GOP state senator who headed Oklahoma's state campaign for Trump, of course. They made sure we knew about that one.) But mostly they go underreported. We're talking sex slaves being freed from cages kind of stuff. Should be a big deal. The suggestion of high-placed pedophile rings is not outlandish: they get caught all the time. The British Parliament had a huge scandal when a pedophile ring was busted there. Dennis Hastert was Speaker of the House for 12 years. Bill Clinton, most notorious for his sexual misconduct, used to ditch the Secret Service so he could fly on the plane of convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein to his private island in the Caribbean. How naive do they think we are? That is why people go to alternative media. Because the mainstream is frankly not doing their job.

In an information vacuum people will try to find answers one way or another. It's exactly why there are so many 9//11 conspiracy theories: the government didn't provide adequate answers. There was no proper investigation of the crime scenes, no trials, and the government investigation was a joke that didn't even mention the collapse of building 7. Any leads that suggested an uncomfortable conclusion, such as insider trading prior to the attacks that traced back to the US, were abandoned. It provided more questions than answers. Of course there were conspiracy theories, whether or not a conspiracy really took place. (Well obviously someone conspired to do it.) For there not to be conspiracy theories in light of such a flawed mainstream narrative would imply widespread intellectual laziness on the part of the citizenry. If the promoted hypothesis is lacking, alternative hypotheses will arise. If you don't want widespread false conspiracy theories you must provide a valid and defensible hypothesis.

The article focuses on a particular conspiracy theory: that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a part of a sinister plot to impose gun control on the country. And that conspiracy theory comes with a cost.
How disgustingly cruel it is to the survivors to have the stories of those deaths altered and twisted for commercial or ideological ends.
Fair enough, but let's apply the same standards to both sides. The Trump-Russian conspiracy theory is just as short on evidence as the Sandy Hook conspiracy. There is none. There is no compelling evidence that Russia hacked the DNC computers, and there is none that they gave documents to Wikileaks or that Trump's people had any involvement in it. What are the costs? For one a deterioration in relations between the world's only nuclear superpowers. And second an increasingly fractured civil divide in this country which is pushing towards violence. And third, simply that the president can't do his job properly with this nonstop fake scandal news. Compare that to being insensitive to bereaving parents. The costs aren't even of the same order of magnitude. One is unfortunate, the other is a threat to the security and stability of our nation. Yet these people so concerned with the propagation of false conspiracy narratives are only focused on the small one.

The article concludes.
Starbird sighed. “I used to be a techno-utopian. Now I can’t believe that I’m sitting here talking to you about all this.”
Perhaps this is progress. Techno-utopian is the standard liberal position. Arguably it is synonymous with progressive. Both see society as linear and working towards a continuously improved future. This is in contrast to the conservative who hesitates to abandon time-tested societal institutions, and reactionaries who see society as cyclical. The roughly linear progression of technology fits nicely into the progressive worldview. But she's realizing that technological progress isn't bringing the utopia of prophecy. Her observations are correct, but her conclusions are one dimensional. She sees the shortcomings of the other side but can't see that they are far outweighed by those on her own side. We rationally expect that, because leftist utopias always become bloody nightmares, smart liberals will see the pattern, see that the utopia is not materializing, and then back off on their aspirations. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen. Starbird and her colleagues are far more likely to double down and demand aggressive action against the impediments to progress. In this case, they will seek to suppress the alternative narratives however they can, even though they only arose because of the massive failures of the mainstream narrative. In short, they will do everything possible to eradicate the symptoms of societal distress rather than the causes.

The information war is real. Those who have lost faith in the mainstream narrative are unlikely to ever regain it, and the mainstream acolytes will do anything in their power to punish the traitors. Civil wars always start as infowars. The battle lines don't magically arise. Once the ability to reach consensus through arguments is lost, then everything becomes a political battle, which is where we're at now. And once the involved parties believe they can no longer settle disagreements through the political process, violence becomes inevitable.

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