Everything Connected

Everything’s connected. Environmentalists say that. Don’t wipe out this obscure species or that – that dung beetle has a useful function. Possums eat ticks. Everything is interlocked. Don’t upset nature’s balance – and drive a bit less, or drive something electric, or a hybrid. Hurricanes will be less intense. There will be fewer massive forest fires. The ice caps won’t melt as fast – the flooding of our coastal cities can be put off a few more decades. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. And of course hippies used to say that everything’s connected. We’re all brothers and sisters. Welcome to the Age of Aquarius. Harmony and understanding – sympathy and trust abounding – that sort of thing – and come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another – right now, damn it! And of course Jesus used to say that too – “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.”

Evangelicals these days have carved out exceptions to that. There are those who should be shunned and reviled and punished – gays and Democrats and whatnot – but evangelicals cover that by saying that they hate the sin and not the sinner. That’s not much comfort to those being shunned and reviled and punished, but the thought is there. We’re all sort of connected, even if evangelicals hate that thought – but we are connected in another odd way. Most everyone is on Facebook. Those who hated each other long ago in high school are “friends” now. Everyone has a few, or a lot, of Facebook “friends” they’ve never met, and probably wouldn’t want to meet, face to face. Everyone’s connected anyway.

This may have led to real harm. People now see connections where there are none. That was inevitable – it’s a way of thinking. Look for that illusive hidden connection – and that leads many into this conspiracy theory or that. Everything’s connected after all. That leads to this sort of thing:

A local Washington, D.C. lawmaker has apologized for posting a video on social media blaming the Rothschilds, a wealthy banking family who have often been at the center of anti-Semitic attacks, for climate change and an unexpected snow.

“Man, it just started snowing out of nowhere this morning, man. Y’all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation,” Trayon White Sr., who sits on the local city council, said in the video. “And D.C. keep talking about, ‘We a resilient city.’ And that’s a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.”

White later apologized and deleted the video off of social media, but he has reportedly made similar comments tying the Jewish family to climate change in the past…

Well, the Rothschilds may be controlling the climate – one never knows, if everything is connected.

Aaron Blake covers a political example of that:

President Trump has stepped up his attacks on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation in recent days, and his lawyer even suggested that the inquiry should be shut down. And just in case the direction in which this whole thing is headed wasn’t clear, Trump has now hired a lawyer who argues the president is being framed.

Trump’s legal team on Monday announced the hiring of Joseph E. diGenova, a former U.S. attorney who served as an independent counsel and a special counsel in the 1990s and was later hired by the New York Senate to investigate Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D)…

DiGenova clearly has experience, but what may make him most attractive to Trump are his thoughts on this particular case. He told Fox News Channel in January that the investigation is “a brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and, if she didn’t win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime.”

“Make no mistake about it: A group of FBI and DOJ people were trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime,” diGenova said…

DiGenova sees the connection, and he has talked about this hidden plot on Fox News for months. Donald Trump watches a few hours of Fox and Friends each morning. Donald Trump just hired the guy. He too sees that that illusive hidden connection – this hidden plot. One never knows. It could be. The next few months could be interesting. The rest of America – living in the Facebook world of hypothetical but perhaps vaguely plausible connections for a few hours each day – may come to think this could be. One never knows.

Facebook is the problem. It generates connections. That’s its business model, and Dylan Byers explains how that can be manipulated:

Aleksandr Kogan, a University of Cambridge professor, accessed the data of more than 50 million Facebook users simply by creating a survey filled out by 270,000 people. Facebook provided Kogan with the data of anyone who took the survey, as well as their friends’ data. In a statement, Facebook said, “Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time.”

More than a quarter million people took that survey – a personality profile – and were paid to do that. In return, they gave up a bit of personal information, but Facebook is set up as a service to advertisers. Facebook grabbed the same personal data from everyone on each person’s “friends” list. Then, in turn, Facebook grabbed the same personal data from every one of those friend’s “friends” lists – and so on and so forth. Everything’s connected. Advertisers love that. That’s good stuff. That was soon fifty million instances of good stuff, but Facebook balked:

The one rule Kogan violated, according to Facebook, was passing the user data to third parties, including Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm founded by former Trump aide Steve Bannon and conservative donor Robert Mercer.

But even Facebook sources acknowledged to CNN that it is impossible to completely monitor what developers and advertisers do with the data once it’s in their hands. It’s like selling cigarettes to someone and telling them not to share the cigarettes with their friends.

This was trouble:

The limit of Facebook’s ability to enforce compliance with data-usage was highlighted by Facebook’s own response to Kogan’s violation. Facebook says it learned of Kogan’s violation in 2015 and was subsequently assured by all parties that the data had been destroyed. But Facebook also says it learned just days ago that “not all data was deleted.”

In a statement, Facebook deputy general counsel Paul Grewal said “protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do.” That may be a hard argument for the public to accept given that Facebook’s business is providing people’s information to outside parties whose ultimate goals are unknowable.

That’s the real problem:

Facebook says that starting in 2014 it gave users greater control over what parts of their information are shared with app developers and advertisers. It also says it has enhanced its app review process to require developers “to justify the data they’re looking to collect and how they’re going to use it – before they’re allowed to even ask people for it.”

Still, the sources inside Facebook acknowledge that such measures cannot guarantee that some people won’t succeed in mining Facebook data and passing it off to third parties.

And now Facebook is in hot water:

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar has called on [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which she serves, to explain “what Facebook knew about misusing data from 50 million Americans in order to target political advertising and manipulate voters.”

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg and the rest of the Facebook leadership seem conspicuously absent. Neither the Facebook CEO nor his top deputy, Sheryl Sandberg, has commented publicly on the matter. They have left that task to Grewal, a lawyer. No one has provided an adequate explanation for why Facebook did not disclose Kogan’s violation to the more than 50 million users who were affected when the company first learned about it in 2015.

“We are conducting a comprehensive internal and external review and are working to determine the accuracy of the claims that the Facebook data in question still exists. That is where our focus lies as we remain committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information,” Grewal said in a statement Sunday.

This is not good:

All of this comes as Facebook is already getting questions about the long-term appeal of its platform, at least in the United States. The number of daily active users in the United States – a whopping 184 million – declined for the first time last quarter. Facebook also lost 2.8 million users under the age of 25 last year, and is set to lose another 2 million this year…

Facebook is losing users. Advertisers see the writing on the wall – Facebook may have to change its business model and they may not get as much as of all the useful profile data in the future. Facebook stock fell off the cliff. The markets fell off the cliff – the Dow was down almost five hundred points in the middle of the day. No one could do any targeted marketing if there were no targets.

But that’s not the whole story. The New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg covers that:

Sitting in a hotel bar, Alexander Nix, who runs the political data firm Cambridge Analytica, had a few ideas for a prospective client looking for help in a foreign election. The firm could send an attractive woman to seduce a rival candidate and secretly videotape the encounter, Mr. Nix said – or send someone posing as a wealthy land developer to pass a bribe.

“We have a long history of working behind the scenes,” Mr. Nix said.

The prospective client, though, was actually a reporter from Channel 4 News in Britain, and the encounter was secretly filmed as part of a months-long investigation into Cambridge Analytica, the data firm with ties to President Trump’s 2016 campaign.

The results of Channel 4’s work were broadcast in Britain on Monday, days after reports in The New York Times and The Observer of London that the firm had harvested the data from more than 50 million Facebook profiles in its bid to develop techniques for predicting the behavior of individual American voters.

That’s the story, and it isn’t pretty:

The weekend’s reports about the data misuse have prompted calls from lawmakers in Britain and the United States for renewed scrutiny of Facebook, and at least two American state prosecutors have said they are looking into the misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica.

Now, the Channel 4 broadcast appears likely to cast an even harsher spotlight on the company, which was founded by Stephen K. Bannon and Robert Mercer, a wealthy Republican donor who has put at least $15 million into Cambridge Analytica.

The firm’s so-called psychographic modeling techniques, which were built in part with the data harvested from Facebook, underpinned its work for the Trump campaign in 2016, though many have questioned their effectiveness.

But the sting did work:

The Channel 4 reporter posed as a “fixer” for a wealthy Sri Lankan family that wanted to help politicians they favored. In a series of meetings at London hotels between November and January, all of which were secretly filmed, Mr. Nix and other executives boasted that Cambridge Analytica employs front companies and former spies on behalf of political clients.

The information that is uncovered through such clandestine work is then put “into the bloodstream to the internet,” said Mark Turnbull, another Cambridge executive, in an encounter in December 2017 at the Berkeley hotel in London.

“Then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again, over time, to watch it take shape,” he added. “It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda.’ Because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda,’ the next question is, ‘Who’s put that out?'”

This was quite clever, and Michelle Goldberg takes it from there:

Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy data firm that helped elect Donald Trump, specializes in “psychographic” profiling, which it sells as a sophisticated way to digitally manipulate huge numbers of people on behalf of its clients.

On Monday, Britain’s Channel 4 News ran an explosive exposé of the embattled company. Going undercover as a potential client, its reporter filmed Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, talking about entrapping his clients’ opponents by sending “very beautiful” Ukrainian sex workers to their homes. He spoke of offering bribes to candidates while secretly filming them and putting the footage online, of employing fake IDs and bogus websites. Mark Turnbull, the managing director of Cambridge Analytica Political Global, described how the company “put information into the bloodstream of the internet” and then watched it spread.

This story came two days after a joint investigation by The New York Times and The Observer of London reported that Cambridge Analytica harvested private information from over 50 million Facebook users without their permission. That, The Times wrote, “allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.”

The links are useful, and Goldberg adds this:

After days of revelations, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Cambridge Analytica. But we’ve learned that an operation at the heart of Trump’s campaign was ethically nihilistic and quite possibly criminal in ways that even its harshest critics hadn’t suspected. That’s useful information. In weighing the credibility of various accusations made against the president, it’s good to know the depths to which the people around him are willing to sink.

The people around the president are the problem:

Created in 2013, Cambridge Analytica is an offshoot of the SCL Group, a British company that specialized in disinformation campaigns in the developing world. It’s mostly owned by the Mercer family, billionaire right-wing donors and strong Trump supporters. Before becoming the Trump campaign’s chief executive, Steve Bannon was Cambridge Analytica’s vice president. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI also served as an adviser to the company.

Cambridge Analytica shared office space with Trump’s San Antonio-based digital operation, and took substantial credit for its success. “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communications played such an integral part in President-elect Donald Trump’s extraordinary win,” Nix said in a Nov. 9, 2016, news release.

Everything really is connected, and this was rather amazing:

It’s long been hard to judge how well psychographic profiling actually works. Many consider Cambridge Analytica overrated. Last year, BuzzFeed News reported that former employees said “that despite its sales pitch and public statements, it never provided any proof that the technique was effective or that the company had the ability to execute it on a large scale.” Those who feared that Cambridge Analytica was conducting information warfare on the American people may have been giving the company’s self-serving propaganda too much credence.

But whether or not Cambridge Analytica’s methodology works, the fact that the Trump campaign had a crew of high-tech dirty tricksters on its payroll is significant. We already know that Cambridge Analytica reached out to Julian Assange about finding and disseminating Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. We know that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has asked the company to turn over documents related to the Trump campaign. Channel Four News plans to air additional undercover footage about Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Trump campaign on Tuesday.

This is a bombshell:

At a minimum, we’ve learned that the Trump campaign’s vaunted social media program was built on deception. Shortly after the 2016 election, Forbes ran an article crediting Jared Kushner for his father-in-law’s shocking triumph. Thanks to digital tools, it said, the traditional presidential campaign was dead, “and Kushner, more than anyone not named Donald Trump, killed it.”

For those who knew something of Kushner’s pre-election career, this portrait of him as some sort of analytics genius was befuddling. The small, gossipy New York newspaper he’d owned, The New York Observer, didn’t even have a particularly good website. “He wasn’t tech-savvy at all,” Elizabeth Spiers, the paper’s former editor in chief, told me.

But everything falls together now:

If the Trump campaign had a social media advantage, one reason is that it hired a company that mined vast amounts of illicitly obtained data.

There’s a lesson here for our understanding of the Trump presidency. Trump and his lackeys have been waging their own sort of psychological warfare on the American majority that abhors them. On the one hand, they act like idiots. On the other, they won, which makes it seem as if they must possess some sort of occult genius. With each day, however, it’s clearer that the secret of Trump’s success is cheating. He and those around him don’t have to be better than their opponents because they’re willing to be so much worse.

That’s a bit harsh, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog adds this perspective:

I assume every thinking person was purged of techno-utopian hopes a long time ago, but if any of that thinking still persisted, I imagine it’s gone now. We’ve known for a long time that every major website and app is just a machine for collecting monetizable personal data, but the story of Cambridge Analytica’s unauthorized leveraging of information obtained via Facebook really brings that home…

Data manipulation is what these guys put in the shop window, but if want the real goods, you have to slip into a back room and get … the same kinds of dirty tricks that political operatives and other unsavory creatures have used for generations.

It was the same old nasty stuff – call girls and bribes and whatnot – with the addition of targeted marketing offering fifty million personal profiles, grabbed from Facebook without the permission of all but a quarter million of those users – because Facebook was set up, from the beginning, to do just that sort of thing. Everything was supposed to be connected. That’s how Facebook makes money. That may also be how Facebook falls. Some things shouldn’t be connected. That may also be how Donald Trump falls. What are friends for?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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