Monthly Archive: May 2017

How to spot a Twitter bot

This series of tweets is a good primer for how to spot a bot.
This is important information. All of the evidence that is visible in Twitter shows that Donald Trump is gearing up to fight a propaganda battle using social media. He has blocked opposing Twitter users who have large numbers of followers, in order to choke off propagation of messages that oppose his own, and his account has been collecting millions of new followers in the last 3 days, nearly all of which appear to be bots. Those bots are, in turn, Following the top 20+ Twitter users worldwide.
The tactics seem quite clear (and given that a lot of Twitter data is in the public domain, the aims of the tactics cannot be hidden). Trump is likely to use the bots to re-tweet his tweets to the bot followers, saturating Twitter with millions of copies of his original Tweets, plus whatever supporting verbiage is attached to the tweets. This will overwhelm many Twitter users and accounts with pro-Trump messages. Think of this as a DMOS (Distributed Monopolization Of Service) attack on Twitter, to swamp out any oppositional messaging.
Twitter could, of course, stop this all pretty quickly if they suspended Trump’s two accounts (his personal one and the White House official POTUS account). They have every legal right to do so, but I suspect that they will be very reluctant to do that. However…if the alternative is to see the Twitter platform reduced to partisan irrelevance, they may have to take action. There are other social networks waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces (notably Mastodon). If Twitter is seen as a platform dominated by white noise generated by robots, it will die quickly.

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The backdrop of the GOP win in the Montana special election

This commentary (extracted from Twitter) by Anne Helen Petersen, explains some of the backdrop to the election win by Greg Gianforte in Montana. (There is another factor not discussed in this analysis, namely the massive fundraising difference between the GOP and the Democratic Party in Montana).

Leading up to tonight’s results, want to relate the best recap I’ve heard about how Montana politics got the way they are today
This theory comes from Ron Moody, an old-timer out of Lewistown, Montana, a former wildlife warden, & keen political observer
with added context from And Bill Spoja, a lawyer and rancher who’s lived in Lewistown his whole life
Both remember a time when Montana was truly purple. But since the ‘90s, many counties, including theirs, have gone much darker red
Looking back, it’s clear that a major part of the shift was Rush Limbaugh on the radio and Fox News on the tv
But the overall shift in the state came from somewhere else: well-off conservatives moving to Montana from urban areas
These people were increasingly frustrated with liberal politics of the city, sold their houses, and bought houses double the size in Montana
….With ample money leftover to live on. They came to Montana because it matched a conservative dream of America, where men are men, etc.
They mostly came to Western Montana, but the tide extended all the way over to Lewistown, in the Eastern part of the state
This meshes with previous reporting in Flathead region, where people would go on vaca & love how overwhelmingly white it was, then move here
So it’s these New Montanans, fleeing California/Arizona/Texas cities, combined with Limbaugh/Fox inflammation of existing MT conservatives
You could definitely include Gianforte in that first group: moved to Bozeman in the 1990s, fundamentalist Christian, Conservative
The ideology of the prosperity gospel runs strong through both groups: that Puritan idea that your chosenness is manifest in success/wealth
So even if Gianforte is broadly unlikeable with his base, his success, like Trump’s, is testament enough to his worthiness, his Elect-ness
As for Quist, GOP has underestimated how many people have known/met Quist over 3 decades — especially in rural areas
Quist went to 49 counties, all reservations. Brought out “gravel-road” Dems who’d been silent/invisible for years b/c of strength of GOP
He won the nomination in part by going out to rural counties w/dormant Democratic organizations — whose delegates then voted for him at convention
So there’s a little background theory from some Montana old-timers.
And then a bodyslam happened. So who the fuck knows.
But this is just further proof that the best/most interesting people to talk to on the campaign trail are almost always over the age of 70
They have the context, they have the history, and they have very little fear of speaking their minds.

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The psychology of leaking in organizations

When the most accurate and substantive information about what is occurring with any organization is being revealed internally and/or externally via unauthorized communication, this shows that one or more of the following is true:
1. The leadership of the organization has no credibility with the employees, and is not respected by them
2. The leadership is engaging in abuses of power
3. The leadership is asking employees to engage in behaviors that are unethical and/or illegal
4. Leadership is unable or unwilling to communicate effectively or usefully to employees and external partners and customers
Systemic and endemic leaks occur for two main reasons:
– as a means of promulgating facts and truth, as a counter to The Official Position (which is regarded by the leakers as untrue and deceptive)
– a cry for help, along the lines of “this organization is dysfunctional and is unable to address that dysfunctionality internally, so we need external help”.
Leakers usually engage in internal dissent first, only to be told to Shut The Hell Up, since the organization is usually incapable of distinguishing between dissent and disloyalty. This is always true in authoritarian organizations, where unconditional loyalty and obeisance to leadership is the single most important behavior prized by leadership.
The standard focus on punishing leakers by many organizations sually sends the message that the organization is in denial about its dysfunctionalities, and intends to sweep it under the carpet by punishing leakers, rather than by addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction.
The current avalanche of leaks from within government bodies under the Trump administration provides compelling evidence that the leadership being provided by the Executive Branch is both deficient and dysfunctional.

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Accountability of We The People

Remember: every time you look at the credentials, track record, personality and fitness for office of any prospective or actual Donald Trump appointee, remember that this appointee may end up in his administration because enough electors thought it was a good idea to make Donald Trump the President.
We The People, collectively, gave Trump this opportunity to lead the USA.
So if I find anybody on my social media sites or platforms who I know voted for Trump, whining about his appointees, his actions as POTUS, or his approach to governance, I am going to pretty quickly remind them of that fact.
Anybody who voted for Donald Trump owns the accountability. No hiding, bullshitting or handwringing along the lines of “but I didn’t think he really would do all of those things!”. If you try that last line with me, prepare to be ridiculed. You don’t like it? Too bad.

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The John Wiley Price saga – acquittal

I know that there was general amazement when John Wiley Price was acquitted in his recent bribery and corruption trial.
This article in the Dallas Observer expands past the “corrupt African American grifter” stereotype to explain the rather complex and sometimes contradictory personality and actions of John Wiley Price.
The article makes a very salient point. In order to make bribery and corruption endemic in government, there have to be a string of willing bribers as well as bribees. In this case, a lot of rich families and businesses in Dallas seemed to have been quite happy to “do business” with John Wiley Price. This is not an African American community phenomenon, dismissable with some variant of “it’s African tribal spoils-based politics”. It is far more pervasive, murky and wide-ranging.

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Friday round-up

1. Diversion 101 – Attack the opponents
This article explains how the current focus of GOP partisans and hardcore supporters of Donald Trump is on attacking Trump’s critics outside of the Republican Party – the media, presumed liberals and other lower forms of life.
The likely explanation for the focus elsewhere is that right now Donald Trump is not doing much of anything that makes sense or which is defensible. Hence the reversion to “oh look! there are bigger assholes over there!” tactics.

2. How to Spot Deceit 101 – divergent and changing stories
One of the easiest ways to detect lies and bullshit being deployed to explain actions and events is to carefully analyze the ways in which the actors are explaining those actions and events, and whether those explanations change over time.
Since lying, by definition, involves making shit up, once you have more than one actor, or actors who are disorganized or complacent, it is usually only a matter of time before narratives and explanations created at different times begin to clearly diverge.
Once that begins to happen, it becomes rather obvious that bullshit is being disseminated.
This Washington Post article explains that in the case of the firing of James Comey, the actors reporting to the President, in the space of 24 hours, created two divergent stories of the events leading up to his firing. Then, not to be left out, the POTUS himself, in interviews, created a third totally divergent story.
This is not evidence of mere bullshit. One of more of the actors in this farce has been disseminating 24-carat whoppers. The totally divergent nature of the narratives leaves me unconvinced that any of the narratives released that far is anything like the truth.

3. Impeachment 101
For those of you using the I word (as in Impeachment), you need to remember that according to a SCOTUS ruling in the case of a judge who was disbarred for corruption following a State Senate trial, impeachment is a political process, not a legal one.
This means that, under the catch-call of “other high crimes and misdemeanors”, the US Senate could theoretically convict Donald Trump of almost anything. Just like they tried to convict Bill Clinton for lying about a blow-job.
If you ever get to watch any impeachment proceedings, you need to remind yourself that this is not a legal process, with all of the required checks and balances and due process. For example,. there is no jury vetting or voir dire process to weed out biased or incompetent jury candidates. The jury is the entire US Senate.
Because impeachment is a political process, this, almost by definition, means that it can be abused in the service of practical politics. This has happened in the past. The ideal way to resolve directional issues in US political governance is via full free and fair elections, not post-hoc persecution of opponents. There are already some disturbing “third world” tendencies creeping into US politics (as exemplified by the “lock her up” rabble-rousing about Hillary Clinton) and any further drift in the direction of retributive actions based on slip-shod legal manouvering will further erode the credibility of the US system of representative democracy.

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The pathology of Donald Trump – there is no Grand Plan

David Roberts from Vox wrote a Tweetstorm the other day about the behavior pathologies of Donald Trump. I took the liberty of unpicking it from Twitter and enclosing it below.
Basically, like Jay Rosen, Roberts believes that Trump’s behavior is not part of some personal Grand Plan or strategy. As Rosen says, the White House is not a ship of state governed by many. The Executive Branch is entirely Donald Trump, with all of the personnel constantly reacting to Trump’s latest outbursts or actions.
Here is Roberts’ take on Trump:

I want to riff on the point I made here, which I still think is central to our current political, uh, situation.
“Theory of mind” (ToM) is a concept in psychology. To have a ToM is to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting inner states. It is to interpret behavior as issuing from, and evidence of, desires, beliefs, intentions, fears, etc.
Humans typically develop ToM early, around 2-3. There are raging debates about whether various animals have ToM, or if so what kind.
People on the autism spectrum have difficulty w/ ToM — difficulty connecting behaviors to mental states, difficulty “reading” behavior. Autism-spectrum presents one kind of ToM problem: a rich text to be read, but a reader with difficulty reading.
There is, however, another (I suspect) more rare ToM problem, namely: sophisticated readers over-interpreting a text. Typical adults are drawn almost irresistibly to see behaviors as indicators of complex mental states – persistent beliefs, desires, etc that are stable, persistent across time and contexts .
Here’s the thing: Trump, by all indications, does not have beliefs, intentions, etc. that are stable, persistent across contexts. He is attuned to who is dominating & who is submissive *in the situation he finds himself in*. It is 100% situational, 0% persistent He seeks domination. That’s all. He does not care about, or even seem cognizant of, lying, reversing himself, switching loyalties, etc. He’s like a goldfish. No beliefs, intentions, plans, or schemes are carried from place to place. Every situation is new. There is, in a very real sense, no “mind” as such, only a set of animal impulses — seek approbation, avoid blame, dominate, win.
Here’s the problem: healthy adults are simply *not accustomed to dealing w/ someone like that*. It is a rare pathology and even rarer for someone to be so protected by money/power/family that they can succeed in life despite the pathology. Utterly novel. To find someone with that pathology in a central position of power in the US is simply unprecedented. Utterly novel. Normal people with normal ToM (including journalists) find it almost impossible to resist over-interpreting Trump’s behavior, to see it as reflective of stable, persistent beliefs, intentions, and plans. They read “mind” into his behavior. Can’t help it. And this describes the vast bulk of journalism & analysis on Trump: a desperate attempt to figure out what kind of “mind” could possibly result in this bizarre set of statements & actions. Is there some long con? Is he distracting us? Secretly a genius? Firing Comey in the middle of the Russia investigation, for example, seems nigh inexplicable. Where’s the “mind,” the deeper rationale? Does this show he “actually” wants to become a dictator? That he “actually” has inside info on what Comey knew/intended? That he’s “actually” distracting attention from the Census thing (or all the other things)? “Actually” angling for revenge on Clinton?
All of these are (perfectly understandable) attempts to apply ToM. It’s what we do, instinctively, *especially* in political analysis. The mistake is not any particular one of these theories. The mistake is *applying conventional ToM at all*. As I argued in the piece (linked way back in tweet 1), Trump is, by all indications, just a bundle of impulses. Nothing more. Most likely explanation re: Russia is not some deep, secret plot, but DT saying yes to something that felt good in the moment and then immediately forgetting about it, connecting it to nothing else. Thus the confusion why everyone keeps bringing it up Most likely explanation re: Comey is not some Machiavellian tactic, but he kept seeing Comey on TV saying not-awesome things and that gave him bad feels, made him feel non-dominant. So he made Comey get off his TV. No “mind,” just stimulus-response.
Accepting this fact — that ToM is useless, that Trump really is nothing more than amygdala — is *absolutely terrifying*. It is more terrifying than any particular ToM as applied to Trump. Stable desires & intentions, even if evil, at least *make sense*. A Trump ToM gives us the comfort of knowing that at least someone’s in charge, someone has a handle on things, even if malign.
The idea that Trump is simply doing what produces good feels in a particular situation, that he is utterly unconstrained by consistency, by past commitments or statements, by laws or norms, by *anything* — that’s there’s no “mind” as such — is chilling. What if he finds himself in a position where North Korea is giving him bad feels? Will he be able to assess a response in light of past commitments, expectations, strategy, norms, or decency? Probably not! He will seek a feeling of dominance *in the moment*. A mindless Trump, acting purely on impulse, is far more dangerous than an evil Trump, acting on grand, secret schemes.
As difficult as it is, journalists, analysts, & other political actors need to internalize this. Evil can be predicted, bargained w/ but there’s no predicting or reasoning w/ pure animal impulse. ToM is useless. Only containment or removal will work.

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Fascism in the USA? Sure it can happen here…

For me, antipathy to fascism is just a wee bit more personal than that of many Americans.
I grew up in a country that fought Fascism for 6 years in the middle of the 20th century, and where the scars of that fight were visible in my home town until the 1970s.
My grandparents were saved from death in a bombing raid in England in 1940 by a fallen door that blocked tons of rubble from crushing them in the destroyed interior of their house in Margate. If the door had not fallen where it fell, my mother’s life would have been even more chaotic than it was, and I would never have had any insight from talking to grandparents.
When I hear people in the USA making statements about dangerous political movements along the lines of “that can’t happen here”, I try to remind them that this was how people in most of Europe dismissed the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. Worse still numerous business leaders and other gullible people (including members of the British royal family, and Americans with names like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh) thought that Mr. Hitler was in many ways a fine fellow, unfairly maligned by the media, who was doing a bang-up job of Making Germany Great Again. They were seduced, like many Germans, by his energy, drive and oratorial skills.
Most of the warnings against Hitler and Mussolini went unheeded by populations who had had quite enough of World War I, wanted peace, and failed to see any clear and present danger.
The rise to ascendancy of dysfunctional and dangerous political systems does not happen overnight. It is a gradual series of changes, imperceptible to many citizens, until one day the terrible truth dawns (for some of them) that the country has changed, and not for the better. Some low-information people never work that out. By the time that realization takes root, the authoritarian processes of fascism have usually made dissent not only illegal, but personally dangerous.
A number of political scientists have analyzed the key characteristics of fascism and how countries governed by fascists are organized. This article summarizes the key characteristics that have been identified.
As we move forward into the future in the USA, everybody needs to read this list and start asking the awkward question “is any of this happening here, and if it is, what should we do about it?”.

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Cyber warfare – the new asymmetric style of fighting

Many moons ago, warfare had settled into a predictable pattern. Countries would raise armies, and either singly, or in alliance with other countries where they shared common interests, attempt to invade their opponents. There would be land battles, and after a while, as humans learned to command vessels on sea and in the air, those battles could occur at sea or in the air.
Eventually, wars would end either in stalemate, where the parties would reluctantly hammer out a peace treaty, or one side would win conclusively, in which case they would occupy and control the defeated side’s territory, sometimes overtly via military presence, or covertly via a client or “puppet” regime.
War was actually recognized as a process, hence the Geneva Conventions, which contained strict rules about how defeated combatants were to be treated. (Needless to say, many parties ignored the Geneva Conventions when it suited them).
This pattern of primarily land-based war based on conquest of territory and control of populations lasted right up to and including World War II.
After World War II the dynamic changed. Firstly we had the Korean War, which technically began not as a war, but a UN operation to prevent incursions. It soon became a war in all but name, but was a proxy war, with the US supporting the South and Russia and China supporting the North. It ended in a stalemate, but no peace treaty was ever signed, so technically North Korean and South Korea are still at war.
Then in the 1950’s, opposing factions in countries discovered what soon became known as asymmetric warfare. Instead of attempting an overt military action against overwhelmingly superior forces, which would have resulted in instant annihilation, the guerilla army concept was born. Groups of fighters would pick “soft” targets where they could inflict maximum damage with minimal risk. This developed further, in more urban societies, into the terrorist cell model, where largely autonomous small groups would independently plot attacks designed to cause maximum damage and publicity. Vietnam was won partly by the success of guerilla fighting by North Vietnam. The US tactics of conventional engagement and fire-fighting were ineffective for a long time, and resulted in numerous changes in US military practice. In the 1960s the IRA became active in Ireland and elsewhere, using urban terrorism tactics. Other terrorist groups sprung up in other places, using similar tactics.
The asymmetric warfare boom (excuse the pun) created all manner of challenges for law enforcement and military alike. The practitioners had in some cases made no formal declaration of war, and they were not part of a military organization. They pretended to be civilian when it suited them, but acted like military when it suited them. They regarded items like the Geneva Conventions as a quaint anachronism, silly rules written by the Big Guys.
Terrorists and guerillas are still with us. However, their tactics have continued to evolve. They have now been joined by an entirely different group of practitioners, enabled by the digital era.
Cyber-terrorists and cyber-warfare practitioners.
With the rise of the digital world, cyber-crime became common. Hackers would break into networks, steal credentials, and use them to lift money and goods.
Cyber criminals operated best in countries without a strong tradition of law enforcement. Eastern Europe and Russia became favored operation locations, due to a combination of under-resourced and corrupt policing, and governments who turned a blind eye to those activities, sometimes out of resentment against more prosperous countries.
The rise of The Internet Of Things, with autonomous devices acquiring operating systems and connectivity, has provided a rich landscape of opportunities for hackers to disrupt the lives of people and governments. Many IoT devices have little or no security, and even if security is provided, regular folks have little or no interest in activating it properly. (If you don’t believe me, take a war drive down a few urban streets and see how many people have home wireless routers that still have the out-of-box default names and passwords.)
A local example (relatively harmless, but still disturbing) was the hacking of the Dallas emergency tornado siren network a few weeks ago. There was likely no underlying motive by the hackers other than to show that they could do it, but the hack shows the way in which cyber-warfare could be used to disrupt a modern digital society.
We now have entered a new, more subtle and more dangerous era. Some countries have now adopted those cyber-criminal techniques in order to subvert peacetime processes such as democratic elections and political campaigns.
There is a good reason for this. The United States has a colossal advantage in conventional military strength. After decades of spending more money on military activities than dozens of other countries put together, we have a formidable arsenal of conventional weaponry, with enough nuclear backup to flatten most of the planet. Nobody with any sense or desire to live wants to take on that kind of military machine head-on.
So…countries that cannot compete via conventional military means are instead, spending money on cyber warfare. It is actually pretty cost-effective to pay a couple of dozen former hackers to subvert an election, compared to running a carrier group. The hackers can reside in the home country, where they are protected. Alternatively they can be officially defined as diplomats, which means that they can travel around the world, immune from prosecution in other countries, or they can live in an embassy and direct activities from there, HINT HINT.
This form of cyber-warfare is far more subtle than direct attacks on computers, and key infrastructure locations, which carry a high risk of detection. It takes the form of covert attempts to skew and influence key social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and the creation of numerous websites to promulgate and promote propaganda and other forms of deceptive reporting and analysis. The desire of platforms like Facebook to operate as common carriers (which shields them from liability for anything that is posted on their platform) also renders them largely powerless to curate and moderate information on the platform. So the platforms are really like the Wild West, vulnerable to being overloaded by falsehoods, propaganda and other forms of deceit.
During the 2016 US election cycle, there is ample evidence of overt and covert attempts to promulgate false narratives. The analysis work is still ongoing, but the reality is that a lot of the content being created during the election cycle was flat-out bullshit. Effectively the players in this new arena are part of the rise of a globalized propaganda machine. George Orwell’s analysis in “1984” looks more and more prescient by the day.
Right now, Russia wants to remove from office any political party that supports the current Western sanctions regime against it. That is their fundamental motive. They have no desire to become involved in any overt military action against the USA, so they are trying to win battles by attempting to subvert the democratic processes in Western countries that still support sanctions. Their next target is German chancellor Angela Merkel, who is up for re-election this year. Expect to see a lot of subtle attempts to influence the electoral process. This will most likely take the form

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