Carole Cadwalladr

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I wonder if it dawned on Soviet refugee and Google guy Sergey Brin when he joined the January pro-immigration protests at San Francisco International Airport that his company, founded not even 20 years ago with the “Don’t Be Evil” tagline, played a large role in enabling a xenophobic, anti-refugee Administration into the White House, and it was more than just an egregious oversight. It wasn’t a bug but a feature. Something tells me that Brin avoided too much reflection on this point, that the primary thought among the major communications players in Silicon Valley has been how to do damage control without doing any damage to the bottom line.

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In the Web 1.0 days, editors who argued against selling prime real estate in search results to the highest bidder within an automated system were told that they not only didn’t understand business but that they didn’t understand the future. Both sides were right, in a sense. Tomorrow was indeed up for sale, and sites and groups, many of them under the auspices of the Kremlin and some run by neo-Nazis, paid for placement and gamed the system, meaning that everything those editors feared—and far worse—came to fruition. 

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Google, with its outsize control over Internet communications, is one of the major culprits in the new abnormal, but it isn’t alone, as Facebook and Twitter have also done harm, and it wasn’t an accident. From a Bloomberg report published a few hours ago: 

Facebook Inc. is pledging greater transparency about who’s behind election-related ads online. For years, the company fought to avoid it. Since 2011, Facebook has asked the Federal Election Commission for blanket exemptions from political advertising disclosure rules — transparency that could have helped it avoid the current crisis over Russian ad spending ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. Communications law requires traditional media like TV and radio to track and disclose political ad buyers. The rule doesn’t apply online, an exemption that’s helped Facebook’s self-serve advertising business generate hundreds of millions of dollars in political campaign spots. When the company was smaller, the issue was debated in some policy corners of Washington. Now that the social network is such a powerful political tool, with more than 2 billion users, the topic is at the center of a debate about the future of American democracy.

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Carole Cadwalladr, who’s done excellent work in the Guardian this year in trying to untangle the impact the Mercers and Cambridge Analytica had on Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election, also published a piece on the army of trolls that pollutes the Internet with hatemongering and misinformation, a regiment that is continuing to grow in size and impact. One expert on the topic tells her about these nefarious agents: “It’s an information war…it’s a network…it’s far more powerful than any one actor…and it’s learning…every day, it’s getting stronger.”

An excerpt:

Stories about fake news on Facebook have dominated certain sections of the press for weeks following the American presidential election, but arguably this is even more powerful, more insidious. Frank Pasquale, professor of law at the University of Maryland, and one of the leading academic figures calling for tech companies to be more open and transparent, calls the results “very profound, very troubling”.

He came across a similar instance in 2006 when, “If you typed ‘Jew’ in Google, the first result was jewwatch.org. It was ‘look out for these awful Jews who are ruining your life’. And the Anti-Defamation League went after them and so they put an asterisk next to it which said: ‘These search results may be disturbing but this is an automated process.’ But what you’re showing – and I’m very glad you are documenting it and screenshotting it – is that despite the fact they have vastly researched this problem, it has gotten vastly worse.”

And ordering of search results does influence people, says Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College, London, who has written at length on the impact of the big tech companies on our civic and political spheres. “There’s large-scale, statistically significant research into the impact of search results on political views. And the way in which you see the results and the types of results you see on the page necessarily has an impact on your perspective.” Fake news, he says, has simply “revealed a much bigger problem. These companies are so powerful and so committed to disruption. They thought they were disrupting politics but in a positive way. They hadn’t thought about the downsides. These tools offer remarkable empowerment, but there’s a dark side to it. It enables people to do very cynical, damaging things.”

Google is knowledge. It’s where you go to find things out. And evil Jews are just the start of it. There are also evil women. I didn’t go looking for them either. This is what I type: “a-r-e w-o-m-e-n”. And Google offers me just two choices, the first of which is: “Are women evil?” I press return. Yes, they are. Every one of the 10 results “confirms” that they are, including the top one, from a site called sheddingoftheego.com, which is boxed out and highlighted: “Every woman has some degree of prostitute in her. Every woman has a little evil in her… Women don’t love men, they love what they can do for them. It is within reason to say women feel attraction but they cannot love men.”

Next I type: “a-r-e m-u-s-l-i-m-s”. And Google suggests I should ask: “Are Muslims bad?” And here’s what I find out: yes, they are. That’s what the top result says and six of the others. Without typing anything else, simply putting the cursor in the search box, Google offers me two new searches and I go for the first, “Islam is bad for society”. In the next list of suggestions, I’m offered: “Islam must be destroyed.”

Jews are evil. Muslims need to be eradicated. And Hitler? Do you want to know about Hitler? Let’s Google it. “Was Hitler bad?” I type. And here’s Google’s top result: “10 Reasons Why Hitler Was One Of The Good Guys” I click on the link: “He never wanted to kill any Jews”; “he cared about conditions for Jews in the work camps”; “he implemented social and cultural reform.” Eight out of the other 10 search results agree: Hitler really wasn’t that bad.

A few days later, I talk to Danny Sullivan, the founding editor of SearchEngineLand.com. He’s been recommended to me by several academics as one of the most knowledgeable experts on search. Am I just being naive, I ask him? Should I have known this was out there? “No, you’re not being naive,” he says. “This is awful. It’s horrible. It’s the equivalent of going into a library and asking a librarian about Judaism and being handed 10 books of hate. Google is doing a horrible, horrible job of delivering answers here. It can and should do better.”•

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In a vital Guardian article that ties together online-media manipulation, psychological profiling of voters, Trump and Brexit, reporter Carole Cadwalladr follows a byzantine trail that leads to the right-wing machinations of computer scientist and billionaire Robert Mercer, the single biggest donor in the 2016 U.S. Presidential race. 

Mercer, an old friend of fellow anti-government zealots Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage, has often futilely thrown money at his ultra-conservative causes, but when you have that much to wager, you can keep trying until you break the bank. In 2016, he did just that. 

The Renaissance Technologies CEO offered the services of data research firm Cambridge Analytica to both Trump and Leave.EU, which helped them game Facebook and Google in a large-scale way, create extensive individual profiles of citizens and destabilize genuine journalism. It permitted mud to be thrown with precision on both sides of the pond, creating propaganda to fit the Digital Age. As a ranking member of Leave.EU tells the Guardian: “What they were trying to do in the US and what we were trying to do had massive parallels.”

Mark Zuckerberg wants us to believe that Facebook, despite its many failings, should play a leading role in saving global democracy, but who will save it from Facebook?

From Cadwalladr:

Which is how, earlier this week, I ended up in a Pret a Manger near Westminster with Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s affable communications director, looking at snapshots of Donald Trump on his phone. It was Wigmore who orchestrated Nigel Farage’s trip to Trump Tower – the PR coup that saw him become the first foreign politician to meet the president elect.

Wigmore scrolls through the snaps on his phone. “That’s the one I took,” he says pointing at the now globally famous photo of Farage and Trump in front of his golden elevator door giving the thumbs-up sign. Wigmore was one of the “bad boys of Brexit” – a term coined by Arron Banks, the Bristol-based businessman who was Leave.EU’s co-founder.

Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”

It sounds creepy, I say.

“It is creepy! It’s really creepy! It’s why I’m not on Facebook! I tried it on myself to see what information it had on me and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ What’s scary is that my kids had put things on Instagram and it picked that up. It knew where my kids went to school.”

They hadn’t “employed” Cambridge Analytica, he said. No money changed hands. “They were happy to help.”

Why?

“Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Robert Mercer introduced them to us. He said, ‘Here’s this company we think may be useful to you.’ What they were trying to do in the US and what we were trying to do had massive parallels. We shared a lot of information. Why wouldn’t you?” Behind Trump’s campaign and Cambridge Analytica, he said, were “the same people. It’s the same family.”•

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A passage from Carole Cadwalladr’s new Guardian profile of futurist and Google employee Ray Kurzweil, who is often, though not always, right when making his bold predictions about technology:

Bill Gates calls him ‘the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.’ He’s received 19 honorary doctorates, and he’s been widely recognised as a genius. But he’s the sort of genius, it turns out, who’s not very good at boiling a kettle. He offers me a cup of coffee and when I accept he heads into the kitchen to make it, filling a kettle with water, putting a teaspoon of instant coffee into a cup, and then moments later, pouring the unboiled water on top of it. He stirs the undissolving lumps and I wonder whether to say anything but instead let him add almond milk – not eating diary is just one of his multiple dietary rules – and politely say thank you as he hands it to me. It is, by quite some way, the worst cup of coffee I have ever tasted.

But then, he has other things on his mind. The future, for starters. And what it will look like. He’s been making predictions about the future for years, ever since he realised that one of the key things about inventing successful new products was inventing them at the right moment, and ‘so, as an engineer, I collected a lot of data.’ In 1990, he predicted that a computer would defeat a world chess champion by 1998. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov. He predicted the explosion of the world wide web at a time it was only being used by a few academics and he predicted dozens and dozens of other things that have largely come true, or that will soon, such as that by the year 2000, robotic leg prostheses would allow paraplegics to walk (the US military is currently trialling an ‘Iron Man’ suit) and ‘cybernetic chauffeurs’ would be able to drive cars (which Google has more or less cracked).

His critics point out that not all his predictions have exactly panned out (no US company has reached a market capitalisation of more than $1 trillion; ‘bioengineered treatments’ have yet to cure cancer). But in any case, the predictions aren’t the meat of his work, just a byproduct. They’re based on his belief that technology progresses exponentially (as is also the case in Moore’s law, which sees computers’ performance doubling every two years). But then you just have to dig out an old mobile phone to understand that. The problem, he says, is that humans don’t think about the future that way. ‘Our intuition is linear.’

When Kurzweil first started talking about the ‘singularity,’ a conceit he borrowed from the science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge, he was dismissed as a fantasist. He has been saying for years that he believes that the Turing test – the moment at which a computer will exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human – will be passed in 2029. The difference is that when he began saying it, the fax machine hadn’t been invented. But now, well… it’s another story.”

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I guess I’m remarkably jaded because from the minute the Patriot Act became law, I assumed there would be large-scale surveillance by our government. What’s more, most Americans probably wanted it and likely still do.

Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales commenting on NSA surveillance in an interview with Carole Cadwalladr in the Guardian:

Carole Cadwalladr:

You’ve spoken out publicly about the NSA revelations, but how surprised were you when that first headline hit? Or did you suspect something like that was going on?

Jimmy Wales:

I was surprised by the scale, by some of the revelations. I was surprised – as Google was – that they were tapping into lines inside, between the data centres of Google. That’s pretty amazing. And hacking Angela Merkel’s phone – that was a surprise. But I think we haven’t yet had the revelation that will really set people off.

Carole Cadwalladr:

You’ve said that you’re going to start encrypting communications on Wikipedia as a result…

Jimmy Wales:

We have done. It’s not completely finished yet but the only thing that GCHQ, hopefully, can see is that you’re looking at Wikipedia. They can’t see which article you’re reading. It’s not the government’s business to know what everybody is reading.”

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Speaking of the Singularity, a passage from Carole Cadwalladr’s new Guardian article about Peter Diamandis’ ultra-expensive Singularity University:

“There’s a neat circularity to this. Peter Diamandis grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Greek immigrant parents, and was himself inspired to become a scientist by the Apollo mission, doing degrees in medicine and molecular biology and finally a PhD in aerospace engineering at MIT. The Singularity University isn’t even the first university he’s founded. He set up the International Space University while he was still in his 20s and which has now trained an entire generation of NASA scientists. It’s why Buzz Aldrin has come along, and why another astronaut, Dan Barry, teaches the SU’s robotics course (Barry’s big prediction: cyberdildonics. Robot sex. ‘You think it’s funny, right? But I’m also a rehabilitation physician, and sex is a basic human drive robots will be able to fulfil for the disabled, the widowed, the elderly. It’s going to happen. You might as well accept it and get in on the ground floor.’)

The future isn’t all thrilling robo-sex and free solar energy though. Barry’s talk also includes video of some of the other robots in development. If you think drones are scary, it’s because you haven’t yet seen the video on YouTube of autonomous swarming quadrocoptors. Or the hummingbird-shaped drone that can hover in the air and then fly in through a window, or Big Dog, which looks like something from Blade Runner, or, just last week, a new one with legs that can go where no Dalek ever could: up stairs.

None of these are being developed to help with meals on wheels or palliative care nursing, though. They’re war machines, most of which are being developed with funding or support from DARPA.”

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“Preparing humanity for accelerating technological change”:

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