How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump -MIT Technology Review

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This detailed and thoughtful article asks “How did digital technologies go from empowering citizens and toppling dictators to being used as tools of oppression and discord?” and what can we learn from the experience?

The Lessons:

  1. the weakening of old-style information gatekeepers (such as media, NGOs, and government and academic institutions), while empowering the underdogs, has also, in another way, deeply disempowered underdogs.
  2. the new, algorithmic gatekeepers aren’t merely (as they like to believe) neutral conduits for both truth and falsehood. They make their money by keeping people on their sites and apps; that aligns their incentives closely with those who stoke outrage, spread misinformation, and appeal to people’s existing biases and preferences.
  3. the loss of gatekeepers has been especially severe in local journalism. While some big US media outlets have managed (so far) to survive the upheaval wrought by the internet, this upending has almost completely broken local newspapers…
  4. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.
  5. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.
  6. Russia exploited the US’s weak digital security—its “nobody but us” mind-set—to subvert the public debate around the 2016 election.

The way forward?

“If digital connectivity provided the spark, it ignited because the kindling was already everywhere. The way forward is not to cultivate nostalgia for the old-world information gatekeepers or for the idealism of the Arab Spring. It’s to figure out how our institutions, our checks and balances, and our societal safeguards should function in the 21st century—not just for digital technologies but for politics and the economy in general. This responsibility isn’t on Russia, or solely on Facebook or Google or Twitter. It’s on us.”

For the full article, see: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611806/how-social-media-took-us-from-tahrir-square-to-donald-trump/

Artificial Intelligence Is Now a Pentagon Priority. Will Silicon Valley Help? -NYTimes

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Here is a brief article on the militarization of Artificial Intelligence:

  • “In a May memo to President Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis implored him to create a national strategy for artificial intelligence.
  • Mr. Mattis argued that the United States was not keeping pace with the ambitious plans of China and other countries. With a final flourish, he quoted a recent magazine article by Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state, and called for a presidential commission capable of “inspiring a whole of country effort that will ensure the U.S. is a leader not just in matters of defense but in the broader ‘transformation of the human condition.’”
  • “In late June, the Pentagon announced the creation of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, or JAIC. Defense officials have not said how many people will be dedicated to the new program or where it will be based when it starts next month. It could have several offices around the country.
  • The Defense Department wants to shift $75 million of its annual budget into the new office and a total of $1.7 billion over five years, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not allowed to speak about it publicly.”

Of course, its not just the US. If one state militarizes a new technology, others are sure to follow:

The Chinese government has raised the stakes with its own national strategy. Academic and commercial organizations in China have been open about working closely with the military on A.I. projects. They call it “military-civil fusion.”

Not surprisingly, the militarization of AI has raised concerns:

  • “…in the eyes of some researchers, creating robotic vehicles and developing robotic weapons are very different. And they fear that autonomous weapons pose an unusual threat to humans.
  • “This is a unique moment, with so much activism coming out of Silicon Valley,” said Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that explores policy related to national security and defense. “Some of it is informed by the political situation, but it also reflects deep concern over the militarization of these technologies as well as their application to surveillance.”

It is worth noting that the development of any new military technology has the potential to impact the balance of power and/or the offense/defense balance…..

See: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/26/technology/pentagon-artificial-intelligence.html

America Is Living James Madison’s Nightmare –The Atlantic

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This article chronicles the ills faced by the American political system. There are a number of interesting points worth thinking about. To begin with, it positions itself clearly on the side of representative democracy instead of direct democracy.

• “Madison’s reading convinced him that direct democracies—such as the assembly in Athens, where 6,000 citizens were required for a quorum—unleashed populist passions that overcame the cool, deliberative reason prized above all by Enlightenment thinkers. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,”
• “The Framers designed the American constitutional system not as a direct democracy but as a representative republic, where enlightened delegates of the people would serve the public good. They also built into the Constitution a series of cooling mechanisms intended to inhibit the formulation of passionate factions, to ensure that reasonable majorities would prevail.”
• “The people would directly elect the members of the House of Representatives, but the popular passions of the House would cool in the “Senatorial saucer,” as George Washington purportedly called it: The Senate would comprise natural aristocrats chosen by state legislators rather than elected by the people. And rather than directly electing the chief executive, the people would vote for wise electors—that is, propertied white men—who would ultimately choose a president of the highest character and most discerning judgment.””

Please note: the points above cover both the best and the worst of characteristics of representative democracy. It prevents mob rule, but only by allowing a privileged group (white landed men) to act as a buffer between the will of the people and policy.

The author describes the current state of American Politics as a “Madisonian Nightmare”:

• “The polarization of Congress, reflecting an electorate that has not been this divided since about the time of the Civil War, has led to ideological warfare between parties that directly channels the passions of their most extreme constituents and donors—precisely the type of factionalism the Founders abhorred.”
• “Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason. Rather than encouraging deliberation, mass media undermine it by creating bubbles and echo chambers in which citizens see only those opinions they already embrace.””

Quite correctly, the author points out that the problems started before Donald Trump and his twitter revolution.
• “The executive branch, meanwhile, has been transformed by the spectacle of tweeting presidents, though the presidency had broken from its constitutional restraints long before the advent of social media. During the election of 1912, the progressive populists Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson insisted that the president derived his authority directly from the people. Since then, the office has moved in precisely the direction the Founders had hoped to avoid: Presidents now make emotional appeals, communicate directly with voters, and pander to the mob.”

This trend has been exacerbated by:
Mass Political Parties: “Whatever benefits the parties offered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, have long since disappeared. The moderating effects of parties were undermined by a series of populist reforms, including the direct election of senators, the popular-ballot initiative, and direct primaries in presidential elections, which became widespread in the 1970s.”

The Imperial Presidency: “Madison feared that Congress would be the most dangerous branch of the federal government, sucking power into its “impetuous vortex.” But today he would shudder at the power of the executive branch. The rise of what the presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency” has unbalanced the equilibrium among the three branches. Modern presidents rule by executive order rather than consulting with Congress. They direct a massive administrative state, with jurisdiction over everything from environmental policy to the regulation of the airwaves. Trump’s populist promise—“I alone can fix it”—is only the most dramatic in a long history of hyperbolic promises, made by presidents from Wilson to Obama, in order to mobilize their most ideologically extreme voters.”

Media polarization: “which has allowed geographically dispersed citizens to isolate themselves into virtual factions, communicating only with like-minded individuals and reinforcing shared beliefs. Far from being a conduit for considered opinions by an educated elite, social-media platforms spread misinformation and inflame partisan differences. Indeed, people on Facebook and Twitter are more likely to share inflammatory posts that appeal to emotion than intricate arguments based on reason.”

Ideological Polarization: “At the moment, the combination of low voter turnout and ideological extremism has tended to favor very liberal or very conservative candidates in primaries. Thanks to safe districts created by geographic self-sorting and partisan gerrymandering, many of these extremists go on to win the general election. Today, all congressional Republicans fall to the right of the most conservative Democrat, and all congressional Democrats fall to the left of the most liberal Republican. In the 1960s, at times, 50 percent of the lawmakers overlapped ideologically.”

This article describes a set of institutions that had been weakened by years of dysfunctional politics. One point may be missing though. The representative architecture of the US political system that Madison cherished may have also played a role in the alienation and radicalization of the American public. After all, it’s the elite buffer that has been the target of much of the populist anger on both the left and the right. To many Americans, the Madison’s “cooling saucer” has been nothing but a swamp.

Please see: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/james-madison-mob-rule/568351/

Gulf Cooperation Council arms race: Who sells to whom -al Jazeera

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“Amid regional instability, an arms race is under way among Arab Gulf countries. The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait – have spent billions of dollars on weapons this year alone.

Here’s a look at the recent deals made.”

  • Saudi Arabia
    So far in 2018, Saudi Arabia has allocated over $3bn to arms deals.
  • Qatar
    Qatar has allocated over $490m to arms deals in 2018.
  • Kuwait
    So far in 2018, Kuwait has allocated over $300m to arms deals.
  • United Arab Emirates
    The United Arab Emirates has allocated more than $200m for arms purchases in 2018.
  • Oman
    Oman has allocated more than $60m for buying weapons in 2018.
  • Bahrain
    Bahrain has not reported any arms purchases yet in 2018.

For specific details see: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/gulf-cooperation-council-arms-race-sells-180412125953374.html

Xi Jinping to cement his power with plan to scrap two-term limit -The Guardian

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Here are two articles from the Guardian looking at the dramatic changes in China’s constitution which have removed the limit on the President’s tenure in office to two terms of five years. The President in the Chinese political system is formally a limited position with mostly ceremonial powers. However, since 1993 the President has also been the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, making it the de facto center of Chinese political power. This change represents a reversal of the policy implemented after the death of Chairman Mao, which was intended to split up and limit power in the Chinese political system.

  • “Jude Blanchette, an expert in Chinese politics from New York’s Conference Board research group, said: “It’s amazing. I just did not think this was possible. I just thought it was way too aggressive and bold [a move] and unnecessarily so.
  • “It’s an unequivocal signal that Xi Jinping has designs to stay on past 2023. I don’t think there is any other way to read it other than the four-decade long project that Deng Xiaoping initiated to set hard term limits on power to make sure that a Mao figure never came back is being dismantled.
  • “You just need to look a few thousand miles to the west in Russia to see what this
  • potentially looks like”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/25/xi-jinping-to-cement-his-power-with-plan-scrap-two-term-limit-china

This is another step in Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power:

  • “Yet a man whose family was so deeply scarred by the excesses of Maoism is dismantling the changes designed to safeguard his party and country against further such disasters. After the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s successors resolved that never again should one person hold such power. Deng Xiaoping, and other survivors such as Xi’s father, sought to institutionalise politics. Their ideas were not codified, but they were crucial in limiting the power of the leader by setting a term limit and ensuring authority was exercised collectively.
  • Xi has ripped up this unwritten rulebook. He is in charge, full stop. This week he became the only living leader since Mao to have his ideology enshrined in the party constitution under his name. His ideas are recorded as “Xi Jinping Thought”, on a par with Mao Zedong Thought, rather than Deng’s slightly less elevated “Theory”.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/25/xi-jinping-has-china-strongman-forgotten-the-perils-of-power

These 3 Everyday Products Show Who Won and Lost From Nafta -NYTimes

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The title of this article is a little misleading, it does not show so much who won or lost with NAFTA as much as it shows the complexities of trade and production within the agreement. Beer sold in Mexico brewed from grains grown in America. Jeans made cheaply in Mexico for American markets, but with American cotton. Bacon from pigs born in Canada but raised in the USA….  The author argues in the case of the jeans, that without NAFTA production would likely move to Asia. This may or may not turn out to be the case. It seems very hard to tell what would happen. But this is the main point. The arguments we usually hear about who wins or loses from trade agreements like NAFTA are superficial. Much of the trade and production involved in manufacturing is not obvious to consumers who only see the final product. And, the people who profit from it are not always as salient as the people who have been hurt by the changes created by NAFTA. In the United States, Donald Trump has played to the type of superficial understanding of trade this article exposes. In the UK, the Brexit campaign did too. This is not to say these deals are good or bad, just that they are complex.

 

The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea -The New Yorker

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This article from the New Yorker looks at the tensions between North Korea and the United States. It provides a rare glimpse into the internal workings of the insular state. Along the way it also raises some important issues about brinksmanship as a foreign policy and the strategy of deterrence.

Quoting Thomas Shelling one of the founders of American strategic thought, brinksmanship is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” It involves creating a crisis or escalating a crisis with the expectation that one’s opponent will back down. Basically, it’s a game of chicken. In theory, it is a rational game played by rational actors, making careful calculations about the other side’s interests and the level of their aversion to escalation and possibly conflict. That being said, “…they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” Given the nature of the two leaders involved, Donald Trump & Kim Jong Un, the article correctly goes on to ask, “what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?”

The article also raises deeper questions about brinksmanship and deterrence, though. For these strategies to be employed without producing a disaster, there has to be a clear understanding of the other side’s interests and red-lines. Regardless of the specific leaders in place, this article suggests that neither side really understands the other.

  • US on North Korea: “Experts can’t say definitively why Kim wants nuclear weapons. Are they for self-defense, as North Korea claims, or will Kim use them to achieve the unfulfilled ambition of the Korean War—forcing reunification with South Korea? A senior Administration official told me that members of Trump’s national-security team are not convinced that Kim will stop at self-protection. “There are fewer and fewer disagreements about North Korea’s capabilities now, and so then, inevitably, the question of their intentions becomes critical,” he said. “Are they pursuing these weapons in order to maintain the status quo on the Peninsula, or are they seeking to fundamentally alter the status quo?””
  • North Korea on the US: “… I asked Pak what he and other North Koreans thought of Trump. “He might be irrational—or too smart. We don’t know,” he said. They suspected that Trump’s comment about “fire and fury” might be part of a subtle strategy. “Like the Chinese ‘Art of War,’ ” he said. “If he’s not driving toward a point, then what is he doing? That is our big question.”
  • Even China struggles to understand their neighbor: “In 2008, when Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, Randal Phillips, a senior C.I.A. officer overseeing operations in Asia, met a Chinese counterpart to share analyses, as they sometimes did. But Phillips discovered that Chinese intelligence “didn’t know what was happening,” he told me. “I think the Chinese know a hell of a lot less than people assume.” Compared with other American adversaries, North Korea is the “hardest target,” Terry said. “There’s no other country that’s like that,” she told me. “It’s just pieced together.”
  • To make things worse, the North Koreans are deliberately obtuse: “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog,” Kim Jong Il once said, “to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”

 

Deterrence also requires effective communication, and as the article illustrates, the two sides have not been good at messaging each other. The following discussion provides a perfect example of how not not to communicate in the context of deterrence:

“So is he going to launch them or not?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Pak said. “It depends on whether the United States sends another nuclear asset, like a B-1B, over the Korean Peninsula.”

“Does the U.S. know that’s the determining factor?” I asked.

“We haven’t told them! But they should know, because we said they should not send any further ‘nuclear provocations.’ ”

For those familiar with the 1960s Cold-War satire, Dr. Strangelove, it is eerily similar to the miscommunication that leads in the movie, to nuclear Armageddon.

 

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/18/the-risk-of-nuclear-war-with-north-korea

Three flawed ideas are hurting international peacebuilding -Monkey Cage

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According to , while “policymakers and practitioners often admit that many standard peacebuilding techniques are ineffective. In the absence of compelling alternatives, these faulty templates continue to be used all over the world by default. Further, “effectiveness can be improved significantly if foreign peacebuilders avoid three widespread assumptions:

Assumption No. 1) Good things promote peace and bad things undermine peace.

Democracy, liberalization and education may actually fuel conflict. Conversely,  corruption, the drug-trade and other illegal activities can foster stability -at least in the short term.

Assumption No. 2) It takes formal peace efforts to control violence.

“ordinary people can engage in everyday actions to reduce tensions, such as avoiding topics that might be contentious. Or they focus on being polite to members of other groups — or they reach out to local civil-society organizations, rather than state law enforcement, when there is a problem.”

“In these cases, formal, externally led peace initiatives may not be necessary because local people are already coping on their own. In fact, external support may actually jeopardize local efforts rather than support them.”

Assumption No. 3) Inhabitants of conflict zones aren’t capable of resolving their own predicament.

“outsiders don’t necessarily have the knowledge to build peace in host countries. They may not speak local languages, understand local customs or have the in-depth knowledge of local history necessary to comprehend and resolve the deep sources of tensions. And all societies — even those at war — tend to have local systems and skills to resolve conflicts.”

 

In the final analysis, its all about context: “peace efforts must draw on the knowledge, competencies, perspectives, networks, assets and leverage of both insiders and outsiders.”

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/03/15/avoiding-these-3-assumptions-may-actually-help-bring-peace/?utm_term=.091678e2f659

 

 

 

The man who declared the ‘end of history’ now fearful of the very fate of liberal democracy -National Post

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In the early 1990s, just after the end of the Cold-War, Francis Fukuyama argued that we had reached the “end of history”. He was not saying the world was coming to an end, but instead that liberal, capitalist democracy had emerged as the only accepted form of government. Fascism had been discredited by WWII and communism discredited by the collapse of the USSR. The liberal model was, so to speak, the last man standing.

His argument was controversial at the time. Many saw it as simple self-congratulatory American rhetoric. Others, like Samuel Huntington argued the new world order would be dominated by a clash of civilizations.

Now Fukuyama is himself questioning the future of liberal-democracy. Much of his concern is due to the election of Donald Trump. However, the problem is deeper then this, according to Fukuyama, and more widespread.

In part he argues it is a long-standing problem in American politics where “the Republican Party has gerrymandered districts and established what amounts to de facto one-party rule in parts of the country.”

In part, it is also globalization, which produces “internal tensions within democracies that these institutions have some trouble reconciling,” he said. Combined with grievances over immigration and multiculturalism, it created room for the “demagogic populism” that catapulted Trump into the White House.”

It is also present in Europe, where he argues the EU is “unraveling” and right-wing nationalism is on the rise.

He certainly is not arguing that liberal democracy is doomed, but his ideas about the nature of the international system have certainly changed:  “Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward,” said Fukuyama in a phone interview. “And I think they clearly can.”

The man who declared the ‘end of history’ now fearful of the very fate of liberal democracy

 

 

A Moral Guide to Serving in the Trump Administration -War on the Rocks

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This article exams the dilemma facing many Americans involved in national security policy: boycott the Trump administration or remain engaged so policy making is not dominated by those who lack experience, competence, or reason. The question is particularly salient now under Trump. However, it is a question that many people have had ask themselves when thinking about any government: Will I make things better, or will politics make me worse?

“Some people will have no problems accepting positions in the Trump administration with nary a second thought. But there are many others out there who have deep concerns and are asking themselves questions that they may never have considered before any other newly arriving administration, regardless of party. These public servants must now pause to think about their personal moral and ethical boundaries — what administration decisions or policies would be so personally unacceptable that they would feel required to resign.

It is impossible, of course, to know exactly what President-elect Trump will do once in office….. Nevertheless, Trump’s wide array of troubling comments mean that every responsible public servant should think about just what level of affront to their principles would simply be too much to tolerate — when choosing to serve or remaining on the job means becoming an enabler to policies or actions that they find deeply unethical or immoral. And this will not be a one-time choice. It will be an ongoing calculation throughout the entire administration, a decision that must be revisited repeatedly, week after week as new policies and decisions unfold.”

The article goes on to identify 7 seven questions any public servant needs to ask themselves before agreeing to work for the Trump administration. Here they are in an abridged form:

  • “Do you believe that your service will help improve policies and decision-making? ….or at least prevent some truly bad decisions from happening?
  • Do you believe that the policies or values that you find objectionable are rooted primarily in the new administration’s inexperience and lack of knowledge or in its core ideology? If you believe the former, then the case for serving is stronger, since you can help educate the new team. But if you believe that the administration is operating more from an ideology that fundamentally violates your deeply held beliefs (such as promoting torture or indiscriminate bombing), then the moral decision bends the other way.
  • Who specifically will you work for? …Will they act as a bulwark of decency, shielding you and your colleagues — and maybe even the country — from the worst of politics going on above your pay grade?
  • Are the people you most respect choosing not to serve for a principled reason? Or, if later in the administration, have they resigned for cause? In each case, do you know what factors shaped their decisions? How does their logic align with or differ from your thinking? Understanding their experiences can serve as useful guideposts.
  • When would choosing not to serve (or to leave government) do more to advance the ideals and values you believe in most? How will you carry your commitment to principle into action from the outside? If you elect not to serve now, what might change your mind? Who would you find sufficiently principled to work for that might convince you that serving is the right thing to do?
  • If you choose to serve (or to stay), how frequently do you plan to reassess your decision? Failing to do so runs the risk of the “boiling frog” syndrome, where every small uptick in the water temperature, or new policy that modestly erodes that which you deeply believe in, becomes slowly, inexorably acceptable until the whole is invisible and no longer objectionable.”

On a side note: the discussion not only tackles the moral dilemma, it also highlights the degree to which there has been consensus up until now in American foreign policy making circles:

“Unlike our counterparts who work on domestic policy, national security practitioners have long enjoyed a largely bipartisan consensus about the core principles of what makes America strong and secure: an open, liberal international order guaranteed by American leadership and power. Democrats and Republicans have fought long and hard about specific policies for decades, but those arguments have, for the most part, been about ways, not ends — how to best realize broadly shared principles, not whether they were the right principles in the first place.”

A Moral Guide to Serving in the Trump Administration