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

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

 

 

The Surprising Science of Cease-Fires: Even Failures Can Help Peace -1New York Times

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No one expects the current ceasefire in Syria to last very long or provide a long-term solution to the conflict. However this article suggests that ceasefires agreements like the present one are still important:

  • “One of the best predictors of a peace agreement’s success is simply whether the parties had prior agreements, even if those earlier cease-fires failed. Not even a war’s duration or its intensity can so reliably predict a peace deal’s outcome. Neither does the poverty or ethnic diversity of the combatants.”

Ceasefires, even if they don’t last can create what the article refers to as “virtuous cycles”, wherein the parties build a degree of trust by making reciprocal concessions. If transgressions are also punished, they also learn that cheating on agreements is counter-productive. Together, these two dynamics shape the preferences of the parties making a lasting settlement more likely.

Of course, if handled poorly, the opposite lessons may be learned. If defection is widespread and inconsistently punished, then the parties learn that cooperation does not pay and cheating may actually pay-off. This result can be thought of as a “vicious cycle”.

Two points come to my while reading this article. First, the logic is very consistent with rational choice/game theory. The parties are rational actors responding to the contingencies in their environment and playing iterated games is extremely important. Second, There may be some issues with causality here. Perhaps settlements are not more likely because there are more ceasefire agreements, but instead ceasefire agreements are more likely because the conflict is winding down. If this argument is true, then it is the wider conditions in the conflict that are driving events, including the number of ceasefires and whether or not they create virtuous cycles or viscous cycles.

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/09/16/world/middleeast/another-cease-fire-in-syria-it-could-matter-even-if-it-fails.html?referer=https%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2FxZiLWXMT6P

 

2016: World military spending resumes upward course, says SIPRI -SIPRI

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The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database is now accessible http://www.sipri.org.

A few highlights from this year’s report:

  • World military expenditure rose by 1 per cent in 2015. The first increase in military spending since 2011.* The increase reflects continuing growth in Asia and Oceania, Central and Eastern Europe, and some Middle Eastern states. The decline in spending in the West is also levelling off. At the same time, spending decreased in Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. Thus, the global military expenditure picture is mixed.
  • The United States remained by far the world’s biggest spender in 2015, despite its expenditure falling by 2.4 per cent to $596 billion. Among the other top spenders, China’s expenditure rose by 7.4 per cent to $215 billion, Saudi Arabia’s grew by 5.7 per cent to $87.2 billion—making it the world’s third-largest spender—and Russia’s increased by 7.5 per cent to $66.4 billion.
  • Military spending in North America and Western and Central Europe has been decreasing since 2009……     …….US military spending was down by 2.4 per cent in 2015, a much slower rate of decline than in recent years. This was the result of measures passed by the US Congress to partially protect military spending from previously agreed budget deficit-reduction measures. US military spending is projected to remain roughly level in real terms in 2016.

More details and links to the annual report can be found at:

http://www.sipri.org/media/pressreleases/2016/milex-apr-2016

I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing -NYTimes

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Here is a rather scathing review of UN operations by Anthony Banbury, the former United Nations assistant secretary general for field support. He lambastes the bureaucracy in particular:

  • “If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result. The system is a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again.”

He also criticizes the way peacekeepers are deployed:

  • “Peacekeeping forces often lumber along for years without clear goals or exit plans, crowding out governments, diverting attention from deeper socioeconomic problems and costing billions of dollars”
  • “the United Nations decided to send 10,000 soldiers and police officers to Mali in response to a terrorist takeover of parts of the north. Inexplicably, we sent a force that was unprepared for counterterrorism and explicitly told not to engage in it. More than 80 percent of the force’s resources are spent on logistics and self-protection. Already 56 people in the United Nations contingent have been killed, and more are certain to die. The United Nations in Mali is day by day marching deeper into its first quagmire.
  • But the thing that has upset me most is what the United Nations has done in the Central African Republic. When we took over peacekeeping responsibilities from the African Union there in 2014, we had the choice of which troops to accept. Without appropriate debate, and for cynical political reasons, a decision was made to include soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and from the Republic of Congo, despite reports of serious human rights violations by these soldiers. Since then, troops from these countries have engaged in a persistent pattern of rape and abuse of the people — often young girls — the United Nations was sent there to protect.”

 

Russia’s Syria pullback: A catalyst for peace? -BBC

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“Vladimir Putin’s decision to pull much of his forces and air power out of Syria took the world by surprise. But it really should not have.
He has done exactly what he said he would do when he staged his surprise intervention nearly six months ago.
At that time, he said he had two goals: To stabilise the situation of the Syrian government, and to prepare the way for a “compromise political settlement” of a crisis that is now five years old.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35815064

Vladimir Putin’s pledge to withdraw at least part of his forces from the Syrian conflict has been taken by many as a hopeful sign. The logic is simple enough: Putin has stabilized the situation for the Syrian government and now he wants to extract himself from a messy conflict while demonstrating to the world that Russia still has clout by delivering his Syrian client to the bargaining table. Without Russian support, the argument continues, the Assad regime will realize it cannot win and therefore accept a settlement.
Maybe this will happen, maybe not. There are two problems with the argument. First, the Syrian opposition is still demanding a transitional process which involves guarantees that Bashar Assad will step down. This is probably something Assad will only do as an absolute last resort. Second, Putin may not have as much leverage as he thinks. While the Russians can credibly tell Assad that they have no intention of helping him retake the entire country, it is clear that Moscow is committed to the regime’s survival. Knowing this, Assad may feel that he can hold out for the deal he wants, one where he gets to stay in power. While Putin may not like it, the costs of turning his back on the regime now would be too high.

So far, this seems to be the calculation Assad is making. The Syrian government has already announced that it will not participate in direct talks with the opposition. (see: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35820823)

The situation as it stands, demonstrates the often complex power dynamics between patron states and their clients. Even if the patron is much more powerful and much richer, and even if the client is really desperate, if the patron is committed to the survival of the client they may not have that much influence over its actions.