1. Battling the weaponised drones of popular opinion

    Posted November 3, 2014 in comment, politics, twitter  |  No Comments so far

    Kevin at Strange Attractor on what the tactics of Gamergaters tell us about the future of online political discourse.

    When you look at the techniques being used by some of these groups, you quickly get a sense of how the next partisan political scorched earth campaign will be fought. Sockpuppets will become the weaponised drones of popular opinion, amplifying marginal views so that they swamp mainstream opinion.

    The article’s broadly pessimistic tone resonates with me, but I feel more positive when thinking about the countermeasures that could protect against these tactics. The Eliza chatbot set up to engage these sock puppets is just one example, acting more as chaff—attracting attackers and wasting their resources—than as an offensive weapon.

    If ideas like that proliferate and evolve we might just escape a future where we have to abandon the web to swarms of hate-spewing bots.

  2. Alex Salmond

    Posted September 20, 2014 in politics  |  No Comments so far

    Alex Salmond resigned as First Minister of Scotland yesterday, having failed to win the referendum on Scottish independence.

    He was fighting against the might of the Westminster establishment, the media (no newspapers supported him), the major financial institutions and the vested interests of the wealthy in this country.

    His opponents used the weapons they know best—negativity, condescension and intimidation—and did not hold back.

    Despite all this he gained the support of 45% of Scots, and a majority in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, backed his vision of an independent nation in charge of its future. To have done so in the face of that level of opposition is a huge achievement, and I hope history will recognise that.

  3. More reasons to reconsider your Kindle purchase

    Posted December 18, 2010 in books, politics  |  No Comments so far

    I wrote a few weeks ago about my growing concerns over Amazon, the Kindle and censorship. Amazon – with its Kindle e-reader – is asking us to give it absolute control over what we can and can’t read. Now imagine books you own disappearing from your home without warning, just because another country’s government has deemed their contents politically undesirable. Would you tolerate that? If yes, the Kindle is for you – but if not, you should think twice before embracing it wholeheartedly.

    Yesterday, the Register published an article about further signs of censorship within the Kindle system. This censorship isn’t political – instead, the books affected are erotica novels with themes like incest and so on – but it’s still concerning.

    [Jess Scott, one affected author] went on: “I see other similarly-themed books still available for purchase, and see books with the subjects of rape, bestiality, etc, available for purchase (books that have not been deleted from Amazon’s catalog). If underage sex is illegal, why is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita still available for purchase?”

    The reply from Amazon, according to Jess, boiled down to a simple statement that they would judge each case on its merit, and they would act as their own judge and jury in cases such as these…

    It looks as though the Kindle marketplace is going to become something like an iTunes App Store for books, where unexplained and arbitrary decisions are made centrally about what users are allowed to access. That policy isn’t great when applied to apps, but it’s even less appealing where books are concerned.

    I find these shady shenanigans especially annoying because I really like my Kindle, and I’d like to store books on it just as permanently as I do on my bookshelf. At the moment I’m investigating how to “jailbreak” the Kindle, and when I get round to it I’ll post up a guide here.

  4. Amazon’s moral failure over Wikileaks – why we were entitled to expect more

    Posted December 4, 2010 in comment, politics  |  No Comments so far

    I’m not sure exactly how much I’ve spent with Amazon in the last year, but it’s a lot. If I buy something online, I’ll probably buy it from Amazon even if it’s slightly cheaper elsewhere. I buy books, MP3s and big-ticket items like computers too. So I guess I have a strong “brand relationship” with Amazon.

    Like many people, I’m re-evaluating this relationship after Amazon dropped Wikileaks in an apparent concession to US government pressure (their official statement didn’t impress me much either) and I may stop buying things from them.

    But here’s a good question – if you plan on boycotting Amazon for not hosting Wikileaks, why not boycott every firm that doesn’t host Wikileaks? This is my answer, and it’s grounded in Amazon’s ambitions (specifically the Kindle) rather than a general sense of corporate morality.

    The Kindle strategy: mediate between reader and book

    When Amazon started out, it just sold books. As it grew it started selling lots of other stuff (encountering more than a few UX problems along the way) but books and their readers remained key to its identity, as was affirmed by the launch of the Kindle in 2007.

    Before the Kindle, Amazon’s relationship with the reader began with browsing for a new book and ended soon after it arrived. The packaging discarded, the book was opened and Amazon was forgotten: the relationship was now directly between the reader and the book.

    With the Kindle, this relationship was to change. Rather than just enabling the book’s purchase, Amazon would remain in the equation while the book was being read. The relationship, instead of being a direct one between reader and book, would – through the Kindle – be mediated by Amazon, who would enjoy a more meaningful connection with the reader.

    It’s a great strategy, and well-executed too: the Kindle is a joy to use. But underlying this strategy – and this is where Wikileaks becomes relevant again – is the increased need for trust between Amazon and the reader.

    Trust, neutrality, and moral failure

    Trust isn’t important when Amazon sells me a book. I need to trust that they won’t rip me off, yes, but that would be illegal – the trust is backed up by law. And once I’ve got the book in my hands, what can Amazon do? They can’t stop me reading it.

    In the world of the Kindle, however, trust changes and becomes absolutely essential. This is because, in this transformed relationship where Amazon is the mediator, Amazon can remove books from your Kindle. It can do so remotely, without warning, at its own discretion, even if you paid for them or got them elsewhere. The reader must therefore trust Amazon not to do this. If she doesn’t, her relationship with the written word is no longer free.

    When Amazon remotely wiped 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindles in 2009  this trust was damaged. That was due to rights & ownership problems – it wasn’t political, it was commercial. But the Wikileaks incident shows that Amazon will remove content for reasons that are ultimately political.

    This doesn’t just damage that trust, it destroys it completely, and with it Amazon’s credibility as an organisation fit to mediate my relationship with the book. What if there was political uproar over a controversial novel, and Amazon was pressurised to remove it from the possession of people who had paid for it? We know now that they’d do it, and the implications are depressing.

    In fact they’re so depressing that I feel glad that the Kindle wasn’t invented a century earlier. How much more effective would Soviet suppression of samizdat have been if the Kindle was in widespread use back then? What would have happened to Lolita, Lady Chatterly’s LoverUlysses, or any of the hundreds of books that were banned and burnt in supposedly less enlightened eras? How much would we have lost?

    The banning of Wikileaks raises questions that are particularly sensitive given Amazon’s lofty aspirations. How can you promise to manage someone’s relationship with the written word – and therefore with culture, politics, literature, and arguably thought itself – when you can’t be trusted to remain neutral and impartial? Amazon has to be held to a particular moral standard, and it is this standard it has failed to meet. We were within our rights to expect more.

  5. Not the YouTube election, and not the X-Factor election either

    Posted May 7, 2010 in politics, social media  |  No Comments so far

    Back in December 2009, Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of politics and news, gave a sales pitch to a London audience of parliamentary researchers and policy wonks. Drawing on the the 2008 US presidential election as a case study, he encouraged his Westminster audience to place YouTube at the core of their campaigns for the 2010 election.

    Also at this sales pitch was Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent, who gave a detailed account of it on his blog. Despite the obviously commercial nature of the presentation, Cellan-Jones was fairly unquestioning in his write-up and went as far as suggesting that 2010 would see the UK’s first “YouTube election”.

    That was then and this is now. As I write, the UK is in political limbo after voters returned a hung parliament and it’s obvious that the election wasn’t a YouTube election at all. But in truth, it was never going to be. YouTube is less of a social tool here than it is in the US, or than Steven Grove seemingly led Cellan-Jones to believe. If any online services were going to play a role here, it would have been Facebook or Twitter, which revolve around interpersonal communication rather than YouTube’s quasi-broadcasting model. But even these services seemed to have little effect on the course of the election.

    Rory Cellan-Jones has today written a post describing how political parties used the internet in their campaigns – Labour’s “sophisticated use of Google’s AdSense system” and the Tory purchase of ad space on the YouTube home page are among the examples cited. I don’t think these are very inspiring, however. Ultimately the political parties simply bought media space, a part of election campaigning that’s nearly as old as the ballot box itself. It means little that the media space purchased was digital and not tree-based.

    So social media didn’t play such a central role as some thought it would, and the political parties took a pretty humdrum approach to their digital activities. But how different were things in the world of “old” media? Did it turn out to be more of an X-Factor election than a YouTube election?

    Traditional media outlets were in triumphant mood after the televised election debates which delivered such a boost for Nick Clegg. Media Week claimed  ‘old’ media was reasserting supremacy and even some digital agencies talked about “old media striking back”.

    The consensus was that the Lib Dem surge, triggered by the first TV debate, was the election’s defining event. This proved that good old top-down broadcasting, not this new-fangled and un-Murdochian internet stuff, continued to shape the opinions of the public. But when election day came round the Lib Dem surge was nowhere to be seen. So it turned out that the effect of the TV debates was actually pretty short-lived and ephemeral.

    Television, newspapers, YouTube and Facebook have all been vying for the chance to claim it was them wot won it. Rory Cellan-Jones, Media Week, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Grove – none of these people really got it right in the end. Like the election itself, the “old” vs “new” media battle  has failed to deliver a conclusive and straightforward result.

  6. My complaint to the PCC over Jan Moir

    Posted October 19, 2009 in media, politics  |  No Comments so far

    The PCC site is up and running again, so I decided to lodge my own complaint (click here to lodge yours). There are over 20,000 now which is apparently a record. Here’s what I entered in the “Explanation” field, feel free to re-use if you’re rushed for time.

    Section 1: Accuracy
    The journalist’s assertions ran counter to the findings of the coroner, with no proof presented. The column also claimed that 33-year-old men do not die of natural causes, an assertion that flies in the face of medical evidence.

    Section 5: Intrusion into grief or shock
    This is mainly for the family of Mr Gately to respond to, but I would be surprised if they did not feel that this column grossly violated this section of the code.

    Section 12: Discrimination
    The column strongly insinuates that homosexuality is correlated with destructive drug use, propensity for mental instability, suicidal tendencies and – ultimately – probability of a young, “strange” death. By doing so the columnist painted a highly pejorative portrait of Mr Gately’s lifestyle, using his sexuality as its sole proviso.

  7. Letter to my MP about Gary McKinnon

    Posted July 31, 2009 in politics  |  No Comments so far

    As a constituent of yours, I’d like to register my disappointment with the decision regarding Gary McKinnon.

    I and many other voters had hoped that, under Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, the relationship between the US and the UK had progressed from the arguably dark days of the mid-2000s and that sufficient trust now existed for the US to allow Mr McKinnon’s trial on British territory and under British laws.

    This decision suggests otherwise and condemns a vulnerable British citizen to a disproportionately long confinement period, thousands of miles from his family in a notoriously violent prison system. The moral case for this is indefensible even if the legal case is not. I hope that yourself and other MPs respond to public pressure on this and press for high-level government intervention on Gary’s behalf.