Putin’s Cock, Colbert’s Mouth, and Pai’s Tongue

The FCC is back in the news—this time for a possible action to fine late night funny man Stephen Colbert for lewd humor aimed at the President.

The FCC almost certainly isn’t fining CBS or its affiliates over Colbert’s tirade, but FCC Chair Ajit Pai definitely could have handled this issue more deftly in a talk radio interview this week. Combined with his poor net neutrality messaging last week, Pai has shot himself in the foot twice, in rapid succession, with poor messaging.

It would be easy to read Pai’s interview answers on Colbert as an implicit attempt to chill edgy criticism of the President. After a careful listen to the interview, I don’t think that was his intent, but it shows that Pai has a lot to learn about the current media environment.

Last Sunday, April 30, President Donald Trump gave an interview to the CBS news show Face the Nation. In it, he described the show as “fake news” and said that he calls it “Deface the Nation.”

The next night, in retribution, Colbert unleashed a string of insults of the President, including, “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” The phallic first part of that last phrase—a phrase that is new even to this profane soul—is bleeped out, and Colbert’s mouth is blurred out as well. (Colbert is receiving legitimate criticism that this trope is homophobic.)

Colbert’s show airs on broadcast TV. This level of edginess—even with the bleeping and blurring—might draw a fine before 10 pm. Before 10, kids are presumed to be in the room, so “indecent” material is forbidden by FCC rules. These rules thus forbid naughty language and even partially naked people—but permit all but the most graphic violence. These standards have been vetted and shaped by Supreme Court precedent, but they still stand.

After 10 pm, though, material must be “obscene” for the FCC to bring the hammer down. “Obscene” material is way worse than “indecent” content. The First Amendment doesn’t go away merely because material is indecent, but the Supreme Court has held that obscene material isn’t protected at all. So the feds can stop distasteful stuff just because kids might be around (before 10 p.m.), but it has to be utter filth before the state can try to stop adults from seeing it.

The agency’s own website states, “The Supreme Court has indicated that this test is designed to cover hard-core pornography” and not material with any artistic merit. So Basic Instinct (with its merely softcore sex scenes and nontrivial plot) would likely be okey-dokey on your local NBC affiliate starting at 10:01 pm—as far as the FCC is concerned.

Some people complained to the FCC about the Colbert bit. This is not news. In fact, anyone can do this without any basis in fact or court precedent. I could file complaints accusing Daniel Tiger of cursing like a sailor; the online system would accept the complaint, and the FCC would make some token investigation pending available staff resources to do so.

In other words, the fact that someone has complained, and that the FCC will investigate a complaint, is not at all the same thing as there being any real threat of a fine or other penalty.

On Thursday May 4, FCC Chair Ajit Pai gave an interview with Philadelphia-based AM talk show host Rich Zeoli. In it, Pai acknowledged the complaints and said that the agency will investigate. He noted that mere indecency is fineable before 10 pm, but that it takes full-on obscenity to get a fine for late night content.

Yet he didn’t actually clarify these legal standards.

Pai was invited to share his opinions on Colbert’s bit, and he declined in an effort not to prejudice the investigation. (Kudos, of course.) He also said that their goal is actually to complete these investigations instead of letting them sit on the shelves, which is what has mostly happened with them in the recent past.

None of this is actually news, either, except that the news media have made it news. (With their margins being what they are, I can’t even blame them.)

The Hill’s Friday headline reads, “FCC to investigate, ‘take appropriate action’ on Colbert’s Trump rant.”

Rolling Stone raves (I always wanted to say that), “FCC Considers Fining Stephen Colbert Over Controversial Trump Joke.”

Countless similar headlines abound. They’re all fair, too. It’s what Pai said, on the record.

So by this weekend, some folks are fearing an imperious, censorious FCC might shut down some criticism of the administration. On first read, I even assumed Pai’s intent was at least to chill some criticism of the President. Instead of settling for reading the excerpts, though, I decided I had to listen to the interview myself and see what he actually did with his words—instead of what others have done with them.

Listen for yourself. I think you’ll hear a high-level administration official being a bit cagey and giving no definitive answer, even though an implicitly clear answer is what’s called for here.

What he should have done is highlight the agency’s own clarification—that a finding of obscenity requires that the content consist of hardcore pornography. Within that context, he could have demurred about whether Colbert’s bit qualified, but it would have answered the question well enough for the listening public without prejudicing the investigation.

Something like, “We haven’t determined whether it’s obscenity, but the Supreme Court has ruled that it basically has to be hardcore porn to be obscenity, so that’s the standard we’ll use as we investigate.”

If he says that as part of his answer, this interview is likely a non-event, nobody gets upset about possible FCC fines, and Pai looks a lot better by not getting bad press. Being against censorship in this case is a pretty easy, bipartisan stance; even the conservative host says he doesn’t want Colbert fined over this. Instead, in a hyper-partisan and hyper-paranoid (justifiably or otherwise, depending on your politics) political environment, Pai is cast as potentially censorious.

It’s ironic that the Federal COMMUNICATIONS Commission head would fail to adapt to the current media environment in this way.

This follows on another, more substantial error in media strategy, on an issue about which Pai actually cares. Late last month, he practically described network neutrality as a Communist plot, pushed through by the NGO Free Press. He radically misrepresented that group’s goal as the nationalization of the internet, when they want no such thing.

Further, he blatantly hides the massive multi-sector coalition behind this push. The coalition ranges from legal scholars (most of whom support at least the Title II classification the last FCC orchestrated) to major industry players (such as Google and Facebook) to a broad range of nonprofit actors and more.

Not only was this intellectually dishonest, it’s a genuine strategic mistake. The biggest threat to Free Press isn’t that Pai badmouths them; it’s obscurity and the resulting inability to raise money and mobilize internet activists. If he hates them so much, his best move is to ignore them, not to cast them as the heroes of network neutrality. (Along with Public Knowledge, they are especially prominent members of the NGO wing of that side of the debate, but these groups are in pretty good company.)

Moreover, network neutrality is an incredibly complicated technical issue that’s hard to mobilize around, but the pro-network neutrality crowd has the stronger incentives to mobilize. This is exactly what Minjeong Kim and I found in our research on the issue, and the finding was duplicated by Lee, Sang, & Lu in 2015, and by a team at Harvard’s Berkman Center in 2016. The more the net neutrality debate is brought into the public sphere, the more the pro-net neutrality side mobilizes.

This is why the last anti-net neutrality crusading FCC head, Michael Powell, made it as boring as possible. He basically parroted industry talking points about congestion and economic incentives. (A funhouse mirror version of these talking points can be heard in then-Senator Ted Stevens’ wonderfully incoherent 2006 rant about the “series of tubes.”)

Phrased in these terms, the debate would put anybody to sleep, and even those who try to make it exciting often struggle. This is not just my opinion. I met Chris Hayes at a house party some years back, when he was still subbing for Olbermann. Just weeks before, Hayes had done an interview with a major net neutrality advocate. (I won’t name this advocate, but they are an exceptionally good communicator, and I was impressed by their performance in the segment.) I brought this up, and Hayes said that their ratings had dropped by HALF versus the previous segment.

“Comcast might censor the internet” is the only framing that sparks enough interest to mobilize the public. Everything else pushes it deep into wonk territory. And that’s where Pai wants it!

By throwing out easily disproven character assassinations of his opponents, Pai instead draws it further into public view, where the public can better be mobilized. He invites people to see what Free Press has to say on the issue.

This is an obvious strategic mistake, and (again) the head of the Federal COMMUNICATIONS Commission should know at least that much about political communication and political mobilization.

So, to recap:

The FCC is almost certainly not going to fine Colbert for his bleeped-out “cock holster” comment.

It is almost as certain that they will strip away the network neutrality protections that took a Sisyphean decade of work to enact.

And Ajit Pai is cocking up the messaging for both.

Cyclical Patterns in Activist Politics: What Do We Know about the Politics of Opposition?

We’re about to experience a phase transition in American activist politics. It’s a move from the “politics of articulation” to the “politics of opposition.” I’ve written about this before, both at this blog and in my first book. But those were sunnier times, and eons ago in internet time. So I want to use this blog post to reflect on three distinct movement dynamics that appear during periods of opposition and articulation.

The difference between opposition and articulation is fundamentally an agenda-setting issue. Major policy change in the United States is tremendously rare and difficult. Our system is designed to reward incremental changes to the status quo, and to punish big, new proposals. The party network that controls the White House generally gets to set the political agenda. When activist groups are part of that party network, they have to articulate a positive policy vision, and then mobilize the support necessary to overcome all the hurdles to a major bill becoming law. When activists groups are aligned against that party network, they merely have to oppose whatever the President is trying to accomplish.

As an example of these dynamics, consider the founding of the Tea Party. The first Tea Party protests convened around the moniker “Taxed Enough Already” (Get it?… TEA?). This was in spring 2009, just after Barack Obama had taken office. He had not passed, nor had he proposed, any major new taxes. The anti-tax revolt was not a response to new policies, it was a response to new politics. As soon as conservatives had a Democrat in the White House to rally against, they started rallying. Later, they settled on opposition to health care reform as their primary agenda item. The reason wasn’t because they had some deep commitment to the American system of insurance companies; it was because Obama had set the agenda, and they were going to oppose him.

The politics of articulation creates a lot of tension over what comes first. Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas admirably demonstrate this point in their book, Party in the Street. The anti-war movement dissipated once Obama entered the White House. This wasn’t because people stopped dying in Iraq and Afghanistan! It was because activists who had been united in opposition to Bush’s foreign policy agenda turned attention to the myriad other issues that they cared about. The ability to help positively promote a policy agenda exposes fissures in activist values and priorities.

So what should we expect from, and how should we prepare for, moving back to the politics of articulation?

  1. Rapid-response infrastructure is about to become a lot more valuable. Micah Sifry pointed out in The Big Disconnect that the internet is “better at saying stop than go.” Particularly during the early Obama years, this limitation seemed painfully clear. A senate supermajority and the makings of a mass digital movement still weren’t strong enough to overcome the combination of Mitch McConnell’s strategy and Joe Lieberman’s ego. During the Trump years, I expect we are going to find that the rapid-response infrastructure built to oppose Bush suddenly seems a lot more vibrant and viable. We aren’t starting this fight from scratch.
  2.  Intra-movement fissures are going to recede into the background. It’s no accident that the anti-globalization movement, and occupy wall street both emerged under democratic administrations. During the politics of opposition, we can confidently claim that the world would be made better if we just removed the current administration from power. During the politics of articulation, we are instead faced with the existential limits of our own party coalition’s ability to create the world we seek. This creates the conditions for heightened infighting around matters of policy and strategy. The agenda-setting dynamics also become tougher and more salient. It’s easy for labor and environmentalists to unite against regressive policy. Collaborating gets tougher when both are trying to articulate a vision and identify what types of compromises are unacceptable in the messy legislative process. Working through those tensions can be an important, generative process. It’s also painful and messy and no one particularly enjoys it. During the politics of opposition, we can expect these tensions to largely subside as we are all united against a common foe.
  3. The loss of positive momentum. This last one is the kicker. Opposition politics is easier, and opposition politics is cleaner. We know how to stop terrible policy ideas much better than we know how to promote innovative, effective new solutions to living in this complex world. But the hope for making real, positive strides around income inequality, or civil rights, or climate destabilization, or a host of other progressive causes is now going to be put on hiatus. The clock is ticking on some of these issues (*cough* arcticseaice *cough*), and that is time that we will not get back. But that’s what happens when you lose-an-election-by-only getting-~1.5-million-more-votes-than-the-other-guy. We’re going to have to focus on stopping terrible things. The window of opportunity for promoting good ideas is effectively closed for the time being.

One final note: all of these points are premised upon the assumption that the Trump Administration will be fundamentally similar to previous Republican administrations. That is a premise that I actually have very little confidence in. We may very well be heading into a time period where activist opposition in American politics looks less like it did in 2002 America and more like it does in present-day less-democratic countries. The challenges and the stakes are much higher than they used to be. And while I still consider the distinction between opposition and articulation is useful to think with as we plan for 2017, I don’t want to leave any readers with the false sense that it will all be alright.

It’s time to prepare. And then it’s time to fight.

Trump’s victory: the morning after

This is bad.*

I don’t know how to process what I’ve just seen. This feels like a disjuncture. It’s a historical fork in the road. It changes things to such an extent that we will one day discuss things as “pre-” and “post-” this election night.

This shouldn’t have happened.

Let me start at the small scale… Hillary Clinton ran a very good campaign. She had better data, and better field, and better fundraising, and better communications. She was weighted down by a bullshit email scandal, and by interference by the FBI director, and by interference by Russian hackers and wikileaks. But those were relatively minor blips. We can’t run history twice, but I don’t believe that another Democratic candidate would have run a much better campaign.

Donald Trump ran an abysmal campaign. Just terrible. He failed to pay his pollster. His field operation was a series of puff-himself-up rallies with little call-to-action at the end. They were festivals of hate and resentment, unlike anything we’ve seen in presidential politics in my lifetime. His data operation was effectively nonexistent. His messaging was awful. His communications team was mostly concerned with keeping him locked out of his own twitter account. He lost all three debates. Badly. He had a terrible convention, beset by own-goal mistakes practically every night. His own party was fractured against him. He couldn’t maintain focus and discipline for more than an hour.

We are going to be tempted in the months and years that follow to misremember this campaign — to tell ourselves he must have had some secret formula that no one saw. He must have had better data than we thought. He must have had a powerful targeting operation just below the surface. But he didn’t. Donald Trump ran a godawful mess of a campaign. He offered a singular message: that American politics is (a) simple, (b) broken, because of (c) corruption and incompetence, and that (d) everything would be better if you put him in charge. That’s the swan song of the strongman dictator. It had no bells and whistles. It had no extra charge or added promise to it. This was an unqualified fool, bumbling through every opportunity, offering the golden promise of the demagogue. And it worked.

At the campaign scale, I’m tempted to label this the #lolnothingmatters election. Because really, Donald Trump couldn’t have been any clearer in signaling that he was unfit for office. Elite institutions, to the extent that they still hold sway, couldn’t have been any clearer that he was unfit for office. Republican elites… well okay, Republican elites were chickenshit. But their lack of enthusiasm is supposed to be a problem in a national campaign.

This is not brief.

But focusing on the campaign scale feels cheap. I remember election night 2000. I remember election night 2004. This is different than what we experienced on those evenings. This, honestly, feels like the end of the republic.

Representative Democracy operates on the basis of formal laws and informal norms. The laws (particularly the constitution) dictate what people must do. The norms dictate what people ought to do. Most of our day-to-day behavior is regulated by norms. We don’t check the bylaws or the terms-of-service to figure out how to act with one another. We try to not-be-awful, because being awful would be a bad thing, and would probably have some repercussions of some sort. And we have a shared sense of what awful looks like in most everyday situations.

Donald Trump breaks norms. It’s what he does. It’s what he’s done throughout the campaign. It’s what he’s done throughout his career.

This vote was a primal scream, punctuating the end of the age of American empire. America flourished in the aftermath of World War II, when the manufacturing base/many of the cities in Europe had been decimated. It flourished through the cold war decades, when it was one of two global superpowers and could easily juxtapose itself against a looming, threatening other. Those years have gone. They will not return. And many of my fellow citizens mourn for them and will grasp at simple stories for how they might return. Rural white people wanted this. They wanted someone whose deepest policy explanations consisted of “I’ll make it great. Believe me.” They voted in record numbers, turning out for Trump like they’ve never turned out for anyone. That, in state after state last night, seems to be what the polls underestimated.

Make no mistake: Donald Trump is a demagogue. He does not believe in democracy. He does not believe in checks and balances or deliberation or rational discourse or participatory engagement. He believes in gathering, exercising, and maintaining power. He believes in dominance. As far as I can tell, that’s the only thing he believes in.

And now he will be President of the United States. With the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. And with a hobbled supreme court whose decisive open seat he will get to fill. And with senate and house majorities that are afraid to stand up to his edicts, for fear of attracting the ire of his voters. For the next few years, our best hopes rest on individuals like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell acting on the courage of their convictions and asserting checks and balances against Trump, at great cost to themselves. We are banking on the convictions of comfortably craven individuals. If they didn’t stand up before, I see little reason to expect they will stand up now.

This is just as bad as it appears.

There’s a saying about bankruptcy that I think applies here: they say it happens slowly, and then all at once.

We’ve been watching the slow dissolution of America’s norms of governance for years. Remember when Ted Cruz and his Republican colleagues shut down the government to prevent Obamacare implementation? That was legal, but it violated deep norms among people in power. The collective belief was that elected officials can’t do that, because it’s awful, and bad things would happen as a result. They did it. Nothing happened. They faced no repercussions. So that norm went away. Remember when Republican Senators announced they simply wouldn’t allow Barack Obama to fill Scalia’s vacant Senate seat? That was unprecedented. There were norms against that sort of raw exercise of partisanship. They faced no repercussions. So that norm has gone away.

Many of us have watched aghast as these norms have been slowly mowed down, one-by-one. Our ability to effectively govern this Republic was being bankrupted slowly. We protested, we cried out. But it didn’t change the outcome… mostly because everyone woke up the next day, and the world kept turning, and then we adjusted to a government that shuts down sometimes in a temper tantrum, or a court whose powers have been nullified by a minority. We Americans, particularly the most privileged among us, have a tremendous capacity to adapt to violated norms and remain comfortable.

This, last night, was the start of our capacity for democratic self-governance being bankrupted all at once. We have elected a demagogue who aspires to be a dictator to the highest office in the land. He has announced plans to “open up the libel laws” and strip the media of what little power it has left. He has governing majorities in all other branches of government. He did not hide who he was or what he intended. Given the choice between a demagogue and a democrat, white voters asserted themselves, declaring loudly their support for the demagogue.

I thought we were better than this.

I certainly didn’t think we were perfect. But I thought the American experiment, with all its imperfections, was better than this.

I just don’t know anymore. Ben Franklin is said to have announced that our government would be “a Republic, if we can keep it.” I can’t help but worry that we’ve just lost it.

I don’t know what happens next. I didn’t expect this to happen, and I’m still in shock. I’m in no position to predict what the future holds.

But I don’t think Trump and the cronies he’ll appoint will have any capacity to effectively govern. I think the economy will tank, and global affairs will be destabilized, and the health care system will be pulverized, and racial violence perpetrated by white nationalists will skyrocket.

And when the economy tanks, when the hot wars begin, when basic government services are hobbled by incompetence, I think Trump will find scapegoats. And he will lean on a quasi-governmental media apparatus (Fox News/Breitbart meets RT) to assert the demagogic refrain: American politics is (a) simple, (b) broken, because of (c) the corruption and incompetence of [insert villainous group or individual here] and that (d) everything will be better once we’ve held that group to account.

I think we’re witnessing the end of the Republic, all at once.

*[Note: I wrote most of this last night, before going to bed. It still seems right to me, the morning after. Perhaps I’m overreacting. Hopefully one day we can look back at this post and laugh at Dave with his hair-on-fire. (Shouting loudly, so to say.) But I think these are days when we all have a moral duty to speak out and speak clearly. So here it is. I hope I’m somehow wrong.]

Tech criticism done badly

Robert Epstein, Google’s laziest critic, is back.

We last heard from Epstein last summer, when he was shouting in Politico about how Google could totally “rig” the next election. I took a look at the underlying research. It was complete garbage. I explained why.

This time, US News & World Report has published an Epstein Op-Ed about how Google is “the new censorship.” He writes:

in my view Google’s blacklisting practices put the company into the role of thuggish internet cop – a role that was never authorized by any government, nonprofit organization or industry association. It is as if the biggest bully in town suddenly put on a badge and started patrolling, shuttering businesses as it pleased, while also secretly peeping into windows, taking photos and selling them to the highest bidder.

What makes Google a “thuggish internet cop?” Epstein lists 9 types of “blacklist” that Google maintains:

(1) the autocomplete blacklist (some terms are suppressed from autocomplete).

(2) the Google Maps blacklist (you can’t view military sites through Google Maps).

(3) the YouTube blacklist (Google removes inappropriate videos).

(4) the Google account blacklist (Google can suspend your account if you violate its terms of service).

(5) the Google News blacklist (this isn’t actually anything.)

(6) the Google AdWords blacklist (Google can exclude exploitative industries, like payday lenders, from using adwords).

(7) the Google AdSense blacklist (some thinly-sourced conspiracy theory about Google dumping AdSense partners just before it would have to pay them for running Google ads).

(8) the search engine blacklist (Google can downgrade your search rankings if its engineers decide you’re intentionally gaming its system).

(9) the quarantine list (Google scans for malware on websites and will quarantine them if it finds any).

Epstein takes 4,300 words to enumerate all of these “blacklists” (US News & World Report apparently wanted the hot take, but not enough to provide him with an editor!).  But the thing is, none of these amount to much of anything! Each of these “blacklists” is a necessary component of Google’s work. Of course some autocomplete results will be suppressed. Of course Google Maps blurs sensitive locations. Of course YouTube has a takedown process… and Google can suspend your account… and the AdWords Marketplace excludes some predatory (and illegal) industries… and Google blocks sites infected by malware.  If Google didn’t do any of these things, it would face outrage (in several cases, it has faced outrage, thus leading to the current state of affairs).

As just one example, consider Epstein’s complaint about Google AdWords. Here he is taking the side of the payday lending industry (Yes, the same industry John Oliver discusses in the video below). Payday loan sharks are a blight on the poor. They use Google Ads to target desperate, vulnerable people, then trap them in loans with massive interest rates. This sort of thing used to be illegal. The US Congress ought to make it illegal again, but Congress doesn’t function anymore. So Google took the stance that it would no longer accept advertisements from loan sharks.

Epstein tells us this is proof of Google’s terrible power as a censor. He thinks that Google ought to be investigated as a result. (By who? Congress? The same Congress that can’t get its act together on predatory lending? Nice priorities, buddy.) But what Epstein is ignoring is that there is no neutral stance for Google here. The company can either promote and profit from predatory lending scams or it can suppress predatory lenders. There is no third option.

Google has quasi-monopolistic market share in the areas of web search and web video. Entire industries revolve around trying to game Google’s search rankings or exploit unsuspecting users. Google’s engineers monitor and respond to the behavior of these industries.  They probably don’t monitor or respond well enough. There are serious reasons for criticism here (see Siva Vaidhyanthan and Kate Crawford if you want to read some of the real reasons for concern. Crawford’s New York Times piece yesterday was particularly insightful). Regulators have an important role to play.

But Epstein isn’t engaging in serious scholarship or good-faith critique. He’s trolling for attention, operating on the assumption that most of us won’t read much further than the headlines. His Google-can-rig-elections screed still gets trotted out every few months, usually by a well-meaning critic who is grasping for evidence of the dangerous power of search engines. The guy manages to be wrong loudly enough to gain at least a bit of traction.

The best way to combat highly-placed, bad arguments on the Internet is to ridicule them. So this is me, doing my part:

US News & World Report ought to have higher standards than this. Robert Epstein is a clown. He makes poorly-sourced, outlandish arguments in an annual bid for public attention. He would be an embarrassment to the research community if he were actually part of the research community. He’s managed to write a 4,300 word essay without ever addressing any of the glaring problems with his argument.

Please don’t take this guy seriously. It’ll only make actual conversations about the roles and responsibilities of tech giants that much harder.

the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender

today’s a public holiday in hong kong.

which one? it’s a really strange one. it’s my first one and my last one. we only have it this year. it’s the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

two weeks ago, according an op-ed in a Party sponsored newspaper, Japan is forgetting its history:

A great country and nation has the courage to face up to its history. To forget history is to betray, and to deny a crime is to repeat it.

earlier this week, according to Baidu, the only significant events that happened on June 4th, 1989?

    Walesa being elected in Poland as premier
    Ayatollah Khomeini being chosen as Iran’s supreme leader.

that’s really not okay.

after all, a great country and nation has the courage to face up to its history. to forget history is to betray, and to deny a crime is to repeat it.

thanks to fei chang dao for inspiring this post.

why we need decentralized funding for independent journalism

Whether we can continue to get the journalism we need, given the declining revenues and funding in journalism, is a concern of many people around the world, including in Hong Kong. To what extent is it possible to have independent journalism under such economic conditions? Before we get there, let’s ask first, what does it mean for journalism to be “independent”? What exactly should it be independent of?

Journalism is often at its best when it can “speak truth to power”, when journalists can ask the questions nobody else wants to ask, or even speak out against the powers-that-be when nobody else has the courage to do so. It is why it is important to think about how journalism is funded, who pays the bill and who subsequently can exert pressure on editors and journalists. For example, newspapers rely on advertisers (57%) more so than circulation (36%) for their revenues (Pew, 2015). That means it is important for newspapers to keep advertisers happy. It also means that these advertisers can exert disproportional pressure and influence: this is a problem if we agree that journalism is not only a business, but also serves a larger, indeed a public function to society. It is a lesson Hong Kong learned the hard way when House News, an online news outlet, closed down in 2014 because several major advertisers pulled out because of political pressure (SCMP, 2014). In the words of Tsoi, the founder of House News:

“Despite our popularity, many big companies don’t place advertisements on our website because of our critical stance towards the government and Beijing”.

So how can we have “independent” journalism and what kind of funding would this require? We need to start thinking about what I call models of “decentralized funding” for journalism. “Centralized funding” is when your funding comes from only a few, and subsequently, powerful and influential sources. In contrast, “decentralized funding” is when funding comes from many small amounts provided by multiple funders, or indeed, citizens. If all these small amounts add up to something significant, then that creates a situation where no particular source is powerful enough to exert meaningful influence, and where journalism can be more or less “independent”. But is that possible? Here are a few examples of journalism that rely on “decentralized funding”. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, nor do I claim these are entirely new phenomena; that said, new technologies have given rise to several interesting ideas and opportunities worth exploring.

Crowdfunding: websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Fringebacker are online platforms that enable a project to raise funds from a large number of people. Recent cases of journalism funded this way in Hong Kong include Factwire and Hong Kong Free Press. Patreon is another example of a crowdfunding platform, but instead of a one-time fundraising effort to jumpstart a project (like Factwire and HK Free Press) it instead allows people to be a “patron”; that’s to say, to financially support an individual or project on a regular basis.

Subscription: traditional subscription still exists, even online. For example, Malaysiakini, an online news website in, you guessed it, Malaysia, receives significant funding from its many subscribers who are willing to pay a sum every month. People are willing to subscribe, and pay money, because whereas the traditional media in Malaysia are highly censored, the online media are still relatively free and open: the internet is where they can get actual news. Malaysia’s situation is a bit peculiar like that: thanks to a pledge it made in 1998 in an attempt to attract foreign investment, the government will not censor the internet (Open Net).

Micro-payment: for the longest time, micro-payment was seen as the holy grail that would save quality journalism. While this has yet to happen, and I am not sure if it ever will, that doesn’t mean there are no interesting changes in this domain: in China, several platforms now allow users to “tip” content they like. For example, WeChat allows its users to tip writers for posts they like.

Centralized, but independent: Last but not least, independent journalism does not necessarily require “decentralized funding” to exist. Traditionally, foundations have always played an important role in funding important works of journalism. A recent example is ProPublica, funded by the Sandler Foundation, whose aim is to do quality investigative journalism. That said, many places around the world do not have the necessary foundations that have an explicit mission to serve the public interest, including in Hong Kong, a society that is already relatively well-off (I’ve never seen so many luxury cars than here in Hong Kong).

It is paramount that we start thinking and experimenting with models of “decentralized funding” for journalism; so that we can continue to get the journalism we need. If you know of any examples of decentralized funding that I should learn more about, I’d love to hear about them!

No, Politico, Google Can’t Rig the 2016 Election (without trying REALLY hard, at least)

Psychologist Robert Epstein has written a piece for Politico, titled “How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election.”  He’s trumpeting his recently-published study of “Search Engine Manipulation Effects” (SEME), stating with bluster that “Google has the ability to control voters.”

Epstein clearly wants attention for his work.  So let’s go ahead and give him some.

(spoiler: it isn’t very good.)

His research centers on a series of lab experiments (also replicated through Mechanical Turk and with volunteer participants in India) where volunteers are asked their opinion of political candidates, then encouraged to spend 15 minutes searching the candidates through a fake Google setup (called Kadoodle), then asked their opinion of the candidates again. Epstein finds that, if his team artificially boosted the ranking of positive stories for a candidate in Kadoodle results, then opinion of that candidate would improve.

This makes basic sense.  Participants in the experiment, when instructed to search through fake-google, click on the first few results they see.  They incorporate that new information into their impressions of the candidates.  It’s basically a digital-era update on the types of study that Iyengar and Kinder published in 1987.

But it’s a massive and unjustified leap to get from Epstein’s study to Epstein’s lede in Politico (“America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished.”)

The basic problem is external validity.  If undecided voters made voting decisions by Googling candidates and seeing what articles come up, then Epstein’s study would be relevant.  But they don’t.

Undecided voters are overwhelmingly low-information voters.  They aren’t watching political news.  They’re mostly avoiding political advertising, when they can.  They aren’t sitting at home Googling candidates.  If they were, they wouldn’t be low-information voters.

What’s more, when actual low-information voters do encounter incidental information, it’s happening through social sharing, not google searches.  That’s why search engine optimization has largely been overtaken by social optimization in the past 3-4 years.  Social is where serendipitous discovery and incidental exposure actually happen today.

Facebook could potentially rig an election, as Micah Sifry and Jonathan Zittrain have both pointed out.  It could fiddle with the newsfeed algorithm or selectively deploy its “I voted” functionality, in order to boost enthusiasm and turnout for one candidate or the other.  (Facebook won’t do this, of course, because the company would invite a massive congressional investigation if it did.  Lightly-regulated quasi-monopolies tend to rationally avoid behaviors that can invite major regulatory scrutiny.)

But Google?  To rig the 2016 election, Google would have to try really hard.  It would have to task dozens of engineers and social scientists with sorting through messy data, merging it with the voter file wherever possible, then apply aggressive nudges to expose low-information/high-susceptibility voters to information that they otherwise aren’t seeking out.

Epstein’s study doesn’t show any of what Epstein claims in his Politico article. Search Engine Manipulation Effects are just the digital equivalent of the traditional news media priming, framing, and agenda-setting effects that we’ve been aware of for decades.  It isn’t some new dastardly digital disaster.

This research is an object lesson in why the trend in election research has been toward field experiments, instead of lab experiments, and why the best research also tends to feature observational research on how campaigns and voters actually behave.   Elections don’t happen in a lab, and undecided voters don’t behave the way they would if we were paying them to participate.  (…Epstein also doesn’t particularly bother to familiarize himself with the literatures on elections, voting behavior, media effects, or digital news, but now I’m just playing armchair peer reviewer.)

Social science gets a bad rap when researchers start making bold, self-promotional claims.  Epstein’s peer-reviewed study isn’t great.  But his Politico self-aggrandizement tour is downright embarrassing.



Campaign Microtargeting, Part II: Eitan Hersh’s “Hacking the Electorate”

This is a follow-up to last week’s post on campaign microtargeting.  I had the opportunity this weekend to read Eitan Hersh’s new book, Hacking the Electorate.  It’s the most detailed, insightful account of how campaigns currently make use of voter data in elections.  I learned a lot from the book, and strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

The core of Hersh’s argument is what he calls the Perceived Voter Model.  “Perceived voters compose the electorate from the campaign’s-eye-view.  They are not people; they are avatars generated from whatever data a political campaign, candidate, or party can surmise” (end of chapter 1).*  His central point is that, if we want to understand how contemporary campaigns strategize, we need to pay attention to the actual data that they have access to.  Campaigns are not omniscient.  They go to war with the data that they have, not the data they would like (nor the data that salespeople promise they’ll have).

One of Hersh’s most important findings is that public data (the voter file + the census… stuff that the government collects and makes publicly available) is far more important than commercial data or social network data.  He implements a nice research design to demonstrate this, using state-by-state variance in the public data (some states require party registration, some collect data on race/ethnicity, others do not) to show how differences in public data lead to significantly different voter contact strategies.

He also finds that, for all the talk about commercial data and network data, campaigns can’t put much weight on these data sources (chapter 8).  The commercial data is incomplete and often out-of-date.  While the most well-resourced campaigns certainly purchase this data, they gain very little added leverage from it.  At best, they can use this data in states that are public data-deficient to try to model the same voter attributes they are tracking in states with rich public data policies.

Meanwhile, network-based strategies to reach undecided voters through their social networks (aka Facebook) have been severely limited, at least thus far.  The network approach proves difficult because (a) it requires core volunteers to start awkward conversations with their least-political friends, (b) it proves hard to reach the whole electorate when starting from the networks of hardcore volunteers, and (c) committed campaign volunteers tend to have social networks that are heavily weighted towards other strong partisans.  Again, this doesn’t mean that social networks are unimportant (see Ashley Parker’s NYT story today about Facebook in the primaries), but it does limit their value compared to other data sources.

Public data is reliable and relatively complete.  Consumer data is patchier and less reliable.  Network data is rich but constrained by the contours of your supporter base.  When trying to determine and model their voter universe, campaigns mostly have to rely on public data.

The takeaway here isn’t “we don’t need to worry about microtargeting.”  The point is that our normative debates about microtargeting ought to be grounded in an empirical understanding of the current state of the data.

That provides a lot of room for policy debates as well.  The types of reliable and relatively complete data that are available to political campaigns are dictated by state policies.  What sort of data should be available, in what contexts, at what costs, and to which users?  Hersh ends the book by arguing that some of the real threats come when elected officials start using campaign data for governance.  (Want help from your Congressperson?  Just a moment while they check whether you’re in their supporter database or not.)

One of the reasons why microtargeting attracts so much attention is that it is surrounded by an almost alchemical or mystical sensibility.  (“There are data wizards!  They know so much about us, and they are using it to manipulate our democratic elections!”)  Hacking the Electorate provides an insightful account of just what types of data the campaigns can currently rely upon.  It’s an excellent, grounding contribution to the data and politics literature.



*I read the book on my iPad, so I have no earthly idea what page number this quote correlates to.  Ah, technology…


Making Peace with Campaign Microtargeting: four principles of responsible algorithms [book blogging]

[This post is part of an irregular series where I tinker with big concepts for my book.  Comments and disagreements are extra-appreciated …and can earn you a spot in the acknowledgements section!]

I had to skip this year’s Personal Democracy Forum, and have slowly been watching archived versions of the keynote talks to see what I missed.  One talk that really stands out for me as Cathy O’Neil speaking about “Weapons of Math Destruction.”  O’Neil is writing a book about algorithms, and how social institutions cloak their decisions behind mathematical equations in order to obscure the choices that they make.  It’s an important topic, and I’m looking forward to the book.  Of the three examples she gives, though, one did not seem to be much like the others.

O’Neil provides three examples of algorithms as “weapons of math destruction.”  The first is the Value Added Model (VAM) in public education.  The VAM is an algorithm that is supposed to separate the good teachers from the bad teachers.  That’s a laudable goal.  We probably need a good model for grading teachers and incentivizing good teaching. But O’Neil explains that the model is a complete black box.  No teacher, no administrator, no data scientist is allowed to look at the algorithm itself and determine if it is measuring the right things.  When teachers and administrators ask to see information about the model, they are told “oh you wouldn’t want to know about it–it’s math.”  We are evaluating teachers without explaining to them what answers they got wrong or how they can improve their scores.  Let that pedagogical irony sink in for a moment.

This is a case where algorithms and Big Data take on an almost alchemical quality.  “Put your trust in the data wizards,” we are essentially told, “they know things that you cannot fathom.”  And as with all other forms of alchemy, if you dig beneath the surface you’ll quickly detect a faint scent of manure.

O’Neil’s second example is even more troubling: predictive policing and evidence-based sentencing in the criminal justice system.  Judges rely on predictive models to estimate a “recidivism score,” which factors into their sentencing decisions.  Likelihood of recidivism is, again, an important consideration.  Policing, like teaching, is a massive public good, and it seems like better data would be a good thing.  But the problem with these recidivism models is that they include factors (high school graduate?  Currently employed? Did your father serve jail time?) which would be plainly illegal if they were brought to a judge directly.  By cloaking these factors behind mathematics, the justice system becomes less just..

But then there’s her third example: microtargeting in political campaigns.  And this is where I think the argument stumbles some.  The first example she provides is Facebook’s 61 million person Get Out The Vote experiment.  (Micah Sifry has written previously about how this experiment demonstrates Facebook’s implicit electoral power).  But that experiment is not technically microtargeting.  The second example she gives is a hypothetical: Rand Paul could highlight his positions on financial reform when she visits his website, while hiding other positions that she is less likely to agree with.  “What is efficient for campaigns is inefficient for democracy,” she concludes.

This last example seems like a stretch to me.  Political campaigns have always used targeting in their communications.  Candidates spice up their stump speeches with local anecdotes and local issues.  Mailings are targeted based on demographics, issues, and vote history.  Broadcast political commercials are targeted to focus on the issues that swing voters (or base voters) find most appealing.  Targeting and modeling in political campaigns isn’t particularly new.  What we’re seeing with microtargeting is a difference in degree, rather than a difference in kind.  The databases are becoming less terrible.  The campaigners are taking testing and modeling more seriously.

The case of political microtargeting seems different from the VAM and predictive sentencing because of four general properties: let’s call them The Principle of Potential Harm, the Principle of Approximate Transparency, the Data Quality Principle, and The Principle of Potential Redress.

The Principle of Potential Harm asks “what (unintended) harms might befall an individual if this algorithmic model produces a faulty decision?” In the case of the VAM, good teachers could be unfairly punished.  They could be denied raises or potentially fired.  In the case of predictive sentencing, people of color and poor people could be sentenced to longer, harsher sentences than their white and well-off peers.*  In the case of campaign microtargeting, an individual… might encounter less political advertising that they disagree with.

Within electoral politics, algorithmic models have also been used to purge voter rolls.  There the potential harm is that an individual can be denied their right to vote simply because their name is similar to the name of a convicted felon.  The Principle of Potential Harm states that we should be more concerned with algorithms in “vote cleansing” programs than with algorithms in political advertising.

The Principle of Approximate Transparency states “if someone asks why an algorithm categorized them as it did, they should be able to get a clear answer.”  This is a rule that some of the leading netroots advocacy groups follow: if they are going to use predictive modeling to decide who gets what communications, then they should be prepared to explain what factors went into that decision.  If they would be embarrassed to explain it, then they should not use predictive modeling in that case.

I call this “approximate transparency” because there are actually some quite good reasons to keep the details of a predictive algorithm obscure.  If Facebook or Google were fully transparent about their algorithms, then malicious actors would be much more successful in gaming their ranking systems.  If a predictive model is being used to make valuable decisions, then we should assume people will try to distort that model.  A little bit of opaqueness can go a long way in helping the models to perform effectively over time.  But if a model is completely secret, then we are unable to consider its merits and its flaws.

In the area of political microtargeting, political journalists enforce an approximate form of transparency.  In the 2012 election, ProPublica set up a system that monitored emails from both presidential campaigns to see how they were microtargeting their messages.  Political journalists and academics paid close attention to political advertisements as well.  This was not full transparency — the Obama Campaign was not going to tell anyone its strategy for determining who got which messages — but it was enough of to keep the worst potential excesses in check.  Any value the campaigns might get from extremely microtargeted advertisements would be washed away if it led to a front-page story about their deceptive practices.

The Data Quality Principle states that we should stay aware, and wary, of the underlying quality of the data going into the model.  Again, the 2000 Florida voter purge is a helpful example.  If that company had perfect data, then its computerized removal of names from the voter rolls would be a trivial matter.  But their data was junk, and that rendered the model suspect.

The Data Quality Principle is a major reason why I am not particularly concerned about voter microtargeting.  Even though the databases are better than they’ve ever been before, they still have lots of flaws and errors.  Electoral campaigns (particularly the big ones that are flush with cash) lean towards overinclusion rather than overexclusion in their communications.  So while they might use an enhanced voter file to help isolate the neighborhoods and households most in need of a door-knock, we are pretty far removed from the future dystopia where household A and household B receive entirely different messages at their door.

The Principle of Potential Redress holds that, since algorithms are flawed, there should be a clear avenue for redress when a person feels they have been algorithmically wronged.  Teachers should be able to effectively challenge their VAM score.  Convicts (or their lawyers) should have clear tools for arguing why the predictive sentencing algorithm is making the wrong prediction.  Voters who have been algorithmically excluded from the rolls should be able to cast a provisional ballot, and that ballot should be counted after minimal procedural headaches.

The potential redress for citizens who receive microtargeted political advertisements is… read some political journalism! Electoral campaigns are awash in political advertisements.  Better targeting of those advertisements is efficient for the campaigns and, for the most part, less of a headache for the citizens.

My main point here is that some algorithms are much more ethically dicey than others.  It depends on what the data is being used for, how trustworthy it is, how transparent it is, and what pathways we have to challenge it.

Smart critiques of emerging digital decision-making often lump campaign microtargeting in with a laundry list of other, deeper problems. I, for one, have made my peace with campaign microtargeting.  And I think the differences between it and other “weapons of math destruction” can help us understand which algorithms are the most dangerous.


*Note: people of color and poor people already face major sentencing disparities.  So I suppose the potential harm here is that these disparities will be even more difficult to address.

On Democracy.io: …I don’t get it.

Alex Howard reported yesterday on the release of Democracy.io, a sleek new tool for emailing members of Congress.  It’s a nice tool, built with the support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based on open datasets created by the Sunlight Foundation.

I hate to sound like a broken record here, but… I don’t get it.

Here’s Sina Khanifar, in an interview with Alex Howard (emphasis added):

“Advocacy organizations that can afford it have long had access to tools for delivering bulk constituent messages, but those solutions are expensive and generally inaccessible for regular citizens. Democracy.io helps fill that gap by giving people an easy way to have their voices are heard in Washington.”

What’s the use-case here? Who are these “regular citizens” that want to share their thoughts and opinions with members of Congress unprompted by advocacy organizations?  Where are they getting their information from, and what’s prompting them to write these digital letters?

The literature on political mobilization is pretty clear on this point: people are far more likely to partake in political activity when they are asked to do so.  Whether that’s donating money, knocking on doors, showing up to a hearing, or writing a letter, we tend to take political action because someone we trust/generally agree with asked us to do so.

Participating-because-we-were-asked is sometimes treated as non-“organic,” not as democratically healthy as spontaneous citizen participation that comes out of the civic ether.  But let’s be real for a second: it takes a very particular type of person to walk through life believing that (1) they have all the answers, (2) Congress needs to hear those answers, and (3) writing an e-mail ought to do the trick.  On season 1 of Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope referred to it as “people caring loudly at me.”

This isn’t to say that Democracy.io isn’t nice tech.  It appears to be well-designed.  Some future, nascent social movements might be able to deploy this tool on a mass scale, bypassing software vendors that they can’t afford.  The codebase might be combined with something else to massively simplify some genuinely hard problems.

But, at least in its current form… I don’t get it.  Citizen participation tends to be organized and mediated through networked advocacy groups.  Those groups face a thousand different problems, some small, some big.  How did simplifying the process for emailing congress out-of-the-blue rise to the top of the list?