“Twitter Bots:” Recreation on-line that’s good for your brain

from the NY Times: <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/science/twitter-bots-science.html?smid=tw-nytimesscience&smtyp=cur&_r=0>

Photo

An image from the Twitter account @mothgenerator, a bot that generates intricate images of imaginary moths and names them.

Not all Twitter bots are trying to spam, hack or peddle you fake news. Some are works of creativity, programmed to tweet diagrams of imaginary bird migrations or haikus composed of words scavenged from surveys of marine mammals.

I follow Twitter bots for serendipitous notes that take me out of my day, if just fleetingly. There’s comfort in witnessing a narrative take form outside the direct control of humans and oblivious to the breakneck clip of the internet.

Science-themed Twitter bots come in various forms, doling out humor, factual information and galactic perspective. There’s @shark_girls, which casts two geotracked great white sharks as travel writers, quoting from the writings of Virginia Woolf and the poet Hilda Doolittle. There’s @the_ephemerides, which juxtaposes raw images taken by outer planet probes like the Cassini spacecraft with computer-generated poems. There are many more. Below are some of my favorites.

@grow_slow

Nicole He programmed this bot to tweet a photo of her fiddle-leaf fig, a common houseplant, at 10:17 every morning. Over time, you can see the plant birth new offshoots and shuffle its leaves ever so slightly.

“It’s striking how often people tweet encouraging, nice things at the plant about how shiny its leaves are or how fast it’s growing,” wrote Ms. He, a programmer and artist, in an email. “I think I’ve discovered that a humbly tweeting plant is actually the secret to world peace (or at least kindness on Twitter).”

@usinjuries

This bot tweets descriptions of emergency room visits from a government database that tracks about 100 hospitals across the United States.

Its parent, Keith Collins, a reporter at Quartz, emailed that he didn’t expect to laugh out loud when he first looked at the data. But most of the injuries are minor, he said, and there’s something about the way they’re written in the “pithy style of a rushed E.R. doctor.” Noticing a glut of entries about patients who punched walls, he charted the age distribution of wall-punchers and found that 15-year-olds were most prolific.

Many of the bot’s retweets come with comments like “same” or “it’s me,” he said. It “gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves.”

@birdcolourbot

Each tweet from @birdcolourbot is a bird name followed by a swath of colors resembling a paint chip. Each band’s width is determined by the probability of a given bird of that species being that hue.

“I’m red-green colorblind, so I’m interested in color perception and how different people see birds (or anything really),” emailed David L. Miller, the bot’s creator and a statistician with affiliations at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

@mothgenerator

Also dedicated to winged creatures, this bot tweets make-believe moths of all shapes, sizes, textures and iridescent colors. It’s programmed to generate variations in several anatomical structures of real moths, including antennas, wing shapes and wing markings.

Another program, which splices and recombines real Latin and English moth names, generates monikers for the moths. You can also reply to the account with name suggestions, and it will generate a corresponding moth.

Inspired by naturalist illustrations, such as those of Ernst Haeckel, the programmers designed their bot to create moths stroke by stroke, with each insect composed of tens of thousands of individual strokes. “At its core, the moth generator is a wildly byzantine drawing machine in the shape of a moth,” said Katie Rose Pipkin, an artist at Carnegie Mellon University who created the bot with Loren Schmidt.

@i_find_planets

“They have discovered a planet. A guinea pig-like creature lives there and creeps through the valleys. It is something of a mystery.” Such are the snapshots offered by Newfound Planets, a bot that tweets about fictional distant worlds.

The human behind it, Charles Bergquist, who directs the public radio program Science Friday, wrote via email that he thinks people enjoy the bot because they yearn to know what it’s like on another planet — “how big it is, might there be water or what might the sunrise look like.”

@unchartedatlas

This bot also tweets about fictional lands, but based on actual erosion science. Martin O’Leary, a glaciologist at Swansea University in Wales, programmed it as part of National Novel Generation Month, a spinoff of National Novel Writing Month that challenges people to write an algorithm that writes a novel (here’s his accompanying novel).

The bot starts with a random initial terrain, then simulates how water would flow over it to create channels, valleys and coastlines. Cities are placed away from each other and near running water, and Dr. O’Leary wrote another program to name the cities.

To him, Twitter bots are a piecemeal form of science outreach. He said a lot of publicly available information about science amounted to, “Look at this amazing thing right now!” But Twitter bots “worm their way into your life, sit there and slowly give you this drip of stuff. They’re gentle.”

 

Posted in Fun

Overseas and International NGO’s Being Handicapped by US-Imposed Restrictions

{The issues discussed in this article about obstacles faced by non-profits working in humanitarian fields in war zones is actually only one aspect of US-inspired and -enforced regulations that affect all manner of non-profit and non-governmental organizations, especially in developing countries, such as small islands in the Caribbean. For example, to comply with US Treasury Department international financial regulations* , non-profit groups in the British Virgin Islands have to comply with hundreds of pages of burdensome regulations and reports to satisfy requirements that the US imposes on the Government of the BVI. A bit much for the local garden club, but that’s where it’s happening these days. Sounds to me like financial bullying by the United States.   bp}

Scrutiny over terrorism funding hampers charitable work in ravaged countries

         April 19   2017
As the Syrian military began laying waste to the city of Aleppo in an offensive to vanquish rebel forces last year, a doctor was at his wit’s end.Anas Moughrabieh was trying to save civilian lives, treating patients remotely via teleconference from his office in Detroit. As people were rushed into the Syrian hospital with grave head injuries, doctors there had run out of hypertonic saline, which relieves pressure in the brain. That and other simple supply shortages led many to die, including children. He looked on helplessly from 6,000 miles away.

Although the hospital was run by the Syrian American Medical Society — a District-based charity that relies on donations — lack of funding wasn’t the issue. And in this case, the brutality of the Syrian regime wasn’t responsible for the supply shortage.

The problem was a U.S. bank.

During the bloody siege, the medical society had tried to wire $80,000 to a vendor in Turkey so its hospitals could stock up on medical supplies. But the U.S.-based bank, in its diligence to ensure the funds weren’t being funneled to overseas terrorists, was holding up the transfer. By the time the money went through six months later, the deadly siege was over.

“Patients on life support cannot be patient,” Moughrabieh said. “They either live or they die.”

The wire transfer delays during last summer’s bloody campaign in Aleppo reflect a broad pattern: At a time of historic humanitarian need, banks are increasingly hesitant to conduct business with charities that work in disaster zones for fear that they could be caught up in funding international terrorism.

Known in charity circles as “derisking,” because banks are seeking to avoid rather than manage risk, the issue has been brewing for about three years, largely as an unintended consequence of stepped-up efforts to counter terrorism financing, charity advocates and finance professionals say.

“The inability to get humanitarian assistance to refugees from political conflicts or natural disasters can result in death from starvation, exposure, and disease,” concluded a 2016 report from the World Bank. “The elderly and the young are particularly hurt by de-risking and are literally dying as a result.”

Two-thirds of all U.S. charities that work abroad are reporting difficulties accessing financial services because of the banking trend, according to one of two new studies that show for the first time the scope of the impact the banking trend has had on aid providers working in catastrophe zones.

“I was surprised,” said Kay Guinane, director of the D.C.-based Charity & Security Network, which represents nonprofit groups working in crisis regions and issued one of the new reports. “I don’t think any of us had any idea how big a problem this really is until we got this data.”

The other report, released last month by Duke Law’s International Human Rights Clinic and the Netherlands-based Women Peacemakers Program, found that institutional donors such as Western governments and large foundations — as well as banks — are increasingly neglecting human-rights organizations that focus their work on women’s issues and operate in areas such as Syria and Iraq.

One such grass-roots group provides secular education to children in Syria to counteract Islamic State schools.

“Women’s rights and their defenders are really often caught in the crosshairs of these very risk-averse banks and overzealous regulatory authorities,” said Jayne Huckerby, a Duke University law professor and an author of the study.

The world is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, with the United Nations estimating that 65 million people have been displaced by climate change and war and that 20 million are in danger of starvation.

Drought and famine are plaguing Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan. A Saudi-led blockade of goods is starving innocents in Yemen. The Syrian government has been blocking aid deliveries to its own people and this month allegedly killed at least 80 civilians in a chemical attack.

The derisking trend also has prompted recent closures of orphanages in Lebanon and Sudan, has cut off relief for persecuted minorities in Burma and has terminated school programs for students in Afghanistan, according to the Charity & Security Network report.

Delays, fees, closures

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charity & Security Network report asserts that it is the first comprehensive empirical study on the impact that bank derisking has had on nonprofit organizations.

The 305 charities surveyed said they experienced delays in wire transfers, requests for unusual additional documentation, increased fees and account closures.

The issue stems from well-intended efforts to tighten controls on terrorism financing in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Since then, the U.S. Treasury Department has labeled nine U.S. charities as supporters of terrorism and has designated 54 worldwide.

No U.S. charity has been put on a terrorist list since 2009, but the report contends that at least 5,875 of the roughly 8,665 U.S. charities that work overseas have been adversely affected by banking behavior aimed at disrupting terrorism. [But bear in mind that 10’s of thousands of overseas DOMESTIC NGOs — in developing countries — are now also being affected by FATF regulations enforced on them.]

One District-based charity, which works to promote gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Lebanon and elsewhere, was hit when Citibank froze its accounts on March 10.

“Our checks have started to bounce,” said an executive, who asked that the charity not be publicly identified out of fear of retribution that could further stall its efforts. “We are working for the betterment of people’s lives in the world. We’re not doing arms trade, or something horrible like that. I am almost beside myself with frustration.”

Sue Eckert, lead author of the Charity & Security Network study and an expert on the intersection of economics and national security, said the fundamental nature of terrorist financing is changing in part because of the bank-led crackdown on traditional cash streams.

“It’s by and large not coming through the formal channels now,” she said, noting that Islamic State funds now often “derive from their physical control of territory — from oil, sale of antiquities, and taxation and extortion, including kidnapping for ransom.”

Bank associates acknowledge the problem. Rob Rowe, a vice president at the American Bankers Association, said the chaos wrought by civil war in Somalia, for example, has left bankers feeling blind.

“Unfortunately, banks just can’t send funds,” he said. “They look at it and say, ‘We can’t make the distinction between a charity that’s trying to get money to a starving family versus one that is ready to go out and buy a stockpile of Uzis to fire on civilians. We don’t have enough information, we can’t make that call, and if we make the wrong guess, we’re the ones that are in trouble.”

 The financial sector has been spooked by a spate of high-profile fines. HSBC — Britain’s biggest bank — was fined nearly $2 billion in 2012 after a U.S. Justice Department probe found its controls for money-laundering inadequate. Paris-based BNP Paribas bank was fined nearly $9 billion in 2014 for violating sanctions against Sudan, Cuba and Iran.

BNP, as one example, was accused among other things of stripping information from wire transfers so they could pass through the U.S. system without raising red flags.

‘We cannot continue’

On occasion, even established charities have had their accounts closed. It happened to the Syrian American Medical Society in early 2015, more than a year before its wire-transfer debacle during the Aleppo siege in summer 2016. In February 2015, Chase Bank closed the society’s account with little explanation. JPMorgan Chase’s media relations department declined to comment,

“During that period of freezing, we weren’t able to wire money; we weren’t able to pay our staff in the U.S.,” said Randa Loutfi, a pediatrician and the organization’s director of programs.

Society officials scrambled to find a new bank. Large financial institutions politely declined, Loutfi said. She believes the word “Syria” in the title of her organization immediately made banks wary.

“We show them the license that we work under from the government,” she said. “Still, many banks were scared. They start the process and then, ‘Sorry, we cannot continue.’ ”

It took months for the organization — which treated roughly 1.4 million Syrians in 2014 alone — to get its finances back in order. The charity wound up splitting its money among three smaller banks from the Midwest.

Another U.S.-based group, Syria Relief & Development, which runs about 30 hospitals in Syria and has a shelter program for Syrian refugees in Jordan, has had its accounts closed by five different banks since 2015. Mais Balkhi, the Kansas-based organization’s advocacy and outreach manager, said dealing with banks has been one of the group’s biggest challenges.

“We’re having more attacks, people are dying, but we are sometimes unable to help because banks are closing accounts and delaying transactions,” Balkhi said.

‘Particularly vulnerable’

Much of the focus on charities as potential fronts for terrorism centers on a simple phrase: “Particularly vulnerable.”

Helping to create the mistrust of charities after Sept. 11 was a highly influential but little-known intergovernmental organization called the Financial Action Task Force, an advisory panel that formed in 1989 to combat money laundering. Immediately after the attacks, the purview of the global task force expanded to terrorist-financing concerns and it deemed nonprofit organizations “particularly vulnerable” to terrorist abuse.

In June 2016, recognizing the harm to charities caused by that designation, the Financial Action Task Force removed it. But the manual used by state and federal bank examiners in the United States who investigate banks for ethical and legal lapses still reflects the old standard, charity advocates say.

Bank derisking isn’t always the most pressing problem plaguing aid givers in crisis-ravaged countries, where they are putting their lives on the line to help. In 2016, 14 doctors working with the Syrian American Medical Society were killed in combat zones, mostly when bombs fell on hospitals.

But the banking woes compound the problems.

“It’s silly to add the money issue to all the other challenges,” Loutfi said. “We already have enough challenges.”

-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+
*As enforced through the Financial Action Task Force (on Money Laundering — FATF), also known by its French name, Groupe d’action financière (GAFI), is an intergovernmental organization founded in 1989 on the initiative of the G7 to develop policies to combat money laundering. In 2001 the purpose expanded to act on terrorism financing. It monitors countries’ progress in implementing the FATF Recommendations by ‘peer reviews’ (‘mutual evaluations’) of member countries. The FATF Secretariat is housed at the headquarters of the OECD in Paris — by Wikipedia]
Posted in Development, Finance Services, Governance, Small Island

As Coral Reefs Die . . .

An important article from the Washington Post: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/04/20/as-coral-reefs-die-huge-swaths-of-the-ocean-floor-are-vanishing-with-them/?utm_term=.f5d3a0d92067>

As coral reefs die, huge swaths of the seafloor are deteriorating along with them

April 20 at 9:00 AM

U.S. government scientists have found a dramatic impact from the continuing decline of coral reefs: The seafloor around them is eroding and sinking, deepening coastal waters and exposing nearby communities to damaging waves that reefs used to weaken.

The new study, conducted by researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey, examined reefs in Hawaii, the Florida Keys and the U.S. Virgin Islands, finding seafloor drops in all three locations. Near Maui, where the largest changes were observed, the researchers found that the sea floor had lost so much sand that, by volume, it would be the equivalent of 81 Empire State Buildings.

“We knew that coral reefs were degrading, but we didn’t really know how much until we did this study,” said USGS oceanographer Kimberly Yates, the lead study author. “We didn’t really realize until now that they’re degrading enough that it’s actually affecting the rest of the seafloor as well.”

Yates conducted the study with two other geological survey researchers and a researcher with Cherokee Nation Technologies. The work was published Thursday in the journal Biogeosciences.

Coral reefs naturally generate sand as hard coral skeletons die, and their calcium carbonate bodies become the next layer of the seafloor. Meanwhile, the living tops of coral columns grow taller and taller, which allows them to keep pace in eras of rising seas.

But as corals are subjected to more and more assaults from a combination of global climate change, local pollution and direct human-caused damage, this natural dynamic appears to have been undermined, and seafloor accretion has swung to erosion.

When corals stop growing fast enough, and when they stop making those big skeletons, you also lose that supply of sand to the rest of the seafloor, and you lose that supply of sand to the beaches,” said Yates.

The exhaustive study started with old nautical charts, dating as far back as the 1930s in some cases, that listed seafloor depths in the vicinity of reefs. Then the scientists remeasured depths in the present.

And they found that averaged across the three areas they studied, the seafloor dropped from between 0.3 feet and 2.62 feet. At extremes, losses in specific places exceeded 13 feet.

These numbers are particularly striking when considered in the context of today’s rising seas. While the current rate of sea level rise is estimated at a little above 3 millimeters per year, the study calculated seafloor elevation loss rates that were sometimes double that — or even higher in Maui, which saw the greatest losses.

The upshot is that natural reef growth in these areas will not be able to keep up with sea level rise — rather, the reefs will fall well behind it, and coastal waters will grow deeper and deeper. In fact, they already have.

“Erosion of coral reefs and seafloor is happening much more and much faster than what was previously known or expected, enough so that it’s affecting those local sea level rises,” said Yates. “Enough so that it increases the risk to the coastlines from coastal hazards, storm waves, every day persistent waves, tsunamis and those kinds of things.”

The authors caution that these findings apply only to their study areas for U.S. coral reefs in Florida, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands. Globally, similar processes may well also be afoot — reefs across the world are generally threatened. But there could also be local processes that act very differently in other places.

They also warn that they can’t attribute seafloor changes to any one cause — or even to multiple ones. From hurricane wave action to coral collapses, many factors change the elevation of the seafloor.

Still, the researchers are convinced that the findings represent a risk to coastal communities in regions that experience major hurricane strikes.

“Think of the reefs as kind of natural speed bumps,” said David Zawada, one of the study’s co-authors and also an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Take that away, this wave energy, more of it is going to be able to migrate in closer to shore.”

“This is a critically important study, which shows that we are not only losing living corals but also that reefs are being eroded away around the world,” said Michael Beck, lead marine scientist at the Nature Conservancy, which has a program to study and protect Florida’s enormous reef tract, which is the third largest of its kind in the world. Beck was not involved in the study.

“Effectively, seas are not just rising but reefs are sinking and with them the many benefits they provide including flood protection to communities around the world. Their study points to why it is so urgent to act now to improve reef health through conservation and restoration.”

There is a recurrent motif that you can now detect in climate change studies when researchers are delivering weighty findings. They often invoke the “Anthropocene,” or the idea that we’re entering a new geologic epoch brought on by human alterations to the planet.

“The magnitude of reef volume lost due to erosion provides evidence for the onset of an Anthropocene reef crisis similar to ancient reef crises caused by climate change and marked in the geologic record by regional and global declines in reef volume,” the authors write.

[We urge you to check the latest comments on this article, AND the original article in Biogeosciences.]

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pennsylvania Tries to Get Chesapeake Bay Pollution Right . . .

from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette <http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/outdoors/2017/04/16/Rural-pollutants-impact-Chesapeake-Pennsylvania-trout-streams/stories/201704160129>

[No wonder Pennsylvania is doing such a bad job meeting its pollution-reduction goals. According to this article from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, they’re trying to remove potassium as a major pollutant, and the Chesapeake Bay Program (a 30-some year-old joint federal/5-state Bay restoration effort that had to do a total Reset about 6 years ago) goal is for phosphorus. At least this properly conveys the importance of Pennsylvania-sourced pollution to problems in the Bay.]

Rural pollutants that impact the Chesapeake region affect Pennsylvania trout streams

By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. — Afloat at the northern tip of Chesapeake Bay, the Snow Goose is an educational vessel outfitted as a floating classroom for children, scientists and journalists. On this day, with a brisk wind blowing off the bay, the boat motored north into the briney mouth of the Susquehanna River, the environmental troublemaker that drains Central Pennsylvania and supplies Chesapeake Bay with 50 percent of its freshwater.

Despite the bay’s reputation as a once-fertile fish haven that was rapidly becoming a waste dump, there’s recent evidence that Chesapeake Bay is cleaning up. A small team from the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation uses the boat to gather data and distribute information. What happens on trout streams hundreds of miles inland impact the struggling bay.

“There’s been significant improvement during the last four years, but it’s a fragile improvement that could easily be reversed,” said Captain Ian Robbins, an environmental scientist working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

First a little prehistory. The Susquehanna is the fourth oldest river on Earth. It originated on the ancient continent Pangea, and survived the separation of the North American continent from the original landmass, and four glacial epochs. Chesapeake Bay, in fact, is the ancient flooded Susquehanna River channel surrounded by shallow flooded flats.

Today, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a huge sprawling system that drains some 64,000 square miles in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia. It empties into one shallow tidal basin. Although the submerged river channel can reach depths of some 70 feet, the bay’s average depth is just 21 feet,

This weekend, thousands of Pennsylvania trout anglers will wade through Chesapeake watershed streams that reach as far west as Indiana County. They’ll kick up sediment containing agricultural and urban toxins that will reach the gulf in about 18 days.

Pennsylvania doesn’t border Chesapeake Bay, but 42 of its 67 counties lie within the bay watershed. Pennsylvania has two major rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay Watershed — the Susquehanna and Potomac. Combined, they encompass 40 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and Pennsylvania discharges more nitrogen into the bay than any other state.

“Nutrients like potassium and nitrogen run off the fields, go down the river and into the bay. They remove oxygen from the water creating these dead zones where crabs and fish can’t live,” said Robbins. “We’ve found that even small improvements to the water quality can change the chemical composition and shrink those dead zones.”

The improvements were the result of the Clean Water Blueprint, an unfunded agreement among Chesapeake-impacting states to voluntarily reduce farm runoff and municipal waste that enters the bay. One state, Pennsylvania, has been chronically behind schedule. The state Department of Environmental Protection determined last year that Pennsylvania would not meet its Clean Water Blueprint goal of having 60 percent of the pollution-reduction practices necessary to restore water quality in place by 2017.

The Susquehanna was once famous for its smallmouth fishery. Last year a joint study released by the DEP, the state Fish and Boat Commission and a half-dozen partner agencies showed a connection between a widespread disease that affects smallmouth bass and agricultural runoff and municipal sewage discharge, with parasite infestation a secondary complication. DEP declared a portion of the river to be “impaired,” the first-ever designation of that kind for a major Pennsylvania waterway. But stakeholder groups that participated in the report suggested the narrow ruling covering just 4 miles of water was insufficient.

John Arway, executive director of the state Fish and Boat Commission, who for years has lobbied for Susquehanna River remediation, said at the time the long-awaited DEP action addressed only a local problem involving catfish contamination by PCB chemicals.

“Despite how long this has been going on, all the research that’s been done, this doesn’t address the issue,” he said.

Farther upstream on Chesapeake watershed tributaries, some of the same problems that impact the bay affect trout streams. Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported in 2016 that after heavy rains, levels of bacteria at some testing sites were more than 10 times higher than health standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Test sites were chosen to gauge input by agricultural, urban, suburban and mixed land use sources, The highest levels of E. coli, a key indicator of bacterial growth, were found at a community park on Yellow Breeches Creek, a world-renowned trout stream that bisects Cumberland and York counties.

The report showed that nine of 14 samplings for E. coli returned results above the threshold set by the EPA. No testing was done to determine the impact on native and stocked trout.

E. coli and fecal coliform are relatively easy to measure in bacteria samples tested for contamination of human or animal waste. A normal part of intestinal biology, the presence of E. coli in the water does not indicate a risk to human health, but it suggests that pathogens may be present which can cause gastrointestinal illness, headaches and other symptoms.

Chemical impacts that have turned some areas of Chesapeake Bay into dead zones can do similar damage to streams hundreds of miles inland.

“The run-off nutrients come off the farms and fall to the creek bottom,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation spokesman B.J. Small. “The mud gets stirred up by heavy flow and other things. The nitrogen and potassium, which are good when they’re in the ground on the farm, combine in the water and remove oxygen. The first thing that happens is the bug life leaves and then the fish. The oxygen-depleted areas experience a toxic bloom. They’re hard to contain because they’re gone the next day. They reform on another part of the stream or river when the conditions are right again.”

Posted in Erosion & Sediment Control, Governance, Monitoring, Watershed Management | Leave a comment

Public Policy, Inc.

[The issue discussed here is not particular to the Trump administration, but it does illuminate many of the driving forces for basic policy positions.  bp]

PostEverything

How the private sector is taking over policymaking.

April 6

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

Anybody who works in Washington knows that think tanks play an important role in advising the government on policy. For most bureaucrats, anything past two weeks is long term. Because experts at think tanks have fewer real-time deadlines, they specialize in the strategic thinking that many Cabinet agencies cannot do. Over the years, think tanks have had a hand in conceiving the Reagan administration’s first-term governing strategy, the expansion of NATO and the post-2006 surge in Iraq.

One organization in particular has dramatically increased its influence over the past decade. Foreign policy professionals respect its work more than that of the Heritage Foundation or the Center for American Progress. Its reach is so great that it has advised numerous foreign governments on their environmental policies. British officials relied on it when considering reforms of the National Health Service. Saudi Arabia’s ambitious economic reform program had its origins in one of the group’s reports. Its alumni are littered throughout the federal government.

The policy shop in question is McKinsey, a global — and highly profitable — consulting firm.

In the foreign policy community, think tanks are widely viewed as the traditional brokers in the marketplace of ideas. But this is changing. Whether based in investment banks like Goldman Sachs, management consultancies like McKinsey or political risk firms like the Eurasia Group, private-sector institutions have started to act like policy knowledge brokers. Consultants have been key advisers to the government for decades, but recent trends have caused their star to rise at the same time that traditional think tanks face new challenges. The University of Pennsylvania’s annual think tank report has stressed “the fierce competition think tanks are facing from consulting firms” in recent years. As the Trump White House searches for actionable foreign policy ideas, and as Jared Kushner looks to the private sector to inform his White House Office of American Innovation, do not be surprised if they turn to McKinsey more than Brookings or the Council on Foreign Relations.

If this sounds pernicious, it does not have to be. I’ve studied the practices of the think tank and consulting worlds. The latter brings real strengths. A more heterogeneous foreign policy conversation might be a good thing.

But the forces that have enhanced the influence of consultants are not weakening. What looks like heterogeneity right now might turn into a homogenous world where consultants rule the foreign policy roost. And for all the perceived flaws of think tanks, consultants have even bigger faults when it comes to thinking about international relations.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Consultants have been involved in government since World War II, when Booz Allen Hamilton reorganized the Navy to prosecute a two-ocean campaign and A.D. Little helped develop operations research to better organize military logistics. After the war, the Eisenhower administration hired McKinsey to reorganize White House functions.

In recent years, however, certain trends have accelerated the rise of consultancies in public policy. Globalization and geopolitical instability have midwifed a new class of political risk consultants with strong ties to the intelligence community. The increase in government outsourcing has created new demand for private-sector actors to provide services and advice on national security matters. Although the bread and butter of management consulting is catering to the private sector, by 2015, close to a quarter of these firms’ business came from advising government and nonprofit clients. Booz Allen and PricewaterhouseCoopers have consulted in areas like bioterrorism and cybersecurity; Edward Snowden got his start at the National Security Agency as a Booz Allen contractor. McKinsey’s influence over the Saudi reform program was so pervasive that in Riyadh, the Ministry of Planning is jokingly referred to as “the McKinsey Ministry.”

One significant way these firms affect the marketplace of ideas is through a conscious strategy of thought leadership — promoting publicly accessible and marketable ideas to catch the attention of clients. Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s global managing partner, bragged to the Economist in 2013 about the firm’s “university-like capabilities.” Many private-sector firms have set up in-house think tanks. The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) and the McKinsey Center for Government produce foreign-policy-relevant research. JPMorgan Chase created the JPMorgan Chase Institute to advise policymakers, hiring Diana Farrell, a former National Economic Council deputy director and the former head of MGI, to run it. Kohlberg Kravis Roberts created the KKR Global Institute, integrating “expertise and analysis about emerging developments and long-term trends in geopolitics, macroeconomics, demographics, energy and natural resource markets, technology, and trade policy,” and hired David Petraeus to be its chairman.

These for-profit think tanks are generating more research pertaining to world politics. The BRICS grouping of emerging economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — had its origins in a 2001 Goldman Sachs study. More recently, Credit Suisse has reported about the return of multipolarity in world politics, while KPMG and HSBC have sketched out what the global economy could look like a generation from now. Some firms have developed eye-catching rankings and indices of countries, cities or other actors. The Legatum Institute built a global prosperity index . DHL and McKinsey have marketed their own indices of cross-border connectedness. Deloitte produced a global manufacturing competitiveness index. Michael Chui, a partner at MGI, told me that the creation of such rankings “is a great way to engage people” in McKinsey’s work.

While for-profit think tanks are making their mark, traditional think tanks have come under fire for possible conflicts of interest. The 2008 financial crisis forced these organizations to seek more private-sector support. A welter of think tanks have developedcorporate sponsorship programs to offer companies privileged access to their experts. At the Council on Foreign Relations, a six-figure corporate contribution comes with three CFR briefings “tailored to the company’s interests .” Many other think tanks have received money from foreign governments.

These attempts to find more revenue have threatened think tanks’ brands. The New York Times and The Washington Post have documented the ways corporations like FedEx and foreign governments like Qatar have partnered with prestigious think tanks such as the Atlantic Council and Brookings. And think tank officials have acknowledged the sway of donors. Bill Goodfellow, the executive director of the Center for International Policy, toldthe Times: “It’s absurd to suggest that donors don’t have influence. The danger is we in the think tank world are being corrupted in the same way as the political world.”

The irony is that the nonprofit actors, in trying to expand their base of support, have been accused of compromising their independence, while the explicitly for-profit world of consultants has avoided the charge. This is true even though much of the private-sector advisers’ information comes from their proprietary work, so the transparency of their intellectual products is opaque at best.

Why have consultants avoided the accusations that have ensnared the think tank world? One reason is that consultants do bring some genuine intellectual strengths to the foreign policy table. As an academic who researches foreign economic policy, I can testify that Goldman Sachs or McKinsey or State Street often puts out the first piece of cogent analysis when a new issue crops up. These organizations produced informative research when sovereign wealth funds emerged. They were also quicker to detect China’s economic slowdown than traditional foreign policy intellectuals. That does not mean they will always be right — but if identifying problems is the first step in solving them, then they have a leg up. Furthermore, their work can be just as rigorous as that of think tanks. Like those organizations, consultants lean on the ivory tower to bolster their intellectual firepower. DHL’s connectedness index, for example, was created by academics.

Another reason consultancies are thriving is that they are perfectly positioned to exploit the political shifts that led to President Trump’s election. Political polarization has made it difficult for any outlet to catch the attention of ideologues. Unlike universities, however, the private sector is not seen as a creature of the left. And unlike nonprofit think tanks, the private sector can exploit an implicit inference clients draw: If someone is willing to pay for their services, then they must have value. An awful lot of consultants are rich, and this is a White House that seems to see net worth as a leading indicator of intellectual prowess. The fall of traditional institutions and the rise of polarization have created conditions that are ideal for private-sector intellectuals.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

While for-profit intellectuals make valuable contributions, it would be problematic if they crowded out traditional think tanks. For one thing, consultancies have their own biases. In some cases these are political; a few financial thought leaders have told me that their bosses have reproached them for being overly pessimistic about Trump’s effect on economic growth. In other cases, their advice is biased toward highlighting their services. You will not see Booz Allen or McKinsey recommend against government outsourcing, for example. In foreign policy, they care about making money, which means they will neglect the parts of the world with no profit centers. These are often the places that become foreign policy hot spots.

In an effort to sell certainty in an uncertain world, private-sector thought leaders often engage in “overfitting” — over-interpreting statistical noise as representing an underlying trend. Consultants are no better at understanding how politicians behave and are sometimes a bit worse; more than a year ago, the Eurasia Group dismissed the idea of a Trump administration as an overhyped risk. That was an odd prediction, since political risk firms are usually likely to exaggerate such risks — the better to hype the need for their consulting.

It used to be that foreign policy professionals had a choice: take the credit or take the money. Those intellectuals who wanted to own the ideas they ginned up, such as academics, were happy to promote them to others. Those who were comfortable with outsourced and subcontracted work could earn generous consulting contracts, while policymakers could take credit for their ideas.

That trade-off may no longer exist. The modern marketplace of foreign policy ideas has enabled for-profit thought leaders to have it all. Through their thought leadership, they can claim credit as a marketing device. Through their bespoke work, they can earn money as well. Through the Trump administration, their ideas will find a receptive ear in the corridors of power.

60 Comments  so far, I especially liked this one – – – 
John Marke
 Recall the last time business crossed the threshold to military strategy? It was McNamara and the “Whiz Kids.” The legacy is over 58,000 Americans killed along with millions of Vietnamese.  
[And incidentally, several consultancies headed by former Whiz Kids, including American Management Systems, where I worked for a while.  bp]
Posted in Governance | Leave a comment

Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem

[From the on-line aggregation site Medium, originally a post from the Design, Use. Build Lab, by Kate Starboard, Asst. Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at UW. Researcher of crisis informatics and online rumors.

The best exposition I’ve seen about how the Alternative Media operates. If you spend time reading current events on the Internet, read this to understand how bad news is twisted into false news, mostly by right-wing political agents.  bp]

Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem

Conspiracy Theories, Muddled Thinking, and Political Disinformation

Background: Examining “Alternative Narratives” of Crisis Events

For more than three years, my lab at the University of Washington has conducted research looking at how people spread rumors online during crisis events. We have looked at natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes as well as man-made events such as mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Due to the public availability of data, we focused primarily on Twitter — but we also used data collected there (tweets) to expose broader activity in the surrounding media ecosystem.

Over time, we noted that a similar kind of rumor kept showing up, over and over again, after each of the man-made crisis events — a conspiracy theory or “alternative narrative” of the event that claimed it either didn’t happen or that it was perpetrated by someone other than the current suspects.

We first encountered this type of rumor while studying the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. We noticed a large number of tweets (>4000) claiming that the bombings were a “false flag” perpetrated by U.S. Navy Seals. The initial spread of this rumor involved a “cascade” of tweets linking to an article on the InfoWars website. At the time, our researchers did not know what InfoWars was, but the significance of that connection became clear over time.

In subsequent crisis events, similar rumors appeared. After the Umpqua Community College shooting, a rumor claimed the event was staged by “crisis actors” for political reasons — specifically to justify legal restrictions on gun rights. And after the shootings at the Orlando Pulse nightclub, a rumor suggested they were committed by someone other than the accused gunman — with the purpose of falsely blaming the attack on Muslims. For every man-made crisis event we studied, we found evidence of alternative narratives, often shared by some of the same accounts and connected to some of the same online sites.

These rumors had different “signatures” from other types of rumors. In terms of volume (measured in tweets per minute), most crisis-related rumors spike quickly and then fade out relatively quickly as well, typically “decaying” at an exponential rate. But these alternative narrative rumors rose more slowly, and then they lingered, ebbing and flowing over the course of days or weeks (or years). They also had sustained participation by a set group of Twitter users (i.e. many tweets per user over an extended period of time), rather than finite participation by a large number of users (one or two tweets per user, all at around the same time) as typical rumors do. Additionally, alternative narrative rumors often had high “domain diversity”, in that tweets referencing the rumors linked to a large number of distinct domains (different websites), including alternative media sites such as InfoWars, BeforeItsNews, and RT (aka Russia Times). Several of these rumors also had a strong “botnet” presence — in other words, many participating Twitter accounts were not “real” people, but were operated by a computer program that controlled a large number of accounts.

In our very first study (about the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings) we noted that alternative narrative rumors intersected with politicized content. Analysis of co-occurring hashtags showed that #falseflag often appeared in the same tweets as #obama, #nra, #teaparty, #tcot, #tlot, #p2. As a researcher of crisis informatics, I’ve often noted how crises become politicized in online spaces (and elsewhere), but this was different, as the false flag rumor appeared to be deeply connected to political themes and propagated for a distinctly political purpose.

Strange Commonalities and Connections: Why We Shifted Focus
Initially, we chose not to dwell on these types of rumors, thinking that they had little impact on our core research questions — how people respond to crisis events and how we could make the information space more useful for crisis-affected people by detecting false rumors. These alternative narrative rumors rarely resonated within crisis-affected populations. And so, though we often remarked upon them when they surfaced in our data, we maintained our research focus elsewhere.

However, in early 2016, in the wake of the Umpqua Community College shootings and the coordinated terror attacks in Paris, a few of my students decided to take a closer look at what they perceived to be commonalities in the alternative narratives spreading on Twitter about the two different events — as well as what they thought to be a botnet driving a large portion of that content.

[Both of these hunches turned out to be true. The botnet was connected to “the Real Strategy” or TheRealStrategy.com. They coordinated hundreds of accounts that tweeted content related to several different alternative narratives from these events and others. Though some of those accounts have been deleted, others are still operational, new ones have been created, and they continue to publish and tweet out content related to numerous conspiracy theories.]

Using Twitter data collected during these events, the students built network graphs that revealed connections between different Twitter accounts — and between different “communities” of accounts — participating in these alternative narratives. When we went to examine the data in Winter 2016, we were extremely confused by some of the intersections. Why were a handful of “Anonymous” accounts and GamerGaters connected with Pro-Palestinian accounts on one side and European white nationalists on another? Why were seemingly left-wing supporters of Wikileaks connecting with seemingly right-wing supporters of Donald Trump? And why did these groups come together to talk about alternative narratives of mass shooting events? It didn’t make sense. Yet.

A Systematic Exploration of the Alternative Media Ecosystem through the Lens of Alternative Narratives of Mass Shooting Events
Almost a year later, motivated by the political disruptions of 2016, the rhetoric around “fake news” and alternative media, and this nagging feeling that there was something in our online rumoring data that could provide insight into these issues, we completed a systematic study of alternative narratives of mass shooting events, looking specifically at the alternative media ecosystem that generates them and supports their spread. A first paper resulting from this work was recently reviewed and accepted to the ICWSM 2017 conference. I have uploaded a pre-print version of this paper to my website.

In the remainder of this blog, I am going to describe some of that research, including the methods and the main findings. These findings touch on the nature of alternative media, including the presence of (and connections between) conspiracy theories, political propaganda, and disinformation.

Methods of Data Collection and Analysis

On January 1, 2016, our lab launched a Twitter collection focused specifically on shooting events. We kept this collection going for more than nine months, until October 6, tracking on (English) terms including shooting, shootings, gunman, and gunmen. From this collection, we then identified tweets that referenced alternative narratives — i.e. tweets that also contained terms such as “false flag”, “hoax”, and “crisis actor”.

Next, we created a network map of the Internet domains referenced in these tweets. In other words, we wanted to see what websites people cited as they talked about and constructed these alternative narratives, as well as how those different websites were connected. To do that, we generated a graph where nodes were Internet domains (extracted from URL links in the tweets). In this graph, nodes are sized by the overall number of tweets that linked to that domain and an edge exists between two nodes if the same Twitter account posted one tweet citing one domain and another tweet citing the other. After some trimming (removing domains such as social media sites and URL shorteners that are connected to everything), we ended up with the graph you see in Figure 1. We then used the graph to explore the media ecosystem through which the production of alternative narratives takes place.

Figure 1. Domain Network Graph, Colored by Media Type
Purple = mainstream media; Aqua = alternative media;
Red = government controlled media

After generating the graph, we conducted an in-depth qualitative analysis of all of the domains in the graph — reading their home and About pages, identifying prominent themes in their current website, searching for specific themes within their historical content, examining other available information (online) about their owners and writers, etc. Below, I discuss what we learned about this alternative media ecosystem through this analysis.

Alternative Media Were Cited for Supporting Alternative Narratives; Mainstream Media Were Cited for Challenging Them

The network graph represents a subsection of the larger media ecosystem — it is a snapshot of the “structure” of the conversation around alternative narratives. After trimming to domains cited multiple times (and by multiple people), the graph contains 117 total domains. We determined 80 of these to belong to “alternative media” (Figure 1, colored Aqua) and 27 to belong to mainstream media (Figure 1, colored Purple). Other domains include three belonging to NGOs and two belonging to media outlets funded by the Russian government (RT.com and SputnikNews.com).

It’s important to note that not all of these domains contained content promoting alternative narratives of shooting events. In the Twitter conversations about these alternative narratives, domains were cited in different ways for different kinds of content.

More than half of the domains in the graph (and more than 80% of the alternative media domains) were cited for content explicitly supporting the alternative narratives. However, others (especially mainstream media) were cited for factual accounts of the events, and then used as evidence by conspiracy theorists as they built these theories. And a few were referenced for their denials of these theories. Below are examples of each, to give you a sense of how tweets referenced external domains.

Supporting: The tweet below links to an article in the WorldTruth.tv domain which claims that witness accounts of multiple gunmen (which conflict with the official account) suggest that the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting is some sort of false flag. Contradictory and dynamic information — typical of the fog-of-war type situations that occur after crisis events — is often used as “evidence” to support alternative narratives of these events.

As Evidence: The tweet below claims that one of the witnesses to the Orlando shooting is an actor and that the shootings were a false flag. This echoes a common theme, which appears across many alternative narratives in our research, that “crisis actors” are used to stage events. The tweet links to an article in the Toronto Star domain which contains a neutral, factual account of the event.

Denying: This tweet links to the New York Times domain — to an article that refutes several different alternative narratives of the Orlando shootings. However, instead of aligning with the arguments in that article, this tweet is accusing the New York Times of being a participant in the conspiracy/hoax/false flag.

[Following Twitter’s rules, I am only providing examples here of tweets that are still publicly available on Twitter. I have also attempted to choose accounts for these examples that seem to intentionally propagate alternative narratives — in other words, I am attempting to avoid calling out individuals/accounts that might be uncomfortable being associated with these ideas.]

Most of the domains cited in the production of alternative narratives were “alternative media” domains, and most of these (68 of 80) were cited (linked-to) in the tweets we collected for content that explicitly supported alternative narratives. As you can see in the graph (Figure 1), the alternative media ecosystem is tightly connected — i.e. the Twitter users who produce alternative narratives often cite several different alternative media domains in their conspiracy theory tweets. The three main hubs in this particular network are VeteransToday.com, BeforeItsNews.com, and NoDisinfo.com, but there are many other alternative media domains that play a significant role in the production of alternative narratives. This alternative media ecosystem (a subset of the larger graph) is the focus of the remainder of this blog.

However, I want to explicitly note and clarify one aspect of the graph: though mainstream media domains like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Fox News appear in the graph, no mainstream media account in this graph hosted any content promoting the alternative narratives we were studying. Instead, they were typically cited in our Twitter data for general content about the event that was later used as “evidence” of a conspiracy. Mainstream media were also cited for corrections of the alternative narratives (sometimes in tweets supporting those corrections, sometimes in tweets contesting them). In the case of the New York Times, the newspaper posted an article explicitly denying alternative narratives of the Orlando shooting event. This denial was then cited several times by those promoting those narratives — as even more evidence for their theory. [This demonstrates a vexing aspect of rumor-correcting in this context — that corrections often backfire.]

The network graph does reveal some mainstream media sites to be more integrated into the alternative media ecosystem. For example, several people who tweet links to VeteransToday.com also tweet links to FoxNews.com, pulling it closer into that part of the graph.

The Role of Botnets in Amplifying Alternative Narratives

These data also provide insight into the effect of automated accounts (botnets) on the data. For example, the most tweeted domain in our data was TheRealStrategy.com. It was tweeted so many times (7436) and connected to so many domains (relative to all other domains) that we had to remove it from the graph. [It was the only highly cited, highly connected media domain we removed.] Examining the temporal patterns (tweets over time) suggests that almost all of the tweets that linked-to this domain were generated by a computer program. That program operated hundreds of different accounts, directing them to tweet out in regular bursts (dozens at the same time). Most often, these tweets linked to TheRealStrategy, but the program also sprinkled in tweets linking to other alternative media domains. Closer analysis revealed many of these Twitter accounts to have similar profile descriptions and to use photos stolen from other people online. This is a very sophisticated botnet that seems to be effectively bringing “real” accounts into its friend/following networks — and primarily propagating conspiracy theories and politicized content.

The InfoWars site was the second-most highly tweeted in our data set (1742 times). Almost all of the tweet activity citing InfoWars came from a coordinated set of accounts — all were similarly named and each sent a single tweet linking to one of two InfoWars articles about different alternative narratives of different shooting events. All of these accounts are now suspended. Though not as sophisticated as TheRealStrategy, this botnet did amplify the content of InfoWars, which was occasionally picked up and retweeted by others.

Political Propaganda: Nationalism vs. Globalism

One of the first things that struck us as we conducted qualitative content analysis on the alternative media domains was the amount of political content on the websites. We attempted to characterize this content, going through several rounds of iteration to try to recognize patterns across the sites and distinguish between different political orientations.

It quickly became clear that the U.S. left (liberal) vs. right (conservative) political spectrum was not appropriate for much of this content. Instead, the major political orientation was towards anti-globalism. Almost always, this orientation was made explicit in the content.

The meaning of globalism varied across the sites. For some websites focused on a U.S. audience, globalism implied a pro-immigrant stance. For more internationally-focused sites, globalism was used to characterize (and criticize) the influence of the U.S. government in other parts of the world. In some of the more conspiracy-focused sites, the term was used to suggest connections to a global conspiracy by rich, powerful people who manipulated the world for their benefit. Globalism was also tied to corporatism — in other words, the ways in which large, multi-national companies exert power over the world. And the term was also connected, implicitly and explicitly, to mainstream media.

In this way, to be anti-globalist could include being anti-mainstream media, anti-immigration, anti-corporation, anti-U.S. government, and anti-European Union. Due to the range of different meanings employed, the sentiment of anti-globalism pulled together individuals (and ideologies) from both the right and the left of the U.S. political spectrum. Disturbingly, much of the anti-globalist content in these alternative media domains was also anti-Semitic — echoing long-lived conspiracy theories about powerful Jewish people controlling world events.

So Many Conspiracy Theories: Crippled Epistemologies, Muddled Thinking, and the Fingerprints of a Disinformation Campaign

Another thing we noticed was both a proliferation and a convergence of different conspiratorial themes. Every domain that hosted an article promoting an alternative narrative of a shooting event also contained content referencing other conspiracy theories — sometimes hundreds of them. They were not all political in nature. We also encountered pseudo-science theories about vaccines, GMOs, and “chemtrails”. Some domains were all about conspiracy theories, but others featured seemingly normal news with conspiracy theories sprinkled in. Through qualitative analysis, we determined 24 alternative media domains to be primarily focused on distributing conspiracy theories and 44 to be primarily focused on communicating a political agenda.

Though there were many different theories spreading through this information ecosystem, we also saw a convergence of themes — some of the same stories appeared on several different domains. Occasionally, the stories seemed largely independent (i.e. different perspectives, different evidence), but often they were essentially copied from one site to another, or a downstream story simply synthesized an article on another site, including lengthy excerpts from the original. Additionally, a few authors seemed to contribute stories to multiple domains in the network.

So, a person seeking information within this ecosystem might encounter an article from one website that synthesized an article from a second website that was originally posted on and copied from a third website. One effect of this is that people seeking information within this space may think they are getting information from many different sources when in fact they are getting information from the same or very similar sources, laundered through many different websites. Sunstein & Vermeule (2009) argue that conspiratorial thinking is related to a “crippled epistemology” and that a significant component of this is a limited and/or slanted information diet (for example, one shaped by a social group). Our research suggests the information dynamics of this alternative media ecosystem, how the same information exists in different forms in different places, may create a false perception of information diversity or triangulation — further complicating this issue of crippled epistemologies.

From another perspective, these properties of the alternative news ecosystem — the proliferation of many and even conflicting conspiracy theories and the deceptive appearance of source diversity — may reflect the intentional use of disinformation tactics. Though we often think of disinformation as being employed to convince us of a specific ideology, in a 2014 article titled “The Menace of Unreality”, Pomerantsev and Weiss describe how Russian disinformation strategies (which they trace back to Lenin) are designed not to convince but to confuse, to create “muddled thinking” within in society. Their strategic argument is that a society who learns it cannot trust information can be easily controlled. It is possible that the current media ecosystem — including the alternative media domains and the social media platforms that help spread links to these domains — is contributing to muddled thinking (a relative or effect perhaps of an crippled epistemology). It is not yet clear if these effects are related to purposeful disinformation campaigns or are just emergent effects of our current information space. It seems researchers have some work to do to both clarify what is happening here and to perhaps think about designing systems that are more resilient to disinformation.

Alternative Media Co-opt Critical Thinking, Facts, and Truth

Perhaps the most vexing finding that emerged from this analysis — especially as we attempt to think of how to help people become better consumers of online information — was what we perceived to be an intentional strategy by many alternative media websites to leverage rhetoric around fake news and critical thinking to further confuse and mislead readers.

Our research shows that rejection of mainstream news is a common theme across alternative media domains. Perhaps it’s a truism to say that alternative media exist in juxtaposition to mainstream media, but what is interesting here is that many alternative media sites have explicitly set themselves up as opposition to mainstream, “corporate” media. They have also seized upon claims of political bias in mainstream media (towards liberal or pro-Western ideologies) and have leveraged those to support their own legitimacy.

Additionally, it seems they have co-opted arguments about media literacy (boyd makes this same argument) and critical thinking. The conversation around “fake news” often ends with statements about teaching people to become better consumers of information — to be skeptical as they educate themselves through encounters with online media. Alternative news sites have appropriated these arguments and are using them to support the propagation of alternative narratives and other conspiracy theories.

Consider the text below, an excerpt from the About page of the 21stCenturyWire.com domain:

21stCenturyWire.com is a typical domain in our network graph, positioned in the upper left corner (of Figure 1) and strongly connected to both NoDisinfo and VeteransToday (which both spread strong anti-Semitic content). 59 tweets in our collection linked to this domain, referencing multiple articles explicitly supporting alternative narratives about several mass shootings, including claims that both the Dallas police shootings and the Orlando nightclub shootings were staged events. However, the conspiratorial focus of this domain extended far beyond alternative narratives of shootings. Domain content supported a wide range of conspiratorial themes, with articles promoting claims about vaccines causing autism, government-engineered weather events, George Soros-backed anti-Trump protests, and pedophile rings operated by powerful people. Through our analysis of domain content, we also determined 21stCenturyWire to be strongly supportive of Russian political interests (another prominent theme in our data).

The domain is owned and operated by Patrick Henningsen, a journalist who has worked for RT news, Guardian.co.uk, GlobalResearch.ca, and Infowars.com. Perhaps not surprisingly, all of these domains are nodes in our graph.

Examining the About page of 21stCenturyWire, you can see how the site leverages the (somewhat techno-utopian) rhetoric of freedom of information and citizen-journalism — explicitly encouraging readers to use their own “critical thinking” skills while implicitly complimenting them on those skills and perhaps activating a sense of confidence in their abilities. You can handle this. We’ll give you the facts and you can decide for yourself! The site also claims to be outside both corporate and government control. The first claim represents a somewhat natural counter-positioning — i.e. alternative media against corporate-controlled mainstream media. But the second claim is somewhat disingenuous, as the domain often hosts content that is cross-posted to RT — formerly Russia Today, a media outlet funded and largely controlled by the Russian government.

This kind of positioning of alternative media was typical for the domains we examined. Below is another example, this one from the Purpose & Goals page of the NoDisinfo.com domain:

Notice the language emphasizing how this website provides “facts”. It allows people to “make up their own minds”. Its purpose is to unravel “deception and disinformation”. This framing is likely very intentional, claiming to be presenting unadulterated “truth” and empowering users to perhaps feel that they are discovering that truth within this domain. And users can find all kinds of truth (in the form of conspiracy theories) here — from 9–11 trutherism to claims about possibly apocalyptic effects of the Fukishima nuclear disaster being purposefully obscured by mainstream media.

Summary and Conclusion

This research attempted to take a systematic approach to unpacking the alternative media ecosystem. We focused on “alternative narratives” of crisis events and utilized Twitter data to map the structure of the alternative media ecosystem that drives these narratives. Through content analysis, we found these domains to collectively host many different types of conspiracy theories — from politically-themed narratives about the “New World Order” to anti-vaccine arguments. In this “virtual” world, the Sandy Hook School shootings were staged by crisis actors and the earth is actually flat after all.

We determined a large portion of the content on this network to be political propaganda. For the most part, this political propaganda was focused around “anti-globalism”. This term was used to designate different things in different domains (and even in different articles within the same domains) — e.g. anti-immigration, anti-Western imperialism, anti-corporation, anti-media. Disturbingly, there were also strong currents of antisemitism (sometimes explicit, sometimes less so) across a subsection of this ecosystem. Taken together, these positions seem aligned with and used in support of the rise of nationalist ideologies in the U.S. and elsewhere.

We also noted how the structure of the alternative media ecosystem and the content that is hosted and spread there suggest the use of intentional disinformation tactics — meant to create “muddled thinking” and a general mistrust in information.

Because the underlying in data in this analysis are limited (to tweets about shooting events), future work will be needed to A) assess the broader alternative media ecosystem (our data limited us to a very specific view); and B) determine how influential these media and their messages are on U.S. and global perspectives of world events and science. However, it is clear that information shared within this seemingly fringe information ecosystem is entering the public sphere at large.

When we conducted this analysis in December, many of these alternative news domains were beginning to appropriate the term “fake news” to deflect attacks back onto the mainstream media. Weeks later, newly inaugurated U.S. President Trump echoed this refrain, publicly stating (even tweeting) that various mainstream media outlets and particular stories were “fake news”. Other information trajectories from alternative media websites to public statements by the Trump administration have been identified (e.g. the recent wiretapping claims), and though this does not imply causation, it does indicate a connection between the alternative media ecosystem and the U.S. President. The appointment of Steve Bannon to Trump’s cabinet underscores this connection as well. Before his appointment to Trump’s campaign, Bannon ran Breitbart news, an alternative media website that appears in our data — and one that we determined to have a strong anti-globalist perspective. Indeed, Bannon’s recent comments at the Republican CPAC meeting make this ideological orientation explicit.

While criticizing the mainstream media, Bannon said this: “They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has.”

This comment summarizes a great deal of the research we did, demonstrating how criticism of mainstream media (practically etched into the DNA of alternative media) is aligned with a political agenda of anti-globalism in favor of nationalism, and how that agenda is connected to the political orientations and goals of the Trump administration. Perhaps the main contribution of our research is merely to point out that these ideologies are spread within an alternative media ecosystem that utilizes conspiracy theories like Sandy Hook hoax claims and old anti-Semitic narratives to attract readers and support this spread. And that these alternative media websites aren’t focused solely on U.S. far-right or alt-right content, but are also using alt-left content to pull readers into this information ecosystem and the ideologies spreading there.

Most importantly, this work suggests that Alex Jones is indeed a prophet. Seriously, as I read through dozens of these alternative media websites and dug DEEP into their content, I realized that there is an indeed an information war being waged. Three years ago, our lab decided these conspiracy theories were too marginal and salacious to be the focus of our research. Almost that it was beneath our dignity to pay attention to and promote this kind of content. What a terrible mistake that was. It seems to me that we were the only ones who made it. It is (past) time we attend to this (as researchers and designers of the systems that conduct this content). I hope it is not too late.

[Here is a list of the domains that appear in our network graph. Please note that the qualitative coding was done through iterative, interpretive content analysis. It is possible that others may perceive that a different determination (or set of categories) would be better for some of these domains. Please let me know if you feel that there is a systematic coding error or unrecognized pattern in the data, as this work is ongoing and I’d love to be able to incorporate your insights. Thank you.]

 

 

 

Posted in Civil Society, Dissemination, Media | Leave a comment

Super Heroes, Super Buddies

here_are_24_of_the_weeks_best_photos_-_the_washington_post

Coincidentally, the following opinion piece by Alexandra Petri in this morning’s Washington Post provide a good extended caption for the Super Heroes photo above, from yesterday’s Post . . . . .


ComPost

Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon: A love story

  February 23
NATIONAL HARBOR — Reince Priebus and Stephen K. Bannon definitely get along. Everything you have heard about their relationship, says Priebus, is wrong. If you have heard that they are slowly engaged in a battle to the death, that is definitely not true. That is their, uh, belligerent chemistry. They are like brothers, Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Nam, just regular brothers.

They are the best of friends, like Frog and Toad, or even Bert and Ernie, if you catch them on the right evening. They talk all night until they fall asleep, holding hands. This is what they told New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi:

“We talk a lot, pretty much all day long,” Priebus said. “And then we communicate at night —”

“Until we fall asleep,” Bannon interjected with a laugh.

Priebus cut in, “Until somebody falls asleep … You fell asleep last night.”

“I did,” Bannon said.

“I think, like, a quarter to 11,” Priebus added.

“I did,” Bannon said.

“He became unresponsive,” Priebus laughed.

Also, they give each other back rubs.

They are like Kirk and Spock, except that the only people writing fanfiction about their relationship are the two of them, together, every time they speak to the media — for instance, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in conversation with Matt Schlapp.

Stephen hates it when people insult his good buddy, Reince. When his old employee Matt Boyle published an anti-Priebus story on Breitbart.com, a website that Bannon is deeply ashamed of, has nothing to do with and is definitely not speaking to now, he was INFURIATED and reportedly made a very strongly-worded phone call to yell at him. Nobody treats his Reince Priebus that way! His Reince is a cinnamon roll who must be protected at all costs. He did not leak the story. No way, no sir, no how! He definitely did not give Reince the nickname “Rancid.” When would he have had time? They are talking to each other every minute of every day. They are holding hands right now, just to hold hands, not because that leaves one less hand free for stabbing in the back. They would never! They would stab one another in the front or not at all.

Really, this is a love story.

What do they love about each other? So, so many things. Priebus loves Bannon’s clothes. “I love how many collars he wears,” he told everyone at CPAC, batting gently at Bannon’s collar. “Interesting look.” Ha, ha, ha, ha!

If anything, they doth not protest enough.

CPAC showcased the exciting chemistry that fans of the Priebus-Bannon franchise have come to look forward to on each media outing. They love to laugh and touch. They are so comfortable with one another. More comfortable than anyone. Their friendship is as slouchy and comfortable as every garment that Bannon has ever put on his body. They are closer than any human beings have ever been, like Holmes and Watson, or a crocodile and a bird that lives in the crocodile’s mouth and cleans its teeth.

They do not share a vision of nationalism based on a certain “culture,” but they do share … an office, with a fireplace and comfy sofas.

They are different, as Bannon acknowledges, but that is just why they work so well together. They complement each other and compliment each other. Bannon is a pile of creepy nationalist conspiracy theories concealed under a big raincoat who made Breitbart the platform for the alt-right (his words, not mine), whereas Priebus is … a human man from the great state of Wisconsin. Why did Donald Trump win? Bannon says it is because America is bound by a certain “culture” and nationalism, in opposition to the media, which he kept cavalierly referring to as the “opposition party.” Priebus says he talked to his neighbor in Kenosha, and his neighbor thought Trump was just great.

And they have so many nice things to say about each other! Kind of!

“He’s very dogged,” Priebus says, “incredibly loyal.” Also “extremely consistent” and “someone that I work with every second of the day.” Are these compliments? They sound like a plea for help. When I try to compliment people, I usually say things like “I cannot stop him” and “He will not change” and “He is like a Roomba that has gone feral, and I cannot escape him no matter how I try.”

“Very important to have in the White House,” Priebus says.

“I’ve been running a little hot on occasion,” Bannon acknowledged, mildly. But he is not there to talk about his expansive vision for “deconstruction of the administrative state” or his enmity for the media, “the opposition party,” or how excited he is to be invited to CPAC after being among the uninvited for so long.

No, he is there to offer mild, back-handed compliments to Reince Priebus. “Reince is indefatigable… He’s always kind of steady… Reince is indefatigable.” The man is NON-STOP! (I know that Stephen Bannon appreciates this reference, because he quipped during the same panel that the campaign was “outgunned, outmanned” and now we must burn all our “Hamilton” references and fumigate the house.)

“Time for a group hug!” moderator Schlapp suggested.

Anyway, those sound like people who love the other person and are not waiting for the other party to blink. (Please blink, oh god, Reince Priebus just wants to go to bed, but what if Stephen Bannon does something when he is asleep? Stephen fall asleep please, oh, God, how many more years of this? Will Reince ever see Kenosha again?) Nothing like that. They are fine. Fine, and very much in love. There is no music to Reince Priebus’s ears like the sweet sound of Stephen Bannon’s voice, which he hears every day, all day from dawn until night. There is no smile that so warms the cockles of Stephen Bannon’s heart like Reince Priebus’s smile when Stephen does one of those classic things he does, like rail against the “corporate, globalist media” or praise Trump as the best rally speaker since William Jennings Bryan. In the chaos of the early days in the White House when no one knew what light switch to use, their hands brushed gently and they smiled. They do not need light. They have each other.

They are two different men, but their bond is unbreakable. They have tried. But when they threw it in the fire hoping to destroy it, like the One Ring, nothing happened. It is Mount Doom or nothing.

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