Thursday, March 29, 2018

Is Facebook A Frankenstein?

The Frankenstein monster was an unintended consequence.  The intent of his creator was to make humans immortal.  One could say the same thing about Einstein's discoveries that led to the atomic bomb.  Facebook may also be a potential Frankenstein.  It was developed at Harvard so that students could learn more about other students that might be dating material.  It quickly spread from Harvard to other colleges.  Today it is a business provides free services to users so that Facebook can turn the information, that users provide with every click, into information that makes it easier for advertisers to target the ads that they place on Facebook. That is what Facebook's business is all about.  Providing a free service to users produced $20 billion of net revenue to Facebook.  That has been good for Facebook but it may not be good for its users or for society.

Facebook understands that it may have violated individual privacy rights by selling information about you to potential advertisers.  It has a hard time dealing with a different problem: it has created a monster that is harmful to society.  In a sense, Facebook and other social media, which have a similar business model, have been harmful to the democratic process as well.  It has been used to suppress voting by minorities in our recent elections, and it has provided an inexpensive way to distribute fake information to potential voters whose clicks on Facebook are used to target them. 

Facebook claims that it is taking actions to protect the privacy rights of its users. This flies in the face of its business model.  It is in the business of selling user data to advertisers.  Actions that it takes to restrict access to user data makes it less attractive to advertisers.  Actions that it might take to limit disinformation programs runs against its defense of freedom of expression.  Facebook does not want to devote the resources that would be required so that it can behave like our major media which have to protect their reputation for being honest brokers of information.  It is being used as weapon by autocrats use it in surveillance and as a disinformation tool.

Why Repealing The Second Amendment Is Not The Solution

The second amendment to the Constitution does not limit the ability of government to regulate the distribution and type of guns.  The NRA has convinced some of our citizens that efforts to regulate the guns violates their constitutional rights.  That is nonsense and the protesters who marched against guns understand that.  They said nothing about the second amendment.  They focused on the real problem.  The NRA and other super rich supporters of NRA have prostituted many of our politicians. The only workable solution is to vote the prostitutes out of office.

This article, by a constitutional lawyer,  describes government regulations that have been used to regulate guns and that the second amendment does not protect the rights of citizens to possess military weapons like those that have been used in many mass shootings.  Moreover,  many citizens enjoy using guns for hunting and other forms of recreation.  Their rights should be protected while government deals with the use of weapons that are socially harmful.

How Donald Trump Won The Election

The answer to the above question is that Trump's policies were more appealing to working class whites than Hillary Clinton's policies.  Clinton won the majority of votes from college educated whites, especially among women.  However, there are fewer college educated whites in the electorate than whites without college degrees.  Moreover, the strong anti-immigrant sentiment among non college educated whites was a critical factor that allowed Trump to win very close elections in several rust belt states that typically vote for democrats.  College educated whites are more supportive of immigration and Clinton campaigned to win their votes.  She won their votes but her policies were diametrically opposed to those of non college educated white voters. Republicans are losing college educated white voters while Clinton lost the votes of the larger non- college educated white segment of the electorate.

The social media also played a powerful role in the 2016 election.  It made it easier to target angry white voters without college degrees; it also facilitated the use of disinformation programs that focused on cultural issues in addition to economic issues that worry less educated white voters. 

This article also makes a powerful case against the use of exit polls to analyze the results of elections. Political scientists never use them because they do not accurately account for the results.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

How Facebook Helps Crooked Merchants Find The Suckers

The social media are receiving a lot of unwanted attention because firms like Cambridge Analytica exploited Facebook's system to find suckers in US elections.  This article describes the system that crooked merchants use to find suckers for products that don't work.  Facebook receives around $40 billion per year from ads placed on Facebook. Most of the ads are from legitimate firms who sell real products.  However, many of the ads placed on Facebook are for products that make false promises about products.  Most users of Facebook do not fall for the ads, but smart crooks have found ways to use Facebook's algorithms to locate potential suckers for their ads.  One example is described in this article.  It shows an ad that features Elon Musk.  The ad claims that Musk uses a pill that makes him smart.  Suckers who fall for the ad usually sign up for one months supply, but the agreement also includes a recurrent monthly payment on their credit card.  The pill, of course does not make them smarter but their credit card company will honor the charges for recurring monthly charges.  Facebook is full of ads from marketing affiliates who create the ads and receive a share of each purchase.  Facebook makes an effort to discover and suspend crooked marketing affiliates.  However, the marketing affiliates have learned how to work around Facebook's security measures.  They reappear with new names.  There is an useful graphic in this article that illustrates how merchants sell fake products through crooked marketing affiliates by using Facebook's algorithms to locate the suckers.  A very successful operator summed up his operation succinctly: He said that he got rich sucking money out of the pockets of poor Facebook users.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Two Views On Triump's National Security Team And A Search For An Explanation

Donald Trump selected John Bolton as his National Security Adviser.  He teams up with Mike Pompeo who replaced Rex Tillerson as the head of the State Department.  They are both hawks.  Two analysts on PBS debate Trump's selection of Bolton on this video.  One analyst explains why Bolton is the worse possible choice and the other explains why Bolton was a good choice for Trump.  It is a fairly straight forward debate between two analysts who have different views about the key role the national security adviser.  One believes that he should be an advocate, the other argues that he should help the president to choose between a variety of options that are available to him.  It is an interesting discussion but it may be off point.  Trump has been devoting much of his attention to defusing the Mueller investigation which could lead to impeachment.  Trump could easily end that threat by deciding to use military force to reduce a perceived threat from abroad.  Mueller's investigation of President Trump may not affect Trump's position as our commander in chief during a military engagement.  That could become Trump's last resort if he perceives the knot tightening around his neck from the Mueller investigation.  Trump has a history of using extreme solutions to many of the threats that he has faced in the operation of his businesses and in his personal life.  Nothing is beyond him when he feels threatened.

Friday, March 23, 2018

John Bolton's Super PAC Was Client Of Cambridge Analytica

Trump's nominee to replace McMaster as National Security advisor operated a  PAC in 2014 that was funded by the billionaire Robert Mercer.  Bolton hired Cambridge Analytica, which was also funded by Mercer, to develop voter profiles for his PAC in the 2014 elections.  Mercer also was a major contributor to Trump's presidential campaign which also employed Cambridge Analytica for its digital marketing campaign under Jared Kushner.  The Mercer family, along with a list of billionaire contributors with a far right agenda, had a major role in electing Donald Trump who presented himself as president who would serve the interests of ordinary citizens. My guess is that the Mercer family will be better served by Trump than his populist base.  Bolton was an excellent choice for Mercer who operates behind the curtain in Trump's wonderland.  He will work well with Pompeo who replaced Tillerson as Secretary of State,  They are both far right hawks.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

An Insiders Account Of How Cambridge Analytica Influenced Elections

Christ Wylie, the researcher director of SCL tells his story about how Cambridge Analytica (CA) evolved from SCL to provide it with an American brand.  Rebeca Mercer, the daughter of the billionaire hedge fund operator Robert Mercer, was the president of CA, and Steve Bannon was the vice president.  Richard Nix was the COO.  Mercer was particularly pleased with the results of the 2014 mid term elections in which Republicans, using information provided by CA,  did very well.  Many of the themes, were eventually used in the Trump campaign under Steve Bannon who became Trump's campaign manager in 2016.

CA hired a Russian American psychologist, Aleksandr Kogan, to use his personality test on Facebook users.  270,000 Facebook users took the test.  They also, unknowingly, provided CA with information on tens of millions of their Facebook friends. The data from Kogan's personality test were used by the Trump Campaign.  The data may also have found its way into Russia.  Kogan made regular trips to Russia and CA had briefed the Russian oil company Lukoil on the results of its research on American voters.

The rest of this article is about the issues that Wylie has had with Facebook about the use of user data that Facebook had asked him to delete.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Creation Of Donald Trump By The Mercer Family And Steve Bannon

The Mercer family used part of its billions to create Donald Trump.  During the GOP primaries it supported Ted Cruz.  It switched its support to Trump after Cruz lost important state primaries.  The Mercer family invested in a British data firm that became known as Cambridge Analytica in order to build a populist political organization.  Steve Bannon, who became Trump's campaign manager during the general election, was in charge of using Cambridge Analytica to test populist messages that would appeal to young white conservatives in the US.  They identified the ideas of "the deep state" and the "drain the swamp" message which became central to the Trump campaign.  They also found that anti-immigration messages, anti globalism messages, and certain types of racist messages, appealed to white Americans with a populist leaning.  Donald Trump rode those messages to the White House.

The messages that Trump used to win the election were primarily campaign messages for his base.  He liked them as long as they worked with his base, but he ended up filling the swamp with establishment Republicans who are more interested in cutting taxes for the rich, deregulation, and cutting spending on social welfare programs.  Steve Bannon became an outsider in the White House and he was eventually removed from his powerful position.  He returned to his position as the head of Breitbart News.  He eventually made the mistake of criticizing Donald Trump and the Mercer family, which owns Breitbart News,  replaced him with a Trump loyalist.  Bannon is now promoting his populist ideology in Europe.

Fox News Analyst Resigns From "Progaganda Network"

Fox News is our largest cable news network.  It has built its market share by presenting itself as a conservative network which distinguishes itself from the "liberal" mainstream media.  A retired US Army colonel who has had long history as a Fox commentator on foreign policy and military issues resigned from his position.  In his letter, which was obtained by the NYT, he said that Fox is no longer a conservative news network.  He said that it has become a propaganda network for the Trump administration.  It has joined with the Trump administration in attacking institutions that he has worked with for many years and which he supports.  The Fox attack is against a fictitious "deep state" which includes the FBI, along with US intelligence agencies and other democratic institutions.  The intent is to insulate Trump from evidence and findings which may implicate him in wrong doing.  Fox does this by ignoring evidence from respectable sources and by helping Trump to construct a misleading counter narrative by selecting guest speakers who share Trump's conspiracy theories.

Most of us are not surprised by his views on Fox News and its popular crew which are expert at building an audience by advancing conspiracy theories which are attractive to its target market.  It was somewhat surprising that this critique of Fox News came from a conservative hawk who has been with the network for many years.  He has witnessed the transformation of Fox News from a conservative network to its present state as part of the Trump administration.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Trump, And Perhaps Russia

Billions of people around the world are provided with a free service by Facebook.  The service allows users to stay in touch with friends and relatives and it enables some users to enjoy the Facebook megaphone.  They can voice their opinions about almost any topic and share their views with friends.  Facebook has not, however, become worth billions by providing a free service.  It makes billions by selling the information that users provide by using the free service.  Cambridge Analytica is in the business of farming the data that users provide about themselves and their friends simply by using the free service.  They profile the users, and their friends, and sell the profiles to advertisers and others who use the profiles for a variety of purposes.  Jared Kushner was in charge of Trump's digital marketing campaign.  He employed Cambridge Analytica to provide profiles of Facebook users that were used to target voters with messages based upon the profiles provided by Cambridge Analytica which is owned by the Mercer family. 50 million Facebook users were profiled by this service.  The Mercer family also funded Steve Bannon's Breitbart News organization.  It would not be surprising if the voter profiles provided to the Trump campaign by Cambridge Analytica found their way to the trolls who were employed by Russia to influence the 2016 election.

Facebook and other social media make their money by selling information to advertisers and others who use the information to target customers.  Billions of users will continue to use Facebook and other social media.  Most users probably don't know that they have consented to allow Facebook to profile them by farming the information that they provide by the actions that they take by using the free services.  What they don't know is that they are also providing information that is used to profile their friends.  Most of this is harmless but the information and services provided by Facebook and other social media has been harmful in our electoral system.  Other potential misuses of the user profiles are discussed in this article.  The conflict between Facebook's business model and the potential for the misuse of the data made available to fuel disinformation services is very real. One its top executives resigned because Facebook executives who manage profits seem willing to ignore the potential misuses of the data provided by users.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Paul Krugman Answers Good Questions About Trump Trade Policy

Paul Krugman was awarded his Nobel Prize in economics for his work on international trade.  He explains why Trump's tariffs cannot bring back lost manufacturing jobs in steel and aluminum without creating job loss in industries that are heavy users of those metals.  His major concern about Trump's presidency is that we will lose our position of leadership in the world.  His article ends on that note.  Trump's trade policies were designed to win elections in the rust belt.  That worked in 2016.  It may not work in 2018 and in 2020.  The Republican loss in the Pennsylvania district that Trump won by 20% in 2016 suggests that many Americans have lost faith in his ideas.

David Brooks argues that Trump is morally bankrupt and he concludes his critique of Trump's takeover of the Republican Party with a conclusion similar to Krugman's critique of Trump's trade policies.  Our international and national leadership is being sacrificed for short term political gain.  David Brooks and Paul Krugman come from very different political worlds.  Brooks has been a Republican intellectual for most of his life, and Krugman wrote a book about why he is a liberal. They both agree that Trump's presidency has been a disaster and that he is the greatest threat to our well being.  Trump's management of his White House staff has also been a failure.  He appointed unqualified candidates to key positions, and the replacements that he is considering must pass his loyalty above all other considerations.  It will not be easy for him to find qualified candidates for top positions after the way that he fired Secretary of State via a tweet. Trump has also decided to fire his National Security Advisor and his EPA chief is campaigning to replace Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Meet Peter Navarro Who Promoted Trump's Trade Policy

Peter Navarro has been a critic of US trade policies,  with a particularly strong focus on China and Germany which have large trade surpluses with the US.  He teamed up with Wilbur Ross, who Trump selected for the top job in the Commerce Department,  to order tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Ross had been a very successful investor.  He had invested in Trump's Jersey City casinos that were failing.   He convinced bankers and other investors to go along with Trump's plan to deal with the failing casino's.  The team of Navarro and Ross convinced Trump to announce his tariff plan against strong opposition from Gary Cohn who announced his resignation as Trump's Chief Economic Advisor.

There has been a lot of criticism in the press about Navarro who is not a top tier economist.  The Wikipedia article I linked above on Navarro provides an excellent overview of Navarro as well as comments by economists and others about the use of tariffs and their relationship to national security issues which Trump used to justify his tariffs.