White nationalists are flocking to genetic ancestry tests. Some don’t like what they find

White nationalists are flocking to genetic ancestry tests. Some don’t like what they find
Aug 16 2017

It was a strange moment of triumph against racism: The gun-slinging white supremacist Craig Cobb, dressed up for daytime TV in a dark suit and red tie, hearing that his DNA testing revealed his ancestry to be only “86 percent European, and … 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.” The studio audience whooped and laughed and cheered. And Cobb — who was, in 2013, charged with terrorizing people while trying to create an all-white enclave in North Dakota — reacted like a sore loser in the schoolyard.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, just wait a minute,” he said, trying to put on an all-knowing smile. “This is called statistical noise.”

Then, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he took to the white nationalist website Stormfront to dispute those results. That’s not uncommon: With the rise of spit-in-a-cup genetic testing, there’s a trend of white nationalists using these services to prove their racial identity, and then using online forums to discuss the results.

But like Cobb, many are disappointed to find out that their ancestry is not as “white” as they’d hoped. In a new study, sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan examined years’ worth of posts on Stormfront to see how members dealt with the news.

It’s striking, they say, that white nationalists would post these results online at all. After all, as Panofsky put it, “they will basically say if you want to be a member of Stormfront you have to be 100 percent white European, not Jewish.”

But instead of rejecting members who get contrary results, Donovan said, the conversations are “overwhelmingly” focused on helping the person to rethink the validity of the genetic test. And some of those critiques — while emerging from deep-seated racism — are close to scientists’ own qualms about commercial genetic ancestry testing.

Panofsky and Donovan presented their findings at a sociology conference in Montreal on Monday. The timing of the talk — some 48 hours after the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — was coincidental. But the analysis provides a useful, if frightening, window into how these extremist groups think about their genes.

Reckoning with results

Stormfront was launched in the mid-1990s by Don Black, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His skills in computer programming were directly related to his criminal activities: He learned them while in prison for trying to invade the Caribbean island nation of Dominica in 1981, and then worked as a web developer after he got out. That means this website dates back to the early years of the internet, forming a kind of deep archive of online hate.

To find relevant comments in the 12 million posts written by over 300,000 members, the authors enlisted a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, to search for terms like “DNA test,” “haplotype,” “23andMe,” and “National Geographic.” Then the researchers combed through the posts they found, not to mention many others as background. Donovan, who has moved from UCLA to the Data & Society Research Institute, estimated that she spent some four hours a day reading Stormfront in 2016. The team winnowed their results down to 70 discussion threads in which 153 users posted their genetic ancestry test results, with over 3,000 individual posts.

About a third of the people posting their results were pleased with what they found. “Pretty damn pure blood,” said a user with the username Sloth. But the majority didn’t find themselves in that situation. Instead, the community often helped them reject the test, or argue with its results.

Some rejected the tests entirely, saying that an individual’s knowledge about his or her own genealogy is better than whatever a genetic test can reveal. “They will talk about the mirror test,” said Panofsky, who is a sociologist of science at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. “They will say things like, ‘If you see a Jew in the mirror looking back at you, that’s a problem; if you don’t, you’re fine.’” Others, he said, responded to unwanted genetic results by saying that those kinds of tests don’t matter if you are truly committed to being a white nationalist. Yet others tried to discredit the genetic tests as a Jewish conspiracy “that is trying to confuse true white Americans about their ancestry,” Panofsky said.


Silicon Valley escalates its war on white supremacy despite free speech concerns

Silicon Valley escalates its war on white supremacy despite free speech concerns
By Tracy Jan and Elizabeth Dwoskin
Aug 16 2017

Silicon Valley significantly escalated its war on white supremacy this week, choking off the ability of hate groups to raise money online, removing them from Internet search engines, and preventing some sites from registering at all.

The new moves go beyond censoring individual stories or posts. Tech companies such as Google, GoDaddy and PayPal are now reversing their hands-off approach about content supported by their services and making it much more difficult for alt-right organizations to reach mass audiences.

But the actions are also heightening concerns over how tech companies are becoming the arbiters of free speech in America. And in response, right-wing technologists are building parallel digital services that cater to their own movement.

Gab.ai, a social network for promoting free speech, was founded in August 2016 by Silicon Valley engineers alienated by the region’s liberalism. Other conservatives have founded Infogalactic, a Wikipedia for the alt-right, as well as crowdfunding tools Hatreon and WeSearchr. The latter was used to raise money for James Damore, a white engineer who was fired after criticizing Google’s diversity policy.

“If there needs to be two versions of the Internet so be it,” Gab.ai tweeted Wednesday morning. The company’s spokesman, Utsav Sanduja, later warned of a “revolt” in Silicon Valley against the way tech companies are trying to control the national debate.

“There will be another type of Internet who is run by people politically incorrect, populist, and conservative,” Sanduja said.

Some adherents to the alt-right — a fractious coalition of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and those opposed to feminism — said in interviews they will press for the federal government to step in and regulate Facebook and Google, an unexpected stance for a movement that is skeptical of government meddling.

“Doofuses in the conservative movement say it’s only censorship if the government does it,” said Richard Spencer, an influential white nationalist. “YouTube and Twitter and Facebook have more power than the government. If you can’t host a website or tweet, then you effectively don’t have a right to free speech.”

He added “social networks need to be regulated in the way the broadcast networks are. I believe one has a right to a Google profile, a Twitter profile, an accurate search … We should start conceiving of these thing as utilities and not in terms of private companies.”

The censorship of hate speech by companies passes constitutional muster, according to First Amendment experts. But they said there is a downside of thrusting corporations into that role.

Silicon Valley firms may be ill-prepared to manage such a large societal responsibility, they added. The companies have limited experience handling these issues. They must answer to shareholders and demonstrate growth in users or profits — weighing in on free speech matters risks alienating large groups of customers across the political spectrum.


China and India are dangerously close to military conflict in the Himalayas

China and India are dangerously close to military conflict in the Himalayas
By Annie Gowen and Simon Denyer
Aug 17 2017

As nuclear posturing between North Korea and the United States rivets the world, a quieter conflict between India and China is playing out on a remote Himalayan ridge — with stakes just as high.

For the past two months, Indian and Chinese troops have faced off on a plateau in the Himalayas in tense proximity, in a dispute prompted by moves by the Chinese military to build a road into territory claimed by India’s close ally, Bhutan.

India has suggested that both sides withdraw, and its foreign minister said in Parliament that the dispute can be resolved only by dialogue.

Yet China has vociferously defended the right it claims to build a road in the Doklam area, land it also claims.

Since the dispute began, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has issued an angry stream of almost daily denunciations of India and its “illegal trespass” and “recklessness,” along with demands that New Delhi withdraw its troops “if it cherishes peace.”

Incursions and scuffles between the two countries have long occurred along India and China’s 2,220-mile border — much of which remains in dispute — although the respective militaries have not fired shots at each other in a half-century.

Analysts say that this most recent dispute is more worrisome because it comes at a time when relations between the two nuclear-armed powers are declining, with China framing the issue as a direct threat to its territorial integrity. For the first time, such a conflict involves a third country — the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

And the potential for dangerous clashes elsewhere on the rugged mountainous border remains real, analysts say. Indian and Chinese patrols jostled each other and exchanged blows Tuesday morning by a lake in the Ladakh region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, according to local reports.

“It would be very complacent to rule out escalation,” said Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It’s the most serious crisis in India-China relations for 30 years.”

The standoff also reflects an expanding geopolitical contest between Asia’s most populous nations. As China fortifies islands in the South China Sea and exerts its influence through ambitious infrastructure projects throughout the continent, its dominance of Asian affairs is growing, as is its unwillingness to brook rivals. India is seen by some as the last counterbalance.

“The most significant challenge to India comes from the rise of China, and there is no doubt in my mind that China will seek to narrow India’s strategic space by penetrating India’s own neighborhood. This is what we see happening,” former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran said recently at an event in New Delhi.

The incident began in mid-June, when a crew from the People’s Liberation Army, the PLA, entered a remote plateau — populated largely by Bhutanese shepherds — with earth-moving and other equipment and “attempted to build a road,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

They were confronted by a Royal Bhutan Army patrol; Indian soldiers pitched tents there two days later. India and Bhutan — a country of just under 800,000 — have long had a special relationship that includes military support and $578 million in aid to Bhutan.


The Uber Dilemma

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

The Uber Dilemma
By Ben Thompson
Aug 14 2017

By far the most well-known “game” in game theory is the Prisoners’ Dilemma. Albert Tucker, who formalized the game and gave it its name in 1950, described it as such:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

• If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
• If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
• If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

The dilemma is normally presented in a payoff matrix like the following:

What makes the Prisoners’ Dilemma so fascinating is that the result of both prisoners behaving rationally — that is betraying the other, which always leads to a better outcome for the individual — is a worse outcome overall: two years in prison instead of only one (had both prisoners behaved irrationally and stayed silent). To put it in more technical terms, mutual betrayal is the only Nash equilibrium: once both prisoners realize that betrayal is the optimal individual strategy, there is no gain to unilaterally changing it.


What, though, if you played the game multiple times in a row, with full memory of what had occurred previously (this is known as an iterated game)? To test what would happen, Robert Axelrod set up a tournament and invited fourteen game theorists to submit computer programs with the algorithm of their choice; Axelrod described the winner in The Evolution of Cooperation:

TIT FOR TAT, submitted by Professor Anatol Rapoport of the University of Toronto, won the tournament. This was the simplest of all submitted programs and it turned out to be the best! TIT FOR TAT, of course, starts with a cooperative choice, and thereafter does what the other player did on the previous move…

Analysis of the results showed that neither the discipline of the author, the brevity of the program—nor its length—accounts for a rule’s relative success…Surprisingly, there is a single property which distinguishes the relatively high-scoring entries from the relatively low-scoring entries. This is the property of being nice, which is to say never being the first to defect.

This is the exact opposite outcome of a single-shot Prisoners’ Dilemma, where the rational strategy is to be mean; when you’re playing for the long run it is better to be nice — you’ll make up any short-term losses with long-term gains.


New on This Fall’s Law School Syllabus: Trump

[Note:  This item comes from friend Geoff Goodfellow.  DLH]

New on This Fall’s Law School Syllabus: Trump
Aug 14 2017

President Trump is transforming the study of constitutional law.

The nation’s law professors have spent the summer revising their courses to take account of a president who generates fresh constitutional questions by the tweet. When classes start in the coming weeks, law students will be studying more than dusty doctrine. They will also be considering an array of pressing questions.

When is firing a subordinate to thwart an investigation obstruction of justice? Can a sitting president be indicted? Can the president pardon himself? May he accept financial benefits from foreign governments? Are his campaign statements evidence of religious bias? Must Congress authorize a nuclear strike against North Korea?

“It would be easy to design a whole course or write an entire book about the constitutional issues raised in just the first six months of the Trump presidency,” said Jay D. Wexler, a law professor at Boston University.

Constitutional scholars sounded both anxious and energized by these developments.

“Teaching the Constitution has never felt more urgent, like unraveling a mix of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but with the highest possible stakes,” said Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard and vocal critic of Mr. Trump, who also represents plaintiffs challenging foreign payments to Mr. Trump’s companies. Many law professors, including several quoted in this column, have signed briefs opposing Mr. Trump’s actions.

Generations of law students have grappled with the same basic issues in their constitutional law classes: the separation of powers, federalism, the Bill of Rights, equal protection, due process. Mr. Trump, a one-man course in constitutional arcana, is supplementing that curriculum with some seldom-examined provisions of the Constitution.

In 2011, Professor Wexler published “The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through 10 of Its Most Curious Provisions.”

At least one of those curious provisions is suddenly salient. Professor Wexler devoted a chapter to the president’s power to bypass the Senate by making recess appointments. Mr. Trump might test that power should he try to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions with someone prepared to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Then there were the clauses that were too obscure even for Professor Wexler.

“I don’t think anyone even knew how to pronounce the word ‘emoluments,’ much less know what it might mean, before Trump took office,” Professor Wexler said. Now there are several lawsuits challenging payments to Mr. Trump’s companies as violations of the Constitution’s two emoluments clauses, which bar federal officials from accepting compensation from foreign governments or payments from the federal government or the states beyond their salaries.


In the future of tech policy, I see CATS

In the future of tech policy, I see CATS
By Chris Riley
Aug 7 2017

The future of internet and technology policy is all about CATS. Yes, cats — the primary driving force for the past, present, and future of awesomeness on the internet — but also CATS, the acronym I’ve coined to talk about tech policy going forward. “CATS” represents the next 2–10 years of complex tech policy debates: Competition, Algorithms, Tracking, and Security. These issues don’t include everything in policy, of course. But as a mnemonic meme, using “CATS” captures key emerging issues where the public conversation is still on a growth curve, where political battle lines haven’t been fully formed, and where we haven’t yet figured out answers or even all of the questions to ask.

Competition policy. A fundamental assumption about the internet is that today’s big companies won’t be the same as tomorrow’s, because the internet is inherently disruptive and self-correcting. That assumption can no longer be taken for granted. Today’s big five companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — will, in all likelihood, still have their industry leading positions in a decade. Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times calls them “a new superclass of American corporate might.” And governments have been paying attention. The European Commission recently levied a $2.7 billion fine on Google over its combination of search dominance and embedded Google Shopping results. This is only the beginning, in Europe (where the Commission has two other open investigations into Google, regarding Android and AdSense) and almost certainly in other regions as well. But the typical antitrust authority toolkit of fines and breakups feels ill-suited to handling this phenomenon. Even substantial fines struggle to resonate against the earnings of these wealthy corporations. And breakups would often result in bad outcomes — users value the integrated services, and they’re certainly successful in the market. New, creative remedies need to be discussed and developed to target protecting the important characteristics of openness online, like interoperability through open APIs and open standards. These conversations are slowly beginning, but they have a long, long ways to go.

Algorithmic or automated decision-making. Machine-driven decision-making processes are taking over many systems formerly presided over by human deciders. Many of these are powered by forms of artificial intelligence, learning and prediction technology initiated by externally supplied data sets. They often bring with them incredible improvements in efficiency and efficacy. But, they also often recreate or even expand problems of bias and discrimination that the earlier human deciders struggled with, resulting in poor and sometimes illegal outcomes. The right outcomes here seem easy: We need a degree of control over machine-based decisions to correct problems when and where they arise. But the seas to that shore travel between a Scylla and Charybdis of technology industry resistance to outside influence on proprietary business methods and data on one side, and policymaker fear of systems they cannot understand on the other. This leads to occasional calls for prophylactic regulation of “algorithms”, a term often used synonymously with “magic.” Getting the right policy balance against such a backdrop will be challenging, to say the least.

Tracking and privacy choices. The deep tension between privacy and business models built on tracking and behavioral advertising remains as potent as ever. Fatalism runs rampant, whether in those who believe privacy is dead or in those who will not stop until all tracking stops (never mind that much of the technical activity that looks like tracking is used for quality of service or other generally non-privacy-invasive objectives). Neither of these views ought to shape the future of the internet. Today’s lucrative business models will not go away tomorrow, and that’s ok; for many users, even if presented with meaningful alternatives, the experience available today would be their choice. But, those who prefer a different experience too often lack that choice. In an ideal future, all relevant businesses would offer options — products and services that do not depend on privacy-invasive tracking. We will need less hyperbole, more constructive conversation, new thinking/innovation in sustainable business models, and effective political pressure if we are to have any hope of getting to that future.


The Guardian view on slavery today: a product of greed, prejudice and war

The Guardian view on slavery today: a product of greed, prejudice and war
There are more people enslaved now than over four centuries of slave-trading. Little wonder as it generates 25 times the profits made two centuries ago. We must act to end this trade in misery
By Editorial Board
Aug 7 2017

It is a terrible and cautionary tale. A young British woman gets duped into a modelling assignment in Milan and is then kidnapped by a gang who it is claimed wanted to auction her to the highest bidder for sex. Behind the tabloid headlines appears a sobering reminder that slavery has not gone away. This appears a case of an attempted trafficking of a UK citizen for sexual exploitation. It is also not a typical story of modern day slavery. Today’s slave tales are about the subjugation of vulnerable, often poor, people who lack basic protections afforded by a functioning legal system. Despite being outlawed in almost every nation, slavery remains a business – and the business of slavery is thriving. It is estimated that between 21 million and 46 million people are enslaved around the world. By comparison about 13 million people were captured and sold as slaves by professional traders between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Slaves today are those coerced to work or to sell their bodies or to part with their organs. They are not strictly chattel or property. Their freedom is constrained. They can be said to be effectively “owned” by an employer and treated as a commodity. They can be construction workers in the Persian Gulf, girls from Nepal trafficked into prostitution in India, or fishermen on Thai ships. Many are young children. Prostitution rings are a form of slavery. Slavery is found in homes, even in the UK, that employ domestic workers.

The reason slavery exists is that we let it – and that it we let it be so profitable. Last week the Guardian revealed research by Siddharth Kara, a US slavery economist, that showed slave traders today make a return on their investment 25 to 30 times higher than their counterparts from more than two centuries ago. With slavery’s global profits estimated at $150bn a year, it is now a criminal industry on a par with arms and drug trafficking. The outlook is bleak. Unrelieved poverty, wars, caste discrimination and gender inequality are fertile ground for slavery. Under-regulated labour markets, where for example workers cannot form trade unions, help to ensure that “wage slaves” have become embedded in –parts of the global economy.

Nations should be prepared to act. As home secretary, Theresa May modernised Britain’s slavery laws, bringing in fines and creating an anti-slavery commissioner. This was a welcome step. As prime minister, Mrs May invoked the spirit of campaigners such as William Wilberforce, who led Britain in the fight against slavery 200 years ago. But she also introduced a visa system tying migrant domestic workers to employers. In the words of one Tory critic this has made the government “complicit” in a form of enslavement. Mrs May’s contradictions do not end there. Her Brexit would mean Britain leaving the jurisdiction of the European court of justice – and limit collaboration with EU states to fight slavers.