Can the US government stem the tide of ‘fake news’ in a postmodern world?

Can the US government stem the tide of ‘fake news’ in a postmodern world?
Facebook faces the task of using its algorithms to fight fake news – but does it know the real problem it’s fighting against?
By Evgeny Morozov
Oct 31 2019

Three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, the moral panic over “fake news” and “post-truth” has not abated. If anything, it has now blossomed into a full-blown culture war. Conservatives insist that their views are suppressed by Facebook and Twitter; progressives accuse the same platforms of not doing enough to crack down on hate speech and foreign manipulation of elections.

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony in US Congress – where politicians competed to deal him the lethal rhetorical blow – doesn’t bode well for Silicon Valley. The Valley’s only savior, at this point, is the Communist Party of China. Only indefinite trade war with China will prevent US lawmakers from regulating the “strategic” tech sector; to break up the industry would weaken Washington’s global standing. The Trump administration is not blind to these risks.

Invoking the Chinese threat has bought the tech companies some time but it won’t work forever. The impending tech bubble is only going to increase everyone’s hatred of Silicon Valley; the calls for action will grow louder. The public humiliations of WeWork and Uber, the former darlings of tech investors, are signs that public tolerance of highfalutin technology platforms (and their leaders) is already running short. More government regulation is, indeed, likely to follow – and stemming the tide of “fake news” would be one of the highest priorities.

But just how strong is that tide? What remains unexamined – in the public debate but also in many academic discussions of “post-truth” – is the background assumption that ours is the time of postmodernism on steroids: a time where no firm truths hold and no single narrative can survive the assault of radically different worldviews grounded in diverse material, cultural, and racial experiences.

To deny that something like this is happening – facilitated by the business models of digital platforms, their algorithmic nudges, and the filter bubbles that result thereof – would be disingenuous. But the fragmentation of truth is only one – and perhaps not the most important part – of the story.

One unappreciated paradox of today’s “digital condition” is that it celebrates post-truth and hyper-truth simultaneously. As narratives get fragmented, allowing competing truths to proliferate, there’s also a concurrent effort to deploy bots, ledgers, and algorithms to produce a singular, objective, and eternal truth.

The first stage of this “objectification” began with Wikipedia. Although the platform could be used to provide multiple readings and interpretations of any subject or phenomenon, a decision was taken that a “community” of editors and writers, armed with trustworthy and reliable sources, would converge upon a single interpretation of history.

While the critics of Wikipedia zeroed in on the fact that it was, in a truly radical manner, democratizing the production of knowledge – everyone could contribute! – they missed a more fundamental, conservative side of the project: while many controversial topics featured lengthy and often bitter discussions among the editors, the front-end presentation often gave no explicit sign of internal disagreement. The controversy and disagreement were, thus, hidden from the average viewer.

Instead, the proliferation of editorial and citational guidelines and regulations on Wikipedia ensured that those rules were presumed to have more say in determining the content of a page than the information supplied by the very subject of the entry. Hence the many curious cases of people complaining that Wikipedia has wrong information about them but they cannot change it as they are not presumed to be “authoritative” sources about themselves. This adherence to rationality and rules is the true modernist part of Wikipedia that has, so far, befuddled many of its observers.

The second stage of the “objectification” of narrative began with the rapid explosion of the blockchain technology. It created the illusion that everything can be embedded in digits and eventually presented, in an unalterable manner, on the “ledger”: the final truth, set in stone, not to be altered by anyone.

Applied to the narrow world of commercial transactions or computer events, this assumption appears harmless. Applied, however, to the more substantial issues – politics, arts, journalism – this “epistemology of the blockchain” creates the rather perverse expectation that, unless and until something has been packaged in a blockchain-friendly way, it must be corrupted by subjectivity, venality, or bias. Subjectivity is the enemy; opacity is sinful.

In other words, we’re starting to see an irony of the “post-truth” world: the democratization of knowledge has been matched by the intensification of the bureaucratic model. This time, however, the human side of bureaucracy is presented as archaic and uncool, to be replaced by “objective” algorithms and ledgers. The one true utopia of this mode of thinking – already glimpsed in places like Singapore or Estonia – is a fully-automated bureaucratic system enforcing the rules with Prussian efficiency.

The digital culture that ensues makes for a very odd beast. Not surprisingly, it’s conducive to the kind of cognitive dissonance feeding the alt-right. On the one hand, in a populist manner reminiscent of Wikipedia, it dispenses with expertise, as everyone is assumed to be equal to everyone else, much like the nodes on the blockchain network (another myth). On the other hand, it intensifies the modernist faith in rules and regulations – and the possibility of finding, by some quantitative means, the single truth, which can then be made available to all, without any intermediation by forces other than technology. If one had to come up with a label for this ideology, “populist modernism” would be quite appropriate.

The contradictions of such a bizarre ideological mix are quite apparent: in dispensing with the experts, it replaces them with faith in “technology” and “progress”. But since such accounts usually lack any meaningful discussion of the political economy of technology (let alone that of progress), they have nowhere to fall back upon to explain historical change. What, after all, drives and shapes all that technology around us?

In such accounts, “technology” is usually just a euphemism for a class of uber-human technologists and scientists, who, in their spare time, are ostensibly saving the world, mostly by inventing new apps and products. The experts, thus, are brought in through the back door, but without any formal acknowledgement (or possibility of democratic contestation). These experts – whether Wikipedia editors or blockchain engineers – are presented as mere appendages to the sheer force of technology and progress, when in reality they’re often its drivers.


Ordinary life has vanished in fire-ravaged California

Ordinary life has vanished in fire-ravaged California
It’s impossible to quantify the losses caused by the Kincade fire
By Rebecca Solnit
Oct 31 2019

There were two categories of people most affected by the fires in California: those who evacuated because the fires threatened them directly and those who stayed home under blackout conditions. What a blackout means might not be clear to those who are not among the more than one million affected. It means, for the most part, no gas stations, no traffic lights, no stores (including grocery stores and pharmacies), no banks or money machines, no charging of devices unless you have alternative power sources, no wifi, in some cases no cellphone towers so no signal, and therefore no internet, even if you managed to keep your phone charged. Landlines were reported to be out in some locations as well, with nearly half a million people totally cut off from communications services.

In other words, there’s not a lot to do but stay home in houses and apartments without the usual amenities, including refrigeration and electric lights, and, for some people, without much contact with the outside world. If you worked in a place where Pacific Gas and Electric cut your power or depended on electricity and internet to do your work, you weren’t working, and if your business was in the blackout area, it was probably closed, and if you had younger children you had to stay home anyway, because the schools were shut too.

It’s impossible to quantify the losses: the fear and stress, all the education that didn’t happen as every place from Sonoma State University to kindergartens closed down, the socially beneficial labor that didn’t happen, the crops and livestock that weren’t tended in agricultural Sonoma and Marin (though in some grim cases, migrant farmworkers were still working in smoky fields). If you were disabled, or dependent on electricity for life support, you faced a whole other level of challenge and might not have been able to shelter in place. Evacuation meant that two-fifths of Sonoma county’s half-million people had to pack up and find someplace else to live for an indeterminate amount of time. Many of them were people who had to evacuate two years ago, or people who had lost their homes in the 2017 fires.

California is the fifth-largest economy in the world and likes to shout about its genius at innovation, but it is a victim of its lack of energy innovation. It’s a climate disaster zone, with the new reality of hotter, dryer conditions made far worse by the outdated power grid and corrupt private corporation in charge of distributing gas and electricity. The longer, drier, hotter weather that climate change has brought us makes the rolling hills and forests of the Bay Area a fire waiting to happen, but PG&E has supplied the spark that started many of the largest fires and is suspected of having done so again with the Kincade fire, which has burned more than 76,000 acres, or more than 117 square miles, in Sonoma county, an area more than twice the size of San Francisco.


Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050, New Research Shows

Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050, New Research Shows
Scientists devised a better way to calculate land elevations and their findings are dire: Far more cities will be inundated by climate change than previously thought.
By Denise Lu and Christopher Flavelle
Oct 29 2019

Rising seas could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought, according to new research, threatening to all but erase some of the world’s great coastal cities.

The authors of a paper published Tuesday developed a more accurate way of calculating land elevation based on satellite readings, a standard way of estimating the effects of sea level rise over large areas, and found that the previous numbers were far too optimistic. The new research shows that some 150 million people are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by midcentury.


‘The climate doesn’t need awards’: Greta Thunberg declines environmental prize

‘The climate doesn’t need awards’: Greta Thunberg declines environmental prize
The teen activist implored politicians and people in power to ‘listen to the best available science’ in an Instagram post
By Agence France-Presse in Stockholm
Oct 29 2019

The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has refused to accept an environmental award, saying the climate movement needed people in power to start to “listen” to “science” and not awards.

The young climate activist, who has rallied millions to her “Fridays for Future” movement, was honoured at a Stockholm ceremony held by the Nordic Council, a regional body for inter-parliamentary cooperation.

She had been nominated for her efforts by both Sweden and Norway and won the organisation’s annual environment prize.

But after it was announced, a representative for Thunberg told the audience that she would not accept the award or the prize sum of 350,000 Danish kroner (about $52,000 or €46,800), the TT news agency reported.

She addressed the decision in a post on Instagram from the United States.

“The climate movement does not need any more awards,” she wrote.

“What we need is for our politicians and the people in power start to listen to the current, best available science.”

While thanking the Nordic Council for the “huge honour”, she also criticised Nordic countries for not living up to their “great reputation” on climate issues.

“There is no lack of bragging about this. There is no lack of beautiful words. But when it comes to our actual emissions and our ecological footprints per capita … then it’s a whole other story,” Thunberg said.

Still only 16 years old, Thunberg rose to prominence after she started spending her Fridays outside Sweden’s parliament in August 2018, holding a sign reading “School strike for climate”.

When recession comes, expect central banks to rewrite the rules

When recession comes, expect central banks to rewrite the rules
Any new downturn will spawn unconventional responses, from helicopter money to ‘bail-ins’ and huge deficits
By Nouriel Roubini
Oct 29 2019

A cloud of gloom hovered over the International Monetary Fund’s annual meeting this month. With the global economy experiencing a synchronised slowdown, any number of tail risks could bring on an outright recession. Among other things, investors and economic policymakers must worry about a renewed escalation in the Sino-American trade and technology war. A military conflict between the US and Iran would be felt globally. The same could be true of “hard” Brexit by the UK or a collision between the IMF and Argentina’s incoming Peronist government.

Still, some of these risks could become less likely over time. The US and China have reached a tentative agreement on a “phase one” partial trade deal, and the US has suspended tariffs that were due to come into effect on 15 October. If the negotiations continue, damaging tariffs on Chinese consumer goods scheduled for 15 December could also be postponed or suspended. The US has also so far refrained from responding directly to Iran’s alleged downing of a US drone and attack on Saudi oil facilities in recent months. The US president, Donald Trump, doubtless is aware that a spike in oil prices stemming from a military conflict would seriously damage his re-election prospects next November.

The UK and the EU have reached a tentative agreement for a “soft” Brexit, and the UK parliament has taken steps at least to prevent a no-deal departure from the EU. But the saga will continue, most likely with another extension of the Brexit deadline and a general election at some point. Finally, in Argentina, assuming that the new government and the IMF already recognise that they need each other, the threat of mutual assured destruction could lead to a compromise.

Meanwhile, financial markets have been reacting positively to the reduction of global tail risks and a further easing of monetary policy by major central banks, including the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the People’s Bank of China. Yet it is still only a matter of time before some shock triggers a new recession, possibly followed by a financial crisis, owing to the large build-up of public and private debt globally.

What will policymakers do when that happens? One increasingly popular view is that they will find themselves low on ammunition. Budget deficits and public debts are already high around the world, and monetary policy is reaching its limits. Japan, the eurozone, and a few other smaller advanced economies already have negative policy rates, and are still conducting quantitative and credit easing. Even the Fed is cutting rates and implementing a backdoor QE programme, through its backstopping of repo (short-term borrowing) markets.

But it is naive to think that policymakers would simply allow a wave of “creative destruction” that liquidates every zombie firm, bank, and sovereign entity. They will be under intense political pressure to prevent a full-scale depression and the onset of deflation. If anything, then, another downturn will invite even more “crazy” and unconventional policies than what we’ve seen thus far.

In fact, views from across the ideological spectrum are converging on the notion that a semi-permanent monetisation of larger fiscal deficits will be unavoidable – and even desirable – in the next downturn. Left-wing proponents of so-called modern monetary theory argue that larger permanent fiscal deficits are sustainable when monetised during periods of economic slack, because there is no risk of runaway inflation.

Following this logic, in the UK, the Labour party has proposed a “People’s QE,” whereby the central bank would print money to finance direct fiscal transfers to households rather than to bankers and investors. Others, including mainstream economists such as Adair Turner, the former chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority, have called for “helicopter drops”: direct cash transfers to consumers through central-bank-financed fiscal deficits. Still others, such as former Fed vice-chair Stanley Fischer and his colleagues at BlackRock, have proposed a “standing emergency fiscal facility”, which would allow the central bank to finance large fiscal deficits in the event of a deep recession.

Despite differences in terminology, all of these proposals are variants of the same idea: large fiscal deficits monetised by central banks should be used to stimulate aggregate demand in the event of the next slump. To understand what this future might look like, we need only look to Japan, where the central bank is effectively financing the country’s large fiscal deficits and monetising its high debt-to-GDP ratio by maintaining a negative policy rate, conducing large-scale QE, and pursuing a 10-year government bond yield target of 0%.


Has the climate crisis made California too dangerous to live in?

Has the climate crisis made California too dangerous to live in?
As with so many things, Californians are going first where the rest of us will follow
By Bill McKibben
Oct 29 2019

Monday morning dawned smoky across much of California, and it dawned scary – over the weekend winds as high as a hundred miles per hour had whipped wildfires through forests and subdivisions.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened – indeed, it’s happened every year for the last three – and this time the flames were licking against communities destroyed in 2017. Reporters spoke to one family that had moved into their rebuilt home on Saturday, only to be immediately evacuated again.

The spectacle was cinematic: at one point, fire jumped the Carquinez Strait at the end of San Francisco Bay, shrouding the bridge on Interstate 80 in smoke and flame.

Even areas that didn’t actually burn felt the effects: Pacific Gas and Electric turned off power to millions, fearful that when the wind tore down its wires they would spark new conflagrations.

Three years in a row feels like – well, it starts to feel like the new, and impossible, normal. That’s what the local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, implied this morning when, in the middle of its account of the inferno, it included the following sentence: the fires had “intensified fears that parts of California had become almost too dangerous to inhabit”. Read that again: the local paper is on record stating that part of the state is now so risky that its citizens might have to leave.

On the one hand, this comes as no real surprise. My most recent book Falter centered on the notion that climate crisis was making large swaths of the world increasingly off-limits to humans. Cities in Asia and the Middle East where the temperature now reaches the upper 120s – levels so high that the human body can’t really cool itself; island nations (and Florida beaches) where each high tide washes through the living room or the streets; Arctic villages relocating because, with sea ice vanished, the ocean erodes the shore.

But California? California was always the world’s idea of paradise (until perhaps the city of that name burned last summer). Hollywood shaped our fantasies of the last century, and many of its movies were set in the Golden State. It’s where the Okies trudged when their climate turned vicious during the Dust Bowl years – “pastures of plenty”, Woody Guthrie called the green agricultural valleys. John Muir invented our grammar and rhetoric of wildness in the high Sierra (and modern environmentalism was born with the club he founded).

California is the Golden State, the land of ease. I was born there, and though I left young enough that my memories are suspect, I grew up listening to my parents’ stories. They’d been newlyweds in the late ’50s, living a block from the ocean in Manhattan Beach; when they got home from work they could walk to the sand for a game of volleyball. Date night was a mile or two up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Lighthouse, the jazz club where giants such as Gerry Mulligan showed up regularly, inventing the cool jazz that defined the place and time. Sunset magazine showcased a California aesthetic as breezy and informal as any on earth: the redwood deck, the cedar-shake roof, the suburban idyll among the eucalyptus and the pine. That is to say, precisely the kinds of homes that today are small piles of ash with only the kidney-shaped pool intact.

Truth be told, that California began to vanish fairly quickly, as orange groves turned into airplane factories and then tech meccas. The great voices of California in recent years – writers such as Mike Davis and Rebecca Solnit – chronicle the demise of much that was once idyllic in a wave of money, consumption, nimbyism, tax dodging, and corporate greed. The state’s been booming in recent years – it’s the world’s fifth biggest economy, bigger than the UK – but it’s also home to tent encampments of homeless people with no chance of paying rent. And it’s not just climate change that’s at fault: California has always had fires, and the state’s biggest utility, PG&E, is at this point as much an arsonist as electricity provider.


Inside the Phone Company Secretly Run By Drug Traffickers

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

Inside the Phone Company Secretly Run By Drug Traffickers
Crime blogger Martin Kok was assassinated while leaving a sex club. It turned out MPC, one of his clients, was not an ordinary phone company.
By Joseph Cox
Oct 22 2019

Martin Kok had already dodged death once that day. As the 49-year-old Dutch convict turned successful crime blogger left a late lunch at an Amsterdam hotel in December 2016, a hooded man ran up to him, aimed a handgun at point blank range at the back of his head, and prepared to pull the trigger.

But either the assassin lost his nerve or the weapon jammed. CCTV footage later revealed the man ran off across the street, nearly getting hit by two cyclists, and disappeared into the city. Kok continued walking, oblivious.

Kok had enemies. On his website Butterfly Crime, Kok covered everyone from biker gangs to Moroccan drug lords. Kok was a killer himself, having been convicted of two murders. But after his life of crime, he focused on writing about the criminal underground, repercussions be damned. Someone had previously placed a bomb under his car that, according to a video made by the Dutch police, was as powerful as 40 hand grenades. He escaped that attempt on his life as well—he found the bomb before it exploded. 

After leaving the hotel, Kok met with an associate named Christopher Hughes, known as “Scotty” for his heavy Scottish accent. Hughes worked for MPC, a company that made special, encrypted phones. MPC marketed these devices to the privacy-conscious, even using black and white portraits of Edward Snowden in advertisements. MPC was sponsoring Butterfly Crime, posting ads and flaunting MPC-branded hats and other memorabilia on the site and its social media. For Kok, it was easy money.

“MPC phone delivers multiple levels of encryption over a closed secure network,” one tweeted advert from the company reads.

Hughes and Kok spent the evening in Boccacio, a sex club on the outskirts of Amsterdam. After their session, and as the puffer-jacket wearing Kok stepped into a Volkswagen Polo, a hooded figure jumped from the dense shrubbery around the parking lot and fired into the Polo, killing Kok. Hughes walked away from the scene, according to CCTV footage previously published by the Dutch police.

MPC, it turned out, was not an ordinary phone company.


All over the world, in Dutch clubs like the one Kok frequented, or Australian biker hangouts and Mexican drug safe houses, there is an underground trade of custom-engineered phones. These phones typically run software for sending encrypted emails or messages, and use their own server infrastructure for routing communications. 

Sometimes the devices have the microphone, camera, and GPS functionality removed. Some also have a dual-boot mode, where powering on the device as normal will show an innocuous menu screen with no sensitive information. But if certain buttons are held down when turning the phone on, it will reveal a secret file system containing the user’s encrypted text messages and other communications. 

With these tweaks, the ordinary methods for law enforcement to intercept messages are cut-off—police can’t simply get an ordinary phone tap or subpoena messages from a company; the texts are typically only available in a readable form on the users’ devices.

A handful of these so-called “encrypted phone” companies exist. Many of them cater and sell to criminals. As Kok, the murdered blogger, wrote on his website in 2015, “I see on various crime sites these things [encrypted phones] are offered for sale because many of their future clients are also criminals. Advertising on a site where bicycles are offered does not make sense for this type of company.”

A British hitman, who prosecutors finally convicted thanks to location data from his fitness device, used an encrypted phone made by a firm called Encrochat. Police found an encrypted BlackBerry when investigating a massive criminal cannabis operation in New York. Phantom Secure sold its devices to members of the infamous Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel, according to the complaint filed against Vincent Ramos, the company’s creator. At the time a source added that Phantom Secure devices have been sold in Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela, as well as to the Hells Angels biker gang.

Crucially, in the Phantom Secure case, prosecutors alleged the company was not incidental to a crime, in the same way Apple or Google may be when criminals use their phones, but instead that the phone was deliberately created to help criminal activity. In May, Ramos was sentenced to nine years in prison after he pleaded guilty to running a criminal enterprise that knowingly facilitated drug trafficking through the sale of these phones. (Multiple sources, including a family member that asked to remain anonymous as well as Ramos’ lawyer, said Ramos set up the company for legitimate uses initially, before falling into the criminal market.)

For MPC, the process of setting up the devices was relatively simple: MPC would take a Google Nexus 5 or Nexus 5X Android phone, and then add its own security features and operating system, according to social media posts from MPC and a source with knowledge of the process. MPC then created the customer’s messaging accounts, added a data-only SIM card (which MPC paid about £20 a month for), and then sold the phone to the customer at £1,200. Six-month renewals cost £700, the source added. MPC only sold around 5,000 phones, the source said, but that still indicates the business netted the company some £6 million. At one point, a version of MPC’s phones also used code from an open-source, security-focused Android fork called CopperheadOS, three sources said. 

On its website, the company advertised security-focused laptops, tablets, and GPS tracking devices.


A Former Facebook Insider on Why It’s So Hard for the Tech Giant to Get Elections Right

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

A Former Facebook Insider on Why It’s So Hard for the Tech Giant to Get Elections Right
The real problem, she says, is the business model.
Oct 25 2019

In 2018, former CIA analyst Yael Eisenstat went to work for Facebook as head of Global Elections Integrity Operations. She had worked in government for many years, including as a national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, but took a job at the tech giant as part of its effort to address election meddling with the hope of helping to address what she sees as our democracy’s “biggest existential threat”: the breakdown of civil discourse. The job did not turn out as planned, and the challenges, in her telling, remain vast.

I spoke to Eisenstat for the first episode of Slate’s new Friday-morning tech podcast, What Next: TBD. Below is a transcript of our interview, edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: How did you come to work at Facebook?

Yael Eisenstat: So, I spent most of my life in the national security world. And it was in about 2015, that I started actually—I mean, I’d left government in 2013—but it started occurring to me in 2015 that a bigger threat in my mind to all the things I had cared about, whether it was democracy, civil discourse, our national security, was no longer coming from this thing abroad that I was working on. And I started thinking it was the breakdown of civil discourse here at home. So I started digging in, and I wrote a piece about exploring the breakdown in civil discourse as our biggest existential threat, and started looking at why that was happening. And I’m not saying social media is the only reason it was happening, but I did start exploring that and started speaking about it, and started talking at tech conferences and was asked once on a podcast, do I think Mark Zuckerberg is to blame? And I said something along the lines of, I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg set out to destroy democracy—I gave this long answer of like, I don’t think this is anything intentional, but I do question who he has at his decision-making table, and I suspect it’s not people with my background.

Your background having been a CIA officer.

Yes. Having been a CIA officer, having been a diplomat overseas, having worked on the ground with real people affected by policies, decisions, conflicts. Not just sitting in an office somewhere having never actually seen how the world worked.

What did you want to accomplish when you went to work for Facebook? 

So to me—and it was not an easy decision. At this point, just to be clear on the timing of it, the irony is, as you and I sit here today, Mark Zuckerberg is testifying right now. The last time he testified [in April 2018] was the day they made the job offer to me. In fact, they actually called me with the final offer one minute after his testimony ended that day.


Yeah. It was April, right? Yeah. So what did I hope to accomplish? I watched the entire hearing. I watched how many times he talked about elections, in particular around the world, as a top priority. They called me, and again gave me the exact title that spoke to the core of my priorities and who I am, offered me this shiny title of head of Global Elections Integrity Operations, and to me that meant, I don’t know if this is salvageable, but how can someone like me who cares so much, not just about our democracy, but about global politics, global civil discourse, all of these things—I cannot turn down this opportunity.

I didn’t have rose-colored glasses thinking I was going to go change the company. I didn’t. I’m old enough and have worked in the world enough to know. That was not what I thought. But I was not an easy, easy interviewee. I was very clear: Don’t hire me if you don’t mean it. I’m very excited to help this company hopefully think this through—and [the job] was on the business integrity side, so it was really about the political advertising side of the business—really help think through these very challenging questions of what role are we playing in global politics and global democracy. So I went in thinking, if what they offered me is true, which was to build and head this new team, to hire a team, and to really help think through what is the best way for us to ensure that we are not harming democracy in elections around the world, then how could I say no?

Do you remember your first day? First week?

Oh yeah. First day is orientation, so first day is like any place, drink the company Kool-Aid, very cheerleading, very exciting. So first day, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I could’ve done wrong yet because I just participated in orientation. And my second day, my first meeting, which was a Zoom meeting, because I was in Menlo Park, and my boss was not. So my very first meeting with my new boss, she let me know that, I have to change your title—your title is now going to be Manager. And for all the things that happened over the next five to six months, nobody can say on Day Two I had already made so many mistakes that they decided they had to downgrade me.

So from the very first day, everything that was promised to me by the recruiters did not happen. I was told, without going too far into the details or it’s going to take up our whole conversation—I’ll just say one of the things that we hear them tout a lot, including right now, is how many people they’ve hired with backgrounds like mine, for example, to help them fix these problems. And they have. They’ve hired some amazing people. I had some amazing colleagues there. But hiring us and empowering us are two different things. And from Day One, well actually Day Two, sorry, it was made crystal clear to me I would never be empowered to do anything.

Can you give me a sense of what you wanted to do, what tools you wanted to build, and then what happened?

I actually didn’t want to come in on Day One with, here’s exactly what we need to do—and I talked a lot about that during all my interviews, that I wanted to take a few months to really dig in, observe, see how we got here, see what the issues are, before actually making any recommendations. And that’s, I think, the way one should, even in a move-fast-break-things culture. This is a really huge issue, and I did want to actually take my time, and they all were very on board with that during the interview process.

So I don’t want to say I came in on Day One and said this is exactly what I want to do. One of the things I did want to really understand is why is the business integrity side, why is the political advertising side completely siloed from all of the efforts that the rest of the company is doing? Because some people will say, well, she wasn’t the head of Elections Integrity, so and so is, or so and so is. Right, there’s someone on the policy side, and there’s someone on the news feed side, and I was on the business integrity side. What I cared about was ensuring that … you know what? Actually, I’ll back up a step.

One of the questions they asked me during my interview, which I actually heard Mark Zuckerberg talk about during his speech the other day, they asked me: Do you think we should ban political advertising altogether? Now, I didn’t know I was being interviewed for an elections integrity job yet, because I was actually being interviewed for something else. So they asked me that question, and I hadn’t actually thought about it in advance. And I did say: “You know what? I think it would probably be the easiest thing to do, because I assume you’re not actually making as much money from political advertising as you are from industries and other stuff.” However, no, I don’t think you guys should ban political advertising, because I look at this globally, and if you ban political advertising, you’re tilting the scales towards the incumbents who already have access to media, access to information, especially in countries that have more dictatorial regimes, and you would be squashing the voice of the smaller parties and the littler person.

So I do actually fundamentally believe that, and I heard Mark Zuckerberg say that the other day, and I agree with him. So, I do fundamentally believe that. But we cannot deny that the platform has been abused and that they let it happen. So I wanted to come in and see. First of all, I didn’t actually clearly understand from my recruiter that it was just political advertising. To me, if you want to solve this problem, you cannot solve it in silos. So I wanted to look at the political discourse altogether over the platform, from the organic side to the advertising side, and understand what are actually the underlying drivers here … to me, the bigger question wasn’t about Facebook’s policies necessarily, but: Why were the Russians so easily able to exploit and persuade Americans using that platform? And a lot of that is a problem of our society. That’s not Facebook’s fault. But the more I’ve dug in, the more I realize a lot of it is because of the way social media has divided our society.


A livestock-poison-turned-drug might save her from endless cancer surgeries.

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Goldstein.  DLH]

A livestock-poison-turned-drug might save her from endless cancer surgeries. But if she helps test it, could she afford to keep taking it?
Oct 23 2019

PHILADELPHIA — What propelled Kaylene Sheran up to the microphone was an overwhelming exhaustion of surgery. At 19, she’d had so much of her surface excised that she was sometimes surprised to have any skin left. It was true of many others in the room. They grew tumors the way some people grew freckles — not in great constellation-like splashes, but in a creeping multitude. The more frequently they checked, the more basal cell carcinomas they’d find.

Sheran didn’t count how many skin cancers she’d had. It would’ve taken too long, and the number would’ve been too scary. In a sense, she’d grown up as much in the dermatologist’s chair as she had at her parents’ house in East Boston. When she was little, the doctor would put her to sleep for the surgeries. She had nightmares of the anesthesiologist’s mask, of going under and never waking up. When she got older, the clinician would inject the area with a numbing agent that didn’t actually make her numb; she’d stay painfully alert as they sliced away tumors with a scalpel.

Those nicked-off bits of her were frozen and inspected under the microscope. If the edges were healthy, her doctor could patch her up; if the borders were cancerous, he’d take off the temporary gauze and keep cutting. Sometimes, she stayed all day. Even then, it wouldn’t be long before she was back. “I’m kind of in a battle with my own body,” she said.

That’s why Sheran was here, on a sunny June day, in the windowless ballroom of an airport hotel, where a Stanford dermatologist named Dr. Jean Tang was presenting with the patience of a schoolteacher and the conviction of a priest. As an emissary of a company called PellePharm, Tang was exhorting the assembled crowd to volunteer for a trial that involved daubing their faces with a new experimental drug: patidegib.

The occasion was the 2019 national conference of the Gorlin Syndrome Alliance: the rare moment when people with this genetic disorder were not the exception but the rule. They came mostly for the solidarity. When else could they find themselves in a throng that truly understood the terror of their never-ending surgical whack-a-mole? Where else were they to swap tips and tricks about their other possible symptoms — the predisposition to heart tumors that weren’t cancerous, the trend of brain tumors that were, the skeletal abnormalities, the aching jaw cysts?

But they were also abuzz about this gel, a possible avenue away from surgery. “Our golden moment,” Julie Breneiser, the alliance’s executive director, called it. Tang showed them slides of tumors shrunken to almost nothing. She interpreted graphs demonstrating just how few new tumors sprouted on those who’d smeared themselves with the goop.

“Instead of 10 surgeries, maybe one surgery a year,” Tang said. “How many of you would say that’s meaningful? Raise your hands.”

In a single motion, like some giant, many-armed being, the room raised all of its hands.

Sitting toward the front, Sheran couldn’t stop her mind from drifting back a few years, to the last time she’d taken this class of chemo. It was a daily pill called Erivedge. She was going into her senior year of high school. At first, she didn’t see much difference. Then, her carcinomas began to melt away. She lost much of her hair, felt shooting pains in her legs — and still it was the best period of her life.

That ended one afternoon in 2018, when her pharmacy called to say that the amount she needed to pay for the drug was going up. Her next refill, instead of costing nothing, would require a payment of nearly $4,000. It was $4,000 she didn’t have.

She counted down the days until she ran out of pills and watched, powerless, as her face and shoulders once again began bubbling with tumors. For more than a year now, she’d been back under the knife. That meant she was as interested in PellePharm as PellePharm was in her.

“… None of this would be possible if we don’t get 150 patients,” Tang was saying. So far, the clinical trial had only 35. “Please step up. … Do it for the community. Do it for our children.”

It was an alluring pitch. Patidegib was chemically similar to Erivedge but supposedly safer: By rubbing the stuff on to skin, the thinking went, you could avoid the taste loss, hair loss, and muscle cramps that came when you swallowed it — reactions that kept some from taking the pills.

Yet behind such sound arguments lay a distinctly American epic, at once inspiring and troubling. The main ingredient in patidegib had emerged, like some shaggy, half-mythical folk hero, from the mountains of the West. It was a troublemaker at first, the culprit behind an epidemic of one-eyed sheep. Then, it became a savior, a potential panacea against a litany of cancers, sending pharma executives scrambling through national forests in a wild botanical gold rush. But, as with many heroes viewed in retrospect, this one’s legacy is complicated. To scientists, it’s still an exuberant story of discovery against the odds. To patients like Sheran, it’s a story tempered with worry: Every side effect, it seems, has been prepared for except financial toxicity.

What is to some an unimaginable amount of money is to others a fair return on a risky investment. That was what troubled Sheran as she stood up and moved toward the microphone. She’d seen how stratospheric prices had eroded public trust in medicine makers, but also how they needed the public’s participation to test their drugs. Her question for PellePharm was a wake-up call for the whole industry. If she volunteered to rub this gel into her face — and if it worked — would she be able to afford the treatment she’d helped usher into the world?

If you’d wound back the clock by 60 years, clambered up to one of Idaho’s alpine meadows, and presented Sheran’s dilemma to the shepherds working there, they wouldn’t have believed it. They’d seen the effect of these chemicals firsthand, and it was the opposite of desirable — the kind of thing you might pay to be rid of, the mountain sheep-keeper’s equivalent of a rat problem or toxic spill. They didn’t know what caused the problem at first. All they knew was that certain ewes were giving birth to one-eyed lambs.

Often, the single eyeball stared unnervingly out from the middle of the face, sometimes with a fleshy forehead proboscis above it — a nose at once displaced and deformed. There were other issues, too: a lower jaw missing, a skull oddly domed. It happened enough for the shepherds to give the syndrome a name. To them, the affected lambs were “monkey-faced.”

They killed and buried the ones that were born alive. Owners feared that rumors might sink the value of their flocks. “They thought it was a genetic problem, so all the ranchers kept their mouths shut,” said Kip Panter, who used to direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s poisonous plant lab, in Logan, Utah. “Nobody wanted to admit that they had a gene floating around that caused this Cyclops lamb.”

By 1955, so many newborns were affected — in some flocks, the rate was as high as 25% — that the ranchers called for government help. It came in the form of a USDA animal nutritionist named Lynn James. The son of hardscrabble cattle-breeders, he’d grown up branding Herefords and fixing snow-broken fences in the Utah rangeland near the Idaho line. “I used to say to my dad, ‘What in the world did my forefathers do that caused them to run away to this Godforsaken area?’” his son Mark recalled. “It’s just miles of sagebrush.”

The trouble, it turned out, wasn’t lurking in the mothers’ genes. When James and his boss trucked the ewes down to their lab, introduced them to a dashing ram, and then pampered them through pregnancy with the choicest alfalfa and a daily half-pound of barley, they generally gave birth to healthy, two-eyed lambs.


No wonder Wall Street fears Warren and Sanders – they speak for the people

No wonder Wall Street fears Warren and Sanders – they speak for the people
Donald Trump’s victory showed right v left is irrelevant but he made anti-establishment fury work for those in charge
By Robert Reich
Oct 27 2019

In the conventional view of American politics, Joe Biden is a moderate while Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are on the left and Donald Trump is on the right.

This conventional view is rubbish. Today’s great divide is not between left and right. It’s between democracy and oligarchy.

There are no longer “moderates”. There’s no longer a “center”. The most powerful force in American politics today is anti-establishment fury at a rigged system.

Four decades ago, when America had a large and growing middle class, the left wanted stronger social safety nets and more public investment in schools, roads and research. The right sought greater reliance on the free market.

In those days, a general election was like a competition between two hotdog vendors on a long boardwalk extending from left to right. To maximize sales, each had to move to the middle. If one strayed too far left or right, the other would move beside him and take all sales from the rest of the boardwalk.

This older American politics is now obsolete. As wealth and power have moved to the top and the middle class has shrunk, more Americans have joined the ranks of the working class and poor.

Most Americans – regardless of whether they were once on the left or right – have become politically disempowered and economically insecure. Nowadays it’s the boardwalk versus private jets on their way to the Hamptons.

As Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama’s chief of staff and former mayor of Chicago, told the New York Times: “This is really the crack-up. Usually fights are Democrats versus Republicans, one end of Pennsylvania versus the other, or the left versus the right. Today’s squabbles are internal between the establishment versus the people that are storming the barricades.”

In 2016, Trump harnessed many of these frustrations, as did Sanders.

The frustrations today are larger than they were in 2016. Corporate profits are higher, as is CEO pay. Markets are more monopolized. Wealth is more concentrated at the top. Although the official unemployment rate is lower, most peoples’ incomes have gone nowhere and they have even less job security.

Meanwhile, Washington has become even swampier. Big corporations, Wall Street and billionaires have flooded it with money and lobbyists. Trump has given out all the tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks and subsidies they have ever wanted. The oligarchy is in charge.

Why hasn’t America risen up in protest? Because American democracy was dysfunctional even before Trump ran for president. The moneyed interests had already taken over much of it.

It’s hard for people to get very excited about returning to the widening inequalities and growing corruption of the decades before Trump. Which partly explains why Biden is foundering.

At the same time, Trump and his propagandists at Fox News have channeled working-class rage against the establishment into fears of imaginary threats such as immigrants, socialists and a “deep state”.

But a large majority of Americans – right and left, Republican as well as Democrat – could get excited about moving toward a real democracy and economy that worked for the many.

This is why the oligarchy is so worried about Warren’s rise to frontrunner status in some polls.

Politico reports that Democratic-leaning executives on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and across the corporate world are watching her with an increasing panic.

“Ninety-seven per cent of the people I know in my world are really, really fearful of her,” billionaire Michael Novogratz told Bloomberg.

These Democratic oligarchs hope Biden, or perhaps Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar, can still take Warren out.

In just the third quarter, Buttigieg raised about $25,000 from executives at Wall Street firms including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and hedge fund giants like Bridgewater, Renaissance Technologies and Elliott Management. And another $150,000 from donors who described their occupation as “investor”.

If Biden implodes and neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar takes the lead from Warren, Wall Street and corporate Democrats hope former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg will ride into the primary at the last minute.