20 April 2021

The Guardian: “How Facebook let fake engagement distort global politics”

Zhang: A lot of the time it felt like trying to empty the ocean with an eyedropper. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

The tactics boosting Hernández online were similar to what Russia’s Internet Research Agency had done during the 2016 US election, when it set up Facebook accounts purporting to be Americans and used them to manipulate individuals and influence political debates on Facebook. Facebook had come up with a name for this – “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB) – in order to ban it.

But Facebook initially resisted calling the Honduran activity CIB – in part because the network’s use of Pages to create false personas and fake engagement fell into a serious loophole in the company’s rules. Facebook’s policies to ensure authenticity focus on accounts: users can only have one account and it must employ their “real” name. But Facebook has no such rule for Pages, which can perform many of the same engagements that accounts can, including liking, sharing and commenting.

Zhang assumed that once she alerted the right people to her discovery, the Honduras network would be investigated and the fake Pages loophole would be closed. But it quickly became clear that no one was interested in taking responsibility for policing the abuses of the president of a poor nation with just 4.5m Facebook users. The message she received from all corners – including from threat intelligence, the small and elite team of investigators responsible for uncovering CIB campaigns – was that the abuses were bad, but resources were tight, and, absent any external pressure, Honduras was simply not a priority.

Julia Carrie Wong

These accounts about Facebook’s failure to prevent online manipulation and political propaganda – or worse, using its vast network to censor dissenting opinions on behalf of authoritarian leaders – have become as frequent as weather reports. As many have commented, ‘tight resources’ is almost certainly an excuse, considering how profitable Facebook is; rather the company is unwilling to invest in mitigation measures because it would diminish profits and decrease engagement.

Dan Wang: “2020 letter”

But there’s more on-the-ground evidence that ordinary people are growing nervous. In so many settings, one has to tread on eggshells in a public discussion in China, with organizers taking pains to remind audience members of sensitivities. Sometimes even in private, people beg off with an embarrassed laugh that they can’t discuss a subject due to unspecified difficulties. WeChat blocks sensitive keywords, which today includes “decoupling” and “sanctions”. It’s now inconvenient to use the app for professional conversations, and I’ve been pretty insistent to my contacts to use Signal instead. And since I brought up Germany, I wonder if the right analogy for China today is as a successful East Germany.

It’s hard to imagine that this increasingly censorious environment is conducive to good thinking. Actions from the government seem to be matched by a growing intolerance among the population for dissenting views. That’s due in part to their sense of feeling besieged after international opinion on China turned sharply negative after the virus outbreak. That hasn’t made it any better for Fang Fang, the novelist in Wuhan whose journal entries documenting the pandemic were first widely-read and then widely-criticized after she authorized an English translation. At that point, critics charged her with “blackening China’s name” and “handing a knife to China’s enemies”. The abuse wasn’t confined online: prominent personalities in state media have led criticism campaigns against her. I wonder if this society can be reflective and thus capable of self-improvement if it is so intolerant of criticism.

It might not be clear that censoriousness is hurting the creation of new companies, but it is clear that it’s becoming more difficult to create better cultural products. Over the last decade, China’s most successful cultural exports include TikTok, the Three-Body Problem, a few art house films (mostly directed by Jia Zhangke)… and that might be it. The Three-Body Problem was published in 2008 and translated into English in 2014; today, the series looks more like something that was able to escape the system rather than the vanguard of a great Chinese outpouring of marvelous cultural creations. Not content to allow science fiction movies to develop independently, the film authorities have this year released guidelines on the correct ideological direction of new films.

Dan Wang

As with last year’s letter, an interesting essay about the life in China during this pandemic year, and how the society is evolving under increased government censorship and international pressure. Another good reflection on the current state of affairs is how American sanctions and tariffs against Chinese companies could have implications for the international trustworthiness of America, with other business partners possibly losing trust in American exporters and fearing that the same tools levied against China could be turned against them.

19 April 2021

The New York Times: “A Vast Web of Vengeance”

Mr. Babcock was sure there was a way to have lies about him wiped from the internet. Many of the slanderous posts appeared on a website called Ripoff Report, which describes itself as a forum for exposing “complaints, reviews, scams, lawsuits, frauds”. (Its tagline: “consumers educating consumers”.)

He started clicking around and eventually found a part of the site where Ripoff Report offered “arbitration services”, which cost up to $2,000, to get rid of “substantially false” information. That sounded like extortion; Mr. Babcock wasn’t about to pay to have lies removed.

Ripoff Report is one of hundreds of “complaint sites” — others include She’s a Homewrecker, Cheaterbot and Deadbeats Exposed — that let people anonymously expose an unreliable handyman, a cheating ex, a sexual predator.

But there is no fact-checking. The sites often charge money to take down posts, even defamatory ones. And there is limited accountability. Ripoff Report, like the others, notes on its site that, thanks to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, it isn’t responsible for what its users post.

Kashmir Hill

A prime example of what went wrong with the Internet: under the protection of US laws and their absolutist interpretation of free speech, anyone from ordinary people with a grudge to organized groups spreading propaganda and misinformation can blatantly lie with impunity. The people getting hurt have few tools to fight back: a drawn out legal fight in the US… which isn’t even an option outside the US, because foreign courts generally can’t force an American website to remove content. This goes back to the issue that Americans simply assume that their rules must apply to everyone else, as in the recent debate about the Australian news legislation impacting Google and Facebook.

18 April 2021

The New York Times: “SpaceX wins NASA $2.9 Billion Contract to build Moon Lander”

NASA last year awarded contracts to three companies for initial design work on landers that could carry humans to the lunar surface. In addition to SpaceX, NASA selected proposals from Dynetics, a defense contractor in Huntsville, Ala., and Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin, which had joined in what it called the National Team with several traditional aerospace companies: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

The award is only for the first crewed landing, and SpaceX must first perform an uncrewed landing. NASA is requiring a test flight to fully check out all systems with a landing on the lunar surface prior to our formal demonstration mission, Ms. Watson-Morgan said.

Kenneth Chang

I have not followed NASA’s plans to return to the Moon very closely, but I am rather disappointed in this decision, and what it says about the future of space exploration. As mentioned in this article and from the public source selection statement, the primary reason for selecting SpaceX was budgetary constraints, as the Blue Origin proposal had a comparable technical rating, but much higher price. Establishing a regular human presence on the surface of the Moon will be hard to achieve if NASA has to constantly defer to the US Congress for political and budgetary reasons. The most likely scenario is that the Artemis program will be modified and delayed year after year, as the agency’s priorities change with the shifting political climate. And this lack of long-term strategy is a guaranteed recipe for failure.

09 April 2021

The Atlantic: “The U.S. doesn’t know how to Treat its Allies”

President Joe Biden is promising the world that “America is back”, but his effort to reclaim global leadership shouldn’t come at the expense of the country’s closest friends. At a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sharply criticized Germany’s efforts to get more natural gas from Russia through a pipeline project known as Nord Stream 2. The president, Blinken warned, believes the pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States. Ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU’s own security goals. Not only is the Biden administration continuing former President Donald Trump’s punitive policy against an important ally, but it’s considering further strictures.

Blinken’s statement also reflected a major defect in Obama-era foreign policy: the condescending assumption that other countries don’t understand their own interests. But the U.S. focus on stopping an energy project domestically important for Germany is all the more misguided when the administration’s strategy for managing America’s top security concern—the rise of China—is utterly dependent on a dramatic deepening of allied cooperation. Biden has a choice: Should he prioritize concern about Russia, a nettlesome but less important rival power, or should he consolidate support among America’s allies? And the administration is on the verge of choosing the wrong option.

Kori Schake

See also:

  • refusing to contribute vaccines against a global pandemic, allegedly because of contracts signed by the previous administration. In addition to vaccines, the US has curbs on exports of key materials in place as well, which could delay the efforts to ramp up vaccine manufacturing in India.
  • threatening to impose retaliatory tariffs on six nations that introduced additional taxes on US-based tech companies (the UK, Austria, Italy, Spain, Turkey and India). This approach is particularly puzzling, as tariffs discourage trade between parties (thereby encouraging these traditional US allies to sell their products elsewhere, possibly to China) and increase domestic prices (which punishes US consumers). Previously, the Treasury Secretary has supported an international agreement at OECD level on taxation rules on tech giants, and these companies are under increased antitrust scrutiny in the US, so protecting their oversees profits makes little strategic sense.

08 April 2021

Coronavirus in Romania: troubled times

As I have feared when writing my previous update, cases of coronavirus disease in Romania started climbing again following the partial reopening of schools and restaurants. Since the last week of February, cases have increased by 20–25% each week, reaching a peak of around 6650 on March 25th. Naturally, new restrictions were put in place, stricter curfews in the larger cities during weekends, followed by rounds of street protests and online complaints, and schools will again be closed for the duration of April – officially an extended Easter break. Fortunately, we are already seeing some positive signs, with cases declining slightly last week, by 4%.

This smaller wave has brought with it increased death counts as well, climbing again above 100 deaths daily to a peak of 174 on March 23rd and 196 on April 6th. While numbers have remained slightly below the highs recorded during the autumn wave, the mortality rates look worse than before. I am using a rough estimation comparing deaths to cases from three weeks ago, as their evolution appears to track cases with a three-week delay. Calculated this way, mortality in December and January based on official coronavirus deaths dropped to 1.8–2%, while in March 2021 it is back up in the 3.3–3.4% range. Not entirely surprising, considering the increased load on the medical system (the number of ICU patients is constantly climbing and has recently surpassed 1450, above the previous record of almost 1300 in November), and the spread of the new, more lethal UK mutation of the virus.

04 April 2021

Bloomberg: “A Taiwan Crisis may mark the End of the American Empire”

But I have another analogy in mind. Perhaps Taiwan will turn out to be to the American empire what Suez was to the British Empire in 1956: the moment when the imperial lion is exposed as a paper tiger. When the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Prime Minister Anthony Eden joined forces with France and Israel to try to take it back by force. American opposition precipitated a run on the pound and British humiliation.

I, for one, struggle to see the Biden administration responding to a Chinese attack on Taiwan with the combination of military force and financial sanctions envisaged by Blackwill and Zelikow. Sullivan has written eloquently of the need for a foreign policy that Middle America can get behind. Getting torched for Taipei does not seem to fit that bill.

As for Biden himself, would he really be willing to jeopardize the post-pandemic boom his economic policies are fueling for the sake of an island Kissinger was once prepared quietly to trade in pursuit of Cold War détente? Who would be hurt more by the financial crisis Blackwill and Zelikow imagine in the event of war for Taiwan – China, or the U.S. itself? One of the two superpowers has a current account deficit of 3.5% of GDP (Q2 2020) and a net international investment position of nearly minus-$14 trillion, and it’s not China. The surname of the secretary of state would certainly be an irresistible temptation to headline writers if the U.S. blinked in what would be the fourth and biggest Taiwan Crisis since 1954.

Niall Ferguson

I found this analysis via another article expressing concern that the constant threat of a Chinese invasion has slipped away from the daily concerns of Taiwanese citizens, emboldened by their massive success in averting the pandemic and by positive messages about their ‘independence’ on Twitter. The situation in the region is particularly thorny, as just a week ago Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan airspace, in the largest incursion yet reported by the island’s defense ministry.