Fighting on the Internet

This week I’m taking down Google and annoying Mac users (not intending to annoy but I reckon it will happen). Here’s Google looking shy.


It’s a longer post as so much fighting over the Internet happened in March.  First up, on March 1st the government published the latest UK digital strategy. It got little coverage because, well, Trump and Brexit. Was it any good? Not really. The shadow minister for digital everything is Louise Haigh, who hasn’t had the job long, but long enough to take an informed view.  She called it recycled and meagre. There are lists of marvellous things that have already happened and the Govt would like to take credit for. There’s hopeful, wishy-washy stuff about things the government would like to happen but isn’t taking responsibility for. So they are giving consumers the right to request fast broadband. That’s not quite the same as saying it will happen, and that there’s an actual plan. Almost one in five (spun in the strategy as just over 80% who DO as that sounds so much better) of SMEs don’t have access to fast broadband.  Meanwhile, BT’s Openreach has just been fined £42 million for  commercial malpractice over fast broadband provision. I heard BT defending their position at a conference fifteen years ago, on the grounds that it was unfair for them to be forced to sort out broadband access throughout the country when their competitors might benefit. They were handed the grid’s local loops and a massive advantage when they were privatised and have been getting away with it for a very long time. This week, they committed to 95% cover but that leaves 5% who can’t all be volunteers on  reality TV shows and happy to live a slow or off-grid life. I know a couple of people who are happily like that some of the time, but then again, it also drives them crazy.

Then the ‘strategy’ has more hopeful stuff about the gender skills gap, and on digital skills training,  already outsourced to a bunch of organisations including banks (those Barclays ads) . Last year £35 million went to various outsourced providers, or in govt spending terms around half a peanut. The strategy pats itself on the back for all the great work done in libraries by staff along with volunteers  to provide Internet access and digital skills training. Meanwhile over in another universe, funding is getting cut and libraries are closing. One in 10 adults, according to the strategy, has never used the Internet. (The Oxford Internet Institute has been bringing out regular reports on the digital access gap for years.) I don’t think the ministers responsible for this strategy have a clue. I ran classes for Internet beginners in Peckham Library for a couple of years starting in 2000 and I’m sure it would cost more than a fiver each person to sort out problems of access, confidence, understanding and skills.


On March 10 the row involving Google was already simmering and at an advertising industry event, Martin Sorrell came out with this attack which got loud cheers from the audience:

The fundamental issue is that you [Google] have to take responsibility for this as a media company. You are not a passive digital engineer tightening the digital pipes with your digital spanner and not responsible for the flow through of content of those pipes, you are responsible for it. You have to step up and take responsibility. You have the resources, your margins are enormous, you have control of the algorithms, you don’t explain to people how those algorithms work. You have to change.

Google – who now own YouTube, were being criticised for letting racists, terrorist organisations, and hate-mongers of all stripes make money out of adverts on YouTube as well as making money themselves from the same ads. They were pretty slow to react. MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee had another go on March 14, when David Winnick pretty much called Peter Barron (Google), Simon Winnick (Facebook) and Nick Pickles (Twitter) pimps. He said that they were engaged in little more than “commercial prostitution” and that he would be ashamed to earn his money in the way they did. Here’s Google’s lovely new London HQ again, in the lovely new Pancras Square with its lovely corporate fountains and  trees. It’s basically a large four-cornered smoker’s corner with a few coffee, sushi and sandwich joints.



It’s taken Google a long time to admit that it’s an advertising company, one of the world’s largest. It might not even really admit that yet with its continuing claims – see the YouTube policy info – that it is up to users to report breaches. Facebook hasn’t admitted it either. Like CocaCola only wants to bring the world together rather than sell sugary drinks, Facebook wants to build global community. Why would another vast advertising company want to do that, exactly?

But there’s no question, the issues of fake news, politicians ticking them off and the not at all fake fact that companies are cancelling adverts are getting them a little rattled.  Zuckerberg gave us a fine example of a geek’s worldview with his new manifesto. It was sweet, almost. It reminded me of a symposium I went to in Seattle, Shaping the network society, in 2002. I realised there’s a worldview (some) geeks apparently develop. At a certain point, having been totally immersed along with people like themselves in Internet technology, they start to notice other kinds of problems – social, economic, political, environmental. They then offer their worldwide technology-based solutions, as they’ve never noticed there are already other people studying and trying to deal with all those world problems. They’re totally unaware of their own ignorance. In all seriousness, they propose that their next task is to build a global community and sort all that hard stuff out. Good luck, Mark. Are you going to drop all the adverts now that you’re saving the world and not an advertising company any more?

Tim Berners-Lee’s take on alarms about fake news, bots, algorithms and data was more grounded although the Guardian gave it the stupid sub-heading ‘I invented the Internet’. He didn’t quite write that. He did write ‘I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today.’ He argues for control of personal data, pushing back against misinformation, transparency and more understanding in relation to political advertising. The Web Foundation started by Berners-Lee reckons there is currently a worldwide 12% gender gap in access to the Internet. I started my PhD research back in 1999 provoked by the statistic that there was, at the time, a 9% gender gap in the UK, for no good reason.

The UK strategy is supposed to address the gender gap. Maybe the brand new All Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, launched last week, will help sort that out too. They’re keen on improving digital everything. Here they are.


Time for some good news. The Indian state of Kerala has decreed that Internet access is a basic human right so all citizens should get free wifi access. And reading Harry Potter may help defeat Trump. You don’t even need a wand. Seriously, a study last year showed that reading Harry Potter lowers Americans’ opinions of Donald Trump.  It sounds unlikely but Diana Mutz is a real expert in political science and reported an evidence base of 1100 odd respondents. I liked this next bit as I’d wondered if she’d thought about the religious Right banning Potter books, but she’s properly bossed those variables already (my bold):

… I include control variables in all models in order to take into account potentially spurious causes of both Trump support and exposure to Harry Potter.  All models included gender (females were expected to rate Trump poorly), education (expected to negatively predict Trump support), age (expected to positively predict Trump support), and evangelical self-identification (expected to discourage both tolerance of Muslims and gays, and consuming stories about wizards).

So finally, Mac users. At those Internet research conferences I went to, it was normal to hear Bill Gates referred to as the Great Satan, quite genuinely and not all that humorously. Gates certainly didn’t have any kind of hero status. Steve Jobs did, and as a result of Apple’s brilliant marketing , Mac users were encouraged to position themselves as smarter, more creative, better. Their advertising made that explicit. Now Apple gets a cut every time anyone buys an app for their iPhone or iPad. The same goes for Android (Google again) apps, but you can get software for pcs without Microsoft getting any cut. I know what Bill and Melinda Gates have done, and are doing, with their billions. Where did Steve Job’s fortune go? Does anybody know? (Raf, if you’re reading this, you may remember the AoIR conference. After the closing speeches and thanks you said they should have thanked Bill Gates aka Satan without whom none of their Powerpoint presentations, or the conference, would have been possible.) How does it work, this division of tech billionaires into good guys and bad guys?


Fighting on the Internet

Tweeting to Power

You’ll be awake if you’re reading this but are you also woke?
Today’s experts in my recommended list research how politicians in the USA have made use of Twitter. They are Jason Gainous and Kevin Wagner, who published Tweeting to Power: the social media revolution in American politics.
Because they’ve done a lot of serious research and analysis, inevitably this is about older elections and not the presidential election in 2016. They studied the 2012 one and other previous elections so their data sets are not the most recent but it takes a lot of time to collect and analyse data, and it will be a while before there are proper, evidenced analyses of what happened in 2016. Gainous and Wagner don’t only have the numbers but looked in depth and who was doing what and how.
Their conclusions are important because they are evidence-based and help explain that what’s going on now isn’t a sudden change but a continuation. For instance, they show, depressingly, that Republicans were ahead of the game as far back as 2010. They used Twitter more to campaign, to attack opponents, to go negative, to tweet about personal stuff to put themselves in a positive light, and to tweet about policy-related issues. They did the groundwork for years, basically.
G & W also look at both sides of what they term information flows on Twitter. While politicians and their activist supporters are courting voters, voters are actively allowing themselves to be courted. Tools within Twitter such as hashtags and the ability to reach your followers’ other networks increase the reach and intensify the effect, and some politicians learnt how to use those while their opponents were stuck at the stage of thinking it was a message board. (Plenty of organisations, and I’m thinking of academic ones too, still treat Twitter that way as if what people actually want is to read corporate announcements all day long on social media.) So tags, jokes and provocations we might think are silly, childish or unprofessional could really be a sign of more knowledgeable and sophisticated control of information flows. Unfair!
(In an interview this week Gainous says Trump is a master of language.) On the consumer side G & W look at how the targets – voters – help create the information bubbles they end up with on social media, both because it’s psychologically more comfortable if you don’t have to face disagreement and because they choose to receive unmediated messages direct from politicians (or whoever crafts their tweets). A couple of chilling quotes:
‘It is in the elevation of the political actors to the role of unmediated information provider that the most lasting and substantial effect may be occurring’ and ‘people are consuming one-sided information based on their predispositions and when this information is added to the existing information, the result is crystallisation of the bias. Thus, heightened information consumption via social media should lead to more extreme attitudes.’ Tweeting to Power was published in 2014 and remember, it deals with previous elections.
Also recommended, a brief article by Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg discussing Facebook information bubbles and why they might be your own fault.
And now to cheer us up, March is a good month for going out early to hear the birds singing, if the weather isn’t too bad. I went on a guided dawn chorus walk one March on One Tree Hill and was told the smallest birds start singing first as they need more hours to feed themselves. Lazy pigeons join the chorus last. To begin with you can distinguish individual songs but later, when someone asked which birds were tweeting, the guide told us it was General Cheeping. Here are some general tweeters:


Tweeting to Power

Trusting the expert

Nicholas Russell writing in the Times Higher Education refers to a paper by Friederike Hendriks , Dorothe Kienhues, Rainer Bromme on measuring laypeople’s trust in experts. Expertise is not enough. ‘We must also believe the specific expert in question to be honest and to have our welfare at heart.’ Unfortunately Nicholas Russell only mentioned Hendriks, and left out the other two authors Dorothe Kienhues and Rainwer Bromme, so here’s a photo of Dr Dorothe Kienhues to compensate.


The Hendriks, Kienhues and Bromme paper looks at trust in scientific experts. The big concerns at the moment are about trust in experts in politics, social science, economics, health and education, not to mention climate change. The obvious villains when it comes to undermining trust in human knowledge and understanding are Trump, Gove and the other Brexit crooks but there are plenty of others. In a small way this blog intends to fight back by recommending reliable experts and saying why they are reliable, why  we should pay them attention and what I think we can learn from them.

I’m going to look out for Tom Nichols’ book, The Death of Expertise, due out in April. There’s a trailer here. Meanwhile, I’m going to look at what the experts have to say about American politics and the use of Twitter.

Trusting the expert

Experts, and LSE gender politics fail

The LSE is having its annual literary festival this week on ‘Revolutions’, basically shaped around various authors with new books out although there is much more to it. I went to ‘Was Brexit a Populist Revolution?’ (two people on the panel of four said yes but gave different interpretations). The attempt at gender balance failed even though the chair said he was trying to take questions from men and women in turn, because the panel consisted of two male professors, Simon Hix and James Tilley, who knew stuff and made definitive informative statements, and two women, Mary Dejevsky and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who told anecdotes and gave their opinions. The anecdotes cancelled out and the opinions were often contradicted by the evidence the other panellists cited. The professors tended not to state any opinions but said when they didn’t know, didn’t have evidence or it was outside their area of expertise. Next time, LSE, try to do better and find some actual female experts if gender balance is an issue (as it often should be). They do exist.

Key takeaway points: most voters haven’t changed their minds since June 2016 and if anything there is very slightly more of a Leave majority. There has been an anti-EU majority amongst working-class voters for decades but elections haven’t reflected that as they are about so many other issues. The north-south voting divide reflected class and income divisions as much as anything.

Experts, and LSE gender politics fail

Anne Applebaum, essential expert

Anne Applebaum is right at the top of my list of the experts I would recommend. She writes regularly for the Washington Post but is primarily a historian. Read or follow her for analysis of Putin’s Russia, Eastern Europe, and Putin’s strategy towards European and American institutions and policies. This week she’s in London speaking at the LSE Literary Festival. Her sessions are fully booked and I didn’t manage to get tickets (returns may still be available). Yesterday’s session on Ukraine and the Maidan revolution was, predictably perhaps, interrupted by a pro-Russian propagandist who is apparently well known for his disreputable past behaviour.

I’ve read Gulag (2003), a history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps, and Iron Curtain (2012), on how Stalin’s Russia took control of Eastern Europe. They were hard going because of the grimness of the content but she is a brilliant writer and both these histories are based on a lot of interviews and oral history as well as written testimonies and a vast amount of archival research and official documents, in several languages. Many of these sources were inaccessible before 1989 and it must be doubtful how easy it will be in future for historians to gain access to official archives in Moscow. These books are extremely upsetting to read but filled in vast gaps in the history of the twentieth century that were never covered in my schooling. Stalin’s crimes have been systematically ignored, minimized or even defended by many (I had an example of that a couple of weeks ago when a questioner at a talk on the history of the British Left began ‘Far be it from me to defend Stalin, but…’ going on of course to mount a defence). No one who has seriously read Ann Applebaum’s or Timothy Snyder’s work could speak like that, so her opponents go for personal attacks. What makes her a trustworthy expert is her knowledge. She’s done the work. Her analyses are evidence-based and she sees through the lies of propagandists whose claims are based on ideological positions at best, and corruption at worst. It’s worth checking out her own columns and other sources she recommends such as this one, on how Europeans are trying to counter the Russian fake news onslaught.

(Added March 3: podcast of Anne Applebaum and panel discussion at LSE available here)

Anne Applebaum, essential expert