Sunday, August 9, 2015

Government Secrets and Our Trust

The need for secrecy

Most people accept that a certain amount of government secrecy is necessary. There are military and intelligence secrets, for example, that are needed to be kept, at least for some length of time, in order to improve country security. This is always a tradeoff though, and you would be hard pressed to identify any single secret that absolutely must be kept. You could take something like, say, the identities of your covert agents in other countries, which seems like it must obviously be kept secret, but to arrive at that point you have already assumed that you must have these covert agents in the first place. Maybe there are other ways to achieve the same ends, or maybe those ends themselves are questionable. There are always other options.

But let us assume that there are legitimate reasons for governments to keep secrets from their country's citizens. There is always the question of what kinds of things the government should be allowed to keep secret. If you asked the government, then they would insist it's only this:
  • Things that are necessary for the security of the country

The abuse of secrecy

If that was all, then we'd be done here. The problem, of course, is that there is a long, verifiable history of governments using their powers to make things secret for other reasons:
  • To avoid international embarrassment
  • To hide criminal or unlawful actions by government employees
  • To hide criminal or unlawful actions by citizens with a lot of influence on the government
  • To minimize public debate over government actions that the public is likely to disagree with
  • To more easily enable government propaganda/misinformation

There have been well publicized examples of all of the above categories over the past 15 years in the US and other countries like Australia and the UK, mostly related to abuse of terrorism prevention powers, but also quite a few in relation to the global financial crisis.

Some of the most disgraceful examples have been when the US government has basically stated that releasing information on their wrongdoing is a security concern because it would foster animosity and hatred towards the US by people overseas if they found out what the US had done! This is, for example, what has been repeatedly said in regards to releasing information and photographs related to the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo.

Think about just how insane a stance that is for a country that claims to care about justice and democracy. To basically refuse to allow justice to be administered because if the rest of the world found out what you had done, they'd kinda hate you for it. Imagine if a murderer in your city was acquitted on those grounds!

Policing secrecy

It's not surprising that these things happen. Governments are made up of people, and those people have their own personal agendas, their own jobs to protect, their own families to provide for. When someone fucks up, either deliberately or unintentionally, it's not at all surprising that if they have access to some way to suppress knowledge about it, they will take advantage of it. We know people are flawed, which is why we should never settle for any system that basically rests on, "Just trust us. We promise we won't abuse this power".

Government oversight is one of the ways we're supposed to be protected from this sort of abuse, but oversight is rarely truly independent and free of any kind of influence, and again, the people doing the oversight are just flawed humans too. We have numerous stories over the past 15 years of financial industry overseers getting too chummy with the people they're meant to be watching, and planning for their own future when they leave government and switch to working for the very companies they performed oversight on. We know that we can't rely on this to keep the government from abusing its power.

At the end of the day, the only real protection we have is whistleblowers. These are the people that tell us what the government and big businesses are actually doing, and letting us know when our trust has been abused. And the war on whistleblowers in the last 15 years has been spectacular.

Extrapolate from what you know

So how can we know how much to trust the goverment, and when to not buy into their claims that they're acting lawfully? We can never really know exactly what they're doing, since that's the whole point of secrecy. The sensible thing to do, then, is to take what we do know, and extrapolate from there.

Whenever a whistleblower comes out with information of wrongdoing, and we can have a reasonable degree of confidence that what they revealed is in fact true, the response of the government tells us a lot. Sometimes they will go with the "few bad apples" argument and insist that the unlawful behavior was an aberration, and justice will be served.

But if this is the case, then you would expect the government to be grateful to the whistleblower and not try to prosecute them. A government that genuinely believes it is doing the right thing and is not knowingly hiding criminal behavior should want whistleblowers to come forward, because those few bad apples give everyone a bad name.

Sometimes the government will insist that the whistleblower should have used internal channels and that releasing the information publicly was unnecessary and damaging. Consider that there is no way that we could know if that's true. A government with effective internal oversight will make this claim, but surely so would one with poor oversight that is actually committing crimes and hiding them. If what the whistleblower is revealing is actually true, then unlawful behavior is taking place, and either there is internal oversight that has been managing to completely miss it, or the goverment is just straight up lying.

If the whistleblower releases information that turns out to be accurate, and also states that they saw no viable ways of effecting change within the organization, then where do you think the safe bet lies here? That the whistleblower was releasing accurate information about wrongdoing but lying about the need to go public (and usually destroy their own career in the process), or that the government was performing all this unlawful behavior but had a totally robust internal oversight system?

And, finally, we have to ask how we would expect a governement to behave when it knows it has lots of dirty secrets, embarrassing secrets, illegal behavior secrets. If you know that there is lots of incriminating information that whistleblowers could reveal, then naturally you're going to come down hard on whistleblowers, prosecute them and put fear into any other would-be whistleblowers. If you were a genuinely clean government, then why would you do that? Why would you prosecute the people who are helping you stay honest?

So as you see your government try to justify the need to prosecute a whistleblower or sow disinformation about them in order to discredit them, ask yourself if you really think a government that believed it had no other dirty secrets would behave in that way. Ask yourself if it's likely that the whistleblowers have disclosed the only examples of your government behaving badly, and that they are otherwise perfectly squeaky clean. Ask yourself what else the government is so afraid of being disclosed that they feel the need to actively go after whistleblowers.

The only real information we have about how our governments are behaving in secret is what whistleblowers reveal to us, and how our governments respond when that happens.

How the government can regain our trust

So how should a trustworthy government behave? Well, certainly, a government that genuinely wants to keep within the law and not abuse its power should have robust protections for whistleblowers. I can't see any good reason why a government that doesn't want to abuse its secrecy powers would not want a system that encourages whistleblowing.

But also, an honest government would recognize that individual people within the government can't be trusted. There will always be people under different pressures and they will make bad decisions. A good government will recognize its weaknesses and try to set up a system that makes it hard to do the wrong thing, and makes it easier to do the right thing.

One possible way is to make coming clean and being honest always the best option. People in the government try to hide incompetence and illegal behavior because they think that they can contain the secrets and have a high probability of getting away with it.

But what if people in the government instead believed that they had very little chance of getting away with secrets and lies? What if they knew there was a very high probability that they would be found out, and then not only would they be in whatever trouble they would have been in if they had come clean, they would also be in trouble for trying to cover it up?

I think that if a whistleblower releases information on a single illegal act that the government intentionally covered up, and that it can be shown that either the superiors or the oversight of the person/people responsible for the act knew about it, then that whistleblower should receive full immunity regardless of what else they released. No matter how damaging any other information may be, it should be treated as acceptable collateral damage for the government trying to hide illegal acts.

This may sound extreme, but we need a system where a whistleblower has confidence that they won't be punished for doing what is ultimately a good service to both the government and the general public. And we actually need the potential damage to the government to be high enough to act as a sufficient deterrent so that coming clean will always be preferable. We need individuals in the government to be thinking not just about exposure of whatever specific act they are involved in, but the potential exposure of all other government secrets.

Imagine how much better a government would police itself when it was facing that kind of tradeoff. And further, if a government genuinely believes in obeying its own laws, and believes that it has sufficient internal oversight that the general public should trust them, we should ask why they are unwilling to agree to such strong whistleblower protections. If they really are as trustworthy as they want us to believe they are, then they should have nothing to fear, right?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

How Facebook Will Probably Manipulate the Next US Election

It's a well accepted fact that money heavily influences US politics, with the candidate who spends the most money usually winning the presidential election. And it's expected that the 2016 US presidential election will involve the most campaign spending in history. But what is often overlooked is that it's not money in itself that wins elections. You can't directly buy votes. So why does the correlation exist?

Money buys attention. At the end of the day, every voter can vote for whomever they want, but campaign spending determines how much they get saturated with information and propaganda for various candidates. Money makes a candidate a household name, pays for billboards and banners, buys attack ads to discredit candidates, and so on. Money doesn't buy elections, it's just a means to influence what voters know, which then affects how they vote.

News media has known this for years, of course, where most readers/viewers understand the political leanings of their source, and aren't surprised to see biased reporting. But what happens when people think they're getting unfiltered information? What if you can make people think they're getting a balanced view, and that view gives the distinct impression that one candidate is better than the others?

This is where social media is the big game in town. People don't think of their Facebook news feed, their Twitter feed, or their Google searches as being politically biased, or the tools of a private company to manipulate what they see and therefore influence what they think. They tend to think of these as neutral sources, possibly biased towards showing them things that are likely to keep them clicking, or advertising for things that they are likely to want. But they don't think of social media companies as manipulating what they think and feel and understand about the world.

With the amount of time people spend on social media now, it would be pretty bad if those privately held profit-driven companies were to take advantage of their completely legal power to manipulate what they show their users, right?

Various surveys have made clear the increasing role Facebook is playing as a news source for many people. More and more people are relying on the news articles shared by friends and the "related stories" links there as a main source of news. So if the items that appeared in their feeds were filtered in order to favour articles that are positive to some candidate or party and negative to others, then these people would be having their opinions manipulated to some degree, and would end up more likely to vote a certain way.

We also know that Facebook is very politically active, spending around $10 million a year in lobbying. This means that the company clearly has an interest in certain political outcomes, and cares enough to be willing to devote time and money to get their way.

One more important piece of the puzzle, we also know that Facebook has both the means and the willingness to manipulate people's news feeds, and can do so secretly if it wants. We know of one secret experiment they did, where they manipulated hundreds of thousands of user's feeds in order to see if they could change their emotional states. They were able to do this in secret and we only know about it because they disclosed it. This means that they probably have done other experiments that they haven't disclosed, but more importantly, it proves that they can secretly do this manipulation if they want to.

And finally, and probably most importantly, none of this is illegal. Facebook has no obligation to be fair, neutral or unbiased in their filtering of what they present to people.

So, when you put all this together, Facebook has the means to secretly manipulate the news that millions of US citizens see every day, and they have political interests that are important enough to them to be worth spending millions of dollars on. Further, they have demonstrated a willingness to do this kind of secret manipulation of their users.

The only real reason to believe that Facebook won't try to manipulate the next US election is if they think it is likely that knowledge will be leaked, and if it is, that it would have greater long term repercussions to the company than not doing it would. Given how deeply entrenched Facebook is in the social media ecosystem, and also given that they could, of course, also limit how much people found out about it if it leaked, I don't think it's that crazy to suspect that they'll do it.

In summary:
  • Election results are influenced by the news and information that voters are exposed to
  • People are getting a large proportion of their news from Facebook
  • Facebook has political interests and already spends time/money on lobbying
  • Facebook can manipulate what news and information users see
  • Facebook has previously demonstrated the ability and willingness to manipulate user's news feeds, and was able to do it secretly
  • There is nothing illegal about Facebook doing this
  • The only real reason for them not to do it is if they think the general public might find out and the bad press will hurt them more in the long run than the gain

Now, I've been focusing specifically on Facebook and one particular event here, but most of the arguments apply to other social media companies and other kinds of manipulation. We really do need to be aware of just how much these companies are integrated into our lives and have the ability to control aspects of our knowledge. These are profit-driven companies whose primary purpose is to serve their customers and shareholders, and we're the product. We should not make the mistake of assuming that they have the greater interests of us or society at large as a main priority. They might, of course, but they're corporations. Generating profit is what they're legally obligated to do, and we need to remember that.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Violence and Who Framed Roger Rabbit

I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit the other night, for the first time since I was a kid. For a movie made in 1988, I was happy to see that it held up quite well. The high productions values and attention to detail clearly paid off, and it was interesting to watch now that I'm at an age where I can relate to the adult characters more. Overall it's still quite an enjoyable movie.

What was different for me this time, though, was the violence. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm as happy watching a good action sequence as the next guy, so that's not my problem. What stood out for me was the casual use of violence, and violence as being funny in its own right. That is, the idea that seeing someone get hurt is funny in itself.

We're all familiar with the old cartoons that this movie is paying homage to, and the fact that they use violence for humour. We've all seen the Coyote get hurt in elaborate ways while trying to catch the Roadrunner. The fact that he is never permanently injured allows us to laugh at his misfortune. Or slapstick like The Three Stooges, where the casual violence the characters aim at each other is funny because they don't actually get hurt.

Or at least, that's certainly how it was always viewed.

But when I was watching the opening cartoon of Roger Rabbit, I didn't laugh once. It was literally entirely about Roger Rabbit trying to save a baby from being injured, and himself getting constantly hurt in the process. The humour was completely based around the inventive ways the writers came up with for him to be hurt. Now, he never gets injured, even when a refrigerator falls on his head, but he clearly gets hurt. And that in itself is supposed to be funny.

I feel like an old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, but I didn't find it funny at all. Now, I wasn't morally outraged or anything, but I wasn't enjoying it either. I was thinking, "Oh, well, this is aimed at kids and kids aren't exactly able to get sophisticated humor, so slapstick and fart jokes tend to be the bulk of the humour they get."

But this also isn't true. Warner Brothers cartoons have certainly been enjoyed by adults over the decades. The Three Stooges was certainly intended for adults to enjoy. And, hell, adults enjoy watching shit like Funniest Home Videos. Clearly the enjoyment of seeing people hurt but not permanently injured has never been limited to children.

What I'm wondering is whether or not we're changing as a culture. Diana felt the same as me watching the movie, so I know I'm at least not alone. And neither of us are pussies who hate seeing violence in TV shows and movies. But it certainly seems to be the case that violence just for the sake of violence isn't funny to us.

And this wasn't just limited to the opening cartoon in Roger Rabbit. Throughout the movie, there was a general level of slapstick violence, with Bob Hoskins' character quite often hitting and physically manhandling Roger Rabbit, and it clearly being intended to be funny and lighthearted. Now, I know it probably sounds like I'm overanalysing and sounding like a stodgy old man, but it felt to me like someone needed to sit Hoskins' character down and say, "Now, now, Detective Valiant, you need to use your words. We don't hit each other here. I want you to sit in the corner and think about how you should treat your classmates."

I would certainly like to think that we're just a small part of a more general social trend in not finding violence funny for its own sake, while still being able to appreciate well crafted humour that happens to involve violence. People getting hurt should generally not be funny to us, it's the very opposite of empathy. We don't need to become overly sensitive and politically correct, but just like most decent people these days don't take pleasure in seeing a bull being killed in a ring, two dogs fighting each other, or a TV character shaking his fist at his wife and saying, "One of these days...POW! Right in the kisser!", it would be nice if we started to move away from laughing when a person gets hit in the face with a frying pan or kicked in the balls too.