Ai Weiwei’s Harrowing Film on the Refugee Crisis Is a Must-See

A still from Ai Weiwei’s new documentary, “Human Flow.” (Screen shot via YouTube)

Once called the “contemporary art world’s most powerful player,” Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has turned his focus onto the most urgent humanitarian issue of our time: the global refugee crisis. In a new documentary called “Human Flow,” the artist—who has made political statements the core of his art—explores how war, violence and climate change have made refugees of 65 million people.

Ai, who traveled with his camera crew to 23 countries over the course of a year, captured intimate moments of desperation that have driven refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Palestine, Myanmar and elsewhere, risking their lives to escape violence. The film is sweeping and vast, with drone-camera shots utilizing aerial views to showcase the extent of the crisis, combined with intimate iPhone footage taken by Ai.

“Human Flow” is essential viewing for Americans, whose government has not only had a hand in creating many of the crises that drive migration, but is also actively closing the door to refugees. “The U.S. does have a responsibility,” Ai told me in an interview about his film. “Very often people in the United States think that something happening in different continents doesn’t really affect the U.S.” But, he says, “Look at U.S. policy and what’s happening today: the travel ban, or the building of this ‘beautiful’ fence or wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It all shows that the leadership has a very, very questionable position in dealing with migration and refugees.”

Indeed, President Donald Trump—with the help of the Supreme Court—has kept in place a de facto blanket ban on refugees entering the country. It is perhaps easy for most Americans, who live so far from where this misery is unfolding, to ignore the global refugee crisis, especially given the near-daily assaults on the Constitution and good sense emanating from the White House these days.

But by embedding himself for months in the flow of refugee life while making his film, Ai developed an understanding of what it is like to flee violence and danger. Through “Human Flow,” he takes viewers into intimate spaces: the heart-rending decisions as families weigh whether to stay or leave, the pain they feel from losing their loved ones in the choppy seas of the Mediterranean, and the frustration and rage that emerges from being blocked from reaching their destinations by barbed wire and armed police.

One moment in “Human Flow” is seared in my memory—a moment no Hollywood studio could reproduce. Two young brothers are sitting on the muddy ground outside their meager tent in the semi-darkness of a refugee camp. One is crying, promising to follow his brother anywhere, no matter what. Ai added context to that remarkable scene, which he and his crew witnessed. “They had no idea where they would be accepted,” he told me. “They had been refused. They had been stopped at the border and had spent all their money on the dangerous journey to come to a place which will block them and maybe send them back.”

In another harrowing scene, an Afghan woman agrees to speak with Ai, but only if her face is not on screen. She sits with her back to the camera and begins answering questions about her family’s torturous journey from Afghanistan. Minutes later, she loses control and throws up.

One middle-aged man takes the film crew to a makeshift graveyard, where multiple members of his family were buried after they drowned while trying to flee. He breaks down in tears as he sifts through the identity cards of the dead—all he has left of his kin.

At a time when Europe and the U.S. are rewriting their rules for entry in direct response to the massive demand by people looking for safe haven, Ai’s film puts faces to the numbers. “You see people really feel betrayed,” Ai says. “They think [of] Europe as a land that protects basic humanity.” The cruelty of European anti-refugee policies emerges as a central theme, as Ai explores the abandonment of lofty ideals of humanity on a continent that promised never again to turn away refugees after World War II (ironically, tens of thousands of European refugees fled the violence of World War II and found refuge in camps in the Middle East, including in Syria). It was, perhaps, easy to make pronouncements like “Never Again” in hindsight, but when the opportunity arises to prevent another human disaster, all the familiar political reasons re-emerge, like zombies from the grave.

Not content to showcase the fleeing refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, the film also includes the stories of refugees who are less popular in mainstream media: Palestinians displaced from their homes and languishing under Israeli siege in Gaza, Rohingya Muslims fleeing Buddhist Myanmar’s persecution, climate refugees from various African countries, and even Latin American migrants desperate to enter the United States.

Bizarrely, it is the story of a wild animal that best expresses Europe and America’s abandonment of humans. A tiger, having entered Gaza through an underground tunnel, is housed and fed by a local organization. “Human Flow” shows the extraordinary lengths to which local, regional and state authorities cooperate with one another to ensure the safe passage and relocation of the tiger—a privilege not afforded to the refugees stranded on the same lands. Unlike the “flow” of humans seen throughout the film, Palestinians living in Gaza are “stuck,” according to Ai. “It’s like jail for millions of people living in such unbelievable conditions,” he says of the unending Israeli siege of Gaza.

The artist-turned-filmmaker has broken a number of barriers in his film by focusing on the humanity of tens of millions of people that the world would rather forget about. But he has also broken some rules of filmmaking. There are few talking heads in the film and little discussion of politics and policy. News headlines from media outlets scroll along the bottom of the screen, filling in the blanks in terse text. And really, do we need any more films about the well-documented causes of human suffering in the global refugee crisis?

What Ai’s film offers is what is missing most from our discussions of the refugee crisis: the fact that those who are fleeing are real people who bleed when they are injured, who cry when they are hurt, among whom are innocent children and tired elders, who are all being abandoned in a moment we will collectively look back on in shame.

“Human Flow” opens in theaters nationwide in October. Learn more online at www.humanflow.com.

Sonali Kolhatkar
Columnist
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
Advertisements

Are social media bots a threat to democracy?

Ryan de Laureal analyzes the push to get Silicon Valley to clamp down on promoters of “fake news”–and argues that the solution isn’t censorship, but transparency.

Are social media bots a threat to democracy? (Eric Ruder | SW)

TECH GIANTS Facebook, Google and Twitter have found themselves under fire as the latest details have emerged about the use of fake Russian social media accounts and political ads in last year’s presidential election.

The furor over various attempts to manipulate public opinion by spreading “fake news” during the 2016 campaign began almost immediately after Donald Trump’s shocking victory, resulting in a storm of criticism toward companies like Facebook, which were accused of failing to crack down on the abuse of their platforms by Russian fakesters.

The issue was revived again on September 6, when Facebook announced it had discovered that about $100,000 worth of political ads that were purchased from June 2015 to May 2017 by accounts with potential links to the Russian government, many of them posing as fake American users.

In the following weeks, the company handed over thousands of these ads to Congressional investigators and announced steps to limit the impact of such content in the future.

After Facebook, Twitter and Google were the next ones to be caught up in the investigation.

In Twitter’s case, a primary focus was on the use of so-called “bots”–automated accounts that can be programmed to post and share content, and can often be made to appear indistinguishable from real users. Hundreds of such bots were apparently used by Russian actors to spread propaganda during the election.

The alarm being raised by Democrats about this Russian influence campaign should be taken looked at skeptically. Rather than being a smoking gun, the ad spending uncovered thus far by Facebook raises serious doubts about how extensive and impactful this campaign really was.

To begin with, $100,000 is an almost laughably minuscule amount of money compared to what presidential campaigns typically spend on political propaganda. While it is possible that more Russian ad spending may come to light, the fact remains that the Trump and Clinton campaigns each spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2016 presidential race, large portions of which were dedicated to advertising.

Even if an extra $100,000 bump for the Trump campaign by Russian actors is taken into account, Clinton still outspent Trump by over $200 million, and even Green Party candidate Jill Stein outspent the Russians 50 times over.

If the claim that Russian propaganda activity cost the Democrats the election is taken seriously, it reveals either superhuman ability on the part of the Russians or total ineptitude on the part of the Democrats, who failed to defeat Trump despite burning through buckets of money in their attempt to do so.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THAT ISN’T to say that there aren’t genuine concerns raised by the issue of Twitter bots and fake accounts.

Though certain bot functions–such as liking posts, following users en masse and sending direct messages–technically violate Twitter’s terms of service, the company still encourages the use of automated accounts, and there are a proliferation of services available online that allow for abuse of the platform even by those who are not tech-savvy.

Certain products allow customers to create and control thousands of bot accounts in an instant, and Twitter’s low standards for account verification (little more than an e-mail address is needed to create an account) have made bots desirable tools for anybody wishing to influence public opinion, Russians or not–which is precisely why the current concern among Democrats about their use falls short.

Allowing anonymous users to create thousands of fake accounts at the click of a button and use them to impersonate real people and spread lies certainly is something that should be of public concern. This is especially true when–as was the case with many of the pro-Trump Russian bots and fake accounts active during the campaign–they are used to incite xenophobia and bolster society’s racist, far-right fringe.

But thus far, the Democrats’ only apparent concern is the use of bots and fake accounts by the Russians–even though bots have become a fairly regular feature of U.S. political campaigns over the past few years, with Republicans and Democrats alike investing in automated Twitter traffic to spread their campaign propaganda, alongside more traditional advertising routes.

An analysis of selected Twitter traffic during the 2016 election by the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project found that over 10 percent of users tweeting election-related hashtags were potential bots–and it’s likely that most of them weren’t Russian.

Though the concentration of bot activity was stronger for accounts tweeting pro-Trump content, bots were also used to spread pro-Clinton content in 2016.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

DESPITE THE often narrow, jingoistic focus of the current frenzy over “fake news,” and its obvious use for Democrats as a political tool in their ongoing Russia inquiry, there are clear problems posed by bots and other forms of modern technological propaganda that should be taken seriously.

Addressing these problems must go hand in hand with the fight to defend the Internet as a free and open form of communication.

The ease and anonymity with which platforms such as Twitter can be abused make them attractive venues for wealthy and powerful actors–from dictatorial regimes to corporate interest groups–to manipulate public opinion, sow confusion and quell dissent.

In addition to their use by multiple players in the 2016 U.S. election, bots have been used extensively by the widely despised Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico to manufacture fake support for its candidates and silence criticism online. Pro-government bots have also been used by repressive regimes in Syria and Turkey to spread propaganda in support of the Assad and Erdoğan dictatorships.

A number of solutions have been proposed by the government and by companies such as Twitter and Facebook in response to the current Russia scandal, including tighter regulation and greater transparency in online political advertising, more aggressive enforcement of terms of service rules by social media companies, and greater collaboration between Silicon Valley and the national security state.

While some proposals, such as greater transparency around online ads and automated accounts, could be welcomed, many of these are quite dangerous. Of particular concern are measures that would lead to greater control over the Internet or censorship powers against online speech by either the state or corporations or both.

One example of these dangers can be found in the debate over the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, which is currently gaining traction in the Senate.

While the bill has the ostensible purpose of cracking down on sex trafficking, it has been criticized by Internet advocacy groups for its proposal to limit the application of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 has been described as “the law that built the modern Internet” by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF):

Section 230 says that for purposes of enforcing certain laws affecting speech online, an intermediary”–such as a company, website, or organization that provides a platform for others to share speech and content–“cannot be held legally responsible for any content created by others. The law thus protects intermediaries against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them liable for what others say and do on their platforms.

It’s thanks to Section 230 that social media exists in the way that we know it today. The proposal to limit it, which could make companies like Facebook or Twitter open to lawsuits for illegal content posted by users, means that any organization providing an online platform for speech would be incentivized to more heavily police and censor content.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THIS DEMAND to be more vigilant in finding and removing malicious content is essentially what many have been making of Facebook and Twitter in the current Russian hacking scandal.

But what counts as malicious is subjective–whether there are human moderators on the other end screening ads and content and deciding what gets approved, and even more especially, when the moderators themselves are bots.

The enormous amount of advertising that is bought and sold on platforms like Facebook makes it impossible for a human to review and approve every ad purchase. An attractive alternative for tech companies is bots, programmed with an algorithm that allows them to automatically review and flag content as potentially troublesome.

If Internet companies censor content more heavily, it won’t be humans doing the moderating. Instead, as the EFF argues, increased sanctioning for online platforms will actually lead to a greater automation of this function.

A number of programs like this already exist, such as Google’s recently rolled out Perspective, a programming interface designed to fight online trolls by automatically moderating comment threads and flagging posts based on their “toxicity.”

The danger posed to free speech by programs like Perspective isn’t hard to see. After its rollout, users experimenting with it discovered a discriminatory streak in the kinds of statements flagged as toxic.

A statement such as “I am a man” is flagged as 20 percent likely to be seen as toxic, while “I am a Black man” is flagged at 80 percent. “I am a woman” is 41 percent, and “I am a gay Black woman” is flagged as 87 percent.

The problem is that algorithms can’t understand things like human intent. They can search posts for key words–like “Black” or “Jew”–that might be used by racist online trolls, but they have trouble distinguishing between actually racist posts containing these words from ones that aren’t racist.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

SPAMBOTS AND fake news are legitimate problems. They muddy the waters of online speech and are ripe for abuse. Governments, including the U.S., use them for psychological operations to spread false ideas and silence dissent, and they can also be used by hackers to spread malware.

But sanctioning Internet companies for the actions of their users and giving them more power to censor content online is a route that could chill the Internet as a venue for free speech.

There are better ways to handle bots. If Twitter were simply to disclose which of its user accounts were automated–in the same way that it has been proposed to create greater transparency around Facebook ads by disclosing who bought them–it would go a long way toward eliminating the ability to disguise bots as real users.

There are trickier Internet questions out there, such as how to handle the epidemic of online harassment. But when it comes to bots, increased transparency may not be the best solution for Silicon Valley’s profit margins, but it would make for a better Internet for the rest of us.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/10/12/are-social-media-bots-a-threat-to-democracy

The New York Times and the criminalization of dissent

11 October 2017

The campaign within the American media and political establishment over allegations of Russian “hacking” and manipulation of the US elections is being transformed into an increasingly frenzied demand for the criminalization of dissent.

During the first months of the Trump administration, the charges of Russian interference in US politics were primarily used to prosecute a struggle within the American ruling class centered on issues of foreign policy. The anti-Russian campaign has now developed into an effort to associate all opposition within the United States to the actions of a “foreign enemy.”

A series of increasingly ludicrous articles have appeared in the US press, channeling information supposedly gathered by the Senate Intelligence Committee from social media companies. The latest appeared on Tuesday in the New York Times, which has played the central role in the media campaign. The front-page article (“Russians Spun American Rage Into a Weapon: Facebook Posts in US Fueled Propaganda”) is a piece of pure political propaganda, filled with unsubstantiated statements, wild speculation and unsupported conclusions.

Social media posts from Americans, the Times asserts, have become “grist for a network of Facebook pages linked to a shadowy Russian company that carried out propaganda campaigns for the Kremlin.” The newspaper claims to have reviewed hundreds of these posts, concluding, “One of the most powerful weapons that Russian agents used to reshape American politics was the anger, passion and misinformation that real Americans were broadcasting across social media platforms.”

The article names several Facebook pages that it baldly asserts, without proof, were owned and controlled by the unnamed Russian company, including United Muslims of America, Being Patriotic, Secured Borders, and Blacktivist.

The entire premise of the Times article is absurd. Pages associated with Russia, it is claimed, are reporting and sharing expressions of anger, sowing discontent and divisions. United Muslims of America, for example, “frequently posted content highlighting discrimination against Muslims.” This, somehow, is criminal activity. Those who originally produced the content or shared the posts are acting, at best, as Russian patsies, and, at worst, as co-conspirators. The Times cites one Trump supporter who shared a post from the Being Patriotic group, characterizing him as “not bothered…by becoming an unwitting cog in the Russian propaganda machine.”

The claims of Russian manipulation read like the ravings of individuals suffering from paranoid delusions. According to an earlier statement from Republican Senator James Lankford, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Russian “trolls” are responsible for pushing the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence. Russian “troll farms,” he claimed, were working to “raise the noise level in America.”

Clint Watts, a former top FBI agent who has testified at Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Russian intervention in the elections and has been frequently quoted in the media, replied to Lankford’s comments by declaring, “The Russians can just sit back and say: ‘Amplify on both sides. Make people angry.’ And it works, man, God, it works.”

Such claims reproduce the worst tactics used during the period of McCarthyite redbaiting. What used to be called “Commie dupes” are now “Russian dupes.” (Unconcerned by the fact that the Soviet Union was dissolved over a quarter century ago, GQ magazine recently posted an article that featured a graphic replacing the “G” in “Google” with a hammer and sickle). Dissent and opposition, according to this line, are to be interpreted not as the product of internal divisions and social tensions, but the nefarious workings of a foreign power.

The Times article includes lines that read like they came straight from the proclamations of Senator Joe McCarthy or the files of J. Edgar Hoover. “The Russians,” it states, “appear to have insinuated themselves across American social media platforms and used the same promotional tools that people employ to share cat videos, airline complaints, and personal rants.” The article speaks of the need to “purge social media networks of foreign influence.”

And what was supposedly involved in this major “covert propaganda campaign?” According to US Senate investigators, Russian companies spent a total of $100,000 on Facebook advertisements to promote messages like those cited by the Times.

Another article appearing in the Times on Tuesday (“Google Inquiry Connects Election Ads to Russians”) asserts that “accounts believed to be connected to the Russian government” purchased a grand total of $4,700 worth of ads, while “a separate $53,000 worth of ads with political material…were purchased from Russian internet addresses, building addresses or with Russian currency…”

This is an infinitesimal fraction of what is spent by political campaigns awash in money from corporate executives and American plutocrats. Some $2.65 billion was spent by the Clinton and Trump campaigns and organizations supporting them during the presidential race. Nearly $7 billion was spent on all US federal elections last year. Yet the Russian government’s supposedly massive campaign of subversion and propaganda amounts to a few tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook, Twitter and Google!

The conclusions would be laughable if the consequence were not so serious.

The New York Times, in close coordination with the Democratic Party and the US intelligence agencies, is engaged in a campaign that is nothing less than criminal. It is engaged in a political conspiracy to outlaw dissent in the United States and justify state efforts to prohibit, blacklist and suppress speech, particularly on the Internet. If the Russian government is merely amplifying content produced by others—including videos depicting police violence and other crimes—then the logical conclusion is that this original content must be proscribed.

Any content or article, including from the Times itself, that examines social discontent in the United States is susceptible to being picked up by the Russians and promoted. Halting such “foreign intervention” requires a regime of censorship and self-censorship of and by all media outlets—precisely what exists in a dictatorship.

The basic target of the lying campaign over Russian manipulation of US public opinion is not Russia, but the American population. The state institutions and the two parties, Democratic and Republican, are deeply discredited and broadly hated. The working class does not need the Russian or Chinese governments to know that American society is massively unequal, that the political system is controlled by the rich, and that the police engage in brutal acts of violence on a daily basis.

Control of the Internet and the suppression of free speech online is a basic strategic issue for the American ruling class. The emergence of online communication and Internet platforms broke the control of the major media conglomerates over the distribution of information. Under conditions of growing popular opposition to social inequality and war, and deepening political crisis, establishing state control over the Internet is seen as a matter of the greatest urgency.

This is what Google has already begun to do. As the World Socialist Web Site has documented, changes to Google’s search algorithm in April, introduced under the pretext of combating “fake news” and promoting “authoritative content,” have resulted in a fall in referrals from Google to the WSWS by nearly 70 percent, and to 13 other left-wing sites by between 19 and 63 percent.

The actions of Google are only the beginning. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms are preparing or have already begun to implement similar measures. The US Justice Department has demanded that staff at the American branch of Russian news agency RT register as foreign agents by October 17 or face possible arrest. This action will be used as a precedent for targeting left-wing and antiwar websites and organizations as agencies of a “foreign enemy” that must be shut down or censored.

It is necessary to organize the working class and youth against this neo-McCarthyite assault on free speech and the Internet, connecting the defense of democratic rights to opposition to social inequality, war, dictatorship and the capitalist system. Meetings must be organized throughout the country and internationally to expose what is taking place and mobilize opposition. The WSWS urges all its readers to sign the petition against Internet censorship and contact the Socialist Equality Party today.

Joseph Kishore

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/11/pers-o11.html

Krugman: Trump is about to take a wrecking ball to the last competent government institution left

 

The New York Times columnist wonders if economic catastrophe is on the horizon

JACOB SUGARMAN10.07.201712:29 PM
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

It’s often lost in the miasma of White House backbiting and scandal, but after less than a year in office, the Trump administration has proven itself historically corrupt and incompetent. Tom Price resigned as secretary of Health and Human Services last week after bilking taxpayers to the tune of $400,000 in charter flights, while the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scott Pruitt has reportedly been wining and dining corporate executives from the very industries he’s meant to be regulating. Then there’s Rick Perry’s disastrous Department of Energy and Ben Carson’s almost complete dismantling of HUD, to offer just a handful of examples.

Thus far, the Federal Reserve has avoided such ignominy. But that may soon be coming to an end, and the effect on the global economy could prove catastrophic.

In his Friday column, Paul Krugman warns of the coming Trumpification of the United States’ central banking system. While Janet Yellen and past Fed chairs like Ben Bernanke have been technocrats divorced from partisan politics, this is merely a political norm. And if the last 10 months have taught us anything, there’s no political norm Trump isn’t willing to shatter. The president has no coherent fiscal policy to speak of, “so trying to guess his Fed choice… is a mug’s game.”

“What he’s more likely to do,” Krugman writes, “is what he’s done with many other appointments—defer to congressional Republican leaders—leaders who, on matters monetary, have been wrong about everything.”

About those failed policies. Two contenders to replace Yellen are John Taylor, a right-wing economist from Stanford who has earned the ringing endorsement of Paul Ryan, and Kevin Warsh, a former Fed governor who vehemently argued against government action as unemployment climbed toward 10 percent in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. Both appear to subscribe to an Ayn Randian vision of the United States economy, a neo-feudal structure in which vast quantities of wealth are concentrated in the hands of the few.

“I don’t know who Trump will actually pick to head the Federal Reserve,” Krugman admits. “But surely it’s possible, even probable… that one of American policy’s last remaining havens of competence and expertise will soon share in the [country’s] general degradation.”

Read Paul Krugman’s column at the New York Times.

https://www.salon.com/2017/10/07/krugman-trump-is-about-to-take-a-wrecking-ball-to-the-last-competent-government-institution-left_partner/?source=newsletter

6 Ways We Can Begin to Rein in Facebook’s Immense Power Over Media and Our Society

How can we protect ourselves from Zuckerberg’s algorithms?

Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Mark Zuckerberg is really, really sorry.

Last year he dismissed as “crazy” the critics who said “fake news” delivered by Facebook might have given the election to Donald Trump. Last week he said he regretted it.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, he apologized for what Facebook has wrought.

On Monday, a senior Facebook executive repented some more, reporting that $100,000 from Russian-sponsored troll farms bought 4.4 million page viewsbefore the 2016 election. “We understand more about how our service was abused and we will continue to investigate to learn all we can,” said vice president Elliot Schrage.

The Facebook leadership, like the U.S. government and the rest of us, is belatedly facing up to what Zuckerberg once denied: the social harms that can be inflicted by digital platform monopolies. The contrition and the voluntary remedies, notes Quartz, are “designed to head off looming regulations.”

What Is To Be Done

Facebook came to dominate social media with an ingenious interface that enables users to escape the Wild West of the open internet and join a sentimental community of family and friends, knitted together by likes, links, timelines, photos and videos.

Along the way, the company employed a scalable and amoral business model: use alogorithms of people’ personal data to mix messges of “promoted posts” with family messages and friendly momentos. Its an automated system that is profitable because it requires relatively little human intervention and can be used by anyone who wants to influence the behavior of Facebook users.

When the Russia government wanted to use the platform to confused and demoralize Democratic voters and promote favorite son Donald Trump, Facebook was ready, willing and able to monetize the opportunity. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has explained, “Facebook’s Ad Scandal Isn’t a ‘Fail,’ It’s a Feature.”

The question is, what can government and civil society do to protect the public interest from a $300 billion monopoly with 2 billion users? “Facebook is so gargantuan,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, “it’s exceeded our capability to manage it.”

One tool is traditional antitrust laws, created in the late 19th century and early 20th century to control railroads, the oil industry and electrical utilities. The reformers, in the Progressive era and the New Deal, passed legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Glass-Steagall Act to prevent and break up concentrations of economic power.

The problem is that since the 1970s, antitrust law has been interpreted through the lens of University of Chicago “free-market” economics. In this view, the test of a monopoly is the short-term harm it does to consumers; i.e., does it raise prices?

If a monopoly doesn’t raise prices, the Chicago School claims, it’s not doing any harm. As a result, most of the legal precedents in antitrust law, developed over the last 40 years, are ideologically hostile to the notion of a “public interest.”

To deal with 21st-century platform monopolies, antitrust law needs to be revitalized or reinvented. A host of new monopoly critics, including economist Barry Lynn, journalist Matt Stoller, law professors Jonathan Zittrain and Frank Pasquale, and elected officials such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), propose to do just that.

As Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said, “We need to have institutions that guarantee algorithmic accountability.”

Six Remedies

1. FCC regulation

Jeff John Roberts of Fortune compares Facebook to the highly regulated TV broadcast networks, “at a time when Facebook has become the equivalent of a single TV channel showing a slew of violence and propaganda, the time may have come to treat Facebook as the broadcaster it is.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, a Facebook search yielded a page created by a chronic hoaxer who calls himself an investigative journalist for Alex Jones’ Infowars. “To Facebook’s algorithms, it’s just a fast-growing group with an engaged community,” notes Alex Madrigal of the Atlantic.

Roberts:

“Just imagine if CBS inadvertently sold secret political ads to the Chinese or broadcast a gang rape—the FCC, which punished the network over a Super Bowl nipple incident, would come down like a ton of bricks.”

This would require rewriting the Federal Communications Act to include platform monopolies. Not impossible, but not likely, and probably not the right regulator regime to diminish Facebook’s monopoly power over information.

2. Mandatory FEC Disclosure

One solution is to use existing institutions to force full disclosure of buyers of political ads, a requirement Facebook successfully resisted in 2011.

Last week, Democrats in the House and Senate sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission urging it to “develop new guidance” on how to prevent illicit foreign spending in U.S. elections.” The letter was signed by all of the possible 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants in the Senate, including Warren, Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Kamala Harris (Calif.).

Another Democratic proposal floated in Congress would require digital platforms with more than 1 million users to publicly log any “electioneering communications” purchased by anyone who spends more than $10,000 in political ads online. The FEC defines electioneering communications as ads “that refer to a federal candidate, are targeted to voters and appear within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.”

But such measures probably would not have prevented—or called attention to—the Russian intervention in 2016, because the Russian-sponsored ads usually played on social divisions without referencing a federal candidate, and buyers could have evaded the reporting requirement with smaller payments.

Such measures address the symptoms of Facebook’s dominance, not the causes.

3. Empower Users

Luigi Zingales and Guy Rolnik, professors at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, have a market solution: empower Facebook users to take their friends and their “likes” elsewhere. They propose giving Facebook users something they do not now possess: “ownership of all the digital connections” that they create, or a “social graph.”

Right now Facebook owns your social graph, but that is not inevitable.

“If we owned our own social graph, we could sign into a Facebook competitor — call it MyBook — and, through that network, instantly reroute all our Facebook friends’ messages to MyBook, as we reroute a phone call.”

The idea is to foster the emergence of new social networks and diminish the power of Facebook’s monopoly.

Such a reform alone isn’t going to undermine Facebook. In conjunction with other measures to create competition, it could be helpful.

4. Make Data Ephemeral                        

Facebook’s data collection is a form of surveillance that endangers dissent, says internet entrepreneuer Maciej Ceglowski.

Last January, opponents of President Trump organized the Women’s March on Facebook, and several million people participated.

“The list of those who RSVP’d is now stored on Facebook servers and will be until the end of time, or until Facebook goes bankrupt, or gets hacked, or bought by a hedge fund, or some rogue sysadmin decides that list needs to be made public.”

To ensure privacy and protect dissent, Ceglowski says, “There should be a user-configurable time horizon after which messages and membership lists in these places evaporate.”

Again, this is a small but worthwhile step. If Facebook won’t implement it voluntarily, it could be compelled to do so.

5. Break up Facebook

But Ceglowski has a more audacious idea: break up Facebook into different companies for social interaction and news consumption.

The problem, he said in an April 2017 talk, is the algorithms Facebook deploys to maximize engagement and thus ad revenue.

“The algorithms have learned that users interested in politics respond more if they’re provoked more, so they provoke. Nobody programmed the behavior into the algorithm; it made a correct observation about human nature and acted on it.”

When a monopoly controls the algorithms of engagement, commercial power is converted into political power.

“Decisions like what is promoted to the top of a news feed can swing elections. Small changes in UI can drive big changes in user behavior. There are no democratic checks or controls on this power, and the people who exercise it are trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

So government has to step in, he says.

“Just like banks have a regulatory ‘Chinese wall’ between investment and brokerage, and newspapers have a wall between news and editorial, there must be a separation between social network features and news delivery.”

Just as the government broke up the Standard Oil monopoly in the early 20th century and the Bell telephone monopoly in the 1970s and 1980s, splitting up a monopoly firm to reduce its power is a time-tested remedy.

6. Think Big

Most important is political imagination. The ascendancy of free-market thinking since the heyday of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher has transformed citizens into consumers and failed civil society in the process. The rise of income inequality is one result. The emergence of unaccountable platform monopolies is another.

Facebook, the website, is the creation of Zuckerberg and clever programmers. But their enormous power is the result of a selfish and short-sighted ideology that privatizes public space at the expense of most people.

With the Democrats incorporating anti-monopoly ideas into their “Better Deal” platform and right-wing nationalists such as Steve Bannon talking about regulating internet giants “like utilities,” the free-market ideology has lost credibility and there is a growing demand for action. As the Roosevelt Institute puts it, “Let’s Reimagine the Rules.”

The urgency of reining in Facebook is that if the public does not control its surveillance and engagement technologies, those techniques will be used to secretly manipulate, if not control, the public sphere, as they were in the 2016 election.

“Either we work with government to regulate algorithmic systems,” says Pasquale of the University of Maryland, “or we will see partnerships with governments and those running algorithmic systems to regulate and control us.”

Controlling Facebook, in other words, is a matter of self-protection.

Trump’s photo-op in Puerto Rico

By Rafael Azul
4 October 2017

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, leaving millions without electricity, water and other basic necessities, US President Donald Trump did a quick fly-in and fly-out Tuesday to pronounce what a wonderful job his administration has done to address the crisis.

Trump’s entourage included his wife Melania, some cabinet members, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Jenniffer González, chairwoman of the Puerto Rico Republican Party and the island’s nonvoting member of the US House of Representative.

The president’s handlers made sure that Trump—who clearly did not want to be there—appeared in public as little as possible to prevent any opportunity for public protest. After a little more than four hours, the president flew off, an hour ahead of schedule.

The people the president did speak to were preselected. He visited an upscale neighborhood in Guaynabo, west of the capital city of San Juan, which has been one of the fastest areas to have electricity, communication and other services restored. At a local church, he threw rolls of paper towels out to a crowd in the most demeaning fashion, later saying, “There’s a lot of love in this room, a lot of love. Great people.”

During his press conference, however, Trump could hardly contain his contempt for the population of the US territory. The recovery effort and the current situation on the island, he claimed, was “really nothing short of a miracle,” adding that it was nothing like the “real catastrophe” that occurred during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Following the press conference, Trump visited the Muñoz Rivera housing project in Guaynabo. One of the housing project residents, Raúl Cardona, told Trump “he should visit the central parts of the islands, where a lot of people have no food, no water, where a lot of people have died. What he saw in Guaynabo was nothing compared to the rest of the island,” Cardona told the ElNuevo Día newspaper about his words with Trump.

Only four percent of the island’s 3.4 million residents have power, more than half do not have clean water, and many residents are washing in rivers. With temperatures in the 90s, the lack of air conditioning and medical attention could lead to further fatalities, particularly among the elderly and infirm. Roads are blocked with debris and standing water is attracting mosquitos that can carry deadly diseases.

Thousands remain in shelters, gasoline is scarce, ATMs are out of money, and many of the supplies sent to the island have been left on docks because of the lack of diesel for trucks. Public schools, which suffered devastating destruction, may not open for six months or more, officials have said.

Trump repeated the official claim of 16 hurricane-related fatalities. After the president left, Governor Ricardo Rosselló raised the death toll to 34. The number of fatalities is expected to grow once rescuers reach more isolated rural and mountainous areas.

Earlier in the morning, the island’s Secretary of Public Health Héctor Pesquera announced there were more than 100 cadavers in hospitals around the island, which are currently being examined to determine if they died as a result of the hurricane, the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century.

Governor Rosselló—the MIT-trained politician who was a Clinton delegate during the Democratic Party convention last year—dutifully suppressed this information during Trump’s visit. The president later praised Rosselló for “not playing politics.”

Trump previously denounced Puerto Rican residents for the massive debt owed to the Wall Street banks, which is the result of the island’s colonial legacy, a decades-long economic recession and wholesale looting by financial speculators who control Puerto Rican debt. Rosselló and his predecessors have imposed savage austerity measures, and the island, which declared bankruptcy last May, is currently under the dictatorship of a financial oversight board imposed by the Obama administration.

During a press conference, Trump—who is proposing the largest tax cut for corporations and the rich in history—complained that the recovery effort was costing the US government too much money. “Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”

Rosselló, who has revised upward his government’s estimate of the cost of rebuilding the island’s infrastructure to $90 billion, is seeking a low-interest emergency line of credit as soon as possible, saying otherwise the government will run out of public funds by next week.

Trump has complained that Puerto Rican residents are not helping themselves enough and are essentially expecting government handouts. Last week he poured scorn via text message from his luxury golf course on local officials, including the mayor of San Juan, for complaining about the slowness of the administration’s response.

Shortly after Trump had left the island, US federal authorities denied Puerto Rico’s petition that recipients of food stamps (which are used by 46 percent of the population) be allowed to purchase meals in fast-food restaurants, given the scarcity of food in the island’s supermarkets.

WSWS

 

 

Memento Mori: a Requiem for Puerto Rico

Photo by Chief National Guard Bure | CC BY 2.0

Puerto Rico is not large enough to stand alone. We must govern it wisely and well, primarily in the interest of its own people.

–Theodore Roosevelt

Puerto Rico is dying.

Let those words sink in.

Three and a half million people are without power, water, fuel, food, and support. This isn’t some uninhabited atoll. This is where I grew up. This is where my family lives. This is my home.

And my home is dying.

I have been desperately trying to come up with the right words to express what I feel and what I think for the better part of a day. My social media has as of late provided me with a space to write my remarks, observations, and more often than not, rants about the situation on Puerto Rico. I shared my anxieties when hours, then days passed without a word from my family. I cried in silent sobs at the pictures that slowly started to come out of the island. Despair began to unite the large Puerto Rican diaspora as we comforted each other, and waited as the absolute silence became more and more unbearable.

“Have you heard from…”

“Does anyone have any information about my hometown…”

“My mom, she’s not well, I can’t reach her…”

“I can’t find my partner…”

It was only last Friday when I had proof of life from my family in my hometown of Arecibo. And it was on Sunday that I was finally able to speak to them over the phone. Speak… more like share moments of absolute joy and tears of happiness. Of feeling born again. And with that memory fresh in my mind, I sat down to write.

Nothing came except tears. I’m crying as I write this.

How can one put into words how it feels to be completely powerless as the world I’ve always known slowly turns into Hell for those that I love the most? How can one fully express in words that could convey, in any way, the overwhelming sense of constant pain, of horrible uncertainty, the fear of loss, and the fury over what is, in the end, an unnatural disaster? And how can I live with myself for not being there?

How can I explain to people that Puerto Rico, my home, my island, my heart and soul, is dying?

The fear of death is an eternal companion in these situations. So as my country slowly agonizes, would it be appropriate for me to write a eulogy for its seemingly inevitable death? Perhaps some choice words as a send-off to the oldest colony in the world?  As Donald Trump, the biggest psychopath to occupy the Oval Office so far, finally relents to growing public pressure and announces that federal funds will be made available in full to Puerto Rico, and as more aid slowly makes its way to the island, could I dare hope for a stay of its execution? Or is this just another delay in its pre-ordained death-by-empire?

President Trump’s message to Puerto Rico was clear: pay up and drop dead. The island is expected to pay its imaginary debt for the dubious “privilege” of being an imperial colony in the way it’s always done so: in blood. Wall Street’s interests have priority over securing the very survival of nearly four million people. God forbid that millionaire Wall Street bondholders suffer the horror of payment forfeiture over a minor inconvenience like Hurricane María, only the worst storm in eighty years!

The president initially denied full federal assistance to the island and refused to suspend the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, or Jones Act, that has for nearly a century strangled commerce to and from Puerto Rico. Because of this stubbornness an obviously colonial World War One-vintage piece of legal protectionism continues to choke the island as its inhabitants are left to fend for themselves. Colonialism is a self-perpetuating state of exception that thrives on crises precisely because the beneficiaries are always the colonizers and their local flunkies who maintain and benefit from the illusion of “self-governance.”

While Homeland Security steadfastly holds on to its refusal to wave the Jones Act, Herr Trump was later forced by public pressure to amend his remarks on aid, and the USNS Comfort hospital ship is now scheduled to arrive on the island in three to five days (as will our bloviating commander-in-chief himself at some point) any help received from the American imperial mainland now carries with it a stigma, a sense of being a discarded, second-hand lifeline. This is extremely revealing. It’s been over a week since Hurricane María cut a path of destruction in Puerto Rico nearly beyond the scope of living memory, a week that passed before Trump made any remarks at all. It was a week filled by hysterics over kneeling, Russia and North Korea, a week of forgetting that Puerto Rico even existed.

American colonialism is not just confined to its territories or its Native American population. A successful empire can choose to either exalt itself to its population, thereby becoming an object of national pride, or hide itself by dulling that population’s senses and intelligence, negating that it has an empire in the first place. The United States pursued the second path. Successfully, I might add. Puerto Rico’s imperial masters also relied on their own profoundly ignorant population on the mainland that, fueled by the systemic racism on which the United States is built on, and a blinding allegiance to patriotism, considered Puerto Ricans to be just another group of Hispanic vermin. To this day nearly half of Americans do not even know that Puerto Ricans are “fellow citizens”, at least in name. And make no mistake. The white supremacist regime that attacks NFL players and Black Lives Matter activists for having the nerve to protest is the same regime that established the fiscal control board, the biggest killer in Hurricane María’s wake. These things are directly related, and the fiscal control board’s austerity measures ensured that it has blood on its hands.

The United States has perfected its colonialism on the island of Puerto Rico to such a degree that when it decided to take away the island’s limited self-rule, the vaunted “commonwealth”, and instead installed a fiscal control board, it did so with the applause of many islanders. Many Puerto Ricans, conditioned by school, church, political party, and kin to accept their inferiority to the gringo as natural law, felt unfit to govern themselves. We so desired to be our masters that we welcomed punishment for engineered transgressions tailor-made by vulture capitalists in the metropole and on the island itself.

And then came María. The other killer phenomenon to approximate María’s devastation and raw power was Hurricane San Felipe II, in 1928. Yet María’s devastation attacked an island that, in many ways, was in worse shape than the relatively pre-industrial Puerto Rico of the 1920’s. Hurricane San Felipe was nature’s killer. Hurricane María, however, has only exposed colonialism’s murderous true self. There is nothing natural about this killer.

María found the perfect target: an island whose infrastructure was crippled by decades of colonial neglect, the product of an idled and corrupt political class that blindly follows orders from Wall Street and Washington. These quisling parasites, like the island’s cravenly telegenic current governor Ricardo Rosselló, coasted to power on the artificiality of petty political partisanship fostered by the main political parties on the people for decades in order to divide and lord over a population lulled by consumerism, Christian conservatism, and Cold War-era paranoia.

Now that same political apparatus has fallen apart. Long lines await supplies and fuel that are not being delivered. Two deaths were reported at an ICU when its generator failed, drained bone-dry as its diesel fuel never arrived. Governor Rosselló has been busy with a nonstop photo op tour since the hurricane passed. His Facebook page and Twitter account are filled with photos of his smiling face. But it is all smoke and mirrors. More and more mayors are voicing their rage at the lack of supplies. Whole shipments of supplies and fuel await distribution.

The situation has laid bare the reality that there was never a plan put into place. It has also revealed that FEMA has utterly failed in its role. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, acting in every way much more responsibly than our delusional governor, has denounced that FEMA has done the impossible to tie up any aid effort with red tape, asking for interminable memos and paralyzing aid distribution. It is quite telling that at one point in an interview journalist David Begnaud, who’s done a commendable job covering Puerto Rico, briefly mistakenly calls Mayor Yulín “governor”. Deep down, though, I’m sure that when he caught his slip and corrected himself he wished that his momentary lapse would have indeed been fact.

This official paralysis and complete disregard for reality often leaves first responders and National Guardsmen mobilized to help with distribution literally empty-handed. And this crass stupidity is not limited to help on the national level. Cuba has offered help in the form of doctors and a brigade of electrical workers to help shore up and rebuild the island’s ravaged infrastructure. Cuba! Yet cruelly, but predictably, the American government denied them entry on political grounds.

FEMA’s (in)actions border on being criminally negligent, even going as far as kicking roughly 400 refugees out of the San Juan Convention Center in order to conveniently take it over as their center of operations alongside the Puerto Rican central government. Federal and local agencies have become shining examples of feckless inaction, fetid bureaucracy, and unfettered bullshit. In typical Trumpist fashion, FEMA’s response has been to accuse the media of biased reporting, but the true bias is self-evident.

Puerto Rico is dying, yes. It is a victim of the stupidity of its political class and the racist vindictiveness of its colonial masters. Colonialism will always be a humanitarian crisis.

But Puerto Rico isn’t dead yet.

In fact, something seems to be happening. The lack of governmental aid, the realization that American aid is essentially a fantasy, the uncalled-for curfew that’s tailor made to pacify anxious shareholders stateside and not help the citizenry, and the need to rediscover communal bonds of mutual aid have done something to Puerto Ricans. I confess to standing in awe of the newly found resilience, the furious indignation turned into action, and the unbreakable bonds of basic humanity that have returned with a vengeance. And with it comes a growing sense of indignation, of anger towards our colonial masters. Anger, blessed anger, the engine of political and social change par excellence.

Puerto Rico is dying, but if it survives this and rises once again, it may do so inoculated from the diseased colonial mentality that has crushed its collective spirit for so long. It’s a long shot, but it’s worth thinking about now more than ever. This national tragedy has made Boricuas remember that they can, in fact, do things on their own together. That the often-remarked bravery of Puerto Ricans that many feared lost by colonialism’s savage indoctrination (I confess to being amongst those that felt this way) was always there. That fury and indignation lead to freedom. Like many fellow Puerto Ricans that live in exile, we have come forward to join that life-and-death struggle for our homeland, and we do so together, always loyal.

As the white imperialist invader revels in his pettiness and apathy it becomes clear that the Puerto Rican people must resist and fight back in the best way possible: by surviving and thriving together. Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll rid Puerto Rico of the American flag’s stagnating shadow over our island and reduce it to a simple funerary shroud wrapped around the corpse of American colonialism, breaking away from that dying empire once and for all.

More articles by:

Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz is a fifth-year graduate student and doctoral candidate in British and world history at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he specializes in anarchist history. A native son of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, he currently resides in Bloomington. He has published in CounterPunch and in the Spanish-language publication Revista Cruce.

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/29/memento-mori-a-requiem-for-puerto-rico/