Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Biasing Google

Trump is on the front page today alleging that Google searches are biased against him and against conservatism in general. This tears the scab off the deeper wound, which has to do with "fake news" and rightwing conspiracy theories.

Consider Pizzagate. Conservatives by the millions believed that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring out of a DC pizza joint. They had a list of clues and a cast of characters that involved every prominent liberal you can think of. Plus murders by the dozen -- they were sure the Clintons were killing people right and left. Well, they still believe that.

Pizzagate hit a brick wall when a guy started shooting up the pizza place and discovered there were no children hidden there, but it morphed into the even-more-unlikely QAnon conspiracy theory, where Trump is actually secretly running the Mueller investigation in order to convict Hillary and others of pedophilia-related crimes. This is mainstream conservative stuff -- Trump has even invited leading QAnon proponents to have their pictures taken with him in the Oval Office.

So, to be clear, stories about Hillary Clinton's pedophilia ring are fake news. There is no evidence for the belief. Someone has imagined the worst thing they can think of, and then they pretend it is real. It doesn't really matter if Russian bots are involved or not. A certain kind of people think the stories are true, and they forward them to one another. CNN, the Washington Post, are not fake news: they are "news." They can be wrong, and they can even be biased, but at the end of the day they are accountable for accuracy, that is, what they print has to reflect objective reality or they will lose their readership.

Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, without the Internet. The newspapers are not going to print Pizzagate and QAnon stories because they are false. Without the Internet some rightwing AM radio shows might talk about it, a few extremely nutty people might fixate on it but they would not be invited into the White House.

The Internet has several big hubs -- Google, Facebook, YouTube, and a couple others -- and each of these hubs has to filter and prioritize information for users. Google can't give you everything at once, it has to put something first. That's what makes it useful, when you ask about a subject it gives you the information you want. Google puts a lot of effort into figuring out how to do that. The problem is not "the Internet," which contains all kinds of stuff, the problem, if there is one, lies with these companies, which select items for the user.

Now these companies face an ethical issue. For example, if you ask Google "How old is the earth?" it comes back with the answer "4.543 billion years." That is the right answer, or as close as science can figure, and for sensible people that is the actual answer. Then it gives you some links to web sites that talk about the earth and how old it is.

But if you looked at a conservative web site, Conservapedia, for instance, you would read that "All verifiable evidence indicates that the Earth is about 6,000 years old." This is what conservatives believe. This belief is not correct, but they have convinced one another that it is, and as far as they are concerned the Internet should reflect their views, not the liberal opinion. Conservatives believe the big companies like Google and YouTube should place their false belief on equal priority with the scientific one, or give it higher priority.

Oddly we now live in a world with two competing realities. The liberal reality encompasses an objective world that can be understood by scientific methods, and the conservative reality is formed out of beliefs that are consistent with one another and are vaguely connected to biblical theology.

Trump is complaining because Google searches return negative information about him. That is because he lies all the time and is a racist and does not know how to run a government -- relying on "Fox and Friends," for instance, rather than his own intelligence agencies. There is not really much good to say about him, and so when you Google you get some current news stories, which are almost certainly about some stupid thing he has done; you get his latest tweets, which are almost certainly idiotic; and you get some videos which are mostly of stupid things he has done. True, the results are negative, and that is because most people hold a negative view of him, most of the things he does look bad -- he is a great reality-TV personality but he does not look good in a neutral search for information.

So should Google wait until Trump learns how to use the speakerphone, and then post that video at the top of the page, instead of the one that is there now, where Trump is pushing buttons and saying "Hello?" to nobody, with cameras clicking? Should they wait for him to say something intelligent, or to make a policy decision that is not hateful or ignorant? I don't see how Google can provide the service they do, giving people the information they want, if they let themselves become a rightwing propaganda machine.

Just as he has taken the phrase "fake news" and turned it around to mean real news, Trump is accusing Google of bias against him, and he wants to force them to introduce a bias in his favor. White House people are thinking about "regulating" Google, so that search results are more favorable to Trump -- that is a chilling thought. It almost certainly violates the First Amendment, for one thing, and it is a step toward dictatorship that Americans should not permit.

What they should do is set up their own "Conservoogle," a search engine that will provide the user with conservatively-biased results. And then, just like Conservapedia, nobody would use it. Because it would be wrong.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Hate Is Not Anger

Tomorrow some racists will have a rally near the White House. It's a year since their greatest moment in Charlottesville and they want to make a statement. DC only expects a few hundred of them but they are taking extraordinary precautions to protect them, shutting down traffic, flooding the area with police -- in a face-off last week in Portland between nazis and anti-fascists, the police attacked the anti-fascists, so this could go any way. WMATA was going to give the white supremacists their own private Metro cars to get to and from the demonstration, but the Metro employees' union pretty much made that a non-starter. It would have been hilarious though to see them get stuck in a sweltering tunnel somewhere. Schedule adjustment, moving momentarily, suckers.

I think we have difficulty with the word, and the concept, of hate. To a kid, hate is related to anger; you are so angry at someone that you can't stand them, don't want to be around them, you think they are a bad person because they did something that made you so mad. But as adults the concept becomes more in-the-head, the temperature comes down a bit. Grown-up hate is not necessarily personal, it is more likely applied to groups of people, especially people you don't know. I do not think kids have this in their lives; they hate when they're angry and then get over it. Adults rationalize their hate. They treat their judgments as facts.

We reveal it by attribution, by assigning qualities to a group. You may say that a certain kind of people are evil, or stupid, or lazy. Greedy, whatever, often the attributed qualities are related to a group stereotype that is spread by innuendo and even direct instruction at times -- friends pick it up from friends, parents teach it to children. Anger is not a visible component of this grown-up hate, it is conceived and presented as thought only, as if these beliefs were conclusions inferred from some knowledge about a group. And so you often see dangerous bigots responding in surprise when the word "hate" is used, like, me? I don't hate anybody -- my beliefs are just common sense.

Perfect example: on Fox News this week Laura Ingraham seemed to think she was stating facts as she talked about how "Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don't like." First, her use of the pronoun "us" suggests that there is some group who feels this way, collectively. Clearly, "us" refers to white people, the kind who watch Fox, because this doesn't make sense to anyone else. It would have ruined her message to define the term, if instead of "none of us ever voted for," she had said, "no white people who watch Fox ever voted for" these demographic changes. It would wreck it. The vague first-person plural pronoun lets Fox viewers imagine that they are in with the in crowd, that "people like us" are reasonable and never voted for these changes, and don't like them.

And as for the demographic changes that have been "foisted on the American people?" See, there are "the American people" and then there are those "demographic changes," which are not real American people. Okay, sure, well white people are losing their majority status in this country, and that is about all you have to know to understand the whole Trump, alt-right, authoritarian phenomenon that has poisoned these historical times. Some people feel it is important for someone of their own racial type to have the privilege of making all the important decisions. All you need to know, right there.

And why in the world would there ever be a vote on demographic changes? (If there is going to be one you'd better hurry up, or somebody else will win it!) And what is it that we "don't like" about it? It would never occur to most of us -- and here I mean "us" patriotically, I mean the totality of people living in this country -- to dislike the diversity of America. Only certain people are predisposed to seeing it that way, and that predisposition is what we call hate. If you support democracy then you believe that all the people should be invited to participate in it, not just the pale ones -- if only a selected subset gets a vote then it is not democracy, it is something else. And if you do not support democracy, I would recommend picking a nice country on some other continent and moving to it, something with a strong dictator and the military enforcing his will. There are lots of those. America is not one of them, we are a democracy.

It feels odd to have to make a statement explaining why I oppose racism. If you think of human beings as some kind of apes living in groups and warring with rival groups, then yeah that is just the way it is. Once the species has developed language and the ability to agree about the reality of the objective environment, once we are able to distinguish truth and falsehood and are able to use scientific techniques to know truths with high certainty, once we are able to empathize and to articulate feelings of empathy -- once we figured out the profound practicality of the Golden Rule -- it seems to me the rival-ape-group perspective becomes background noise: now we can be civilized. We can have things like respect, fairness, kindness. The human species has much more interesting things to do than fight about whose ancestors came from the best continent. But there are those among us who believe that the ape-groups are the most important thing. They are now running our country, and tomorrow they will wave their flags and chant their slogans in the heart of the nation's capital.