The future of mind control: How social media is supercharging the propaganda system

In their book Manufacturing Consent, the late Ed Herman and professor Noam Chomsky described how a privately owned free press could function as a propaganda system that deceived its readers quite as efficiently as a heavy-handed government censor.

Media corporations have hacked your social brain

In their propaganda model, information about the world had to pass through a series of filters before reaching the media’s audiences. These filters prevented dangerous ideas—like democracy, equality, and peace—from reaching the readers of mass media. They identified five of those filters: Concentrated media ownership helped ensure that media reflected the will of its wealthy, corporate owners; reliance on official sources forced journalists and editors to make compromises with the powerful to ensure continued access; shared ideological premises, including the hatred of official enemies, biased coverage toward the support of war; the advertising business model filtered out information that advertisers didn’t like; and an organized “flak” machine punished journalists who stepped out of line, threatening their careers.

When Herman and Chomsky created the propaganda model in the 1980s, they wrote about newspapers—what we now patronizingly call “legacy media.” The “legacy media” still wield influence, but things have evolved far beyond the five “filters” they identified: ownership, official sources, ideology, advertising revenue, and flak. In our media environment, these five filters have become supercharged. And new filters have refined propaganda into something more like mind control.

The Supercharging of Existing Media Filters

Ownership of media outlets is now supercharged and superconcentrated. It’s not the four or five media companies, but Big Tech that determines what you see. And Big Tech is even more concentrated: it’s Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook (which owns WhatsApp and Instagram). The generous can give honorable mention to Twitter, with its few hundred million users (which dwarf the reach the “legacy media” had). In recent years tech billionaires have bought media companies too, such as the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon), the Intercept (Pierre Omidyar of eBay), Time magazine (Marc Benioff of Salesforce), and the Atlantic (Laurene Powell Jobs of Apple).

Official Sources: Relying on official sources and the compromises needed to maintain access to those has long been a force behind media self-censorship. Media companies like Fox News have staked their fortunes on Trump’s ability to draw audiences to their networks. They have made Trump the ultimate official source and the ultimate news story. This has reduced the range of issues down to those that cross Trump’s limited attention span and narrowed the spectrum of debate (for and against Trump’s often absurd positions on the topics of the moment).

Ideology: Herman and Chomsky wrote about Cold War and War on Terror ideologies, but today’s ideological filter is worse than ever. Anticommunism might not have the force it had in the 1980s, but the New Cold War means that associations with Russia can be made to the same political effect as they had then. We also continue to have to hear about the importance of endless war, the endless generosity of police, the undeserving poor, and most of the other key premises that undergirded the media in the 1980s.

Advertising Revenue: The tech giants are advertising companies at their heart, and so all of the problems that came with the legacy media being driven by advertisers remain in the new environment. Two years ago a report out of Columbia University described the new business model of media, “the platform press,” in which technology platforms are the publishers of note, and these platforms “incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material.”

Beyond the boost to the propaganda system provided by the transition to a “platform press,” the new advertising ecosystem has led to an explosion of what could be called the fake internet: advertising companies can pay other companies for clicks; the production of content can be automated. Much of the internet, as writer Max Read puts it, is now “fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites.” This provides the powerful with two distinct opportunities to mislead audiences: first, they can take advantage of the fake internet directly. Second, by posing as uniquely credible on an internet full of fakery, they can sell more sophisticated or subtle falsehoods.

Flak has become supercharged to the point where organized hate machines can be created and deployed against anyone at the drop of a hat, creating immense psychological pressure to silence independent voices. In November 2018, Indian student activist Shehla Rashid wrote devastatingly about both the organization of hate on Twitter and the effect it has on her:

“The hate that I get from pro-BJP accounts is organised. No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath—within 12 seconds, 17 seconds. It would be flattering if it weren’t scary. Also, there seems to be no way to avoid this. There is no method to the madness. Regardless of what I tweet, there is ‘instant abuse.’ It is not based on the content of what I write.”

This affects not just Rashid, but her followers on the social media platform: “If you want to genuinely engage with my post, you’ll think twice before replying to me, as it means that your day will be ruined by abusive trolls who will keep tagging you for hours or even days. You will find no support for me in the direct replies (except in the forms of retweets or favourites) and you’ll take whatever I say with a pinch of salt.”

Rashid feels stuck, as in an abusive relationship: “In times when electronic media has turned into a show of competitive bigotry, Twitter does provide activists like me with a platform to air our views. I have 427,400 followers on Twitter. This means that the trade-off between leaving Twitter and having a voice is too high. This points to a deeply abusive relationship that we have with Twitter. We have virtually been held hostage to its benefits.”

The New Media Filters

But the new environment has some powerful filters the old one didn’t. Here are three:

It’s Brought to You by a Cult: Earlier this year employees at Facebook described the ways in which the company’s performance review system, in which numerical ratings from colleagues are gathered by managers, leads to “cult-like” practices within the company. To get ahead in the company, employees must “act as though everything is fine and that we love working here,” even when they don’t. In authoritarian political systems, people must do what they’re told; in totalitarian systems, people must pretend to love the authority. Most corporations could be described as internally totalitarian, and so this may not be a “new” filter. But by recent reports, the most powerful social media corporation in the world is, internally, more totalitarian than most.

An Opaque Algorithm Controls What You See: Many researchers have pointed out how social media algorithms work to boost conspiracy theories, move users to more extreme content and positions, confirm the biases of the searcher, and incentivize the outrageous and offensive. These proprietary algorithms, which determine what you see, cannot be viewed, reverse-engineered, or understood. The media platforms that use them do so without any accountability. On the other hand, savvy political operators with resources can game the algorithm by creating ecosystems of links and platforming one another. This has been done so effectively on YouTube that, as the report Alternative Influence notes, the top 10 results for the phrase “social justice” are “criticisms of social justice from reactionary channels.”

They Have Hacked Your Social Brain: When you receive news on Facebook, even though it comes from a small number of corporate sources or advertisers, you are receiving it from your friends, and so it comes with additional trust that you never had in “legacy media.”

One of Facebook’s founders, Sean Parker, said that Facebook’s goal was to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible,” and that it did so by giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.” The point was to create “a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

If that were not enough, social media platforms can hack your mood directly. In 2014, it was revealed that Facebook researchers had done a study on users, manipulating their moods, to see if they could. That case was terrifying, and has long been forgotten. Repeated academic studies show that social media use is harmful to mood and body image. Reducing its use can help with mental health. That is why upper-level social media executives neither use, nor allow their children to use their own platforms.

In the face of the propaganda system, Chomsky once famously advocated for a course of “intellectual self-defense,” which of necessity would involve working with others to develop an independent mind. Because the new propaganda system uses your social instincts and your social ties against you, “intellectual self-defense” today will require some measures of “social self-defense” as well. If Big Tech executives can unplug themselves and develop their “real-world” selves, those of us who hope to resist should probably do the same.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why it’s so hard for most countries to be economically independent from the West

Bolsonaro salutes the US flag

Brazil’s president Bolsonaro salutes the American flag

Why is it so difficult even for huge countries with large, diversified economies to maintain independence from the West?

If anyone could have done it, it was Brazil. In the 19th century it was imagined that Brazil could be a Colossus of the South to match the U.S., the Colossus of the North. It never panned out that way.

And 100 years later, it still hasn’t happened. With a $2 trillion GDP (a respectable $9,800 per capita), nearly 200 million people, and a strong manufacturing base (the second largest in the Americas and 28.5 percent of its GDP), Brazil is far from a tiny, weak island or peninsula dependent on a patron state to keep it afloat.

When Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva won a historic election to become president of Brazil in 2003, it seemed like an irreversible change in the country’s politics. Even though Lula’s Workers’ Party was accused of being communists who wanted to redistribute all of the country’s concentrated wealth, the party’s redistributive politics were in fact modest—a program to eradicate hunger in Brazil called Zero Hunger, a family-based welfare program called the Family Allowance, and an infrastructure spending program to try to create jobs. But its politics of national sovereignty were ambitious.

It was under Workers’ Party rule (under Lula and his successor, president Dilma Rousseff, who won the 2010 election to become president at the beginning of 2011) that the idea surged of a powerful BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance that could challenge the ambitions of the U.S.-led West. Brazil took steps to strengthen its manufacturing, and held its ground on preventing pharmaceutical patent monopolies. Lula’s Brazil accused Western countries of hypocrisy for insisting both on “free trade” with poor countries and farm subsidies for themselves. Brazil even moved in the direction of building an independent arms industry.

Contradictions remained: The Workers’ Party government sent Brazilian troops to command the UN force that enacted the U.S.-impelled occupation of Haiti—treating the world to the spectacle of the biggest, wealthiest country in the region helping the U.S. destroy the sovereignty of the poorest as part of its foreign policy. But in those years Brazil refused to renounce its alliance with Venezuela’s even more independent-minded government under Hugo Chavez; it defended ideas of South-South cooperation, especially within Latin America, and it made space for movements like the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST).

But after more than a decade of Workers’ Party rule, what happened? President Rousseff was overthrown in a coup in 2016. When polls showed that Lula would have won the post-coup election, he was imprisoned to prevent him from running. And so with the Workers’ Party neutralized, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro, a man who famously saluted the American flag and chanted “USA” while on campaign (imagine an American leader saluting the Brazilian flag during a presidential campaign). No doubt the coup and the imprisonment of Lula were the key to Bolsonaro’s rise, and failings like supporting the coup in Haiti played a role in weakening the pro-independence coalition.

But what about the economy? Are Brazil’s leaders now dragging the economy into the U.S. fold? Or did the Brazilian economy drag the country back into the fold?

Brazil’s economic history and geography have made independence a challenge. Colonial-era elites were interested in using slave labor to produce sugar and export as much of it as possible: The infrastructure of the country was built for commodity extraction. Internal connections, including roads between Brazil’s major cities, have been built only slowly and recently. The various schemes of the left-wing governments of the last decade for South-South economic integration were attempting to turn this huge ship around (not for the first time—there have been previous attempts and previous U.S.-backed coups in Brazil), and to develop the internal market and nurture domestic industries (and those of Brazil’s Latin neighbors).

Yesterday’s dependent economy was based on sugar export—today’s is based on mining extraction. When Bolsonaro was elected, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation quickly posted a story speculating on how the new government would be good for Canadian mining companies. The new Brazilian president plans to cut down huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil is to return to its traditional role of providing natural resources to the U.S. and to the other rich countries.

A smaller country with a stronger pro-independence leadership, Venezuela faced similar structural economic problems that have imperiled and nearly derailed the independent-minded late president Hugo Chavez’s dream that Venezuelans would learn to eat arepas instead of hamburgers and play with Simon Bolivar dolls instead of Superman ones. There, too, the pro-independence project had a long-term goal of overcoming the country’s dependence on a single finite commodity (oil), diversifying its agricultural base and internal markets. And there, too, the challenge of doing so proved too great for the moment, especially in the face of an elite at least as ruthless as Brazil’s and nearly two decades of vindictive, pro regime-change U.S. policy. Today Venezuela’s “Bolivarian project” is in crisis, along with its economy and political system.

There are other sleeping giants that remain asleep, perhaps for economic reasons. In the face of relentless insults by Trump, the Mexican electorate chose a left-wing government (Mexicans have elected left-wing governments many times in the past few decades, but elections have been stolen). But locked into NAFTA, dependent on the U.S. market, Mexico also would seem to have little option but to swallow Trump’s malevolence.

Egypt is the Brazil of the Middle East. With 100 million people and a GDP of $1.4 trillion, the country that was for a few thousand years the center of civilization attempted in the 20th century to claim what is arguably its rightful place at the center of the Arab world. But today, this giant and former leader of the nonaligned movement is helping Israel and the U.S. starve and besiege the Palestinians in Gaza and helping Saudi Arabia and the U.S. starve and blockade the people of Yemen.

Egypt stopped challenging the U.S. in the 1970s after a peace deal brought it into the fold for good. Exhaustion from two wars with Israel were cited as the main cause—though a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen and several domestic factors also played a role. But here, too, is there a hidden economic story?

Egypt has oil, but its production is small—on the order of 650,000 barrels a day compared to Saudi Arabia’s 10 million barrels, or the UAE’s 2.9 million. It has a big tourist industry that brings in important foreign exchange. But for those who might dream of an independent Egypt, the country’s biggest problem is its agricultural sector: It produces millions of tons of wheat and corn, but less than half of what it needs. As told in the classic book Merchants of Grain, the politics of U.S. grain companies have quietly helped feed its power politics all over the world. Most of Egypt’s imported grain comes from the U.S. As climate change and desertification wreak havoc on the dry agricultural ecosystems of the planet, Egypt’s grain dependence is likely to get worse.

The structures of the global economy present challenges to any country or political party that wants to try to break out of U.S. hegemony. Even for countries as big and with as much potential as Brazil or Egypt, countries that have experienced waves of relative independence, the inertia of these economic structures helps send them back into old patterns of extraction and debt. In this moment of right-wing resurgence it is hard to imagine political movements arising with plans to push off the weight of the economic past. But that weight cannot be ignored.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Ossington Circle Episode 30: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front with Judi Rever

The Ossington Circle Episode 30: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front with Judi Rever
Judi Rever's book In Praise of Blood
In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the RPF, by Judi Rever

I talk to Judi Rever, author of the important new book In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. We start with the inception of the military force that would become the RPF in 1980s Uganda and follow it through the civil war and genocide to contemporary Rwanda and the Congo. The mind-boggling deaths and atrocities of the many Central African wars and the central role of Paul Kagame are the focus of this interview.

Just How Powerful Is Russia Internationally?

After the 2016 U.S. election, Barack Obama provided some perspective on the U.S.’s growing fear of Russia; fear that has only grown in the year since.

“Russia can’t change us,” Obama said. “They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil, and gas and arms.”

 

Obama was appealing to an analysis students are taught in first-year undergraduate international relations class: the idea, espoused in Yale history professor Paul Kennedy’s textbook The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, that military power is determined ultimately by industrial power. Kennedy’s work is full of tables showing the relative industrial power of countries in armed conflict. The winner in each case is the one with more industrial power.

Table 33, Tank Production in 1944, shows Germany producing 17,800 tanks, Russia producing 29,000 tanks, Britain producing 5,000, and the US producing 17,500. Germany produced less than Russia alone, in other words, and far less than the Allies combined.

Table 34, Aircraft Production of the Powers, shows how year after year, the allies out-produced the Axis, by the end, by more than four times or five times. Table 35 shows combined military production: The Allies produced $62.5 billion in arms in 1943, compared to $18.3 billion from the Axis.

Based on the tables, the allied victory was inevitable. The tables don’t lie. Look at hundreds of years of war and in each conflict, the side that brings the most economic power to bear almost always wins.

Trying to estimate Russia’s relative power has been a Western preoccupation for centuries. One quote, “Russia is neither as strong nor as weak as it appears,” has been attributed to Western statesmen from Metternich to Talleyrand to Churchill.

Going through Great Power history looking specifically for Russia, we see phases during which Russia’s relative power expanded and phases when it contracted. Between 1815-1880, as the other powers were industrializing, they pulled far ahead of Russia: Russia’s GNP in 1830 was $10.5 billion, compared to Germany’s $7.2 billion and Britain’s $8.2 billion; but in 1890, Russia’s GNP had grown to $21.1 billion while Germany’s had grown to $26.4 billion and Britain’s to $29.4 billion. Russia had fallen even further behind on a per capita basis.

It was in this period, in 1867—when Russia’s rulers wondered whether they would even be able to get to their Alaskan territory should the invincible British navy contest them—that they sold Alaska to the United States. At the end of this period, in 1904-’05, Russia lost a war to Japan, a loss that surprised both sides.

Despite two devastating World Wars, Russia was, in relative terms, at its strongest during its Soviet phase from 1917-1991. Even in those decades, though, as Russia expanded its industrial and military power, it never came close to rivaling the wealth and power of the United States.

The post-Soviet phase in Russia began with the fastest loss of living standards for the greatest number of people in history. Around 70 million people became impoverished virtually overnight when Yeltsin imposed American-advised economic shock therapy on the country. In the 1990s, NATO expanded across Central Europe and reached Russia’s own borders. NATO military interventions dismembered Russia’s ally, Yugoslavia, and a U.S.-led covert mission destroyed Russia’s neighbor, Afghanistan, which is today occupied by U.S. troops.

If Russia’s might seems to be growing today, it is because Putin set about trying to reverse some of the post-1991 losses to Russian living standards and to Russia’s regional alliances. To the degree that Putin’s policies have been successful—in restoring Russia’s per capita GDP to pre-1991 levels by around 2006, for example, and preventing Syria’s state from being partitioned like Yugoslavia was—they are popular in Russia. This is a far cry, however, from making Russia (with a $1.3 trillion GDP) a challenger to a U.S. economy 15 times its size (with an $18 trillion GDP).

In 2017, the U.S. spent a cool 10 times what Russia did on arms; the U.S. budget is around $600 billion, the Russian is $61 billion. Russia spends considerably less than China ($150 billion) and less than Saudi Arabia ($77 billion).

Russia approaches U.S. levels in arms exports—the U.S. exported around $10 billion in 2016, while Russia came in second at around $6.4 billion, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But it is still behind the U.S. even on this metric.

By other, softer measures of power, Russia has yet to catch up to its pre-1991 levels. In scientific research, in the early 1990s, Russia was producing around the same amount of research as China, India and Brazil, none of which were anywhere near the U.S. By 2009, 20% of global science publications were authored by Americans; 13.7% by Chinese; and only 1.6% by Russians. In 2011, U.S. researchers published 212,394 papers. Russian researchers published 14,151.

None of this precludes the sorts of Russian influence that the American public fears. Russia doesn’t have to have more scientific output than America to get compromising information on its president or to have informal influence over him. Russia doesn’t have to outspend America for Russian hackers to get a lucky break and expose embarrassing emails that influence an election.

But lucky breaks and clever spycraft are as easy for the wealthier and more powerful side to achieve as they are for the smaller, weaker country—easier, even. In the long run, industrial power is a better predictor of influence. America’s military bases ring Russia’s borders, not the other way around. America’s economic power dictates to the world, not Russia’s. And even if a Russian hacker group got a lucky break once a week, the fact is that day to day the Internet is monopolized by American corporations that work with American government agencies to maximize American influence in the world.

Exaggerating Russian power may help justify higher military expenditures in the U.S.; it may soothe Democratic party leaders who want to believe their electoral loss was due to something other than their own unpopularity. But it requires ignoring hundreds of years of the history of economic and military power.

First published on AlterNet March 6, 2018.

Lessons from Ed Herman’s Lifelong War against Lies

The story goes that Einstein’s theory of relativity began with a simple question: What if a person could sit on a beam of light? A single inquiry led to an entire field of study, and perhaps the world’s most famous scientific breakthrough.

The late Ed Herman’s questions were less playful. They were about war and death, lies and power politics, but they too created entire areas of study. If properly considered, they can even guide us through the perilous age in which we’re living.

Herman is best known for co-authoring Noam Chomsky’s iconic Manufacturing Consent, which explores how U.S. corporate media operates as a system of disinformation. Written during the Cold War, the book challenged readers who understood propaganda to be a tool of the Soviet Union. How could a diverse industry without official censors to monitor what it published or aired, that was neither owned nor controlled by the state, be used for social control? Quite easily, as it turns out.

The world offers an almost infinite array of events that can be covered, and media insitutions must decide what’s most relevant to their audiences. In other words, they operate as an information filter. But how do they provide their viewers, listeners and readers with the best possible understanding of the world? Ideally, these institutions produce the kind of coverage necessary to make informed decisions about public policy. In reality, Chomsky and Herman discovered, they serve the interests of the rich and powerful.

In their propaganda model, the pair identified five distinct filters: Media ownership, which is concentrated in the hands of a few spectacularly wealthy corporations; ideology, specifically anti-communism, which “helps mobilize the populace against… anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism”; advertising, or the selling of audiences to advertisers, which can lead to any number of distortions and misconceptions; official sourcing, which often leads to self-censorship as media outlets become dependent on their access to members of the government; and finally organized flak, which allows lobbies to lean on journalists and outlets who deviate from the status quo.

Manufacturing Consent remains as vital today as it was when it first published in 1988. Anti-communism continues to dominate our discourse, even in the absence of a Soviet Union or communist China, while several prominent media personalities have made their careers decrying “leftist ideologues.” Media ownership has become even more exclusive, and the advertising model has overtaken the whole of society by way of Google and social media. Twitter mobs can be manufactured and mobilized; organized flak is now a matter of life and death.

Not only did Herman ask the kinds of questions that produced one of social science’s most compelling theories, but he served as a model of rigor for media critics across the political spectrum. The 1988 edition of Manufacturing Consent ran 330 pages (including appendices), 63 pages of which were endnotes. Its voluminously documented cases were always supplemented by quantitative analysis: the amount of coverage devoted to so-called enemies of the state was inversely proportional to that of crimes committed by the U.S. and its allies. This method can be applied to virtually any line of journalistic inquiry, be it war, economic crisis or a political dispute on campus.

Herman’s priorities were radical, aimed at stopping or preventing the most heinous forms of violence by exposing the media biases that facilitated them. Herman and Chomsky revealed as much in the preface to Manufacturing Consent: “It would have been very difficult for the Guatemalan government to murder tens of thousands over the past decade if the U.S. press had provided the kind of coverage they gave to the difficulties of Andrei Sakharov or the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. It would have been impossible to wage a brutal war against South Vietnam and the rest of indochina… if the media had not rallied to the cause, potraying murderous aggression as a defense of freedom.”

Finally, Herman was relentless in his pursuit of a cause he deemed just. “Trolling” has many definitions, but when it comes to politics, it can most aptly be described as the use of bad-faith tactics to demoralize one’s opponent. Having devoted his life to exposing the consequences of media manipulation, Herman was immune to this mode of communication. He threw himself into intellectual debates with little regard for social taboos, and he gave it as well as he took it. (I learned this firsthand when he published a withering rebuttal to my review of the BBC 2 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story.”)

In The Politics of Genocide, which he co-authored with David Peterson, Herman argued that Western media used the term “genocide” to quash debate about foreign policy, specifically NATO’s efforts to dismantle Yugoslavia, and the joint support of the United States and Britain for Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame. He was immediately labeled a “genocide denier.” More recently, in its obituary for Herman, the New York Times accused Manufacturing Consent of “having soft-pedaled evidence of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, and, during the Bosnia war, Srebrenica.” FAIR and other outlets were quick to point out that the book was published years before two of the conflicts, and the obit was corrected.

The zeal with which these outlets tried to smear Herman’s name could have made a case study for Herman himself. Knowing Herman, the study would have been carefully modeled, meticulously conducted, and revealing in its conclusions about the mainstream media. American readers would have gained a fresh understanding of their country’s propaganda system, not only how it works but how they can subvert it.

Published Feb 15/18 on AlterNet as: What Can Noam Chomsky’s Co-Author Teach Us in the Age of Trump?

The Ossington Circle Episode 29: Media and Empire with… Justin Podur

Dan Freeman-Maloy interviews Justin Podur

In this episode Justin Podur is the guest and guest interviewer Dan Freeman-Maloy asks the questions. We talk about media, Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model, activism in a time of social media monopolies, and empires. The first of a series.

5 Ways Capitalist Logic Has Sabotaged the Scientific Community

Academics should be collaborating, not competing for pseudoscientific rankings.

 

At a time when federal employees are prohibited from uttering the phrase “climate change,” the right routinely attempts to undermine universities’ legitimacy, and tuitions have skyrocketed alongside student debt, it seems perverse that academics would further endanger their mission to educate and enlighten. Yet by embracing a malignant form of pseudoscience, they have accomplished just that.

What is the scientific method? Its particulars are a subject of some debate, but scientists understand it to be a systematic process of gathering evidence through observation and experiment. Data are analyzed, and that analysis is shared with a community of peers who study and debate its findings in order to determine their validity. Albert Einstein called this “the refinement of everyday thinking.”

There are many reasons this method has proven so successful in learning about nature: the grounding of findings in research, the openness of debate and discussion, and the cumulative nature of the scientific enterprise, to name just a few. There are social scientists, philosophers, and historians who study how science is conducted, but working scientists learn through apprenticeship in grad school laboratories.

Scientists have theorized, experimented, and debated their way to astounding breakthroughs, from the DNA double helix to quantum theory. But they did not arrive at these discoveries through competition and ranking, both of which are elemental to the business world. It’s a business, after all, that strives to be the top performer in its respective market. Scientists who adopt this mode of thinking betray their own lines of inquiry, and the practice has become upsettingly commonplace.

Here are five ways capitalist logic has sabotaged the scientific community.

1. Impact Factor

Scientists strive to publish in journals with the highest impact factor, or the mean number of citations received over the previous two years. Often these publications will collude to manipulate their numbers. Journal citations follow what is known as an 80/20 rule: in a given journal, 80 percent of citations come from 20 percent of the total articles published: this means an author’s work can appear in a high-impact journal without ever being cited. Ranking is so important in this process that impact factors are calculated to three decimal places. “In science,” the Canadian historian Yves Gingras writes in his book Bibliometrics and Research Evaluation, “there are very few natural phenomena that we can pretend to know with such exactitude. For instance, who wants to know that the temperature is 20.233 degrees Celsius?”

One might just as easily ask why we need to know that one journal’s impact factor is 2.222 while another’s is 2.220.

2. The H-Index

If ranking academic journals weren’t destructive enough, the h-index applies the same pseudoscience to individual researchers. Defined as the number of articles published by a scientist that obtained at least that number of citations each, the h-index of your favorite scientist can be found with a quick search in Google Scholar. The h-index, Gingras notes in Bibliometrics, “is neither a measure of quantity (output) nor quality of impact; rather, it is a composite of them. It combines arbitrarily the number of articles published with the number of citations they received.”

Its value also never decreases. A researcher who has published three papers that have been cited 60 times each has an h-index of three, whereas a researcher who has published nine papers that have been cited nine times each has an h-index of nine. Is the researcher with an h-index of nine three times a better researcher than their counterpart when the former has been cited 81 times and the latter has been cited 180 times? Gingras concludes: “It is certainly surprising to see scientists, who are supposed to have some mathematical training, lose all critical sense in the face of such a simplistic figure.”

3. Altmetrics

An alternative to Impact Factors and h-indexes is called “alt-metrics,” which seeks to measure an article’s reach by its social media impressions and the number of times it’s been downloaded. But ranking based on likes and followers is no more scientific than the magical h-index. And of course, these platforms are designed to generate clicks rather than inform their users. It’s always important to remember that Twitter is not that important.

4. University Rankings

The U.S. network of universities is one of the engines of the world’s wealthiest country, created over generations through trillions of dollars of investment. Its graduates manage the most complex economies, investigate the most difficult problems, and invent the most advanced creations the planet has ever seen. And they have allowed their agendas to be manipulated by a little magazine called the US News and World Report, which ranks them according to an arcane formula.

In 1983, when it first began ranking colleges and universities, it did so based on opinion surveys of university presidents. Over time, its algorithm grew more complex, adding things like the h-index of researchers, Impact Factors for university journalism, grant money and donations. Cathy O’Neil of the blog mathbabe.org notes in her book Weapons of Math Destruction that, “if you look at this development from the perspective of a university president, it’s actually quite sad… here they were at the summit of their careers dedicating enormous energy toward boosting performance in fifteen areas defined by a group of journalists at a second-tier newsmagazine.”

Why have these incredibly powerful institutions abandoned critical thought in evaluating themselves?

5. Grades

The original sin from which all of the others flow could well be the casual way that scientists assign numerical grades and rankings to their students. To reiterate, only observation, experiment, analysis, and debate have produced our greatest scientific breakthroughs. Sadly, scientists have arrived at the conclusion that if a student’s value can be quantified, so too can journals and institutions. Education writer Alfie Kohn has compiled the most extensive case against grades. Above all, he notes, grades have “the tendency to promote achievement at the expense of learning.”

Only by recognizing that we are not bound to a market-based model can we begin to reverse these trends.

 

First published January 18, 2018 in AlterNet

The Ossington Circle Episode 28: Turkey’s Invasion of Syria with Sardar Saadi

The Ossington Circle Episode 28: Turkey’s Invasion of Syria with Sardar Saadi

In this episode I talk to Sardar Saadi about Turkey’s invasion of Afrin in Syrian Kurdistan. We recap the past few years of Syrian Kurdistan and the many players in the Syrian Civil War, and lament the continuing absence of an antiwar movement that could address the escalating and neverending wars in the region.

How the Saudis Escalated Yemen Struggle Beyond All Control

The Yemen Civil War could have been a local power struggle, if not for the Saudis’ heavy hand.

Yemen is a small, poor country in a region empires have plundered for centuries. This civil war is a local struggle that has been escalated out of control by the ambitions of powers outside of Yemen—mainly Saudi Arabia.

The British Empire ruled the Yemeni city of Aden in South Yemen as a colony, a refueling station for ships on the way to the Empire’s Indian possessions. Gaining independence in 1967, South Yemen had a socialist government from 1970 on, becoming the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

Northern Yemen was ruled by a king from the city of Sana’a who followed of the Zaydi denomination of Islam, clashing periodically with both the British and with the Saudi kingdom over borders in the 1930s. Arab nationalist revolutionaries overthrew the king in 1962, starting a civil war between nationalists, backed by Arab nationalist (Nasserite) Egypt and royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran (then a monarchy too). A peace deal was reached and by 1970, even Saudi Arabia recognized North Yemen as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).

North and South Yemen talked about unification throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and it finally happened in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union that had been South Yemen’s most important ally.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed this December 3, was a military man who had been president of North Yemen since he was appointed by a junta in 1978. He became president of the unified country in 1990.

Saleh had to navigate a dangerous time for the Arab world. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US under Bush declared a New World Order, showing that the US could now operate in the region without any concern about a Soviet deterrent. Yemen happened to be on the UN Security Council in November 1990 when Resolution 678 authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from Kuwait—authorizing the first Gulf War, in effect—came up for debate. Yemen voted against the resolution. The American representative famously told his Yemeni counterpart, “That was the most expensive vote you ever cast.” Yemen, which had hundreds of thousands of workers in the oil-rich Gulf countries including Kuwait, found its workers expelled and its Western aid programs cut when the war was over. Yemen was made an example of.

The post-1990 war sanctions on Iraq, which by most estimates killed hundreds of thousands of children through malnutrition and preventable disease, as well as the US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, were extremely unpopular in Yemen (as elsewhere in the Arab world). So was the lack of progress in ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, as people gradually realized that the Oslo Accords had frozen the occupation rather than ending it.

People from wealthy and powerful Yemeni families, among them veteran of the Afghan jihad Osama bin Laden (in fact there were numerous Yemenis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan), wanted to raise a local Arab force to secure the Arab peninsula and have the US military leave. But the idea was a non-starter with the Saudi kingdom that hosted the Americans.

When bin Laden’s al Qaeda attacked US embassies (killing 44 embassy personnel and 150 African civilians), a US naval vessel (the USS Cole), and finally US civilians on 9/11, the US declared a war on terror. Saleh had learned his lesson from 1990 and agreed to cooperate with the US after 2001.

By this time, Saleh had been in power for more than two decades, and had enriched himself and his family in the process (his son, Ahmed Saleh, was a commander in an elite army unit). The vice-president, Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi, also headed a powerful and wealthy family. Other “big names” in Yemen include the Al-Ahmar family (which includes the current Vice President in exile and army general Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, billionaire media owner Hamid al Ahmar, and the founders of the Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islah party) and of course the Houthi family of Sa’ada, a mountainous governorate on the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, like the old kings of North Yemen, are of the Zaydi denomination.

The term “tribe,” used by the British Empire for its imperial purposes of classification and rule, refers to a genuine social phenomenon, but is not especially useful in explaining the politics of Yemen. The country’s elite is indeed organized in extended family networks, but this is arguably not so different from Western countries (how many Bushes and Clintons have participated in ruling the US empire by now?). Politicians and bureaucrats use public office to enrich themselves.

This, too, is not so different from Western countries, with the Trump brand being the starkest example. The Yemeni version of elite profiteering is exemplified in the smuggling of diesel fuel out of the country. Sarah Philips, author of Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, cites analyses suggesting that 12% of Yemen’s GDP is smuggled out, the profits siphoned off by the elite – dollar estimates run as high as $900 million, with reports of a single man from a prominent family taking $155 million in smuggling profits in one year.

As Yemenis watched Israel crush the second Intifada from 2000 on, as well as the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Saleh’s cooperation in the war on terror became ever more unpopular. One prominent scion of the Houthi family, Hussein al-Houthi, led followers in Sa’ada in a famous chant: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”

In the chant, “curse on the Jews” stands out from the group of otherwise hyperbolic items seeking victory for one’s own side and death to the other. Even before this civil war, the Jewish community in Yemen was very small and long-suffering. Ginny Hill, author of the 2016 book Yemen Endures, found in her travels that “prejudice against the Jews was prevalent and unabashed,” and that Yemeni Jews in Sa’ada and elsewhere have suffered greatly from being caught in the middle of the Houthi insurgency.

Provoked by the Houthi chant and hoping to show his eagerness to fight the war on terror, Saleh sent the army into Sa’ada in 2004. The Houthis fought back. The army killed Hussein al-Houthi, who became a martyr of the Houthis’ cause. Six waves of warfare followed over the next seven years, as Saleh’s forces kept trying to quell the Houthis, whose power base in the north continued to grow. Saudi Arabia stepped in to support Saleh in 2009, and the Houthis responded with a quick raid from Sa’ada into the Saudi kingdom itself.

Meanwhile, in what had been South Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was growing as well, and also challenging Saleh’s government. President Obama’s drone program blasted away in the south, leaving civilian casualties and terror in its wake. Saleh’s strategy was to focus on fighting the Houthis and make exaggerated claims that they were sponsored by Iran, while keeping a lighter touch with AQAP, which had more powerful patrons in Yemen’s elite.

At the same time, the Saudi royals were escalating their arms purchases, with contracts in the tens of billions with the US (and a $1.5 billion contract with a Canadian company now famous in that country). Saudi oil sales to and arms purchases from the US underpin the unbreakable bond between the kingdom and the empire. It explains why you hear much more about Russian (a competitor in the global arms trade) than Saudi (the greatest and most reliable purchaser of US arms) collusion in the US media. It also explains why the US provides military advice and help with targeting and intelligence to the Saudis as they use all their expensive purchases destroying Yemen.

In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen and an alliance from the elite families joined the mass call for the end of Saleh’s rule. Saleh first agreed to step down, then refused. He was injured by a bomb blast in June and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He finally did step down, handing power over to his vice-president, Hadi, in 2012.

Hadi presided over a constitution-drafting exercise. One feature enraged the Houthis: a plan to redraw the regions of Yemen, making Sana’a and Aden self-governing and merging Sada’a into a new highland governorate, “a formation that would deny the Houthis control over the Red Sea coast to west, cut them off from natural resources to the east, and fence them up against the Saudi border to the north,” as Ginny Hill wrote.

The Houthis, in alliance with the ex-president Saleh, arrived in force in the capital, besieging the presidential palace in 2014 and taking it at the beginning of 2015. Hadi fled to Aden, where he declared that he was still the lawful president of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in support of Hadi in March of 2015. The Saudi intervention magnified the humanitarian impact of the civil war into a full-blown catastrophe, bombing, besieging, and blockading the entire country to try to force the Houthis out.

The Saudi blockade and bombing have scaled up a local power struggle to genocidal proportions. They believe Yemen is their backyard and that it is their right to impose a solution. Military victory has proven elusive for them, but their unlimited resources and the wide license given them by the Western media to freely commit crimes has allowed them to keep raising the stakes and nudging Yemen towards catastrophe.

The Houthis have held on, however, withstanding the bombardment and siege, even as the humanitarian catastrophe continues to expand. By now, the casualty figures are more than 10,000 dead, two million displaced, 2.2 million facing starvation, and one million infected with cholera since 2015 (27% of whom are under 5 years old). In addition to directly helping the Saudi military use its weapons, the US, including the media, has continued to run interference for the Saudi intervention. The humanitarian disaster is presented as a natural disaster, not a direct outcome of the way the Saudi kingdom has pursued the war.

Saleh, a wily operator who had survived in power since 1978, could not survive this last alliance with the Saudis: he was killed within 24 hours of making it. This December 3, Saleh announced he was switching sides, leaving his alliance with the Houthis and joining Hadi and the Saudis. The Houthis quickly routed his forces in the capital and blew up his house. The next day they stopped him at a checkpoint and killed him too, announcing that they had avenged Hussein al-Houthi. Saleh’s son Ahmed quickly announced his plans to avenge his father.

The UN, Oman, Iran, and others have put forward peace plans to end the Yemeni civil war. Most feature a national unity government that includes the Houthis, who will convert their movement into a political party, with elections to follow. Saleh switching sides and the Houthi killing him makes a peace deal much less likely in the short term. But the biggest obstacle to peace remains Saudi Arabia, which has also been the biggest escalating force of the war.

Published in Alternet Dec 10/17

The Ossington Circle Episode 27: Science and Academic Publishing with Bjoern Brembs

The Ossington Circle Episode 27: Science and Academic Publishing with Bjoern Brembs

I talk to scientist Bjoern Brembs about the problems with proprietary journal companies control over scientific publishing. We imagine a better world of open science that is technologically feasible, discuss the German consortium negotiation with the journal companies, and think about what academics could start to do in this world about the problem.