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Emrys's Journal
Emrys's Journal
November 22, 2017

The Spectator: Can you distinguish between a bot and a human?

We’ve all gone a bit bot-mad in the past few weeks. Automated accounts have invaded our civic life – especially pesky Russian ones – and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have woken up to the fact that a new propaganda war is taking place online.

Bots – which is of course short for robot – are essentially accounts which can be programmed to automatically post, share, re-tweet, or do whatever the programmer chooses. Creating a bot is extremely easy, and huge amounts of cheap bots are available on dark net markets for next to nothing. There are millions of harmless bots out there doing all sorts of helpful and funny things, including breaking news stories. But Russia twigged early that bots can also be usefully deployed to influence public opinion. It has been using them for years. During the Senate investigation into Russian meddling in the US election, Twitter revealed the handles of some 36,746 Russian-linked bots. They had tweeted a total of 1.4 million times in the two months before the election, and the accounts had been viewed almost 300 million times.

This new world of pseudonyms, virals, and digital public opinion is becoming murky. It’s not always easy to tell humans and bots apart, because some bots behave like humans; and some humans behave like bots. One academic report earlier this year tried to measure Labour bots during the election. It estimated that any account which tweets over 50 times a day on a single hashtag is a bot. Myself and colleagues at Demos took a closer look at this – and it turned out that many of these ‘bots’ were in fact fanatic Labour supports who were tweeting so frenetically they looked machines. Equally, improvements in machine learning mean bots are looking more and more human. Soon, it will be very difficult to tell them apart.

Far more worrying than bots though are the paid content producers. A decent amount of the Russian interference appears to emanate from the Russian ‘troll factory’ based in St Petersburg where hundreds of people work 12-hour shifts spreading information that supports the Kremlin’s line. (Salaries of around between £575 – £830pcm). My guess is that a lot of the accounts they run are cyborg – which are half bot, half human. A human operator runs thousands of accounts, adding the odd bit of human content to bots in order to evade standard spam filters.

November 20, 2017

Let me entertain this for just a moment, since you're so serious and political and all.

How can voters choose to demand it in a constitutional monarchy?

All our MPs have to swear allegiance to the Queen:

I, (Insert full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

They can't take their seats at Westminster to vote in parliament unless they do (e.g. Sinn Fein).

Holding an election (please don't suggest a referendum ... we don't do those very well) has to be OK'd by the Queen, so it would be a little bit awkward for the prime minister of the day to go to the palace and say to Her Majesty: "We want to hold an election, ma'am. Oh, by the way, part of our platform is we're going to get rid of you."

If she even agrees and the party promising to set the wheels in motion to do that wins (if you think Brexit's complicated, you ain't seen nothing yet, as the monarchy's embedded in our legal system, armed forces etc.), it's back to:

All our MPs have to swear allegiance to the Queen:

I, (Insert full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

They can't take their seats at Westminster to vote in parliament unless they do (e.g. Sinn Fein).

Then there's the House of Lords, which has to pass any legislation. We can't vote them in or out (there have been some noises at various times about moving to some sort of senate system, but nothing serious, as it benefits the parties in power to be able to nominate non-hereditary peers).

Tell me about democracy again?
November 19, 2017

I saw a few, I think relatively early on. Other than that, it's a strawman.

Here's a sad aspect to the story:

Al Franken wrote a bill to help rape survivors like me. He can’t lead on it now.

In November 2014, I was raped.

I’m certainly not the only one something this awful has happened to, but afterward, I felt as though I was. I was a 19-year-old college student. My life changed overnight. I faced an incredibly long fight to bring my attacker to justice: Daniel Drill-Mellum was wealthy, well-connected, and willing to throw me and my reputation under the bus. The #MeToo culture I’ve seen develop publicly over the last month wasn’t around to help me then. I was nearly harassed off the University of Minnesota campus for reporting. I was turned away by the Minneapolis Police Department despite the mountain of evidence in my case.

Over the next two years, I learned how to hold my frustration in, because I had an end goal in mind. I knew that my attacker belonged in prison, and I was determined to get the justice system on my side. I made mental notes about everything that was going wrong. I tried to have patience that someday I could make a different world. When my rapist was sentenced in August 2016 to six years in prison, I finally had my chance.

I sought help from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). He took up my cause without hesitation, and he worked with his aides to draft legislation to pay for training to help police departments treat assault survivors with more concern for what we’ve been through. But now that allegations have come out that Franken himself assaulted a woman years ago, I want another lawmaker to sponsor the bill we worked so hard on. This work deserves to be led by those without a history of sexual harassment or assault.

The news this week was especially disappointing for me because of how effective an advocate Franken has been for my cause. I felt my heart sink when I saw the news, but I was prepared to support the woman involved. I remember what it was like to be shamed and not believed.


If anybody wants to click through, they'll see the sort of work Franken's been involved in, and how sensitively he and his staff have handled the process of helping this woman frame the bill. She now wants to find a female congressperson to sponsor it instead.

I hope it's an overreaction to the early forms of this story, and she may revise her decision. Or perhaps it would be better if she can find a female senator to sponsor it, and Franken can offer whatever support is necessary, behind the scenes or from the floor. The problem with his involvement is Republican whataboutery. You'd hope a bill like this could find bipartisan agreement, but I doubt it.

It may shed some light on why Franken reacted like he did. The larger picture than his own career is the legislation he wants to pass and the changes he wants to come about - exactly as set out in his long statement. That's integrity.

I don't think any number of videos or pics of Tweeden cavorting onstage are likely to make Abby Honold feel differently, certainly not if Franken were ever to have a hand in relying on them as some sort of "defense" - especially in view of her own experience of the attempts to "throw me and my reputation under the bus". Or maybe she'll realize that this is more or less what's happened to Franken as her ally and change her mind.

What probably won't help change her mind is targeting somebody who comes forward with an allegation for her past behavior, however raunchy, given what she says above. Or maybe she'll join some here in resenting Tweeden for making false allegations, but that could be a slippery slope and she may not be able or willing to go there.

These are the stakes. This whole operation hasn't just targeted Franken, it's targeted the current wave of revulsion at revelations about how (especially powerful) men sometimes conduct themselves.

That's why I think Franken's reacted as he has, and why he's right to do so.

I might have made the above an OP, but I think we've had quite enough OPs about all this recently.
November 18, 2017

"Russian troll" accusations

I'm seeing this a lot over the past few days, in various more or less heated threads, usually about the Franken issue.

It's an easy way to try to shut down an argument.

It's also exactly the sort of tactic a true "Russian troll", on whatever side of an argument, would deploy to sow division! Beware when you point at someone, because your other fingers are pointing at you.

It would be really neat if those in the habit of throwing this accusation around would cut it out.

If you genuinely suspect somebody's up to no good, I believe MIRT would like to hear from you.

Trolls may well be among us - Russian or just plain old GOP or simple mischief-makers, as has long been the case.

If so, it's going to take a bit more subtlety to identify them.

If they have bad arguments or are spreading misinformation, that should be easy enough to challenge without resorting to a cheap jibe.

November 16, 2017

This is not a statement from the Franken plane "grope" photographer.

Posted because people keep citing it as if it's proven to be true. It's not.


Aiden Benjamin @Feisal_Hagi


Al Franken photo staged according to photographer who took the photo.

Photographer: [S]he was playing dead and SHE wanted him to ‘revive’ her. I took the picture it was a funny moment everyone was smiling having a good time

Leeann Tweeden is a trump supporter.

"Benjamin" has offered no source for this photographer's supposed statement, no name or other details (other Twitter accounts have posted similar, though "Benjamin" himself appears to be the original source for it).

The placing of the bikini shot next to the plane shot is something that should immediately ring alarm bells. It does nothing but attempt to slutshame Weeden. She may end up deserving to be shamed, but not because of any photos she's had taken in the past.

"Benjamin" has followed it up some hours later with another tweet:


Aiden Benjamin @Feisal_Hagi

Al Franken’s accuser Leean Tweeden is a Fox News regular and best friends with Sean Hannity. She also has donated THOUSANDS to the Trump/Roy Moore campaign.

This is politically convenient?

I think yes!#fakenews
Dozens of interviews with Sean here:

Politically convenient or not, there's that bikini pic again, this time on its own.

Do we know anything about "Aiden Benjamin"?

Well, for a start, there's this from Politifact:

An outdated photo wrongly suggests Barack Obama is at a food shelter in Houston

As Tropical Storm Harvey rocks Houston, Texas, a Twitter user decried President Donald Trump’s response in comparison to former President Barack Obama’s purported on-the-ground efforts using an outdated photo.

Twitter user Aiden Benjamin (@Feisal_Hagi) posted a picture of Obama and his family serving food at a shelter, which he captioned with the hashtags #HurricaneHarvery and #prayfortexas.

"Something youll never see trump do: Obama is in texas serving meals!" he wrote in the Aug. 26, 2017 tweet.

Here’s the thing. The picture isn’t from Houston nor from this year. It’s from a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., where Obama and his family served Thanksgiving dinner to homeless veterans on Nov. 25, 2015. Both tweets have since been deleted.


Personal observation: I think Franken has handled this well so far. Let's not muddy his response by repeating unquestioningly the words of a dubious Twitter source with a track record of spreading fake news.
November 8, 2017

Priti Patel: When holidays go wrong

When a holiday ends in protracted negotiations with the Israeli military it's usually a sign something has gone badly wrong

Most family holidays don’t tend to involve protracted negotiations with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

That’s the first thing that strikes you in reading the Priti Patel story. For anyone who hasn’t been up on this, the international development secretary has been forced to apologise after holding 12 secret meetings, while on a private holiday in the Middle East.

And the story raises all sorts of questions, not least over what sort of holiday Patel had organised.

After all, lots of people struggle to switch off from work on holiday, but there’s a significant difference between fighting the urge to check your emails and finding yourself in high level covert meetings with a foreign power.


November 8, 2017

My travels in white America - a land of anxiety, division and pockets of pain

This summer, Gary Younge took a trip from Maine to Mississippi to find out what has brought the US to this point. From the forgotten poor to desperate addicts, their whiteness is all some of them have left – and that makes fertile ground for the far right

Jeff Baxter’s enduring memory, from childhood, is the glow. Coming down over the hill overlooking the coke plant in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the molten iron would make itself known – both as a vision and an aspiration. “It’s like the sun landed there,” says Baxter, a burly, bearded retiree, who achieved his boyhood dream of becoming a steelworker.

Today, the plant, like the one Baxter worked in for 30 years, stands derelict – a shell that represents a hollowing out not just of the local economy but of culture and hope – as though someone extinguished Baxter’s sun and left the place in darkness. Buildings in the centre of town that were once testament to the industrial wealth produced here stand abandoned. More than 40% of the population now live below the poverty line; 9.1% are unemployed.

Cambria County, where Johnstown sits, was once a swing county. Al Gore won it in 2000; George W Bush took it in 2004; it went to Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 – each time by fairly narrow margins. Last year, Donald Trump won it in a landslide.

Baxter, who once backed Obama, voted for Trump, the first time he had ever voted Republican. “I liked [Obama’s] message of hope, but he didn’t bring any jobs in … Trump said he was going to make America great. And I figured: ‘That’s what we need. We need somebody like that to change it.’”

November 2, 2017

Utah nurse reaches $500,000 settlement in dispute over her arrest for blocking cop ...

... from drawing blood from patient

University Hospital nurse Alex Wubbels has agreed to a $500,000 payment to settle a dispute over her arrest by a Salt Lake City police officer after she barred him from drawing blood from an unconscious patient, her attorney said Tuesday.

Attorney Karra Porter said at a news conference that the agreement with Salt Lake City and the University of Utah covers all parties and takes the possibility of legal action off the table. “There will be no lawsuit,” she said.


Wubbels will use a portion of the money to help people get body camera footage, at no cost, of incidents involving themselves, she said at the news conference. In addition, Porter’s law firm, Christensen & Jensen, will provide for free any legal services necessary to obtain the video.


Wubbels said she also will make a donation to the Utah Nurses Association and will help spearhead the #EndNurseAbuse campaign by the American Nurses Association.


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