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Burning Digital Books and the Fight over Online Ideology (nicholasjrobinson.com)
32 points by theNJR 20 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

The quest for profit has resulted in companies giving us the ability to curate everything we see even when we think we're getting a random selection of the latest news. Every time we go online we remake the world in our own image, only reflecting ourselves. I'm tired of the constant stream of news stories designed to make me feel smugly correct or spark righteous fury. I'm tired of being told I'm right every moment of every day.

I think one of the things we loose when we transitioned from newspapers to reading news online is the drive to condense information and curate what is reported for such a broad audience.

I distinctly remember how my grandfathers, both of them, would not consider themselves done with the daily newspaper unless they read the first section, or typically for one of them, the whole paper.

These days we selectivaly choose which articles to read, which to not read. We read what we enjoy or are passionate about, we don't read what depresses us, or conflicts with our worldview.

From what I can see, this is leading to greatly warped worldviews all around. We feel like we are fully informed while only having seen one side of the issue, we then dismiss reporting from the other side or more and more, centrist or neutral reporting as driven by ideology as if what we are reading and hearing is not driven by ideology.

So very well said.

We need to rethink what social platforms can be. The power of connection across borders is amazing, but it's turned into funhouse mirrors.

I just want a most recent feed, not these algorithms that thinks they know better.

A "random selection of the latest news" is neither well-defined, nor a useful concept:

(1) A red car just passed outside my window.

(2) Tensions in Kashmir are easing.

Both statements are true. They weren't true five days ago. Therefore they are "news".

I fail to see why it's the fault of "the quest for profit" when newspapers will tend to give the second news higher billing.

Profit-driven (and also non-profit) publishers have a motive to publish stories that "people want to read", yes. But there's a difference between "want to read" and "feel-good news". I'm no fan of global warming, and yet the pesky newspaper I subscribe to insist on reminding me that it exists.

Restaurants and supermarkets are just as, or even more, profit-driven. But that has not lead to a monopolisation of nutrition at the low quality end of the spectrum that appeals to our base instincts: McDonald's exists, just as tabloids do. But spinach or the New York Times steadfastly refuse to disappear.

And even if you select for news which might affect a large portion of the world, you run into issues of which stories to present first, which ones to go in-depth on, and other issues of news judgment that any paper or TV station made.

Back in the Old Days, newsrooms were full of people who debated what the news was, in terms of which stories to run, which ones were headlines, and which ones were below the fold on the second page. Those people were, let us be clear, straight White men who either were cis and hetero or were able to fake it well enough to have a professional career. Most of them were Christian, and if you go back far enough in some regions that effectively excludes Catholics.

They were news judgment, in terms of the news sources which mattered. They were the gatekeepers.

So we have different gatekeepers now. This is only deeply disturbing if you thought the gatekeepers never existed, or went away entirely.

Maybe eventually news outlets will have enough information about you that they will figure out how to serve you better.

I mostly use Apple News for reading news and after a few months of marking stories as good or bad, it's getting better and better at showing me stuff I actually want to see.

Yes the anti-vax stories are also on top of my lists. I know the elite rather have me seeing stories about how Iran is evil and needs to be liberated, but I prefer these stories. /s Maybe if everyone just shut up about everything we could all get some peace. Those who know don't say and those who say don't know.

If you stop reading then you’ll live in a world where everyone shut up.

>Maybe eventually news outlets will have enough information about you that they will figure out how to serve you better.

They don't gather that information to "serve you better" they gather it "serve you up better"! They are going to use the information to grab the attention of your eyeballs for their own purposes not to better serve you. Remember if your not paying for the product you are the product.

It totally depends on what you mark good and bad.

If you mark shallow, screaming articles as bad and they continue serving them you’ll soon switch to another platform.

It’s in your responsibility to use the tools wisely.

The thing I worry about is even if the news networks try to show us "opposing viewpoints" they'll curate those, alter them somehow, etc. Maybe it'll be used as an excuse to flood us with one particular view they happen to share...

You might not want hear it, but you are right.

Does anyone believe we have gained more with this "democratisation" of publishing than we are losing to conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and populism?

Because until ca. ten to twenty years ago, the "establishment" acted as de facto gatekeepers for the public discourse. And while that does strike me as a bad idea in principle, I really couldn't argue that they didn't do a far better job than today's cacophony.

Sort of like presidential nominees: smoke-filled backrooms certainly are not perfect venues for decision-making. But they nominated Eisenhower and Roosevelt, while we can't find anyone better than you-know-who?

>Does anyone believe we have gained more with this "democratisation" of publishing than we are losing to conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and populism?

It's too early to say as of right now. However, I think the eventual answer will be "yes".

Skepticism and the scientific method may be just one competing idea while hoaxes, conspiracies, and populism will take a billion different (mutually exclusive) forms. But with access to more information than ever before, people all over the world are likely to independently come to roughly the same conclusions about important questions based on actual critical thinking, and it's much harder to "convert" somebody from positions supported by science and/or clear reasoning (i.e. how many reputable scientists backslide into climate change denial?).

It will help that hoaxes and populism usually only have success in the short-term and tend to shoot their own ideology in the foot, whereas remaining loyal to reality comes with inherent real-world benefits.

With the interconnected world in its current, chaotic state I do find it hard to really imagine that even skeptically-minded people will be able to defend themselves from bad ideas that "go viral." Humans seem better at convincing each other of bullshit than ever before. However, the robustness and effectiveness of the scientific method and at least a slight tendency for the best ideas to win out over time is unquestionable to my mind, so this conclusion seems clear.

Maybe the missing ingredient is popularizing some kind of common, simple (but not necessarily perfect) epistemological framework for smelling out bullshit on the internet. Maybe one is already taking a very early form, who knows.

The real question I think is whether we will live long enough to see all this play out in our lifetimes. As long as we are able to conquer our current short-term existential crises and survive mostly intact into the long-run, then I think there's significant reasons to be optimistic about our future.

Which conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and populist ideas would you ban from being accessed by US civilians if you had the moral or legal power?

I wouldn't ban anything. What we need is a bit of trust in some institutions. There is a rather obvious difference in quality going from, say, The New England Journal of Medicine to http://thespians-against-government-mind-control.hoax.

It is impossible for you to independently verify even a tiny fraction of what you read/hear on a daily basis. Therefore, you need proxies that can be trusted. These proxies can be evaluated by their performance over time, and there should be many, and they should compete for your trust.

This is exactly how everybody is already operating, almost all the time: when your spouse asks to borrow your car, you will probably give it to them. Because they have a track record of giving it back, and a long-term interest that outweighs any momentary impulse to just sell it and go on vacation. If a stranger on the street asks the same, you will be more sceptical.

That’s a utopian view though. Institutions that were trustworthy became untrustworthy over time because of their own current actions. Who is in charge of establishing truthiness?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes. Who watches the watchmen.

The only logical and rational way to disseminate information in a free society is you put it all out there and let people make up their own damn minds.

I know it doesn’t appeal to the control freak side that is scarily manifesting itself everywhere lately, but if our schools were more focused on education instead of politics, logic instead of propaganda, we wouldn’t need to control narratives, we could just entrust people to make their own decisions.

>Does anyone believe we have gained more with this "democratisation" of publishing than we are losing to conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and populism?

I do. At least now we have grass-roots conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and populism. In the past, we had top-down conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and populism.

...Top-down conspiracy theories like "Communist Hollywood infiltration".

...Top-down hoaxes like the Gulf of Tonkin.

...Top-down populism, aka, industrial-grade astroturfing.

I'll take clowns on youtube over that any day!

> But this is where it gets tricky; Every major scientific theory ends being wrong over time.

This is just not true. Many scientific theories end up being wrong, but not all. Many are refined, and added to, but not all end up just being wrong.

We should keep posting this excellent rebuttal from Isaac Asimov to stamp out this misunderstanding: https://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.ht...

That was a great read!

It’s kind of confusing if you adjust your article during a discussion whiteout marking it.

Any suggestions for how to best do that? I like the idea of living documents (to a degree).

You can place an “edit” in front of your change and even link it to the comment that caused the change. That has the added benefit of giving credit.

Of course not in front of each typo.

Here: > Every major scientific theory ends up being wrong over time (edit: sort of).

I agree that your already read-worthy text gains through interaction.

Changed the "sort of" link to this very thread. Let's get meta!

> sets a scary president for alls voices that are other

I can't read past this kind of error. It's a typo too far for an article that is asking me to take it seriously.

Proofreading is "proof" that the author has taken care of both their language and their ideas.

Fixed. Thank you for holding me to a high standard, truly.

Oh good on you. I'll carry on from that point then.

Ok so while we're here:

- preveriable -> proverbial

- rediculuded -> ridiculed

- bares -> bears

- By unleashing a never-ending stream of fiction, masked a truth -> By unleashing a never-ending stream of fiction, masked as truth

We have AI that supposedly can "compose" articles, but there are no open-source grammar-aware spellcheckers. I love modern technology.

And yes, this is one of the projects on my 1000-item todo list.

There is LanguageTool, but it's a Java monstrosity. You can at least bind it to localhost and it's only slow on startup, but takes 300MB of RAM just sitting there, exposing a REST API.


It can be integrated with Neovim, with some work.



Have you ever tried Grammarly? I see them advertise on Hulu, not sure if its any good.

They send all your texts to their servers for analysis. I don't find that acceptable from privacy standpoint, even if I'm just writing publicly visible comments.

I really appreciate that. The fact that simple spellcheck catchable errors made it into the final piece is upsetting.

I need to give my editor (aka my wife) more time with the final before pushing live.

if you're looking for spell and style checking I can recommend the hemingwayapp.com - doesn't catch everything but is pretty useful especially for non native English speakers

This reads like someone's college freshman essay. It's just a recap of existing knowledge, with no concrete call to action.

I enjoyed the article. I do not believe every article needs to include a call to action. Describing the situation can lead others to come up with ideas for solutions.

I agree. It's a scattering of good (if not novel) observations about the issue, but there's just no through line connecting any of them.

The last paragraph is phrased as though it follows logically from the preceding one, when it seems to make pretty much the opposite point.

I don't quite understand how the proposed "diversity of platforms" is supposed to help?

Ending up with a "liberal facebook" and a separate "conservative facebook" seems like the worst possible outcome. It will just reinforce tribalism, and destroy any remaining resemblance of a commonly trusted source of truth. There will be two sets of economic indicators every quarter, and both will be wrong. At that point, political discussions will just be fan-fic.

The root of the problem seems to be a large fraction of people opposed to either the existence, or at least the possibility to adjudicate, truth: "Some people say the earth is round(ish). Others say it's flat. Who am I to judge?"

> Ending up with a "liberal facebook" and a separate "conservative facebook" seems like the worst possible outcome.

Indeed. Which is why two is still the wrong number, and the right number has three or more digits.

It is interesting to consider how federated social networks (e.g. https://joinmastodon.org) fit in here. They seem uniquely positioned to be able to thread the needle of broad inter-connectivity combined with more localized control.

Personally I view given example of antivaxxing movement as a side effect of lacking research on rise of autism in kids. Muting these people is immoral and will backfire badly

I am increasingly of the opinion that there's a case to be made that there simply is no positive way to jam more than a few dozen thousand people onto a single site, into a single community, with the hyperconnectivity implied by modern technology, without a problem. At some point, the community as a whole is going to have to take some stances on some things, and society can't afford to have those stances be writ so large.

The governnment may very well come along someday and break up Facebook, but I bet it would be broken up into three or four pieces or something. I'd say it should be shattered, though. A new BabyBook shouldn't have more than 50,000-100,000 users in it. And that's still a single community starting out at what may very well be already the maximum size.

Of all the places, it's the hardest sell here, because this is where Facebook's ideology comes from and it's hard for a lot of HN denizens to see much light of day between truth and Facebook's politics, but abstractly, there's no compelling reason to believe that everything labeled as bad and wrong by Facebook actually is wrong. The odds that all "conspiracy theories" are false approaches zero, honestly. The availability heuristic will bring the most obviously false ones to mind like "flat earth" and "moon landing hoax", but the HN gestalt believes plenty of conspiracy theories like companies conspiring to hold prices down or blocking research that shows negative side effects for pharmaceuticals, or honestly I could go on for quite a while here; there are many other things of a similar level of believability that are either getting blocked by Facebook now, or where the frontier of Facebook censorship is about to reach at its current pace, that simply don't flatter Facebook's political positions and choices.

I think it ought to be OK for Facebook to make those decisions, because I'm serious about communities having to make calls about what it's going to accept. There's no way around it, it's as inevitable with community growth as gravity pulling a large body into a spherical shape. What's wrong with that is that we have small numbers of managers at Facebook making these decisions for the entire Internet, inevitably inflaming everything in the process. It should be a more distributed process.

As for those who hope that there's some way to leverage Facebook's concentrated power to simply eliminate all the bad ideas, even if we stipulate that Facebook's aribtration of truth is in fact totally accurate and totally unbiased, a rather astonishing and frankly unbelievable accomplishment for an advertising company, you need to give that idea up now. History tends to show this sort of suppression just energizes those movements. Rather than deplatforming them by trying to deny them access to the Facebook of today, you need to deplatform them by destroying the entire platform that has that reach in the first place. You can't get rid of them, if for no other reason than there's a baseline of literal mental illness that isn't going away any time soon. You can't prevent them from speaking out. But you can make it so that they're in a corner of the Internet, because everyone's in some corner of the Internet somewhere. We kinda had that in the 200x's and late 1990s. It mostly worked.

Here's one from today that I'd bet at least 25% of the HN gestalt would be at least willing to consider as possibly containing a lot of truth:


For your convenience, the article in question: https://theintercept.com/2019/01/11/as-democratic-elites-reu...

Is the article correct? Who knows. I'm neither endorsing nor criticizing the content directly right now. Is it fringe lunatic nonsense that should be censored lest some right-thinking person be deceived into injecting themselves with bleach or something? Not even remotely. I feel I'm being conservative with the 25% estimate, too. Anyone over about 30 has all the data they need to ask some pointy questions about exactly how committed the various parties are to anti-war positions, rather than co-opting them when convenient and discarding them the second they aren't.

(I am assuming that Facebook is very likely incorrect in labelling that as spam. It doesn't look like true spam, it looks like it's participation in a conversation. But I admit I can't prove it. I also admit that at this point my priors give me very little reason to trust Facebook over even a random internet poster.)

The Facebook censorship frontier is much closer than I suspect most people reading this comment here would suspect.

< there simply is no positive way to jam more than a few dozen thousand people onto a single site

Agreed. The trick is, how do you leverage, or get around, network effects without destroying the community? Network effects create the problem, but are built in to the medium itself.

< But you can make it so that they're in a corner of the Internet, because everyone's in some corner of the Internet somewhere. We kinda had that in the 200x's and late 1990s. It mostly worked.

Youth is always sunny, but those days certainly seemed better. There was a meta-community of people just wanting to grow the internet, so everyone at least had that shared goal in common. I get that feeling here on HN for the most part.

> The trick is, how do you leverage, or get around, network effects without destroying the community?

Federation. Give the network effect to everybody even though each community is independently operated.

>It’s promoting diversity in its truest sense – a broad perspective on shared challenges. [...] To let three online platforms decide what’s real and who gets to speak, will almost certainly result in nothing good, or new.

Too many essays about "free speech" focus on stating principles that feel good to read and agree with. However, the more difficult analysis is how to implement a true free speech platform.

That's the puzzle nobody talks about: how to make a uncensorable free speech platform that's financially sustainable.

If one does Ctrl+F in Robinson's essay to search for "advertisers" or "sponsors", those terms are not mentioned once. Youtube/Facebook/Twitter are funded by advertisers. Youtube isn't the arbiter of diverse topics, it's the advertisers. And indirectly, it's the mainstream viewers that arbitrate what's viewable because they threaten to boycott the advertisers. (Previous comment about this.[1])

If big advertisers like Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola, etc want to stop paying for ads because the platforms host controversial topics, how does this utopian vision of free speech get funded? That never seems to be discussed.

Some alternative funding possibilities:

- pass a law that requires advertisers to pay for unsavory content (e.g. including Nazi, Alt-Right, beheadings, etc.) However, this type of radical law seems impossible to pass.

- create a new communications platform that's funded by the government (e.g. the USA government?) that allows anything except for child pornography. This just shifts the problem and whatever government that runs the site will eventually start censoring particular topics they don't like. Also, if the website does not censor, it will devolve into a cesspool and mainstream audiences won't bother to log into it. This is an example "freedom of speech" eating its own tail because the big audiences voluntarily shun it.

- a uncensorable blockchain publishing platform. I see no realistic projects that non-techies want to use. Mastodon instances are run (and funded) by volunteers and by its nature, it won't be the true free speech platform people are looking for.

Let's discuss the challenge of realistic implementations instead of repeating the same complaints about popular websites closing off topics. They are beholden to advertisers and therefore making editorial decisions to maintain a viable business. Complaining about content filtering decisions driven by financial self-preservation isn't going to solve the problem.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18372005

> That's the puzzle nobody talks about: how to make a uncensorable free speech platform that's financially sustainable.

Federation is what it's called now, but back in the Old Days it was Usenet or Email or, to a lesser extent, FidoNet or any of a few other BBS UUCP-a-likes. Everyone hosts their own copies of everything, there is no central system, and there is no one to threaten if you want to remove anything.

Usenet still exists and the only ads on it are parasitic spammers. Ditto email.

I've long thought the answer is a social network you pay for. Overcoming the free big three, however, is a challenge I haven't found a way around yet.

Is your uncensorable platform going to publish all of (a) child porn (b) calls for genocide (c) US state secrets (d) Iranian propaganda? If you are going to ban the CP, who is doing to do that, how will they be paid, and how will you handle their PTSD?

> If you are going to ban the CP, who is doing to do that, how will they be paid, and how will you handle their PTSD?

We have always had a solution to this. The party responsible for identifying the Really Bad Stuff is the government, the party who goes to jail is the user who posted it, and the extent of the platform's responsibility should be to remove the content in response to a court order (which the uploader would have the right to argue their case against).

This makes removing content expensive -- it requires litigation. This is on purpose. It then satisfies the concern with CP, because that is serious enough for the government to expend the resources to get the court order. But it serves as a bottleneck to casual censorship, and it removes the responsibility for making legality determinations from the intermediaries who are totally unqualified to be making them.

You might want to check what "strict liability" means for the relevant offenses. Certainly in the UK a hoster who didn't immediately choose to take down CP would not find a court order, they'd be raided and prosecuted.

Which is exactly the problem. Bad laws make it so we can't have nice things.

Well, they also make it so you can't have some really horrible things, and a bit less likely that children will have horrible things done to them.

> Well, they also make it so you can't have some really horrible things

The really horrible things can and do happen regardless of whether you make platforms liable for user content.

> and a bit less likely that children will have horrible things done to them.

There is no real evidence that is true and several reasons to expect that it isn't, in much the same ways that SESTA made life more difficult and dangerous for sex workers.

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