Algorithms Hidden Impact on How We Think

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Algorithms are powerful programs that increasing influence an individual’s world view. Their ubiquitous use may explain our growing political polarity, our growing knowledge gap in current affairs and even why our neighbors seem radicalized. But for impressionable or vulnerable individuals the impacts can be devastating.

Dylann Foot Roof is a case in point. You will recall he was a 21 year old white male who killed nine people in a 2015 massacre at a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina.  He left behind a manifesto that showed he was  involved with white nationalist websites on the internet for about three years. A recent report by the Southern Policy Law Center details how Google search engine algorithms served a key part in radicalizing this young man who grew up in an otherwise stable, normal home.

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Increasingly, algorithms decide what gets attention, and what is ignored; and even what gets published or censored in our search for knowledge on the internet. It is a powerful force with unforeseen consequences at best. Just as easily they can be used for sinister purposes as well if we aren’t careful.

The following are excerpts from a report presented by the Center for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR) entitled, Ethic of Algorithms. It serves as a good primer on what these powerful programs are and can do.  CIHR promotes academic research about technology and society to inform public and academic debates.

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  • Algorithms are increasingly used  in hiring (and firing), deciding who gets a job and who doesn’t. It is among the most powerful gate-keeping function in society.
  • Algorithms influence how we perceive the world, often without us realizing it. by channeling our attention.
  • Facebook algorithms decide what we see or don’t see. Newsfeed algorithm filters content without our knowing why.
  • Facebook won’t say how the algorithm works, It’s proprietary. Without knowing the exact code, nobody can evaluate how your newsfeed is composed.
  • Complex algorithms are incomprehensible to outsiders but they have values, biases, and potential discrimination built in
  • Without algorithms many applications would be unusable. We need them to cope with the enormous amounts of data. But we must be aware how they work
  • Algorithms are not neutral, but rather they perpetuate the prejudices of their creators.

They must be known to the user

“Since algorithms make increasingly important decisions about our lives, users need to be informed about them. Knowledge about automated decision-making in everyday services is still very limited among consumers. Raising awareness should be at the heart of the debate about ethics of algorithms.”

We are already at the point where regulating computer algorithms is essential for our collective well being, yet most people aren’t even aware the threats and problems they pose. I know I wasn’t until very recently. I hope this brief blog posting and the links above encourage others to explore this topic further.

Mortal Night

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Emoji of the Masses – The Trump Presidency

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

I have had to work with people like Donald Trump before. Not folks as materially successful of course, but just as wily, and with very similar personalities. It was my job to extract accurate information from them to assess whether or not their children were at risk of harm. There was always a lot at stake, so simply taking them at face value was out of the question. These interviews were among the most difficult and exhausting of my career. It was like engaging in an emotional game of three-dimensional chess. Extracting even the most innocuous facts was challenging. The experiences, however, had the effect of inoculating me from the expert emotional manipulations that are their genius.

Donald Trump spoke directly to the emotions of many voters during his campaign. It was a campaign like no other, but I recognized him right away. He constructed an elaborate emotional tableau, devoid of factual distractions, that resonated with a frustrated, angry electorate. People read into him whatever they believed. Other candidates and the beltway press tried but could not penetrate his invisible cloak with facts, logic or reason. His burgeoning movement of follower would not be dissuaded. Eventually, enough people aligned their feelings about him with the well crafted self-portrait he created through his speeches. He got just enough votes in just the right places to win the Presidency.

So here we are, a people habituated to the ubiquitous marketing assaults we succumb to every day. We were unprepared to see through the marketing cloud of Mr. Trump and now we have a new President about who we really know very little.

Donald Trump. The marketer-in-chief. Master illusionist. And because no one could pin anything on him during the campaigned, he is free to define his term in office any way he likes.

But beware! His disdain for the press, verbal assaults on journalists and his thank-you rally’s around the country are not short lived anomalies. They are harbingers of how he will maintain his power. The deflection of facts and the creation of strong, emotionally evocative impressions is how he operates.

Here is one way to help visualize what is happening. People like Donald Trump have the ability to do with language what a scrim does on a theatrical stage. A scrim is a special type of fabric that can be translucent, transparent, or opaque depending on how stage lights are directed. You can project any image you want on the front of it and it will mask everything from view behind it. When you only light the objects behind it, the scrim disappears like a pane of glass.

Donald Trump created a campaign, and is now building a Presidency behind a giant scrim. When he takes office we will only see what he chooses to project or to reveal. He will continue to divide us and play our emotions like the maestro that he is. My fear is that our only hope of revealing what he is up to will be either by taking control of the lighting board or storming the stage.

Of Poverty and Proverbs – An Excuse to Blame the Poor

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

There is some wisdom in this old English proverb. It seems obvious that our survival instinct compels us to use our skills to meet our basic needs. The point being made by this proverb is that It’s more worthwhile to teach someone to do something for themselves than to do it for them.

As a nugget of wisdom, however, the expression is also insufficient. It assumes that resource and circumstances are otherwise favorable for the fisherman. The proverb shouldn’t be taken too literally or applied too broadly, but it often is. This is especially the case when it is applied to social welfare.

Specifically, it becomes a problem when policy makers believe that all you have to do is give someone the skills they need they can do the rest on their own. It’s the notion that skills plus self-determination are sufficient for success. This reductive thinking forms the rationale behind the conservative politics of poverty. It’s destructive corollary is a belief that when skills have been properly transferred, yet success remains elusive, the fault lies within the character of the person. It is a belief that fails to consider scarce resources or other barriers beyond a person’s control.

To make this point, take the proverbial fisherman as an example and ask yourself the following question: What else, other than skills, might be required for the fisherman to catch his daily meal?

You won’t get very far down your list before you see the point here. The fisherman’s success still requires the right conditions, many of which are beyond his personal control. And some of the conditions are dependent on social factors, or environmental factors over which we have societal influence. Examples of these include having clean water, allowing public access, or requiring a fishing license.

The devil is always in the details. There are no simple formulaic ways to think about poverty. There is only the need to critically evaluate the impact of policies that influence everyone’s well being, and to seek out, and overcome the barriers people face every day to putting food on their table. Do that and every able bodied person will act with self-determination.

Trump, the Marketer-in-Chief

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

If anyone seriously thought that Donald Trump was running for President out of high mindedness, you can give it up now. He was running to elevate his brand and market the Presidency for personal gain.

How so?

Well, he just spent months on the campaign trail wearing a red cap with his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” on it. It became part of his campaign swag.

Every president in history, and any future president, would retire that cap and donate it to the Smithsonian Museum or feature it in their future presidential library. Not this guy. He fully intends to market the image and make a killing off of it. Expect to see some version of it for retail next Christmas while Donald Trump is sipping brandy in one of his Presidential palaces. Billionaires!

How much does this true-spirit-of-Christmas ornament go for this year?

It’s yours for just $149 dollars and no sense! This is the sort of change I never expected, the selling of the Presidency by the President-elect himself.

More than 45 million people, or 14.5% of all Americans, lived below the poverty line last year. I’m certain none of them can afford this overpriced campaign schlock. Perhaps the proceeds for this sale are going to fund food pantries or house the homeless over the holiday season?  Well, there is nothing mentioned in the advertising to suggest that.

Maybe this isn’t really being marketed by President-elect Donald Trump. Maybe his business isn’t really financially benefiting. Could it be that some other enterprising fool is cleaning up on his political success?

I thought of that, so I checked. According to the internet advertisement, the link to buy the “classic red MAGA hat” is DonaldTrump.com. It’s his Trump store. To be sure there wasn’t a mistake, I went to the Whois.com website and confirmed that the domain name is registered to THE TRUMP ORGANIZATION (see below).

So there it is! Get yours America! (If you can afford it.) Is this supposed to be our new normal? Do we really have a President who is a businessman for himself first and President for the people last? 

This Christmas you should grab a bottle of Trump wine and drown your sorrows, because no one at the highest reaches of government will be marketing you cares away. 

 

Why I Blame the Democratic National Committee for Trump’s Election Win

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

The following excerpt is from a recent Huffington Post article:

New Pre-Election Poll Suggests Bernie Sanders Could Have Trounced Donald Trump

by Ryan Grim and Daniel Marans

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would have beaten Donald Trump by a historic margin if he had been the Democratic nominee, according to a private pre-election pollprovided to The Huffington Post.

The national survey of more than 1,600 registered voters, conducted by Gravis Marketing two days before the general election, found that Sanders would have received 56 percent of the vote while Trump would have won 44 percent. The poll was commissioned and financed by outgoing Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat who endorsed Sanders in the presidential primary.

The last election result that decisive was Ronald Reagan’s victory over Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984.

Of the result validity of these poll results I have no doubt. Bernie Sanders was to the Democratic Party what Ronald Reagan once was to the Republicans, except the DNC didn’t allow a fair contest between him and their establishment pick. Instead the DNC made sure that the most establishment candidate the Democrats had would run against the most anti-establishment Republican candidate in history.

The twin phenomena of Trump and Bernie movements screamed its warning about the mood of the people, but the DNC thought it knew better. And if you think Hillary lost because she wasn’t progressive enough, or effective enough, or because she was a woman, or because of the emails and FBI mess, then you still don’t get it. Her problem isn’t with her. It’s much bigger.

Our government is far more broken than most of us are ready to admit. Many of the folks who voted for Trump know this in their heart. They feel it every day. They just don’t know why government is broken and they have been lied to about it for years.  Their frustration and anger was exploited by this demagogue who goes around blaming the wrong causes for our brokenness in order to divide us and gain power for himself.

We, the People, have long been disempowered. We have been rendered irrelevant by the wealthy elite and corporate power. This is the source of our broken government, and the road back to a healthy Republic just got a lot longer.

I do not disparage Hillary supporters at all.  I love them for their ideals and courage. While I have differences of opinion with her, I respect Hillary Clinton as a person and a candidate. I agree she was the most qualified candidate on paper. Most of the terrible things people have said about her are nasty lies.  I’ve been saying that for years now.

That said, she was still the wrong candidate to face Donald Trump this year. The difference between her and Bernie Sanders is not just by degrees of progressive policies. The real difference between them is a whole paradigm shift in governance.  It is a paradigm that empowers citizens over businesses, power and wealth. This is what the pundits missed. This is what many Hillary supporters couldn’t see. (New paradigms are difficult to imagine when our thinking is rooted in the context of an older paradigm).

One more point, if I may. A lot of Democrats defend the early actions of the DNC’s loyalty to Hillary Clinton. They say she came so close the first time and deserved a second shot. But four years is a long time, and things change. It’s like when military generals base their planning on the last war.

More importantly, loyalty is the opposite of democracy. Party loyalty to a “chosen” candidate is critical for a successful a presidential campaign, but democracy is still essential in choosing the right party candidate. That’s why it is critical that the DNC always remain neutral and equitably support all candidates. Their role in the primary phase is to conduct a fair and free primary campaign, to let the people speak.

The DNC failed our party and we lost, not just the Presidency but many down ticket races. In fact, Democrats have been losing election cycle after cycle at every level because the DNC has been interfering in party democracy to effect a result that fits their ideology and keeps like-minded Democrats in power.

In short, the Republicans allowed a democratic process and nominated the democratically elected candidate, for which they have been rewarded. The Democratic Party interfered with democracy within the party and have been punished. The DNC’s loyalty to Hillary Clinton was grossly premature.

Rural Republicans VS The Urban Bubble or How Trump Pulled Off An Upset

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

If you superimposed the Democratic v. Republican Party Map over the US Population Density Map you clearly see that the more urban, the more Democratic and the more rural, the more Republican. This strengthens a case that has been made that our political tensions also line-up between city vs. county lines. Cities are the seats of power. They are the drivers of culture and the economy. People living in vast stretches or rural America are mostly marginalized and largely ignored, even by the establishment wing of their own party. All political promises have been empty for decades. No one is helping them understand what’s really happening to them as their jobs disappear, their wages shrink, their homes are foreclosed and their family life is disrupted. No one is lifting a finger to fix things for them.

It was these areas where Trump’s messages resonated most. It was the folks in these areas that came out to vote for him in record numbers, against the backdrop of the lowest overall voter turnout in years. This year, the rural vote mattered.

All establishment politics is urban centered, so the anti-establishment sentiment that swept Trump into power is a wake-up call from rural heartland of America. People living inside our urban bubbles take note: Political inclusion isn’t just something that needs to happen inside the urban bubble.