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Culture war games: winner-take-most

From Trump to Trade, the Financial Crisis Still Resonates 10 Years Later
By Andrew Ross Sorkin

The depth of financial despair during the Great Recession and the invariably slow recovery have unleashed a sense of bitterness that dominates the political landscape, culminating in Mr. Trump’s electoral victory.

“We are almost at each other’s throats when times are good,” said Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world with some $150 billion in assets, and the author of a new book, “A Template for Understanding Big Debt Crises,” an exhaustive study of financial panics and the policies that both created and rescued them.

The deepest crises, he said, always lead to populism. And it should be no surprise that a crisis leads to conflict and, in some extreme cases, war. “I would be worried about the emergence of populism,” he said, “because populists tend to want to fight with the other side rather than try to find ways of getting through it.” Populists on every side of the political spectrum “have in common that they’re confrontational,” he said.

When I wrote “Too Big to Fail” nearly a decade ago, I knew that the crisis would redefine Wall Street and the economy, but I didn’t appreciate how fundamentally it would redefine the political environment.

Amir Sufi, a professor of economics and public policy at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and the co-author of “House of Debt,” pointed to the financial crisis as the source of reduced civility a few months after Mr. Trump’s victory. He conducted an analysis of 60 countries with his “House of Debt” co-author, Atif Mian of Princeton University, and Francesco Trebbi of the University of British Columbia. They found that such a response was “common and predictable,” he wrote.

“Our conclusion: Financial crises tend to radicalize electorates,” Mr. Sufi wrote. “After a banking, currency, or debt crisis, our data indicate, the share of centrists or moderates in a country went down, while the share of left- or right-wing radicals went up in most cases.”

In the United States, the crisis exposed an economy that had been a charade — one that most Americans didn’t understand or appreciate. The use of debt had masked the real problems underneath the surface: a significant decrease in worker participation, automation that would take jobs and stagnant wage growth.

These issues long predated the crisis. But as Warren Buffett famously said, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”

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Culture war games: the seductive evils of totalitarianism

Social Media and Censorship
By Francis Fukuyama

Traditional media companies curate the material they publish. They do this by setting certain standards for fact-checking and journalistic quality. But some of the most important decisions they make regard what information they deem fit to publish in the first place. They can decide to place stories about desperate Syrian refugees, transgender discrimination, or the travails of Central American mothers above the fold, or alternatively they can emphasize crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, Hillary Clinton’s email server, or political correctness on university campuses. Indeed, conservative complaints about bias in the mainstream media are less about deliberately faked news than about selective reporting that reflects the ideological preferences of media companies like the New York Times.

This is the most important sense in which the big internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become media companies: They craft algorithms that determine what their users’ limited attention will focus on, driven (at least up to now) not by any broad vision of public responsibility but rather by profit maximization, which leads them to privilege virality. This has produced a huge backlash that came to a head this spring after the revelations of the role that Facebook played in allowing Cambridge Analytica to access its data to help the Trump campaign. By the time Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress in April, there had been a dramatic shift in public approval of his company and of the broader industry. The most visible consequence of this shift in political climate has been this week’s banning of Alex Jones.

Jones and his supporters have immediately responded to the ban by charging the platforms with censorship. In one sense this charge is misplaced: We worry most about censorship when it is done by powerful, centralized states. Private actors can and do censor material all the time, and the platforms in question are not acting on behalf of the U.S. government.

But Jones has a point with regard to scale. Facebook is not just another social media company; it has become a worldwide behemoth that in many countries (including the United States) has become something like a monopoly supplier of social media services. There are many countries in which Facebook has displaced email as the central channel of communication, and where it functions much like a public utility. Jones will not be able to reach nearly as wide an audience moving to different platforms as he can on YouTube and Facebook.

This then points directly to the other big problem with today’s social media universe, which is the size of the dominant platforms. Facebook today exercises government-like powers of censorship despite the fact that it is a private company. The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal can in effect censor Alex Jones by refusing to carry his content. But because there is a pluralistic and competitive market in traditional print media, this doesn’t matter; Jones’s followers can simply choose different media outlets. The same is not true in today’s social media space. I personally find Alex Jones completely toxic and am not unhappy to see his visibility reduced; that will be good for our democracy. But I am also very uncomfortable with a private quasi-monopoly like Facebook making this kind of decision.

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Culture war games: when censorship is crowdsourced

Caught on Tape
By Evan Kindley

What seems most distant about the America that Shaw recalls in Narrowcast is not its paranoia, its political divisions, or its technological dialectic of utopia and dystopia: all of those, mutatis mutandis, are still with us, though certainly the valences have shifted a bit. (Who would have thought in 1965 that state intelligence agencies would be regarded as a progressive bulwark? But here we are.) No, what seems lost, and perhaps irrecoverable, is the sense of threat that poetry poses to the state, the idea that poets and government agents are anything like opponents of equal stature. Even if a poet today approached Ginsberg’s superstar status, it’s hard to believe the government would bother tracking his or her movements. In 2018, it’s possible to be a little nostalgic for the idea that a poet’s activity would even be worth monitoring.

The Nation Magazine Betrays a Poet — and Itself
By Grace Schulman

Last month, the magazine published a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee. The poet is white. His poem, “How-To,” draws on black vernacular.

Following a vicious backlash against the poem on social media, the poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, apologized for publishing it in the first place: “We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem ‘How-To.’ We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem,” they wrote in an apology longer than the actual poem. The poet apologized, too, saying, “I am sorry for the pain I caused.”

I was deeply disturbed by this episode, which touches on a value that is precious to me and to a free society: the freedom to write and to publish views that may be offensive to some readers.

In my years at The Nation, I was inspired by the practical workings of a free press. We lived by Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

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Culture war games: culturally evolving perceptual illusions

12 Mind-Bending Perceptual Illusions
By Steve Stewart-Williams

Everyone loves a good optical illusion. Most people first come across them as kids, and are instantly transfixed. And most of us never quite outgrow them. Even cats seem to enjoy the occasional optical illusion!

The good news, then, for humans and nonhumans alike, is that our illusions seem to be getting better over time. In the age of social media, lots of people are making and sharing them, and the best ones are quickly going viral and setting the new standard. In effect, our illusions are evolving culturally to be more and more powerful.

But although perceptual illusions are fun, they also have important philosophical implications. They show us in a clear and unambiguous way that we don’t directly perceive the world around us. Perceptual experience is a simulation—a mental model—that doesn’t always correspond to the reality it aims to depict.

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Culture war games: paying the piper

As mob lynchings fueled by WhatsApp messages sweep India, authorities struggle to combat fake news
By Annie Gowen

More than a dozen people have been killed across India since May in violence fueled primarily by fake social media messages, as officials struggle to rein in this growing technology-driven menace.

The perpetrators are largely villagers, some of whom may be using smartphones for the first time. Inflamed by fake warnings of child-trafficking rings or organ harvesters sent via the WhatsApp messaging service, they have resorted to vigilante justice — attacking and beating to death people who often were innocent.

To control the subsequent violence, state authorities hired “rumor busters,” including Sukanta Chakraborty, 33, a musician who was paid about $8 a day to travel from village to village in a van equipped with a loudspeaker, warning of the dangers of fake news. He and two others were beset by a mob wielding bricks and bamboo sticks in a crowded market Thursday.

“They killed him. He was pleading to the mob that he was only doing his duty,” Tanushri Barua, Chakraborty’s wife, said in a telephone interview. “No one listened to him.”

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