22 May 2022: Kingly coverage; Family fights; Tree trouble; Ukraine next? Russian tunes; & Other stuff.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Dawn%2BBox%2BDay%2B2015.JPG
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable
Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

 Cosas de España/Galiza    

Only the first 6 pages of yesterday’s Diario de Pontevedra were on the ex-king. And today’s 4 pages have even been moved inside the paper. I guess it sells copies . . .

One of the guards in Pontevedra’s main hospital was attacked this week by ‘members of a family’. I’ve heard of this being done to doctors with whom ‘families’ are unhappy. I expected to find in the reports coded references to ‘residents of O Vao’ but, so far, no.

We’re definitely not experiencing here the heat wave hitting much of the rest of Spain. Having risen to c. 30 on Friday, the temperature’s back down to 17 right now. But will soar to 18 later. What with the rain showers as well, there were few stalls in today’s flea market. Virtually all gypsies, as far as I could tell. I wonder if the market is again dying.

In 20 years, my palm tree has doubled in size, and a holly tree and 2 palm trees have self-seeded in my garden. Against that, 4 trees have died there and one next door. My pure guess was that the granite substratum does something bad to the roots but, as I gaze out of the window, I can see hundreds of thriving trees on the hillsides. And there’s a forest behind me. So, is it my fault in some way. Bad pruning??

Ukraine & the ROW v Russia 

If you’re seriously interested in what’s going on and likely to  happen next, this and this are must-read articles, IMHO.

Russia 

Moscow’s propaganda: A changing tune?  See the first article below.

The Way of the World/Social Media

The article I cited yesterday is so full of excellent points, I’ve decided to post it again – to give those who didn’t check out its wisdom a second chance.

Spanish 

Incordiar: To annoy, pester, bug. Obvious, really. Un-cordial . . .

English

I’m not sure why but I’ve been listening this week to a 10-part BBC podcast on reality TV of the last 20 years. About the only interesting thing I’ve learned is that, if I turn up the speed from 1.00 to 1.50, I can understand the BBC commentators but not people speaking English in an Essex accent. So, no wonder it’s hard to understand several Spaniards talking loudly, rapidly and simultaneously. Even when not in the dreadful Andaluz accent.

Oh, yes. I also learned that Kim Kardashian – who kick-started her career as a ‘billionaire with a huge arse’ with a leaked sex-tape – is now a lawyer who talks not just of having a political carrier but possibly running for President one day. Who’d rule it out? Absent a nuclear war.

This morning my daughter in Madrid told me that her 3 year old son uses the long, southern A sound, against her northern short A sound. I blamed Peppa Pig but she says he no longer watches it. She guesses Octonauts.

Finally . . .

To amuse . . .

For passing readers: If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here. If you’re passing through Pontevedra on the Camino, you’ll find a guide to the city there

THE ARTICLES

1. 1. Why Kremlin propagandists now tell Russians they’re at war with the whole west. Far from being a sign of dissent, a former colonel praising Ukraine’s defence forces on state TV is just one part of Putin’s plan to recast the conflict as another Great Patriotic War: Mark Galeotti  

It is not usual to see criticism of the regime on Russian TV now that the Kremlin has closed its fist on the media. Less usual yet to hear it on political talk shows that are closer to George Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate than Newsnight. Nonetheless, that was what happened last week. But it did not suggest a loosening of control. Rather it suggests that President Putin is recalibrating his narrative and digging in for the long term. According to Putin’s ideology, Ukrainians are proving difficult to conquer because they are actually Russians . . . they just don’t realise it yet.

War is not easy

The criticisms came from Colonel Mikhail Khodaryonok, a retired officer who served a tour in the Russian general staff’s main operational directorate, the division known as the “brains of the army”. He then became a defence columnist, and before the invasion had published an article, “About enthusiastic hawks and hurried cuckoos”, in which he criticised the glib assumptions that a war in Ukraine would be quick or easy.

It is one thing to write a column in a relatively niche defence newspaper, quite another to go on the prime-time TV programme 60 Minutes and call the Ukrainian soldiers “professionals” willing to “fight to the last man”, such that the Russian position “will frankly get worse”. Above all, “we are in full geopolitical isolation”.

60 Minutes fits into a distinctive genre, in which a strident and ultra-hawkish host presides over a shouting match between pundits, most of whom compete to come up with the most alarmist conspiracy theories and bullish nationalist rhetoric. Yet Khodaryonok was listened to largely in respectful silence. Even the host, Olga Skabeyeva, whose on-screen persona could be described as headmistress-meets-dominatrix, made only a few interjections.

New narrative

Shows such as 60 Minutes are carefully stage-managed, and there can have been little doubt as to the kind of commentary Khodaryonok was going to provide. Have even the flagships of state TV propaganda gone rogue? Hardly. Instead, what this reflects is an important shift in how the Kremlin’s political technologists seek to redefine the narrative. In particular, how an apparent variety of perspectives can nonetheless combine to form a picture that suits the Kremlin’s needs.

An apparently different contribution, for example, had come from the former parliamentarian and current think tanker Sergei Markov in the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda a few days earlier. He too addressed the question of why the Ukrainians were putting up such dogged resistance, but came up with what could charitably be described as an imaginative spin.

“The Ukrainian army is an amazing and very strong combination of a Russian soldier, a fascist officer and an American general.” In other words, although secretly controlled by Washington and under the thumb of an officer corps that has been “Nazified” such that it is “ideological, motivated, ready to die and to kill”, it owes its backbone to the fact that its ordinary soldiers are, if they but knew it, Russians.

According to Putin’s take on Ukraine, this is not a real country, but a temporarily mislaid part of the wider Russian world. Therefore, Ukrainians are Russians, and it is as true that Russians are winning as that they are not.

Ukraine’s successes are furthermore down to western assistance, from American weapons to British intelligence and virtual brainwashing. Ukrainians have been taught that Russians are “subhumans, orcs and vatniks” — the last, literally meaning “quilted jackets”, being a slur used for poor Russians who unthinkingly swallow patriotic propaganda.

Same destination

Gone are the days of airily pretending all was well. That was necessary before the May 9 Victory Day celebrations, to ensure no unhelpful truths sullied the nationalist festivities. This could never be sustained in the long term, as more men fall in battle, as the economic pressure mounts and as conscripts who fought there come home. Hence the shift to a new line.

A key tactic of Russian propaganda is to create the illusion of pluralism but ensuring that the composite message is the one the Kremlin wants to convey. In the words of a former Russian diplomat, “Everyone can take whatever road they want, so long as they all end up at the same destination.”

Khodaryonok’s heartfelt critique and Markov’s fantasia came from different sides of the argument, but they came to the same destination: the Ukrainians are putting up a tough fight because they are backed by the West, and that this is therefore going to be a long, hard war. Furthermore, it is a war not for territory but to uphold the honour of Russia and against those who would characterise its people as beasts and barbarians.

West is to blame

Russia is portrayed as nobly standing up for what it thinks is right, against the assembled might of a United States bent on global hegemony and its debauched and craven European puppets. This was signalled by Putin in his Victory Day speech, where he sought to compare his “special military operation” with the Great Patriotic War — the defeat of Nazi Germany — and claimed that Russia launched a “pre-emptive attack against aggression” that was being prepared in Ukraine but planned in Washington, because the Russians had the temerity to stand up for their own independence and culture. 

This has become the standard line. The real war is against the “collective West”, and the Ukrainians are their brainwashed cannon fodder.

Such a line is useful to the Kremlin in all kinds of ways.

It provides an excuse for the underwhelming performance of the military, and also prepares the ground should Putin decide to admit that this is a war so that he can mobilise at least some reserves.

This is also about trying to frame Russia’s hardships in heroic terms. As one commentator put it, “When we give up foreign cars and foreign holidays, we are doing our bit on the home front, like our grandparents did in the Great Patriotic War.”

More broadly the new line signals that Russians ought to be digging in for a long war. Managing expectations after the initial promises of a quick, easy victory will be crucial, especially as and when conditions get more difficult.

For the next few months, Russia can survive on its reserves, just as many Russian families can use savings to offset prices that are rising partly as a result of the conflict. However, by the autumn these will have been exhausted. Local and gubernatorial elections are due to be held in September. Unemployment is likely to be rising, and winter will loom. Pressure will be intensifying in Russia.

Expelling traitors

Handily the new line also delivers a rationale for Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule. In a video conference with ministers in March, Putin warned that “the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish the true patriots from the scum and the traitors, and just spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouths”. He called for a “natural and necessary self-cleansing of society”. In other words, now is the time for all Russians — oligarchs, oil men, technocrats, teachers — to make a choice: are they patriots or are they traitors.

This is a chilling message, reflecting the Kremlin’s growing concern about the potential for dissent and division. The massive outflow since the start of the war of middle-class Russians critical of the regime (or those seeing little future at home) has perversely been welcomed by a regime which is willing to accept this loss of talent as the price for, as one hardliner put it, “draining the abscess of liberal defeatism”.

But there are more than enough disillusioned Russians left — including a growing body of nationalist critics of the regime and unhappy workers who could unleash a wave of labour unrest later this year. That is why the Kremlin is getting ready for a long war at home, too.

2. Social media has broken our society but we can still fix it

The race for ‘Shares’, ‘Likes’ and ‘Retweets’ has weaponised hatred and amplified the most extreme and aggressive voices. We must act now to defend our democracy and the well-being of the next generation: Jonathan Haidt, The Times

Civilisations throughout history have relied on shared blood, gods and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three fundamental forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time, and especially in the years following 2009.

In their early incarnations, platforms such as Myspace and Facebook were relatively harmless. They allowed users to create pages on which to post photos, family updates and links to the mostly static pages of their friends and favourite bands. In this way, early social media can be seen as just another step in the long progression of technological improvements, from the postal service through the telephone to email and texting, that helped people achieve the eternal goal of maintaining their social ties.

But gradually, social media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations. They became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand, activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will. Once social media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the largest transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.

Before 2009 Facebook had given users a simple timeline, a never-ending stream of content generated by their friends and connections, with the newest posts at the top and the oldest ones at the bottom. This was often overwhelming in its volume but it was an accurate reflection of what others were posting. That began to change in 2009 when Facebook offered users a way to publicly “Like” posts with the click of a button. That same year, Twitter introduced something even more powerful: the “Retweet” button, which allowed users to publicly endorse a post while also sharing it with all of their followers. Facebook soon copied that innovation with its own “Share” button, which became available to smartphone users in 2012. “Like” and “Share” buttons quickly became standard features of most other platforms.

Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best “engaged” its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a “Like” or some other interaction, eventually including the “Share” as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions, especially anger at “out-groups”, are the most likely to be shared.

By 2013 social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skilful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself: “We might have just handed a four-year-old a loaded weapon.”

As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.

Social media has both magnified and weaponised the frivolous. It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviours it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalised acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any individual or organisation is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer (an international measure of citizens’ trust in government, business, media and non-governmental organisations) showed stable and competent autocracies (China and the United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list, while contentious democracies such as the US, the UK, Spain and South Korea scored near the bottom (albeit above Russia).

A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012 Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly one billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since.

Social media has given voice to some people who had little previously and it has made it easier to hold powerful people accountable for their misdeeds, not just in politics but in business, the arts, academia and elsewhere. Sexual harassers could have been called out in anonymous blog posts before Twitter but it’s hard to imagine that the #MeToo movement would have been nearly so successful without the viral enhancement that the big platforms offered. However, the warped “accountability” of social media has also brought injustice and political dysfunction in three ways.

First, the dart guns of social media give more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens. Research by the political scientists Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen found that a small subset of people on social media platforms are highly concerned with gaining status and are willing to use aggression to do so. They admit that in their online discussions they often curse, make fun of their opponents and get blocked by other users or reported for inappropriate comments. Across eight studies Bor and Petersen found that being online did not make most people more aggressive or hostile; rather, it allowed a small number of aggressive people to attack a much larger set of victims.

Second, the dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority. The Hidden Tribes study, by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviours. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives”, comprised 6 per cent of the US population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists”, comprised 8 per cent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 per cent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 per cent.

These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes. This uniformity of opinion, the study’s authors speculate, is likely to be a result of thought-policing on social media: “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort.” In other words, political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. In this way, social media makes a political system based on compromise grind to a halt.

Finally, by giving everyone a dart gun, social media deputises everyone to administer justice with no due process. Platforms like Twitter devolve into the Wild West, with no accountability for vigilantes. A successful attack attracts a barrage of likes and follow-on strikes. Enhanced-virality platforms thereby facilitate massive collective punishment for small or imagined offences, with real-world consequences, including innocent people losing their jobs and being shamed into suicide. When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy and truth.

We can never return to the way things were in the pre-digital age. And yet American democracy is now operating outside the bounds of sustainability. If we do not make changes soon then our institutions, our political system and our society may collapse during the next war, pandemic, financial meltdown or constitutional crisis.

What changes are needed? I can suggest three categories of reforms — three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable. We must harden democratic institutions so they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so it becomes less socially corrosive and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.

Political polarisation is likely to increase for the foreseeable future. Thus, we must reform key institutions so they can continue to function even if levels of anger, misinformation and violence increase far above those we have today.

Reforms should reduce the outsize influence of angry extremists and make legislators more responsive to the average voter in their district. One such reform is to end closed party primaries (the votes in which parties select candidates), replacing them with a single, nonpartisan, open primary from which the top candidates advance to a general election that also uses ranked-choice voting. A version of this has been implemented in Alaska and it seems to have given Senator Lisa Murkowski more latitude to oppose former President Trump, whose favoured candidate would be a threat to Murkowski in a closed Republican primary but is not in an open one.

A second way to harden democratic institutions is to reduce the power of either political party to game the system in its favour, for example by drawing its preferred electoral districts or selecting the officials who will supervise elections. These jobs should all be done in a nonpartisan way. Research on procedural justice shows that when people perceive that a process is fair, they are more likely to accept the legitimacy of a decision that goes against their interests. Just think of the damage done to the Supreme Court’s legitimacy by the Senate’s Republican leadership when it blocked consideration of Merrick Garland for a seat that opened up nine months before the 2016 election, and then rushed through the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett in 2020. A widely discussed reform would end this political gamesmanship by having justices serve staggered 18-year terms so each president makes one appointment every two years.

Those who oppose regulation of social media generally focus on the legitimate concern that government-mandated content restrictions will, in practice, devolve into censorship. But the main problem with social media is not that some people post fake or toxic stuff; it’s that fake and outrage-inducing content can attain a level of reach and influence that was not possible before 2009. The Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has suggested modifying the “Share” function on Facebook so that after any content has been shared twice, the third person in the chain must take the time to copy and paste the content into a new post. Reforms like this are not censorship; they don’t stop anyone from saying anything; they just slow the spread of content that is, on average, less likely to be true.

Perhaps the biggest single change that would reduce the toxicity of existing platforms would be user verification as a precondition for gaining the algorithmic amplification that social media offers. Banks and other industries have “know your customer” rules so they can’t do business with anonymous clients laundering money from criminal enterprises. Large social media platforms should be required to do the same.

Users could still post using a pseudonym. It just means that before a platform spreads your words to millions of people it has an obligation to verify that you are a real human being, in a particular country, and are old enough to be using the platform. This one change would wipe out most of the hundreds of millions of bots and fake accounts that pollute the big platforms. It would also be likely to reduce the frequency of death threats, rape threats, racist nastiness and trolling more generally. Research shows that antisocial behaviour becomes more common online when people feel that their identity is unknown and untraceable.

The members of Gen Z, those born in and after 1997, bear none of the blame for the mess we are in but they are going to inherit it, and the preliminary signs are that older generations have prevented them from learning how to handle it. A surge in rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm among American teens began in the early 2010s. (The same thing happened to Canadian and British teens at the same time.) The cause is not known but the timing points to social media as a substantial contributor: the surge began just as the large majority of American teens became daily users of the big platforms.

Depression makes people less likely to want to engage with new people, ideas and experiences. Anxiety makes new things seem more threatening. As these conditions have risen, tolerance for diverse viewpoints and the ability to work out disputes have diminished among many young people. For example, university communities that could tolerate a range of speakers as recently as 2010 arguably began to lose that ability in subsequent years, as Gen Z began to arrive on campus. Attempts to disinvite visiting speakers rose. Students did not just say they disagreed with visiting speakers; some said those lectures would be dangerous, emotionally devastating, a form of violence. Because rates of teen depression and anxiety have continued to rise into the 2020s we should expect these views to continue in the generations to follow, and indeed to become more severe.

The most important change we can make to reduce the damaging effects of social media on children is to delay entry until they have passed through puberty. Congress should update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which unwisely set the age of so-called internet adulthood (the age at which companies can collect personal information from children without parental consent) at 13 back in 1998, while making little provision for effective enforcement. The age should be raised to at least 16 and companies should be held responsible for enforcing it.

The story I have told is bleak. Yet when we disconnect from social media and talk with our neighbours directly, things seem more hopeful. Most Americans in the More in Common report are members of the “exhausted majority” which is tired of the fighting and is willing to listen to the other side and compromise.

5 comments

  1. Yes! I was thinking just yesterday: Kim Kardashian (whoever the hell she is) for president.

    Like

  2. User verification on social media is way overdue. Most banks, public entities utilise 2-step and even 3 step verification. Signing in becomes a bit of a chore, but it does mean enhaced security.
    As a side note, I have worked closely with dozens of IT people in the last 7 or so years. I genuinely do not recall any of them being on FB or Twitter. They told me it was far too risky in terms of privacy and security. That alone is quite telling.

    Like

  3. Trees die to serve other trees and many more species within a complex subterranean ecosystem. Highly recommend reading The Overstory by Richard Powers

    Like

Comments are closed.