We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The anti-Watergate

Did you ever watch All The President’s Men? It was a true story about two heroic journalists doggedly tracking down and bringing to light a scandal at the heart of American politics. “The list is longer than anyone can imagine. It involves the entire US intelligence community. FBI, CIA, Justice. It’s incredible.”

There won’t be a sequel any time soon.

Gerard Baker, the sole Times regular who is not rooting for Biden, writes,

Anti-Trump censorship threatens democracy

For all the media hysteria about the existential menace Donald Trump supposedly represents to American democracy and western liberalism, there’s a softer but more pervasive authoritarianism that poses a greater threat to the freedoms on which our way of life rests.

Suggestions that four years of Trumpian oppression have left America’s journalists and news organisations cowering in fearful submission to the iron fist of a repressive regime would be hilarious if they weren’t so widely believed.

There can’t have been a better funded, more vocal, less suppressed “Resistance” in all of human history. Flick through the TV channels any evening and watch “pundits” and “entertainers” loudly mouthing uniformly expressed complaints about the condition of the nation. Media companies that were dying a quiet, unmourned death from sheer tedium and obsolescence before Bad Orange Man came along have sprung back to life on a saline drip of Trump-hatred. Online, search and social companies play host to every conceivable form of critique, ridicule and denunciation of the president, his administration, his party and anyone associated with them.

And good luck to them all. If liberty means anything, to paraphrase the man, it means the right to tell me things I don’t want to hear. But that’s the problem. It’s not Trump-loathing that the people with the best access to the public square don’t want us to hear. It’s everything else.

The much larger threat to the sort of free and challenging debate about issues of public importance is socially enforced ideological conformity to the prevailing orthodoxy of our cultural leadership.

and

Typically, such a story from one of the nation’s most well-known newspapers would have birthed a frenzy of follow-up reporting to confirm, expand or clarify the original reporting. Not in today’s media.

Instead what we got was a fullbore effort by virtually every major media and company in America to discredit the reporting. Journalists dashed to social media and TV studios to defend the Bidens and condemn fellow reporters. Beating up on another news organisation is not unheard of. But this was more than that. The story was not just sloppy or biased, they claimed, it was the result of a campaign of Russian disinformation, planted by the Kremlin’s ubiquitous intelligence people.

So, Mr Dorsey and Mr Zuckerberg, how are your fact checkers getting on with that New York Post story about Hunter Biden?

“When will they be reporting? Surely not after the election?”
“What have they found out so far?” You know you could check on the veracity of the emails by asking other recipients – have you done that?”
“Have you liaised with the FBI regarding the progress of their no doubt rigorous ongoing investigation of the material found on the computers?”
“Why was the dissemination via your platforms of illegally obtained material not a problem for the New York Times when it released a ‘trove’ of Donald Trump’s tax returns at the end of September?”
“Why was the dissemination via your platforms of leaked material not a problem when someone leaked Christine Blasey Ford’s confidential letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein that accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault?”
“Oh, and about that whole Russian collusion story about which we heard so much on Facebook and Twitter but which turned out to be nothing…”

I would so enjoy seeing the Senate Judiciary Committee make the cool, hip founders of Twitter and Facebook squirm with a barrage of questions that laid bare their revolting left-wing billionaire hypocrisy, before swatting away the law they have been hiding behind to censor their political enemies while pretending to be mere providers of a means of communication. The Republicans are as mad as hell and they ain’t gonna take it any more. Yay! Go Republicans! And Go Democrats, too, because Joe Biden wants to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act too. So now that all sides agree, let’s do this thing!

Or perhaps not. All laws passed to acclaim from both sides of the aisle turn out badly. It is a law of nature, like Boyle’s or Murphy’s. Besides that, as Andy Kessler argues in the Wall Street Journal,

…if we repeal 230, we’ll end up with more censorship. Why? Because if platforms are suddenly liable for everything posted, the knee-jerk reaction will be to take down everything questionable, leaving us with giant receptacles of Baby Shark videos, which would diminish the channels small businesses use to reach customers. Then, say goodbye to competition. There are hundreds of smaller social media competitors that wouldn’t be able to afford the software, let alone the tens of thousands of humans, to take down posts.

There’s no simple way to “fix” Section 230 either. The feds could require nonpartisan, balanced views. But who decides what’s balanced? We’d be back to where we started. Any fix would open a can of worms of special interests, maybe even a new Digital Diction Department staffed by justice warriors deciding which phrases are no longer acceptable, like “master bedroom” or even “preference.” And then the law would get larded with special exceptions. The thinking would be, “Let politicians say what they want, for democracy’s sake, but protesters should also get a pass, depending on their grievances.” It would never end.

“We are reducing its distribution on our platform”

The New York Post has a big story. Very big.

Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad

By Emma-Jo Morris and Gabrielle Fonrouge

Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to emails obtained by The Post.

The never-before-revealed meeting is mentioned in a message of appreciation that Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma, allegedly sent Hunter Biden on April 17, 2015, about a year after Hunter joined the Burisma board at a reported salary of up to $50,000 a month.

“Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure,” the email reads

An earlier email from May 2014 also shows Pozharskyi, reportedly Burisma’s No. 3 exec, asking Hunter for “advice on how you could use your influence” on the company’s behalf.

The blockbuster correspondence — which flies in the face of Joe Biden’s claim that he’s “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings” — is contained in a massive trove of data recovered from a laptop computer.

But the story of what is happening to that story is even bigger. The Daily Mail reports,

Outrage as Facebook AND Twitter throttle story about Joe Biden meeting son’s Ukraine partners until it’s been vetted by its third party so-called ‘fact-checkers’.

The Mail article describes how Sohrab Ahmari, an editor at the New York Post, tried to tweet about his paper’s story, and got this message:

Tweet not sent

Your Tweet couldn’t be sent because the link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful. Visit our Help Center to learn more.

And Andy Stone, policy communications director at Facebook, has announced:

While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want to be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook’s third-party fact checking partners. In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.

Edit: Not knowing much about social media myself, I have two questions for readers. (1) What can people do to spread the New York Post‘s report about Joe Biden’s lies regarding Hunter Biden’s business dealings in the Ukraine? (2) What can people do to spread the even more important news that Facebook and Twitter are censoring this story?

Update: Via Instapundit, I learn that Sohrab Ahmari’s twitter account has been suspended. They are silencing the opinion editors of major newspapers.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Western governments may have strong words for the Russian president, but we’ve been here before. Every time a Russian opposition figure is assassinated, from journalist Anna Politkovskaya to MI6 informer Alexander Litvinenko to politician Boris Nemtsov, there is a chorus of international outrage and demands for action to rein in Putin. Yet little is done, as world leaders don’t want to jeopardise their business dealings with Russia – or face more hostile acts by the Kremlin – and Putin emerges emboldened. A few months after the Salisbury attack, for instance, Russia hosted the World Cup, and opposition activist Petr Verzilov was poisoned after running onto the pitch during the final wearing a police uniform.”

Sarah Hurst

I suppose you could say that Mr Putin has almost “normalised” the idea that when dealing with political opponents or any sort of perceived threat, the approach favoured is to kill them, lie about it, smirk a bit, and go back to undermining whatever particular nearby country or cause happens to be in play. And then hold a soccer tournament. Rinse, repeat.

What is so bad about Russian “interference” with UK referendums anyway?

“49% of voters believe Kremlin interfered in Brexit referendum”, reports the Guardian.

Almost half the British public believes the Russian government interfered in the EU referendum and last year’s general election, according to a poll. The latest Opinium poll for the Observer found that 49% of voters think there was Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, with 23% disagreeing. Some 47% believed Russia interfered in the December general election.

The poll findings come after the long-awaited publication of the report into Russian interference by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee last week. It found that the government had not attempted to investigate potential Russian interference in the referendum. It said the UK had “badly underestimated” the Russian threat.

I am busy and must be brief. Vladimir Putin belongs at the end of a rope for his crimes: crimes like murdering his political opponents, sponsoring terrorism and waging aggressive war against neighbouring countries. But most of the events described in this hyped up list are technical crimes of a sort that should not be a crime at all. Most rules on election spending and use of data to target potential voters are nothing but political protectionism. We call it “interference” when the Russian government tries to influence the political opinions of British people and “outreach” when the British government or the European Union tries to influence the political opinions of Russian people. You hear the words “interference in elections” and are meant to think of stolen ballot boxes and forged votes. But Russians posting anonymous, dishonest and obnoxious opinions on Twitter and Reddit for money – who cares? They are lost in the crowd of Brits doing the same for free.

Epic trolling by the Czechs!

Prague renames square in front of Russian embassy after slain Putin critic Boris Nemtsov

Ok, that is pretty damn good. But this…

The Russian embassy in Prague did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Russian Foreign Ministry comment on the move. Hřib said the embassy had not responded to an invitation to attend the renaming ceremony.

What if the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down?

I have always been interested in the What If? question that consists of asking how the world would have been different had the Berlin Wall not fallen and had the USSR just blundered onwards indefinitely, still being the USSR.

That’s a question that has long intrigued me, ever since the Wall in question actually did fall. As you can tell from how I phrase the question, I am damn near certain that the world would have been a far grimmer place than it now is, had that horrible structure not been trashed or turned into souvenir fragments. But, beyond noting with approval the way that various eastern European former Soviet possessions have become much freer and less poor, I have never taken the time to think through the details of this feeling. How might western public opinion have developed, had the Wall remained? How would the world as a whole have been different?

So, I was very interested to learn yesterday about an IEA event, which I have already signed up to attend, to be held at the end of this month:

This month sees the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, ushering in dramatic change across East and West Germany. But even now, East Germany still lags behind the West and the legacy of socialism has been hard to overcome.

So what would have happened if the wall hadn’t come down?

On Thursday 28th November, the IEA is delighted to host an intriguing discussion on that very premise. Professor Syed Kamall will chair the conversation with our own Head of Political Economy Dr. Kristian Niemietz, and historians Roger Moorhouse and Giles Udy.

Rather than just bang on with more guess-answers, I will keep this posting brief and await comments from others.

In particular, are there any ways in which the fall of the Berlin Wall has made the world worse? I’m not talking about how it has embarrassed Communists and (a tribe I particularly despise) anti-anti-Communists … like that’s a bad thing. Those are just two of many features. I’m talking about how life for regular people around the world, and perhaps also in Russia itself, may actually, in some weird knock-on effect ways, have been made worse. I can’t think of any obvious ways that anything like that has happened, but maybe someone else can.

Samizdata quote of the day

Are they really such idiots to poison you in a place where suspicions point only at them? It’s a good question. For now I can say one thing with certainty: the people in power in Russia are really quite stupid guys. It seems to you that in their actions you need to look for secret meaning or a rational purpose. But in fact they are just stupid, malicious and obsessed with money.

Alexei Navalny

Why is Russia trying to influence other countries’ elections by means of targeted advertising wrong?

“Nick Clegg denies misuse of Facebook influenced Brexit vote”, reports the Guardian.

Umm, okay. A lot of people are saying “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”.

Sir Nick Clegg, for those readers who have forgotten this rather forgettable chap, used to be leader of the Liberal Democrats and was Deputy Prime Minister for a while, back when the Lib Dems were in coalition with the Conservatives. He lost his seat in the 2017 election, which made him sad. Then he got a “communications” job with Facebook at a salary that probably made him feel better.

So nine years after Cleggmania, here he is back on our TV screens again. The Times report on the same story says,

The former Liberal Democrat leader said that social media could not be blamed for the vote to leave the European Union.

He said: “Much though I understand why people want to reduce that eruption in British politics to some kind of plot or conspiracy — or some use of new social media through opaque means — I’m afraid the roots to British Euroscepticism go very, very deep.”

Sir Nick added: “Yes, Facebook has a heavy responsibility to protect the integrity of elections from outside interference. I also think we have a duty to explain fact from some of the allegations that have been made.”

Calling for greater regulation of the internet, he said: “We forget that though these companies are huge and affect every aspect of our lives — our social lives, our business lives — nonetheless it has all happened in such a short period of time.

It is no surprise to find Nick Clegg “calling for “greater regulation of the internet”. Not only was more regulation of corporations his schtick when he was a politico, it also suits his current employers very well. Facebook can buy another twenty floors of lawyers whenever it needs them; struggling new startups cannot.

But to hear such a lifelong Europhile admit that the roots of British Euroscepticism go deep was a surprise. He is right. Russia’s puny efforts to interfere in the EU referendum were the equivalent of the eternally slandered King Canute calling the tide forward.

But in all this debate about how effective or ineffective Russia’s “outside interference” in the referendum was I have not yet heard a convincing explanation of what exactly is wrong with “outside interference” anyway.

I need not list the real crimes – waging unjust wars, murders, domestic repression – that can be laid at Putin’s door. On an infinitely smaller scale, making use of harvested data that people did not agree to make available is a bad if commonplace thing. But what is bad in principle about Russia trying to persuade British people to vote a particular way by advertising? Where did this idea come from that only British ideas are allowed to enter British brains during an election or referendum campaign? In a democracy you are allowed to vote on any criteria you like. You can vote for a candidate because you carefully researched his or her voting record and found that it best aligned with your political beliefs, or because your family has always voted for the Reds or the Blues, or because you think the candidate has nice eyes, or because your imam told you which way to vote, or because Vladimir Putin did. They all count equally. If we were to operate a system of Juche when it comes to political thought, would that not also exclude political ideas originating in the European Union?

Katie Jones is the face of the future

“That LinkedIn connection could be a spy using a fake, AI-generated face”, warns Raphael Satter of the Associated Press in the Tampa Bay Times.

LONDON — Katie Jones sure seemed plugged into the Washington’s political scene. The 30-something redhead boasted a job at a top think tank and a who’s-who network of pundits and experts, from the centrist Brookings Institution to the right-wing Heritage Foundation. She was connected to a deputy assistant secretary of state, a senior aide to a senator and the economist Paul Winfree, who is being considered for a seat on the Federal Reserve.

But Katie Jones doesn’t exist, the Associated Press has determined. Instead, the persona was part of a vast army of phantom profiles lurking on the professional networking site LinkedIn.

So what’s new? Haven’t the Russkies been stealing people’s photos for years and using them to illustrate fake profiles on sites like LinkedIn? They have, but on this occasion it seems that the one thing of which they were not guilty was identity theft:

Several experts contacted by the Associated Press said Jones’ profile picture appeared to have been created by a computer program.

“I’m convinced that it’s a fake face,” said Mario Klingemann, a German artist who has been experimenting for years with artificially generated portraits and says he has reviewed tens of thousands of such images. “It has all the hallmarks.”

Klingemann and other experts said the photo — a closely cropped portrait of a woman with blue-green eyes, copper-colored hair and an enigmatic smile — appeared to have been created using a family of dueling computer programs called generative adversarial networks, or GANs, that can create realistic-looking faces of entirely imaginary people. GANs, sometimes described as a form of artificial intelligence, have been the cause of increasing concern for policymakers already struggling to get a handle on digital disinformation.

Katie is telling us that the era of evidence is drawing to a close. What changes will this bring?

John Lewis Gaddis on good versus evil in the Cold War

One of the particular pleasures of twenty-first century life is that it is now easy to purchase interesting books which have been around for quite a while, cheaply and easily rather than expensively and complicatedly. I recently bought, from Amazon, We Now Know, by John Lewis Gaddis, which is about the Cold War and was published in the 1990s. I’ve been meaning to acquaint myself with this book ever since I first heard about it, which must have been well over a decade ago.

I have so far only skimmed We Now Know, but I have already encountered a rather striking passage, towards the end. (Skimming usually involves looking at the end, doesn’t it?)

The Cold War, says Gaddis, was not decided in the Third World, but rather in such places as Europe and Japan. And why, asks Gaddis (pp.286-7 – his italics in bold), did “Washington’s empire in those pivotal regions”, generate so much less friction that Moscow’s:

One answer may be that many people then saw the Cold War as a contest of good versus evil, even if historians since have rarely done so.

Let me focus here on a single significant case: it has to do with what happened in Germany immediately after the war as its citizens confronted their respective occupiers. What Stalin sought there, it now seems clear, was a communist regime in the east that would attract Germans in the west without requiring the use of force, something the Russians could ill afford given their own exhaustion and the Americans’ monopoly over the atomic bomb.

Obviously, this is not what he got. Germans first voted with their feet – fleeing to the west in huge numbers to avoid the Red Army – and then at the ballot box in ways that frustrated all of Stalin’s hopes. But this outcome was not fore-ordained. There were large numbers of communist party members throughout Germany at the end of the war, and their prestige – because of their opposition to the Nazis – had never been higher. Why did the Germans so overwhelmingly welcome the Americans and their allies, and fear the Russians?

→ Continue reading: John Lewis Gaddis on good versus evil in the Cold War

Samizdata retort of the day

Mr Putin said people living in Donetsk and Luhansk who considered themselves Russian were entitled to Russian passports.

On Saturday, he said: “We’re considering providing a simplified procedure [of obtaining Russian citizenship] to all the residents of Ukraine.”

How did Ukraine respond? Mr Zelensky said a Russian passport provides “the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest” and “the right not to have free and competitive elections.”

I am starting to cautiously warm to Mr Zelensky.