Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘manipulation

Issues with search listings and emotionally manipulative writing

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A recurring problem with online journalism is that the information shown in search listings is often highly misleading, including click-baiting, contents that turn out to be pay-walled after the user clicks the link, and a misleading impression of factuality (cf. below).

A recurring problem with journalism in general is undue emotional manipulation, cheap and pointless* human interest angles, etc.

*As opposed to more legitimate cases—they are rare, but they do exist. In contrast, it might be argued that emotional manipulation is always undue in journalism (and politics, advertising, and similar).

Both are exemplified by my search for an English source for the topic of my previous text (I encountered the topic in German): I was met by a number of entries in the search list that seemed to be calm and factual, but which turned out to be cheap attempts to provoke emotional reactions when I actually visited the pages. The source that I did pick was the least evil, by a considerable distance, of the four or five pages that I tried. Even here, however, we have a start of: “One-month old Haboue Solange Boue, awaiting medical care for severe malnutrition, is held by her mother, Danssanin Lanizou, 30, at the feeding center of the main hospital in the town of Hounde,” with a corresponding image. This in contrast to a search-list entry of “Hunger linked to coronavirus is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call for action from the United Nations.”

In all fairness, that page lived up to the claims after the image and image text, and even the image text was not that bad. But what do some others do?

Consider https://kvoa.com/news/2020/07/27/covid-19-linked-hunger-tied-to-10000-child-deaths-each-month:

The lean season is coming for Burkina Faso’s children. And this time, the long wait for the harvest is bringing a hunger more ferocious than most have ever known.

That hunger is already stalking Haboue Solange Boue, an infant who has lost half her former body weight of 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) in the last month. With the markets closed because of coronavirus restrictions, her family sold fewer vegetables. Her mother is too malnourished to nurse her.

“My child,” Danssanin Lanizou whispers, choking back tears as she unwraps a blanket to reveal her baby’s protruding ribs. The infant whimpers soundlessly.

Excruciatingly poorly written, horrifyingly cheap, and a waste of time for anyone who wants to actually understand the situation (let alone is looking for a reference). This is the type of anti-hook and reader-despising drivel that kills my wish to read on.

The search-listing?

Virus-linked hunger is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call to action from the United Nations shared with The …

Calm, factual, and something that I would consider reading (and what seems to make a good reference).

Assuming that we wanted to include contents like the above, it should (a) have been moved to a side-bar, not the top of the main text, (b) have been written in a more factual manner. Consider e.g. (with some reservations for the exact underlying intents and facts due to precision lost by the poor original):

The children of Burkina Faso are at particular risk. The harvest is still far into the future and supplies are already low. The coronavirus restrictions have closed markets, which does not just reduce access to food but also the income needed to pay.

Many have already been severely hit, like Haboue Solange Boue, an infant who has lost half her former body weight of 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) in the last month. The closed markets have hurt her family’s vegetables sales and her mother is too malnourished to nurse her.

But it is not just the infant who suffers: the emotional stress on her mother is great.

Note the difference in tone, the lack of (or, at least, far lesser) emotional manipulation, how information is more accessible, and how much easier it is to actually get an idea of what goes on.

Excursion on perceived value of “emotional” writing:
The naive might argue that writing like the original would make it easier to empathize with and understand the situation emotionally. Not only am I highly skeptical to this, based on myself, but I must also point to two major risks: (a) That the reader falls victim to an analogue of emotional contagion.* (b) That reality is distorted (more easily than with more factual writing). More generally, decisions, including government policy, should be made by reason, not emotion.

*More generally, what is meant by “empathy” very often amounts to nothing more than emotional contagion—something which distorts understanding, leads to partiality, and brings about poor decisions.

The latter can be the result of e.g. exaggeration or melodrama, deliberate distortion, and different perceptions. Notably, using emotional writing, narrating reactions, speculating about the internal state of someone, whatnot, it is very easy both to give and to get the wrong impression. Moreover, internal states and external displays do not always reflect what is reasonable.* For an example of such distortion consider the following hypothetical example: “Felicia felt her heart compress painfully as she looked down on the dead body, the remains of her old friend. Tears welled up into her eyes and she sat down in shock. A moment ago, he had been so full of life and now he was gone, gone forever, ripped out of her life by a moment of carelessness. Oh God, what had she done?!?” Here is the hitch: I wrote this with the sudden death of a gold fish in mind and I wrote nothing that might not genuinely have applied in such a case (allowing for some metaphor).

*For instance, when I was a young child and my toy penguin lost an eye, I cried much more than when I, as an adult, learned that my mother had died. Cf. parts of an older text.

Excursion on search listings:
The situation with search listings is quite negative, and includes such problems as various web sites feeding different contents to different user agents, e.g. web browsers used by humans and the “spiders” that gather data for search services. A potential solution would be to require that spiders are fed the exact contents of a regular surfer and that search listings always show the first X words of the page contents. While the result might sometimes be misleading, it will often be better than today, there will often* be a clear indication whether content is pay-walled, and it might lead to better writing that gets to the point faster. The pay-wall issue could be partially solved by some mandatory content tag which can be evaluated by search engines to give the searchers a heads up.

*However, likely less often than could be hoped for, as a simple “pay NOW to read” message might be replaced by a teaser text followed by “pay NOW to read” to ensure that the latter is not present in the search listing. Indeed, such teaser texts are fairly common, even today.

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Written by michaeleriksson

July 28, 2020 at 10:40 am

Detection of manipulation of digital evidence / Follow-up: A few points concerning the movie “Anon”

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In a recent discussion of the movie “Anon”, I noted, regarding the uselessness of digital evidence, “Whatever is stored […] can be manipulated”, with a footnote on the limitations of write-only storage (an obvious objection to this claim).

A probably more interesting take than write-only storage is the ability to detect manipulation (or accidental change). Here there are many instances where some degree of protection can be added, say, a check digit or a check sum for an identifier (e.g. a credit-card number) respectively a larger piece of content (e.g. an executable file), cryptographic verification of extended change history in a version-control system (notably Git), or any number of Blockchain applications (originating with Bitcoin). The more advanced uses, including Blockchains, could very well be legitimately relevant even in a court of law in some cases.

In most cases, however, these are unlikely to be helpful—starting with the obvious observation that they only help when used during the manipulation, which (today and for the foreseeable future) will rarely be the case.* Worse, the victim of a manipulation will also need to convince the court that e.g. the planted evidence would necessarily have been covered by such verification mechanisms: Consider e.g. someone who meticulously keeps all his files under version control, but where incriminating evidence is planted outside of it. He can, obviously, claim that any file or change of a file actually owned by him would have been registered in version control. However, how can he prove this claim? How does he defeat the (not at all implausible) counter that he kept all his regular files in version control, but that these specific files were left outside due to their incriminating character, in an attempt to hide them from a search by a third-party?

*I note e.g. that the technologies are partly unripe; that the extra effort would often be disproportionate; and that a use sufficiently sophisticated to be helpful against hostile law enforcement might require compromises, e.g. to the ability to permanently delete incriminating content, that could backfire severely. In a worst case scenario, the use of such could it self lead to acts that are considered illegal. For instance, assume that someone inadvertently visits a site with a type of pornography illegal in his own jurisdiction, that the contents are cached by the browser, at some point automatically stored in a file-system cache, and that all contents stored in the file system are tracked in such detail that the contents can be retrieved at any future date. Alternatively, consider the same example with contents legal in his jurisdiction, followed by travel with the same computer to a jurisdiction where those contents are illegal. Note that some jurisdictions consider even the presence in a browser cache, even unbeknownst to the user, enough for “possession” to apply; by analogy, this would be virtually guaranteed to extend to the permanent storage discussed here. (This example also points to another practical complication: This type of tracking would currently be prohibitive in terms of disk space for many applications.)

Even when such measures are used and evidence is planted within their purview, however, it is not a given that they will help. Consider (for an unrealistically trivial example) a credit-card number, where a single (non-check) digit has been manipulated. A comparison with the check digit will* make it clear that a manipulation has taken place. However, nothing prevents the manipulator from recalculating the check digit… Unless the original check digit had somehow been made public knowledge in advance, or could otherwise be proved, the victim would have no benefit in a court of law. Indeed, he, himself, might now be unaware of the manipulation. The same principle can be used in more advanced/realistic scenarios, e.g. with a Git repository: While a naive manipulation is detectable, a more sophisticated one, actually taking the verification mechanisms into consideration, need not be. In doubt, a sophisticated manipulator could resort to simply “replaying” all the changes to the repository into a fresh one, making sure that the only deviation in content is the intended.** If older copies are publicly known, deviations might still be detected by comparison—but how many private repositories are publicly known?*** The victim might still try to point to differences through a comparison with a private backup, but (a) the manipulator can always claim that the backup has been manipulated by the victim, (b) it is not a given that he still has access to his backups (seeing that they are reasonably likely to have been confiscated at the same time as the computer where the repository resides).

*With reservations for some exceptional case. Note that changing more than one digit definitely introduces a risk that the check digit will match through coincidence. (It being intended as a minor precaution against accidental errors.)

**Counter-measures like using time stamps, mac addresses, some asymmetric-key transfer of knowledge to identify users, …, as input into the calculations of hashes and whatnots can be used to reduce this problem. However, combining a sufficiently sophisticated attacker with sufficient knowledge, even this is not an insurmountable obstacle. Notably, as long as we speak of a repository (or ledger, Blockchain, whatnot) that is only ever used from the computer(s) of one person, chances are that all information needed, including private keys, actually would be known to the manipulator—e.g. because he works for law-enforcement and has the computer running right in front of him.

***In contrast, many or most Git repositories used in software development (the context in which Git originated) will exist in various copies that are continually synchronized with each other. Here a manipulation, e.g. to try to blame someone else for a costly bug or to remove a historical record of a copyright violation, would be far easier to prove. (But then again, we might not need a verification mechanism for that—it would often be enough to just compare contents.)

Worse: All counter-measures might turn out to be futile with manipulations that do not try to falsify the past. Consider some type of verification system that allows the addition of new data (events, objects, whatnot) and verifies the history of that data. (This will likely be the most typical case.) It might now be possible to verify that a certain piece of data was or was not present at a given time in the past—but there is no automatic protection against the addition of new data here and now. For instance, a hostile with system access could just* as easily plant evidence in e.g. a version-control system (by simply creating a new file through the standard commands of the version-control system), as he can by creating a new file in the file system.

*Assuming, obviously, that he has taken the time to learn how the victim used his system, which should be assumed if someone becomes a high-priority target of a competent law-enforcement or intelligence agency.

Then we have complications like technical skills, actual access to the evidence, and similar: If digital evidence has been planted and a sufficiently skilled investigator looked at the details, possibly including comparisons with backups, he might find enough discrepancies to reveal the manipulation. However, there is no guarantee that the victim of the manipulations has these skills*, can find and afford a technical consultant and expert witness, has access to relevant evidence (cf. above), … To take another trivial and unrealistic example: Assume that a manipulating police employee adds a new file into the file system after a computer has been confiscated. Before court, testimony is given of the presence of the file, even giving screen shots** verifying the name, position, and contents of the file—but not the time stamp***! With sufficient access and knowledge, the defense could have demonstrated that the time stamp indicated a creation after the confiscation; without, it has nothing—no matter what mechanisms were theoretically available.

*And even when he has these skills himself, he would likely still need an expert witness to speak on his behalf, because others might assume that his technical statements are deliberate lies (or be unwilling to accept his own expertise as sufficiently strong).

**I am honestly uncertain how this would be done in practice. With minor restrictions, the same would apply even if the computer was run physically in the court room, however. (But I do note that screen shots, too, can be manipulated or otherwise faked, making any indirect evidence even less valuable.)

***Here the triviality of the example comes in. For instance, even many or most laymen do know that files have time stamps; the timestamp too could have been manipulated; if the computer was brought into the court room, the defense could just have requested that the time stamp be displayed; … In a more realistic example, the situation could be very different.

Excursion on auditing:
Some of these problems could be reduced through various forms of more detailed user auditing, to see exactly who did what and when. This, however, runs into a similar set of problems, including that such auditing is (at least for now) massive overkill for most computer uses, that auditing might not always be wanted, and that the auditing trail can it self be vulnerable to manipulation*. To boot, if a hostile has gained access to the victim’s user account(s), auditing might not be very helpful to begin with: It might tell us that the user account John.Smith deleted a certain file at a certain time—but it will not tell us whether the physical person John Smith did so. It could equally be someone who has stolen his credentials or otherwise invaded the account (e.g. in the form of a Bundestrojaner).

*To reduce the risk of manipulation, many current users of auditing store audit information on a separate computer/server. This helps when the circumstances are sufficiently controlled. However, when both computers have been confiscated, the circumstances are no longer controlled. To boot, such a solution would be a definite luxury for the vast majority of private computer users.

Excursion on naive over-reliance in the other direction:
Another danger with digital evidence (in the form discussed above or more generally) is that a too great confidence in it could allow skilled criminals to go free, through manipulation of their own data. A good fictional example of this is given in Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Gap Cycle”, where the (believed to be impossible) manipulation of “datacores”* allows one of the characters to get away with horrifying crimes. Real-life examples could include an analogous manipulation of tachographs or auditing systems, if these were given sufficient credibility in court.

*The in-universe name for an “append-only” data store, which plays a similar (but more complex and pervasive) role to current tachographs in tracking the actions taken by a space ship and its crew.

Excursion on digital devices in general:
Above I deal with computers. This partly, because “traditional” computers form the historical main case; partly, because most digital devices, e.g. smart-phones, formally are computers, making it easier use “computer” than some other term. However, the same principles and much of the details apply even with a broader discussion—and for a very large and rising proportion of the population, smart-phones might be more relevant than traditional computers.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 11, 2018 at 2:34 am

How to win an election in a lost democracy

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Looking at the U.S. Presidential election system, there is an interesting flaw in the two phases* involved: A candidate can win the first phase by having an ever so small majority, possibly even plurality, of his own party support him—and be without chance in the second phase through this support being too small.

*Preliminaries and main election. A case for more phases including preparations, declarations, nominations, and (of course) the election by the electoral college could be made, but I stick to the popular vote here.

In this setup, what is the best way to win an election? Make sure that a. you have a strong internal support, b. your opponent antagonizes almost half of his own party (or otherwise has a weak internal support and a strong risk of defectors). By planting, covertly supporting, whatnot, a poor candidate within the opposing party, the election result can be manipulated in a massive manner. The poor candidate does not even have to be “in on it”. In fact, I would be unsurprised if most variations of such (at least approximately) “divide and conquer” tactics work better when only the outside manipulators know the truth.

Notably, in the U.S. political landscape, with the two main parties both covering a very wide range of opinions and interests (the Republicans likely more so), this is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Take a candidate like Donald Trump*, who by playing the populist element and fringes of one party can gather a majority of his own party, while being highly unpopular in other parts of the party. Chances are that he will be able to mobilize a smaller share of the party members in the main election than a more main-stream/moderate/whatnot candidate—and he will see far more “defectors” from his own party than the opponent’s come election day**. In fact, a number of Republicans have actually publicly declared Hillary the lesser evil (something I very strongly disagree with, however problematic Trump may be). Similarly, with some reservations for how well the populism works, he is likely to miss out on most of the party-less vote.

*This post is very definitely inspired by the current situation. However, and I stress this strongly, I am not saying that this has actually already happened—just that it is a very real risk that it eventually will happen, the more likely after the parties have reviewed the events of the current election. However, similar stratagems have definitely been tried in other contexts in the past, notably during military conquests.

**Normally, almost every Republican voter will see virtually any Republican candidate as better than his Democrat counter-part (and vice versa), because even if flawed in character and sub-optimal in opinion, he will still be the lesser evil through belonging to the right party and having at least roughly the right opinions. The idea is to find a candidate who will disturb this principle with as many voters as possibly (while still managing to gain the party majority).

Say that election day comes, that the Republicans and Democrats are equally strong in general support, but that 80 % of the Democrats vote loyally while 20 % remain at home—and that only 70 % of the Republicans are loyal, 20 % remain at home, and 10 % actually defect. Well, that splits the vote 90–70, giving the Democrats an easy victory*, where we “should” have had a hard fight to the last hour of the election.

*Of course, with the all-or-nothing voting on the state level, such overall numbers are not necessarily important. However, in the given constellation, this would have kept every blue state in its traditional color, likely turned every swing-state blue, and quite possibly given some red states a do-over. The result is the same—an easy victory.

Now, consider the special case that you are put in charge of getting someone herself* almost unelectable elected. Suddenly, this strategy is not merely advantageous—it might be an outright necessity! For a disaster** to be elected, the opponent must at least appear to be similarly poor.

Bottom line: If you are Scylla and want ships heading your way, make sure the alternative is Charybdis.

*And, yes, I am most definitely talking about Hillary Clinton. However, I am still not saying that this is what actually has happened.

**In the case of Hillary Clinton, the disaster falls into two parts. Firstly, she is objectively a poor candidate, with a history of corruption, dubious qualifications, weird opinions, … She has even already more-or-less promised a cabinet with a male–female division of 50–50 based on the overall population distribution and ignoring actual suitability and availability of candidates—an idea fully on par with a wall to Mexico. Secondly, she is a candidate with handicaps when it comes to being elected, including being less than universally liked and more controversial among the Democrats than is safe for a candidate to be, being unusually disliked among the Republicans, being less telegenic and charismatic than many others have been (including Bill and Obama), and just (at least to me) appearing less natural.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 9, 2016 at 12:11 am

Opinion and the wish to be well-behaved (brav sein)

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Preamble: The “be well-behaved” of the title is an approximate translation of the German “brav sein”. As this translation does not quite catch the concept I try to pin-point, a brief explanation: “Brav sein” is a phrase usually applied to children or pets, either as an imperative (“Sei brav!”–“Behave yourself!”/“Be nice!”) or a complimentary description (“Ein braves Kind.”–“A well-behaved child.”), in many ways being the opposite of the out-dated English “wicked child”. The child who is “brav” is rewarded; the one who is not is punished. While the decision about what is “brav” is often highly arbitrary, an implication of morality is still often involved (but “brav” and “moral” are not the same)—and the implication of approval or disapproval from the “powers that be” (adults/humans) is central. Somewhat similar concepts are reflected in the English cognates “bravo” and (in one meaning) “brave”.

Looking back at my own teenager years, I see an occasional tendency of wanting to have the “brav” opinion—not an opinion that had convinced me through facts and arguments, but one that was the “enlightened” opinion to have, the one that was “expected” of those who were not barbarians. (Causing the odd moment of cognitive dissonance, because the “brav” opinion and the facts often clashed—nowadays, I have learned to go where the facts and arguments point.) Over the years, I have seen many signs that this kind of thinking applies to a very significant part of even the adult population—and almost all teenagers and children. Paradoxically, there are some signs that those of above-average intelligence are actually more easily snared than the below average. (Possibly, through often being more conformant in school and being used to seeing “brav” behaviour rewarded, or because they have a greater exposure to “brav” ideas, e.g. through newspapers.)

The politically correct are possibly the example. This manifests e.g. in not merely abandoning old prejudice but to actually err in the other direction, or in the belief that the world conforms to what it “should” be, that we do live in “the best of worlds”. Conversely, when someone questions the “truth”, even with scientific support, he is denounced as “wicked” (respectively, “racist”, “sexist”, whatnot). Consider e.g the events around Lawrence Summers.

Political parties and ideologies (in general) often have some component of this “brav sein”; however, rarely to the extreme degree that the politically correct do. An important case is the leftist use of “progressive” (likely in a deliberately play on this principle) to make their own opinions seem “brav”—despite often being consider regressive, anti-progress, and anti-enlightenment by their opponents. Other words that often appear to be used with a similar intent include “democratic”, “American” (in the US), and “freedom [something-or-other]”. Besides, who would willingly declare himself to be part of the “immoral minority”?

Religion is similar: It is “brav” to do or to abstain from this-or-that. The imposition of belief and behaviour does not follow merely from arguments or through threats of hell-fire, but also from the general attitude that some things are more “brav” than others.

Some book authors, including e.g. Daniel Goleman, provide yet other examples. For instance, the concept of “Cultural Creatives”w (official pagee) is a first rate illustration:

Some people have a certain set of opinions and are rewarded by being allowed to call themselves “Cultural Creative”—a very progressive and enlightened sounding title. More than that, they are now among the “50 Million People [who] Are Changing the World”, with the possibility to advance to being a “Core Cultural Creative”. Interestingly, looking at the list of opinions presented on the Wikipedia page, a very sizable part of the population of any western country would qualify as “Cultural Creative”—often for having opinions that have no real connection with each other, nor have anything to do with either culture or creativity. (I could count myself as one too, with only ten matching opinions being needed; however, there is little doubt that I am in a different camp from what the authors would want.) Indeed, I would even voice the suspicion that the originators of the concept deliberately attempt to gather in as many people as possible by the Forer effectw (“Hey, I am Cultural Creative! Yay me!”) and then to guide them to the “right” opinions in other areas (“I want to be a good Cultural Creative! Now, what should I believe?”), thereby overriding reason.

One Michael Hardy makes a comment on the talk page of the Wikipedia article that well catches both my own impression of “Cultural Creatives” and (with the last sentence) much of what I try to say in the larger context of this post:

But if you scan down the list of things that alleged “Cultural Creatives” are interested in, it looks as if they’re just people who want to follow popular trends. That’s the common thread. And the book congratulates them on their superiority, so they look down on their less trendy neighbors and feel warm fuzzies about how much better they are than those other people.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm