Pluralistic: 13 Jul 2020

Today's links

Full Employment, the podcast edition (permalink)

This week's podcast is a reading of Full Employment, my latest Locus column.

It's a counter to the argument about automation-driven unemployment – namely, that we will have hundreds of years of full employment facing the climate emergency and remediating the damage it wreaks. From relocating all our coastal cities to replacing aviation routes with high-speed rails to the caring and public health work for hundreds of millions of survivors of plagues, floods and fires, we are in no danger of running out of work. The real question is: how will we mobilize people to do the work needed to save our species and the only known planet in the entire universe that can sustain it?

Here's the podcast episode:

Here's the MP3:

And here's the podcast feed:

Life as a fake Amazon reviewer (permalink)

We hear a lot about how algorithms "radicalize" people, a semi-mystical process whereby "Big Data" and "Machine Learning" turn people into radical zombies who do whatever the system bids. In reality, it's a lot more banal.

Take Eli Reiter's journey into becoming a paid Amazon reviewer, posting inauthentic reviews to help vendors game the algorithm. He signed up for a site called Rebatekey, "which offers rebates between 5% and 100% in exchange for leaving a review."

He contacted Rebatekey customer service over Facebook Messenger. Facebook then tagged him as someone willing to write reviews for money. Even sleazier companies than Rebatekey send ads to people in this FB category offering them money for paid reviews.

That's it. That's radicalization. It's just targeting.

The median human buys one or fewer fridges in their life. Targeting fridge buyers is hard. The traditional method is stuff like billboards near airports.

These ads represent a crude targeting method: "People who fly have money. Fridges cost money. Put ads for fridges near airports."

It's not very effective. Almost no one who sees the ad buys a fridge. It's like a 0.000000001% conversion rate.

FB lets you target people who've looked up fridge reviews. They also probably won't buy a fridge after seeing your ad, but their conversion rate will be more like 0.000001%, which is a thousandfold improvement over airport billboards.

Companies would be nuts to turn up their nose at a thousandfold gain, even if the overall effect size is very small. So FB gets a lot of ad dollars.

This works for any hard-to-locate trait: want to find people who believe gender is a spectrum?

That's there.

How about people who want to march through Charlottesville carrying tiki torches and cosplaying Civil War criminals? That's there too.

Finding people with hard-to-find traits represents a profound change in our discourse, politics and commerce, for good and bad, but it's not a mind-control ray, it's just targeting. Big Tech isn't made of super-geniuses who can help you bypass the public's critical faculties and get them to do your bidding.

Big Tech is made up of ordinary mediocrities like you and me who will help you find otherwise difficult-to-address target audiences and show them messages that they find compelling.


  • Big Tech doesn't make people receptive to your message

  • Big Tech finds people who are receptive

This whole process also has a security dimension: when we are exposed to a new message, we seek out external indications of its validity: we read reviews, we look at Wikipedia entries, we check ratings with neutral observers.

These processes are imperfect, and what's more, their utility changes over time, illustrating one of the bedrock principles of security economics, a variation on Goodhart's Law: "Any measure becomes a target."

My favorite example of this is Google's early history: the Pagerank alogrithm Larry Page invented made a key observation: that pages that had a lot of inbound links were likely to be highly relevant, because relevance was the only reason for one page to link to another.

Pagerank trounced every other search-ranking algorithm by slurping up all available web-pages and counting how many links went to each page on the web.

But making links to webpages isn't hard. As soon as there was a reason to link to webpages other than relevance (getting highly ranked by Pagerank), people made linkfarms to link to their pages and climb the ranks.

Over the years, Pagerank and "Search Engine Optimizers" have been in an arms-race in which Pagerank makes it more expensive to game its system, and SEOs discover cheap workarounds, and/or seek out higher-margin customers who don't mind paying to overcome the new barriers.

Which brings me back to Eli Reiter, writing fake Amazon reviews. Amazon customers rely on reviews as an important quality signal. Highly ranked items generate more sales, but when these items are actually low-quality, they generate returns and reduce trust in Amazon overall.

Amazon and cheap goods vendors have been locked in an arms-race forever. First it was authors creating fake accounts to say nice things about their own books. Then it was companies paying clickworkers to write reviews for products without buying them.

This gave way to "brushing" – sending terrible merchandise to random people so Amazon would accept a review from someone else:

Now scammers are paying people like Reiter to place orders for goods, accept delivery of them, and write reviews. The vendors who can afford this kind of expensive countermeasure must be commanding margins of sufficient size to make it worth their while.

Big ticket items sometimes generate these margins, as to high-volume items – but one of the most reliable ways to improve margins is to skimp on quality. Worse goods, made in worse conditions, yield excess rents that can be mobilized to generate good reviews.

That is, "every measurement becomes a target."

(Image: Rion, CC BY, modified)

Don't talk about cancer on FB (permalink)

Big Data's primary utility isn't brainwashing, it's targeting – surveillance lets advertisers locate people with hard-to-find traits, which solves a lot of real business problems for merchants filling narrow and obscure niches.

In particular, ad-targeting is really useful for con artists and scammers, because the correlates of vulnerability to scams are easy to identify, but hard to turn into targeted ad campaigns without mass surveillance.

Which is why, when Anne Borden King of Bad Science Watch posted about her breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook, she was inundated with quack remedy ads from people willing to commit murder-by-fraud for their personal enrichment.

The pseudoscience scammers offered her cumin seeds, colloidal silver treatments, "cell quickening" and luxury Mexican beach "nontoxic treatments."

No legitimate cancer therapies were advertised to her.

King: "Pseudoscience companies leverage Facebook’s social and supportive environment to connect their products with identities and to build communities around their products. They use influencers and patient testimonials. Some companies also recruit members through Facebook 'support groups' to sell their products in pyramid schemes."

Targeting solves a key business need for unscrupulous merchants.

King again: "Pseudoscience companies tap directly into our fears and isolation, offering us a sense of control, while claiming their products can end our pain."

Like me, King concludes that FB can't solve this problem, and that we should stop using it. I've been a zuckervegan for more than a decade.

King's advice: "suspend, delete or even just spend less time on Facebook (and on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook)."

Privacy as a right, not a product (permalink)

Writing on EFF Deeplinks, my colleague Hayley Tsukayama makes an important, often overlooked observation about the "value" of your private data: the money companies make from spying on you isn't a good proxy for what your data is worth.

This is in the context of the DASHBOARD Act ("Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data") which will require spying companies to tell you how much money they make by creating nonconsensual dossiers of your activities and preferences.

As Tsukayama writes, initiatives like these are grounded in a form of privacy nihilism, the idea that it's too late to force companies not to spy on us, and so the next best thing is to make them compensate us for surveillance.

This is surrender. The sums companies make by spying on us are totally uncoupled from how much our information is worth to us:

"Companies advertised lists of 1,000 people with different conditions such as anorexia, depression and erectile dysfunction for $79 per list. Such embarrassing information in the wrong hands could cost someone their job or their reputation."

Rather than buying into the idea that privacy is a product, we need to treat it like a right, with no price-tag: "No person should be coerced or encouraged to barter it away. It's not a good deal for people to receive a handful of dollars in exchange for it."

This echoes Malavika Jayaram's important critique: "'privacy is a luxury' disproportionately affects people with less power, agency and resources."

It also taps into my own dissatisfaction with the idea that "if you're not paying for the product, you're the product" – which implies that paying companies will make them respect you more.

If this was true, buying a John Deere tractor would cause the company to bend over backwards to give you rights and freedoms – not abuse copyright law to force you to get your repairs exclusively from them (see also: Apple).

By all means let us have laws "requiring transparency about data collection, including the right to know the specific items of personal information companies have collected on you, and the specific third parties who received it. Not just categorical descriptions of the general kinds of data and recipients. Users should have a legal right to obtain a copy of the data they have provided to an online service provider."

But this is just table-stakes. Our goal should be "Requiring companies to respect everyone’s privacy rights—and giving individuals the power to hold those companies accountable when they don’t."

Primary Richie Neal [D-MA] (permalink)

A campaign from Fight Corporate Monopolies, a 501(c)4 "dark money" org spun out of the American Economic Liberties Project targets Rep Richie Neal [D-MA],co-author of a bill letting Blackstone – his top donor – continue to gouge people with health emergencies through "surprise billing"

Surprise billing happens when a private equity looter like Blackstone takes over the emergency room of a hospital and opts the emergency doctors and other personnel out of the hospital's insurance plans.

That means that even if you can get through to your insurer and check that the hospital the ambulance is racing you to is covered, you still end up on the hook, personally, for thousands of dollars for care that is charged a many multiples of the going rate.

It is an unimaginably unethical, corrupt and indefensible practice. The people involved are irredeemable villains who target their fellow humans at moments of dire need and distress.

If there is a hell, they belong there.

Neal took in $46k from Blackstone this cycle, making them his largest donor. He is chair of the Ways and Means committee and his bill rolling back the Trump #taxscam left Blackstone untouched. Blackstone – the largest PE firm in the world – pays $0.00 in federal taxes.

Fight Corporate Monopolies' attack ad will run for 2 weeks in Neal's district, at a cost of $300k.

Neal faces a primary challenge from Justice Democrat Alex Morse, Mayor of Holyoke, whose platform backs the Green New Deal and Medicare For All.

Neal leads Democrats in accepting corporate money and is the leading voice against Medicare for All in the Democratic caucus; he's even urged Democrats not to say the words "Medicare for All" in public.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago White Wolf's last copyright debacle: DRM disaster

#10yrsago Financial genius: US record industry turns $16M in legal spending into $391K cash

#10yrsago Open Source Hardware Definition released

#10yrsago Lessig responds to ASCAP's bizarre anti-free-culture smear campaign

#10yrsago Important fMRI study literacy tips

#10yrsago Minister responsible for Canada's DMCA loses nerve, won't defend own bill

#10yrsago New media give way to newer media and get even better

#10yrsago Arrested for blowing bubbles at the G20 in Toronto?">

#5yrsago University of Toronto upholds "alternative medicine" course that denied vaccines, taught "quantum medicine"

#5yrsago Bloom County to return for 2016 election cycle

#1yrago London police official warns journalists not to publish leaks on pain of imprisonment

#1yrago #TelegramGate: leaks show Puerto Rico's appointed officials mocking the dead as hurricanes devastate the island

#1yrago Vidcon cosplayer dressed as an influencer apology video

#1yrago Bird Scooter reportedly lost $100m in three months, needs more capital to stay afloat

#1yrago Al Jaffee's MAD Life: how a traumatized kid from the shtetl became an American satire icon

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Bruce Schneier (, Slashdot (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 543 words (37107 total).

Currently reading: Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 09)

Upcoming appearances:

"Working as Intended: Surveillance Capitalism is not a Rogue Capitalism," Jul 21,

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commerically, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla