Pluralistic: 05 Aug 2020

Today's links

Contextual ads can save media (permalink)

The mainstay of online advertising is "behavioral advertising" in which ads are placed based on dossiers of your activity and preferences that have been compiled by Big Tech giants and shadowy data-brokers.

The cornerstone of behavioral advertising is "real-time auctions": when you request a web-page, its publisher fetches your cookie, correlates that with your identity in multiple databases, then offers the chance to advertise to you to several (dozens, sometimes more) brokers.

That's how you end up with creepy, "retargeted" ads that follow you around the web after you search for a specific kind of information, say, on erectile dysfunction: you get a tag called "person interested in boners" and that attracts bids from boner-pill vendors.

All of that is reasonably well-known, as are the surveillance consequences of it. But what's less well-known, and just as important, is what happens to the losers of the realtime auctions when you visit a site.

Say you visit the Washington Post. Dozens of brokers bid on the chance to advertise to you. All but one of them loses the auction. But every one of those losers gets to add a tag to its dossier on you: "Washington Post reader."

Advertising on the Washington Post is expensive. "Washington Post reader" is a valuable category unto itself: a lot of blue-chip firms will draw up marketing plans that say, "Make sure we tell Washington Post readers about this product!"

Here's the thing: the companies want to advertise to Washington Post readers, but they don't care about advertising in the Washington Post. And now there are dozens of auction "losers" who can sell the right to advertise to you, as a Post reader, when you visit cheaper sites.

When you click through one of those dreadful "Here's 22 reasons to put a rubber band on your hotel room's door handle" websites, every one of those 22 pages can be sold to advertisers who want to reach Post readers, at a fraction of what the Post charges.

Every website that includes behavioral advertising realtime auctions is slowly eroding its own rate-card, making it possible to target its readers somewhere else.

When we talk about the death of "display advertising" (where, say, Ford buys a month of banners on a site), we correctly blame behavioral ads, but the story we tell about those ads is wrong.

It usually goes, "Ford has figured out how to target car-shoppers without paying top dollar to prestige venues like the Washington Post." But what's ALSO happening is "Ford has figured out how to advertise to Washington Post readers without paying Washington Post rates."

Behavioral ads grew up with Big Tech and its mass surveillance. Data-brokers make crazy claims for how well their targeting works in "conversions" – that is, turning ads into sales. But these are obviously self-serving claims.

The ad industry's core competency isn't selling advertisers' products to consumers: it's selling advertising services to advertisers. Moving product is a good way to do that, but so is bullshitting in ways that drive up payments.

Meanwhile, there is another method for placing ads, one that is decidedly technologically enabled, unique to the digital world, with fewer middle-men skimming the cream and no erosion of your rate-card: Contextual advertising.

That's when publishers sell off the right to advertise to you based on the subject of the article you're reading, your location (based on your IP address) and other metadata, like which browser and OS you're using.

Contextual advertising converts at very nearly the same rate as behavioral advertising, and just as well as behavioral ads for some categories of goods and services:

And – once again – any short-term losses from contextual ads are more than offset by averting the long-term death-spiral of by behavioral ads, in which parasites chase the cheapest possible content, earning ad revenues by targeting readers of better publications.

Contextual ads are gaining ground, thanks, in part, to laws like the GDPR, which have simultaneously made it harder to do behavioral advertising, and imposed compliance burdens that wiped out most of Europe's smaller ad-tech firms, leaving US tech giants in control.

Last year, the New York Times ditched most of its programmatic behavioral ads:

Now, the Netherlands's public broadcaster NPO has done the same, ditching Google Ad Manager for a new custom contextual ad system it commissioned from the Dutch company Ortec.

They've since experimented with major advertisers like Amex and found little to no difference between context ads and behavioral ads when it comes to conversions.

And, thanks to the GDPR (which requires affirmative opt-in for behvioral ads), these context ads reach far more readers. The result is a massive increase in revenues: up 62% in Jan and 79% in Feb, year-on-year.

And they're keeping that money, rather than giving a 50% vig to useless, creepy, spying ad-tech middlemen.

Ads often pay the bills of the people who make the things you love. But ad-tech? That pays the bills of the people who are destroying the things you love.

Technologies like EFF's Privacy Badger block trackers (protecting your privacy and publications' rate-cards), but not ads (provided they don't track). Ultimately, this needs systemic, not individual solutions (a US federal privacy bill with a private right of action!).

But while we're waiting for a systemic solution, Privacy Badger and other tracker-blockers can help weight the scales in favor of context ads instead of behavioral ones.

GE's billion dollar tax-fraud (permalink)

HMRC, the UK tax authority, has accused General Electric of a $1b tax fraud, implicating GE's former top tax exec Will Morris, who got a 2012 HMRC award for "informing the public debate on large business and condemning tax evasion and abusive tax arrangements with no commercial purpose"

It's one of the largest tax-fraud lawsuits in world history, and it implicates a suite of enablers: PWC (already mired in scandal) and the legendary City law firm Slaughter and May.

(Morris took his HRMC trophy and went to work for PWC!)

HMRC says that in 2005, GE pretended it was sloshing $1b through Australia, the US and the UK in order to invest it in Australia, but it was really triple-dipping, taking advantage of tax loopholes in all three countries.

HMRC has asked the UK High Court to annul its 2005 agreement with GE, based on information it received in 2018 that led the agency to believe GE had lied to it: full minutes from a GE board meeting where top execs reveal their fraudulent intent.

"GE had borrowed $3.8bn from an unnamed US bank that — over just four days — were moved between its operations in the US, Luxembourg, the UK and Australia, before being returned to the same bank."

GE denies it all. It says that its decision to only offer some of the board meeting minutes (omitting the damning part) in 2005 was not a "material omission."

The case is scheduled for trial in Oct 2021.

Qanon is an ARG (permalink)

The Qanon phenomenon is many things: for one thing, it's a grift. Q's top spokesgargoyles earn small fortunes in ad revenue, crowdfunding and merchandise.

But it's also an Alternate Reality Game: an intense interactive mystery narrative that is collaboratively designed by its players, who create theories to explain the mystery, which get adopted by the "game masters" and integrated into the tale.

One of the world's foremost ARG designers is Six to Start's Adrian Hon, who wrote a long article on how ARG-like elements supercharge cults like Qanon. Whatever else Qanon is for its members, it's also fun.

"QAnon pushes the same buttons that ARGs do, whether by intention or by coincidence. In both cases, 'do your research' leads curious onlookers to a cornucopia of brain-tingling information."

ARGs involve fiendish puzzles that must be solved with pattern-matching and intense research. Sometimes players can't solve the puzzles, or their solutions are wrong — but really cool. ARG runners ("puppetmasters") (no, really) revise the game in realtime based on players.

This is what cult members do when their own predictions and solutions misfire, turning every failed prophecy into an opportunity for new theory-spinning, a new prophecy whose creator gets lionized (and, maybe, paid) for their creativity.

Anthropologists who interview Qanon cultists say they self-report pleasure from writing "Qanon stories" after their kids go to bed. These stories gain status for their authors in intense, socially important online communities.

ARGs are showcases for the unrecognized storytelling and puzzle-solving talents of their players – and so is Q, a vast improv theater where your ability to connect disparate, unrelated events with narrative threads wins enormous social capital.

A game that is a pleasure and positive for its players when it's fictional turns into a destructive cult when it's treated as real. It's the difference between playing The Beast and Reddit's Boston Bomber thread, which led to false terrorism accusations against innocents.

Hon elaborated on his essay in a New York Times interview with Charlie Warzel, especially the mantra "This is not a game," a phrase that gained currency in the writing for (duh) a game, Microsoft's "The Beast."

Hon also identifies social media's upvote/downvote tools as a Darwinian winnower for Q theories, a way to surface the most intriguing and rewarding fantasies, as a force-multiplier for conspiracism.

Most importantly, Hon theorizes that Q is a playbook that others will copy to target and recruit vulnerable, traumatized people into future cults.

Cori Bush triumphs in Missouri (permalink)

The insurgent Justice Democrat Cori Bush has won a primary race in St Louis, MO, against Lacy Clay, the son of the cofounder of the Congressional Black Caucus. Between them, father and son Clay held the seat for more than 50 years.

Bush is a perfect Justice Democrat: a young (44), working class (nurse), activist (she was a founder of the Ferguson uprising) candidate who got AOC's endorsement in 2018 and Sanders's in 2020, and outraised her opponent with small-dollar contributions.

Her platform planks include Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and defunding the police. She was backed by Sunrise and Matriarch,"a new organization that backs working-class women running for office."

And she was featured in Netflix's documentary about Justice Democrats, "Knock Down the House," alongside AOC, Tlaib, Pressley and Omar.

The victory is part of a wave of primary challenges to long-term incumbent Democrats who promoted finance-friendly policies including Eliot Engel and Dan Lipinski.

Clay was attacked by the Fight Corporate Monopolies dark money group for his role in killing Obama's Fiduciary Rule, which required financial advisors to act in their clients' interests. Now advisors can recommend products that will enrich them, rather than their clients.

Fight Corporate Monopolies is also backing a primary challenger against Mass Congressman Richie Neal, who cosponsored a bill protecting private equity funds that use "surprise billing" to gouge emergency room patients.

Bush's victory was a squeaker, in part because of tepid support from AOC and other squad members who'd backed her in 2018.

Writing in The Intercept, Ryan Grim attributes this to concern among Justice Democrats that challenges to Congressional Black Caucus members – even when the challengers are also Black – are cast as racist.

Trump wants to force you to invest in failing fossil fuel companies (permalink)

If you talk to capitalism's True Believers, they'll tell you that the magic of "free markets" is their power to aggregate vast quantities of information about the value of products encoded in the purchasing choices of consumers.

But capitalism's support for free markets is highly selective: capitalists love monopolies, where purchasers are deprived of choices. They love monopsonies, where workers are deprived of choices. And they love regulation, when regulation forces us to buy their stuff.

Enter the Trump administration, which is poised to make it nearly impossible for you to invest your 401k pension savings in "Environmental, Social, and Governance" (ESG) funds that guarantee you won't be supporting the fossil fuel industry.

The rule was ghostwritten by Koch-funded thinktanks and has the backing of powerful, hydrocarbon-funded wreckers like the National Assoc of Manufacturers, the North American Coal Company and the Western Energy Alliance.

Here's how Western Energy describes the case for forcing us to invest our pension savings in fossil fuels: "ESG advocacy has negatively affected the industry’s access to capital over the last few years…

"The rule will help ensure that activism regarding pension plans does not morph into a halt to investment in the sector that provides nearly 70 percent of American energy."

Here's David Sirota's translation: "the climate movement's push to shift investors’ money out of fossil fuel assets and into renewables has been too successful, and so polluters are asking the government to intervene with a special rule to staunch the bleeding."

Trump's buying it: his SEC will not force companies to disclose their climate risk exposure, making it much harder for you to figure out whether your investments are in companies that are rendering the planet unfit for human habitation.

And that means that your fund manager will be violating their fiduciary duty to you to seek the best returns by seeking out non-fossil-fuel investments, and thus will be violating securities law.

(Ironically, the same forces that back this proposal, also killed Obama's "fiduciary rule" for investment advisors, freeing them to line their pockets with commissions from recommending unsuitable products to you)

As Sirota points out, forcing fund managers to put your money into the fossil fuel industry is hardly a gift to retirement savers: the industry is in serious trouble, and will never, ever recover.

Qanon is magical thinking (permalink)

For years, Kirby Ferguson's "Everything is a Remix" video series has traced the links between beloved contemporary art and largely forgotten historical roots, making the case that culture is accretive, and originality is just hiding your influences.

In a new video, "Trump, QAnon and The Return of Magic," Ferguson makes a compelling case that Qanon is a remix of the age old trap of magical thinking: "the belief that one's ideas, thoughts or wishes can influence the world's course of events."

Moreover, it's a specific, conservative form of magical thinking, grounded in obsessions with purity and protecting innocents: hence the centrality of child-trafficking rings to Q's mythology.

This is a recurring motif in paranoid, right-wing fantasies: Ferguson makes the connection between Q and the 1980s' "satanic panic" and the widespread delusion that satanic cults were kidnapping, raping and murdering babies.

But while the satanic panic merely ruined the lives of the falsely accused, Q is part of a growing conspiratorial belief pattern that elected a president who is on a path to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Americans due to epidemiological ineptitude and racism.

Ferguson poses the current political struggle as a fight between "magical thinkers" and "evidence seekers", with the former being more concerned with feeling better than with discovering the truth.

Magical thinking is a kind of metastasis of pattern-matching, the apopheniac's curse of seeing connections in coincidences, or manufacturing connections in unrelated phenomena that feel right ("I listen to my gut").

In a world of great crisis – pandemic, climate inequality – it's not crazy to want to feel better. For all that magical thinkers cloak themselves in "skepticism" their beliefs are grounded in feelings. Evidence is tedious and ambiguous, emotions are quick and satisfying.

Ferguson identifies six hallmarks of magical thinking:

I. Symbols and codes: Choose a simple enough symbol (a triangle!) and it'll show up everywhere. And wherever you can't find a symbol, you can asset that you're being confounded by a code.

Anything can be a code (think of Pizzagate). It's impossible to prove to a motivated reasoner that you're NOT speaking in code.

II. Dot connecting: Instead of spotting patterns in individual items, you assert that things that repeat, or happen near each other, or at the same time, must be related. Of course, you get to ignore anything that doesn't fit the pattern.

This is the origin of superstitions: the ballplayer who gets two hits in a row while wearing the same underwear "connects the dots" and now they're his lucky underwear.

III. Everything is a person: Personifying inanimate objects is a natural impulse, the basis for all religion, and may explain the overlap of conspiracism and religious faith. The conspiracist personifies all phenomena by asking "who benefits?"

Eg: "Canada benefited from WWII when the EU's industrial capacity was destroyed, thus Canada started WWII."

IV: Purity: a long obsession of the right, the need to defend innocence from "contamination and contagion" (think of how often Trump uses "sick" as a pejorative).

Magical thinkers assert that any kind of dark, imaginative art – horror novels, heavy metal – is motivated by a love of evil, not a desire to rehearse crisis as a way to prepare yourself to live through it (though they give the super-dark Bible a pass).

V. Apocalypse: a belief in a coming final battle – a way to feel like you are alive in a moment of historical significance.

VI. Good and Evil: The belief that you are motivated by beneficial motives, and your enemies are motivated by wickedness – so everything your side does is good, and everything your adversaries do is bad.

Thus the obsession with abortion and "saving babies" but the indifference to kids in cages; the obsession with fighting tyranny and the indifference to police violence.

Ferguson ends by suggesting that the rise of magical thinking is the confluence of a rise in trauma and fear, a decline in education and thus the ability to understand the world, and the normal baseline proclivity of some people to prefer neat answers to messy ones.

He suggests that "evidence seekers" dispense with rational arguments in discussions with their magical thinking loved ones, and focus instead on speaking their language: symbols, connected dots, personalizing, highlighting the sacred, and the significance of this moment.

And he says that the systemic answers to this are an emphasis on scientific education and on the provision of services that make people less frightened by making them more secure.

Ferguson has a feature-length documentary on the subject, "This is Not a Conspiracy":

I like Ferguson's analysis here, though I'm not fond of explanations that lean on the imagined social conditions of our prehistorical ancestors, whose lives are almost entirely unknown and unknowable to us.

I also think this could benefit from exploring the business model of conspiracism:

and the extent to which it provides both fun and community to the people who practice it:

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Germany's top prosecutor fired for bringing "treason" charge against Netzpolitik

#5yrsago Elizabeth Warren rescues Planned Parenthood, excoriates misogynist GOP creeps

#5yrsago India's porn ban collapses in less than 48 hours

#5yrsago Parenting and the Internet: the smarter, missing third way

#5yrsago The only furniture you need is a single smooth stone that reminds you of your mother

#1yrago 'IBM PC Compatible': How Adversarial Interoperability Saved PCs From Monopolization

#1yrago From Tiananmen to Occupy Central to the Umbrella Movement to today's General Strike: understanding the Hong Kong uprising

#1yrago 46% of Scots want to separate from the UK; 43% want to remain

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, David Sirota (, Kirby Ferguson (

Currently writing:

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Currently reading: The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 12),

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