Pluralistic: 05 Aug 2021

Today's links

A vintage 'repeal anti-abortion laws/every child a wanted child, every mother a willing mother' protest badge, superimposed over a large, blurry crowd of protestors.

Meet the new generation of pro-abortion activists (permalink)

With Roe v Wade likely headed to the US Supreme Court and a woman's right to a safe and legal abortion under grave threat, a new generation of pro-abortion activists are rising up.

As Amelia Pollard writes for The American Prospect, this new wave is militant, organized and unapologetic – rather than engaging in petty framing wars about being "pro-choice" or "pro-life," they call themselves "pro-abortion."

They link the right to safe, legal abortion on demand to wider struggles for gender equity, trans inclusion, and, especially, comprehensive sex education and access to contraception as the single most effective way to reduce the number of abortions.

They're not intimidated by evangelical harassers who congregate outside of abortion clinics to terrorize pregnant people seeking abortions, nor are they shy about bucking movement leadership when they engage in trans-exclusionary bullying.

These young people are rising up especially in "red states" like Mississippi, where cynical politicians have courted the misogynist and religious maniac vote by attacking abortion rights, sex education, and access to contraception.

They're starting their organizing careers in high school, demanding sex education and access to contraception, and staying with the movement as they graduate. They demand that abortion be understood as an issue at the intersection of race, class and gender.

As such, they don't just focus on changing the law, they also work on the immediate needs of people seeking abortions, raising money to defray travel and other costs as abortion clinics disappear thanks to restrictive laws.

They also offer emotional support, "one-on-one care during every stage of the abortion process," and a new crop of "abortion doulas" is emerging that helps before, during and after an abortion.

I grew up in the abortion legalisation movement. My mother was an early abortion rights activist who marched for reproductive rights while she was pregnant with me.

A 1976 Toronto Star photo depicting me with Dr Henry Morgentaler. Photo by Bob Olsen.

One of the first times I ever appeared in the paper, it was in the company of Dr Henry Morgantaler, the heroic Canadian abortion-rights campaigner who was jailed and terrorized by the state and by anti-abortion terrorists.

I spent my teen years doing clinic defense, including at the Morgentaler Clinic – a clinic that was eventually torched by religious terrorists. Morgantaler's anti-abortion opponents were absolutely shameless.

At one point, when he was seeking an injunction against people who'd repeatedly blocked access to his clinic, the anti-abortion side's lawyer accused him of aborting gentile babies to get revenge for his experiences in Auschwitz.

When he was finally recognised with the Order of Canada in 2008, he didn't mince words: "It's an appointment I deserve, even if I say so myself."

The erosion of reproductive rights in America – and the weaponising of a woman's fertility to whip low-information evangelicals into line (the same people who spent 50 years ignoring abortion as a "Catholic issue") has been an ongoing catastrophe to watch.

The rise of a decentralised, indomitable, modern, militant pro-abortion movement of young people with new tactics to suit this moment is a ray of hope.

(Image: Rise Up Feminist Archive, modified)

A three-card monte fraudster; his face has been replaced by a covid molecule.

Anti-vaxers cool the mark (permalink)

I often write about the material conditions that make people vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking, especially covid-denial, anti-masking, and vaccine refusal.

Specifically, I think it's important to go beyond the mystical explanations of "algorithmic radicalization" that assume that ad-tech companies are telling the truth when they claim that big data and machine learning can make people do anything.

The fact that regulators let the Sacklers tell obvious lies about opioid safety so that they could make $10+b pushing Oxy, igniting the opioid epidemic that has killed 800,000 Americans is a good reason not to trust "the system."

Which is not to say that platforms are irrelevant to the growth of conspiracies – but that relevance is not in the automated mind-control. Rather, it's that online platforms let people find each other.

That's what ad-tech is, a people-finding machine, e.g., "Find me people who looked at fridge reviews to show these fridge ads to."

People-finding has a profound impact on our ideology and discourse.

People with all kinds of disfavored views can locate others without risking social sanction. If you've always felt that somehow neither gender binary describes you, but lacked the words to explain it, you can use the internet to find people who have those words.

You can join them in community and find the strength and courage to come out.

Of course, this also applies to people who've always secretly dreamed of marching through the streets holding a torch and shouting "Jews will not replace us."

People-finding is also important for "ideological entrepreneurs" – people hoping to spread ideas, for good or ill. An important kind of ideological entrepreneur is the con-artist – a fraudster on the grift.

Covid fraudsters have found it easy to locate marks, thanks to the combination of a large number of people who've been traumatized by official corruption and collusion (for example, the opioid epidemic) and the people-finding character of the internet.

The most successful covid disinformation is orchestrated by convicted fraudsters with histories of conning people for money – like Joseph Mercola, a Florida osteopath the New York Times called "The Most Influential Spreader of Coronavirus Misinformation."

In 2017, the FTC made Mercola pay $3m to settle claims related to his fraudulent tanning bed business. Now he's got a vast online following whom he warns that vaccines will "alter your genetic coding." He advises people to buy his vitamins instead.

Writing for The Atlantic, Brooke Harrington frames the bizarre about-faces from covid disinformation pushers who now espouse vaccination in the context of the sociology of con-artists.

Sociologist Erving Goffman's classic 1952 essay "On Cooling the Mark Out" describes his studies of the victims of con artists, and the way that their shame at being taken let the fraudsters revictimize them.–files/19520101-on-cooling/19520101%20On%20cooling.pdf

Victims were so embarrassed at being marks – at being convinced of "highly dubious claims – and blocking out all information to the contrary" – that they'll do anything to recover their self-image as discerning, smart people.

That desperation opens the mark up to being "cooled" by a confederate of the con-artist – a member in good standing of the mark's "reference group" (the network of people we all rely on) – to ensure the mark blames themselves, not the con artist.

The cooler helps marks rebuild their lives and social standing, and also re-frame the story of the scam so that nothing bad really happened.

This, Harrington says, is the right way to understand the wave of far-right pundits and grifters who now say vaccines are safe and needful, after a year and a half of social and economic profiteering through disinformation.

When Ron DeSantis says "the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down," he's shifting the blame from his cohort of cynical disinfo peddlers to other marks, and opening space for a mark to go and get vaccinated at last.

This cool-off lets the con artists skip away without consequence and can lead to more vaccinations – but for so long as your reference group continues to believe in the con, it's a tough sell.

That's why Missouri's Ozarks Healthcare has created a private entrance where people in disguise can come and get a quiet vaccination – they don't want their friends and family, the people they depend on, to turn on them.

But Harrington is optimistic: "The conservative coolers are finally on the case, and only they have a chance of transforming partisan vaccine refusers into vaccine adopters."

Beyond that, Harrington urges us to adopt a sociological framework for understanding what's going on with vaccine refusal – not a matter of individuals making bad choices, but as a community-level phenomenon.

An Amazon Prime Air drone superimposed over a raging fireball.

Drone delivery crashes (permalink)

When Amazon announced "Prime Air," a forthcoming drone delivery service, in 2016, there was a curious willingness on the part of the press – even the tech press – to take the promise of a sky full of delivery drones at face value.

This despite the obvious problems with such a scheme: the consequences of midair collisions, short battery life, overhead congestion, regulatory hurdles and more. Also despite the fact that delivery drones, like jetpacks, are really only practical as sfx in an sf movie.

Now, Amazon has laid off more than 100 Prime Air employees. Departing workers told Wired UK that the division is "collapsing inwards," "dysfunctional," "organised chaos." They called management "detached from reality."

As Andrew Kersley reminds us, Prime Air was the centerpiece of a massive PR push, with school tours of a "secret" facility and showy promotional videos (high-sfx sf movies, really). Execs said drones would arrive "within months."

But after the PR wins, the organization became a do-nothing boondoggle where employees openly drank beer at their desks at 10AM.

All of this raises the question: why? Why spend millions on something that was obviously not going to work out?

My theory is tech companies promise to deliver impossible things n order to cultivate an air of mystical capability that's invoked to mask real-world awfulness.

Amazon's automation claims – about drones, warehouse robots, and self-driving delivery vehicles – masks their ghastly labor abuses. This is especially useful when automation is used to make workers' lives worse.

The more automated an Amazon warehouse is, the more workers it injures. Amazon warehouses injure more workers than any other kind of warehouse.

Seen in this light, many of tech's worst promises become less silly: Uber promises self-driving cars to distract us from its exploitative labor practices. Imaginary self-driving cars are a way to make worker misclassification seem temporary.

Facebook's promise of AI-based content moderation is a good way to distract us from its dysfunctional, high-handed and corrupt moderation practices, making htem seem like a minor hurdle that will soon fall.

Every single thing Elon Musk says goes into this category: "It's ok to destroy astronomy because my satellites obviate the need for fiber infrastructure." "Tunnels (not transit) will solve traffic jams." "I am saving the planet by keeping SUVs on the road."

It's all the kind of thing Riley Quinn calls "jingling keys" – a distraction for the technologically unsophisticated (and techies who have dipped into their own product) while everyday corporate crimes are committed under our noses.

The Facebook '1 Hacker Way' sign, before it sit the Three Wise Monkeys (hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil), their faces replaced with that of Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook escalates war on accountability (permalink)

Facebook just escalated its war on NYU's Ad Observer project, a project that monitors and discloses Facebook's failure to live up to its promise to block paid disinformation.

Here's how that works. Facebook users volunteer to download and install Ad Observer, a browser plugin. This plugin scrapes the ads Facebook shows that user. They are cleaned of any personally identifying information and uploaded to the Ad Observatory.

The Observatory is an archive that accountability journalists and researchers can mine to see whether FB is keeping its promises to label political ads and block paid disinformation. It's proof that FB does NOT live up to these promises.

FB hates this. They threatened the NYU team with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, claiming that their violations of its terms of service violated this law (this is a gross overreach, and the law was since substantially narrowed by the Supreme Court):

At the same time, they waged a disinformation war against the project, falsely claiming that it was collecting Facebook users' data. The plugin is free/open source software and numerous experts have audited it and shown this is not true.

Which brings us to the latest salvo: FB has killed the accounts of Ad Observer's Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, a move that severely restricts their ability to maintain Ad Observer and Ad Observatory.

The account terminations were accompanied by a renewed Facebook disinformation campaign that repeated the lie that Ad Observer was a privacy risk for FB users. It also repeated the lie that FB's own accountability archive was sufficient to monitor its anti-disinfo efforts.

Privacywashing is a cynical corporate tactic – when a company attacks its customers and critics in the name of privacy. Britons will remember the long years when companies justified brazen acts against their customers and justified by waving the Data Protection Act.

Privacywashing has only grown more widespread since then, and is especially present in the ongoing debate over antittrust and interoperability.

Every time a company like FB dumps dox on hundreds of millions of uses, they spin that into a reason they should have more control over our lives.

The reality is disinformation is really profitable for FB. I am skeptical about how well paid disinfo really works, but it's clear that there are lots of rich people who are convinced that it works, and they pay FB millions to try their hand at it.

The fact of the matter is that FB is a company whose profits depend on hiding all kinds of fraud and sleaze from the public. That's why they gutted Crowtangle, the tool that researchers relied on for insight into the platform.

The thing is, privacy is very important, and we have to get it right. The worst part of privacywashing is that it discredits the very idea of privacy protection, makes people assume that every time they hear the word "privacy," they're about to be scammed.

This is parallel to the weaponization of "health and safety" in the UK, where cynical operators cited ill-defined "health and safety" regulations to let them boss people around, sell bogus services, and carve out lucrative careers as consultants.

The result was that the whole idea of safety regulation was put in bad odor, opening the door to all kinds of bad practices (including cladding tower-blocks in the kind of highly flammable materials that turned Greenfell into a charnel house).

In attacking Ad Observer, Facebook isn't just shooting the messenger – they're poisoning the well, sabotaging real privacy measures. It's another shameful chapter in the sordid tale of a company that shouldn't exist.

(Image:, Minette Lontsie, CC BY-SA; Anthony Quintano, CC BY; modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago German cops call airport full-body pornoscanners “useless,” EU requires opt out from scanning

#10yrsago Write an adventure novel in three days, the Michael Moorcock way

#10yrsago HTTPS Everywhere goes 1.0: make your browser support secure connections when they’re available

#5yrsago Vocal fry, uptalking, nasal: women’s voices can never be “right”

#5yrsago The Vlogbrothers guide to voting in every state in the union

#5yrsago Bureaucrats disqualify Hong Kong legislative candidates for insufficient loyalty

#1yrago Qanon is magical thinking

#1yrago Cori Bush triumphs in Missouri

#1yrago Qanon is an ARG

#1yrago GE's billion dollar tax-fraud

#1yrago Contextual ads can save media

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (, JWZ (JWZ).

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 252 words (13171 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Are We Having Fun Yet?
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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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