Conceding the Trump battle to win the war?

As the Donald Trump juggernaut remains on course for winning the Republican nomination, a repeated refrain has been to blame the Republicans for not having acted early enough to stop Trump’s rise. If prominent politicians, Super-PACs, and other members of the “GOP Elite” (so the argument goes) had launched concerted attacks om Trump at an early stage, they could have prevented him from ever achieving front-runner status. Failing that, they should at least close ranks behind a single unified anti-Trump candidate – or make plans for selecting a completely different compromise candidate, if the process ends in a brokered convention where no candidate holds a majority.

Others, such as Vox’ Ezra Klein, have argued that the party elites have in fact done everything they can in this respect – and that to the extent that they’ve held back, it’s been because of a genuine and rational fear that their efforts might end up boosting Trump instead.
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Gullibility, squared

Infographics are all the rage on Twitter (well, the pol-sci segment of Twitter, anyways). They can be attached to a single tweet and provide dramatic information in a compact, visually appealing package.

Whether the information is precise, applicable, or even remotely true, is often a secondary consideration. At best, the tweet will also include a link to an article explaining the source of the graphic – but as often as not, all you get is a vague reference in the fine print at the bottom, which may or may not enable you to track down the source.

And yet, people who preach skepticism towards Internet rumours, will frequently share these “fascinating” pictures with nary a second thought (and yes, I’ve been guilty of this myself) – presumably on the unpoken assumption that the information must surely be credible if someone put that much effort into presenting it in the form of a purty picture.

One graphic making the rounds today – particularly after being shared by the Independent’s i100 site – is a map of “Where Isis supporters tweet from“. Not surprisingly, many of the people sharing it point out that the US is as high as fourth in the table, with the UK ninth.

However, it’s enough to read the title of the actual graphic to spot a tell-tale word that was omitted from the article title: “Top locations CLAIMED by Twitter users supporting ISIS in 2015.

Because, as the actual report points out:

[T]he only totally reliable method of geo-locating users is to obtain coordinates provided when a user has enabled the location feature on his or her smartphone. (…) Unsurprisingly, very few users in the dataset opted to enable coordinates. (…) Out of the 20,000 users in the Demographics Dataset, 292 had enabled location on at least one tweet out of their last 200, or 1.5 percent.

In other words, this report has identified less than 300 ISIS-supporting accounts* worldwide (in a dataset which they estimate to contain about 40% of all ISIS accounts) where the account’s location can be determined with any degree of certainty. And how many of these were in the US or the UK?

None of the location-enabled users were based in the United States; [while there was] one in the United Kingdom,

Well, where did this number of 404 US supporters come from, then? Well, this is simply the number of ISIS-supporting accounts* that have entered “United States” (or variations thereof, or a city in the US) in their profile.
It feels embarassingly unnecessary to even have to point out how ridiculously useless this is as any sort of even remotely reliable indicator of a person’s true location, when anyone is perfectly free to enter “Buckingham Palace”, “Ruritania”, or “the planet Tralfamadore” as their location.
The report laconically admits that:

We are reasonably certain some ISIS supporters deceptively listed locations in the United States in order to create the appearance of a homeland threat.

which, yeah, you’d think – not to mention the fact that a lot of the locations may be from foreign fighters that have travelled to Iraq/Syria while deliberately or accidentally retaining their old location text.

However, the report then blithely goes on to state that:

Nevertheless, the location field was the only method that produced a confidence-inspiring result.

(which, of course, is statistician-speak for “These data are largely useless, but they’re the best we’ve got, so we’re going to use them anyway and hope nobody notices”).
And just in case uncritical belief in the publically distributed information from terrorist supporters wasn’t inaccurate enough, we get this extra little gem:

Users who listed “Islamic State” as their location were considered to be in either Syria or Iraq, and we assigned them to one or the other following the two-to-one distribution noted in the location-enabled findings.

despite the pretty obvious fact that a lot of ISIS supporters will list their location as “Islamic State” on purely ideological og metaphorical grounds, regardless of where in the world they’re located.

So the moral of the story is, yet again, to not believe things people tell you on the Internet: Even if it comes from a so-called ‘reputable source’, it may be based solely on what other people told them on the Internet.

*) And no, I haven’t checked the validity of their methods to actually identify an account as “ISIS-supporting”. There’s a limit to how many levels of debunking is necessary, after all.

(Thanks to Hans-Petter Halvorsen for the tip about this report’s hopelessly inadequate methodology.)

#SamaritansRadar: Link collection

So #SamaritansRadar is one of those topics where wiser and more eloquent people have already written about it at such length that there’s nothing much that I can add other than collating a handful of pertinent blogposts.

If you have no idea what this is all about, then in a nutshell: The mental health charity Samaritans launched an app that will trawl through the tweets of every Twitter user you follow, and sends you an email if the app’s text analysis software decides that one of these users if tweeting in a way that indicates that s/he is feeling “troubled” (which appears to be a euphemism for “suicidal”).

The Samaritans describe their project here, and defend it here.

The petition to have the app shut down outlines several of the many objections to this concept. Takeaway quote: “Samaritans Radar makes Twitter a less comfortable and useful place for people with emotional and mental health problems. (….) The simple fact that the Samaritans — an organisation which they may otherwise trust and have sensitive conversations with offline — may now be collecting and analysing their tweets could be enough for some people to censor what they say or to withdraw entirely. (…) This puts vulnerable people more at risk by separating them from their friends and online sources of support.

Jon Mendel provides another shortish summary of the problems caused by the app. Takeaway quote: “Samaritans argue that “All the data used in the app is public, so user privacy is not an issue. Samaritans Radar analyses the Tweets of the people you follow, which are public Tweets”.[4] This is a bad argument. By way of analogy, my office window looks out on a public street – whatever people do there is public. There would still, though, be privacy issues if I installed a video camera in my window to tape what people did outside; there would be bigger issues if, say, I allowed interested parties to subscribe to alerts when person X or Y walks past my window drunk.

Paul Bernal’s blogpost deals not only with this specific issue, but also with the general topic of the widespread wooly thinking that fails to distinguish between the many shades of grey between our “public” and “private” activities. Takeaway quote: “[The Samaritans’ reasoning is logical] only if you think that ‘private-public’ is a two-valued, black-and-white issue. Either something is ‘public’ and available to all, or it’s ‘private’ and hidden. Privacy, both in the ‘real’ world and on Twitter, doesn’t work like that. It’s far more complex and nuanced than that – and anyone who thinks in those simple terms is fundamentally misunderstanding privacy.

Blogger Latent Existence makes many of the same points (albeit with a really daft background/font colour scheme (sorry)). Takeaway quote: “Are you the kind of person that sneaks up to people’s private conversations to monitor them just because they’re in a public place? Because that doesn’t tell me I don’t know how things work, that tells me that you don’t know how society works.”

Blogger jemina2013 quotes some dubious statistics about the causes of suicide, but is well worth reading for her viciously accurate dissection of the Samaritans hand-washing and accusatory defence of their app. Takeaway quote: “The idea [that] there are some of [us] who use twitter as a “broadcast” platform and they are causing all the problems is an interesting one to say the list. Apparently we don’t have friends on Twitter, it is simply a way we “promote our brand” as we broadcast our thoughts. Proper Twitter users only talk to people they have vetted, and have met on at least three occasions in the presence of a chaperone and responsible adult.”

Charlotte Walker does an excellent job of constructing the real-life analogy to #SamaritansRadar, showcasing how people (yet again) defend forms of online behaviour and monitoring that would be roundly and unaniousmly condemned in they occurred in real life. Takeaway quote: “Mr Sam wants to make it easier for vulnerable people to be watched. For their own good.”

Adrian Short (very legimately) abandons the scrupulously level-headed approach in favour of justified indignation at a charity which refuses to listen to the people they’re supposed to be aiding. Takeaway quote: “The Samaritans have set up an opt-out for people who don’t want their data to be collected, which means that the Samaritans are now collecting the online identities of people concerned about having their data collected by the Samaritans. (…) The spectacle of watching vulnerable people concerned about their privacy having to publicly petition a charity to stop spying on them is nothing short of revolting.”