Censorship protection racket

People.cn

There’s a lot of money to be made by offering censorship services, at least if you’re China’s main state-owned newspaper:

While most global news companies are struggling to survive in the internet world, China’s official media is having a golden era.

One of the bright spots on the A-share market these days is People.cn, the online version of the People’s Daily, whose shares surged 243% in the past month to a four-year high.

In 12 of the last 15 trading sessions, the shares of the Communist Party mouthpiece surged to a daily limit of 10%. The Shanghai-listed company now has a market capitalization of 34.74 billion yuan (US$5.18 billion), or an incredible 380 times historic earnings. […]

People.cn is tasked with censoring the content of the online media from the major platforms operated by internet giants such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.

This was virtually a licensed insurance business for online media in the age of increasingly tighter control from Beijing.

Apparently, People.cn charges service fees to the internet giants to help them scrub their platforms of content that might be offensive to the Party. Of course, this is a bit circular since People.cn is an organ of said Party. Nice website you got there… be a shame if anything happened to it.

Short words are better than long words

 

George Orwell typing typewriter

Every writer (of any kind) really needs to read George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Therein you will find at least 40% of what you ever need to know about the principles of good writing, especially nonfiction writing.

Orwell’s rules of thumb are timeless and they include:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Winston Churchill, who also knew a thing or two about good writing, is quoted as saying:

Broadly speaking, short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.

In a similar vein, Orwell advised:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Fortunately for him, Orwell lived before the time of hideous corporate jargon and marketing buzzwords, such as “client-centric,” “leverage,” “touchpoint,” and “redundancy offer.” None of those linguistic travesties would survive the Orwellian pruning shears.

There is also the annoying phenomenon of hijacking perfectly good words and phrases for other purposes. For example, I heard the term “fire drill” a lot when working in corporate America. Apparently, it refers to a situation where you need to drop everything and work overtime to prevent a colossal f*ck-up from escalating into a DEFCON 1 emergency. I didn’t know this at first, so I thought people were talking about literal fire drills, which as you can imagine was confusing.

Americans also have a bad habit of misusing nouns as verbs, like “impact,” and misusing verbs as nouns, like “build.” Perhaps the most awful example of this is the use of the verb “ask” as a noun, as in: “That’s a big ask.” No, that’s a big request. There is no such thing as “an ask.” The English language is fluid but that doesn’t entitle you to communicate like you were raised by wolves.

“Ask,” by the way, is an exception to Orwell’s rule about using short words instead of long ones. In this case, the better and more correct word is longer. So the rules should be seen as general guidelines rather than ironclad dogma.

Likewise, there are many cases where it is justified to sprinkle longer or “fancier” synonyms throughout the text in order to create variety and avoid monotony. For example, rather than use the verb “fired” seven times in an article – as in the company fired him – I might substitute the words “dismissed” or “sacked” or “gave him the pink slip” for some of those usages. Remember, though, that readability is the key. I would tend to use the shorter word first, and move on to longer or more elaborate synonyms only later and only if I felt that repeating the original word would be too boring.

The above exceptions to the rule would be my only quibble with this article in Lifehacker, which is otherwise quite correct, IMHO:

So sometimes we write stuff that we’d never say aloud. We use a complicated or “smart-sounding” word when a simpler word would work better. New York Times editor Dan Saltzstein listed some great examples on Twitter. They pop up in news media, but also in “business speak.” If you’re trying to write effectively, watch out for these:

Dear editors:
Closed > shuttered
Restaurant > eatery
Begin > commence
Open > launch
Use > utilize
(What am I missing?)
— Dan Saltzstein (@dansaltzstein) December 23, 2018

There are many more useful examples in the article, so it’s worth checking out.

Prevent

The home of the Magna Carta continues its transition into Airstrip One, as the University of Reading warns students reading a Marxist essay on political violence that the authorities might be watching:

Part of a larger anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent was designed to prevent radicalization and seeks to monitor supposedly vulnerable people for evidence of extremism in the materials they peruse and the ideology they express. The idea is that, once identified, these individuals can be steered by authorities away from negative outcomes. […]

Primarily targeted at potential recruits to Islamist terrorist groups, but also at Northern Ireland-style sectarian violence and extreme right-wing terrorism, Prevent suffered mission-creep pretty much right out of the gate. In 2015, a politics student at the University of East Anglia was interrogated by police after reading assigned material in an ISIS-related publication.

The kid clicked a problematic link, which was thereafter removed from the course materials.

Younger students are being scooped up for alleged radicalization, too. In 2016-17, 272 children under 15 years of age and 328 youngsters between ages 15 and 20 were flagged under the Prevent program “over suspected right-wing terrorist beliefs.” The proportion of individuals referred to government officials “as a result of far-right concerns has risen from a quarter in 2015 to 2016 to over a third in 2016 to 2017,” according to Britain’s Home Office, so that likely represents only a fraction of young people questioned and “mentored” for their suspected ideological deviance.

Under 15 years of age? Guess you have to nip these things in the bud.

Where do these referrals come from? Well, anybody can contact the authorities, but the situation is complicated by the duty the law imposes on both public and private institutions to report people seen as being at risk of radicalization, with very little guidance as to what that means beyond cover-your-ass. The imposition of the duty resulted in a surge in referrals by schools to the authorities.

Informing on your fellow citizens for potential thoughtcrimes is just part and parcel of living in a country full of extremists. Comrade Pavlik would have approved.

“Laws such as this restrict the core democratic right to freedom of expression,” a legal analysis published last year in the Utrecht Journal of International and European Law charges. It “indicates a concerning trend of liberal States embracing opportunities to impose severe restrictions on ‘extreme’ speech.” […]

Parliament is currently considering a Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill that would go beyond monitoring people for extremist ideology and hauling them in for questioning. The proposed legislation would criminalize voicing support for banned organizations, and even make it illegal to view or otherwise access information “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing acts of terrorism.”

I would say this defies belief, but sadly, it all fits a familiar pattern. Outlawing speech in defense of an organization is the sort of thing one would normally associate with, say, Cuba or North Korea, but it seems the British have met Big Brother and he is them. Seriously, what is happening in Britain is almost as bad as the garden-variety repression seen in certain dictatorships. Not quite as bad, but moving in that direction fast.

If hauling students in for questioning because they clicked a link to “extremist” material sounds like something out of Orwell, Facebook’s AI monitoring system could have been ripped out of a Philip K Dick story:

A year ago, Facebook started using artificial intelligence to scan people’s accounts for danger signs of imminent self-harm.

Facebook Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis is pleased with the results so far.

“In the very first month when we started it, we had about 100 imminent-response cases,” which resulted in Facebook contacting local emergency responders to check on someone. But that rate quickly increased.

“To just give you a sense of how well the technology is working and rapidly improving … in the last year we’ve had 3,500 reports,” she says. That means AI monitoring is causing Facebook to contact emergency responders an average of about 10 times a day to check on someone — and that doesn’t include Europe, where the system hasn’t been deployed. (That number also doesn’t include wellness checks that originate from people who report suspected suicidal behavior online.) […]

In the U.S., Facebook’s call usually goes to a local 911 center, as illustrated in its promotional video.

I don’t see how the quantity of emergency calls proves that the system is working well. It could just as easily indicate rampant false positives.

More importantly, is this a technology that we really want to work “well”? As the article points out, “There may soon be a temptation to use this kind of AI to analyze social media chatter for signs of imminent crimes — especially retaliatory violence.”

There is a well-known story and movie that explores the concept of pre-crime. Do we really want to go there? And just as AIs patrol Facebook for signs of suicidal tendencies and Community Standards-violating speech, will AIs also be used to augment the growing efforts by governments in Britain and elsewhere to flag, investigate and prosecute people who read the wrong materials and think the wrong thoughts?

Facebook Zuckerberg VR dystopia