Political middlemen and dart-throwing chimps

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

Predicting the weather was once quite an interesting profession, needing skill in reading the instruments, intuition in deciphering the skies and years of experience in putting it all together. Now it’s the kind of job Nick Cage’s character would be given in a heavy-handed satire of the American dream, possibly also starring Michael Caine. We don’t need these skilled individuals any more – computers do all that. We just need an algorithm and a mouthpiece.

And so to Nate Silver – one of the biggest winners of the US presidential election. As the race neared its end, becoming “too close to call”, with money and opinions frantically changing hands, the New York Times blogger was calmly and correctly predicting voter outcome in every single state. He had what others didn’t – a formula to convert polling information into probabilities – and it turned out to be dead-on. He was not alone in getting it right but he was among the few. Many failed spectacularly.

Here’s Newt Gingrich on Fox News on 25 October: “I believe the minimum result will be 53-47 [per cent] Romney, over 300 electoral votes, and the Republicans will pick up the Senate. I base that . . . on just years and years of experience.” And here’s the GOP strategist Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal on 31 October: “It comes down to numbers. And in the final days of this presidential race, from polling data to early voting, they favour Mitt Romney.”

These were not small errors. These people were standing in pre-hurricane wind and predicting sunshine. Are pundits more often wrong than not, or was it just this particular election that threw them? And how often do the statistics spewed out by experts hit the mark? One study found a statistic for it.

Algorithm blues

In the 1980s, a psychologist called Philip Tetlock took a group of journalists, foreign policy experts and economists – 284 of them – and spent the next two decades bombarding them with questions: would the dotcom bubble burst? Would George Bush be re-elected? How would apartheid end?

After analysing 82,361 predictions, Tetlock found that his experts performed worse than random chance. In short, they could have been beaten by dart-throwing chimps.

The reason was confidence. Tetlock found that the more often pundits appeared on TV, the more likely they were to be wrong. Their strong opinions were causing them to ignore dissenting facts or explain them away, leaving them trapped, he said, in the cage of their preconceptions.

Now, semi-expert middlemen are being squeezed out as the focus shifts to minute data analysis. Silver is one of the winners of this change but on the losing side is a whole industry of political forecasters. And it’s not just true of politics. Finance has been moving that way for a while. In UBS’s recent swath of job cuts, at least one trader, David Gallers, was replaced with an algorithm.

Difficult times for the old school, but what of the new? Silver expressed his concerns to the Wall Street Journal: “You don’t want to influence the system you are trying to forecast.” Only one problem with the new machines, then – accuracy. They’re so good that they might start controlling the weather.

Newt Gingrich opining away on Fox News. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

Show Hide image

YouTube announces new measures against extremism – but where do they leave the far right?

Videos by alt-right commentators have arguably radicalised many online. Will Google's latest policies do anything to change this?

Within hours of the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park, Tommy Robinson was trending on Twitter. The former leader of the English Defence League accused the Finsbury Park mosque of “creating terrorists” in a series of tweets on his personal account.

More than 17,400 people have now tweeted about the 34-year-old, with many theorising he could have radicalised the attacker who allegedly shouted “I’m going to kill all Muslims” at the scene. At present, there is no evidence that the man arrested by police on suspicion of attempted murder is a fan of Robinson.

“People are saying I’m inciting hate,” said Robinson in a video uploaded to Twitter and YouTube after the attack. “I just tell the facts and the truth and I’m not going to apologise for that…

“If giving you quotes from the Quran that incite murder and war against us is inciting hate, I’m guilty. If telling you all the problematic problems that come from the teachings and scriptures of Islam, I’m guilty. But these are just facts.”

After describing the country as being at “war”, he goes on to say: “Please one person, just one, give me one example of me inciting hate.”

When we talk about radicalisation and terrorism, we are finally to understand that this extends beyond the work of Isis.

Just over a year ago, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist. This morning, Harry Potter author JK Rowling used Twitter to accuse columnist Katie Hopkins of contributing to radicalisation. The New Statesman’s own Media Mole notes how right-wing tabloids incite hate.

In particular, it is now evident how the far right radicalises online. In December 2016, a man fired three shots in a Washington DC pizza parlour that the alt-right (on 4Chan and YouTube) had accused of being at the centre of a paedophile ring.

The internet arguably allowed Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far right white supremacist who killed 77 people in 2011, to cultivate his extreme views. Alexandre Bissonnette, the white nationalist who murdered six men at a Québec City mosque in January, was described by many as an “internet troll”.

Earlier this year, a report by the Commons home affairs committee accused social media giants of not doing enough to tackle terrorism online. In response to this – and following a series of high-profile brands pulling their advertising from YouTube after it was featured on or by terrorism-related videos – Google, which owns the video-sharing site, has now announced four steps it is taking to fight online terror. But do these reflect the reality that there are many forms of extremism?

Google’s new guidelines speak of “terrorism” and “extremism” in broad terms. This means that videos glorifying or inciting terrorism will be treated the same whether they are from the far right, far left, or pro-Isis organisations.

Google’s four steps for tackling such videos include: using machine learning to identify videos glorifying violence, using a team of human flaggers to identify problematic videos, and using a "redirect method" to send potential Isis recruits towards anti-terror videos. Each of these steps is concerned with content that either breaks the law or violates YouTube’s policies.

The fourth step (or rather the third, as it is ordered in Google’s blogpost) is focused on non-illegal, non-policy violating content. For example, this could include videos that don’t directly incite terrorism, but arguably incite hate, such as those denying the Holocaust.

According to Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, these could also be “videos that contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content”. Rather than being removed like the other offending videos, these will be hidden behind a warning, not have adverts on them (therefore preventing their creators from making money), and will not be eligible for comments. Essentially, as Walker writes, “that means these videos will have less engagement and be harder to find”.

It remains to be seen whether – or how – this will apply to the content of Tommy Robinson. YouTube’s steps will be taken on a video-by-video basis, meaning no far right commentator will be banned outright. Instead, YouTube simply won’t promote any offending videos, meaning they will not appear in their subscribers’ recommended feeds and will be difficult to find on the site.

In this way, Google has remained committed to free speech while doing more to tackle extremism on YouTube. Those like Robinson who claim to just “tell the facts” could arguably now be held to account for their actions. Many on the far right are careful to not explicitly advocate violence. Nevertheless, the loaded language used in their videos could arguably incite hate.

Paul Joseph Watson, a right-wing conspiracy theorist YouTuber with nearly one million subscribers, has never advocated terrorism, but has videos entitled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”.

In the past I have argued that allowing Google and YouTube to censor us in the name of “extremism” and “terrorism” is a troubling trend, but with these new promises, the company has walked the delicate line between the law and free speech. By allowing hateful, but not illegal, content to be hosted on its site and yet restricted from a wider audience, YouTube is taking a stand against extremists of all kinds.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496