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Bad Algorithms Didn’t Break Democracy



Over the past five decades, America’s war on drugs has been motivated and organized by the fantasy that the proliferation of substance abuse is fundamentally a supply problem. The remedy, accordingly, has been to restrict the production and distribution of narcotics: Smash the cartels, cauterize the trafficking routes, arrest the dealers. This approach has, predictably enough, devolved into a self-sustaining game of whack-a-mole.

Since 2016, the panic about misinformation online has been driven by a similar fantasy. The arguments predicated on this view have become familiar, almost boilerplate. One recent example was a November speech given by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

“Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream,” said the actor, in a rare performance in character as himself. “It’s as if the Age of Reason—the era of evidential argument—is ending, and now knowledge is increasingly delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march.” As Baron Cohen put it, it’s “pretty clear” what’s behind these trends: “All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.”

February 2020. Subscribe to WIRED.

Photograph: Art Streiber

As with the war on drugs, the chief villains in this account are the vectors: the social media companies and their recommendation algorithms, which stoke the viral profusion of preposterous content. The people who originate the memes, like peasants who grow poppies or coca, aren’t painted as blameless, exactly, but their behavior is understood to reflect incentives that have been engineered by others. Facebook and Google and Twitter are the cartels.

And the users? They go about their online business—“not aware,” as technology investor and critic Roger McNamee puts it, “that platforms orchestrate all of this behavior upstream.” Tech’s critics offer various solutions: to break up the platforms entirely, to hold them liable for what users post, or to demand that they screen content for its truth-value.

It’s easy to understand why this narrative is so appealing. The big social media firms enjoy enormous power; their algorithms are inscrutable; they seem to lack a proper understanding of what undergirds the public sphere. Their responses to widespread, serious criticism can be grandiose and smarmy. “I understand the concerns that people have about how tech platforms have centralized power, but I actually believe the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands,” said Mark Zuckerberg, in an October speech at Georgetown University. “I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.”

If these corporations spoke openly about their own financial interest in contagious memes, they would at least seem honest; when they defend themselves in the language of free expression, they leave themselves open to the charge of bad faith.

But the reason these companies—Facebook in particular—talk about free speech is not simply to conceal their economic stake in the reproduction of misinformation; it’s also a polite way for them to suggest that the real culpability for what pullulates on their platforms lies with their users. Facebook has always presented itself, in contrast to legacy gatekeepers, as a neutral bit of infrastructure; people may post what they like and access what they fancy. When Zuckerberg talks about “free expression,” he is describing the sanctity of a market­place where supply is liberated to seek the level of demand. What he is saying, by implication, is that the affliction of partisan propaganda reflects not a problem of supply but of demand—a deep and transparent expression of popular desire.


This might be a maddening defense, but it is not a trivial argument to counter. Over the past few years, the idea that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter somehow created the conditions of our rancor—and, by extension, the proposal that new regulations or algorithmic reforms might restore some arcadian era of “evidential argument”—has not stood up well to scrutiny. Immediately after the 2016 election, the phenomenon of “fake news” spread by Macedonian teenagers and Russia’s Internet Research Agency became shorthand for social media’s wholesale perversion of democracy; a year later, researchers at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center concluded that the circulation of abjectly fake news “seems to have played a relatively small role in the overall scheme of things.” A recent study by academics in Canada, France, and the US indicates that online media use actually decreases support for right-wing populism in the US. Another study examined some 330,000 recent YouTube videos, many associated with the far right, and found little evidence for the strong “algorithmic radicalization” theory, which holds YouTube’s recommendation engine responsible for the delivery of increasingly extreme content.

Regardless of how one study or another breaks, tech companies have reason to prefer abstract arguments about the values of untrammeled expression. They have chosen to adopt the language of classical liberalism precisely because it puts their liberal critics in an uncomfortable position: It’s unacceptably patronizing to claim that some subset of our neighbors have to be protected from their own demands. It’s even worse to question the authenticity of those demands in the first place—to suggest that the desires of our neighbors are not really their own. Critics must rely on such potted ideas as “astroturfing” to explain how it might be that good people come to demand bad things.

The case for corporate blame is, at any rate, probably more expedient than it is empirical. It’s much easier to imagine how we might exercise leverage over a handful of companies than it is to address the preferences of billions of users. It’s always tempting to search for our keys where the light is better. A better solution would require tech’s critics to take what people demand as seriously as the corporations do, even if that means looking into the dark.

The first step toward an honest reckoning with the reality of demand is to admit that political polarization long predates the rise of social media. By the time Facebook opened its walled orchard to everyone in 2006, the US had already spent 40 years sorting itself into two broad camps, as Ezra Klein points out in his new book Why We’re Polarized. At the beginning of the 1960s, the Democratic and Republican parties both contained self-described liberals and conservatives. Then the passage of civil rights legislation and Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy set in motion the coalescence of each party around a consensus set of “correct” views. Race was the original fault line, and has remained salient. But the constellations of other views often shifted and were increasingly secondary to the simpler matter of group affiliation.

Where many technology critics see the rise of social media, some 15 years ago, as a vast shift that ushered in the era of “filter bubbles” and tribal sorting, Klein describes it as less the original cause than an accelerant—especially insofar as it encouraged individuals to see all their beliefs and preferences, if only in brief but powerful moments of perceived threat, as potential expressions of a single underlying political identity. Facebook and Twitter allotted each user one persona, with a profile, a history, and a signaling apparatus of unprecedented reach. Users faced new and acute kinds of public pressure—to be coherent, for one thing—and could only look to other members of their communities for clues to what might viably constitute coherence.


Offline, too, people were being dragooned, subtly or otherwise, into increasingly cramped partisan identities. Klein draws on the work of the political scientist Lilliana Mason to describe how political polarization has resulted in the “stacking” of otherwise unrelated identities under the heading of political affiliation. Where we might once have expressed solidarity with one another along any number of axes that had no obvious political valence—as members of the same faith, residents of the same town, fans of the same music—more and more of these affiliations were, by the 2000s, tagged and subsumed under the two flagship “mega-identities” on offer in US politics.

Neither of these two sides could exist without the other: It’s very hard to give people a strong sense of “who we are” without defining “who we are not.” We might not like everything our side does, but we would rather be dead than identify with our opponents. The construction and policing of the all important boundary between camps has come to feel like one of the daily burdens of being alive in the age of social media.

And as for social media’s role, none of this was deliberate or inevitable, as Klein sees it: “Few realized, early on, that the way to win the war for attention was to harness the power of community to create identity,” he writes. “But the winners emerged quickly, often using techniques whose mechanisms they didn’t fully understand.”

Taken on its own, however, the insight that social media both promotes and relies on swells of belonging seems insufficient to explain its contribution to Manichaean polarization. Social media could have produced a rich world of autarchic, jostling affiliations—a lively bazaar of many camps—and it’s a standard trope of internet nostalgists to long for the time when online identities could be fragmented. An individual, in those antediluvian days, could comfortably contain a range of identities, each expressed in its proper context. The fact that it hasn’t turned out that way on social media—the fact that, as Klein notes, the platforms have encouraged a more totalizing alignment—is one reason why many critics suspect that the apparatus is rigged, that we aren’t being given what we want but rather what some malign force wants us to want. It is much easier, once more, to invoke the perennial bugbear of “the algorithm” than it is to consider the idea that social sorting itself might be our most enduring preference.

In a recent article in The New York Times, Annalee Newitz expressed the familiar notion that “social media is broken.” But, at least by one reading, it’s working precisely as intended. Facebook was founded—or at least funded—on a serious, if esoteric, theory of demand, one that accounts for the origin and cultivation of desire.

In July 2004, the investor and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel helped organize a small conference at Stanford University to discuss current events with his former mentor, the French literary critic and self-styled anthropologist René Girard. Thiel proposed “a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics” in the wake of 9/11, and the symposium proceeded in a decidedly apocalyptic register. “Today,” Thiel wrote in the essay he contributed to the event, “mere self-­preservation forces all of us to look at the world anew, to think strange new thoughts, and thereby to awaken from that very long and profitable period of intellectual slumber and amnesia that is so misleadingly called the Enlightenment.” Thiel wrote that “the whole issue of human violence has been whitewashed away” by a political culture built on John Locke and the wishful concept of a social contract; he believed we had to turn to Girard for a more satisfying account of human irrationality and vengefulness.


As Girard had it, we are defined and constituted as a species by our reliance on imitation. But we are not mere first-order mimics: When we ape what someone else does, or covet what someone else has, we are in fact trying to want what they want. “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote. “We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” Unable to commit to our own arbitrary wants, we seek to resemble other people—stronger, more decisive people. Once we identify a model we’d like to emulate, we train ourselves to make the objects of their desire our own.

The emotional signature of all this imitation—or mimesis—is not admiration but consuming envy. “In the process of ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ ” Thiel writes, “mimesis pushes people into escalating rivalry.” We resent the people we emulate, both because we want the same things and because we know we’re reading from someone else’s script. As Girard would have it, the viability of any society depends on its ability to manage this acrimony, lest it regularly erupt into the violence of “all against all.”

Around the time of that 2004 symposium, Thiel was making a $500,000 investment in a small startup called The Facebook. He later attributed his decision to become its first outside investor to the influence of Girard.

“Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures,” he told The New York Times on the occasion of Girard’s death in 2015. “Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic.” As people like and follow and dilate on certain posts and profiles, the Facebook algorithm is trained to recognize the sort of people we aspire to be, and obliges us with suggested refinements. The platforms are not simply meeting demand, as Zuckerberg would have it, but they’re not really creating it either. They are, in a sense, refracting it. We are broken down into sets of discrete desires, and then grouped into cohorts along lines of statistical significance. The kinds of communities these platforms enable are ones that have simply been found, rather than ones that had to be forged.

As the critic Geoff Shullenberger has pointed out, Facebook’s cultivation of these communities—structured by constant and simple mimetic reinforcement—is only half of a story that gets considerably darker. Girard spent the later decades of his career elaborating how, in myth and ancient history, human societies purchased peace and stability by displacing the bad blood of mimetic rivalry into violence against a scapegoat. “The war of all against all culminates not in a social contract but in a war of all against one,” Thiel writes, “as the same mimetic forces gradually drive the combatants to gang up on one particular person.”

Ancient religions, Girard argued, advanced rituals and myths to contain this bloodthirsty process. And Christianity, a religion centered around the crucifixion of an innocent scapegoat, promised transcendence of the entire dynamic with the revelation of its cruelty. (Girard was a professed Christian, as is Thiel.)

The problem, as Thiel sees it, is that we now live in a disenchanted age: “The archaic rituals will no longer work for the modern world,” he wrote in 2004. The danger of escalating mimetic violence was, in his view, both obvious and neglected. His concern at the time was with global terrorism in the wake of September 11, but later it seems he also came to worry about resentment toward the investor class in an age of growing inequality. In a set of notes published online in 2012 by the coauthor of Thiel’s book Zero to One, Thiel identifies tech founders as natural scapegoats in the Girardian sense: “The 99% vs. the 1% is the modern articulation of this classic scapegoating mechanism.”


Thiel’s prescient investment in Facebook could be interpreted as a gesture of faith in the power of social media platforms (Shullenberger calls them “scapegoating machines”) to step in and replace real violence with a new symbolic surrogate. That is, social media could serve to focus and organize the chaos of our untamed desires and, at the same time, focus and organize the potential violence of our untamed animus. The opportunity to vent on social media, and occasionally to join an outraged online mob, might relieve us of our latent desire to hurt people in real life. It’s easy to dismiss a lot of very online rhetoric that equates social media disagreement with violence, but in a Girardian account the conflation might reflect an accurate perception of the symbolic stakes: On this view, our tendency to experience online hostility as “real” violence is an evolutionary step to be cheered. The reason this has never happened in human history is because we lacked a pervasive, no-cost signaling infrastructure. Now we have it.

Shullenberger makes a good case that Thiel might have intuited all this: that social media, with its paths of least resistance, could provide not only this kind of cheap symbolic sorting but an ultimately symmetrical version of it. What we end up with is not the 99 percent versus the 1 percent but a vast, virtual stalemate in a symbolically bipolar universe. Affinities based on the clever algorithmic sorting of refracted desires are only weakly bound. In the absence of a grand, substantive vision for who “we” are, we draw our strength and certainty from the coherent depravity of “them.”

It’s easy to relate to this: While most of us are rarely wholly satisfied by the goodness and purity of our own team, with its heterodoxy and lack of discipline, we’re deeply satisfied by what we interpret as the uniform villainy of our opponents. Think, for example, of how confidently liberals include among the “bad guys” someone as silly as the Canadian academic and self-help guru Jordan Peterson alongside a neo-Nazi like Richard Spencer. We seek and prize intelligible solidarity in our enemies with much greater pleasure than we do in our own camp. As Shullenberger puts it in one of his essays about Thiel, “for someone overtly concerned about the threat posed by such forces to those in positions of power, a crucial advantage would seem to lie in the possibility of deflecting violence away from the prominent figures who are the most obvious potential targets of popular ressentiment, and into internecine conflict with other users.” The goal is an evenly apportioned virtual antagonism in the stable perpetuity of a very vivid game.

If this was really Thiel’s idea—that Facebook might detach the world of permanent symbolic conflict from the real world of actual politics—then it was, or has become, an entirely cynical one. On the basis of his public doubts about democracy, his reverence for the occult elitism of the philosopher Leo Strauss, and his relationship to Trump, it’s clear enough how he thinks reality ought to be administered: by people like him and Zuckerberg, while the rest of us are distracted by the online video­games of our lives. (According to The Wall Street Journal, Thiel still exerts “outsized influence” as a Facebook board member.) And in retrospect, the idea that social media might redirect our worst mimetic impulses isn’t only cynical but devastatingly wrong. It’s unclear how it could even begin to account for the very nonsymbolic violence that spilled off of Facebook and into the real worlds of Myanmar and Sri Lanka—and, depending on your perspective, the United States as well.


In the end, as it becomes increasingly untenable to blame the power of a few suppliers for the unfortunate demands of their users, it falls to tech’s critics to take the fact of demand—that people’s desires are real—even more seriously than the companies themselves do. Those desires require a form of redress that goes well beyond “the algorithm.” To worry about whether a particular statement is true or not, as public fact-checkers and media-literacy projects do, is to miss the point. It makes about as much sense as asking whether somebody’s tattoo is true. A thorough demand-side account would allow that it might in fact be tribalism all the way down: that we have our desires and priorities, and they have theirs, and both camps will look for the supply that meets their respective demands.

Just because you accept that preferences are rooted in group identity, however, doesn’t mean you have to believe that all preferences are equal, morally or otherwise. It just means our burden has little to do with limiting or moderating the supply of political messages or convincing those with false beliefs to replace them with true ones. Rather, the challenge is to persuade the other team to change its demands—to convince them that they’d be better off with different aspirations. This is not a technological project but a political one.

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Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a contributing editor at WIRED. He last wrote about the blockchain platform Tezos in issue 26.07.

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PewDiePie Is Guilty of Every Attack He Hypocritically Aims at Jake Paul



  • PewDiePie trashed fellow YouTuber Jake Paul’s new financial freedom courses in a recent video.
  • But Felix is guilty of shilling sketchy financial products too.
  • To top it off, PewDiePie gives financial advice in the video, while criticizing Jake Paul for not having any credibility to give financial advice.

PewDiePie wasn’t back on YouTube for long before running out of ideas for original content. So he piggy-backed off another YouTuber’s original work instead.

His response video to Jake Paul’s financial freedom movement isn’t the first time Kjellberg has attacked his fellow YouTuber’s efforts to make the world a better place. The king of gaming YouTube has a longstanding beef with both Jake and Logan Paul.

jake and logan pauljake and logan paul
PewDiePie has a longstanding beef with the Paul brothers. | Source: Michael Reaves/Getty Images/AFP

Last year, he even stooped as low as bashing Jake Paul’s petition to end cyberbullying.

PewDiePie has expressed consternation in the past with a media that nit-picks over his channel and allegedly blows anything negative out of proportion.

But he’s doing the same thing to Jake in this recent video.

Felix Shilled Scammy Cryptos

Just last month, Felix shilled sketchy cryptocurrency projects to his audience for affiliate revenue at the beginning of a video.

He even acknowledged with a joke how greedy it was to include an ad in a video that already had ads on it:

Many people have lost millions to crypto scams in the last decade while hoping to get rich. PewDiePie leveraged his fame and the trust of his fans to push more scammy cryptos. Yet he criticizes Jake Paul for encouraging people to educate themselves about finance and business.

He even made fun of another shady crypto scam in 2018, before selling out to TRON, BitTorrent, and DLive.

PewDiePie Mocks Jake Paul for Giving Financial Advice… Then Gives Financial Advice

As if that weren’t astounding enough, PewDiePie is actually guilty of what he slams Jake Paul for within the same video that he upbraids Paul. It’s unbelievable.

Pewds mockingly says:

Yes, Jake Paul is the person I look at when I envision financial freedom.

Then laughs.

But why not?

pewdiepie, jake paulpewdiepie, jake paul
PewDiePie is more like Jake Paul than he wants to admit. | Source: PewDiePie/YouTube

Paul is in his early 20s, and he’s a multi-millionaire. That actually makes him at least credible, if not authoritative, as a source of business and financial advice.

While PewDiePie doesn’t think Paul’s YouTube success translates to financial savvy, he instantly turns around and starts giving financial advice:

Student loan is the cheapest loan you can ever get. It’s one of the most fair loans. It’s a great loan to actually take advantage of.

That was in response to Jake Paul criticizing student loans for costing so much and not delivering students the earning power that would make them worth it.

But Jake Paul is right. And PewDiePie is wrong.

Job pay hasn’t kept up with the ballooning costs of loan-financed college education. And one markedly unfair aspect of student loans is they are notoriously difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.

PewDiePie concludes:

Jake Paul is the kind of celebrity that doesn’t have any real value… You could replace Jake Paul with anything or anyone and it wouldn’t make a difference.

Honestly, how special is it to play Minecraft and laugh at memes?

PewDiePie is even more “guilty” than Jake Paul of this final criticism.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of

This article was edited by Josiah Wilmoth.


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Caitlin Long Starts the First Crypto-Native Bank in the U.S.



Caitlin Long, a former Wall Street executive who has helped Wyoming enact 13 blockchain-enabling laws, is taking advantage of the progressive Wyoming legislature to establish a first crypto-native bank in the U.S. The bank’s name is Avanti, which means “forward” in Italian.

Long made this announcement earlier today in a series of 29 tweets. She believes that “a critical piece of U.S. market infrastructure is missing – a regulated bank that can act as a bridge to the Federal Reserve for payments and [offer] custody for BIG institutional money.”

Long thanked Wyoming governor Mark Gordon for making this possible, as Avanti takes advantage of the special-purpose depository institution law “which is the optimal regulatory-compliant structure in the U.S. for providing financial services around crypto.” 

Cointelegraph reached out to Caitlin Long for a comment, but did not receive an immediate response. This article will be updated if we hear back.

Strict regulation

However, Long notes that this special-purpose depository law has stringent regulatory requirements. According to this law, all deposits — in the case of Avanti, crypto deposits — must be 100% reserved. Avanti will also not be allowed to use deposits for any financial operations of its own — a practice known as “rehypothecation.” Strict Know Your Customer standard must be applied. “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT trying to use Avanti for illegal/nefarious purposes!!!!!!!!!,” warns Long in a tweet.

Strange bedfellows

Long stated that she has had many long conversations with Adam Back, CEO and founder of Blockstream and an early contributor to Bitcoin, prior to starting Avanti. She believes that Blockstream is an “ideal partner for serving BIG institutional investors that require regulated banks to deliver them services around bitcoin in USD markets.”

However, she states that Avanti will stay “protocol neutral” and will welcome all cryptocurrencies demanded by clients. According to Long, we can also expect to see: 

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS because it’ll attract the best from the crypto & traditional worlds. I’m comfortable + have deep relationships in both worlds & I am equally comfy in NYC’s concrete canyons as in the wilds of Wyoming.”

Long expects Avanti to open its doors in early 2021. If Long is right that could lead to the influx of a significant amount of new liquidity to the market.


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Bitcoin Price Prediction: BTC/USD Dumps Fast, Ready to Decline to $9,000?



Bitcoin (BTC) Price Prediction – February 24

The volatility in the Bitcoin market could simply mean that the coin may either swing to $10,000 or decline to $9,000.

BTC/USD Long-term Trend: Bullish (Daily Chart)

Key levels:

Resistance Levels: $10,500, $10,700, $10,900

Support Levels: $9,000, $8,800, $8,600

BTCUSD – Daily Chart

After an erratic recovery of yesterday, BTC/USD has resumed back into a selling mode today. A few days ago, the coin topped at $10,300 and has been in retreat ever since. At the time of writing, BTC/USD is trading at $9,630, down 3.35% since the beginning of today. Bitcoin continues to narrow down towards $9,500. The downtrend is clearly shown by taking a broader technical picture using the daily chart.

Moreover, the BTC/USD price is struggling to hold a couple of important supports near $9,400. The price is likely to continue lower below the $9,300 and $9,200 support level. If there is a downside break below the $9,200 support level, the price could revisit the $9,100 support level. The bears are gaining momentum and if the price clears the $9,100 support, there is a risk of a sharp decline to $9,000, $8,800 and $8,600 support levels.

However, the Bitcoin price is now deciding below the 9-day and 21-day moving averages, where the buyers are anticipating a rebound. Meanwhile, the $10,200 and $10,400 levels may further surface as the nearest resistance levels should the $10,000 level holds. However, a strong bullish spike might take the price to $10,500, $10,700 and $10,900 levels. But presently, the stochastic RSI is within the oversold condition.

BTC/USD Medium – Term Trend: Bearish (4H Chart)

Looking at the 4-Hour chart, Bitcoin (BTC) has not yet slipped below $9,400 and is still in the loop of making a bounce back if the signal lines of stochastic RSI can make a quick turn back from the oversold zone. At the moment, BTC/USD price hovers below the 9-day and 21-day moving averages and may take time to persistently move back and touch the resistance level of $9,700. At the moment, the Bitcoin price is currently moving around $9,611 level.

BTCUSD – 4 Hour Chart

More so, should in case the buyers put more effort and energize the market, we can expect a retest of $9,800 resistance level. Therefore, breaking the mentioned resistance could also allow the bulls to test the $9,900, $10,100 and $10,300 upward. In other words, if the bears hold the price and push it downward, then the support level of $9,300, $9,100 and $8,900 may be visited as the technical indicator is entering into the oversold zone.

Please note: is not a financial advisor. Do your research before investing your funds in any financial asset or presented product or event. We are not responsible for your investing results.


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