Belmont Club

A Hole in the Water

The Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS Colorado (SSN 788) (Dana Jensen/The Day via AP)

The practice of “deplatforming” individuals on the basis of content is actually just another form of signal filtering with all the advantages and disadvantages that go with it.  “Filtering is a class of signal processing, the defining feature of filters being the complete or partial suppression of some aspect of the signal”.  Recently the New York Times sat in as Twitter attempted to formulate a set of rules determining what signals would be allowed to pass.

On Friday, to provide more transparency about its decision making, Twitter invited two New York Times reporters to attend the policy meeting. During the one-hour gathering, a picture emerged of a 12-year-old company still struggling to keep up with the complicated demands of being an open and neutral communications platform that brings together world leaders, celebrities, journalists, political activists and conspiracy theorists.

Even settling on a definition of dehumanizing speech was not easy. By the meeting’s end, Mr. Dorsey and his executives had agreed to draft a policy about dehumanizing speech and open it to the public for their comments.

To Twitter’s credit they realized the process was hard. After all, if filters are erroneously defined they will become a liability.  Not only will they  block out irrelevant information but the crucial signals as well.  If an adversary knows the filter, he can mimic what the system is programmed to ignore and become invisible — a “black hole in the water” to use a naval metaphor.

For this reason critical detection systems are often combinations of relatively unmediated input and much more heavily filtered displays.  “In a passive sonar system … sources fall into two main categories: broadband and narrowband .” The former listens to everything, including unknown signals, while the latter focuses on known signal types.

Broadband sources, as the name suggests, [is from] acoustic energy over a wide range of frequencies…. Narrowband sources radiate within a small band about a particular frequencies [of] the various pieces of machinery found in every ship. For example, pumps, motors, electrical generation equipment and propulsion systems. When specifying narrowband sources, it is important to also specify the frequency at which it occurs.

A Navy article describes how this works in practice; sonar teams have someone assigned to scan for any noise and if it looks interesting then drill down with a narrowband filter to bring out its signature.

“The broadband operator’s job is eyes on the screen, head phones on, and constantly search 360 degrees around the ship,” Whitson said. “He doesn’t stop. If he hears something, he will put a tracker on it so we can send the data to the control room.”

Whitson gave a brief description of the broadband noise. “The background noise of the ocean sounds like white noise,” he said. “Imagine turning the lights off, turning the air conditioner down to about 60 degrees, and staring at a screen with green and black lines.”

STSs are trained to pinpoint a variety of sounds over broadband noise. Often, they have to distinguish between animal, environmental, and mechanical noises. Their training requires the STSs to review publications based on history, which provides them with recorded data. Based on the data, STSs are given the knowledge to distinguish sounds.

“We listen to the sounds,” Hudgins said. “When we hear those mechanical sounds, we use formulas that we can look up. We use sound, speed in water, and time difference.”

The two processes are complementary. Although the drafters of the First Amendment lived in pre-signal processing and ante-computer times they seem to have intuitively understood the importance of having both unfiltered information and checks and balances further down the chain.   They were especially alive to the dangers of prior restraint, of “censorship imposed … that prohibits particular instances of expression. It is in contrast to censorship which establishes general subject matter restrictions and reviews a particular instance of expression only after the expression has taken place.”

In a sense the First Amendment is society’s broadband detection system while the libel courts are its narrowband counterpart.  The inherent danger in the filter building the NYT observed at Twitter is it upsets this dual system and inserts the filter prematurely, creating systematic and predictable areas of blindness that allow light from only certain spots.

But once the adversary determines how social media filters work it is a relatively simple matter to design an effective cloaking signature.  This actually happened in 2017 when the Russians spoofed Antifa.

The uptick in fake Antifa accounts claiming to belong to the current anti-fascist movement can be a minefield for internet explorers looking for a safe place to talk about punching Nazis and resisting fascism. These accounts reportedly aim to troll and spread misinformation, or, in the case of the @AntifaBoston account, apparently reveal that they aren’t actually operated out of the US, but in Vladivostok, Russia.

Doubtless it can happen again.  One of the biggest challenges Big Silicon face in fashioning a perfect filter is coping with concept drift.  The content of any data stream (like social media) evolves over time (even in non malicious cases) rendering the filter’s mapping function eventually obsolete. “Many data mining methods assume that discovered patterns are static. However, in practice patterns in the database evolve over time. This poses two important challenges. The first challenge is to detect when concept drift occurs. The second challenge is to keep the patterns up-to-date without inducing the patterns from scratch.”

What’s to stop the Russians, especially with the aid of AI, from starting off as a good old wholesome Antifa site and eventually becoming something else?  The Kremlin’s concept drift will be deliberate, sophisticated and seamless in a way that Alex Jones could never be.

The best way to avoid being blindsided is to retain a robust broadband capability. But with the elites increasingly unwilling to entrust the deplorables with that responsibility and the rise of political correctness, the West can gradually lose the ability to listen to unfiltered signals, including ambient noise — and be fed nothing but pasteurized, fact checked and filtered narrowband output. While prior censorship will provide the public with the illusion that it is well-informed in reality the opposite will be true. They will be surrounded on every side by artificially created black holes in the water.  We will eventually find out the monsters have been beside us all along, but too late.

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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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