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TBR News March 19, 2018

Mar 19 2018

The Voice of the White House 

Washington, D.C. March 19, 2018:”What do Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and President Trump have in common?

Both of them are laboring under the delusion that they are important people whose wishes are paramount.

Jeff Bezos, the super-wealthy owner of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post is also of the same persuasion.

All three of them are due, at one time or another in the very near future, about to discover that they only the voices of one, crying in the wilderness.

Zuckerberg, through the FBI-formed Facebook, thinks that because he influenced the last presidential elections, for money, he can become President.

Trump, the manipulator, is of the opinion that he can stifle any criticism of his erratic and often dangerous mood swings by firing anyone who disagrees with him.

The totally nonsensical “nerve gas” business in England is an example of the mindless stupidity of some of the nation’s leaders.

When Trump found out that Mueller wanted to interview the Russian intelligence traitor, he asked the head of the CIA to find a way to block this.

In return, he promised the head of the CIA the job as Secretary of State so CIA types would have more power.

Note that there has been no further comment on the allegedly attacked Russian (now in a British intelligence agency safe house, away from embrassing questions) and the obedient media is waiting for the next exciting news event with which to appease their controllers.”

 

Table of Comtents

  • Trump Is The Great Disruptor
  • ‘It might work too well’: the dark art of political advertising online
  • No one can pretend Facebook is just harmless fun any more
  • Facebook shares slide amid privacy backlash
  • Facebook plunge leads tech, Wall Street sell-off
  • Your New Facebook ‘Friend’ mght be the FBI
  • Snowden: Facebook a ‘surveillance company’ that collects and sells user data
  • EU, US lawmakers scold Facebook, Trump-linked Cambridge Analytica
  • Cambridge Analytica boasts of dirty tricks to swing elections
  • Officials wanted Florida school shooting suspect forcibly committed in 2016
  • The Syrian War Could Still be Raging in Four Years’ Time

 

Trump Is The Great Disruptor

That’s why they hate him

March 19, 2018

by Justin Raimondo

AntiWar

Why is the US national security Establishment – the CIA, the FBI, the Dr. Strangeloves – engaged in open warfare against the President? Why, ever since well before Trump’s stunning victory, has the political class done everything in its power to destroy him? We’ve never seen this kind of thing before – at least, not so out in the open. Certainly there have been internal power struggles and plenty of palace intrigue, but this kind of left-right near unanimity, coupled with the brazen activism of the “intelligence community,” is unprecedented. The full institutional power of the Deep State is being deployed to overthrow a democratically elected chief executive – not in some Latin American banana republic but right here in the good ol’ USA.

Why is this happening?

Here is why.

“President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to threaten to withdraw US troops from South Korea if he can’t get a better trade deal with Seoul.

“In a fundraising speech in Missouri, Trump told donors South Korea had become rich but that American politicians never negotiated better deals, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed to CNN by an attendee.

“‘We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,’ Trump said. ‘We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military. We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens,’ Trump said.

“The President went on to argue, ‘Our allies care about themselves. They don’t care about us.’”

The South Korean Finance Minister, Kim Dong-yeon, found this upsetting:

“‘We don’t think it’s ideal to link an economic issue with such an issue [the withdrawal of US troops],’ said Kim, while speaking on South Korean TBS radio.”

This linkage is, indeed, the missing link that is always absent from ostensibly libertarian critiques of Trumpian trade protectionism. Well, yes, it’s quite true that tariffs are taxes, that they hurt consumers – i.e., everyone – and benefit only a few producers at the expense of the rest of us. Yet these libertarian critics never mention that we are also paying for the defense of our trading partners, a gigantic subsidy that is an essential part of the deal we make with our Asian and European protectorates. In exchange for giving, say, South Korea unobstructed access to our markets, Seoul essentially gives up its sovereignty by allowing US soldiers to occupy the country.

Trump rightly derides this arrangement as a bad deal, and he is right about that – although you won’t hear his libertarian critics give him credit for this insight for the simple reason that they are often indifferent or even hostile to the noninterventionist critique of “collective security.” They drop the context of American imperialism as a system because they support institutions such as NATO and have jumped on the new cold war bandwagon.

They have this in common with the national security wing of the “permanent government” which is avidly trying to oust Trump. The self-appointed guardians of the “international order” are not going to allow this White House to dismantle what they have spent so many years, so many tax dollars, and so many lives building up: an empire that limns the old British imperium. They simply cannot tolerate a US President who is capable of even raising the possibility of withdrawing from the Korean peninsula: that is beyond the pale as far as they are concerned.

That’s the reason why we are seeing this unprecedented campaign against a sitting President. Trump threatens their whole system and the worldview it is based on. He is playing out his role as the Great Disruptor while the political, economic, and bureaucratic interests that are behind the sclerotic cold war era status quo look on with horror. Yet this anti-Trump fifth column, operating inside the government, is hardly powerless: they can be counted on to do anything and everything to stop Trump, from leaking classified information to launching a phony investigation into Russian “collusion.” However, he keeps outflanking them: the latest is the strong possibility that the North Koreans will soon release the three Americans they have been holding.

Are you tired of winning yet?

Many of my readers were shocked when I wrote favorably about Trump during the 2016 election, and some continue to not get what I’ve been saying for well over a year, but I was right about this unlikely President, and the naysayers were wrong. The proof is the upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un – an event that no one thought would ever occur, and yet it’s real, it’s happening, it’s now.

The outlived conflicts of yesteryear – the detritus of the really awful twentieth century – continue to rise up like ghosts, haunting our present and standing in the way of peace. Yet Trump seems to have the vision and the boldness to bat them away and inaugurate a new era, despite everything. He is the Great Disruptor who is challenging the conceit at the core of US foreign policy: the idea that it is somehow in America’s interest to police the world and enforce the rules of the “liberal international order.” Whether he has the stamina to succeed remains to be seen.

 

‘It might work too well’: the dark art of political advertising online

Digital campaigns have evolved from banner ads 20 years ago to Cambridge Analytica harvesting our Facebook data. Has the rise of micro-targeting become a threat to democracy?

March 19, 2018

by Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco

The Guardian

Alan Gould was hitting a wall. It was the late 1990s, and the political advertising operative had an idea about using a relatively newfangled tool – banner ads on web sites – to promote political candidates. “It was pretty clear to me at the time that the ability to target and tailor messaging was perfect for political campaigns,” Gould recalled recently. “I did a whole presentation on the internet and the power to connect, track, do fundraising, target.”

But when Gould finished his pitches, he would be met with blank stares. “I was a very lonely pied piper,” he says.

Finally, in 1998, Gould found a political candidate who was so far behind in the polls, and so strapped for cash, that he was willing to take a risk and spend $100,000 on banner ads on the New York Times homepage. Peter Vallone, then a New York City councilmember challenging George Pataki for the governorship, gave Gould the green light for an ad buy that has since entered the history books as the first significant use of online advertising in a political campaign.

The ads themselves are lost to internet history – Gould believes he may have copies somewhere on floppy discs. But it’s not hard to draw a line from that moment to Robert Mueller’s 16 February indictment of the Internet Research Agency, which alleges that Russian agents carried out a conspiracy to interfere with a US presidential election, in large part by purchasing targeted Facebook ads designed to “encourage US minority groups not to vote”. Or to the news recently revealed in the Observer that 50m Facebook profiles were obtained and misused by the data mining company Cambridge Analytica to target voters during the 2016 presidential election.

The Vallone ads contained rudimentary versions of many of the attributes that make digital advertising such a powerful – and terrifying – force today: the ability to target specific audiences with tailored messages, then track their reaction.

“Come November 2000, I expect the question will no longer be whether Web-based political advertising works,” wrote Cyrus Krohn, then the manager of political advertising for the Microsoft Network, in a prescient 1999 column for Slate, “but whether it works too well.”

Nearly 20 years later, the world has caught up to Krohn’s concerns, with some critics making the not entirely hyperbolic argument that micro-targeted “dark advertising” on Facebook is a fundamental threat to democracy itself. Is it too late for democracy to fix itself?

Game-changing

In February, Donald Trump named Brad Parscale as his 2020 re-election campaign manager. The decision lends credence to what Parscale has been saying for the past year: that his Facebook advertising operation won Trump the election.

Parscale had been a little-known digital marketing executive working out of Texas when he was tapped to build Trump’s campaign website in 2015. Until then, digital advertising was barely a rounding error in campaign budgets. In 2008, the year Barack Obama became the first social media candidate, candidates spent just $22.25m on online political ads, according to an analysis by Borrell Associates. That number grew significantly in 2012, but the real explosion came in 2016, when campaigns pumped $1.4bn into digital ads.

US presidential campaigns are often remembered – and understood – by their advertisements. Lyndon B Johnson’s “Daisy” ad powerfully (and controversially) set the stakes of an election in a nuclear world. George HW Bush’s “Willie Horton” attack ad still epitomizes the racist dog-whistle politics of the tough-on-crime era. The message, as much as the messenger, is a key part of the debate over who is best equipped to lead the country.

But no such public debate took place around Trump’s apparently game-changing digital political advertisements before election day.

This is partly due to a loophole in the prevailing campaign finance law, which was written in 2002 and did not include internet ads in the class of regulated “electioneering communications”. But perhaps even more important is the very nature of online advertising, which is self-serve (just sign up with a credit card and go) and highly iterative.

Parscale claims he typically ran 50,000 to 60,000 variations of Facebook ads each day during the Trump campaign, all targeting different segments of the electorate. Understanding the meaning of a single one of those ads would require knowing what the ad actually said, who the campaign targeted to see that ad, and how that audience responded. Multiply that by 100 and you have a headache; by 50,000 and you’ll start to doubt your grasp on reality. Then remember that this is 50,000 a day over the course of a campaign that lasted more than a year.

“The reason I said it might work too well,” Krohn said in a recent interview with the Guardian, “is that mass marketing went away and micro-targeting – nano-targeting – came to fruition.”

Any candidate using Facebook can put a campaign message promising one thing in front of one group of voters, while simultaneously running an ad with a completely opposite message in front of a different group of voters. The ads themselves are not posted anywhere for the general public to see (this is what’s known as “dark advertising”), and chances are, no one will ever be the wiser.

That undermines the very idea of a “marketplace of ideas”, says Ann Ravel, a former member of the Federal Election Commission who has long advocated stricter regulations on digital campaigning. “The way to have a robust democracy is for people to hear all these ideas and make decisions and discuss,” Ravel said. “With microtargeting, that is not happening.”

Parscale and his staff told reporters with Bloomberg that they used Facebook ads to target Hillary Clinton supporters with messages designed to make them sit the election out, including her own forays into dog-whistle politics from the 1990s, which the Trump campaign hoped would discourage black voters from turning out to the polls.

That degree of political manipulation might be unsavory, but it’s also relatively old-fashioned. One digital campaign staffer (not affiliated with the Trump campaign) compared it to Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, only “technologically savvy”.

But new reporting by the Observer has revealed that the data analytics team that worked for Trump, Cambridge Analytica, went far beyond Nixonian dirty tricks. The firm obtained Facebook data harvested under the auspices of an academic study, the Observer has revealed, and then used that data to target millions of US voters based on their psychological weaknesses.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the Observer about the data theft. “And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.”

European elections

Political advertising in the United States is the wild west compared with other western democracies, which tend to have shorter election campaigns with strict regulations on the amount and type of spending permitted. Such rules may enhance the impact of digital advertising, which is much cheaper than television and largely unregulated.

The UK has seen a rapid shift to digital campaigning, following the Conservative party’s embrace of Facebook in the 2015 general election. The Tories outspent Labour by a factor of 10 on Facebook advertisements, a decision that many political observers saw as decisive. In a country that bans political ads on television, Facebook enabled the Conservatives to reach 80.65% of users in targeted constituencies with its promoted posts and video ads, according to marketing materials created by Facebook. (At some point in the past year, the company began hiding previously produced “Success Stories” about its ability to sway election results.)

The Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum went on to spend almost its entire budget on Facebook advertising, an investment that resulted in about 1bn targeted digital ads being served to voters over the course of a 10-week campaign.

Though it is impossible to parse the exact impact of Facebook advertisements amid all the other factors that shape an electoral result (including organic Facebook content), the platform is increasingly cited as a factor in the growing electoral might of far-right groups in Europe.

The radical rightwing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party reportedly worked with a US campaign consultancy and Facebook itself to target German voters susceptible to its anti-immigrant message during the 2017 election in which AfD surged in popularity to become the third-largest party in parliament.

Campaigning in Italy’s recent election, which saw the rise of anti-establishment parties including the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League, largely took place on social media. Facebook advertisements and targeting information gathered by Italian transparency group Openpolis found that the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party ran a Facebook ad targeting Italian adults who are interested in the paramilitary police force, the carabinieri.

After the polls closed in Italy, the League’s Matteo Salvini shared some words of gratitude with the press: “Thank God for the internet. Thank God for social media. Thank God for Facebook.”

Targeting the midterms

While investigations into the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum continue, it’s worth remembering that more elections are fast approaching. Scores of countries will hold national elections in 2018, including Sweden, Ireland, Egypt, Mexico and Brazil.

In the US, candidates for the 435 congressional and 35 Senate seats that are up for grabs in November are already running campaigns on Facebook, and we may never know what they’re saying in those advertisements.

Take, for example, Paul Nehlen, a candidate who is running a Republican primary challenge against the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, in Wisconsin. Nehlen is primarily known as a vehement antisemite who was once embraced by Steve Bannon and the Breitbart wing of the right, but was excommunicated after appearing on a white supremacist podcast.

According to his FEC filings, Nehlen spent at least $2,791.72 on Facebook ads in the final six months of 2017.

What did that money buy?

In the first instance, everything that any Facebook advertiser can get: access to one of the most powerful databases of personal information that has ever existed, with insights into individuals’ intimate relationships, political beliefs, consumer habits, and internet browsing.

Beyond that, we don’t know. Nehlen could be using Facebook to target likely voters in his district with a message about infrastructure. Or he could have taken a list of his own core supporters (he has more than 40,000 likes on Facebook), used Facebook’s “lookalike audience” tool to find other people inclined to support his particular politics, then fed them ads designed to persuade more people to join him in hating Jews.

Last fall, after Facebook had been forced to admit that, despite its initial denials, its platform had been used by foreign agents seeking to illegally influence the election, the company announced a set of reforms designed to assuage its critics – and stave off actual, enforceable regulation.

Starting this summer, the platform has promised that every political ad will be linked back to the page that paid for it. The pages themselves will display every ad that they’re running, as well as demographic information about the audience that they are reaching, a measure that Mark Zuckerberg claimed would “bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency” than the law requires for television or other media.

A version of these reforms is already live in Canada, where users can see all the ads being run by a political candidate in a designated tab on their page.

But there is good reason to be skeptical.

Since 2014, Facebook has had a transparency tool for all ads served on the platform. Click on the upper right-hand corner of a Facebook ad and you’ll see an option reading “Why am I seeing this ad?” Click through and you’ll get an explanation of the characteristics that make you desirable to the advertiser.

So far so good, but a new study by computer scientists found that Facebook’s ad explanations were “often incomplete and sometimes misleading”, in a way that “may allow malicious advertisers to easily obfuscate ad explanations that are discriminatory or that target privacy-sensitive attributes”.

Alan Mislove, a professor of computer science at Northeastern University and one of the study’s co-authors, said that he gave Facebook credit for having the feature at all, noting that it is one of the only examples of a company offering any kind of explanation of how an algorithm actually works. But the findings do not paint a particularly pretty picture of Facebook’s ability to self-regulate.

“They’ve built this incredibly powerful platform that allows very narrow targeting, a very powerful tool that anyone on the internet can use, so that scares me,” Mislove said. “And up until very recently, there was very little accountability. You as a malicious actor on Facebook don’t even really need to obfuscate your behavior, because the only person watching is Facebook.”

Honest Ads Act

The best hope for bringing some order to the realm of digital political ads is through updating US law for the Facebook era.

A bipartisan proposal to do just that exists. In October, Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner and John McCain introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would close the loophole that allows internet ads to avoid regulation, and also require internet platforms (ie Facebook and Google) to maintain a public file of all the political ads they run and who paid for them.

But as much as we need transparency around political ads to maintain democracy, we also need a functioning democracy to get that transparency. And it’s not clear that it’s not already too late.

“In an ideal world, with a fully functioning Congress, there would be hearings around the Honest Ads Act, and you would have Facebook and Google and Twitter and experts testify to shine a light on the nature of political advertising,” said Brendan Fischer, director of FEC reform at the Campaign Legal Center. “We’re not close to that at all.”

In the absence of a fully functioning Congress, what is to be done? Should we expect Facebook to simply stop selling political ads?

Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former product manager for Facebook who helped develop its advertising tools says that he has come to realize that political ads are simply a different beast than commercial ones, which can and should be treated differently by his former employer.

“Selling shoes needs to be different than selling politicians, even though the mechanics of it are identical,” he said. “Morally it’s different.”

Or should we pressure Facebook to stop allowing candidates with hateful or extremist views to use its tools?

“If we farm these important democratic responsibilities out to a private company, today they might be regulating antisemitism, but tomorrow they’re regulating what people can say about the Honest Ads Act,” Fischer said.

Indeed, Facebook could already be suppressing political views unfavorable to its business practices, and we would have no way of knowing. It’s possible Facebook wouldn’t even know. In response to queries about inconsistent moderation of clothing advertisements, a Facebook spokeswoman recently told the New York Times that “the company could not ask an automated system about [its] decisions”.

Frankenstein’s monster is not under any human’s control.

If this all seems positively dystopian, one person who is surprisingly sanguine is Alan Gould.

Gould left politics soon after the Vallone campaign, founded an advertising analytics firm, sold it, and is now a tech investor. He does have concerns about media literacy and Facebook’s tendency to trap people in filter bubbles, but says, “If people choose to stay in that bubble and not explore anything outside of it, that’s a statement about who they are and not about the technology.

“If you’re going to have a representative democracy, then you have to have a way to communicate with the voters and you’re going to use whatever is available, whether that’s newspapers or mail or email or Snapchat,” he said. “I don’t regret it at all.”

 

No one can pretend Facebook is just harmless fun any more

From its stance on extremist content, to its vast caches of user data, Facebook is a corporation whose power must, finally, be reined in

March 18, 2018

by Ellie Mae O’Hagan

The Guardian

The revelation that Cambridge Analytica exploited the data of 50 million Facebook profiles to target American voters is indeed frightening. But Cambridge Analytica shouldn’t act as a diversion from the real bad guy in this story: Facebook. It is mystifying that as his company regulates the flow of information to billions of human beings, encouraging certain purchasing habits and opinions, and monitoring people’s interactions, Mark Zuckerberg is invited to give lectures at Harvard without being treated with due scepticism.

We have now reached the point where an unaccountable private corporation is holding detailed data on over a quarter of the world’s population. Zuckerberg and his company have been avoiding responsibility for some time. Governments everywhere need to get serious in how they deal with Facebook.

After trolls were sent to jail for sending threatening messages to the activist Caroline Criado-Perez and MP Stella Creasy, a debate ensued over whether the likes of Facebook and Twitter should be classified as platforms or publishers. Facebook is treated as if it is simply a conduit for information, meaning it is not liable for the content its users share – in the same way that BT can’t be sued when people make threatening phone calls.

In 2014 Iain MacKenzie, a spokesperson for Facebook, said, “Every piece of content on Facebook has an associated ‘report’ option that escalates it to your user operations team for review. Additionally, individuals can block anyone who is harassing them, ensuring they will be unable to interact further. Facebook tackles malicious behaviour through a combination of social mechanisms and technological solutions appropriate for a mass-scale online opportunity.”

But the company is evasive about the number of moderators it employs, how they work, and how decisions are made. It has started taking a firmer line on far-right content – recently removing Britain First pages from the site – but it is still resisting many legislative attempts to regulate its content. What content users then see is decided by an algorithm that can change without any consultation, including with the government or the businesses that rely on Facebook for revenue – meaning that some can be quickly wiped off the map. In February 2018 the website Digiday reported on LittleThings, a four-year-old site that shut down overnight after Facebook decided to prioritise user posts over publisher content. A hundred jobs were lost.

Facebook wasn’t the only contributor to LittleThings’ demise, but those working at the website said there was nowhere else to go after the algorithm change. And this isn’t the only example: in 2013 an algorithm change halved the traffic of viral content website Upworthy – something from which the website has never recovered.

The impact of Facebook’s dominance means that publications are constantly scrambling to keep up with the platform’s changing strategy. The editor-in-chief of Wired, Nick Thompson, recently told the Digiday podcast that there was a fear “Facebook has a dial somewhere that can be turned to cut off media that gets too uppity”.

Much has been made of the fact that Facebook creates “filter bubbles”. It has been criticised for prioritising content that users will like – meaning there is less diversity in the news stories people read – and for failing to crack down on propaganda. In fact, Italy’s new far-right star Matteo Salvini explicitly thanked Facebook for contributing to the country’s recent election results.

All this from a company that in 2016 paid just £5.1m in corporation tax on its UK operations, despite profit and revenues nearly quadrupling on the back of increased advertising sales. In December 2017, Facebook announced it would start booking advertising revenue in countries where it was earned, instead of rerouting it via Ireland, although – as this newspaper reported – the move is “unlikely to result in it paying much more tax”. This is despite Zuckerberg calling for governments to start paying a universal basic income for every citizen as a response to automation, driven in part by Silicon Valley.

Even if we want to avoid the site and keep our data protected, it’s not as easy as one might think. According to Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, the company uses techniques found in propaganda and casino gambling to foster psychological addiction in its users – such as constant notifications and variable rewards. By keeping us hooked, Facebook is able to hold a huge amount of data on us. What is surprising, and worrying, is the derived data Facebook has – the profiles it can build of its users based on seemingly innocuous information. The author of the book Networks of Control, Wolfie Christl, noted that a patent published by Facebook works out people’s commute times by using location data from mobile apps. It then uses this and other data to segregate users into social classes.

Facebook’s massive data cache goes hand in hand with its acquisition of competitors. Nick Srnicek, author of Platform Capitalism, says, “Facebook is acting like a classic monopoly: it’s buying up competitors like Instagram, it’s blatantly copying rivals like Snapchat, and it even has its own app, Onavo, that acts to warn them of potential threats. All of this is combined with an unchecked sweeping up of our data that’s being used to build an impervious moat around its business.”

If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence. So perhaps it’s time to start treating Facebook as the giant multinational corporation it is – especially because people with Facebook profiles aren’t the company’s customers: they are the product it sells to advertisers.

 

Facebook shares slide amid privacy backlash

March 19, 2018

BBC News

Facebook shares have fallen sharply as the social network faces questions from US and British politicians about its privacy rules.

Facebook is under fire after reports detailing how Cambridge Analytica, which is credited with helping Donald Trump win the US election, acquired and used Facebook’s customer information.

Theresa May’s spokesman called the allegations “very concerning”.

Facebook shares fell close to 8% in afternoon trading in New York at $171.

The company is accused of failing to properly inform users that their profile information may have been obtained and kept by Cambridge Analytica.

On Friday, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica, saying it had acquired data from a researcher who violated the firm’s policies.

Asked about the reports, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “The allegations are clearly very concerning.

“It is essential that people can have confidence that their personal data will be protected and used in an appropriate way.”

US senators Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, and John Kennedy, a Republican, have also called for a hearing about data security and said they want to question Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, and the heads of other tech companies.

“While Facebook has pledged to enforce its policies to protect people’s information, questions remain as to whether those policies are sufficient and whether Congress should take action to protect people’s private information,” they wrote in the letter.

“The lack of oversight on how data is stored and how political advertisements are sold raises concerns about the integrity of American elections as well as privacy rights.”

Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, was questioned by a Parliamentary committee last month about using data to target messages.

 

Facebook plunge leads tech, Wall Street sell-off

March 19, 2018

by Chuck Mikolajczak

Reuters

Reuters) – U.S. stocks dropped on Monday as a plunge in shares of Facebook led a sell-off in technology stocks on reports that the social media company’s user information was misused.

Facebook shares tumbled 7.1 percent as Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg faced calls from both U.S. and European lawmakers to explain how a consultancy that worked on President Donald Trump’s election campaign gained access to data on 50 million Facebook users.

Facebook’s plunge weighed heavily on the S&P technology sector, down 2.79 percent, as well as the Nasdaq, off more than 2 percent. Both indexes were on track for their worst daily performance since Feb. 8.

Other major companies with large tech businesses also dropped as recent concerns over regulation in the arena increased. Apple lost 2.24 percent while Alphabet fell 3.8 percent and Microsoft declined 2.5 percent.

“Everyone knows that tech fundamentals are solid, but rumblings like what you are seeing today, that does sort of prompt people to think is this as good as it is going to get or should I take some profits here,” said Eric Freedman, chief investment officer for U.S. Bank Wealth Management in Minneapolis.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 454.01 points, or 1.82 percent, to 24,492.5, the S&P 500 lost 53.57 points, or 1.95 percent, to 2,698.44 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 187.23 points, or 2.5 percent, to 7,294.76.

The stock was set for its worst day since September 2012 and was down about 13 percent from its record high hit on Feb. 1, to put the stock squarely in correction territory, a drop of 10 percent from its high.

The S&P once again fell below its 50-day moving average, seen as a technical support level, for the first time since early March. The Nasdaq came about 2 points from its 50-day before paring losses.

Investors were also cautious ahead of the two-day policy meeting by the U.S. Federal Reserve on Tuesday. The market believes the Fed is set to raise interest rates on Wednesday as Thomson Reuters data shows traders expect a quarter-point hike to be a certainty. Investors are now grappling  with the question of whether an improving economy could lead to more hikes than anticipated.

“Some of the more salient questions investors have is has the tone of the Fed, which this time last year was certainly more skewed towards being dovish, has it now extended to becoming more hawkish?” said Freedman.

Industrials fell 1.45 percent against the backdrop of worries about a global trade war, which are set to dominate a two-day G20 meeting starting later in Argentina.

Selling was broad, with each of the 11 major S&P sectors in the red. The CBOE Volatility index was up 5.48 points at 21.28, in one of its sharpest gains since the market sell-off in February.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 5.73-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 3.73-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Nick Zieminski

 

Your New Facebook ‘Friend’ mght be the FBI

Agents are logging in to exchange messages with suspects and more

by Richard Lardner

AP

WASHINGTON — The Feds are on Facebook. And MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter, too.

U.S. law enforcement agents are following the rest of the Internet world into popular social-networking services, going undercover with false online profiles to communicate with suspects and gather private information, according to an internal Justice Department document that offers a tantalizing glimpse of issues related to privacy and crime-fighting.

Think you know who’s behind that “friend” request? Think again. Your new “friend” just might be the FBI.

The document, obtained in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, makes clear that U.S. agents are already logging on surreptitiously to exchange messages with suspects, identify a target’s friends or relatives and browse private information such as postings, personal photographs and video clips.

Among other purposes: Investigators can check suspects’ alibis by comparing stories told to police with tweets sent at the same time about their whereabouts. Online photos from a suspicious spending spree — people posing with jewelry, guns or fancy cars — can link suspects or their friends to robberies or burglaries.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group, obtained the Justice Department document when it sued the agency and five others in federal court. The 33-page document underscores the importance of social networking sites to U.S. authorities. The foundation said it would publish the document on its Web site on Tuesday.

With agents going undercover, state and local police coordinate their online activities with the Secret Service, FBI and other federal agencies in a strategy known as “deconfliction” to keep out of each other’s way.

“You could really mess up someone’s investigation because you’re investigating the same person and maybe doing things that are counterproductive to what another agency is doing,” said Detective Frank Dannahey of the Rocky Hill, Conn., Police Department, a veteran of dozens of undercover cases.

A decade ago, agents kept watch over AOL and MSN chat rooms to nab sexual predators. But those text-only chat services are old-school compared with today’s social media, which contain mountains of personal data, photographs, videos and audio clips — a potential treasure trove of evidence for cases of violent crime, financial fraud and much more.

The Justice Department document, part of a presentation given in August by top cybercrime officials, describes the value of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and other services to government investigators. It does not describe in detail the boundaries for using them.

“It doesn’t really discuss any mechanisms for accountability or ensuring that government agents use those tools responsibly,” said Marcia Hoffman, a senior attorney with the civil liberties foundation.

The group sued in Washington to force the government to disclose its policies for using social networking sites in investigations, data collection and surveillance.

Covert investigations on social-networking services are legal and governed by internal rules, according to Justice Department officials. But they would not say what those rules are.

The Justice Department document raises a legal question about a social-media bullying case in which U.S. prosecutors charged a Missouri woman with computer fraud for creating a fake MySpace account — effectively the same activity that undercover agents are doing, although for different purposes.

The woman, Lori Drew, helped create an account for a fictitious teen boy on MySpace and sent flirtatious messages to a 13-year-old neighborhood girl in his name. The girl hanged herself in October 2006, in a St. Louis suburb, after she received a message saying the world would be better without her.

A jury in California, where MySpace has its servers, convicted Drew of three misdemeanor counts of accessing computers without authorization because she was accused of violating MySpace’s rules against creating fake accounts. But last year a judge overturned the verdicts, citing the vagueness of the law.

“If agents violate terms of service, is that ‘otherwise illegal activity’?” the document asks. It doesn’t provide an answer.

Facebook’s rules, for example, specify that users “will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.” Twitter’s rules prohibit its users from sending deceptive or false information. MySpace requires that information for accounts be “truthful and accurate.”

A former U.S. cybersecurity prosecutor, Marc Zwillinger, said investigators should be able to go undercover in the online world the same way they do in the real world, even if such conduct is barred by a company’s rules. But there have to be limits, he said.

In the face-to-face world, agents can’t impersonate a suspect’s spouse, child, parent or best friend. But online, behind the guise of a social-networking account, they can.

“This new situation presents a need for careful oversight so that law enforcement does not use social networking to intrude on some of our most personal relationships,” said Zwillinger, whose firm does legal work for Yahoo and MySpace.

Undercover operations aren’t necessary if the suspect is reckless. Federal authorities nabbed a man wanted on bank fraud charges after he started posting Facebook updates about the fun he was having in Mexico.

Maxi Sopo, a native of Cameroon living in the Seattle area, apparently slipped across the border into Mexico in a rented car last year after learning that federal agents were investigating the alleged scheme. The agents initially could find no trace of him on social media sites, and they were unable to pin down his exact location in Mexico. But they kept checking and eventually found Sopo on Facebook.

While Sopo’s online profile was private, his list of friends was not. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Scoville began going through the list and was able to learn where Sopo was living. Mexican authorities arrested Sopo in September. He is awaiting extradition to the U.S.

The Justice document describes how Facebook, MySpace and Twitter have interacted with federal investigators: Facebook is “often cooperative with emergency requests,” the government said. MySpace preserves information about its users indefinitely and even stores data from deleted accounts for one year. But Twitter’s lawyers tell prosecutors they need a warrant or subpoena before the company turns over customer information, the document says.

“Will not preserve data without legal process,” the document says under the heading, “Getting Info From Twitter … the bad news.”

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The chief security officer for MySpace, Hemanshu Nigam, said MySpace doesn’t want to be the company that stands in the way of an investigation.

“That said, we also want to make sure that our users’ privacy is protected and any data that’s disclosed is done under proper legal process,” Nigam said.

MySpace requires a search warrant for private messages less than six months old, according to the company.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said the company has put together a handbook to help law enforcement officials understand “the proper ways to request information from Facebook to aid investigations.”

The Justice document includes sections about its own lawyers. For government attorneys taking cases to trial, social networks are a “valuable source of info on defense witnesses,” they said. “Knowledge is power. … Research all witnesses on social networking sites.”

But the government warned prosecutors to advise their own witnesses not to discuss cases on social media sites and to “think carefully about what they post.”

It also cautioned federal law enforcement officials to think prudently before adding judges or defense counsel as “friends” on these services.

“Social networking and the courtroom can be a dangerous combination,” the government said.

 

Snowden: Facebook a ‘surveillance company’ that collects and sells user data

March 19, 2018

RT

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted Saturday that Facebook is a “surveillance company” that sells its users’ personal details, weighing in on a scandal involving a private firm that harvested data from the social media giant.

“Businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as ‘surveillance companies,’” wrote the former National Security Agency contractor. “Their rebranding as ‘social media’ is the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense.”

Snowden’s sobering observation, which was retweeted more than 30,000 times, comes amid public outcry over the revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a private data analytics firm that worked with President Donald Trump’s election team, had harvested personal information of more than 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge.

Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica’s access to the platform last week, claiming that the company and two individuals who had helped collect the massive data set had misled the social media giant.

“In light of new reports that the data was not destroyed, we are suspending these three parties from Facebook, pending further information,” the company said. “We will take whatever steps are required to see that the data in question is deleted once and for all — and take action against all offending parties.”

Commenting on a New York Times report about the unprecedented data breach, Snowden said it was Facebook, not Cambridge Analytica, that should be held responsible.

“Facebook makes their money by exploiting and selling intimate details about the private lives of millions, far beyond the scant details you voluntarily post. They are not victims. They are accomplices,” he wrote on Twitter.

Facebook insists that Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting methods did not constitute a formal data breach, because users technically consented – via the website’s labyrinthine privacy settings – to having their data mined.

Cambridge Analytica is owned by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and was formerly run by ex- Trump adviser Steve Bannon. The Trump campaign reportedly paid the company $5 million to help target voters.

 

EU, US lawmakers scold Facebook, Trump-linked Cambridge Analytica

Lawmakers in the EU and the US demand answers following reports that a firm harvested data from 50 million Facebook users to influence the US election. Cambridge Analytica reportedly retained illegally obtained data.

March 19, 2018

DW

Politicians in the European Union and the United States have expressed concern about digital privacy after media reported that a consultancy that worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign gained inappropriate access to the personal data of 50 million Facebook users.

On Monday, EU Justice Secretary Vera Jourova called the revelations “horrifying,” saying that she will “seek further clarification from Facebook” when she travels to the US next week.

EU Parliament President Antonio Tajani tweeted that the “European Parliament will investigate fully, calling digital platforms to account.”

In the US, Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota and a member of the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said on Sunday that “it’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves.”

In Britain, Conservative legislator Damian Collins, the head of the parliamentary media committee, said he wanted the social network’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, or another Facebook executive to appear before the body. Collins said the company had “consistently understated” the risk of data leaks and given misleading answers to the committee.

On Monday, a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said the allegations were “very concerning” and that the government expects “Facebook, Cambridge Analytica all the organisations involved to cooperate fully.”

Psychological profiles

Former employee Chris Wylie told several media outlets that UK-based Cambridge Analytica built psychological profiles to target voters with specific election-related content. He told Britain’s Channel 4 news that the company had amassed a huge database very quickly from an app developed by an academic that vacuumed up data from Facebook users who agreed to fill out a survey, but also from their friends and contacts — which many did not know about.

“Imagine I go and ask you: I say, ‘Hey, if I give you $1, $2, could you fill up this survey for me, just do it on this app,’ and you say, ‘Fine,'” Wylie said. “I don’t just capture what your responses are, I capture all of the information about you from Facebook. But also this app then crawls through your social network and captures all of that data also.”

‘Yeah, I’m disturbed’

Though it remains unclear whether the Republican-controlled US Congress intends to act, members of Trump’s party tepidly criticized Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. “We’ll learn more about this in the days to come,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said. “But, yeah, I’m disturbed by that.”

In a statement released on Sunday, Facebook — which has also come under fire in continental Europe for its privacy policies — pledged to conduct a “comprehensive internal and external review” to determine whether the user data in question still exists. Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica’s account after accusing a Cambridge University psychology lecturer of violating policy by lying and passing data on to the firm from an app he had developed.

Cambridge Analytica has denied violating Facebook’s terms, insisting that “no data from GSR [their contractor] as part of the services provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign,” according to a statement.

 

Cambridge Analytica boasts of dirty tricks to swing elections

Bosses tell undercover reporters how honey traps, spies and fake news can be used to help clients

March 19, 2018

by Emma Graham-Harrison and Carole Cadwalladr

The Guardian

The company at the centre of the Facebook data breach boasted of using honey traps, fake news campaigns and operations with ex-spies to swing election campaigns around the world, a new investigation reveals.

Executives from Cambridge Analytica spoke to undercover reporters from Channel 4 News about the dark arts used by the company to help clients, which included entrapping rival candidates in fake bribery stings and hiring prostitutes to seduce them.

In one exchange, the company chief executive, Alexander Nix, is recorded telling reporters: “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed.”

The Channel 4 News investigation, broadcast on Monday, comes two days after the Observer reported Cambridge Analytica had unauthorised access to tens of millions of Facebook profiles in one of the social media company’s biggest data breaches.

The company, and Nix, are under pressure from politicians in the US and the UK to explain how it handled the data and what role the information played in its campaigns, if any.

Cambridge Analytica has sold itself as the ultimate hi-tech consultant, winning votes by using data to pinpoint target groups and design messages that will appeal powerfully to their interests, although it denies using Facebook information in its work.

But in the undercover investigation by Channel 4 News, in association with the Observer, executives claimed to offer a much darker range of services.

In a series of meetings with a reporter posing as a representative of a wealthy Sri Lankan family seeking political influence, Cambridge Analytica executives initially denied the company was in the business of using entrapment techniques.

But Nix later detailed the dirty tricks the company would be prepared to pull behind the scenes to help its clients.

When the reporter asked if Cambridge Analytica could offer investigations into the damaging secrets of rivals, Nix said it worked with former spies from Britain and Israel to look for political dirt. He also volunteered that his team were ready to go further than an investigation.

“Oh, we do a lot more than that,” he said over dinner at an exclusive hotel in London. “Deep digging is interesting, but you know equally effective can be just to go and speak to the incumbents and to offer them a deal that’s too good to be true and make sure that that’s video recorded.

“You know these sort of tactics are very effective, instantly having video evidence of corruption.”

Nix suggested one possible scenario, in which the managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s political division, Mark Turnbull, would pose as a wealthy developer looking to exchange campaign finance for land. “I’m a master of disguise,” Turnbull said.

Another option, Nix suggested, would be to create a sex scandal. “Send some girls around to the candidate’s house, we have lots of history of things,” he told the reporter. “We could bring some Ukrainians in on holiday with us, you know what I’m saying.”

He said these were hypothetical scenarios, but suggested his ideas were based on precedent. “Please don’t pay too much attention to what I’m saying, because I’m just giving you examples of what can be done, what has been done.”

Any work may have stayed out of the spotlight partly because Cambridge Analytica works hard to cover traces of its operations, Nix said, using a shifting network of names and front groups.

“We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows, and I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you,” Nix told the source in a first phone call.

Cambridge Analytica sometimes contracts under a different name, so that there are no records of its involvement, Turnbull said. That does not only protect the company, but also makes its work more efficient, he is recorded saying.

“It has to happen without anyone thinking it’s propaganda, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’ the next question is: ‘Who’s put that out?’”

He added: “It may be that we have to contract under a different name … a different entity, with a different name, so that no record exists with our name attached to this at all.”

In a recent project in eastern Europe, the company sent a team but “no one even knew they were there, they were just ghosted in, did the work, ghosted out”, Turnbull said.

Covers include the setting up of fake academic projects, sometimes simply going in on tourist visas, as former employees have told the Guardian they did for US elections – apparently employed in violation of Federal law.

Nix also offered details regarding the services of professional ex-spies from Britain and Israel. “We have two projects at the moment, which involve doing deep deep depth research on the opposition and providing source … really damaging source material, that we can decide how to deploy in the course of the campaign.”

Cambridge Analytica said the Channel 4 News investigation contained false claims, factual inaccuracies and substantial mischaracterisations.

It accused Channel 4 of setting out to entrap staff by initiating a conversation about unethical practices. It rejected any suggestion that the company used fake news, honey traps, bribes or entrapment.

It said: “We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Anlytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honey-traps’ for any purpose whatsoever … Cambridge Analytica does not use untrue material for any purpose.”

Of the suggestions they used honey trap techniques, the company said: “Our executives humoured these questions and actively encouraged the prospective client to further disclose his intentions.”

On Saturday, Cambridge Analytica denied it had done anything wrong in relation to the handling of Facebook data.

“Cambridge Analytica only receives and uses data that has been obtained legally and fairly. Our robust data protection policies comply with US, international, European Union, and national regulations,” it said.

 

 

 

Officials wanted Florida school shooting suspect forcibly committed in 2016

Documents urged compulsory mental evaluation of Nikolas Cruz

March 18, 2018

AP

Officials were so concerned about the mental stability of the student accused of last month’s Florida school shooting that they decided he should be forcibly committed. The recommendation was never acted upon.

A commitment under the law would have made it more difficult if not impossible for Nikolas Cruz to obtain a gun legally.

Cruz is accused of the shooting rampage that killed 14 students and three school employees at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland on 14 February. In addition, 17 people were wounded.

Documents in the criminal case against Nikolas Cruz obtained by the Associated Press show school officials and a sheriff’s deputy recommended in September 2016 that Cruz be involuntarily committed for a mental evaluation.

The documents show he had written the word “kill” in a notebook, told a classmate he wanted to buy a gun and use it, and had cut his arm supposedly in anger because he had broken up with a girlfriend. He told another student he had drunk gasoline and was throwing up. Calls had even been made to the FBI about the possibility of Cruz using a gun at school.

The documents were provided by Henderson Behavioral Health, a psychological assessment service initiated by Cruz’s mother. The documents show a high school resource officer who was also a sheriff’s deputy and two school counselors recommended in September 2016 that Cruz be committed for mental evaluation under Florida’s Baker Act.

That law allows for involuntary commitment for mental health examination for at least three days.

Such an involuntary commitment would have been a high obstacle if not a complete barrier to legally obtaining a firearm, such as the AR-15 rifle used in the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

There is no evidence Cruz was ever committed. Coincidentally, the school resource officer who recommended that Cruz be “Baker Acted” was Scot Peterson – the Broward sheriff’s office deputy who resigned amid accusations he failed to respond to the shooting by staying outside the building where the killings occurred.

David S Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said an involuntary commitment would have been a huge red flag had Cruz attempted to buy a firearm legally.

“If he had lied, hopefully the verification of the form would have pulled up the commitment paperwork,” Weinstein said.

The documents do not say why Cruz was not committed under the Baker Act or whether he may not have qualified for other reasons. The law allows a law enforcement officer such as Peterson to initiate commitment under the Baker Act.

An attorney for Peterson did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Cruz, 19, is charged in a 34-count indictment with killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in the attack. He faces the death penalty if convicted, but his public defender Melisa McNeill has said he would plead guilty in return for a life prison sentence.

In the Henderson Behavioral Health documents, Cruz’s mother Lynda is quoted as saying she had fresh concerns about her son’s mental state after he punched holes in a wall at their home in Parkland. The clinicians at Henderson came to the home for interviews and said Cruz admitted punching the wall but said he did so because he was upset at a breakup with his girlfriend. Cruz also admitted cutting his arm with a pencil sharpener.

After a 28 September 2016 interview, the documents say, Cruz “reports that he cut his arms 3-4 weeks ago and states that this is the only time he has ever cut. [Cruz] states that he cut because he was lonely, states that he had broken up with his girlfriend and reports that his grades had fallen. [Cruz] states that he is better now, reports that he is no longer lonely and states that his grades have gone back up.”

He also told the clinician he owned only a pellet gun and was not capable of doing “serious harm” to anyone.

Other red flags have also surfaced, including calls to the FBI about Cruz’s potential to become a school shooter and numerous visits by county law enforcement officials to his home – both before his mother died in November and after, when he lived briefly with a family friend in Palm Beach county.

Again, very little was done. It’s not clear from the documents who the recommendation was forwarded to or why it was not followed up.

 

 

The Syrian War Could Still be Raging in Four Years’ Time

March 17, 2018

by Patrick Cockburn

The Independent/UK

“Will the war in Syria ever end?” After seven years of conflict, the same question is being asked by politicians, diplomats, fighters in the front line, and families cowering in unlit basements to escape devastating bombardments from Ghouta to Afrin.

When I asked Aldar Khalil, a top Syrian Kurdish leader whose forces control a quarter of Syria, about the chances of peace in an interview in north-east Syria, he grimly but confidently predicted that the war would go on “for another four years, until a new balance of forces becomes clear”.

We must speak of multiple armed conflicts in Syria rather than a single war so that when one military confrontation gets close to its final chapter, it is swiftly replaced by another. Isis, the greatest threat of 2014 to 2017, is largely eliminated, but the new focus of violence is the escalating struggle between Turkey and the two or three million Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian Army is advancing into Eastern Ghouta and the likelihood is that President Bashar al-Assad will soon have almost complete control of the capital for the first time since 2012. One outcome could be for the rebel fighters to leave with light weapons for opposition or Turkish-held territory in southern and northern Syria, while the bulk of the civilian population would be amnestied and stay where they are. But the Syrian war is littered with compromise solutions which never quite came about because there were too many players to agree on a common course of action.

One siege may be ending in Eastern Ghouta, but another is beginning 200 miles to the north in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. The Turkish army and its Arab auxiliaries describing themselves as the Free Syrian Army, but, going by their own videos much closer to Isis and al-Qaeda, say they have surrounded the city. It will ultimately fall but it is unclear if the 10,000 Kurdish fighters there will fight to the death. If they do make a last stand, then Afrin will join the many other Syrian cities which have been reduced to rubble.

In the sieges of East Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, there was a propaganda advantage to the opposition in holding out for as long as they could because of the international outcry against the Syrian army and government. But foreign states and the international media are largely ignoring atrocities in Afrin that would get wall-to-wall coverage if were happening in Eastern Ghouta.

For the Kurds, there are no good options in Afrin, though it might be better from their point of view not to resist to the bitter end in the hope that this would avoid the city being pounded to pieces, as has happened so often elsewhere.

In Afrin, the Kurds have no foreign allies to come to their rescue as occurred during the famous siege of Kobane by Isis in 2014-2015. The US said that it never had an interest in the enclave and the Russians, whose planes and anti-aircraft missiles control the skies over north-west Syria, have evidently agreed that Turkey should take Afrin. The reasons behind this decision illustrate how great power rivalries are fuelling the war in Syria and stop it coming to an end.

Advantages for the Russians include bringing Turkey into permanent conflict with the US, which is allied to the Kurds in the great swathe of territory they control thanks to US backing east of the Euphrates River. The Russians may also want to teach the Kurds a lesson for putting all their eggs in the American basket, not that the Kurds have much choice. They cannot hope to defend the open plains of north east Syria without the threat of a devastating air strike by the US.

The Kurds have a well-developed sense of victimhood and live in fear of once more being betrayed by their great power allies. But, for good self-interested reasons that have little to do with US gratitude to the Kurds for their role in the defeat of Isis, Washington is unlikely to run away from its alliance with the Kurds, at least for the moment. The US needs them as a force on the ground to back up its air power if it is to remain a player in Syria. The alternative is to accept a Russian victory in the country. As the last seven years have shown, the only possible force capable of fulfilling this role is the Kurdish YPG.

The Russians, for their part, know that it was their military intervention in Syria which in a single stroke restored their status as a superpower or something like it, a position they had lost when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. When the Syrian crisis first exploded in 2011, a senior Iraqi official asked an American general what was so different between the situation in Libya, where Gaddafi had just been ousted and killed, and that in Syria. The general replied in a short succinct sentence, saying that in Syria “Russia is back”.

The rivalry of great and regional powers is fuelling the Syrian wars and preventing them coming to an end. But, paradoxically, the US and Russia also present the best chance of bringing these savage conflicts to an end. They alone are the heavy hitters with enough political and military muscle to push the regional and local players towards a compromise peace.

But we have not reached that stage yet when everybody feels there is nothing left to fight for and clear winners and losers have emerged on the battlefield. It is true that some issues have been decided: President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power and he already controls about 12 million of the 16 million Syrians still in the country. After recapturing Eastern Ghouta, he will control all of Damascus and Aleppo as well as almost all the other cities. He may well feel that he is on his way to achieving his ambition to retake the whole of Syria, however long it may take.

But control of the great powers is not absolute: commentators often mistakenly imagine that local proxies in Syria and Iraq are more obedient to their sponsors than they really are. This can be true when the proxies are under intense political or military pressure, but otherwise they resent too close compliance to the orders of their outside backers whose interests frequently diverge from their own. To adapt the American definition of statesman – “a statesman is a politician who stays bought” – no party in Syria and Iraq stays bought, if they can possibly avoid it.

It is easy to describe the wars in Syria in terms realpolitik, but it is wrong to believe that the ongoing turmoil can be controlled by anybody. The players and wildcards are too many for this to happen. Syria is often described as “a quagmire”, but it is more useful to picture it as a great poisonous stew in which the ingredients are contending sects, ethnicities and foreign powers that continually produce new and lethal combinations. In these circumstances, Aldar Khalil’s forecast of another four years of war begins to sound almost optimistic.

 

 

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