As I return from an event I was invited to I have to reflect on, and admit, how profoundly…weird…it is that stuff I write about and the activities in which I’m engaged increasingly influence the course of justice in my county. How weird it is that the leader of my country is briefed on the work that I and my colleagues write about. How it feels epically strange that things which seem to have no impact on public debate whatsoever reverberate behind closed doors. It’s just really, really weird to know that people who are intrinsically involved with law, security, and justice — to say nothing of policy and politics — closely watch what I do, with the intent of using it when making decisions that may affect the lives of people across Canada, and around the world.

When I was doing my PhD I laughed out loud at my colleagues who spoke of how the work of political scientists can lead to exceptional impacts in the worlds. As a philosopher I thought such conversations were borne of a group of people who took themselves too seriously in their (ongoing) moments of hubris. But I get it now: that which we say, when we’re deliberately involved with public debate with an eye to inform (if not influence) policy can have unexpected and exciting and unintended impacts on the lives of millions of people. And in living this reality I have remarkably more sympathy for those who’s work isn’t just read and taken up, but misread and subsequently misappropriated to justify governmental activities that the political scientists in question might not have anticipated or endorsed.


The Dangers of Policy Learning

Via the New York Times:

Seizing on immigration as the cause of countless social and economic problems, Mr. Trump entered office with an agenda of symbolic but incompletely thought-out goals, the product not of rigorous policy debate but of emotionally charged personal interactions and an instinct for tapping into the nativist views of white working-class Americans.

Donald Trump isn’t so much tapping into ‘nativist’ views as, instead, exploiting citizens’ unawareness of the benefits of both immigration and trade. Immigrants contribute to the tax base, take less time off, and their direct descendants also contribute more to the tax base than ‘long-term’ citizens. Immigration is a net gain for ‘regular’ American workers but they haven’t been told just how, and why, their own lives and the social benefits they draw on are significantly improved by immigration into America.

Even as the administration was engaged in a court battle over the travel ban, it began to turn its attention to another way of tightening the border — by limiting the number of refugees admitted each year to the United States. And if there was one “deep state” stronghold of Obama holdovers that Mr. Trump and his allies suspected of undermining them on immigration, it was the State Department, which administers the refugee program.

The State Department is a core centre of American soft power; it’s programs, educational efforts, international outreach, and more are responsible for spreading American values around the world.1 That the administration is hollowing out the department is the truest evidence that the Trump administration is unaware of how, and why, America has managed to maintain its position in the world. While American military might is significantly responsible for the development and maintenance of its imperial stature in the world, this stature is solidified and extended through an adoption of American values. Such values are more than those associated with the military; they’re linked with those spread by staff from State who promote American values in more formal diplomatic efforts as well as the other range of activities undertaken by consular and embassy staff throughout the world.

It is incredibly hard to believe that the Trump administration is barely one year into a four year term. Given the lasting damage the administration has already done to America’s ability to project power around the world, it’s hard to imagine just what America’s stature will be in a few more years. But what’s most significant is that his administration has learned so quickly how to engage in the deliberate hollowing out of the institutions which have long been hallowed to Americans. This kind of learning is indicative that the administration might be successful on more of its more outrageous campaign promises, promises which are being supported by the Congress and Senate, and thus indicative of a broader series of values (or lack thereof) which are held by many American politicians.

  1. In the interests in disclosure: I will personally be enrolled in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in the coming fall.

This dark concept of total distrust was mostly spread via the Internet because it was what the Internet was built for—sharing ideas. Although the Internet is the most democratic means of communicating, it can be also be misused by governments and other groups.

Does this mean we should accept the concept that the Internet carries more threats than benefits?

The creators of the Internet supported the opposite concept. Unlike Putin, they believed in people and built the global network under the assumption that it would be used for sharing something good. They may look naïve these days, but we have our modern linked-up technological world thanks to their concepts, not Putin’s. These days, we all speak the language of suspicion and threats posed by the Internet. In a way, in means we are speaking Kremlin’s language. Do we really need to?


Apathy is Political

On Sidney Crosby’s visit with the Penguins to the Trump White House:

Apathetic white people who groan when athletes of colour get political, or who suggest as Crosby did that politics and sports do not mix, are in need of a reminder that for most, political activism isn’t a choice or a hobby. People don’t usually consider it fun or interesting to put their jobs on the line to speak out against a bigger power. The marginalized do not go looking for politics. It seeks them out. In this context, it sought them out when the President of the United States openly flirted with a racist ideology that would very much like to destroy them.



The Dangers of Political ‘Marketing’

‘Politics’ by Samuel Thorne (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) at

From n+1:

Given that some of the major players involved in Trump’s campaign effort have obsessions with war tactics and strategy, it’s easy to imagine that weaponized targeting may not only be a pre-election phenomenon. Such efforts could be employed as part of an ongoing campaign to weaken any resistance to the Trump Administration and thwart political opposition through ratcheting up in-fighting and splintering. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that the infrastructure of mass consumer surveillance enables new kinds of actors to take up the work of COINTELPRO on a mass scale. Former Cambridge Analytica employees have said the company internally discusses their operations as psychological warfare.

Cambridge Analytica may not be alone in pursuing these types of psychological warfare tactics. In response to the recent revelations of Russian-bought Facebook ads, Senator Mark Warner told the Washington Post that the aim of the ads was “to sow chaos.” Yet, rather than promoting general chaos, some ads may have been specifically designed to fuel infighting among the Trump opposition. Earlier this year, The Intercept showed that TigerSwan, a shady mercenary firm hired by Energy Transfer Partners to combat communities opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, used knowledge gleaned from surveillance as part of their own strategy to splinter their opponents. A leaked TigerSwan document declared, “Exploitation of ongoing native versus non-native rifts, and tribal rifts between peaceful and violent elements is critical in our effort to delegitimize the anti-DAPL movement.”

What our current digital environment affords are opportunities for efficient, large-scale use of such tactics, which can be refined by data-rich feedback loops. Manipulation campaigns can plug into the commercial surveillance infrastructure and draw on lessons of behavioral science. They can use testing to refine strategies that take account of the personal traits of targets and identify interventions that may be most potent. This might mean identifying marginal participants, let’s say for joining a march or boycott, and zeroing in on interventions to dissuade them from taking action. Even more worrisomely, such targeting could try to push potential allies in different directions. Targets predicted to have more radical inklings could be pushed toward radical tactics and fed stories deriding compromise with liberal allies. Simultaneously, those predicted to have more liberal sympathies may be fed stories that hype fears about radical takeover of the resistance. Such campaigns would likely play off divisions along race, gender, issue-specific priorities, and other lines of identity and affinity.

We’re reaching the pinnacle of what online advertising can do: identify persons of interest, separate specific persons from others to discretely target them, and motivate targets to change their emotional states and act based on those states. It’s bad enough this is done to push products but, now, the same activities are seeping into the political systems and damaging democratic undertakings in the process. Such activity has to be regulated, if not stopped entirely.


On Minimum Sentences in Canada

Michael Spratt writes:

The evidence on the lack of effectiveness and costs of minimum sentence is clear. In 2016, Wilson-Raybould said that minimum sentences were a priority. After almost a year of inaction, that priority is manifest in a concern about public opinion?

But perhaps this should not be a surprise given that in 2016 The Canadian Press reported that the Liberals were eyeing a “politically viable strategy” to bring changes to minimum sentences.

After a decade of ideological criminal justice policy at the hands of the Harper government, swift and principled action is imperative. Inaction means unjust court results, less safe streets, increased court delays and ballooning costs.

Minimum sentences represent the lowest-hanging fruit for meaningful justice reform. Their counterproductive and negative impacts are well documented.

This is not a matter for debate. The solutions are known and uncomplicated.

All we need now is a justice minister with the principle and conviction to take action. Unfortunately, it seems that piece is still missing.

I heartily agree: these types of sentencing rules must be abolished and discretion returned to the bench.


The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.

As the year draws to a close, it now seems possible that there will be multiple investigations of the Russian hacking — the intelligence review Mr. Obama has ordered completed by Jan. 20, the day he leaves office, and one or more congressional inquiries. They will wrestle with, among other things, Mr. Putin’s motive.

Did he seek to mar the brand of American democracy, to forestall anti-Russian activism for both Russians and their neighbors? Or to weaken the next American president, since presumably Mr. Putin had no reason to doubt American forecasts that Mrs. Clinton would win easily? Or was it, as the C.I.A. concluded last month, a deliberate attempt to elect Mr. Trump?

In fact, the Russian hack-and-dox scheme accomplished all three goals.

This is an absolutely brilliant piece of journalism by Harris, Singer, and Shane. It unpacks the publicly available information about the intrusions into the Democratic National Committee’s systems and how information was subsequently mobilized and weaponized. These sorts of attacks will continue to be effective because all it takes is a single failure on the part of defenders, often in the face of hundreds or thousands of discrete attacks. As a result the remediation process is, today, arguably the most important of a cyber-security event because a dedicated and resourced attacker will eventually penetrate even the best secured networking infrastructure. And the Democratic National Committee, and Democratic Party more generally, still lacks a remediation policy months after the attacks.