[Plura-list] Contextual ads can save media; GE's billion dollar tax-fraud; Qanon is an ARG

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed Aug 5 15:15:26 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Contextual ads can save media: Behavioral ads aren't just creepy,
they're a scam

* GE's billion dollar tax-fraud: "Financial engineering" is a euphemism
for doing crimes.

* Qanon is an ARG: "I'm a researcher."

* Cori Bush triumphs in Missouri: Ferguson uprising continues by another

* Trump wants to force you to invest in failing fossil fuel companies:
Big Oil sure loves Big Gubmint.

* Qanon is magical thinking: Satanic Panic 2.0.

* This day in history: 2015, 2019

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading


👫 Contextual ads can save media

The mainstay of online advertising is "behavioral advertising" in which
ads are placed based on dossiers of your activity and preferences that
have been compiled by Big Tech giants and shadowy data-brokers.

The cornerstone of behavioral advertising is "real-time auctions": when
you request a web-page, its publisher fetches your cookie, correlates
that with your identity in multiple databases, then offers the chance to
advertise to you to several (dozens, sometimes more) brokers.

That's how you end up with creepy, "retargeted" ads that follow you
around the web after you search for a specific kind of information, say,
on erectile dysfunction: you get a tag called "person interested in
boners" and that attracts bids from boner-pill vendors.

All of that is reasonably well-known, as are the surveillance
consequences of it. But what's less well-known, and just as important,
is what happens to the *losers* of the realtime auctions when you visit
a site.

Say you visit the Washington Post. Dozens of brokers bid on the chance
to advertise to you. All but one of them loses the auction. But every
one of those losers gets to add a tag to its dossier on you: "Washington
Post reader."

Advertising on the Washington Post is expensive. "Washington Post
reader" is a valuable category unto itself: a lot of blue-chip firms
will draw up marketing plans that say, "Make sure we tell Washington
Post readers about this product!"

Here's the thing: the companies want to advertise to Washington Post
*readers*, but they don't care about advertising *in the Washington
Post*. And now there are dozens of auction "losers" who can sell the
right to advertise to you, as a Post reader, when you visit cheaper sites.

When you click through one of those dreadful "Here's 22 reasons to put a
rubber band on your hotel room's door handle" websites, every one of
those 22 pages can be sold to advertisers who want to reach Post
readers, at a fraction of what the Post charges.

Every website that includes behavioral advertising realtime auctions is
slowly eroding its own rate-card, making it possible to target its
readers somewhere else.

When we talk about the death of "display advertising" (where, say, Ford
buys a month of banners on a site), we correctly blame behavioral ads,
but the story we tell about those ads is wrong.

It usually goes, "Ford has figured out how to target car-shoppers
without paying top dollar to prestige venues like the Washington Post."
But what's ALSO happening is "Ford has figured out how to advertise to
Washington Post readers without paying Washington Post rates."

Behavioral ads grew up with Big Tech and its mass surveillance.
Data-brokers make crazy claims for how well their targeting works in
"conversions" - that is, turning ads into sales. But these are obviously
self-serving claims.

The ad industry's core competency isn't selling advertisers' products to
consumers: it's selling advertising services to advertisers. Moving
product is a good way to do that, but so is bullshitting in ways that
drive up payments.

Meanwhile, there is another method for placing ads, one that is
decidedly technologically enabled, unique to the digital world, with
fewer middle-men skimming the cream and no erosion of your rate-card:
Contextual advertising.

That's when publishers sell off the right to advertise to you based on
the subject of the article you're reading, your location (based on your
IP address) and other metadata, like which browser and OS you're using.

Contextual advertising converts at very nearly the same rate as
behavioral advertising, and just as well as behavioral ads for some
categories of goods and services:


And - once again - any short-term losses from contextual ads are more
than offset by averting the  long-term death-spiral of by behavioral
ads, in which parasites chase the cheapest possible content, earning ad
revenues by targeting readers of better publications.

Contextual ads are gaining ground, thanks, in part, to laws like the
GDPR, which have simultaneously made it harder to do behavioral
advertising, *and* imposed compliance burdens that wiped out most of
Europe's smaller ad-tech firms, leaving US tech giants in control.

Last year, the New York Times ditched most of its programmatic
behavioral ads:


Now, the Netherlands's public broadcaster NPO has done the same,
ditching Google Ad Manager for a new custom contextual ad system it
commissioned from the Dutch company Ortec.


They've since experimented with major advertisers like Amex and found
little to no difference between context ads and behavioral ads when it
comes to conversions.

And, thanks to the GDPR (which requires affirmative opt-in for behvioral
ads), these context ads reach far more readers. The result is a massive
increase in revenues: up 62% in Jan and 79% in Feb, year-on-year.

And they're keeping that money, rather than giving a 50% vig to useless,
creepy, spying ad-tech middlemen.

Ads often pay the bills of the people who make the things you love. But
ad-tech? That pays the bills of the people who are destroying the things
you love.

Technologies like EFF's Privacy Badger block trackers (protecting your
privacy and publications' rate-cards), but not ads (provided they don't
track). Ultimately, this needs systemic, not individual solutions (a US
federal privacy bill with a private right of action!).

But while we're waiting for a systemic solution, Privacy Badger and
other tracker-blockers can help weight the scales in favor of context
ads instead of behavioral ones.


👫 GE's billion dollar tax-fraud

HMRC, the UK tax authority, has accused General Electric of a $1b tax
fraud, implicating GE's former top tax exec Will Morris, who got a 2012
HMRC award for "informing the public debate on large business and
condemning tax evasion and abusive tax arrangements with no commercial

It's one of the largest tax-fraud lawsuits in world history,  and it
implicates a suite of enablers: PWC (already mired in scandal) and the
legendary City law firm Slaughter and May.

(Morris took his HRMC trophy and went to work for PWC!)


HMRC says that in 2005, GE pretended it was sloshing $1b through
Australia, the US and the UK in order to invest it in Australia, but it
was really triple-dipping, taking advantage of tax loopholes in all
three countries.

HMRC has asked the UK High Court to annul its 2005 agreement with GE,
based on information it received in 2018 that led the agency to believe
GE had lied to it: full minutes from a GE board meeting where top execs
reveal their fraudulent intent.

"GE had borrowed $3.8bn from an unnamed US bank that — over just four
days — were moved between its operations in the US, Luxembourg, the UK
and Australia, before being returned to the same bank."

GE denies it all. It says that its decision to only offer some of the
board meeting minutes (omitting the damning part) in 2005 was not a
"material omission."

The case is scheduled for trial in Oct 2021.


👫 Qanon is an ARG

The Qanon phenomenon is many things: for one thing, it's a grift. Q's
top spokesgargoyles earn small fortunes in ad revenue, crowdfunding and


But it's also an Alternate Reality Game: an intense interactive mystery
narrative that is collaboratively designed by its players, who create
theories to explain the mystery, which get adopted by the "game masters"
and integrated into the tale.

One of the world's foremost ARG designers is Six to Start's Adrian Hon,
who wrote a long article on how ARG-like elements supercharge cults like
Qanon. Whatever else Qanon is for its members, it's also *fun*.


"QAnon pushes the same buttons that ARGs do, whether by intention or by
coincidence. In both cases, 'do your research' leads curious onlookers
to a cornucopia of brain-tingling information."

ARGs involve fiendish puzzles that must be solved with pattern-matching
and intense research. Sometimes players can't solve the puzzles, or
their solutions are wrong -- but really cool. ARG runners
("puppetmasters") (no, really) revise the game in realtime based on players.

This is what cult members do when their own predictions and solutions
misfire, turning every failed prophecy into an opportunity for new
theory-spinning, a new prophecy whose creator gets lionized (and, maybe,
paid) for their creativity.

Anthropologists who interview Qanon cultists say they self-report
pleasure from writing "Qanon stories" after their kids go to bed. These
stories gain status for their authors in intense, socially important
online communities.

ARGs are showcases for the unrecognized storytelling and puzzle-solving
talents of their players - and so is Q, a vast improv theater where your
ability to connect disparate, unrelated events with narrative threads
wins enormous social capital.

A game that is a pleasure and positive for its players when it's
fictional turns into a destructive cult when it's treated as real. It's
the difference between playing The Beast and Reddit's Boston Bomber
thread, which led to false terrorism accusations against innocents.

Hon elaborated on his essay in a New York Times interview with Charlie
Warzel, especially the mantra "This is not a game," a phrase that gained
currency in the writing for (duh) a game, Microsoft's "The Beast."


Hon also identifies social media's upvote/downvote tools as a Darwinian
winnower for Q theories, a way to surface the most intriguing and
rewarding fantasies, as a force-multiplier for conspiracism.

Most importantly, Hon theorizes that Q is a playbook that others will
copy to target and recruit vulnerable, traumatized people into future cults.


👫 Cori Bush triumphs in Missouri

The insurgent Justice Democrat Cori Bush has won a primary race in St
Louis, MO, against Lacy Clay, the son of the cofounder of the
Congressional Black Caucus. Between them, father and son Clay held the
seat for more than 50 years.


Bush is a perfect Justice Democrat: a young (44), working class (nurse),
activist (she was a founder of the Ferguson uprising) candidate who got
AOC's endorsement in 2018 and Sanders's in 2020, and outraised her
opponent with small-dollar contributions.

Her platform planks include Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and
defunding the police. She was backed by Sunrise and Matriarch,"a new
organization that backs working-class women running for office."

And she was featured in Netflix's documentary about Justice Democrats,
"Knock Down the House," alongside AOC, Tlaib, Pressley and Omar.

The victory is part of a wave of primary challenges to long-term
incumbent Democrats who promoted finance-friendly policies including
Eliot Engel and Dan Lipinski.

Clay was attacked by the Fight Corporate Monopolies dark money group for
his role in killing Obama's Fiduciary Rule, which required financial
advisors to act in their clients' interests. Now advisors can recommend
products that will enrich them, rather than their clients.

Fight Corporate Monopolies is also backing a primary challenger against
Mass Congressman Richie Neal, who cosponsored a bill protecting private
equity funds that use "surprise billing" to gouge emergency room patients.


Bush's victory was a squeaker, in part because of tepid support from AOC
and other squad members who'd backed her in 2018.

Writing in The Intercept, Ryan Grim attributes this to concern among
Justice Democrats that challenges to Congressional Black Caucus members
- even when the challengers are also Black - are cast as racist.


👫 Trump wants to force you to invest in failing fossil fuel companies

If you talk to capitalism's True Believers, they'll tell you that the
magic of "free markets" is their power to aggregate vast quantities of
information about the value of products encoded in the purchasing
choices of consumers.

But capitalism's support for free markets is highly selective:
capitalists love monopolies, where purchasers are deprived of choices.
They love monopsonies, where workers are deprived of choices. And they
love regulation, when regulation forces us to buy their stuff.

Enter the Trump administration, which is poised to make it nearly
impossible for you to invest your 401k pension savings in
"Environmental, Social, and Governance" (ESG) funds that guarantee you
won't be supporting the fossil fuel industry.


The rule was ghostwritten by Koch-funded thinktanks and has the backing
of powerful, hydrocarbon-funded wreckers like the National Assoc of
Manufacturers, the North American Coal Company and the Western Energy

Here's how Western Energy describes the case for forcing us to invest
our pension savings in fossil fuels: "ESG advocacy has negatively
affected the industry’s access to capital over the last few years...

"The rule will help ensure that activism regarding pension plans does
not morph into a halt to investment in the sector that provides nearly
70 percent of American energy."

Here's David Sirota's translation:  "the climate movement's push to
shift investors’ money out of fossil fuel assets and into renewables has
been too successful, and so polluters are asking the government to
intervene with a special rule to staunch the bleeding."

Trump's buying it: his SEC will *not* force companies to disclose their
climate risk exposure, making it much harder for you to figure out
whether your investments are in companies that are rendering the planet
unfit for human habitation.

And *that* means that your fund manager will be violating their
fiduciary duty to you to seek the best returns by seeking out
non-fossil-fuel investments, and thus will be violating securities law.

(Ironically, the same forces that back this proposal, also killed
Obama's "fiduciary rule" for investment advisors, freeing them to line
their pockets with commissions from recommending unsuitable products to you)

As Sirota points out, forcing fund managers to put your money into the
fossil fuel industry is hardly a gift to retirement savers: the industry
is in serious trouble, and will never, ever recover.


👫 Qanon is magical thinking

For years, Kirby Ferguson's "Everything is a Remix" video series has
traced the links between beloved contemporary art and largely forgotten
historical roots, making the case that culture is accretive, and
originality is just hiding your influences.

In a new video, "Trump, QAnon and The Return of Magic," Ferguson makes a
compelling case that Qanon is a remix of the age old trap of magical
thinking: "the belief that one's ideas, thoughts or wishes can influence
the world's course of events."


Moreover, it's a specific, conservative form of magical thinking,
grounded in obsessions with purity and protecting innocents: hence the
centrality of child-trafficking rings to Q's mythology.

This is a recurring motif in paranoid, right-wing fantasies: Ferguson
makes the connection between Q and the 1980s' "satanic panic" and the
widespread delusion that satanic cults were kidnapping, raping and
murdering babies.

But while the satanic panic merely ruined the lives of the falsely
accused, Q is part of a growing conspiratorial belief pattern that
elected a president who is on a path to slaughter hundreds of thousands
of Americans due to epidemiological ineptitude and racism.

Ferguson poses the current political struggle as a fight between
"magical thinkers" and "evidence seekers", with the former being more
concerned with feeling better than with discovering the truth.

Magical thinking is a kind of metastasis of pattern-matching, the
apopheniac's curse of seeing connections in coincidences, or
manufacturing connections in unrelated phenomena that feel right ("I
listen to my gut").

In a world of great crisis - pandemic, climate inequality - it's not
crazy to want to feel better. For all that magical thinkers cloak
themselves in "skepticism" their beliefs are grounded in feelings.
Evidence is tedious and ambiguous, emotions are quick and satisfying.

Ferguson identifies six hallmarks of magical thinking:

I. Symbols and codes: Choose a simple enough symbol (a triangle!) and
it'll show up everywhere. And wherever you can't find a symbol, you can
asset that you're being confounded by a code.

*Anything* can be a code (think of Pizzagate). It's impossible to prove
to a motivated reasoner that you're NOT speaking in code.

II. Dot connecting: Instead of spotting patterns in individual items,
you assert that things that repeat, or happen near each other, or at the
same time, must be related. Of course, you get to ignore anything that
doesn't fit the pattern.

This is the origin of superstitions: the ballplayer who gets two hits in
a row while wearing the same underwear "connects the dots" and now
they're his lucky underwear.

III. Everything is a person: Personifying inanimate objects is a natural
impulse, the basis for all religion, and may explain the overlap of
conspiracism and religious faith. The conspiracist personifies all
phenomena by asking "who benefits?"

Eg: "Canada benefited from WWII when the EU's industrial capacity was
destroyed, thus Canada started WWII."

IV: Purity: a long obsession of the right, the need to defend innocence
from "contamination and contagion" (think of how often Trump uses "sick"
as a pejorative).

Magical thinkers assert that any kind of dark, imaginative art - horror
novels, heavy metal - is motivated by a love of evil, not a desire to
rehearse crisis as a way to prepare yourself to live through it (though
they give the super-dark Bible a pass).

V. Apocalypse: a belief in a coming final battle - a way to feel like
you are alive in a moment of historical significance.

VI. Good and Evil: The belief that you are motivated by beneficial
motives, and your enemies are motivated by wickedness - so everything
your side does is good, and everything your adversaries do is bad.

Thus the obsession with abortion and "saving babies" but the
indifference to kids in cages; the obsession with fighting tyranny and
the indifference to police violence.

Ferguson ends by suggesting that the rise of magical thinking is the
confluence of a rise in trauma and fear, a decline in education and thus
the ability to understand the world, and the normal baseline proclivity
of some people to prefer neat answers to messy ones.

He suggests that "evidence seekers" dispense with rational arguments in
discussions with their magical thinking loved ones, and focus instead on
speaking their language: symbols, connected dots, personalizing,
highlighting the sacred, and the significance of this moment.

And he says that the systemic answers to this are an emphasis on
scientific education and on the provision of services that make people
less frightened by making them more secure.

Ferguson has a feature-length documentary on the subject, "This is Not a


I like Ferguson's analysis here, though I'm not fond of explanations
that lean on the imagined social conditions of our prehistorical
ancestors, whose lives are almost entirely unknown and unknowable to us.

I also think this could benefit from exploring the business model of


and the extent to which it provides both fun and community to the people
who practice it:



👫 This day in history

#5yrsago Germany's top prosecutor fired for bringing "treason" charge
against Netzpolitik

#5yrsago Elizabeth Warren rescues Planned Parenthood, excoriates
misogynist GOP creeps https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeilHs9kZ2g

#5yrsago India's porn ban collapses in less than 48 hours

#5yrsago Parenting and the Internet: the smarter, missing third way

#5yrsago The only furniture you need is a single smooth stone that
reminds you of your mother

#1yrago 'IBM PC Compatible': How Adversarial Interoperability Saved PCs
From Monopolization

#1yrago From Tiananmen to Occupy Central to the Umbrella Movement to
today's General Strike: understanding the Hong Kong uprising

#1yrago 46% of Scots want to separate from the UK; 43% want to remain


👫 Colophon

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism
(https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/), David Sirota
(https://twitter.com/davidsirota), Kirby Ferguson

Currently writing:

* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 583 words (45555 total).

Currently reading: The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 12),

Upcoming appearances:

* Virtual event with Christopher Brown for his novel "Failed State," Aug

* Induction into the CSFFA Hall of Fame, Aug 15,

Latest book:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

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*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

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