Maybe gamergate is winning

Loyal readers will remember I wrote a think piece arguing that gamergate—the loose grouping of internet gamers seen by its critics as misogynistic and by its advocates as a campaign for ethics in gaming journalism—would lose its battle against the social justice warriors (SJWs) who largely run the media, particularly games journalism. This might still be true, but a piece from Ed West at the Spectator makes me much less sure of my argument.

Ed points out that gamergate—where the gamer masses are using letter-writing campaigns to get advertisers to drop support for websites like Gawker—is only the latest in a string of social justice setbacks include the Lord Freud ‘scandal’ and the bid to get David Cameron to wear a feminist t-shirt.

What has happened to social justice warriors recently? Every campaign seems to fail, the latest being a cack-handed attempt to police Twitter in order to win the Gamergate saga (turn to p194 for details). Gamergate is one of those things that a couple of years ago would have been resolved quickly, going into the narrative as part of the great struggle against the ‘isms’. Instead it goes on and on, and SJWs seem to be losing the battle.

He reckons that the ongoing decline of traditional news sources is giving the SJWs less of a grip on the organs of opinion-formation, democratising opinion across the internet. I’m not so sure, indeed I think the internet is rather a boon to the more virulent strains of modern social justice talk. What’s more, if we really are seeing a turning point in the culture war, the small changes in internet access over the past couple of years aren’t going to be able to explain it.

But I do think he has a good point about the changes of the past 20 years:

Compare the situation today with that of 20 years ago, during the greatest social justice warrior victory of all, the controversy over The Bell Curve – a big event in American and by default British cultural life. While the scientific community said one thing about Charley Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book on intelligence, the political-media elite said another, and the public followed the latter’s lead. If The Bell Curve was published today it would be much harder for the modern-day Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to attack it.

The Bell Curve ‘war’ was an important issue in itself – as an opportunity to counter America’s growing inequality was lost. But it was also significant because it confirmed the idea that anyone who came to a controversial conclusion (in this case supposedly ‘racist’) could be ostracised, name-called and in the current parlance ‘shown the door’. That sort of ideologically-justified bullying is a key tactic of the social justice warrior movement, but when exposed as such can work against them. The nice left, after all, don’t like to be seen siding with self-appointed policemen of debate.

I recommend reading the whole thing.

Does Rupert Murdoch vet his papers’ film reviews?

Media conglomerates often own newspapers and other media, while also making films, releasing music, publishing books and so on. Unsurprisingly, they are often accused of pressuring their news media to review these entertainment media more favourably than they otherwise would, and this suspicion seems quite reasonable at first blush. But a new paper finds no evidence that this is true at all for movies.

“Does Media Concentration Lead to Biased Coverage? Evidence from Movie Reviews” by economists Stefano DellaVigna and Johannes Hermle say there is not even evidence of a tiny effect and suggest this means reputational effects are very important for newspapers:

Media companies have become increasingly concentrated. But is this consolidation without cost for the quality of information? Conglomerates generate a conflict of interest: a media outlet can bias its coverage to benefit companies in the same group. We test for bias by examining movie reviews by media outlets owned by News Corp.–such as the Wall Street Journal–and by Time Warner–such as Time. We use a matching procedure to disentangle bias due to conflict of interest from correlated tastes. We find no evidence of bias in the reviews for 20th Century Fox movies in the News Corp. outlets, nor for the reviews of Warner Bros. movies in the Time Warner outlets. We can reject even small effects, such as biasing the review by one extra star (our of four) every 13 movies. We test for differential bias when the return to bias is plausibly higher, examine bias by media outlet and by journalist, as well as editorial bias. We also consider bias by omission: whether the media at conflict of interest are more likely to review highly-rated movies by affiliated studios. In none of these dimensions we find systematic evidence of bias. Lastly, we document that conflict of interest within a movie aggregator does not lead to bias either. We conclude that media reputation in this competitive industry acts as a powerful disciplining force.

The whole thing is very clear in a chart—newspapers owned by News Corp are about as positive about Fox films as those owned by Time Warner (and vice versa). So much for media bias, eh!

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Don’t be so swift to criticise streaming

The big news in the entertainment world this week is that Taylor Swift was never (ever, ever) really that much of a fan of Spotify, and as her album 1989 takes worldwide charts by storm, she’s taken her entire back catalogue off the music streaming service. She explains :

…everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment. And I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.

If Spotify is a ‘grand experiment’, it’s one with everyone’s attention. Its ‘freemium’ model yields 50m active users and 12.5m paid up subscribers, and Spotify royalties have recently overtaken iTunes download earnings in Europe. Other companies want in, too. Apple have recently acquired Beats in an move to host a streaming service of their own, whilst both SoundCloud and YouTube have announced plans for a premium subscription service. Streaming accounts for an ever-increasing proportion of music revenue, with consumers increasingly choosing access to a wide range of music over the ownership of specific albums or tracks.

The CEO of Spotify Daniel Ek has responded to Taylor’s commercial-cum-ethical decision, taking pains to cast Spotify as the enemy of piracy and champion of artists. It’s well worth a read, but what’s interesting is the blame he levels at the wider music industry in response to Taylor’s claim that streaming fails to fairly compensate artists:

The music industry is changing – and we’re proud of our part in that change – but lots of problems that have plagued the industry since its inception continue to exist. As I said, we’ve already paid more than $2 billion in royalties to the music industry and if that money is not flowing to the creative community in a timely and transparent way, that’s a big problem.

Around 70% of Spotify’s revenue goes straight to the rights holders of the music they stream in the form of royalties, and these rights are invariably held by an artist’s record company. On average, record labels keep 46% of CD sale revenue, and 68% of download revenue. Creators receive around 9% and 8% of this revenue respectively. (Gowers Review, p.51)

At major labels at least, artists seem to receive a similar proportion of streaming royalties (and are allegedly victim to a few dirty legal tricks along the way). In addition to royalties, many labels demand advance minimum payments which can vastly exceed the actual royalties actually generated by plays, with no guarantee that artists will see any of this surplus. So whilst Spotify might pay out three to four thousand dollars for 500,000 streams, an artist might see less than 10% of that.

Of course, money isn’t really the issue for Taylor Swift, who can easily afford to take her music off of the streaming service; whilst her entire catalogue was on track to generate $6m in royalties this year, 1989 made around $12m in sales in its first week. For large artists, removing music from sites before a release or holding off streaming for a couple of months could make fantastic business sense.

But money is an issue for the majority of artists, and it’s reasonable to critique what income they receive from streaming. Though some like Swift, David Byrne and Thom Yorke attack streaming for what they consider meagre payouts per play, they’d be better off focusing their attention not on the upstart ‘disrupter’, but the entrenched music industry which Spotify claims it is actively trying to save.

Spotify certainly has a challenge there. The size of the streaming industry is currently nowhere near big enough to compensate for the long-term decline in physical (and now digital) sales. And whilst it is growing rapidly, Spotify is yet to turn a profit in its 6 year history. This is largely a problem of scale, as the more users and the more plays the company attracts, the more it must pay out in royalties. Some analysts think it just needs more users to pay up. Others worry that the high proportion of their revenue forked over to rights holders makes them intrinsically unprofitable. In this scenario, streaming services might simply become loss leaders for larger companies like Apple and Google, or get taken over by the music labels themselves. In which case, perhaps Thom Yorke is right that streaming is the “last desperate fart of a dying corpse” after all.

But what part of the music industry is dying, and is it really worth saving? The entrenched record labels and collecting societies have long warned that technological advances, piracy and copyright infringement are destroying the livelihoods of creators. They expend significant time and resources lobbying for government protections like DRM and copyright extensions, multinational treaties like ACTA, and forcing ISPs to police their users’ activities. Yet if you look past these vocal and influential legacy organisations, the music industry is actually flourishing. A study by Mike Masnick points out that the global value of the broader music industry has grown from $132bn to $168bn between 2005 and 2010. The number of new albums produced each year is rising rapidly, concert sales tripled over the past decade in the US and entertainment spending as a function of income has risen by 15%.

The music scene is evolving, and with the low costs of digital production and distribution becoming more competitive. There’s going to be some who lose out and see their old business models change. Certainly,  Spotify alone cannot revive label’s revenue to the heyday of CD sales, and nor is it their responsibility to. But it is shortsighted to suggest à la Taylor Swift that to stream music is to consider it valueless. And if artists are concerned by the lack of revenue reaching them, the best place to start complaining is to their own labels. The growth of the music ecosystem in non-traditional areas shows that they’re already lagging behind the times despite all their billions in intellectual property, and it would be such a shame to see them have their breadwinners turn against them, too. I for one wouldn’t want to feel Taylor’s wrath.

The deep web, drug deals and distributed markets.

On Thursday a conglomeration of law enforcement agencies including the FBI, Homeland Security and Europol seized the deep web drug marketplace Silk Road 2.0, just over a year after the takedown of the original Silk Road site. San Franciscan Blake Benthall was arrested as site’s alleged operator (under the alias ‘Defcon’), and charged with narcotics trafficking as well as conspiracy charges related to money laundering, computer hacking, and trafficking fraudulent documents. The authorities allege that Silk Road 2.0 had sales of $8million each month, around 150,000 active users, and had facilitated the distribution of hundreds of kilos of illegal drugs across the globe.

The bust formed part of ‘Operation Onymous’, a ‘scorched-earth purge of the internet underground’ which led to the arrest of 17 people, the seizure of 414 hidden ‘.onion’ domains, and the shutdown of a number of other deep web markets. Law enforcement unsurprisingly refuse to reveal how they managed such a raid, leaving to some worry that they have been able to bypass the protections of the anonymizing software Tor, which is used to access deep web sites and to obscure users’ identities and location.

Despite the success of Operation Onymous, many deep web markets remain online. Activists liken the shutdown of hidden marketplaces to a hydra: every time a site is taken down others spring up in their place, and thrive from the media publicity of busts. Indeed, the number of drug listings on hidden marketplaces has grown significantly following the takedown of the original Silk Road. Regardless, law enforcement is determined to stamp out the sites, with a representative from Europol warning  “we’re a well-oiled machine. It won’t be risk-free to run services [like these] anymore’.

But what if there was no-one responsible for running such services? Sites like the Silk Roads met their demise because they have a centralized point of failure — get to the server and you can seize the site. Allegedly, cryptographic chunks of Silk Road 2.0’s source code had been pre-emptively distributed to 500 locations across the globe, to enable the site’s relaunch in the case of a takedown. Given the far-reaching impact of Operation Onymous, whether this happens or not remains to be seen.

To be truly immune to government takedown, a marketplace would have to have a decentralized, distributed structure, much like torrent networks and the bitcoin protocol. Enter OpenBazaar, which uses peer-to-peer technology to bring ‘secure, decentralized  markets to the masses.’ In running the OpenBazaar program, each computer becomes a node in a distributed network where users can communicate directly with one another. A reputation system will allow even pseudonymous users to build up trust in their identity, and naturally, all transactions are done in bitcoin.

The biggest issues plaguing hidden marketplaces are those of trust and enforcement; if goods or payment fail to materialize, you can hardly just contact the authorities. Some sites get around this problem by offering an escrow service, with the money being centrally held until a buyer confirms their goods have arrived. The problem with this approach is that it leaves customer’s money vulnerable to scams, hacks, and state seizure. With a decentralized system like OpenBazaar, no such central escrow system is possible. Instead, buyer and seller nominate a third party ‘arbiter’ (who could be another buyer, seller, or a professional arbiter for the site) to preside over the transaction. Payment is initially sent to a multi-signature bitcoin wallet, jointly controlled by the buyer, seller and arbiter. Funds can only be released from this account to the seller when 2 of the 3 signatories agree to it, allowing the arbiter to adjudicate any dispute.

In such a distributed system, there’s no central body to authorize posts and transactions. There’s also no central server to target. Law enforcement would have to go after all buyers, sellers and computers running the OpenBazaar software to bring the system down.

OpenBazaar is still in beta mode, with a full release expected in early 2015. Teething problems are likely and the design could prove problematic; even within highly decentralized systems there’s a tendency towards the concentration of power, and whilst robust, decentralized networks are often inefficient and expensive to maintain. There’s no doubt the authorities are watching, though, and it will be interesting to see their reaction should OpenBazaar succeed.

The software is a re-work of the edgier DarkMarket concept developed at a Toronto hackathon earlier this year, and its developers are keen to highlight its use for selling things like outlawed books and unpasteurized milk over drugs and guns. Certainly, there’s value in any global bitcoin marketplace which avoids punitive exchange rates and transfer fees, and like the Lex Mercatoria, can be relied on to provide a level of transactional security when state institutions can not. However, whatever its legitimate uses no state will be comfortable with the idea of a censorship-proof site. The problem for them is that they might just have to get used to it.



Is Gamergate a classic case of left-wing infighting?

I published a ‘think piece’ on gamergate over at the research side of the website yesterday. I argued that the pro-gamergate side was likely to lose because the left usually wins (for good or bad) on cultural issues:

Gamergate is one of the most interesting cultural issues that has appeared in years. It is a rare time that the losing side of the culture war has put up a good fight. But the anti-gamergate side will win, because Progress always wins. I’ll try and give a concise guide to gamergate, what’s at stake, where it came from, and why exactly it is that it will lose.

I read another good post on it from Cathy Young over at realclearpolitics—she made a different point to mine, trying to stress how it was not reasonable to characterise much of the movement as anti-women or misogynist, but simply taking an alternative (and she believes, valid) approach to improving the lot of women in gaming:

There are valid concerns, shared by at least some GamerGate supporters, about sex-based harassment in gaming groups and stereotypical portrayal of female characters in videogames. Unfortunately, critics of sexism in videogame culture tend to embrace a toxic brand of feminism that promotes antagonism, grievance, and intolerance of dissent, not equality or empowerment.

When I posted my piece on twitter I asked for constructive criticism, and one good point that was made is that, at least according to their own views of themselves and their results on political compass tests, gamergaters tend to lean left.

This makes me think that gamergate might be best characterised as a case of leftist infighting, but this time between Murray & Herrnstein’s ‘cognitive elites’ that make up social justice anti-gamergate journalism and the broader constituency of more ‘normal’ pro-gamergate leftists holding more traditional leftist views. An open front in the war between New and old versions of what justice consists in.

This fits with my anecdotal experience that it is those (like Richard Dawkins) who are or have been associated with the left that experience most of their ire when they state or are suspected of having unacceptable views. As ever it’s interesting to look at the parallel with religion, which abhors apostates much more zealously than infidels.

And it also fits with the modern left’s de facto focus on race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability as opposed to their previously overwhelming concern with economic exploitation or justice. As I said in the think piece:

Bear in mind that although social justice advocates do care about wealth disparities, this is far from their main concern, at least in terms of how they allocate their time. For example, insufficiently pro-transgender feminists will arouse large campaigns stopping them from giving lectures at many universities, while libertarian capitalists can speak freely. This is why I have argued that social justice is (a) a facet of neoliberalism, and (b) an artefact of the cognitive elite’s takeover of society. This is what makes the modern social justice movement so different.

This ends up working quite well for the ASI: we are quite comfortable with social progress as long as it allows for liberal economic policy, and only tend to object when social progress conflicts with more important goals such as free speech.