Jeffrey Paul: Normalcy Bias As It Relates To Our Communications Systems

Jeffrey Paul

Normalcy Bias As It Relates To Our Communications Systems
21 April 2020
( 3894 words, approximately a 21 minute read. )

On Our Collective Inability To Anticipate Rare Events

For most of my audience, I imagine the following holds true: When you go to your sink, and turn on the tap, water comes out. That water is most likely drinkable.

This happens every time you turn on the tap. The number of times in your life that that particular effect of turning on the tap has not resulted in water coming out probably means that opening a tap that isn’t hooked up to anything (like, in a store or on a construction site) feels weird and disconcerting, like something is wrong. That’s actually the natural state of things! Clean, drinkable water coming out all the other times is the entirely artificial miracle we’ve wrought through technology and tremendous amounts of hard work.

It’s great that this is the case; we’ve made “normal” the state that results in increased health, sanitation, and convenience. It’s one of the biggest and most pervasive successes of our civilization: clean, cheap, ubiquitous drinking water.

You probably don’t keep much water in your house, because it probably doesn’t occur to you that one day you might turn on the tap and nothing will happen. Every other time, it worked fine. In that one, rare case: you can’t get what you need to live, and maybe you die.

We’re generally really bad at planning for rare events, unless we’ve had specific experiences that reminded us of the negative effects. (Older people frequently exhibit this regarding food scarcity, something most people today in the global west have thankfully never experienced directly.)

After the Battle of Berlin, in which the Soviet Union took Berlin away from the Nazis and ended the war in Europe, parts of the Red Army leadership did the best they could to provide for the Berliners, now living in a city with bombed out water and sewer pipes, and cratered roads that food trucks could not traverse. (To be historically fair, other parts of the Red Army engaged in mass rape and murder in the remains of Berlin, too.) Ultimately, a million remained homeless, everyone was hungry, and many thousands died in the ensuing months from a lack of food and clean water before the roads and pipes could be repaired.

I keep two weeks worth of water for two people in my homes. Mormons (which I am not) are directed to stockpile one year of food in their homes. I don’t think this is entirely unreasonable. (I opt for about 4 weeks for only the inhabitants of my home. The Mormon practice could serve for three months for their own and 3 other neighboring households.)

I carry fire and theft insurance on my homes and their contents, even though the likelihood of fire or theft is low where I live. I don’t expect my house to burn down or to be robbed; but if I do, I will suffer primarily only the loss of time, not money. Many people don’t bother.

Note that not all rare events are created equal: planning for a failure of public utilities, even if quite rare, is cheap and convenient, so it works out to be a good cost/benefit ratio. Building an expensive underground bunker as preparation for a much more relatively-unlikely nuclear war, not so much.

We’re so bad at allocating resources to prepare for rare events that many states in the US have even made laws that make it mandatory to carry insurance over the operation of your automobile. Crashes are pretty rare on an individual basis (although absolutely not in aggregate—about a hundred people a day die in the US in cars), so many people, I imagine, would opt to save the money instead, thinking that they probably won’t crash. On a short timescale, they’re probably even right.

This tendency, known as the normalcy bias, leads us into several very important, non-obvious dangers in our lives and in our society. This is about one of them in particular.

Censorship Choke Points

Conditional, occasional, special-circumstances censorship is a lot more dangerous than well-known, continuous censorship. Everybody knows that the Soviet Union or China’s press was/are censored on a routine basis. Not everyone knows that the same goes for Twitter, on a case-by-case, time-by-time basis. The rules for what you can say on Twitter are not the same for the government as they are for everyday people.

This morning, I’d read about how Facebook is censoring protest organization ads in the US.

Regardless of your own personal opinions about the legitimacy of the topics of these protests, the fact that Facebook has decided to censor certain legally-protected protests, and not others, should rightfully terrify you. Peaceful assembly is a human right, regardless of temporary emergencies.

(If you think protests and assembly should be banned during a pandemic, I ask you this: how would you feel if all media communication, blog posts, personal emails, and news broadcasts had to be government pre-approved or reviewed or censored during the same time? They’re mentioned in the same breath in 1A. If the latter’s illegal, so is the former.)

As I draft this document, I am hearing word that Susan Wojcicki, early Googler and present CEO of YouTube intends to censor anything on YouTube that contradicts information published by the World Health Organization.

You know, the same WHO that parroted China’s line about no human-to-human transmission and said that healthy people don’t benefit from wearing masks. That one.

This strikes particularly close to home for me. Twitter, my favorite social network, disabled my account last month after 12 daily-use years on the platform and amassing over 10,000 followers, presumably for wondering aloud about if asking why there isn’t more domestic revolution happening in the USA as a result of the US government’s concentration camps for children is a violation of Twitter’s TOS. (I have to guess that the answer is “yes”, because Twitter has not communicated with me in any way whatsoever—not even to notify me of the suspension. All inquiries about the matter have been ignored.) I’m hoping to eventually get some sort of response (if not my account back) so that I can print a t-shirt that reads “Banned by Twitter for wondering why the Americans no longer shoot at concentration camp guards.”

This is not an article about whether or not Twitter or YouTube or Facebook are within their rights for determining who or what can appear on twitter.com or youtube.com or facebook.com. Look elsewhere for that.

These modern-day “public squares” have become inherently dangerous, in an entirely non-obvious way, through their status as automatic defaults. Think of the number of people for whom the only immediate/realtime contact information you have is a connection on Facebook or Instagram. We rely and depend on centralized services for our everyday lives, but especially in emergencies.

In an emergency, these services, either via first-party initiative (e.g. Facebook’s intense fear of regulatory retaliation leading them to directly wield their ban-hammer in a preemptive fashion, and now Google’s preemptive censorship of any opposing views), or via government order, can shut down your most basic of communications with friends and associates. More on this in a moment.

Patrick writes today about how critical Twitter and other cloud services were to coordinating his working group’s response to the presently ongoing disaster. Imagine how much harder (or perhaps impossible) this time-sensitive work would have become if all of the participants’ cloud and social accounts got frozen or locked out automatically for collaborating on “unapproved content” that their local governments did not wish published.

This isn’t dystopian sci-fi speculation: Dr. Li Wenliang was promptly arrested for posting the first virus warnings on social media just five months earlier, and those postings were censored on the centralized social media platforms controlled by the Chinese government. China is, of course, ahead of the censorship curve, but all such centralized platforms allow any government with military jurisdiction over their major social networks to come into feature parity with them in a matter of hours or days, should the pressure mount.

We’re lucky SARS-CoV-2 was a small one.

Our Generation’s Wake Up Call

Despite most of my writings being complaints or alarms about dangerous or inappropriate things, I’m actually an optimistic person. I lead a happy life, and I tend to see the glass as half-full. I’m biased toward being thankful for being so fortunate in my life.

Wars can largely be prevented by the right people acting in the right ways. Natural disasters (pandemics included), cannot. War is not inevitable. The dangers of Earth’s biosphere are omnipresent and ultimately unavoidable.

You’re welcome to disbelieve the following if you like, but I’ve privately fretted for several years to my close associates about the primary danger to the long-term survival of the human species being a large-scale pandemic that kills enough skilled and educated scientists and tradespeople that we lose the parts of the supply chain that permit us access to orbit. My estimates have been variously between 10% and 15% of the total number of humans dying would be sufficient for humanity to lose this capability for a generation or two. (Presently, this risk refers to the functioning of SpaceX primarily, as all other organizations that have secure access to escape speeds and suitable vehicles seem disinterested in putting thousands or millions of people in reach of same.) We know they happen, and we know approximately how often.

Previously I’ve speculated that our modern society is entirely unprepared to cope with one, a view probably shared by most anyone who’s regularly taken the subway in Tokyo or New York. In a tragic turn, this year, I came to understand that my beliefs were entirely warranted.

That’s all pretty dark. Part of the reason I’m writing here, perhaps tastelessly considering the hundreds of thousands that are recently dead or imminently dying, is to point out how incredibly lucky we are as a species and training-wheels-level civilization that this is not turning out to be a 1918 Influenza-level event. It seems unlikely, with present data (21 Apr 2020), that anywhere near a similar count of 50,000,000 deaths is likely from the current pandemic.

I watch the growing red numbers on the dashboard with the same sadness and anxiety that most do, but I also recognize that, despite the insane levels of incompetence and idiocy exhibited by dozens of world governments, with any luck the final death toll from this event will likely remain on the close order of 1% of the last global pandemic.

Imagine how royally fucked we’d all be, given our current observed levels of worldwide leadership incompetence, if the current pandemic had the same properties as the 1918 one. It would be approximately 100x times worse this year than it looks like it will be. In some ways, we have been supremely lucky. This is large enough to make the whole world realize the need for preparedness in the future, without killing enough people to completely (or even partially) destroy the human civilization (something natural disasters have been close to doing several times in the past).

I’m a fixer. Whenever something bad happens to me or those around me, I focus on the things I can learn to try to make future events less damaging, or ways I can be more prepared. I update my threat model.

Pandemics are a thing that happen on Earth. We’ve also seen large-scale disasters, such as huge fires in Australia and California, as well as hurricanes and flooding, that most local and even national leadership seem entirely unequipped for, even in developed nations.

Not Today, but The Big One

It’s probably premature to write this way, before even the peak of the current disaster is reached, but I’m cursed with a perpetual “so what happens next?” demon in my skull. To me, this pandemic is a warm up, a wake-up call. Future disasters on Earth will not all be this small or (comparatively) manageable. With any luck, the next one of this scale will be at least several generations away; but of course we can’t count on that. It could be a year away, or it could be 200.

I don’t know what the next large-scale global disaster will be or when precisely it will occur; only that such are inevitable. This isn’t a new or original thought, but it’s brought into sharp focus lately, as I sit in the midst of a disaster, unable to communicate even privately with some of my closest friends.

If that happens in a time window in which human society and technological achievements in any way resemble our current ones, I anticipate the failure of some or all of the world’s governments. Define failure for these purposes however you’d like.

It’s time to update our global threat model. When such a thing eventually happens, I expect the death throes of those governments to involve the censorship, or attempted censorship, of certain types of communications. We’ve seen before that governments, even ones we wouldn’t otherwise expect, actively try to cover-up public health crises until it’s too late, if for no other reason than for politicians or nations to try to save face.

Today in the US we have police shutting down protest groups, in violation of their human rights (a fact that is objectively true whether you agree with the basis for their protests or not). Facebook is proactively voluntarily censoring communications around those same types of events. YouTube, hiding behind a banner of “fighting misinformation”, is blocking content from (and presumably intends to suspend the Google accounts of) those who post anything contradicting the official WHO party line, which is of course never wrong and should be immune from criticism or response videos as a result.

We rely on these tools. Imagine if the US went to war, or an even larger disaster occurred that actually managed to threaten the continued existence of the United-States-As-A-Concern, and a half dozen camo-clad machine-gun-guys who are entirely Not Kidding Around At All walked into Google’s headquarters and instructed them, very matter-of-factly, to temporarily disable all user accounts containing email or private messages with certain topics, “because wartime”, or “because pandemic”, or “state of emergency”, or “because national security”, or whatever. Then they do the same at Twitter.

(Facebook, of course, would have guessed at their desires in advance, and, due to previous experience with “government regulation” (a modern euphemism for a veiled threat of machine-gun-guys), proactively censored anything government-wished or adjacent, as they already do for such society-damaging outrages as posts by government-marginalized people. They’re even open, presently, to censor for other repressive governments, such as the state-demanded censorship they recently imposed on users in Vietnam as reported today by Reuters. Their abusive “you must use your government ID name on Facebook” policy has resulted in at least 21 people there being arrested by local police for making posts critical of the government. They’re the great grand-daddy of fake-grassroots online censorship, falsely labelling it “community standards”. Their strategy is the most amoral of all these platform companies: whatever gets the most users using the most Facebook, society and human rights be damned.)

Our tools work great 99.999% of the time. In that 0.001% of the time, when we need them most to survive, it’s possible that they won’t. Imagine if your car’s seatbelts worked great every day of the decade—except the day you crash.

Centralized communication systems are inherently dangerous, because they are usually free and work great and are mostly uncensored, most of the time, but the moment a sufficient threat comes into existence that the true, physical power structure (i.e. the military) takes Very Seriously, these systems can then be used to selectively oppress in illegal ways. It’s no direct fault of the centralized platform builders, except for the fact that they failed to realize the ripe and dangerous situation they have created. Any system that suddenly fails billions of people when someone puts a gun in the sysadmin’s face is a bad system.

The fact that “the rule of law” can (eventually, slowly) override these things is largely irrelevant in a disaster, emergency, or wartime. You, and/or the companies so compelled by the aforementioned machine-gun-guys (MGGs hereinafter if we need the visual any further) will likely be able to sue for recourse, and win (due to the illegal nature of these actions), weeks or months later, presuming two critically important things: that the country/civilization/legal system still exists by then, and that you and your family still exist by then.

Losing access to communications tools during an emergency is a direct threat to life and safety. Without communication to our societal mothership, we don’t know how or when, as individuals, to move or travel, to seek food or medical care, the exact nature of the danger we face, or how to best respond to it.

As far as I know, it’s illegal in most countries for the phone company to arbitrarily suspend your phone service based on the things you say over the phone. It’s possible that we should consider the same for platforms in widespread use that support DMs, as they are the modern social equivalents of telephone network access.

Having my Twitter account, upon which I have relied for a dozen years, suddenly stop working in the midst of a global emergency has given me a special view of this. Many of the people I talk to regularly via Twitter DM, I can no longer reach as I have no other contact information for them. My DMs and DM history (including my contacts’ usernames!) are now completely inaccessible to me: right down the memory hole.

Ultimately, people must move in mass numbers to a variety of federated services to avoid producing centralized chokepoints for censorship. This doesn’t entirely prevent rogue-government or rogue-military censorship opportunities, but it makes it a lot harder than five quick phone calls to Tim, Jeff, Sundar, Mark, and Jack.

Satya gets a pass in this list as they’ve probably already built the backing infrastructure to provide potential shutoff buttons for the military, having been their lapdogs for several decades now, if only for use against foreigners (they were the first participant in the program that permits the military access to that same data for spying).

I’m not sure that documents like this one are going to get people to stop using Facebook (which includes Instagram and WhatsApp, for those playing along at home) or Gmail and Google Docs. Furthermore, this same danger exists due to the vast majority of even independent internet communications services using a small set of hosting providers such as Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud. A centralized physical infrastructure problem lurks below the surface, too.

This document does not propose a clear and immediate solution, it simply highlights a danger for which we must prepare and account for, together as a civilization. Centralized communications are, on a long enough timescale, an existential threat to a free society.

It’s also quite worth noting that this phenomenon isn’t in any way new: the last global pandemic is called the Spanish Flu because of government-imposed news media censorship in all of the non-Spain countries affected (which was all of them) due to it coinciding with a world war. This is a known and historically-documented failure mode, not speculation.

The crazy thing here would be to not expect sincere and concerted government censorship attempts should the world face a very large scale disaster such as a world war or larger pandemic. It’s silly to pretend that neither could happen again, and to continue building and using dangerous systems that fail so predictably in such circumstances.

Finally

Even in normal times, these communications systems cannot be trusted. YouTube has been deleting user videos of the Syrian civil war, and it’s estimated that they’ve erased about 200,000 others as well, suspending hundreds of accounts in the process, deleting the uploaders’ private emails, contact lists, and photos. The practice is even making it harder for investigators to prosecute the war crimes the videos depict, amounting to destruction of evidence. Human rights groups are sounding the alarm.

As an individual person, it’s hard to be upset about human rights abuses that you can’t even learn about because their records have been erased by Google. I personally don’t like it when these giant, unaccountable companies decide what I am or am not allowed to see or hear. Do you?

These centralized systems will be abused to bulk censor in emergencies, and while you may eventually have recourse weeks or months later, during the crisis you will be powerless to communicate, with no alternatives in sight, as these communication systems have become the default, chosen by billions of others. This poses a direct threat to health and safety in a disaster, to say nothing of the basic functioning of a free society’s mechanisms for self-determination. This has to change.

We all must stop relying on centralized, censorship-enabling platforms, even outside times of crisis. Not because of the nonsense that they are censoring today as a stupid PR campaign, but for the life-and-death matter of censorship in a larger crisis or a war, where your California compatriots over at the platform companies will not be given the option to exercise their own personal judgement about whether or not they should be engaging in this particular instance of censorship—it will be at the point of a gun, a result of a military order, all wrapped up in pseudo-legal “emergency powers”.

They’re not asking; they’re telling.

It’s time to disintermediate your communication with your friends, family, and audience. Stop donating free content to censorship platforms who make a business of spying on your activities and your communications.

Delete your Facebook account so that people can no longer reach you via Facebook Messenger. Use Signal instead, and get your contacts to switch. (Signal’s operators can’t read the content of your messages the way Facebook can, making censorship much harder.)

Delete your Instagram.

Stop publishing to YouTube.

Email’s fortunately already federated: stop using a censored version of it and dump Gmail. (Did you know that Google also allows email senders to pay for sort ranking inside of your “Social” and “Promotions” tabs in Gmail, or that they selectively spam filter political campaign emails to which you explicitly subscribed?)

For social media, use only federated protocols like ActivityPub instead of centralized ones like Twitter. (You can follow me with ActivityPub at @sneak@sneak.berlin.)

They’re more work and presently have smaller audiences, and being an early adopter means that it’s somewhat of an uphill battle at the moment, but I say this without irony or hyperbole: the future safety and freedom of our society and culture depends upon making widespread point-and-click censorship by a tiny few impossible. The only way we can do that is by attacking the status quo of centralized, censorship platforms as a default. It starts with you and I.

We must all do our part, even in peacetime.

PS

To my Twitter friends that I now have no way whatsoever of reaching: I hope you and your families are safe and sound, and you should email me if I can help in any way.

About The Author

Jeffrey Paul is a hacker and security researcher living in Berlin and the founder of EEQJ, a consulting and research organization.

 sneak@sneak.berlin

 @sneak@sneak.berlin

 @sneakdotberlin

 @eeqj

 linkedin.com/in/jeffreypauleeqj