Sunday, February 28, 2021

Parler Shutdown, Big Tech, and Liberal Politics

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Raya Tripathi

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Parler Shutdown, Big Tech, and Liberal Politics

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Global Views 360

Publication Date

February 28, 2021

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Parler Logo

Parler Logo

Controversial social media site Parler, has been facing some problems regarding spreading of misinformation and the influence of several far-right groups. The platform became the most-downloaded free app in the Apple App Store on the weekend of November 8 - the day major media outlets called the election for Joe Biden. It was deplatfomized by Silicon Valley giants Apple, Google and Amazon after the storming of Capitol Hill. This article explains what is parler, how it influences people and what is the controversy about it.

What is Parler?

Parler is a social media website founded by Rebekah Mercer, John Matze and Jared Thomson. The platform refers to itself as an “unbiased social media” where people can “speak freely and express yourself openly without fear of being 'deplatformed' for your views," according to its website and App Store description.

The app mainly attracts conservative users—some of the Parler’s active users among public figures include Fox News host Sean Hannity, far-right activist Laura Loomer, radio personality Mark Levin, Senator Ted Cruz, and Congressman Devin Nunes. Eric Trump and Donald Trump's presidential campaign also have accounts on the platform.

With big tech companies like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram taking strict actions against the ex-President Donald Trump, and flagging misinformation, Parler became the free for all space for the conservatives.

Problems and influences

According to some reports, members of the Proud Boys, adherents of conspiracy theory QAnon, anti-government extremists, and white supremacists all openly promote their views on Parler. Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of bigotry can also be found among their ideas.

The co-founder of the website, Rebekah Mercer and her family came into national politics in 2016 elections when they donated more than $23 million to groups backing conservative candidates.

Rebekah Mercer is widely reported to have persuaded then-candidate Trump to reshuffle his campaign organization and hire Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to help run his presidential bid in the final stretch of the 2016 election.

The shutdown: opinions on Parler and the monopoly of tech giants

The social networking site went dark when Amazon stopped providing it cloud hosting services after it was revealed the platform was used to help organize the Capitol Hill attack on January 6—which left five people dead. Amazon's actions were followed by Apple and Google that banned the Parler mobile app from their respective stores.

After the app went offline, it made a comeback after several days, registered with Epik as its provider. But Epik denies in an official statement that the company had any “contact or discussions with Parler in any form regarding our becoming their registrar or hosting provider.”

A Reuters report, citing an infrastructure expert, pointed to a Russian tech firm as supporting Parler's return online. It said that the IP address Epik used is owned by DDos-Guard, which is “controlled by two Russian men and provides services including protection from distributed denial of service attacks.”

The united Silicon Valley attack began on January 8, when Apple emailed Parler and gave them 24 hours to prove they had changed their moderation practices or else face removal from their App Store. The letter claimed: “We have received numerous complaints regarding objectionable content in your Parler service, accusations that the Parler app was used to plan, coordinate, and facilitate the illegal activities in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021 that led (among other things) to loss of life, numerous injuries, and the destruction of property.”

It ended with this warning: “To ensure there is no interruption of the availability of your app on the App Store, please submit an update and the requested moderation improvement plan within 24 hours of the date of this message. If we do not receive an update compliant with the App Store Review Guidelines and the requested moderation improvement plan in writing within 24 hours, your app will be removed from the App Store.” The next day, Apple removed it from its App Store.

This was a kind of monopoly and alleged misuse of power by the tech giants to ban the website, but, in October, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law issued a 425-page report concluding that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google all possess monopoly power and are using that power anti-competitively. According to the report, iOS and Android hold an effective duopoly in mobile operating systems. However, the report concludes, Apple does have a monopolistic hold over what you can do with an iPhone. You can only put apps on your phone through the Apple App Store, and Apple has total gatekeeper control over that App Store.

Not only did leading left-wing politicians not object but some of them were the ones who pleaded with Silicon Valley to use their power this way. After the internet-policing site Sleeping Giants flagged several Parler posts that called for violence, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked: “What are @Apple and @GooglePlay doing about this?” Once Apple responded by removing Parler from its App Store — a move that House Democrats just three months earlier warned was dangerous antitrust behaviour — she praised Apple and then demanded to know: “Good to see this development from @Apple. @GooglePlay what are you going to do about apps being used to organize violence on your platform?” The same steps were taken by Google later.

These actions showed the amount of power the Silicon Valley giants have, which can actually control the other company’s fate. The powers which were revealed by the steps taken by these companies were dangerous but at the same time helpful when done for the good. The liberal New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg called herself “disturbed by just how awesome [tech giants’] power is” and added that “it’s dangerous to have a handful of callow young tech titans in charge of who has a megaphone and who does not.” She nonetheless praised these “young tech titans” for using their “dangerous” power to ban Trump and destroy Parler. Her opinion shows that liberals are happy until Silicon Valley censorship is used to silence their adversaries, not on themselves.

As put by Glenn Greenwald “Liberals like Goldberg are concerned only that Silicon Valley censorship powers might one day be used against people like them, but are perfectly happy as long as it is their adversaries being deplatformed and silenced (Facebook and other platforms have for years banned marginalized people like Palestinians at Israel’s behest, but that is of no concern to U.S. liberals).”

Clearly, the way Parler was misused for spreading propaganda had to be stopped as it led to one of the worst days in American history – the storm of the Capitol Hill – but the way they were censored and banned from the internet by the virtual unity of Silicon Valley giants Apple, Google and Amazon, has brought forth another dangerous fact to the world regarding how much power these companies hold. And if misused, they can prove to be more dangerous than Parler itself. But as long as they are using the power and censorship to maintain peace and lawfulness, even the liberals don’t have any problems with it, at least for now.

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April 13, 2021 2:32 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 10<sup>18</sup> eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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