The term virtue signalling originally referred to ways of making one's qualities visible - physical strength, economic wealth, moral character - in a way that would be hard to fake. In 2015, James Bartholomew introduced an inverted and sarcastic usage ...

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POSIWID"POSIWID" - 5 new articles

  1. Vice Signalling
  2. Reading Circle for Systems Thinkers
  3. The Pursuit of Truth
  4. The Purpose of Truth
  5. Back Door Steps
  6. More Recent Articles

Vice Signalling

The term virtue signalling originally referred to ways of making one's qualities visible - physical strength, economic wealth, moral character - in a way that would be hard to fake.

In 2015, James Bartholomew introduced an inverted and sarcastic usage of the term, referring to the common practice of paying lip service to a (supposedly virtuous) moral or political position, or expressing 'faux outrage' at something or other, and this usage was quickly picked up by other journalists. Of course this phenomenon has existed for centuries, but social media provides new channels for expressing and amplifying superficially held opinions.

Given this usage of the term virtue signalling, it was probably inevitable that people would also start talking about vice signalling, to refer to people saying outrageous things purely for effect.

For example, @PaulGoodmanCH accuses Arron Banks of vice signalling when he mounts an unfounded attack on Brendan Cox, the widower of the murdered MP Jo Cox. According to Goodman, Banks doesn't even believe what he is saying, he is merely saying it to gain more followers.

Again, there is nothing new about being deliberately outrageous in order to court controversy. In recent years, the tactic has been used with great effect by far right and alt-right politicians and entertainers, who strut around going "look at me, being dreadfully politically incorrect, aren't I awful?".

And there is a natural complementarity between the popular notion of virtue signalling and this notion of vice signalling - thus @sam_kriss defends viciousness and polemic in a good cause.

The vice signallers draw much of their energy from the knee-jerk disapproval of the virtue signallers. The political power of vice signalling is demonstrated by the extraordinary amount of broadcast airtime that is given to people like Nigel Farage, and (of course) the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States.

But vice signalling is essentially an opposition tactic. So what happens when the vice signallers gain power? @BDSixsmith imagines a dialectic process of vice being translated into virtue.
"That which seemed transgressive must appear conscientious. This is challenging for revolutionary movements if their identities were based on being oppositional, and helps to explain the internecine conflicts that tear them apart. If one’s ambitions transcend nihilistic mischief-making one must have beliefs because one thinks them principled, not merely as other people think them perverted."
Perhaps thinking along similar lines, many people expected Mr Trump's style to change when he reached the White House. But @PeterBeinart argues that the president’s personal attacks are not a distraction from his policy goals, they are his policy goals.

The problem is that virtue signalling, in the sense popularized by Bartholomew, is also an opposition tactic. In his excellent piece on making Twitter safe for politics, @mrianleslie warns us to beware what he calls the "moral surge", the pleasure of asserting one's moral integrity in public. Virtue signallers can safely deplore the grubby compromises of practical politics, confident they will never be called upon to make any decisions with real consequences. They were the ones who refused to vote for Clinton because she wasn't virtuous enough. And look what they got instead.

James Bartholomew, The awful rise of 'virtue signalling' (Spectator, 18 April 2015)
I invented 'virtue signalling'. Now it's taking over the world (Spectator, 10 October 2015)

Peter Beinart, Trump's Grudges Are His Agenda (The Atlantic, 30 June 2017)

Paul Goodman, Vice Signalling (Conservative Home, 22 December 2016)

Ian Leslie, Unfight Club (Medium, 14 July 2017)

Ben Sixsmith, What is Vice Signalling? (14 April 2016)

Wikipedia: Virtue Signalling

updated 15 July 2017

Reading Circle for Systems Thinkers

@kate_hammer and @Europeripheral are planning a reading group, to be conducted over the internet. The reading group will explore the controversial 1972 book The Limits to Growth.

In 1972, a think tank called the Club of Rome published the alarming results of a computer simulation of the world economy, environment and population, developed by a team at MIT. If events followed what the authors called the "business as usual" scenario, without corrective or preventative action, the model projected “overshoot and collapse” by 2070. Since its publication, the report has been subjected to sustained critical attack. But a few years ago, researchers at the University of Melbourne compared the model with data from the past four decades. Their results show that the world is tracking pretty closely to the "business-as-usual" scenario.

Those interested in joining the reading group should complete this Google form.

But At Least There Are No Limits To Reading The Book

The Club of Rome has made the book available in PDF format here:

The book has been digitized and can be read in a web browser here:

See also

Academy for Systems Change (The Donella Meadows Project)

Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander, Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we're nearing collapse (Guardian, 2 September 2014)

The Pursuit of Truth

As @PennyRed said last month, after the election of Donald Trump: "It turns out that you cannot stop fascism by turning off Facebook and doing some deep breathing."

The other day, I was arguing with a woman who told me about some recent atrocities in a politically torn part of the world. She was clearly upset by these atrocities, which she framed in a particular way, and used to support some fairly extreme political conclusions. I disagreed strongly with her conclusions, and I was not minded to take the reports of the atrocities at face value.

When I looked on the internet later, I found a Facebook page that carried the same reports, in similar language. Presumably that was the woman's source. I also found a Wikipedia page on the conflict, which framed things in more neutral terms, based on a number of apparently independent sources. Although there were some unpleasant incidents reported by the mainstream news media, these were neither as drastic nor as one-sided as the Facebook material suggested. So while I don't have sufficient evidence to disprove the atrocities completely, I cannot see enough evidence to take them as seriously as she does.

Many Facebook pages use dramatic images to increase circulation. There have been images of billboards supposedly encouraging criminal behaviour. Snopes shows that a fake billboard, supposedly displayed in Finland to encourage rape by migrants, was actually based on a genuine billboard displayed in Liberia to offer support to rape victims. Georgina Guedes finds another version of the same billboard in South Africa, this time supposedly promoting violence against white farmers.

And both sides are now using the fake billboard tactic. Today someone tweeted a picture of a billboard advertising some Trump property development, which was supposedly displayed in an Indian slum, with people sleeping on the street below. A few hours later, the same person deleted the tweet and apologized for the fake.

Many people find it harder to apply the same critical eye to material that they are instinctively sympathetic to. But as I said in my earlier piece on The Purpose of Truth (November 2016), the more I want to believe something (because it fits my preconceptions), the more I should doubt it.

BBC Guidelines - things to ask yourself before you share a claim
  • Have I heard of the publisher before?
  • Is this the source I think it is, or does it sound a bit like them?
  • Can I point to where this happened on a map?
  • Has this been reported anywhere else?
  • Is there more than one piece of evidence for this claim?
  • Could this be something else?

How to spot a fake US election claim (BBC News, 2 November 2016) Fake news in 2016: What it is, what it wasn't, how to help (BBC News, 30 December 2016)

How to verify photos and videos on social media networks (The Observers, France 24, 10 November 2015)

Dan Evon, You Can't Do That in Finland (Snopes, 11 January 2016)

Georgina Guedes, The ANC is not encouraging black people to kill whites (eNews Channel Africa, 10 March 2016)

Laurie Penny, Against Bargaining: On not taking leave of your senses (The Baffler, 18 November 2016)

Wikipedia: BBC News, eNews Channel Africa, France 24, Snopes, The Baffler

Related post: The Purpose of Truth (November 2016)

The Purpose of Truth

The more I want to believe this (because it fits my preconceptions), the more I should doubt it.
I don't know whether this is genuine. If these tweets even exist, do they represent the views of a real Trump supporter. And even if this is genuine, does it matter that one Trump supporter looks dangerously inconsistent? What conclusions, if any, am I justified in drawing from this? Should I be comforted because my low opinion of Trump supporters in general is corroborated? What should I now feel?

I know how I might go about resolving some of these doubts.  But can I be bothered? I could spend all day fact-checking, but I have a proper job.

The point is that the 2016 US election was dominated by this kind of material, on both sides. Of course we are all sometimes tempted to take some of this material seriously, and to scorn the material from the other side. But if you want to propagate some controversial material, you have a moral duty to hesitate - am I being seduced into fanning some false flames?

This morning, for example, I wanted to tweet something about President-Elect Trump's phone call with South Korea. But I wasn't prepared to trust the first story I saw, so I didn't tweet anything until I found a Reuters story that confirmed it. Of course, it may still be untrue, but I'm glad I checked.

Back Door Steps

Theresa May used to be rather keen on back doors. As Home Secretary until her move to Downing Street, she was responsible for the Investigatory Powers Bill, which insisted on back doors to enable the security forces to snoop on private communications. Now she insists that Britain will not remain in Europe by the back door. So what's wrong with back doors all of a sudden?

Now you might think I'm just making a snarky political point. Obviously the back door metaphor has a different meaning in the two contexts. But there is an important connection here, so please bear with me.

The European Data Protection Supervisor is dead against encryption back doors. By mandating encryption back doors, the UK therefore appears to place itself outside the European circle of trust. The proposed legislation would mean that any UK company or UK-based facility might be subject to an equipment interference warrant (aka back door), and would not be permitted to reveal whether it did or not. Aside from the competitive disadvantage that might follow from this potential vulnerability, UK companies and UK-based services would be challenged to demonstrate compliance with the European Data Protection Regulation, and might therefore be prevented from holding data on any European citizen. There is going to be a single market for data, and we wouldn't have access to it. Another blow for the UK service industry.

So evidently Mrs May is right. Backdoor membership of the EU is not on the table.

Anushka Asthana, No staying in the EU by the back door, says Theresa May (Guardian, 31 August 2016)

Jennifer Baker, Encryption backdoors appear on EU data chief’s ban wishlist (Ars Technica, 25 July 2016)

Lucy Mair, Supreme court strikes down Home Office's back-door changes to immigration rules (Guardian, 18 July 2012)

John Naughton, Theresa May’s surveillance plans should worry us all (Guardian, 12 June 2016)

Iain Thomson, FBI Director wants 'adult conversation' about backdooring encryption (The Register, 31 August 2016)


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