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Sunday, 5 November 2017

About alleged crime and very real retribution! Part I: Saudi-Arabia and the Night of the Long Knives

Oh well he'll offer you a cigarette
he'll offer you a light.
But he hasn't finished with you yet
on another long knife night.

The news that there was a ‘New Sheriff in Town’ in the religious kingdom of Saudi-Arabia became already apparent a few months ago. This happened with the appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as the official crown prince for his father, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

The BBC:

Few people outside Saudi Arabia had heard of Prince Mohammed bin Salman before his father became king in 2015. But since then, the 31-year-old has become the most influential figure in the world's leading oil exporter.

He has now been elevated to the position of crown prince, replacing his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef - a move that had been widely expected and could shape the direction of the country for decades.

Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power began in 2013, when he was named head of the Crown Prince's Court, with the rank of minister. The previous year, Salman had been appointed crown prince after the death of Nayef bin Abdul Aziz - the father of Mohammed bin Nayef.

In January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz died and Salman acceded to the throne at the age of 79. He immediately made two decisions that surprised observers, naming his son minister of defence and Mohammed bin Nayef deputy crown prince.

One of Mohammed bin Salman's first acts as defence minister was to launch a military campaign in Yemen in March 2015 along with other Arab states after President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was forced into exile by the Houthi rebel movement.

The appointment of Prince Mohammad bin Salman to official crown prince – after he allegedly organized a hostile knock over at gunpoint against former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef – was more or less expected by pundits, but it was nevertheless a surprising and very important move to the eyes of the outside world. A move that (again BBC) “could shape the direction of the country for decades”Especially because of the very young age of the crown prince, who was only in his early thirties and could theoretically lead the country for at least fourty years.

The Kingdom’s tremendous prosperity was traditionally based upon the country’s seemingly endless flow of oil, that was pumped up since the start of the twentieth century, and the gazillions of dollars that the eternally oil-hungry Western World paid for this continuous flow towards the West. 

Especially in the United States, the cheap gasoline for the infamous V8 gas guzzlers and the energy for the fully airconditioned homes in deserts like Arizona and Nevada seemed to have become a human right, that must not be abolished at all cost. And Saudi Arabia was happy to deliver to the 'infidels' in the West, in exchange for their dollars and weapons.

However, since 2008 the global economic breakdown, that emerged from the American sub-prime mortgage crisis, struck the middle and lower classes of the world at a nearly unprecedented scale. Hence this led to less consumption worldwide. And thus to less stores and shopping malls, less imports and exports and less truck transport and commuter miles in the Western countries. And this all happened at a blistering scale that even forced the mostly ignorant, energy squandering middle-class Americans to look for more fuel-efficient ways of living and driving, in order to save a few bucks.

This fuel (and thus oil)saving effect was even reinforced by the emergence of the internet and (in its wake) online shopping. It was especially online shopping that – in combination with the depression-like recession – acted like a doomsday clock for many brick and mortar store chains, which all suffered from diminishing numbers of customers and diminishing sales.

This all caused that the oil price per barrel in 2014 dropped to levels well under $60 (source: Macrotrends.net) for a number of years in a row. 

The long-term development of Crude Oil Prices
Chart courtesy of Macrotrends.net
Click to enlarge
This sheer event was responsible for acute economic problems in  Russia, Venezuela and also Saudi-Arabia, as all three were very large oil exporters that – in the process – were almost totally dependent on their energy sector as their main source of national wealth.
  
And on top of that, Saudi-Arabia had also come under fierce pressure from the important insight that the flow of oil towards the West and the returning flow of Euros and dollars towards their treasury would not be endless after all. 

Under pressure of the emerging, potentially catastrophic climate change, the West was finally moving towards a less fossile fuel driven future, by adapting (partially) electric cars and doing research into hydrogen-driven cars that would not produce the exhaust, which made gasoline and diesel cars so bad for the global environment. 

This meant that Saudi Arabia needed to adapt its economy from being almost solely oil-driven to something more modern that prospered from other sources of income, like air transport, tourism and hospitality or state-of-the-art technology and innovation. 

All this should be akin to what already happened in Dubai, Qatar and the other gulf states. These countries built new sciencefiction-like cities, mega-airports, the sky-is-the-limit hotels, skyscrapers that reach into the clouds and bedazzling shopping malls with skiing slopes(!) in the desert at 50 degrees centigrade. 

And Saudi Arabia – as the natural leader of the pack in the area – must preferably do it better and with more royal grandure. That is still the challenge for which the country stands.

Another specific Saudi-Arab problem is the swelling number of princes and other royalty, with their respective court circles within the kingdom. And all these princes and officials want to have a slice of the pie of the tremendous wealth of the Saud family, based upon the oil of the country and the countless offshore and building projects that happen overthere. 

In the past this already led to the infamous and widespread Saudi-Arab corruption and “quid pro quo” mentality, driving most Western oil, offshore and building companies crazy. This unavoidable corruption led to priceless projects on the Arab peninsula, of which at least 40% of the final invoices was paid in bribery money, meant to pay off everybody and their sister. No slush money?! Then no projects! Take it or leave it!!!

This ubiquitous corruption, in combination with the notion that the peace and quiet within the country could only be upheld with a topheavy welfare state, as well as with the suppression of minorities, like immigrants, women and (religious) opposition, made things even worse for the rulers of the Kingdom. Total suppression of people costs a lot of money: also in times of low oil prices, when the influx of dollars is not so obvious.

This is one of the reasons that the Arab state oil company Aramco is cautiously brought to the global stock exchanges. When the oil does not yield sufficient money anymore, than the firesale of the underlying oil companies must do the job. 

But the undisputed elephant in the room for Saudi Arabia is their extremely rigid version of the Islam. The Wahabism, as it is called, seemed to be one of the underlying causes for the emergence of Al Qaida and ISIS terrorism in the world. Especially this Wahabism increasingly alienated the Western World from the desert kingdom, as did recently the seemingly endless and very bloody proxy war against Iran in Yemen.

Mix all this together and one has a very poisonous mixture for the future of the desert kingdom.

Enter Prince Mohammad bin Salman as the new crown prince and de facto the new man in charge in Saudi Arabia, under the cover of old King Salman, who is probably the leader of the country in name only.

The first thing that Prince Mohammad did, after being appointed in the pivotal role of defence minister (i.e. in control of the army) a few months ago, was getting rid of his main adversary for the leadership of the country: crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef. This was the first strike for Mohammad...

And a few months later, the new Saudi-Arab government tried to lure the Western world with a few privileges for the blatantly underprivileged Saudi-Arab women: driving a car or visiting a football stadium would become "possible-ish". And their voice would finally be heard in the parliament of the Kingdom. At least, that was what we heard in the West... 

All this was a shocking new development for these Saudi Arab women that previously had nothing to say and nothing to do without the consent of their man and “owner”, in the country that was almost akin to a medieval kingdom in Europe.

When the country eventually promised to return to a less rigid form of the islam one week ago, the Western world was happily surprised and full of expectations about the winds of change in the country.

Yesterday, however, the world saw two events in Saudi Arabia with probably large implications for the desert kingdom. 

First, a Burqan 2H long range missile – allegedly fired by the Houthi rebels of Yemen – was intercepted above the airport of Riyadh. This could push the envelope even further for this bloody war between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

And even more important: yesterday saw the establishment of an anti-corruption bureau in SA, And this bureau directly came into action by arresting a few, very high profile leaders and officials within the country

The list of arrested officials in Saudi Arabia
List courtesy of the Ahmadiyya Times
Click to enlarge
ABC News about these shocking events:

Saudi Arabia has arrested dozens of princes, senior military officers, businessmen and top officials, including a well-known royal billionaire with extensive holdings in Western companies, as part of a sweeping anti-corruption probe that further cements control in the hands of its young crown prince.

A high-level employee at Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's Kingdom Holding Co. told The Associated Press that the royal— who is one of the world's richest men— was among those detained overnight Saturday. The company's stock was down nearly 9 percent in trading Sunday on the Saudi stock exchange.

The surprise arrests, which also reportedly include two of the late King Abdullah's sons, were hailed by pro-government media outlets as the greatest sign yet that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is keeping his promise to reform the country, long been plagued by allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government.

Well, I have news for you: the arrests themselves are a fact, but IMHO these arrests have nothing to do with an emerging war against corruption in the country, even though the large news outlets are reporting this as news.

Fourty years ago, when my father worked for a large building company in The Netherlands, doing business with Saudi Arabia simply meant paying massive amounts of bribe money to everybody with a status and an important role overthere. And now about half a century later hardly anything has changed with respect to that: only the royal family became much, much bigger, as became their need for (bribe) money.

In my opinion, the notion that Saudi Arabia will become less corrupted as a consequence of these dozens of arrests, is therefore preposterous. For the simple reason that the chance that something with such a long history as corruption in Saudi Arabia changes overnight, is minute.

As far as I’m concerned, what happened yesterday was nothing less than a Night of the Long Knives: a coup d’etat executed by the (new) people in charge of Saudi Arabia in order to wipe out all their political opponents! 
In this case under the moniker of “fighting corruption”, which is probably not a very hard case to proof overthere, but not the real reason at all. 

Wiping out the adversaries of the new crown prince was the first and only purpose of what has happened yesterday. Don’t believe anything else...

And to be frank with you: last night can be the beginning of something that could very well end up in a civil war in Saudi Arabia. This might happen, when the largest factions within the huge Saud family decide to take an aim at each other, using the countless American weapons stashed away in the country to take up the fight.

Expect more arrests and perhaps more deaths to emerge from these events very soon. And expect more and harsher suppression of everybody who does not agree with the official line of leadership in the country. Fighting corruption is a container that can cover a lot of actions, executed by the powers that be. 

Prince Mohammad will play for keeps to get/stay in charge of the country, as there is no turning back for him anymore. And so will his adversaries, as far as they have not been arrested yet or left the country in the meantime.

The only chance of these events not ending in a massive bloodshed, is when the former rulers understand there is a new sheriff in town indeed. In that case they will cut their losses soon and sit still while being shaven.

However, the chance that the family (and future heirs(?)) of billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal wave their massive wealth goodbye without a fight, is very dim in my opinion.

As long as these people can make use of the vast bank accounts of Prince Alwaleed, they can call for help from all directions, including the American army or even private soldiers of fortune from South Africa or Israel. 

The same is true for the former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his family, who now all should worry about their health and – as a matter of fact – their sheer survival of these emerging events. They will probably also not give in without a fight to the new rulers of the country.

What is at stake for all these people is not only the political direction and the future of Saudi Arabia, but especially their own future... 

Will they continue their life of exuberant wealth? Or will they flee the country as rich exiles, in order to not end on the infamous Chop Chop Square, where all the public executions take place. And even though everything behind all this is still very well under the cloak of secrecy, I am darn sure that it is not the war against corruption that caused these events. No way!

So the worst has probably yet to come in Saudi Arabia, as more and bloodier events will undoubtedly unroll in the coming weeks and months. 

This all is not about enhanced freedom for women. And probably also not about a more enlightened view on the Islam overthere. Those were all just words to lure the Western countries into accepting the new leadership of Saudi Arabia.

But a different view on religion? Seeing is believing, but I don’t see it coming soon. This all is just a grab for absolute power: a Night of the Long Knives!

Soon, part II in this story about Bernie Sanders: the best President the United States never had!

Friday, 27 October 2017

Will Xi Jinping become the new Mao Zedong? And how worrisome is that for the rest of the world and especially Taiwan?

When you look at the face of Chinese President and Chairman of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, you don’t see the face of a potentate or a powerhungry epicure, in my humble opinion. It is rather the face of a friendly, somewhat shy and restrained, but nevertheless smart uncle, who knows a lot about life.

Yet, this man is responsible for arguably the greatest political revolution in recent Chinese history, since the days of legendary leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong. And also for the most aggressive Chinese foreign policy since decades.

In his recent speech as Chairman of the Communist Party, in the eve of his second term as Chinese President, President Xi has officially made his grand visions on the development of China part of the official lecture of this Communist Party. And that was something that no Chinese Chairman/President ever managed during life, since Chairman Mao. Not even Chairman Deng Xiaoping did that. Het Financieele Dagblad wrote the following snippets about this extraordinary event:

With a formerly unheard of anti-corruption campaign, Xi got rid of the culture of bribery and self-enrichment within the [Communist] Party. He also managed to get his opponents out of the way. Xi, who has shown himself as a strong advocate of free trade this year, has used his first five year stint as Chairman to get everybody on the same page again within the party. A strong party also offers him the chance to let China shine again on the global theatre.

Last week, Xi’s visions were recorded in the constitution of the party; an honour that was only granted to Mao during his government. Also his Silk Route initiative and his 'Theory of Reforms at the Supply Side' are now official part of the foundations of the party. And now that a large share of the seats in the 25-headed Politbureau is filled with confidants from the so-called ‘Zhejiang faction’, nothing stands in Xi’s way anymore to shape the future of the country to his image.

Xi Jinping, as a guardian of free trade. Will that be good news for the rest of the world?

Not per sé, when we have closely followed the events surrounding the Spratly Islands, quite recently occupied and confiscated by China, based upon the notion “that China has the biggest navy in the region and can kick anybody’s *ss at will”.

And we must also not forget the increasingly shrill tone-of-voice that China utters in the direction of Taiwan, the “renegade province”, eternally belonging to the Chinese motherland in China’s vision. Taiwan is also a very good example of China’s recently refound self-confidence and increasingly ‘assertive’ behaviour against the rest of the (Western) world.

Already for years now is China building upon their network of ‘vassal states’ in Africa, Latin America and even Europe (Greece!), via their (in)famous soft power and influence. With gifts in the form of ‘beads and mirrors’ for the local rulers, new roads and infrastructure (mostly in favour of China's mining companies and traders itself) and engineering and agricultural knowledge (again mostly to the advantage of China), they have put those local rulers in their debt. 

Through these vassal states and trading partners, the Chinese powers-that-be secured their own country of food, other agricultural produce and invaluable raw materials for their huge domestic “production apparatus”, that must keep on running to keep potential domestic unrest under control.

Even the most developed and civilized countries, like The Netherlands, fall for the tinsel that China has to offer. In the Dutch case this Chinese tinsel was formed by two giant pandas, that could be rented for a limited period of time and after meeting numerous constraints and (financial) conditions [i.e. link points to a Dutch-spoken documentary about the Dutch-Chinese Panda Lobby- EL].

Even though this black-and-white coloured ‘favour’ was disguised as a gift to celebrate the good mutual relations between China and The Netherlands, it is probably used as a bait to reel the Dutch hearts and minds in. We are your friend with great power and might. Don’t talk with us boldly and don’t criticize us for our human rights, or else we take your toy away...

One reason why especially the local rulers in Africa and Latin America love China so much, is that the country does not interfere in local politics. It does not lecture them about human rights, widespread corruption, violence and intimidation around elections or about excessive differences between the poor and the rich and other utterly annoying stuff for these rulers. 

You simply supply the goods and raw materials that we want and you let us lay down the infrastructure that we need to ship everything out. And you don't ask any hard question. We supply then the money, infrastructure and weapons that you want and need. That’s the whole deal...”. This seems to be China’s vision on foreign politics. 

And this works both ways: China loves doing business with these “dubious” regimes, because they don’t ask any questions about the very limited and even diminishing personal freedom in China or about the hampered human rights situation. 
  
This in contrary to Western governments and NGO’s, that constantly bang the drum about the human rights in many African and Latin American countries, but also about the human rights situation in China itself, with respect to the own population and also Tibet. 

In case of the Chinese visit to the United Kingdom in 2015, this 'blahblah' about freedom for the Tibetans and human rights almost led to a diplomatic ‘situation’, when Prince Charles refused to visit the official state banquet, offered by the Queen to honour the Chinese President Xi Jinping and his entourage. Such incidents could lead to loss of face for the Chinese leaders and must be avoided at all cost.

So both China and their vassal states in Latin America and Africa are probably very satisfied about the current diplomatic and political situation between them. However, what the rulers of these states might forget, is that China operates with solely one purpose in mind: China’s wellbeing, economic growth and secured future, via a leading role in the world. China has a long term vision in mind, in which China and China only prevails. All else is of less importance.

The soft way or the hard way, China always gets what it wants. 

And China still do so from the position of ‘a benevolent, but misunderstood underdog with a good heart, but with a lot of enemies in the world’. In their own vision, China has a good heart, but the bad people in the rest of the (Western) world constantly force this ‘sleeping giant’ to defend itself in any which way.

The Financial Times wrotes the following upon Xi’s and China’s foreign policy for the imminent future:

Winning “hearts and minds” at home and abroad through United Front [the official Chinese organization charged with the execution of China’s foreign policy] work is crucial to realising the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”, Mr Xi has said. Yet the type of power exercised by the cadres who work behind the neoclassical façade of 135 Fuyou Street is often anything but soft.

A teaching manual for [United Front’s] cadres, obtained by the Financial Times, sets out at length and in detail the organisation’s global mission in language that is intended both to beguile and intimidate.

It exhorts cadres to be gracious and inclusive as they try to “unite all forces that can be united” around the world. But it also instructs them to be ruthless by building an “iron Great Wall” against “enemy forces abroad” who are intent on splitting China’s territory or hobbling its development.

“Enemy forces abroad do not want to see China rise and many of them see our country as a potential threat and rival, so they use a thousand ploys and a hundred strategies to frustrate and repress us,” according to the book, titled the “China United Front Course Book”.

Merriden Varrall, director at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, says that under Mr Xi there has been a distinct toughening in China’s soft power focus. The former emphasis on reassuring others that China’s rise will be peaceful is giving way to a more forceful line. “There has been a definite shift in emphasis since Xi Jinping took over,” says Ms Varrall. “There is still a sense that reassuring others is important, but there is also a sense that China must dictate how it’s perceived and that the world is biased against China.”

The red and bold text says it all: “Reassuring others about China peaceful politics is still important, but not so important anymore. Most important is now that we get what we want and that other (non-Western) countries buy our story about good China versus the bad and hostile Western world”.

This new, more aggressive and slightly envious and frustrated foreign policy stands not on its own these days. 

To the contrary: it fits very well in the current, disturbing trend of the ‘political roosters’, that are nowadays leading the world’s largest and most influential nations. Leaders that seem to operate from an alleged inferiority complex within themselves or their country and don’t tolerate opposition from domestic sources, as well from abroad.

President Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillippines, Recep Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia are just a few textbook examples of such political roosters, just like 'spiritual leader' Lech Kaczynski of Poland, and President Viktor Órban of Hungary. 

President Xi Jinping, in spite of his soft, slightly aloof and shy appearance, has just become one of these roosters too. And the rest of the world will know this very soon...

What could be the consequences of this new Chinese policy for the rest of the world? I expect not only stronger bonds between China and its vassal states, but also between China and the aforementioned, like-minded leaders at the periphery of the Western world.

President Duterte of the Phillippines, President Erdoğan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia are among the leaders, with whom I expect China to want a stronger connection, just as with the leadership of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran and (perhaps also) Syria. 

Those are countries with (allegedly) a strong bias against the Western world and with the oil, gas or other raw materials that China needs. And very important: with the political influence in their region that makes them potentially important strongholds for China.

And in Europe I expect the same to happen with Greece, Hungary, Poland, the United Kingdom (i.e. in spite of ‘Charlesgate’) and perhaps even Spain and Ukraine. Those are all countries that have their ‘issues’ with the European Union, due to the domestic political situation or due to their exit from the EU, in case of the UK. There is nothing wrong with a good handshake, when this hand is filled with a fistful of dollars or yuans.

At the other side of the spectrum there are the countries that dare to oppose to China’s will and political ambitions. Taiwan, the United States (the Spratly Islands(!)), North Korea and Vietnam are all among the countries that could have to deal with China’s increased self-confidence and pizzaz soon.

Especially, when they refuse the Chinese need for ‘Lebensraum’ (i.e. the contaminated German word from the Second World War for ‘living space’) and unification of the mother land, with respect to Taiwan. Or when they don't listen to China closely enough (i.e. North Korea and especially its stubborn leader Kim Jung-Un). 

The first (luckily verbal) scrimmages between the American and Chinese navy, regarding the Spratly's, could act as a warning that China plays for keeps and does not draw back automatically anymore, when somebody shouts ‘stop’.

Together with the concealed forest fire, which is the North Korean situation and the tensions in the Middle East (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq) and Eastern Europe (Russia vs Ukraine and the Baltic States), the new Chinese ‘assertiveness’ could lead to an explosive mixture on a global scale. Especially now that the White House in Washington is inhabited by a short-fused, utterly inexperienced and impulsive political rookie in the form of American President Donald Trump.

There is, however, one big advantage: the Chinese empire thinks in a scale of hundreds, if not thousands of years. This means that Xi Jinping, as a true son of this empire, will probably not fall in the pitfalls of the unexperienced Western leaders, by wanting too much too soon. He and his country have time and can be patient.

Even the new “Mao Zedong Light” understands that his power is limited, when he doesn’t use it wisely and with restraint. I therefore expect that President Xi will be patient indeed, as he understands that he will have nothing left, if he blows up everything on a global scale. That is a sort of relief for Taiwan and for the United States.

Even though Taiwan may be put under more economic and political pressure to give up their ‘rogue nation’ attitude (i.e. in the eyes of the Chinese) and return to the lap of the People’s Republic of China, I expect that this is all what will happen within the coming years. 

The stakes of an armed (or even nuclear) conflict with the United States are simply too high for China to run this risk.

And that is slightly comforting in these roaring years...  

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

“You have to believe in us, because we say so! We are benevolent companies, that keep a keen eye on your interests, even if you can’t control us!”. Welcome in the Information Black Hole of Google and Facebook

What goes around, comes around!

A few days ago, my dear, hardworking neighbour Anita approached me. She was crying and at the brink of mental exhaustion.

Anita was a woman, who was struck hard when her husband divorced from her more than ten years ago. He left her behind with three (just) teenage children to care for, with no job and seemingly a grim future full of heartship ahead.

But when the going got tough, the tough kept going: Anita started an online company in sports lingerie, which she built into a success, due to excellent quality lingerie, working days of 15+ hours and a customerfriendliness that was second to none.

However, one year ago Google changed “the rules” regarding SEO (i.e. Search Engine Optimization). Her previously reliable website, that served her well and generated many satisfied customers, was suddenly obsolete meaning that she did not end high enough in the search results anymore. And everybody with a mom-and-pop online store knows what that means: no ranking means no customers!

She was forced to redesign her whole website to the tune of tens of thousands of Euro’s. And a lion share of this money was consumed by consultants for new and improved SEO, in order to get the good ranking back that would bring her new customers.

Already then she was complaining that the expenses for the new website were eating a large chunk off her annual sales. But when she would not have done it, she would have been out of business soon. Not due to failing quality of her products or dissatisfied customers, but for online invisibility, as no-one cares about the third page of the search results.

And then came last Friday, with our small meeting on the street 

Anita bursted into tears when we talked: she was still struggling with the new website and due to the continuing problems with SEO on her website, she had missed 40% in sales in one single month. A disaster… 

She would like to take a break, as she had worked so hard for such a long time, but she couldn’t do so, as there were so many things to do every day.

And Anita was bothered by the enormous influence that Google had on her company. Not only by changing the rules for SEO, forcing her to make vast investments, but also by putting the results of its own affiliated webshops in the top of the search results. Just because they can…

Personally, I have always wondered about Google and the products and services that it delivers:
  • Why are so many people – including yours truly – willing to offer free content on Blogger, turning it into a huge success and source of income for Google?
    • And why do none of the vast revenues coming from Blogger flow back towards their unpaid bloggers, except for income generated by the Adwords ads?
  • Why can Google charge so many bills for clicks to their advertizers, while I as a blogger got hardly any clicks in the time when I still had ads on my site? And that in spite of the fact that I wrote new, original content on a day-to-day basis (in those days)?!
    • Of course, I did not write clickbait and as a blogger I probably made every mistake in the 'successful writer’s book', which has cost me a lot of potential clicks. But still, where do all the clicks go and who gets them?! Am I just to suspicious about this and is everything fair and square?!
  • And last, but not least: Who controls Google as a near monopolist in the online advert business and checks if they indeed do what they promise to do to their countless corporate customers?!

The answer to the last question is that probably nobody and no company can ever check and control Google, except for Google itself. In other words: it is their Information Black Hole and every online writer, webshop, news media outlet and online storechain is trapped in it!

When – in the days before online –  normal persons and (SME) companies put an advert in a newspaper, they always got a free copy as proof that the advert indeed existed and was displayed according to the preliminary agreed conditions and formats.

The same was true for radio or TV commercials. These commercials were aired on radio or TV and every company could check itself if its commercial was broadcasted correctly and at the right time.

But with Google?

“Yes, we targeted your online advert to your target groups. We did that exactly as you wanted. You can’t check that, unless you belong to your own target group. Only then you can see your own adverts. That is the way we work!

You simply must believe us, because we say so! We are benevolent companies, that keep a keen eye on your interests, even if you can’t control us… at all! So please pay us our money and don’t bother to investigate things further. We are totally honest and the fact that we manage all the data at places and times invisible for you, does not say you can’t trust us”. 

Or something like that…

Even if you do feel confident about the trustworthiness and reliability of Google – which I use at this very moment, I admit – you must agree that near-monopoly positions seldomly lead to better quality, better service, more customerfriendliness and more confidence among its customers. Especially when such companies are hiding between walls of unapproachability and meaninglessness for the average Joe Sixpack, when it comes to their goals, targets and business model.

Sometimes companies are simply too big to NOT fail in the end and Google may very well be one of them!

And then there is the elephant in the room. A company that is so influential and so opaque in structure and modus operandi via its news feeds, pushed messages distribution and search possibilities, that even the company itself can hardly crack its own code: Facebook!

I always had a love/hate relation with Facebook: I loved to hate it very much, because of its mainly dull content (“I have boring friends, y’know”), the overflow of pictures and videos of shiny, happy and successful people having a ball every day and the manipulative way the news and messages from my friends were put (or not put) in my timeline.

I want to choose my news and interesting information myself and I don’t want my news and interesting information to choose me! 

That is why I stick to my online newspapers (at least six per day) and my mostly Dutch and British news outlet websites.

After a few years in which I looked at Facebook very seldomly, but still got a more and more uncomfortable feeling from the company, I abandoned Facebook roughly two years ago. Since then I am careful to not be lured into another subscription, out of curiosity for certain information. Do I miss a lot of stuff? Probably, but it was worth it.

Yesterday I read an utterly disturbing and interesting article in The Atlantic, about the influence of Facebook on the last United States Presidential Elections. It was an absolute must-read and a reading hour very well spent. He are a few interesting snippets of this article:

The Trump campaign was working to suppress “idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans,” and they’d be doing it with targeted, “dark” Facebook ads. These ads are only visible to the buyer, the ad recipients, and Facebook. No one who hasn’t been targeted by then can see them. How was anyone supposed to know what was going on, when the key campaign terrain was literally invisible to outside observers?

[…]

But the point isn’t that a Republican beat a Democrat. The point is that the very roots of the electoral system—the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized.

In the middle of the summer of the election, the former Facebook ad-targeting product manager, Antonio García Martínez, released an autobiography called Chaos Monkeys. He called his colleagues “chaos monkeys,” messing with industry after industry in their company-creating fervor. “The question for society,” he wrote, “is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what human cost.” This is the real epitaph of the election.

The information systems that people use to process news have been rerouted through Facebook, and in the process, mostly broken and hidden from view. It wasn’t just liberal bias that kept the media from putting everything together. Much of the hundreds of millions of dollars that was spent during the election cycle came in the form of “dark ads.”

The truth is that while many reporters knew some things that were going on on Facebook, no one knew everything that was going on on Facebook, not even Facebook. And so, during the most significant shift in the technology of politics since the television, the first draft of history is filled with undecipherable whorls and empty pages. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterms loom.

The first red and bold text is to these eyes the million dollar question. A question that is just as applicable to Google with its own targeted ads, as it is to Facebook.

How can people know what is going on within the data warehouses of Facebook and Google, if nobody has control over the data flows that these companies process? And what about the protection of democracy and the truth in (Western) countries, when so much (deceptive) information is hidden and distributed below the radar to anonymous people that nobody knows?!

That brings us to the second red and bold tekst: will societies survive the way Facebook collects and distributes news, ads and (dis)information to unknown people and at what human cost will that be?!

Personally, I don’t care so much about the sheer fact that Russia and Russian agents have meddled into the US public opinion with (fake) news and targeted ads and, as such, have influenced the outcome of the American elections. 

What goes around, comes around!

It is hardly a secret that the United States via CIA, DEA, NSA and the whole alphabet soup of American secret services have meddled in countless elections in Latin America, Middle America, the Far East and Middle East and even Europe. 

And when the elections did not yield the preferred candidate after all, a small revolution was easily organized in the Fifties and Sixties of last century; especially in Latin America and the Middle East. All-in the name of the American defence against communism, aka the Domino Theory! 

So dear Americans: please stop with the whining and the crocodile tears about the interference of Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin into your presidential elections with your own ICT companies and simply cut your losses!

What was worrisome about the United States presidential elections, however, is the fact that a conspicuously deranged and dangerously narcissistic president like Donald Trump has been elected from it, due to both the alleged Russian disinformation campaign surrounding the elections and the extraordinary influence on the average, religious and conservative Joe Sixpack, that the alt-right site Breitbart had acquired via Facebook.

Of course the Americans have the legal right to choose their next president at will, even though people outside the United States would rather see that differently sometimes

Nevertheless, the fact that people have been (negatively) influenced and mis-/disinformed at such a scale is very dangerous. As if Pandora's Box has been opened. And it happened in a way that was totally invisible and out of grasp for other people and/or the authorities, due to Facebook's extremely targeted adverts and tailormade news, that are not disclosed to the general public. That's what makes this so bad.

When presidential candidates turn their opponents into black sheep by spreading blatant lies or disinformation in a public debate or publicly broadcasted commercials (e.g. think about the slanderous “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT)” group from the George Bush Jr. campaign), the opponents can publicly react and debunk such stories. In the worst case, they can go to court with a complaint for slander or libel done by their opponent.

However, when such influencing all takes place under “a cloak of invisibility ”, directly into the minds of common people sitting behind their computers and doing their stuff on Facebook, it can turn into an uncontrollable and dangerous phenomenon. The Russians and Steve Bannon’s Breitbart discovered that already during the Donald Trump campaign, just like a bunch of Macedonian kids (see the aforementioned articles).

Who will be next to pull the same tricks? Xi Jinping? Kim Jung Un? Ayatollah Khamenei? Benjamin Netanyahu? Or one of Saudi Arabia’s ethically backwarded kings or princes?! It’s your pick!

As that is the main risk that Facebook, and the filter bubble they created, form: that people become influenced and ‘brainwashed’ to a point of no return. 
Nobody and nothing can influence their opinions with different news and different opinions anymore, simply due to these people being out of reach, living in their Facebook filter bubble.

It is like a hamburger lover who is forced to eat at McDonalds every single day, because all other restaurants are closed for him. He may still like it after a while, but in the end it might kill him.

That is the same with the filter bubble that Facebook introduced: when people don’t hear news and opinions anymore that counter (and even might throw over) their own opinions and dogma’s, they become brainwashed by their own truths and opinions in the end and stop thinking for themselves at all. In the end they become sheep, all listening to and obeying their demagogue leaders and opinion makers.

Hence the story of the German people in the time before and during the Second World War. These people were not all per sé bad or murderous (i.e. most weren’t in fact), but they all lived in their own filter bubble, presented to them by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels and their utterly demagogue speeches and radio news. They all thought to fight for a good cause, as it was the only cause they had heard of.

It is a ‘blessing in disguise’ that Facebook at this moment is “only” hunting for your money via personalized ads and personalized services, as well as for all(!) your personal data and your deepest secrets, via your likes, your click and reading behaviour, the news feed that you like and via their sophisticated, deterministic software.

And it is a blessing in disguise too that Mark Zuckerberg – even though slightly creepy and robotic in his behaviour – is not a bad person (at least not now).

But we all should fear the day that Facebook ends up in the hands of people with less noble motives (i.e. like the Chinese or Russian goverment(?) or mob groups from all over the world). Then the massive stockpile of very personal information, coming from more than one billion people, might very well turn itself against us and threaten us in our very existence.

That is the reason that Facebook (and also Google) should perhaps been split up, like ITT and the Bell company in earlier years. And that for the simple reason that there is now too much information and too much power in only a few hands.

Competitors have only the slightest chance to survive the purchase and competitive power of Facebook and Google unharmed; when there is a new market, these companies will inevitably take it over. 

The fact that the global information and advertisement market is almost solely in these two hands and that Google and Facebook control the distribution of nearly all the ad money in the world(!), is eventually killing for the old ‘dead tree’ media, in their role as defenders of democracy and society of last resort.

And when there are no independent and unfiltered media anymore for the people of the world, all the truths and topical knowledge in the world will be sucked up into the Information Black Hole of Facebook and Google, to be distributed at their will.

And besides that: think about the small mom & pop webshops like the one of my neighbour Anita. All these webstores feel that their future is in the choking hands of the information supergiants Facebook and Google.

Think about that, when you entrust all your secrets to Facebook and Google...

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