Clubhouse Tests the Market for Live Unfiltered Talk

(p. B1) Clubhouse and other audio-based social networks are attracting users with a simple appeal: hearing another human voice.

. . .

(p. B4) Clubhouse could be successful in building paid features because of its air of exclusivity—an invitation is required to join, but easy to procure—and the high-profile names coming to converse on the platform, including Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, actor Lindsay Lohan and Brad Parscale, one-time campaign manager for former President Donald Trump.

. . .  Mr. Musk’s appearance had in part helped drive an influx of China-based users to Clubhouse, where they participated in a rare outpouring of free debate on topics that are taboo in China, until Beijing’s censors this week appeared to cut off access to the app.

Any Clubhouse user can create a virtual room with designated speakers to discuss any topic, for example the merits of bitcoin, startup-building advice, stand-up comedy, or recovery from childhood trauma. Poetry readings, bedtime serenades and guided meditation are on offer. A number of the conversations are about Clubhouse itself, with users dissecting the app, lamenting its shortcomings and complaining about other users.

Tech executives have questioned the staying power of an app with so few guardrails for the length and quality of conversation and no way to filter out idle chatter.

. . .

As with seemingly all online communities, the challenge of moderation looms. Live audio is tougher to moderate than text or images, . . .

For the full story, see:

Heather Somerville. “Social Networks With A Voice Draw Users.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Feb 12, 2021): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 11, 2021, and has the title “Clubhouse Wins Over Hollywood, Tech, Even Elon Musk. Are You Next?”)

Disney Cancels Canaro for Daring to Defend Free Speech

(p. B2) Lucasfilm said it is no longer working with Gina Carano after the actress’s social-media posts angered fans.

Ms. Carano played the character Cara Dune on “The Mandalorian,” a television series inspired by the Star Wars franchise that is available to stream on Walt Disney Co.’s Disney+ service. Lucasfilm is a unit of Disney.

“Gina Carano is not currently employed by Lucasfilm and there are no plans for her to be in the future,” a spokeswoman for the studio said. “Nevertheless, her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.”

On Tuesday [Feb. 9, 2021], Ms. Carano shared an Instagram story, or a post that disappears, that read in part: “most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views,” according to a report in Variety on Wednesday [Feb. 10, 2021].

For the full story, see:

Micah Maidenberg. “‘Mandalorian’ Drops Actress Over Her Posts.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Feb 12, 2021): B2.

(Note: bracketed dates added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 11, 2021, and has the title “‘The Mandalorian’ Drops Actress Gina Carano Over Social-Media Posts.”)

When Leftist James R. Flynn Disagreed, He Would Argue, Not Cancel

(p. B10) Dr. Jensen was best known for an article he published in 1969 claiming that the differences between Black and white Americans on I.Q. tests resulted from genetic differences between the races — and that programs that tried to improve Black educational outcomes, like Head Start, were bound to fail.

Dr. Flynn, a committed leftist who had once been a civil rights organizer in Kentucky, felt instinctively that Dr. Jensen was wrong, and he set out to prove it.  . . .

Like most researchers in his field, Dr. Jensen had assumed that intelligence was constant across generations, pointing to the relative stability of I.Q. tests over time as evidence. But Dr. Flynn noticed something that no one else had: Those tests were recalibrated every decade or so. When he looked at the raw, uncalibrated data over nearly 100 years, he found that I.Q. scores had gone up, dramatically.

“If you scored people 100 years ago against our norms, they would score a 70,” or borderline mentally disabled, he said later. “If you scored us against their norms, we would score 130” — borderline gifted.

. . .

“He surprised everyone, despite the fact that the field of intelligence research is intensely data-centric,” the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said in an interview. “This philosopher discovered a major phenomenon that everyone had missed.”

Though Dr. Flynn published his research in 1984, it was not until a decade later that it drew attention outside the narrow world of intelligence researchers.

The turning point came with the publication in 1994 of “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles A. Murray, which argued that genes play a dominant role in shaping intelligence — a position that its fiercest critics called racist. In reviewing arguments for and against their position, the authors outlined Dr. Flynn’s research and even gave it a name: the Flynn effect.

. . .

“Jim was a paragon of intellectual curiosity and willingness to look at all the evidence,” Dr. Murray said in an interview. “He had almost a childlike curiosity, and I mean that in a good way.”

. . .

Unlike many academics, Dr. Flynn increased his output as he aged: Eleven of his 18 books appeared in his last decade, many of them going back to his earlier interests in political theory and free speech. He became increasingly focused on academic freedom and a critic of so-called cancel culture, especially on campus.

His last book, “In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor,” was rejected by its first publisher as incendiary — though, as Dr. Flynn pointed out, he was merely summarizing the positions of people he disagreed with, in order to make a larger point. Frustrated, he found a new publisher for the book, which he retitled “A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities” (2019).

“Dad was always very respectful of people he disagreed with, and hated the trend of boycotting academics because of their views,” Professor Flynn, his son, said. “He very much thought that people should be able to express their views, and if you don’t agree, argue with them.”

For the full obituary, see:

Clay Risen. “James R. Flynn, Who Found We’re Getting Smarter, and Why, Dies at 86.” The New York Times (Wednesday, January 27, 2021): B10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Jan. 25, 2021, and has the title “James R. Flynn, Who Found We Are Getting Smarter, Dies at 86.”)

James R. Flynn’s last book was:

Flynn, James R. A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities. Washington, DC: Academica Press, 2019.

Free Speech First Amendment Blocks Government from Punishing False Statements

The commentary quoted below defines “deepfakes” as “apparently real images or videos that show people doing or saying things they never did or said.” For the government to punish false statements, the government would first have to establish which statements are true and which are false. The Supreme Court has ruled that if it did so, the government would be violating free speech, which is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Cass Sunstein, who wrote the commentary below, is a well-respected legal scholar who served as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration.

(p. C3) Can deepfakes, as such, be prohibited under American law? Almost certainly not. In U.S. v. Alvarez, decided in 2012, a badly divided Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from regulating speech simply because it is a lie.   . . .   The plurality opinion declared that “permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense…would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle…. Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out.”

For the full commentary, see:

Cass R. Sunstein. “Can the Government Regulate Deepfakes?” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021): C3.

(Note: the first ellipsis is added; the second and third are in the original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 7, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Cass Sunstein’s commentary is adapted from his book:

Sunstein, Cass R. Liars: Falsehoods and Free Speech in an Age of Deception. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Chinese Communists Plan Years in Prison for Lawyer-Journalist Who Documented Government Failings in Covid Crisis

(p. A15) In one video, during the lockdown in Wuhan, she filmed a hospital hallway lined with rolling beds, the patients hooked up to blue oxygen tanks. In another, she panned over a community health center, noting that a man said he was charged for a coronavirus test, even though residents believed the tests would be free.

At the time, Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer turned citizen journalist, embodied the Chinese people’s hunger for unfiltered information about the epidemic. Now, she has become a symbol of the government’s efforts to deny its early failings in the crisis and promote a victorious narrative instead.

Ms. Zhang abruptly stopped posting in May [2020], after several months of dispatches. The police later revealed that she had been arrested, accused of spreading lies. On Monday [Dec. 28, 2020], she will go to court, in the first known trial of a chronicler of China’s coronavirus crisis.

Ms. Zhang has continued to challenge the authorities from jail. Soon after her arrest, Ms. Zhang began a hunger strike, according to her lawyers. She has become gaunt and drained but has refused to eat, the lawyers said, maintaining that her strike is her form of protest against her unjust detention.

“She said she refuses to participate in the trial. She says it’s an insult,” Ren Quanniu, one of the lawyers, said after visiting Ms. Zhang in mid-December in Shanghai, where she is being held.

Ms. Zhang’s prosecution is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s continuing campaign to recast China’s handling of the outbreak as a succession of wise, triumphant moves by the government. Critics who have pointed to officials’ early missteps have been arrested, censored or threatened by police; three other citizen journalists disappeared from Wuhan before Ms. Zhang did, though none of the rest has been publicly charged.

Prosecutors accused Ms. Zhang of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — a frequent charge for government critics — and recommended between four and five years in prison.

For the full story, see:

Vivian Wang. “Wuhan Citizen Journalist Faces Trial for Posts in Pandemic.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 27, 2020): A15.

(Note: bracketed dates added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 27, 2020, and has the title “She Chronicled China’s Crisis. Now She Is Accused of Spreading Lies.”)

Early Animation “Followed Only One Rule”: “Anything Goes”

(p. C5) The story of Disney Studios is a central strand in Mitenbuler’s narrative; Disney became the formidable force that the other animation studios would look toward, compete with and rail against. Max Fleischer, whose studio was responsible for the likes of Popeye and Betty Boop, groused that Disney’s “Snow White,” released in 1937, was “too arty.”  . . .  The wife of one of the Fleischer brothers, though, said they had better watch out: “Disney is doing art, and you guys are still slapping characters on the butt with sticks!”

But what if those slapped butts were part of what had made animation so revolutionary in the first place? Mitenbuler suggests as much, beginning “Wild Minds” with the early days of animation, in the first decades of the 20th century, when the technology of moving pictures was still in its infancy. Like the movie business in general, the field of animation contained few barriers to entry, and a number of Jewish immigrants shut out from other careers found they could make a decent living working for a studio or opening up their own. Even Disney, who grew up in the Midwest, was an outsider without any connections.

The work created in those early decades was often gleefully contemptuous of anything that aspired to good taste. Until the movie studios started self-censoring in the early ’30s, in a bid to avoid government regulation, animators typically followed only one rule to the letter: Anything goes.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES: Ehh, What’s Animation, Doc?” The New York Times (Thursday, December 17, 2020): C5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 16, 2020, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES: ‘Fantasia,’ ‘Snow White,’ Betty Boop, Popeye and the First Golden Age of Animation.”)

The book under review is:

Mitenbuler, Reid. Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020.

Black Cuban Dissident Rapper: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s My President”

(p. A12) HAVANA — In another era, the detention of a young Cuban dissident may have gone completely unnoticed. But when the rapper Denis Solís was arrested by the police, he did something that has only recently become possible on the island: He filmed the encounter on his cellphone and streamed it live on Facebook.

The stream last month prompted his friends in an artist collective to go on a hunger strike, which the police broke up after a week, arresting members of the group. But their detentions were also caught on cellphone videos and shared widely over social media, leading hundreds of artists and intellectuals to stage a demonstration outside the Culture Ministry the next day.

This swift mobilization of protesters was a rare instance of Cubans openly confronting their government — and a stark example of how having widespread access to the internet through cellphones is testing the power balance between the communist regime and its citizens.

. . .

In a country hammered by U.S. sanctions, the politics of some in the group have raised eyebrows. Mr. Solís is a die-hard Trump supporter: In the video he posted of his arrest, he screamed: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

For the full story, see:

Ed Augustin, Natalie Kitroeff and Frances Robles. “‘An Awakening’: Cubans’ Access to the Internet Fosters Dissent.” The New York Times (Thursday, December 10, 2020): A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Jan. 11, 2021, and has the title “‘On Social Media, There Are Thousands’: In Cuba, Internet Fuels Rare Protests.”)

Chinese Communists Arrest Journalist Who Wrote on “Tiananmen Massacre”

(p. A17) The journalist, Du Bin, 48, was detained on Wednesday by police officers in Beijing, said his sister, Du Jirong. Police officers told Ms. Du on Thursday that her brother had been placed under administrative detention for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The vaguely worded offense is one that the government often uses to quell activism and discussion of social and political issues.

Friends of Mr. Du, who worked in the past as a freelance photographer for The New York Times, say they believe his detention may have been connected to several of his recent book projects.

One book, published in Taiwan in 2017, was a historical account of what is known as the “siege of Changchun,” when Communist troops blockaded the northeastern Chinese city in 1948 to starve out their rival Nationalist soldiers, leading to the deaths of at least 160,000 civilians.

. . .

It is not the first time that Mr. Du’s work has provoked the ire of the authorities in China. In 2013, he was detained for just over a month after releasing a documentary about a Chinese forced labor camp and after publishing a book, “Tiananmen Massacre,” about the government crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.

For the full story, see:

Amy Qin. “Beijing Police Hold Journalist Critical of Communist Party.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 19, 2020): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 10, 2020, and has the title “Chinese Journalist Who Documented Communist History Is Detained in Beijing.”)

Zoom, Based in China, Censored Meetings Honoring Victims of Tiananmen Massacre

(p. B4) In a novel case, federal prosecutors on Friday [Dec. 18, 2020] brought criminal charges against an executive at Zoom, the videoconferencing company, accusing him of engaging in a conspiracy to disrupt and censor video meetings commemorating one of the most politically sensitive events in China.

Prosecutors said the executive, Xinjiang Jin, who is based in China, fabricated reasons to suspend accounts of people in New York who were hosting memorials on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and coordinated with Chinese officials to identify potentially problematic meetings.

He is accused of working with others to log into the video meetings under aliases using profile pictures that related to terrorism or child pornography. Afterward, Mr. Jin would report the meetings for violating terms of service, prosecutors said.

At least four meetings commemorating the massacre this year — largely attended by U.S.-based users — were terminated as a result of Mr. Jin’s actions, according to prosecutors.

For the full story, see:

Nicole Hong. “U.S. Charges China-Based Zoom Executive.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 19, 2020): B4.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 18, 2020, and has the title “Zoom Executive Accused of Disrupting Calls at China’s Behest.”)

Lenin, Not Stalin, Started “Severe Censorship” and “Terror Against Political Enemies”

(p. 15) With all the inevitable attention on the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917, when Lenin and Leon Trotsky seized power from the ill-fated provisional government, the extraordinary events of February and March should not be forgotten. It was then that unexpected riots over lack of food and fuel by thousands of people in the imperial capital of Petrograd and the ensuing mutiny by garrison troops compelled Czar Nicholas II to abdicate, ending 300 years of Romanov rule and handing political authority to a group of high-minded liberal figures. “Russia became the freest country in the world,” Merridale writes, “as the new government granted an amnesty for political prisoners, abolished the death penalty and dissolved what was left of the detested secret police.” (It also abolished the infamous Pale of Settlement, which had required the czar’s Jewish subjects to live within a defined area of the country; they were now made equal before the law.)

The provisional government inherited power from a discredited autocracy that had resisted any sensible move to establish a constitutional monarchy. Leaders like Alexander Kerensky, Paul Miliukov and Georgy Lvov tried in vain to establish a stable government and withstand the appeal of extreme forces. But the Romanov collapse was so sudden and so thorough that it left no credible institutions capable of governing effectively, let alone in the midst of widespread social turmoil, an imploding economy and the devastations of World War I.

. . .

. . . it was Lenin himself who made it clear that the Bolsheviks would reject democratic values. He “had not traveled back to join a coalition,” Merridale writes, but to undermine the provisional government and establish a dictatorship in the name of the proletariat. It was Lenin who instituted severe censorship, established one-party rule and resorted to terror against his political enemies. Stalin took these measures to further extremes for his own sinister purposes. Merridale is right to recall Winston Churchill’s famous observation about Lenin’s return. The Germans, Churchill wrote, “turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

For the full review, see:

Joshua Rubenstein. “Fast-Tracking the Revolution.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 11, 2017): 15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 9, 2017, and has the title “Lenin’s Return From Exile Put Russia on the Fast Track to Revolution.”)

The book under review is:

Merridale, Catherine. Lenin on the Train. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017.