Tuesday, December 17, 2013

History of the War... on Christmas

[ If Christmas creep continues to expand Christmas into September while Christmas becomes a time when people are at war with people... then more and more of our time will be spent fighting each other.... over Christmas. This is quite different from my childhood, when Christmas meant peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Oh, by the way, they have re-translated that to "on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."  That sort of explains it, doesn't it? Yet obviously, those fighting the Christmas wars are not at peace.]

A Short History of the War on Christmas

How everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Jon Stewart became a co-conspirator in an annual farce.


December 16, 2013

Henry Ford was an avid proponent of the idea that someone—or more precisely, some group—was waging a war on Christmas.

“Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth,” according to The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem, a widely distributed set of anti-Semitic articles published in the automobile magnate’s newsweekly during the 1920s. “People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.”

In 1959, it was the far-right John Birch Society that published a pamphlet alerting the nation to an "assault on Christmas" carried out by "UN fanatics...What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.”

Today’s War Over Christmas still revolves around department stores, and focuses on the rise of “Happy Holidays” and “Holiday Trees.” And it remains alert to an internal enemy poised to stab America in the back. But like everything else, the War Over Christmas has become tarted up, 24-houred and Twitterized—even as it has grown drearily routine, an annual pageant in which culture warriors line the trenches and, like mechanical toy soldiers in a shopping-mall display, fix bayonets and wage the same battle all over again.


The modern American War on Christmas began “pretty much 10 years ago,” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly recalled earlier this month in a conversation with Sarah Palin (the former would-be veep was promoting her new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas). It was sparked in part, he said, by “major corporations [that] ordered their employees not to say ‘Merry Christmas.’”

He got the date slightly wrong. It was actually nine years ago, almost to the day, on Dec. 7th, 2004, that The O'Reilly Factor first aired a segment on “Christmas Under Siege” and, in so doing, appears to have launched The War Over Christmas as we know it.

“All over the country, Christmas is taking flak,” O’Reilly told viewers, deploying a fittingly martial metaphor. “In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the ‘holiday tree,’ and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores—that’s Macy’s—have done away with the Christmas greeting ‘Merry Christmas.’”

This was three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, two years after Fox had overtaken CNN to become the nation’s most-watched cable news channel, 20 months since the United States invaded Iraq, and one year after George W. Bush defeated John Kerry after a campaign focused so intensely on gay marriage that it is now hard to comprehend. The newest round of the culture wars was in full swing.

"The Christmas War is symbiotic, promoting a wholesome effect on ratings and web traffic alike," writes Denvir. "Liberals mock conservatives, and conservatives then hold up the liberal ridicule."

One happy warrior was Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who wrote in December 2003 that her snooty Upper East Side neighbors’ distaste for her Virgin Mary figurine was proof that “the meaning and actuality of 9/11 ... has receded.” It was a moment when conservative ascendancy had reached new heights, but also its outer limits. Liberals (or, in O’Reilly's language, “secular progressives”) were at the gate, and ready to jump the walls.

“Secular progressives realize,” O'Reilly continued, “that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition. But if the secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility. That’s what happened in Canada.”

The echo chamber-packaged absurdity reached its apogee last week, when a contributor to the left-leaning site Slate proposed, tongue not completely out of cheek, that “America abandon Santa-as-fat-old-white-man and create a new symbol of Christmas cheer. From here on out, Santa Claus should be a penguin.” Fox’s Megyn Kelly took the bait, and assured children watching her show that Santa was, in fact, white—as was Jesus. Slate responded, as did everyone else on all sides of the trench. Kelly then explained that she was kidding. It was all in good fun. Click, click, click.

But sometimes, the War Over Christmas brings out the ugly side of its most fervent believers.

“Go to Saudi Arabia, let them go to Pakistan,” televangelist Pat Robertson told imagined Christmas opponents in 2004. “Yeah, they can go to the Sudan and find a wonderful Muslim holiday.” O’Reilly told a Jewish person who called into his radio show that if you have a problem with Christmas, “you gotta go to Israel then.”

Blogger Peter Brimelow called a 2012 Stewart segment “mostly an irrelevant but uninhibited expression of Jewish alienation and Christophobia.”

Brimelow—the founder of a popular conservative and frequently white nationalist blog called VDARE—is an expert in such matters. He is credited, and credits himself, for inventing the War on Christmas in the late 1990s, well before O’Reilly. “I just got real interested in the issue,” Brimelow told the Daily Beast in 2008, “because I noticed over the years there was this social shift taking place where people no longer said ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Brimelow is a close student of social shifts, particularly when they are related to skin color or national origin. “The root cause in all cases is the same: an American elite which is increasingly divergent, culturally and even ethnically, from the rest of the country,” Brimelow wrote, referring to what he calls the “Minority Occupied Government.”

Some prominent conservatives aren’t on board. “Not every skirmish is a war, and Christmas seems to be doing fine, so I have nothing to add to this seasonal subject,” Washington Post columnist George Will told me. It’s the sort of culture proxy war that mobilizes the right-wing base while embarrassing the establishment—the paranoid angst that often flushes through right-wing corners of American political consciousness, from the nationalistic red scare of the early 20th century to John Birch’s Cold War fright.

And for O’Reilly, who once wondered whether criticism surrounding Mel Gibson's 2004 anti-Semitic blockbuster The Passion of Christ might be a result of the fact that “the major media in Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people,” it is sometimes hard to believe that “secular progressives” isn't some kind of code word, too.

“Remember,” he said in 2004, “more than 90 percent of American homes celebrate Christmas. But the small minority that is trying to impose its will on the majority is so vicious, so dishonest—and has to be dealt with.”

Back then, at the patriotic height of the aughts, these were the kinds of dark, apocalyptic sentiments that worried liberals, and made centrist figures like George Will quietly uncomfortable. A decade on, though, the War Over Christmas is just something we do every year, like wrapping presents or drinking eggnog. But the hangover is giving me a nasty headache.

Daniel Denvir is staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Advertising to Bots

Welcome to the Internet of Thingies: 61.5% of Web Traffic Is Not Human

And here's how to build your own little traffic bot, even though you shouldn't

It happened last year for the first time: bot traffic eclipsed human traffic,according to the bot-trackers at Incapsula.
This year, Incapsula says 61.5 percent of traffic on the web is non-human.
Now, you might think this portends the arrival of "The Internet of Things"—that ever-promised network that will connect your fridge and car to your smartphone. But it does not.
This non-human traffic is search bots, scrapers, hacking tools, and other human impersonators, little pieces of code skittering across the web. You might describe this phenomenon as The Internet of Thingies.
Because bots are not difficult to build. In fact, it's so simple that a journalist (who has not learned to code) can do it.
I do it with a ($300) program called UBot Studio, which is an infrastructural piece of the botting world. It lets people like me program and execute simple scripts in browsers without (really) knowing any code.
Do you need 100 Hotmail accounts? I got you.
Perhaps you'd like some set of links autotweeted? I'm there.
You want to scrape a few numbers from a government website or an online store? Easy. It'd take 10 minutes.
Or — and this is the one that gets to me — perhaps you want to generate an extra 100,000 pageviews for some website? So simple. A programmer friend of mine put it like this, "The basics of sending fake traffic are trivial."
I'm going to tell you how here, even though I think executing such a script is highly unethical, probably fraud, and something you should not do. I'm telling you about it here because people need to understand how jawdroppingly easy it really is.
So, the goal is mimicking humans. Which means that you can't just send 100,000 visits to the same page. That'd be very suspicious.
So you want to spread the traffic out over a bunch of target pages. But which ones? You don't want pages that no one ever visits. But you also don't want to send traffic to pages that people are paying close attention to, which tend to be the most recent ones. So, you want popular pages but not the most popular or recent pages.
Luckily, Google tends to index the popular, recentish stories more highly. And included with UBot are two little bots that can work in tandem. The first scrapes Google's suggestions searches. So it starts with the most popular A searches (Amazon, Apple, America's Cup) then the most popular B searches, etc. Another little bot scrapes the URLs from Google search results.
So the first step in the script would be to use the most popular search suggestions to find popularish stories on the domain (say, theatlantic.com) and save all those domains.
The first search would be "amazon site:theatlantic.com." The top 20 URLs, all of which would be Atlantic stories, would get copied into a file. Then the bot would search "apple site:theatlantic.com" and paste another 20 in. And so on and so forth until you've got 1,000.
Now, all you've got to do is have the bot visit each story, wait for the page to load, and go on to the next URL. Just for good measure, perhaps you'd have the browser "focus" on the ads on the page to increase the site's engagement metrics.
Loop your program 100 times and you're done. And you could do the same thing whenever you wanted to.
Of course, the bot described here would be very easy to catch. If anyone looked, you'd need to be fancier to evade detection. For example, when a browser connects to a website, it sends a little token that says, "This is who I am!" And it lists the browser and the operating system, etc. Mine, for example, is, "Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_8_2) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/31.0.1650.63 Safari/537.36"
If we ran the script like this, an identical 100,000 user agents would show up in the site's logs, which might be suspicious.
But the user agent-website relationship is trust-based. Any browser can say, "I'm Chrome running on a Mac." And, in fact, there are pieces of software out there that will generate "realistic" user agent messages, which Ubot helpfully lets you plug in.
The hardest part would be obscuring that the IP addresses of the visits. Because if 100,000 visits came from a single computer, that would be a dead giveaway it was a bot. So, you could rent a botnet — a bunch of computers that have been hacked to do the bidding of (generally) bad people.
Or you could ask some "friends" to help out via a service like JingLing, which lets people use other people on the network to send traffic to webpages from different IP addresses. You scratch my back; I'll scratch yours!
But, if the botting process is done subtly, no one might think to check what was going on. Because from a publisher's perspective, how much do you really want to know?
In the example I gave, no page has gotten more than 100 views, but you've added 100,000 views to the site as a whole. It would just seem as if there was more traffic, but it'd all be down at the bottom of the traffic reports where most people have no reason to look.
And indeed, some reports have come out showing that people don't check. One traffic buyer told Digiday, "We worked with a major supply-side platform partner that was just wink wink, nudge nudge about it. They asked us to explain why almost all of our traffic came from one operating system and the majority had all the same user-agent string."
That is to say, someone involved in the traffic supply chain was no more sophisticated than a journalist with 10 hours of training using a publicly available piece of software.
The point is: It's so easy to build bots that do various things that they are overrunning the human traffic on the web.
Now, to understand the human web, we have to reckon with the logic of the non-human web. It is, in part, shady traffic that allows ad networks and exchanges to flourish. And these automated ad buying platforms — while they do a lot of good, no doubt about it — also put pressure on other publishers to sell ads more cheaply. When they do that, there's less money for content, and the content quality suffers.
The ease of building bots, in other words, hurts what you read each and every day on the Internet. And it's all happening deep beneath the shiny web we know and (sometimes) love.