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Capitol rioters were “predisposed” to conflict; Trump et al. fanned flames

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Enlarge / Trump supporters near the US Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The rioters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. (Photo by Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It’s a dark moment in American history that will not be soon forgotten. On January 6, thousands of supporters of soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump gathered for a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, DC, to protest the certification of the 2020 election results by Congress. Speaker after speaker pumped up the angry crowd by repeating false claims of widespread election fraud, culminating with an address by Trump himself, in which he called on his followers to “fight like hell” and march on the US Capitol. The result: frenzied rioters overran Capitol Police, smashing windows and triumphantly posing for selfies as they roamed through the evacuated building. By the time the National Guard regained control, five people were dead, including a Capitol Police officer.

As people struggled to process the horror in the immediate aftermath, Michael Bang Petersen, a Danish political scientist at Aarhus University, weighed in on Twitter with some counter-intuitive commentary. While the predominant theme among many pundits centered on the role of Trump and his enablers spreading lies about widespread voter fraud and then whipping the crowd into frenzy during that morning’s rally, Petersen suggested that perhaps they had it backward. “Did protestors storm Congress because they followed Trump and believed his misinformation about the US election? No,” he tweeted. “They followed Trump and believed in misinformation because they wanted to storm Congress.”

Petersen’s background is in evolutionary psychology, and his research focuses on how the adaptive challenges of human evolutionary history shape the way modern citizens think about mass politics. Back in October, Petersen published a review paper in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, making the case for his thesis that “mass mobilization”—like we saw with the Trumpian insurrectionists storming the nation’s Capitol—is not the direct result of manipulation by misinformation/wild conspiracy theories spread by a dominant leader. Rather, the paper said, those factors are vital tools for coordinating individuals who are already predisposed for conflict.

This perspective “does not necessarily imply that people do not believe in propaganda,” Petersen wrote in his paper. “But it suggests that such belief can be an effect rather than a cause of the deep need for action.” He describes a tipping point dynamic, in which a group that has coalesced around, say, Trumpism, suddenly becomes sufficiently coordinated to push it over the critical threshold into mass mobilization. In other words, a phase transition occurs, and a loose group of like-minded individuals becomes a violent mob.

On the one hand, Petersen wrote, this means that “groups and societies can be stable even if they contain large minority segments of individuals who share disruptive, violent, or prejudiced views.” On the other hand, “this stability can be quickly undermined if suddenly coordination is achieved.”

Petersen’s counter-intuitive insight does not let Trump and his enablers off the hook for inciting the mob by peddling disinformation; without those elements, there would be no sudden coordination. “I think that Donald Trump is a master of human psychology,” Petersen told Ars, pointing to Trump’s 2016 campaign messaging as evidence: that the world is dangerous place and only he could fix it and protect America from those who wish to destroy us.

Trump was offering himself as the avatar of a strong, dominant demagogue, in keeping with Petersen’s research. As he wrote in his paper, “If followers search for the optimal leader to solve conflict-related problems of coordination, they will seek out candidates who are willing to violate normative expectations by engaging in obvious lying, and who displays a personality oriented toward conflict, even if such personalities under other circumstances would be considered unappealing.”

“I think Trump knows what he does in terms of all of the psychological buttons that he is pushing,” said Petersen. “Maybe it’s not deliberate, but he has very deep intuitions about what works, and in that sense I would find it extraordinary if he didn’t know what was going on.” We sat down with Petersen to learn more about the psychological processes underlying this kind of mass mobilization.

Ars Technica: You argue that from an evolutionary standpoint, human beings should be resistant to easy manipulation. But people do believe quite a lot of silly things, and many eagerly embrace conspiracy theories.

Michael Petersen: Evolutionary psychology [holds] that the reason why we have the brain structures that we have is that they have been adapted over human evolutionary history. From that perspective, there should be limits to the degree to which we can be manipulated by others, because ultimately, we would have been at a fitness disadvantage if some person could just come and say, “Hey, do you know the Earth is flat,” or whatever, and then we said, “Oh, really?” We know that one of the ways that we humans engage in social conflict is by sharing rumors, telling stories, pretending that we are more formidable than we are. So we should have a number of psychological defenses that makes us more resistant to manipulation.

But nonetheless, we humans believe in a range of very weird things that we do not have evidence for. So how can it be? We’ve found that when you prime people with inter-group conflict, they reach out for the stronger, more dominant individual as the leader. It wasn’t actually fear that was driving this; it was inter-group conflicts among people feeling anger. Basically, inter-group conflict is this arms race of coordination; the better coordinated group eventually wins. The dominant leader is one way to create that [coordination], but another way is through these fringe beliefs. In the same way that you can form groups around religious beliefs to signal your group membership, you can use QAnon and other conspiracy beliefs with little basis in reality.

Ars Technica: You’re talking about tribalism, which is a double-edged sword. I think you’re saying that, evolutionarily speaking, tribes are good for survival, but this can be bad when it comes to a point where there are inter-tribal conflicts. 

Michael Petersen: Exactly. There’s always conflict in politics. But the tipping point where things go wrong is when the different tribes or the different groups lose a sense of shared fate, that in the end we are in this together. We have differences of opinions, but because our fate is tied together, we need to figure out [how to work together]. What happens at that point is that you go from just conflict, to zero-sum conflict, where whatever is a benefit to them is a cost to me. Then we are in very dangerous territory.

A noose hung from a makeshift gallows as supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump gathered on the west side of the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.
Enlarge / A noose hung from a makeshift gallows as supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump gathered on the west side of the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Ars Technica: How does all this help explain the outbreak of violence on January 6? 

Michael Petersen: Violence is a dangerous prospect. So you really need to make sure that this is the time to do it, and therefore, if you are violently disposed, then you are waiting for the right moment. A lot of the psychological machinery is operating [subconsciously]. We have people in the US who have high degrees of frustrations directed against the system, so to speak. We have been documenting that for a number of years: a construct that we call the need for chaos, which is basically this Joker syndrome where you just want to watch the world burn. There’s a substantial minority in the US who agree with very radical statements, such as “I think society should be burned to the ground. We cannot fix the problems with our social institutions. We need to tear them down and start over.” That comes with tensions that have been building up over decades, in my view. One of the factors is increasing inequality, which is not just a problem in the US, but across most western societies.

These individuals are alone with their frustrations. What Trump does is help forge a collective identity. On the day itself, presumably, people don’t know that this is the time to go when they meet up. But you have these small coordination processes—Trump’s speech, the tension’s slowly building. People go from the mindset where they say, “Well, I think something should be done,” to “I think we should do something,” to “I think these people also want to do something,” to what psychologists call common knowledge: “OK, now is the time. We as a collective entity want to do something and it’s now that we want to do it.”

Ars Technica: Much attention has been focused on the role of social media in the spread of misinformation, and in helping violent groups better coordinate. Removing Trump and various violent right-wing groups and individuals has resulted in a staggering 73 percent decrease in the amount of misinformation circulating on social media platforms, which is encouraging. But is this a long-term solution?

Michael Petersen: What happens on social media is basically a megaphone for what happens in the offline world. It is a reflection of what happens in the offline world. So long-term, we cannot steer society back on track without actually doing real reforms. On the other hand, social media does play a huge role. It acts as a coordination device. Just as radio was very important to the genocide in Rwanda, social media has been very important in stirring up sentiments in the US.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on what we call online political hostility. Again, it’s not the platforms themselves, it’s not that we change psychologically when we go from the offline to the online world. It’s not that nice people go crazy when they log onto Facebook and Twitter. The people who are offensive and difficult to argue with on Facebook, they are just as difficult to argue with in real life. The difference is that the audiences that you have online are much bigger, so the impact of those few antisocial individuals is larger in the online world than in the offline world. If one person is offensive in a conversation over the dinner table, then it’s just the people around the table that hear that. But if the person is offensive on Twitter, then there’s a large network of people who are exposed to that.

I’m increasingly thinking that in order to get online discussions back on track, it’s about shielding the relatively calm majority from this antisocial minority who are aggressive and using hostile tactics. One of the problems is the business model of Twitter and Facebook is really contingent on stirring up sentiments because that is what generates traffic. So there are some complications there as well; their incentive is not to keep things calm.

A memorial honoring Officer Brian Sicknick, who was beaten to death by rioters who stormed the US Capitol.
Enlarge / A memorial honoring Officer Brian Sicknick, who was beaten to death by rioters who stormed the US Capitol.

Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ars Technica: If Trump’s rhetoric serves as a means of focusing pre-existing rage and discontent, how can we unfocus it?

Michael Petersen: That is very, very difficult. When you have forged a group, then it is very difficult to undo it again. In a sense what the US is facing is a mass process of de-radicalization, which we haven’t seen to the same extent in a modern democracy. Some of my colleagues are working with de-radicalization, and that’s not a trivial process. They are just focusing on single individuals like Islamic terrorists and so on. But this is at a much larger level.

Some lessons can be learned from the 1960s and 1970s in Europe. There was also a lot of social upheaval and violent confrontations in the street. That eventually—which is a likely scenario for the US—[evolved] into several small terrorist cells like Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany, Black September in Jordan, and so on. What took away from the mass protest was some kind of reconciliation with these groups. I think that’s potentially the most difficult part of the whole process. There are individuals who are clinging to beliefs that a lot of Americans would view as highly offensive, who have been supporting a violent attack on American democracy. But I think it’s necessary to listen to the frustrations underlying the madness, and see where some reconciliation take place—while at the same time standing firm on democratic principles.

Ars Technica: Is it enough for Trump to finally admit there was no election fraud, or would his most radical acolytes just assume that he’s been taken over by pod people, or he’s being forced to say it?

Michael Petersen: I do think that if he came out saying there was no fraud, the election was won fair and square by Biden, we should not go to the streets, and so on—that is part of breaking coordination at a mass level. So I think that could make open confrontations less likely. But the most likely scenario is Europe in the 1970s with, for example, Rote Armee Fraktion. I think the situation is extremely troublesome at least for the next five years in the US.

My sense is that what is happening in the US and other western societies is not a difference in kind, from ethnic conflict of the worst kind, but difference in degree. It’s the same kind of psychologic mechanisms that are operating, and therefore potentially some of the ways in which they have facilitated reconciliation can also be used in the US. In a way it is up to each individual to say, “Well I have two different identities. I have an identity as a son or as a daughter or as a friend or as a neighbor, and then I have my tribal identity,” as a Democrat, as a Republican, as a Trump supporter, or whatnot. It’s up to each of us to say, “Well, OK, I can try to put the tribal identities that I have to the side.”

I think you collectively need to say, “Well, we are not two tribes. We are one people with a shared faith who have all sorts of cross cutting links to each other.” It’s not easy, but I think that is crucial in the long run. It’s a very, very difficult time for the US. You should know that there’s a lot of people hoping that you will pull through because it’s a great country. In the struggle that you are facing, you have the support of a good deal of the world.

DOI: Current Opinions in Psychology, 2020. 10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.02.003  (About DOIs).

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Famed Arthurian tale comes to silver screen in The Green Knight trailer

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Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain in the forthcoming epic medieval fantasy film, The Green Knight.

An ambitious young knight of King Arthur’s Round Table makes an ill-advised bargain and embarks on a personal quest in the new trailer for The Green Knight, a forthcoming film by director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story) adapted from the famous 14th-century medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Originally meant to debut at the 2020 SXSW festival, with a May 2020 theatrical release, the film was shelved in the face of the global pandemic. With theaters slowly reopening around the country (and the world), The Green Knight is finally being released this summer.

(Spoilers for the 14th-century medieval poem below.)

The original poem falls into the chivalric romance genre, relating a well-known story from Arthurian legend. (I highly recommend J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation from 1925 or Simon Armitage’s 2008 translation, recently revised.) On New Year’s Day, King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table gather at Camelot to feast and exchange gifts. A mysterious Green Knight disrupts the festivities and proposes a different kind of exchange: any one of the knights may strike him with one blow with his axe; in return, the Green Knight will come back in a year to return the blow. Sir Gawain, the youngest of the knights and nephew to Arthur, accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight. Everyone is shocked when the Green Knight picks up his severed head. He says Gawain must meet him at the Green Chapel one year hence to receive a similar blow, per their bargain.

As the deadline approaches, Gawain embarks on a quest to find the Green Chapel, having plenty of adventures and battles along the way. Finally, he arrives at a castle, and the lord and lady invite him to stay as their guest. The lord, Bertilak de Hautdesert, proposes another bargain: he will go out hunting every day and give Gawain whatever he catches, provided Gawain gives the lord anything he gains during the same day. And every day, the lady of the castle attempts to seduce the young knight while her husband is away. Gawain is caught between two competing codes: the code of chivalry demands that he not betray his host’s trust by sleeping with his wife, but the code of courtly love demands that he do whatever a damsel requests.

Kisses

He manages to courteously fend off the lady’s advances for two days, granting her only one and two kisses, respectively, which Gawain then passes on to the lord when he brings back a deer and a boar. On the third day, when Gawain once again spurns her advances, the lady tries to give him a gold ring. He declines the gift. But when she next offers him a green and gold silk sash that she swears will protect him from physical harm, Gawain—knowing his rendezvous with the Green Knight approaches—accepts in a moment of weakness, and the two exchange three kisses. He passes the three kisses on to the host when the lord returns with a fox, but Gawain doesn’t tell his host about the lady’s sash.

The next day, Gawain rides off to meet the Green Knight, who delivers the return blow. Gawain, who is wearing the sash, only suffers a minor nick on the neck. Technically, he “wins” their game, but the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Lord de Hautdesert and says that the entire yearlong scheme was meant to be a test of the Arthurian knights. Had Gawain told the lord about the sash, he would not have even suffered a slight wound on his neck. So Gawain’s victory is also a source of personal shame, even though the lord declares Gawain to be the most blameless knight in the realm.

There have been prior attempts to adapt Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for film and television, most notably director Stephen Weeks’ 1984 film, Sword of the Valiant, starring Sean Connery as the Green Knight. Both that film and Weeks’ earlier 1973 adaptation took considerable liberties with the original text—understandable, given the passage of centuries, but neither film proved successful. (Time Out’s reviewer even compared the poor production values of Sword of the Valiant unfavorably to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, although Connery received praise for his performance.)

Judging by the trailer, Lowery is also taking a few liberties with the source material. Per the official premise:

An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger.

Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones, Absentia) plays the Green Knight; Sean Harris (Prometheus, The Borgias) plays King Arthur; Katie Dickie (Game of Thrones, Prometheus) plays Guinevere; Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) is the lady; and Joel Edgerton (who played Gawain in Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur) plays the lord. The cast also includes Barry Keoghan, Sarita Choudhury, and Erin Kellyman.

The Green Knight opens in theaters on July 30, 2021.

Listing image by A24

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Github reverses takedown of reverse-engineered GTA source code

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The reverse-engineered source code for the PC versions of Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City is back online today, months after it was originally posted and then quickly taken down due to a DMCA request from publisher Take-Two.

TorrentFreak reports on the restored version of the project, which was posted as a seemingly identical fork of the original by a New Zealand-based developer named Theo. While the original GitHub poster (who goes by the handle aac) has not contested Take-Two’s original takedown, Theo told TorrentFreak he filed a counterclaim to restore his copy of the project, saying it “contained no code owned by Take Two.”

A question of law

We’ve previously looked in depth at how video game fan coders use reverse-engineering techniques to deconstruct the packaged executable files distributed by a game’s original developers. This painstaking, function-by-function process creates raw programming code that can generate exactly the same binary file when compiled (though the code as distributed on GitHub still requires external, copyrighted art and sound assets from legitimate copies of the games).

In general, reverse-engineering source code from a compiled binary is less straightforwardly illegal than simply cracking a game’s DRM for piracy purposes, for instance. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, US case law includes certain fair use exceptions that can allow for this kind of decompilation work for research or interoperability purposes.

In the case of Grand Theft Auto, though, the game’s End User License Agreement specifically asks players to agree not to “reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble, prepare derivative works based on or otherwise modify the Software, in whole or in part.” Back in 2005, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar anti-reverse-engineering EULA to take down BnetD, a reverse-engineered version of Blizzard’s Battle.net that allowed the service to be emulated on private servers.

Whatever the legal status of the code, Theo told TorrentFreak that he “believe[s] Take-Two’s claim to be wholly incorrect… since the code may be functionally identical, but not exactly identical, they hold no claim to the code.” So Theo filed a DMCA counterclaim requesting the affected code be reposted within ten to 14 days. When that time passed without notice of a formal legal filing by Take-Two, GitHub followed the DMCA guidelines and reposted the code nine days ago without ruling definitively on the merits of either claim.

Take-Two hasn’t responded to a request for comment from Ars Technica, so we don’t know if the publisher will go through the legal motions to remove the code again. For now, though, fans with the technical know-how can enjoy improvements made on top of the reverse-engineered code, such as bug fixes, reduced load times, improved rendering, widescreen monitor support, and a free-floating camera system, to name a few examples (not to mention derivative ports of the game to new platforms like Linux, Switch, and the PlayStation Vita).

Listing image by RockStar Games

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Our fave gentleman thief is back for revenge in trailer for Lupin part 2

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Omar Sy is back as Assane Diop, a modern-day gentleman thief who models himself on the classic French fictional character Arsène Lupin, in part 2 of Lupin, coming to Netflix on June 11.

The Netflix French original series Lupin proved to be an unexpected hit when it debuted earlier this year, purportedly racking up views in 70 million households in its first month. And there’s good news for those frustrated by part 1’s cliffhanger ending: we’ll soon find out what happens next, as Netflix just dropped a full trailer and release date for part 2 of the saga. Alas, the trailer is dubbed in English—quelle horreur!—which means we miss out on star Omar Sy’s dulcet tones. (Dear Netflix: it’s OK to have subtitled trailers for your foreign fare. In fact, it’s far, far preferable to bad dubbing.)

(Some spoilers for part 1 below.)

As I’ve written previously, Arsène Lupin is the creation of Maurice Leblanc, who based the character partly on a French burglar/anarchist. Relentlessly pursued by a detective named Ganimard, Lupin is captured stealing a woman’s jewels while on board a ship. Although he is imprisoned, he ultimately escapes before standing trial and goes on to pull off many other colorful heists.

The Netflix series is the creation of Louis Leterrier, who directed the 2013 heist thriller Now You See Me, in which a band of magicians pulls off ingenious robberies. So it’s easy to see why he would be drawn to this project.

We meet the Senegal-born Assane Diop (Sy) while he’s working as a janitor at the Louvre, surrounded by artwork worth millions. Currently on exhibit is a jeweled necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, in advance of a public auction to sell the piece to the highest bidder. It was this recently recovered necklace that his father, Babakar (Fargass Assandé), was falsely accused by wealthy financier Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre) of stealing. Assane is out for revenge for his father’s subsequent suicide. After duping local gang members into pulling a decoy heist, Diop disguises himself as a wealthy potential buyer and crashes the auction—and ultimately walks away with the necklace.

That’s just the beginning of the story, as we learn more about Assane’s history—including his relationship with childhood sweetheart Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), the mother of his son—and why he has modeled his schemes on the exploits of Arsène Lupin. Elements drawn from various Lupin stories are cleverly woven throughout the series, most obviously “The Queen’s Necklace”—the title of the pilot episode, which incorporates several plot elements of the original story and also provides the inspiration for the name of Assane and Claire’s son: Raoul (Etan Simon). Captain Romain Laugier (Vincent Londez) and another detective, Youssef Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab), are part of the team investigating the Louvre heist, and both share traits with Ganimard.

Count me among those who thoroughly enjoyed part 1. “The series is briskly paced without sacrificing character development, capturing the essence of each character in deft strokes. The cast delivers strong performances across the board,” I wrote in my review earlier this year. “But it’s Sy’s Assane who anchors the series as the quintessential gentleman thief for the 21st century.” But I was also a fan of the original novels and short stories and was a little surprised at the huge success Lupin enjoyed around the world. And I wasn’t the only one. A bewildered French journalist interviewed me about why I thought audiences were responding so enthusiastically—while making it very clear he did not care for the show at all.

It’s partly because Netflix, in particular, has a gift for ferreting out solid foreign films and TV series likely to appeal to American tastes. And Lupin has just the right amount of universal appeal for audiences craving fresh fare while stuck at home during a global pandemic. In fact, it was a hit in households all around the world, including Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa.

The show even reached No. 1 in France, so that French journalist was in the minority. Who doesn’t love the dashing exploits of a gentleman thief? “This level of response is totally beyond me,” Sy told Deadline Hollywood earlier this year. “It’s great to see in Brazil or in France they loved Lupin for the same reason. There’s something universal, and that’s something I always try to achieve.”

The only bad thing about Lupin part 1 was that, at only five episodes, it was too short and ended on the mother of all cliffhangers, with Pellegrini’s henchmen kidnapping Assane’s son in retaliation for the theft of the diamond necklace and Assane’s attempt to make Pellegrini’s longstanding corruption public. Per the official part 2 premise: “Assane’s quest for revenge against Hubert Pellegrini has torn his family to pieces. With his back to the wall, he now has to think of a new plan, even if it means putting himself in danger.”

The trailer opens right where part 1 left off, with Assane’s son bound and gagged in a chair and Assane vowing revenge against Pellegrini. That’s going to be particularly difficult, since Pellegrini has used his media contacts to frame Assane for a crime he didn’t commit, and Assane is now the most wanted man in France. So Assane and his loyal ally, jeweler Benjamin Ferel (Antoine Gouy), decide to disappear for a bit to concoct a new plan while in hiding. Meanwhile, Pellegrini is setting a trap for our gentleman thief: a symphony performance in honor of Arsène Lupin. We get plenty of gorgeous shots of Paris, a car chase, and what looks like an epic showdown in the famous catacombs of Paris.

Lupin part 2 debuts on Netflix on June 11, 2021. Netflix has already renewed the series for a part 3, so we’ll be getting lots more of Assane’s dashing exploits in the future. And it’s the perfect time to binge all five episodes of part 1 if you haven’t already seen them.

Listing image by YouTube/Netflix

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