The secret army of cheerleaders policing China’s internet

If you ever wanted an illustration of why academic research is not just important but vital, then the work of Gary King, professor of sociology at Harvard, could serve as exhibit A. Why? Well, one of the more pressing strategic issues that faces western governments is how to adjust to the emergence of China as a new global superpower. The first requirement for intelligent reorientation is a rounded understanding of this new reality. And while it may be that in the foreign offices and chancelleries of the west officials and policy makers are busily boning up on Chinese industrial and geopolitical strategy (what the hell are they up to in the South China Sea, for example?), I see little evidence that anyone in government has been paying attention to how the Beijing regime seems to have solved a problem that no other government has cracked: namely, how to control, manage and harness the internet for its own purposes.

Strangely, our rulers still seem blissfully unaware of this, which is odd because – as I pointed out ages ago – there’s no longer any excuse for ignorance: Professor King has done most of the heavy lifting required. In a landmark study published in Science in 2014, for example, he and his colleagues reported on a remarkable, fine-grained investigation that they conducted into how the Chinese regime controls the network.

What the research showed was a degree of subtlety and sophistication undreamed of in western coverage of Chinese online censorship. In essence, King et al suggested that almost everything we think we know about the Chinese internet is wrong. For one thing, its users do not cower nervously behind the “great firewall”. On the contrary: online debate and discourse in China is as raucous, untamed and virulent as it is here. And yet the government devotes massive resources (200,000-plus people) to watching and censoring the network. So what are they doing? Answer: censoring some predictable stuff (pornography, Falun Gong, Tiananmen, etc); but much of what we would regard as “political” discourse (criticism of local communist party officials, for example) remains apparently unrestricted. There is, however, one type of discourse that isruthlessly and efficiently suppressed: any kind of social media post that could conceivably lead to collective mobilisation – to people on the streets. And this applies even to posts that are favourable to the government!

What emerged from Professor King’s first foray into Chinese cyberspace was an image of a political regime that had a more nuanced, insightful approach to managing the internet than most of us had assumed. This may be because the regime is, by western standards, overwhelmingly technocratic: something like 80% of the country’s ruling elite have engineering backgrounds. They know that the internet is essential for a modernising economy and they also appreciate that it provides the citizenry with a safety valve – one that also serves as a feedback loop that highlights potential trouble spots (local corruption, for example). But, most of all, they know that it is essential to keep people off the streets, which is why they censor it as they do.

There was, however, one bit of the jigsaw missing: the way the regime harnesses the internet to get its message(s) across. It has long been suspected that large numbers of citizens (up to 2 million) were paid the equivalent of 50 cents per post to insert pseudonymous content into the torrent of real social media posts in which they argue with critics of the regime.

The problem was that there was little empirical evidence for this suspicion or – more importantly – for the regime’s strategic objectives in employing 50 cent bloggers. Professor King and his colleagues have now filled in this blank with the publication of another remarkable paper. The researchers were able to identify the secretive authors of many of these posts and to estimate their volume (488m a year).

However, the most interesting finding is that the phoney posters avoid arguing with sceptics and critics, and indeed avoid discussing controversial topics altogether. So what are they up to, then? Mostly, it seems, “cheerleading for the state, symbols of the regime, or the revolutionary history of the Communist party”. In other words, trying to swamp social media with happy-clappy stuff and thereby dilute conversations about grievances, state shortcomings and other tricky topics. Professor King calls it “strategic distraction”, but really it’s the political equivalent of the LOLcats that keep western youth anaesthetised and off the streets.

King’s other discovery is more mundane. It turns out that the 50 cents angle may be a myth. Most of the phoneys seem to be government employees who contribute part-time outside of their normal jobs and not ordinary citizens doing piecework. Jobsworths, not stooges, in other words. Another beautiful theory vaporised by a banal fact. That’s research for you.

CIA ex-boss: secretive spooks tolerated in UK more than in US

British people are not demanding more transparency from the intelligence services as loudly as Americans, the former director of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA has said.

Michael Hayden played a pivotal, leading role in American intelligence until he was replaced as director of the CIA shortly into the presidency of Barack Obama.

In a wide-ranging talk on the fourth day of the Hay festival, Hayden addressed CIA torture, targeted killings, what he thinks about Edward Snowden and how Facebook is perhaps a greater threat to privacy than government.

Hayden said the security services were changing faster in the US than the UK. “You as a population are far more tolerant of aggressive action on the part of your intelligence services than we are in the United States,” he said.

The US intelligence services would not have validation from the American people unless there was a certain amount of knowledge, an increased transparency, he said.

Hayden talked about the tensions between the need to know and the need to protect.

In his newlypublished book Hayden calls Snowden naive and narcissistic and says he wanted to put him on a “kill list”.

On the next page he said Snowden “highlighted the need for a broad cultural shift” in terms of transparency and what constitutes consent. On Sunday he said there was no contradiction between the two assertions.

“The 2% of what Snowden revealed that had to do with privacy accelerated a necessary conversation. The other 98% was about how the US and foreign governments collected legitimate material … that was incredibly damaging.”

The privacy revelations quickened a conversation which had “hit the beach” in the US but it “has not hit the beach here in Great Britain”.

Hayden was asked about how much information we give to social media companies and whether the public is naive in trusting Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook more than the NSA.

“I have my views on that,” he joked. “Your habits are all geared to protecting privacy against the government because that was always the traditional threat. That is no longer the pattern, it is the private sector … we are going through a cultural adjustment.

“With regard to the 21st-century definition of reasonable privacy, Mark Zuckerberg is probably going to have a greater influence on that than your or my government because of the rules we will embed inside his Facebookapplications.”

On “enhanced interrogation techniques” or torture – which could include waterboarding – Hayden said he personally authorised it only once and it did not, he admitted, work.

But he added the “suite” of usable techniques had been reduced from 13 to six and the interrogator believed he would have got information if that had not been the case. “Was it doomed to failure or was it a failure because we did not do enough?”

Targeted killings were justified, Hayden said, because the US believed it was at war. The UK, he said, referring to the killing of “Jihadi John”, has now “joined the queue”.

Hayden said he believed Islam was going through the crisis that Christianity went through in the 17th century as it was in an internal crisis. “We are not the target, we are collateral damage. What has happened in Paris, in Brussels … is spillage.”

Hayden also touched on Donald Trump, whose pronouncements, he said, had damaged US security.

“The jihadist narrative is that there is undying enmity between Islam and the modern world so when Trump says they all hate us, he’s using their narrative … he’s feeding their recruitment video.”

Battleborn is already 40% off on Steam

I challenged myself to get through this whole post without mentioning Overwatch once, and apart from when I mentioned it just then, I reckon I’ll fulfil that challenge admirably. Battleborn is that other colourful shooter about a bunch of madcap, zany heroes, and it’s a fairly good one, according to Jem Alexander.

On the whole, the critical and sales reception has been more muted than it has been for O…ther games in the genre, which might be why it’s received a massive temporary price cut, less than four weeks after release. March your way to Steam, and you’ll see that Battleborn is currently on sale for 40% off. That price applies to both the regular version and the ‘digital deluxe’ edition, which lobs in the season pass and some other gubbins too. You have just over a day left to take advantage of the offer.

There has never been a better time to buy Battleborn, something you might understandably be a bit miffed about if you paid full price for the game just a few weeks ago.

A few days ago, Battleborn received a patch that introduced a new character, Alani, while rebalancing Ambra and Gaililea, and making various other tweaks. You’ll find the full patch notes here.

Fabular: a medieval spaceship roguelike RPG

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Fabular: Once upon a Spacetime takes the old tales of chivalrous knights and derring-do and transplants them from medieval Europe to outer space. Described as a “top-down medieval space adventure”, it mixes physics-based combat with choose-your-own-adventure-y bits; pixel art with pretty lighting techniques; pixel art (again) with lovely illustrated character art. Shove some RPG and roguelike elements in there too and you have, well, Fabular I guess. Let’s have a look at the Kickstarter trailer.

Yep, Kickstarter—Fabular is on there now, looking to raise £25,000, and with 17 days left to go. Here’s a bit more about the game, from the Kickstarter page:

“As a young knight, go on an adventure in a surreal, storybook-like galaxy in your trusty spaceship. You need to be skilful in battle upgrade and manage your ship well, and make the right choices during encounters. Only then will you be able to defeat the dreadful League of Black Knights who terrorize the realm.”

“Explore a procedurally generated universe of hidden secrets and grave dangers by travelling on a node-based galactic starmap, where each place you visit yields a new special event or encounter. Decision making in these text-based illustrated events is key to your success in the game.”

FTL and Hand of Fate are namechecked as influences, so if you like those, or the thought of medieval space-knights in general, give it a look.

Total War: Warhammer is the fastest-selling Total War

‘Total War meets Warhammer’ might be the most successful intermingling since I introduced whiskey to my cheerios, and if my mum’s reading this, that was obviously – hic! – a joke. Total WaWarhammer maker Creative Assembly, and publisher Sega, have announced that success in a press release, stating that the orcwardly titled strategy game has “gone on to break franchise records during its first week on-sale”.

What that means is that more than half a million people bought the game in its first few days of sale, making it the fastest-selling Total War on Steam. They also boast that Total WaWarhammer has been regularly topping 100,000 concurrent Steam players.

Jody Macgregor liked exactly 86% of the game when he reviewed it for PC Gamer, ending with the brilliant verdict that “if you find real history a bit bland compared to glorious nonsense made up by strange British people then Warhammer is the Total War for you”. Since then, we’ve been posting guides to the various factions: check out our beginner’s, Dwarf, and Greenskin guides at the accompanying links.

15 best 4K games: the must-play titles to punish your PC

15 best 4K games: the must-play titles to punish your PC

Tomb Raider

Update: Our latest entry is the fast and furious shooter Overwatch in at #15.

The 4K revolution has arrived on PC, and if your eyes haven’t yet dined at the table of Ultra HD gaming, we’ve tracked down the best 4K games sure to give them a visual feast.

Packing four times as many pixels as common 1080p displays, 3,840 x 2,160 pixel-resolution “4K” monitors can make newer games breathtakingly immersive, and those extra pixels can even help pump life back into older titles using high-resolution texture packs and mods.

Of course, in addition to a 4K monitor, you’ll need a beefy gaming rig with a powerful graphics card (or three) to do them justice – because even gorgeous visuals soon wear thin if your frame rate matches your shoe size.

Whether you’ve already made the leap or are about to, click on to view our best 4K games screenshot gallery. We’ll be adding to it as we go along, so drop us a comment below if you’d like to see a particular game make the grade.

Best 4K games

While console gamers are still arguing over whether the latest Witcher 3 patch dialled down the game’s graphics, members of the PC elite have been firing up CD Projekt’s epic third-person adventure in a blaze of 4K glory.

Rendered natively, The Witcher 3’s highly-detailed environments look nothing short of incredible in 4K – from Novigrad’s sprawling architecture to its red sunlit fields, not to mention its spiny Echinops, grotesque Bloedzuigers and veiny Cemataurs. Having your face ripped off has never looked so beautiful.

Nitpickers may point out that Wild Hunt’s backgrounds and foliage don’t match up to what was shown in pre-release promo shots, something that’s increasingly becoming par for the course for PC gamers, but even so it’s still one of the best-looking games out there.

Best 4K games

It may be creaking a bit in the tyres, but DiRT Showdown is still one of the best-looking arcade racers out there and its Destruction Derby-style thrills are even more heart-pumping on a 4K monitor. While fans of Codemasters’ racing series may point to DiRT 3 as the all-round meatier title, Showdown’s over-the-top approach – from the flame jets that light up indoor tracks to its spectacular chassis-contorting crashes and colourful art style – make it the more visually appealing title.

Best 4K games

The latest entry into the Call Of Duty franchise, Advanced Warfare aims to banish all memory of the muddy textures that plagued its scarily ugly predecessor, Ghosts. After three years in development it appears to have succeeded: Warfare’s high-octane firefights are nothing short of stunning in 4K thanks to its sharp visuals, Exo-llent (sorry) character models and highly detailed weapons. Another nice effect of playing in 4K is having an eye-poppingly crisp HUD, which is the closest you’ll get to wearing an Exo Suit (short of strapping on an Oculus Rift, anyway).

Best 4K games

Nominated for several ‘Best Graphics’ and ‘Best Art Style’ industry awards upon release, Dishonored wasn’t exactly a bad-looking game in 2012. Crank up the pixels, however, and Dunwall’s retro-future-industrial aesthetic is elevated to a whole new level of dystopian beauty.

Taking time to admire its convincing water effects, Orwellian-era buildings like the Hound Pits Pub, and bizarre Pandyssian wildlife, ogling Dishonored’s visuals in 4K can prove a welcome distraction to clearing your name of murder.

Dying Light

A punishing title that demands serious GPU power for the best experience (especially if you want to ramp up the draw distance), Dying Light in 4K has you smelling the breath of the Zombie hordes while watching blood ooze from their rotten, bashed-in craniums.

The level of detail is phenomenal – from the game’s leafy suburbs to its blood-splattered weapons and NPCs’ facial expressions. Standing on a roof watching flames lick the hood of a burning car while plotting your escape from the army of undead never has never felt so real.

Best 4K games

BioShock Infinite came out in 2013 and wasn’t designed for 4K monitors, but you wouldn’t know it. Irrational Games’ third shooter in the BioShock series, Infinite looks still jaw-dropping in Ultra HD thanks to its highly-detailed textures, illuminating lighting effects and Columbia’s neoclassical-styled architecture.

When not stopping to admire its buildings, you’ll likely be checking out Booker’s glistening weaponry or staring into the vacant eyes of Monument Island’s many enemies. Infinite’s high-speed firefights up in the Sky-Lines are particularly engaging in 4K, not to mention its four weird and wonderful boss fights.

Metro: Last Light

While the Redux version of Metro: Last Light features slightly tweaked graphics compared to the original (it goes in slightly heavier on smoke and lighting effects), both games feature some of the best visuals around with the resolution dialled up to 4K. Skulking from shadow to shadow in Last Light’s post-apocalptic Russia in a bid to avoid the Vichukha is even more tense in Ultra HD, and if you’ve got sufficient graphical grunt, its weapon and particle effects give firefights an extra dose of pretty.

Tomb Raider

If you’re waiting patiently to ogle Rise of the Tomb Raider’s gorgeous visuals, maxing out the current game in the series isn’t a bad way to pass the time. Cranking up the resolution along with texture, anti-aliasing and high precision settings unlocks a ton of hidden detail in Tomb Raider, which boasts atmospheric lighting, dancing shadows and hair textures that wouldn’t be out of place in a shampoo commercial. (Not when Lara’s caked in mud, mind.) Huge draw distances and polygon-smoothing tessellation effects all help the fictional island of Yamatai shine in 4K.

Side view

Forget trying to drive well during your first few Assetto Corsa races – it just won’t happen. The driving simulator’s graphics are so tasty in 4K/Ultra that you’ll be too busy ogling the sun’s reflection on your car’s bonnet from five different camera angles. The racing action looks best in the game’s first-person in-car view. If you’re not fixated on the the creases in the driver’s gloves, you’ll be mentally running your fingers over the rubber-coated dashboard’s dimples and smelling the freshly-cut grass outside. If you’re pining for a realistic racer to show off your new 4K monitor, forget Project Cars – Assetto Corsa is the real deal.

Assetto Corsa

Battelfront

Whether you agree that Star Wars: Battlefront is a war simulator with no heart, or not, it’s undeniable that EA’s online shooter is a visual feast fit for a wookie. From the forest of Endor’s leafy vegetation to Hoth’s snow-capped mountains and Tatooine’s sunlit rock faces, Star Wars has never looked so good.

Battlefront

FIFA 16

Ever wanted to peer up Gareth Bale’s nostrils rendered in pixel-perfect 4K? Now’s your chance, you oddball. Graphics haven’t traditionally been Fifa’s strongest suit, which means that EA’s latest footy sim particulalry benefits from the the extra pixels afforded by Ultra HD. While we still get the feeling that EA could make the beautiful game even more beautiful (in the graphics, rather than free-following-attacking-football sense), Fifa 16 is easily the best-looking installment in the series to date.

Fallout 4

The most anticipated game of the year isn’t the prettiest out of the box, which is forgivable given Fallout 4’s sheer size and scope. Still, even without loading up on of the many beautifying mods out there – such as the Wasteland graphics mod and the Texture Optimization Project – Fallout 4 is still a sight to behold. Cranking up the resolution and notching up the settings to Ultra results in some particularly mesmerising outdoor environments as the sun’s rays flicker through the trees.

Best 4K games

The best-looking brawler around bar none, Mortal Kombat X’s gore-some visuals make you wince at every ribcage-snapping, skull-crushing-eye gouging move. MKX gives you a wide ranging, but not extensive selection of tweakable graphics settings – ranging from antialiasing, anistropic filtering, shadow quality and texture quality to bloom, depth of field, motion blur, ambient occlusion and particle density. You’ll need a high-end graphics card to whack everything up to 11.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Few games look as photorealistic as Lara’s latest outing. Rise of the Tomb Raider was the first game to utilize Nvidia’s Voxel Accelerated Ambient Occlusion (VXAO) technique, which adds depth and realism to scenes by calculating shadows using a scene’s surrounding geometry, rather than what’s visible to the camera. And then there’s physically-based rendering, reactive water and more hair swishing than a shampoo advert. Simply put, Rise of the Tomb Raider had the works and shines in 4K. From the Uncharted-esque opening sequence that takes place atop a snow-capped mountain to the sunlit tombs that follow, the attention to detail has you panning the camera to soak up the surroundings as often as you’re actually – you know – raiding tombs and stuff.

Overwatch

Standing still to appreciate a game’s architecture in, say, Rise of Tomb Raider is fine. In Blizzard’s fast-paced shooter Overwatch, however, it’s not such a good idea if you want to avoid adding to your growing death tally. The team-based strategy FPS is organized chaos and beautiful to boot – especially if you own a gaming PC with more graphics muscle than Reinhardt’s right arm. If you’re playing in 4K, remember to flick the Resolution Scale setting to 100% to render Blizzard’s new game engine in all its glory.

At least one Xbox One virtual reality game is already in the works

At least one Xbox One virtual reality game is already in the works

As we brace ourselves for E3 2016 (14-16 June, gaming fans), the speculation is ramping up about what we can expect to see. With the Xbox One trailing Sony’s PS4 in the console race, the pressure’s on Microsoft to come up with something of note.

The logical next step is virtual reality, what with the PlayStation VR arriving later this year, and a major development studio has confirmed to Ars Technica that it does indeed have an Xbox One VR title in the works for a planned 2017 launch.

Microsoft’s current flagship console doesn’t have VR capabilities or indeed a VR-compatible headset to go with it, so it sounds very much like some upgraded hardware is on the way – hardware this dev studio is targeting.

Getting in the VR game

Unfortunately, we don’t know the name of the studio or the name of the game, but Ars Technica says the title will be demoed on PC or PS4 at this year’s E3. Apparently, we’re talking about “an established, long-running franchise” developed by a European studio here, so make of that what you will.

The obvious conclusion is that there’s a VR version of the Xbox One coming next year: churning out high-resolution, virtual reality graphics requires a heck of a lot of processing power, which is why many industry insiders think a more powerful PS4 is also on the way.

Is Microsoft going to take the wraps off an Oculus Rift-ready, enhanced Xbox One at E3 2016? It’s impossible to say for sure, but this is another hint in that direction. As usual, we’ll bring you all of the E3 news from LA as it happens.

GTA Online’s next big update is coming on June 7

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All-new smuggling operations are coming to GTA Online in a major update early next month. The update, jauntily titled Further Adventures in Finance and Felony, will let players expand their in-game groups and even become CEO of their own Criminal Enterprises starting on June 7.

The update will add new properties like high-rise office buildings and warehouses, ideal for a growing criminal empire. Rockstar is keeping mostly quiet on gameplay details until it drops a trailer next week, though it did share this screenshot of “associates” creeping up on some “Special Cargo in Buy missions arranged by the CEO”.

And it wouldn’t be a GTA Online update without some expensive new wheels to blow your cash on, like this smugly angular beast called the Pegassi Reaper.

Rockstar says Further Adventures in Finance and Felony will be one of GTA Online’s biggest and deepest updates yet (definitely the largest since Executives and Other Criminals back in December), so I look forward to hearing more about it soon.

Doom for Doom mod brings the 2016 FPS into the 1993 original

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You may already know that Bethesda squeezed some old-school love into the new Doom thanks to secret areas that contain snippets of original Doom and Doom 2 levels. But did you know it’s possible to go the opposite direction?

Over on the ZDoom forums, modders DBThanatos, Major Cooke, and Michaelis are working on porting Doom (2016) into Doom (1993). The results so far are pretty impressive, with the new game’s weaponry functioning well in the sprite-based environment.

The mod is called “D4D,” AKA “Doom(4) for Doom.” You can follow the ZDoom forums for updates, or just wait for it to be finished. DBThanatos says in his posts that it will be coming “soon…ish.”

Of course someone has recreated a Destiny raid in Doom’s level editor

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This was bound to happen. Hell, it’s not like I haven’t been thinking about it myself, in between hammering together my current SnapMap projects. Someone has built a version of Destiny’s King’s Fall raid in Doom’s content creation suite.

Coming in three parts – with the final battle against Oryx presumably in production – the project is the work of a player called SharkTurd11, a name that is not only brilliant in its own right, but which logically leads me to believe that there must be 10 other ShardTurds in existence somewhere, a thought that makes me very happy indeed.

The Basilica’s symmetrical layout has been recreated, with radiation pools standing in for the Annihilator Totems.

Now obviously a few things have had to be changed or stripped down to make Bungie’s vast, professionally developed raid work within the pre-set structural pieces of SnapMap. The chief difference is that the raid has been adapted to work for a single player rather than a co-ordinated, six-person team, but amendments have also had to be made to work around the lack of thundering great Hive ships to jump across and massive, biomechanical architecture to negotiate. And the explodable goo nodes that spur on the Golgoroth boss fight have been replaced with Lost Souls.

The fights around the ‘Totems’ get pretty hectic when you’re dealing with real demons rather than aliens who just pretend to be.

That said, it’s a pretty good analogue for King’s Fall, with the raid’s fundamentals translated rather well into Doom’s systems, and marvelously so in places. It’s also brutally hard at times but, as is the way with all SnapMaps, if you download it rather than streaming it, you can open it up in your own editor and start making any changes and modifications to it that you like. Want up lower the difficulty or add more checkpoints? Have at it. And obviously, a great number of bonus points to anyone who makes a workable multiplayer version of this.

If you want to play it for yourself, then the codes you need are as follows.

Part one: 7HUCXEEH
Part two: B5L6MDGE
Part three: K3YTLLM5

A Cyber-Mancubus is your new Golgoroth. It is appropriate casting.

Want more SnapMaps to play with?