Relief and Rage

Charles Blow writes an opinion column for The New York Times:

I watched as [he] left the White House on Wednesday, tacky and lacking in grace and dignity — consistent with his life and presidency — and I watched as Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of America.

I had many feelings as I observed this pageant of customs. The first was the feeling of having — remarkably, improbably — survived a calamity . . .

To be sure, [the former president] has done real and lasting damage to this country. He has tested the rules we thought might constrain a president and found them wanting. He has shown the next presidential hopeful with authoritarian tendencies that authoritarianism can gain a foothold here.

[He] taught us, the hard way, that what we took for granted as inviolable was in fact largely tradition, and traditions are not laws. They have no enforcement mechanism. They are not compulsory.

There is the feeling of releasing resistance, of allowing the tension in the neck to relax and the shoulders to drop. It is the feeling of exhaling. It is the feeling of returning to some form of normalcy — a normal presidency, a normal news cycle, a normal sleep habit. . . .

But then there is also the lingering feelings of disappointment, betrayal and loss of faith.

How is it possible that enough Americans — mostly white, it should be noted — voted for [that person] in the first place, sending him to the White House? And how did he receive the second-highest number of votes in the country’s history in November?

[He] is a racist and a white supremacist. And yet, millions of Americans — again, mostly white — either agreed with his views or were willing to abide them. I know that there will be those who warn that I should just let this go, that holding on to it is “divisive.”

To them I say, “Hell no.” You can’t have a feeling of unity after there was enforcement of a practice of cruelty. There must be acknowledgment and accountability. There must be contrition and repentance.

It is not enough to simply let the co-conspirators and abettors of a white supremacist president quiet down and cool off, biding their time, waiting for the next opportunity for their riotousness and wrath to be unfurled and unleashed.

How is it that people of good conscience and good faith are supposed to make common cause, to find healing and unity, with people who have demonstrated their contempt for the equal humanity of others? Where is the center point between my determination to be free and your determination to contain or constrict that freedom?

I still think about the children separated from their parents at the southern border and the children kept in cages. I think about the [that] administration arguing in court that those children didn’t need toothbrushes or soap or the lights turned out at night so that they could sleep. I still think about all those who died in custody and all those who have not been reunited with their families.

There are many transgressions of the [his] presidency. Some, like the mishandling of the pandemic, have even been far more deadly than the handling of migrant families. But there is something particularly cruel and inhumane about what [he] did to those children in the name of the United States government.

I will never forget that. And I will never forget that tens of millions of Americans were willing to accept that and give [him] a pass on it.

I am happy that [his] administration is now behind us and a new, more normal one is before us, but my relief still mingles with my rage.

A President, a Poet and Poor Deluded Souls

Joe Biden gave an excellent speech at his inauguration. But as somebody said on Twitter:

Well that’s it. The ceremony is over and Amanda Gorman is now the president.

Gorman is from Los Angeles, is 22 years old and is America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate. She spoke for six minutes and made a huge impression. You can read read her poem, “The Hill We Climb”, but it’s better to see and hear her recite it:

Poet Amanda Gorman reads ‘The Hill We Climb’ – YouTube

Here’s something else that happened. The New York Times reported that QAnon believers are  “struggling with the inauguration”:

Followers of QAnon, the pro-Txxxx conspiracy theory, have spent weeks anticipating that Wednesday would be the “Great Awakening” — a day, long foretold in QAnon prophecy, when top Democrats would be arrested for running a global sex trafficking ring and President Txxxx would seize a second term in office.

But as President Biden took office and Mr. Txxxx landed in Florida, with no mass arrests in sight, some believers struggled to harmonize the falsehoods with the inauguration on their TVs.

Some QAnon believers tried to rejigger their theories to accommodate a transfer of power to Mr. Biden. Several large QAnon groups discussed on Wednesday the possibility that they had been wrong about Mr. Biden, and that the incoming president was actually part of Mr. Txxxx’s effort to take down the global cabal.

“The more I think about it, I do think it’s very possible that Biden will be the one who pulls the trigger,” one account wrote in a QAnon channel on the messaging app Telegram.

Others expressed anger with QAnon influencers who had told believers to expect a dramatic culmination on Inauguration Day.

“A lot of YouTube journalists have just lost one hell of a lot of credibility,” wrote a commenter in one QAnon chat room.

Still others attempted to shift the goal posts, and simply told their fellow “anons” to hang on and wait for future, unspecified developments.

“Don’t worry about what happens at 12 p.m.,” wrote one QAnon influencer. “Watch what happens after that.”

And some appeared to realize that they’d been duped.

“It’s over,” one QAnon chat room participant wrote, just after Mr. Biden’s swearing-in.

“Wake up,” another wrote. “We’ve been had.”

Followers hoping for guidance from “Q,” the pseudonymous message board user whose posts power the movement, were bound to be disappointed. The account has been silent for weeks, and had not posted Wednesday.

Ron Watkins, a major QAnon booster whom some have suspected of being “Q” himself, posted a note of resignation on his Telegram channel on Wednesday afternoon.

“We have a new president sworn in and it is our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution,” he wrote. “As we enter into the next administration please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.”

Unquote.

Wow. If more of the previous president’s supporters realize they’ve been had — and more of their leaders admit President Biden won a fair election — there may be blue skies ahead.

One Way to Start Fixing the Internet

Yaël Eisenstat has been a CIA officer, White House adviser and Facebook executive. She says the problem with social media isn’t just what users post — it’s what the platforms do with that content. From Harvard Business Review:

While the blame for President Txxxx’s incitement to insurrection lies squarely with him, the biggest social media companies — most prominently my former employer, Facebook — are absolutely complicit. They have not only allowed Txxxx to lie and sow division for years, their business models have exploited our biases and weaknesses and abetted the growth of conspiracy-touting hate groups and outrage machines. They have done this without bearing any responsibility for how their products and business decisions effect our democracy; in this case, including allowing an insurrection to be planned and promoted on their platforms. .  . .

The events of last week . . . demand an immediate response. In the absence of any U.S. laws to address social media’s responsibility to protect our democracy, we have ceded the decision-making about which rules to write, what to enforce, and how to steer our public square to CEOs of for-profit internet companies. Facebook intentionally and relentlessly scaled to dominate the global public square, yet it does not bear any of the responsibilities of traditional stewards of public goods, including the traditional media.

It is time to define responsibility and hold these companies accountable for how they aid and abet criminal activity. And it is time to listen to those who have shouted from the rooftops about these issues for years, as opposed to allowing Silicon Valley leaders to dictate the terms.

We need to change our approach not only because of the role these platforms have played in crises like last week’s, but also because of how CEOs have responded — or failed to respond. The reactionary decisions on which content to take down, which voices to downgrade, and which political ads to allow have amounted to tinkering around the margins of the bigger issue: a business model that rewards the loudest, most extreme voices.

Yet there does not seem to be the will to reckon with that problem. Mark Zuckerberg did not choose to block Txxxx’s account until after the U.S. Congress certified Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. . . . And while the decision by many platforms to silence Txxxx is an obvious response to this moment, it’s one that fails to address how millions of Americans have been drawn into conspiracy theories online and led to believe this election was stolen — an issue that has never been truly addressed by the social media leaders.

A look through the Twitter feed of Ashli Babbit, the woman who was killed while storming the Capitol, is eye-opening. A 14-year Air Force veteran, she spent the last months of her life retweeting conspiracy theorists, QAnon followers, and others calling for the overthrow of the government. . . . The likelihood that social media played a significant part in steering her down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories is high, but we will never truly know how her content was curated, what groups were recommended to her, who the algorithms steered her towards.

If the public, or even a restricted oversight body, had access to the Twitter and Facebook data to answer those questions, it would be harder for the companies to claim they are neutral platforms who merely show people what they want to see. Guardian journalist Julia Carrie Wong wrote in June of this year about how Facebook algorithms kept recommending QAnon groups to her. . . .  The key point is this: This is not about free speech and what individuals post on these platforms. It is about what the platforms choose to do with that content, which voices they decide to amplify, which groups are allowed to thrive and even grow at the hand of the platforms’ own algorithmic help.

So where do we go from here?

I have long advocated that governments must define responsibility for the real-world harms caused by these business models, and impose real costs for the damaging effects they are having on our public health, our public square, and our democracy. As it stands, there are no laws governing how social media companies treat political ads, hate speech, conspiracy theories, or incitement to violence. This issue is unduly complicated by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been vastly over-interpreted to provide blanket immunity to all internet companies — or “internet intermediaries” — for any third-party content they host. Many argue that to solve some of these issues, Section 230, which dates back to 1996, must at least be updated. But how, and whether it alone will solve the myriad issues we now face with social media, is hotly debated.

One solution I continue to push is clarifying who should benefit from Section 230 to begin with, which often breaks down into the publisher vs. platform debate. To still categorize social media companies — who curate content, whose algorithms decide what speech to amplify, who nudge users towards the content that will keep them engaged, who connect users to hate groups, who recommend conspiracy theorists — as “internet intermediaries” who should enjoy immunity from the consequences of all this is beyond absurd. The notion that the few tech companies who steer how more than 2 billion people communicate, find information, and consume media enjoy the same blanket immunity as a truly neutral internet company makes it clear that it is time for an upgrade to the rules. They are not just a neutral intermediary.

However, that doesn’t mean that we need to completely re-write or kill Section 230. Instead, why not start with a narrower step by redefining what an “internet intermediary” means? Then we could create a more accurate category to reflect what these companies truly are, such as “digital curators” whose algorithms decide what content to boost, what to amplify, how to curate our content. And we can discuss how to regulate in an appropriate manner, focusing on requiring transparency and regulatory oversight of the tools such as recommendation engines, targeting tools, and algorithmic amplification rather than the non-starter of regulating actual speech.

By insisting on real transparency around what these recommendation engines are doing, how the curation, amplification, and targeting are happening, we could separate the idea that Facebook shouldn’t be responsible for what a user posts from their responsibility for how their own tools treat that content. I want us to hold the companies accountable not for the fact that someone posts misinformation or extreme rhetoric, but for how their recommendation engines spread it, how their algorithms steer people towards it, and how their tools are used to target people with it.

To be clear: Creating the rules for how to govern online speech and define platforms’ responsibility is not a magic wand to fix the myriad harms emanating from the internet. This is one piece of a larger puzzle of things that will need to change if we want to foster a healthier information ecosystem. But if Facebook were obligated to be more transparent about how they are amplifying content, about how their targeting tools work, about how they use the data they collect on us, I believe that would change the game for the better.

As long as we continue to leave it to the platforms to self-regulate, they will continue to merely tinker around the margins of content policies and moderation. We’ve seen that the time for that is long past — what we need now is to reconsider how the entire machine is designed and monetized. Until that happens, we will never truly address how platforms are aiding and abetting those intent on harming our democracy.

Making a Difference in People’s Lives

The transition to a new president and a new Congress is always a significant moment, but it’s especially significant this year, there being such a stark difference between the old and the new. Paul Krugman discusses the current state of our politics and a piece of legislation that would make an important difference in the lives of millions of Americans:

. . . Biden will take office in a political environment polluted by lies.

Most important, of course, is the Big Lie: the claim, based on nothing whatsoever, that the election was stolen. Has there been anything in U.S. history like the demand from leading Republicans that Biden pursue “unity” when they won’t even say publicly that he won fairly? And polls showing that a large majority of rank-and-file Republicans believe that there was major election fraud are deeply scary.

But not far behind in importance is what I think of as the Slightly Smaller Lie — the almost universal insistence on the right that the mildly center-left leaders of the incoming administration and Congress are, or at least are controlled by, radical socialists. This allegation was almost the entire substance of Republican campaigning during the Georgia Senate runoffs.

One response to this bizarre claim — and it’s not a bad response — would be a Bidenesque “C’mon, man. Get real!” But I’d like to do a somewhat deeper dive by focusing on one particular issue: Biden’s call, as part of his economic recovery plan, for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Republicans raising objections to Biden’s plan have singled out the minimum wage hike as a prime reason for their opposition, although we all know that they would have found some excuse for objecting no matter what he proposed. What’s striking about this fight — let’s not dignify it by calling it a debate, as if both sides were making real arguments — is that it shows us who the real radicals are.

For what counts as a radical economic proposal? One possible answer would be a proposal that flies in the face of public opinion.

By that criterion, however, Republican politicians are definitely the radicals here. Raising the minimum wage is immensely popular; it’s supported by around 70 percent of voters, including a substantial majority of self-identified Republicans. Or if you don’t believe polls, look at what happened in Florida back in November: even as Trump carried the state, a referendum on raising the minimum wage to $15 won in a landslide.

So the G.O.P. is very much out of step with the public on this issue — it’s espousing what is almost a fringe position. Oh, and it’s a position that is completely at odds with the claim by many Republicans that they’re the true party of the working class.

What if we define radicalism not by opposition to public opinion but by a refusal to accept the conclusions of mainstream economics? Here, too, Democrats are the moderates and Republicans the radicals.

It’s true that once upon a time there was a near-consensus among economists that minimum wages substantially reduced employment. But that was long ago. These days only a minority of economists think raising the minimum to $15 would have large employment costs, and a strong plurality believe that a significant rise — although maybe not all the way to $15 — would be a good idea.

Why did economists change their minds? No, the profession wasn’t infiltrated by antifa; it was moved by evidence, specifically the results of “natural experiments” that take place when an individual state raises its minimum wage while neighboring states don’t. The lesson from this evidence is that unless minimum wages are raised to levels higher than anything currently being proposed, hiking the minimum won’t have major negative effects on employment — but it will have significant benefits in terms of higher earnings and a reduction in poverty.

But evidence has a well-known liberal bias. Did I mention that on Friday, just days before their eviction, Trump officials released a report claiming that the 2017 tax cut paid for itself?

Voodoo economics may be the most thoroughly debunked doctrine in the history of economic thought, refuted by decades of experience — and voters consistently say that corporations and the wealthy pay too little, not too much, in taxes. Yet tax cuts for the already privileged are central to the Republican agenda, even under a supposedly populist president.

On economic policy, then, Democrats — even though they have moved somewhat to the left in recent years — are moderates by any standard, while Republicans are wild-eyed radicals. So why does the G.O.P. think that it can get away with claiming the opposite?

Part of the answer is the power of the right-wing disinformation machine, which relentlessly portrays anyone left of center as the second coming of Pol Pot. . . .

In any case, let’s be clear: There is indeed a radical party in America, one that, aside from hating democracy, has crazy ideas about how the world works and is at odds with the views of most voters. And it’s not the Democrats.