Trying To Fill the Void This Thanksgiving

Since we don’t have a real president at this point, Joe Biden is trying to fill the void. I don’t think a president-elect has ever addressed the nation like this, two months before Inauguration Day. His remarks were covered live by all the TV networks. They’re worth hearing.

President-elect Joe Biden Thanksgiving Address – YouTube

Escaping Facebook Hell

Charlie Warzel of The New York Times monitored two average people’s Facebook feeds. It was as bad as you’d expect, but his article suggests solutions to the problem:

In mid-October I asked two people I’d never met to give me their Facebook account passwords for three weeks leading up to and after Election Day. I wanted to immerse myself in the feeds of a type of person who has become a trope of sorts in our national discussion about politics and disinformation: baby boomers with an attachment to polarizing social media.

I went looking for older Americans — not full-blown conspiracy theorists, trolls or partisan activists — whose news consumption has increased sharply in the last few years on Facebook. Neither of the two people I settled on described themselves as partisans. Both used to identify as conservatives slowly drifting leftward until Dxxxx Txxxx’s takeover of the Republican Party offered a final push. Both voted for Joe Biden this year in part because of his promise to reach across the aisle. Both bemoaned the toxicity of our current politics.

Every day, Jim Young, 62, opens up his Facebook app and heads into an information hellscape. His news feed is a dizzying mix of mundane middle-class American life and high-octane propaganda.

Here’s a sample:

A set of adoring grandparents posing with rosy-cheeked babies. “Mimi and Pop Pop’s first visit since March,” the post reads.

Next, a meme of Joe Biden next to a photoshopped “for sale” sign. “For more information contact Hunter,” the sign reads.

After that is a post advertising a “Funny rude” metal sign displaying a unicorn in a tutu giving the middle finger. “Thought of you,” the post reads.

Below that is a screenshot of a meme created by the pro-Txxxx group Turning Points USA. “Your city on socialism,” the post reads, displaying a series of photos of abandoned buildings, empty grocery store shelves and bleeding men in makeshift, dirty hospital beds.

The feed goes on like this — an infinite scroll of content without context. Touching family moments are interspersed with Bible quotes that look like Hallmark cards, hyperpartisan fearmongering and conspiratorial misinformation. Mr. Young’s news feed is, in a word, a nightmare. I know because I spent the last three weeks living inside it.

Despite Facebook’s reputation as a leading source for conspiracy theories and misinformation, what goes on in most average Americans’ news feeds is nearly impossible for outsiders to observe. . . .

After years of reading about the ways that Facebook is radicalizing and polarizing people I wanted to see it for myself — not in the aggregate, but up close and over time. What I observed is a platform that gathered our past and present friendships, colleagues, acquaintances and hobbies and slowly turned them into primary news sources. And made us miserable in the process. . . .

Mr. Young joined Facebook in 2008 as a way to reconnect with his high school classmates from Illinois. He reunited quickly with old friends and neighbors. It was exciting to see how people had changed. . . .

It was a little voyeuristic, nostalgic and harmless fun. Before 2016, Mr. Young told me, he’d see the occasional heated disagreement. It wasn’t until the last few years that his feed really started to turn divisive.

He first noticed it in the comments, where discussions that would usually end in some version of “agree to disagree” exploded into drawn-out, conspiratorial comment threads. Political disagreements started to read like dispatches from an alternate reality. He didn’t enjoy fact-checking his friends or picking fights, but when a post appeared obviously untrue he had to say something.

His time on the site ticked upward.

“It’s like going by a car wreck. You don’t want to look, but you have to,” he said. He believes his feed is a perfect storm for conflict in part because he’s lived in both liberal and conservative areas of the country and throughout his life he’s lived, worked with and befriended all manner of liberals and conservatives. . . .

But then he noticed some of his friends start to post more political memes, often with no link or citation. When he’d try to verify one, he’d realize the post was fake or debunked by a news site. “Most times there’s no real debate. Just anger. They’re so closed-minded. Sometimes, it scares me.”

Scrolling through Mr. Young’s feed after Election Day, I found a number of these posts.

Many examples of misinformation came from Facebook text posts created and shared by Mr. Young’s friends repeating baseless voter-fraud claims, [for example, one claiming] the number of votes in Wisconsin exceeded the number of registered voters (with no links to these numbers or any authoritative news source).

On Nov. 5, one of Mr. Young’s friends posted about “something fishy” alongside a link to a Bing search. The link returned a page of information about voters having ballots thrown out after using Sharpies to fill them out, including a link to a Facebook post on #Sharpiegate with over 137,000 shares.

One featured a screenshot from a Fox 2 Detroit news broadcast with the banner “Detroit Voter Roll Lawsuit.” The screenshot alleged potential voter fraud. “And so it begins!” the friend wrote. According to a Snopes debunk, the segment actually aired in December 2019 and had nothing to do with the 2020 election.

Another text post suggested that people shouldn’t trust Facebook’s fact checkers. “When the fact checkers are controlled by the same people doing the lying, what do you call it?” the post read. Below, commenters sounded off. “Democrats,” one exclaimed.. . . .

Mr. Young’s feed stood in stark contrast to the other Facebook account I spent time in. That feed belongs to Karen Pierce, a 55-year-old schoolteacher from Virginia. Ms. Pierce described herself to me as a “middle-child peacekeeper who is uncomfortable with politics.”

Unlike Mr. Young, she is not politically active on Facebook and never intervenes, even when she sees things she thinks might be conspiratorial or fake. As a result, her feed surfaced less politically charged content. The day after the election, the first post I noticed from a friend in her feed was a simple, apolitical exclamation: “It’s official! I make a damn good pot of stew!”

The political posts that appeared in Ms. Pierce’s feed were mostly anodyne statements of support for the Biden-Harris campaign peppered in between comments from fellow teachers frustrated by remote learning and an avalanche of cute dog photos and memes. Occasionally, a meme popped up mentioning Hunter Biden’s laptop, but most lacked the vitriol or the contentious commenter debates of Mr. Young’s feed.

Yet, in my conversations with Ms. Pierce over the last month, she expressed just as much frustration with her experience on Facebook as Mr. Young. “It’s so extreme,” she told me in mid-October. “I’ve watched people go from debating the issue to coming up with the craziest thing they can say to get attention. Take the whole anti-abortion debate. People started talking, then started saying ‘if you vote for Biden you’re a murderer.’ Now there’s people posting graphic pictures of fetuses.”

When I told her I hadn’t seen anything that extreme on her page, she suggested it was because of a three-month break she took from the platform this summer. “It got to be too much with the pandemic and the politics,” she said. The final straw was seeing people in her feed post QAnon adjacent memes and content. “There was a lot of calling Biden a pedophile. Or Txxxx voters posting pictures with assault rifles. It made me very uncomfortable.”

Like millions of Americans, Ms. Pierce logs onto Facebook to feel more connected. “I use it to see how people are doing,” she said. “I believe in prayer and sometimes I check to see who is struggling and to see who to pray for. And then, of course, you see some news and read some articles.”

It was when she was using the platform for news that she started seeing disturbing, conspiracy posts from people in her network. “It was so disappointing to realize the hate that’s out there,” she said. . . .

She’s worried about the long-term effects of such a toxic environment. “I think it’s affecting the mood of everybody.”

Living inside the Facebook account of strangers — even with their permission — feels invasive, like poking around in their medicine cabinet. But it offered me a unique perspective. Two things stood out. The first is the problem of comments, where strangers, even in the most mundane of articles, launched into intense, acrimonious infighting. In most cases, commenters bypassed argumentation for convenient name-calling or escalated a civil discussion by posting contextless claims with no links or source. In many cases, it appeared that a post from one user would get shared by a friend into his or her network, where it would [attract] strangers.

The more I scrolled through them, the more comments felt like a central and intractable issue. Unlike links to outside articles, comments aren’t subject to third-party fact checks or outside moderation. They are largely invisible to those people who study or attempt to police the platform.

Yet in my experience they were a primary source of debunked claims, harassment and divisive rhetoric. I showed one comment thread to a colleague who doesn’t use Facebook and my colleague found it shocking. “Facebook created a town hall for fighting,” they said. “It’s almost like if you were building a machine to make a country divisive and extreme — if you were to sit down and plan what that would look like —- it would be this.”

[Facebook’s] evolution, from a friendly social networking site into the world’s largest information platform, is the source of its biggest problems.

Sifting through Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce’s feeds and talking to them about what I saw, it became clear that the two found themselves tormented as a result of decisions they made in their early days on the platform. Both explained that they joined to reconnect with old friends.

Like most of us, they gave little thought to the connections they made. Mr. Young added friends he hadn’t spoken to in decades. When Ms. Pierce joined a nonprofit organization she accepted dozens of friend requests — some from people she’d met only in passing. “I meet people on airplanes all the time and we exchange Facebook handles,” she told me.

But as Facebook evolved, these weak connections became unlikely information nodes. Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce were now getting their commentary from people they hardly knew, whose politics had once been unknown or illegible.

“When Facebook first started it made me feel so good. It feels like I signed up for one thing and it’s become something totally different,” Ms. Pierce said. . . .

Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy . . . , described this phenomenon as what happens when “social-networking sites transformed into social media,” creating “a digital economy built on engagement.” Dr. Donovan argues that this decision spawned the algorithmic echo chambers we now live in and created a fertile environment for our information crisis.

For Mr. Young, the fallout of these decisions is painful. After weeks of watching his feed, I presented him with some of the most notorious posters in his feed. When I read aloud the name of one Facebook friend who constantly shared debunked claims, often with language intended to provoke, he sighed. He described the person as a longtime friend and neighbor who was once so close they practically lived at each other’s houses. Now, he spends his time debating whether it’s worth the energy to stop the friend from sharing conspiracy theories. . . .

The psychological toll of watching friends lose touch with reality has both Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce re-evaluating their choice to spend so much time on the platform. Mr. Young, for his part, tried to stay off during election week; Ms. Pierce is heartened that her feed has become less toxic after her Facebook sabbatical and is planning another. “My emotional and mental state improves greatly the further away I get from this place,” she told me.

Even if both manage to stay away from Facebook for good, their stories are just two in a sea of billions. No story is the same because no feed is the same. And yet these same dynamics that tortured my two participants — a sea of contextless news and acrimonious comments revealing their neighbors’ worst selves — are on display for millions of Americans every day. . . .

Unquote.

So what can be done?

  1. CLOSE YOUR FACEBOOK ACCOUNT. IT’S THE EASIEST AND MOST EFFECTIVE SOLUTION.
  2. UNFOLLOW EVERYONE YOU AREN’T CLOSE TO OR WHO SENDS YOU CRAP.
  3. DON’T READ THE COMMENTS, UNLESS THE SUBJECT IS CATS OR DOGS.

One thing Facebook could do is close the accounts of the people whose lies are shared the most. Researchers have found that a small group of social media accounts are responsible for the spread of a disproportionate amount of false information [New York Times].

But since Facebook has no morality and Republicans revel in the lying, see the list above, especially item 1.

White Christian Supremacy Is A Prime Motivator

I didn’t check his math, but Dana Milbank of The Washington Post highlights the importance  to the Republican Party of White evangelical voters:

White evangelicals are only 15 percent of the population, but their share of the electorate was 28 percent, according to Edison Research exit polling, and 23 percent, according to the Associated Press version. Though exit polls are imprecise, it seems clear that White evangelicals maintained the roughly 26 percent proportion of the electorate they’ve occupied since 2008, even though their proportion of the population has steadily shrunk from 21 percent in 2008.

This means White evangelicals turned out in mind-boggling numbers. Because they maintained their roughly 80 percent support for Republicans (76 percent and 81 percent in the two exit polls) of recent years, it also means some 40 percent of Txxxx voters came from a group that is only 15 percent of America.

White evangelicals have, in effect, skewed the electorate by masking the rise of a young, multiracial and largely secular voting population. The White evangelicals’ overperformance also shows, unfortunately, why the racist appeal Txxxx made in this campaign was effective. White evangelicals were fired up like no other group by Txxxx’s encouragement of white supremacy.

A Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate who now runs the Public Religion Research Institute, Robert P. Jones, argues that Txxxx inspired White Christians, “not despite, but through appeals to white supremacy,” attracting them not because of economics or morality, “but rather that he evoked powerful fears about the loss of White Christian dominance” . . .

The Republicans’ Southern strategy stoked White resentment for decades but never as overtly as Txxxx did. White evangelicals responded passionately: Pre-election, 90 percent said they were certain to vote, and nearly half of those voting for Txxxx said virtually nothing he could do would shake their approval. There was little evidence of differences among White evangelicals by gender, generation or education.

They are, as a group, dying out (median age in the late 50s), and their views are hardly recognizable to many other Americans. Majorities of White evangelical Protestants don’t see the pandemic as a critical issue (they’re less likely than others to wear masks), believe society has become too “soft and feminine,” oppose same-sex marriage, think Txxxx was called by God to lead and don’t believe he encouraged white supremacist groups.

White evangelicals have become, in essence, an offshore island, one whose inhabitants are slowly but steadily distancing themselves from the American mainland. The fading Island of White Evangelica will, eventually, lose its influence over America. In the meantime, its existence points to an unfortunate, larger reality. There is vanishingly little that Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) can do to persuade voters to switch sides, because race, and views on race, are the most important factors determining how people vote. Add to the White evangelicals’ turnout the votes of the smaller proportions of White mainline Protestants and Catholics with high levels of racial resentment, as defined by the American Values Survey, and you’ve accounted for the bulk of Txxxx’s coalition.

I was startled this week when, during a conversation with a prominent figure in Democratic circles, he blurted out to me: “People who want to live in a white supremacist society vote Republican. Those who don’t vote Democrat.” That’s hyperbolic, of course. Democrats are frustrated that four years of chaos and calamity and herculean efforts and expenditures by Democrats did so little to dent Txxxx’s share of the vote.

But his exaggeration contains a grain of truth. Americans are deeply, and for the moment immutably, divided by whether or not they’re nostalgic for what had long been a White-dominated country. Txxxx’s better-than-expected showing, particularly among White evangelicals, . . . shows that he turned out more of the nostalgic.

The Big Picture, In Case You Missed It

At the press conference from hell, via The Washington Post:

It’s very simple, according to Rudolph W. Giuliani and the rest of President Txxxx’s legal posse, but also very vast. China is in on it. Cuba is in on it. Antifa and George Soros are in on it. At least two presidents of Venezuela, one dead and one living, are in on it. Big Tech is in on it; a Web server from Germany is involved. (There’s always a server involved.) Multiple major U.S. cities are in on it, as are decent American citizens who volunteer at polling precincts. Argentina is in on it, too, sort of. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was in on it back in 1960, when, according to [a] conspiracy theory, he stole the presidency for John F. Kennedy, thereby launching an ongoing pattern of corrupt cities stuffing or scrapping ballots. The “it” is a massive, premeditated scheme to steal the election from Dxxxx Txxxx, according to Giuliani . . 

Unquote.

But why didn’t he mention the lizard people from outer space? Rudy must be one of them.

How To Feel Smart in a Complicated World

From historian Yuval Noah Harari for The New York Times:

Conspiracy theories come in all shapes and sizes, but perhaps the most common form is the global cabal theory. A recent survey of 26,000 people in 25 countries asked respondents whether they believe there is “a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.”

Thirty-seven percent of Americans replied that this is “definitely or probably true.” So did 45 percent of Italians, 55 percent of Spaniards and 78 percent of Nigerians.

Conspiracy theories, of course, weren’t invented by QAnon; they’ve been around for thousands of years. Some of them have even had a huge impact on history. Take Nazism, for example. We normally don’t think about Nazism as a conspiracy theory. Since it managed to take over an entire country and launch World War II, we usually consider Nazism an “ideology,” albeit an evil one.

But at its heart, Nazism was a global cabal theory based on this anti-Semitic lie: “A cabal of Jewish financiers secretly dominates the world and are plotting to destroy the Aryan race. They engineered the Bolshevik Revolution, run Western democracies, and control the media and the banks. Only Hitler has managed to see through all their nefarious tricks — and only he can stop them and save humanity.”

Understanding the common structure of such global cabal theories can explain both their attractiveness — and their inherent falsehood.

Global cabal theories argue that underneath the myriad events we see on the surface of the world lurks a single sinister group. The identity of this group may change: Some believe the world is secretly ruled by Freemasons, witches or Satanists; others think it’s aliens, reptilian lizard people or sundry other cliques.

But the basic structure remains the same: The group controls almost everything that happens, while simultaneously concealing this control.

Global cabal theories take particular delight in uniting opposites. Thus the Nazi conspiracy theory said that on the surface, communism and capitalism look like irreconcilable enemies, right? Wrong! That’s exactly what the Jewish cabal wants you to think! And you might think that the Bush family and the Clinton family are sworn rivals, but they’re just putting on a show — behind closed doors, they all go to the same Tupperware parties.

From these premises, a working theory of the world emerges. Events in the news are a cunningly designed smoke screen aimed at deceiving us, and the famous leaders that distract our attention are mere puppets in the hands of the real rulers.

Global cabal theories are able to attract large followings in part because they offer a single, straightforward explanation to countless complicated processes. Our lives are repeatedly rocked by wars, revolutions, crises and pandemics. But if I believe some kind of global cabal theory, I enjoy the comforting feeling that I do understand everything.

The war in Syria? I don’t need to study Middle Eastern history to comprehend what’s happening there. It’s part of the big conspiracy. The development of 5G technology? I don’t need to do any research on the physics of radio waves. It’s the conspiracy. The Covid-19 pandemic? It has nothing to do with ecosystems, bats and viruses. It’s obviously part of the conspiracy.

The skeleton key of global cabal theory unlocks all the world’s mysteries and offers me entree into an exclusive circle — the group of people who understand. It makes me smarter and wiser than the average person and even elevates me above the intellectual elite and the ruling class: professors, journalists, politicians. I see what they overlook — or what they try to conceal.

Global cabal theories suffer from the same basic flaw: They assume that history is very simple. The key premise of global cabal theories is that it is relatively easy to manipulate the world. A small group of people can understand, predict and control everything, from wars to technological revolutions to pandemics.

Particularly remarkable is this group’s ability to see 10 moves ahead on the global board game. When they release a virus somewhere, they can predict not only how it will spread through the world, but also how it will affect the global economy a year later. When they unleash a political revolution, they can control its course. When they start a war, they know how it will end.

But of course, the world is much more complicated. Consider the American invasion of Iraq, for example. In 2003, the world’s sole superpower invaded a medium-size Middle Eastern country, claiming it wanted to eliminate the country’s weapons of mass destruction and end Saddam Hussein’s regime. Some suspected that it also wouldn’t have minded the chance to gain hegemony over the region and dominate the vital Iraqi oil fields. In pursuit of its goals, the United States deployed the best army in the world and spent trillions of dollars.

Fast forward a few years, and what were the results of this tremendous effort? A complete debacle. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and the country was plunged into chaos. The big winner of the war was actually Iran, which became the dominant power in the region.

So should we conclude that George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were actually undercover Iranian moles, executing a devilishly clever Iranian plot? Not at all. Instead, the conclusion is that it is incredibly difficult to predict and control human affairs.

You don’t need to invade a Middle Eastern country to learn this lesson. Whether you’ve served on a school board or local council, or merely tried to organize a surprise birthday party for your mom, you probably know how difficult it is to control humans. You make a plan, and it backfires. You try to keep something a secret, and the next day everybody is talking about it. You conspire with a trusted friend, and at the crucial moment he stabs you in the back.

Global cabal theories ask us to believe that while it is very difficult to predict and control the actions of 1,000 or even 100 humans, it is surprisingly easy to puppet master nearly eight billion.

There are, of course, many real conspiracies in the world. Individuals, corporations, organizations, churches, factions and governments are constantly hatching and pursuing various plots. But that is precisely what makes it so hard to predict and control the world in its entirety.

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union really was conspiring to ignite communist revolutions throughout the world; capitalist banks were employing all kinds of dodgy strategies; the Roosevelt administration was planning to re-engineer American society in the New Deal; and the Zionist movement pursued its plan to establish a homeland in Palestine. But these and countless other schemes often collided, and there wasn’t a single group of people running the whole show.

Today, too, you are probably the target of many conspiracies. Your co-workers may be plotting to turn the boss against you. A big pharmaceutical corporation may be bribing your doctor to give you harmful opioids. Another big corporation may be pressuring politicians to block environmental regulations and allow it to pollute the air you breathe. Some tech giant may be busy hacking your private data. A political party may be gerrymandering election districts in your state. A foreign government may be trying to foment extremism in your country. These could all be real conspiracies, but they are not part of a single global plot.

Sometimes a corporation, a political party or a dictatorship does manage to gather a significant part of all the world’s power into its hands. But when such a thing happens, it’s almost impossible to keep it hush-hush. With great power comes great publicity. . . .

Unquote.

The QAnon conspiracy theory alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is running a global child sex trafficking ring and plotting against President Txxxx, who is fighting the cabal. People who believe this are like children. It’s obvious to anyone who’s done the research that shape-shifting reptilian aliens came to Earth, took on human form and now control the world.

People are so ignorant. It’s really pathetic.