The Scandal Is that They’re So Good at Creating “Scandals”

Mehdi Hassan of MSNBC is impressed:

You do have to admire the rightwing media echo chamber’s ability to weaponize even the most hyped-up of stories (John Durham filing!), misrepresent AND distort it, and then push it out with a relentless message discipline on cable and online that liberals could only ever dream of. . . . 

If your coverage and analysis of U.S. politics doesn’t center on or even include the fact that the right has a massive, well-funded, coordinated propaganda machine and its opponents don’t, then you’re really not doing it right.

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post is too:

On an average day, Fox News tells dozens or even hundreds of outright lies. Meanwhile there’s an entire trial happening in New York about A SINGLE WORD in a New York Times editorial about Sarah Palin, which was quickly corrected. Different worlds. 

Mr. Waldman wrote more about this latest instance of propaganda vs. reality:

When some appalling new story emerges of political actors lying to the public, should [the news media] confront it? Or will the attempt to debunk the story only draw more attention to it, spreading the lies further?

There’s no perfect answer that fits every situation. But at the very least, it’s important to understand how systems of propaganda operate, so we can try to minimize the damage they do. And never in our history has there been a propaganda system that operates with the skill, enthusiasm and outright shamelessness of the one conservatives have working for them right now.

That’s depressingly evident in the latest “blockbuster” story gripping the right, a story built on a grab bag of misleading assertions, misinterpretations and outright lies. It forces us to ask yet again: Is it possible to have a healthy democracy when so much of it is soaking in misinformation?

The current story concerns John Durham, the special counsel who has spent almost three years investigating the investigation into Russia’s attempts to subvert the 2016 election. You can read a comprehensive rundown of the facts here or here.

Durham has indicted Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann for allegedly lying to the FBI, which Sussmann denies [that indictment itself is incredibly weak — it involves whether Sussman said he was representing a client in a private conversation he had with an FBI agent he knew]. In 2016, Sussmann, whose firm was doing legal work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, gave the FBI a tip involving supposedly suspicious internet traffic between servers in Trump buildings and a Russian bank; it turned out to be nothing nefarious.

Sussman got the information through another client of his, Rodney Joffe, a technology executive with government cybersecurity contracts, including one that involved protecting the White House from cyber attacks.

In a court filing last week, Durham alleged that Joffe “exploited” his arrangement with the White House to obtain the data in question “for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump.”

Joffe vigorously denies this. His spokesperson says examining such data was par for the course, as he was doing cybersecurity work for the government, and in late 2016, everyone was appropriately concerned about Russian hacking. Durham has not indicted Joffe for anything.

But this is where the propaganda machine goes nuclear.

Fox News is treating this like a stunning revelation (“Worse than Watergate” trumpeted Sean Hannity), dramatically amping up the story with each retelling. After all, it isn’t good enough to say a lawyer with a second-order connection to the Clinton campaign got information from another client with legitimate access to White House internet traffic data; that’s not nearly scandalous enough.

So Fox published a headline reading “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia, Durham finds.” The Washington Examiner claimed Sussmann “spied on Trump’s White House office” — even though the internet data came from 2016, when Barack Obama was president.

“Hillary broke into a presidential candidate’s computer server and a sitting president’s computer server,” ludicrously claimed Fox host Jesse Watters. “There, her hackers planted evidence, fabricated evidence connecting Trump to Russia.”

Tucker Carlson added that Clinton’s campaign stole “presumably text messages,” which not even Durham alleges.

These are all lies. This is not about “hacking,” no evidence was planted and the data on White House traffic came from when Obama was president. You can argue that Durham’s filing was itself misleading and tendentious [which it was], but even if every word of it was true, what they were saying on Fox was outrageously false.

But the propaganda machine doesn’t stop there. Republican politicians — even those who know better — see their constituents being fed this line, so they rush to get in on the act:

The coverage has gone meta; Fox is now angrily asking why other news outlets are not matching their breathless coverage of this nothing burger, feeding their viewers’ paranoid fantasies about cover-ups and conspiracies.

So in no time, we move from questionable claims to obviously false allegations to demands for legal retaliation against political opponents to whining about their own victimhood, with the enthusiastic participation of GOP officeholders, none of whom has the courage to say, “Hey guys, I hate Hillary as much as anyone, but it seems like we’re running out ahead of the facts here.”

That’s because every Republican relies on the propaganda machine. It helps their own campaigns. It keeps the base in a state of perpetual anger. And if you question it, you will become its enemy.

This is happening while there’s an entire trial going on in New York about a single inaccurate word in a New York Times editorial about Sarah Palin — an editorial that was quickly corrected. The Times is falling all over itself to explain how it got something wrong, and no one on the left is defending the paper. Meanwhile, Fox programming contains extraordinary amounts of factual errors, misleading assertions and outright lies, almost none of which ever get corrected.

So where does that leave us? The unfortunate answer is that when a propaganda apparatus such as this one is so deeply embedded within one of our parties, it becomes almost impossible to puncture. Fantasies are accepted as fact, lies become immune to refutation and anyone who displays even a modicum of honesty is denounced as a traitor.

There may be a solution out there, a strategy to pull our politics back to reality. But if there is, we haven’t found it yet.

Unquote.

The former president issued a statement regarding this “scandal” claiming members of the Clinton campaign would have been executed (for crimes they didn’t actually commit), back when America was stronger. His bullshit was dutifully repeated here, there and everywhere as if it made any sense at all.

As we sink further into the abyss.

Menace to Society

It’s excellent news that the federal government and almost fifty states are suing Facebook for being an illegal monopoly. Their aim is to break up the company. But it’s too bad Facebook management can’t be sued for being immoral creeps. They know how bad they are, just like the managers at cigarette companies who knew they were causing cancer and the oil company executives who knew decades ago they were destroying the climate.

This report is from the Daily Mail back in May (it’s a newspaper that specializes in less important topics — note the brief paragraphs):

Facebook researchers learnt as far back as in 2016 that 64 percent of all extremist group joins are due to its own recommendations but executives . . . killed any efforts to fix the problem, according to sources.

Research at the social media giant in 2016 and again in 2018 unearthed a worrying trend linking the platform’s recommendations to extremist views on the site.

But despite researchers coming up with several different solutions to tackle the problem of extremism, no action was taken.

People familiar with the matter have told The Wall Street Journal that the move to dismiss the recommendations was largely down to Facebook VP for policy and former George W. Bush administration official Joel Kaplan, who famously threw Brett Kavanaugh a party when he was appointed Supreme Court Justice in the middle of sexual assault allegations in 2018 . . . .

In 2016, the company carried out research that found there was a worryingly high proportion of extremist content and groups on the platform.

Facebook researcher and sociologist Monica Lee wrote in a presentation at the time that there was an abundance of extremist and racist content in over a third of large German political Facebook groups.

The presentation states ‘64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools.’

Most of the joining activity came from the platform’s ‘Groups You Should Join’ and ‘Discover’ algorithms, she found, meaning: ‘Our recommendation systems grow the problem.’

Facebook then launched new research in 2017 looking at how its social media platform polarized the views of its users.

The project was headed up by Facebook’s then-chief product officer Chris Cox who led the task force known as ‘Common Ground’.

It revealed the social media platform was fueling conflict among its users and increasing extremist views.

It also showed that bad behavior among users came from the small groups of people with the most extreme views, with more accounts on the far-right than far-left in the US.

The concerning findings were released in an internal presentation the following year.

‘Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,’ a slide from the 2018 presentation read.

‘If left unchecked,’ it warned, Facebook would feed users ‘more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.’

Cox and his team offered up several solutions to the problem, including building a system for digging out extreme content and suppressing clickbait around politics.

Another initiative called ‘Sparing Sharing’ involved reducing the spread of content by what it called ‘hyperactive users’ – who are highly active on the platform and show extreme views on either the left or the right, the sources told the Journal.

But the efforts – and the research – were reportedly blocked by senior executives including founder Mark Zuckerberg and Kaplan.

According to sources, Kaplan killed any attempts to change the platform branding the move ‘paternalistic’ and citing concerns that they would mainly impact right-wing social media users, the Journal reported.

Unquote.

Facebook has become a big part of the right-wing media machine, partly because the company was criticized for being unfair to right-wingers. In response to that criticism, they hired Republican executives to make sure right-wing lies and conspiracy theories weren’t interfered with, in fact, that they were promoted, as the report above shows. Thus, from The Guardian last month:

Since election day, 16 of the top 20 public Facebook posts that include the word “election” feature false or misleading information casting doubt on the election in favor of Txxxx, according to a Guardian analysis of posts with the most interactions using CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool. Of those, 13 are posts by the president’s own page, one is a direct quote from Txxxx published by Fox News, one is by the rightwing evangelical Christian Franklin Graham, and the last is the Newsmax Higbie video [“a laundry list of false and debunked claims casting doubt on the outcome of the presidential election”].

The four posts that do not include misinformation are congratulatory messages by Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for Biden and Kamala Harris and two posts by Graham, including a request for prayers for Txxxx and a remembrance by Graham of his father, the conservative televangelist Billy Graham.