Facebook, Google, Twitter: You Are “Crime Scenes”

British journalist Carole Cadwalladr has taken fifteen important minutes to explain how the tech giants are damaging democracy.

One excellent point she makes is that these massive corporations refuse to divulge which misleading political advertisements are being directed at which voters, and who is behind those advertisements, and how much money is being spent on them. As a result, the British laws that limit campaign spending and have been in effect for 100 years no longer work, thanks to the “gods of Silicon Valley”. She addresses Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and others directly:

Liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. This is not democracy. Spreading lies in darkness paid for with illegal cash from God knows where. It’s subversion. And you are accessories to it.

Of the Democrats seeking the presidency, Senator Elizabeth Warren is the one who has offered a plan to rein in the tech giants. You might consider donating to her campaign.

Meanwhile, give Carole Cadwalladr fifteen minutes of your time. She is worth listening to.

Selected Comments on Evil and Rank Stupidity

As the worst people in America continue to run most of the federal government, here are a few choice comments from the Twitterverse.

First, from Michael Cohen, columnist for The Boston Globe:

A lot of crazy things have happened over the past 2.5 years … but that so many people are simply accepting the conclusions of the Mueller report based on the word of an attorney general who wrote an unsolicited 19 page memo bashing Mueller’s probe might be the craziest.

The idea that any of us would take the word of Barr about the conclusions of Mueller’s report at face value, without seeing the underlying evidence, is practically surreal.

And don’t get me started on media criticisms: have we all just collectively forgotten that more than a dozen Trump campaign aides met with Russian officials and virtually all of them lied about it? Or that Trump repeatedly & flagrantly tried to interfere w/the investigation?

Were journalists simply supposed to ignore that? Were they supposed to ignore the fact that Trump’s son, campaign manager and son-in-law met with Russian officials promising dirt on Hillary Clinton (and lied about it) as if this wasn’t evidence of attempted collusion?

Do we all have collective amnesia over the president taking the word of Putin, repeatedly, over US Intel agencies on the question of Russian interference in the election?

Let’s be clear: none of know what Mueller found. None of us have seen the evidence. Until we do none of us know anything.

Next, from Will Wilkinson, Vice President of Research at the Niskanen Center:

The crescendo of furious gaslighting following Barr’s propaganda summary suggests a plan was place to exploit the gap between the submission of the report and public revelation of what’s in it to delegitimize Mueller’s actual findings and the ongoing investigations.

Trump’s “one weird trick” is the shameless public delegitimization of anyone aligned against his interests.

Our idiot media still isn’t capable of understanding how to not be co-opted by Trump’s reality-bending propaganda machine, and continues to get played like a burgled Stradivarius.

Barr’s cover-up gambit means Mueller will certainly be called to testify under oath in the House.

That’s why we’re getting the full-on blitz to mischaracterize his findings: to lock the media and public into a favorable narrative nowhere in evidence, before he actually speaks.

The media’s atrocious gullibility, which is letting this happen without serious resistance, is even more scandalous than the credulity that herded public opinion behind the invasion of Iraq. Because we already *know* this administration does nothing but lie.

The Trump machine is making a lot of political hay with necessary legal distinctions. Barr says Mueller didn’t establish conspiracy or coordination between the campaign & “the Russian government,” which doesn’t imply there wasn’t plenty with Russians hard to pin as agents of Putin.

Barr says Mueller supplies evidence of obstruction, then uses the fact that he doesn’t establish conspiracy to a certain legal standard (which doesn’t at all rule it out, in fact) to argue in a shady way that there was nothing to obstruct, so he let’s Trump off scot-free.

Trump has gone to pains to confuse people into accepting that the legitimacy of congressional oversight depends on a prior, narrow legal finding of criminality, which it has done everything it can to prevent. 

Trump’s hand-picked AG (confirmed by a lapdog Senate, with a record of shielding presidents from scandal) telling us what the report says & sitting on it doesn’t settle anything. But spinning it like it does to prevent congressional oversight tell us a lot. This is far from over.

From Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University:

This week is starting to remind me of the 2000 presidential election. This is what I was thinking.

Republicans declare victory before the results are actually in.

Republicans count on the national media to quickly repeat their conclusion. Pack journalism gets to work.

When serious concerns emerge about the results, Republicans stand by the initial declaration of victory.

Meanwhile, charge that Democrats are being “sore losers” by asking legitimate questions about what is going on.

The GOP then tries to force an ending to the controversy by running out the clock.

After the Supreme Court stops the Florida recount in December 2000, Republicans act like there is a clear mandate and national consensus about the results. Never look back.

From Ryan Cooper, National Correspondent for The Week:

The discourse around this report has revolved far too much around who gets to gloat about making correct predictions, and whether the media exaggerated this or that, which risks letting the content of the report get lost in the noise. Better by far to focus on the actual facts at hand, which are not at all favorable for Trump.

Contrary to many blaring news headlines, the quoted sentence of the report does not say there was no evidence of coordination, but that it “did not establish” it. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the lawyer saying goes.

The Trump administration’s approach here — carried out in concert with Attorney General Barr — is pretty clearly to try to muddy the waters around the Mueller findings to make it appear as though Trump is completely free of sin.

In reality, just what is publicly known about the Mueller investigation is incredibly damning. A foreign government interfered with a U.S. election, the Republican candidate embraced it, and the rest of the party leadership connived to prevent bipartisan action to stop it.

Seven Trump or Republican associates, including Trump’s campaign manager, national security adviser, and personal lawyer, have been convicted of various felonies in the biggest white-collar crime investigation in years, and another is on trial.

Finally, from Michelle Goldberg, columnist for The New York Times:

The media’s biggest failure in Russiagate is letting Trump get away with pretending to be exonerated by a four-page letter from Trump’s own AG that quotes Mueller saying his report “does not exonerate him.”

It’s Not the Reactionaries So Much as the Elites They Listen To

Twitter isn’t the best place for reasoned discussion, but depending on who you follow, it isn’t a vast, superficial wasteland either. One of the cool things it offers is the occasional tweetstorm that benefits from directness and immediacy.

Here, slightly edited, is what David Roberts, who writes about climate and energy for Vox, had to say in thirty or so tweets yesterday:

Ever since climate became a political issue in the US, one of the most ubiquitous topics of climate discussion has been “how can conservatives be persuaded to accept climate science and join in the productive search for solutions?” I have read, no joke, MILLIONS of words on that subject. Been following that conversation long enough to notice it has certain recurring features.

The weirdest aspect is that it almost always treats conservatives and their denial as a kind of feature of the landscape, like a mountain. It’s something that just IS, something other people have to maneuver around, or overcome, or otherwise deal with. It is not treated as a CHOICE, made by grown-ass adults who could choose differently, for which they are responsible.

Another (related) weird aspect is, it’s almost always treated as something that the right’s political opponents *caused*. Al Gore caused it. Strident rhetoric or “alarmism” caused it. Enviro aversion to nuclear power (or CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage], or geoengineering) caused it.

It’s always discussed as a result of something enviros or the left did–and something they could undo, if they just acted/talked right. “If environmentalists stopped doing [thing that personally annoys me], they’d be winning over the right” is a *ubiquitous* template.

But it’s bullshit. The question of what shapes conservative opinion is not some deep mystery about which your gut impulses carry any insight. It’s an intensely studied question in social science and has been, as least to a decent approximation, answered. I recommend this post, summarizing John Zaller’s book The Nature & Origins of Mass Opinion. To *very* briefly summarize: people don’t know anything; they don’t have strong opinions on political “issues”; they form opinions by following the cues of leaders in their various social tribes. We are social creatures; tribal ties (not “issues”) are primary.

So conservatives believe what conservatives believe. And they find out what conservatives believe from conservative elites.That means conservative politicians, celebs, and local leaders, but especially, in US conservatism circa 2017, *media figures*. Conservative media plays an *enormous* role in shaping conservative opinion and has dragged it steadily rightward.

So we can say with confidence that conservatives deny climate change because that’s what conservative political/media elites do. Elite cues are what matter. It follows that the *only* reliable way to get conservatives to stop denying climate change is for conservative political/media elites to stop. That’s it.

You might think that Al Gore should STFU, enviros should support nuclear, green journalists should avoid “doomism” and all the other things that VSPs [Very Serious Persons] are always scolding greens for. Fine. Think what you want. Scold away.

But there is no evidence, and no reason to think, that any of those changes would have any material effect on conservative climate denialism. Conservatives will change their tune on climate when the people they see on Fox & Breitbart change their tune. Until then, clever arguments and magic words (“national security!” “conserving God’s gift!”) are futile for everything except meeting think-piece word counts.

Conservative elites and media are to blame for conservative ignorance and obstruction on climate. Not greens, not Democrats, not Al Gore, not That Guy on Twitter. What they are doing is a monstrous crime that will directly result in enormous suffering. And they are grown-ass adults fully capable of understanding the consequences. They are responsible for their own actions and deserve to be called out for them.

Basically, conservative elites are to blame for climate paralysis and only conservative elites can change it. I don’t like it, but there it is. Step one for everyone ought to be telling the damn truth about it. Quit finding “clever,” “counterintuitive” ways to blame others, FFS. As Ornstein and Mann said (more broadly, but it applies here as well), “Republicans are the problem”.

Of course, in the case of global warming, Republicans are only part of the problem. The big problem is global warming itself, combined with how unlikely it is that we will stop it from getting worse. What scientists have predicted for decades is coming to pass. The world is getting hotter; the atmosphere has more moisture in it; the oceans are rising; the ice is receding; the permafrost is melting; storms and heat waves are intensifying. We are polluting the planet to a dangerous degree and it’s coming back to bite us, too quickly for us to stop it, yet too slowly to make everyone feel the urgency of the problem. 

Later, I saw that David Roberts presented his thoughts more formally in an article with a long title: “As Hurricanes and Wildfires Rage, US Climate Politics Enters the Realm of Farce: Climate Denial Is Less Credible, But More Powerful, Than Ever”.

But if you want to get really depressed, take a look at The Guardian‘s “This Is How Your World Could End”. If the author is correct, it’s not out of the question that the earth’s surface may become too hot for mammals. The good news is that many other living things would survive, including birds, who handle heat better than we do.

If You’re a Russian Twitter Bot, What’s On Your Mind?

In 1972, the German government founded the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a foundation and think tank in Washington. It was a gift to the American people in recognition of how the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Germany after World War 2.

The GMF has now created Hamilton 68, a site that allows “tracking Russian influence operations on Twitter”. (The name refers to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers No. 68, in which he discussed foreign meddling in our elections.) If you visit the new Disinformation Dashboard, you can see what stories and topics Russia is pushing today. From today’s “Top Themes”:

The networks we track are engaged in disinformation. They amplify legitimate reporting when the content suits them, and they promote alternative media outlets that seemingly specialize in the production of disinformation, whether or not the outlets are controlled by the Kremlin. These outlets assemble stories from found objects – bits of information that may have some basis in reality. The final product will leap to conclusions the components of the story do not necessarily support, but which promote a distorted view of events to the Kremlin’s benefit. This past week we have seen Kremlin-oriented Twitter promoting content regarding non-lethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. Reality: the U.S. Navy is helping construct a naval operations center at Ochakiv. The promoted stories at Stalker Zone and Strategic Culture turn that into: “The Entire Black Sea Coast of Ukraine Will Become a U.S. Military Base” and “U.S. Military to be Permanently Stationed on [Ukraine] Soil” respectively. Such stories are produced continuously. Their effectiveness is based on cumulative impact.

Side note: A coherent response to events on the weekend in Charlottesville has not yet emerged (as of August 16), though we continue to watch for one.

They’re currently monitoring 600 Twitter users, “properly understood as a network of accounts linked to and participating in Russian influence campaigns”, officially or unofficially, knowingly or unknowingly. These include:

  • Accounts likely controlled by Russian government influence operations.
  • Accounts for “patriotic” pro-Russia users that are loosely connected or unconnected to the Russian government, but which amplify themes promoted by Russian government media.
  • Accounts for users who have been influenced by the first two groups and who are extremely active in amplifying Russian media themes. These users may or may not understand themselves to be part of a pro-Russian social network. 

Today’s top Russian tweet, according to the Disinformation Dashboard, happens to be from the government-run RT network (formerly Russia Today):

Twitter user avatar @RT_com
Petition urges Trump to recognize Antifa as terrorists, reaches 55,000 signatures in 2 days https://t.co/toDhxusjll https://t.co/SV3TfIxVUD
Retweeted 566 times

The top Russia hashtags for the past 48 hours have been “antifa” (anti-fascist), “maga” (Make America Great…), “boston”, “syria”, “isis” and “altleft”. 

By the way, according to something called TwitterAudit.com, roughly 40% of DT’s 36 million followers are automated (i.e. fake).

Shining light on Russia’s propaganda efforts is a good thing, but I’d feel better if the president* and his minions were doing something to protect our upcoming elections. They’re not, because Russia is on their side.

Dashboard

Note: Whoever designed this graphic for GMF showing Putin releasing all those Twitter birds might as well have left the birds blue. Russia isn’t a Communist country anymore. It’s a right-wing kleptocracy, which is why the president* and other right-wing fanatics are so pro-Russia now. Putin leads the kind of government they aspire to.

Against Autocracy and Apathy

David Frum, who wrote speeches for George W. Bush, is one of the few right-wingers who haven’t swallowed Drump’s Kool-Aid. He now writes for The Atlantic, where he published an excellent article in January called “How To Build An Autocracy”. Its subtitle was “The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald [Drump] could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism”.

It’s a full-length magazine article that takes a while to load because of all the advertisements (unless your ad blocker is working), but it was very well-received and is still worth reading. Frum begins by imagining Drump being sworn in for his second term. America hasn’t gone completely over the edge but it’s not healthy either. The article concludes:

Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.

I was reminded of the article because Mr. Frum generated what’s called a “tweetstorm” on Twitter today. Up until a few months ago, I thought Twitter was basically a joke. I didn’t realize how interesting it is as a source of political news and commentary. So I created an account and now follow a small number of journalists, politicians and people with common interests (and a few comedians). Some of the journalists, including David Frum, offer what’s almost a running commentary on the day’s events. Here’s what he wrote today in 21 segments:

  1. [The Attorney General] Sessions story today is a sinister confirmation of central thesis of my autocracy article:
  2. Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous president because he harbors so many guilty secrets (or maybe 1 big guilty secret).
  3. In order to protect himself, Trump must attack American norms and institutions – otherwise he faces fathomless legal risk
  4. In turn, in order to protect their legally vulnerable leader, Republicans in Congress must join the attack on norms & institutions
  5. Otherwise, they put at risk party hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake US government in ways not very popular with voters
  6. American institutions are built to withstand an attack from the president alone. But …
  7. … they are not so well-built as to withstand an attack from a conscienceless president enabled by a hyper-partisan Congress
  8. The peculiar grim irony in this case is that somewhere near the center of Trump’s story is the murky secret of Trump’s Russia connection
  9. Meaning that Trump is rendering his party also complicit in what could well prove …
  10. … the biggest espionage scandal since the Rosenberg group stole the secret of the atomic bomb.
  11. And possibly even bigger. We won’t know if we don’t look
  12. Despite patriotic statements from individual GOPers, as of now it seems that Speaker Ryan & Leader McConnell agree: no looking.
  13. So many in DC serenely promise that “checks and balances” will save us. But right now: there is no check and no balance.
  14. Only brave individuals in national security roles sharing truth with news organizations.
  15. But those individuals can be found & silenced. What then? We take it too much for granted that the president must lose this struggle
  16. The “oh he’s normal now” relief of so many to Trump’s Feb 28 speech revealed how ready DC is to succumb to deal making as usual.
  17. As DC goes numb, citizen apathy accumulates …
  18. GOP members of Congress decide they have more to fear from enforcing law against the president than from ignoring law with the president
  19. And those of us who care disappear down rabbit holes debating whether Sessions’ false testimony amounts to perjury or not
  20. Meanwhile job market strong, stock market is up, immigration enforcement is popular.
  21. I’m not counseling despair here. I don’t feel despair. Only: nobody else will save the country if you don’t act yourself.

Of course, it will be the height of irony if Drump, after claiming that he inherited a disaster from Obama, ends up getting credit for the economy improving and ISIS being defeated, but that’s the way American politics works. At the present moment, however, what especially struck me about Frum’s comments was the idea that citizen apathy, including my own, might be growing. 

I was able to attend a town hall by our Congressman, Rep. Leonard Lance (NJ-7), two weeks ago. He the typical relatively sensible Republican who went to Washington and now almost always follows the party line. At the town hall, he avoided straight answers, repeated some ridiculous Republican talking points and made promises he won’t keep, but at least he got an extended earful from hundreds of angry constituents.

But now that the excitement of the town hall has faded, and no big demonstrations like the Women’s March on Washington in the news, I’m beginning to feel a little numb myself. That’s natural, I suppose. Intensity will come and go, even as the outrages continue. In the meantime, however, if you’d like to do something positive, there’s a special election being held in a suburban district outside Atlanta to replace the lying creep who’s now running the Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Jon Ossoff is a Democratic candidate who could pull off an upset in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District if he gets enough support and there’s enough of an anti-Drump backlash. Even if he doesn’t win, a close election will show Republicans like our Leonard Lance that their re-election isn’t assured. I made a donation today. You can too if you visit Mr. Ossoff’s campaign site.

Even if you’re not at peak emotional intensity right now, you can always spend a few dollars for an important cause. 

Idle Thoughts, Small Actions

As we get further away from that horrific night in November, most of us are probably thinking less about why the Electoral College went the way it did (go to hell, Comey!). We’re also thinking less about the way things might have been. Instead, we’re freaking out about what’s happening now and what’s coming our way.

I haven’t been to any marches or demonstrations yet, but like many of us, I’ve contacted my members of Congress more than ever before. Today I called one of our Senators, although he’s a Democrat, to thank him for delaying a committee hearing on one of T__’s dangerous cabinet selections and to encourage him to do whatever he can to stop the appointment of a racist ideologue as Attorney General (that’s the jerk even Republicans thought was unqualified to be a Federal judge).

People are saying that Congress is being inundated with complaints about the monster(s) in the White House, so it was reassuring that getting through to one of my Senator’s offices wasn’t easy. The line was busy at his office near me, so I called his office in Washington. I was about to leave a message when a recording said his voicemail was full and couldn’t take any more messages. So then I called his remaining office, which is in a less populated part of our state. A nice young woman immediately answered the phone. She assured me that she’d transmit my message to Washington.

Some activities are less immediately practical than contacting Congress. Fantasizing, for example. I’ve entertained the usual fantasies, of course, such as T___ suffering a debilitating stroke or a fatal fall down some White House stairs; a benign military coup leads to a do-over election; and my favorite, that very smart, very kind beings from outer space take control and put us on a more reasonable path, one that includes single-payer health insurance and a fix for global warming. I’ve had a few other fantasies too.

One is that Rupert Murdoch, the evil billionaire who will be 86 next month, finally kicks the bucket and a more reasonable mogul or two purchase The News Corporation and 21st Century Fox. That would inevitably lead to entities like Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post becoming reputable organizations again, cutting off the stream of Murdoch-owned right-wing propaganda that has poisoned our democracy in recent years.

Another is that the CEO of Twitter,  Jack Dorsey, known to Twitter-ites as “@Jack” and who has contributed to Democratic politicians, admits that allowing T___ to have an official Twitter account presents a clear and present danger to the rest of us. It would be fine to let Donnie tweet as much as any other deranged right-winger, but he shouldn’t have a verified account that identifies him as “@realDonaldT___” or “@POTUS” (the President). That way, whenever Donnie transmitted his latest lie or insult, it wouldn’t have any effect on anyone but a small circle of nitwits. Nobody could possibly believe it came from the actual President of the United States.

Yet another of my fantasies involves the U.S. Senate. There are now 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats or Independents in what used to be a relatively reputable legislative body. If three of those Republicans were to declare themselves Independents and vote with the Democrats, the Republicans would be the minority again. They’d only have the House of Representatives to play with. Of course, controlling the Senate wouldn’t allow the Democrats to get much done (that’s in the official rules), but they could make sure T___ and his allies did less damage.

Finally, now speaking of other people’s fantasies, I recently took a tiny step toward correcting the fantastic beliefs of the sorry individuals who inhabit the Fox News and Breitbart websites (Breitbart is the far-right, white nationalist outfit that tells T___ what to do). It’s extremely unpleasant to visit those two sites, so I don’t recommend this to everyone. But I now leave the occasional comment, just to let some of them know there’s a real world out here. It’s rather like descending into Plato’s cave and removing the chains from poor souls who have never seen the sun or the sky. It’s a very dirty job, but we’re living in times that require direct action.