How The Internet Facilitates Dishonesty

Sometimes, just skimming the news is enough to trigger heartburn.

In addition to the hourly reminders that our country is being “governed” (note quotation marks) by a dangerously ignorant lunatic and the daily disclosures of corruption and cronyism, we are routinely reminded of the difficulty of separating all manner of informational wheat from both inadvertent and purposeful chaff.

The other day, the Guardian carried a story about dishonesty in–of all things– a women’s fertility app.

I didn’t even know such things existed. It would never have occurred to me that fertility could be managed on line–but evidently, in the age of the Internet, pretty much everything is subject to online interventions.

The problem is, it turns out that this particular app comes with an agenda.

A popular women’s health and fertility app sows doubt about birth control, features claims from medical advisers who are not licensed to practice in the US, and is funded and led by anti-abortion, anti-gay Catholic campaigners, a Guardian investigation has found.

The Femm app, which collects personal information about sex and menstruation from users, has been downloaded more than 400,000 times since its launch in 2015, according to developers. It has users in the US, the EU, Africa and Latin America, its operating company claims.

Although it markets itself as a way to “avoid or achieve pregnancy,” what the app really does is create doubts about the safety of birth control.

Femm receives much of its income from private donors including the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a charity backed almost exclusively by Sean Fieler, a wealthy Catholic hedge-funder based in New York.

Fieler’s foundation has long supported organizations– and politicians such as the vice-president, Mike Pence – that oppose birth control and abortion. Fieler has criticized Republicans for failing to outlaw abortion, calling their reticence “the tyranny of moderation” in a recent editorial.

The Chiaroscuro Foundation, with Fieler as its chairman and main backer, provided $1.79m to the developers of the Femm app over the last three years, according to IRS statements. Fieler also sits on the board of directors for the Femm Foundation, a not-for-profit which operates the app.

The Femm app asserts that “hormonal” birth control–i.e., the pill– may be “deleterious to a woman’s health” and promotes learning one’s “cycles” as  a safer, “natural” way to avoid pregnancy. This is medically inaccurate information.

“The birth control pill is one of the greatest health achievements of the 20th century,” said Dr Nathaniel DeNicola, an OB-GYN with the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which has studied fertility apps extensively. “This is part of standard women’s healthcare.”

“Natural” family planning methods using fertility awareness are known to have a failure rate of about 25 unintended pregnancies for every 100 women a year in the US.

I wonder how many women have downloaded this app in good faith, relying on the professional advice of “doctors” who are unlicensed in the U.S. and who are peddling information inconsistent with sound science and best practices.

For that matter, I wonder how many other apps, websites and blogs are providing information they know or should know is both untrue and potentially damaging, whether for ideological reasons or financial ones. We already know about the so-called “dark web,” where alt-right white nationalist propaganda radicalizes the vulnerable, and conspiracy theories ensnare the gullible. Add to that the new “deep fake” technologies, and the potential for mischief (and worse) is enormous.

I have no idea how we combat the avalanche of misinformation that is facilitated by the Internet’s low entry barriers. It seems clear that the “big guys”–the social media mavens–don’t know how either.

Ultimately, better education (and better mental healthcare), plus development of some sort of “Good housekeeping seal of approval” denoting credibility might act as warning devices, but for right now, it’s a Wild West–and the bad guys aren’t wearing black hats so that we can recognize them.

Thank Heavens For Ineptitude

I have mentioned before my fondness for Juanita Jean, The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Shop. It’s the blog Molly Ivins would have authored had she lived into the blog era.

I want to share a recent post in its entirety. It’s amusing–but like most of Juanita Jean’s observations, it’s also pretty profound.

Remember back last summer when Trump took away John Brennan’s security clearance?  Brennan says he hasn’t heard from anybody about anything officially notifying him that his pass had been revoked, so maybe …

Yep.  Trump never did it. Brenna still has a full clearance because …

But the White House never followed through with the complex bureaucratic work it would have taken to strip the clearance, according to a person familiar with the process.

Okay, you get to pick: lazy or stupid.

I’m going with the hybrid – too dumb to find out how but also too lazy to follow through even if they did find out how.

Trump doesn’t care about accomplishing anything. He just wants headlines.

Anyone who has followed this administration can attest to the accuracy of this observation. For most of us, the first impulse is to bemoan the fact that we have a President with a very limited intellect who clearly knows nothing about the job he was accidentally elected to do.

I have a different reaction: relief.

I’ve noted before that when Trump is sued for doing something that violates the law, or is otherwise stupid or damaging, he almost always loses. This is because he–and the Keystone Kops with whom he has surrounded himself–rarely know what the hell they are doing, and even more rarely follow the rules that govern policy change.

Think about this: Virtually everything the Trump Administration tries to do is wrong, damaging, corrupt, unAmerican and (often) incredibly stupid.

Can you imagine how bad it would be if this crew was competent? (Think of the incredible damage Mitch McConnell has done to American democracy, because he’s both evil and good at what he does.)

Thank God they are–to repeat Juanita Jean’s accurate observation-too dumb to learn and  too lazy to follow through even if they did.

White Panic

Charles Blow is one of the columnists for the New York Times whose essays I almost always find thoughtful and perceptive. In this one, especially, he hits the proverbial nail on the head.

Every so often it’s important to step back from the freak show of the moment so that you can see the whole circle. That has never been more important than at this moment and under this administration.

Everything that has happened during recent years is all about one thing: fear by white people that they will inevitably lose their numerical advantage in this country; and with that loss comes an alteration of American culture and shifting of American power away from white dominance and white control. White people don’t want to become one of many minority groups in America and have others — possibly from Asia, Latin America, Africa or the Middle East — holding the reins of power, and dictating inclusion and equity.

Once you see White Panic as the root of Trumpism, so many other things become clear: the imperviousness of Trump supporters to evidence of the harm he’s doing, the hypocrisy of “Christian” support for a man who has admitted to violating the values they purport to hold, the utter lack of concern for the humanitarian tragedy at the border…

Blow identifies the thread that connects so many of the issues that we’ve been confronting:

This is manifested in every issue you can imagine: the Confederate monuments fight, opposition to Black Lives Matter, intransigence on gun control, voter suppression laws, the Muslim ban, the hard line on asylum seekers coming across the southern border, calls to abolish the visa lottery, the defaming of majority black countries, efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, the addition of a census question that could cause an undercount of Hispanics, the stacking of the courts with far-right judges (the vast majority of whom are white men). You name it, each issue is laced the white panic about displacement.

I have previously posted about the Cato report documenting the percentage of terrorist attacks attributable to White Nationalists; Blow references similar testimony by  the assistant director of the FBI’s counter-terrorism division. Of the 850 domestic terrorism investigations currently underway, he testified that 40 percent involve perpetrators with racist ideologies.  A significant majority are self-identified White Nationalists or White Supremacists.

Just as Trump saw fine people among the Nazis in Charlottesville, he is unable to see — or more precisely, to admit and address — white nationalism and white supremacy because he is at this moment these causes’ greatest champion.

The loyal MAGA-hat wearers may tell themselves that they differ from the violent fringe, that they aren’t like the David Dukes and other “out” Neo-Nazis, but their motives aren’t all that dissimilar.

The violent white nationalists are simply the leading edge, the violent vanguard, of the teeming masses of “soft” white nationalists and white supremacists, those who use stigmas and statutes as their weapons, those who have convinced themselves that their motivations have nothing to do with American racism and everything to do with American culture.

Blow connects some important dots. As he notes, in this “iteration of America,” securing white power and delaying displacement is to be achieved “through a fundamental restructuring of the laws around which babies get born, which addictions get treated, which bodies are allowed to immigrate or seek asylum and whose voice and votes get counted.”

Did you wonder why White Supremacists cheered the news about Alabama’s draconian anti-abortion law?

As the racist Iowa congressman, Steve King, tweetedin March of 2017, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

The proposed census changes have a similar goal: If you’re losing in the game of numbers, change the way you count.

As NPR reported on Tuesday:

“Challenges threatening the upcoming 2020 census could put more than four million people at risk of being undercounted in next year’s national head count, according to new projections by the Urban Institute. The nonpartisan think tank found that the danger of an inaccurate census could hit some of the country’s most difficult to count populations the hardest. Based on the institute’s analysis, the 2020 census could lead to the worst undercount of black and Latino and Latina people in the U.S. since 1990.”

Don’t just grouse over each individual fruit of the poison tree, also focus on the root.

Right now, America is facing a moral challenge every bit as profound as the country’s earlier conflict over slavery.

Will we live up to our professed values, or–like the “Christians” who have discarded their theology in order to protect their privilege–will we elevate loyalty to our tribes over adherence to our ostensible principles?

Sex And The State

Indianapolis’ Pride Celebration gets bigger and better every year–this year, the parade was so crowded with people enjoying the lovely day and the multiple marchers and floats that the “usual subjects”–with their signs proclaiming the sinfulness of “homo” sex– almost escaped notice.

Those “usual subjects”–the scolds who come out of the woodwork to tell LGBTQ folks that God disapproves of them, and the “good Christians” who scream invective at women entering Planned Parenthood clinics–are reminders that Americans have always had a real problem with sex. Not just gay sex, either. Any sex.

Residents of more laid-back countries (no pun intended) have found both America’s excessive religiosity and famous prudishness puzzling, and both of those elements of our political culture are barriers to reasonable policymaking. Most of the country has finally  recognized that statutes forbidding fornication, sodomy and the like didn’t prevent those behaviors, but simply allowed police who were so inclined to harass marginalized folks with what lawyers call “arbitrary and capricious” enforcement.

The gratifying disappearance of these silly statutes, however, doesn’t mean we Americans have lost our obsession with sex. The fights have simply moved to other venues, like abortion, transgender bathrooms and especially sex education policy, where “family values” warriors continue to insist that only abstinence should be taught in the classroom.

Sex education has been a controversial subject for decades as public school officials and parents have debated the best ways to help teenagers avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Not all states require schools to teach sex ed. But many states require sex education instructors to discuss or stress abstinence from sexual activity, with some schools offering abstinence-only programming, which urges kids to wait until marriage and often excludes information about contraceptives.

So-called “comprehensive” sex education programs teach students about abstinence, but (in a nod to hormones and reality) also teach about contraception, sexual health and how to handle unwanted sexual advances. Such curricula are gaining ground in some states.

In 2019, sex education continues to make headlines even as teen pregnancy rates continue to fall. Policymakers in Colorado, California and Alabama have pushed for big changes in the way sex education is taught there. In Colorado, a bill that would ban abstinence-only education in public schools awaits the governor’s signature. The legislation, which also requires that sex education be inclusive for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ), was “one of the most contentious battles of the 2019 legislative session,”according to the Colorado Times Recorder.

In Alabama–home of the recent law banning abortion even in cases of rape or incest– the state’s sex education law requires teachers to emphasize that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” (A bill has been introduced that would change that requirement, but as this is written, it’s still on the books.)

As of 2016, abstinence was a required topic of instruction in states such as Arkansas, South Dakota and Texas…. 29 states, including Florida, Montana and Pennsylvania, did not require their sex education curricula to be based on medically accurate information. In some schools, teachers have been accused of inflating condom failure rates to discourage use.

I know that basing policy on evidence is out of favor in the Age of Trump, but the research is instructive: abstinence-only education results in higher teen birth rates. (And those “virginity pledges” that fundamentalist dads brag about? Researchers found that girls who took pledges were more likely to become pregnant outside of marriage when compared with girls and young women who did not take abstinence pledges.)

Facts are such inconvenient things.

I know it’s heresy, but maybe–just maybe–schools should teach kids medically-and-age appropriate information about their bodies, rather than inaccurate, incomplete or counterproductive information intended to mollify prudes and religious fundamentalists.

What Trump Doesn’t Know Can Hurt You

One of the many things about support for Donald Trump that has bemused me is the seeming belief among those supporters–and for that matter, among many Americans who don’t support him–that experience in governing, or at least expertise about governance, is irrelevant to the Presidency.

These are people who would be very unlikely to trust a doctor who had neither gone to medical school or practiced medicine. They wouldn’t call a plumber who had never “plumbed.” Yet they confidently assert that anyone who’s run a successful business of any kind can run the country. (Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Trump quite obviously didn’t run a successful business–sound businesses don’t repeatedly refuse to pay their vendors or go bankrupt with some regularity.)

In the past two years, people who do know something about governing, about the Constitutional framework constraining executive action,  and about various aspects of policy have been appalled by Trump’s very evident ignorance of all such things.

His ignorance isn’t the biggest problem: no one who assumes the Presidency knows–or can know–the details involved in every policy decision a chief executive must make. We expect a President to surround himself (or herself) with expert advisers, to consult those experts, and learn from them.

We expect a President to know what he or she doesn’t know. The buffoon currently shaming the Oval Office not only doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, he very clearly has no interest in finding out.

Trump’s ignorance is dangerous in ways both more and less obvious.

Just one example:

I’ve recently come across several news reports about America’s dependence on elements that are collectively called “rare earth.” Rare earth metals and the alloys that contain them are critical for the manufacture of everything from fighter jets to numerous devices that people use every day– everything from computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting and many more. The use of rare earth elements in computers and cell phones has grown exponentially, as has their use in rechargeable batteries that power portable electronic devices such as cell phones, readers, portable computers, and cameras.

And most rare earth comes from China.

It is highly unlikely that our bull-in-a-China-shop (pun intended) knows anything about rare earth, America’s dependence on it, or China’s virtual monopoly on it. Not only does  Mr. Tariff Man not understand how tariffs work or who pays them, he just as obviously has no idea how dependent the U.S. might be on goods we import from any country.  (He has displayed abysmal ignorance of the complex interrelationship of American manufacturers and Mexico, or the existence of less dangerous tools for negotiating trade disputes.)

The U.S. has exactly one mine– Mountain Pass– that harvests rare-earth elements.

China dominates the global market for these materials and has been threatening to take them hostage in the deepening trade conflict. Just the suggestion that Beijing could starve American factories of essential materials has sent rare-earth prices soaring over the past month, with dysprosium oxide, used in lasers and nuclear-reactor control rods, up by one-third.

The linked article notes that China would have some problems implementing a ban on rare earth,  “including the prospect of widespread smuggling and the likelihood of hurting countries that Chinese authorities may prefer not to alienate.” But the threat is still powerful.

Officials have begun contingency planning to accelerate production in the event of a Chinese cutoff, Rosenthal said. Though Mountain Pass could not fill all domestic needs, it could boost output of substances needed for oil refining and some specialized magnets.

Yet the mine’s role at the center of the U.S.-China faceoff over 17 elements with names such as neodymium, terbium and europium is not without irony.

Mountain Pass ships its main product — a powdery substance that looks like crushed cocoa — to China for processing before it is sold to Chinese customers. A Chinese rare-earths producer, Leshan Shenghe, holds a nonvoting 10 percent stake in the U.S. mine.

The people in the U.S. and Great Britain who want to defy globalization–  who are screaming “stop the world I want to get off”–are too late. The world’s economies are interrelated and interdependent in millions of complex ways.

When policy is directed by an ignoramus who has absolutely no understanding of those complexities and dependencies, the consequences can be dire.

I don’t want my cavities filled by a plumber, and I don’t want a phony “businessman” created for reality television running my country.