Category Archives: Random Blogging

Brave New World

Okay, I am now officially worried. Really worried.

A few days ago, The Guardian reported on a recent conference of internet hackers, held in Las Vegas. (Yes, even hackers evidently have conferences….)

Using “psychographic” profiles of individual voters generated from publicly stated interests really does work, according to new research presented at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The controversial practice allows groups to hone their messages to match the personality types of their targets during political campaigning, and is being used by firms including Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ to better target voters with political advertising with so-called “dark ads”.

Most of us don’t consider ourselves targets for “dark ads” aka propaganda. We like to believe that we are different–that we’re thoughtful consumers of information, people who can “smell a rat” or otherwise detect spin and disinformation. We shake our heads over reports like the one about the gullible 28-year-old who shot up a Washington Pizza Parlor because stories on social media and conservative websites had convinced him that Hillary Clinton was operating a Satanic child sex ring out of its (nonexistent) basement.

News flash: we are all more gullible than we like to believe. Confirmation bias is built in to human DNA.

Psychographic profiling classifies people into personality types using data from social networks such as Facebook. Sumner’s research focused on replicating some of the key findings of psychographic research by crafting adverts specifically targeted at certain personality types. Using publicly available data to ensure that the adverts were seen by the right people at the right time, Sumner tested how effective such targeting can be.

The referenced study used information that Facebook already generates about those who use its platform, and created two groups: one composed of “high-authoritarian” conservatives, and a “low-authoritarian” group of liberals.

Knowing the psychographic profiles of the two groups is more useful than simply being able to accurately guess what positions they already hold; it can also be used to craft messages to specifically target those groups, to more effectively shift their opinions. Sumner created four such adverts, two aimed at increasing support for internet surveillance and two aimed at decreasing it, each targeted to a low or high authoritarian group.

For example, the highly authoritarian group’s anti-surveillance advert used the slogan “They fought for your freedom. Don’t give it away!”, over an image of the D-Day landings, while the low authoritarian group’s pro-surveillance message was “Crime doesn’t stop where the internet starts: say YES to state surveillance”.

Sure enough, the targeted adverts did significantly better. The high-authoritarian group was significantly more likely to share a promoted post aimed at them than a similar one aimed at their opposites, while the low authoritarian group ranked the advert aimed at them as considerably more persuasive than the advert that wasn’t.

Think about the implications of this. Political campaigns can now target different messages to different groups far more efficiently and effectively than they could when the only mechanisms available were direct mail campaigns or placement of television ads. As the article noted, this technology allows politicians to appeal to the worst side of voters in an almost undiscoverable manner.

The importance of motivating and turning out your base is a “given” in electoral politics, and these new tools are undoubtedly already in use–further eroding the democratic ideal in which votes are cast after citizens weigh information provided through public policy debates conducted by honorable candidates using verifiable facts.

Thanks to gerrymandering, most of us don’t have genuine choices for Congress or our state legislatures on election day. Now, thanks to technology, we won’t be able to tell the difference between facts and “alternative facts.”

Trump and White Christian Nationalism

The past few days, in addition to the spectacle of two immature, ignorant and nuclear- armed heads of state throwing verbal poo at each other, the media has been filled with images of torch-wielding White Nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A “Unite The Right” rally organized by white nationalist Richard Spencer descended into chaos and violence Saturday in Charlottesville, as thousands of “alt right” activists, Nazis, KKK members, other assorted white supremacists, and armed militia groups fought with anti-fascist groups and other counter-protesters.

Thanks to Trump, the haters now feel confident “coming out.”

Donald Trump’s election was the culmination of years of seething White Christian Nationalist resentment, constantly fed by a conservative media harping on “those” people– immigrants, the LGBTQ community, blacks, feminists– and brought to a boiling point by Obama’s Presidency.

Evangelicals’ embrace of Donald Trump may seem incomprehensible to traditional Christians and certainly to the rest of us, but we shouldn’t confuse genuine evangelical Christianity with the White Christian Nationalism that has increasingly replaced it. As ThinkProgress explains:

Where did this cross-toting, flag-waving, and sometimes confusion-inducing form of Trumpian Christian nationalism come from, and why does it appear to resonate with throngs of Americans? And how in the world did Trump, hardly a paragon of conservative Christian virtue, end up as its champion?…

[T]he Christian nationalist scaffolding currently propping up Trump is … relatively new. It shares many theological ideas with the broader spectrum of evangelicalism, but adds a different brand of intensity and emphasis (especially domestically). Its origins are also more recent, beginning with the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s, when leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pat Robertson characterized America as a “Christian nation” and urged their supporters to elect conservative Christian leaders who shared their rabid opposition to abortion, LGBTQ equality, and euthanasia, among other things.

The article traces the history of “dominionism,” a theology that has been described as a “strange fundamentalist postmodernism that denies that there is any such thing as objective reality.” That history–and the convoluted doctrine that allows some Christian Nationalists to insist that Trump was “chosen by God”– is well worth reading. In most cases, however, this “Christian” embrace of the president has more to do with his willingness to pander to them and promote their causes than with doctrine.

It also has a lot to do with the fact that Trump’s rhetoric makes their bigotry seem acceptable; he constantly demeans the “others” they hate, and steadfastly refuses to call them out.(CNN reported that Trump condemned hate “on many sides” in response to the violent white nationalist protests and terror attack in Charlottesville; the President did not even mention white nationalists and the alt-right movement in his remarks, and later called for a “study” of the “situation.”)

Analyses of data from the 2016 election have made it increasingly clear that the great majority of Trump voters–whether they self-identified as Christian Nationalists or not–were motivated by racism and traits associated with racism.  A commentary in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology reports that a majority of Trump voters displayed one or more (usually more) of the following social-psychological traits:

  • authoritarianism and social dominance orientation (authoritarianism is characterized by deference to authority, aggression toward outgroups, a rigidly hierarchical view of the world, and resistance to new experiences);
  • prejudice (racial prejudice as well as prejudice against immigrants and outgroups in general);
  • lack of intergroup contact (Trump’s white supporters report far less contact with minorities than other Americans); and
  • relative–not real–deprivation (Trump supporters feel deprived relative to what they erroneously perceive other ‘less deserving’ groups possess).

The horrendous spectacle in Charlottesville is only the beginning. We can see clearly now just what it is that motivates “Trump’s Troops,” and it isn’t Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Speaking of Fake News….

Well, I see where Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law is hosting a “news” show on Facebook, to give supporters the “real” scoop on the administration’s greatness….Since Trump’s vast accomplishments appear to have escaped the notice of credible journalism outlets, the family evidently felt the need to give the base a more flattering version of events in Washington. And also, according to yesterday’s Washington Post,

This week, meanwhile, saw the debut of Trump TV: a Web-based broadcast of “real news” by Kayleigh McEnany, a pro-Trump pundit formerly of CNN. In the first installment, she announces, in front of a Trump-Pence campaign backdrop in Trump Tower: “President Trump has created more than 1 million jobs. . . . President Trump has clearly steered the economy back in the right direction. . . . President Trump is finally putting the American worker first. . . . President Trump is dedicated to honoring these men and women who fought valiantly for our country.”

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted: “Wow. Feels eerily like so many state-owned channels I’ve watched in other countries.”

Shades of Mike Pence…

Much more concerning, Jared Kushner recently revealed that before the election, the Trump campaign had made a deal with Sinclair Broadcasting (Fox News’ less-recognized Evil Twin):

Kushner said the agreement with Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country in many swing states and often packages news for their affiliates to run, gave them more access to Trump and the campaign, according to six people who heard his remarks.

In exchange, Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary, Kushner said. Kushner highlighted that Sinclair, in states like Ohio, reaches a much wider audience — around 250,000 listeners — than networks like CNN, which reach somewhere around 30,000.

“It’s math,” Kushner said according to multiple attendees.

Sinclair, a Maryland-based company, is a politically conservative network of local news outlets; it was the subject of a scathing take-down by John Oliver, on a recent episode of Last Week Tonight.

Local stations in the past have been directed to air “must run” stories produced by Sinclair’s Washington bureau that were generally critical of Obama administration and offered perspectives primarily from conservative think tanks, The Washington Post reported in 2014.

I’m sure it is merely coincidental (cough, cough), but following the election, Politico reported 

Sinclair Broadcast Group is expanding its conservative-leaning television empire into nearly three-quarters of American households — but its aggressive takeover of the airwaves wouldn’t have been possible without help from President Donald Trump’s chief at the Federal Communications Commission.

Sinclair, already the nation’s largest TV broadcaster, plans to buy 42 stations from Tribune Media in cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, on top of the more than 170 stations it already owns. It got a critical assist this spring from Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who revived a decades-old regulatory loophole that will keep Sinclair from vastly exceeding federal limits on media ownership.

The change will allow Sinclair — a company known for injecting “must run” conservative segments into its local programming — to reach 72 percent of U.S. households after buying Tribune’s stations. That’s nearly double the congressionally imposed nationwide audience cap of 39 percent.

That’s a nice quid pro quo: Sinclair delivers favorable publicity for the Trump campaign, and is rewarded by an FCC rule change benefitting its bottom line–a change that will allow the company to reach nearly three-quarters of American homes with “news” favorable to Trump.

When does actual news, which is protected by the First Amendment even when it is wrong or misleading, become propaganda or fraud? And what do we do about it?

When two deeply deranged heads of state are playing “mine’s bigger than yours” with nuclear weapons, there is some urgency in figuring this out.

Those Republican “Moderates”

I have frequently noted how far today’s GOP has traveled since my days as an active Republican. I’m not alone, of course, in describing the differences between the party of Eisenhower and even Reagan, and today’s radical Rightists–Facebook posts routinely include surprising quotes from former Republican presidents, and one recurring item contrasts the party’s 1955 platform with the party’s more recent–and far more “anti-government” iterations.

One result of this steady move rightward is a change in meaning of the term “Moderate.” Republican elected officials are now considered moderates if they refrain from explicitly racist and sexist rhetoric, occasionally smile, and exhibit social skills.

Before awarding a “moderate” label to today’s politicians, however, it is instructive to visit Nate Silver’s blog, where he tracks how often every member of the House and Senate votes with or against Donald Trump, who–whatever he is–is certainly no moderate.

Demonstrating how utterly meaningless the “moderate” label has become, the blog contains an excellent example from central Indiana’s Fifth District. Representative Susan Brooks is often favorably compared to some of our more outlandish and vocal elected troglodytes; she is certainly more pleasant in public. She is intelligent, and she discharged her prior government service (as a Deputy Mayor and U.S. Attorney) with competence.

Whether her voting record reflects her political philosophy or her desire to avoid being primaried is an open question. What isn’t in question is the utter lack of moderation in that voting record.

Here is the summary from Silver’s blog:

Trump score
How often Brooks votes in line with Trump’s position
Trump margin
Trump’s share of the vote in the 2016 election in Indiana’s 5th District minus Clinton’s
Predicted score
How often Brooks is expected to support Trump based on Trump’s 2016 margin
Trump plus-minus
Difference between Brooks’s actual and predicted Trump-support scores
97.6%
+11.8
88.6%
+9.0

As the scores indicate, her support for Trump exceeds what the demographics of her district would predict. (A list of the specific votes follows the reproduced chart on the  website.)

Lest I be accused of picking on Brooks, let me acknowledge that she is only one example of a supposed “moderate voice” whose actions fail to match their public demeanor. Jeff Flake is an example of someone who has gotten laudatory press for his recent book criticizing Trump, but when it came time to vote on the ACA’s “skinny repeal,” he obediently fell into line. John McCain regularly earns plaudits for being a “maverick,” but McCain has been only slightly more likely than the average senator to vote against his party.

As usual, Paul Krugman cuts to the chase:

When we look at the degeneration of American politics, it’s natural to blame the naked partisans — people like Mitch McConnell, with his principle-free will to power, or Ted Cruz, with his ideological rigidity. And Trump has, of course, done more to degrade his office than any previous occupant of the White House.

But none of what is happening right now would be possible without the acquiescence of politicians who pretend to be open-minded, decry partisanship, tut-tut about incivility and act as enablers for the extremists again and again….

Consider, for example, Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — whose state has benefited enormously from the Affordable Care Act. “I didn’t come here to hurt people,” she declared not long ago — then voted for a bill that would quadruple the number of uninsured in West Virginia.

Or consider Rob Portman of Ohio, who cultivates an image as a moderate, praises Medicaid and talked big about the defects of Republican health plans — but also voted for that bill. Hey, in Ohio the number of uninsured would only triple.

There are only two Republican Senators one can truly label moderate and principled–Collins and Murkowski. If there are any genuine GOP moderates in the House, they sure don’t come from Indiana.

Love of Money

Here’s a challenge: how many biblical phrases must an evangelical Christian ignore in order to justify supporting Donald Trump?

I know–you have a life, and you are too busy to compile them all.

My personal favorite is the admonition that “Love of money is the root of all evil.” (Note: it isn’t the money–it’s the love of money.) Next time your pious neighbor explains that Trump’s riches are evidence of his worthiness, you might ask him about 1 Timothy 6:10.

I thought about that verse when I read a recent column summarizing research on the moral effects of wealth. It was written by Charles Mathewes, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, and Evan Sandsmark, a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University, and it touched on several issues with which this blog has recently dealt.

The authors note that people with great wealth used to be viewed as morally suspect (“The idea that wealth is morally perilous has an impressive philosophical and religious pedigree.”) but that such attitudes have changed. (As I’ve previously noted, I attribute the change to Calvin…)

We seem to view wealth as simply good or neutral, and chalk up the failures of individual wealthy people to their own personal flaws, not their riches. Those who are rich, we seem to think, are not in any more moral danger than the rest of us.

Recent research suggests otherwise, however. As they explain:

The point is not necessarily that wealth is intrinsically and everywhere evil, but that it is dangerous — that it should be eyed with caution and suspicion, and definitely not pursued as an end in itself; that great riches pose great risks to their owners; and that societies are right to stigmatize the storing up of untold wealth.

After quoting historical figures like Aristotle and religious books (including Hindu texts and the Koran), they quote Pope Francis, who has waxed eloquent on the subject, and then segue to current social science research.

Over the past few years, a pile of studies from the behavioral sciences has appeared, and they all say, more or less, “Being rich is really bad for you.” Wealth, it turns out, leads to behavioral and psychological maladies. The rich act and think in misdirected ways.

When it comes to a broad range of vices, the rich outperform everybody else. They are much more likely than the rest of humanity to shoplift and cheat , for example, and they are more apt to be adulterers and to drink a great deal . They are even more likely to take candy that is meant for children. So whatever you think about the moral nastiness of the rich, take that, multiply it by the number of Mercedes and Lexuses that cut you off, and you’re still short of the mark. In fact, those Mercedes and Lexuses are more likely to cut you off than Hondas or Fords: Studies have shown that people who drive expensive cars are more prone to run stop signs and cut off other motorists .

The rich are the worst tax evaders, and, as The Washington Post has detailed, they are hiding vast sums from public scrutiny in secret overseas bank accounts.

They also give proportionally less to charity — not surprising, since they exhibit significantly less compassion and empathy toward suffering people. Studies also find that members of the upper class are worse than ordinary folks at “reading” people’ s emotions and are far more likely to be disengaged from the people with whom they are interacting — instead absorbed in doodling, checking their phones or what have you. Some studies go even further, suggesting that rich people, especially stockbrokers and their ilk (such as venture capitalists, whom we once called “robber barons”), are more competitive, impulsive and reckless than medically diagnosed psychopaths. And by the way, those vices do not make them better entrepreneurs; they just have Mommy and Daddy’s bank accounts (in New York or the Cayman Islands) to fall back on when they fail.

The authors note studies suggesting that great material wealth actually makes people less willing to share.

All in all, not a pretty picture–although we should remember that statistics don’t necessarily describe individuals. (Not every rich guy is a Koch brother or a Donald Trump; there are the Warren Buffetts.) Nevertheless,

So the rich are more likely to be despicable characters. And, as is typically the case with the morally malformed, the first victims of the rich are the rich themselves. Because they often let money buy their happiness and value themselves for their wealth instead of anything meaningful, they are, by extension, more likely to allow other aspects of their lives to atrophy. They seem to have a hard time enjoying simple things, savoring the everyday experiences that make so much of life worthwhile. Because they have lower levels of empathy, they have fewer opportunities to practice acts of compassion — which studies suggest give people a great deal of pleasure . They tend to believe that people have different financial destinies because of who they essentially are, so they believe that they deserve their wealth , thus dampening their capacity for gratitude, a quality that has been shown to significantly enhance our sense of well-being. All of this seems to make the rich more susceptible to loneliness; they may be more prone to suicide, as well.

Given all this, I’m trying to work up my sympathies for our unhappy, morally-malformed President–but his sheer awfulness keeps getting in the way….