Tag Archives: media

Weaponizing Speech

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a provocative article by Tim Wu, a media historian who teaches at Columbia University, titled “Did Twitter Kill the First Amendment?” He began with the question:

You need not be a media historian to notice that we live in a golden age of press harassment, domestic propaganda and coercive efforts to control political debate. The Trump White House repeatedly seeks to discredit the press, threatens to strip broadcasters of their licenses and calls for the firing of journalists and football players for speaking their minds. A foreign government tries to hack our elections, and journalists and public speakers are regularly attacked by vicious, online troll armies whose aim is to silence opponents.

In this age of “new” censorship and blunt manipulation of political speech, where is the First Amendment?

Where, indeed? As Wu notes, the First Amendment was written for a different set of problems in a very different world, and much of the jurisprudence it has spawned deals with issues far removed from the ones that bedevil us today.

As my students are all too often surprised to learn, the Bill of Rights protects us against government misbehavior–in the case of our right to free speech, the First Amendment prohibits government censorship. For the most part, in this age of Facebook and Twitter and other social media, the censors come from the private sector–or in some cases, from governments other than our own, through various internet platforms.

The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. As the journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes, these techniques employ information “in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.”

It’s really difficult for most Americans to get our heads around this new form of warfare. We understand many of the negative effects of our fragmented and polarized media environment, the ability to live in an information bubble, to “choose our news”–and we recognize the role social media plays in constructing and reinforcing that bubble. It’s harder to visualize how Russia’s infiltration of Facebook and Twitter might have influenced our election.

Wu wants law enforcement to do more to protect journalists from cyber-bullying and threats of violence. And he wants Congress to step in to regulate social media (lots of luck with that in this anti-regulatory age.) For example, he says much too little is being done to protect American politics from foreign attack.

The Russian efforts to use Facebook, YouTube and other social media to influence American politics should compel Congress to act. Social media has as much impact as broadcasting on elections, yet unlike broadcasting it is unregulated and has proved easy to manipulate. At a minimum, new rules should bar social media companies from accepting money for political advertising by foreign governments or their agents. And more aggressive anti-bot laws are needed to fight impersonation of humans for propaganda purposes.

When Trump’s White House uses Twitter to encourage people to punish Trump’s critics — Wu cites the President’s demand that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — “it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.”

It is hard to argue with Wu’s conclusion that

no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another.

The challenge will be to craft legislation that addresses these unprecedented issues effectively–without inadvertently limiting the protections of the First Amendment.

We have some time to think about this, because the current occupants of both the White House and the Congress are highly unlikely to act. In the meantime, Twitter is the weapon and tweets are the “incoming.”

 

When Evidence Isn’t Reliable

How do we know what we know? Who can we trust?

It’s bad enough that an American President constantly attacks reputable sources of information; when Trump asserts that reports unflattering to him are “fake news,” those assertions join–and bolster– widely-held doubts about the reliability of contemporary media. Those doubts are understandable; it is increasingly difficult to separate out the conspiracy-theory websites from legitimate digital newcomers, to recognize and discount sources trafficking in spin and outright propaganda, and even to distinguish between objective reporting and satire.

The unremitting assault on fact, on objective reality, makes the reliability of the information we get from government agencies more important than ever. When Scott Pruitt scrubs accurate science from the EPA website, he does more than degrade our efforts to protect the environment–he adds to the Alice-In-Wonderland nature of our shared reality.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just Scott Pruitt. The problem isn’t even limited to the Trump cabinet.

According to the Guardian (a very reputable source)

Over half of all police killings in 2015 were wrongly classified as not having been the result of interactions with officers, a new Harvard study based on Guardian data has found.

The finding is just the latest to show government databases seriously undercounting the number of people killed by police.

“Right now the data quality is bad and unacceptable,” said lead researcher Justin Feldman. “To effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related deaths, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances.”

This article underscores the importance of good journalism–the Harvard study used data compiled in the Guardian’s investigative reporting. It also illustrates the consequences of relying upon bad data.

Feldman used data from the Guardian’s 2015 investigation into police killings, The Counted, and compared it with data from the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). That dataset, which is kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was found to have misclassified 55.2% of all police killings, with the errors occurring disproportionately in low-income jurisdictions.

“As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the US,” said Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health and senior author of the study. “Our results show our country is falling short of accurately monitoring deaths due to law enforcement and work is needed to remedy this problem.”

Interestingly, the researchers found that the accuracy of the data varied wildly by state, “with just 17.6% misclassification in Washington, but a startling 100% in Oklahoma.”

In 2015 the Guardian launched The Counted, an interactive, crowdsourced database attempting to track police killings throughout the US. The project was intended to help remedy the lack of reliable data on police killings, a lack that became especially visible after the 2014 unrest in Ferguson put policing in the national spotlight.

Other federal databases, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) arrest-related death count and the FBI’s supplementary homicide reports were similarly criticised for severely undercounting police-related deaths. Both programs have been dramatically reworked since The Counted and similar media/open source databases forced officials such as the former FBI director James Comey to admit that newspapers had more accurate data than the government on police violence.

To state the obvious, policymakers cannot craft good laws or regulations in the absence of sound data. Citizens confronted with experiences at odds with government’s descriptions lose confidence in that government. Discrepancies between reality and government reporting feed conspiracy theories.

When we don’t know what we know, we cannot act.

Other than patronizing news sites we know to be trustworthy, there’s not much we can do about the proliferating media wannabes spouting fantasies and disinformation. But we should be able to insist that government agencies charged with compiling and disseminating factual data do so accurately. We aren’t likely to get that done in the Age of Trumpian Fantasy, but when the time comes to clean up the incredible chaos he is creating, a commitment to accurate data collection by government should be high on our cleanup list.

Weaponizing Social Media

The already ample commentary directed at our “Tweeter-in-Chief” grew more copious–and pointed–in the wake of Trump’s “Morning Joe” attacks and the bizarre visual of him “body slamming” CNN.

John Cassidy’s essay in the New Yorker was consistent with the general tenor of those reactions, especially his conclusion:

Where America, until recently, had at its helm a Commander-in-Chief whom other countries acknowledged as a global leader and a figure of stature even if they didn’t like his policies, it now has something very different: an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily.

Most of the Cassidy piece focused on Trump’s addiction to–and childish use of–Twitter, and it is hard to disagree with his observation that the content of these messages is “just not normal behavior.” Thoughtful people, those not given to hyperbole or ad hominem attacks, are increasingly questioning Trump’s mental health.

The paragraph that struck me, however, was this one, because it raises an issue larger than the disaster in the White House:

Trump’s online presence isn’t something incidental to his Presidency: it is central to it, and always has been. If the media world were still dominated by the major broadcast networks and a handful of big newspapers, Trump would most likely still be hawking expensive apartments, building golf courses, and playing himself in a reality-television series. It was the rise of social media, together with the proliferation of alternative right-wing news sites, that enabled Trump to build a movement of angry, alienated voters and, ultimately, go from carnival barker to President.

Unpack, for a moment, the observation that social media and alternative “news” made Trump possible.

John Oliver recently aired a worrisome segment about Sinclair Broadcasting, a “beneath the radar” behemoth which is on the verge of a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. That merger would significantly consolidate ownership of local television outlets, including one in Indianapolis. Oliver showed clips demonstrating Sinclair’s extreme right-wing bias–bias that, as Oliver pointed out– is in the same category as Fox News and Breitbart.

It’s damaging enough when radio talk shows, television networks and internet sites peddle falsehoods and conspiracy theories. What truly “weaponizes” disinformation and propaganda, however, is social media, where Facebook “friends” and twitter followers endlessly repeat even the most obvious fantasies; as research has shown, that repetition can make even people who are generally rational believe very irrational things.

When NASA has to issue an official denial that it is operating a child slave colony on Mars, we’re in unprecedented times.

I don’t have research to confirm or rebut my theory, but I believe that Americans’ loss of trust in our government–in our institutions and those elected and/or appointed to manage them–has made many people receptive to “alternative” explanations for decisions they may not like or understand. It couldn’t be that the people making that decision or crafting that legislation simply see the situation differently. It couldn’t be that public servant A is simply wrong; or that those making decision B had access to information we don’t have. No–they must be getting paid off. They must be working with other enemies of righteousness in a scheme to [fill in the blank].

No wonder it is so difficult to get good people to run for public office. In addition to good faith disagreements about their performance, they are likely to be accused of corrupt motives.

The other day, I struck up a discussion with a perfectly nice woman–a former schoolteacher. The talk turned to IPS, and she was complimentary about the schools with which she was familiar. She was less complimentary about the district’s charter schools–a position I understand. (It’s a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some aren’t, and they certainly aren’t a panacea for what ails education.)

All perfectly reasonable.

Then she confided to me that the Superintendent “gets a bonus” for every contract he signs with a Charter school. In other words, it’s all about the money. It couldn’t be that the school board and superintendent want the best for the children in the district and–right or wrong– simply see things differently.

Our daughter is on that school board, and I know for a fact that the Superintendent does NOT get bonuses for contracting with charter schools.  When I shared this exchange with our daughter, she regaled me with a number of other appalling, disheartening accusations that have grown and festered on social media.

I don’t have a remedy for our age of conspiracy. Censorship is clearly not an answer. (In the long run,  education can help.) But if we don’t devise a strategy for countering radio and television propaganda and the fever swamps of social media–the instruments that gave us Trump–we’ll be in an increasingly dangerous world of hurt.

 

The Big Lie Era

The expression “the big lie” was coined by Adolf Hitler; in Mein Kampf, he defined it as the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

These days, Americans are so swamped with lies, big and small, that nothing surprises us. Our problem is that we are increasingly reluctant to accept anything as the truth.

Fake news. “Post-fact” analyses of issues. An unremitting war on science and evidence. “Alternative facts.” Self-serving lies by politicians to obscure the reality that they are carrying water for donors and special interests. Big business enterprises peddling confusion and dangerous disinformation (as the tobacco companies famously admitted, “doubt is our product”) to protect their bottom lines.

The debates over Obamacare provide recent examples. Aetna made big news when it announced that it was pulling out of all but four of the 15 states where it was participating  in the Obamacare exchanges because it was losing too much money. A federal judge ruled that was a blatant falsehood— Aetna made its decision primarily in response to a federal antitrust lawsuit blocking its proposed $37-billion merger with Humana. Aetna had threatened federal officials with the pullout before the lawsuit was filed.

Obamacare has its flaws, but rather than fixing them–rather than providing the tweaks that all new programs require as implementation discloses problems–our lawmakers also chose to lie, in order to escape blame for denying twenty million Americans continued access to healthcare.

The Trumpists have indeed scrubbed the White House’s page detailing the accomplishments of the Affordable Care Act. The previous White House, knowing this was coming, took the precaution of archiving it and saving it for posterity, and for everyone who knows better to have it to point to.

But make no mistake, the theme from the Trump lie machine is going to be that Obamacare was doomed to fail, as Charles Gaba points out. Republicans started this back in December, figuring out how to make the disaster they create when they repeal the law without a replacement all Obama’s fault. And they’re moving forward with that plan.

Today, peddling “big lies”–about Obamacare, about global climate change, about “terrorist threats” or American “greatness”–is much easier than it was in Hitler’s day, because we not only have “alternative facts,” we have “alternative” news sources. A friend who decided to sample news coverage of the massive, spontaneous airport protests following Trump’s horrific Executive Order discovered that Fox News simply didn’t cover them. People who get their (mis)information exclusively from Fox wouldn’t even be aware that the protests occurred.

Steve Bannon, who is effectively running the country while the delusional “President” watches movies and tweets compulsively, ran a propaganda “news” organization prior to his fortuitous (for him) elevation to power. He clearly understands–and embraces– the power of the Big Lie.

Unfortunately, that isn’t his only area of agreement with Hitler.

There has never been a time when real journalism–and the ability of ordinary citizens to distinguish between truth and lies, propaganda and reality–has been more important.

About Those Democratic Norms…

This morning’s New York Times contains a disquieting submission from two Harvard government professors. They began

Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? With the possible exception of the Civil War, American democracy has never collapsed; indeed, no democracy as rich or as established as America’s ever has. Yet past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival.

We have spent two decades studying the emergence and breakdown of democracy in Europe and Latin America. Our research points to several warning signs.

Pre-eminent among those warning signs is the emergence and electoral success of what the authors call “anti-democratic” politicians, who can be recognized by their failure–or refusal– to reject violence, willingness to curtail civil liberties, and their attacks on the legitimacy of elected governments. As they illustrate, Trump fits the bill.

Another warning sign is the weakening of democratic institutions and norms.

Among the unwritten rules that have sustained American democracy are partisan self-restraint and fair play. For much of our history, leaders of both parties resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage, effectively underutilizing the power conferred by those institutions. There existed a shared understanding, for example, that anti-majoritarian practices like the Senate filibuster would be used sparingly, that the Senate would defer (within reason) to the president in nominating Supreme Court justices, and that votes of extraordinary importance — like impeachment — required a bipartisan consensus. Such practices helped to avoid a descent into the kind of partisan fight to the death that destroyed many European democracies in the 1930s.

As the authors note, “partisan restraint” and other norms of democratic behavior have significantly eroded, replaced by naked power struggles.

The filibuster, once a rarity, has become a routine tool of legislative obstruction. As the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have shown, the decline of partisan restraint has rendered our democratic institutions increasingly dysfunctional. Republicans’ 2011 refusal to raise the debt ceiling, which put America’s credit rating at risk for partisan gain, and the Senate’s refusal this year to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee — in essence, allowing the Republicans to steal a Supreme Court seat — offer an alarming glimpse at political life in the absence of partisan restraint.

The erosion of these governing norms did not happen all at once; the signs of growing dysfunction have been visible–especially at the federal level–for decades. Although Trump did not cause the weakening of these safeguards, he was a clear beneficiary.

In the wake of November 8, pundits have scrambled to “explain” the election results. As James Fallows writes in “Despair and Hope in the Age of Trump,” most of those explanations are wrongheaded.

Fallows, too, underscores the importance of democratic norms, and the implications of Trump’s contempt for rules of any kind.

The American republic is based on rules but has always depended for its survival on norms—standards of behavior, conduct toward fellow citizens and especially critics and opponents that is decent beyond what the letter of the law dictates. Trump disdains them all. The American leaders I revere are sure enough of themselves to be modest, strong enough to entertain self-doubt. When I think of Republican Party civic virtues, I think of Eisenhower. But voters, or enough of them, have chosen Trump.

Fallows dismisses two popular explanations of that choice: the belief that this was a sweeping “change” election, and the theory that the vote reflected the “desperation and fury” of citizens living away from the liberal coasts. Change elections drive waves of incumbents out of office; as he notes, that didn’t happen. The “rage” theory is similarly wanting. As Fallows says, that theory misses

the optimism and determination that are intertwined with desolation and decay in the real “out there.” I can say that because I have been out there, reporting with my wife, Deb, in smaller-town America for much of the past four years….

A Pew study in 2014 found that only 25 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction of national policy, but 60 percent were satisfied with events in their own communities. According to a Heartland Monitor report in 2016, two in three Americans said that good ideas for dealing with national social and economic challenges were coming from their towns. Fewer than one in three felt that good ideas were coming from national institutions. These results also underscore the sense my wife and I took unmistakably from our visits: that city by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.

It really is the media.

Count me among those who have become convinced that the decline of responsible journalism, the proliferation of “fake news” sites and the increasing sophistication of propaganda (Russian or homegrown)–abetted by a dangerous lack of civic literacy– are largely to blame for the disconnect between citizens and their national government, and for the erosion of those all-important democratic norms.

Fallows’ concluding paragraph is  profound.

Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the challenge for democracies is that citizens necessarily base decisions on the “pictures in our heads,” the images of reality we construct for ourselves. The American public has just made a decision of the gravest consequence, largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities. Given the atrophy of old-line media with their quaint regard for truth, the addictive strength of social media and their unprecedented capacity to spread lies, and the cynicism of modern politics, will we ever be able to accurately match image with reality? The answer to that question will determine the answer to another: whether this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or an irreversible step toward something else.