Category Archives: Random Blogging

Permission To Hate

A recent survey by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, confirms what most people who follow the news would have expected:  the incidence of hate crimes has increased.

According to the study, person-directed hate crime has increased 26.7% over the past five years. All hate crime has increased 20% in that same period, while violent crime overall increased only 3.3%. Figures for the 10-year period to 2008 show that the total number of hate crimes has increased, even as both crime in general and violent crime overall have declined.

It isn’t hyperbole or “fake news” to attribute much of that increase to the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

In a recent issue of Salon, Chauncy DeVega interviewed a CIA psychologist about Donald Trump’s “damaged personality.” The interviewee’s credentials were impressive.

Dr. Jerrold Post is the founding director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. As the CIA’s head psychological profiler, he served under five American presidents of both political parties. Following his 21 years of service with the CIA, Post became a professor of psychiatry, political psychology and international affairs at George Washington University.

Post is the author of 14 books. His latest (co-written with Stephanie Doucette) is “Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers.”

Asked to “make sense” of Trump, Post responded with an analysis that gave me chills–but is also consistent with the observations of other mental health professionals who have expressed concerns about Trump’s mental state.

A famous Canadian psychoanalyst observed, “The leader is the creation of his followers.” This is a very powerful relationship. Indeed, many people have been puzzled, given Donald Trump’s extremism, that the support and the dedication of his followers to him has been not hugely diminished. Trump’s rallies, in particular, show an almost frightening intensity of the power of Trump’s charisma and influence over his followers.

For a core of his base Donald Trump provides them with many things, including permission to hate. It is a striking phenomenon. (emphasis mine)

In the three years since the 2016 election, I have become more and more convinced that hate is at the very core of the Trump base–that his appeal is primarily, if not exclusively, to White Christian heterosexuals, male or female, who believe that White Christian heterosexual men are supposed to dominate society and who see that rightful hegemony being eroded by black and brown people and uppity women.

They see their tribe being diminished, while “those people”–Jews, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, African-Americans–are demanding and receiving a place at the civic table, and they are enraged. Social conventions that have prevented them from expressing that hostility (conventions they sneer at as “political correctness”) infuriate them further.

And along comes Trump, who says: it’s okay to hate those “others.”

It reflects Trump’s crying out to his crowd at his rallies and granting them permission when he says things like, “Hey, you want to smash this guy in the face, don’t you? And I’ll pay all legal costs.” The Charlottesville hate riot was another interesting example of how Trump has positioned himself vis-à-vis the far right. Trump finds a resonance with them. He stimulates the crowd with chants such as “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”  These all become powerful incentives for his followers to move to the extremes. It’s almost as if Donald Trump is inciting these feelings. Donald Trump is connecting to feelings in his crowd — feelings that he is stimulating…The danger is that such feelings, which are usually beneath the surface, are now being stimulated by Donald Trump.

There was a good deal more in the interview, and it was enlightening, but to me, it was the “permission to hate”analysis that most rang true.

I never doubted that there were people like Trump’s base in the U.S. But in my darkest times, I never thought there were so many of them.

The 2020 election will tell us whether ours is a country where most citizens believe in working toward a society of civic equals, or a country in which a majority of our neighbors were just waiting for someone who would give them permission to hate.

 

 

Reviving Real News

The reports of local journalism’s demise are coming fast and furious.

The Guardian recently reported on the emergence of a conservative “news” ecosystem devoted to spreading rightwing propaganda.The article told how one “fake news” source opposed a school referendum in an Illinois town.

The referendum was hotly contested – an organized, enthused Vote Yes campaign was pushing hard for people to back the vote. It looked like the referendum might deliver a yes verdict.

Enter Locality Labs, a shadowy, controversial company that purports to be a local news organization, but is facing increasing criticism as being part of a nationwide rightwing lobbying effort masquerading as journalism.

The company, with two other linked organizations, was responsible for the Hinsdale School News, a print newspaper that was distributed around Hinsdale voters. The paper had the Hinsdale high school district logo, and the look of a journalistic organization. But, as the Hinsdalean reported, the “newspaper” was stuffed full of articles, mostly byline-free, which had a distinct anti-referendum skew….

Locality Labs operates scores of sites across Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin, often sharing content. In Michigan alone, the Lansing State Journal reported, almost 40 sites opened in one fell swoop this fall.

The effectiveness of what is essentially a national “disinformation campaign” is amplified enormously by what columnist Margaret Sullivan has called “The  death knell for local newspapers.”

Local watchdog journalism matters: Just check the front page of the Baltimore Sun, which on Thursday carried a huge headline about the former mayor’s indictment; the Sun — even in its diminished state — broke the story in March that set those wheels in motion.

I could give you dozens of other examples from this year alone. And consider that sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein might have gotten away with most of his misdeeds if not for local journalism, particularly at the Miami Herald.

But the recent news about the news could hardly be worse. What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.

Sullivan ticks off the reasons for her dismay: the just-completed Gannett and GateHouse merger, which threatens to further reduce newsrooms throughout the country; the fiscal woes of McClatchy, the sale of the Chicago Tribune–a sale that

“ushers the vultures into Tribune,” said a Nieman Lab analysis by Ken Doctor. The implications of all these developments are stunning, he wrote: “The old world is over, and the new one — one of ghost newspapers, news deserts, and underinformed communities — is headed straight for us.”

Sullivan reminds us that, in the past 15 years, more than 2000 newspapers have simply gone out of business, and of those that are left, far too many are “phantoms” of their former selves.  Yet we still rely on local newspapers to provide original local journalism — in many communities, more than all other news sources combined.

Sullivan then makes an incredibly important point:

One of the worst parts about what has happened is that local news sources are relatively well-trusted. In an era of deep antipathy toward the media, that’s no small thing.

They still are one of the ways that many communities maintain a sense of unity and shared facts.

Losing that should be unthinkable. But as of this moment, it isn’t.

When we lose trusted sources of common information, we become easy prey for the propagandists and the conspiracy theorists.

Sullivan references the still-fledgling efforts of nonprofits and foundations to fill the local news gap. (Students in my Media and Public Policy class have wondered why local “do-gooders” don’t form a nonprofit to purchase and revitalize the pathetic remains of our local paper–something that, unfortunately, is highly unlikely to happen.)

The conventional wisdom among media observers is that there is no longer a viable business model for local newspapers (even those that are entirely on-line)–that the loss of advertising dollars that provided them with once-cushy profit margins, together with the dramatic decline in subscriptions, simply dooms them.

But here’s a “what if” for our “who can you trust?” age.

What if a local news source marketed itself with a twofold promise: that it would staff its newsroom with enough reporters to adequately cover its geographic area, including especially the agencies of local government; and that it would report nothing those reporters had not verified?  The reason we used to trust local newspapers was our confidence that they had actually confirmed the facts they reported. However, they rarely felt the need to point that out. In the era of “fake news,” trustworthiness needs to be an explicit part of marketing campaigns.

I have to believe that a lot of us would gladly pay for real news. And some advertisers might even see the reputational benefit of supporting actual journalism.

After all, someone is paying for the propaganda…

 

A Short Post For A Long Day

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, but it tends to be a long day–both for those of us having family over, and for people traveling across town or across country to be with  family and friends.

What I love about Thanksgiving–aside from having my nuclear and extended family around the table–is that it requires us to focus on how fortunate most of us are. And we are fortunate. No one’s life is perfect, but whatever deficits we’ve racked up, in my family we have our health, food to eat, homes to sleep in, supportive friends and people to love. So it’s good.

When we look beyond our personal situations, of course, it’s a different story.

It’s one thing to recognize my own blessings; it’s another to look at a world in which unrest and White Nationalism are growing, or to follow reports of  the daily damage that Trump is inflicting on America.  I worry constantly about the social, economic and environmental challenges my grandchildren will face.

If we work hard and are very lucky, next Thanksgiving we will be grateful for the electoral defeat of Trumpworld– grateful for confirmation that good Americans outnumber the racists in his cult. (If we aren’t lucky, we can kiss the America I’ve believed in goodbye.) We shall see what the next year brings.

In the meantime, let me share some things for which I am immensely grateful:

  • The readers of this blog, including but absolutely not limited to those who take the time and trouble to comment. It really helps to know that others share my angst.
  • The fact that no one who will be at my Thanksgiving table is a Trump supporter–or even close. (I told you I have a wonderful family.)
  • For my awesome students, who constantly demonstrate inclusiveness and concern for community and fundamental fairness–I’d turn the country over to them right now.
  • And for a husband and family who put up with me….

To all of you: happy turkey day. We can return to the disaster that is our federal government tomorrow.

 

Measuring Up

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by our human obsession with measurement, and the ways in which measuring something affects–and often distorts–our ability to understand it.

There’s polling, of course, for the political among us. Despite the admonitions of the pollsters themselves, we far too often see the “snapshots” they provide– not to mention the selected populations they quiz and the often-ambiguous questions they ask–as descriptive of the whole of America’s electorate and thus predictive of the future.

In education, legislators have embraced subject-matter testing without considering the way it distorts what happens in the classroom. Subjects that will be tested get extra time and attention; subjects that are of equal (or often superior) importance, like civics, get short shrift because they aren’t tested. (And don’t get me started on the mistaken belief that students’ test rresults measure teacher competence…)

Scientists know that the very act of testing something  can change the results. Scholars also remind us that drawing unwarranted conclusions from what we have chosen to test can lead us astray. Which brings me to a Guardian column by Joseph Stiglitz, one of my favorite economists.

The world is facing three existential crises: a climate crisis, an inequality crisis and a crisis in democracy. Will we be able to prosper within our planetary boundaries? Can a modern economy deliver shared prosperity? And can democracies thrive if our economies fail to deliver shared prosperity? These are critical questions, yet the accepted ways by which we measure economic performance give absolutely no hint that we might be facing a problem. Each of these crises has reinforced the fact that we need better tools to assess economic performance and social progress.

Stiglitz proceeds to point out problems with relying on GDP–long the standard measure of economic performance–to measure a country’s economic performance. (GDP is the sum of the value of goods and services produced within a country over a given period.)

As Stiglitz notes, GDP metrics don’t fully reflect impacts of things like Europe’s austerity measures on long-term standards of living.

Nor do our standard GDP measures provide us with the guidance we need to address the inequality crisis. So what if GDP goes up, if most citizens are worse off? In the first three years of the so-called recovery from the financial crisis, about 91% of the gains went to the top 1%. No wonder that many people doubted the claims of politicians who were then saying the economy was well on the way to a robust recovery.

For a long time I have been concerned with this problem – the gap between what our metrics show and what they need to show. During the Clinton administration, when I served as a member and then chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, I grew increasingly worried about how our main economic measures failed to take into account environmental degradation and resource depletion. If our economy seems to be growing but that growth is not sustainable because we are destroying the environment and using up scarce natural resources, our statistics should warn us. But because GDP didn’t include resource depletion and environmental degradation, we typically get an excessively rosy picture.

In other words, Stiglitz is telling us that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we measure economic performance and social progress.

Getting the measure right – or at least a lot better – is crucially important, especially in our metrics- and performance-oriented society. If we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing. If our measures tell us everything is fine when it really isn’t, we will be complacent.

A recent article in Time suggests that other nations are coming around to Stiglitz’ view.

New Zealand became the first nation to formally drop gross domestic product (GDP) as its main measure of economic success. The government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the budget would aim not at maximizing GDP but instead at maximizing well-being.

Apart from schools, hospitals and roads, whose budgets would be allocated in the normal way, resources would be distributed according to their impact on five government priorities: mental health, child well-being, the inequalities of indigenous people, building a nation adapted to the digital age and fashioning a low-emission economy.

Shades of Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” index!

Stiglitz says it is now possible to construct much more accurate measures of an economy’s health.. I think it is fair to say that we should adopt those measures–but only after we subject them to a rigorous analysis to assure ourselves that the elements being measured are the ones that should be measured, the ones that will give us a more accurate understanding of ecological and economic (and inevitably social and political) reality.

What we choose to measure will tell us what we really value.

 

 

Speaking Of Faux News…

Quartz recently published an in-depth description of a widespread scam that focused on the elderly–actually, on a very specific subset of elderly Americans.

The scam itself consisted of selling precious metals–especially coins–to people worried about impending government actions that would devalue their assets or even confiscate their savings. Obviously, the scam required an ability to find people sufficiently suspicious and fearful of government to harbor these fears.

A former salesperson for one of the companies implicated in the scams told Quartz that the ideal targets were people who believed the dollar could collapse tomorrow, people who had a deep-seated distrust of government, the elite, Wall Street, and the entire system.

How does a scammer locate people likely to be sufficiently gullible?

Facebook provided the means to show scare-mongering ads, like one that blared “Is Your Retirement Protected from the Deep State?” exclusively to those people. This ad, which ran in March 2019, contained a “sign up” form that included a link to Metals.com’s privacy policy.

Just like a diaper company can pick from Facebook’s targeting options to show its ads to parents, whoever purchased Metals.com’s ads could choose very specific groups of people.

Quartz found a large network of Facebook ads with various connections to Metals.com. According to the “Why am I seeing this” information given to people who saw the ads, those ads were designed to reach people over 59 years old whom Facebook had classified, based on their tracked web browsing history, as “very conservative” or “interested in” Fox News personality Sean Hannity or other conservative media figures….

When a Facebook user clicked on certain Metals.com-affiliated ads, many of which didn’t mention Metals.com, like one ad from “Fox News Insider Reports,” they would be taken to a website with a URL such as FoxInsiders.com.co. The web page urged them to “Call NOW” while a countdown timer created a false sense of urgency, over a line that read “Offer Only Valid For Next 15 Minutes.”

Fox has disclaimed any relationship to the companies involved, and is reportedly assessing its legal options.

In fairness, Fox wasn’t the only bogus imprimatur; other ads purported to be connected to the “US Retirement Bureau” or “Republican House Committee.” All of them, however, claimed rightwing political identities and played on the fears common to elderly conservatives. (One promised to “protect your savings from the coming account freeze.”)

And as the article points out, Facebook approved every one of those ads.

Even after Facebook implemented new political-ad rules that it said would “ensure that you can see who is paying for the ad,” some ads, running under the name of “Retired Republicans,” included a disclaimer saying that they were “Paid for by Webinar Technologies.” That is the name of an anonymously registered Wyoming corporation. Later ads from the “Retired Republicans” page linked to Metals.com’s privacy policy. Other ads said they were paid for by entities such as “Precious Retirement Strategies,” which Quartz was unable to confirm exists.

Facebook accepted at least $3 million, and likely much more, for ads affiliated with Metals.com‚ according to a Quartz analysis of statistics published by Facebook. The social network displayed the ads tens of millions of times over at least 21 months, despite Facebook’s claim of keeping a close eye on its powerful political advertising tools after they were used by Russian operatives in the 2016 election. The ads under the “Webinar Technologies” name were listed as the 18th-largest political advertiser on Facebook a few days after election day in the US in November 2018.

The article is lengthy, and contains a number of stories about the plights of the elderly people who were defrauded. As unfortunate as these examples are, they point to the larger harms being facilitated by social media’s ability to “targetcast.” 

They also confirm the accuracy of unflattering characterizations of the Fox audience–elderly, white, unsophisticated and frightened–and underscore the dangers of living in a bubble.

Any bubble.