Category Archives: Random Blogging

The Trolls Are Sophisticated–And Effective

A recent headline from Rolling Stone addressed an issue that is likely to keep thoughtful voters up at night. The headline? “That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent it.”

Rolling Stone is hardly the only publication warning about an unprecedented effort–and not just by Russian trolls–to use the Internet to sow disinformation and promote discord.

Who and what are these trolls?

Internet trolls don’t troll. Not the professionals at least. Professional trolls don’t go on social media to antagonize liberals or belittle conservatives. They are not narrow minded, drunk or angry. They don’t lack basic English language skills. They certainly aren’t “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as the president once put it. Your stereotypical trolls do exist on social media, but the amateurs aren’t a threat to Western democracy.

Professional trolls, on the other hand, are the tip of the spear in the new digital, ideological battleground. To combat the threat they pose, we must first understand them — and take them seriously.

The Russian effort is incredibly sophisticated: the article explained that non-political, often heartwarming or inspiring tweets are used to grow an audience of followers. Once a troll with a manufactured name or identity has amassed sufficient followers, the troll will use that following to spread messages promoting division, distrust, and above all, doubt.

The authors of the article are two experts in the use of social media to spread propaganda, and they admit to being impressed by the Russian operation.

Professional trolls are good at their job. They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors. The professionals know you catch more flies with honey. They don’t go to social media looking for a fight; they go looking for new best friends. And they have found them.

Disinformation operations aren’t typically fake news or outright lies. Disinformation is most often simply spin. Spin is hard to spot and easy to believe, especially if you are already inclined to do so. While the rest of the world learned how to conduct a modern disinformation campaign from the Russians, it is from the world of public relations and advertising that the IRA learned their craft. To appreciate the influence and potential of Russian disinformation, we need to view them less as Boris and Natasha and more like Don Draper.

Lest you think it’s only the Russians employing these tactics, allow the Atlantic to disabuse you in an article headlined “The Billion Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Re-elect the President.”

The article began with a report on the approach the re-election campaign had taken to Impeachment–” a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup.”

That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country.

The author, who had followed the disinformation campaign, writes of his surprise at how “slick” and effective it was.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate.

This, then, is where we are: in an environment in which facts–let alone truths–are what we want them to be. An environment in which the pursuit of power by truly reprehensible people working to re-elect a dangerous and mentally-ill President can target those most likely to be susceptible to their manipulation of reality.

I have no idea how reality fights back. I do know that Democrats too “pure” to vote unless their favored candidate is the nominee are as dangerous as the trolls.

I think it was Edmund Burke who said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In November, Winning Is Everything

Let me begin by emphasizing that I will definitely be a “blue no matter who” voter. (I would vote for a potted plant if the plant ended up being the Democratic nominee, because–as you know if you read yesterday’s post— the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.)

Let me also be clear that I tend to agree with many if not most of Bernie Sanders’ goals–national health care, support for working-class Americans, higher taxes on the rich. And I will cast my vote for him should he emerge as the nominee, although I do not believe he would win.

Bernie’s most devoted supporters insist that he will appeal to independents and energize the youth vote. Data on the preferences of self-described “independents” suggests that true independents are few and far between, and that those few prefer moderates; with respect to the predictions about turnout and young voters, New Hampshire–which he won by a whisker–may be instructive. 

Politico reports

Even counting for the fact that in 2016 he was in a two-person race, the comparison with his smashing victory over Hillary Clinton (22 points and 60 percent of the vote) and, as of late Tuesday night, his less-than-2-point squeaker over Buttigieg, is notable. Sanders dominated the state in 2016, winning every county. Buttigieg and Klobuchar ripped holes through that map everywhere, turning color-coded maps from 2016 that showed a Sanders rout into a patchwork of colors.

Perhaps more important, Sanders overpromised and underdelivered. He has premised his campaign on nothing less than sparking a political revolution in which disaffected and first-time voters — especially young ones — pour into American politics to carry him to the White House. It didn’t happen in Iowa, and it didn’t happen in New Hampshire.

The percentage of young voters actually declined from 2016 to 2020 in New Hampshire, from 19 percent to 14 percent. Independents were a larger share of the electorate, but they did not break nearly as decisively for Sanders as they did in 2016. He received support from just 29 percent of self-described independents this time, as opposed to 73 percent (!) in 2016.

Together, Buttigieg and Klobuchar (who would have been considered leftwing in previous election years, but are now characterized as moderates) won just over 50% of the primary vote.

Perhaps the best analysis of why a Sanders nomination would be very risky was written by Jeffrey Isaacs, an eminent political science professor at Indiana University. Isaacs is philosophically close to Sanders, but he notes that the most likely immediate consequences of Bernie’s nomination would be the (strong) probability of a Trump re-election.

Isaacs sets out the probable consequences of a Sanders’ nomination for down-ticket candidates, and I encourage everyone to click through and read that analysis in its entirety, because it is sobering–not least because it is based upon actual data rather than devotees’ self-deception. But the most ominous evidence in the article is a long quotation from a Never Trump Republican who saw the opposition research the GOP had gathered in 2016, in case Bernie became the nominee then.

So what would have happened when Sanders hit a real opponent, someone who did not care about alienating the young college voters in his base? I have seen the opposition book assembled by Republicans for Sanders, and it was brutal. The Republicans would have torn him apart. . . Here are a few tastes of what was in store for Sanders, straight out of the Republican playbook: He thinks rape is A-OK. In 1972, when he was 31, Sanders wrote a fictitious essay in which he described a woman enjoying being raped by three men. Yes, there is an explanation for it — a long, complicated one, just like the one that would make clear why the Clinton emails story was nonsense. And we all know how well that worked out.

Then there’s the fact that Sanders was on unemployment until his mid-30s, and that he stole electricity from a neighbor after failing to pay his bills, and that he co-sponsored a bill to ship Vermont’s nuclear waste to a poor Hispanic community in Texas, where it could be dumped. You can just see the words “environmental racist” on Republican billboards. And if you can’t, I already did. They were in the Republican opposition research book as a proposal on how to frame the nuclear waste issue.

Also on the list: Sanders violated campaign finance laws, criticized Clinton for supporting the 1994 crime bill that he voted for, and he voted against the Amber Alert system. His pitch for universal health care would have been used against him too, since it was tried in his home state of Vermont and collapsed due to excessive costs. Worst of all, the Republicans also had video of Sanders at a 1985 rally thrown by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua where half a million people chanted, “Here, there, everywhere/the Yankee will die,” while President Daniel Ortega condemned “state terrorism” by America. Sanders said, on camera, supporting the Sandinistas was “patriotic.”

The Republicans had at least four other damning Sanders videos (I don’t know what they showed), and the opposition research folder was almost 2-feet thick. (The section calling him a communist with connections to Castro alone would have cost him Florida.) In other words, the belief that Sanders would have walked into the White House based on polls taken before anyone really attacked him is a delusion built on a scaffolding of political ignorance.

Could Sanders still have won? Well, Trump won, so anything is possible. But Sanders supporters puffing up their chests as they arrogantly declare Trump would have definitely lost against their candidate deserve to be ignored.

It is striking to me how easily many of Sanders’s hard-core supporters dismiss these concerns.

Are all of these attacks fair? Of course not. But arguing that they would not be effective is delusional–and so is attributing malign motives to every Democrat who doesn’t want to take that chance.

Bernie has made a difference in American political life; he has moved the Overton Window left, and that is no small feat. His movement has made it easier for a less tarnished Democrat to win in 2020, and he deserves great credit for that. But if you read yesterday’s compendium of horror stories, you know that in 2020, nothing is more important than nominating someone who is most likely to eject Trump’s criminal cabal from the White House.

We can indulge in intra-party conflicts and conspiracy theories and reconstitute the famous Democratic circular firing squad once we’ve come together to do what is absolutely necessary to save America.

 

Degradation

No wonder the KKK has endorsed Trump for re-election.

In case there was any doubt about the slime this “President” represents, his awarding of the Medal of Freedom to one of the most despicable people in the country should erase it.

Limbaugh is as close as Trump could come to awarding the medal to himself.  He has mocked all manner of human suffering, and he shares Trump’s obsessive hatred (actually, jealousy) of Barack Obama, whom he has referred to as a “Hafrican American,” and about whom he liked to play a mocking song called “Barack the Magic Negro.”

And of course, Limbaugh was an enthusiastic birther.

As Ed Brayton has noted, barely nine months into the Obama presidency, Limbaugh declared (with no evidence at all) “In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the Black kids cheering.” It was only a small part of his constant insistence that that “race riots are part of the plan that this regime has.”…Brayton also reminded readers of Limbaugh’s constant attacks against immigrant communities.

In 2019 alone, he said that “the Democrat party has imported the third world into this country and they have not assimilated,” compared asylum-seekers coming to the U.S. border to the invasion of Normandy, and quipped that “maybe toilet water is a step up for” some migrants.

Both CBS and the New York Times have published lists of the incredibly offensive, racist and sexist garbage that Limbaugh has regularly spewed–ample evidence that bestowing the Medal of Freedom on this pathetic gasbag makes a mockery of an award intended to highlight human–and humane–achievement. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t belong in the company of people like Elie Wiesel, Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa. In a just world, he would be shunned by all decent people.

But of course, Donald Trump is not a decent person.

This travesty is just one more bit of evidence–if any more evidence is needed–that the political divide Trump exemplifies is not between Republicans and Democrats. It is between white nationalists and the rest of us. It is simply no longer possible for voters to pretend that they support Trump because they approve of his non-existent economic “policies” or because they they are grateful that he’s been putting unqualified ideologues on the federal bench.

What Trump voters really approve of are the attitudes, bigotries and ignorance constantly and crudely expressed by the Rush Limbaughs of the world and parroted by Trump–and the “policies” that give aid, comfort and encouragement to the KKK and Neo-Nazis.

There is a meme I’ve seen several times on Facebook, a quote by a self-identified German (whether accurately attributed or not, I don’t know):”Dear America: You are waking up as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches.”

In November, we will be in a position to assess the accuracy of that numerical observation.

 

 

 

 

 

Continuing Important Conversations

There is a Yiddish word that describes how I feel when former students take discussions started in class and extend and elaborate on them: “kvelling.” The closest English translation is probably “taking extreme pride in something.”

I found myself “kvelling” when Matt Greenwood, a former student, contacted me about a blog he was launching; he calls it “Politicology” (which is, I admit, a mouthful). Why the name?

I named this blog Politicology because it will focus on political theories. Living in a time when trust in journalism is at an all-time low, and when the very language of political discourse has become barriers to civil and fruitful conversations, I feel political theorists have much to contribute.

Matt proposes to address issues of media literacy and the various attempts underway to explain American polarization–as he puts it, to “get to the core ideological differences underlying the controversies of our day.”

As stated in the Politicology mission statement the approach taken in this blog is that of being evidence-driven, non-partisan, and objective. However, it does not make one partisan to comment on how one party breaks democratic norms with greater intent and regularity than another. In fact, it would be irresponsible to disregard truth in the pursuit of balance and false equivalency.

Unlike this blog, which peppers your email in-boxes with daily rants, Matt proposes to post a thoughtful disputation once a month. I encourage you to visit.

Matt was certainly one of my better students, but I have been surprised and gratified by the recent enthusiasm of undergraduate students for political philosophy–and by their engagement with the political system. Our Student Services counselors tell me that the number of graduate students focusing on public policy has also increased substantially.

The apparent reason for these extremely positive changes in student behavior is concern over the democratic institutions of our country–and a recognition of the dangers posed by ignorance and racial and religious animosities.

A few years ago, I developed a class in political philosophy titled “Individual Rights and The Common Good.” It was an exploration of the roots of American constitutionalism, and the inevitable conflict between individual liberty and what the Founders called “popular passions.” It was originally offered every other year, and until last year,  I think the largest enrollment was 15 or so. (It isn’t a required class.)

I’m teaching it again this year, and I have 25 students. Not only that, they are engaged–class discussions are lively, and–importantly–civil; and students “get into” the readings, which begin with Aristotle, and go through Locke, Mill and other Enlightenment figures, and include some pretty dense contemporary writers, including Rawls and his critics, before we consider how that philosophy applies to current constitutional debates.

If we can just keep the ship of state afloat until this generation takes over, I think we’ll be fine.

Go take a look at my former student’s blog!

 

Labels For The Intellectually Lazy

In a class discussion the other day, a student noted that she had taken one of those “where do you stand?” tests on the Internet, and had emerged dead-center–neither Left nor Right. She wondered what was wrong with her; evidently, her fatal flaw is that she actually thinks for herself.

These Internet “tests,” of course, are bogus; the questions lack nuance, and tend to reflect the “either/or” bipolarism of contemporary American politics.

I’m old enough to remember when the most common complaint about the parties was that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference between them.” I also remember a popular libertarian illustration of the political spectrum as a circle, not a straight line–the accurate message being that, at the far left and far right, the extremes meet, with their only disagreement being whose agenda government should impose on the rest of us.

I’m also old enough to remember when issues we now consider “left” were held by many on the right: lots of limited-government Republicans used to be pro-choice and pro-gay-rights, for example, asserting that–as Barry Goldwater put it–government didn’t belong in your boardroom or your bedroom.

The tendency to apply labels that allow us to dismiss, rather than engage, positions with which we disagree is hardly new; in 2003, I wrote

This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)

Intellectual honesty has not improved since 2003. Far from it.

Perhaps my memory is faulty, but when I became politically active, the major differences in political philosophy involved “how” rather than “what.” In other words, there was general recognition of the problems America faced, but different approaches to solving those problems. Today, the bulk of the Republican Party disagrees about the very existence of certain problems–think climate change.

Disputing evidence, however, is neither Left nor Right. It’s delusional.

For that matter, a number of America’s current challenges simply do not lend themselves to classic Left/Right classifications. Climate change is one. Globalization is another. The likelihood that automation will displace millions of workers, and the increasingly undemocratic structure of our electoral system are still others. Proposed solutions to these challenges may or may not fall on the familiar left/right spectrum, but any genuine debate about those solutions must be grounded in acknowledgment of their existence and complexity.

Admittedly, the resurgence of white nationalism on the one hand and calls for massive economic redistribution on the other fall on the familiar left/right spectrum–but even then, partisan labeling and name-calling are no substitute for considered analysis.

Yelling “snowflake” or “fascist” at those with whom you disagree may make you feel better, but it’s not only lazy–it’s no substitute for an evidence-based explanation of why you disagree.

Name calling is also unlikely to change anyone’s opinion  –although, given the rancor of today’s political tribalism, and the unwillingness of today’s zealots even to consider contrary positions, probably nothing is.