Tag Archives: Facebook

The Era Of Disinformation

I know I’ve shared this story before, but it seems more relevant than ever. After publication of my first book (What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?), I was interviewed on a South Carolina radio call-in show. It turned out to be the Rush Limbaugh station, so listeners weren’t exactly sympathetic.

A caller challenged the ACLU’s opposition to the then-rampant efforts to post the Ten Commandments on government buildings. He informed me that James Madison had said “We are giving the Bill of Rights to people who follow the Ten Commandments.” When I responded that Madison scholars had debunked that “quotation” (a fabrication that had been circulating in rightwing echo chambers), and that, by the way, it was contrary to everything we knew Madison had said, he yelled “Well, I choose to believe it!” and hung up.

That caller’s misinformation–and his ability to indulge his confirmation bias–have been amplified enormously by the propaganda mills that litter the Internet. The New York Times recently ran articles about one such outlet, and the details are enough to chill your bones.

It may not be a household name, but few publications have had the reach, and potentially the influence, in American politics as The Western Journal.

Even the right-wing publication’s audience of more than 36 million people, eclipsing many of the nation’s largest news organizations, doesn’t know much about the company, or who’s behind it.

Thirty-six million readers–prresumably, a lot like the caller who chose to believe what he wanted to believe.

The “good news”–sort of–is that the Silicon Valley is making an effort to lessen its reach.

The site has struggled to maintain its audience through Facebook’s and Google’s algorithmic changes aimed at reducing disinformation — actions the site’s leaders see as evidence of political bias.

This is the question for our “Information Age”–what is the difference between an effort to protect fact-based information and political bias ? And who should have the power to decide? As repulsive as this particular site appears to be, the line between legitimate information and “curated reality” is hard to define.

Here’s the lede for the Times investigative report on the site:

Each day, in an office outside Phoenix, a team of young writers and editors curates reality.

In the America presented on their news and opinion website, WesternJournal.com, tradition-minded patriots face ceaseless assault by anti-Christian bigots, diseased migrants and race hustlers concocting hate crimes. Danger and outrages loom. A Mexican politician threatens the “takeover”of several American states. Police officers are kicked out of an Arizona Starbucks. Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate, proposesa “$100 billion handout” for black families.

The report notes that the publication doesn’t bother with reporters. Nevertheless, it shapes the political beliefs of those 36 million readers– and in the last three years, its Facebook posts earned three-quarters of a billion shares, likes and comments, “almost as many as the combined tally of 10 leading American news organizations that together employ thousands of reporters and editors.”

The Western Journal rose on the forces that have remade — and warped — American politics, as activists, publishers and politicians harnessed social media’s power and reach to serve fine-tuned ideological content to an ever-agitated audience. Founded by the veteran conservative provocateur Floyd G. Brown, who began his career with the race-baiting “Willie Horton” ad during the 1988 presidential campaign, and run by his younger son, Patrick, The Western Journal uses misleading headlines and sensationalized stories to attract partisans, then profit from their anger.

But Silicon Valley’s efforts to crack down on clickbait and disinformation have pummeled traffic to The Western Journal and other partisan news sites. Some leading far-right figures have been kicked off social media platforms entirely, after violating rules against hate speech and incitement. Republican politicians and activists have alleged that the tech companies are unfairly censoring the right, threatening conservatives’ ability to sway public opinion and win elections.

In the U.S., only government can “censor” in violation of the First Amendment. But tech platforms have vast power to determine what Americans see, whether the exercise of that power is legally considered censorship or not, and they will increasingly determine what Americans see and read.

Most of my students get their news from social media. To say that the outcome (not to mention the sincerity) of Silicon Valley’s efforts to clean up cyberspace will determine what kind of world we inhabit isn’t hyperbole.

 

Playing Fair Is So Last Century…

What we have been learning  the last few days about Cambridge Analytica’s use of purloined Facebook data to assist the Trump campaign reminds me of that famous scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”–the scene where Harrison Ford is engaged in a ferocious sword fight, and Ford suddenly pulls out a gun and shoots the other guy.

It’s unexpected–and effective–because it breaks a norm of “fair fighting” that that has shaped our expectations. In a movie, that norm-breaking is entertaining; in our communal life, it is considerably less so.

Cambridge Analytics acquired extensive data on the habits, personal characteristics and preferences of fifty million Facebook users. It used that data to assist the Trump campaign. Sophisticated algorithms targeted users with messages tailored to their particular opinions and biases–messages that, by their nature, went unseen by users who had different perspectives or who might have information with which to rebut “facts” being conveyed.

The New York Times and the London Observer mounted the joint investigation through which the covert operation was  uncovered, and Britain’s Channel 4 obtained footage of executives boasting to a reporter posing as a potential client about additional “dirty tricks” the company employed on behalf of its customers: sending “very beautiful” Ukranian sex workers to the homes of opposition figures; offering bribes to candidates while secretly filming them; and a variety of other tactics employing fake IDs and bogus websites.

Who or what is Cambridge Analytica?

The Mercer family owns a majority of the stock in Cambridge Analytics.Before joining Trump’s campaign, Steve Bannon was the company’s vice president. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn served as an adviser to the company.

As Michelle Goldberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed,

After days of revelations, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Cambridge Analytica. But we’ve learned that an operation at the heart of Trump’s campaign was ethically nihilistic and quite possibly criminal in ways that even its harshest critics hadn’t suspected. That’s useful information. In weighing the credibility of various accusations made against the president, it’s good to know the depths to which the people around him are willing to sink.

Her concluding paragraph is particularly pointed.

There’s a lesson here for our understanding of the Trump presidency. Trump and his lackeys have been waging their own sort of psychological warfare on the American majority that abhors them. On the one hand, they act like idiots. On the other, they won, which makes it seem as if they must possess some sort of occult genius. With each day, however, it’s clearer that the secret of Trump’s success is cheating. He, and those around him, don’t have to be better than their opponents because they’re willing to be so much worse.

We now know why Trump insisted that Hillary was “crooked” and the election would be “rigged.” It’s called projection.

My friends who are sports fans become outraged when they believe one team or another has cheated and benefitted from that behavior. (“Deflate-gate anyone?) After all, games have rules, and when rules are broken in order to achieve a win, the game is tarnished. We don’t know who the better player really is.

The “game” of electoral politics has a long history of so-called “dirty tricks,” but nothing of this magnitude–and when those tactics have been detected, they’ve led to widespread condemnation. Americans have a right to expect political combatants to “play fair.” When they don’t, cynicism grows. Trust in government is diminished. Citizens’ compliance with the law declines–after all, if government officials can cheat, people reason they can too.

Trump and his consiglieres in the cabinet and Congress have demonstrated their willingness to bring guns to sword fights–to breach the rules of the game and to sneer at those who”fight fair.”

They pose an existential threat to American government and the rule of law.

Their True Colors

If a couple of Facebook friends hadn’t posted about it, I’d have missed it.

“It” was the bigoted rant posted to Facebook by Charlotte Lucas, co-owner of Lucas Oil, whose family name adorns the largest structure in downtown Indianapolis. WRTV’s Rafael Sanchez was apparently the only journalist to report on Lucas’ post. According to WRTV:

“I’m sick and tired of minorities running our country!” Lucas wrote in the post. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that atheists (minority), muslims [sic] (minority) nor any other minority group has the right to tell the majority of the people in the United States what they can and cannot do here. Is everyone so scared that they can’t fight back for what is right or wrong with his country?”

How charming.

It’s interesting to note that no other local media outlet saw fit to report on this unseemly rant by a privileged member of this community. (The Star spent its column inches on important things like “Ten things to do in Indy this weekend.”)

Perhaps the local media didn’t consider the whining of yet another self-absorbed white Christian “victim” newsworthy.

These self-pitying tantrums have never been rare, and since Obama’s election, their frequency has escalated. I’ve heard similar sentiments (albeit not quite so blatant) from otherwise nice, well-to-do people who claim to support “diversity,” who donate to all the “right” causes, and who would never fire-bomb a mosque or burn a cross on someone’s lawn.

There is a lot of resentment below those polished and privileged surfaces. You can almost hear the indignation: how dare those “minorities” lay claim to equal treatment? Don’t “they” know their place? For goodness sake, I have a Jewish lawyer and I give money to the Urban League–what more do they want?

People like Charlotte Lucas and Donald Sterling and Daniel Snyder and so many others don’t hear themselves–at least, they don’t hear themselves as the rest of us hear them–because they live in enclaves populated by the similarly-situated–people who are like-minded and perpetually aggrieved. In their world, they are the victims.

In ours, not so much.

 

Engage!

There’s no dearth of discussion about the effect of social media on culture and politics. Facebook and Twitter, especially, are credited (if that’s the word) with facilitating everything from the Arab Spring to the surprise victory of Glenda Ritz here in Indiana. Political observers tell us that sophisticated use of social media was a major factor in Obama’s successful GOTV effort, and that bungled use of that same media hampered that of the Romney campaign.

During a discussion about the Media and Policy class we’ve been team teaching this semester, John Mutz wondered aloud whether these forms of communication might be destabilizing government, making it much more difficult to engage in the sort of negotiation and deliberation that democratic theory prizes.  I think he’s right, and I think this is an unfortunate and under-appreciated consequence of our current, frenetic media environment.

It’s not just the speed with which information, innuendo, rumor and half-backed conspiracy theories circle the globe. It’s the partial nature of that information.

The goal of democratic societies is informed participation. Not just voting, not just agitating for this or that change, but thoughtful engagement in self-government. Today’s communication technologies facilitate immediate engagement: Sign the petition to XYZ, telling them to vote for ABC! Join the protest against so-and-so! Don’t let ‘them’ change this program–it’s all that protects grandmas and kittens! We are given tools with which to send a message, but all too often, the message is not based upon a full explanation of the issues involved.

I know there have been several instances where I’ve gotten such a “call to action” that initially seemed appropriate to me, but upon further research into the policies involved, turned out to be promoting a result that was neither practical nor possible. (The federal budget really isn’t like our household budgets–it’s a lot more complicated. Sometimes, well-intentioned programs that are meant to help one population or another have negative unintended consequences that really do need to be addressed. It’s usually more complicated than that email blast would suggest.)

Despite their considerable merits, Facebook and Twitter and all the other methods of rapid communication at our disposal too often get us to fire before we aim.

It’s important to be engaged. It’s important to communicate quickly with our elected representatives when we think they are about to act in ways that will damage important institutions, or harm vulnerable constituencies. Social media allows involved citizens to mobilize others, and to have a much louder and more effective voice than was previously possible. The downside is that the folks most likely to be involved are the partisans, both left and right, who tend to be more ideological than informed.

It’s so easy to click that link and sign your name. Who has time to read up on the arguments, pro and con?

As Captain Picard might say, “Engage!”

 

What Constitutes “Speech”?

This morning’s news included a report on a Virginia lawsuit brought by sheriff’s deputies alleging retaliatory firing in violation of their free speech rights. They claimed they’d been dismissed for supporting the Sheriff’s (unsuccessful) opponent in a recent election.

The law is pretty clear that public employees do not lose their First Amendment rights simply because they work for government. So long as they exercise those rights on their own time, and avoid behaviors that would compromise the terms of their employment, they cannot be punished for expressing political opinions or otherwise engaging in expressive conduct.

Here, the “conduct” was clicking the “like” button on the opponent’s Facebook page. The question before the court was whether “liking” something on Facebook amounted to Free Speech. The Judge said it didn’t, since no actual words were typed.

The Judge was wrong.

The courts have consistently held that the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment protects the expression of an idea. Marching in a parade, saluting–or burning–a flag, and yes, clicking the “like” button on Facebook, all express agreement and endorsement, and are protected expression. The only reason people want to prevent Nazis from marching is that they get the message, loud and clear. Same with flag burning; the message of disdain for our country is what offends us.

Some messages don’t require words.

The Sheriff obviously thought that “liking” his opponent’s page sent a message. And he evidently understood it.