No, Mr. Zuckerberg, it’s not about free speech. It’s about your propaganda machine.

Facebook’s touting of free speech is deceptive. They want you to forget how their platform works.

In a recent speech, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, claimed that their promotion of known lies in political ads is “something we have to live with” because of Facebook’s devotion to the principle of free speech. He cast this decision in the same light as the civil rights struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Black Lives Matter.

A couple weeks later, he informed Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a hearing that the reason they do not fact-check political ads is that they “want people to see that the politician has lied”—thus, once again touting free expression as the animating principle behind their policy.

Nice.

That’s one way to explain away Facebook’s bumbling, incoherent, opaque, and self-serving rules about content moderation on their platform.

In reality, free speech has little to do with Facebook’s platform and business. Their constant touting of freedom of expression is little more than misdirection, the sort magicians use to get the audience to “look over there!” while the real magic is happening away from view.

Why do I say that Facebook has little to do with free speech? Here are the reasons, from the most obvious to the most subtle.

Facebook is not the government

The First Amendment only prohibits the government from abridging the freedom of speech of citizens, not private companies, which is what Facebook is. So the First Amendment has nothing at all to say about whether Facebook should moderate content or not; and if they do, what content they should let through. In fact, the First Amendment applies to Facebook in a reverse way: the government cannot abridge Facebook’s right to moderate their content as Facebook sees fit.

Section 230 does not require free speech for users

Fine, many people say, the First Amendment does not require Facebook to provide a platform for all users, but Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act does.

This, too, is incorrect. Section 230 is often nicknamed the “First Amendment of the Internet” and is widely credited as being the special dispensation that allowed the Internet to exist in the form it does today. Perhaps this is why people have misunderstood it to mean that Section 230 requires tech platforms to respect the First Amendment of users.

But this is the reverse of the facts. In fact what Section 230 does is protect Internet companies from liability for third party content they host, whether or not they choose to moderate that content. Effectively, Section 230 is the First Amendment for Internet companies: the government cannot abridge their right to moderate their content as much or as little as they wish. It is their choice.

Governments do not profit off of free speech. Facebook does.

Many people have made the argument that since Facebook is so big, it functions as a quasi-government, perhaps even a multinational one, like the United Nations or the European Union. Facebook itself promotes this notion. They recently created an oversight board nicknamed the “Supreme Court“. They have wanted to enter the currency market with Libra, that governments have seen as a direct challenge to their ability to regulate transactions. Their Free Basics product that gives free internet to under-served populations, that activists deride as a “walled garden”, was initially released as Internet.org, with a “.org” domain that suggested it was a non-profit.

Is it any surprise then that they want to appropriate to themselves a principle normally reserved for governments—free speech? (Apropos of nothing, Mark Zuckerberg is said to have a fascination with Augustus Caesar, to the point where his haircut is styled like Caesar’s.)

But here’s the most obvious thing wrong with this argument: governments do not profit off of the speech of their citizens. Facebook does.

Governments get their legitimacy from being accountable to their citizens. If a government guarantees the right of free speech to its citizens, it is adopting a constraint on itself—it is promising to not punish dissenters.

While Facebook, on the other hand, is a profit-making company that like others of its kind, is accountable only to its shareholders, not to its user-citizens. If it were a government, we would call it corrupt: that is the word we generally apply to governments that are run by profiteers who make national interest decisions based on lining their own pockets.

Regardless of its high-minded rhetoric, Facebook has always made decisions that enhance its profitability. The thing to keep in mind here is that Facebook’s business is built on engagement with its content. The more the content, and the fewer the restrictions on it—the more eyeballs and clicks, and more user data to package as “insights”/Custom Audiences to its advertisers.

Therefore, while “free speech” for a government is a constraint on itself, “free speech” for Facebook is simply good business.

Facebook doesn’t just host speech, it amplifies it

Facebook is not a neutral platform. It has never been. It is a publisher.

This is the core reason why equating Facebook’s service with “free speech” is a misunderstanding at best, and deliberate deception at worst—I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out which.

Free speech is a negative right. It’s right there in the First Amendment: government shall not abridge the freedom of speech. Nothing about free speech guarantees your right to be heard.

Facebook isn’t, and never was, a passive host for third party content. As part of its core design, its algorithm amplifies the content that it deems will get the most attention from the user.

Sheryl Sandburg, Facebook COO (source: NY Post, Ella Pellegrini)

Recommendation algorithms are pretty nihilistic. They do not differentiate between posts that get a lot of clicks because they are divisive and inflammatory, and posts that get a lot of clicks because they showcase cute kittens. They cannot tell a well-reported journalistic piece that goes viral because it is a genuine scoop, from a fake news article spun out in a few minutes by the proverbial 400 pound guy sitting on a bed, with made-up inflammatory “facts”.

Nonetheless, they form educated guesses about users and their personalities: if you tend to be a gullible person who regularly clicks on fake news articles, it will feed you more of the same. If your Facebook friend tends to be a sophisticated news consumer, that friend will be none-the-wiser that while their feed is informing and educating them, you are descending into a hermetically-sealed Potemkin village of entirely fake news.

Facebook has striven to push the notion that no one should think of Facebook as a gatekeeper of news. We merely show you what there is, they say. Sorry, but Facebook’s algorithm is, and has always been, a gatekeeper.

Facebook’s algorithm performs the same function as other publishers: choice. Any publisher takes the vast universe of possible content and decides what is worthy of your attention. They are judged for the content that is published under their imprimatur. This is the accountability we ask of any publisher, that they stand behind their choices.

A book publisher who does not want to be known as spinning conspiracy theories will stay away from publishing conspiracy theorists. An art gallery will scrupulously judge what art has merit before showcasing it. A radio disk jockey will imbue their selections with their personality. There is not a publisher in the world who is so promiscuous as to consider “free speech” as a reason to publish someone.

Now since it isn’t a human acting as Facebook’s publisher, but rather, an algorithm, they have pretended that the publishing function isn’t happening at all.

But it is.

Your Facebook newsfeed takes the vast universe of bytes posted to their servers to show you a very small selection based on what it thinks you are most likely to engage with. This is a form of publishing. Like other publishers, Facebook must stand behind the choices made by their algorithm, and stop pretending that such choices were never made.

The solution to objectionable speech is more speech, except when it is Microtargeted

In the recent feud between Aaron Sorkin (creator of the film The Social Network) and Mark Zuckerberg, Zuckerberg shot Sorkin’s own words back at him: “America isn’t easy….You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours….”

What a glorious image! Who wouldn’t want to belong to this raucous, fractious democracy that calls on the best enlightenment principles from its citizens?

Sadly, Facebook does not resemble that remark.

“Speech” from its “citizens”—often money-paying ones—happens in secret little rabbit-holes, not on center stage where others can hear and refute objectionable speech with more speech of their own. Such lies are hidden by design.

The current wave of criticism started with their decision to permit politicians to lie in paid political ads on Facebook. One of the most cogent critiques of this policy came from within the company itself, from a letter of dissent signed by 250 employees. I will let them explain:

Microtargeting is at the core of Facebook’s business. In short: as you click on, like, watch videos, or otherwise engage with posts, Facebook is learning what sort of person you are; based on their knowledge of other people like you in their 2.5 billion userbase, they can accurately judge what sort of ads you will react to. This is an invaluable tool for advertisers, as you can imagine. No need to waste ad dollars for say, sports equipment, on cable channels where millions will see the ad, but only a tiny minority will want to purchase it.

The power of microtargeting political ads is huge, especially if combined with voter rolls, and even more so if coupled with deliberate lies. Gullible religious voters can be shown ads with the lie that the opposing candidate supports banning Christianity. Middle class, frugal voters can be shown lies that the opposing candidate plans to raise taxes on families like theirs. Voters with sick children can be lured with a lie that the opposing candidate plans to do away with their health insurance. And so on.

Now we can see clearly why Zuckerberg’s excuse for permitting lies in paid political advertising is so phony. To remind, what he said was that they permit this as a matter of policy because they want users to see that the politician has lied. But:

  • Because political ads are exempted from fact-checking, the lies shown to users are not called out as lies. Far from users seeing that the politician has lied, they are led to believe that the lie is the truth.
  • Because of the news silos that are created by Facebook’s algorithms, users who see a certain lie may never be exposed to any other source of information that informs them of the facts. This is not the raucous public square of Zuckerberg’s imagination in his response to Sorkin. It is small, hidden, and secretive: an invaluable tool of propaganda.
  • This is Facebook’s policy worldwide. Which means that in countries without a robust, free press, Facebook is essentially acting as a handmaiden to authoritarian governments. Politicians have always lied; but through Facebook their lies can be surgically directed at the most vulnerable populations, with no hope of ever being corrected.

Lies are more powerful than the truth

As any expert in propaganda will tell you, lies go farther, faster than the truth. Lies are easy; limited only by one’s imagination, and designed to grab attention. The debunking of those lies has to be painstaking, based on real research and investigation, and often can only be performed by journalistic organizations backed by well-funded reporters. The debunking is often much less glamorous and much more nuanced.

Any information service that is built on engagement has to contend with this basic notion.

The precious resource here is not people’s ability to lie. Whether you are intent on lying, or intent on telling the truth, the First Amendment means that no government body will come in to stop you. There are plenty of avenues for a grand and raucous cacophony of all sorts of opinions being offered on all sorts of platforms: virtual, in print, or in meat space.

The precious resource is attention. It is eyeballs-on-content. Is your lie or truth told in a vacuum—or do millions of eyeballs see it, and millions of clicking fingers propagate it? This is the precious resource that massive social media platforms like Facebook control, just as surely as OPEC controls oil reserves. No First Amendment guarantees the right of one person’s version of the facts to be prioritized above another’s.

Lies have another advantage: they don’t even have to be consistent with each other! This is another lesson that experts in propaganda teach us: it is enough to flood the zone with content in order to devalue the truth. If people hear constantly contradictory narratives, many will simply give up adjudicating the facts and resort to judging on emotion instead.

Given the inherent asymmetry between the power of lies and the power of truth, any monopolizer of attention like Facebook has a unique role. If they are as nihilistic as Facebook wants to be, they are doing more than merely permitting lies: they are enabling, and being responsible for their spread.

Societies where truth and facts are devalued become ripe for fascist takeovers by empowering the worst among their leaders. Attention monopolizers like Facebook bear an awesome responsibility: if they are nihilistic about facts and non-facts, and spread both equally, propaganda will flood the zone, as it is designed to do—and win. They may not have initially told the lies, but they are responsible for spreading it. It is time we stop buying their sophistical excuses and hold them responsible.

Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.

(Featured image credit: Mandel Ngan, AFP via Getty Images via Rolling Stone)

Whistleblower, blow thy whistle

A cinematic treatment of the Whistleblower’s Complaint.

The Scene: Morning of July 25, situation room

Picture this, if you will: It is the morning of July 25. The US President is in the Situation Room speaking on the phone to the new leader of an allied nation. All is routine: a dozen staffers listen in. Transcripts will automatically be produced. That conversation will be treated as “policy” and distributed to the Cabinet and others. None of them suspect anything amiss. The conversation begins with pleasantries.

The allied nation is Ukraine. Volodomyr Zelenskyy has become President a scant two months prior. He used to be a comedian who played a President on TV. He got elected because he promised to drain the swamp of corruption.

Volodomyr Zelenskyy (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The US President often speaks like a mob boss. He used to be a reality show star who played a successful CEO on TV. He hit upon the slogan “drain the swamp” by accident and milked it to become the President of the United States.

The call begins routinely. Congratulations and flattery are exchanged. The supplicant—Zelenskyy—is more flattering than congratulatory, since he is anticipating the sale of Javelin missiles and the release of an aid package of over $400 million. The man who holds the cards is Trump, and he is more congratulatory than flattering.

As the conversation proceeds, the staffers listening in (again, about a dozen) get increasingly uncomfortable. The President brings up seemingly random topics. He skewers his old enemy, Mueller, lately defused, by panning his performance on TV the day prior. He throws out “Crowdstrike” and “DNC servers”, which sounds for all the world like he is scratching off the scabs of the Russia investigation. He throws out the names of his private lawyer/fixer Rudy Giuliani, and his in-government lawyer/fixer AG Bill Barr (neither of whom have any role in matters of State), and demands that Zelenskyy work with them in opening an investigation into his political rival Biden’s son. Trump expresses a concern that Zelenskyy is surrounding himself with “those same people,” on which, more later.

I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump says, seeming to hold back the funds and missiles in return for—yes, it must be said—a personal favor for the President. He appears to be strong-arming the Ukrainian leader into joining a latter-day CREEP, the committee to re-elect the President.

Zelenskyy takes refuge in bland platitudes. Promising everything good in general and nothing that Trump wants in particular. Well, he does intimate that he is, as is required, spending money at Trump properties, and that yes, he will put out a call to Rudy Giuliani, but that is as is now routine. The call ends cordially.

That evening, Zelenskyy signals that he has understood Trump’s message. The elliptical statement put out by Ukraine says that they will indeed be able to “complete the investigation of corruption cases that have held back cooperation between Ukraine and the United States.”

A couple weeks later, the oblique reference to “Crowdstrike” is resolved by Trump himself: “I think Zelenskyy is going to work with Putin,” he says to reporters, “and he will be invited to the White House.” He is a reasonable guy, the President adds. So this clarifies: ‘working with Putin’ along with ‘DNC servers’ and ‘Crowdstrike’ means only one thing—ginning up fake evidence that Russia, after all, didn’t hack into the 2016 US elections.

It is after the call that alarm spreads. Probably several laws were broken in that call, perhaps even that singular Presidential one: abuse of office. No one is certain; call transcripts go out as usual to the selected State Dept and Intelligence staffers to inform policy. But White House Lawyers swoop in after the fact. In a perversion of their role, which is meant to protect the office of the Presidency, they turn to protecting this one singular President from the consequences of his law-breaking. In turn, they break a few of their own. The transcript is put under lockdown, in codeword secure servers that are reserved for covert action, akin to the Bin Laden raid. Other summaries, memos or notes are also snatched.

One of the Intelligence officials to receive the transcript is later to be known as: “the Whistleblower”, or if you prefer, following Josh Marshall, “Deep Whistle“. Deep Whistle does not work alone. Half a dozen other staffers rat out the boss and help Deep compile a well-structured complaint full of footnotes and enclosures. It is a tale of off-the-books foreign policy and extortion of a foreign leader for election interference. A couple weeks after the phone call, the complaint is made.

Deep attempts to blow the whistle twice. Both times, the complaint goes up to the very top of the agency, then sideways, into AG Barr and Trump’s domain, where it is then buried. But the final time, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson, blows the whistle about the existence of the whistleblower, in a sort of relay race, into Congress’s ears. A couple weeks later, more than a month after the whistle is blown, it is finally heard.

Flashback to May: arm-twisting Zelenskyy:

By the time of the July 25 call, Zelenskyy and Trump had already had a months-long relationship. Zelenskyy had been facing increasing pressure from Trump to play ball. White House staffers were completely in the dark because the pressure had been exerted through Trump’s out-of-government fixer, Rudy Giuliani (it now appears that DC shitbird lawyer propagandist couple Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing were involved as well).

As soon as Zelenskyy became Ukraine’s new leader, Giuliani made plans to visit in person and ask Zelenskyy to intervene in the 2020 election. For every good reason in the world—among which, that Giuliani has no official United States role—Zelenskyy refused to entertain him.

The pressure ratcheted up. Vice President Pence was made to cancel his appearance at the inaugural. The hundreds of millions in aid passed by Congerss was held back, with no explanation given to anyone even within the administration, except that the President said so. Giuliani tweeted darkly that Zelenskyy was “still silent” on the desired investigation into Biden. All contact between Ukraine and US leaders was forbidden until Trump determined how Zelenskyy “chose to act”.

By U.S. Department of State – Marie L. Yovanovitch Ambassador, Public Domain

The fledgling Zelenskyy government understood from this what they could: that any future support from the United States depended on them coughing up 2020 election help and a cover story for Russia. They also understood that the United States, as it were, was acting as two separate entities. There was the official United States, represented by Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and State Dept official Kurt Volker. And there was President Trump, acting through Rudy Giuliani and AG Bill Barr.

Their messages were not unified.

The US State Dept’s message was much in line with what US policy had always been: shore up defenses against Russia, orient yourselves towards the West, fight corruption internally.

The Trump/Giuliani/Barr cabal had an opposite message: work with Putin, gin up evidence against Biden, gin up evidence against those who found the black ledger that listed illicit payments to Manafort, and create doubt that Russia hacked the 2016 US elections: despite all of IC and Mueller’s 25 indictments saying the opposite. Trump wanted Zelenskyy to do what he himself had done in Helsinki: capitulate to Putin wholly and entirely.

Flashback to March: Conveyor belt of Bullshit

The interview looks official. The Prosecutor General of Ukraine in the right panel, with the Ukrainian flag behind him, looks sober and speaks calmly. His name is Yuriy Lutsenko. The man in the left panel, heavy set with a receding hairline, wears a suit and asks probing questions.

The two are half a world apart—in Ukraine, and in the US—brought together over Skype. A voiceover translates Lutsenko’s words into English. All signs point to a substantive interview relating to the US’s relationship with Ukraine.

John Solomon/Yuriy Lutsenko (screenshot)

The only problem? The entire thing is bullshit. The Prosecutor General Lutsenko throws out wild accusations that are all later shown to be lies. Worse than lies—they are shown to turn reality on its head. He claims the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, prevented him from prosecuting crime: when in reality, she had brought pressure to bear on him to root out corruption. He claims that the people who exposed illicit payments to Manafort in the infamous “black ledger” were actually making it up for corrupt reasons of their own. He claims that Biden had a prosecutor removed to prevent him from investigating the energy company his son was on the board of—but the prosecutor in question, Shokin, was actually not investigating enough.

Lutsenko—a man who became Prosecutor General without a law degree, or any special expertise—is thoroughly distrusted by anti-corruption activists in his country. He has axes of his own to grind, and has clearly crafted a set of claims that he feels will help him find favor with the Trump administration.

The man on the left, John Solomon of the Hill, is a practiced conveyor of bullshit. From his perch at the Hill publication, he has pumped out fake news story after fake news story: all of which come with a polished enough veneer of reporting to seem plausible, and need serious treatment to debunk, as other outlets have done over and over. But, as with his prior conspiracy theories, this one speeds along on the conveyor belt of bullshit: from John Solomon, to Chuck Ross of the Daily Caller, to Hannity on Fox, Gateway Pundit and other right-wing outlets, to countless Facebook and Twitter feeds, to Trump’s Twitter.

It is this fake narrative, willed into being by John Solomon, attested to by Lutsenko, that is used later to turn the screws on Zelenskyy. He must surround himself with the “right people,” Trump says, by which is meant the people who have fed lies to John Solomon and Rudy Giuliani or are willing to do so. The “wrong people” are those like the US Ambassador Yovanovitch, and the people who discovered the black ledger of payments to Manafort, who refuse to join Trump’s CREEP.

By the time Lutsenko himself disavows his narrative, and by the time John Solomon leaves the Hill amid complaints by co-workers, the set of lies told by Lutsenko have achieved a life of their own, driving foreign policy between the US President and the new leader of Ukraine. It has led to the removal of the US Ambassador to Ukraine, and to the opening of an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats.

A few months later, Lutsenko disavows his lies completely in the Russian language press. He claims to have felt pressured by Giuliani to open an investigation into Biden’s doings in Ukraine even though no laws were broken.

So, this is what we can conclude: sitting behind the scenes of the conveyor belt of bullshit—loading items on it, as it were—is the bulge-eyed grinning face of Rudy Giuliani.

Flashback to 2018: Globe-trotting Fixers

Fruman and Parnas with Giuliani and Trump (source: OCCRP.ORG; credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP)

The shadow foreign policy efforts of Rudy Giuliani bore fruit in the John Solomon interviews, but had been ongoing for a while. In fact, he was practically running a shadow State Department, with two Florida businessmen named Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman acting as shadow diplomats.

Their names may be unfamiliar, but their profile should be a familiar one: fraudster “businessmen” with energy interests in Eastern Europe, plenty of dodgy ex-Soviet connections, immersed in the dodgy business world of New York and Florida. Each month, it seems, we find a new character enmeshed in the Trump-Russia nexus with exactly the same profile.

Rudy and his “diplomats” led a whirlwind of shadow diplomacy. As the OCCRP/Buzzfeed investigation quoted by Deep Whistle reveals, they held meetings with top people in Ukraine across five countries; introduced Rudy to three disgruntled Ukrainian prosecutors; donated half a million dollars to Republican coffers; dined with Trump himself; breakfasted with Don Trump Jr; hobnobbed with insiders at the Trump International Hotel in DC; lobbied to have the US Ambassador to Ukraine fired—and succeeded; and spun up a number of conspiracy theories with the goal of digging up dirt on Biden and his son.

These were the theories that later showed up on John Solomon’s conveyor belt of bullshit—and still later, on Trump’s call with Zelenskyy.

Shadow diplomats Parnas and Fruman were certainly not representing the interests of the United States on their globetrotting adventures. Rather, it was the interests of the firm they own: Global Energy Producers LLC, that is in the business of selling LNG to Ukraine. Rudy Giuliani has often claimed that he works for Trump pro bono; he was able to do so because Global Energy Producers are his actual clients. Congratulations, America: your foreign policy was being run for the benefit of two hucksters who run a company formed just months ago, and can’t even put together a website.

Back to the Present

Months later it was revealed that the US State Dept had essentially become the wholly owned subsidiary of the Shadow State Dept run by Rudy Giuliani, the President’s unpaid lawyer/fixer. A manila envelope of the Collected Works of Parnas and Fruman showed up at the Congressional hearing of the State Dept IG: this envelope was given to the US State Dept as matters to “investigate”. It contained documents detailing the conspiracy theories spun up by Parnas and Fruman, separated into sections by folders marked with Trump International Hotel logos.

As if that weren’t absurd enough, someone had taken a great deal of trouble to mark the envelopes with “White House” return addresses in elaborate calligraphy. It was almost as if a Shadow White House had hijacked the real White House and held it hostage; and was sending missives in its place.

The envelope containing conspiracy theories that was sent to the State Dept (source: NYT)

Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.

Some useful links:

NameNationalityBackground
Volodomyr ZelenskyyUkrainianUkraine’s 6th President
Andriy YermakUkrainianZelenskyy’s personal friend and chief aide; Rudy Giuliani’s chief negotiator
Serhiy LeshchenkoUkrainianJournalist and politician; dug up Manafort’s black ledger that contained illicit payments; became enemy #1 for Manafort/Trump/Giuliani
Viktor ShokinUkainianFormer Prosecutor General; known to be corrupt; US/Western governments wanted removed; Biden at forefront of that effort
Yuriy LutsenkoUkrainianFormer Prosecutor General; was interviewed by John Solomon; lied about Biden and Ambassador Yovanovitch, later repudiated those lies
Marie YovanovitchAmericanFormer US Ambassador to Ukraine. She held the line against the Shadow Foreign Policy shakedown by Giuliani; thus was removed from her post
Kurt VolkerAmericanState Dept special envoy to Ukraine. Attempted to help Zelenskyy navigate Trump’s demands. Later resigned and provided all texts to Congress
Gordon SondlandAmericanUS Ambassador to EU. Major Trump donor. Represented Trump’s viewpoint in negotiations with Zelenskyy
John SolomonAmericanRight-wing conspiracy theorist; used to be at The Hill; spread debunked conspiracies about Uranium One
Lev Parnas and Igor Frumanex-Soviet, Amercian“Energy” businessmen who hired Giuliani and spent months digging up dirt against Biden in Ukraine and other countries

Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.

(Featured image credit: Craig Whitehead/Unsplash)

Twelve Angry Trump Voters

A black-and-white film from 1957 has a strange resonance with contemporary Trumpist America

The 1957 Sidney Lumet classic Twelve Angry Men is a fable about how control of a small tribe shifts from one faction to another.

The “tribe” is actually a jury of twelve men, assembled to rule on the question of guilt of a teenager. But quite apart from the arguments, one can see how one faction (the “Not Guilty” one) starts off powerless, and through moral suasion, ends up snatching the majority from the “Guilty” faction. At the end of the film, the “Guilty” faction ends up where the “Not Guilty” faction had begun: composed of just one man, eyes of the crowd on him, asking him to explain himself.

Now I may be obsessive and I may be a fool—after all, this film was made in 1957—but in it I saw an allegory for contemporary Trumpist America. I saw how xenophobic and authoritarian viewpoints can score early victories and appear invincible. I saw how the smallest crack in that facade can permit moral arguments through. I saw how opening of that smallest crack can find adherents and grow into a movement.

Now come the spoilers.

A midnight murder has been committed in the slums of New York city. An old man is dead and his eighteen-year-old delinquent son is accused of the crime. The case rests on two witnesses: a downstairs neighbor—a man recovering from a stroke—who heard the body thump down on the floor and saw the boy running down the stairs. And a woman in an apartment across the tracks who saw the stabbing through the cars of a rushing train.

Twelve jurors are asked to come up with a unanimous verdict of either guilty or not. A guilty verdict will certainly send the boy to the electric chair. The twelve men are locked into a sweltering room, with a non-functional fan, in a hurry to get home or to a game or just out of the heat. The case appears to be slam-dunk. Two people swore on the stand that they saw the boy, either in the process of killing or right after. His alibi of having been at a movie at the time of the murder appears flimsy, as he can’t remember the name of the feature or who was in it.

The Ringleaders

All twelve jurors seem convinced that the boy is most likely the one who did it.

All twelve—and this is important—including Henry Fonda (Juror No. 8); however, only Fonda thinks they owe it to the boy to at least discuss the case, and unearth any doubts anyone might have about his guilt, however small.

Henry Fonda as Juror No. 8

This makes Juror No. 8 very unpopular. A conscience is an uncomfortable thing to have in the heat. The rest of them were hoping to all vote “Guilty” and get out of there double-fast.

Ed Begley (Juror No. 10) and Lee J Cobb (Juror No. 3) emerge as early leaders of the “Guilty” faction. In them, I saw reflections of Trump and the cult that surrounds him.

Ed Begley as Juror No. 10

Ed Begley plays a gray-haired garage owner, an Archie Bunker-style casual bigot. He is convinced the accused boy is lying, based simply on the fact that he is from the slums. “I know the type,” he says, “people like that lie all the time.”

Lee J Cobb is impatient with the niceties that the rule-of-law imposes on people like himself, who habitually sit in juries in judgment over others. “If it were up to me, I’d slap those tough kids down before they started any trouble.” In the words of Fonda, he is a “self-appointed public executioner.”

He claims to heavily rely on “facts” to come to his “Guilty” verdict. “Now here are the facts,” he says, counting them on his hand, reciting the prosecution’s case. But after only about three items, he pounces to the guilt. “The boy is guilty! Now that’s a fact!”

Lee J Cobb as Juror No. 3

It’s clear that he seethes with personal resentment against young men who have turned, ungratefully, against their fathers. This slum-dwelling boy had had a fight with his father and threatened to kill him hours before the killing took place. His own son, by his own telling, tired of his father’s constant berating, has not been heard from in two years. Personal injury, resentment, bitterness, all gather into a “Guilty” verdict in his mind, held on to with great vehemence. He doesn’t just want to make sure that the guilty do not go unpunished—rather, as he says, he wants to put this boy in the chair “where he belongs”.

Similarities with Trump

In too many instances to mention, these two Jurors combined essentially form Trump’s personality. There was the time he said that he didn’t want immigrants from shithole countries. The time he, much like Lee J Cobb, condemned the Central Park Five as guilty of rape despite sketchy evidence (and it turned out that they were innocent). There are the many rallies where he waxes eloquent about protesters being carried out in stretchers and promises to pay the legal fees of his supporters if they beat a protester up. There’s the demogoguery about families from across the border as being rapists, murderers, and gang-members, because he “knows the type”.

There’s the fact that his personal resentments, for example towards Obama, appear to have shaped his policies when it comes to killing the Iran Deal (JCPOA) or leaving the Paris Accord against climate change, rather than some more cold-blooded analysis.

Sadly, much like Ed Begley and Lee J Cobb in the film, he is also a fomenter and a leader. Most other Jurors follow the lead of these two to reach an easy “Guilty” verdict. These viewpoints, proclaimed loudly and and with confidence, come through as eminently obvious. Of course the slum-dwelling boy killed his belligerent father! They’re all like that, what more need be said?

Cut to real-life: Trump’s easy condemnation of immigrants and other disadvantaged have actually led to a large uptick in hate crimes and racial violence as tracked by numerous hate watch groups.

Trump Supporter Archetype

Somehow, this film from 1957 (based on a play from 1954) uncannily represents some other archetypes that Trump’s supporters fall into.

Henry Fonda implores the group to stay in the room and debate the case for at least an hour, notwithstanding the heat, pleading that it isn’t easy for him to send the boy to his death in just five minutes. Jack Warden (Juror No. 7), a Yankees fan impatient to get to a game, turns to him testily at this implied rebuke: “so what if it takes me only five minutes to decide he’s guilty? Who says it was easy for me?”

Jack Warden as Juror No. 7

Isn’t this testiness at an implied moral rebuke what the entire rebellion against being “politically correct” is about? And isn’t the permission to be politically incorrect in large part what Trump’s popularity is about? “Yes, you can decide the boy’s guilt in five minutes,” Trump is saying to his followers, in a certain sense. “Look at him, look at what he is. Of course he’s guilty!” No wonder they adore him.

In fact this Juror, played by Jack Warden, is masterfully portrayed as someone with a sort of moral blindness. In contemporary terms, he might decry Fonda’s stance as political correctness; in the film, he directly asks him, “what are you getting out of it? Did someone bonk you on the head?”

That Fonda might take this stand out of ethics simply does not occur to him.

Other Jurors

The “Guilty” faction runs the gamut. Like many Trump voters, they came to this verdict in good faith. One by one, they see the wisdom in the “Not Guilty” platform and shift their allegiance.

Jack Klugman as Juror No. 5

Jack Klugman (Juror No. 5) was raised in the same sort of slums as the accused. Although he is convinced of the boy’s guilt, he is not comfortable with the aspersions cast on slum-dwellers by the others on his team. Ed Begley, the casual bigot, is the most egregious, regularly using the language of infestation, asserting that kids raised in slums “crawl” out of there and are “trash”. When Klugman (Juror No. 5) finally switches his vote to “Not Guilty”, it isn’t clear whether it is out of conviction, or whether he was driven out by the constant othering he faced on his side.

This reminded me of a recent story in the news: the man who Trump called “my African American“, a Trump supporter, leaving the party because, in his words, he finds that Trump has a “white superiority complex”. Despite being initially convinced of Trump’s platform, he had begun to feel like an outsider who was merely accepted in the circle as a political pawn.

The anti-social belligerence of the ringleaders (Ed Begley and Lee J Cobb) drives away some of their other teammates as well, while Fonda’s calm demeanor wins their respect. An older Juror is the first to cross over to the “Not Guilty” side explicitly in order to give this courageous man his support. An immigrant who respects the American justice system more than some Americans in the room is inspired by Fonda to work through a doubt he has about the prosecution’s case on the notepaper in front of him, and he stands up ceremoniously to present it. He, too, faces othering on his side. “How do you like that,” says Jack Warden (Juror No. 7), “they run for their lives and come over here and then tell us how to run the show, huh?”

A coldly rational stock broker, E. G. Marshall (Juror No. 4) has been convinced by the logic of the prosecution. Although he finds himself on the same side as the bigoted Ed Begley and the belligerent Lee J Cobb, it is clear that he disdains them. While he is not given to emotional outbursts, he does appear to agree with Lee J Cobb that the “Not Guilty” faction is allowing their bleeding-heart sympathy for slum-dwellers to make them believe in fairy-tales and blind them to logic and facts.

E. G. Marshall (Juror No. 4)

But he possesses one thing that they lack: integrity.

When the first cracks of doubt appear in his certainty, that’s the first time in the film that he starts to sweat. But like many Never-Trump Republicans—I’m thinking of some in particular, like David Frum and Max Boot—when the break with the “Guilty” faction comes, it is decisive.

The feckless

It is impossible to watch a film like this dispassionately. Every sentence and expression is placed in order to inflame one’s moral instincts. The casual bigots, the belligerents, shouters and the rabble-rousers are easy to abhor. The narrative practically forces you to look in their direction.

But whether intended by the filmmakers or not, the one person who aroused most of my ire was neither Ed Begley (the casual bigot), nor Lee J Cobb (the belligerent sadist), nor Jack Warden (the morally blind Yankees fan)—it was Robert Webber (Juror No. 12), an ad executive who seems incapable of treating his task with the seriousness it deserves. As the Sobchak character says in The Big Lebowski about nihilists: “I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos“. That’s how the Juror No. 12 is portrayed: as a nihilist, focused on the entertainment value of the proceedings above all else.

Robert Webber as Juror No. 12

He expresses his relief that since they were given a murder trial, not assault or burglary, there were no “dead spots” during the proceedings. At another time he is found to be playing tic-tac-toe with Lee J Cobb while others are deliberating. When directly asked about what he thinks about the arguments, he cannot muster up anything beyond a shrug.

The entire time, his pulse is on one thing—where the power dynamic lies. In fact, he is supremely sensitive to the shifting tides of conventional wisdom. When he switches his vote to “Not Guilty”, it clear he does so because he feels like this is the winning side now. Then he senses some shakiness in the “Not Guilty” faction and switches his vote back. This is a man who loves winners and is simply unable to process the rightness or wrongness of arguments.

There will always be bigots and there will always be despots. But I find that we are in our current Trumpist predicament because some in the media who are supposed to inform us lost sight of the rightness and wrongness of arguments, and focused entirely on who’s up, who’s down. Juror No. 12’s, all of them, they are masters of conventional wisdom. They report on whose arguments are winning the day, not on what those arguments mean. Looking at you, Juror No. 12 Mark Halperin. Looking at you, Juror No. 12 Chuck Todd. And you, the dumbest pundit in America, the man who plays tic-tac-toe while governments are flailing, Juror No. 12 Chris Cillizza.

(Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.)

Update 10/5/19: I was interviewed on Slate’s podcast Real Trumpcast about this article: check it out!

Don’t let them off the hook: Why Social Media companies are responsible for fake news

Why social media is responsible for our fake news crisis.

We will talk about social media, I promise. But I want to first tell the story of Dan Rather’s fall from grace.

Dan Rather spent decades as the CBS Evening News anchor, one of the big three for nightly news. In 2004, on 60 Minutes Wednesday, he reported on the Killian Documents: a series of memos that were critical of George W Bush’s service during his time in the Air National Guard. It turned out that there were many reasons—including the use of modern typeface—to doubt the authenticity of the memos. Eventually, CBS News recanted the story, fired the producer, and forced Dan Rather to move up his retirement. The entire episode came to be known as RatherGate.

A highly respected decades-long career in news was capped by a “-Gate” because of lack of devotion to fact-checking. Of course no one believed that Dan Rather’s team forged memos themselves. Instead, what people were objecting to was their lack of editorial judgment. Given their giant megaphone, they had the responsibility, as a publisher, to be a gatekeeper for factual news.

Platform or publisher?

Why, then, do we not hold social media companies to the same standard? Why do we let them get away with spreading fake news, propaganda, conspiracies, and hate speech through their platforms?

At heart, I would argue, is a semantic confusion. We generally don’t hold pure platforms accountable for the content that is carried on their wires. For instance, if I was to receive a death threat over my cell phone, not for a minute would I think to blame my wireless carrier, Cricket. The fault would lie with the threat-maker, alone.

On the other hand, we can and do beat up on newspapers, cable shows, even bookstores, that carry objectionable content. As publishers, we expect them to have volition and exercise choice.

Social media executives have blithely shape-shifted from one form to another, depending on whether being a publisher or a platform suits them better in the moment. It is to their advantage that we remain confused.

On the one hand, they would love to be thought of as a public square, where absolutely everyone and anyone would be permitted to exercise their free speech, regardless of how savory their speech is. This permits tech companies to sidestep any shred of responsibility for what these third party interlocutors say, much like the wireless carrier in my example of a person making death threats over the cell phone.

On the other hand, as they have gobbled up more and more of the business of local news, they have come to define what public discourse even is. A public square is a grand and noble thing. But one thing it does not do is give some people a megaphone, and attenuate others. Social media does this daily, based on their currency of choice—clicks.

Thriving on our confusion, tech executives have been able to argue simultaneously for both kinds of dispensation. For example, in a recent interview with journalist Kara Swisher, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the case for hosting known conspiracy theorists such as InfoWars and Holocaust deniers, based on his conception of Facebook as a neutral utility. At the same time, his lawyers were arguing in court that since they are a publisher, they have a first amendment right to make editorial choices that cannot be questioned.

Journalist Carole Cadwalladr faced a similar blank dismissal from Google executives when she informed them that their platform was sending people searching for phrases like “Jews are…” and “Hitler was…” into conspiracist rabbit holes. Pure platform, move along, they said, washing their hands clean. But Google/YouTube have shown themselves perfectly capable of exercising their editorial finger when public outcry becomes loud enough—for example in their recent deplatforming of Alex Jones and InfoWars.

The truth is, extremism on their platforms lights up the click-o-meters and lines their pockets. They have no interest in policing their platforms or in us sorting out our confusion. But it is, actually, possible to think through the issues clearly and hold them to account.

The Kinkos analogy

The classic analogy offered by the “platform” pleaders is that of a print & copy center, say, called Kinkos. Imagine a person who goes to Kinkos and prints out a stack of child pornography to distribute in town. Since child pornography is not one of the forms of free speech protected by the First Amendment, our imagined customer is clearly breaking the law by possessing and distributing it. But is Kinkos?

Kinkos is a neutral platform and cannot be blamed. Customers who walk in are not screened for the content of what they want to print, nor would it be scalable to have Kinkos personnel look over what goes into the copy machine before it goes in.

There is much that is similar about social media companies. No Facebook or YouTube employee looks over your shoulder as you post. Nor do you have to apply to an editorial board before your post shows up. But there the similarity ends.

When you make your copies at Kinkos, you walk away with a stack; and there ends the relationship between Kinkos and your content, whether you were printing holiday cards or our less savory example above.

Of course, such is not the case with social media. For them, the content you post is the gold that they woo you for. Once it’s on their platform, it drives engagement. A recipe video you create might show up in YouTube’s recommendations. A linked news article might get thousands of likes and thereby show up in tens of thousands of Facebook News Feeds. A striking meme or a witty comment might travel far and wide among Instagram’s global users. Or your post might languish, with not a like or a comment on it, and thus not be very much seen.

A platform and a publisher

If you are watching carefully you would have spotted both functions right there. Social media companies play the passive role of a platform while they merely host third party content. But they play the active role of a publisher when they affirmatively push selected content to your feed. There is editorial judgment in which posts are heavily promoted and which others languish without any eyeballs on them. Who does this? Who is the editor that determines virality, based on what characteristic of the content?

We will get to that. But let’s work with the Kinkos analogy further. Imagine that copies of the prints you made at Kinkos stayed with them. Each morning, they picked a small subset of all the millions of pages that were copied at their nationwide offices the day before, to put into a newsletter. Recipes, memes, news articles, clever bon mots, and other selected content appeared in your mailbox daily, neatly formatted.

Would you then be so sanguine if they delivered child pornography in their curated newsletter? What if unbeknownst to you, Kinkos was delivering child pornography to the pedophile next door, while delivering bomb-making instructions to the psychopath across town, or delivering misinformation about vaccines to the frantic new mother across the street? Or if they delivered completely made up “news” that the candidate running in your district was prone to eat babies the day before an election?

Would we then forgive this imagined Kinkos—nothing at all like our Kinkos on Earth One—for their newsletters? No doubt they could plead that it wasn’t them that wrote up the fake news or the misinformation about vaccines—it was third party content from their customers. “We only chose the articles that we spotted people copying most avidly at our copy centers!”—they might say.

Nonetheless, they’re the ones who chose to distribute it. We would laugh them out of town if they shrugged their shoulders and professed helplessness at the content of their newsletters, the way social media executives regularly do.

When Algorithms do it, does it count?

I trust that you see the absurdity of executives pleading helplessness in the Kinkos thought experiment. You probably imagined a human, a Kinkos employee perhaps, picking out objectionable content to put in their newsletter. But of course, there are no human fingerprints on the content that social media companies push to your feed. Those choices are made entirely by algorithms.

Facebook’s news feed, their suggested pages and groups, Amazon’s virtual shelves, and YouTube’s recommended videos, are all highly curated lists; the contents of which are produced by exquisitely crafted algorithms, that these companies treat as their crown jewels. The teams that craft them are just as integral to the tech companies’ businesses as the editorial team that determines the stories in a newspaper is to a newsroom. So if it sends fake, nonfactual news your way, that represents a failure of its editorial function just as much as the Killian memos represented a failure of Dan Rather’s team at CBS News.

It is subtle, but you can tell that each time there is a scathing news article about propaganda promoted through social media, executives point to their algorithms, as if to absolve themselves. As if to say, “they did it, not us!”

Source: NTSB via ArsTechnica.com

Last year, an algorithm-controlled self-driving Uber car ran into a 49-year-old pedestrian crossing in front of it and killed her. The NTSB investigated the accident. While Uber waited for the results, they took all their self-driving cars off the road in several cities for nine months. Prosecutors considered charging Uber with a crime. The event caused a deep reckoning in the autonomous car industry and a widespread understanding that the technology is not ready to be put on the road yet.

Industry after industry has faced automation where software now does the job that humans used to do. But no one would accept errors made by software as any more forgivable than if the error was made by a human.

Whether Facebook’s news feed, YouTube’s “watch next” list, etc., are put together by algorithm or human editors, they represent just as much of a failure when they send fake news your way. A recent study found that Facebook was the biggest disseminator of fake news in the months leading up the the 2016 election. This article pins the percentage to 22%: almost a quarter of all the fake news spread in the months before the 2016 election was spread by Facebook. But that woefully understates the problem: the truth is, for many voters, the entirety of their Facebook news feed was fake.

The problem is global. Investigative journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines has called Facebook the “fertilizer of democratic collapse” in her country due to the fake news spread through it. Myanmar’s military instituted a propaganda campaign through inauthentic pages and articles on Facebook that led to genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslims.

To be clear, the problem isn’t, and has never been, merely the fact that social media companies merely host objectionable content on their platforms. The problem, rather, is that they selectively pump the filth out.

An incomplete Business Model

There was a time in America when rivers frequently caught on fire. Just the Cuyahoga River alone, that runs through Cleveland and empties into Lake Erie, caught on fire fifteen times during the Gilded Age: the age when barons like John D. Rockefeller were transforming the Midwest by creating industrial behemoths like Standard Oil.

Of course, as historian John Grabowski has said, “technically, rivers never burn. It’s the crap on them.” Indeed, companies throughout the fast-industrializing Midwest didn’t have much of a plan for managing their waste. They just dumped it all into the river to the point where it “oozed rather than flowed”.

Cuyahoga River fire (source: Cleveland State University Library via alleghenyfront.org)

For decades, people lived with what Cleveland’s mayor called the “open sewer through the center of the city” because they assumed that a polluted commons, such as the river, was simply the cost of doing business. These companies were creating jobs and wealth; if they were forced to take on the cost of managing their refuse—a cost that they simply hadn’t considered while they were growing their businesses—wouldn’t they simply leave?

Spoiler: they didn’t. It took the combined forces of the environmental movement, the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire going on the cover of Time, and a willing government: but we got the Clean Water Act, which made companies responsible for their own pollution of common waterways. Now, refineries build the cost of managing effluents into the cost of doing business (though they might chafe against it). Standard Oil did not do this of their own accord. We made them.

How it came to this

The root of the issue for social media companies is that their algorithms were not built for fact-checking. There is a huge cost (to them) of performing this role, a role that their businesses were not built to handle. They are not going to curb their pollution of our information flows unless we make them.

Tech companies often give the impression that they blundered into news-publishing absent-minded, without any forethought. Their businesses are built for engagement with a different sort of content. The more they can get you to click, follow, comment on, and buy, the better they do. This is what their recommendation algorithms were essentially built for—to maximize eyeball time.

Recommendation algorithms were created right around the turn of the century, when digital content businesses were starting to host such massive inventories that navigating it would have been all but impossible without algorithms acting as your personal guide to help you find content that you might like. Pandora, the internet radio station, was one of the first businesses that ran on such algorithms. It married together the characteristics of songs with your stated preferences, and the preferences of other users who shared your tastes, to create an extremely popular customized radio station. Amazon’s inventory of products is so large that without their algorithm-powered “Recommended for you” shelves, you’d be lost; with them, you might buy a few. 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube each minute; without their “Recommended” and “Watch next” lists, you wouldn’t have a hope of finding anything that you’d like to watch.

Such algorithms have incredible reach. They have allowed the businesses that they power to achieve huge market shares in whatever niche they inhabit. They are built to be democratic down to their very bones, like the world’s most solicitous concierges, who give you whatever content you might enjoy with no judgment. This is appropriate when it comes to matters of taste. There should be no judgment about the movie you choose to watch or the soap you choose to buy.

But once these businesses had achieved dominance over internet eyeballs, they found themselves in a new business entirely. They also became purveyors of factual information and news. This was already a red flag but nobody noticed. Certainly not the barely-out-of-adolescence tech CEOs who saw the news business as yet another arena for their engagement-driven rapacity for eyeballs, like movies or songs or post from friends.

But clearly this doesn’t work for factual content. An anti-vax article might gain more likes than an article debunking it, but that doesn’t make it science. A holocaust denial video might get more views than a documentary, but that doesn’t make it history. An article about a politician who eats babies might get thousands of outraged comments but that doesn’t make it news.

It was a category error. Because a democratic “give-them-more-of-what-they-want” attitude seems to work for recommending movies, they thought it was also appropriate for deciding what counts as news.

This key difference between types of content has simply not been understood, nor appreciated, by tech executives, most of whom are engineers at heart. As journalist Kara Swisher often chides them, “take a humanities course, for God’s sake!”

Chafing against

Much like oil refineries back in the day, social media companies have chafed against taking responsibility for the content their algorithms push into the ether.

Sometimes they take cover under the notion that since it isn’t their content, they own no responsibility for it. YouTube executives explicitly made this argument when they decided to allow conservative firebrand Steven Crowder to remain on their platform even though he had used his channel to unleash homophobic attacks at journalist Carlos Maza. “Even if a video remains on our site, it doesn’t mean we endorse/support that viewpoint,” they said.

I’d like to remind tech executives that vectors count just as much, if not more, as that which is being propagated. We have a deep cultural association of rats and fleas with the Bubonic Plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century, but rats and fleas were merely the vectors—the plague was caused by a bacteria. Sparks in forests do no harm unless there is dry brush, in which case one has a wildfire.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

At other times public outrage at their insouciance is treated as a PR problem that will go away with proper “handling”, rather than as a concrete problem to be solved. Two of Facebook’s top executives have tried two different such PR approaches: Sheryl Sandburg, famously, tried to handle public outrage at Facebook’s fake news problem by doing a hit job against the main complainers. Mark Zuckerberg usually goes the opposite route: apologize profusely over and over, while still thumbing his nose at a panel of nine countries trying to hold him accountable.

Beaten down enough, tech executives sometimes turn around to blame us, the user community. This is clever, because of course recommendation algorithms use our own clicks as raw material to create more recommendations. But this gets to the core of my argument above. When it comes to matters of fact, the number of clicks on the article tell you nothing. As a mere consumer of news, I can have no independent information about whether a particular article is factual or not; it is the job of the publisher to not feed me garbage. No one asked social media companies to swallow up and destroy local media that was attempting to play the role of factual gatekeepers, however imperfectly; they bigfooted their way in and snatched this job. But it takes some gall to swallow up a business while disdaining to perform the role that it was performing.

Whether it is the pleading from activists, the outrage from users, or the fear of being regulated, social media companies have finally understood that fake news is a problem for them. Even as they have begun to devote resources to ensuring information hygiene, their efforts often come too late or are insufficient. After the Parkland mass shooting tragedy, YouTube finally took steps to remove conspiracy videos showing survivor David Hogg as a crisis actor, but not before it had already achieved No. 1 status. Facebook has been forced into having some human moderators; but rather than straightforwardly hire them, Facebook chooses to rent poorly paid, abysmally-treated contractors. But when it comes to fake news about themselves, Facebook is able to find the resources to do the job properly.

Social media executives tend to have a great deal of missionary zeal about the ultra-democratic, communitarian world they are creating and tend to treat these problems as the breaking of a few eggs on the way to a glorious omelette. But I’d like to remind them that the freely-polluting industrialists of the 19th century were also transfixed by their own virtue. They, too, thought of their own pollution of the commons as a unfortunate side-effect of the new world they were creating. They themselves, of course, moved their families uphill, away from the burning river, much like Silicon Valley executives often keep their own children away from their platforms. But can tech company executives thrive while democracy around them is collapsing, driven by their pollution of the commons? We will soon find out.

Reading the Mueller Report: Part 3, The Leaks

The story of how the Kremlin fronted leaks through DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0, and Wikileaks, from the Mueller Report.

GRU Unit 74455 was responsible for leaking documents they had stolen and publicizing the leaks through social media. They used three main channels through which they dumped documents: two websites created by GRU themselves (DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0), and later, Wikileaks—which, given their long experience publishing leaked archives, appears to have had the most impact.

[Part 2 is here. The full report is here. This post deals with Volume I, Section III. B.]

DCLeaks.com

Almost as soon as GRU began to steal documents, they started planning to dump them. They created the domain DCLeaks.com on April 19, pretty much right as they managed to break into the DCCC computers. They leaked documents through this website in neatly labeled tranches, publicizing them through their Facebook and Twitter accounts, and occasionally directly contacting journalists to give them sneak previews of documents that hadn’t been publicly leaked yet. They hid the GRU ownership of the DCLeaks.com domain behind an anonymous registration and paid for it with Bitcoin.

The Facebook accounts they created to publicize DCLeaks.com dumps were given fake American personas: “Jason Scott,” “Richard Gingrey,” and “Alice Donovan”. “Alice”, indeed, was a greater scam that merely a fake name; “she” had an exciting profile picture on Twitter (shown below); and was known to several news websites as a beginning freelance journalist who would often pitch articles on foreign policy favorable to Russia. “She” was even published, several times, by CounterPunch, a left-wing news website. Here is their account of learning that “Alice” was not a real person at all.

“Alice Donovan”‘s Twitter profile

Guccifer 2.0

DCLeaks.com began posting in June; on June 14th, security firm Crowdstrike made a public announcement that they believed the Russian State was involved in the operation. They dubbed the DNC hackers “Fancy Bear” to denote their connection to Russia. This announcement seems to have triggered GRU into taking steps to cover their tracks. The very next day, June 15th, GRU operatives launched a WordPress site called Guccifer 2.0. “Guccifer 2.0” claimed to be a “sole Romanian hacktivist” and took credit for the DNC hacks. Trying to deflect attention away from Russia’s involvement, GRU rode on the cachet of Guccifer, an actual sole Romanian hacker from 2013.

The FBI found that Guccifer 2.0’s grand opening announcement was painstakingly constructed, Google search by Google search, of English phrases such as “some hundred sheets,” “illuminati,” and “worldwide known”. My guess is that the FBI must have subpoenaed Google in order to obtain searches performed by GRU.

Not only did the GRU attempt to pass off Guccifer 2.0 as a Romanian hacker, they also tried to pass off DCLeaks.org as a “Wikileaks sub-project.” In truth, the same group within Russia’s military intelligence ran both. They also attempted to deflect attention in a different way: they also created a fake “actblues.com” website to mimic the well-known Democratic donation site ActBlue.com, and redirected some of DCCC’s links to their fake domain. It appears as if they were trying to make it look like their intrusion was run by garden-variety thieves, not a foreign intelligence.

Much like DCLeaks.com, Guccifer 2.0 began releasing troves of the stolen DNC/DCCC documents. Between June and October, “he” released thousands of documents, relating to a number of subjects from opposition research on Trump, to policy discussions, to analyses of congressional races. On occasion they reached out directly to news organizations (for instance the Smoking Gun), much like DCLeaks did, in order to give them access to password-locked documents. On another occasion the Guccifer 2.0 persona reached out to a Congressional candidate in Southern Florida to give them documents about their opponent. Another time gigabytes of data were given to a Florida blogger (Mueller Report does not mention his name, but this is blogger Aaron Nevins).

Mueller Report, page 44 (Volume I Section III-B-2)

Guccifer 2.0 also famously reached out to Roger Stone. His name is under redaction in the Report as an ongoing matter. However, his exchange with Guccifer is well-known: not only did Guccifer 2.0 appear to have provided Stone with stolen documents, Stone also appears to have spurred GRU on to steal more precise analytical data from DNC, as I covered in the last post.

Wikileaks

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen as he leaves a police station in London, Britain April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls – RC1D08477610

Back in November 2015, before GRU ever sent their first spearphishing email, Julian Assange, in a private message to other Wikileaks members, had already set an agenda pushing for a Republican victory and a Hillary Clinton defeat in the then-upcoming 2016 election. They hosted a searchable archive of about 30,000 Clinton emails [that number again!] that had been obtained through FOIA partially in order to, in their words, “annoy Hillary;” they wanted to become the standard place on the Internet for Hillary leaks.

So when GRU-as-DCLeaks appeared on the scene, they were the new kids on the block attempting to do what Wikileaks was already doing—“annoy Hillary”, to put it in understated terms. The alignment between their goals was as clear to them as to us. DCLeaks reached out to Assange in June, with the stated goal of working together and claiming to have some stolen financial information. Barely a week after that, Wikileaks reached out to Guccifer 2.0, who had just released “his” first tranche of documents, offering help on disseminating leaks in a more effective way. The next month, before the DNC convention, Wikileaks sought documents that would increase conflict between Sanders and Clinton supporters.

Thereafter the communications shifted to largely secret channels. It is clear from the tracks left in timestamps and the few public conversations that stolen files from DNC and Podesta emails were transferred from the GRU hackers to Wikileaks. But the means of transferring those files is not always clear; it might involve go-betweens physically visiting Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy where he was given refuge at the time.

In all, in a single month between October 7 and November 8, Wikileaks dumped 50,000 documents stolen from Podesta’s email.

Wikileaks’s attempt to blame Seth Rich

Seth Rich, a DNC staffer, was shot and killed in a DC neighborhood in the early hours of the morning of July 10th, 2016 by an unknown assailant. Within a couple weeks, Assange was insinuating that the DNC hacks might have been an inside job. Conspiracy theories about Rich’s death were already aflame on Reddit, also promoted by Roger Stone, but the first person to insinuate that Rich might have been Assange’s source for the DNC leaks was Assange himself, on August 9, in an interview with Dutch television program Nieuwsuur, barely a month after his death. On the same day, Wikileaks announced a reward of $20,000 for information about Seth Rich’s murder. Within a day, right-wing media ran with this insinuation and turned it into a presumed fact in their readers’ minds. Outlets like TownHall.com, The Drudge Report, and Fox & Friends, were stating with confidence that Assange “had fingered” Seth Rich as his source—and that the Russians were not involved. Sean Hannity on Fox later drove that narrative nightly, to the point that he was sued by Rich’s bereaved parents for defamation.

Source: SplinterNews

One priceless service that the Mueller Report has performed is to puncture the myth of Julian Assange as an honest broker. Consider the context: not only was Assange explicitly trying to influence an election to go his preferred way by timing the subject matter of leaks, but he was actively dissembling about the source of his material.

At the time he went out to insinuate that Seth Rich was his source, Rich himself was dead and could not be reached for comment. Assange knew, with dead certainty, that Seth Rich was not, in fact, his source—he even received some documents after Rich’s death. He projected the notion that his source was a whistle-blower exposing corrupt behavior, while he was actually obtaining documents from two anonymous accounts (DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0) who were nothing of the kind. Even if we assume that Assange knew nothing of Russia’s involvement in the two front accounts first-hand, Crowdstrike’s assessment that Russia had pulled off the hacks was then in the news. Not knowing who DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 actually were, surely he must have at least suspected they were fronts for Russian Intelligence, as all the experts were saying. And yet, what he felt called upon to do at that time was to help Russia hide their tracks.

Follow me at @TheOddPantry.

(Featured image source: Tom Williams—Newscom via ZUMA Press)

Reading the Mueller Report: Part 2, The Hacks

Fancy Bear a.k.a. Unit 26165: how the GRU hacked the Dems.

[Part 1 is here. This post deals with Volume I, Section III. A. The full report is here.]

The hacking of Democratic networks by the Russian State is the part of the Trump-Russia scandal (picturesquely known as Stupid Watergate) that most closely matches the break-in into the DNC headquarters during Watergate, at the eponymous office complex.

Except instead of five men, the break-in was carried out by Russia’s military intelligence, GRU. And instead of breaking into DNC headquarters, the break-in was into the DNC, DCCC, and the Clinton Campaign staffers’ computer networks. The break-in was virtual but much wider in scope. And the documents they stole, unlike during Watergate, were later weaponized by releasing them drip-by-drip through DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0, and Wikileaks, timed for maximum impact during key moments of the campaign.

Mueller was appointed Special Counsel in May 2017 with the primary goal of investigating the Russian attack on the 2016 elections. However, it is astonishing how much was already known about the hackers before Mueller’s team came around and confirmed the findings.

A year before Mueller, in June 2016, right around the time that the DNC discovered that they had been hacked, they hired the highly respected security firm Crowdstrike to investigate. Crowdstrike matched the hackers’ digital fingerprints with similar hacks in other countries around the globe; because their goals so thoroughly matched the strategic goals of the Russian State, Crowdstrike dubbed the hackers “Fancy Bear” and attributed the hack to Russian military intelligence, GRU (the “Bear” in the name is their code word for a Russian State actor).

“Fancy Bear” was no stranger to the security community; another firm known as FireEye had been tracking them and their evolving malware since 2007 and had given them the designation “APT28”. Based on their attack pattern: mainly government and military targets, and the observation that they were active during work hours in Moscow and St. Petersburg, APT28 had already been identified as run by the Russian State.

The only surprise was that they were coming for the DNC.

But it took Mueller’s July 2018 indictment US v. Netyksho (summarized in the Report) to confirm that finding. That “speaking indictment” was able to identify the units of the GRU involved in this operation, what their duties were, and what their codenames and online personas were. The unit known as “26165” was in charge of the hacking and theft of documents. The unit known as “74455” was in charge of weaponizing the stolen documents.

Mueller’s team identified the techniques they used, the servers they targeted, the programs they wrote, what they called them, and how they paid for the operation. In other words, an absolute surgical dissection.

The Hack of Democratic networks

Officers from the 26165 unit started their operations in mid-March 2016. As a first step, they began by merely researching Democratic websites such as HillaryClinton.com and DNC.org.

Their research bore enough fruit that they were able to identify individual people they could target for the next step—attempting to steal email credentials from Clinton Campaign, DNC, and DCCC employees. They sent out hundreds of spearphishing emails during a short period starting in mid-March.

[Note: “Spearphishing” refers to those spoof emails that all of us get once in a while, that purport to be from a trusted sender, such as Apple.com or your bank, asking you to provide credentials for some valid-sounding reason, such as changing your password or providing your account number. The link is in fact a spurious one, created by the hackers in order to steal your information. “Phishing” means just what it sounds like, and the “spear” modifier implies that the phishing was directed towards specific people, not merely random.]

Their spearphishing campaign caught several small and big fish: one of whom was John Podesta, whose stolen emails were to play a big role later in the year. Among the others was an unnamed DCCC employee.

By April 12, through credentials stolen from that unnamed DCCC employee, GRU officers had gained access to the DCCC network and began snooping around. A week later, through a private connection between the DNC and DCCC computers, they entered the DNC network. Step-by-step, they wedged their way in. On the way, they managed to steal some IT administrators’ credentials, a minor jackpot, because those passwords gave them unrestricted permissions. Between April and June, GRU had secret access to 29 DCCC and 30 DNC computers; thus giving them unbridled access to any files or emails that might be stored on them.

Of course the point of “bugging” these networks (to draw attention once again to the Watergate metaphor) was to steal documents, and Mueller goes into some detail about the mechanism they used to exfiltrate.

Once the GRU hackers had gained access to a computer, they installed a few apps, a couple that were malware built by the GRU, and a couple other free publicly available utilities (including a program for zipping files):

X-Agent

A piece of spying software customized by the GRU for their hack of the Democratic networks. It is known as a “backdoor”: which means it can steal files and secretly copy them out, as if through a backdoor. Apart from files, it can log keystrokes, take screenshots, and gather other data.

It is set up to pilfer files and send them over to a server, known as the Command & Control server, owned by the hackers. In this case, GRU hackers owned a server in Arizona called the AMS Panel, which served to Command & Control the malware. X-Agent can communicate with this server over the internet or over email, as needed; as soon as it starts up, it starts communicating over two channels: one to send the pilfered files over, and one to listen for commands.

X-Tunnel

A tiny but lethal computer virus that allowed GRU’s Command & Control server to “tunnel into” any of the computers in the infected network, even if they weren’t connected to the internet themselves.

Interestingly, researchers found that the GRU coders had carelessly left some source code in, which helped them get some insight into who they were. They found the use of Russian in the original cyrilic, such as a path named “Новая папк” meaning “New folder”; ungrammatical English in the code, such as “is you live?” and “i’m wait”. They also determined that “XTunnel” and “XAPS” were the very names that the GRU coders use for this virus.

If you are interested in deeper analysis of the GRU’s malware, including the Russian language comments found in the code, ESET’s We Live Security newsletter has an excellent deep dive.

MimiKatz

A strange fulcrum in the arms race between hackers and security professionals. It was written in 2011 by a 25-year-old French programmer Benjamin Delpy in order prove that Windows was not as secure as advertised and that passwords could easily be stolen by malicious actors. Although written with good intentions, he found in short order that his program was misused by hackers of all stripes, from state actors to randos, to do exactly that—steal passwords and other credentials. But it is also used by security professionals, and, one hopes, Microsoft, to test for vulnerabilities.

All told, GRU stole hundreds of thousands of documents, which included emails, financial information, opposition research, analytics, and other data pertaining to the election. Sometimes they targeted their search with terms like “Hillary”, “Cruz”, and “Trump”. Much of their haul was later leaked through the GRU-created websites DCLeaks.com and Guccifer 2.0, and much of it through Wikileaks.

“Russia if you’re listening…”

The hacks continued well into the summer and fall. On July 27th, hours after Trump made famous statement at a rally: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” hackers from GRU unit 26165 attempted to break into Clinton’s home office server for the first time. This was the same server where she had hosted her non-classified emails as Secretary of State; and the hunt for the 30,000 emails deleted from it had animated Trump’s campaign and hangers-on for months.

In September, well into the campaign, GRU hacked into DNC’s servers hosted on a cloud-computing service [Note: though redacted, this is Amazon’s AWS service] and stole 300 gigabytes of data. Mueller does not go into details here, but analysts like Marcy Wheeler, who runs the subtly eponymous blog EmptyWheel.net, have pieced together the timeline to suggest that this theft came in response to private messages exchanged between Roger Stone and the GRU hackers, where Stone expressed an interest in receiving analytics data with more oomph than had been publicly released thus far. Indeed, as court filings from a lawsuit filed by the DNC against GRU show, the analytics stolen in this hack were the crown jewels that were guarded by the DNC with a triple-layer of security, that exposed its methods and means of winning the election.

RNC and the Smartech Server

Not many people are aware of this but Republicans were also hacked by GRU during the 2016 election cycle. Despite strong denials by Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, a footnoted mention of their stolen files being leaked through the GRU hackers shows up in the Mueller Report. Mueller refers to the website The Smoking Gun’s December 2016 article, thus I feel comfortable linking to it; and ‘unredacting’ the names of the victims that were left redacted in the version of the Mueller Report that was released publicly.

Smartech is a Chatanooga-based firm long hired by the RNC as their web-hosting provider. It appears that GRU hacked into this server during 2015; about 300 stolen emails from that period, including those belonging to Lindsey Graham and John McCain, were leaked through the GRU-run website DCLeaks.com. However, the emails that were leaked were pretty innocuous, and the GRU held back on targeting the RNC thereafter. In fact, this fact was one of the reasons that the CIA assessed that Russia was interfering in order to help Trump win.

The Hack of ELection SYstems

It is astonishing to me that as direct a Russian attack on our 2016 elections as the widespread hack of a number of state election systems were left out of Mueller’s purview. He mentions a litany of such attacks in the Report, but only cursorily, because these ongoing investigations are housed with the FBI and the DHS. These hacks appear to have been widespread and continued throughout the election. The GRU targeted the following: state boards of elections; secretaries of state; county governments; manufacturers of voting software and electronic polling stations; and individuals involved in these. In some of these hacking attempts, they hit pay dirt. For example. they stole a database of millions of voter registrations from Illinois; and gained access to at least one Florida county government.

One hopes that these investigations are ongoing and not impeded. Naively, I would have thought these belong under the Special Counsel’s purview. But over and over, I have been surprised at how narrowly Mueller saw his role, or perhaps how narrow of a role he was given by Trump’s DOJ.

Follow me at @TheOddPantry.

(Featured image source: Tom Williams—Newscom via ZUMA Press)

IANAL but I’m reading the Mueller Report: Part 1, Active Measures

I am a layperson trying to make sense of the Mueller Report. Read along with me!
Part 1: Active Measures.

In this post I read Volume 1, Section II, which deals with the Russian Active Measures social media campaign to interfere with the 2016 election.

The entire report is here. Read along with me as I call out interesting details.

Both Watergate and the Trump-Russia scandal—some call it Stupid Watergate—started with a purloining of Democratic materials. This investigation started in mid-2016 when the DNC announced that “Russian hackers had compromised its computer network.”

With Trump’s daily cries of “Witch Hunt” and “No Collusion”, we often forget that this particular break-in to the Democratic networks was Mueller’s main focus, not to “get” Trump. The break-in investigation widened into an understanding that Russia had interfered in the 2016 Presidential election in “sweeping and systematic fashion” in order to help Donald Trump’s campaign and hurt Hillary Clinton’s. When an Australian diplomat informed the FBI that George Papadopoulous knew ahead of time that the Russians would be anonymously releasing documents to hurt the Clinton Campaign, the investigation grew to include any ties that the Trump campaign might have had with Russia.

Mueller divided up his investigation into the following parts: Russia’s social media campaign; their hacks into various Democratic/Clinton campaign networks; the dumping of those stolen emails; and the multiple arms of outreach to Trump associates.

Executive Summary to Volume I:

Page 2

After two years of “collusion” talk, Mueller reveals that he was not looking into “collusion” at all, because that is not a legal term. He was concerned with criminal conspiracy.

Page 5:

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A note on the topics that are consistently redacted: we know that Roger Stone’s trial is coming up in November 2019 and his name is always blacked out as “Harm to Ongoing Matter” (henceforth HOM). In this para, he is the one known to have informed others in the campaign that Wikileaks would be dropping docs in the future.
Another topic redacted for HOM relates to Trump’s public call to Russia: “Russia, if you’re listening…” in July 2016.
What could be ongoing on that front?

Page 6

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I’m struck by how much the free press has interleaved with and even helped this investigation. If not for public reporting on the Intelligence Community conclusion that Russia was behind the DNC hacks, the Australian diplomat who Papadopoulous drunkenly confessed to that he knew the Russians had stolen emails would not have gone to the FBI. This tip from the Australian diplomat is how the entire investigation started.

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Although Mueller says he didn’t concern himself with “collusion”, if we are to use the common parlance, here we certainly have an instance of collusion. For months, campaign chairman Manafort had been sharing internal polling data with Kilimnik, an ex-GRU operative who the FBI considers to still be a GRU agent. Meanwhile Kilimnik discussed a plan for Russia to annex Eastern Ukraine, using the euphemism “peace plan”. So can we say…YES COLLUSION??!

Page 7

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The famous Seychelles meeting between Erik Prince (Trump associate) and Kirill Dmitriev (Russian businessman authorized to speak for Putin) is not the sort of thing that is inherently illegal. Why then did they lie and lie about it? Including to Congress? Mueller does not address that mystery here.

We always suspected that the choice of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State was looked upon favorably by Putin. Here, we see the upshot: a Kushner friend, not in any official capacity on the Campaign, was used as a backchannel to deliver a plan from Putin to Tillerson.

Page 9

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Although Mueller indicted Concord Management, Internet Research Agency, and others for their social media campaign back in 2018, it appears that there are still ongoing investigations in this area. The HOM redactions are perhaps justified because the Concord Management trial is ongoing. But it is curious to see a Personal Privacy redaction. It must be an American whose privacy is being protected, but we have no clue who that might be.

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A clear summation of the particular crimes Mueller was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

Page 10

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Mueller throws cold water on some of the theories that catapulted Seth Abramson into a Twitter rock star. The Mayflower meeting, the Sessions-Kisliyak chat, the RNC platform change. It’s as though Mueller was reading Seth’s feed and made a mental note to challenge it all in one para.

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This is might be the most disappointing paragraph in the entire report. It is Mueller saying the investigation was thwarted in various ways: by lies, people deleting texts/emails, using encryption, pleading the 5th, etc. Is it that easy to get away with crimes involving national security?

Mueller also hints that further investigation is warranted. (Is it perhaps ongoing in other offices?) Why did Mueller feel the need to shut down his investigation when he did, so soon after Barr got appointed AG—leaving all these loose ends? Why did he not run these leads to earth? Other SCO investigations have gone on for 5,6 years.

I wonder if he was shut down. I wonder if we will ever know.

I. The Special Counsel’s Investigation

Page 13

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Mueller’s investigation resulted in some counterintelligence info that went to FBI and is not included in this report. This report is centered around prosecutions they chose to take on or decline to take on.

II. Russian “Active Measures” Social Media Campaign

Sections A-C: Internet Research Agency

We are not permitted to know very much at all about the Internet Research Agency. It is heavily redacted as HOM. For instance, all we are allowed to know about the internal structure is of the company is: it grew, and thus had to be reorganized:

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All three sections are replete with entire blacked out sections. And yet, the basic narrative is clear.

I’ll never cease to find it amazing that there was an entire company, occupying an entire building, whose job it was to impersonate and spoof regular people in a country half a world away. It’s like the world’s worst episode of Impractical Jokers. On the way, they created Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, and Tumblr accounts, with fake names like “Jess Abrams” and “Pamela Moore”, fake bios, fake hot-and-heavy fandom of Donald Trump, fake activism, and a fake rage against Hillary Clinton.

Starting in 2014, the Internet Research Agency, funded by Yevgeniy Prigozhin (often known as Putin’s chef), started a campaign of Active Measures, which is a sort of information warfare, to sow discord in the US. By early 2016 their thrust was to support Donald Trump and disparage other candidates, particularly Clinton.

They tried to inflame every divisive issue they could discern: the Black Lives Matter movement on both sides, the Confederacy, the anger of the Bernie supporters against Clinton and the DNC, anti-immigrant fervor, and so on.

Their social media accounts reached millions of unsuspecting people in the US and found engagement with prominent Trump supporters: for example, their fake Twitter account pretending to be the Tennessee GOP (@TEN_GOP) was often retweeted by the Trump’s large adult sons, Hannity, Roger Stone, and Michael Flynn Jr. They used their social media following to organize rallies in the US. Occasionally the IRA sent employees to the US on intelligence gathering missions, using fraudulent reasons for their visas.

Mueller indicted the IRA, Prigozhin, his firm Concord Management, and others, in February 2018; however, Concord Management is still fighting it in court. That might explain why so much text regarding the IRA is redacted. For all we know IRA’s activities continue in the present day; so it also must be the case that this is an active area for FBI’s counterintelligence work.

What we can learn despite the redactions, however, is bad enough.

Follow me at @TheOddPantry.

(Featured image source: Tom Williams—Newscom via ZUMA Press)

Howard Schultz: this is your brain on platitudes

Schultz has shown himself to be militantly banal and uninterested in these details

Howard Schultz on Velshi and Ruhle | MSNBC | 4/5/2019

I’ve sat through speeches by CEOs with my brain melting from the unceasing assault of platitudes. We all have. The future looks bright, every graph is rising, every employee is dedicated, every manager is a leader, we have one mission and our ideas will shake up the business.

What I didn’t know is that apparently some CEOs get drunk on applause and come to believe their nonsense.

Many people noticed the Ali Velshi/Stephanie Ruhle interview with Starbucks founder and currently unaligned Presidential candidate for 2020, Howard Schultz. It was trenchant.

Schultz is in a quest to gain his rightful position as the Leader of us all. Only he can fix it, his brain tells him. Only he has the Venti-sized leadership needed to knock a few partisan heads together and get them to be fiscally responsible. Passing fiscally conscious legislation is a matter of leadership, nothing more. Since we have rising income inequality, and since the government is run by Democrats and Republicans, it must mean by definition that it is the Democrats and Republicans who have kept Leaders such as himself from emerging.

Now this is some banal bullshit. Velshi and Ruhle weren’t having it. Velshi politely noted that his theory of the case, such as it is, is clearly inadequate when you consider that income inequality is a problem in many countries around the world where Democrats and Republicans do not exist.

Velshi is correct and this was an obvious counterpoint. But I want you to note the utter surprise in Schultz’s face when his platitudes don’t take. Start watching at around 5:30 minutes in.

“How can you disagree with that!” he says, dumbfounded, at minute 6:20 in the video. They’re platitudes, after all! No one can disagree with them and they ruffle no feathers and everyone claps!

In fact Schultz appears to be under the common misconception known as the Green Lantern theory of the Presidency. A term coined by political scientist Brendan Nyhan, it describes the fallacy that blames all legislative failures in government on the President’s lack of will. It admits to no other constraints, even though legislation is passed by Congress, and each member of Congress might have a mix of good and bad motivations on whether to cast a particular vote—and no amount of Presidential will is going to override their self-interest.

It goes on from there. At minute 7:30, he slings another platitude at Velshi and Ruhle expecting to instantly win the point. It’s a platitude, after all. Tried and tested in thousands of town halls and politicians’ speeches.

“Let me ask you this,” he says, “should we be spending more than we’re taking in?”

“It’s complicated,” Velshi says (I’m paraphrasing), to Schultz’s consternation.

But of course it is complicated! You would know that with a moment’s thought. Even in the smaller scale of a household, you decide if it is a time for big outlay, a remodel, a house purchase, etc.—when you take on debt deliberately, as long as you can borrow money cheaply. But in a national economy, sometimes deficit spending makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t, just as Velshi attempted to explain. Soundbites don’t make good policy.

Schultz is running for President on the strength of his accomplishments in business, which is supposed to mean that you understand the boring stuff. The nitty-gritty, the mechanics and the arithmetic, the incentives of the various players, their points-of-view, the whole boring clockwork that makes things happen. But Schultz has shown himself to be militantly banal and uninterested in these details.

This is worrying because he is so trapped in his airborne point-of-view, concerned with selling the cloudy ‘leadership’ he is going to bring, that he seems not to have understood that if he runs, he is almost guaranteed—arithmetically guaranteed, as Brian Beutler explains—to play the role of a spoiler and ensure the victory of Donald Trump, who he decries.

But arithmetic and logic are boring. Why focus on them when you have speeches to give, applause to gain?

Should the filibuster die?

Do the arguments against killing the filibuster hold up?


Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the National Action Network convention in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Last week Elizabeth Warren threw down the gauntlet by arguing for killing the Senate filibuster as the only means of accomplishing the agenda that 2020 Democrats have set out for themselves. Without it, given that any decent-sized legislation needs 60 votes to pass, and accepting the impossibility of getting even one or two Republican votes, any progressive agenda is dead in the water.

So the argument in favor of nuking the filibuster is clear and obvious. As Harry Reid said back in 2013 when he invoked the nuclear option to kill the filibuster for most nominees, the Senate must evolve beyond Parliamentary roadblocks.

But generally, the idea of losing the security blanket of 60 votes is not pleasant for the times when one’s party is in the minority; so it isn’t surprising that this idea has not caught on. Senators as diverse as Corey Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Kirsten Gillibrand have shown reluctance to go there, without really admitting that this makes most of their plans moot. But I understand. The possibility of terrible Republican legislation has most of us in a defensive crouch.

So rather than make the positive case in favor of dropping the filibuster, I want to examine the main arguments in favor of keeping it, to see if they hold up. Will the end of the filibuster bring about apocalypse, or be the means of un-jamming a jammed up government?

Argument #1: Bipartisanship.

This argument states that with the 60-vote threshold, anything that passes the Senate would have to be bipartisan, and thus have more legitimacy. And that the filibuster forces Senators from both parties to work together, and thus the legislation they craft is acceptable to both sides.

This is true, of course. However, the only premise that makes this work is that both parties are working in good faith, wrestling over legislation that best represents their states, and saying yea or nay based on the interests of their voters.

The argument quickly falls apart when you look at how the filibuster has actually been weaponized since the Obama Presidency. Rather than wrestling over policies, they wrestled over ‘wins’—which meant, in effect, that even bills that had strong bipartisan support were blocked because it would mean a win for the other side. As Norm Ornstein tells it, during the Obama presidency Republicans began filibustering even uncontroversial legislation, that had in some cases been crafted by Senators from both parties, just in order to avoid passing something that might look like a win for Obama.

While it remains the media’s habit to construe any legislation as a win or loss for the President, regardless of the Congressional work that went into it, and while the country remains as polarized as it is today, it is hard to see the Senate returning to norms and saving the filibuster only for particularly objectionable bills.

Argument #2: Keeping the filibuster AVOIDS VOLATILITY

If 51 votes in the Senate are enough to pass bills, this argument goes, then you would see legislation reversing every few years as each party gains control of the Senate has their way; causing volatility in the system and not permitting laws to settle in. This objection imagines legislation that is passed on an entirely partisan basis, such as the Affordable Care Act; the constant back-and-forth would not allow the industry to acclimatize.

But that’s not strictly true: a party would need not just the Senate, but also a majority in the House and the Presidency. This is a higher bar than merely having a majority in the Senate. That kind of a hat trick does not happen often, though once in a while, it does. So it would not be as volatile as it first appears.

Besides which, it isn’t just the having of a majority that determines whether a party is able to pass partisan legislation: any reasonably popular law develops a constituency, and Senators are loath to take benefits away from their voters. There’s a reason why although Republicans fought against the ACA for 8 straight years, when they finally achieved a clean sweep of the House, the Senate, and the Presidency in 2017, they didn’t want to actually repeal it. The ACA had developed a base by then. Taking away benefits is hard. They had to come up with the fig-leaf of a replacement for the law, which was so poorly conceived that it could not pass the Senate.

Even the “skinny repeal”, as it was known, a bare-bones paring down of the individual mandate, could not get 51 votes in a Republican Senate; it would also have run into difficulties in a Republican House.

Maybe not be as volatile as it first appears.

Worse, the volatility that does exist today is asymmetrical—and so much more damaging. It takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass any reasonable complex progressive set of benefits. But because budgetary bills are exempt from the 60 vote threshold, defunding such a legislation takes only 51—a majority.

Consider also that a highly compromised, imperfect law such as the ACA—forced to be so, because it had to clear the threshold of pleasing 60 Senators rather than just 51, could not be easily repealed at the zenith of Republican sway over the government. But given a 51 vote threshold, the law might not have been such a compromise, and would have gained an even stronger constituency. For instance, it would have certainly included the public option: this part was ditched just in order to gain Joe Lieberman’s vote.

But stepping back, the 60-vote hurdle has given us a system that is ossified and cannot accomplish many of the goals of the voters who send Senators to DC. Perhaps a bit of volatility—where changes are actually made that Senators would be accountable for—might be a good thing.

ARGUMENT #3: PROTECTS US WHEN WE’RE IN THE MINORITY

Of all objections to dropping the filibuster, this one may be most truly a mirage. A scary one, no doubt. One imagines a Republican majority in the Senate able to defund Planned Parenthood or ban abortion or lower taxes for the wealthy.

But the fact is, the power to pass legislation with 51 votes has always been in the power of the majority. It just needs to be a two-step process—first remove the obstacle, the filibuster, by changing the rules around ending debate on a bill, and then pass the bill on a simple majority.

If they want a legislation badly enough and have a majority for it, Republicans will kill the filibuster in order to do it. Just last week Senate Majority Leader McConnell changed Senate rules to cut debate time from 20 hours to 2 in order to speed through Trump’s appointees. Republicans have shown they do not need the Democrats’ permission in order to break norms and rules.

The truth is, the 60-vote threshold is often used as a way for Senators to blame the other party for not passing bills that their base wants, but that they can’t even produce a simple majority for. This is why Senators of both parties have held on to the filibuster thus far—it is a heat shield for them, but it does not serve the public that wants their government to actually accomplish things.

If you count up all the red states in the country, you get to 21. Grant them two Republican Senators each, and you get to 42. That’s not enough to make a majority—even a simple one. By necessity then, aside from those, any other Republican Senators in office will be appealing to a purple or blue voting public. This is our real protection against hard-right, purely partisan legislation becoming law.

Argument #4: Killing the Filibuster Violates norms

Sure, this argument goes, McConnell and the Republicans might violate norms left and right, but does that mean we have to stoop to their level?

No—the answer is No. We do not. And by removing the obstructive tactic of the filibuster, we would not be breaking norms. We would merely be returning to norms broken by Republicans in recent decades; we would be defusing a weapon that had lain fallow since the early nineteenth century, picked up and used in earnest by the McConnell Senate since the Obama years.

We would be returning to the norm of a mostly majoritarian Senate envisioned by the Founders. From the Wikipedia article, the filibuster has been available as an option to obstruct legislation by the majority since 1806. However, it was rarely used except to block legislation that was particularly noxious to the minority. Making it so de rigueur that by now, one just assumes that most legislation needs 60 votes to pass, is the real broken norm; and it was broken by McConnell.

Besides which, the word “norm” usually means a desirable social contract that is maintained, not by rules and laws, but rather by voluntary compliance. However, the filibuster is no such thing. As Sarah Binder explains, the filibuster was the result of an accidental rule change in the Senate, not planned into being by the Founders, nor by the people who made the rule change; and in fact, not even really understood until decades after.

Argument #5: The Real Problem is something else

Strangely, whenever the topic of killing the filibuster as a means to make our government functional comes up, I hear people arguing against this by claiming that it’s not the filibuster, the real problem is something else. That something else might be the electoral college, or corporatist Democrats, or money in politics, or Senate apportionment, something else entirely.

But I don’t understand the structure of this argument; in fact I think it is illogical. We do not have just one “real” problem. The presence or absence of one real problem does not have any bearing on the presence or absence of another.

In fact, usually, the filibuster is implicated in even trying to solve your favorite problem, no matter what it might be. If, for instance, you think that merely bringing about campaign finance reform would solve our problems without needing to touch the filibuster—well, good luck getting to 60 votes in order to accomplish that. Most of the time, it is a Catch-22 where none of one’s favorite problems can be solved without first getting rid of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

Ultimately, I think this is an emotional argument. One doesn’t want to spend emotional energy on solving a process problem, pragmatic though that might be. One wants to throw down thunderbolts against the evil money-lords that have wrecked our system, and see them go down to an ignominious end; tweaking a cloture rule is hardly the stuff of novels.

However, I think it just might work.

Adulting: a How-To for my Teen

Parents of teenagers will be familiar with the turn in their child’s personality: from playful, precious little pets they turn into blasé know-it-alls who can barely be bothered to raise an eyebrow to your fussing. 

Well, you little smart-asses, there’s a lot you don’t yet know. 

How to be an adult

You cannot call yourself an adult until you are able to do these things. I’m aware that many 40-year-olds would not fit this bill. Nor did I, long after my teenage years. But these are the rules. Fail this test, and you are not yet an adult in this here modern world. To be an adult you must:

  1. Be able to open a bank account, deposit and withdraw money.
  2. Have a credit record enough to get a credit card.
  3. Personal grooming: learn how to shower, use deodorant, floss and brush, regularly without anyone nagging you.
  4. Learn to drive and have a license.
  5. Learn to break out of a procrastination cycle. Make todo lists for yourself on something more substantial than sticky notes and check them off.
  6. Exercise regularly. Get outdoors.
  7. Be able to provide meals for yourself: this includes grocery shopping, refrigerating when needed, operating the cooking range and microwave, and cooking basics like pasta, rice, eggs, oats, etc. Have a passing familiarity with spices.
  8. Make grocery lists so you’re not going to the store for each item.
  9. Maintain a set of email addresses and stay on top of spam.
  10. Keep passwords secure, don’t use the same one everywhere, and come up with a way to manage them. Don’t use “password”, “123456”, or your birthday.
  11. Don’t post embarrassing pictures or opinions on social media.
  12. Learn to hurry when needed. Learn to get out of the house without needing to remind yourself of each item separately—keys, phone, money, etc.
  13. Periodically put things away and pick up the room. Organize your things and neaten up. Dust.
  14. Wash your sheets once in a while. Lay your towels flat so they dry.
  15. Learn how to file a claim for insurance.
  16. Stay in touch with friends and family.
  17. Learn how to be polite, greet people and bid goodbyes. Learn how to congratulate and condole. Be able to make pleasant small talk with hairdressers and store clerks without goggling like a fish. 
  18. Catch onto social cues: be aware if you’re being perceived as a boor, a bore or a bully; be able to detect deadpan humor. Catch on if you are being used. Detect if you are being flirted with. Catch on if someone around you needs help; help them.
  19. Know the capitals of several major countries and their currencies. Know what languages are spoken there.
  20. Keep your phone charged. 
  21. Learn to use Google. With quotes.
  22. Keep up to date with major news. Be skeptical of headlines.
  23. Be sufficiently aware of the world so you can detect conspiracy theories. Be aware that sometimes people with platforms will lie to you.
  24. Learn how to vote. Vote.
  25. Develop hobbies so you’re not relying on drugs or alcohol to fill up the empty hours.
  26. Learn how to kick a habit; any habit. Learn how to break out of addictive cycles, whether it is smoking or video games or gambling. Learn to shake yourself free.
  27. Read.
  28. Focus.
  29. Learn how to save and invest your money. Don’t run up thoughtless debts.
  30. Be on time most of the time.
  31. Learn to do laundry and dishes. Try not to send your money or phone or keys through the laundry cycle too frequently.
  32. Be nice to people by default. Don’t be nice if someone’s harassing you or using you.
  33. Visit the doctor for wellness checks and don’t eat too much junk food. Get your shots.
  34. Eat your cereals with milk.
  35. When you travel, immerse yourself.
  36. Exercise moral judgment. Make sure it is your own.