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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Sunday Cartoon Blogging – February 19, 2017

President Trump is engaged in an open war on the US press. While he can’t be impeached for that, it is time to recognize what he intends: His plan is to neutralize what is our most vital check on authoritarianism. If he succeeds, it will still be called the “free press”, but we will hear only the official story from the White House. Our media must change its game, or democracy will die. Right now, its Trump’s facts first, and THE facts second, if at all. This is a battle the public must make certain Trump loses. Only 47 months to go…

Trump’s press conference was all we needed to know:

The Westminster dog show was controversial in some circles:

There were leaks on both coasts last week:

Netanyahu met with the Donald:

Betsy DeVos hit the ground running:

The conclusion after one month in office:

But it’s a tiny handbasket.

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Did Fake News Swing the Election?

This from Paul Horner:

I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me.

Who is Paul Horner? He is the leader of a fake news empire, including his ABCnews.com.co site that The WaPo wrote about today:

Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years. He has twice convinced the Internet that he’s British graffiti artist Banksy; he also published the very viral, very fake news of a Yelp vs. “South Park” lawsuit last year.

But he really hit his stride in the 2016 presidential election. From WaPo:

In March, Donald Trump’s son Eric and his then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, tweeted links to one of Horner’s faux-articles. His stories have also appeared as news on Google:

faux-news-google

He also pushed a story that Trump protesters were paid by Democrats. Even Trump on the campaign trail, said it was true. Here is the story behind the story by Horner:

My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.

Horner is correct. Here is (then) Trump Campaign Manager Lewandowski tweeting it:

lewandowski-retweets

WaPo asks Horner, why do his stories go so viral?

Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it

Real news is so boring. Fake news is so compelling.

Despite Horner’s “dumber people” comments, satire should not need to be fact- checked by the reader to determine that it is satire, not false news. When Horner writes a purported news story reporting that a protester was paid thousands to protest at a Trump rally, that story presented itself as news, not satire. It also generates revenue for him while providing ammunition for Trump supporters.

NPR reported yesterday on how Facebook reviews news sites that post on their platform. They said that FB:

Turned to the consulting firm Accenture to put together a dedicated team of subcontractors. Sources say the team is now several thousand people, with some of the largest offices in Manila…and Warsaw.

Ok, outsourcing isn’t necessarily good or evil, but NPR also reported that:

Current and former employees of Facebook say that they’ve observed these subcontractors in action; that they are told to go fast — very fast; that they’re evaluated on speed; and that on average, a worker makes a decision about a piece of flagged content once every 10 seconds.

The 10 second rule means that a worker on an eight-hour shift, at the rate of one post per 10 seconds, means that they’re clearing 2,880 posts a day per person. How do you evaluate something as fake news in 10 seconds, particularly when you don’t even live in the US?

There’s another huge barrier: The subcontractors typically don’t get to see the full story, because the messages are truncated. Therefore, no one can really evaluate a particular story’s context.

This is America in the 21st Century. How can people develop good bullshit detectors, when the platform that 1.7 billion people worldwide subscribe to, can’t be serious about checking to see if something posted is true?

We are in an era where facts are increasingly irrelevant.

The solution is to fund independent social media organizations that really fact check BS statements. And then, reach out to counter the faux that easily-manipulated individuals want to believe. Their fact-checking will have to be part of social media, since that is what people who live mostly on social media understand. Next, treat them with respect, and work hard to relieve their underlying anxieties.

Consider Obama’s last press conference: He treated the reporters well, and they were respectful of him. He paid homage to the death of the respected newsperson, Gwen Ifill, including thanking her for holding his feet to the fire.

That’s the kind of presidential temperament we need.

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Won’t Get Fooled Again

Wrongo and Ms. Right watched the”60 Minutes” Trump interview on Sunday. Basically, it was a low-information session, long on atmosphere and short on what is likely to happen in the first 100 days of Trumptopia.

There were hints that low information may be emblematic of the future relationship between the press and the new administration. In the interview, there was this: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Lesley Stahl:…A lot of people are afraid. They’re really afraid. African Americans think there’s a target on their back. Muslims are terrified.

Donald Trump: I think it’s horrible if that’s happening. I think it’s built up by the press because, frankly, they’ll take every single little incident that they can find in this countryand they’ll make into an event because that’s the way the press is.

More press paranoia by the Donald-elect. To think of the media as liars destroys one of the only protections we have for our democracy.

And Fortune Magazine, not exactly a haven for lefty journalists, said this:

What does that future look like? It looks like a pitched battle between a man who made his own media rules and rode them to victory, and a traditional press that has lost much of its power.

It seems obvious that President-elect Trump’s relationship with the press could be more contentious than even that of Richard Nixon.

Trump’s spokesperson, Hope Hicks, had to go out of her way to reassure the media that Trump was planning to operate a normal press “pool,” in which the president travels with reporters who share their news reports with others. The press is concerned, since they were not permitted to travel with Trump during the campaign.

But the media holding the Trump administration’s feet to the fire was is made very difficult by Trump’s points about social media in the “60 Minutes” interview: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Lesley Stahl: But are you going to be tweeting [about] whatever you’re upset about…when you’re president?

Donald Trump: So it’s a modern form of communication, between Face– you know, Facebook and Twitter and I guess Instagram, I have 28 million people. 28 million people

Taken together, the major network and cable TV outlets account for 26.5 million viewers.

So, Trump has the ability to talk directly to more people than the networks. During the campaign, Trump took advantage of that to spread both accurate (and inaccurate) information that helped his cause. In effect, the Trumpets were using the media equivalent of modern military technology while the mainstream media (and the Clinton campaign) used tanks and bayonets.

Going forward, what will happen when Trump, who has continued to attack the motives of the press, has to deal with them as president? Will Breitbart News and Fox get preferential treatment while the New York Times and the Washington Post are left scrambling for the scraps they leave behind?

And if that happens, who is in a position to stop him? In 2016 and going forward, how will you find out what is really going on in the world?

And think about the parallels to the GW Bush presidency: Pence has the operations role. This could very well turn into another Cheney Administration, where Pence actually runs the government in the background while Trump soaks up all the attention playing Mister President on Twitter and for the cameras.

The parallels are frightening. Fortune has this vision of the future:

A weakened and increasingly marginalized traditional media, fighting with the tools of a previous era, surrounded by more nimble adversaries who know how to use social platforms for their own ends, and a president who is actively hostile to the traditional press. Not that long ago, it probably felt like things couldn’t get any worse for the media—but they just did.

Let’s not lose hope completely. Why? This administration will enter office with close to zero credibility with the press. Think about how few newspapers endorsed Trump.

Second, the media remembers its failures to follow the facts during the Bush administration. So, the fear of being called unpatriotic as those few in the media were when they spoke out against Bush’s Iraq policy, will be tempered by the press’s memory of their complicity in Iraq War.

Finally, blogs and social media can work both ways. They may have helped elect Trump, but social media in particular will not allow Trump to operate unchallenged.

That challenge will force the MSM to follow stories in a way that didn’t happen in the GW Bush administration.

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The Lyin’ Game

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was, and never will be.”Thomas Jefferson

We received quite a few emails about the column “Lie to Me – It’s a Post-Truth World.” In it, Wrongo called for a means of rebutting lies as they emerge and crawl across our political landscape. Citizens who otherwise lead commonsensical lives cannot seem to hold on to facts when in a political argument.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at how things work in the Lyin’ Game. Charlie Pierce’s 2009 book, Idiot America, lays out what he calls the Three Great Premises that explain how lies take the form of truth:

1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or moves units.
2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is measured by how fervently they believe it.

It seems that the 2016 election is confirmation of Dr. Pierce’s diagnosis. The prognosis is not necessarily fatal, though left untreated, it surely could be. Here is a quote from his book:

In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

So, it’s not just that we are fact free, it’s that we, the people, are unable or unwilling to learn the facts.

Susan Jacoby also wrote about the risks of a fact-free society about the same time as Pierce, the 2008 presidential election. In her book, “The Age of Unreason,” she made a great point about FDR and his relationship with citizens and the truth. In FDR’s radio fireside chats, he would ask the people listening out there to spread a map of the world out in front of them so that as he talked about the battles that were going on, they would understand what he was saying about the places, the geography, and the strategy of what was happening. Doris Kearns Goodwin said in a lecture at Kansas State University that one of her favorite fireside chats was the “map speech,” delivered in February, 1942. Millions of Americans went out and bought maps, and they sat by the radio and followed what FDR was talking about.

And FDR wasn’t on the radio every week as presidents are today. He only delivered two or three of these fireside chats a year, deliberately holding himself back for the moment when the country needed to hear from their president. He understood something that we have lost, that less can be more.

In 2009, Pierce offered a prescription about how to get out of the “perception is reality” paradigm: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

I’ve given that a lot of thought and the best answer I can give is that we, as citizens, simply have to do better at self-government. We have to distinguish between entertainment and information. Our powers of discernment have to be sharpened…Any journalist who accepts “perception is reality” as axiomatic is committing professional malpractice. Our job is to hammer the reality home until the perception conforms to it.

When our journalists accept “perception is fact” there is no hope for truth.

Jacoby says that the spread of ignorance and the acceptance of non-truth as fact is caused in part by the absence of national education standards, combined with the anti-intellectualism that we see everywhere. America’s insistence on local control of schools means that children in the poorest areas of the country have the worst school facilities and teachers with the worst training.

Among OECD nations, only in the US, Israel and Turkey do disadvantaged schools have lower teacher/student ratios than in those serving more privileged students.

This gives us an America in which anti-intellectualism is not only tolerated, but celebrated by many politicians and the media. Meanwhile, 25% of Texas high-school biology teachers believe that human beings and dinosaurs shared the earth, and more than a third of Americans can’t name a single First Amendment right.

Facts don’t matter, because more and more Americans cannot recognize facts as true. Jacoby says:

This level of scientific illiteracy provides fertile soil for political appeals based on sheer ignorance.

Our 2016 presidential campaign has clarified what’s wrong with us as a nation. Yet, we’ve proven to willingly to put up with it.

Instead of putting up with what’s wrong, how about fixing it?

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Lie to Me: It’s a Post-Truth World

Trump’s approach to lying is new, and it’s on a totally higher level. The essence is to undermine the concept of truth itself, to confuse and persuade and convince. From the Economist:

Mr. Trump is the leading exponent of “post-truth” politics − a reliance on assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact. His brazenness is not punished, but taken as evidence of his willingness to stand up to elite power.

When someone is for Trump, it doesn’t matter if he comes out with some outrageous statement because either a) the media is blowing it out of proportion or b) he’s just telling it like it is or c) he’s just being Trump. Below is a fact-checking by David Leonhardt of the NYT published the morning after the second debate:

He lied about a sex tape.

He lied about his lies about ‘birtherism.’

He lied about the growth rate of the American economy.

He lied about the state of the job market.

He lied about the trade deficit.

He lied about tax rates.

He lied about his own position on the Iraq War, again.

He lied about ISIS.

He lied about the Benghazi attack.

He lied about the war in Syria.

He lied about Syrian refugees.

He lied about Russia’s hacking.

He lied about the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

He lied about Hillary Clinton’s tax plan.

He lied about her health care plan.

He lied about her immigration plan.

He lied about her email deletion.

He lied about Obamacare, more than once.

He lied about the rape of a 12-year-old girl.

He lied about his history of groping women without their consent.

Dishonesty in politics is nothing new. Remember Nixon? Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, thus getting the country into a war in Vietnam. In 1986, Ronald Reagan insisted that his administration did not trade weapons for hostages with Iran, before having to admit a few months later that:

 My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not…

Reagan’s words point to what is different. Political lies used to imply that there was a truth. Evidence, consistency and scholarship had enough political power to make Nixon resign.

Today, many voters, a few politicians like Trump, and some pundits simply no longer care:

  • They deal in insinuation (“A lot of people are saying…” is one of Mr. Trump’s favorite phrases) and question the provenance, rather than accuracy, of anything that goes against them (“They would say that, wouldn’t they?”).
  • And when the distance between what “feels” true and what the facts say grows too great, it can always be bridged by trotting out a conspiracy theory.

But the manner (and frequency) of Trump’s lies, are different, and more worrisome. When you are a Trump-like chameleon, you can be all things to (most) people.

The magnitude of this information change is greater than any since Gutenberg started printing pamphlets. People who are bombarded with new information do not know what/who to trust. Old media that used to be trusted sources of information have been destroyed or forced to change by the new technology.

There is no source of authority which is not intensely disputed. As an example, there is hardly an article in the old media which a few commenters do not challenge, often calling into question the integrity of the writer, the editor, or the owners; this was not true in 2000. The net result is a lessening of trust, which has many serious implications.

We need a language/methodology for rebuttal. People have suggested real-time fact checking, but in a divided post-truth society, who can be a non-biased fact-checker? And in a divided society, some, like televangelists  Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell Jr. won’t even accept that the Pant Load committed sexual assault when there is video evidence. What is it that Donald Trump has to offer that these preachers will sell their souls and misquote scripture to support him?

It could take us a few generations to decide who to trust. In the meantime, a few populists will become leaders, a few wars may be started, more young people will be inspired to express their political beliefs through terrorism, and some young people will opt out of our political process.

It will remain very difficult to have a reasoned conversation with anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the same version of the truth as you do.

Donald Trump’s statements are only true or mostly true 15% of the time. He has largely rejected reality and entered a delusional realm where what “feels right” is fed to a portion of the public that wants to believe his lies.

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Is Ignorance Bliss?

If so, we all must be blissed out. Yesterday, we talked about how the media love to air candidates’ ’’dirty laundry”, rather than concentrate on examining their policies. Today, we ask the question, “Where and how do people get their news?”

The current US population is around 320 million. Of that number, there are 219 million people eligible to vote, of which 145.3 million (66%) are registered to vote in the US. So, how many people are watching the news on ABC, CBS or NBC?  In August 2016, the number was 22.5 million. That’s down from 48 million in 1985, and from 24.5 million in 2013.

And how many watch the cable giants Fox News, MSNBC and CNN? Overall, Fox News averaged 2 million total viewers while MSNBC averaged 1.13 million, and CNN trailed with 844,000. That’s four million viewers total, folks.

Taken together, major network and cable TV account for 26.5 million viewers, or 18.2% of registered voters. And we have no data on the overlap between viewers and voters.

How else do the campaigns reach voters? Social media. From the Wall Street Journal:

Of the two candidates, Mr. Trump has the largest following on social media — with 10.3 million Twitter followers and 9.9 million Facebook likes, compared to Mrs. Clinton’s 7.78 million followers and 4.8 likes.

This means that the two campaigns have more direct reach than any individual TV or cable outlet. Clinton has nearly as many Twitter followers as CBS has viewers, while Trump has even more, and also has FIVE times as many Twitter followers as his friends at Fox have viewers. And we can assume that all of those followers are likely voters, not passive viewers.

The campaigns use different strategies. A new Pew study of the campaign websites of Clinton and Trump found that Clinton’s website focused on original news content, while Trump mostly re-posted stories from outside news media. Clinton’s campaign has almost entirely bypassed the news media; instead, they post news stories produced in-house. Trump’s site offers mostly content from articles produced by outside sources like Fox News or CNN.

Pew also surveyed where people get their news:

where-to-get-news-png

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • As of early 2016, just 20% of US adults get their news from print newspapers. This has fallen from 27% in 2013.
  • This decrease occurred across all age groups, though the age differences are stark: Only 5% of 18- to 29-year-olds often get news from a print newspaper, whereas about half (48%) of those 65 and older do.
  • Compared with print, nearly twice as many adults (38%) often get news online, either from news websites/apps (28%), on social media (18%), or both.
  • TV continues to be the most widely used news platform; 57% of U.S. adults often get TV-based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three.

If you are watching a traditional TV newscast, you are a dinosaur: Fully 70% of those ages 18-29 either prefer, or only use mobile for getting their digital news, compared with 53% of those 30-49, 29% of those 50-64 and just 16% of those 65+.

According to Pew, radio is a more frequently used news source than newspapers. In fact, 13.25 million people listen to Rush Limbaugh, while 12.6 million listen to NPR’s Morning Edition, making both more followed than any of Fox, MSNBC, CNN, CBS, NBC, or ABC.

While there has been an explosion on the digital front, readership (viewership?) is now totally fragmented. This fragmentation is a key to understanding today’s political landscape. Twenty-five years ago, we had a core of news outlets that helped the political parties build a public consensus. That’s no longer the case. Traditional media are at best, just one stream in a whole chaotic flow. Picking and choosing whom to follow (and trust) in this river of chaos isn’t easy. The fundamental questions are:

  • Does watching a specific news feed inform you, leave you asking questions, or create confusion?
  • Does the power of images displayed on an individual news feed interfere with understanding the context of a complex situation?
  • Are news outlets providing users with both education about events, AND a sense of civic responsibility?
  • How do you know you can “trust” a given news feed?

With so many options for learning about our world and government policy, we could either be on the cusp of a reboot of the Age of Enlightenment, or, the news feed chaos could help bring on another Dark Ages.

Choose wisely.

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