Monday, November 25, 2019

Social Media Disinformation Today and Beyond

I recently read a series of articles about Russia's ongoing disinformation campaign against the United States that I think do a good job of articulating how this threat is much larger than the 2016 election.

In the first, a Rolling Stone article, by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, the authors suggest that professional trolls don't actually troll. Amateur trolls* are pretty easy to spot if you've been on social media for a moderate amount of time.

Yet, many times, professional trolls are far from obvious, even to experienced social media users, and work to befriend users and then sway them with spin, using the following strategy:
"Grow an audience in part through heartwarming, inspiring messages, and use that following to spread messages promoting division, distrust, and doubt."
The goal is to undermine trust in American institutions and "drive mainstream viewpoints in polar and extreme institutions." Yes, this goal seems somewhat obvious, but it's interesting to note in the context of ubiquitous sneering on the left and the right at "moderates" and "centrists." 

And, while I believe that it's generally not helpful to find a "moderate" position between civility and, say, neo-Nazis, the phrase "centrist" (like "neoliberal") is often thrown around on Twitter in pretty disingenuous ways by people acting in both good and bad faith to drive people toward the extremes. .

In a related piece, Linvill has noted just how adeptly Russian trolls understand US culture, as he's written about disinformation in the context of our national conversations about campus climates, for instance:
"Covert Russian disinformation may seem out of place in the context of a conversation regarding campus climate. It is not, though. The IRA’s attempts to demoralize, distract, and divide have been discussed as a form of political warfare (Galeotti, 2018) and, through social media, it is a form of warfare that extends to our college campuses. Not only does the IRA seek to reach students on our campuses in order to influence their ways of thinking, but also they wish to attack the institution of higher education itself and make it a political wedge between Americans of different ideologies (Bauman, 2018; Morgan, 2019). Bauman pointed out, for instance, that in the run up to the 2016 election, IRA troll accounts repeatedly tweeted segments of conservative media that 'spotlighted incidents of liberalism run amok at colleges' (2018, p. A28)."
Here, it's worth pointing out that conservative Christian Rod Dreher bemoans campus political correctness practically on the daily at his blog at The American Conservative, essentially acting as a useful idiot for amplifying, overreacting to, and sowing these divisions. He's hardly alone there, as this PC Gone Awry narrative is a cottage feature of rightwing media.

Anyway, Russian disinformation has been ongoing since before the 2016 election. And, knowing this, although I don't always succeed, I've been trying pretty hard to stay above the fray, particularly online, when it comes to getting embroiled in the day-to-day dramas of the 2020 Democratic Primary. 

Just so you know where I stand, I am leaning heavily toward voting for Elizabeth Warren, because I believe she has the best policies, judgment, and demeanor for the job. But, I also believe we have a solid slate of candidates, with some exceptions, any one of which would be infinitely better than Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

I also think candidates should be critiqued, fairly, when warranted, but Twitter in particular is often used to virally spread some of the most disparaging, superficial, and yes dumb critiques of candidates. In fact, the retweet is built for the shallow dunk that's less about analysis and more about feeding users' need for the dopamine hits they get from attention/notifications for likes and retweets.

Relatedly, another takeaway from the Rolling Stone piece is that Russia's disinformation efforts are ongoing, and are bigger than the 2016 and 2020 elections. What I need from political candidates is an acknowledgement of this problem and solutions to address it, not people who boast about how they woulda won in 2016 (or will magically win in 2020) even though nothing about their platforms, statements, or mental capacities suggests they even understand the magnitude of the threats facing our nation and democracy.

Finally, these stats:
"Recent research exploring fake news may expand Boyd’s concerns regarding how we have taught digital media literacy. Research examining Twitter suggests that concerns regarding fake news may be based on incorrect assumptions of its prevalence. Grinberg, Joseph, Friedland, Swire-Thompson, and Lazer (2019) found that only 0.1% of users were responsible for sharing 80% of fake news posts, and these users were highly concentrated among conservative voters. Research examining Facebook found similar results. Guess, Nagler, and Tucker (2019) found the sharing of fake news on that platform to be a rare event; and to the extent that it was a problem, it was largely a problem among Baby Boomers. Users over 65 were nearly seven times more likely to share fake news as the youngest cohort of users. This stands in strong support for Lee’s (2018) call to teach digital media literacy to older adults. Yet to date we have been teaching digital literacy in college, when we should be teaching it in retirement homes."

*I continue to object to using the word "troll" to describe abusive online behavior, because I believe it tends to minimizes the harmful impact such behavior can have on legitimate users of social media. I've used it throughout this post for the sake of consistency with how Linvill and Warren use it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Woman: Feminists Care Too Much About Misogyny

I won't link to it but on Monday, The New Republic ran a horrendo anti-feminist piece (entitled "Moving Beyond Misogyny," if you want to look it up) in which a leftist woman critiqued "liberal feminists" for focusing too much on misogyny and not giving progressive men rape passes.

If you think I kid, here's a sample:

Here, the writer disingenuously acts like progressive men mostly do inconsequential, trivial things that feminists hysterically overreact to, and don't really engage in bigger things like rape, harassment, or predation. And yet, as a grown adult woman, this writer in all likelihood knows that progressive men, in reality, are as fully capable of heinous acts as conservative men are, and thus seems to instead be indirectly suggesting that feminists should ease up and give these men a pass because they're on "our" side.

Leftists today often claim the mantle of society's most enlightened political thinkers, so it might seem confounding to see them write and publish such retrograde "think pieces" that, with a few select edits, could just as easily be posted at rightwing forums like The American Conservative or Townhall

Things begin to make more sense once you understand that, in their hatred of "liberals," feminists, and identity politics, a lot of today's vocal leftists, far from being enlightened, are just sexually-liberal socialists who have internalized the conservative right's ideologies around race and gender. The end goal is more akin to redistributing wealth while keeping white supremacist rape culture intact, with the promise that things might be a bit better if it's progressive men at the top, rather than conservative.

The more general argument from this person's "thinkpiece" is that feminism today is a big depressing, victim-mentality downer because "misogyny feminists" (her term, sure) focus too much on, you guessed it, misogyny

If that doesn't want to make you guzzle vodka from a beer bong, I don't know what will.

Nevermind that that "argument" has been a standard rightwing "critique" of feminism for literal decades, emanating from such "socially-enlightened" sources as Phyllis Schlafly, but criticizing feminists for focusing too much on the hatred of women is as absurd as criticizing Black Lives Matter for focusing too much on racism, the LGBT rights movement for focusing too much on bigotry against LGBT people, or PETA for focusing too much on the ethical treatment animals.

This sort of critique, rather, is a good example of the feminist, misogynistic backlash in which we find ourselves. For, when one argues that highlighting, analyzing, and critiquing misogyny is something bad and unworthy of devoting time to, one is essentially arguing that one of feminists' more important, if not the most important, contributions to social justice should be eradicated. And that, my friends, would only benefit misogynists.

More broadly, we see that it's not just rightwing women who espouse anti-feminism. I think many women across the political spectrum look around and see the breadth and depth of misogyny in this political climate and come to the conclusion that joining in is simply the better deal. Why not, as a leftist woman, join in and help mainstream anti-feminist opinions about "liberal feminists"?

I'm also realizing that so much of the anti-feminist work that women across the political spectrum do consists of "defending" men from "the evil feminists." 

It's not lost on me, as just one example, that as the 2020 election gears up, a number of leftist women - including the author of this piece - have been "defending" Bernie Sanders and his male supporters by going after specific progressive feminists who are known to not support Bernie, as well as "liberal feminism" in general for its cardinal sin of promoting the notion that a woman can and should be president.

I suppose that is one way - having women attack women - to deal with the "Bernie Bro" narrative that has persisted since 2016. 

Another strategy, of course, would be for leftist Bernie fans, as well as his campaign, to try to unify with progressive feminists. But that's a bridge too far, apparently.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Electoral College: Watch Shit Get Real If It Happens To Bernie!

Yesterday on Twitter, I spent a fraction of the day being intrigued by a particular pro-Bernie perspective.

A history grad student wrote, "I think it’s tremendously underrated just how many young Americans will simply reject wholesale the legitimacy of the U.S. constitutional order if a Warren or a Sanders wins the popular vote in a landslide and Trump stays in office."

True enough, I suppose, although many folks like myself who came of age circa Bush v. Gore have been there since 2000. As I've written before, the Supreme Court's effective installation of George W. Bush into the presidency was, even at the time, a recognizable constitutional crisis and erosion of the legitimacy of the US Supreme Court, electoral college, and executive office. The abolition of the electoral college should have been a top progressive priority since at least then, especially as Republicans increasingly began adopting a McConnell-esque "win at any costs" approach to politics.

Two more revelatory statements followed in the Twitter thread, however. 

The first, the grad student continues, "If anything, I suppose this is an argument for Sanders, because he’s the only candidate I can imagine who would help organize mass protests—even a general strike—with his campaign infrastructure in the event of another anti-democratic election."

I... huh.


Here we see the popular narrative that, unlike other candidates who I suppose are supported by droids or Sim people or something, Bernie has "a movement" behind him.  That is one benefit, it seems, to a politician not being widely told to go knit in a cave for the rest of one's days after losing an election. Nonetheless, while Bernie has a base of support that seems to be neither growing nor shrinking, the reality is that whoever the Democratic nominee ends up being will, in all likelihood, consolidate support from the Democratic base during the general election.

However, the idea that such a protest has to, or should, be led by the "losing" candidate seems more like a pretext for arguing why "Bernie must be the Democratic nominee instead of Warren (or anyone else)."

After all, in 2016, an actual anti-democratic election, it was women - not Bernie Sanders - who organized, led, and participated in the largest single-day protests in US history, largely in response to Donald Trump's electoral college "win" and popular vote loss to Hillary Clinton (in addition to the fact that Trump is a racist, xenophobic admitted sexual predator).

And sure, because I know some people might be thinking it, Bernie was not the Democratic nominee in 2016 and thus some might say he had "no" responsibility to lead such protests, but why not? Why would he not have that moral responsibility now, in fact, when there are kids in concentration camps, when sexual predators are in the White House and on SCOTUS, when climate change poses an existential threat to our planet, or any myriad of issues beyond "I got an election stolen from me so now it's a crisis"?

The other interesting note about this opinion is that we already have historical precedent for how Bernie would react to real and perceived anti-democratic elections. 

In the 2016 primaries, of course, many of his supporters believe he only lost the primary to Hillary Clinton because it was "rigged" against him. Yet, while Bernie did little to put that narrative to rest, he also didn't organize protests against the "unfairness." To me, that suggests he wanted to devote his energies elsewhere, he didn't really believe it was rigged, and/or he correctly ascertained that such protests would be a distraction from the more important goal of defeating Trump.

Thus, to think that Bernie, an almost-80-year-old man who just had a heart attack, by the way, might lose to Trump in 2020 and then lead the nation in revolutionary protests seems like more of the extremely-bizarre leftist magical thinking around "the Bernie movement" in light of the reality that what Bernie Sanders did during the national crisis of the 2016 election aftermath was: went on a book tour, made a lot of money, and never stopped campaigning for president.

But, in light of everything, I'm especially curious what this grad student thinks would be different and, specifically, more effective about a Bernie Sanders-led protest, compared to the Women's March, after his hypothetical electoral college loss to Trump in 2020, other than the fact that this hypothetical mass protest would be led by a white man who some segments of the left have anointed as their savior.

Here, we turn to The Nation's David Klion, who says, in the second revelatory statement of the thread (emphasis added), "It’s like... imagine how 2016 felt, except this time we also like the candidate and they won by an even bigger popular margin. I already think the constitutional order is indefensible! And I’m regularly shocked that not every other thinking person does!"

A-ha! And there it is.

Some Bernie fans simply can't fathom that a large segment of the Women's March protestors were motivated by actually liking Hillary Clinton.  So, a Bernie March in 2020, they believe, would be different and special and effective because people like Bernie, unlike History's Greatest Monster Hillary Clinton, and people would therefore see it as America's Greatest Travesty if Bernie won the popular vote but lost the electoral college to Trump. And, they - The Left - are serious, important political actors in the world, unlike the - from their perspective - vapid wine moms who marched in their ridiculous pink pussy hats hashtag resistance.

To that point, in retrospect, I will just offer my opinion that it was quite possibly the Bernie-adjacent consolidation of leadership over the national Women's March brand that has dampened its reach and effectiveness over the past 3+ years. Regardless of the leadership's motivations, which I do not know, it became hard to trust a movement that appeared to be trying to funnel progressive women's support, not toward general progressive politics and progressive female candidates, but toward a polarizing man's 2020 presidential campaign (Bernie Sanders. I'm talking about Bernie Sanders).

But, from a bigger picture, "Vote for Bernie in the primary, so he can lead mass protests after he loses to Trump" is not actually the ringing endorsement one might think it is.

The electoral college should be abolished. We need an actual plan and path to make that happen, not vague, regressive mumbling among leftists about how an old cranky male politician's likeability will cause the revolution.