Posts Tagged ‘Breitbart’

Postmortem

December 18, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a post in Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. The postmortem on Russia’s influence and meddling in the presidential election of 2016 may never end. Trump was completely unconventional, uninformed, unlikable in so many ways, and yet had become the leader of the free world. Fake news entered the American lexicon, and Watts pre-election detailing of Russian active measures on the internet became the subject of hot debate. Had fake news swayed the U.S. presidential election?

Social media companies began digging into the data. What they found spelled dangerous trends for democracy. Americans were increasingly getting their news and information from social media instead of mainstream media. Users were not consuming factual content. Fake news, false or misleading series from outlets of uncertain credibility was being read far more than that from traditional newsrooms. EndTheFed.com and Political Insider produced four of the five most read false news stories in the three months leading up to the election. One story falsely claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump and another story falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton’s emails hosted on WikiLeaks certified her as an ISIS supporter. Throughout December, fears of Russian election manipulations grew, and each day brought more inquiries into how Russia had trolled for Trump.

The American electorate remains divided, government operations are severely disrupted, and faith in elected leaders continues to fall. Apparently, the objectives of Russia’s active measures have been achieved. Watts concludes that Americans still don’t grasp the information war Russia perpetrated against the West, why it works, and why it continues.

Watts writes, “The Russians didn’t have to hack election machines; they hacked American minds. The Kremlin didn’t change votes; it won them, helping tear down its less-preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, to promote one who shares their worldviews, Donald Trump.

Watts continues, “Americans’ rapid social media consumption of news creates a national vulnerability for foreign influence. Even further, the percentage of American adults fifty and older utilizing social media sites is one of the highest in the world, at 50%. Younger Americans, aged eighteen to thirty-four, sustain a utilization rate about 80%. Deeper analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that U.S. online news consumers still get their information from news organizations more than from their friends, but they believe the friends they stay in touch with on social media applications provide information that is just as relevant.

A look at the Columbia Journalism Review’s media map demonstrates how social media encouraged information bubbles for each political leaning. Conservatives strongly entered their consumption around Breitbart and Fox News, while liberals relied on a more diverse spread of left-leaning outlets. For a foreign influence operation like the one the Russians ran against the United States, the highly concentrated right-wing social media landscape is an immediate, ripe target for injecting themes and messages. The American-left is diversely spread making targeting messages more difficult.

The Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia bought $4,700 in advertising and through eighteen channels, hosted more than 1,000 videos that received more than 300,000 views.

The Russians created a YouTube page called Williams and Kalvin. The page’s videos showcase two black video bloggers, with African accents, appearing to read script that Barack Obama created police brutality and calling Hillary Clinton an “old racist bitch.” The Williams and Calvin page garnered 48,000 fans. Watts writes,”Russian influence operators employed most every platform—Instagram, Tumblr, even PokemonGo—but it was the Kremlin’s manipulation via Twitter that proved the most troubling.”

Watts concludes that U.S. government resources are needed to find a truly effective effort. Intelligence agencies, Homeland Security, and the State Department need to rally and coordinate. Rex Tillerson was late in using the $80 million Congress had set aside for counterpropaganda resources, and then used only half of the appropriated amount. This is just a start, and a small one at that, of what America needs to do against Russian influence. The last sentence in this chapter reads, “Kislyak was right, and Putin must still wonder, “Why hasn’t America punched back.”

Conclusion

June 3, 2018

 

bell hooks: How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?

This is the final post in the series of posts based on the book by Sally Kohn, “THE OPPOSITE OF HATE: A Field Guide to Repairing our Humanity.

Kohn reminds us of George Orwell’s novel “1984,” which he published in 1949. The dystopian novel imagines Orwell’s native Britain as the fictional Oceana, which has been taken over by a tyrannical regime that governs with emotional manipulation. Individual thinking is outlawed, and citizens are under constant surveillance, just in case. Most people go along with the regime willingly—in large part because of propaganda of misinformation, fear-mongering, and hate against a mysterious “other.”

Every day in Oceania, all citizens are required to take part in Two Minutes of Hate, when they would watch a film that demeans and demonizes Oceania’s enemies. The Two Minutes Hate shows “row after row of solid-looking men with expressionless Asiatic faces, who swarm up to the surface of the screen and vanished, to be replaced by others exactly similar.” Orwell continues, “Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room…A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like flame of a blowlamp.”

Case Sunstein in 2013 described Glen Beck’s show on Fox News as comparable to Orwell’s Two Minutes of Hate. In 2016, the alt-right publication “Breitbart” said that journalists and celebrities attacking Donald Trump amounted to a daily Two Minutes of Hate. And Trump’s Twitter feed has also been equated to a regular Two Minutes of Hate.

Sally Kohn writes, “The point of Two Minutes of Hate in “1984” was to distract people from the real problems that were affecting them—their own government and its oppressive actions—by directing their attention and anger elsewhere. Reflecting on the lessons of Orwell’s book, a student in Georgia told her teacher, ‘We do need a public enemy, but not like that. Crime or poverty should be more of the public enemy that the world works to fight against.’ What if our hate is not only causing violence and pain and division but getting in the way of us solving the real problems that hurt us all.”

The writer David Foster Wallace told a parable about two young fish who were swimming along when they came across an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. As he swam past, the older fish said to the younger fish, “Morning, boys. How’s the water? The two young fish kept swimming along for some time until finally one fish turns to the other fish and asks, “What the hell is water?” We are swimming in a world full of hate and biases and we become oblivious to them. And many of these reside in our nonconscious minds such that we remain oblivious of them.

Ms. Kohn writes, “What I’ve learned is that all hate is premised on a mind-set of otherizing. The sanctimonious pedestal of superiority on which we all put ourselves while we systematically dehumanize others is the essential root of hate. In big and small ways, consciously and unconsciously, we constantly filter the world around us through the lens of our explicit and implicit biases. This abets rationalization and looking the other way about widespread injustices such as dismissing entire communities that don’t have access to health care, or entire nations blocked in civil war because they fall outside the sphere of moral concern.”

And she continues, “We think we’re good people, but we don’t see how the sphere of moral concern is constricted by hate, by the history and habits and culture of who matters and who doesn’t in our society, which we have all bought into, whether we mean to or not. So we shake our fists against neo-Nazis marching in the streets, but not enough of us admit that they’re reflections of the society we’ve all created, let alone acknowledge that they’re reflections of ourselves.”

Still continuing, “We have a crisis of hate in the United States and around the world, and we can’t begin to address it if we don’t first learn to see it—making the invisible visible—uncovering the inadvertent, implicit, deliberate and conscious forms of hate all around us and in ourselves. ‘Real change is systemic and self-implicating, urging us to see our role in vast complex problems,’ Anand Giridharadas said in a speech at the first Obama Foundation Summit in October 2017. Leo Tolstoy wrote, ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.’ We have to do both. Before it’s too late.”

Surprisingly, Ms. Kohn is optimistic. She writes, “Yes, hate is profound—complicated and vexing as well as ugly and sad. But it is not inevitable, in any given individual or community or institution or system. Alongside the hateful history of the world are stories of transcending that hate: finding peace after genocide, granting liberty after oppression, even just inching toward equality in the wake of horrific injustice. Hate is no more hardwired into our world than it is into our brains. Change is possible.”

She writes that she knows this not only because she reads the psychology and biology and neuroscience research, but because she has met people like Arno, Bassam, Marie-Jeanne and so many others—people who plumbed the greatest depths of hatred in our world and nonetheless managed to find a way out.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Ms Kohn writes that the opposite of hate is not love. You don’t have to love people to stop hating them. You don’t even have to like them. You don’t have to concede the validity of their views. Assam was very clear that he still sees the Israelis in general as his enemies, but at the same time he no longer hates them.
Ms. Kohn concludes, “The opposite of hate also isn’t some mushy middle zone of dispassionate centrism. You can still have strongly held beliefs, beliefs that are in strong opposition to the beliefs of other people, and still treat those others with civility and respect. Ultimately, the opposite of hate is the beautiful and powerful reality of how we are all fundamentally linked and equal as human beings. The opposite of hate is connection.”

Why the Right Lost Its Mind

October 31, 2017

“How the Right Lost Its Mind” is an important book by the conservative, Charles J. Sykes. He reviews the history of the political right from the John Birch Society through William F. Buckley up to Breitbart and Donald Trump. At one time Sykes was a respected conservative. No longer. George Will resigned from the Republican Party, and Ronald Reagan is probably thrashing about in his grave. Sykes reviews the history of the reasons for this change that includes the key individuals, organizations, and the revolutionary changes in technology. He provides a compelling account of the reasons for the insanity in which we are living. The purpose of this post is to provide some key parts of cognitive psychology to explain why such chaos has resulted.

To Sykes credit, he includes these concepts in the book. They are especially important here because they are also examples of what makes memories unhealthy. One is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which has been written about in this blog previously. Research has found that “people tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. And this is because people who are unskilled in the domain suffer a dual burden: not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.” Here is how Dunning explained in “Politico” why so many people seemed untroubled by Trump’s ignorance or gaffes. “Many voters, “especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps.” He noted that the problem was not simply that voters were ignorant, “it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship…”

Much has been written in this blog about Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Two Process Theory of Cognition. This theory was expanded upon in Kahneman’s best selling book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  System 1 is fast and is called intuition.  System 1 needs to be fast so we can process language and make the fast decisions we need to make everyday.  System 1 is also the seat of our emotions.  System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds loosely to what we mean by thinking.  System 2 requires mental effort and our attentional processes.

For new information, our default is accept. We would advance very slowly if we questioned everything we heard, everything we encountered. However, it is the role of System 2 processes to monitor System 1 to correct any errors. This can be illustrated by presenting statements to a participant and monitoring responses recorded from the brain. If the statement accords with the person’s beliefs, there is little activity. However, if the statement does not accord with a the person’s beliefs, there is a noticeable signal in the brain. At this point the person can either ignore the information or decide to think about it further. Remember that System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds loosely to what we mean by thinking. And remember that System 2 requires mental effort and our attentional processes.

So the answer to why are so many people willing to believe is that they believe fake news because they wanted to and because it was easy. Ideally we might assume that people want to seek out information that is true, but this is a basic misunderstanding of the human psyche, which feels more comfortable with familiar information or stories that confirm their biases. Kahneman refers to this as “cognitive ease,” the process by which we avoid and resist inconvenient facts that might make us have to think harder. It is much, much easier to bask in a flow of information that tells that we have been right all along and confirmed our view of the world. So many of these facts are so outlandish that it is hard to understand how they can possibly be believed. Cognitive ease is further confounded by the Dunning-Krueger Effect, as more and more false information simply increases the feeling that one truly knows and this can and does build into the construction of alternative (false) realities.

Social psychology also plays an important role here. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the power of tribalism in shaping our ideas. He wrote in “The Righteous Mind,” Once people join a political team they get ensnared in its moral matrix. They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult—perhaps impossible—to convince them that they are wrong if you argue with them outside the matrix. Political Scientist Don Kinder writes that political opinions become “badges of social membership.”