JD Ferries-Rowe. Head Geek at Brebeuf Jesuit. BYOT, Social Media, edtech. also debate, comics,and Jesuit Stuff. married w/kids.
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How the media should respond to Trump’s lies

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President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Southern Illinois Airport on October 27 in Murphysboro, Illinois.

A linguist explains how Trump uses lies to divert attention from the “big truths.”

President Donald Trump has hacked the media.

As Vox’s Ezra Klein argued recently, the press is in a lose-lose situation — and we all know it. Trump thrives on opposition, and often the media plays right into his hands, feverishly chasing every lie and half-truth he utters or tweets.

George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley and the author of the 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, recently published an article laying out the media’s dilemma. Trump’s “big lie” strategy, he argues, is to “exploit journalistic convention by providing rapid-fire news events for reporters to chase.”

According to Lakoff, the president uses lies to divert attention from the “big truths,” or the things he doesn’t want the media to cover. This allows Trump to create the controversies he wants and capitalize on the outrage and confusion they generate, while simultaneously stoking his base and forcing the press into the role of “opposition party.”

I reached out to Lakoff to talk about Trump’s media strategy, but also, more importantly, about solutions. If the president has indeed turned journalistic conventions to his advantage, how can we, the media, respond constructively?

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Can you lay out for me in simple terms how President Trump manipulates the media?

George Lakoff

He manipulates the media by constantly tweeting and saying more and more outrageous things. The media says, “Well, we have to cover the president. We have to repeat what he says.” But there is no real reason this has to happen. Journalists could, if they choose to, ignore the president’s tweets.

Sean Illing

What, then, would you have reporters do? Ridiculous or not, what the president of the United States tweets or says has real-world consequences, so it’s not quite that simple.

George Lakoff

I wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant, which makes the point that if you negate a frame, you activate the frame. When Trump says something and people working in the media deny it, they’re helping him. But they don’t realize that they’re helping him.

There’s another possibility. Journalists could engage in what I’ve called “truth sandwiches,” which means that you first tell the truth; then you point out what the lie is and how it diverges from the truth. Then you repeat the truth and tell the consequences of the difference between the truth and the lie.

If the media did this consistently, it would matter. It would be more difficult for Trump to lie.

Sean Illing

So you’re saying that instead of amplifying the president’s message by repeating it in the course of debunking it, we should focus on his tactics and talk about the truths he’s trying to suppress.

George Lakoff

Well, not just talk about the truth he’s trying to suppress. The truth sandwich is more than that. It shows the difference between the truth and what he’s saying — putting the truth first, and then putting it afterward, and talking about its consequences.

People say, “Oh, well, here’s the real fact.” That doesn’t really matter because Trump is getting his frame out there first. What he’s trying to do in each of the tweets he sends out is to frame something first and then repeat it.

Notice that when you repeat something, you’re strengthening it in people’s brains. The more a neural circuit is activated, the stronger it gets. Trump is using certain communicative tactics that are very sophisticated and he doesn’t realize it.

Sean Illing

I take your point, but I wonder if Trump is just kryptonite for a liberal democratic system built on a free press. If someone is truly indifferent to the consequences of lying, if they welcome negative coverage and are backed by a base primed to disbelieve inconvenient facts, I’m not sure there’s much we can do to contain that person once they’ve ascended to power.

George Lakoff

It’s difficult; I know it’s difficult. But I don’t think it’s impossible. It has to do with the media not being willing to be manipulated by Trump, not being willing to say, “Oh, we have to report everything he says.”

If his tactics didn’t work, he wouldn’t be able to manipulate people the way that he has.

Sean Illing

So you’re saying that the president has created a situation in which journalists, by merely doing their jobs, are reinforcing his entire communications strategy.

George Lakoff

Right. That’s where we’re at, but you see, there’s still a question of what the media’s job is.

Many journalists still assume that language is neutral, that you can just repeat language and it’s completely neutral. In fact, language is never neutral. Language is always framed in a certain way, and it always has consequences.

If in the process of reporting, you simply repeat the language Trump is using, you’re missing what’s going on.

Sean Illing

But if the president spreads malicious lies, those lies have consequences. Take the recent shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. Trump helped popularize a conspiracy theory about George Soros funding a caravan of illegal immigrants, and an extremist took that claim seriously and acted on it.

Isn’t that a strong case for why we have to expose or challenge lies?

George Lakoff

I totally understand, but simply exposing the lie about the Soros conspiracy theory doesn’t work, because to call it a lie is to repeat it, to repeat the content, which strengthens it in people’s brains. If I say don’t think of an elephant, you think of an elephant.

Sean Illing

So how exactly should the media have responded in this case to the Soros conspiracy theory tweeted by the president?

George Lakoff

By not reporting it.

Sean Illing

At all?

George Lakoff

Not one bit.

Sean Illing

The president has 55 million Twitter followers and a vast conservative media-industrial complex that will happily amplify his comments. Nothing the rest of the media does will change this. Is there a solution to this problem?

George Lakoff

Well, it’s not a simple solution, and your point about the conservative media is a good one. But you have to have a media that is engaged with what I call truth sandwiches and that repeats them — that’s all you can do.

Sean Illing

Why do Republicans seem to be doing much better in terms of framing the debate?

George Lakoff

A lot of Democrats believe in what is called Enlightenment reasoning, and that if you just tell people the facts, they’ll reach the right conclusion. That just isn’t true.

People think in terms of conceptual structures called frames and metaphors. It’s not just the facts. They have values, and they understand which facts fit into their conceptual framework. You can’t understand something if your brain doesn’t allow it, if your brain filters it out in terms of your values.

Democrats seem not to understand this, and they keep trying to employ reason as a persuasive vehicle. I wish Enlightenment reasoning was an accurate model for how most people think and judge, but it isn’t, and we better acknowledge that fact.

Sean Illing

So on some level, you’re saying that Democrats have to accept that they’re playing a different kind of conversational game, in which truth and falsity are irrelevant. If that’s the case, what use is there for a free press, or for discourse at all?

George Lakoff

Well, that’s why the truth sandwiches are important. Let me say one more thing that’s really crucial in this respect. Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts at one point, so the phrase comes from her. When I heard that, it occurred to me that there’s a sense in which she’s right.

If you’re someone who shares Trump’s worldview, there are certain things that follow from that worldview. In other words, certain things have to be true, or have to be believed, in order to sustain that worldview. The things that aren’t actually true but nevertheless preserve that worldview are “alternative facts” — that’s what Conway was getting at, whether she knew it or not.

The conservatives use those alternative facts all the time, and so does Trump. If he’s talking to his base, he’s talking to people who have already bought into a picture of the world, and his job is to tell them things that confirm that picture — and he knows they’ll believe it for that very reason.

I think we have to understand “alternative facts” in this way, and understand that when Trump is lying, he’s lying in ways that register with his audience. So it may be lying, but it’s strategic lying — and it’s effective.

Sean Illing

Do you think the media is going to be able to adapt and figure this out, or do you think it’s going to persist in aiding Trump in the way it has?

George Lakoff

I’m an optimist. I think the media can get out of it. But I don’t know if it will.

Journalists don’t study the field of cognitive science. They don’t study how brains actually work and how the mind works. Cognitive science is a field that is not widely reported on, but it needs to be, because journalists cannot serve the public if they don’t understand basic facts about the human mind.

The sorts of things I’m saying have to be repeated over and over — it has to be argued. The evidence has to come forth.

This story was originally published on November 15, 2018.

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12 days ago
I need to create a #digcit lesson that teaches students how to respond with "Truth Sandwiches" - maybe useful in debate too
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[Epistemic status: fiction]

Thanks for letting me put my story on your blog. Mainstream media is crap and no one would have believed me anyway.

This starts in September 2017. I was working for a small online ad startup. You know the ads on Facebook and Twitter? We tell companies how to get them the most clicks. This startup – I won’t tell you the name – was going to add deep learning, because investors will throw money at anything that uses the words “deep learning”. We train a network to predict how many upvotes something will get on Reddit. Then we ask it how many likes different ads would get. Then we use whatever ad would get the most likes. This guy (who is not me) explains it better. Why Reddit? Because the upvotes and downvotes are simpler than all the different Facebook reacts, plus the subreddits allow demographic targeting, plus there’s an archive of 1.7 billion Reddit comments you can download for training data. We trained a network to predict upvotes of Reddit posts based on their titles.

Any predictive network doubles as a generative network. If you teach a neural net to recognize dogs, you can run it in reverse to get dog pictures. If you train a network to predict Reddit upvotes, you can run it in reverse to generate titles it predicts will be highly upvoted. We tried this and it was pretty funny. I don’t remember the exact wording, but for /r/politics it was something like “Donald Trump is no longer the president. All transgender people are the president.” For r/technology it was about Elon Musk saving Net Neutrality. You can also generate titles that will get maximum downvotes, but this is boring: it will just say things that sound like spam about penis pills.

Reddit has a feature where you can sort posts by controversial. You can see the algorithm here, but tl;dr it multiplies magnitude of total votes (upvotes + downvotes) by balance (upvote:downvote ratio or vice versa, whichever is smaller) to highlight posts that provoke disagreement. Controversy sells, so we trained our network to predict this too. The project went to this new-ish Indian woman with a long name who went by Shiri, and she couldn’t get it to work, so our boss Brad sent me to help. Shiri had tested the network on the big 1.7 billion comment archive, and it had produced controversial-sounding hypothethical scenarios about US politics. So far so good.

The Japanese tested their bioweapons on Chinese prisoners. The Tuskegee Institute tested syphilis on African-Americans. We were either nicer or dumber than they were, because we tested Shiri’s Scissor on ourselves. We had a private internal subreddit where we discussed company business, because Brad wanted all of us to get familiar with the platform. Shiri’s problem was that she’d been testing the controversy-network on our subreddit, and it would just spit out vacuously true or vacuously false statements. No controversy, no room for disagreement. The statement we were looking at that day was about a design choice in our code. I won’t tell you the specifics, but imagine you took every bad and wrong decision decision in the world, hard-coded them in the ugliest possible way, and then handed it to the end user with a big middle finger. Shiri’s Scissor spit out, as maximally controversial, the statement that we should design our product that way. We’d spent ten minutes arguing about exactly where the bug was, when Shiri said something about how she didn’t understand why the program was generating obviously true statements.

Shiri’s English wasn’t great, so I thought this was a communication problem. I corrected her. The program was spitting out obviously false statements. She stuck to her guns. I still thought she was confused. I walked her through the meanings of the English words “true” and “false”. She looked offended. I tried to confirm. She thought this abysmal programming decision, this plan of combining every bad design technique together and making it impossible to ever fix, was the right way to build our codebase? She said it was. Worse, she was confused I didn’t think so. She thought this was more or less what we were already doing; it wasn’t. She thought that moving away from this would take a total rewrite and make the code much worse.

At this point I was doubting my sanity, so we went next door to Blake and David, who were senior coders in our company and usually voices of reason. They were talking about their own problem, but I interrupted them and gave them the Scissor statement. Blake gave the reasonable response – why are you bothering me with this stupid wrong garbage? But David had the same confusion Shiri did and started arguing that the idea made total sense. The four of us started fighting. I still was sure Shiri and David just misunderstood the question, even though David was a native English-speaker and the question was crystal-clear. Meanwhile David was feeling more and more condescended to, kept protesting he wasn’t misunderstanding anything, that Blake and I were just crappy programmers who couldn’t make the most basic architecture decisions. He kept insisting the same thing Shiri had, that the Scissor statement had already been the plan and any attempt to go in a different direction would screw everything up. It got so bad that we decided to go to Brad for clarification.

Brad was our founder. Don’t trust the newspapers – not every tech entrepreneur is a greedy antisocial philistine. But everyone in advertising is. Brad definitely was. He was an abrasive amoral son of a bitch. But he was good at charming investors, and he could code, which is more than some bosses. He looked pissed to have the whole coding team come into his office unannounced, but he heard us out.

David tried to explain the issue, but he misrepresented almost every part of it. I couldn’t believe he was lying just to look better to Brad. I cut him off. He told me not to interrupt him. Blake said if he wasn’t lying we wouldn’t have to interrupt to correct him, it degenerated from there. Somehow in the middle of all of this, Brad figured out what we were talking about and he cut us all off. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.” He confirmed it wasn’t the original plan, it was contrary to the original plan, and it was contrary to every rule of good programming and good business. David and Shiri, who were bad losers, accused Blake and me of “poisoning” Brad. David said that of course Brad would side with us. Brad had liked us better from the beginning. We’d racked up cushy project after cushy project while he and Shiri had gotten the dregs. Brad told him he was a moron and should get back to work. He didn’t.

This part of the story ends at 8 PM with Brad firing David and Shiri for a combination of gross incompetence, gross insubordination, and being terrible human beings. With him giving a long speech on how he’d taken a chance on hiring David and Shiri, even though he knew from the beginning that they were unqualified charity cases, and at every turn they’d repaid his kindness with laziness and sabotage. With him calling them a drain on the company and implied they might be working for our competitors. With them calling him an abusive boss, saying the whole company was a scam to trick vulnerable employees into working themselves ragged for Brad’s personal enrichment, and with them accusing us two – me and Blake – of being in on it with Brad.

That was 8 PM. We’d been standing in Brad’s office fighting for five hours. At 8:01, after David and Shiri had stormed out, we all looked at each other and thought – holy shit, the controversial filter works.

I want to repeat that. At no time in our five hours of arguing did this occur to us. We were too focused on the issue at hand, the Scissor statement itself. We didn’t have the perspective to step back and think about how all this controversy came from a statement designed to be maximally controversial. But at 8:01, when the argument was over and we had won, we stepped back and thought – holy shit.

We were too tired to think much about it that evening, but the next day we – Brad and the two remaining members of the coding team – had a meeting. We talked about what we had. Blake gave it its name: Shiri’s Scissor. In some dead language, scissor shares a root with schism. A scissor is a schism-er, a schism-creator. And that was what we had. We were going to pivot from online advertising to superweapons. We would call the Pentagon. Tell them we had a program that could make people hate each other. Was this ethical? We were in online ads; we would sell our grandmothers to Somali slavers if we thought it would get us clicks. That horse had left the barn a long time ago.

It’s hard to just call up the Pentagon and tell them you have a superweapon. Even in Silicon Valley, they don’t believe you right away. But Brad called in favors from his friends, and about a week after David and Shiri got fired, we had a colonel from DARPA standing in the meeting room, asking what the hell we thought was so important.

Now we had a problem. We couldn’t show the Colonel the Scissor statement that had gotten Dave and Shiri fired. He wasn’t in our company; he wasn’t even in ad tech; it would seem boring to him. We didn’t want to generate a new Scissor statement for the Pentagon. Even Brad could figure out that having the US military descend into civil war would be bad for clicks. Finally we settled on a plan. We explained the concept of Reddit to the Colonel. And then we asked him which community he wanted us to tear apart as a demonstration.

He thought for a second, then said “Mozambique”.

We had underestimated the culture gap here. When we asked the Colonel to choose a community to be a Scissor victim, we were expecting “tabletop wargamers” or “My Little Pony fans”. But this was not how colonels at DARPA thought about the world. He said “Mozambique”. I started explaining to him that this wasn’t really how Reddit worked, it needed to be a group with its own subreddit. Brad interrupted me, said that Mozambique had a subreddit.

I could see the wheels turning in Brad’s eyes. One wheel was saying “this guy is already skeptical, if we look weak in front of him he’ll just write us off completely”. The other wheel was calculating how many clicks Mozambique produced. Mene mene tekel upharsin. “Yeah,” he said. “Their subreddit is fine. We can do Mozambique.”

The Colonel gave us his business card and left. Blake and I were stuck running Shiri’s Scissor on the Mozambique subreddit. I know, ethics, but like I said, online ads business, horse, barn door. We got a statement accusing the Prime Minister of disrespecting Islam in a certain way – again, I won’t be specific – and in the absence of any better method, we PMed the admins of the Mozambique subreddit asking them what they thought. I don’t remember what we said, something about being an American political science student learning about Mozambique culture, and could they ask some friends what would happen if the Prime Minister did that specific thing, and then report back to us?

We spent most of a week working on our project to undermine Mozambique. Then we got the news. David and Shiri were suing the company for unfair dismissal and racial discrimination. Brad and Blake and I were white. Shiri was an Indian woman, and David was Jewish. The case should have been laughed out of court – who ever heard of an anti-Semitic Silicon Valley startup? – except that all the documentation showed there was no reason to fire David and Shiri. Their work looked good on paper. They’d always gotten good performance reviews. The company was doing fine – it had even placed ads for more programmers a few weeks before.

David and Shiri knew why they’d been fired. But it didn’t matter to them. They were so blinded with hatred for our company, so caught in the grip of the Scissor statement, that they would tell any lie necessary to destroy it. We were caught in a bind. We couldn’t admit the existence of Shiri’s Scissor, because we were trying to sell it to the Pentagon as a secret weapon, and also, publicly admitting to trying to destroy Mozambique would have been bad PR. But the court was demanding records about what our company had been doing just before and just after the dismissal. A real defense contractor could probably have gotten the Pentagon to write a letter saying our research was classified. But the Pentagon still didn’t believe us. The Colonel was humoring us, nothing more. We were stuck.

I don’t know how we would have dealt with the legal problems, because what actually happened was Brad went to David’s house and tried to beat him up. You’re going to think this was crazy, but you have to understand that David had always been annoying to work with, and that during the argument in Brad’s office he had crossed so many lines that, if ever there was a person who deserved physical violence, it was him. Suing the company was just the last straw. I’m not going to judge Brad’s actions after he’d spent months cleaning up after David’s messes, paying him good money, and then David betrayed him at the end. But anyhow, that was it for our company. Brad got arrested. There was nobody else to pay the bills and keep the lights on. Blake and I were coders and had no idea how to run the business side of things. We handed in our resignations – not literally, Brad was in jail – and that was the end of Name Withheld Online Ad Company, Inc.

We got off easy. That’s the takeaway I want to give here. We were unreasonably overwhelmingly lucky. If Shiri and I had started out by arguing about one of the US statements, we could have destroyed the country. If a giant like Google had developed Shiri’s Scissor, it would have destroyed Google. If the Scissor statement we generated hadn’t just been about a very specific piece of advertising software – if it had been about the tech industry in general, or business in general – we could have destroyed the economy.

As it was, we just destroyed our company and maybe a few of our closest competitors. If you look up internal publications from the online advertising industry around fall 2017, you will find some really weird stuff. That story about the online ads CEO getting arrested for murder, child abuse, attacking a cop, and three or four other things, and then later it was all found to be false accusations related to some ill-explained mental disorder – that’s the tip of the iceberg. I don’t have a good explanation for exactly how the Scissor statement spread or why it didn’t spread further, but I bet if I looked into it too much, black helicopters would start hovering over my house. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

As for me, I quit the whole industry. I picked up a job in a more established company using ML for voice recognition, and tried not to think about it too much. I still got angry whenever I thought about the software design issue the Scissor had brought up. Once I saw someone who looked like Shiri at a cafe and I went over intending to give her a piece of my mind. It wasn’t her, so I didn’t end up in jail with Brad. I checked the news from Mozambique every so often, and it was quiet for a few months, and then it wasn’t. I still don’t know if we had anything to do with that. Africa just has a lot of conflicts, and if you wait long enough, maybe something will happen. The colonel never tried to get in touch with me. I don’t think he ever took us seriously. Maybe he didn’t even check the news from Mozambique. Maybe he saw it and figured it was a coincidence. Maybe he tried calling our company, got a message saying the phone was out of service, and didn’t think it was worth pursuing. But as time went on and the conflict there didn’t get any worse, I hoped the Shiri’s Scissor part of my life was drawing to a close.

Then came the Kavanaugh hearings. Something about them gave me a sense of deja vu. The week of his testimony, I figured it out.

Shiri had told me that when she ran the Scissor on the site in general, she’d just gotten some appropriate controversial US politics scenarios. She had shown me two or three of them as examples. One of them had been very specifically about this situation. A Republican Supreme Court nominee accused of committing sexual assault as a teenager.

This made me freak out. Had somebody gotten hold of the Scissor and started using it on the US? Had that Pentagon colonel been paying more attention than he let on? But why would the Pentagon be trying to divide America? Had some enemy stolen it? I get the New York Times, obviously Putin was my first thought here. But how would Putin get Shiri’s Scissor? Was I remembering wrong? I couldn’t get it out of my head. I hadn’t kept the list Shiri had given me, but I had enough of the Scissor codebase to rebuild the program over a few sleepless nights. Then I bought a big blob of compute from Amazon Web Services and threw it at the Reddit comment archive. It took three days and a five-digit sum of money, but I rebuilt the list Shiri must have had. Kavanaugh was in there, just as I remembered.

But so was Colin Kaepernick.

You’ve heard of him. He was the football player who refused to stand for the national anthem. If I already knew the Scissor predicted one controversy, why was I so shocked to learn it predicted another? Because Kaepernick started kneeling in 2016. We didn’t build the Scissor until 2017. Putin hadn’t gotten it from us. Someone had beaten us to it.

Of the Scissor’s predicted top hundred most controversial statements, Kavanaugh was #58 and Kaepernick was #42. #86 was the Ground Zero Mosque. #89 was that baker who wouldn’t make a cake for a gay wedding. The match isn’t perfect, but #99 vaguely looked like the Elian Gonzalez case from 2000. That’s five out of a hundred. Is that what would happen by chance? It’s a big country, and lots of things happen here, and if a Scissor statement came up in the normal course of events it would get magnified to the national stage. But some of these were too specific. If it was coincidence, I would expect many more near matches than perfect matches. I found only two. The pattern of Scissor statements looked more like someone had arranged them to be perfect fits.

The earliest perfect fit was the Ground Zero Mosque in 2009. Could Putin have had a Scissor-like program in 2009? I say no way. This will sound weird to you if you’re not in the industry. Why couldn’t a national government have been eight years ahead of an online advertising company? All I can say is: machine learning moves faster than that. Russia couldn’t hide a machine learning program that put it eight years ahead of the US. Even the Pentagon couldn’t hide a program that put it eight years ahead of industry. The NSA is thirty years ahead of industry in cryptography and everyone knows it.

But then who was generating Scissor statements in 2009? I have no idea. And you know what? I can’t bring myself to care.

If you just read a Scissor statement off a list, it’s harmless. It just seems like a trivially true or trivially false thing. It doesn’t activate until you start discussing it with somebody. At first you just think they’re an imbecile. Then they call you an imbecile, and you want to defend yourself. Crescit eundo. You notice all the little ways they’re lying to you and themselves and their audience every time they open their mouth to defend their imbecilic opinion. Then you notice how all the lies are connected, that in order to keep getting the little things like the Scissor statement wrong, they have to drag in everything else. Eventually even that doesn’t work, they’ve just got to make everybody hate you so that nobody will even listen to your argument no matter how obviously true it is. Finally, they don’t care about the Scissor statement anymore. They’ve just dug themselves so deep basing their whole existence around hating you and wanting you to fail that they can’t walk it back. You’ve got to prove them wrong, not because you care about the Scissor statement either, but because otherwise they’ll do anything to poison people against you, make it impossible for them to even understand the argument for why you deserve to exist. You know this is true. Your mind becomes a constant loop of arguments you can use to defend yourself, and rehearsals of arguments for why their attacks are cruel and unfair, and the one burning question: how can you thwart them? How can you can convince people not to listen to them, before they find those people and exploit their biases and turn them against you? How can you combat the superficial arguments they’re deploying, before otherwise good people get convinced, so convinced their mind will be made up and they can never be unconvinced again? How can you keep yourself safe?

Shiri read two or three sample Scissor statements to me. She didn’t say if she agreed with them or not. I didn’t tell her if I agreed with them or not. They were harmless.

I don’t hear voices in a crazy way. But sometimes I talk to myself. Sometimes I do both halves of the conversation. Sometimes I imagine one of them is a different person. I had a tough breakup a year ago. Sometimes the other voice in my head is my ex-girlfriend’s voice. I know how she thinks and I always know what she would say about everything. So sometimes I hold conversations with her, even though she isn’t there, and we’ve barely talked since the breakup. I don’t know if this is weird. If it is, I’m weird.

And that was enough. For some reason, it was the third-highest-ranked Scissor statement that did it. None of the others, just that one. The totally hypothetical conversation with the version of my ex-girlfriend in my head about the third Scissor statement got me. Shiri’s Scissor was never really about other people anyway. Other people are just the trigger – and I use that word deliberately, in the trigger warning sense. Once you’re triggered, you never need to talk to anyone else again. Just the knowledge that those people are out there is enough.

I thought I’d be done with this story in a night. Instead it’s taken me two weeks, all the way up until Halloween – perfect night for a ghost story, right? I’ve been alternately drinking and smoking weed, trying to calm myself down enough to think about anything other than the third Scissor statement. No, that’s not right, definitely trying not to think about either of the first two Scissor statements, because if I think about them, I might start thinking about how some people disagree with them, and then I’m gone. Three times I’ve started to call my ex-girlfriend to ask her where she is, and if I ever go through with it and she answers me, I don’t know what I will do to her. But it isn’t just her. Fifty percent of the population disagrees with me on the third-highest-ranked Scissor statement. I don’t know who they are. I haven’t really appreciated that fact. Not really. I can’t imagine it being anyone I know. They’re too decent. But I can’t be sure it isn’t. So I drink.

I know I should be talking about how we all need to unite against whatever shadowy manipulators keep throwing Scissor statements at us. I want to talk about how we need to cultivate radical compassion and charity as the only defense against such abominations. I want to give an Obamaesque speech about how the ties that bring us together are stronger than the forces tearing us apart. But I can’t.

Remember what we did to Mozambique? How out of some vestigial sense of ethics, we released a low-potency Scissor statement? Arranged to give them a bad time without destroying the whole country all at once? That’s what our shadowy manipulators are doing to us. Low-potency statements. Enough to get us enraged. Not enough to start Armageddon.

But I read the whole list. And then, like an idiot, I thought about it. I thought about the third-highest-ranked Scissor statement in enough detail to let it trigger. To even begin to question whether it might be true is so sick, so perverse, so hateful and disgusting, that Idi Amin would flush with shame to even contemplate it. And if the Scissor’s right then half of you would be gung ho in support.

You guys, who haven’t heard a really bad Scissor statement yet and don’t know what it’s like – it’s easy for you to say “don’t let it manipulate you” or “we need a hard and fast policy of not letting ourselves fight over Scissor statements”. But how do you know you’re not in the wrong? How do you know there’s not an issue out there where, if you knew it, you would agree it would be better to just nuke the world and let us start over again from the sewer mutants, rather than let the sort of people who would support it continue to pollute the world with their presence? How do you know that you’re not like the schoolkid who superciliously says “Nothing is bad enough to deserve a swear word” when the worst that’s ever happened to her is dropping her lollipop in the dirt. If that schoolkid gets kidnapped and tortured, does she change her mind? If she can’t describe the torture to her schoolmates, but just says “a really bad thing happened to me”, and they still insist nothing could be bad enough to justify using swear words, who do you side with? Then why are you still thinking I’m “damaged” when I tell you I’ve seen the Scissor statement, and charity and compassion and unity can fuck off and die? Some last remnant of outside-view morality keeps me from writing the whole list here and letting you all exterminate yourselves. But some remnant of how I would have thought about these things a month ago holds me back. So listen:

Delete Facebook. Delete Twitter. Throw away your cell phone. Unsubscribe from the newspaper. Tell your friends and relatives not to discuss politics or society. If they slip up, break off all contact.

Then, buy canned food. Stockpile water. Learn to shoot a gun. If you can afford a bunker, get a bunker.

Because one day, whoever keeps feeding us Scissor statements is going to release one of the bad ones.

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81 days ago

Best thing I've read in a long time. Can't even give a tl;dr summary.
80 days ago
My tl:dr;You know that thing you see online, that is so clearly true it's not even interesting. But that someone else thinks is so clearly false that they never even realised someone could believe it. What if someone generalised that?
79 days ago
that works, but the satire and nuance is just so nice. I want to give it to my conspiracy obsessed friends and see if i can make heads pop...
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4 public comments
74 days ago
Sharing this because it's good, and particularly because I think it's good even if you don't generally like Slate Star Codex.
Mountain View, California
77 days ago
Best ghost story I ever heard
77 days ago
ouch, but yes
Brooklyn, New York
77 days ago
This is good spooky
Oakland, CA

The American Chopper meme, explained

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It all goes back to Plato.

An old guy with a handlebar mustache, tattoos visible on his upper arms, says something in an animated tone. A younger man wearing a baseball cap speaks back while gesturing. The old man shouts. A chair flies through the air. Finally, the old man is yelling, red in the face, while pointing in an aggressive manner.

Each panel comes complete with text, and makes for a mini debate — proposition, rebuttal, reaffirmation, second rebuttal, and a final statement.

The resulting memes — based on a scene from the reality TV series American Chopper, which stopped airing in 2010 — aren’t always all that legible. But suddenly, they are everywhere on social media, illustrating everything from the difficulties of pet ownership to the intricacies of the gender wage gap.

Its popularity speaks in part to the fickle nature of mass taste. If the Distracted Boyfriend meme captivated us with its stark simplicity, then the American Chopper more than makes up for its aesthetic shortcomings with its ability to present complicated ideas.

More broadly, in an era of performative social media dunking and tribalism run amok, the Chopper offers a lighthearted way to demonstrate that you actually understand the viewpoints of people on both sides of an issue. And beyond demonstrating your personal virtuosity, dialectic — the argument between two opposing points of view — turns out to be a fairly effective way to convey ideas and information, one that dates back to Plato’s famous dialogue but can be difficult to replicate in conventional media formats.

The American Chopper format touches on important cultural themes about class, money, politics, and reality television that are relevant to 2018. And by forcing the meme author to sympathetically engage with both sides of an argument, it manages to disrupt some of the most dysfunctional elements of online discourse.

American Chopper, explained

The meme derives from a reality television show, American Chopper, that aired on the Discovery Channel and then later its sister network TLC between 2003 and 2010.

The show focused on Orange County Choppers, a custom motorcycle manufacturing company located in the town of Newburgh, New York, in the Hudson Valley. The stylistic differences and vocal arguments between the show’s main protagonists, Paul Teutul Sr. (known as “Senior”) and his son (known as “Paulie” or “Junior”), was the central driving force of the show for most of its run. But after one particularly heated argument in 2008, Junior left both the program and the chopper shop to start his own business.

The meme (which was created in 2011 but didn’t really explode until March 2018) is based on the pivotal scene from the original series in which Senior fired Paulie in a profane, violent, not-that-convincingly-acted moment:

The Teutuls then returned in a somewhat different format with a show called American Chopper: Senior vs. Junior that detailed the rivalry between their two shops. It was canceled after two seasons, but a rebooted version of the show is scheduled to come out this May — with the producers doubtless hoping the meme will have enough staying power to still be around at the premiere.

The central joke of the Chopper meme is to reimagine this scene as a heated disagreement about a highbrow topic rather than a profane dispute about work schedules.

The Chopper meme implicates Trump-era class politics

Part of what makes the meme work is that you don’t actually need to be familiar with the show to read the facial hair and cap as class signifiers. At the same time, the dispute is clearly taking place in an office setting — reflecting the reality that the Teutuls are wealthy business owners and television stars rather than struggling workers.

This dichotomy between economic status and the sociocultural aspects of “class” has become a hallmark of the Trump years, in which political disagreements between white Americans have come to be deeply polarized between the more and less educated even while the policy orientation of the GOP remains overwhelmingly focused on the wealthy.

The Teutuls are, in this sense, the perfect Trump-era Republicans — a couple of lowbrow regular guys who happen to be incredibly rich business owners who’d probably appreciate a big tax cut for pass-through income. They’re the social and political antithesis of the young, debt-burdened recent college graduates living in expensive cities and struggling to make a living in creative fields — the sort of people who’ve been enthusiastically creating and sharing the Chopper meme.

Just imagine these two arguing about effective communications strategies for an elite aquarium:

But it’s also just a damn good way to communicate.

Socratic dialogue is a good way to teach

A person looking to write a column on the gender wage gap from a progressive perspective often faces a dilemma. Do you focus on the broad headline facts — which are striking and don’t receive the level of attention in public debate that they deserve — even though people with a more conservative view have a well-known objection to the standard characterization of the gap? Or do you delve into a more sophisticated version of the debate, knowing that you’ll immediately lose a large share of the audience?

With the Chopper meme, you don’t need to choose.

The meme functions, in this sense, as a miniature version of one of Plato’s dialogues. Rather than a conventional prose argument, in these books, Plato gives us drama, with Socrates debating one or more fellow Athenians to eventually reach his conclusion. The dialogue format makes the line of argument more memorable and allows for the simultaneous presentation of a clear thesis and a deeper understanding of the issues.

As Stephanie Carvin of Carleton University says, the memes aren’t just funny — they turn out to be genuinely informative.

Arguably, the real lesson here is that a more dialectical form of writing could have been serving us better all along.

After all, one hallmark of the Chopper meme is that for a given instance of it to be any good, the author needs to genuinely understand Junior’s stance and present a coherent and sympathetic version of it — an attitude that is antithetical to much of current social media practice.

Chopper memes are an antidote to the social media dunk contest

The dialectical form of instruction contrasts with a pattern of interaction and debate that is all too common on the modern-day internet: Rather than engage with each other’s ideas, debate participants simply “dunk” on the remarks of others, aiming to receive praise from their followers.

Michael Grunwald, for example, promoted his lengthy essay on Scott Pruitt’s real record at the Environmental Protection Agency with a brief and necessarily oversimplified tweet.

The environmental journalist Rebecca Leber then quote-tweeted Grunwald, arguing that his tweet was missing crucial context about the full scope of Pruitt’s activities.

Grunwald then fired back, asserting without evidence that Leber hadn’t even read his story.

The reality of this unnecessarily contentious back-and-forth is that Grunwald’s article does note all the things Leber accused him of downplaying, but it’s also clearly true that Grunwald is downplaying that stuff in favor of his core thesis: “The truth is that Scott Pruitt has done a lot less to dismantle the EPA than he — or his critics — would have you believe.”

A more dialectical presentation would reveal a disagreement over points of emphasis. Leber and Grunwald are both smart people and skilled writers who are very familiar with the relevant issues here, and no doubt either of them could write a Chopper meme that lets Junior make some good points.

Instead, they shouted at each other unproductively, just like the father-son duo at the heart of American Chopper.

And that’s the beauty of the Chopper meme — by giving the author a degree of distance from the argument, it allows us to transcend the tendency of online debate to degenerate into precisely the kind of chair-throwing pointlessness that it depicts.

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285 days ago
Why, yes, I was thinking of using this Meme for the debate program. Imagine if I teach an intro to philosophy class someday #edchat #teachmeme
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Project Gutenberg Blocks Access In Germany To All Its Public Domain Books Because Of Local Copyright Claim On 18 Of Them

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Project Gutenberg, which currently offers 56,000 free ebooks, is one of the treasures of the Internet, but it is not as well known as it should be. Started in 1991 by Michael S. Hart, who sadly died in 2011, Project Gutenberg is dedicated to making public domain texts widely available. Over the last 25 years, volunteers have painstakingly entered the text of books that are out of copyright, and released them in a variety of formats. The site is based in the US, and applies US law to determine whether a book has entered the public domain. Since copyright law is fragmented and inconsistent around the world, this can naturally lead to the situation that a book in the public domain in the US is still in copyright elsewhere. To deal with this, the site has the following "terms of use":

Our eBooks may be freely used in the United States because most are not protected by U.S. copyright law, usually because their copyrights have expired. They may not be free of copyright in other countries. Readers outside of the United States must check the copyright terms of their countries before downloading or redistributing our eBooks. We also have a number of copyrighted titles, for which the copyright holder has given permission for unlimited non-commercial worldwide use.

That approach seemed to be working, at least until this happened to the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation (PGLAF):

On December 30, 2015, PGLAF received notification that a lawsuit had been filed in Germany against it, and its CEO. The lawsuit was concerned with 18 eBooks, by three authors, which are part of the Project Gutenberg collection.

The lawsuit was filed in the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court, in Germany.

The Plaintiff is S. Fischer Verlag, GmbH. Hedderichstrasse 114, 60956 Frankfurt am Main, Germany. They are represented by the law firm, Waldorf Frommer of Munich.

The essence of the lawsuit is that the Plaintiff wants the 18 eBooks to no longer be accessible, at least from Germany. It also seeks punitive damages and fines.

Based on legal advice from its US attorneys, PGLAF declined to remove or block the items. The lawsuit proceeded, with a series of document filings by both sides, and hearings before the judges (all of which occurred in German, in the German court). PGLAF hired a German law firm, Wilde Beuger Solmecke, in Köln, to represent it in Germany.

On February 9 2018, the Court issued a judgement granting essentially all of the Plaintiff's demands.

Court's original decision (in German). [pdf]

Decision translated into English. [pdf]

PGLAF complied with the Court's order on February 28, 2018 by blocking all access to www.gutenberg.org and sub-pages to all of Germany.

The German court agreed with the publisher that since people in Germany could access Project Gutenberg files stored in the US, and freely download the 18 ebooks in question, they were making unauthorized copies in Germany, even though they had entered the public domain in the US. A recent EU-funded study showed that unauthorized copies have almost no effect on sales, and can even be beneficial, so it is likely that the German publisher in this case suffered negligible losses as a result of these downloads. This legal action is evidently more about enforcing copyright to the hilt, than about seeking redress for serious harm suffered.

The most famous among the three authors mentioned in the lawsuit, Thomas Mann, died in 1955, so his writings will enter the public domain in Germany in 2025. The fact that the publishing house is trying to stop Project Gutenberg from distributing works written between 1897 and 1920 (listed in the court documents above) shows how absurdly long the term of copyright has become -- the first modern copyright law envisaged just 14 years' protection. The lawsuit also underlines that it is always the longer copyright term that trumps a shorter one, never the other way around.

There's another important point that this case raises. As the Project Gutenberg page on the lawsuit explains:

PGLAF is a small volunteer organization, with no income (it doesn't sell anything) other than donations. There is every reason to fear that this huge corporation, with the backing of the German Court, will continue to take legal action. In fact, at least one other similar complaint arrived in 2017 about different books in the Project Gutenberg collection, from another company in Germany.

Project Gutenberg's focus is to make as much of the world's literature available as possible, to as many people as possible. But it is, and always has been, entirely US-based, and entirely operating within the copyright laws of the US. Blocking Germany, in an effort to forestall further legal actions, seems the best way to protect the organization and retain focus on its mission.

This is a classic example of the chilling effect of heavy-handed moves by the copyright industry. In order to forestall further legal action, organizations lacking resources to stand up to legal bullying often decide it is safer to over-block. In this case, the whole of Project Gutenberg is now inaccessible to people in Germany. That's a serious loss of an important public domain resource, but it's just a taste of what could become routine in Europe.

As Techdirt has reported, there is a new Copyright Directive currently working its way through the EU legislative process. One of its key elements, Article 13, is a requirement for all major sites that make user-uploaded material available to filter those beforehand to remove possible copyright infringements. Such an upload filter would not only represent a gross invasion of privacy, but could lead to sites opting to block access to users in the EU when they receive legal threats for not filtering certain material, rather than contesting the claim in court. The Gutenberg Project's experience should stand as a warning to EU politicians not to allow the copyright industry to take away people's rights to privacy and freedom of expression in this way.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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319 days ago
On the current state of copyright madness, German edition.
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ADL, Duped by White Supremacists, Plays Key Role in Spreading Parkland Shooter Hoax

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parkland neo nazi hoax adl

Social media post by white supremacist recounting part of the conspiracy around perpetrating the hoax

NOTE: Middle East Eye published a new piece of mine on the prospect of Bibi Netanyahu being indicted and what this may mean for Israeli politics and the peace process.  I hope you’ll read it and promote it on social media and via e mail.

Politico has published a blockbuster story about a white nationalist conspiracy to dupe the media into reporting that Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was a member of the Florida neo-Nazi group.  But what is most shocking about the story (at least to me) is the key role played by Jonathan Greenblatt’s ADL in spreading the disinformation.  The ADL employs staff who monitor alt-right and neo-Nazi social media platforms.  But using private forums that weren’t monitored by its staff, a large group of white nationalists had concocted a conspiracy to fool the ADL and media into believing that Cruz was one of them.

This follows a common tactic of sowing discord in society as a whole, exploiting the powerful role of the media to disseminate lies which promote the alt-right’s interests:

[Joan] Donovan [of the think tank, Data and Society] called this an instance of “source hacking,” a tactic by which fringe groups coordinate to feed false information to authoritative sources such as ADL researchers. These experts, in turn, disseminate the information to reporters, and it reaches thousands of readers before it can be debunked.

“It’s a very effective way of getting duped,” Donovan said.

All it takes is one overly gullible reporter or researcher to believe your lies.  That turns the dross you’re offering to gold and fools millions into believing lies.  To use another analogy, it’s like a parasite which disguises itself as an innocuous agent and enters a host.  Once the host’s defenses are fooled into trusting the parasite it is then able to wreak havoc and eventually destroy the host.  Not that the alt-right is going to destroy American society.  But they’ll take this as far as they can and as far as we let them.

To note an eerily similar modus operandi, this is precisely what the Russian election hoax strategy involved.  You plant lies in social media, attempt to get the MSM to cover the fake news stories as real.  Then when society finds it’s been hoaxed it will no longer view traditional sources of information as reliable.  This in turn degrades society as a whole, which no longer believes there are institutions to trust.  It turns us all on each other and permits the breakdown of the very values which hold us together as a people.

The ADL professes to be a world-class researcher and expert on extremism.  But this incident and others on which I’ve reported here show that it is woefully inept at dealing with these far-right groups.  That either it ignores their real crimes entirely, as in the case of Blaze Bernstein; or that it is easily duped by them:

“All of our evidence seems to point to the ADL getting this wrong,” said Joan Donovan, a researcher who tracks online misinformation campaigns for Data & Society, a think tank in New York City.

The ADL subsequently revised its report, as did many news outlets.

“ADL shared information from our experts on extremism and claims from white supremacist that we believed could be helpful to both law enforcement and the public due to the fluid and evolving nature of the events,” an ADL spokesperson said in a statement on Friday. “Confirmation of whether Cruz was part of ROF is now in the hands of law enforcement, and that’s what the Broward sheriff’s team is looking into.”

republic of florida hoax

Hoax social media posting which fooled ADL into believing Cruz had trained with white supremacists

This response is disingenuous because it describes a research and reporting process that is bogus.  If you are a reputable organization devoted to the study of extremism you make it a habit of only passing on legitimate reports to law enforcement.  If you don’t, then no one will believe anything you say.  So claiming that as an organization you merely pass along poorly vetted information to the police and then allow them to determine its credibility has things ass-backwards. If your information is bogus you only waste the precious time of authorities, who have to track down the elements of the hoax which suckered you.  Believe me, they have better things to do when investigating a mass killing like this one.

To be fair, white supremacists aren’t the only ones playing these games.  A former Shabak agent fed me two false stories which I published some years ago.  Obviously, he became persona non grata after his fraud was exposed.  Other right-wing Israelis have attempted (and failed) to dupe me a number of times.  This is a game these people play.  As a professional journalist you develop a sixth sense about such fraud and usually can avoid it.  Given the circumstances of this hoax as portrayed in the Politico article, it seems clear that the ADL and other media outlets let their guard down, and violated basic rules of journalism (know your source, secure his bona fides, etc.)

I don’t know what’s going on in Greenblatt’s ADL.  But it has made a series of terrible choices and decisions of late.  Instead of catching extremists before they kill, it’s focused on non-existent threats like smearing Keith Ellison for attending a dinner whose guests included Louis Farrakhan; and demanding yet another denunciation by Barack Obama of Farrakhan after a photographer, seeking his moment of fame, dusted off a fourteen year-old photo of the future president at a Congressional Black Caucus luncheon which honored Farrakhan.

It’s also devoted precious resources to hounding social media platforms for not doing a better job of keeping anti-Israel content off social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Google.  It even hired a social media czar whose job is to permanently lobby for censorship of controversial content.  No doubt she’s also going to be responsible for doing serious fundraising amidst the enormous wealth in Silicon Valley.

Get your priorities straight, ADL.

The post ADL, Duped by White Supremacists, Plays Key Role in Spreading Parkland Shooter Hoax appeared first on Tikun Olam תיקון עולם.

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337 days ago
Don't follow ADL issues much but the description of weaponizing media through social and undermining trust is worth a look
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No, There Haven't Been 18 School Shootings This Year

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The horrific shooting that left 17 dead at a Florida high school this week was not, in fact, the 18th such incident this year.

Wait—you might be thinking—I've seen that number reported everywhere in the past two days. On news broadcasts, on social media, in official statements from senators and mayors (and celebrities). At this moment it is literally the first Google News result for the number "18."

Indeed, that statistic has been everywhere. It is also, as The Washington Post reported Thursday evening, "flat wrong." Unless your definition of "school shooting" is broad enough to include suicides in school parking lots or accidental gun discharges that didn't harm anyone.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the Michael Bloomberg–backed anti-gun group founded after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was the original source for that particular statistic. The group's initial tweet claiming that the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was the 18th school shooting in 2018 has now been retweeted more than 1,200 times. The group defines a school shooting is "any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds."

That is, of course, not what almost anyone means when they use the term "school shooting." It is foolish to group the Florida massacre with, say, a suicide in the parking lot of a Michigan school, especially when the Michigan school had been closed for months, but that's exactly what Everytown does. It's foolish, that is, unless your goal is to shock people with the biggest number possible. That might be what Everytown is trying to do, but such deception does nothing to help advance a discussion about stopping actual school shootings.

A quick review of Everytown's database turns up other outlandish examples. On January 10, "gunshots, which most likely originated off-campus, hit a window of the visual arts building at California State University, San Bernardino. Classes were immediately canceled as the university went into lockdown, though a police search failed to turn up any shooter on campus." On February 5, in a suburb of Minneapolis, "a school liaison officer was sitting on a bench talking with some students when a third-grader pressed the trigger on the officer's holstered weapon, causing it to fire and strike the floor." Those were no doubt terrifying incidents for the people involved, and they may even have policy implications, but they are not what anyone thinks of when they hear the phrase "school shootings."

But the media and several prominent politicians, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), eagerly regurgitated the context-free statistic in the aftermath of the shooting in Florida, apparently without stopping to wonder why they hadn't heard about the other 17 school shootings that supposedly had happened since January 1.

This isn't just an embarrassing case of confirmation bias. Spreading such misleading statistics affects how Americans—from ordinary working people to elected officials—understand and cope with these terrible incidents. It's similar to when Donald Trump falsely claimed that the American murder rate was at a 45-year high: Inflating the stats like that may have been politically expedient for Trump, but it didn't make it any easier to talk about how to craft policies to help those corners of America that really were seeing unusually high crime rates.

The media have a difficult, often thankless, task in the wake of high-profile crimes. Mistakes are bound to happen, and details are understandably difficult to come by in the first hours after a tragic incident. That's a reason to be more skeptical about seemingly shocking statistics, not less.

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338 days ago
Fact checking "18 school shootings in 2018" - Debate rule: when in doubt, define the term
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