How fake news brings people together in pursuit of profit

Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko, writing for Buzzfeed, on how a liberal troll and some Macedonian spammers both ended up profiting from spreading fake news:

There is perhaps no better expression of the current economics of internet content than an American liberal troll and spammers from the Balkans and Caucasus making money from completely fake online news aimed at American conservatives. The troll says he’s exposing ignorance, while the spammers are stealing any content that drives traffic and ad impressions. Regardless of motivation, the clicks and dollars are the same — and they reinforce the reality that misinformation about American politics is now an international business opportunity.

BuzzFeed News analyzed 11 hoaxes published by The Resistance that received the highest engagement on Facebook in the past two weeks and found they were copied and reposted by 48 different websites. Of those sites, 16 were confirmed using domain registration records as being run from Macedonia, 4 originated in Georgia, 2 are from Kosovo, and 1 is Bulgarian. The remaining 20 sites whose provenance is unconfirmed use similar WordPress themes to those run from Macedonia, and often post their content in the same pro-Trump Facebook groups used by Macedonians to spread their content. BuzzFeed News emailed 19 owners of the sites but did not receive any response.

How to radicalize your Facebook feed

Ryan Broderick did an experiment for Buzzfeed where he created a fake account for the purposes of getting only right wing news. While his conclusions aren’t super revelatory, it is notable how quickly things in his feed devolve from official RNC posts to fake news and neo-nazi memes. I’m curious what the results would be for a left-wing version of this test.

For their part, Facebook has denounced Broderick’s research.

Other publications have done similar research. For instance, The Wall Street Journal has a “Blue Feed Red Feed” feature that allows you to see posts from different across the political spectrum.

Also worth checking out: Broderick and his colleague, Katie Notopolous, created a glossary of far-right and memes that will be helpful to anyone trying to understand this world.

Why Megan Phelps-Roper left the Westboro Baptist Church

In this TED Talk, Megan Phelps-Roper shares the moving story of how she saw the light via Twitter and left the abusive ways of the Westboro Baptist Church. She concludes with suggestions on how it’s possible to persuade even the most closed off mind.

Her story is one of hope — hope that we can find mutual understanding in an increasingly polarized world. It is something we need today.

See also: This November 2015 feature on Phelps-Roper in The New Yorker.

Twitter Thread of the Day: Anand Giridharadas on Kansas hate crime

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and I see tons of amazing dialogue and reflections. Twitter Thread of the Day is a feature on my blog where I’ll try to share one thread that was particularly interesting, smart, moving, or impactful for me. Go here to read previous editions. 

Today’s TTOTD comes from Anand Giridharadas, who writes about the shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani in Kansas. The attack seems like a clear example of a hate crime, fueled by the current political climate that’s awash in anti-immigrant sentiment. Giridharadas explains how this happened.

[Note: If you’re ever featured here and don’t want to be, feel free to get in touch with me via email at davechen(AT)davechen(DOT)net]

Ignoring Trump is impossible

Farhad Manjoo, writing for The New York Times, about his attempt to ignore any news related to President Trump for one week:

On most days, Mr. Trump is 90 percent of the news on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and probably yours, too. But he’s not 90 percent of what’s important in the world. During my break from Trump news, I found rich coverage veins that aren’t getting social play. ISIS is retreating across Iraq and Syria. Brazil seems on the verge of chaos. A large ice shelf in Antarctica is close to full break. Scientists may have discovered a new continent submerged under the ocean near Australia.

There’s a reason you aren’t seeing these stories splashed across the news. Unlike old-school media, today’s media works according to social feedback loops. Every story that shows any signs of life on Facebook or Twitter is copied endlessly by every outlet, becoming unavoidable.

Trump is inescapable in ways that previous presidents have not been. It is impossible to discuss pop culture or media without considering his influence. We touched a bit on this in the most recent episode of the Gen Pop podcast.

The only thing I disagree with Manjoo about is that this level of Trump news “isn’t sustainable.” It can certainly be sustained if media decisionmakers wish it. But per Manjoo’s concerns above, it’s probably not advisable.

“If it arouses an emotional response in you, double-check it.”

Great article by Deena Shanker at Bloomberg, talking with experts on how to avoid fake news:

“My biggest rule of thumb is if it arouses an emotional response in you, double-check it,” said Brooke Binkowksi, managing editor at Snopes, a website that specializes in debunking popular internet myths from both the left and the right. “They upset you because they’re meant to.”

When a story seems outrageous, such as a five-year-old Syrian refugee shown in handcuffs before deportation, it might not be true—or entirely true. That Syrian girl wasn’t in handcuffs, her father said after he had heard the reports, and they aren’t refugees. The photo shows detained Syrians trying to go on vacation who, despite their visas, were denied entry and had to return home. Binkowski and D.C. Vito, executive director of the Lamp, which teaches media literacy in New York, suggest searching for a second source, especially when a story is incendiary.

Twitter Thread of the Day: Zeynep Tufekci on “Liberal Outrage”

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and I see tons of amazing dialogue and reflections. Twitter Thread of the Day is a feature on my blog where I’ll try to share one thread that was particularly interesting, smart, moving, or impactful for me.

Today’s TTOTD comes from Zeynep Tufecki, a scholar whose work I’ve admired for quite awhile. In the wake of a conservative personality’s book getting canceled and his speaking invitation at CPAC getting rescinded, Tufecki tweeted some trenchant insights about the forces that are really responsible for this. It’s not liberal outrage.

[Note: If you’re ever featured here and don’t want to be, feel free to get in touch with me via email at davechen(AT)davechen(DOT)net]

What’s Amy Heckerling up to these days?

Here’s a wonderful profile of Clueless director Amy Heckerling by Lindsay Zoladz, that’s as much an exploration of Heckerling’s career as it is about double standards in Hollywood:

Female directors have and will continue to set foot in uncharted territory — how can they not, when so much of it is uncharted? — and every so often a triumphant milestone makes the news. Frozen made codirector Jennifer Lee both the first woman to helm a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie and the first woman to direct a film that earned over $1 billion in gross box office revenue. When Ava DuVernay signed on last spring to direct the forthcoming blockbuster A Wrinkle in Time, she became the first woman of color to direct a live-action movie with a budget over $100 million. With this summer’s Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins will the first woman to direct a DC Comics movie. These are monumental achievements, but they are underscored by the immense pressure on these films to succeed, to stand for something larger than themselves; an unfair truth of the industry is that the opportunities for all women to direct superhero films in the future will be determined by how much money Jenkins’s Wonder Woman makes. The Female Director in the 21st century has cleared so many bars, but she has not yet achieved a milestone that’s less glamorous but no less important to both creativity and equality: the right to fail.

Blue Cities and Red States

David Graham at The Atlantic has a write-up on the increasing trend of blue cities in red states, and the resulting tension that can often arise:

Even the reddest states contain liberal cities: Half of the U.S. metro areas with the biggest recent population gains are in the South, and they are Democratic. Texas alone is home to four such cities; Clinton carried each of them. Increasingly, the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within.

Nowhere has this tension been more dramatic than in North Carolina. The state made headlines last March when its GOP-dominated general assembly abruptly overturned a Charlotte ordinance banning discrimination against LGBT people (and stating, among other things, that transgender people could use the bathroom of their choice). Legislators didn’t just reverse Charlotte’s ordinance, though; the state law, HB2, also barred every city in the state from passing nondiscrimination regulations, and banned local minimum-wage laws, too.

SNL and the logic of interviewing Kellyanne Conway

SNL delivered a mixed bag of an episode with guest Alec Baldwin last night, but there were a couple sketches that really stood out. The first is the cold open with Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, which continues to be a highlight. The second is this bit about Jake Tapper and Kellyanne Conway:

I was surprised the Conway/CNN kerfuffle had risen to the level of SNL parody, but it is an interesting one to me: CNN passed on having Kellyanne Conway on “State of the Union” last week, a fact that Conway disputed. Why? Because the journalistic value of interviewing Conway has become suspect.

Jay Rosen has been on the anti-Conway warpath for awhile, and he makes some pretty astute observations about how journalists should treat Conway. In an interview with Recode, Rosen lays out his reasoning:

I don’t think the people interviewing Kellyanne Conway know why they’re doing that, meaning that the journalistic logic of it is growing dimmer with every interview […]

The logic is, “This is a representative of the president. This is somebody who can speak for the Trump administration.” If we find that what Kellyanne Conway says is routinely or easily contradicted by Donald Trump, then that rationale disappears. Another reason to interview Kellyanne Conway is our viewers want to understand how the Trump world thinks. If what the end result of an interview with her is is more confusion about what the Trump world thinks, then that rationale evaporates.

 

Never doubt the power of SNL

The other day, Melissa McCarthy lampooned White House press secretary Sean Spicer in a devastating Saturday Night Live sketch. Over the weekend, Donald Trump was strangely silent about the episode on Twitter. Now, in a report from Politico, the fallout:

More than being lampooned as a press secretary who makes up facts, it was Spicer’s portrayal by a woman that was most problematic in the president’s eyes, according to sources close to him. And the unflattering send-up by a female comedian was not considered helpful for Spicer’s longevity in the grueling, high-profile job, where he has struggled to strike the right balance between representing an administration that considers the media the “opposition party,” and developing a functional relationship with the press.

“Trump doesn’t like his people to look weak,” added a top Trump donor.

Trump’s uncharacteristic Twitter silence over the weekend about the “Saturday Night Live” sketch was seen internally as a sign of how uncomfortable it made the White House feel. Sources said the caricature of Spicer by McCarthy struck a nerve and was upsetting to the press secretary and to his allies, who immediately saw how damaging it could be in Trumpworld.

Melissa McCarthy’s impression of Sean Spicer on SNL

McCarthy’s impression was funny, but I’m more curious about what impact this will have on our actual politics, and on the White House’s relationship with the media. In saner times, Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin showed it could re-shape the popular perception of a vice presidential candidate from a major political party. That was before we had a president who actually seems to watch SNL somewhat regularly and complain about it on Twitter.

I appreciated Emily Nussbaum’s take on it:

It seems possible that Spicer, already a target of Trump’s occasional anger, may face some kind of reckoning for it.

The life of a refugee

I linked to this piece by Julia Ioffe in a link round-up recently, but I wanted to call it out again because it is a moving, beautiful piece of journalism:

[T]o most people watching the refugee crisis unfold, the refugees detained and turned back at airports across the country are likely abstractions, too. They do not see what brought them there or the bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine they had to navigate to be deemed safe and responsible refugees.

I look at them and I see us, sitting in that strangely lit room with the Immigration and Naturalization Service officers who processed us and to whom, I’m sure, we were an abstraction, and who didn’t tell us that the way we transliterated our last name was stupid and that people would forever after think it began with lowercase L and not an uppercase I. But I think about that room and the refugee cards they filled out, cards we still have to this day, and what would have happened if we too had been turned back.

Where would we have gone? We were people without a home, without a country. We had been stripped of our Soviet citizenship, we had sold everything to pay the four steep fines for having four citizenships stripped from us, and we certainly didn’t have enough money left over for four plane tickets back, back to a country we no longer belonged to and wouldn’t have us. After all that paperwork and waiting, where would we go?

The coming culture war

Over at Autostraddle, Kieryn Darkwater has written about how her ultra-conservative upbringing prepared her to participate in a gradual takeover of the U.S. government:

Generation Joshua started in 2003, primarily catering to children homeschooled by extremely religious rightwing adults. Its purpose was to train us to fight in what the Christofascists have been calling the “Culture Wars.” It’s a loose and ambiguous term that basically means anything or anyone that doesn’t align with this very specific view of Christianity must not be allowed to continue.

How do you do that? Well, you overturn Roe v. Wade, Griswold v. Connecticut, Brown v. Board of Education and Bob Jones v. The United States. Each of these decisions currently protects reproductive rights or non-discrimination based on race. As retribution, you amend the Constitution to discriminate against queers, trans people, women and people of color. Then, you make laws legislating morality. The only way to do this is to infiltrate the government; so Generation Joshua, TeenPact and other organizations exist to indoctrinate and recruit homeschooled youth who have ample free time to participate in politics. The biggest resources for teaching civil discourse are the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association and Communicators for Christ (since renamed Institute for Cultural Communicators). Through these programs we learned how to argue effectively. As students, we were taught critical thinking skills but given only a narrow view of what was acceptable to argue for. We were, after all, being trained to take over the country for Christ, literally. We knew how to perform logical gymnastics about abortion, Christianity and any evangelical talking point you could throw at us.

The piece is a chilling and essential read. I was raised in a Christian household but our views were not nearly as hardline, radical, or far-reaching.

This piece illustrates that when it comes to the culture war, Christians (or “Christofascists”, as Darkwater refers to them) aren’t just winning; they are playing an entirely different game that liberals probably don’t even conceive of.

Ignorance is strength

Yesterday I re-blogged a couple pieces by Yonatan Zunger that make the case the Trump administration is systematically testing our government for weaknesses. But what if it just seems that way?

In a post on his blog, Tom Pepinsky makes the case that things often aren’t what they appear:

An essay by Yonatan Zunger entitled “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” is making the rounds. Such essays are frightening to many. And yet they must be read critically. I am equally taken by the argument that everything that Zunger identifies is evidence not of a deliberate planning by an aspiring authoritarian, but of the exact opposite: the weakness and incoherence of administration by a narcissist.

One of the many things that studying authoritarian politics has taught me is that from the perspective of the outsider, weak leaders often act like strong leaders, and strong leaders often act like they are indifferent. Weak leaders have every incentive to portray themselves as stronger than they are in order to get their way. They gamble on splashy policies. They escalate crises. This is just as true for democrats as for dictators.

 

What happens next

Yonatan Zunger has written a couple of pieces that are essential reading for anyone concerned about the events of the past week.

First, “What ‘Things Going Wrong’ Looks Like”:

Ultimately, that’s part of a broader pattern: when people are already stretched to their absolute limit emotionally, with financial stresses, family stresses, medical stresses, lack of a clear future stresses, then hearing anyone else ask for something — even if that something is as simple as “the right to walk down the street without being murdered” — feels like an added imposition. And that can lead to a backlash, not just from people who are inherently racist or the like, but also from people who aren’t and just don’t want yet another thing dropped on their plate. But when that’s a backlash against a basic request to be allowed to live (or go to the bathroom, or any other basic aspect of human life), that takes on a much nastier property.

TL;DR – everyone needs to be vigilant against for signs of oppression against minorities in the days to come. Because things have the potential to get very, very bad.

In “Trial Balloon for a Coup?”, Zunger lays out the evidence that the Trump administration’s ban on Muslim travelers was a test of our institutions:

Note also the most frightening escalation last night was that the DHS made it fairly clear that they did not feel bound to obey any court orders. CBP continued to deny all access to counsel, detain people, and deport them in direct contravention to the court’s order, citing “upper management,” and the DHS made a formal (but confusing) statement that they would continue to follow the President’s orders. (See my updates from yesterday, and the various links there, for details) Significant in today’s updates is any lack of suggestion that the courts’ authority played a role in the decision.

That is to say, the administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

Yesterday was the trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States. It gave them useful information.