Sen. Feinstein threatens to “do something” about social media

Photo by Camille Fine

The Senate Intelligence Committee held hearings today on Russia’s use of social media during the 2016 election, questioning representatives of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. These panels come on the heels of yesterday’s Judiciary Committee meeting on the same subject, where Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) was apparently frustrated by the companies’ failure to grasp the extent of the problem. Or she was mad they didn’t send their CEOs. Either way, the senator spoke sharply to the tech company representatives. I quote The Hill:

What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country…You have a huge problem on your hands. You have created these platforms and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.

Um…the federal government is going to do something about social media? Surely Senator Feinstein was not talking about censorship. Perhaps she only meant the government would do something about which foreign entities can post material on American websites. You know, like Americans can see tweets from friendly countries but not from Russia. Or maybe there could be some kind of system where we only see news the government has certified as real. Whatever it is, I’m sure the feds can find some way to prevent people from using social media to “sow conflict and discontent.”

Three problems leap to mind, here. The first is that we still don’t know to what extent Russia influenced the last election, and what portion of that influence can be attributed to social media. You can call phony news stories about Hillary Clinton “the beginning of cyber warfare,” but that doesn’t describe what happened; that describes how you intend to respond. So the first problem is that we’re starting from the assumption that Russia or some other hostile outside force is responsible for the bad consequences of social media, when we’re not actually certain they are.

The second problem is that Feinstein is talking about this presumed foreign meddling as though it were a war. The thing about war is that it justifies a lot of responses that are otherwise unthinkable. Normally, when the American public shows signs of “conflict and discontent,” we do not want the government to do something about it. But when conflict and discontent are the product of malevolent foreign influence, and we’re at war, then maybe the feds should step in to regulate a formerly free exchange of ideas. This country has already shown a willingness, in history and in recent years, to violate basic constitutional principles in the name of war. So the second problem is that the senator is militarizing this issue and, in the same stroke, suggesting that the government might regulate speech.

The third problem is that Senator Feinstein is 84 years old. I bet she’s a canny old lady, but I also bet she refers to each message she receives as “a Facebook.” When she tells executives from these companies that “I don’t think you get it,” she introduces the possibility that in fact she is the one who does not understand how these platforms work. This problem is potentially endemic to the senate. The average age of a US senator is 61 years old. Of all the 61 year-olds you know, how many have a keen grasp of social media and its relevance to American discourse?

Feinstein is facing a primary challenge next year, and it’s entirely possible she was only grandstanding. It doesn’t seem likely that the same Congress that couldn’t repeal Obamacare will agree on a comprehensive plan to regulate social media. Still, these remarks are unsettling. “Hostile agents have infiltrated our discourse to sow division” is a classic rationale for censorship. Show me a government that regulates speech, and I’ll show you one that’s protecting its people from the corrosive influence of foreigners.

Here’s an example of alt-right writers knowingly deceiving readers

Counter-protestors unfurl a fake banner in front of protestors against Mike Cernovich.

Yesterday, we discussed the “fundamentally unanswerable” question of whether people who read and share alt-right media actually believe the reporting. Do the readers of Gateway Pundit really think that “Antifa super-soldiers” plan to behead white parents on November 4th? One hopes not. Maybe they read Gateway Pundit the same way an older generation read the Weekly World News—as a publication that shares their outlook and makes up stories in that vein. There’s no way to know. I bet if you asked die-hard readers of the Weekly World News whether the stories were true, they’d say they believed every word. That’s how they get in on the joke.

Anyway, one thing we could say for certain was that the author of “ANTIFA Leader: ‘November 4th […] millions of antifa supersoldiers will behead all white parents'” did not believe it himself. Bard graduate and credentialed White House correspondent Lucian Wintrich did not mistake an ironic tweet for a leaked terrorist conspiracy. Here’s his intellectually dishonest justification, the next day, for describing a known Twitter ironist as an “Antifa leader.” Quote:

In Anarchist groups, groups with no real organizational structure, those who control the general conversation and are in positions of influence are leaders…Seeing as [the user] has a far left Twitter audience that includes many members of ANTIFA, I stand by the report.

By that reasoning, Bob Dylan is an ANTIFA leader, too. It’s a real stretch from “those who control the conversation are leaders” to a plan for mass beheadings on a specified date, and Wintrich surely knows it. He’s either intentionally misleading his audience or refusing to break kayfabe, or some cynical combination of both. He’s just one guy, though. Maybe other alt-right personalities really do believe their own wildly inaccurate news.

Here’s an example of alt-right “journalists” reporting a story they know isn’t true, though. Last night, demonstrators at Columbia University protested a speech by Mike Cernovich. At some point, unnamed persons approached a group of protestors and asked them to hold the banner pictured above. We don’t know who did that, but we can assume they were not, in fact, joint representatives of Antifa, ResistNY, and the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The banner was fake. Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz tweeted a picture identifying it as fake. Then multiple alt-right personalities, including Cernovich, used that picture in tweets and reports that presented the banner as real. We can be certain that at least one of them read the original tweet and knew the banner was a hoax, because Cernovich took down his tweet after Offenhartz sent him a copyright complaint. Yet the picture has been shared thousands of times as proof that Columbia students marched against Cernovich and in defense of pedophilia.

Again, maybe all those alt-right personalities reported a story they knew to be false with the certainty that their audience was in on the joke. We don’t say pro wrestlers are willfully deceiving their fans; they’re putting on a show. But Cernovich, of all people, should not tell himself that no one takes him seriously. He was a prime exponent of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which led to an armed man trying to raid a Washington, DC pizzeria that he believed housed a child sex ring. At a certain point, Cernovich can no longer tell himself it’s all for fun. At a certain point, he must know that he is simply lying to people, on as a large a scale as he can, for as much money as he can get ahold of. I wonder how he feels.

Gateway Pundit reports that Antifa plans to “behead white parents”

White House correspondent and prematurely evil-looking millennial Lucian Wintrich

Antifa: What is it? We know that it is an organization, although it is the kind of organization with no leadership, structure, or system of membership. We also know they are terrorists: the kind of terrorists who have not been implicated in any deaths or proven to destroy property, although it is generally agreed they start fires at demonstrations. Most importantly, they are the same as Nazis: the kind of Nazis who only target Nazis, and who do not assert the supremacy of any particular ethnic group, but Nazis nonetheless. The important thing about Antifa is that it is a real and dangerous entity bent on destroying America, a la Black Lives Matter or George Soros. This morning, Gateway Pundit warned its readers that an Antifa leader had announced on Twitter that he “can’t wait for November 4th when millions of antifa supersoldiers will behead all white parents and small business owners in the town square.”

The original tweet has since been deleted, but it seems like a joke—specifically, a joke referencing the suspension of lefty Twitter humorist Krang T. Nelson. A mildly popular ironist who has publicly claimed to be the “leader of Antifa” is probably not the leader of Antifa. If he were, he would probably not leak their mass murder plan and its date in a tweet. And if this were the plan, it would probably not involve this homage to Looney Tunes. Yet the Gateway Pundit piece cites that tweet as further evidence of Antifa’s plans, in a barely readable explainer/screed by honest-to-god White House correspondent Lucian Wintrich. It’s amazing that the White House gave this person a credential. But what’s really amazing is how many right-wing personalities seem to believe his article was true.

“Seem to” is the operative phrase here. Gateway Pundit might have the dumbest readership on the whole internet. The site has its own sub-category on Snopes. Its business is built on monetizing the credulity of shut-ins, but Wintrich is presumably not one such credulous weirdo. He went to Bard—an institution that attracts plenty of rich dummies but also coats them in that veneer of sophistication which does not mistake irony for sincerity. Reading that article, the question that leaps to mind is “What kind of person believes this?” The answer is not “Lucian Wintrich.”

Here’s a more interesting question: Do his readers believe it either? It is entirely possible that Gateway Pundit is the Weekly World News for right-wingers. They agree with the sentiment, not the reporting, and it’s fun to pretend they buy it on Facebook. That’s what I hope for, anyway—a readership of provocateurs rather than credulous crypto-fascists. But this is one of those questions that is fundamentally unanswerable. The defining feature of Gateway Pundit is its epistemic instability. Only two things are certain here. One, Bard should produce better writers than this:

The Antifa movement evolved from college level indoctrination and was then fueled by the mainstream media after they began labelling President Trump and his supporters as “Nazis” or “fascists.” Through this, the “Harry Potter” dweebs decided to pickup bike-locks and go bashing their “enemies” over the head (*cough* *cough* Eric Clanton). It is supreme immaturity that leads to one galavanting around the streets under the collective title of Antifa.

And two, Bill Mitchell should know better.

Friday links! Grifters in a gilded age edition

A turn-of-the century cartoon published by the American Federation of Labor

The big historical misconception of the Gilded Age is that it was an age of great wealth, when really it was an age of widespread poverty. Between 1870 and 1900, growing industrialization and the sudden interconnection of markets by rail made a small number of American industrialists insanely rich. The Gilded Age produced the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie fortunes. It also impoverished millions of ordinary Americans, who went from self-employment as small farmers and independent craftsmen to working in mills and on railroads—often for sprawling trusts, usually with little control over hours or conditions, and invariably for low wages in an economy driven by industrial-strength inflation. The Gilded Age made a few people rich at the expense of everyone else. It is named for the 1873 novel by Mark Twain, and the whole point of “gilded” is that the gold only covered the surface. Beneath it lay something base that the wealthy wanted to cover up. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m thinking about this in the 21st century, during our second industrial revolution. I guess I’m just savoring the fact that nothing like that could happen now. Today is Friday, and our age remains totally un-gilded. Won’t you insist that everything is fine with me?

Continue reading

No one can beat John Engen

Mayor John Engen and a guy who loves him—photo by Engen For Mayor Facebook

One fun thing about Missoula politics is that there are no polls. For all we know, Mayor John Engen won’t win a fourth term in next month’s election. Anyone who wants to bet that he won’t should contact me via email. In 2013, the last time he ran for re-election, he faced three opponents and got about 65% of the vote. This time it’s just Lisa Triepke, who was the subject of two Missoulian stories last week about the two houses, motorhome and used car she bought while she was also getting food stamps. Later in the week, the state found that she had committed at least 23 campaign finance reporting violations.

The Missoulian endorsed her opponent. One thing they did not mention is that he used to work there. Mayor Engen has enjoyed friendly coverage from Missoula’s only daily newspaper. For example, when he secretly enrolled in a 28-day inpatient treatment program for alcoholism last year, the Missoulian reported that he would be gone indefinitely for undisclosed medical reasons and left the story at that. He came back clean a month later and told us all what happened, simultaneously announcing that he would run for a fourth term.

All this is to say that the mayor’s position is comfortable. Sometimes it feels too comfortable, like when his estimate of how much we would pay in legal fees to buy the water company was off by a factor of twenty. The Mountain Water saga was a testament to the mayor’s power—both its efficacy and its potential to run unchecked. If buying the water works had proven to be a boondoggle, a goose chase, a white-whale scenario, who in Missoula’s existing political landscape would have stopped it?

It’s worth thinking about as we all get ready to vote him into office again. I know I’m planning to vote Engen, because Lisa Triepke does not seem like she would do a better job. Still, might the man himself do a better job if he were vying for our affection with someone else? That’s the subject of this week’s column in the Missoula Independent which, I admit, is strictly for the hardcore. But I recommend you follow Missoula politics from afar. They’re worth it for entertainment value alone.