A Look At Bernie TV

While we don’t have Bernie Sanders in the White House, but we can see much more of him on line. New York Magazine has a feature on Bernie Sanders’s digital media empire. Here are some excerpts from a much longer article:

The Vermont senator, who’s been comparing corporate television programming to drugs and accusing it of creating a “nation of morons” since at least 1979 — and musing to friends about creating an alternative news outlet for at least as long — has spent the last year and a half building something close to a small network out of his office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill…

Sanders hosts an interview show (“The Bernie Sanders Show”) that he started streaming over Facebook Live on a semi-regular basis after his staff got the idea in February of 2017 to film the senator chatting with the activist Rev. Dr. William Barber. After they posted that simple clip and it earned hundreds of thousands of views with no promotion, they experimented with more seriously producing Sanders’s conversation days later with Bill Nye.

The chat with the Science Guy ended up with 4.5 million views. Sensing an opportunity, the next day Sanders’s aides turned down multiple network TV requests and took his response to Trump’s first address to Congress directly to his Facebook page.

Things escalated. Audio recordings of his conversations, repackaged as a podcast, have since occasionally reached near the top of iTunes’ list of popular programs. Sanders’s press staff — three aides, including Armand Aviram, a former producer at NowThis News, and three paid interns — published 550 original short, policy-focused videos on Facebook and Twitter in 2017 alone. And, this year, he has begun experimenting with streaming town-hall-style programs on Facebook. Each of those live events has outdrawn CNN on the night it aired.

“The idea that we can do a town meeting which would get a significantly larger viewing audience than CNN at that time is something I would not have dreamed of in a million years, a few years ago,” Sanders says…

Sanders’s splashiest offerings are the spare 30-minute interviews with figures like Nye, Al Gore, and Bill de Blasio conducted in a small Senate studio. But the bulk of his programming are the short, tightly produced, and highly shareable videos that cover everything from Trump administration greed and lessons to learn from Canada’s health-care scheme to explainers from his staff (“John Bolton Should Scare Everyone,” says his foreign policy adviser in one recent offering) and real people’s straight-to-camera testimonials about their experiences with health care or tax systems. Only around one-quarter of the videos feature Sanders himself, though each is branded with his name…

As with everything Sanders does in the Trump age, the question his allies and enemies are now considering is what it all means if he runs for president again. Sanders would be 79 on Inauguration Day 2021, but he’s held rallies across the country since his last run, and he’s convened his top advisers to discuss what such a campaign would look like.

His newfound ability to reach masses of voters directly doesn’t explicitly play into his electoral considerations, Weaver told me. But it looms large: The political team’s major project since that race has been to maximize Sanders’s ability to drive his movement forward directly, whether it’s through his videos or Our Revolution, the post-campaign political group it started.

Matt Taibbi Tries To Explain Why We Should Avoid War With A Nuclear Power

Add Matt Taibbi to those I mentioned yesterday warning about going to war in Syria. He has an article in Rolling Stone entitled,  If We’re on the Brink of War, the Fault Is Ours, Not Trump’s or Bolton’s.

So here we are, on the brink. Here’s Donald Trump’s tough-ass tweet about how he’s about to mix it up with both Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin:

Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!  –Donald J. trump 

The fate of humanity now rests in the hands of this Twitter-obsessed dingbat executive and his new national security adviser, John Bolton – one of the most deranged people to have ever served in the United States government, a man who makes Jeane Kirkpatrick look like Florence Nightingale.

With these two at the helm, we are now facing the imminent possibility of direct military conflict with a nuclear enemy. No one in the popular press is saying it, but there could easily be Russian casualties in Trump’s inevitable bombing campaign. Which will then put the onus on a third lunatic, Vladimir Putin, to respond with appropriate restraint.

Ironically, pretty much the only places where you will read today about the frightening possibility of Russian casualties are in military journals, in the nervous musings of Pentagon officials. Here and there you will see reports of concern about what might happen if we kill the wrong Russians, or the wrong quantity of Russians. One outlet calmly suggested the Russians might step up “harassment” of U.S. warplanes and outposts if we kill too many of theirs, as if this would not cause the whole world to soil itself in terror.

So to recap: the most terminally insecure president ever sits in the White House, advised by one of the most war-crazy hacks in the history of federal service, at the outset of a fully avoidable proxy war with an enemy that possesses thousands of lethal thermonuclear warheads aimed directly at us.

Bear in mind that virtually any exchange of nuclear missiles between these two countries would mean the absolute end of civilization. We could all, right now, be minutes away from the end of everything, especially given who holds the respective buttons.

Taibbi notes that there was hope for a different outcome:

But we had a head start in dodging the bullet with Trump, as one of the few not-terrifying qualities he demonstrated as a candidate was his seeming reluctance to get into unnecessary wars. Trump was specifically on record as wanting to “stay out of Syria.”

Taibbi notes that Trump’s isolationism was “at least partly insincere.” He also notes that, “unlike his racism and xenophobia and lack of sympathy for the poor – issues where there are obvious currents visible in what passes for his mind – Trump is highly suggestible in matters military.”

Unfortunately any attempts to influence Trump have been in the wrong direction:

As president, however, the one time he received praise from the Washington consensus was when he bombed Assad last year. You might remember that as the time when Fareed Zakaria gushed on CNN, “Donald Trump became president tonight,” and a tumescent Brian Williams countered by calling the bombs “beautiful” 8 times in 30 seconds, quoting Leonard Cohen as he said, “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Taibbi next showed several examples of Trump receiving criticism for talking about leaving Syria and many, including Democrats like Howard Dean, taking the wrong position. Taibbi wrote:

“Trump’s Syria Policy Isn’t Retrenchement, It’s Pandering,” sneeredForeign Policy.

“Chaos reigns with his president,” said Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono, calling the withdrawal plan “incoherent.”

Howard Dean, a man I once voted for because he at least tepidly opposed a pointless Middle Eastern war, decided to use this occasion to taunt Trump in schoolyard fashion.

“Why are you such a wimp for Assad and Putin?” Dean tweeted.

This is just one of the reasons why I am glad I did not trust or vote for Howard Dean in 2004.

Taibbi concluded by repeating the consequences of those who now advocate attacking Syria over the alleged poison gas attack:

One could maybe understand this attitude from millennials, who weren’t raised amid The Day After or “99 Luftballoons” or “1999” or Failsafe or Dr. Strangelove even, and have never experienced even fake angst about growing up under the specter of nuclear war. But all the preceding generations should know better. We all grew up aware it could all be over in a heartbeat.

This is probably the most serious showdown between nuclear powers since the Cuban missile crisis, or at the very least, the shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007 in 1983.

The oft-derided Doomsday Clock, kept by the Union of Atomic Scientists, describes us as closer to nuclear war than at any time since 1953, when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear weapons for the first time. “The continued existence of urban, technological civilization will soon hang in a precarious balance,” the Scientists predicted then…

That Trump might forget the awesome danger of nuclear war is a given. The man is a fool. But what’s our excuse?

Taibbi’s Twitter page shows that many others are as foolish as Trump. For example: “Hacking our election was an act of war. No different than Pearl Harbor. I’d proudly fight if I were younger. Remember our Hillary!!! ”

Tabbi replied: “How do you think war with Russia goes? With rifles and bayonets, like at Iwo Jima? This is the nuclear age. In the best case, it’s a big noise, most everyone dies, and the lucky ones get fifty years of MREs.”

Remember Hillary? The ultra-hawk who is just barely less dangerous than John Bolton? She’s the one who supported Syria bombing last year, and who previously supported greater intervention in Syria, which would have placed us at considerable risk of confrontation with Russia. To compare trivial meddling in the election, which had no effect on the result, to Pearl Harbor is utterly insane. Yet many have been making exactly that comparison, or comparing it to 9/11.

Another uninformed reader tweeted, “Putin’s possession of nukes does not mean he intends upon using them or HAS THE CAPABILITY OF USING THEM. Putin actually believes his delivery systems are worthless for the exact same reason that i do. our missile defenses are much further developed than disclosed.”

Does anyone in their right mind really think that it is worth risking a nuclear attack?

As I tweeted and posted on Facebook: “My opposition to going to war with a nuclear power over inconsequential Facebook ads or even a suspected poison gas attack does not mean I support either Putin or Assad. It means I oppose the destruction of the earth in a nuclear holocaust.

More Evidence Facebook Helped Trump Beat Clinton, And It Had Nothing To Do With Russia

There has been a lot of question as to whether Russian  activities on social media were responsible for Donald Trump winning. This does not appear likely as the Congressional testimony revealed that information from Russian Facebook pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Over half the ads were not even seen until after the election, and many had nothing to do with promoting Trump over Clinton. The Russian purchased Facebook ads also targeted deep blue states over battleground states or the rust belt states which cost Clinton the election.

It is also questionable whether people changed their votes from arguments seen on social media, with many people seeking out similar viewpoints and resisting those they disagree with. If Facebook was a benefit to Donald Trump, it was probably due Facebook embedding their employees in the campaign to assist in the use of advertising, as I discussed in January. The Clinton campaign did not take advantage of such assistance, which was likely to be far more helpful to Trump than the amateurish Russian ads.

We have now learned more about how the Trump campaign utilized Facebook more effectively from a paper obtained by Bloomberg News:

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has boasted often that it made better use of Facebook Inc.’s advertising tools than Hillary Clinton’s campaign did. An internal Facebook white paper, published days after the election, shows the company’s data scientists agree.

“Both campaigns spent heavily on Facebook between June and November of 2016,” the author of the internal paper writes, citing revenue of $44 million for Trump and $28 million for Clinton in that period. “But Trump’s FB campaigns were more complex than Clinton’s and better leveraged Facebook’s ability to optimize for outcomes.”

The paper, obtained by Bloomberg and discussed here for the first time, describes in granular detail the difference between Trump’s campaign, which was focused on finding new donors, and Clinton’s campaign, which concentrated on ensuring Clinton had broad appeal. The data scientist says 84 percent of Trump’s budget asked people on Facebook to take an action, like donating, compared with 56 percent of Clinton’s…

Trump ran 5.9 million different versions of ads during the presidential campaign and rapidly tested them to spread those that generated the most Facebook engagement, according to the paper. Clinton ran 66,000 different kinds of ads in the same period.

Using Facebook more effectively is more likely to have helped than the Russian ads did. However, some will always find a way to get back to Russia. The article raises the question, “Did Russian operatives give the Trump campaign a list of names to include or exclude from advertising that was running on Facebook?” Based upon how amateurish the Russian ad campaign was, it is rather doubtful that Russia had such information. It is far more likely that other sources available to a political campaign provided any list of names. This could include sources normally available to major political parties, or possibly Cambridge Analytica.

Study Shows How Ineffective Twitter Bots Are In Changing Political Views

This study is not at all surprising, but provides yet another reason to doubt those who claim that the election was stolen from Hillary Clinton due to Russian trolls or other unfavorable comments on social media. The study looked at people arguing politics on Twitter and, as I could have told them, people do not change their political views based upon arguments on line. Here is the abstract:

There is mounting concern that social media sites contribute to political polarization by creating  “echo chambers” that insulate people from opposing views about current events. We surveyed a large sample of Democrats and Republicans who visit Twitter at least three times each week about a range of social policy issues. One week later, we randomly assigned respondents to a treatment condition in which they were offered financial incentives to follow a Twitter bot for one month that exposed them to messages produced by elected officials, organizations, and other opinion leaders with opposing political ideologies. Respondents were re-surveyed at the end of the month to measure the effect of this treatment, and at regular intervals throughout the study period to monitor treatment compliance. We find that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative post-treatment, and Democrats who followed a conservative Twitter bot became slightly more liberal post-treatment. These findings have important implications for the interdisciplinary literature on political polarization as well as the emerging field of computational social science.

It is very doubtful that people changed their view of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump based upon Russian bots or anything else they read on Twitter.

I bet that the same would apply to Facebook. Of course there are also multiple other reasons to question the claims that Russian bots or others caused Clinton to lose, as I most recently discussed in this post. Censoring social media, as Hillary Clinton has been suggesting, and Facebook has been practicing, would serve no positive purpose. There are obviously strong reasons to resist such censorship, although establishment Democrats appear oblivious to the impact on civil liberties.

(Hat tip to Salon for link to study).

Five Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria

The claim that the 2016 election was stolen due to the actions of Russian trolls is one of the most absurd political arguments ever made. As I’ve noted previously, the Congressional testimony revealed that Russian Facebook ads and Tweets represented a minuscule amount of their traffic. Material from Russian pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Half of it was not seen until after the election, much of it was not supporting Trump over Clinton, and much of it was hilariously unconvincing and amateurish. Phillip Bump added that, rather than targeting the battleground states, ads were concentrated in states such as New York and Texas which had no impact on the election results.

The claim that Russia stole the election based upon their actions on social media is harmful as it gives establishment Democrats an excuse to resist reform. It plays into the hands of neocons who desire regime change in Russia, with their claims about Russia being no more truthful than their claims about WMD in Iraq. It is also an attack on freedom of speech, and has led to McCarthyism from establishment Democrats who claim that criticism stems from support for Putin.

Reason has produced the above video on 5 Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria.  They also summarized the arguments:

1) Russian trolling was a drop in the bucket.

2) Russian trolls were not very sophisticated.

Russian trolls supposedly had the Machiavellian know-how to infiltrate the American political system, but their social media posts don’t look very sophisticated. The posts often featured broken English and puzzling topic choices. A postpromoting a “buff” Bernie Sanders coloring book, for instance, noted that “the coloring is something that suits for all people.” Another post showed Jesus and Satan in an arm wrestling match under this caption: “SATAN: IF I WIN CLINTON WINS! JESUS: NOT IF I CAN HELP IT!” The post generated very few clicks and shares.

3) Russian troll rallies apparently did not attract many participants.

The indictment makes much of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rallies instigated by Russian trolls, but it does not say how many people participated. The New York Times reported that a Russian-organized rally in Texas opposing Shariah law attracted a dozen people. An anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in Idaho drew four people. Attendance at other rallies was similarly sparse.

4) Russian trolling probably didn’t change anyone’s mind.

Broken English aside, the social media posts were not qualitatively different from content created by American activists, and they seemed to be aimed mainly at reinforcing pre-existing beliefs and divisions. The Russians might have gotten a few Trump supporters to show up at anti-Clinton rallies, but that does not mean they had an impact on the election.

5) Russian troll hysteria depicts free speech as a kind of violence.

The Justice Department describes the messages posted by Russians pretending to be Americans as “information warfare.” But while the posts may have been sophomoric, inaccurate, and illogical, that does not distinguish them from most of what passes for online political discussion among actual Americans. The integrity of civic discourse does not depend on verifying the citizenship of people who participate in it. It depends on the ability to weigh what they say, checking it against our own values and information from other sources. If voters cannot do that, maybe democracy isdoomed. But if so, it’s not the Russians’ fault.

China’s Social Credit System Sounds Orwellian, And Like An Extension Of Current Facebook Censorship

Recent reports on China’s  social credit system sound Orwellian, or like something out of Black Mirror. The Verge summarized how the system works:

Starting in May, Chinese citizens who rank low on the country’s burgeoning “social credit” system will be in danger of being banned from buying plane or train tickets for up to a year, according to statements recently released by the country’s National Development and Reform Commission.

With the social credit system, the Chinese government rates citizens based on things like criminal behavior and financial misdeeds, but also on what they buy, say, and do. Those with low “scores” have to deal with penalties and restrictions. China has been working towards rolling out a full version of the system by 2020, but some early versions of it are already in place.

Previously, the Chinese government had focused on restricting the travel of people with massive amounts of debt, like LeEco and Faraday Future founder Jia Yueting, who made the Supreme People’s Court blacklist late last year.

The new travel restrictions are the latest addition to this growing patchwork of social engineering, which has already imposed punishments on more than seven million citizens. And there’s a broad range when it comes to who can be flagged. Citizens who have spread “false information about terrorism,” caused “trouble” on flights, used expired tickets, or were caught smoking on trains could all be banned, according to Reuters.

But the system, as it stands, is opaque; citizens are seemingly just as likely to be flagged for minor infractions like leaving bikes parked in a footpath or issuing apologies that are deemed “insincere” as major credit defaulters like Jia. And it’s often unclear whether they’re on a blacklist in the first place, let alone what kind of recourse is available. “Chinese government authorities clearly hope to create a reality in which bureaucratic pettiness could significantly limit people’s rights,” Maya Wang, senior researcher for the non-profit NGO Human Rights Watch, wrote in December.

Wired has further information on how the system works:

Individuals on Sesame Credit are measured by a score ranging between 350 and 950 points. Alibaba does not divulge the “complex algorithm” it uses to calculate the number but they do reveal the five factors taken into account. The first is credit history. For example, does the citizen pay their electricity or phone bill on time? Next is fulfilment capacity, which it defines in its guidelines as “a user’s ability to fulfil his/her contract obligations”. The third factor is personal characteristics, verifying personal information such as someone’s mobile phone number and address. But the fourth category, behaviour and preference, is where it gets interesting.

Under this system, something as innocuous as a person’s shopping habits become a measure of character. Alibaba admits it judges people by the types of products they buy. “Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,” says Li Yingyun, Sesame’s Technology Director. “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.” So the system not only investigates behaviour – it shapes it. It “nudges” citizens away from purchases and behaviours the government does not like.

Friends matter, too. The fifth category is interpersonal relationships. What does their choice of online friends and their interactions say about the person being assessed? Sharing what Sesame Credit refers to as “positive energy” online, nice messages about the government or how well the country’s economy is doing, will make your score go up…

Posting dissenting political opinions or links mentioning Tiananmen Square has never been wise in China, but now it could directly hurt a citizen’s rating. But here’s the real kicker: a person’s own score will also be affected by what their online friends say and do, beyond their own contact with them. If someone they are connected to online posts a negative comment, their own score will also be dragged down…

…people with low ratings will have slower internet speeds; restricted access to restaurants, nightclubs or golf courses; and the removal of the right to travel freely abroad with, I quote, “restrictive control on consumption within holiday areas or travel businesses”. Scores will influence a person’s rental applications, their ability to get insurance or a loan and even social-security benefits. Citizens with low scores will not be hired by certain employers and will be forbidden from obtaining some jobs, including in the civil service, journalism and legal fields, where of course you must be deemed trustworthy. Low-rating citizens will also be restricted when it comes to enrolling themselves or their children in high-paying private schools. I am not fabricating this list of punishments. It’s the reality Chinese citizens will face. As the government document states, the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.

This sounds a  lot like what was depicted on an episode of The Orville entitled Majority Rule.

The system is voluntary now and becomes mandatory in 2020. Wired suggests that people are signing up now out of fear of reprisals if they do not, and as high scores can be a status symbol:

Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch. A citizen’s score can even affect their odds of getting a date, or a marriage partner, because the higher their Sesame rating, the more prominent their dating profile is on Baihe.

Sesame Credit already offers tips to help individuals improve their ranking, including warning about the downsides of friending someone who has a low score. This might lead to the rise of score advisers, who will share tips on how to gain points, or reputation consultants willing to offer expert advice on how to strategically improve a ranking or get off the trust-breaking blacklist.

Wired compares this to “a big data gamified version of the Communist Party’s surveillance methods.” People are also likely to seek ways around the system:

We’re also bound to see the birth of reputation black markets selling under-the-counter ways to boost trustworthiness. In the same way that Facebook Likes and Twitter followers can be bought, individuals will pay to manipulate their score. What about keeping the system secure? Hackers (some even state-backed) could change or steal the digitally stored information…

In China, certain citizens, such as government officials, will likely be deemed above the system. What will be the public reaction when their unfavourable actions don’t affect their score? We could see a Panama Papers 3.0 for reputation fraud.

While this sounds absolutely Orwellian, businesses here are regularly rated on line, and their success can be affected by the whims of anonymous reviewers.

While we do not face restrictions as severe as those described in China, this is also analogous to the current censorship we are facing on Facebook. While the internet can increase opportunities for free expression when anyone can write from their own web page,  increasingly communication is being channeled through limited sources. Facebook has become indispensable for communicating, now with over two billion active users worldwide. Facebook will often cite violation of Community Standards to justify restricting individuals, but quite often there is no evidence of violating any of the Community Standards actually posted by Facebook, and no response to appeals. This has led many people to start using social media sites including MeWe, Steemit, Minds, and Tremr. Unfortunately it is far harder for Chinese to change where they live to avoid repression based upon unclear standards than it is to use alternative social media sites here.

Rational Voices In Response To Recent Charges Of Russian Assassination By Poisoning And Infiltration Of The Power Grid

Before the 2016 election I feared that a Clinton presidency would turn Democrats into a pack of neocon warmongers and we would see attempts to limit free speech in protest. What I didn’t anticipate was that her loss would do the same thing. Democrats are spreading hysteria about Russia which is comparable to the misinformation spread about Iraq in the run up to that war. Many Democrats are spreading claims which are not supported by either the Congressional investigations or the information in Robert Mueller’s indictments. Many are adopting McCarthyist tactics to attack those who attempt to question their misinformation, failing to understand that debunking false claims about Russia no more makes one pro-Putin than debunking false claims about Iraq and WMD made one pro-Saddam. Fortunately there are still some sane voices in the world. Today I will look at responses to the Russian assassinations in London and to the reports of Russian infiltration of the power grid.

For the sake of discussion I am assuming that the accusations made regarding these two events are true, but we must keep in mind that repeatedly there have been examples of accusations being made, the claims later being retracted, yet many people continued to spread the false claims. This includes the  retracted claims of agreement by seventeen intelligence agencies agreeing when in reality all that existed was a fact-free assessment by a small number of anti-Russian individuals in the intelligence community. NBC has repeatedly raised the debunked claims of Russian hacking of our voting systems. Previous claims that the Russians infiltrated the electrical grid in Vermont were later retracted. Many Democrats act as if collusion between Trump and Russia has been established, and that Russia altered the election results, when there is no evidence of either, and no charges that this was done in any of Robert Mueller’s indictments to date.

While leaders of the Democratic Party in the United States are spreading anti-Russian hysteria, primarily to avoid responsibility for nominating a candidate so terrible that she could not even beat Donald Trump, the leader of the Labour Party in the UK sounds far more rational. Jeremy Corbyn has this op-ed in The Guardian in response to the recent poisonings in London:

As I said in parliament, the Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence, and our response must be both decisive and proportionate. But let us not manufacture a division over Russia where none exists. Labour is of course no supporter of the Putin regime, its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption. And we pay tribute to Russia’s many campaigners for social justice and human rights, including for LGBT rights.

However, that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a “new cold war” of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent. Instead, Britain needs to uphold its laws and its values without reservation. And those should be allied to a foreign policy that uses every opportunity to reduce tensions and conflict wherever possible…

There can and should be the basis for a common political response to this crime. But in my years in parliament I have seen clear thinking in an international crisis overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgments too many times. Flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers led to the calamity of the Iraq invasion. There was overwhelming bipartisan support for attacking Libya, but it proved to be wrong. A universal repugnance at the 9/11 attacks led to a war on Afghanistan that continues to this day, while terrorism has spread across the globe.

The continuing fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the virtual collapse of the Russian state in the 1990s must be addressed through international law and diplomacy if we are to reverse the drift to conflict.

Right now, the perpetrators of the Salisbury attack must be identified and held to account. Only through firm multilateral action can we ensure such a shocking crime never happens again.

Just as we should work to ensure that such a crime never happens again, we should work to increase cyber-security, including security for the electrical grid. Philip Bump, who previously added some sanity to the claims that Russian altered the election by using social media, now is looking at the facts regarding the electrical grid. He wrote a column entitled Why Russian hackers aren’t poised to plunge the United States into darkness:

The natural question that emerges is: How serious is this hacking? The idea of Russian hackers having access to the control switches of America’s power infrastructure is particularly unnerving, raising the idea of waking up one morning to learn that the United States has simply been switched off.

Several experts who spoke with The Washington Post, though, explained that this is not only oversimplistic but also that it is almost certainly impossible. The effects of infiltration of America’s power grid would be much more geographically limited thanks to the distributed, redundant nature of the system.

In fact, it’s more than a little like another alert issued by the government about Russian infiltration efforts: the one on Oct. 7, 2016, warning about Russian efforts to tamper with state voting systems.

That announcement came from the director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security and indicated that Russian hackers were “scanning and probing” election-related systems. The message, one of the few public responses to Russian interference from the Obama administration, didn’t get as much play as it might have, given that it came out the same day as The Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape.

Meaning that the caveats in the announcement — that our voting mechanisms were protected by being disconnected from the Internet during the election, by being distributed throughout thousands of counties and by having after-the-fact statistical checks on accuracy — weren’t really absorbed. The idea that Russian hackers might have significantly altered election results in 2016 persists out of a misunderstanding of how remarkably hard it would be to subvert the process, particularly without being noticed…

…this damage would be localized. Perhaps, Bauch said, a hacker who’d gained access to a regional power provider or generation system might be able to knock out power to tens or hundreds of thousands of people at a time. That would be significant, but it’s not taking out the whole grid. Attacking multiple providers across the country at specific times of vulnerability — like on a hot day in the west when power supplies are strained — could multiply those effects. But it would require a significant amount of planning, coordination and access to have an impact on a massive scale…

Thanks to the distributed nature of our elections and the barriers to changing votes, hacking our elections is trickier than most people realize. Thanks to the distributed and often disconnected nature of our electrical system and the barriers to accessing it, the same can be said of hacking the grid…

It’s a serious situation, warranting the sort of dramatic response we saw from the government on Thursday. But do not expect to wake up some day soon and learn that Russian President Vladimir Putin now controls the flow of electricity to your house. Real life, as always, is less dramatic than the movies.

Bump has a lot more detail in his full article, including the belief that Russian hackers gained access through spear-phishing. While there is controversy over whether the DNC’s email was released to Wikileaks due to hacking or a leak from the inside, the possibility has also been raised that access to the DNC’s email was through spear-phishing. We would be much safer if the media and politicians spent half the time they spend on misleading stories about Russia to better educate the public about how to respond to such attempts to gain access to our computer systems.

Clinton Reminds The World Why She Really Lost–And It Has Nothing To Do With Russia


Most losing candidates keep a low profile after losing an election. Despite being robbed of victory, Al Gore kept quiet at first, and reemerged more liberal, and a vocal opponent of the Iraq war. Hillary Clinton in contrast has been spending the time since her election making excuses, and her popularity has fallen even further since the election. Her recent statement in India are even angering many Democrats who have supported her. The Hill reports:

Democrats are angry that Hillary Clinton continues to discuss what went wrong during the 2016 presidential election against President Trump.

Even some of Clinton’s own former aides and surrogates say the former Democratic presidential nominee should back away from the discussion about her failed campaign because it’s harmful to the party.

During a conference in India this weekend, Clinton called states that supported her in the election more economically advanced than the states that backed Trump.

The remarks reminded many of the former secretary of State’s comments in 2016 that some of Trump’s supporters fit in a “basket of deplorables,” a line the Republican then used against her repeatedly during the final stretch of the campaign.

She also insinuated that women who voted for Trump were motivated by “ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should.”

In interviews with The Hill on Tuesday, even the staunchest Clinton allies as well as longtime advisers say the comments were cringeworthy and ultimately detrimental to Democrats.

“She put herself in a position where [Democrats] from states that Trump won will have to distance themselves from her even more,” said one former senior Clinton aide. “That’s a lot of states.”

Another Clinton surrogate questioned the decisionmaking behind Clinton’s remarks. For months, some Democrats have been arguing that Clinton’s sentiments have been counterproductive to the party’s rebuilding efforts. And some have told her she should emulate former President Obama’s model to only make statements when it’s essential.

Even before she launched her book tour last fall for “What Happened,” party strategists have said Clinton should lay low.

“She’s annoying me. She’s annoying everyone, as far as I can tell,” said one 2016 Clinton surrogate. “Who lets her say these things?”

The Washington Post added:

Like Trump, Clinton has lost popularity since the 2016 election in national polls.

In early December, Gallup found 36 percent of Americans viewed her favorably, the same percentage that approved of Trump’s presidential performance. The result marked a record low for Clinton in the Gallup poll, which has tracked her favorability since 1993. Just 5 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of independents had a favorable view of her.

Several studies of the 2016 election have found that Trump overperformed Clinton in economically struggling parts of the nation, a likely motivator for voters seeking change in the party control of the White House. Parts of the country that shifted their support from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 were also more likely to be negatively affected by globalization.

Another post-election study showed that Clinton’s hawkish views were also harmful to her campaign.

As was revealed in Shattered, Hillary Clinton decided upon the strategy of blaming others such as Russia for her loss within twenty-four hours of losing. The Congressional testimony showed that Russian activities on social media were trivial compared to the actions of the two major party campaigns. While we have known for some time that the Clinton campaign had used paid internet trolls, new information came out today in an article at Huffington Post regarding the use of fake accounts used by Clinton supporters to oppose Bernie Sanders.

While Democrats express frustration with Clinton continuing to blame others for her loss, many Democrats do continue to support her unfounded claims. For example, after the House Intelligence Committee reported that there was no collusion between Russia and Donald Trump to alter the election, Democrats have continued to make arguments which are not supported by the facts. While it is true that House Republicans very likely would have denied the presence of collusion if it existed, and it is possible that Robert Mueller might uncover new information in the future, the fact remains that the evidence available at present shows no such evidence of collusion.

Despite the lack of evidence of meaningful cooperation between the Trump  campaign and Russia to effect the election result, Democrats such as Joaquin Castro have been giving interviews distorting the facts following the committee report. In this interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, Castro both made unfounded claims and moved the goal post a tremendous distance to promote actions which do not show any meaningful collusion as if they were evidence of collusion. While not in the transcript on the web site, during the actual broadcast host David Greene debunked Castro’s claims after the interview. Democrats who continue to make unfounded claims look like Republicans who continued to justify the Iraq war long after it was clear to most that we were never threatened by WMD from Iraq.

If Democrats are going to move forward from the 2016 election, they need to do more than just cringe when Clinton makes asinine statements. They need to acknowledge that Clinton lost because of her own mistakes, both during the campaign and in making bad decisions throughout her career. They must admit that they were wrong to rig the nomination for her, and reform the nominating process. Finally they must repudiate both the corrupt personal behavior of the Clintons in using their  public positions to unethically enrich themselves, and the conservative positions she has promoted throughout her career.

The New Republic Warns About Hysteria Over Russia And The Danger Of A New Cold War

To repeat what I said yesterday, with so much of the media feeding into the Russia hysteria, it is good to see that there have been exceptions. Yesterday I quoted the editor of Politico Magazine who gave excellent reasons to be skeptical over the unproven claims from many Democrats that the election results were altered due to collusion between Donald Trump and Russia. I also noted other examples such as at from The Nation and a historian writing at The London Review of Books. The New Republic has now posted a warning to Stop Inflating The Russian Threat.  Some excerpts from Jeet Heer’s article at The New Republic follow:

…Russia’s interference in the election, at least what’s known thus far, is hardly enough to justify a global struggle comparable to the Cold War or the war on terror. These earlier conflicts consumed trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. The details in the Mueller indictment are troubling, but not an existential threat worth losing a single life over. New Yorker reporter Adrien Chen, who has been following Russian troll accounts for years, tweeted that the election interference waged on social-media was “90 people with a shaky grasp of English and a rudimentary understanding of U.S. politics shitposting on Facebook.”

…“Russia is not working according to a master plan carefully laid-out laid out by President Vladimir Putin,” Henry Farrell, of George Washington University, argued last month in Foreign Policy. “Instead, a loose collective of Russians, with incredibly meager resources, have been working together in a disorganized way to probe American democracy for weaknesses. Instead of persuading people to vote for Donald Trump, and against Clinton, they have wanted to create chaos and paranoia—and they have succeeded in stirring confusion only because there were so many weaknesses for them to exploit in the first place.” Similar Russian attempts to sway elections in France and Germany were much less successful, Farrell notes, because they don’t suffer from he calls a “basic failure of democratic knowledge” in America.

This crisis, which long predates Russian interference, stems from a polarized polity where one party actively encourages its followers to distrust news from non-partisan outlets. It’s enhanced by low voter turnout, active voter suppression, and an electoral system that is constantly manipulated by gerrymandering. The result is a citizenry that does not agree on basic facts, and many of whom distrust the system.

If democratic fragility is the root problem, launching a new Cold War is not going to solve it. Rather, there has to be an active effort to strengthen potential targets, like voting systems (many of which are old and run on outdated technology that’s vulnerable to hackers). The U.S. also needs a comprehensive civics education initiative, for children and adults alike, to instruct Americans on the U.S. Constitution and teach them how to detect propaganda and discount motivated reasoning.

Framing the election meddling as strictly a matter of outside interference will only encourage the conspiracy-mongering that already makes it hard to form a democratic consensus. “By exaggerating the actual consequences of foreign influence operations, American elites are further undermining the confidence and shared knowledge that American democracy needs to function,” Farrell argued. “They are tacitly encouraging Americans on the liberal left to build their own private universe of facts, in which Russian influence has pervasive political consequences.”

Some Democrats think that launching a new Cold War will solve the problem of polarization by unifying the country against a foreign enemy and isolating Republicans who stand with Trump in appeasing Russia. “The Democrats should and must start using Russia as a way to break through the vicious cycle consuming the parties, Washington, and the whole country,” John Stoehr argued in Washington Monthly in January. “Russia is our enemy. This is a fact. It attacked our presidential election. It continues to attack us in what is emerging as a new Cold cyberwar. In tying the Republicans to an enemy, the Democrats have the potential to break the Republicans.”

The actual history of the Cold War belies this fantasy. While Cold War liberals like President Harry Truman did use anti-communism to promote national unity, this only laid the groundwork for Republican demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eventually, in the 1960s, the Democrats were torn apart by internal divisions over the Vietnam War. A foreign enemy is no assurance of unity, and perfectly compatible with more polarization.

Trump is the most divisive American president in at least generation. Reversing the damage he’s done to American democracy, let alone fixing the systemic flaws that predate him, is an arduous task that will require many years of political organization and education. There’s no swift solution to this crisis, and whipping up hysteria about Russia will only make it worse.

There are many dangers from distortions by partisans on both sides regarding “Russiagate.” The risk of playing into the hands of hawks like Hillary Clinton and her neocon allies who see desire resuming a Cold War atmosphere with Russia, if not outright attempts at regime change, is probably the greatest danger. I have previously quoted Jackson Lears, Professor of History at Rutgers University, on how the Democratic Party’s fixation on Russiagate has led to them ignoring other issues, including the need to take a stand against the military interventionism advocated by Clinton.

Glenn Greenwald also wrote a column yesterday regarding the dangers of politicians from both parties falsely equating “Russiagate” to an act of war, with some making false comparisons ot Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attack. Greenwald wrote:

All of this underscores the serious dangers many have pointed to for more than a year about why all this unhinged rhetoric is so alarming. If you really believe that Russia — with some phishing links sent to Podesta and some fake Facebook ads and Twitter bots — committed an “act of war” of any kind, let alone one on par with Pearl Harbor and 9/11, then it’s inevitable that extreme retaliatory measures will be considered and likely triggered. How does one justify a mere imposition of sanctions in the face of an attack similar to Pearl Harbor or 9/11? Doesn’t it stand to reason that something much more belligerent, enduring, and destructive would be necessary?

The advice in the article above for greater education of Americans is sensible, but such education should include lessons on how we were lied into military intervention including the Iraq war, the regime change in Libya orchestrated by Hillary Clinton based upon lies, and Vietnam. The lack of such knowledge by Americans increases the risk of us being lied into yet another war, this time with a nuclear power.

How Facebook Might Have Actually Helped Trump Win–And It Had Nothing To Do With Russia

As was highlighted in yesterday’s indictment, there is a lot of attention being paid to Russian actions on Facebook, giving a false impression that this was the deciding factor in the election. As I pointed out again yesterday, the evidence presented in the Congressional testimony regarding Russian actions on social media showed that their actions, such as purchasing $100,000 in Facebook ads were very trivial considering the vast amount of activity on social media and other campaign advertising. The Congressional testimony revealed that information from Russian Facebook pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Over half the ads were not even seen until after the election, and many had nothing to do with promoting Trump over Clinton. The Russian purchased Facebook ads also targeted deep blue states over battleground states or the rust belt states which cost Clinton the election.

While the overall influence of Facebook on the election is unknown, if Facebook did influence the election there were factors far more important than the Russian activities. Both sides had many supporters who posted substantially far more on line for their candidate than anything coming from Russia. The Clinton campaign and its allies also utilized an army of paid trolls which were  more prevalent on social media than the Russians. The Trump campaign effectively used social media in a manner which was totally legal and had nothing to do with Russia–Facebook employees embedded in the campaign to instruct them in the most effective way to use social media.

The Guardian looked at how the Trump campaign used the Facebook embeds, based upon a story on CBS News:

The Trump presidential campaign spent most of its digital advertising budget on Facebook, testing more than 50,000 ad variations each day in an attempt to micro-target voters, Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale, told CBS’s 60 Minutes in an interview scheduled to air on Sunday night.

“Twitter is how [Trump] talked to the people, Facebook was going to be how he won,” Parscale said…

Parscale said the Trump campaign used Facebook to reach clusters of rural voters, such as “15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for”.

“I started making ads that showed the bridge crumbling,” he said. “I can find the 1,500 people in one town that care about infrastructure. Now, that might be a voter that normally votes Democrat.”

Parscale said the campaign constantly tested minute variations in the design, color, background and phrasing of Facebook ads, in order to maximize their impact. Typically 50,000 to 60,000 variations were tested each day, he said, and sometimes as many as 100,000.

But Parscale’s comments highlight how actively Facebook has pursued election advertising as a business strategy, even as its platform has come under attack as a fertile ground for Russian-backed political propaganda, conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation.

Among other services, Facebook’s elections advertising allows campaigns to take lists of registered voters drawn from public records and find those people on Facebook.

Parscale said he asked the Facebook “embeds” to teach staffers everything the Clinton campaign would be told about Facebook advertising “and then some”…

Parscale told CBS he was told the Clinton campaign did not use Facebook employee embeds. “I had heard that they did not accept any of [Facebook’s] offers,” he said.

While Clinton did not take advantage of this opportunity, there are other ways in which Facebook has been biased towards Clinton which might have offsetted this potential advantage for Trump.

Yesterday’s indictment by Robert Mueller was about violations of federal election laws by Russians. As Rod Rosenstein verified, it was not about altering the election result. It is less clear how much legal activities on Facebook contributed to the ultimate result.