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Published: Tue, 21 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500

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The Never-Ending Search for Foreign Subversives

Thu, 02 Nov 2017 14:45:00 -0400

Four days after Donald Trump was elected president, thousands of people turned out for an anti-Trump march in New York City. That in itself isn't so surprising: There were a ton of anti-Trump protests last November, and New York hosted a bunch of them. But this one, BuzzFeed reports, had been called by BlackMatters, a "Russia-linked" group, and therefore it feeds easily into a broader narrative about alien forces subverting American politics. If this protest was indeed arranged by Russian agents, that's a notable story. But that broader narrative is overblown and dangerous—a paranoid tale that scapegoats Russia for America's domestic divisions, and that is already being used to call for curbs on speech. Two things are striking about this New York protest. The first is that it was directed against Donald Trump. That undercuts the notion, popular in some circles, that Trump and Putin are joined at the hip; it supports the idea, popular in other circles, that Moscow is less interested in backing any particular American faction than in accentuating America's divisions in general. (Whether it actually is accentuating those divisions is a separate question, which we'll get to below.) The other striking thing about the march is that it wasn't a flop. The last time I wrote about one of these "Russia-linked" protests, the event drew approximately four people. Other demonstrations have been either equally miniscule or just slightly larger; there's no sign that they were any bigger than the protests organized by homegrown supporters of the same causes. (Impressed that a "few dozen" people may have gone to a Russia-linked rally for Texas secession? Lone Star separatists were able to attract a "few hundred" to an event in the '90s, when Moscow was Washington's pal and presumably wasn't promoting Texit.) So getting thousands to show up at an anti-Trump protest is far better than these troll accounts usually did. But note how they did it: They scheduled it amid a bunch of other protests for the same cause. On top of that, they did it under a name—"BlackMatters"—that's easy to mistake for the name of another group. So a cheap Russian knockoff of Black Lives Matter was able to draw people to a cheap Russian knockoff of an anti-Trump protest, held a month the same city was seeing copious anti-Trump protest anyway. This is what "success" looked like: not opening or even widening a division in American society, but camouflaging yourself as a cause that people already supported. They found a crowd and rushed to stand in front of it. It is certainly possible that we'll later learn Moscow was able to exploit this rally in some unsavory way. (For all I know it was filled with spies trying to recruit sources—though of course, they could do that at any other rally too.) But based on what we know now, this doesn't look like successful subversion; it looks like successful mimicry. Yet so many reactions to stories like this reverse cause and effect, blaming Russia for tensions that in fact grew organically in the United States. The more careful pundits will throw in a to-be-sure statement mentioning that Americans were already fighting each other before any foreign trolls came along, but they'll still insinuate that anyone who dissents from the centrist consensus is a Kremlin dupe. Here's Tim Morris of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, for example: If Russia's objective was to sow discord, doubt, and disruption into the 2016 U.S. elections, undermine our democratic system, and inflame political differences, you really have to hand it to them. Mission accomplished.... Not that the Russians should get all the credit, of course. Americans have been doing our part with gerrymandered political districts, polarized media, and confirmation bias biospheres. All the Russians had to do was to direct a few robots and release a few trolls into our social media air ducts to make us all go a little crazier. He doesn't offer any evidence that a substantial number of people became "a little crazier" because of those bots and trolls, let alone that we "all" d[...]

Behold the Work of Russia's Evil Advertising Geniuses

Wed, 01 Nov 2017 17:00:00 -0400

Today members of the House Intelligence Committee released some of the election-related ads placed on Facebook and Instagram by accounts linked to the Russian government. The sampling published by Politico seems inconsistent with the way politicians and journalists generally portray "Russian disinformation," which they describe as a plot to "reshape U.S. politics" and undermine our electoral process by sophisticated operatives who know how to manipulate American voters. In fact, the ads are so lame that I initially thought the Politico story was a prank.

Here is an October 2016 Facebook ad placed by "Army of Jesus":

(image) According to Politico, the ad, which targeted "people age 18 to 65+ interested in Christianity, Jesus, God, Ron Paul and media personalities such as Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Mike Savage, among other topics," generated 71 impressions and 14 clicks.

This April 2016 Instagram ad, aimed at "people ages 13 to 65+ who are interested in the tea party or Donald Trump," did much better, generating 108,433 impressions and 857 clicks, although it is not at all clear how it might have influenced the election:

(image) Politico also has an August 2016 Instagram ad, aimed at "people ages 18 to 65+ interested in military veterans, including those from the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam wars," suggesting that Clinton is insensitive to the grief of Gold Star families. It generated 17,654 impressions and 517 clicks.

An anti-Clinton, anti-establishment, pro-secession ad placed by "Heart of Texas" in October 2016, aimed at people who liked that Facebook group, generated 16,168 impressions and 2,342 clicks. A March 2016 ad sponsored by the Facebook group LGBT United featured a "Buff Bernie" coloring book, "full of very attractive doodles of Bernie Sanders in muscle poses." Aimed at people who liked LGBT United, it generated 848 impressions and 54 clicks.

(image) In addition to these crude and clumsy efforts, The New York Times has noted a hoax that anyone familiar with American politics would recognize as utterly implausible, language on the DCLeaks website that described Clinton as "President of the Democratic Party" and referred to her "electional staff," and a tweet promoting the website that said, "These guys show hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the US." Such misfires suggest that the ability of Russian propagandists to destroy American democracy may have been exaggerated.

Social Media Executives Echo Politicians' Hysteria About 'Russian Disinformation'

Wed, 01 Nov 2017 14:05:00 -0400

Yesterday representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified before a Senate subcommittee about online "Russian disinformation," sounding a note of alarm that echoed legislators' concerns and therefore grossly exaggerated the threat. "When it comes to the 2016 election," said Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, "the foreign interference we saw is reprehensible and outrageous and opened a new battleground for our company, our industry, and our society. That foreign actors, hiding behind fake accounts, abused our platform and other internet services to try to sow division and discord—and to try to undermine our election process—is an assault on democracy, and it violates all of our values." The idea that Russian ads on Facebook, Russian tweets on Twitter, and Russian videos on YouTube "undermine our election process" and constitute "an assault on democracy" (let alone that such propaganda "violates all of our values") is hard to take seriously given what we know about the nature and scale of this operation. Social media platforms have every right to insist that users follow their terms of service, which in Facebook's case ban phony source descriptions (falsely identifying a Russian's posts as an American's, for example). But the expectation that Facebook, Twitter, and Google will police political discourse to minimize "Russian influence" is not just impractical but, if backed by the threat of legislation, contrary to the First Amendment. It is important to keep in mind that we are not talking about direct interference with the election process (by hacking computers that tally votes, say). We are talking about efforts to persuade people—or, as seems to have been more common, reinforce their pre-existing opinions—through words and images. Although some of these messages can fairly be described as "disinformation" (such as a fake letter posted on Twitter supposedly documenting a $150 million contribution to Hillary Clinton's campaign by the conservative Bradley Foundation), some (such as reports about police shootings) were entirely accurate, while others were expressions of opinion on subjects such as racism, LGBT issues, immigration, and gun rights. Except for the fact that the messages appear to have been sponsored by the Russian government, there was nothing especially sinister or insidious about them. Cases of broken English and awkward phrasing aside, they were indistinguishable from the mixture of facts, lies, and blather that constitutes good, old-fashioned, American-produced political discourse. So when The New York Times reports that Russian-sponsored "political ads and other content" (including videos from the government-sponsored news outlet RT) "were meant to sow discord or chaos," it is either being hysterical or ascribing absurdly unrealistic ambitions to the Russian government. Our social and political order is not one viral video or inflammatory tweet away from catastrophic collapse. Russian participation in the online U.S. political debate looks even less scary when you consider how tiny its footprint seems to be. On Monday a Times headline proclaimed that "Russian Influence Reached 126 Million Through Facebook Alone," which sounds impressive unless you realize that an ad can "reach" people without being noticed or read, let alone persuading anyone. What the headline really meant, as the Times explained in its report on yesterday's hearing, is that "more than 126 million users potentially saw inflammatory political ads bought by a Kremlin-linked company, the Internet Research Agency." Yes, and since the post you are reading is available on the internet, it could potentially be seen by 3.6 billion people. No doubt Vladimir Putin would love to determine the outcome of presidential elections by spending $100,000 on Facebook ads. It is far less clear that he (or anyone else) has the power to do that, no matter how big the ad buy. As Brian Doherty noted here on Monday, the evidence suggests that politicians and campaign "reformers" greatly[...]

The Close Encounters Man

Wed, 01 Nov 2017 12:00:00 -0400

J. Allen Hynek had his first science fiction short story published before turning 15. Though he grew up to be a scientist, not a writer, his life was defined by the sometimes razor-thin boundary between fact and fiction.

He helped develop the Hubble Telescope, but Hynek is best known for his role in the Air Force's decadeslong investigation into unidentified flying objects, during which he created a four-tier classification system of "close encounters."

In The Close Encounters Man (Dey Street), biographer Mark O'Connell presents Hynek as a "rational person looking at an irrational subject."

The cases he investigated ranged from the mundane to the outrageous—in one, a Wisconsin farmer reported meeting alien visitors who made him pancakes—to the truly unexplainable. Before his death in 1986, the naturally skeptical Hynek admitted to having personally witnessed two UFOs, saying he came to believe not all sightings were fakes, tricks, misidentified aircraft, or "swamp gas."

Steven Spielberg borrowed heavily from one of Hynek's books about the UFO investigations in his 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (an encounter with an extraterrestrial being, according to Hynek's system), and a whole subgenre of sci-fi owes a debt to Hynek's real-life work.

Was there a shadowy government conspiracy to hide the truth, as many of those stories allege? "You can cover up knowledge and you can cover up ignorance," O'Connell quotes Hynek as saying. "I think there was much more of the latter than of the former."

Yulia Tymoshenko Warned Us About Paul Manafort Years Ago

Tue, 31 Oct 2017 06:48:00 -0400

Yulia Tymoshenko warned us about Paul Manafort years ago. In a civil complaint, the former Ukrainian prime minister accused Manafort—who would go on to chair Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign—of conspiring with Ukrainian and Russian partners to launder dirty money through "a labyrinth of shell companies" in the U.S. These companies, it claims, "were solely used for purposes of furthering the unlawful objectives" of people like Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman indicted in 2009 for U.S. racketeering and money laundering, and Russian crime boss Semyon Mogilevich, who made the FBI's "Most Wanted" list for suspected fraud, racketeering, and money laundering. Documents filed in the civil action reveal many similar allegations to those Manafort and Gates are now facing at the hands of U.S. Department of Justice special prosecutor Robert Mueller. On Monday, a federal grand jury indicted the former Trump-campaign chairman and Rick Gates, a Manafort business associate, for conspiracy to launder money, making false statements, failing to register as an agent of foreign principal, and failing to file reports on foreign bank accounts. (For a detailed breakdown of the charges, see Popehat.) They pleaded not guilty Monday afternoon. The DOJ indictment accuses Manafort and Gates of "extensive lobbying" in the U.S. on behalf of Ukrainian interests and "in connection with the roll out of a report concerning the Tymoshenko trial commissioned by the Government of Ukraine." Manafort and Gates paid $4 million to law firm Skadden Arps to monitor and report on the Tymoshenko proceedings, ostensibly on behalf of an "independent" European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (which they had helped set up), the indictment says. And it claims that "between at least 2006 and 2015, Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents of the Government of Ukraine, the Party of Regions (a Ukrainian political party whose leader Victor Yanukovych was President from 2010 to 2014), Yanukovych, and the Opposition Bloc (a successor to the Party of Regions that formed in 2014 when Yanukovych fled to Russia), generating "tens of millions of dollars in income as a result" and "launder[ing] the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts." The work was done through Davis Manafort Partners (DMP), which Manafort co-founded in 2005, and DMP International (DMI), founded in Manafort and his wife Kathleen in 2011. Rick Gates worked for both entities Through these agencies, Manafort and Gates helped propel Viktor Yanukovych to the Ukrainian presidency and oversaw a "watchdog" report on the prosecution of his opposition. Tymoshenko, who served as prime minster from 2007 through 2010, was not just an enemy of Tanukovych's but also of Firtash and Mogilevich. In an agreement with Russia, she helped cut Firtash's company out as a profitable middleman in natural-gas deals between the two countries. Tymoshenko's suit against Firtash and unnamed Yanukovych officials was first filed in U.S. court in April 2011, when Yanukovych was still president. Later amended complaints were eventually filed—the second in November 2014, after Yanukovych had been forced to flee Ukraine amid protests over his administration's corruption and thuggery—and also named Manafort and his partners at CMZ Ventures. The suit accused Manafort, Firtash, and the other defendants of financing politically motivated and "unlawful investigations and prosecutions of Tymoshenko" and her associates through secret payments to Yanukovich and others in his administration or control. Their money-laundering and shell-company scheme "was the proximate cause of Tymoshenko's damages, since it provided the necessary funds to make the unlawful payments to the Ukraine prosecutors and other corrupt administration officials," the complaint alleges. Documents show that in December 2008, Manafort met with Firtash in the Ukraine, where Firtash agreed to an initi[...]

For Heaven's Sake, Just Release the Rest of the JFK Files

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 10:30:00 -0400

Yesterday the government was supposed to declassify its final files on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That was the deadline set by the JFK Records Act of 1992, but there was an escape hatch: The president had the power to withhold some of the documents on national security grounds. After much vacillating, Donald Trump decided at the last minute to keep some files classified.

A day later, he's still vacillating. The president is "unhappy" about what happened, according to CNN:

(image) President Donald Trump wanted more of the documents related to President John F. Kennedy's assassination released. But when the final requests from government agencies hit his desk on Thursday, there wasn't enough time to go through the hundreds of records the agencies wanted to keep secret, two US officials said.

As the deadline ticked away, Trump was confronted with a choice: release all of the 3,100 records without any redactions, or accept the redactions of intelligence and law enforcement agencies and release 2,800 of those documents.

Trump agreed to the second option, while also requiring agencies to conduct a secondary review of the information they believed should be redacted within 180 days. But Trump was still miffed by his decision. "He was unhappy with the level of redactions," a White House official said, adding that Trump believed the agencies were "not meeting the spirit of the law."

If this is actually true, it should put to rest any Trumpian fears that the "deep state" is trying to depose him. What intelligence agency would want to get rid of a president so easily manipulated?

You don't need to buy any of the conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy's death to see that this is a historically significant event that still has several open questions around it, especially with regard to Lee Harvey Oswald's trip to Mexico City shortly before the shooting. And you don't need to be personally interested in the topic to be appalled that the feds are still suppressing information about an incident that took place more than half a century ago. (No, I don't buy the halfhearted excuse that the withheld files may include relatively recent documents added to the stockpile in the 1990s. Even if you think those should still be classified, they aren't all that's still classified. For example: Jefferson Morley, author of a new biography of former CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, notes that Angleton's secret Senate testimony from 1975 is among the missing material.)

The deadline for the remaining documents to be reviewed is April 26, 2018. Maybe we'll see more material after that, but I'm not optimistic. If the agencies involved can drag their feet for this long, they can drag them for another six months. In the disappointed words of Gerald Posner, one of the better-known advocates of the lone-assassin theory: "They have only had 25 years to get ready."

Listen to Jesse Walker Talk About the JFK Files on SiriusXM Insight at 2 pm ET

Thu, 26 Oct 2017 13:37:00 -0400

(image) Today, the National Archives and Records Administration released a giant new cache of previously withheld government files pertaining to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Since today also marks a return guest-hosting engagement for me on SiriusXM Insight channel 121's Tell Me Everything With John Fugelsang, I am bringing on Reason's own Jesse Walker, author of the acclaimed The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, to place the JFK conspiracies into historical context.

Also scheduled to join are libertarian-leaning GOP strategist and communications pro Liz Mair (Reason archive here), to discuss the retirement announcement by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona); and the great journalist Nancy Rommelmann (Reason archive), to talk about the ever-expanding fallout from the Harvey Weinstein/Bill O'Reilly sexual harassment/assault scandals.

You can call in to heckle at 877 974-7487.

Ye Olde Ikea Sex Traffickers

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 06:00:00 -0400

We are in the midst of a massive mommy moral panic. Across the country, mothers are writing breathless accounts on Facebook of how sex traffickers nearly snatched their children at Target/Ikea/the grocery store. While at Sam's Club, one such post explains, "a man came up to us and asked if the empty cart nearby was ours.…He was an African American with a shaved head.…It seemed like an innocent encounter." Innocent, that is, until the mom and kids headed to Walmart and there was the guy again, "feverishly texting on his phone but not taking his eye off my daughter." It could only mean one thing, she wrote: "I have absolutely NO doubt that that man is a trafficker looking for young girls to steal and sell." And I have absolutely no doubt that she's wrong. This is what security expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed a "movie plot threat"—a narrative that looks suspiciously like what you'd see at the Cineplex. The more "movie plot" a situation seems, the less likely it is to be real. But it sells. A Facebook post by Diandra Toyos went wildly viral after she said she and her kids were followed by two men at Ikea. "I had a bad feeling," she wrote. Fortunately, she "managed to lose them." Which, frankly, is what one does at Ikea, even with people one is trying not to lose. Nonetheless, the post ricocheted through the media. CBS told viewers that while experts found the scenario unlikely, "that doesn't mean Toyos didn't have reason to be concerned." Actually, it does. When yet another post from another mom took off in Denver, local news outlets had to run stories reassuring parents that there had been no legitimate sex trafficking reports in the area. The Littleton Independent also informed people that an earlier story about a man "kidnapping" a child in front of the local library turned out to be about a guy moving a stroller out of the way so he could get to his car. David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, says parents always worry about their kids. But more and more, that primal fear "gets paired with the fact that we live in a very heterogeneous society, where we encounter lots of people whose behavior and motives we can't read, we can't identify with." It's a big case of fear of The Other. Had Finkelhor heard of a single case where a child was taken from a parent in public and forced into the sex trade? No. Because it's not happening. Actual traffickers build relationships with the young people they go on to exploit, usually troubled or runaway teens. No one is spiriting 2-year-olds from Target. These Facebook posts about fiends snatching innocent children are eerily reminiscent of an older, more pernicious scare: a corrosive lie called the "blood libel," in which Jews during medieval times were said to be killing Christian children and using their blood to make matzah. But while the blood libels were directed against a single group, medieval scholar Emily Rose points out, the Facebook posts aren't, though they often mention men of a different ethnic background than the writer. In that sense, today's stories are more like generic stranger danger. But then Rose describes the most famous blood libel of all: the 1475 abduction and murder of a young Italian boy, Simon of Trent. A Jew was accused of killing him for his blood. It was not the first such story, but this one spread like wildfire thanks to a brand new social medium: print. Posters and poems disseminated the allegations; Trent became a pilgrimage destination. "So Simon goes viral," Rose explains, and now everyone "wants their own." Across the continent, people started claiming that a Christian child had been murdered by a Jew in their town, too. "Most of these kids didn't even exist," Rose says, "and if they did exist, they weren't killed." But that didn't stop the stories from catching on. And the people repeating them were no longer just plain peas[...]

Blood for Oil

Thu, 19 Oct 2017 06:00:00 -0400

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann, Doubleday, 352 pages, $28.95 For more than a decade, members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma were quietly, systematically slaughtered for their oil money. In Killers of the Flower Moon, journalist David Grann describes how Congress made the Osage dependent on whites who could gain from their deaths and how leading Oklahomans conspired to perpetrate and cover up mass murder. He shows how a federal agent struck a blow against the killers, but he also reveals that the murders took place over a longer period of time, and claimed far more victims, than the government investigation suggested. It is, as Grann told one interviewer, a story of how "a system rooted in racism, done under the pretense of enlightenment," produced a "criminal enterprise that had been sanctioned by the U.S. government." As Grann's narrative begins, the Osage people—who twice had been forced to relocate, once from their traditional land in present-day Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and once from the Kansas territory the U.S. government had promised would be their permanent home—were reaping their reward for settling in a portion of north-central Oklahoma that no one else wanted. They had secured the rights not just to the soil but to the minerals beneath it. That poor, rocky land sat on top of oil. By the 1920s, the oil boom was making the Osage people immensely wealthy. The year 1923 alone brought in over $30 million in royalties (more than $400 million* today). As one magazine writer put it at the time, "Every time a new well is drilled the Indians are that much richer.…The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it." Something was done about it. Under the guise of protecting the Osage from their money for their own good—white man's burden, don't you know—Congress in 1921 passed a law requiring Osage individuals to be appointed white male guardians until they could prove that they were competent. In practice, the greater the percentage of Osage blood one had, the more difficult it was to prove competence. And the whites who controlled the purse strings had a strong incentive to collude to rob and defraud their dependents. They also had an incentive to murder. An Osage individual's headright claim to oil revenues passed on to his or her legal heir, regardless of blood quantum or tribal affiliation. The first section of Grann's book is aptly titled "The Marked Woman." Mollie Burkhart was literally the last woman standing in her Osage family after her mother was poisoned, one sister was shot, and another sister was killed in an explosion. With each death, the headrights and the wealth they represented accumulated. Mollie herself would be attacked—white doctors in on the conspiracy professed to give the diabetic woman insulin while actually injecting her with poison—but ultimately was saved. The experience she had of mysterious death after mysterious death in her family, and her justified sense that she herself was being hunted, offer a taste of the terror endured by the Osage. Grann quotes the historian Louis F. Burns: "I don't know of a single Osage family which didn't lose at least one family member because of the head rights." Mollie's story also underscores the insidiously personal long-term betrayal represented by the killings. She would eventually learn that the white man she believed to be her loving husband and the caring father of her children was, in fact, acting on a scheme concocted by his powerful cattleman uncle, William "King of the Osage Hills" Hale, to infiltrate her family, murder its members, and inherit their oil revenues. The murderers didn't limit themselves to killing the Osage. Knowing they couldn't trust local law enforcement, some tribal members asked a white friend, oilman [...]

Latest Russia Conspiracy Theory: Facebook Pages Are Culture Hacks Meant to 'Harvest Rage'

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 14:16:00 -0400

(image) It has come to this: The latest reporting on Russia's attempts to "interfere" with the U.S. presidential election focuses on Facebook groups that posted content created by Americans.

This, The New York Times breathlessly reports, represented an effort to "Reshape U.S. Politics."

What are the Russians accused of this time?

"The Russian pages—with names like 'Being Patriotic,' 'Secured Borders' and 'Blacktivist'—cribbed complaints about federal agents from one conservative website, and a gauzy article about a veteran who became an entrepreneur from People magazine," the Times informs us. "They took descriptions and videos of police beatings from genuine YouTube and Facebook accounts and reposted them, sometimes lightly edited for maximum effect."

So in essence, they did what a lot of Facebook pages do: Repost content that fits the theme of the page.

The Times describes this as "harvesting American rage," but that seems grossly overstated. These pages—which the site has removed—were not unlike countless other politically oriented pages on Facebook. Since virtually anyone can start a Facebook page, and since the Russian pages reportedly suffered from broken English, it's hard to imagine them having any real influence rather than being merely another interchangeable part of the online echo chamber.

The wide range of ideological opinion represented by the Facebook pages (which included material that highlighted police brutality and discrimination against Muslims, in addition to standard right-wing fare) also undercuts the idea that Russian efforts (or these efforts, at least) were directed toward a particular outcome.

"This is cultural hacking," Jonathan Albright, research director of Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, told the Times. "They are using systems that were already set up by these platforms to increase engagement. They're feeding outrage—and it's easy to do, because outrage and emotion is how people share."

Maybe that's the aim. But that's also their right. The right to free speech, perhaps contrary to popular belief, is not limited to U.S. citizens. Anyone can (or should be) able to participate in America's marketplace of ideas.

Are Russians trying to breed chaos by stoking certain segments of America's political debates? Guess what: Free speech means our debates are always chaotic. That makes them stronger. Suppressing speech because Russians may have amplified it, on the other hand, undermines our culture of free speech and has the potential to be a lot more harmful than any Facebook page could possibly be.

The Great James Buchanan Conspiracy

Sun, 01 Oct 2017 12:00:00 -0400

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean, Viking, 334 pages, $28 The board of education in Brown v. Board of Education—the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schools—was located in Topeka, Kansas, a city that was overwhelmingly white. Brown overturned a policy set by a majority, and it was right to do so: School segregation is just as wrong when it is imposed democratically as it is when it is imposed by suppressing the black vote. So the strangest thing about Democracy in Chains—a book that contains many, many strange claims—may be how its author, the Duke historian Nancy MacLean, treats Brown. On one hand, she believes that those who want to bind majorities with preset constitutional rules are up to something sinister. Her chief villain on this score is James Buchanan, an economist and political philosopher who argued that government actors ought to be subject to built-in structural constraints. On the other hand, MacLean clearly thinks Brown was correctly decided. Indeed, she accuses Buchanan of working to undermine the ruling. MacLean seems not to notice Brown is itself an example of the phenomenon MacLean is denouncing: a Constitution being used to overrule a democratic outcome in the name of protecting a minority. It's an awkward start for a baroque conspiracy story, and it signals what a mess the book will be. The historian has little to no evidence for her history. She invents some when necessary, and will at times just make assertions to suit her narrative, mustering neither real nor phony evidence to back them up. Many of her factual and interpretive errors have already been covered elsewhere, in venues ranging from Vox to The Washington Post. Rather than get lost in the weeds of covering every false statement or misleadingly gerrymandered quotation in this book, I want to focus here on the core claims that it gets wrong: MacLean fundamentally misunderstands Buchanan's intellectual project, treating his theories about politics as an apologia for the wealthy and powerful. This gives short shrift to a serious body of thought, and it fails to see that his arguments can indict the wealthy as much as anyone else. She tries to tie Buchanan's work to the segregationist order in the South, even implying that his ideas arose from a desire to preserve it. She essentially invents links along the way. She paints Buchanan as an important influence on Augusto Pinochet's repressive dictatorship in Chile. Not only does her evidence fail to support this, but she misses an important piece of counterevidence: a 1981 speech, delivered in Chile, in which Buchanan condemned dictatorial rule. And finally, though Buchanan was neither an orthodox libertarian nor a central influence on the libertarian movement, she puts him at the heart of a Charles Koch–driven conspiracy to impose a radical libertarian agenda on the United States. In the process, she manages to misread both Buchanan and Koch in telling ways. Public Choice, Private Greed? Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his role in founding the "public choice" school of economics. This school's key idea, to quote the Nobel committee, was to seek "explanations for political behavior that resemble those used to analyze behavior on markets." The result was a body of work in which politicians and bureaucrats, no less than entrepreneurs and investors, often "act out of self-interest," driven not just by a vision of the common good but by a desire for votes or bigger budgets. MacLean, by contrast, treats public choice as little more than an effort to question the good-heartedness of public servants. Its conclusions, she insists, have "no true research—no facts—to support them" and are rooted in "projecting unseem[...]

How Ron Paul Gets the NFL 'Take the Knee' Controversy Wrong

Thu, 28 Sep 2017 12:30:00 -0400

Ron Paul appeared on Alex Jones's InfoWars to weigh in on the controversy that has the nation pointlessly aggrieved: some football players aren't happy with how often police kill black men and choose to express this by kneeling rather than standing when the national anthem is played before football games. Paul, the former Republican congressman (and two-time Republican, and one-time Libertarian, presidential candidate) seemed to see other things worth being angry about in the kneeling NFLers behavior and in the team owners' tolerating it, for various unconvincing and poorly expressed reasons. President Donald Trump has chosen to cynically and idiotically fan the flames of this phony controversy, dividing the nation roughly between those who either agree that cops violently misbehave too often or that Americans should be able to peacefully and symbolically express that opinion during the national anthem at a football game, and those who think public and presidential pressure should force everyone to "show respect for the flag" in one proscribed ritual way. Matt Welch masterfully parsed out nearly all the issues relevant to the libertarian perspective about this dumb controversy at Reason earlier this week. Among his conclusions were that it would be great to get government money and giveaways and crony treatment out of sports, and that it's a healthy thing for free Americans to react to presidential dudgeon by doing the opposite of what (he claims) he wanted. (Trump, the political imp of the perverse, likely would have been disappointed if everyone had obeyed his command to rise for the anthem.) On his show, Alex Jones, a popularizer of the idea that the U.S. government conducts baroque and sinister conspiracies with maddening regularity and for tyrannical ends, now seems more worried that "white people" and America are being criticized. Paul, fortunately given the shadow of racist comments that appeared under his name (but were not, he insists, written by him) decades ago in newsletters he issued, doesn't directly rise to that bait, moving forward as if it wasn't even said. But Paul apparently, for reasons he never specifies or makes clear in this interview, finds the display of kneeling by football players to be a distasteful example of a modern right-populist bogeyman, "cultural Marxism," an (often seen as conspiratorial) movement to overturn all traditional western values in order to soften our underbelly to accept totalitarian communism, through means unspecified. The Ron Paul who created a stir for a message of small government, sound money, and liberty in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns nearly entirely avoided this kind of cranky right-wing talk. I never heard him claim the free choices of any American to express an anti-government opinion in any context was something to be upset about in any way. (I witnessed dozens of hours of his political speeches while researching my 2012 book Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired.) Being a politician seemed to bring out the best in him, a real rarity. When seeking a national audience as a presidential candidate, the need to appeal outside his pre-existing constituency containing many whose anti-statism had a right-populist streak gave him room to paint a wide and sympathetic vision of liberty, one with no place for griping about "cultural Marxism" or that some people are freely choosing to not embrace those old-time western family values. That Ron Paul left right-wing culture war nonsense entirely behind, speaking instead of the human tragedies of military empire, the dangers of federal management of the money supply, the stupidity and evil of restricting our free choices that don't directly harm others, from drug use to raw milk consumption. That R[...]

California Demands Money from Gatorade to Protect Water from Slander

Fri, 22 Sep 2017 12:45:00 -0400

Good news, Californians! Attorney General Xavier Becerra is using your tax dollars to punish the real evildoers: those who would besmirch the good name of water. You might not think anyone would want to destroy water, since we'd all die without it. But you just don't understand the evils of corporate marketing strategies. Becerra does, though, and he has successfully fought off a malicious plot by a sports drink manufacturer to convince children that water is evil by giving out a mobile video game for free. And the world is just a little bit safer. This is not the plot of a bad Saturday morning cartoon from the '80s, people! It's real. In 2012, Gatorade introduced the world to Bolt!, a mobile game starring Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, noted for his sprinting skills. That was what the game was about: Players made Bolt run and pick up gold coins. If players hit a Gatorade logo, he would run even faster. If they hit water, though, he would slow down and lose energy. Now, you might say to yourself, "Well, water would kind of be a threat to a sprinter if he's trying to run." And people with a lengthy history of playing video games might recognize that water is often represented as a threat and a slowing effect to be avoided in any kind of game that involves running or driving very quickly. And in any event, you might think it unlikely that this game would cause anyone to actually stop drinking water. Thank God we have Becerra here to set us straight. This game was actually a marketing conspiracy to turn people—especially children—against water so they'll drink Gatorade instead. Fortunately, we have Becerra here to protect water's good name. Becerra accused Gatorade of false advertising, and he has managed to extract a settlement from the company. His office notes: Gatorade promoted "Bolt!" on social media, drawing in a youthful audience of which more than 70 percent was aged 13 to 24. The app amassed more than 2.3 million downloads and 87 million games played worldwide in 2012 and 2013. The app was also made available on iTunes for a period of time in 2017. "Bolt!" was downloaded an estimated 30,000 times in California. It is no longer available for download. As part of the settlement, Gatorade will be required to pay $300,000, of which $120,000 will be used to fund research or education on water consumption and the nutrition of children and teenagers. In addition, the settlement requires Gatorade to disclose endorser relationships in any social media posts and prohibits the company from advertising its products in media where children under age 12 comprise more than 35 percent of the audience. The settlement also prohibits the company from negatively depicting water in any form of advertisement. The population of California, by the way, is 39 million people. So less than .1 percent of the state's population ever saw this game; most probably never even knew it existed. Guess where the rest of the settlement goes? It goes to Becerra's office. Some cynical people might argue such a mechanism creates a financial incentive for the attorney general's office to exaggerate the nature of a deep-pocketed defendant's misdeeds. What inspired this absurd idea that water needs the government to protect it from defamation? It's all about the nanny state. Gatorade has plenty of sugar in it. The original version has 21 grams of sugar per serving, though there are also low-calorie powder versions with about half that amount. And yes, they do market themselves deliberately as an alternative to water, but also specifically for those involved in athletic activities. So this is another mechanism for the state's health nannies to go on the attack against sugary drinks and try to get money for it. Why bother trying [...]

The New Red Scare

Mon, 18 Sep 2017 12:00:00 -0400

These days America sometimes looks as if it were slipping into the grip of another Red Scare. Only this time the object of fear and loathing is the far-right menace, not the far-left one. The first Red Scare happened after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The second followed WWII, and helped commence the Cold War. Both scares involved a hysterical overreaction to a genuine threat. Totalitarian communism was antithetical to America's most cherished values, and anti-communism was the morally correct position to take. Some took it too far. The overreaction led to loyalty oaths and star-chamber hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee and Hollywood blacklists and a general atmosphere of what, today, we might call political correctness: an intolerance of dissenting ideas that challenged, or were insufficiently devoted to, the prevailing anti-communist orthodoxy. The more common name for the overreaction is McCarthyism. All of this produced almost inevitable blowback, which came to be known as anti-anti-communism. Anti-anti-communists did not support communism, but they also opposed McCarthyism. To muddle the issue even further, many on the left were at least sympathetic to communism, and at least a few were objectively pro-Soviet, so it was easy to lump anti-anti-communists in with those who were pro-communist, and it could be difficult to navigate all of the finely grained distinctions. Those debates have passed into history's sepia pages. Now the current debate over the alt-right has begun to display some of the same hallmarks. To begin with, there is the undeniable existence of a clear and present danger. The racist right's identitarianism is antithetical to America's most cherished values, and opposing the alt-right is the morally correct position to take. The threat must be countered at every turn. At the same time, the wholesome and necessary opposition to bigotry has started to metastasize into something less healthy. You can see that in the way Berkeley reacted to a speech by Ben Shapiro. From the militarized police preparation to the emotional counseling for students, you'd have thought Shapiro, a Jewish conservative who opposes Donald Trump, was the reincarnation of Adolf Eichmann. You can see it at the Oregon Bach Festival, which recently fired British conductor Matthew Halls for affecting a Southern accent while joking with a friend. The friend, Reginald Mobley, is from the South, and black. A woman reported Halls for making racist comments. Mobley insists "there was nothing racist or malicious" about his friend's joke. Too bad, festival officials said; Halls is out. Mobley told a British newspaper Halls "has been victimized and I'm very upset about it." You can see it at the University of Iowa, which requires job applicants to promise they will "demonstrate their contribution to diversity and inclusion" if they are hired. (Virginia Tech tried to impose a similar litmus test for faculty members a few years ago.) To consider why that might be problematic, imagine the university were to demand that applicants "demonstrate their fidelity to capitalism and free enterprise." You can see it in the proliferation of college "bias response teams," which swing into action when somebody reports somebody else—informs on them—for saying or doing something that might be viewed as offensive or hurtful. On today's campus, that can be practically anything. One actual case: "Anonymous student reported that African-American Alliance's student protest was making white students feel uncomfortable." Another resulted in the defunding of a student satirical newspaper after it poked fun at safe spaces. You can see it in the debate over the Southern Poverty Law Center,[...]

Sinister Russian Manipulation of Facebook Lures Four People to a Rally

Tue, 12 Sep 2017 12:42:00 -0400

If you like sensationalist tales of foreign masterminds manipulating domestic dissension, The Daily Beast has a doozy for you: The article beneath that headline informs us that "Russian operatives hiding behind false identities used Facebook's event management tool to remotely organize and promote political protests in the U.S." It then illustrates this with the tale of a rally in Twin Falls, Idaho. If the facts these writers relate are true, there's an interesting story here. Unfortunately, what's interesting about it is almost entirely obscured by the way the report is told. First there is the bizarre fixation on Facebook, a company whose role the writers repeatedly invoke. I know that anything that puts Facebook and Russia in the same vicinity is media catnip right now, but surely the story here is that Russia would want to organize such rallies, not that it used Facebook to do so. Imagine that the KGB had covertly planned a demonstration on U.S. soil in 1980. If its organizers had spoken with each other on the phone, would your coverage focus on AT&T? If they had used photocopied fliers to promote the rally, would your coverage focus on Xerox? I have many problems with Facebook as a company, but surely the fact that its tools make it easier to organize events is a good thing, even if some of the people who use those tools are unsavory. The other big problem with the piece is how it frames the operation: The Facebook events—one of which echoed Islamophobic conspiracy theories pushed by pro-Trump media outlets—are the first indication that the Kremlin's attempts to shape America's political discourse moved beyond fake news and led unwitting Americans into specific real-life action. "This is the next step," Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and expert on Russia's influence campaign, told The Daily Beast. "The objective of influence is to create behavior change. The simplest behavior is to have someone disseminate propaganda that Russia created and seeded. The second part of behavior influence is when you can get people to physically do something." Sounds spooky, huh? But if you're still reading six paragraphs later, that spooky feeling may dissolve: Although 48 people clicked that they were "interested" in the protest, only four said they went to City Council Chambers that day, according to the event page, possibly because it was a Saturday and the Council was not in session. It is also possible to claim attendance on Facebook at an event that didn't exist. Twin Falls had already been the focus of sustained attention on anti-immigrant websites. So the people behind this rally weren't building from scratch here; they were plugging themselves into a preexisting paranoid narrative about foreign predators invading Idaho. And yet as best as we can tell, they were able to draw only four people to their protest. Maybe those wily Russians aren't so great at behavior modification after all. We already had good reason to believe that Russia's propaganda campaigns consist largely of trying to amplify forces that already exist in our society. If this rally is typical, it suggests that such signal boosts haven't had much effect. Much as it may please some people to blame America's divisions on some alien force, they were born here in the U.S.A.[...]