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Published: Mon, 27 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Mon, 27 Feb 2017 13:29:09 -0500


Arizona Bill to Crack Down on Rioters Could Be Used to Shut Down Protests

Thu, 23 Feb 2017 11:30:00 -0500

(image) Rioting is illegal, even in Arizona, but some Republican senators there want to make it extra super illegal. And critics fear they're going to make it so illegal that it will result in people being charged with criminal conspiracy or racketeering (and risk having their property seized) just by participating in a protest where others might engage in violence.

Democratic senators expressed such worries in a piece posted at Arizona Capital Times. They fear that if SB 1142 is made law, it will be used to find new ways to crack down on peaceful protesters by creating pretenses to connect them to troublemakers. The Republicans defending the law are turning to the conspiracy that all the violence is planned and paid for by outsiders as justification:

By including rioting in racketeering laws, it actually permits police to arrest those who are planning events. And [Republican Sen. John] Kavanagh, a former police officer, said if there are organized groups, "I should certainly hope that our law enforcement people have some undercover people there.''

"Wouldn't you rather stop a riot before it starts?'' Kavanagh asked colleagues during debate. "Do you really want to wait until people are injuring each other, throwing Molotov cocktails, picking up barricades and smashing them through businesses in downtown Phoenix?''

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said the new criminal laws are necessary.

"I have been heartsick with what's been going on in our country, what young people are being encouraged to do,'' she said.

She agreed with Quezada that there already are laws that cover overt acts. But Allen said they don't work.

"If they get thrown in jail, somebody pays to get them out,'' she said. "There has to be something to deter them from that.''

This seems a bit of a short-sighted approach, one Democratic legislator pointed out. The Republican senators are only perceiving the protesters as coming from the left and not considering the idea that this new crime classification could come back to haunt Tea Party type protesters if somebody decides to get violent at a protest. These senators also seem to be operating under the absurdly mistaken idea that violent agitators at protests are something brand new.

Not mentioned in the Times story, but pointed out by Will Gaona, policy director for the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, on Twitter: Law enforcement unions are supporters of the legislation and are no doubt helping push it along. It will certainly make it easier for police to justify practices where they simply shut down and detain protesters without much consideration over who is actually engaging in destructive behavior.

SB 1142 doesn't actually do a whole lot but simply add rioting to existing conspiracy and racketeering classifications and defines rioting thus: "A person commits riot if, with two or more other persons acting together, such person recklessly uses force or violence or threatens to use force or violence, if such threat is accompanied by immediate power of execution, which either disturbs the public peace or results in damage to the property of another person."

The bill passed on a party live vote in the Senate, 17-13 and is heading over to the House.

Outlandish Trump Hysteria Mirrors Obamaphobia

Thu, 23 Feb 2017 10:00:00 -0500

How thin is the line between reason and delirium. Just a few years ago, Democrats and liberals were presenting themselves as paragons of level-headed politics in contrast to those cranky Obama bashers and birthers in the darker crannies of the worldwide web. Now, four weeks into the Trump presidency, they've become the thing they mocked; they're giving febrile Obamaphobes a run for their money in the paranoia game. It's striking how closely the media and culture sets' meltdown over Trump mirrors the rash reaction to Obama among some on the harder, tetchier right of politics. Just as some of those frazzled comment-section dwellers became convinced Obama was a Muslim Brotherhood mole, bent on laying waste to their way of life, so left-leaning Trump-fearers are buying into ever-crazier notions about Trump being a Putin-puppeteered Manchurian candidate come to destroy American values, and art, and decency: everything they hold dear. The panic and self-pity that once gripped unreasoned right-wingers now has a firm hold of many leftists. The most striking similarity between the meltdown over Obama and the meltdown over Trump is the belief that the president is a stooge of dark foreign forces. A favored conspiracy theory of the Obama-fearers was that Obama wasn't born in the United States, and was probably a Muslim to boot. Some went further, insisting he was a smart, smooth-talking front for those dastardly aspiring destroyers of the United States, the Muslim Brotherhood. "Barack Hussein Obama: Muslim Brotherhood Mole?" headlines asked. (Always with the Hussein.) Some wondered if Obama was an MB "agent." "The Muslim Brotherhood has taken over the White House," bloggers feverishly claimed. They said there were MB moles "inside the Department of Homeland Security," and the "Commander-in-Chief is one of these individuals." This swirling theory made its way to National Enquirer. "Muslim Obama's White House Infested With Terrorist Spies!" the mag insisted. The unhinged conviction that the White House has fallen to a wicked foreign power now finds expression in many liberals' belief that Putin, through leaks and fake news, won the election for Trump, and that Trump is doing his bidding. Of course there's evidence of contact between Trump's people and Putin's people—dinners, phone calls, a shared dislike of Hillary—but nothing to warrant the widespread use of the term "Putin's puppet." That's appeared everywhere from the Washington Post to MSNBC. Trump is the "Siberian candidate," said a writer for The New York Times, using language right out of the conspiracy-theory thriller The Manchurian Candidate. "Putin has managed a bloodless coup," says a Daily Kos blogger. In short, Russia now runs America. Saturday Night Live runs skits showing a shirtless Putin bossing about a gurning Trump—a "manipulative dictator and his oblivious puppet," as The Guardian describes it. It's funny (at times) but it's worth remembering that the folks at SNL would have been in the frontline of mocking Obamaphobes who thought Obama was the plaything of Islamists. The talk of Trump as a Putin plant utterly runs ahead of any facts. Alarmingly, at the end of December YouGov found in a survey of Democratic voters that 50% of them believed "Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Donald Trump." This goes beyond believing that Russian-engineered fake news and leaked Dem emails swung the election for Trump, which is already a bit of a stretch, since I'm petty sure voters can still think for themselves; as YouGov said, it crosses into the territory of "Election Day conspiracy theory." The post-Obama meltdown led to loads of phony stories—what we now call fake news. Obama was raised by communists; he once refused to say the pledge of allegiance; he won the election through mass hypnosis. (I particularly like the hypnosis story, which is actually now echoed in some liberals' snooty belief that Trump voters were hoodwinked by the Orange One's demagoguery—that they are "compulsive believers," as one columnist puts it.) Likewise, th[...]

What's an Anti-Establishment Guy Gonna Do When His Hero Takes Over the Government?

Tue, 14 Feb 2017 16:16:00 -0500

When people find out you've written a book about conspiracy theories, they tend to start asking you questions. Often the same questions. One I've been hearing a lot lately is "What do you think Alex Jones will do now that his guy is president? Can a man who sees conspiracies everywhere adjust to being on the same side as the government?" That question, as it happens, has relevance beyond the relatively small world of Jones and his fans. My answer is usually some combination of these three things: 1. I have no idea what Alex Jones will do over the next four years. 2. But many people have found it easy to slide from condemning a vast government conspiracy against the citizens to condemning a vast conspiracy against The One Man In Government Who Cares About You. You don't need to be a hard-core conspiracist like Jones or his staff at Infowars to take that kind of position. It's pretty common to encounter Democrats who thought Barack Obama and/or Bill Clinton were outsiders hemmed in by a hostile establishment, and it's not unusual to meet Republicans who have said similar things about George W. Bush and/or Ronald Reagan. Washington is full of intrigue, and it doesn't take much work to interpret a battle between governing-class factions as a battle between the rulers and the people. With someone like Jones the narrative may get more baroque, but the underlying process will be pretty similar; so far, he and his writers haven't had a hard time acclimating themselves to the new conditions. 3. The more interesting question isn't "What will Alex Jones do?" It's "What will people like Alex Jones do?" Jones is a fringe figure, but there's a pretty big universe out there of Americans who tend to distrust both the government and the corporate world and who are particularly prone to embracing conspiratorial explanations of events. There's going to be a split between the populists who see Trump as just the latest manifestation of a corrupt system and the populists who see him as their advocate in a world that's otherwise stacked against them. But we don't yet know how many people will end up on each side. So with that in mind, check out The Daily Beast's report on a crack in the Alex Jones coalition: Since his exit, [former Infowars writer Kurt] Nimmo has noticed the general framework and voice of the site shift into becoming essentially a pro-Trump propaganda outfit—something that he perceives as an abandonment of Infowars' initial focus on the "New World Order," or as Jones would call it, the establishment. "I disagree with Alex Jones on Donald Trump," Nimmo said in an email to The Daily Beast. "I believe Donald Trump is an enabler of crony capitalism, the same as his predecessor. I also believe he will not end the wars started by Bush and continued by Obama. I cannot support a man who will further war and murder. Alex Jones has more or less ignored this and considers Trump a patriot and a defender of the Constitution. This is clearly wrong." To read the whole thing, which includes some equally strongly worded pushback from Team Infowars, go here. There will be many rifts like this in the Trump years, and they won't always take place in places as arcane as this one. Bonus link: A broader look at these tensions in the populist tradition.[...]

All the News That's Fit to Fake

Tue, 07 Feb 2017 10:45:00 -0500

Ricardo Bilton, a staff writer at the Nieman Journalism Lab, read my book about the history of conspiracy theories and decided it might help put the current debate about "fake news" in perspective. So last week he interviewed me, and this week an edited version of our conversation went online. Here's an excerpt:

(image) BILTON: So you're optimistic about about media's ability stop fake news from spreading?

WALKER: I looked historically at some of these rumors that floated around in the early 1940s. There was, for example, this idea that blacks in the south were organizing to take over once World War II was over and Hitler would put them in charge. It sounds like the most absurd sort of fake news rumor of today. The thing is it wasn't being circulated online where someone could read it and then easily Google it or click over to Snopes to see the debunking. It was just being talked about face-to-face as a rumor, and that's how it spread.

So, yeah, I'm actually moderately optimistic, because the fact that everyone is talking about fake news and on the lookout for it shows there's more of an awareness of it and how people can be fooled. Obviously, tons of false stories are circulating, but it's easier than before to identify them, and debunk them, and counteract them. I don't know whether it's true that the debunking is doing the job, but the people writing the debunking stories are at least being somewhat empowered in a way they weren't before...

Bilton also asked about political partisanship's effect on people's willingness to believe false reports. After agreeing that yes, partisanship can fuel confirmation bias, I noted another force at work:

For a lot of people, the real assumption that they bring to the news, even beyond their partisan affiliations, is an expectation of a smooth narrative. They expect news stories to look like the movies or TV shows that they're familiar with. Even if they're regular journalism consumers, the stories they remember best are these well done stories that tell a compelling narrative and make them feel like they're watching a movie or TV show.

In reality, stories are messy and have real loose ends. That's the real bias that readers have to combat, and it's something that people in the media have to think about. Because, on the one hand we want to provide good, compelling narratives, but on the other hand, we don't want people to think they live in this world that's made up of these easy, compelling narratives. They don't.

To read the rest, go here. For more from me on "fake news," go here and here. And if you missed Joe Uscinski's recent Reason story about the fake-news debate, be sure to check that out here.

Fake News Freakout

Sun, 05 Feb 2017 06:00:00 -0500

Anyone with a Facebook account this year likely witnessed a barrage of false, conspiracy-laden headlines. My news feed informed me that Hillary Clinton was gravely ill, was already dead, had a body double, and murdered dozens of people. (It's amazing what you can learn when you have the right friends.) I also found out that President Barack Obama had worked his way through college as a gay prostitute. (Who could blame him? Columbia is very expensive!) Reeling after November's unexpected loss to Donald Trump, Democrats have taken to blaming such "fake news" for that outcome. Trump won, the argument goes, because Americans were exposed to inaccurate information; if only they'd had the right info from the right people, voters would have made better choices. A Washington Post piece took the idea further, claiming that fake news stems from a "sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy." In response to such heated calls, Facebook has started looking for ways to rid itself of the fakeries. Whether or not it's to blame for Trump's victory, fake news can be a problem. People who absorb inaccuracies will sometimes believe them and, worse, act on them. And once an inaccuracy gets lodged in a person's head, it can be difficult to dislodge. The political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown that even when presented with authoritative facts, people will not merely refuse to change their incorrect beliefs; in some instances they'll double down on them. This is called the "backfire" effect. But it is far from clear that fake news has the sweeping effects that its critics charge. People have always put stock in dubious ideas, and the latest deluge of suspect headlines traversing the Internet smells more of continuity than it does of change. I have been studying political communication for more than a decade. Much of that time has been spent looking at conspiracy theories, why people believe them, and how they spread. What we know about how people interact with information—and misinformation—suggests that fake political news doesn't affect people's opinions nearly as much as is being insinuated. Where Political Beliefs Come From In the 1940s, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues explored how the media affects political views by comparing people's opinions (as measured by surveys) to the news and advertisements they were exposed to. The investigators expected to find evidence that media messages had immediate, powerful, and intuitive effects on people's political views. Instead, they found that opinions were largely stable and invariant to media messages. You could face a barrage of the Madison Avenue pitches proclaiming the virtues of either President Franklin Roosevelt or his Republican challenger, but if six months in advance you were inclined to vote for one of those men, in November that was who you'd probably vote for. Very few people changed their preferences over the course of the campaign. The same finding held throughout the broadcast era: There was very little relationship between people's intended choices and the messaging they encountered. Whatever change did occur usually took the form of people aligning their candidate preferences with their underlying party affiliation. External events and economic conditions mattered, of course, but they tended to make their impact regardless of messaging. This is not to say that news, advertisements, and campaigns have no effects. But those effects tend to be less direct and of lower magnitude than people assume. Over the last few decades, as media markets segmented, the ratings for the three traditional broadcast news programs have declined and people have sought out other entertainment options. For those who enjoy and seek out political news, market segmentation allowe[...]

When the British Interfered in American Elections

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 15:10:00 -0500

There is clear-cut evidence that a foreign power has interfered in our country's elections. It spied; it spent; it spread disinformation. It was the United Kingdom, and the campaigns it attempted to influence took place in 1940. This story has been told in such books as Desperate Deception and The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, and now Politico has run an article about it. Hoping for help against the Germans, the British promoted candidates they found congenial to their interests. (They helped push Wendell Willkie for the Republican presidential nomination, for example, so that a pro-British internationalist would sit in the White House even if Franklin Roosevelt lost.) But most of their electoral efforts were aimed less at advancing politicians they liked than at tearing down ones they didn't. This was part of a larger program of espionage and propaganda that lasted well after Election Day. As you've probably guessed, Politico's newspeg is Russia's alleged machinations in last year's presidential election. But the article doesn't say much about what we might learn from the '40s, preferring to tell the tale rather than tease out its lessons. So let's think about what exactly this story suggests, beyond the obvious point that yes, foreign nations have been known to influence our politics. Sometimes a bona-fide historical conspiracy can shed some light on a modern conspiracy theory: 1. The British gave covert assistance to candidates, but they didn't pull the candidates' strings. The takeaway from the Politico story should not be that Willkie or Roosevelt was some sort of British agent. They had their own reasons for wanting to back the U.K. in Europe's conflict, as did many other members of the American establishment. London didn't control them; it recognized them as allies. That point may seem too obvious to bother spelling it out. Yet a great deal of the commentary around Moscow and the election leaps from looking for evidence of interference to assuming that Donald Trump is little more than a stooge—as Hillary Clinton put it, Putin's "puppet." This in turn yields commentary in which the central issue is whether Trump's allies or even critics are doing "what Putin wants," rather than whether there are good reasons for anyone else to want it. Which leads us to observation #2: 2. Whether a policy is a good idea is a separate question from whether a foreign power is pushing it. Needless to say, the fact that Britain worked behind the scenes to pull Washington into World War II does not tell us much about whether entering World War II was a good idea. The same goes for the Russia-friendly policies that Trump might pursue. The possibilities on the table include some notions that I like (such as rethinking NATO) and some that I hate (such as allying with Moscow in Syria). If it turns out that Trump's team had more contacts with the Kremlin than they're letting on, that isn't going to change my positions on those issues; the fundamental arguments are going to be the same. Furthermore, it's not as though there's only one group of plotters at work here. Last year Ukraine tried to help Hillary Clinton. During the run-up to World War II, Germany made its own efforts to influence American public opinion. Sometimes you're going to have foreign conspirators on your side no matter where you come down on an issue. Better to pick your side on the merits. 3. This isn't a "Post-Truth Era." That would require a Truth Era that never existed. I know I keep hammering this point, but a lot of people out there seem to think "fake news" on Facebook is some radical departure from the past. So if nothing else, read Politico's feature for stories like this one: [British Security Coordination (BSC)] created, funded and operated the Non-Partisan Committee to Defeat Hamilton Fish, which among other activities, circulated a pamphlet juxtaposing Fish, Adolf Hitler and Nazis. Another photo app[...]

Rep. John Lewis Says Trump Is Not a "Legitimate President" Due To Russian Meddling

Sat, 14 Jan 2017 14:03:00 -0500

Few members of Congress have served longer and with more esteem that John Lewis, the Democrat from Georgia. Well-known and universally respected for his civil rights activism (for which he was physically beaten), Lewis is also not above slinging partisan mud hard and fast. In a new interview with NBC's Meet the Press, he goes so far to say, "I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president....I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton." Lewis doubtless speaks for many Clinton supporters and other members of Congress (who knows, maybe some Republicans agree with his assessment too?). Yet this is a line that rarely gets crossed in public discussions and, in the cases when it is crossed, the media and political players usually heap scorn on the speaker. Anytime someone says X or Y is not MY president, he gets a shit-ton of pushback. I'm guessing that that won't happen here, even though the evidence that Russians "hacked" the election is extremely weak and even risible at this point in time. To remind us all: There's no publicly available evidence that Russian agents came anywhere close to election machines or had any impact on the way votes were tallied (that is, things could accurately be described as hacking). When the unclassified version of the Office of National Intelligence report on Russian activity came out, it provided more assertions but no real evidence tying the release of DNC and Podesta emails to Russian higher-ups and instead spent a lot of time talking about how state-owned propaganda entities RT and Sputnik covered American politics. As Scott Shackford wrote: They point to the fact that RT hosted debates from third-party candidates and publicized the idea that the two-party system doesn't represent a third of voters. In addition, they call the United States a surveillance state full of civil liberties abuses, police brutality, and drone use.... Look at those examples and they could apply not just to Reason but to media outlets of varying ideological positions within America. Americans are abandoning the two political parties. People are genuinely upset about surveillance and police brutality. If this is an attempt to sway the public to be concerned about RT, it's not terribly persuasive. And it's several years after the reality of what RT is came to light anyway, so it just reads rather dated. Even arch-critics of Trump and Putin conceded the public report and discussion doesn't actually prove what has been charged: That Russian government actors are behind the hacks of DNC and Podesta emails and then fed them to Wikileaks and (as important) that those things and other Russian activities tipped the election to Trump. And yet, we can safely assume, I think, that Russians (and political players in every other country that could do so) wanted to influence the election one way or another. Hell, the U.K.'s Nigel Farage, fresh off his Brexit win, campaigned for Trump. I assume that Putin preferred Trump, who has signaled more clearly than a whore in an Amsterdam window that he's ready to do business with Russia in a way that Clinton was not. You might disagree with that virulently, but it's a far cry from saying Trump won because of Putin's secret-agent activities. In fact, the Tweeter in Chief himself, has a much-more plausible explanation for why Hillary Clinton, who once noted with exasperation that she should have been 50 points ahead against such a uniquely unqualified joke candidate, pulled up short:— ...She lost because she campaigned in the wrong states - no enthusiasm! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2017 I write as a #NeverTrumper (I voted for Gary Johnson), but I find Lewis's comments and broader attempts not simply to disagree with political opponents but to delegitimate them troubling for several reasons. First, they are simpl[...]

BuzzFeed's Dossier Was Both Flimsy and Newsworthy

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 13:45:00 -0500

Is there a good defense of BuzzFeed's decision to publish the Urinegate memos last night? Glenn Greenwald's analysis of the story makes the best argument I've seen, though there are so many caveats here that I don't think it quite qualifies as a defense: It's almost impossible to imagine a scenario where it's justifiable for a news outlet to publish a totally anonymous, unverified, unvetted document filled with scurrilous and inflammatory allegations about which its own editor-in-chief says there "is serious reason to doubt the allegations," on the ground that they want to leave it to the public to decide whether to believe it. But even if one believes there is no such case where that is justified, yesterday's circumstances presented the most compelling scenario possible for doing this. Once CNN strongly hinted at these allegations, it left it to the public imagination to conjure up the dirt Russia allegedly had to blackmail and control Trump. By publishing these accusations, BuzzFeed ended that speculation. More importantly, it allowed everyone to see how dubious this document is, one the CIA and CNN had elevated into some sort of grave national security threat. Whether or not that's a defense, the basic argument here is true: Once I read what BuzzFeed had, I saw CNN's story in a rather different light. Now, that still leaves plenty of room to criticize BuzzFeed, which noted some errors in the dossier at the outset but could have done much more to report out its claims before publishing it. (To give the most obvious example, they should have asked Michael Cohen for comment on whether he had been to Prague at the time the file said he was there, rather than letting us wait til after the piece dropped to see Cohen deny he'd ever been to the city at all. BuzzFeed later updated its story to note his denial.) But even if BuzzFeed could have done a much better job of setting the context for the document it was printing, its report in turn supplied some valuable context for CNN's story. Beyond that, if this dossier, or a summary of it, has shaped the ways influential people in Washington have been behaving, the document itself is clearly newsworthy. On the other hand, I can't co-sign this part of Greenwald's column: There is a real danger here that this maneuver can harshly backfire, to the great benefit of Trump and to the great detriment of those who want to oppose him. If any of the significant claims in this "dossier" turn out to be provably false—such as Cohen's trip to Prague—many people will conclude, with Trump's encouragement, that large media outlets (CNN and BuzzFeed) and anti-Trump factions inside the government (CIA) are deploying "Fake News" to destroy him. In the eyes of many people, that will forever discredit—render impotent—future journalistic exposés that are based on actual, corroborated wrongdoing. Don't get me wrong: Trump's fans will certainly do this. But if this dossier didn't exist, they'd just point to something else. There's already enough kooky stuff out there for Trump's defenders to handwave about "fake news" whenever something legitimate comes out. This is, in fact, a pretty standard political maneuver. (Think of how many allegations against Barack Obama, credible or not, provoked a chorus of liberals making Benghazi jokes. And the standard Benghazi theories were a lot less far-out than the stuff in the BuzzFeed dossier.) In any event, a ton of Trump exposés have appeared since he entered the presidential race in mid-2015, some of them convincing and some of them not. It should be clear by now that many Trump loyalists are already perfectly capable of finding reasons to reject even the most well-sourced stories. To judge from some of the tweeters I saw taking the dossier's claims at face value last night, some people are perfectly capable of embracing even the most poorly-sourced allegations as w[...]

Let's Be Clear About Who Drained the Meaning from the Phrase 'Fake News'

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 13:45:00 -0500

A new take on "fake news" had been bubbling for a while, and now it has the imprimatur of a Washington Post columnist. Here's Margaret Sullivan: Fake news has a real meaning—deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public. For example: The one falsely claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, or the one alleging without basis that Hillary Clinton would be indicted just before the election. But though the term hasn't been around long, its meaning already is lost. So far, so good. The phrase "fake news" has been getting plastered willy-nilly on anything that's false, and sometimes just on something that someone wants to suggest is false. I've been complaining about that for more than a month. But then the column starts to go off track: "The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become," said George Washington University professor Nikki Usher. Wait. The conservative media machine? Did you think they came up with this? Let's be clear about the chain of events here. A year ago, "fake news" had a pretty specific meaning: clickbait sites that publish hoaxes. The hoax of the hour might be political, but it could as easily be a fraudulent report of a celebrity death or a weird-news story that's too good to be true. Over time the term was also applied to aggregation sites that don't specialize in hoaxes so much as they simply don't care whether the stories they're promoting are hoaxes. Not exactly the same thing, but you still had that basic model of a click-driven indifference to truth. But when the opinion-spouting class grabbed the phrase en masse right after the election, they used it much more broadly. They applied it to sites with a heavy ideological skew. They applied it to conspiracy theories cooked up by people who might not know what credible evidence looks like but sincerely think they're chasing a real scandal. (Sullivan's column alludes twice to "PizzaGate," a theory that owes its origins not to hoaxsters but to nuts.) Conservatives played a part in this, throwing the words "fake news" at mainstream-media stories that might be better described as "bad reporting" (or, sometimes, as "perfectly fine reporting that uncovered facts I don't like"). But they didn't invent the practice. They took what the center-left was doing and bent it to their own ends. Once you've started slapping the "fake news" label on anything that looks like sloppy reporting or ideological bias in the alternative press, you've pretty much guaranteed that people will start flinging it when they think they've spotted sloppy reporting or ideological bias in the mainstream. No media-machine efficiency was required. Ask the right who taught them how to do this stuff, and they can look up from their bed and tell you: You, all right? I learned it by watching you![...]

Russia Isn't Our Friend, but That Doesn't Make the Democrats' Conspiracy Theories True

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 00:01:00 -0500

Here are two positions an intellectually honest person can hold simultaneously: First, Russian President Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian who, though no Josef Stalin, subverts human rights and is generally antagonistic to the idealistic aims of the United States. When Republicans cozy up to this sort of person, as President-elect Donald Trump has done, they undermine the stated beliefs and values of conservatism. Second, though there's little doubt he wishes he could, Putin did not hack the American election. In fact, there's no evidence whatsoever that the Russians had anything to do with Trump's victory. Now, I understand why so many on the left want to force Republicans to choose between these two statements. They'd like to delegitimize the democratic validity of Trump's presidency (in much the same way they did with President George W. Bush) and smear those who don't join them in this endeavor as unpatriotic Putin-defending lackeys. Considering their own past and Obama's accommodating attitude toward the Russians (and the Cubans, the Iranians, Fatah, Hamas and other illiberal regimes), this seems an uphill battle. Many in the media, though—which has spent considerable time lamenting its deteriorating influence and the rise of fake news—also decided to start the new year by internalizing a partisan-driven fantasy about the Russians electing Trump with incessant coverage, deceptive headlines and misleading stories. One recent CNN tweet read, "US officials say newly identified 'digital fingerprints' indicate Moscow was behind election hacking." The number of times I've seen a reputable news organization use terms like "election hacking" is now incalculable. It is a lie—every time. By "election hacking," reporters and editors mean there might be evidence that Russians successfully phished a Democratic operative named John Podesta, who used the word "password" as his password. Although we should thoroughly investigate foreigners who illegally access American emails, this is not tantamount to infiltrating an election or undermining its legitimacy. In November, the Washington Post ran a flimsy piece purporting that the "flood of 'fake news' this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign." Last week, it reported that a Russian-backed computer hacking operation had been found inside the system of a Vermont utility company and had penetrated the U.S. power grid. If true, this would be genuinely scary stuff. But it wasn't true. A few days later, the Post—after much effort to save the piece—had to finally admit that "authorities say there is no indication of that so far." To say there is no indication that Russia tried to infiltrate the grid "so far" almost seems like someone is hoping the story might one day turn out to be true. In any event, everyone makes mistakes. But it's difficult to imagine these sorts of pieces—hampered with numerous problems from the start—didn't have something to do with partisan narratives about Russian influence infecting newsrooms. These kinds of pieces only weaken the impact of genuine foreign-hacking stories. Many in the left-wing punditry have already taken to speaking about the stolen 2016 election. "The NSA Chief Says Russia Hacked the 2016 Election," says David Corn in a headline. New York's Jonathan Chait asserted that not only was there "evidence that Russian intelligence carried out a successful plan to pick the government of the United States" but it was "probable that the hacks swung enough votes to decide a very tight race," and the latter could not be "proven." In politics, proving something isn't nearly as important as feeling it. So it's not surprising that a recent Economist/YouGov poll found that 52 percent of Democrats believe Russia "tampered with vote tallies"—not that it leaked real em[...]

John Carpenter to Nazis: Dammit, Stop Treating They Live As a Metaphor for The Jews

Wed, 04 Jan 2017 13:12:00 -0500

John Carpenter—director of The Thing, Escape from New York, and other entertaining genre flicks—is sick of seeing anti-Semites trying to adopt one of his movies as their own: THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie. — John Carpenter (@TheHorrorMaster) January 4, 2017 They Live, for those of you who haven't seen it, is a science-fiction film from 1988 about a drifter, played by the late Rowdy Roddy Piper, who acquires some sunglasses—"Hoffman lenses"—that let him see the true reality lurking behind the surface world. Ads and other items are revealed to be subliminal commands ("OBEY," "CONSUME," "CONFORM," "STAY ASLEEP"), and many of the people around him are exposed as extraterrestrial impersonators. Turns out those aliens secretly run the world. As often happens with stories like this (see also: The Matrix), They Live has been embraced by people with their own ideas about just who the hidden rulers of the planet are. It can't be fun to have a bunch of bigots reading their worldview into your work, and I can't object to the Nazi Punks Fuck Off spirit of Carpenter's tweet. But his problem was probably inevitable. Audiences are constantly adapting texts for their own ends, as any devotee of Kirk/Spock slashfic could tell you. And conspiracy stories are easily restructured to replace one fear with another. Carpenter wants his viewers to resent yuppie capitalists rather than Jews, but viewers sometimes have their own stubborn notions about how they're going to perceive things. (Google "Jewish Capitalism," by the way, and you'll get yourself some bigots who can do both.) Jonathan Lethem's excellent little book about Carpenter's film, also called They Live, pointed out way back in 2010 that an anti-Semitic website had tried to link those "Hoffman lenses" to the Holocaust-denying writer Michael A. Hoffman II. Lethem's conclusion: "setting your open-ended conspiracy metaphors loose upon the world, they become (like anything) eligible for manifold repurposing. Free your mind and an ass may follow." Or as my colleague Nick Gillespie wrote in the antediluvian days of 1996, when They Live was more likely to be taken as a metaphor for Corporate Rock Still Sucking: What is on the screen or on the stereo...matters far less than one might suppose. Individuals interpret and reconstruct what they see and hear the way they want to. In a classroom, interpretations can be graded as better or worse, depending on the instructor's criteria. But there is no analogous oversight in the real world and people are free to spin out their own interpretations and cross-references. Reductio ad absurdum: Mark David Chapman read The Catcher in the Rye as legitimizing his murder of John Lennon. Clearly, this is not an A+ interpretation of the novel, but it is an interpretation nonetheless. And it points to a simple truth: The most relevant interpretive context is not the producer's but the consumer's. Since most of those consumers are not Nazis or assassins, their interpretive freedom has had a lot of fun or thoughtful or just enjoyably strange results, as anyone who's encountered a bunch of fans having an argument could tell you. (Sometimes the fans even use that freedom to make compelling art of their own.) If there are times when the results are offensive or stupid instead—well, that's the price we pay. Better that than a world without creative reinterpretation, where audiences numbly OBEY and CONSUME some Single Correct Meaning of a story.[...]

The Other Way the Debate About Russian Hacking is Like the Debate About WMDs

Tue, 03 Jan 2017 14:45:00 -0500

The debate about Russia's alleged hackscapades has a lot in common with the debate about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. That's not just because, as Scott Shackford pointed out today, in each case we've been asked to put our faith in government sources who may not deserve it. It's because both disputes focused relentlessly on the wrong things. During the run-up to the Iraq war, I doubted those claims that Saddam Hussein had a secret stash of WMDs. But I also thought those weapons were beside the point. The more important question was whether Hussein was a threat to Americans, with or without weapons of mass destruction in his arsenal. Whatever ambitions he had were confined to his corner of the globe, so he didn't really have any reason to target us—except for Washington's sanctions and sabre-rattling. The focus on WMDs distracted from the deeper case against the war. Indeed, it led even some antiwar voices to speak as though those sanctions and sabre-rattling were appropriate. (Hence all the references to "containing" Saddam.) Just as it was conceivable to me then that Saddam was lying about WMDs, I think it entirely possible now that Russian agents hacked the Democratic National Committee. That may not have been proven, but it's plausible—certainly more plausible than that rapidly-crumbling story that they hacked Vermont's electrical grid. Yet vast swaths of the center-left wing of the establishment seem to think this would mean Russia "installed" Donald Trump as president. (I'm quoting Paul Krugman, but he's hardly alone in using words like that.) Trump's lack of interest in investigating the question has led some pundits to start slinging around the term "treason." Meanwhile, in the news pages, headlines routinely describe the intrusion at the DNC as "election hacking," a habit that helps explain why half of Hillary Clinton's supporters believe that Moscow interfered with the actual vote count, according to a December YouGov poll. Now, if Putin was working to help Trump become president—or even just to spread doubt about American electoral integrity—that's certainly worthy of note. But in terms of its actual impact, that would basically mean he was among the many forces spreading oppo over the course of the campaign. I'd be hard pressed to name a presidential election where various groups didn't publicize embarrassing information. Releasing the DNC emails wouldn't even be the most egregious way the Russians have messed with our information ecosystem. The Kremlin is known to spread actual disinformation, as in stories that aren't true. That seems more destructive than releasing authentic documents, but it doesn't have that spooky word "hacking" attached to it, so I guess it's harder to work people up into a fever about it. Needless to say, it's hard to name a recent presidential campaign that didn't contain any disinformation either. Even here, Putin's electoral "interference" amounted to being one of the goons spraying signals into the ether. So keep Putin in perspective. He's a repressive thug with nuclear weapons, but he's not a grand puppetmaster moving American voters like chess pieces. And keep your eye on the ball. Just as focusing on WMDs yielded too much ground to the argument for war, focusing on Russia's alleged election antics yields too much ground to Trumpism. We may be entering an ugly age of paranoid nationalism. If you want to fight that, you shouldn't put paranoid nationalism at the center of your critique of the new order.[...]

White Slavery: The Movie

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 13:25:00 -0500

(image) In my post about PizzaGate earlier today, I mentioned the "white slavery" scare of the Progressive Era, when wild stories circulated of vast conspiracies coercing young women into prostitution. Forced prostitution did exist, of course, but these tales greatly exaggerated both how common and how organized it was. As is often the case, the moral panic manifested itself at the movies.

The white-slavery film cycle began with George Loane Tucker's 1913 hit Traffic in Souls; the second major entry was Frank Beal's The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, released the same year. The latter is embedded below. Unfortunately, some scenes from the movie are lost, so additional intertitles have been inserted to describe what happens in the missing sections.

In brief, the picture tells the story of a girl who is tricked into a fake marriage with a procurer for a sex-trafficking ring, who then ships her off to be a whore in New Orleans. She tries to break free, fleeing to Denver and Houston, but everywhere she goes she is tracked by the enormous sex syndicate. Unable to find any other job, she finally submits.

One of the odder twists comes when she then falls into a conversation with a potential john. A policeman interrupts them, lets the man walk away, and hauls our heroine off to jail. The film disapproves: A placard says, "One law for man—Another for woman." But it just disapproves of the man walking free: The arrest appears to be a good thing, since it leads to the woman's rehabilitation. After her imprisonment, she finally gets a respectable job. (Then she slides back into prostitution and dies. Not a cheery movie!)

Like many other "educational" films over the years, The Inside of the White Slave Traffic opens with an earnest-sounding declaration of serious intent before proceeding to the salacious story. The reaction was similarly bifurcated: Anti-vice activists promoted it, but police shut down some screenings on the grounds that the picture was obscene. Judge for yourself:

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The opening includes a list of people who have endorsed the film, ending with a dubious invocation of "every Sociologist of note from Atlantic to Pacific." If you know your Progressive Era history, some of those names may be familiar to you. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a prominent feminist, was the author of Herland, a utopian science fiction novel in which an all-female society reproduces parthenogenetically. And Frederic Howe had a long career as a reformer, at various stages becoming everything from a Henry Georgist to a New Dealer; his 1906 book Confessions of a Monopolist has a small libertarian fan base. For the purposes of this picture, though, his most relevant credential may be that he was director of the National Board of Censorship.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Sherri Papini Sex-Trafficking Evidence Almost as Flimsy as PizzaGate Proof

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 12:30:00 -0500

I first learned about Sherri Papini, the 34-year-old California woman who went missing for 22 days in November, from a Today Show headline asking: "Was Sherri Papini kidnapping linked to sex trafficking?" In People magazine's December 9 issue, John Kelly, "a noted serial killer profiler," said Papini's abduction had all the hallmarks of human trafficking, with her mistreatment typical of the "shaming and degrading" of victims that traffickers deploy. Other wide-reaching media outlets—NBC News, ABC News, Us Weekly, the Sacramento Bee—have likewise floated the idea that the mysterious duo of Hispanic women Papini fingered may have been part of a sex-trafficking ring. Yet there is almost nothing to support the idea that Papini's disappearance was related to sex or prostitution. The whole theory hinges on the fact that Papini was "branded," as her husband Keith initially put it. Police later confirmed that Sherri did have something burnt into her skin, specifying only that it was not a "symbol" but a "message." But even accepting the premise that sex-traffickers frequently "brand" their victims—a common claim also utterly lacking in evidence—Papini's burns could just as easily have been an act of torture or a way to relay a message to Papini, police, or the public. And the latter explanations certainly make more sense than the former when taken with the facts that nothing else about the abduction belied an intent to force Papini into commercial sex and, in fact, Papini's assailants eventually just let her go, according to what she told police. Who is Sherri Papini? For those unfamiliar with the case, Papini—a stay-at-home mother of two living with her husband in Shasta County, California—disappeared on November 2 while Keith was at work and the kids were in daycare. The case came to a happy ending on Thanksgiving day, when Papini was found on the side of a rural road a few hours from her home, malnourished and knocked around but not severely injured. She has since been reunited with her family, the Shasta County Sheriff's Department is investigating, and the Papinis are taking some time away from the spotlight in an undisclosed location. Papini's disappearance, and subsequent return, earned ample national attention. The story seemed to have legs both because of the mystery surrounding Papini's disappearance and because of who Papini is: a pretty, young, white woman with a photogenic family and a Pinterest-perfect collection of hobbies: crafting, baking, exercise, home decorating, party-planning, and prayer. She was quickly dubbed a "supermom" in headlines. California State Police found Papini roadside in Yolo County, near Sacramento, with one hand chained behind her waist. She was "taken to an area hospital, and treated for non-life threatening conditions," according to Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosekno. Keith Papini has said that his wife's captors beat her, cut off her hair, and "barely fed" her. When she was discovered, Keith said, Sherri was bruised, had lost 15 percent of her body weight, and had a broken nose, "severe burns, red rashes, and chain markings." Police, however, have been less forthcoming with details about Sherri Papini's condition. Whatever injuries she suffered, overnight hospitalization was not required, and by Thanksgiving night she was back at home with her family. Sherri told police that her abductors had been two Hispanic women driving a dark SUV. She said they wore masks over their faces and spoke almost exclusively in Spanish. Upon first questioning, she provided police with little detail, which Bosenko attributed to her still recovering from the experience. But if she has since provided more information, Shasta County authorities aren't[...]

Hillary Clinton’s Call for Congress to Do Something About Fake News ‘Epidemic’ Is a Reminder of How Bad Her Presidency Would Have Been on Free Speech

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 11:40:00 -0500

Hillary Clinton has not been seen much since the election, except up in the woods near Chappaqua in her favorite hiking sweater. Sadly, that streak ended yesterday, when she used an appearance at the retirement ceremony for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to rail hyperbolically against "The epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year." "It's now clear the so-called fake news can have real-world consequences," Clinton warned, referencing the gunman who arrived at Comet Pizza to investigate a nonsensical conspiracy theory. "Lives are at risk—lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities….It's imperative that leaders in both the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy and innocent lives." Watch a snippet of the alarmist sanctimony here: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> This is the classic Hillary Clinton progression toward the (often unconstitutional) government restriction of speech. Step 1: Declare something that is not remotely an epidemic is, in fact, an "epidemic." As in this hysterical speech Clinton gave in front of the Kaiser Family Foundation in March 2005: [T]he evidence is conclusive that on balance the exposure to this much media and particularly to the violent content of it is not good for children and teenagers. And so what I'm hoping is that all we can come together. If there were an epidemic sweeping through our children of some kind of SARS of some other kind of infectious disease, we would all band together and figure out what to do to protect our children. Well, this is a silent epidemic. Step 2: While the headline-making incident is still fresh in everyone's minds, insist that the epidemic (which, remember, isn't remotely an epidemic) must be confronted "urgently" by both the federal government and California-based media companies. Here she was just after the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack: I know that Americans are anxious and fearful, and we have reason to be. The threat is real. The need for action is urgent....We're seeing the results of radicalization not just in far off lands, but right here at home fueled by the internet. It's the nexus of terrorism and technology, and we have a lot of work to do to end it....They are using websites, social media, chat rooms, and other platforms to celebrate beheadings, recruit future terrorists, and call for attacks. We should work with host companies to shut them down. It's time for an urgent dialogue between the government, and not just our government, government and the high tech community to confront this problem together. [...] [W]e're going to have to ask our technology help us on this. You know, the government is good in some respects, but nowhere near as good as those of you who are in this field. Right now the terrorists communicate on very ubiquitous sites: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. The woman jihadist in San Bernardino posted her allegiance to Baghdadi and ISIS on Facebook. According to the timing we know so far, she did it either shortly before or shortly after the attack, I'm not sure which. We're going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny online space. Just as we have to destroy their would-be caliphate, we have to deny them online space. And this is complicated. You're going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera. But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off [...]